YUGO? I Went!

With the last two weeks of travel I have now visited every one of the states that made up the former Yugoslavia. Listed in order of first visit they are:

  • Croatia
  • Serbia
  • Slovenia
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Montenegro
  • Kosovo
  • Macedonia

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH)

BiH was everything you would expect but also surprised me in one big way. I had it in my head that Sarajevo was a liberal city because of its rebellious spirit. This is far from the truth and resulted in me staying non-consecutive nights with a couchsurfing host.

One picture that says a lot about a city.

One picture that says a lot about a city.

I arrived by bus from Split on my 24th birthday. In fact, a BiH stamp in my passport was my present to myself. After hitting up a Bosnian hip hop show and walking around the old town, my host and I returned to her flat and went to bed. In the morning she was a bit concerned and told me that her father had called and told her that her aunt and uncle would be spending the night in her flat. According to her, her family would be extremely concerned if they know she was hosting strangers, and outright angry if that stranger was a single male. As a result, I offered to stash my stuff in the closet and take my toothbrush to a hostel until they left.

Biggie-sized chess in front of an Orthodox church in Sarajevo.

Biggie-sized chess in front of an Orthodox church in Sarajevo.

I actually passed a very pleasant night in the hostel while splitting some beers with a new British friend and we went on a long walk the following day after learning that everything was closed (Sunday strikes again).

I returned my third night to Dinka’s and left the following morning on an early train to Mostar where I could feel the first flakes of snow on my face.

Classic picture of old bridge (Stari Most) in Mostar.

Classic picture of old bridge (Stari Most) in Mostar.

Bonus fact: As a result of a dry season, water in Sarajevo was turned off between midnight and 5:00 during my stay.

Montenegro (MNE)

Montenegro is postcard perfect. Winding roads, long tunnels, and mountains rising dramatically out of the Adriatic. I spent three nights in the town of Kotor in a famous bay of the same name thanking our good sense that Lindsay and I didn’t attempt to cycle through this country. Without secondary roads between towns nor any shoulders to speak of, Montenegro would likely have been several days of battling hills and stress as all cross-country traffic passed within inches.

Bay of Kotor from the fort.

Bay of Kotor from the fort.

Bonus fact: Montenegro is the only place I have seen “billboards” in the form of spray painting directly on boulders next to the highway. I don’t think it is any coincidence that they were all for tow services.

Kosovo

After three consecutive buses including a border crossing at 3:00 a.m. at 1800 meters, I was in the city of Prizren. This city is about an hour and a half from the capital Priština but has the reputation of being more interesting.

In my one day in the city I think I covered a lot of ground but the most interesting thing was watching a helicopter deliver, one by one, three Christmas trees. It seemed to be about a fifteen minute round trip from delivering one tree, disappearing over the mountain, and returning with the next tree. I watched with great interest from the Ottoman fort while I enjoyed the rare appearance of the sun.

Special delivery.

Special delivery.

Bonus fact 1: Priština has a Bill Clinton Boulevard which intersects George Bush. On maps these are written in Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. I’ve gotten pretty good at reading things in the Cyrillic alphabet but something about seeing the names of American presidents written in it seemed wrong.

Bonus fact 2: In Kosovo you will see a lot of flags from three different countries. First, and most prevalent, is the Albanian flag. Second is the flag of Kosovo itself and third is the American flag. For the unaware, Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority is the largest contributing factor to the war there.

Three official languages in Prizren: Albanian, Turkish, and Serbian

Three official languages in Prizren: Albanian, Serbian, and Turkish.

Macedonia (MK)

My first stop in this oft-overlooked country was the capital, Skopje. As I entered the city by bus I was awestruck by numerous examples of grand architecture in great repair and huge statues. I soon learned that everything that had caught my eye had been built within the past three years and would be finished by 2014. For a country of just over 2 million people, they are certainly pouring a lot of money into public institutions and monuments to famous Macedonian (or are they Greek? More on that soon) figures like Alexander the Great. The whole thing is estimated to cost 80 – 500 million euros. It’s also not just the size of the projects, but the density. Walking through the main square is to walk by dozens of figures and an arch that looks suspiciously like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

"Man on a Horse" monument to Alexander the Great.

“Man on a Horse” monument to Alexander the Great.

