After a very rough ferry ride from Crete, where the kids lay in bed watching cartoons in Greek and I lay flat trying not to hurl, we arrive back in Athens. I’m having none of their metro, I just don’t want to take the risk on day one of being solo, so we hail a cab to our hotel. I have picked the place we are staying because it is cheap and right across from the train station. The kids are amazed and think it is really fancy, even though it isn’t, probably because it is a change from the apartment accommodations we have been staying in. We promptly get stuck in the ancient lift because I can’t figure out how to open the door once we reach our floor. The lights go out and we all kinda freak out in the claustrophobic space. Finally, Tzvia remembers that we had to pull open the door to get in, so I try pushing and we are let out of the elevator.
We settle our stuff and head across the street to the train station. The night before, I discovered that the rail will be on strike tomorrow and we are supposed to be in Kalambaka. I have arranged for us to take a bus, but would like to make seat reservations for the return journey and validate our railpass, the whole process is super easy and soon we are back in our hotel.
The man at the desk mentioned that they had a rooftop pool open until 8pm, “But it’s cold” he says. That doesn’t stop us, and soon we are swimming with a view across the rooftops to the Acropolis.
The next morning we wake and head to the bus station to catch our bus to Kalambaka. Z is freaked out that we will miss the bus or get on the wrong bus and I try to assure her that we will be fine. Eventually we end up on the most uncomfortable bus I have ever ridden on. The bus is packed solid because of the rail strike and I end up wedged in beside a very large Greek man who reeks of smoke and promptly falls asleep, squishing his body closer as he does so. I hold myself rigid trying not to get too cozy and end up with a sore neck and back by the end of the 4.5 hour journey from the tension.
Our bus tickets say nothing about transferring and so 45 mins before the end of our journey, when the bus stops and I notice all our bags being tossed out, I panic slightly and tell the kids to get their stuff together and meet me off the bus. I hop off the bus quickly and grab our bags and find out we need to transfer busses. Z and T come round the bus and Z is in tears because I left her. I assure her I would never leave her, and thought that they would be capable of getting their coats and following me off. We plan out what to do next time this happens, but it doesn’t seem to alleviate the anxiety. I’m juggling how to handle things now that there is only one adult. I cannot be two places at once, and the kids and I talk a lot over the next few days about them needing to take on more responsibility for the remainder of the trip.
We arrive at Kalambaka, and again, no direction to get off the bus. A couple people ask to get off and then everyone panics and suddenly all the bags are again getting thrown off even though we aren’t yet at the buss station. It ends up working out for us though, as we are closer to the apartment we are staying in.
Kalambaka is stunning, with the cliffs rising high in the sky above it. The town is a bit grotty, but the scenery more than makes up for it! We are excited to hike up to the Monasteries! We end up doing two hikes.
The first day we find groceries, hit up the info centre, go to the natural history/ mushroom museum and take a hike. T insisted on buying cat food at the grocery store, as she noticed the hungry cats outside our apartment. We buy some and it quickly disappears. We notice that the cats are not well taken care of here and it makes us all sad.
. On the first floor the museum is filled with stuffed real animals and birds. The kids try to find animals from home as well as the animals that are unique to Greece. They love the vultures. The mushroom portion of the museum showcases over 250 mushrooms that you can find in Greece and has them set in their habitats. It was a very small, but interesting museum, we buy some local mushroom soup mix to take back for dinner. After the museum we decide to try to hike to the closest monastery.
Our first hike in Kalambaka is pretty much like doing the Squamish Chief. We walk about a km or two just to get to the edge of town where the cliffs start and then follow a winding path through bushes and oak trees. The path is composed of rounded stones cemented together and quickly becomes vertical. We climb higher and higher, Z is convinced we will never reach the top…it looks so impossibly far up! Soon we are halfway, and then at the base of a path that winds up along the side of the rock housing the Ag. Triada. This monastery is closed today, but we are able to walk through it’s first door and up a path carved through rock to the second door, which is closed. The view from this path is amazing and we marvel at the work that was taken to carve the path out of the rock face. We descend from the monastery path and walk up to the road where we are assaulted by the sheer number of tourists in tour busses congregated at the side. We find a small goat path over the rocks, and meadow which leads away from the road and connects to the next monastery, which is actually a nunnery. We reach Ag. Stefanos, where we pay a stern looking nun and don long skirts to cover our legs. The nunnery is small, but worth seeing. We walk into the small church and hear the most beautiful singing I have ever heard. T comments on the singing for the rest of the day. Z enjoyed the art covering every surface of the chapel. We fill our water bottles from their spring and head back out to the cliffs where we find a spot to eat our chocolate and admire the view. The descent is much quicker than the ascent and we are soon back at the apartment where we all take baths in the tiny half sized tub.
