A bit of experimenting with style for Blog 17 – tell us what you think. You can click on the pictures to see full size versions …or is it better with the big pictures dividing up the text as previously?
We left Camping Finikes on the far South West of the Peloponnese on the 5th Jan 2015 and drove inland, following small winding roads, through isolated villages, and dropped down from the hills to Petralidi Harbour.
There’s a biting cold wind, but the views across to the snow-capped mountains of ‘The Mani’ are magnificent. We take a brief walk into town and once again take out more euros than we really need, just in case things ‘get interesting’ after the January 25th elections, before beating a hasty retreat, quickly installing Heidi’s insulated windscreen cover and turning the heating up. It’s COLD!
On the 6th Jan we’re woken by NOISY church bells – Good job they stop at night and we’re parked quite a distance away. It’s teeth chatteringly cold outside! It must have been down to freezing over night. It’s colder in the cupboards than in the fridge. It’s a beautiful, clear, sunny day though, as we watch the fishing boats heading out. Just before 11, a crowd begins to form at the water’s edge, over by the church and we head over to see what’s happening..
There’s now a large crowd of people surrounding the priest in his turquoise and gold robes; it’s a wonder he doesn’t end up in the water. From a distance we see a small wooden cross being thrown into the water on the end of a long length of white ribbon. It’s repeated, and on the third throw (presumably that was ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’), three young lads (oops, showing my age there!), dive in and race to retrieve it, wearing nothing but swimming trunks. Everybody else is wrapped up in multiple layers, coats, hats and scarves. Are they nuts! It’s absolutely freezing!! A big cheer goes up as the first hand makes contact and it’s returned safely to the priest. The excitement is quickly over and people disperse, but not before they’ve stopped to talk to the priest and, of course, kiss the carved cross hanging from his neck. We sit in the sunny square for a bit, watching as people file by and collect bottles of water from a big tank with lots of small taps on it, set up outside the church.
On the 6th of January, the Roman Catholics and the Protestants celebrate ‘Epthany’; the visit of the 3 kings / wise men, whereas the Greek Orthodox church marks the end of the 12 days of Christmas with the celebration of Theophany – the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist and the beginning of his ministry. (Mathew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11). It is considered a more important day than Christmas here. The water that we saw being collected from outside the church is specially blessed by the priest and represents the baptismal waters of the Jordan River.
It’s too cold to linger long and we retreat back to the van, hot drinks and a book for the rest of the day.
We wake to another stunningly sunny, clear day but Sooo cold! It’s 3! degrees C at 8am. After a bracing walk into the square to get some warm bread from one of the many bakers (must get into the towns early more often; it’s definitely when it all happens), we head for Kalamata and find a good parking spot by a tennis centre on the coast.
From here it’s a walk of a couple of kms into the old town, via the docks and the old railway. As with much of the rail system in Greece, it hasn’t been used for years. This one has become a long, thin park of sorts. Several of the old trains and the station are still there, and there’s been some attempt in the past to turn the turntables (this was the end of the line) into ponds and water-features. It’s all in a sorry state now. Presumably, there’s no money for park maintenance either. Kalamata seemed rather ordinary, a bit run-down and tatty with many abandoned buildings. A lot of damage was done in an earthquake in 1989.
On Thursday 8th January, we decide it’s been clear and sunny enough for a few days now to attempt the drive up and over the pass (1326m), through the Taygetos Mountains, towards Sparti.
At 750m the ground is pretty much covered by snow and it gets gradually thicker as we continue to climb. Thankfully the road has been cleared and gritted. With front wheel drive and rather too much weight for her little wheels, Heidi really doesn’t do ice and snow! The way down is through the dramatic Langada Gorge with overhanging rocks and tunnels, and lots of big icicles – in danger of being knocked off by Heidi’s roof box. I don’t think a falling icicle is going to do the solar panel any good if it takes a direct hit!
We stopped at Ancient Mystras and visited the ruins of this extensive, fortified Byzantine town, clinging to the side of the hill; yet another really impressive site. There’s lot’s still intact, and churches with ancient frescoes, monasteries and palaces, have been, or are being, restored.
One of the ex- monasteries is now a convent and is the only place still inhabited; from a distance, we spot a black clad nun leading a donkey up the steep winding tracks. It’s a beautifully crisp, clear day, with far-reaching views across the plains of olives and oranges which surround Sparti, to the next set of snow-covered mountains in the distance. There’s snow and ice underfoot, even here, in the shady corners; wish I’d worn my woolly hat! The sun disappears early in the winter on this east facing slope. By 4pm we’re back in the van, thermal screens in place and heating on. Another freezing night is promised.
Mystras Castle was founded in 1249 by the Frankish Ruler William II de Villehardouin. In 1262, the castle was surrendered to the Byzantines and the fortified city of Mystras gradually emerged around it. It continued to grow and thrive under the Byzantine Despots; the general population engaged in the production of silkworms and the cultivation of olives, vines, citrus fruit and tobacco; much of it exported to Western Europe. Libraries, centres of learning and schools of philosophy were also established. The last Despot, Demetrios Palaiologos, surrendered it to the Turks in 1460. It remained one of the regions most important cities and became the seat of an Ottaman administrative district. Mystras’ decline began in 1770, when it was devastated by the Albanians during the suppression of the widespread Orlov revolutionary movement and in 1834, King Othon founded the modern city of Sparta and most of the inhabitants of Mystras moved to the new city. The last inhabitants, apart from a few nuns at the convent, left in 1953.
