Tag Archives: Wild Camping

Voyage to Venice (and beyond!)

(hover over the pictures to see captions, or click on the first one of each set to scan through them in full size)

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On the morning of the 9th of May, at 0530! We’re waiting in the dark on an empty Igoumenutsa dockyard for the ferry to Venice..

Soon a couple more hopefuls turn up and by 0630 the ferry is here. It starts it’s journey at Patra (North West Peloponnese), where it seems, the majority of people get on. With a bit of manoeuvering, we’re in our spot on the ‘open deck’, and plugged in to free onboard electrics. Glad I’m not driving the artic’s that will have to reverse back down the ramp, with mm to spare, when we disembark! The weather’s fine and it’s a smooth crossing. We find we can sit in a patch of sun on the car deck and stay out of the wind and away from the smell of diesel and fried food on the upper decks. It’s certainly a very effortless way to cover around 500 miles (and the overland distance is a whole lot more). Every now and then we check our position via a mapping app. on my phone – the captain seems to know where he’s going J

It’s a beautiful calm and sunny morning as we arrive in Venice. They’ve recently changed the route in and unfortunately we no longer go anywhere near the old city. It’s just visible in the distance beyond the miles of fish traps and lagoons.

As we leave the ferry terminal, we immediately notice how busy everything seems …and organised – there’s road markings: bus lanes, bike lanes, and signs and parking meters. We’re definitely not in Greece anymore! We head out onto one of the thin strips of land that form the final barrier to the sea here and manage to find some free parking (there’s very little of it!) at Punto Sabioni. It’s all madly busy compared to what we’ve got used to. There are loads of huge campsites and bungalow parks here, and importantly a ‘vaporetto’ stop (the water busses that take you to the various islands of Venice). Having shelled out a fortune on tickets for the next 3 days (2 x 40eu + 3eu for a map), we find a spot by the river/canal and read and watch the many! boats go by for the afternoon.

We spend the next few days exploring Venice and the surrounding islands. It’s an amazing place and unfortunately, SO busy. luckily you can see a lot from the vaporetto, and we make good use of our ‘go anywhere’ tickets. It’s also VERY expensive – we payed 24eu each for a multi museum pass. They last for 6 months, so would be reasonable value if you could make use of them for that time – but then you’d need to keep shelling out for the water busses. We visited the famous Doge’s Palace, the Correr Museum and Mocenigo’s Palace – All housing hugely impressive paintings, sculptures and other works of art; the importance and significance of which, being mostly lost on us. The majority of the paintings are allegorical and unless you understand ‘what’s going on’, they all become a bit ‘samey’. You really need to be a bit of an expert. We’d been warned not to buy anything to eat or drink in, or near, St, Mark’s square, but were still charged 9 euro! for 2 coffees in an apparently insignificant spot – argh!

We enjoyed wandering the tiny back streets. We discovered the market (the fish section was particularly impressive) and we even managed pizza and wine in a quiet square without completely breaking the bank.

We popped into several of the old churches and joined the other queuing hordes for St. Mark’s Cathedral. The ceilings in St. Marks are all done in tiny mosaics with a propensity of gold, but although they are probably more unique, after the highly painted Orthodox churches of Greece and Eastern Europe, we found it rather disappointing after all the hype.

A day on the island of Burano, with it’s brightly painted houses was a nice change from the hubbub of the main city. We had lunch out here too – being surrounded by lagoons full of fish; fish and shell-fish are specialities. Here we also discovered a restored walled garden, planted with flowers and vegetables and vines, as it would have been when these islanders were self-sufficent. I’m surprised they didn’t struggle for fresh water in the middle of a salt-water lagoon.

We spent a few, rather more relaxing, days based near Punto Sabioni, finding some free, allocated motorhome parking (surprisingly along the road outside a campsite) and later a beach carpark with no parking restrictions. The area is completely flat with many marked cycling routes and we explored more on the bikes in the warm wind. It reminds us a lot of Holland, with fields divided by canals and quite a bit of ‘reclaimed’ land; below sea level. It was quiet and peaceful as we headed out along dykes into ‘lagoon land’; home to lots of wading birds.

On Saturday 16th of May, we head off towards Lago di Garda (Lake Garda). It’s very busy on the roads and we pass seemingly endless industry and huge shops, interspersed with some agriculture. Roundabout follows roundabout on badly surfaced roads (we’re avoiding the motorway tolls). Traffic flow seems fast; it’s a rough ride for Heidi. We comment on the neatly clipped verges, trees cut back from the road and relatively fresh road markings. Again; it’s not Greece! We stop for water and a loo empty at Soave, home of the wine, at an official ‘sosta’ (like the French ‘aires’), before continuing to another one right on Lake Garda. There are free motorhome services here too, but they’re charging 15euro! to park for 24hrs and it’s packed. So is everywhere here. The many campsites seem full too. We stay at Garda for a couple of days, discovering a small free carpark 10 mins walk from the lake front on our second night. It’s a lovely spot, and we enjoy swimming in the lake and wandering along the lakeside path between Garda and Bardolino, bringing back memories of 15 years ago when we spent holidays here in a tent, two summers in a row. We decide it’s got overly popular and too busy for our liking now though, and escape to the other (West) side, which is less busy at the moment, before continuing to Lake Iseo to the West.

We continue to be shocked at how built up and busy everywhere is in these parts, and there seem few attractive places for us to stop. There are a lot of tunnels through the mountains, and the sat-nav struggles to determine whether we are above or below ground, more than once asking us to turn off at a roundabout somewhere far above us. The smaller roads really are tiny too, and although they have ‘no lorries’ signs, there are, unhelpfully, no size or weight restrictions. This normally means it’s fine for us, but not around here! With little information, we choose a small car park by a bridge over a river, at Sarezzo, which turns out to be in an industrial estate, for lunch, followed by a lakeside carpark on a point sticking out into the lake at a place called ‘Castro’ at the North end of Lake Iseo; you’d guess an attractive spot with surely a castle, wouldn’t you? No, it’s dominated by heavy industry with no sign of a castle. At 9pm they were still crashing and banging (steel on rock or vice versa, it sounded like). Surely they don’t do it all night, there are a lot of (ugly) flats very close too. We moved to the other side of town and had a relatively quiet night in the harbour / marina carpark, before heading North, up the valley, towards the high Alps.

