‘Flowers of The Mani’ – slideshow:
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We’d spent half of January, all of February, and the first few days of March around Nafplio and the ‘prefecture’ (area) of Argolida. (see our previous post: ‘Adventures in Argolida’)
March began with several warm, sunny days in a row. As I look back at our diary / logbook, I’m reading comments like: “sat out in the sun for morning coffee watching dolphins playing in the bay”, “got sunburnt” and “warm overnight – no heating needed”. We even went swimming. Was Spring finally here we asked ourselves?
We decided it was about time to move on and explore somewhere different, so on Wednesday 4th March, we’re on the road by 9am (early for us) and soon round the top of Nafplio Bay, past Argos, and taking the road down the other side towards Astros. From Astros we take the ridiculously steep, ‘hairpinny’, mountain road up, up, UP into the mountains with great views back down to the sea. As the road twists and turns, we pass isolated villages with no one about, reaching Aghios Petros at around 1000m. It looks rather out-of-place in this harsh landscape, clinging to the side of the mountain. It reminds us of the Welsh mountain villages; not the buildings, but the incongruousness, of its location. It’s cold and damp as we pass the empty square with it’s obliguitory masses of chairs and tables complete with tablecloths; just why the Greeks leave them out all winter in the rain and wind when no one is using them, we have yet to discover. We continue on up to a pass at just over 1200m. Interestingly, the trees increase as you go higher here, especially on north facing slopes. We pass through evergreen pine trees and then into, currently bare, deciduous woodlands. It seems very odd at this height! As we descend, it’s back to sparse scrub and bare rock – too hot for many trees in summer, we assume.
Eventually we join the main north-south road, heading south towards Sparti. We continue on down to Lakonikos Bay and then further south, down the Lakonian Peninsula. We stop for the night at Piltra (Xilis Bay). At this time of year, it’s virtually deserted, but they’ve obviously got big plans here. There’s new roads laid out and they’re even putting in ‘propper’ drainage everywhere! Several of the old stone buildings have been done up, and unusually, it looks as if there’s some kind of plan – we speculate that the whole place has probably been bought up by some private company – we’ve not seen this sort of thing in Greece to date. We park along from a beautiful stretch of sandy beach, on a new bit of road and ‘prom’ with marked parking places, but the grey clouds are looming again and the wind is getting fierce, so we soon move under some huge plane trees looking for some shelter.
The jack-hammers and diggers start on the roads again in the morning – time to move on! It’s a grey, blustery day as we head south. It’s a very different landscape than we’ve seen recently; much sparser development, and looking all the more attractive for it. We hug the windswept coast, where we can, along tiny roads. It would be worth a longer linger if the weather ever improves again; we had four days of sunshine in a row – was that it? We head inland for a bit, successfully avoiding the many dirt roads and pass through the usual oranges and olives (and immigrant labour) and then back towards the coast at Aghios Georgios and Pounta; the ferry landing across from the island of Elafonisos. There’s a nice sandy beach here and an area of dunes behind. There’s regular ferries throughout the day. The wind is getting wild. The choice is the small passenger / fishing boat being thrown about in the waves like a bit of driftwood, or the larger and more stable car ferry that you have to board at speed as the ramp scrapes across the jetty, never coming to a stop, before the ferry departs again. We choose neither and hope that Heidi is digging her fingers into the sand and hanging on!
