(‘Pame’ or ‘πάμε‘ in the title means ‘we go’ or ‘let’s go’ in Greek – multilingual alliteration, hope you’re impressed!)
Friday 24th October – we leave Kavala. The Forecast is dire and the wind is already increasing. We follow the coast road hoping it’ll be somewhat more sheltered ‘round the corner’. We drop anchor at Paralia Ofrinou. Oops, wrong terminology, but having looked at the likely wind direction, my sailor’s mind has found us a good spot. The rain is still heavy and continues to be all night, all day, and all the next night. We’re joined later by a huge 4×4 ‘adventure truck’ (French) – Not jealous, honest, but I hate to think how much it costs to run! We obviously did a good job of hiding from the weather, with all our blackout blinds in place; in the morning we’re visited by the French to check we’re ok, a nice touch, before they continue their journey to Turkey. Other than a brief visit to the roof box to retrieve Heidi’s winter ‘duvet’ (The insulated silver screen cover for her windscreen) we don’t venture out. It’s horrible out there and the heating stays on all day. We realise it must be winter in the evening, when the lights go out and all the power cuts out. That hasn’t happened since last winter when we were in Pembrokeshire with short grey days and no sunshine. We run the engine for an hour to charge our batteries and start monitoring our power use more carefully.
Heidi’s got quite a sophisticated power system. Other than the engine start battery, we have 3 more ‘leisure’ batteries for lights and power totalling 330 amps. We have a solar panel on the roof and when the sun shines this is normally sufficient to give us enough power for days on end without resorting to running the engine. We have a complicated battery monitoring system that should tell us exactly what state the batteries are in and how long we can continue doing whatever we’re doing without charging them. Unfortunately, it’s brain thinks it is cleverer than mine (it’s probably right there). I’ve made a few changes to the settings, which will hopefully help. We really should have plenty of power, but running the computer, and the heating fan, and the lights all day doesn’t help!
The cold grey days continue. We take a few, brief, cold, windswept walks along the beach and make a lentil and vegetable soup to keep us warm. On the third day, the sky is slightly brighter and it’s only drizzling lightly so we move on. We stop again at Stavros – maybe that’s a cause for a little jig in tribute to Stavros Flatley? Remember this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gHvATmUsSg
We stay here a couple of days at a beach carpark just out-of-town. It’s very quiet and we ‘hibernate’. A little bit of brightness encourages me to get the bikes off the back for the first time in ages (don’t think we’ve used them since Hungary?). After a much-needed clean and oil, we set off into town. Most of it turns out to be yet another dead holiday resort with very few people about; those that are; are clearing up after the storms. A lot of the roads are still flooded (there’s no proper drainage) and there’s sand and debris all over the beach road and on the terraces of the beachfront tavernas.
We drive up into the hills for a change of scene, but the clouds are still low and visibility is down to a few yards up high. It’s thickly forested and we pass piles of logs and the odd timber yard and isolated farm. We come round one bend to discover free-range pigs in the road! The lead pig has a bell round its neck like the goats and cows do. We’ve not seen that before. Down at sea level again, it’s hardly clearer. Most of the dirt roads are washed out, with deep gulleys down the middle of them and rocks and sand spewing out across the main road. Heidi’s not too good in the mud and we can’t reach our intended destination and end up sheltering behind a sports hall for the night. We finally wake to a bright sunny morning and our walk along the beach shows quite what a storm they’ve had here.
Back at Heidi we have visitors:
They’re so clingy and under-foot that Elaine has to distract them out from under the wheels whilst I drive off and then run to get in whilst we escape before they can reach us. Whilst we were there, someone did come to feed them, but you wonder how they will survive when they’re no longer cute. The wild dogs here in Greece continue to be a problem and can occasionally be quite unnerving with their closeness.
We’re approaching ‘the three fingers of Greece’ or Halkidiki
We miss out the first ‘finger’, Athos and stop for lunch at the small fishing village of Pirghadhikia. The water’s crystal clear and almost calm.