The weather deteriorates now – that’s the trouble with mountains – and we have heavy rain and there’s a fresh sprinkling of snow at any height. It all comes as a bit of a shock, having got used to the heat. We dig out trousers and socks! and fleeces, and even resort to heating! This was not the plan! We consider the pass above Tirano as our route into Switzerland, but change our mind as the grey clouds descend. Instead, we head West again, towards the top of Lake Como, half way down it’s west side to Menaggio, and West again, on the SS340 to Porlezza at the top of Largo di Lugano. Como looked attractive, but was madly busy on the only road around it’s edge and we saw nowhere for us to pull off and stop, other than directly into a campsite. Porlezza was thankfully quieter, with several car parks and even one without time restrictions – a rarity in these parts! It’s an attractive place with some parkland alongside the lake. We could have easily lingered.

In the morning, we drive a short distance along the lake shore and out of Europe. Switzerland is independent and there is even a manned border post, but they show little interest in us and wave us through. We come to Lugano and stop at a cash point for Swiss Francs. No Euros here. We get 100 of them for about £70. Lugano is packed and busy with lots of blocks of flats, mostly 6 or 7 stories high, but some much higher. It seems here, as with Northern Italy, any remotely flat bit of land is built on. We quickly join the A2 motorway, heading North and over the high mountains. We’re supposed to have a motorway ‘vignette’ (we think?), but have seen no signs to confirm this or any obvious means of obtaining one. We were thinking of driving the San Gottardo Pass, but signs say it’s closed, so the motorway tunnel is the only way to go anyway. The pass is presumably closed due to recent snow – I thought we’d be all right at this time of year. When we emerge on the North side, it’s in to grey, misty cloud and it’s raining – glad we didn’t go over the top, even if it had been open!

We stay on the motorway until Lucerne, where we turn off, hoping to find somewhere to stop. We don’t. Everywhere is far too busy for our liking. It’s grey and damp and the forecast is much the same for the week ahead. We make the decision to keep going, and head for France, where we know there are hundreds of places that welcome campers to stop for free. (Not much use for the Swiss Francs!) Hopefully the weather will be better too, away from the high mountains? Having decided we’ve probably tempted fait too long with our motorway stint, we take a non-motorway route West, towards Basel. It continues to be a nightmarishly busy. We’re shocked, at how built up, highly populated and full of industry and big business Switzerland seems to be. The beautiful old buildings and bright green grass are still there, but it seems, these days, more often than not, they’re surrounded by square grey and white modern boxes. Obviously much of Switzerland is taken up with the high, fairly impenetrable, mountains, and from what we could see, the side roads were very small and steep – not for us (and we’ll give most things a go!). We’ll need to do some more research before we venture back. There must surely be some motorhome friendly places?
Just south of Basel, we turn off, and are quickly into France – instant quietness and ruralness. The Alsace region, covered in rolling fields, attractive farms and villages with colourfully painted, ancient timber frame buildings is very welcome after a couple of weeks of busyness in Northern Italy and Switzerland. We stop at a dedicated ‘aire’, behind the church in the quiet village of Oltingue. There’s a big car park here, complete with 3 large dedicated camper places, surrounded by neatly clipped flower beds. Full services are provided for us. You need to put 2eu in the meter for water, but parking is free. Happy chickens pecking about in the garden next door complete this rural idle. What a difference a border makes! Shame about the 24hr clock chimes, but compared to the, electrically amplified, Greek variety they’re much more bearable.

We stay in Oltingue for 3 nights. Everybody seems friendly, wishing us “Bonjour” and “Bon weekend”. We have a couple of bike rides, enjoying the green fields and woodlands and relative quietness. It all looks very neat and organised. It’s become a popular area for Storks, and we find a refuge for them close by, with ready made platforms for them to build their nests on. We watch the young being fed and ‘Daddy Stork’ flying off for more food.

For Sunday lunch in Oltingue, we venture to a local restaurant and choose ‘Tarte Flambe’. They’re like a pizza, but with crème fraiche, or similar, in place of the tomato sauce. In German they’re called ‘Flamkoeken’. We had one back in August, last year, when we were in Ulm, Germany (https://heidihymer.wordpress.com/2014/08/03/sourcing-the-s…-of-the-danube/) – another reminder that cultures and traditions are not necessarily divided by national borders. There are a lot of impressive old half-timbered properties around these parts – again very similar to their German counterparts that we saw in the Swartzwald (Black Forrest) area. It seems a wealthy area and we assume these places must be worth a fortune, but are surprised to find you can buy a huge place with acres of land and huge barns (ideal for parking a Heidi in?) for 150-200k. Interesting!

We move on; stopping at Hirtzbach with it’s wealth of restored and brightly painted houses, before continuing to Mulhouse, where we park up out of town and head into the centre on the bikes. Mulhouse has an attractive centre square, lined with ancient buildings including the St. Etienne Cathedral and the beautifully restored and painted town hall. The town hall houses the extensive ‘Musee Historique’. Much of the info. is only in French or German, the majority of which is beyond us, so we’re pleased to find an English speaking ‘guardien’ who was keen to talk about the main hall (Salles du Fetes). This room has seen a lot of history! All the previous ‘Burgermeister’s’ shields (coats of arms) are here, going back to the 1300s! Mulhouse (for a time Mulhauzen) has variously been Swiss, German, French or an independent state. We realise we have no knowledge of where Switzerland fits in to the whole historical border thing? Something else to add to the research list! We enjoy a drink in the sunny square, before heading back to the van and continuing to the ‘Ecomusee’ (open air museum) at nearby Ungersheim.

