Meteora is the name of a group of unusual rock formations in Central Greece and home to a number of Orthodox monasteries which have existed in various forms since the 14th century. I first heard about Meteora from Theo, a guy from Thessaloniki, when we were holidaying on Samothraki a year ago. He described monasteries perched high on the top of rock pillars, accessible only by ladders or steps cut into the rock. He called it a wonderful place of nature and peacefulness; a real retreat from the world. Back when we originally started talking about this trip, we planned to visit Meteora on our way to Thessaloniki.
Towards the end of our stay on Kefalonia, we still only had a vague idea of the route we would take between Sami and Meteora. Getting to Astakos on the mainland by ferry was the easy part. After that we would rely on buses to take us the rest of the way. The bus network in Greece is the mainstay of public transport over land. It is more popular and more extensive than the train network and is very reasonably priced. All long-distance buses on the mainland and the islands are operated by various collectives called KTEL. Their websites however, are sometimes only in Greek, which made it difficult for us to view timetables and plan connections. We were not on a particularly tight schedule so we decided we’d play it by ear and work it all out as we went.
We bought our tickets for the ferry to Astakos on a Friday morning. It was due to leave later in the afternoon but ended up being over an hour late. This meant we would miss our bus connection between Astakos and Agrinio where we had already booked a room for the night in a hotel. We figured we would just have to cancel the booking and find somewhere to stay in Astakos instead.
As it happened, we met a Greek man called Michael on the ferry. He had the thoughtful but relaxed look of someone at ease with himself. We’d both noticed him sitting on the upper deck at the bow of the ferry. Soon we were talking, the three of us at the railing, watching the peaceful scene before us; the sun beginning to set and the surrounding islands changing colour in the twilight as the boat slowly took us closer to the mainland. Michael had been visiting the island of Ithaca on a business trip and was on his way back to Athens.
He asked about our own travel plans and when he realised the difficulty we were having with bus timetables and making our connection, he started making some calls and offering suggestions. Within a few minutes he said with confidence that we could be in Agrinio later that evening. No buses were due to leave Astakos that late in the day, but he offered to give us a lift to Aitoliko, which was on his way home, and from there we could catch a bus to Agrinio.
As the ferry docked at the sleepy port of Astakos, we followed Michael below deck to his car and loaded all our gear in. The Greeks are amazingly efficient at loading and unloading vehicles from ferries. Before we knew it we were driving onto the dock and heading off into the night along a windy road to the south east.
We talked in the car, getting to know each other a little better. Michael is a human resource manager for Piraeus Bank and is in charge of a considerable region in the south of Greece. He is passionate about economics and travels extensively, not only throughout his region, but on business trips abroad. He obtained his first degree in Athens and a Masters degree in Surrey, England, where he honed his English language skills.
The journey from Astakos to Aitoliko, in the south-east, took a bit less than an hour. Some of the villages we passed through looked incredibly inviting, particularly since we hadn’t eaten dinner. There were people sitting outside cafes eating their evening meal or having a drink. The spaces in between towns were less inviting but still strangely appealing. We passed cows on the side of the road, dogs roaming the streets, scooters hurtling past and numerous abandoned buildings covered in graffiti. It was like the Wild West. At night, with each new scene only partially illuminated by the car’s headlamps, the journey took on something of a dreamlike quality.
The bus station at Aitoliko lies within the old part of the town, occupying an island in the middle of a large lagoon. Michael dropped us off but didn’t leave before ensuring a bus was due and that we were certain about which bus to board. He had really gone out of his way to help us and had done so without expecting anything in return. It was only further confirmation of the wonderful generosity and spirit of the Greek people. We wished him the best for the rest of his journey home.
Our bus came at 22:30 and within 45 minutes we were at our hotel in Agrinio, overlooking Dimokratias Square in the city centre. The following morning we travelled 5 hours by bus, first north to Ioannina and then east, through some beautiful and mountainous countryside, to the town of Kalambaka, in the Thessaly region of the Greek mainland. The coach-style buses are comfortable with reclinable seats and an appropriate level of air-conditioning. Greek music usually plays from the radio in the background. There are curtains on the windows and ashtrays on the seat backs. I didn’t ever see passengers smoking, but occasionally the driver would light up as we motored down the highway.
Close to Kalambaka is the quiet village of Kastraki where we would spend the next seven nights. Both towns lie at the foothills of the wonderful rock formations and orthodox monasteries that make up Meteora.
Travel between places is often tiring and unpredictable. Things don’t always go according to plan and when delays and disappointments seem inevitable, a simple act of kindness from a stranger can make all the difference to the journey.