Full time van life and travelling in Greece, December 2019
After thunderstorms and a crazy 10 days travelling through 4 countries we finally arrived in Greece. Neither of us had visited mainland Greece before, I had only been to Corfu for a girls holiday. Apart from the history, architecture and myriads of statues we didn’t really know what to expect. Unfortunately, our first impressions weren’t great. The amount of rubbish at the side of the roads had been building from Croatia through Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania. By the time we reached northern Greece it was pretty much everywhere. Littering breaks my heart. It has such a huge impact on the environment, nature, wildlife and just the whole atmosphere of a place and the worst part is that it’s completely unnecessary. I keep a handy litter picker in the van (inspired by The Expawers) along with bin bags and gloves and we clean up as much as we can as we travel. It seems a reasonable way to repay the planet for being able to see and camp in so many incredible places.
On our drive into a new country we listen to YouTube videos about the language, country and culture so we can prepare ourselves and at least be able to communicate our basic needs. Also, it’s just polite to at least try to speak the language of the people whose country you are visiting. We have a reasonable grasp of French and German, which had been really useful up until Croatia. We’d learned some Slovenian and Croatian on the way through and had done quite well with the basics of ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘how much is…?’, ‘can we have the bill?’ along with the two most important phrases any traveller can learn – ‘where is the toilet?’ and ‘two more beers please?’ As we look at signs, read menus or packets of food at the supermarket we can usually work out what things are but Greek is a totally different thing! They have a completely different alphabet (similar to Cyrillic scripts) to start with, so reading things was difficult (thankfully most road signs & menus are written in both Greek and English). We did start to pick up which letters made which sounds but learning Greek properly would need a lot more work!
We had 5 weeks to explore Greece before we caught our ferry to Italy then onto Malta for Christmas. Our first stop was Ioannina. As we drove through the Albanian border and headed towards Ioannina we considered not stopping but continuing further into Greece. The roads were crazy, there was litter everywhere and it just didn’t look welcoming. Coming from an Island, we are drawn to water, so we decided to just check out the lake then decide our next move. Thank goodness that we did. As we turned the corner from the main road towards the lake this whole other world opened up in front of us and it was incredible! A beautiful shimmering lake with little boats making their way leisurely across the water, surrounded by quaint coffee shops, restaurants and seating areas and backed by the old town walls. Exactly the kind of gems we like to find on our travels.
Thanks to our park4night app we found a guarded car park at the lake side where you could stay overnight for just €10. The security guard was really friendly and helpful, even though he could only say one thing in English: “One more night, yes please” and our Greek was basically non existent at that point. After a lot of universal sign language from both sides, we paid for the night and headed to the lake, found a bar and watched the sun go down. Greece might turn out to be not be so bad, after all.
We’d been told about the Greek food and hospitality and on our first night in Ioannina we were showered with both. Directly next to the car park was a restaurant called ‘Zaïpe’. It looked a bit up market and expensive for our travel budget but we were celebrating our two month travel-versary and had a cheap place to stay the night so we thought we’d put on some nice clothes and treat ourselves. The manager greeted us on the street and showed us to a table. This was already way more ‘posh’ than our usual road side cafes & food stalls. The service from all the staff was impeccable and the food was just phenomenal; delicious, huge portions and really not expensive at all. It was so good, in fact, that we decided to stay an extra night in Ioannina and went back for dinner the following night.
The next morning we had breakfast at one of the little cafes on the lake side and explored the Old Town, including the museums & Ali Pasha’s mosque, which were free to enter as it was outside of tourist season. Being in Greece during the winter would positively affect our whole time in Greece. Later in the day, we took a boat across the lake to Ioannina Island to the ancient home of Ali Pasha, an Albanina Ottoman ruler who eventually died on Ioannina Island. We finished the day back at Zaïpe for dinner. The whole day, including breakfast and dinner cost us just €60 (a little over our €50 per day budget, but totally worth it). We would highly recommend a visit to Ioannina if you are driving through Greece. We’ll definitely be back one day.
Our next stop was the ancient town of Pella; historical capital of the ancient kingdom of Macedon and birth town of Alexander the Great. We just had to check it out as our family name (mine, by marriage) is Alexandre and throughout our time in Greece we were asked if we had ties to Alexander the Great. The archaeological museum is really fascinating and with paid entry you also get a ticket to see the ancient ruins of Pella, just a little further down the road. If you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth visiting, and it’s strange to think that a city built by humans over 2,000 years ago is still standing. We were left wondering whether any of the cities that we’d visited would still be standing another 2,000 years in the future.
I’ve never been a fan of cities, but we needed to do some laundry so we headed to Thessaloniki, about three hours drive east. This was our first real experience of the crazy Greek driving and ‘parking’ (or as we call it ‘abandoning of cars’). Trying to manoeuvre a 3.5t, 7.5m vehicle through city streets is challenging at the best of times but when people are parking 2 cars deep at either side of the road, at strange angles, it becomes extra difficult. We took a quick look on Park4Night and found a free car park to spend the night in, right near the waterfront.
Doing laundry whilst living in a motorhome full time takes some organising. We usually do it every week to 10 days, when we stop at a campsite to refill/empty water etc, but we hadn’t been able to do it since our first days in Albania. Since our van is so big we usually have to park on the outskirts of a city & make our way to where the main street is to find laundrettes/other shops, which means packing all our laundry up in a couple of bags & somehow transporting them. Usually we use our e-bikes but in Thessaloniki our preferred mode of transport were electric urban scooters which you can hire in most cities, we usually use Lime scooters (but other brands are available!). You download the app, link it to your method of payment then use your phone to unlock the scooter. You are charged a small amount to unlock the scooter then for every minute that you use the scooter. At the end of your ride you park up and lock the scooter again. They are a great way to explore cities and for short rides. We had previously used them in Vienna when our Secret City Trail finished at the other side of the city to where we had started and parked our bikes.
After we had done our laundry we made our way back along the sea front to our van and found an Asian fusion restaurant, Asian House, that was just down the road. It’s surprising what you miss whilst travelling & although I love to cook, eating food that you don’t have to prepare and cook yourself is always a welcome treat. The food was so good that we ended up eating there 3 times over the next few days!
Thessaloniki had ben great but we wanted to get away from city life so we headed towards Halkidiki and stopped on the way at a garage/camper stop to replace some light bulbs and pick up ‘van bits’ like engine coolant and oil. It’s a good idea to get these kind of things as and when you can as it’s not always easy to find them, especially if you spend a lot of time away from towns & cities wild camping. We had looked up Halkidiki on the internet and it said it contained ‘sandy beaches, modern resorts and night clubs’, however that turned out to be only during tourist season, so when we arrived in late November it was like a ghost town (which was fine for us!). Fewer tourists made it easier to wild camp (although we would soon learn that most of the campsites were closed, so we didn’t have much choice) and so sticking to the coast and using Park4Night came to be our best method of finding places to stop in Greece. As it was past tourist season we basically had most places to ourselves and the cafes/restaurants that were open were happy to see us because it was quiet season for them.
We were lucky to avoid the heavier storms and earthquakes that hit Albania and southern Greece that week. Although we did spend most of our time in Halkidiki in our van due to heavy rain and thunderstorms, we did speak to an older German couple (in my broken, very basic German) who had joined us. They were doing the opposite route to us in their motorhome and had lots of great information about places to go & things to see. One of those places was Mount Olympus… but that’s another blog.
Top Traveller Tip: always chat to your fellow van life/motorhome travellers, no matter where they’re from or what they’re driving. You never know who’s going to tell you about that secret stopover or the area to avoid!