The Ecomusee (www.ecomusee-alsace.fr), costing us 14eu each, is one of the largest open air museums in Europe. It houses all kinds of Alsatian heritage stuff; loads of reconstructed and restored half-timbered houses, farms and businesses from the surrounding area. These buildings would have been originally designed and pieced together off site anyway, so lend themselves to being moved. There’s demonstrations of traditional skills; A forge, a pottery, a cartwright, various cooking using the traditional ovens, tours of the kitchen gardens and the surrounding sustainably managed farmland, a nature reserve etc. etc. …and storks nesting and wandering around everywhere! Unfortunately lot’s of the demonstrations were not actually happening and about half of the fancy recorded information points weren’t working (and these had the best English info.). It kept us busy and entertained for most of the day, but was overall a bit disappointing.

On the 29th of May, we drive on towards ‘Le Ballon D’Alsace’. ‘Le Grand Ballon’ is the highpoint around here at 1424m. Most of the area is densely forested with occasional open spaces and views for miles – as far as the Alps on clear days. It’s not that clear for us, but we can see the Rhine valley laid out before us, and to the beginnings of the hills of the Black Forrest in the distance. It seems a popular, busy area, criss-crossed with hundreds of marked walking routes. There’s numerous lakes and waterfalls too, and with careful choosing, we found quiet, dark overnight spots; enjoying the stars and the owls by night and loads of twittering birds by day. The weather is still very changeable. We have a good sunny day, out walking, but also lots of rain, encouraging us to keep moving.

On the 1st of June, we wake up in a cloud! It’s damp and drizzly and we head out of the mountains and towards more rolling green hills in the Loraine region. The weather improves towards the end of the day as we drive along long straight roads lined with trees – very French! We end up at Lac Madine, the largest lake in the region, where we stay at an official ‘aire’ near Heudicourt-sous-les-Cotes. They’re charging 5eu a night, but that includes services. There’s even loos and showers available. There’s a campsite here too, and holiday chalets, and a conference centre etc. etc. You can walk/cycle round the lake (20km) or on a bigger circuit, which we did, around the surrounding villages (35km). On our ride, we visited the American war memorial, on the hill at Montsec – an exhausting climb, but with spectacular views of the surrounding country. This, of course, is what made it such a strategic and, fiercely fought over, location. It was controlled by the Germans for much of WW1, before being taken by an American organised offensive with huge loss of life. There are a lot of war memorials and various battlefield sites in this whole area (which has changed hands many times during both the world wars). We came across leaflets on ‘Battlefield Tourism’ – a somewhat strange concept.

We spend another couple of days in this very green place – it’s dominated by fields of wheat and other crops, and acres of mixed deciduous forests – and it’s all covered in bright green new growth. It seems, thankfully now, a very quiet and peaceful region. We find an isolated small carpark on a quiet back road and spend a day walking the woodland paths, discovering the art of the ‘Vent des Forets’ project, which each year invites international artists to place works over the area – they’re connected via a 45km network of paths. We recover from what was rather a long walk by spending another day, mainly sitting, reading, and just enjoying the quiet ‘greenness’ and the birdsong. It’s hot (35C) and the sky is a clear, cloudless blue. No more than 4 or five cars pass in 24hrs. Another! good spot. At 8pm, we’re still sitting outside wearing very little. At 9 the sun descends below the horizon, and at 11 it’s still feeling warm with a pinky glow along the horizon. We watch the bats and listen to the foxes calling..

 

Friday 5th of June. It’s going to be another hot hot day. Time to head north; if for no other reason than to create a bit of breeze! We wend our way through quiet green countryside; fields and fields of wheat and other crops; sleepy villages – huge barns with small houses attached. We visit an unusual modern church in the woods, and then the, disturbingly huge, American war cemetery at Romagne-sous-Montifaucon. In the afternoon, we try and find some respite from the heat at a shaded picnic area; but after a couple of hours of 36 degree heat with a wind that feels like a hair dryer, we decide to continue and drive on to Montherme, on a tight bend of the River Meuse. It’s an officially allocated motorhome spot and very popular; there must be 20 vans here. We join everybody else sitting on the grassy river bank and enjoy a drink as the heat finally relents and gives way to thunder and rain by the evening. We’re now in the Ardenne region. Steeply wooded slopes, lead down to the winding river. There’s signposted walking and bike routes in both directions – another place we’ll put on the ‘must come back to’ list.

In the morning, we’re quickly through the Ardennes cross-country skiing areas and into the much flatter lands further north. We blink, and the signs have changed from French to Dutch (or Flemish?). We skirt the southern edge of Bruxelles before heading West across completely flat land, dotted with Friesian cows and farmhouses with red tiled roofs. We’re travelling fast on the now free, and very busy, motorways. In no time, we reach the coast and head South again to find the place we’d visited before at Zuydcote, near Dunkirk. It’s just over 11 months since we were here last (https://heidihymer.wordpress.com/2014/07/09/destintation-dunkerque/)   and there’s been a few miles (aprox.  8510m / 13700km) under our wheels since then. How many of you, reading this, have done more than that driving backwards and forwards to work, I wonder?

Time to relax for a few days. We do some washing, buy a ticket back to the UK, and consider our next move….

Beach Bums

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On the 20th of April we headed back West, along the North coast of the Peloponnese towards Patra and took the ferry from Rio to the mainland (it cost us 11eu, about half the price of the bridge?). Our journey takes on a new feeling, as we realise we have less than a month left of our time in Greece: schedules – we hate schedules!

We spend a pleasant few weeks, slowly heading up the West coast towards Igoumenitsa (where we’ll catch a ferry to Venice, Italy). The weather has suddenly improved, and we ‘lap up the rays’. We feel we’ve been rather deprived for too long now!

