I have a lot of blogs to post about Greece. I have been lucky enough to visit a few times now and have visited some of the islands before, but my most recent trip was to the mainland. This will be a three-part blog. We rented a car and drove straight out of Athens to an area north along the Maliakos Gulf just past the larger city of Lamia. From Athens it is about a 2 1/2 hour drive through pretty beautiful countryside much of it along either side of the gulf. The terrain is lovely and mountainous and peeking out along the way is the gorgeous blue water of the Mediterranean.
Along this highway is the famous Thermopaylae, the mountain pass famous for the battle that took place in 480 BC between the Greeks (including 300 Spartans) and the Persians. The name means “hot gates” for the hot sulfur springs of the area. It is also, in Greek mythology, the entrance to Hades.
After a couple of missed exits and phone calls, we found ourselves driving on an unpaved road through olive groves to get to Karavomylos, a small village of about 1000 people, where my husband has family friends he hadn’t seen in 20 years. When we arrived we were greeted with tears and hugs. I cannot begin to describe the generosity and warmth of the Greek people. They prepared a lovely room for us with a view of the ocean and everything was set for a fabulous few days. There was a plethora of produce from the garden and the many fruit trees in their yard: tomatoes, peppers, avocado, persimmon, loquats to name a few! They obtained their impressive, shady avocado tree from Kenya years earlier. It was already dotted with fruit which they explained wouldn’t be ready until December.
Immediately after pleasantries, we changed We headed down to the beach for some seafood at Antonopoulus, a tavern right on the water. At seafood restaurants along the shore, owners are proud to show you their catch as it has most likely been brought in from the sea that morning. You are always welcomed into the kitchen to look at the haul and pick your dinner. We chose Lavraki, a local sea bass that was grilled and served with lemon oil. Dino and I always overdo it with the sides in Greece because they are so amazing! We had grilled octopus, tirokafteri (feta, roasted red pepper and smoked paprika dip), tzaziki, skordalia (a potato and garlic dip), fried potatoes, and of course, horiatiki, the traditional Greek salad with green bell peppers, tomatoes, red onion, cucumbers garnished with huge chunks of feta and sprinkled with oregano. After our meal, we walked back down the beach. We took a quick dip and then, totally jet lagged, I fell asleep at 6pm and missed a proper feast under the full moon in their lovely front yard.
Greeks traditionally eat bread in the morning with butter and jam or cheese with coffee. When the ladies of the house found out I had a gluten allergy, they baked me a loaf of gluten free bread so I could have this traditional breakfast every morning. The jam we had was made from nectarines from their tree. Almost all the produce we ate with our hosts was from their garden and the olive oil from the olive trees on their land a few miles away in the hills. Nowhere in my life have I eaten more locally sourced meals than in Greece. Their honey was from the nectar of pine trees – what an incredible flavor! The fish we had was also caught in the gulf by a cousin who regularly drops by with bags full of his daily catches in exchange for his morning coffee, bread and jam!
The next morning we woke early and walked into the mountains behind Karavomylos. Along the way we met Yianni, the younger son of the household, who took us in his 4X4 to show us Agios Demetrios, an old church next to a spring that helps to irrigate the surrounding farms. You can also drink directly from the spring – the water is clean and ice cold! He then took us to his family’s land through winding streets that looked more like footpaths. We picked figs, grapes and walnuts to eat and looked at his olive trees, which he explained were in desperate need of rain.
We then headed for the beach. This time, the family took us to the west side of town where the beach was much nicer and the water much cleaner. We swam out to the enormous anchored and mussel-covered rafts where navy ships used to dock long ago. Feeling accomplished, we rested there for a few minutes basking in the sun and taking in the view. Due to their location along the gulf, the beaches in this area of Greece have an incredible backdrop of mountains across the sea. I have never seen this before and it never ceased to amaze me!
Back at home, Stella, Christina and Frosso were working up a storm in the kitchen. Sparos, a sea bream, cuttlefish marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and oregano, tirokaftiri, tzaziki, potatoes, horiatiki, and roasted lavraki for a meal even tastier than we’d had at the tavern. We tried their homemade wine and tsipouro, a brandy made from the musto, or the crushed grapes leftover after wine making. Much like Italian grappa, it’s incredibly strong, especially when homemade but it is a traditional after dinner drink served cold on a hot day. Understandably, about this time of day, every day, is nap-time. We discussed possibly going to a festival in a small town in the mountains called Anydros later that evening.
I couldn’t even find Anydros online. It’s a village with a tiny, aging population. But if you’re from this region, you probably have family from here. The town square was set up with tables and chairs and a small stage. Local vendors sold toys for the children and souvlaki and roasted lamb by the kilo. The band had two singers, one in his mid-twenties and one much older, a clarinet player, a keyboardist and a guitarist. Right away the kalamatiano and the tsamiko began. A volunteer at the front of the line leads these group dances and everyone participated from the tiniest child to the village priest. They look so fun! And all the while, vendors shot champagne corks in the air, toasting the leaders of the circle.
After the band finished we headed to Raches, a beach village near Karavomylos that boasts a bustling nightclub scene. We had a drink by the water at Island Café and then headed home for the night.
The next day we returned to Raches to wander along the beach and the village. It is incredibly picturesque and a bit larger than Karavomylos.
We walked around, along the harbor, then headed home for another incredible feast of stuffed chicken, roasted potatoes, yemista (stuffed tomatoes and peppers), saganaki and roasted chiles, before preparing to leave for Meteora the next day. This area of Greece is wonderfully low-key for a relaxing stay. It’s off the beaten path for tourists so nothing is too crowded.
Be prepared to eat a ton of good food when you visit Greece. And if you have the opportunity to stay with locals, do it! It seems every Greek woman is an amazing chef and you will experience things that you wouldn't normally see wandering around on your own!