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Travel: A taste of paradise

25 January 2019

To tour mainland Greece is to journey into the Hellenistic context of the New Testament. But it also delivers on food from the gods, Sean Sheehan discovers


Monastery of St Stephen, Meteora

Monastery of St Stephen, Meteora

IT IS early morning, and, as you take a bracing walk along Thessaloniki’s pedestrianised seafront under a clear blue sky, it is beguiling to think that the Apostle Paul would have looked out at this north-west corner of the Aegean Sea.

It is an appropriate starting-point for a short odyssey into pagan and early Christian times on mainland Greece: Thessaloniki was established as part of the Hellenic kingdom of Macedon in the fourth century BC, and would, in time, become an important early centre of Christianity. In about AD 50, Paul preached in the city’s main synagogue, and would later write two renowned letters from Corinth to the community of believers he had founded in Macedonia.

The first stop after leaving the city is the 52-peak Mount Olympus, fabled home of the ancient Greek gods and only 90 minutes by car from Thessaloniki. Gazing up at the mountain’s craggy summit sets the scene for my trip into ancient times. Mainland Greece mixes the mythical and the historical in equal measure.

Climbing to the highest summit of Mount Olympus (Mytikas) is physically challenging, and not many make it; but walking its western slopes along a waymarked trail is a breeze. The village of Kokkinopilos is the starting-point for a 15km loop, although I follow it for just a few miles before retracing the route back to the village.

The management at Ktima Bellou, a welcoming boutique hotel on a 12-acre organic farm close to the mountain, have given me directions to Kokkinopilos and a map of the trail. Getting to the hotel means a drive along good but winding roads, where a goatherd with his flock presents more of a hazard than motor traffic.

Dining in the hotel’s restaurant, I come as close to the nectar and ambrosia enjoyed by the Olympian gods as mere humans can muster. Much of the ingredients are home-grown — strawberries, cherries, tomatoes, summer vegetables; walnuts, quinces and beans in winter — all locally sourced. The xynotyri cheese is made in a village near by, and a dry red Chrysochoou wine hails from the village of Rapsani, an hour away.

istockThe Temple of Apollo, Delphi

FROM relaxing Ktima Bellou, it’s a two-hour drive to reach the extraordinary sight of the monasteries of the Metéora. They are perched on rocky sandstone pillars so precipitous that it defies belief how, in centuries past, anything could ever be constructed there.

For the dedicated hermits who first came here in the 11th century, and for those who built the first monastery in the 14th century, winches, ropes, and long ladders were the only means of access. There are now footpaths and a decent road to the six monasteries and their combined community of some 75 monks and nuns.

The largest and oldest of the monasteries, the Great Meteoron, is a revelation: it has exquisite post-Byzantine frescoes from the 16th century, religious icons in the museum, and an original kitchen and refectory. Roussanou monastery is at a lower elevation, but has superb views of the landscape that acted as a magnet to the devout seeking a private place in which to live and pray.

There is accommodation in nearby Kalambáka, but the town has a touristy feel; so I press on for another 90 minutes to reach Ioannina, in time for a meal and a good night’s sleep in the grand Epirus Palace. The hotel is indeed palatial (all very shiny, and mirrors everywhere), while the Ottoman-style restaurant is agreeably traditional: vegetarian favourites of mine, like smoked aubergine, Santorini fava (yellow split peas, not the beans), and kolokithokeftedes (courgette in yogurt) are all on the menu, as well as plenty of choices for carnivores.

A prime reason for visiting Ioannina is to see the ancient oracle of Dodona near by, but my guidebook highlights another attraction in the town’s lake. There is an island there, Nissi, which is home to five monasteries of the late Byzantine period. Nissi is readily accessed by boat from Ioannina’s quayside, and, because only islanders can bring their cars across, meandering on foot between the monasteries can be enjoyed in peace and quiet.