We head for Mesologi and out across the causeway to what isn’t much more than a sandbank beyond the lagoon. It’s a strange sort of place. We’re effectively a couple of miles out to sea here – it can get a bit windy! It’s difficult to know how much of it is natural and how much manmade. The whole area is part of the Evinos River delta and has been variously partitioned off for fish farming, salt production and more recently wild life reserves. It’s flat of course, enticing us to get out on the bikes. Cycling out into ‘the middle of nowhere’ on the thin strips of land dividing one bit of water from another reminds us of the Dutch dykes. It’s very quiet and peaceful. We spot Flamingos, Pelicans, Stilts, White herons and other wading birds. Unfortunately much of the track we follow around the main (‘Kilsova’) lagoon is bone-shakingly rough loose stone. We veer of onto the dry mud-flats for a bit – a weird desert-like landscape, but much easier cycling. We discover the remains of fishing shacks out nearest the ‘actual’ sea. Most are now holiday places and still deserted at this time of year. Some, unfortunately, have ‘guard’ dogs and, not for the first time in Greece!, we’re chased by ferocious specimens, scaring Elaine to death. Just what is it in the Greek mentality that makes people think it’s reasonable to have ferocious dogs running free?!!

Nb. You can see these photos full size by clicking on the first one, then scanning through. (close using the small white x at top left)

We liked the town too. It’s a bustling place with several pedestrianised shopping streets and a main square surrounded by cafes. There’s plenty of parking all around the perimeter if you wanted to be a bit closer, or the wind out on the point got a bit much. There’s a big marina there too. There’s a market, which we unfortunately just missed, on a Tuesday morning, and you can buy fresh fish daily on the quay. We could have easily spent more time there.

As we head North, we stop briefly at Astokos, then spend a couple of nights on the beach just beyond Paleros, before continuing to the island of Lefkada or Lefkas, as it is usually known in English. You can drive to Lefkas via a bridge (which is actually a boat) which moves to let the numerous yachts through the canal into the marina. The Marina is huge and is the main base for several yacht charter companies in this area.

We spend a week exploring Lefkas and it’s stunning West coast beaches. The water is an almost unreal turquoise and sooo clear. Swim, swim swim! Unfortunately a lot of the roads down to the coast are far from Heidi friendly. We twice randomly follow signs to ‘beach/taverna’ only to find ourselves on very steep, very narrow roads with very tight hairpins. There were the potholes, overhanging trees and a complete lack of passing places – they’re single track of course! One turned into a rough dirt track, and we chickened out on another as it proceeded to get steeper and steeper down what was almost a cliff face. We could see miles of sandy beach and turquoise water a long way below – shame. We drove a circuit of the island. We visited Nikiana, Poros Beach and then Syvota, on the South East, where we had joined a Sailing Holiday’s yacht flotilla in 2008 for our first foray into yachting – seems a long time ago now. It’s an attractive and sheltered sailing area and we’re surprised to find the place only just beginning to open for the season, with no sign of Sailing Holidays yet.

Whilst on Lefkas, we witness the start of the season and the change is dramatic. Initially the beaches are all but deserted, but on the 1st of May, that all began to change; the sun-loungers and umbrellas suddenly appeared, wooden walkways down on to the beach were installed, signs were put up and beach clubs began to open, not to mention the increased hire car traffic on the roads. The heat suddenly moved up a notch too, with daytime temperatures of 25 – 30 degrees C. On the 3rd of May we woke up in the carpark above the famed Porto Katsiki beach to discover they were weeding and clearing loose stone away and had put up a sign saying ‘Municipal Parking 3euro’ – and the guy wasted no time in coming to ask for his fee! We then returned to Kalamitsi Beach, where we had previously spent several quiet days and nights, only to find it positively busy. It was quite a shock, and we can only assume that this is the weekend that the local airport at Prevesa opens and starts bringing in the first of the package holiday people. Luckily it was still quiet at night, but I can’t see that being the case as the season progresses.

After Lekfas, we head inland to Vonitsa. It’s hardly inland, and still has a beach overlooking what is actually still the sea, though it’s more like a lake, reached by the narrow entrance at Prevesa. We wander into town, realising we’re just too late for the market (Monday morning). We seem to be good at missing markets – must spend more time in one place in the future. We liked Vonitsa; another ‘real’ place where locals live year round, with all the shops and services you’d expect. It’s also got an attractive front, lined with cafes and tavernas and the sizable remains of a Venetian castle, which we didn’t get round to visiting. We parked just outside town, right on the beach, overlooking Koukoumitsa island. You can walk to, and around, Koukoumitsa via a causeway; a nice stroll under the shade of the pine trees. It’s very popular with the locals for a ‘volta’ (the equivalent of the Spanish ‘paseo’), early morning or late afternoon / evening. The water’s warmer here than on the real coast too as it’s very shallow, but the hundreds of tiny sea urchins lining the shore are less than welcome – ouch! There are welcome, warm thermal breezes in the afternoon and at night the town, the castle and the causeway / bridge is all lit up. We sit out till late enjoying the ‘twinkly’ lights and see fire-flies in the darkness behind us. Vonitsa is also the home of a naughty dog with a taste for collecting shoes. Don’t leave your shoes outside unguarded! – one of Elaine’s had to be retrieved from the other end of the beach, and I caught him trying to make off with mine! I later discovered a line of 3 mismatched shoes by a nearby tree, with the grass all flattened down around it – the ‘shoe thief’s lair’ hehe.

 

We move on; stopping at the many miles of sandy beach to the North West of Prevesa, and then at Ammoudia for our last couple of days in Greece. Ammoudia is a popular spot, and there are several other campers here. Apparently it gets very busy later in the season. It was once a real place, but now only a few families live here over the winter. There are lots of hotels and apartments, but they’re still mainly closed up. We enjoy our last Greek taverna lunch overlooking the river and the fishing-boats in one of the few places that is open, and later a last Greek swim, before heading for Igoumenitsa and the ferry.

