Malaysian discovers a different side of Greece through road trip on the mainland

The writer taking some time to appreciate the hauntingly beautiful mountains of Zagori. — Photos: AMAL NADIAH GHAZALI

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Driving down the highways of mainland Greece, one is almost sure to wonder why these parts of the country are not just as, or even more famous, than its archipelago of touristic islands in the south.

My first time in Greece was in 2018, and of course, being a rookie traveller at the time, some of the spots I decided to visit was the admittedly over-crowded-with-tourists island of Santorini. Don’t get me wrong, that island has a charm on its own, but I remember thinking to myself that someday, I’d come back to see Greece again, but this time to explore its mainland instead.

And so here I was, driving a white rented Opel Corsa down the largely empty highways and coastal roads, moving north where Greece meets Albania. It’s easy to do a self-drive trip there – you just pick up the car from your rental company and go; the roads are clearly marked on the GPS. There are direct highways that take you right out of Athens and straight into the Greek hillsides in a matter of hours.

The Zagori mountains greeted me with their looming shadows against the moody autumn sky, a sign that I was nearing my place to stay for the night. Within the region, there are about 46 small villages, all dotted around the terrains of the mountains, their walls a dull grey and their rooftops made from heavy slate. Rooms have fireplaces, and you can instantly tell that when the temperatures are low, it gets freezing around here.

There was nothing to do except take long walks from village to village, through the pine forest woods speckled with berry bushes and lined with high stonewalls of the cliffs and mountains. The villagers have been walking these paths for hundreds of years, and you’re just another foreigner, like a merchant of the past wandering around the monasteries and Ottoman-built bridges.

The restaurants make food from local produce, including the trout they rear in the streams, the goats that graze along the terrains or earthy mushrooms foraged from the woods.

I found myself walking nowhere, but often stumbling into a small great find, like an old church or a beautiful view of the gorge. No one bothers you and there is no one for you to bother.

The Zagori region is vast and lonely, perfect for a retreat of the soul if you ever needed one.

From Zagori, I continued east, where the sea lies. I smelt it before I saw it, a certain saltiness in the air, and as soon as the cracks between the hills opened up I saw the Mediterranean, deep blue and hazy.

Parga is wonderful place for a seaside holiday.Parga is wonderful place for a seaside holiday.

The small town of Parga where I stayed used to be just a fishing town, but by no means humble. Napoleon built a small castle there, as did a Turkish ambassador.

Greeks and Turks have long had a colourful relationship spanning centuries, so there is no surprise that remnants of the Ottoman Empire can be seen scattered around Grecian lands. These days Parga is a hot spot for many Europeans, especially those looking to “roast” themselves by the beach.

As I walked by the harbour I saw all the familiar scenarios of a European holiday – old men fishing, women presenting themselves wholly to the sun, yachts, bistros selling pina coladas and grilled seafood, and stunning sunset table views if you can afford it.

As I sat on the walls of the harbour eating ice cream and watching people pass by, I marvelled at how different this place was than the otherwise quiet Zagori, both appealing to me for different things.

A couple of days are all you need to explore Parga, although most Europeans tend to stay here for entire summers. A word of warning; the walking lanes go up and down the cliffs by the sea, so be prepared with comfortable shoes and casual wear.

Driving back from Parga to the south towards Athens was a wonderful treat. The roads were wide and wound around the cliffs, where I had full views of the glistening sea for hours on end. Camper vans were parked in hidden corners of the hills, with someone sitting on lawn chairs sipping a drink and watching the ripples of the ocean. I could easily see myself doing that the next time.

The majestic remains of old Greece in Delphi.The majestic remains of old Greece in Delphi.

Before reaching Athens I made a final stop at a small mountain town of Delphi. Famous for archaeological remains of the Temple Of Apollo, it is also popular during ski season. It’s a great option to explore if you’re looking to get away from the big city but don’t have much time, as it is only about two hours away from the capital.

I enjoyed marvelling the architectural magnificence of Greek history, but I enjoyed the food even more. Formaella, a local Delphi cheese made with goat’s milk, was an experience on its own. You couldn’t get it anywhere else outside the region, let alone the rest of the world. I think about its crisp exterior and oozy, salty centre often whenever I reminisce this Grecian road trip.

The views expressed are entirely the reader’s own.

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