"Have you been to Greece before?" My charming guide, George, asked as I trudged after him down a path leading away from Meteora's well-trodden tracks. "Oh yes, some of the Greek Islands!" I exclaimed, and before I could tell him where exactly, he had sighed in a way that signalled it was an answer he was all too familiar with.
So, win me over inland and beach-less (heaven forbid!) Greece.
Meteora, an area in the north west of Greece, translates from Ancient Greek to English as "objects hanging in space". In the UNESCO World Heritage Site these include both great columns and cliffs of rock but also, and much more jaw dropping, ancient monasteries perched, immaculately preserved, on top of them - six of which are still active and open to visitors today. It is more extraordinary and stunning than any Grecian beach I have ever had the pleasure of chewing calamari on.
Whilst dodging wild tortoises in the meadows and forests around the area, George told me anecdotes past and present about the monks who lived and currently live here, the Game of Thrones production team who were rejected filming rights because the show is too sexy, or his friend who base jumped in a nun costume from one of the rocks - much to the horror of the nunnery opposite.
Every new corner revealed more ruins of monasteries that had decayed over time, collapsed in an earthquake or been taken over by homeless families, the monks too loyal to forcibly remove them. Look up and you would spot a cave with wooden-like plinths jutting out of one of the gaps - "a hermit cave, where a sole monk would live and only come out on Sundays to celebrate mass with the other hermits", George informed an astounded me. We both agreed this kind of behaviour would simply not be tolerated in 21st century society. The latest evidence of hermit existence is from the 7th century, yet the remnants of their homes remain, an expertly created bird's nest that withstands all seasons.
Reluctantly, I waved goodbye to the monks and nuns of Meteora to head deeper into Greece towards the border with Albania and the deepest gorge in the whole world (if you take into account length and width…)
Aristi Mountain Lodge
Here Aristi Mountain Lodge sits proudly above the city of Aristi, with picture perfect views of the head of Vikos Gorge, which glows pink with the sunset every evening. Cited by National Geographic as one of the best retreat hotels, and with only bird song as your morning alarm, it is easy to see why. I was to meet Mikiss who would act as my host of phase two of operation 'there is more to Greece than coastline', during an 8 hour hike through Vikos Gorge.
Magical and Mysterious Mainland Greece
Up and down the roads, lined with wild oregano and sage, busy with shepherds and their goats, we weaved our way to the foot of the gorge. First a two hour wriggle down ancient steps, used for centuries to get between the villages that litter the hillsides, before arriving at the bottom. Pause for breath and take in the gorge walls shooting up either side of you and the evidence of the raging river that comes and goes seasonally below you. Along the way take in the over 3,000 species of flora and fauna that live here, not bad when you discover that in the whole of Britain there is only 1,700. Endemic species that survived the Ice Age, plants with medicinal purposes, jungle environments and the holes dug by boars seeking truffles are all to be seen as you weave your way along.
Considering the beauty of the walk I was shocked (and pleased) by the lack of people we bumped into. As we made our merry way to the end of the gorge, before taking the ancient steps back to the road, Mikiss lead me down a narrow path to a tiny ancient monastery. Behind it lay an aquamarine pool of water fed by a fresh stream, Tiffany blue and still except for the odd rise of a trout. I needed absolutely no encouragement to get take a dip and not much more to swiftly get out. Never trust a Greek that the water is warm until he is in it first.
After my time in the gorge I was whisked back to Aristi to watch the sunset and brag to anyone who would listen about my adventure. Fortunately for the guests of Aristi I only had one more night at the hotel and only the energy to enjoy 20 lengths of their serene indoor pool.
My final stop before part two of my Greek adventure involved an hour's drive to the coastline. Hang on… a beach? A shingly one in fact, with turquoise waters that put Corfu's to shame, just a ten minute transfer from the seaside town of Parga, whose promenade is lined with tavernas selling fresh fish and whose piers are lined with fisherman jostling with tourists' boats. After all the exploring of Epirus I had forgotten the pleasure of a dip in the ocean because for once I had not felt the need. The coast felt like miles away from my inland experience and it seemed surprising I had happened upon it so quickly. Yet here I was, enjoying 48 hours of time by the ocean and to be perfectly honest, after my adventure it was all I needed.