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As we prepare to leave Greece, we try to collect our thoughts and impressions of the country. The good and the bad. We realise that in the just over 7 months that we’ve been here, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Winter is probably not the best time to spend time in Greece. Many of the coastal places are closed up and feel dead and much inland is high, mountainous and covered in snow and ice. We’ve had snow and sub-zero temperatures at sea level! We’ve seen surprisingly (or perhaps it’s not?) few campers, and when we have, it was often those we’d seen previously. We stayed on campsites a couple of times and walked through, or past, others. They were all very quiet, with only a handful of winter residents. We decided they didn’t suit us, making us feel more isolated from the world outside the gates. Other than a washing machine and perhaps free wifi, we have little need of campsite facilities anyway. We should have spent more time in some of the bigger towns, where everybody is in winter, but finding somewhere suitable to park for a long time can be difficult. We’re not really ‘town people’ either, generally finding them noisy and busy – maybe we’ll have to learn?…

Some final thoughts and memories –

We’ve enjoyed:

  • Dramatic scenery – especially the clear, turquoise waters (and the swimming – even if it was COLD!)
  • Numerous ancient sites (and the histories that go with them)
  • Food (Spinakopita, Gyros pita, Backlava, Squid, the Honey)
  • Spring flowers and the blossom.
  • Festivals (Epithany, Carnival, Easter..)
  • Trying to get to know ‘normal’ life here. We liked the markets, when we found them; something that seems all too lacking in the UK.

We’ve been surprised by:

  • Goats on beaches 🙂 – and in the road.
  • Crazy parking – the Greeks just stop anywhere to shop or chat; corners, zebra crossings, on roundabouts, across junctions – and of course double parking is common. They even have a special sign to tell you not to – it has no effect of course. And stopping on the single track road to go into a shop is normal too – you weren’t in a hurry to get by were you?
  • Fishing with hand throwing lines (a sort of tapered ring) that we’ve not seen before. Surprisingly effective. I bought one and just about mastered the throwing technique – but still didn’t catch anything. Fishing is done by all ages and sexes too – the elder women were just as likely to be doing it – Octopus a common target.
  • Monasteries in CRAZY places – it is simply unbelievable where they’ve managed to build them. And there are a lot!
  • ‘Development’. We found a lot of abandoned hotels and apartment complexes. Some we discovered were built illegally, some have suffered from shoddy construction and have been condemned, but some, we suspect, are just the ‘wrong sort of thing’ these days. In a world that is increasingly made up of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, individual villas seem to be the holiday accommodation of choice and the studios and apartments are loosing out. The rich want, and can afford, a large private villa and the poor can’t afford anything anymore. It’s shocking to realise that most of the development has happenned over only 40ish years. Greece was a very different place until comparitively recently!
  • Building rubble, and other rubbish, tips EVERYWHERE. Every single reasonably accessible place where you can pull off the road, or down a side lane, has become the local dump. I know it’s traditional with disposal services lacking – to tip it down the side of the mountain – but surely people can agree on fewer, bigger sites?
  • How quiet and empty many of the coastal and rural places are – and it’s not just the purpose made holiday places; a lot of these places once had thriving communities that are now city based, only returning to run a family taverna or hotel for the summer tourists. This is probably increasingly common everywhere, but it seems more true in Greece. It looks as if it won’t be long until the last elderly generation is gone and there will be no one outside of the main towns.
  • Mad roads. I don’t think we ever saw a width or weight restriction sign anywhere – but they are certainly needed! Perhaps one saying “this apparently wide, well surfaced, road may at any moment turn into a narrow dirt track with low, overhanging trees – oh and there will be nowhere to turn around or pass anyone coming the other way”. But where would the adventure be if they told you?!

We’ve not enjoyed:

  • The dogs! This has got to be our biggest grievance. The truly wild ones are usually fine, if unnerving; often following us on walks and sitting by the van hoping to be fed. The ‘guard’ dogs are something else. Left on there own for much of the time and only fed occasionally from what we could see; they go mad when they see someone, especially strangers. We’ve lost count of the times we’ve been chased by ferocious dogs, barking furiously, when we’re out walking, but especially on the bikes. The owners, if they’re around, are usually completely unable to call them off. We will be investing in ‘dog dazers’ and mace spray for a future trip! The Greeks seem to like to ‘walk’ their dogs by taking them somewhere in the car, chucking them out and then driving off, encouraging them to run after them – ah, so that’s where they learn to chase cars! Then there’s the all night barking!
  • The weather. It’s been cold, wet and grey for a lot longer than we’d hoped! This winter has been significantly worse than some we’ve been told.

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are you sure this is where the boat leaves from?!!

are you sure this is where the boat leaves from?!!

Dhimitsana to Dhiakopto…

 


as usual, click on the sets of photos to see them full size with the captions ( close each time with the small ‘ x ‘ top left )

you can see where we’ve been on a Google map here:

https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zXuk6hsK3x58.kgLHbd5kDnQc

Zoom and pan around. Click on the pushpins for more info, photos, and a link to the relevant blog. (note there’s no link on the most recent points – the blog isn’t written yet!)


 

We stay at Analipsi Beach, West of Kalamata, for couple of days. Its quiet and warm. We like! Then we head up into the mountains. We pass through Megalopoli (“Very Big” – the Greeks are full of imaginative town names!) It’s busy and the cafes are full. We stop briefly at Karitena, a hilltop village with a ruined castle and a Byzantine church, before continuing on to Stemnitsa where we stop for drinks and a ‘medium meze’ at the only place that’s open – good home cooked ham, feta, olives, tomatoes, a beer and a rose wine from the barrel in the cellar. This place is obviously on the tourist trail, but it’s hardly ‘woken up’ yet. We’re at around 1000m here. We contemplate the signposted walking routes, as we sit out in the sun wearing shorts, knowing how easily the weather here can still change at this time of year.

We stop for the night, just short of Dhimitsana, where we turn off down towards the ‘Water Power Museum’, and continue to the tiny village of Paliochori. This is the end of the road for a ‘Heidi’. It’s very small through the village and doesn’t go any further anyway. It’s a nice little place, surrounded by terraced fields and gardens – various plots for sale: tempting… . As we wander around, I’m accosted by an old lady, one of only 6 or 7? permanent residents here, but we can’t make each other understood. She smile’s anyway, and later stumbles across to some neighbours with the aid of a stick – It must be a very isolated existence here.

