Hate package resorts? Tired of feeling like a sardine wedged between lots of other sardines (and whales) flailing around on Greek beaches? Don’t like the seaside disco throbbing at 3am like a killer hangover? I can relate. Here’s three great getaways in Greece to take you far from all that.
Epirus has occasionally been called the country for old men, as many of the villages have an ageing population. The sight of white-haired men flicking worry beads and arguing politics in the local kafenion is ubiquitous. This area of northwest Greece is about as remote and wild as you could imagine. It’s a region of deep gorges, pristine rivers (excellent fishing) and jagged mountains, grey stone villages and imposing stone bridges. The climate is Mediterranean on the coast and alpine in the interior which is heavily forested and home to bears, foxes, wild boar, wolves and deer. Many hotels are small and usually family run.
The only airport is in the provincial capital of Ioannina which features filigree silverwork by artisan craftsmen in the fortified medieval Old Town. From a gritty town a bit rough around the edges, Ioannina has morphed into a lively and sophisticated city with meticulous preservation of Ottoman and ancient Greek heritage. Best food: anything called a pita. This is hardcore pita country where flakey filo pies are the pride of a woman’s cooking skills, stuffed with hillside greens (horta) and other veges, a variety of cheeses and meat. Try bougatsa – pastry filled with semolina custard and dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon. They’re made in large, shallow round pans called tapsi, and stopping for a late morning bougatsa is traditional in Ioannina.
Epirus is one hour’s flight from Athens, or at least eight hours if you drive. I recommend you hire a car at Ioannina airport, unfurl your map, and go! You’ll have to stop if you make it to the Albanian border. There are buses here and there, but no trains. It’s too mountainous. Rural Epirus was a brutally tough place for villagers to make a living. People had been migrating – temporarily or permanently – long before the biggest modern era move in the 1950s.
Soil was poor and Epirus was slammed during WWII and the civil war. Its most famous export is fetta cheese. Epiros SA process annually about 25,000 tonnes of cheese made from sheep and goats milk. Best places to visit: Parga on the coast, the Voidomatis and Aoos rivers, and the traditional mountain village Metsovo inland. Parga has crystal clear water, Venetian architecture and cobbled streets. Love love love. www.truegreece.org/
Island of Syros
Syros doesn’t attract many foreign tourists – it’s an island where Greeks go on holiday. About five hours by ferry from Pireaus (174km) or you can fly there, it has 21,000 full-time inhabitants and is the administrative capital of the Cyclades. Syros is famous for its elegant neoclassical architecture and large port which used to rival Pireaus. Once dominated by the Venetians, residents now comprise about half Catholic and half Greek Orthodox. Syros is a fair size – 83 sq km – and mountainous. Homes dotting steep hillsides have vast views but also cop fierce Aegean gales in winter. Coastal villages offer a low-key holiday. You won’t find stretches of sand cluttered with rental deckchairs and beach umbrellas. Unlike other islands, the beaches are small and the many coves offer sheltered swimming and peaceful days.
Because Syros is an administrative centre, it has never relied on tourism for the economy’s survival. No huge, ugly hotels here. Medium sized ugly, maybe. But there’s no beach discos throbbing like a killer hangover at 3am. Rent a car to see the best Syros has to offer. I recommend a winding drive (although I almost got car sick) all the way up to Agios Mihalis not only for the dizzying view over the island but also the restaurant there which serves excellent traditional, hearty Greek food. www.greeka.com/cyclades/syros/
Kastellorizo is the smallest of the Dodecansese islands in the southeast Aegean – just 3.2km across and 6km long, and reached by a small plane (or three-hour ferry) from Rhodes, 120km away. And it’s also 2km off the coast of Turkey. The only township on the island is Megisti, built on a half-moon bay, and picture perfect with its pastel-painted homes. About 490 people reside there full time. At the end of the 19th Century 10,000 lived on the island. Many subsequently emigrated to Australia. The Kastellorizo Club (known as the Kazzie Club) was 5km from my home in Sydney and the centre of social life for the local Greek community.
The island doesn’t have vast swathes of sandy beaches, but the turquoise water is to die for – swimming doesn’t get any better than this. The iridescent Blue Grotto sea cave is a magical place to dive and snorkel. Seafood is the specialty of the island, of course. If you seriously need to unplug, then this is the spot. And turn off those things that are otherwise attached to your hands and glued to your ear almost 24/7. Accommodation includes boutique hotels from 120 euros a night, and less expensive studio apartments, small villas and rooms to let. www.kastellorizoholidays.gr/