With our new destination confirmed, we checked how long it would take to drive to Athens. At over 850 kilometres, we figured it was a bit much to do in one go, so we checked the route and started looking up campsites just over half way.
We set off early the next morning. The route took us along the remaining coastline of Montenegro, across Albania and then into the north west corner of Greece. We’d been warned that the roads in Albania were quite bad, so we were curious as to what lay ahead of us. When we’d arrived in Montenegro we’d noticed the difference in how poor and somewhat rundown the country was compared to the other countries we’d travelled through (other than the Porto Montenegro that is!). When we got to Albania, this was even more extreme. The roads were as bad as had been described to us: very uneven and full of potholes, whether in the countryside or in the towns. As for the driving, it was every man or woman for themselves: cars pulling out in front of you, no rules as to which lane you drive or overtake in and with the odd slow-moving donkey and cart thrown in for good measure. From what we’re describing it probably doesn’t sound all that different to London or other big cities, however it was very chaotic and when you add in the potholes, it made for an intense driving experience!
As well as the roads, the buildings were also very dilapidated, with many completely abandoned, including what seemed like a whole town where some kind of manufacturing had obviously ceased. Clothes were being dried on rusty railings on the street, people were fishing from the dirty-looking rivers to try and sell what few fish they could catch and, probably the saddest sight, children playing football on a field covered in rubbish. Although at least they were still enjoying this simple pleasure. This was probably the first real taste of what it might be like travelling through Africa.
When we crossed the border into Greece, we almost immediately met a shiny new highway. The relief reminded us of those moments of glee from Ewan and Charlie in their “Long Way Down” adventure when they got back on tarmac after a long stretch of sand. (Imagine how we’ll feel when we experience the real deal!)
Several peaceful driving hours later we arrived in Kalambaka, the location of our campsite. However, when we got there we were greeted by a locked gate, despite the website having said it was open year-round. We’d passed a few other signs for campsites on our way through the town, but each of these were closed as well. Perhaps the financial troubles and increased taxes were to blame, or maybe the exaggerated media coverage of the protests putting tourists off. Whatever the cause, we were back to finding a hotel for the night. Luckily the first one we tried looked pretty decent and was very reasonably priced. Phew.
When we got up the next morning, we were struck by how amazing the surroundings were. Talk about luck/god smiling down on us/fate: whatever you want to call it, but we were so glad we’d stopped there. Totally by accident we’d chosen to stop in one of the most beautiful places in Greece. The town is flanked on one side by dramatic pillars of rock – and is the site of the Meteora monasteries. These are six monasteries constructed on the rock pillars by hermit monks – Meteora means “hovering in the air”. Apparently the monks originally lived in caves and fissures in the pillars, but later built the monasteries. It was a stunning setting: so much so that we decided to stay an extra day, also giving us an excuse to avoid two long days of driving in a row.
Having enjoyed the scenery, more than our share of delicious gyros and checked that the campsite in Athens was in fact open, we hit the road again. Our first task for Athens was to get Marcello’s Egyptian visa, so we set off for the embassy. Luckily it was a pretty painless process, so didn’t take long. Here’s hoping that others are as easy! Our next task was to sort out our flights and hotels for Egypt and Istanbul (where we were meeting Juliano and Karin for the weekend), so any sightseeing was delayed until the following day.
We were very lucky when it came to the sightseeing part of our stay: Karen’s Dad (Don) had been introduced to a guy called Nick, who lives in Athens and is a Trip Advisor expert on the city. So Don got in touch with him for us and Nick was kind enough to offer to show us around. We met him early, enabling us to beat the worst of the crowds and walked up to the Acropolis. It was really nice to see how green the park around the Acropolis site was and Nick explained that it had been pedestrianised and was used every day by the local people for walking, running and cycling as well as being a tourist attraction.
As well as the Acropolis, Temple of Athena Nike, Panthenon and Ancient Agora (marketplace), Nick also took us through some of the less touristy streets of the city, to the local meat and fish market and showed us some of the local haunts, ending with a lovely lunch, again in a local spot. We couldn’t have had a better person to show us around. As well as being extremely knowledgeable on the history of the ruins, Nick is an architect, so was able to explain some of the intricacies of the buildings that I’m sure we wouldn’t have got from an “official” guide. Above all, it was great to be able to learn more about how people are finding life in Greece with all the austerity measures taking place, as well as a better idea of how the protests have been. Not surprisingly, people are finding it very tough and it’s obvious that the media is focusing on small pockets of trouble, when in fact the majority of protests are very peaceful.
The following day, it was time to bid goodbye to Charlie. We drove out to the shipping company’s warehouse and were relieved to find a very kosher-looking outfit. In order to fit Charlie into the container, Marcello had to take the tent off the roof. Luckily the guys in the warehouse were on hand with forklifts and muscles to help out, making the process a lot easier. Once it was off, it was a bit odd to see the bare space where the tent used to be!
And then it was time to hand over the keys and make our way to the airport. Although we were no longer shipping from Istanbul, we were due to meet Juliano and Karin there for a long weekend. It felt very strange to think that we’d be travelling by air and staying in hotels for the next week or two until we collected Charlie in Egypt. However it also felt exciting to think that the next part of the trip was starting to kick in, easing us outside of our comfort zone.