There was a portent of doom, or at least of heavy rain, in the clouds gathering over southern Albania, just across the water from northern Corfu. I hoped to reach the peak of Mt. Pantokrator—at 2,972 feet the highest on the island—before those clouds and whatever they portended crossed the water.
On our rented 125 cc. motor scooter my husband and I began the ascent from the coastal town of Acharavi. At first we missed the turnoff because the road we were supposed to enter was no wider than an alley, and we had to double back.
On the map it all looked simple enough, but road signs—scarce enough on the coastal road—are even scarcer in the inland areas. Slowly we ascended from village to village, often stopping to ask where we were. Some of the villages that were marked on the map consisted of no more than half a dozen houses, clinging to the mountainside.
We passed through Agios Martinos and Strongili (about three houses), all the while surrounded by trees, then took a wrong turn at a fork. Realizing our mistake, we turned back only to discover that the village at the fork was Lafki, the one we were trying to find. From there it was clear enough to Eriva and Strilinas. The narrow road was paved most of the way, though it had plenty of ruts.
A wind had picked up, but when we stopped at a roadside café in Strinilas we sat outside on the terrace so we could enjoy the view to the sea. A British family with two adolescent boys also sitting on the vine-covered terrace had an interesting way of passing the time until their order arrived: The mother pulled out a pack of cards and they played a round of gin rummy.
The owner, in an apparent gesture of friendship and hospitality, put his hand on our backs each time he came to our table. I found it a little odd but didn’t mind, but I could imagine other Americans getting hysterical about being touched by a stranger.
The Greek salad, when it finally arrived, was good, as usual, and the slices of fried eggplant were divine.
Our scooter, which had done well so far, was less happy on the last stretch, from Petalia. It groaned and sputtered as it dragged its way up, grinding almost to a halt at the hairpin turns. The final, steep stretch was on ridged concrete, a kind of road cover we were familiar with from our visit to Cyprus last year. The scooter was nearly in tears.
At last, the peak came into view, and a bizarre sight it was: no longer a solitary monastery on a windswept mountain top, though I could imagine that in winter it would be pretty grim.
Four elements grace the peak of the mountain: the church, the tiny monastery, telecommunications towers, and a café. It’s a weird combination of asceticism and modern comforts, and the monk sitting in the café talking on his cell phone seemed to symbolize the incongruity, as if on top of this mountain he was still not close enough to speak directly to the Almighty. For us, awed by the view of the Spanish-broom-carpeted slopes falling away to the sea, it was close enough.
Text and photos copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.