Some ships are sail ships, some ships are steam ships, but the best ships are friendships. The true friendships. The pick-up-where-you-left-off kind. The travel-three-hours-in-one-direction-because-someone-said-there-is-a-thermal-spring kind. The ask-a-stranger-in-a-foreign-language-if-you-can-pet-the-baby-goat kind. The awkward-sunburn kind. The hike-with-an-unhired-tour-guide-german-sheperd kind. This is the Goth & Griff kind of friendship. Hilary Alison Doulos (maiden name Griffin = Griff) aka Sugar Muffin aka Salmon Muffin aka Gyros Muffin, came to visit me, Alison Heidi Gauthier (Gauthier = Goth) aka Sugar Muffin aka Coffee Muffin aka Mussels Muffin, during April school break. Like all great friendships often yield, shenanigans ensued. Don’t worry to our dear sweethearts at home, we stayed safe and paid for accommodations… the majority of the time.
Hilary arrived at the Sofia Airport in the middle of a tornado gray sky. This apocalyptic overhanging had been in Sofia for two days when Hil flew in, and we weren’t sure what would happen. Thunderous rain, monstrous snow, or tornadoes; all options were on the table. We dropped off Grant at home for his staycation and hit the open road south towards Greece for the girls’ road trip. An hour south of Sofia and the skies opened up with thumbnail-sized hail. Zeus was truly calling us down to Greece. Traffic came to a standstill along the highways as I yelled out, “Dupnitsa! Of all the places; Dupnitsa for the hail storm!” I had some prior interesting interactions in this town on a bike ride.
We made it to the border around 10:00, and crossed near 10:30pm. Not bad considering the past record for me and Grant crossing the Bulgarian-Greek border was 45 minutes. At the Greek half of the border crossing, the tired and jaded control man asked me where we were staying. I pleasantly told him, “Litochoro.” He looked at me, confused at first, but then annoyed at my sheer presence on Planet Earth. “LitoHHHHoro, you mean?” The H sound came from the depths of his soul and was a solid two seconds too long. “Yes,” I nodded politely. He slammed the stamps down on our passports and shooed us along. After the border, we looked up a couple of places to stay for the evening in LitoHoro, and called up a Greek woman on the phone. Words were exchanged, but neither party knew their meanings. We considered this as a positive sign and typed in her hotel to Google Maps. Near 1am, we arrived at the woman’s hotel. All lights were off and the place was locked up for the evening. We called the number again and, praise Jesus, we heard the phone ringing inside. She came down to let us in and show us to the room. The place looked pretty deserted when we woke up in the morning; she was thankful for the business after all.
Off the bat, we drove to one of the starting points of Mt. Olympus National Park for a morning hike. Prior to Hil’s arrival, I had done a supermarket run to pick up the essentials – carrots, peanut butter, organic Nutella, raspberry jelly, wheat bread, bananas, apples, and, of course, Cheetos. During the hike, we walked and chatted along while eating a banana and sandwich. Once, many April breaks ago, Hil and I drove from Elmira, NY to the Floridian panhandle in one shift (20+ hours straight) to go camping for a week. We drained Hil’s campus meal card in order to buy the non-perishable essentials for the week. One of my favorite memories of that trip was sitting on the beach reading trashy novels while making PB&J sandwiches. They truly became “sand”wiches when the winds picked up at the exact moment to land sand in the bread-making process. A crunchy condiment, we agreed.
After the picturesque Mt. Olympus hike, Hil and I drove into the village center of Litohoro for a delicious spanakopita. On our way out of the town, we found a side road to take us directly to the sea. Litohoro is an awe-inspiring place in the sense that it truly has the sea to mountain views. We dipped our toes in the freezing water (“You didn’t want to go for a dip, Muffin?”), and looked for unique pebbles along the coast. I allowed myself to take only two tiny pebbles; I am trying to cut back. We continued driving southbound to the Pelion Peninsula.
On one of our epic past road trips, Hillary and I found ourselves in Yellowstone driving, hiking, and geysering along. We had arrived very late at night (wait, this seems to be a theme) to our campsite and set up the tent in the dark via flashlight-in-mouth maneuvers. In the morning, we drove through the National Park in search of elk, bison, and bears (oh my!). At one point, the miles of RV and car traffic was at a standstill due to a large bison herd passing. The forest rangers were directing the traffic along. Apparently, we stopped a few seconds too long to get a video, because, all of a sudden, the ranger’s voice came on the megaphone, “SOUTHBOUND TRAFFIC CONTINUE!” We thought this was a bit rude; don’t shout at everyone due to only our tardiness. This story came to mind as we traveled, southbound again, through Greece.
