As I write this, I am in northwestern Greece in a mountain resort. The movie Mama Mia that I associate with Greece is a film foreign to the movie I am experiencing.
Northwestern Greece is full of scenery that takes your breath away. Little villages scattered and hidden in the hills await a hiking discovery if you can find them.
Six of us, three couples from various walks of life if you will, have left Thessaloniki after standing in awe at the foot of a majestic statue of a mounted Alexander the Great statue in splendour at the seaside. The history of this city with Roman and Ottoman ruins, extraordinary architecture, Byzantine frescoes and ancient churches is a reminder of the infancy of our Canadian nation.
Thessaloniki is alive and bustling. Its taverns and restaurants are teeming with young people and its streets are crammed with big city chain stores interspersed with kiosks selling fruit, gelato, roasted nuts, baklava, souvlaki and wine, but there’s a sense of history ever present.
Soon, the city gives way to an amazing modern highway into the hills — fast, beautiful, with James Bond-like tunnels that we are whisked through at seemingly uncontrolled speed. And then, there are the slower climbs off the highway to our village nestled in postcard beauty, switchbacks barely visible in the distant mountain ranges.
The swift pace stops and a new pace takes over. We hike in the mountains to discover tiny villages mostly abandoned, some destroyed during the Second World War by German armies.
Some villages have as few as 20 inhabitants, with large schools abandoned, city squares located around the ever-present massive plane trees, almost empty.
Nevertheless, if you listen, you can hear the bustle of large families and childrens’ laughter. You can visualize the herding of livestock through the square en route to the meadows.
You feel the life once so vibrant still present in some way.
Our treks took us to five different man-made stone bridges, hundreds of years old. Simple yet remarkably ingenious, they were constructed to build passageways to connect distant villages.
Some of these bridges took decades to complete, but they are architecturally stunning in their solid simplicity and design. We are reminded of the ingenuity and adaption of hardly simple villagers.
There is a place called Vikos Gorge. It is a gruelling hike, some 15 kilometres along a pathway deep into a gorge with prehistoric rock formations high above. Along the valley floor snakes a remarkable river with normally thundering streams of picturesque, sensational, cold waters.
But not this year.
Two times in recent memory — 1987 and 2007 — nature has stunningly and inexplicably altered the landscape. There was no water. We hiked not only along a river bed but in it. Our path was in effect over huge, white limestone kettle-like structures and broken fragments usually submerged below the roaring waters.
On one side of the gorge that rose at one point to 838 metres, the sun-baked mountain wall was Grand Canyon-like only in gold, the occasional trees rising somehow out of the rock. On the opposite side, where we carefully walked along the edge, the trees were dressed in clothes of moss and yellow, with pink and purple flowers blanketing the slopes above us. Rock formations of limestone, with the occasional ribbons of flint, were the walls that encased us. The dryness of the river bed below was an unexpected disappointment at first. There were no refreshing pools to slide into, yet it was stunningly real and we embraced the unique gift we had been given.
As we made our way out of the river bed, we detoured into a meadow before our final ascent out of the valley. There, in fairy--tale peacefulness, sat the ruins of an old chapel erected in 1738. We gently pushed open a creaking door and bent down to enter the tiny dark interior. There on the walls and ceiling surrounding an old sanctuary were ancient holy Byzantine frescoes, some in remarkable condition.
Exiting the gorge, we travelled another narrow path simply but brilliantly created by villagers to usher their livestock to the warm bosom of the valley in the winter.
We stopped at the peak and looked back at the enormous valley below where we had walked for eight hours. There are no words to describe the beauty of that moment. There stood the six of us with our guide Apostopolus, whose name alone likely made us feel safer on our journey. We were exhausted, in pain and yet shared a joy with each other for the life around us.
Too often I think many of us don't appreciate how our ancestors adapted to and in ingenious ways connected with each other to help clear the paths ahead. On one occasion on the gorge, a tree had fallen blocking the path ahead. Our guide, in his dedication to the environment that he serves, stopped and produced a small handsaw and began to saw away at the powerful fallen oak. One of our group, ingenious himself, within minutes had devised a wedge from another fallen limb to assist. We all joined to a lesser degree to finally break and push aside the obstacle, paving the way in effect for the many others who would use the path on their own journey.
Our hikes also took us to monasteries established centuries ago in caves high
in the mountains. The monks seeking solace or escaping persecution ascended with rope and wooden ladders and established incredible self-sustaining religious communities.
One special evening found us in a beautiful old village that was being revived with new energy and increasing visitors. It was reached only after a tense zigzag drive up the edge of a mountain precipice. We gathered in an open cafe surrounded by colourful gardens overlooking a majestic mountain range. It began to rain slightly. Soon, we were enveloped under the most incredible double rainbow that seemed to grow out of the mountain and continue forever.
Our odyssey continues in the days ahead, but already we seem to be reborn somehow, not in another world but our own, quietly waiting to be embraced and understood. We have so much but we are too busy and take it for granted. We resort to "Siri" to quickly answer our fleeting questions. We really must try to stop more often and embrace life because it passes by so very quickly.