Friday, 9 March 2012

Τrikala: Halfway to heaven

 Central Greek district offers pedestrian-friendly town and diverse countryside

By Haris Argyropoulos
The breathtaking cliffs of Meteora, one of the great sights of mainland Greece, are no doubt the highlight of the district of Trikala in Thessaly, but the visitor is rewarded with a great deal more.

The town of Trikala, for a start, situated in the foothills of Mt Koziakas on the eastern side of the Pindus mountain range and with a population of 70,000, is considered one of Greece’s most attractive and trendy places to live -- the only drawback being its relatively high humidity levels.

Koziakas and its picturesque villages, the area of Mesohora and the Acheloos River (or Aspropotamos as its local stretch is known) -- Greece’s second longest, which flows through Trikala -- offer a wealth of natural diversity with lush forests and alpine meadows.

There is ample evidence that the area was inhabited by Latin-speaking Vlachs in the 12th century. Under Ottoman rule from the 16th century, the region flourished due to its developed stockfarming, wool and forest industries.

Well laid out, most of the town of Trikala is pedestrianized and a pleasure to walk around, particularly along the banks of the River Lithaios. The town is mentioned in Homer’s “Iliad” as Trikke, which participated in the campaign against Troy led by the celebrated healers Machaon and Podalirius, the two sons of Asclepius, the ancient god of medicine. The town was occupied by the Normans in 1082.

There is a beautiful 19th-century iron bridge (one of several) over the river, and the 16th-century Kursum mosque at the city’s southern entry point -- a protected UNESCO heritage site and one of the most impressive Islamic monuments in the country, now used as an exhibition facility.

The town’s highlights include a zoo, spreading over 3 hectares on the verdant Profitis Ilias Hill, on the northern side of town beyond the fort. The zoo’s occupants include a pair of tigers, a giraffe, an Australian emu, ponies, deer, pheasants, snakes and tropical birds.

Mt Koziakas and the Acheloos River are part of the European Natura 2000 network of natural habitats. The mountain has rocky slopes, steep precipices and gorges forested with fir, beech and oak trees.

Driving up Koziakas west of Trikala town, past the village of Pyli, you come to the beautiful arched bridge of Portiatis, built in 1514. The imposing landscape that surrounds it prepares the visitor for what lies further uphill.

Just outside Pyli, at 800 meters, is the impressive three-story Monastery of Aghios Vissarion, which has a library housing rare manuscripts.

The winding road brings you to the picturesque main village of Elati, at 900 meters, the most developed in the district, with many guesthouses, tavernas and bars and popular with visitors. From here, hiking enthusiasts can ascend to the Arkoudotrypa summit, at 1,600 meters, and visit the cave of the same name. Ten minutes from the center of Elati is Red Rock, 60 meters high with six climbs of different levels of difficulty.

Another base for climbing to the summits of Koziakas (there are six above 2,000 meters) is the village of Vrontero, in an idyllic setting among thick forests of fir, chestnut and plane trees between two tributaries of the Portiatis. But it’s not all about climbing here, since the area offers plenty of opportunities for short walks and is crossed by European Walking Route E4.

Driving along the main road from Pyli, you come to the village of Kalogeri, a small forested paradise. Locals collect and sell a wide array of herbs in the surrounding area, which are believed to have medicinal properties. Koziakas is also called the Mountain of Asclepius, who is said to have collected his medicinal herbs here.

Higher up along the main road from Elati is Pertouli, a smaller version of the former but quieter and not as commercially developed, which does nevertheless have archery and horse-riding facilities. There is also a small ski center at 1,900 meters, 40 kilometers from Trikala, with three runs and three lifts (tel 24340.91558).

The monasteries of Meteora, perched on seemingly inaccessible rocky pinnacles towering in the middle of the plain, are a 20-minute drive north of the town of Trikala.

Transport & basic info

Area phone code: 24310. There are three ways of getting to Trikala, by car, bus or train. The town is 328 km from Athens and the journey by car (via Highway E75) takes about four hours. From Thessaloniki the distance is 214 km (about three hours). Nine intercity bus connections from Athens (210.831.1434), six from Thessaloniki (2310.517.517). Τhe train journey from Athens takes about four-and-a-half hours. Meteora can also be reached by train (to Kalambaka). Hellenic Railways info: 1110; hospital 23652; Κalambaka tourist police 24320.76100.

Where to stay

In Trikala: Aeton Melathron (63130, four-star); in Pertouli: Archontiko Hatzigaki (24340.91146), Pertouli (24340.91360), Astrovolia (luxury hotel on Koziakas). In Kalambaka: Divani Meteora (24320.23330), Rex (24320.22042). In Kastraki: Petrino (24320.78105). In Elati: Μikri Arktos (24340.71777), Lagou Vaso (studios-apts, 24340.71135), Ligeri guesthouse/apts (24340.71454). In Neraidohori: Dristela Resort (24340.91350, deluxe, fine views), Agnanti guesthouse (24340.91022). In Kalogeri: Sarakatsanos (24340.71385).

Where to eat

For tsipouro and appetizers in Elati, go to Xenophon, for grilled meats to Tilemachos and for good classic Greek dishes to Panselinos. In Kalogeri, Endeka for tsipouro and classic dishes and Kotoulas for grilled meats. In Pertouli, you will find excellent Greek cuisine with local specialities and a huge wine list at Panagiotis’s taverna. Throughout the area you will find excellent-quality chestnuts and walnuts, delicious sausages at Papaharalambous in Trikala (75 Asclepiou) and mountain tea in Elati. In Kalambaka: Panellinion taverna.

Sights & entertainment

Explore Trikala’s old Varousi quarter; see the Dorothea School, the municipal gallery, the folk museum and the Dimitris and Lego Katsikogianni museum with paintings of scenes from 20th-century history. Trikala has a wide range of bars, clubs and rebetika music venues. In the Aspropotamos district (www. see the folk museum in Krania, Doliana Monastery -- the church is a listed Byzantine monument with 13 domes; visit the excellent Environmental Information Center at Tria Potamia, which also has a center for river sports center.

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