For the Pelion Peninsula, I had never been here, but knew some friends from Sofia had moved down the previous school year. They remarked on its beauty, and I couldn’t agree more. Set against countless olive trees, jagged mountains, and blue seas, Pelion Peninsula is a Greek oasis. We arrived at a campground we found on Google Maps during the drive. With olive tree branches strewn each way and construction at some of the tent sites, the place didn’t look open. And the reality was… it wasn’t. We arrived on April 1st, but its opening day was April 20th. We talked to two people whose family owns the place and begged them to let us stay. They said, “The bathrooms are filthy. They might not even be working.” We looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “Doesn’t bother us. Not a problem.” When they saw the desperation in our eyes, they agreed to one campsite that we pointed towards. They raked the tree branches a bit, and must have thought us absurd for setting up camp on this dirty plot. “Thank you; we will write you an outstanding review on TripAdvisor”, we told them.
We drove the car to the other side of the Peninsula (the Aegean side) for a cool hike along the coast. Here, we were greeted by countless more olive trees, flowers, and beautiful scenery as the waves crashed against the rocks below the trail. We came up to a cute town and ordered a couple strong coffees at a local very-Greek restaurant. Hmm, how can I describe a proper very-Greek restaurant? Here are the criteria:
- Very loud traditional music playing (We needed to yell to order a couple cafes)
- Large photo of grandfather restaurant in corner with judging eyes
- Shells collected from the sea… and glued to the fireplace… all along the fireplace
- Strong smell of fish… and oregano
With coffees in hand, we walked to the village pier because we saw some people were fishing. I should actually say, they had been fishing. Now, they were sitting around a grill, laughing and chatting while passing around some hooch in a clear glass bottle. Hilary walked up to them and asked, “Did you guys catch anything?” Again, words that don’t mean anything, so we hastily mimed a fishing pole and excitement. They said something to us, then took the lid off a pot to show us some fried anchovies inside. They ushered the pot towards us, and we each grabbed one morsel. We thanked them and headed back along the pier.
At the car, we drove back over the mountain to our campsite. We parked and walked downtown to meet Wendy and Jonathan Thompson (friends who lived in Sofia last year) for dinner at a local spot. Per the great counsel of Wendy and Jonathan, we ordered the house specials featuring local vegetables and seafood. It was indeed a treat. The Thompsons gave us some recommendations for hiking the next day as well. We slept soundly that evening with bellies full of calamari, fava beans, and red wine.
The next morning, we did a wee jog by the coast on the gulf side. Then we took down the tent and gave the kind girl 10 euros for the site. She said it was too much honestly for what we used, but we insisted. We continued south to Trikeri and parked at the head of a great seaside hike. We hiked in the heat while chatting and observing the wildlife in the area.
Again, many olive trees lined this trail all around. In one small bay by the sea, we saw countless translucent items. At first, I was ashamed of the humans of the world because I thought they were plastic bags. Upon closer inspection, we saw them slightly pulsing. There were thousands of jellyfish, of all various sizes, stuck in this small bay. We didn’t know if it was a good (mating, taking a rest) or bad (dying, stuck here) sign to find them here.
Another aspect of hiking in the peninsula were the goat and sheep herds. We were in awe of the playful yet obedient dogs bringing their herds for grazing. The sound of a herd is like nothing else – the farmers attach bells to the necks of each animal. The chimes of a herd moving along is a chaotic yet charming cacophony. Muffin and I got back in the car following the hike and drove to a local farm stand that the Thompsons had also recommended for local honey, etc.. Sadly, no one was home when we passed by. However, we stopped for a coffee (first for the day) in a mountainous town before heading back north. Hil and I debated which we couldn’t live without; coffee or beer. She chose beer and, I, coffee.
We drove back North and inward into the heart of Greece to arrive at Meteora that evening. Meteora was a favorite for Grant and me from this past summer. Hil was also in awe of these unique rock formations. We found a spot that had open tent sites, and grabbed some Greek dinner at a local restaurant up the road. However, with bellies full of chicken, tzatziki and olives, we did not sleep well this evening. The Meteora dogs were out in droves. All night long, there was a cacophony of barking and… rooster crowing. Stray dogs and pets alike; the noise continued all night. We woke up a bit worse for wear… and headed right for a cafe with strong espresso in mind.
In the morning and early afternoon, we walked along the “loop” of Meteora up a hiking path and then along all the monasteries. When Grant and I had visited this iconic location back in July, it was almost too hot to handle. Due to the heat, we couldn’t bring ourselves to be inside at all, so we hadn’t seen any of the monasteries. With Hilary, the weather was ideal, and we toured inside Holy Trinity and Varlaam Monasteries. We made it back to our campsite, took everything down, and drove through downtown Meteora in search of a proper Gyro. We found a good spot, devoured a chicken Gyro, and headed to the Meteora Mushroom Museum. Hil is a huge fan of mushrooms and knew many of the common fungi at hand, but it was all new information to me. It was a very unique and thought-provoking museum.
While ending the Meteora walkabout and getting a Gyro, Hil and I had been debating about where to go next. We both had some ideas, but none seemed to stick. For example, we thought about driving through Macedonia on the way back to Bulgaria, but I wasn’t confident that the car was allowed to go through that non-EU country. So, at the Mushroom Museum, we asked the gift shop manager about any cool places around, and he told us about Pozar. To Pozar we went!