The Eastern Finger of Halkidiki, Athos, is mostly inaccessible, comprising the isolated Mt Athos monastic community, a ‘semi autonomous monastic republic’ following the Julian (Byzantine) calendar. There are 20! working monasteries and roughly 1600 monks living on the peninsula. It is only accessible by boat (no land entry allowed – and you’d have a job; its densely forested at the northern end and very mountainous). And it’s open only to male pilgrims. Apocryphal legends say that the Virgin Mary visited Athos and blessed it; the Holy Mt. Athos (2033m) is considered the ‘Garden of the Virgin’ and is dedicated exclusively to her; there’s no room for other women though they are allowed to look from a boat at a distance. In 1060 entry was barred for women, female domestic animals, beardless persons and eunuchs. Women are still banned, but hens are tolerated for their eggs, beards are no longer mandatory and eunuchs are not readily available! Although frustrated Eurocrats in Brussels have contested this prohibition, they’ve proved no match for 1000years of tradition and the gold-sealed decrees of the Byzantine emperors. We’d originally planned to take a boat trip around the coast, but we’re too late in the season and it’s not so appealing with most of the scenery obscured by cloud. Must come back in the summer!
As we drive round the coast, there’s more sunshine and the water’s beginning to look turquoise. We stop for the night near Karidhi
It’s warm enough for shorts and paddling in the middle of the day. It really is a beautiful spot!
The next day it’s back to more rain and it’s cold again. We manage a brief walk into ‘town’ in the drizzle..
On the 1st November, it’s a beautiful sunny day again – warm enough, we decide, for a morning swim. And with a beach like this on our doorstep it would be ‘rude not to’. It’s a bit cold, but not too bad; it is November after all.
We decide against the 100km drive round the coast of the Sithonian Peninsula; it’s apparently stunning, but we’ve seen the forecast and decide to cover some miles and get further south towards our winter destination in the Peloponnes. Over the next couple of days we pass through Thesoloniki and continue on down towards Volos. It’s a good road for a change, but it ends up costing us 30euro in tolls for a 200km stretch. We’re paying about double the car rate because of our height; time to change the satnav settings to ‘avoid tolls’! We drive round the base of Mt. Olympus (2917m). It’s mainly hidden by cloud, but just occasionally we catch a glimpse of the sun glinting on its snow-capped peaks. Beautiful. The road passes through the historic and dramatic Tembi Gorge Cut by the Pinios River between Mt. Olympus and Mt. Ossa. Throughout history the valley has been a pathway into Greece for merchants and invaders, from the Persian King Xerxes in 480BC to the Germans in WWII. It really is the only sensible way through the mountains here and they’re still building extensive tunnels and new stretches of road, hence the need for the tolls I suppose.
We stay on the outskirts of Volos before heading into town in search of a walking map. The Pelion Peninsula, just to the south, is renowned for it’s walking, much of it on traditional cobbled donkey tracks – sounds interesting. Volos is a busy industrial city and port. It’s the first real / normal place we’ve been in for some time. There’s plenty of fashionable clothes and shoe shops and no real sign of the poverty and economic problems we’ve heard about.
‘The Economic crisis has exacerbated Greece’s chronic youth unemployment problem, which in 2011 was close to 40% for 16-24yr olds and 22.3% for 25-34yr olds. The average net monthly salary for graduates was only 700euro in 2011, it’s probably less now.
Poverty and Joblessness certainly hasn’t been that obvious to us so far in Greece. We wonder how much this has got to do with the Greek family dynamics and their ideas on shared property. Admittedly, it’s only what we’ve read, but it seems traditional that the kids don’t leave home until they get married. For the men anyway, this is often not till mid 30’s or later. Whilst living at home they are saving up for their future married life. Greeks traditionally have huge weddings including the whole town. 500 or even up to 2000 guests is not unusual. As a guest at a Greek wedding, you are expected to give a gift of at least 50euro for every person in your family that is attending. Even if the newlyweds are paying for the food, which usually they are not (that’s likely on Mum and Dad’s bill too), it’s easy to see that you could start your married life with a large sum of money. It is also not unusual for gifts of a small house or land to be made by parents or close family (usually bought/already owned by the parents or sometimes an extra storey is built on the family house). As more kids come along and they begin to need a bigger place, it’s then time for a swap; The ‘oldies’ move into the smaller place and the young family takes over the bigger place. Childcare is, of course, generally free too, since no one moves very far, Grandma and Granddad are usually on hand. And as the Grandparents begin to need someone to care for them, they may move back into the big place with their son / daughter-in-law, thus freeing up the small place for the next generation of kids. There may be more than a couple of properties involved in this chain. If you add to this the fact that nearly everyone seems to own a patch of land in the country, perhaps with some olive and fruit trees and often a holiday house for the summer, you see that there is potential for the same few properties to stay in the family for generations with no-one needing to buy them. The land, of course, is also an important part of the equation, because this also provides much of your basic foods or at least an income, from produce sales.