It’s still blowing hard in the morning, but we’re still here! It’s into Neopolis for some shopping along the sand-strewn front, before heading back the way we’ve come looking for shelter. We find it, to some extent, and park on a grassy point overlooking the sea and the village of Archangelos. Archangelos is an attractive little place but virtually dead at this time of year. One taverna shows signs of life, but we suspect it’s just the family eating. The rest, and all the holiday apartments, are shut up and empty. We stayed in Archangelos for 3 days. We walked and cycled along this attractive and deserted section of coast and appreciated the abundance of wild flowers just beginning to bloom. One morning whilst out walking, I was stopped by a little old man in a big black ‘mafia-like’ Mercedes. He gruffly asked “where you from?”, “tourist?”, “you like Greece?”. Luckily it was a beautiful morning, and he seemed happy with my response of “ne, auria” (yes, beautiful/wonderful). “Today it is very cold in England” he said. I had to laugh, it was so obviously a ‘stock’ leant phrase – it may well have been true, and it was nice of him to make the effort. He continued with “Politik in Greece; Crap, Many crooks” before shaking his head and driving off. I wondered how he’d come by the Merc? It looked totally out-of-place in an area where most people drive beaten up, ancient pick-up trucks piled high with various farming paraphernalia.
By the 9th of March, the wind had moved round to the north and we were no longer sheltered. Heidi had been rockin’ and rollin’ all night and the wind was screaming through the vents driving Elaine nuts. We head over to the east coast via sparse rocky countryside with occasional patches of olives and pomegranate trees. The villages; Talandra, Aghios Dhimitrios, Velies, are small and shabby looking with few people about. Living off the land, as most do around here, isn’t easy. We reach the sea again and head north for a bit, stopping at the very sheltered bay / lagoon at Limani Gheraka, where we park next to Barry and Margaret (www.magbaztravels.com) who we’d met at Camping Finikes over Christmas. We catch up on each others travels and they give us a big bag of oranges, collected whilst at a campsite near Sparti, before they hit the road again; heading north. Nice oranges! Thanks. On their recommendation, we follow a signed walk from here up to an acropolis and back through the tiny, deserted village. It’s grey and drizzly, but the wild flowers are stunning and no doubt the view would be too – if we could see it!
We wake to a sunny and much calmer day, and head back south a bit, stopping at a long stretch of sandy beach (Paleas Monemvasia Bay) for the day whilst I investigate our ailing water system. There’s a valve that’s supposed to release the water from the boiler if it’s in danger of freezing, that keeps dripping – It’s cold, but not that cold! More importantly, the main water pump keeps coming off and dropping into the tank, meaning no water at all from the taps – luckily we carry a couple of 10 litre jerry cans too. There’s a water tap here, meaning I can release all the water, dry off the pump attachments and reconnect them. I then refill everything and re-pressurise and all seems well. At the same time I remove the temperature sensing valve and by-pass it. That’ll have to do until we can get a replacement. It seems a bit over the top anyway – if the water is likely to freeze, then so are we and we will have put the heating on long ago!
It rains hard through the evening and then again for much of the next day. We drive into Monemvasia and park on the island (there’s a causeway). In no time, we hear running water and I discover Heidi is depositing our precious water all over the carpark – Oh Heidi! Back to the drawing board with the water system then. The water pump has come of the end of the pipe again and dropped into the tank. But why is the water pouring out on the ground?? We discover that the anti-freezing valve that I removed yesterday, is also a one way valve stopping the hot water from flowing back into the cold pipes and main tank. If the pump comes off, it let’s air into the system, de-pressurises everything, and the contents of the hot tank (20l) then drains back into the cold tank. And if the cold tank is already full, then that 20litres goes out the overflow pipe onto the ground! Ho hum. I try again to fix the pump in place. The problem is some little plastic part has cracked and snapped off. I modify it and add an extra jubilee clamp. So far (I’m writing this 3 weeks later) it has stayed in place.
The rain has eased by evening and we walk into the old Medieval town – wow! We follow the tiny twisting passages and stairways. Much restoration has been done and much is still going on. Apparently there are only 6 or 7 permanent residents here now and a lot of the old houses seem to have been turned into fancy hotel rooms and apartments, mostly owned by a single company. Shame. It has however all been done ‘properly’ in traditional styles using natural coloured pigments rather than paint. The castle / fortress up on top of the rock is closed for restoration and apparently has been for years. We visit again when the sun finally decides to show itself again in the morning. Some of the touristy shops are now open. The many cats are lazing in the sun outside the tavernas and donkeys! pass by laden with building rubble – there is no vehicle access.