The next day we stop in central Sparta to visit ‘The Museum of the Olive’ http://www.piop.gr/en/MuseumNetwork/MouseioEliasKaiEllinikouLadiou/ToMouseio.aspx which is very good and as usual with museums, contains almost too much information. There’s working models of mills and various antique presses. All very informative.
Olives have been cultivated in Greece for centuries and their oil dominated all aspects of culture in ancient times. It was, and to a large extent still is, used as a food and food preservative, a lamp fuel, and in cosmetics. It was smeared over the athletes of old before any contest and tonnes of it was often the prize for the winner. It is used in all kinds of rituals and religious practices and still lights the lamps in all the many churches and roadside shrines. It’s the major ingredient in traditional soap (4 parts oil, 4 parts water, 1 part caustic potash = soap).
Olives, once collected (a long and laborious process as we have witnessed), are first crushed to separate the flesh from the stone, then, the flesh is pressed to separate the oil. It is initially thick and cloudy and takes approximately 40 days to fully settle and become clear. Nothing is wasted. The stones are used as a fuel and as animal fodder, and to a large extent ground to produce inferior oil – suitable for frying and used in soap manufacture.
Leaving Sparta and heading east, we travel across flat open plains with sparse vegetation and a few scattered farms, later giving way to new plantations of olives, before heading up and over another high mountain pass.
It’s the only road through these steep, rugged mountains. Again, the snow starts at around 700m and the road quickly reduces to a single car width with banks of snow each side. There are NO passing places suitable for us. Good job there’s no one coming down the other way! The top is 1195m, followed, only slightly lower, by the village of Kosmos, looking very iced up, even in the middle of the day. There are still hundreds of tables set out in the snow-covered square. It’s going to be a long time before people are using them! We continue to follow the incredibly twisty road down into the impressive gorge on the other side and stop beneath a monastery (Panayia Elona Monastery) hanging precariously to the cliff edge above. It’s a stunning spot, under towering rock faces.
There’s no wind and it’s virtually silent other than the occasional squawk from a raven or the sound of rock-falls; no doubt set off by the foolhardy goats that teeter on the ledges above. The riverbed, below, is dry at this time of year, and on the opposite bank I find an old path leading up towards the monastery. I get about 2/3rds of the way up before turning back as it’s getting dark. There’s virtually no traffic on the road, and at night, none. We’re blessed with a blanket of stars, the only light is from the monastery far above. We’re woken at 8am by the sound of bells, followed by a full hour of singing and chanting echoing off the cliffs from above – magical. We sit out in the sun, reading and listening to the birds twittering, under a cloudless blue sky for much of the day, until the sun disappears behind the mountains. A beautiful place; it’s not hard to see why the monks chose it! We loiter for most of the following day too, before heading onwards, through more wild mountain scenery, down the valley to Leonido.
Leonido is in an amazing spot, surrounded by high, almost vertical, orange/brown cliff faces looking spectacular with the setting sun on them.
We continue on through and find a layby on the coast road between Plaka and Poulithra. It’s initially warm and sunny, but in no time a storm rolls in and we retreat back to Plaka and find some shelter behind a taverna near the coast-guard station for the night.
In the morning it’s still blowing a ‘hooly’ outside, and we retreat further inland back to Leonido. We liked Leonido; a bustling town with plenty of shops of all kinds and steep, narrow back streets populated by kamikaze moped drivers. It doesn’t matter what age you are here, you can still drive a moped, one-handed, whilst carrying bags of shopping, AND talking on the phone. It’s not uncommon to see the whole family on one of these, often ancient, machines! We stumbled across a traditional bakers using a wood fired oven in one of the back streets – shame we’d just bought bread elsewhere. It was in Leonido that Peter finally plucked up courage to get a haircut; no problem in the end with the amount of English spoken by virtually everybody here.
Now that the inclement weather has passed, we head back to the coast and spend a couple of nights by the harbour at Poulithra.
On a beautifully blue, sunny day, we walk from here, along the coast to the next bay, which is virtually deserted apart from a few olive harvesters and a lone fisherman by the isolated church. We return, via a small road, slightly inland. It’s hot in the sunshine as we stop and drink plenty of water and appreciate the stillness. There’s little development here, and it probably isn’t too much different in summer.
Back at Heidi, we sit out reading, slowly moving with the sun, to the end of the harbour quay. There are very few people about here, but a couple of locals working on the boats, smile and wave hello. It’s always nice to be welcomed!
Even with the solar panel and the sunny days, we’ve got battery problems again; as we turn up the heating in the morning (electric fan blower). We can’t have the capacity we thought we had. Surely the batteries haven’t deteriorated that much since we bought them? Time to do some driving.
We drive north, following the coast road, appreciating the views round every bend; there are a lot of bends! We stop at Paralia Tirou for some bread, and then at Paralio Astros for lunch. Astros / Paralio Astros is a big place, that deserves a bit more time. It’s flat, and would be a good place to explore by bike. We’re on a bit of a schedule though (heading for Napflio to meet Elaine’s sister Clare) so it’ll have to wait ‘till another time. We continue up the coast and spend the night at Kiveri in a perfect spot right on the beach. The weather stays calm and sunny and we give the over-cab bed an airing ready for our visitor, whilst we sit out in the sun reading and making use of some excellent free wifi, before continuing on to Napflio to meet Clare off the bus from Athens..