It sounds a bit too good to be true, and obviously some other income is needed, but it seems clear that this sort of system could potentially save a lot of costs and could mask the effects of the true economic situation for at least a couple of generations.
We decide to stay at a campsite for a few days. Extravagant, but we’re in serious need of a washing machine and have yet to spot a launderette in Greece. ‘Camping Hellas’ is in a beautiful sheltered spot next to the village of Ano Gatzea, and we get the perfect pitch under olive and palm trees only a few paces from the beach.
The campsite remains open all year, but there is only one other van there initially (2 more arrive before we leave). As we sit by the edge of a mirror-like sea on the first night there, our ‘neighbour’ Lilli wanders over with some self-made blackcurrant wine and 3 glasses. She’s German and speaks perfect English. We chat and watch the sun set before we all retreat inside Heidi as the temperature plummets.
Lilli has spent years travelling and she’s got many stories to tell. She’s been all over Africa. She’s done Germany to Cape Town and back 4! times. She’s also been to Australia and covered lots of Europe. She’s now divorced and learning to do things on her own. She’s recently managed to bash up her van pretty badly, breaking a roof box and virtually ripping the roof rack off, and is scared to drive more than very slowly in case bits fall off! The perils of following a sat-nav on tiny Greek roads under olive trees! We take note; Heidi is bigger than her van. Peter promises to take a look in the morning and see what he can do.
I spend most of the next day trying to repair bits of Lilli’s van (did I mention her door was hanging off, missing a hinge and the ladder up the back was also badly twisted). With my limited tools, I didn’t manage to do much, but hopefully I made it safe by tying bits of broken roof rack to solid anchor points and squirting sealant in some of the gashes to stop the rain coming in. She doesn’t seem overly concerned and jokes that she is “shaping the van to fit her lifestyle”. There followed a late lunch, cooked by Lilli, more of her stories and good company.
Lilli leaves in the morning and we do more washing, struggling to get it dry in the murky weather. It’s bright, but everything looks white and it’d difficult to see where the sea stops and the sky starts. We briefly spot dolphins, close in, in the bay, and a Kingfisher diving just up the beach from us (I didn’t know they fished in salt water), but the islands and mountains that we should be able to see remain veiled in cloud.
The campsite owner is missing, as we get ready to leave and pay our dues. I eventually find him in a shed pouring olive oil from a huge drum into smaller containers. He’s keen to talk about the olives and his oil and the harvest. It was cold-pressed yesterday! They we’re still collecting the olives when we arrived. We buy some from him; the first purchasers of this year’s oil. It’s still opaque and very green. We are instructed NOT to waste it in cooking! It is for salads only, or preferably to have poured over hot crusty toast, not just bread, and sprinkled with oregano and a little salt – Yumm!
Greece, like much of Europe has had a bad summer with plenty of rain and the winter storms have come early (don’t we know it!). They don’t normally harvest until December or January and would normally lay out nets or tarpaulins to catch them, but in most cases it seems people are too late; after the recent winds, half the olives are already on the ground and will go to waste if not collected quickly, with the added difficulty of much more leaves and twigs on the ground as well to sort through. This early pressing, of the mostly still green olives, produces the best quality oil and is normally done on a limited scale. The rest being left to ripen further until they are black, when they produce more oil but of a lesser quality. There certainly seems to be much activity in the olive groves and there is a constant stream of pickup trucks piled high with plastic boxes or sacks of olives heading to the press.
We spend the next week continuing to explore the Pelion Peninsula. The weather is often grey and cloudy obscuring the views, but when the sun comes out – Wow!
‘In mythology The Pelion was inhabited by ‘kentavri’ (centaurs) – half man, half horse creatures, who took delight in drinking wine, deflowering virgins and generally ripping up the countryside. Not all were random reprobates however, one, named Chiron, was supposedly renowned for his skill in medicine’
The Turkish occupation never managed to extend into the central and eastern regions. It’s not hard to see why; the area was, until recently, largely inaccessible. The many villages that cling to the impossibly steep hillsides were only linked by cobbled, steep, winding, donkey paths. As a result, the Greek culture and economy continued to flourish here. Silk and wool were exported to many places in Europe and the Orthodox Church managed to maintain many ‘hidden schools’ (hidden from the disapproving Turks). Like many remote areas in Greece The Pelion became a spawning ground for the ideas that led to the War of Independence. Lonely Planet calls the area ‘a hiking Mecca’.