Bonus fact: The Macedonians have one resolved and one ongoing dispute with Greece. The first relates to their flag. Originally the Macedonians used a yellow Vergina Sun on a red background. The sun, with 16 rays, infuriated the Greeks who imposed economic blockades for more than a year on Macedonia until they agreed to a new flag that had only 8 rays emanating from the sun.

Greece also refuses to recognize the name “Republic of Macedonia” since Macedonia is an ancient geographic region which includes part of modern Greece. As a result, Macedonia was only admitted into the UN under the provisional name of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM. The two parties are still trying to reach an agreement. Some suggestions have been the Republic of North Macedonia and Upper Macedonia. The reasons for the dispute are historical and territorial.

Albania

I should have reached Tirana today to meet up with Lindsay but an unexpected snow storm has left me stranded at Lake Ohrid in the south west corner of Macedonia. This morning I paid about $2 CAD for a half hour taxi ride to the bus station in a snowstorm. Not bad really but hopefully the ride tomorrow won’t see me trudging back up a snowy hill to the ironically named “Sunny Lake Hostel”.

Good Morning Ohrid, MK!

Good Morning Ohrid, MK!

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Friend Surfing 101

After a successful ride share from Berlin to Hamburg, I arrived with plenty of time to eat and explore the city before making my way once again to some friends who Greg and I had hosted through Warmshowers.org last spring. Johanna and Andreas are no ordinary hosts. On November 4th, they returned home after 20 months of cycle touring around the world. I could base this whole post on how awesome they are and how endless their exciting stories about the world are, but you should read (and translate from German) for yourself! www.cycle-the-world.de If I were to summarize what I learnt from their inspiring journey it would be to go to China. Apparently you can see everything you would ever want and more in China and although it was by far the most difficult country to bike through, they are both dying to go back and continue to try to understand the culture which is so utterly different from our own.

Nightime in the old storage house area

Night time in the old storage house area in Hamburg

So, not only was I  the first guest to stay in their new apartment, I arrived before most of their furniture! They had literally gotten the keys to the place 3 days prior. None the less, they went out of their way to make me feel at home. A highlight for me was acquiring a new spork from them. As a parting gift in Vancouver, they left a blue spork which has been my trusty companion these many months. Sadly, I stepped on it in Prague thus ending its functional life. I am now the proud owner of a brand new yellow one which among other things, will remind me of my great time and continued friendship with Johanna and Andreas. Hamburg is definitely a nice city and I found myself thinking this is maybe what Scandinavian countries feel like.

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It definitely felt cleaner, ritcher and more elegant than Berlin though it is too bad I was not there during the summer as there was promise of paddling trips and other such adventures if I ever was to return “at a better time of the year.” No matter the month, the famous Reeperbahn was bumping and we spent a night out on the town enjoying Astra (beer from Hamburg -2nd best in the world according to Johanna. A runner up to the beer from Loas) and some extremely cheap tequila shots 😉

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My next stop on this friend hopping adventure I seem to be having was Heidelberg where I arrived to be greeted at 6:35am at the bus station by the lovely Sarah Finckh! I met Sarah through the Queen’s Climbing Club when she was on exchange in my fourth year. Sound familiar? If you read Greg’s previous blog you will know that he stayed with a guy named Richard who fell under the same description. Sarah and Richard both stayed with us for two weeks after a hitch hiking trip to Alaska over two years ago. Greg and I often referred to this period of time as the glory days because of their stay with us and because apple cinnamon cheerios happened to be on mega sale at the local Buy Low Foods at the same time.

Sarah is currently finishing up her studies in Spanish, English and Biology (she is super woman)! We spent 6 days relaxing, exploring the very magical town and castle, catching up, drinking Gluhwein and biking around. I even went to one of her English classes where we discussed at length the meanings of various topics in the book Fight Club. It was inspiring – people actually discuss interesting things in some university classes…

