A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away (a galaxy some people might call Greece), little (read: naive and silly) Sarah and Derek were studying abroad in Athens. We were having a great time and developing our consciousness' about good ingredients and tasty food. We were also learning stuff. This story is about neither of these things.
One weekend the entire study abroad program was shuttled to Thessaloníki in Northern Greece. There we were forced to endure hours of tours of historic sites in one large group. It was excruciating. After one day of this, Derek, a dear friend whom I shall call Tom (not his real name), and I decided to leave town and go hiking on Mount Olympus. You see, we had a guide book (the name of which will be omitted), this book implied we could do a short hike up to the trailhead from the village, eat lunch, and come back.
So, bright and early we eagerly jumped on a bus to Litóhoro. Did we pack a lunch? No. Did we bring tons of water? No. It was described as a short hike. We were going to have a nice walk through the woods, see some pretty views, end up at the trailhead for those who want to climb the mountain, have lunch, and turn around. I swear the guide book said the hike was about 2 kilometers. It also said there was a restaurant at this trailhead. We knew we did not have the time or equipment to climb the actual mountain. We were just happy to be on the mountain.
Here is little Derek holding a frog.
In the village of Litóhoro, on impulse, we stopped to buy some bread and cookies (Greek cookies remind me more of animal crackers, not necessarily a sweet dessert...). Then the three of us found the trail head and embarked. It was an awesome hike. The trees were beginning to change and the trail had gorgeous vistas from which to appreciate the fall colors. It was a sunny and brisk day, not hot or cold really. For much of the hike we were walking along a beautiful stream, with frogs and idyllic bridges. It was also a really hard hike, we were going UP, for serious. I mean we were on a mountain. We passed an abandoned monastery and beautiful little shrines.
Derek and another shrine.
At some point we realized we had clearly hiked longer than 2 kilometers, we were still in the middle of the woods, we were running out of water, and we were hungry. It was lunch time. We were nowhere near the restaurant. Also, we did not have a map, GPS, or cell reception. Basically, any of those newfangled hiking toys. At some point Tom pointed out he brought his sleeping bag and we could all huddle under it for warmth if we needed to spend the night on the trail. Needless, to say we were headed to a bad place mentally. The guide book was NOT helpful... according to it, we should have arrived already, have had lunch, and be preparing for our downhill hike.
Abandoned Monastery, something to do with Hitler, we were never sure.
At about 3:00 pm, after about 6 hours of hiking, we emerged at the parking lot for the actual Mount Olympus climb. We had not seen a single person all day and all of a sudden we were in a parking lot full of climbers and tour busses. Immediately, we filled our water bottles at the fountain and noticed the restaurant was closed for the season. Perfect. Really hungry, remember. At around noon we had started rationing the bread and cookies. We realized that if we turned around to hike back down we were going to have a situation on our hands. No food and it would be dark before we got back to the village and the bus stop back to Thessaloníki. This was particularly true because the trail was in a little valley, which would lose sunlight even earlier. We had cell phones, but no reception and really no one to call. We started asking the tourists and tour busses if we could have a ride back to the village. No dice. No room at this bus or any bus. Really? No room... it is a bus for goodness sakes. But, we were in no position to argue. There were no taxis to call, no rescue in sight...
At least there was water. Did not know or care if it was potable.
I like to think we did what anyone would have done at this point. We figured we were less likely to die by the side of the road than in the woods. Okay, die is an exaggeration, but I was not interested in turning this into an overnight trip. We decided to hike back along the road. I should point out that we had no idea if this walk would be shorter or longer than the trail, we just decided it would be better. After about an hour of walking along the road we realized that it might be longer than the trail and we were still hungry (I know a day with only bread and cookies is not starvation and that many people in dire situations have endure far worse, but we were hungry...).
The brilliant plan to solve this problem was to hitchhike. Because we were all good middle class American kids raised in the late 1980's and 1990's we were trained that hitchhiking would result in immediate death and dismemberment. Therefore, we were wary of taking the next step, but it seemed like the only logical solution. In order to prevent our inevitable murder we tried to check out the vehicles driving by before we would stick up our thumbs. If you have ever hitchhiked before you know this does not work, by the time you have ensured that the driver is not wearing a hockey mask their car is long gone and has not bothered to check out their rearview mirror to see your thumb. After failing a number times, we decided to throw caution to the wind and put our thumbs up without looking. In fact, we forbid ourselves from any even turning around.
