We’re heading to one of Greece’s most popular tourist attractions: Meteora. The ride down to Ioannina is a gentle start to the day. It’s Sunday and almost everything is closed. No food shops open – a curse to anyone self-catering – but amongst our provisions are tasty morsels of Kostas’ making. Heading around the lake we climb on the old road up to a pass overlooking the lake. Everything is bleached in the bright light reflected off the water. To the south we can see the new highway - tunnels cutting through the hills, bridges spanning the valleys. Thanks to the new road our way is very quiet and we coast down a winding road the other side of the pass until we cross the new highway in the valley bottom. Unlike the gentle gradient of the new highway, our road zig zags up and twists down and around the dry landscape. After a long lunch in the shade of some trees we set off again up the valley where we meet a happy young Belgian who has just freewheeled downhill most of the day. He’s heading to Germany, travelling light, carefree. He warns us of the dearth of camping spots on the next stretch so soon afterwards we climb up off the road, outside a village and pitch our tent on a terrace of long grass. We are not out of sight, and a couple of locals walking home from their land greet us. Another local emerges from a gate nearby and we say hello. He warns us about bears in the woods above us and heads home chuckling to himself.
The climb continues the next day, clinging to the valley side high above the new road which drills through the mountainside beneath us. The valley opens out at the little touristy town of Metsovo. Unfortunately our road has climbed above it, so to get food I unload my bike and cycle down about 200 metres in altitude to the shops. Restocked, we complete the climb, circling the rim of the valley and topping out below a ski station surrounded in pine trees. We think about camping here, in the refreshing cool air, but opt finally for a more sheltered spot on the descent in the woods. We like to be hidden when we camp but when I hear cowbells in the woods below us I go and take a look – and in the distance, in a clearing, a cowherd catches sight of me. I step back, but he is curious enough to scramble through the woods and up the hillside to see who we are. He’s a young man who speaks some English. Once we have gone through the basic exchanges such as where we are from and where we are going, he seems satisfied and waves us goodbye, before putting his earphones back in and going back to his cows.
The next day’s ride is our reward for the previous two – a nice downhill and gentle run along a new valley which gradually starts to flatten and open out. We are at the head of the great plains of Thessaly – the largest farming area in Greece. The air warms up quickly as we drop down and when we stop at a lonely church off on a promontory to take water from the fountain we also take the opportunity to do some laundry. There’s no real reason to do this in a mid-morning break because we plan to camp at a campsite tonight, but you never know. Bowling along an hour later we catch our first sight of Meteora – large pinnacles of wind-eroded rock sticking up on the eastern side of the valley. It’s only when you get closer that you can distinguish buildings on the tops of some of these pinnacles. Monasteries.
The area was originally the home to hermit monks who lived in caves dotted around these pinnacles of rock. Around the time the Ottomans appeared, other monks came along and, for want of anything safer, decided to build monasteries on the rocky tops. A bit tricky to build, and probably even more tricky to live in (where to get water from?), most were accessed by rope ladders that could be pulled up. But some of these monasteries are high. Majestically high. Great views, cooling breeze. These days they carry the air of luxury boutique hotels.
The day we cycle around them, using the road built to connect them to the town below, the carparks are busy with coaches and cars. Stone steps now provide access for pilgrims and tourists. Business looks good – the buildings are well-kept, some look new. I’ve never ever noticed national flags flying from religious buildings before and it strikes a bum note. The Orthodox Church is closely connected to the state in Greece. The government pays the salaries of monks. It therefore came as an outrage when the IMF suggested the government should sell off the church in a privatisation scheme. (Word got out that the Vatican was interested. The media storm was intense, the IMF backed down.) We see Greeks cross themselves as they pass churches but it’s hard to judge how religious the people are. It seems that the rituals and traditions are celebrated as part of the Greek culture but not as an act of faith. Not unlike most countries really.
The camp site amuses us. It’s really a shady parking lot, but with very good facilities, including a kitchen area and fridge. But the amusement is with the tribal nature of the campers. In one zone, about 20 Dutch vans. Just in front of us three French Land-Rovers roughing it around Greece. In our corner a couple of converted vans with young couples with babies. We get chatting to Malia and Nathaniel from New Caledonia. Down at the pool, the group mentality continues. Obligingly we connect with a French couple, Jean-Marie and Fabienne, who are riding a tandem homewards. There are signs up in most shops telling us in Greek and English that if we do not receive a bill/receipt then we are not obliged to pay for our goods. The Fiscal Belt is tightening up. The tax dodging must stop. Still, we pay for our camping without getting a receipt. If tourism is Greece’s biggest money-earner and those involved in it are not declaring their income or paying their taxes, then they are robbing their own country. Suddenly it feels hard to be sympathetic about the country’s economic plight. When we talk to a Greek man another day he tells us the crisis is not in Greece, only in Athens. This is a country of 12 million, where Athens has a population of about 4 million. Maybe he’s right.