Sharing some Gluwein

Sharing some Gluhwein

Sarah and I also took a trip to Frankfurt to visit a friend of hers. I can now say that I have seen the main train station and Sarah’s friends couch in Frankfurt… I unfortunately got some 24hr bug and spent the day between the couch and the WC. I stayed one additional day to rest before moving on to Lucerne Switzerland where I spent 2 days.
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The small Swiss town situated on the edge of lake Lucerne and nestled in the mountains lived up to its reputation for beauty . It also fulfilled its duty of burning a huge hole in my pocket in a matter of hours. Mike had warned me that Switzerland was expensive but it wasn’t until I was told that tap water was going to cost me 3 franks (just over 3 CAD) at a supposedly cheap restaurant I went to for lunch that it really hit me.
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I did some ferry boating, mountain summitting (by cable car) and walking but perhaps the highlight for me was an impromptu visit to the city’s transport museum where I spent a full 6 hrs exploring all the exhibits. I saw an IMAX and planetarium show, did a fully rotational flight simulation, drove a train, explored a full Swiss Air plane from the 50s and much much more! It is the most fun I have had at a museum since I visited the Toronto Science Center 3 years ago.
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Felicia and Colin my CS hosts in Lucerne provided me with some great tips and evening entertainment. Felicia is a great cook and Aries their male cat is essentially the cuddliest dog you ever met trapped in a cats body.

I am now in Ljubljana after a successful night train (nothing stolen) but I will keep this for my next post. Greg is currently in Montenegro and we are arranging to meet in Athens on the 14th to collect our bikes before we return home.

Back of the Bus

It’s 10:40 pm in Croatia’s capital and I have just arrived by bus. I have a couchsurfing host to look forward to but unfortunately he is at a concert and won’t meet me until 1:00 am. Until then I will wait under the Golden Arches.

Two weeks ago I wrote from the studio apartment of a Romanian immigrant to Germany. I spent my first full day on my own revisiting Munich having first been there in 2003. It was actually surprising how much I remembered from that trip once I was seeing it again. I went up the same church tower and saw the same store where a bunch of people on the previous school trip bought beer mugs. Munich was a very safe location in all senses of the word to stretch out on my own.

Hill in the Munich Olympic Park area. I ate dinner and shivered as the sun set over the city.

In Prague I had contacted a former German exchange student to Queen’s who was in the climbing club with me. As it turns out he had just returned to Germany and was back in the town of Meersburg, population ~5000, across a big lake from the university town of Konstanz. I arrived by bus in this tiny blip to be welcomed into the home of the family that Richard lives with. Within an hour we were started in on a case of beer and within three we were at a masquerade party with unfortunately high compliance given that I was uninformed.

After all of the border hassle (crossing the street), I made it to Switzerland.

Other than the first late night my time here mostly consisted of sleeping in and playing countless games of Kniffel, also known as Yahtzee in more civilized parts of the world. The exciting exception was walking to Switzerland from Konstanz. From the ferry landing it is about 6 km to the city of Kreuzlingen. Actually I take it back. Exciting is not the right word because the only reason I knew I had crossed was that the license plates changed from one side of the street to the other. Still, things don’t always need to be exciting to be a good use of your time. There was also the incident at the dinner table where I said, “I’ve been there.” when I thought someone was talking, in German, about the nearby town of Überlinger to which Richard and I had cycled. It turns out they had been talking about puberty so I guess I didn’t lie.

Meersburg led to one more night in Munich with Liviu before setting off by rail to Ljubljana. With the depressingly short days most of my travel has taken place in the dark. However, this day trip took place in the glorious daylight and wound through the alps, countless tunnels, and the first snowfall I’ve seen this year. In Ljubljana I had arranged to stay with a young couple, Petra and Rok, and their baby, Vesna, in a block of buildings which typify the communist taste for right angles. We passed the evening sampling Slovenian wine and some fruit brandy made by Petra.

The next day I wandered the tiny capital alone until I met my new hosts in the afternoon.  Aljoša and Kaška were the highlight of my visit to the city as we spent every second of the next two days together. I felt like a spoiled child as they fed me, rented me a bike for a personalized city tour, and took me out with their friends. Kaška had also arranged a ride share to take me to the Škocjan caves which had come recommended by all of my hosts over the more famous Postojna caves nearby.

Bike ride to where the river is artificially split in Ljubljana to help alleviate chronic flooding. A couple of muskrats were swimming around and begging for bread.

Sparrows join me for lunch at the triple bridge in the center of Ljubljana.

