Greece: "Mountains; Beaches; Mountains"

Thessaloniki, Macedonia

July 15, 2001

My Dear Family and Friends,

This evening is my next to last day in Macedonia, my next to last day in Greece, and the next to last day of my journey in The Balkans. And what a journey it has been. Almost five weeks by airplane, train, subway, bus, car, taxi, hydrofoil, ferry, and foot. Lots of foot.

Perhaps you have guessed that I did not make it to the peak of Mt. Olympus. The morning after my four-hour climb to the refuge halfway up the mountain, the goddess of Prudence prevailed over the god of Arrogance (I was hurtin') so I trekked down for three hours to a hot meal, a hot shower, and a warm bed.

{C}

Those two days were certainly a highlight. Alone in the beautiful mountains surrounded by trees and wild flowers and not a sound except the occasional bird or two.

After the hike I decided to take a brief rest. So I drove to Volos and boarded a hydrofoil to the Spordes, a chain of three large islands in the north Aegean Sea. I opted for Alonnisos, the smallest and less touristy of the three. I did something I never do in Miami - I spent an entire day at the beach!

The afternoon I arrived at Alonnisos I decided to hike up the trail (piece of cake - only 25 minutes) to the old town at the top of the island. Remember the scene in “The Godfather” when Michael is in Sicily and he is trudging up the hill to Corleone? Hot sun, golden hills dotted with olive trees and sheep and goats, cicadas screaming in the dry, parched countryside? Well I played that scene, climbing the hills in Alonnisos.

At the top is a charming village with restaurants and shops. At a café overlooking the valley I ordered a drink served by a slim Russian girl. I knew she couldn't be Greek. Greek girls have well, shall we say, lots of hips. After my “dasvadonia” I met a few Brits and we had dinner together. Fried zucchini and pumpkin balls, eggplant salad, chicken in lemon sauce, and local wine. Desserts - forgetaboutit.

Hydrofoil back to Volos and then south to Delphi. What a site. Ancient temples of Apollo and Athena and the home of the priestess and the oracles. Their advice: "Know thyself." "Nothing in excess." Psychotherapy circa 4th Century B.C. The highest point of the temple complex – the most important area - is the stadium. I did a fast 200m walk in each direction. Nothing to it, except that is was about 95 in the shade and there was no shade.

From Delphi west to Lefkada, a large island in the Ionian Sea. Not my favorite place although I was able to find a tiny village with a cute beach (another full day at the beach!) and some nymphs from northern Europe.

From Lefkada to Ioannina - a bustling city known for its silversmiths. From Ioannina to Metsovo (nothing but a tourist trap) to Meteora. Meteora is just indescribable. A quirk of geology - very large and very high cylindrical rock formations with monasteries at the top! Spell binding. You've got to see it to believe it. Mountains of tourists too.

North to Kastoria. Sitting on a peninsula of land jutting into the lake, a wonderful old Byzantine town known as the fur capital of the world. The beavers are long gone. (Kastor means beaver in Greek.) Now the furriers specialize in piecing together scraps of fur to make beautiful stoles. I bought a small, soft colorful rug made of scraps of dyed sheepskin. From Kastoria to Veria and the Macedonian ruins including the reverential underground museum and grave of King Philip, father of Alexander.

Greece is a beautiful country. The beaches and the seas are clean and blue and calm. The food is delicious and the people are cheerful. And everyone I met has a relative in Tampa or Boston.

Without a doubt, the most memorable portions of this trip were the drives through the mountains. In my opinion, the mountains give Greece its power and character.

Now listen closely. I am not bragging. I am just stating the facts. I have climbed and driven in many places:

Starting with Shakespeare Avenue and Anderson Avenue and Ogden Avenue and the steps behind P.S. 73 in The Bronx, and the 1000 steps of The Palisades. I have driven The Pocono’s and The Taconic’s and The Catskill’s. I have been on The Black Hills, The White Mountains, The Green Mountains and The Blue Ridge Parkway. The Rockies and The Sierra Nevada’s and The Pyrenees and The Alps in Italy, Switzerland and France. The High Tatras in Slovakia, The Carpathians in Hungary, The Maramures in Romania and The Balkans in Bulgaria.

In my opinion, nothing compares to the Greek mountains I saw this month: their stark quality, unique shapes, far horizons, deep valleys and surprising twists and turns. Every day I said, "Nothing can top this." I was always wrong. The next day was even better.

The most riveting drive was the section from Ioannina to Metsovo over The Kalambaka Pass. Imagine a narrow, twisting two-lane road about a mile high. On the left is the wall of the mountain. On the right is just air! Few if any guard rails. Just lots of air. Talk about white knuckles and sweaty palms. Even today, across this massive Macedonian plain there was still one more mountain pass to climb. With that outburst of mine I shall close my Balkan correspondence. It’s 10:30pm and I am just in time for dinner now that the sun has gone down.

I have been asked many times if I feel lonely as I travel. I always answer honestly, "No." I am not lonely.

I hope I don't sound vain when I say that I do like my own company. I make new friends, even if the moments are brief. I value my independence to make my own judgments and choices and decisions. Perhaps that will change one day. Right now, I am having a great time.

Love to you all,

Jan

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