We take an evening stroll and investigate a path down into the gorge. There’s a raging torrent flowing where the path should be …which whisks me off my feet, leaving me with a wet bum and an unhappy camera. It doesn’t appear to have liked being thrown into a river …a rock may have been involved too! If the quality of the pictures deteriorate from now; you know why!.

The offending 'path'!

The offending ‘path’!

In the morning we opt for the road (much easier and very quiet) down into the gorge and head towards the Filosophou (Philosophy) Monastery. The path on the other side of the gorge is unstable and clinging to the side of a near vertical cliff – definitely scary! We take the road on the way back; better views and very, very little traffic. A good day.

The 4th of April brings low grey cloud. We definitely chose the right day for our walk. We drive up into Dhimitsana around lunchtime and wander around the tiny stepped paths between tightly packed houses.

Dhimitsana, clinging to the side of the hill

Dhimitsana, clinging to the side of the hill

There’s only one drivable road through here. The tavernas are offering; wild boar, rooster with tomatoes, mousaka – appealing on this cold day, but unfortunately Elaine is feeling unwell, so we give it a miss and decide to drive on, through the mountains. It’s a dramatic winding road, high above another deep gorge, passing through Lagadia and Lefkochori. A very tiring drive. Slowly we descend towards the coast again and stop at Ancient Olympia for the night. It was here that the Olympic Games began over 2,700 years ago. Loads more info. here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympia,_Greece

The next day brings more grey and it rains most of the day, but we’re here now and feel we should fit this last important bit of ‘old stuff’ into our schedule. We start with the museum, thinking it’ll surely dry up later – it didn’t. It’s busy. There are several coach loads of people here. I hate to think what it’d be like later in the season! There’s loads of artefacts that have been found during all the excavations here – pots, figurines, ‘votive offerings’, – many identical to the ones we saw at Mycanae, near Nafplio. There’s an impressive collection of the traditional tripod cauldrons / cooking pots, ranging from huge down to tiny models. The model ones were believed to be used for votive offerings, symbolising the heart of the home; showing the importance of food and thanking the gods for it.

There’s also lot’s of impressive statues. How do they know who they all are we wonder; they’re mostly headless!

After lunch, we head out again, umbrellas in hand, in the heavier! rain to look at the outside ‘old stuff’. It’s a huge site, and they’re still excavating. By now, we feel we’ve seen it all before though. It’s within, what is now, a beautiful bit of parkland and the trees are just getting their new, bright green leaves. There’s pink blossom and wild flowers everywhere, almost making up for the terrible weather. Eventually the rain stops and we watch an English school group having an impromptu race on the original Olympic track.

From Olympia, it’s down to Pyrgos, just inland from the coast. We skirt around the edge of this busy, unattractive town, noting a serious rubbish problem. There’s what must be weeks and weeks of it piled up everywhere; the original bin often barely visible beneath it (we never did discover what the issue was; thankfully it was isolated to a fairly limited area.)

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Along the coast road through miles and miles of what must be the traditional fishing shacks / holiday places of the locals. They’re all tightly packed together, preventing any access to the beach for us; and there’s nowhere to park. Many places have been destroyed by the wind and the waves, and then a replacement built just inland. The whole place has a weird empty feeling – there’s virtually no one around. We move on to Katakalo on the point. There’s a yacht marina and a ferry and cruise ship terminal, and loads of parking, but it’s all pretty unappealing. We finish up nearby, in ‘our own private campsite’ – open grassy areas, surrounded by trees. It appears to be open, public land? Not sure we’ll tell everyone about this spot. hehe.

Next it’s north up the coast, stopping at Patronikoleika, next to a huge holiday resort showing no sign of opening for Easter – surprising. We visit Amaliadha for some shopping. It’s madly busy with narrow streets, and we gingerly squeeze between the usual double parked, or should I say ‘abandoned’, cars that Greece exemplifies. The whole coastal plain here is flat, agricultural land, with not much signs of life in the villages. It always comes as a shock to enter the odd big town and realise: oh, this is where everyone is. Cafes and bars are full, with people spilling out into the streets. There’s shops selling everything and people wear trendy, designer clothes. A big contrast to the rural areas. We find an AB supermarket and, surprisingly, a parking spot, before escaping the bedlam and heading off looking for somewhere more suitable for us over Easter weekend. It’s a shame that there’s rarely somewhere suitable for us to stay in these bigger places. It would be nice to be part of real life for a bit and get a feel of things – especially over Easter.

Heading back towards the coast, we discover miles and miles of sandy beaches, backed by dunes and pine forests. There’s little development and what there is, is still all closed up. The beaches and the rapidly improving weather temps us to stay for several days. We swim and lounge in the sun while we can; we haven’t exactly had lots of opportunity this trip.

The nearby town of Vartholomio is a manageable size for us and we find parking easily enough. With some determination and a bit of luck, we get our timing right to join in the Good Friday celebrations here. We visit the churches in the afternoon, checking out the elaborately decorated ‘Epitaphio’ (the symbolic bier of Christ – these days it’s designed to carry an Icon), ready for later. We return at 8.30pm, just as it is getting dark, to find the churches and the squares outside packed with people. There’s much singing and chanting going on inside and we push through the throng to see what’s going on. As seems to be the norm with Greek Orthodoxy, the ‘congregation’ doesn’t join in. There are 3 priests in different locations in the church, and as one stops his bit, it’s taken up immediately by another, all in the same singing / chanting voice. Occasionally a member of the public takes the mike for a short part too – presumably they are telling the Easter story. Like the many bell ringings, it’s all amplified as loud as possible and broadcast via speakers from the bell tower. There’s a huge queue to kiss the Icon amongst much genuflecting. We’re in it for a bit before realising and sidling off to the side. It’s not really our thing. We wonder at this massive exchange of saliva; you’d develop a strong immune system here! Everybody is here; all ages and all ‘walks of life’; the local farmers, the city visitors in the latest fashion (you can see the little old ladies in black looking disapprovingly at the young things in the shortest of short mini-skirts and ridiculously high heals). There’s some very young children and even, surprisingly, the odd immigrant worker. All are keen to kiss the Icon. Once the chanting is over and we’ve all been sprinkled with liberal amounts of holy oil, dished out into waiting hands, or over the children’s heads, from a fancy pourer thing, by the chief priest / bishop, we head outside into the square where the procession begins.