The caves are typical of the karst region of Slovenia where porous limestone allows rivers to sink underground for dozens of kilometers. I had never been in a proper cave before and it looks exactly like pictures but they don’t convey the immensity and claustrophobia of actually being inside. To me it was a bit like the rush you get looking over a cliff edge but that might be because we were walking alongside underground cliffs with up to a 45 meter drop to the Reka river below.

To get to Zagreb from Škocjan I first visited the sliver of coastline that Slovenia has on the Adriatic sea and then hopped down to Pula on the Istria peninsula of Croatia. Here, again, I was hosted through couchsurfing by Aneta. Suffering from a two-day hangover she suggested taking her dog for a walk and getting a beer along the way. I think this is the first time I’ve actually seen someone use a drink as a hangover cure but she perked up noticeably after her half pint. We went for another long walk with the dog during the day and passed by the fort, market, and about a kilometer of coastline. Due to the imminent rain, the sea was a stormy grey instead of the deep blue typical of the Croatian coast.

Bridge 45 meters above the river in Škocjan caves.

And that is the end of this very play-by-play account of the last couple of weeks. Some whimsical musings The near future points toward some time on the Croatian coast and a longer stint in Sarajevo before finishing off the trip through Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia.

Harbour in Piran, Slovenia.

Lindsay should be back next week to tell more about Berlin, Hamburg, Heidelberg, and wherever she might go next. I don’t even think she knows where that is yet but I think she is embracing that freedom.

Sixth* largest Roman Amphitheater in the world. Pula, Croatia. *Corrected from Third by Aneta.

UPDATE: I went to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb. It was the first time since the day we split that I felt truly sad but it was also therapeutic. It’s well done with a focus on healing rather than dwelling on the past but it is still a collection of items that used to bring happiness and now bring pain to the (former) owners. It’s a must-visit in this city.

Ich bin ein Berliner

Berlin is like no other city I have visited before wtih the exception I suppose of Berlin in 2006. The last time I was here I remember thinking that 5 days was definitely not enough time  to explore the city. Like Istanbul, you leave thinking you may have experienced about 10-15% of what it has to offer. So this time around, I stayed a bit longer… Arriving on November 15th I walked into the Wombats Hostel lounge to find Michael Woods waiting there with and eager smirk (the kind only possible when two people who shared a wall for four years in Uni haven’t seen each other in a long time). We were both pretty exstatic to see each other  and given the circustances, a supportive shoulder to lean on was more than appreciated. Also, exploring Berlin with someone who is pretty much a German history expert has its perks!

Mike and I at the Reichstag

Mike and I spent our days exploring various museums which included the Stasi Museum (former headquarters), the topography of terror exhibit (former SS HQ) and the DDR which paints a picture of what life was like during the cold war in East Berlin. considering I had only been to one other museumon this entire trip (in Budapest), I am now a bit museumed out.. I am assuming that if you wanted to spend ever day of the year at a different museum or gallery etc. Berlin would be the place for you! Unlike many of the cities Greg and I have visited recently, Berlin is not what I would call a pretty city. Because it was essentially completely destroyed by the end of the IIWW, there are noticeably less historical buildings and there is no old town in the center however the rich history and unique vibe more than makes up for this.

Some bavarian sausage

Other highlights included the East Side Gallery, a 1.2 km section of the Berlin wall with each section decorated by a different graffiti artist, the Reichstag, the various thought prevoking war memorials scattered around the city and of course most importantly, the food:)

     

On Mike’s last night we met up with a friend Katie Thomson and her boyfriend Marian who are currently living in Berlin. I actually had only met Katie a few times through various other friends and my sister but she had seemed like such a lovely person so I was eager to see her again. We met up at a local brewery near them (mmm beer) and Katie and Marian generously offered to have me to stay with them for a few days. I was thrilled to accept as I had not made any other plans and felt it was too soon to leave Berlin quite yet.

Katie and Marian are just the most wonderful hosts. Their home is truly the most “at home” I have felt since being away. Their flat is adorable with creaky hardwood floor boards and a warm glowey feeling to it. I enjoyed sharing delicious lattes/teas with Marian in the mornings (he has the whole process down to an art), learning all about their lives in Germany and sharing some delicous meals with them.

Katie and Marian in their cozy kitchen

Coffee done “the right way!”