Pozar Thermal Springs are in Northern Greece; almost to the Macedonian border. We arrived there around 8:30 at night, figured out how to buy the tickets, and then soaked in the mineral hot baths. The town is situated along the hot springs river. They have a few pools to soak in and we enjoyed the small (authentic) one as well as the large (pool) spring. We looked at Google Maps and saw that the area had some cool hiking, so we decided to stay there for the night. However, we didn’t have a campsite for that evening and it was after 10pm. Soooooo, we did what any normal Goth & Griff girls would do; we drove the car out behind one of the municipal buildings, brushed our teeth, pulled the sleeping bags from the trunk, fed a stray dog some leftover fava beans and bread, and reclined the front car two seats. We set the alarm for 8am to get in a good hike before crossing back over the border in the morning.
However… we awoke at 2:30am to a HONK HONK! A man had driven a motorcycle up beside the car window and was honking at us. Hilary rolled down the window, and again, HONK HONK “something something Taxi!”. We didn’t know what he said but the message was clearly received. We drove out of the Pozar hot springs area and back towards the nearest town. Clearly, the area shuts down between 2:30am and morning. We got to the nearest town, weighed our options, and realized we wouldn’t be able to fall asleep again any time soon. “The worst part, Al, is that I was having such good sleep” said Hil. “So good”, I replied, “…so good.” After the dogs of Meteora symphony the evening before, the sleep had been much needed and was actually warm/comfortable.
In conclusion, we decided to head for the border. We drove northeast and arrived at the Bulgarian-Greek border at 5:30am. We crossed in a record time of 8 minutes. Beyond epic silver lining!
Once in Bulgaria, we set Google Maps to Melnik. I told Hilary the timing might be perfect. We might get to Melnik just in time for a sunrise hike. We arrived in the quiet and sleepy Melnik around 7am, grabbed some peanut butter, bread, and water from the backseat, and headed for a hike up the side of the sand pillars. As soon as we exited the car, this giant of a German Shepherd came bounding over to us. He had a chain collar on and was dragging about 3 feet of additional chain behind him wherever he went. Clearly he had just escaped and had energy to spare! We headed for the trail head, and he ran up ahead of us. This particular trail is steep at first with stairs going up to a plateau and then leveling off from there. He followed us the whole way up, ran ahead of us, ran behind us, and then ran in circles around us. The sound was awful with the chain dragging behind him and kicking up mud and sand everywhere. I managed to grab him and unhook the chain. Untethered, he was faster than ever and stayed right with us. We thought at any moment he would go on his merry way, but he stayed with us the entire hike. Even when we wanted to lose him (at one point we played hide and go seek), we couldn’t. We paid him for his (unasked) tour guide services with peanut butter on bread; he was a huge fan!
Unfortunately, the fog clouded out the sunrise. However, the hike was beautiful and the views looking down onto sleepy Melnik were . We came back to the car and drove towards downtown. The dog followed along beside the car and waited outside our breakfast spot. We filled up on omelet, coffee, fried bread, and cheese before searching around for a wine shop that was open. I bought some wine to bring back to friends in Sofia and we headed north again towards Sofia. Our plan was to stay at Rila for a night, but we greatly underestimated how much snow was still present in the National Park. The winter this year had been unusually long; this was apparent as the car climbed up the switchbacks. We turned the car around when there was too much snow to continue. We found a waterfall hike in a town at the bottom of the hill that ended up being an unexpected gem. We drove back home to Sofia via Relyovo so Hil could meet Katie.
Back in Sofia, Grant made us a delicious dinner. The next morning, we went for Hil’s antigen test to fly (negative thank goodness) then went for a trail run at Pancharevo. I showed Hil our favorite cafe near the lake and, naturally, we got some Banitsa. At the Childrens’ Bells Park, Muffin rang the USA bell (“It’s not too flashy, I like it!”), and then we headed downtown.
For lunch, we met up with another Elmira College Alumnae, Tanya. She is from Sofia and was a Resident Assistant on Hilary’s floor during her first year at EC. It was great to catch up and remember old times from EC and its sweet traditions. It’s a small world, isn’t it?
Hil and I walked around downtown; of course careful to dodge the pro-Russian protests on the way to the famous Sofian landmarks. Protest, anyone? Protests? We met up with Grant by Alexander-Nevsky Cathedral (he had just gotten a tattoo) and headed for the Museum of Illusions.
We met up with Svetla at the Museum of Illusions. Grant had seen the advertisements for this Museum since we arrived, but we had never been. It was really interactive, interesting and thought-provoking. I still don’t know how a couple of the illusions work! Then we met up with Mary and all went out to dinner together at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. The Mavrud red wine, shopska, and sach was a great way to celebrate Hil’s last evening in Bulgaria.
We sent Hil off on her early morning flight with a heavy heart. To the next time, Anchovy Muffin! Let’s make it a Vietnam moped road trip?