It’s all led by a brass band. There’s various crosses and symbols of various types carried on poles up front, followed by the Epitaphios from both the churches. The Priest is still being enthusiastic with the oil, as, what appears to be most of the town, follows the procession carrying candles and sprinkling flower petals. We join in with everyone for what turns out to be quite a long walk around the town. Most of the houses and businesses along the route have got candles burning and incense wafting. We stop at the cemetery for a bit whilst everybody lights candles at the family graves and the bell is constantly rung, before continuing. There are various stops for chanting and petal throwing and of course oil sprinkling ..and then there’s the bangers! A team of enthusiastic youth, walking rather to close to where we are, are intent on chucking them down every side street and onto every bit of wasteland or half-built building. They’re deafening.

Eventually, back at the appropriate churches, the Icons are restored to their places. Of course they need kissing again, but this time, people begin to pull the hundreds of flower heads from the decorated Epitaphio and take them away as they leave, heading for the surrounding bars and cafes.

It was quite an event, lasting at least a couple of hours. Apparently the follow-up is a midnight service on Saturday, culminating with the Priest appearing in complete darkness, with a single candle. The flame, having been lit from a ‘eternal flame’ in Jerusalem, and then flown to Athens and distributed to all the churches in the country! The flame is then passed around with repeated shouts of “Christos Anesti” (Christ is Risen), and then carefully carried home where the ‘head of the household’ makes a smoky cross above the front door with it.

For more info. on Greek Orthodox Easter Celebrations see this (as usual) very thorough account by Barry and Margaret of magbaztravels: http://www.magbaztravels.com/content/view/1700/380/   We seem to have missed out on much of this, either due to appalling weather or not being in the right place at the right time – another year perhaps?
After Easter we head towards Patra. As we pass the main ferry terminal to Italy, we spot plenty of hopeful, desperate looking, potential immigrants loitering near the gates and checking the place out. We’d heard stories of them trying to hide under or in your van as you board the ferry. We find a good spot on the beach at the other end of town, overlooking the impressive suspension bridge to the mainland. It’s busy with locals, fishing and swimming. We stay for a couple of days and manage to book a ferry (in a little over a months time) from Igoumenitsa, further up the coast, to Venice, from a local travel agent. It costs us 349eu, much cheaper than expected. We’d seen 460eu quoted online.

We thought about our return route for ages. The cheapest option is probably to drive up through the Balkans, but it’s a long way and we decided we’d just be rushing through places; which didn’t appeal – something for a future trip? There are also several, much shorter, ferry crossings to Italy, but they wouldn’t have been any cheaper by the time you’d factored in fuel and probable motorway tolls on the Italian side. And again, we felt we’d be rushing through places we’d like to stop at as we headed north. We’ve got what is termed a ‘camping on board’ ticket, meaning we don’t have a cabin or allocated seat, but can stay in the van. We can even plug-in to their electrics.

On the beach - north of Patra

On the beach – north of Patra

The impressive suspension bridge to the mainland

The impressive suspension bridge to the mainland

We make one last stop in the Peloponnese; Dhiakopto, on the northern coast, before we leave what has been home for getting on for five months (we crossed the Corinth Canal on 28th Nov 2014 – see our previous blog: https://heidihymer.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/criss-crossing-the-canal/ ). We stayed in Dhiakopto for 5 nights. It’s obviously a popular spot just before or after the ferry from Patras which, it seems, is how most people get to and from here. We have a steady stream of neighbours from France, Switzerland, Germany and England. Having hardly seen any other vans for months it’s a bit of a shock.

The main reason for coming here was the cog railway trip up the spectacular Vouraikos Gorge. Unfortunately it’s now been modernised from the original steam train and is now all ultra modern. The scenery though, remains just as spectacular. So much so, that we took the train, a second time, up to the half way station and walk back down, so as to have more time to appreciate it. It’s a long walk for us; probably about 8 miles. It’s gently downhill all the way, which we thought would make it easy, but much of it is on the course chippings that make up the bed of the railway itself (there is nowhere else to go!), which didn’t make for easy or comfortable progress. You had to look out for the trains to, which couldn’t be heard above the sound of the raging river below. Luckily it’s a popular thing to do and the train drivers expect crazy walkers and are ready on the horn. In many places it’s only just possible to stand clear of the tracks. A great walk, albeit a very tiring one.

The train goes up to the town of Kalavrita, famous for a horrific massacre, during WW2, at the hands of the Nazis. Almost every male members of the population, over the age of 14, was executed by machine gun, on the 13th of December 1943, “as an act of revenge against the Greek national resistance”. All the houses were burnt to the ground and the womenfolk left to bury the dead, often with their bare hands, in the frozen ground. There is an excellent museum with videos of survivors’ accounts of events and a memorial on the hill above the town. Tears were shed! I am currently reading Hitler’s book; “Mein Kampf”. Learning about and trying to understand the histories of the war. It doesn’t get any easier!

We headed back towards Patra on the 20th April and took the ferry to the mainland from Rio. The ferry cost us 11eu. Obviously it takes longer than driving over the bridge, but we were told the bridge costs at least double that – and we’re not in a hurry. The plan is to meander up the West coast of Greece and then take the ferry to Venice from Igoumenitsa…

last night on the Peloponnese at Dhiakopto. A German neighbour tonight.

last night on the Peloponnese at Dhiakopto. A German neighbour tonight.

looking north to the mainland - there's still snow on the mountains..

looking north to the mainland – there’s still snow on the mountains..