A highlight for me was speding one day biking around the city on Katie’s old cruiser bike. I essentially did a huge circle of the whole city and checked out some parks and cute neighborhoods in the process. I treated myself to some Spetzle for lunch. Being back on a bike felt so nice and I definitely didn’t feel like a tourist. Everyone bikes in Berlin and they even have specific bicycle traffic lights!

   
Tomorrow I am off to Hamburg to see what many people seem to refer to as the most beautiful city in Germany.

Stay tuned for Greg’s next post about adventures in southern Germany and Solvenia!

-Lindsay
*A heads up to all Calgary folk. I will be home for the holiday season as of Dec 18th and I would love to see you all.

End of the Line

A lot has happened since we went olive picking so a quick run-through is in order.

We left Thessaloniki by bus to the slow-paced capital of Bulgaria; Sofia. Autumn finally punched into our realities with a vengeance as we stepped off the bus, laden with our multitude of grocery bags, into low single-digit temperatures. However, since this was our first taste of impending winter, we had that excitement that accompanies the first really crisp day each year.

In Sofia we stayed with Americans Jackson and Emily overlooking one of the main traffic circles in the city. It was mesmerizing to look down from above at the endless turning of cars while a huge neon sign blinked “Be Happy” at us day and night (and there certainly is a lot of night at this time of year). From Sofia we attempted to hike up the neighbouring mountain “Vitosha” but arrived at the base by bus to learn that the gondola that would have made this possible was under repair. We had been accompanied by a fellow couchsurfer and also American, Paul. We still enjoyed a pleasant Fall walk around the base of the ski area and some backroads.

Paul, the fellow surfer, and Emily, the mutual host, in the kitchen in Sofia.

Sofia itself is quite beautiful and the weather was perfect for enhancing the grey-feeling of the city. Is grey-feeling positive? I mean it to be. Nobody seems hurried and the lack of a major body of water coupled with the yellowish surrounding mountains had a Calgary-like feel. It was also eerie to fly out of an airport that seemed almost deserted. Perhaps that is why they had the time to confiscate our roll of tape.

From Sofia we returned to Vienna to reunite with our backpacks (stored since August), and more importantly, to see Johanna and Paul. This time we were not preoccupied with locating lost luggage so we were able to do a much better job of seeing the city. After two months of eastern countries, the sterile feeling of Vienna was a blast to the consciousness. Is sterile positive? I mean it to be. Vienna is all beautiful architecture with accent lighting and no graffiti or overflowing trash bins. I don’t think that makes it feel soulless, rather you are overcome with romantic notions as you stroll through the city by day or night.

The most interesting thing we did in Vienna was participate in St. Martin’s day with Paul and his friends. Traditionally children make paper lanterns and walk down the street singing songs about St. Martin. Apparently some grown-up children make elaborate lanterns (such as a working foosball table lantern) and go on a pub crawl. The other difference is that they seem to shout songs rather than sing them. The final stop on the crawl was a music club where some members of our procession performed the play commemorating when St. Martin gave half of his cloak to a beggar. We also stood on the stage to sing a few of the songs though I mostly had to fake it since I knew exactly 3 words in just one of the songs.

My peach tin elf lantern.

Lindsay with her rainbow spiral effort.

From Vienna we took a train and a tram way out to the edge of the city, we were actually standing next to the city limits sign, to try to hitchhike to Prague. With a sign in both German and Czech we waited for a little over an hour with nothing to show for it except for a few encouraging smiles and waves. We trudged back to public transport for the hour long trip to one of the train stations where we tasted the bitter taste of defeat in the form of 120 euros worth of train tickets.

A beautiful fall rose garden in Prague.

Prague lived up to its reputation of beauty with the majestic and plodding Vltava river being the central focus. In this way the city more closely resembles Budapest than Vienna. In Prague you can find the largest castle complex in the world perched on the a hill to the west of the river. You can also find the oldest operational astrological clock. Prague is interesting since it is geographically “Eastern Europe” but is one of the most-visited cities in Europe. This means there are around 100 hostels to choose from and the prices are much higher than other cities we have visited. The biggest anomaly is beer, which continues to be priced around $1.50 CAD for the pint in a restaurant. The Czech Republic is known for its beer consumption so it was surprising to learn that the majority of establishments serve only a light pilsner, a strong pilsner, and an unfiltered beer. Supposedly the other plethora types of beers have only started gaining popularity in the last two years.