More on Monemvasia here: http://www.monemvasia.com/
We explore the other way – the modern town on the mainland. It’s a busy ‘real’ place with lots of locals about as well as several coach-loads of visitors. What must it be like in season? We find a couple of good veg shops with much more of a selection available than we’ve seen of late. Then it’s lunch time; ‘gyros pita’ it is then. They’re only 2euro (so they must be small – right?), so we order two each. Mistake; they’re just excellent value. One would have done, and we feel overly stuffed for the rest of the day.
Later, we drive south and follow the road to it’s end at the tiny settlement of Aghios Fokas. It’s a wild and rugged coast along here with little development and several small beaches. There’s a footpath only from here heading south. The weather deteriorates again and soon it’s blowing a gale and raining hard. Heidi is rocking about and we fear our parking spot will turn into a muddy puddle. We move and find shelter in the nearby ‘congress centre’ carpark. It’s closed and appears to be used for only a few months in the summer – ideal, if not quite so picturesque as down by the coast. The weather continues to be appalling. We stay for three days and the rain rarely stops. Roast dinners, reading and video watching – and running the engine to charge the batteries! for an hour a day.
Finally the sun comes out again and we drive up and over the hills via Kalives, Lira, Eliniko and Pandanasa… The roads, as usual, are small and windy, and very narrow through the villages. There’s quite a few signposted walking routes in this area (more info. Monemvasia Hiking Trails / routes?) They tend to be long and often steep, following the pre-road routes from village to village. With our degree of fitness they are not that appealing and there’s little possibility of a circular route. We join the coast road to Neopolis and continue on, winding through the hills, through Aghios Nikolaos (a mistake to go through the centre – it’s very narrow with tight corners but we make it) and on to the tiny Aghia Marina Church. The last two kilometres are on a dirt road; reasonable most of the way, but deteriorating and narrow towards the end. So wish we had 4×4 and greater ground clearance to get to these out-of-the-way spots. The excuse for this intrepid adventure was that we were following signs to a ‘petrified forrest’. With little information, we set off in the wrong direction and spend a couple of hours wandering along this beautiful, wild stretch of coastline. After a bit of searching we find our own bits of petrified trees, and later the bit that we were supposed to be looking for. There’s not that much to see really. Not sure what we expected; interesting, but it certainly wasn’t a ‘forest’. It’s been a beautiful sunny day, feeling quite Spring-like for a change. We check out the tiny fishing village of Profitas Ilias and then return the way we’ve come and end up at Boza Beach just in time to watch the sun setting. It feels like we’ve done a lot of driving today, but we’ve only done 135km – you don’t get anywhere fast on these roads.
Boza Beach was a good spot. We stayed for four nights and could easily have stayed longer. At this time of year, during the week the place is deserted and being at the end of the road, a good way from town, it was very quiet and peaceful. We walk the tracks leading through the fields of olives and oranges, enjoy the view across to the snowy mountains above Gythio on the far side of the bay and get several buckets of washing done. However the taverna, that we had assumed closed, opens at the weekend and our empty carpark suddenly gets surprisingly busy. We join the locals for Sunday lunch. The place is packed out inside (it’s still really too cold for sitting out). We have lamb chops, a rarity on menus we’ve seen so far, salad and chips. All very good and good value. We eat too much as usual. Shame there’s no Stifado (a traditional Greek stew) or Mousaka. It seems these traditional dishes are invariably ‘off’ even though they’re on the menu. Maybe they’re not that popular or perhaps too much effort?
