We're back on the road! After our unscheduled trip to Australia, we've revised our route to start from Athens rather than Thessaloniki, effectively doing a loop of Greece.
First stop: the ancient home of the Greek gods, Mt Olympus.
We've got long days of driving ahead of us, so we've raided the discount shelves at Metropolis (Greece's equivalent of Virgin) and stocked up on driving music - everything from The Stooges to the Walker Brothers. With our tight deadline and word count we can't go wildly off course and we're determined to only include special spots truly worth experiencing.
We don't end up stopping much on our drive from Athens up the coast to Litóchoro and Mt Olympus. The countryside is pleasant with cows grazing in green meadows and laidback seaside towns with shops selling honey, olive oil and ouzo. There are funky cafes (in every town!) crowded with young Greeks sipping frappés and waterfront tavernas where long tables of families linger over lunch (doesn't anyone work in Greece?!). But there's nothing of outstanding beauty...
Mt Olympus is another story. The first glimpse of its gorge behind the small town of Litóchoro is jaw-dropping. The mythical home to the gods, it's Greece's highest area, a national park made up of a number of mountains ranging from a 1000m (Kato and Ano Tsouknida) to around 2900m (Mytikas is the mightiest at 2918m). The air is fresh and the temperature cool. Although the hiking season doesn't officially start for another week (get into trouble hiking out of season and you're on your own) there are a couple of Greek hikers in town who've just finished a climb and they look invigorated.
We check out a few hotels before settling on the traditionally decorated Hotel Aphrodite. Our hosts are welcoming, we have a wonderful four-poster bed and from our balcony the views of snow-capped Mt Olympus are special. We check out several tavernas and note the good bakery for self-caterers on the main square, but our attention is drawn to a crowd of locals leaving a restaurant looking satiated (good sign!).
The Gastrodromio Mt Olympus has stunning views of Mt Olympus from its terrace, but it's cold so we head inside. The menu has a range of interesting dishes we've not seen in Greece before and the waiter is friendly. We try Florina's spicy 'smashed' cheese, Soutzoukakia from Smyrna (minced meat with cumin and mint), delicious tender lamb and the most awesome mushrooms we've ever eaten, anywhere. We end up experiencing the best service, drinking the best local wine, and having the most satisfying meal we've ever eaten in Greece - all for only 25 euros. This is one for the book.
These are the kind of experiences that make travelling worthwhile and we're looking forward to more...