The Charles Bridge in Prague on a misty morning.

And now it has come to the end of our last post about our shared travels. As many of you will already know, Lindsay and I have gone our separate ways. Lindsay left yesterday to Berlin and I headed to Munich. Ironically, I have never been to Berlin but I have been to Munich and for Lindsay the opposite is true*. At this point we expect to meet in Athens in a month to pack our bikes and then each of us will likely head to our respective home towns for Christmas. We will continue to update individually, Lindsay next week and me again the following week. Don’t lament even if you have only ever known us as a couple! The past five years have been unforgettable and I, for one, will look back on them fondly.

*This may be inaccurate. I’m now pretty sure that Lindsay has been to Munich.

The view from the apartment in Sofia and some good advice.

Fancy an olive or two or 1600kg?

Many events had to align to bring us to Fourka where we spent 2.5 days trying to learn the ways of the Greeks by picking olives. Greek people consume on average  24 L of olive oil a year so to understand the process of how it is made means we are one step closer to understanding the country and its people.
Rigas, our host, grew up in Thessaloniki but currently lives in Amsterdam from where he makes a trip (for olive picking purposes) every two years back home and usually brings a few friends along for the ride. For the past two rounds of picking, he has created a couch surfing event and invited strangers to join in the fun. The price: some manual labour for a few days, the reward: knowledge of how olives are harvested and processed, accommodation and food, take away olive oil at the end, and some great company throughout.

All in all there were 10 of us.
Rigas, Adri, Marko and Ronald from Amsterdam; Villy (Rigas’s sister), Talia (Rigas’s mother), Dimitri (Rigas’s brother – currently lives in Munich), Lassaros (a friend from school/near Thessaloniki, and Greg and I. We were quite the eclectic bunch.

Arriving on Friday morning we were whisked off directly to one of their two fields – apparently the less productive one- where we were put to work.

A short summary of the steps of olive picking:
1. Clear all bushes, weeds and general grub from under the olive tree;
2. Lay down large plastic tarps to cover the ground beneath and around the tree;

3. Using long sticks, start hitting the lower lying branches of the trees – this will cause the olives to fall to the ground;
4. Cut down the higher branches using a saw or chainsaw (this was done by an Albanian worker who was probably more efficient than the rest of us combined..);
5. Comb the olives off of the branches that have been cut. This essentially feels like you are a tree hairdresser and someone with really knotted hair has come in. You can also complete this step by hitting the branches with sticks which is faster but produces more twigs and branches in the olive mix and makes step 7 less fun;

6. Collect by dragging each tarp onto one central tarp and combining the olives into one large pile;

7. Quality Control – here is where the large sticks, any rocks or unwanted matter is removed from the piles. Depending on how much time you want to waste this step could go on forever. In the end most of the leaves and small branches get taken out in the processing plant so the focus is on removing only the large objects;
8. Bag the olives in large potato sack bags and tie them with string (or in our case improvise with vines if you happen to run out); and

9. Collect the bags on the tractor that comes from the factory and ship them off for processing. Greg and I got to ride on the tractor with our 42 bags of olives which was a highlight at the end of our last day picking.

Another memorable part of the whole experience was actually getting to see our olives being processed. In Canada I am not sure it would have been possible as I assume the inside of the factory would be closed to all non workers. In Fourka however it is a different matter. At the factory there seem to be people milling about everywhere, unloading olives, carrying full barrels of oil, watching as the olives get dispensed via hopper onto the loading belt etc. We were able to watch the whole process and wander through the factory looking at the different cleaning machines, separators and distillers until our oil came pouring out.

The whole process took about 1.5 hrs.
In total we picked 42 bags: 1600 kg of olives which produced 175 kg of oil.

The whole experience was accented by the unbelievably delicious food we ate the whole time (thanks to Rigas’s mother!), laughter filled games such as telephone dictionary and Palermo (a.k.a mafia) and the enjoyment of meeting a new group of people all from such different walks of life.

I don’t think I would drop everything and become a professional olive picker .. it’s a lot of work, but I will definitely remember this experience as something completely unique and thanks Rigas and his family for allowing us the opportunity to tag along!