We drive the ridiculously steep and winding roads; they really have to be seen to be believed! It takes a long time to get anywhere. We visit Makrinista, drive up through a ski area at 1200m and then back down to sea level at Choretto.
We pass through Zagora; the ‘apple capital of Greece’ with plenty of the harvest in evidence in the back of all the pickup trucks and in roadside stalls. The road narrows to ‘Heidi + a few inches’ but we manage to squeeze through. We stop at Agios Ionis down on the coast again for a couple of nights and walk to Damouchari (inaccessible to all but the smallest local cars).
Local lore has it that the name ‘Damouchari’ comes from ‘dos mou hari’ or ‘give me grace’. It was here, in 2008 that parts of Mama Mia! Was filmed. This tiny natural harbour was once the only way out for the produce of the area; brought here by mule train. (there are now a few other modern artificial harbours)
We planned a walk along the coast from here, thinking we’d try out one of the famous mule paths or ‘kalderimia’ in this ‘hiking Mecca’. We didn’t get very far before giving up. They’re rough and steep (1 in 3! In places) and slippy in the damp weather. This one had the added ‘excitement’ of sheer drops to the sea below.
From Agios Ionis we continue down the east coast of the peninsula. Up at the level of what is laughably considered the ‘main road’, we’re in the cloud; it’s cold and damp. We stop and stock up at a small shop in Tsagarada, before continuing south. Eventually the mountains reduce in height a bit. It gets flatter and more open and the roads get wider. Surprisingly, there seems less population here. Maybe it’s just too far away from anywhere? We stop at the idyllic Potistika Beach, then just outside Milina and finally right down the end at Agia Kiriaki.
The weather continues to be pretty iffy. It’s often grey and overcast and we have some days of constant rain. There’s not enough sun to keep our batteries charged with the solar panel and we have to resort to running the engine again. We manage to get out walking though, having learnt to avoid donkey / footpaths and stick to ‘roads’. The majority of roads around here are unsurfaced and in poor condition, especially after all the recent rain, but they’re fine for walking. There’s constant activity in the olive groves and we meet pickup trucks laden with olives and the long sticks they use to bash the branches encouraging the remaining olives to fall. It continues to amaze us where a Greek can get to with a car! Admittedly, most of them are 4x4s, but some people are using ordinary cars with trailers to get to their trees. The roads are regrettably not made for Heidi – she wouldn’t stand a chance! We continue to get lost whilst trying to distinguish the main track from the endless dead-ends that either end in an olive grove or at a gated entrance to someone’s house. Our map reading isn’t bad, but when all roads look the same, most aren’t marked on our map and, of course, there are no signposts… A compass isn’t much help either when you look around you and all you can see are olive trees!
The weather improves whilst we’re at Agia Kiriaki and we can sit out in the sun with just a T-shirt and feel hot in the middle of the day. Not bad for the 17th November!
We drive to the very end of the peninsula through sparse scrubland. There’s nothing there except for a few goats. It’s dry and falls steeply away to the sea. The road ends abruptly at a tiny beach opposite the even more remote island of Paleo Trikeri. There’s barely room for us to turn round. Other than a closed taverna and a sign with a telephone number to call if you want to get to the island there’s nothing there, so we retrace our steps and head to what we assume is the main town of Trikeri a’top the hill. Trikeri feels very dead with everything shut up and a lot of the buildings in a poor state of repair – maybe it’s just too isolated here? It probably doesn’t help that it’s siesta time, though I doubt that there are many people living up here. Siesta-ing all afternoon seems fine and sensible in the summer heat, but rather an odd habit during the winter months when it’s getting dark and cold at 5pm and by the time you’re heading out for a coffee or to do your shopping you’ve missed what little daylight there is.
So it’s back down to our spot down at Agia Kariaki for the evening’s ‘entertainment’…
We think we’ve ‘done’ Pelion for now. Maybe we’ll be back when the weather’s likely to be more reliable and there’s more people about? Tomorrow it’s time to hit the road south again…