We’re somewhat reluctant to move, but there’s beginning to be a bit of a schedule – so much to see and do before we need to be back in the UK (mid June). We drive round the top of the bay towards Gythio, passing through a flat, orange growing area. As with anywhere flat and relatively easily accessible around here, it’s become commercialised by increasingly larger and larger companys. We pass the, perhaps not so temporary, homes of the immigrant labour force and their families, ranging from plastic covered shelters, to tatty caravans, to reasonable looking concrete houses. As usual, it is they that we see loading the oranges from the tractor trailers to the bigger trucks and the Greeks who stand around their pick-up trucks doing the deals and the paperwork. Rumour has it that these large-scale corporations, using cheap labour, are increasingly undercutting the small traditional farmers so much that it’s hardly worth their while picking their oranges anymore. We wonder who the ‘winners’ are in this situation.
We pass Selinitsa Beach (the one with the famous Dimitreos shipwreck) and stop for the obligatory photo. It’s been here since 1981 and, whether intentionally or not?, was allowed to wash up here after its temporary anchor failed in a storm. It had spent some time in Gythio harbour, rumoured to be unsafe and in financial difficulties with a history of smuggling. It’s also this beach that the ,almost extinct, Caretta-caretta sea-turtles come to lay their eggs in summer – shame we’re too early. We continue on to Gythio where we find an ideal parking spot, next to the Mani Museum, on the Kranai Islet (reached by a narrow! causeway). The Museum is unfortunately closed, reminding us yet again, of the short tourist season in Greece.
We stay ‘on our island’ for a total of 5 nights. Ok, so it’s not all ours, we share it with a couple of French ‘hippy type’ vans, complete with the usual dogs, baby, dreadlocks and juggling as a past-time. They’re friendly and wave and keep their dogs under better control than a lot of the locals. I really fancy the big Merc. Vario van with the horsebox type back on it – but would we need their ‘image’? Not sure it suits us!? Also staying there is Mike ( http://www.vandogtraveller.com ) and his girlfriend Marti, who I’d come across online. I recognised the van and we went to say hello. He’s an interesting character, an electrical engineer, who like us realised there must be an alternative to the rat race. His van is self converted and he’s on a very limited budget – a reminder that anybody can live this life. He’s in the process of writing an e-book about van conversion, hoping that it will help fund his onward travels – Good luck Mike – and put me down for a copy when you’re done.
The weather is very mixed. We have rain most days. We wander around town. It seems pretty shabby and down at heel for the most part, but it’s a busy ‘real’ place with a good market that we use for a major stock up on Friday. We eat out again on Sunday, enjoying the local squid, and then sit outside for a coffee and discover we very much like the sound of the Bouzouki (live music from our closest taverna).
On Monday 23rd March, we drive south to ‘the Deep Mani’. It’s a wild and desolate place with numerous tower / fortress villages. The inhabitants of old were reputedly a wild bunch too, renowned for their fierce independence, resentment of any attempts to govern them and for bitter, spectacularly murderous internal feuds – hence all the towers. Their formidable reputation meant that would-be occupiers generally left them alone. Like the Pelion, the invading Turks never got this far. The isolated mountain strongholds are mostly uninhabited these days but some, especially those at lower levels, are being increasingly restored as holiday accommodation. There are few places for us to stop in this region and little access to the coast. Most of the few mountain roads are definitely not Heidi friendly. The rain doesn’t quite reach us but it’s dark and foreboding adding to the mystery and isolated feeling of the place.
Having found no particularly attractive alternative, we stop at ‘the end of the world’, as far south as you can drive in mainland (if the Peloponnese counts as mainland) Greece. We walk the final 2km, to the lighthouse at Cape Tainaron, across barren rocky hillsides, above crashing seas. It’s overcast but warm and there’s wild flowers everywhere. We are surprised to discover that here at 36.4 degrees of latitude we are further south than Tunis and Algiers. Back near where we are parked, there’s the remnants left by the various past inhabitants. The carpark is above a temple to Posiedon, or rather it’s location – all that remains now is the ruins of an old church that obviously used odd bits of the old temple in it’s construction. There’s also part of a mosaic floor, numerous water cisterns and channels carved out of the rock to catch the rain (there’s no natural springs around here), and lots of stone walling. In the morning we go looking for ‘The Gates of Hades’. Supposedly the cave down on the beach is ‘the entrance to the underworld’ – unlikely we think; it’s a very shallow cave even if you take into account that part of the roof has collapsed.