The second day I get it in my head to hike to the monastery that is furthest away. Online it says you can hike all the monasteries and it’s 14 km… I’m guessing they hiked on the road, because the hike we did to just this one monastery ended up being 20km when all was said and done. It was a beautiful hike… but imagine doing the grouse grind or the chief 6 times in a row. We were very tired and deserving of the ice cream we had at the end! We started the hike the same way as the day before, but at a huge rock marked in spray paint with the words “footpath” we diverge to the left. The map describes this as a “goat path”, I would say it resembles most hiking paths at home. We climb and climb up until we reach the saddle between two peaks and cross through. At this point (I hadn’t really looked at the relief lines on the map until now) We start to descend again. “Crap” I think, as I kinda assumed we would gain the elevation and then stay high and be able to walk along the top of the cliffs to the monastery… nope! We descend into the valley behind the cliffs that are visible from Kalambaka into another beautiful oak forest. After awhile the path forks and we take the left path to the monks prison, which is a cleft in the rock that they built prison structures into with wood. Some of the wood remains and you can see the charring on the ceiling from where cooking happened. The kids use my cell phone light to crawl into a narrow tunnel. We see rock climbers scaling the cliff beside the prison. We keep going and meet back with main path which then heads back past the main road to the base of two cliffs. One holds Mon. Varlaam, which is closed today and the other Mon. Metamorfossi, which is our destination. At this point we are at the 9km mark and it is super hot. Our water is low and we know we just have to make it to the monastery to refill. The next km is straight up, and we move slowly one step at a time noticing that the forest is different here. The valley over is all oak trees and here it is vines and lush plants with fig trees. Eventually we reach the top and enter the monastery through a tunnel in the rock along with a bazillion other tourists who aren’t hot and sweaty, because they took a bus. We don skirts again at the entrance and explore the monastery. This the the largest one here and they have a museum, plus you can look at the old kitchen and cellars which are neat to see. The church here is unbelievably decorated and beautiful and we walk through in awe. I was smart and had stopped at a bakery at the start of the hike, and after leaving the monastery we sit and enjoy our spinach pies and pizza. We are all not feeling that thrilled about the return journey and have a look at the map. I was hoping to make it a loop, but we realize that the last few hundred meters of the loop I wanted to take look like they may require ropes. I’m not willing to risk hiking that way only to be turned back by a cliff, so we head back the way we came. The kids feel super proud of themselves when we are done. I think this may have been the hardest hike I’ve ever taken them on. We have done 20km hikes before, but not with this much elevation gain/loss. We are all happy to get back, have ice cream and crash.
So I didn’t really think this through well…I followed that super hike day with the longest travel day ever. We awoke at 4:30 am to grab the train from Kalambaka to Athens. The train was so much more comfortable than the bus and we were all excited to have the first train ride of the trip! We watched a blood red sunrise come up through the windows. The transfer between trains was a little insane, because the car numbers weren’t printed on the outsides of the cars and in my panic I couldn’t figure out how to open the doors between cars, so we ended up on an off the train a couple times before we got it right. On the second train are two men, seated slightly behind me. I notice that they keep staring at Z and whispering. Every time I look over my shoulder at them they quickly look away. After awhile one of them taps me and says “I want to use your phone… only for a min.” I lie and say it only has data, sorry. They don’t ask to use anyone else’s phone even though there are several people with phones out. I start to feel a bit creeped out by their staring, but we cannot move as the seats are assigned. I just stay alert and when the train stops in Athens we move quickly through the crowd to lose them.
In Athens we dropped our bags at a luggage storage place and then went the the acropolis museum. I think we all would have enjoyed it more if we hadn’t been so tired. After the museum we grabbed our bags from the storage place and I asked where a good place to hail a cab would be. The guy replied that he would call me one. He calls, and hangs up and says “It’s a fixed rate of 45 euro.” “I’m pretty sure the fixed rate is 38 euro” I reply. He looks at me blankly and then says the cab will be here soon. Something doesn’t feel right, and I know that the fixed rate to the airport is regulated in Athens, so I look it up outside and sure enough I was right. I head back in and show him my screen. He tries to bully me “But I’ve called them you have to take my cab, you cannot leave.” I say to him I’m not paying that rate and I’m leaving he starts yelling at me, and I walk out the door, grab the kids and hail a cab two blocks away… guess what? The fixed rate was $38 euro. Athens, you haven’t won my heart back, sorry… I will not be back.
At the airport, we have a 5 hour wait, which turns into 6 when our plane is delayed. T is losing it, Z is losing it… I’m losing it. The heat in the waiting lounge is sweltering, and the smoke drifts over from the “closed” smoking room. By the time we get on the plane we are all so done. It is almost 10 at night. Both kids quickly fall asleep. The descent into Dubrovnik is the scariest I have ever experienced in my life. I’m not a nervous flyer and have been on quite a few flights and have never experienced a descent like this. The captain comes on and tells us we are beginning our descent, and the next 30 mins are spent experiencing the plane banking, diving then the nose pulling up and the engine revving, then diving then up and revving it went on and on… I actually felt fear, something I have never felt flying before. The kids were oblivious and were shouting wheee! as all the adults around me looked tense. I wasn’t going to spoil their fun.
I was glad I had arranged a airport transfer with our host, as it was now close to midnight and pouring rain and our apartment was 30 mins drive away. We make it in and find ourselves in a beautiful apartment. I realize I cannot lock the door and feel panic that we aren’t secure, so I message the host who tells me the “trick” to locking it. I get it sorted and the kids are already asleep. I cannot sleep for another hour or so as my adrenaline is still running and I cannot turn my brain off.
The next two days in Dubrovnik are AMAZING! will write about it soon!