She went to the olive field by walking and found out that a kitten was dying from cholera or appendicitis and eventually started crying because none of it made it to achieve levels of sickness worthy of higher meditation however she refused death from grief, amen.
– Olive picking team 2012

Mount Olympus Trip Report

Five years ago Lindsay and I had our first date and we went to Brew Pub in Kingston and watched “Into the Wild”. To celebrate, this year we woke up at 5:00 in the morning, ate some muesli, and headed up to the highest point in Greece.

Mount Olympus has an elevation of 2918 m and has 52 peaks, the tallest of which is Mytikas. Olympus is the mythical home of the 12 Olympian gods, including Zeus.

We had entered Litochoro (elevation 293 m) the previous day in a storm which prevented any view of our goal. This town lies at the bottom of the Enipeas Gorge which leads up to the mountain. Given that there are less than 12 hours of daylight and that the mountain refuge is closed for the year, we wouldn’t be able to hike from our guesthouse to the summit and back (distance of about 45 km and nearly 3000 meters gained). The alternative is to take a taxi to Prionia at the top of the gorge (elevation 1100 m). This “town” seems to consist of a restaurant, a washroom, and six mules.

Lindsay and her new friends.

Taxis are popular for starting the hike so they all have a fixed rate of 25 euro. We shared this with two other hikers and were on the trail by 6:30 when it was still very much night. In two hours we had reached the refuge at 2100 m. This part of the hike is pretty constantly uphill. It begins in the forest but enters a wide, open gulley at about the halfway point. This gulley marked the first gusts of wind which had been forecast to reach 95 km/h.

When we reached the refuge we met the workers packing it up for the year. We glanced inside, the lights were off but it looked spacious and comfortable, but we didn’t have much time to lose. Quickly we were on the trail again heading for the summit. The second half is also a consistent uphill slog. We seemed to be on the lee side of the mountain but we could see clouds pouring over the ridges like a waterfall and it concerned us for the scramble from Skola (elevation 3866 m) to Mytikas.

The trees ended around 2500 m and we came over a ridge to the full force of the wind and the wonderful views you can only get inside of a cloud. I was sceptical of reports that other people felt elevation effects but we both seemed to be breathing harder and stopping to take a big breath wasn’t as satisfying as I thought it should be. Maybe we’ve gone soft after 2 months of cycling at sea level. Still, by 10:45 we were on top of Skola wearing every article of clothing we had brought (including a toque, mitts, and a down jacket) but we were still shivering. It was barely below zero but the wind and the damp cut through our clothes.

In order to reach the true summit from Skola, there is a scramble along the ridge that is well-marked by paint. Being in a cloud, the length of a fall from the ridge couldn’t be ascertained. Lindsay decided the risk wasn’t worth it but I still felt that it was within my comfort zone so we made a plan for Lindsay to hang out in a sheltered area and I would return within an hour. Ten minutes later I could hear clanging and five minutes after that I discovered the clanging to be some tin containers hanging from the summit post! The climbing is not objectively difficult but the exposure and wind did make it a bit adventurous.

Summit selfie. The view was atrocious.

I took a picture and descended back to Lindsay, having been gone a total of 30 minutes. We were both chilly so we didn’t hang around to talk to the other hikers who had just shown up. Instead we started the long descent back to Litochoro and by 1:00 we were at the refuge again. Now there was no sign of the workers or the pack mules. By 2:45 we were in Prionia. With about two and a half hours of daylight left we decided to hike back to our guesthouse through the gorge rather than take a taxi again.

Just below the clouds. Enipeas Gorge is down and to the left.

The hike through the gorge is not monotonic but we could ignore the complaints of our knees by looking up at the huge limestone cliffs in the fading light. This 11 km took us over 8 or so little wooden bridges and by a monastery and some incredible caves. We reached the town at 6:00 under a full moon and eventually found our guesthouse in the maze of streets after first acquiring a bottle of wine. The bottle was destined to go untouched as we crawled our way into bed. In all it had been about 32 km of hiking, none of it flat, with over 2000 m of elevation gained.

UPDATE: The first snowfall of the year was also last night but this morning it dawned bright and clear. Lindsay took a picture up the gorge to the mountain, the peak still shrouded in cloud. The lines of snow across the rock bands are still visible. Apparently at dawn everything above treeline was white.

The mountain in ideal conditions.