What started as a bright sunny morning, turns into a grey and blustery day as we head north up the west coast, passing the typical tower village of Vathia. The wind steadily increases, but we’ve decided on a walk, even if it feels difficult just to stand up at times! We head slightly inland from Gherolimenas, to Ano Boulari, where we leave Heidi, before setting out on foot for the steep climb up through the village and then on into the mountains towards the mountain villages of Pepon and Leontakis. It’s an ancient, paved mule track, typical of around here and until relatively recently the only way to get about. It’s overgrown and very uneven. Progress is slow, and as the dark clouds begin to descend, we decide that heading higher when we’re already being blown off our feet in the wild gusts is probably not a good idea. We’re down in the bottom of a gully as it is and the majority of the wind is coming from the other side of the peninsula – it gets everywhere here; something the Mani is famous for. Arriving back at Heidi, just before ‘Big Rain!’, we retreat back down to Gherolimenas and find some shelter in the small car / boat park there. It’s a wild, wet and windy night and I put jacks under the back corners to stop us rocking about so much.
We continue up the coast during the next several wet, windy days. I continue to try and stabilise the van when we’re parked up, using the bottle jacks, but at times the gusts are strong enough to collapse them! As we attempt to shelter under a cliff at Dhiros beach, we watch a Kesterel struggling to keep control and eventually land on a rock right in front of our window. There are various migratory birds too – ‘blown in’ with the storm. A Black Winged Stilt and an Egret just stand there and stumble about a bit; dazed after their trip from North Africa. I don’t suppose they had much choice in their first landing on this side!
We get to Stoupa on the 26th of March and find some shelter in carpark next to the church and the schools. We also did a quick tour of the town, narrowly avoiding getting stuck between parked cars, whilst trying to negotiate the one way system in reverse – not a recommended experience. We did wonder why all the parked cars were facing the other way. It continues to rain; lots! Our attempt at going out to find some advertised live music, results in us getting very wet and discovering the venue shut. Shame, Stoupa looks like a nice little place and is apparently very popular with the expats.
Finally we have a fine day, and we get the bikes out and try out the smooth concrete bike path (Wow! a real rarity) to Ag. Nikolaos and then follow the small coast road to it’s end at Trachila, an attractive little harbour village with many more of the largish, shuttered, stone built, Venetian style houses than you’d expect for the size of the place. They’re mostly in good shape and we assume they’re mainly holiday homes. It’s certainly very quiet at the moment. There’s also no fishing boats in the tiny harbour, though it was obviously once a thriving community. We return to Ag. Nikolaos, which is much busier. Everybody is cleaning, painting and repairing, ready for the season. We stop for lunch at a waterside table with our name on it; the swirling sea in the harbour only just not reaching our feet. We enjoy squid, salad and ‘black beans with spinach’ (finally some of the more traditional dishes are available). All very good, washed down with a couple of glasses of wine. Back at the van, in the afternoon, there’s a knock on the door: “Yasas (hello, hi, general universal greeting – also when you leave), You like?”. A local lady proceeds to present us with 6 huge eggs that she carefully takes from a carrier bag and places on our step. “Effaristo poli” (thankyou very much). Not many ‘food miles’ on them!
We’re in Stoupa four days before continuing towards Kalamata. We shop and get auto-gas and spend a couple of days on the beach near Analipsi. It’s warm, even hot at times and we swim and lie back lapping up the rays – is the weather finally settling down? It seems we’ve had more than our fair share of wind and rain again this month!