To our surprise, the next vehicle to drive by pulled over immediately. Even better, it was a small van and probably had seats for the three of us. With extreme nervousness, we ran to the van's open door and discovered.... about 3 nuns and one monk. Okay, chances of murder have diminished.
A word on Greek Orthodox nuns and monks. Part of their practice of faith requires them to be extremely charitable and hospitable. It would have literally been against their religion to not stop for us when they had room.
We were feeling pretty good at this point. Safe ride! We were not going to be some news story about murdered American students! No cannibalism in the woods! What an awesome hitchhiking story! Weren't all of the lame people still touring Thessaloniki en mass going to be jealous of our adventure!
Real Mount Olympus trailhead (I think)
Well, at this point the adventure had only started. The nuns and monk spoke little English and, while were were learning modern Greek, we were not that great. We communicated we would love to dropped of in Litóhoro so we could catch the bus. They told us they needed to stop somewhere and return a key. Okay, fine.
Look at all of these cars at the Mount Olympus trailhead parking lot, no ride for us though.
After returning the key, there was some discussion amongst the nuns of how to get to the village (which they had not driven through on their way to Mount Olympus) and the three of us Americans watched them make a wrong turn. We were too polite to point it out or maybe we thought they knew a shortcut. Soon it became apparent that they were tourists too, visiting from another part of Greece and they had no idea where they were going.
They communicated to us that they had made a wrong turn and would take us back, but it would make them late to another appointment and would we mind just tagging along? Then they could take us to a bus stop. At this point they fed what suspiciously looked like their lunch (that hospitality thing again) and we shared our rationed cookies, which they seemed to like.
They asked us, hopefully, if we were Catholic. They could could from our pale faces and light brown hair that we were not Greek and, therefore, not Greek Orthodox. I am assuming they thought Catholic was next best thing. When we told them we were not Catholic, they, hopefully again, asked if we were Protestant. At this point, Tom tried to explain he was spiritual, but not religious. While he was frantically trying to find the word for spiritual in his language dictionary, I interrupted and told them we were Protestant. Remember, language was a challenge. I am not sure agnostic or indifferent was in their world view.
Pretty soon, the nuns and the monk started arguing and it was clear they were lost trying to find the place of their next appointment. I promise, the monk stopped the van and said, "if you women don't stop arguing I am going to turn this van around!"
Actually, I do not know if he said that, but he might have, he stopped the van. The monk has not said a word to us at all. He was not much of a talker. We later learned he was from Mount Athos, a famously strict order of monks, not much interested in the outside world.
After consultation with our American (English!) guide book, the nuns agreed on a course of direction. Eventually, we ended up at a nunnery in the middle of an agricultural field (middle of nowhere). They made me wear a skirt over my pants (girls in pants = bad for God). We were told to hang in the courtyard of this nunnery while they went on a tour. It turns out that nuns on vacation visit other nuns to see their digs. I am not sure why the monk was there because he did not seem to be having any fun, maybe the nuns needed a chaperone? We hung in the courtyard, someone fed us some cake. Best tasting cake ever, remember we have not eaten anything substantial all day. They had some sort of mini-zoo, which we admired. There was a pretty garden and a small gift shop. No other tourists though. Some Jesus stuff, but nothing major. We did not even see that many nuns, maybe they were all visiting with the people we had come to think of as our nuns.
Lots of space, very few nuns. But who knows?
Place where we ate our cake. Great view.
It took them a long while to do whatever they were doing, but they came back and the monk said (in Greek), "come on children." These were his only words to us in the entire five or so hours we spent together. We had many awkward conversations with the nuns, but the monk was not a talker. We jumped in the van and we all drove off into the setting sun. They must of gotten directions from the local nuns, because they took of to a bus station in a neighboring town so we could get a bus back to Thessaloníki.
Van looking off into the setting sun.
When we tried to offer them some cash, as a donation to the monastery they refused with conviction and they left us.
We were able to catch a bus almost immediately.
I think this story has some morals:
1.) Buy a map. Ask the locals about their trails. Do not use the Rough Guide to Greece as your sole source of information (oh damn, I said I was not going to reveal the name...).
2.) Always bring a sandwich. Do not assume the cafe will be open in the off season.
3.) Don't bring one sleeping bag for three people. Even if you need it, you do not want to use it.
4.) If you hitchhike, make sure nuns pick you up.
5.) It is embarrassing to take pictures of nuns. Even if you want to.
And they lived happily ever after.