The Philanthropinon monastery is the best preserved of the five. Its barrel-vaulted roof was substantially repaired in the 13th century and decorated with wall-paintings in the 16th century, the period when it flourished. Especially splendid is the painting of the Betrayal in the nave of the church.

istockGalaxidi, on the shoreline facing the Gulf of Corinth

LESS than 20 miles from Ioannina, in the middle of a valley on the eastern slopes of Mount Tomaros, is where the oldest of ancient Greek oracles was established in the second millennium BC. Second only to Delphi in importance, “wintry Dodona”, as Homer called it, was visited from every part of Greece, despite — or because of — its remote location.

When Herodotus came in the fifth century BC, he was told by the priestesses that a black dove flew from Thebes, landed on an oak tree, and directed the founding of an oracle. Through the rustling of the oak leaves, the will of Zeus could be divined; the planting of an oak tree by a 20th-century archaeologist is a touching gesture to an ancient myth.

The history of Dodona, and its lonely location, contribute to a sense of antiquity that pervades the site. Excavations, which started in 1875, brought to light an impressive and well-preserved theatre from the third century BC. Also uncovered was a basilica built by early Christians in the fifth century, using stones from the pagan site.

After a morning at Dodona, the next destination is a small town, Galaxidi, on the shoreline facing the Gulf of Corinth. After three hours of driving, this is my first sight of the cerulean sea since leaving Thessaloniki, and its picturesque setting makes it an agreeable base for visiting Delphi, 20 miles away. Delphi village itself is claustrophobic by comparison.

In Galaxidi, a charming place to stay is the Ganimede Hotel: it has seven bedrooms and four larger rooms for families around a forecourt. On the first morning, peach jam, cauliflower piccalilli, bugatsa, leek pies, yogurt, and honey arrive before and after cooked eggs; on the second day, there are new surprises. Cooking classes are available here, as well as various other activities, thanks to the energetic proprietor.

Fully nourished, I am ready to cope with the tour buses from Athens that invade Delphi daily. Fortunately, in October, I have to share this sanctuary with a relatively small number of visitors.

istockMonastery of the Holy Trinity, Meteora

DELPHI was originally dedicated to the earth goddess Gaia and her daughter, and their protector was the snake Python. A Homeric hymn tells how the god Apollo killed Python and became the source of the most important oracle in ancient Greece.

There is plenty to see as you ascend the Sacred Way, past the Temple of Apollo and an ancient theatre, before reaching the superbly preserved stadium. The Delphi Archaeological Museum is packed with priceless works of excavated art, including the famed bronze statue of the Charioteer of Delphi, from the late Archaic period (700-480 BC).

Delphi retained its importance into early Christian times, but the oracular site was effectively closed down by the Romans in the fourth century. It gradually disappeared from sight, until excavations, which also revealed a three-aisled basilica not unlike the one at Dodona, got under way in the late 19th century.

It takes a good half-day to see Delphi. This also allows time in the afternoon to visit Ósios Loukás monastery (which is about 40 minutes’ drive away). As remotely situated as Dodona, the monastery is still home to a small community of monks, who look after the buildings and their mosaics and frescoes. The finest mosaics are either side of the narthex in the largest of the two churches, and high up in the dome-supporting structures, called squinches.

My last day is spent on a fairly long drive back to Thessaloniki to return the hired car. Athens is closer but I cannot leave Greece without seeing Thermopylae, and it is on the road north back to Thessaloniki. To be present on the ground where the Spartans made their death-defying stand against the mighty Persian empire (in 480 BC) brings ancient history alive again; a suitable conclusion for a journey into the past.

Travel information

Ryanair and Easyjet fly from London to Thessaloniki. Rhino (www.rhinocarhire.com) is a reliable source for booking car hire; rates vary from £10 a day in low season to £60 a day in August. For independent tourers, the 15th edition of The Rough Guide to Greece earns a place in your luggage, as does the Marco Polo 1:300,000 map of Greece. Rooms at Ktima Bellou (www.ktimabellou.gr) are priced from £100; at Epirus Palace (epiruspalace.gr) from £75; at Ganimede Hotel (www.ganimede.gr) from £60. For information about visiting the monasteries at the Metéora, see meteora.com. Visit Greece (www.visitgreece.gr) is the website of the Greek National Tourism Organisation.

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