Adventures in Argolida

Been playing with the formatting again – you can scroll over the sets of photos to see captions and if you click on them you’ll be able to see them full size.

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The Argolis Peninsula / ‘Prefecture of Argolida’ – the Eastern-most finger (some call it the ‘thumb’) of the Peloponnese; just to the west of Athens.

We’ve spent over a month now, slowly exploring this area: argolida1 Weather

Is the sky supposed to be that colour?

Is the sky supposed to be that colour?

If you think we’re lounging around on beaches in the sunshine, you’d be very wrong! We’re finding Greece, in winter, to be predominantly cold and wet. This last month, we’ve had temperatures down to –1 or –2 degrees C at night and plenty of grey days with temperatures struggling to get above 10 degrees. We had one day when 3 was the max. We’ve even had flurries of snow! Although it’s not settling at lower levels, there’s plenty on the mountains – pretty to look at, but making many of the mountain passes decidedly dicey in a front wheel drive van with rather too much weight on her rear end! When the sun does shine at these latitudes, we realise why we are down here. The temperature rapidly climbs to the mid teens and it feels a lot hotter in a sheltered spot. The change always comes as a bit of a shock. We definitely had the best of the weather whilst Clare was visiting; we even managed a swim once (it was flippin’ freezing!), and sat outside enjoying the sunshine on several occasions – I don’t think we’ve done that more than once in the past 3 weeks. Humph.

Stormy day at Nafplio harbour. Fences blown over. Difficult to stand!

Stormy day at Nafplio harbour. Fences blown over. Difficult to stand!

Greece in winter!

Greece in winter!

The view today!

The view today!

The Natural Beauty – beaches, volcanoes, caves

Beaches and Coastline:

There’s miles and miles of beautiful and varied coastline here. A lot of it is rather inaccessible, covered in sparse scrub and pine forest with steep slopes dropping straight into the sea, limited roads and very few paths. There are fewer beaches than you might expect and several of them, especially in the south, have been fenced off as part of private, gated, hotels and resorts – humph! Why is this ‘allowed’? – or perhaps it’s not, we’ve come across several abandoned examples in this small area. Some, perhaps all, we’ve discovered have been illegally constructed in designated ‘natural beauty’ areas. Rumours are that much of the construction is dodgy and concrete rot is also common. Perhaps they are just out-dated and not what people want these days? There doesn’t seem to be any let up with individual ‘villa’ developments.

The area around Portocheli and Kosta, opposite the island of Spetzes in the far south, is particularly rife with this. We have a map with ‘natural beauty areas’ marked on it – worth a visit you’d think? Some of these have been completely destroyed with a quite ridiculous amount of over-development. The natural beauty has been replaced with miles of high stone walls, or fences topped with razor wire! watched over by private security firms. It seems the only reason this area is popular now is because ‘it’s the place to be’, all traces of ‘natural’ beauty are fast being bulldozed and more and more ‘perfect plots’ are being marked out. The roads, as usual, are often still deeply rutted dirt tracks, at ridiculous gradients, with no thought of drainage to stop them washing away, but I suppose if you arrive by boat to your private harbour, or by helicopter, you’re not too bothered about the roads!

…But the sea is beautiful and stunningly clear, even in the harbours, and often turquoise in the changing light. With a bit of searching, we have, found some wonderful beaches. Now if the weather would just behave! loitering and swimming would seem a lot more appealing.

Volcanoes and Hot Springs:

We spent a couple of days on the Methana Peninsula. Methana itself is, or should we say was? a popular spa resort. It seemed a bit run down to us. I don’t think ‘taking the waters’ is so popular these days? The main springs are beneath / behind an impressive classical building, fronted by a lake / pond where the mineral waters are released. It’s shockingly turquoise due to all the minerals reflecting the light, but it doesn’t half ‘niff’. From here the waters are released inter the adjacent marina and to a small public ‘beach’, making the water warm and the smell much more acceptable. With Peter’s aching joints, it seemed like a good idea, but the local fishermen had commandeered the only easy access point – I’m surprised the fish like it. On an unexpectedly warm, sunny day we drove the complete circuit of the Methana Peninsula, which is dotted with volcanoes, some of them still fairly active, hence the hot springs I presume. Most of the roads are narrow (single track), steep and windy. Good job it was quiet, there are very few passing places if we meet anything our size coming the other way. There’s beautiful views all around, and the trees (almonds we think) are just beginning to blossom. We passed through the few houses that make up Kalmeni Chora, narrowly avoiding the only other traffic on the road – a donkey carrying baskets of oranges, and stop by a footpath signposted ‘to the volcano’. It’s a dramatic, chaotic landscape of red crumbly rocks tumbling everywhere, and the views out to other islands, and to Athens in the distance, are spectacular. We climbed right up to the ‘mouth’ – more a deep fissure in the rocks than the ‘traditional crater’. This one hasn’t been active that recently. We’d read of one closer to Methana that made the surrounding rocks hot to the touch but unfortunately never got around to looking for it before leaving the area to escape the forecasted wintry gales. We continued on up into the mountains through a barren, uncultivated landscape, save for a few pockets of olives in sheltered valleys, and down again to the coast. We stopped at Aghias Georgios, a tiny, almost deserted, fishing harbour for the afternoon, before making our way back to Methana harbour for the night.

Caves:

On the 20th February we visited the prehistoric cave of Franchthi, opposite the small fishing village of Kilada. There have been archaeological ‘findings’ here going back to ‘Palaeolithic’ times (30 – 40,000BC –old!). We’re presented with lots of interesting information on the signs – they reckon that sea level here may have been as much as 120m lower when the cave was first inhabited, making the shoreline 7km away, instead of right next to it as it is today. Many of the finds were hence now underwater, but because the cave was so dry and protected, various animal shelters and pens have remained. We also went to the Didyma ‘caves’ which are in fact big, crater-like, holes, of which there are a number in the area. The roofs collapsed thousands of years ago. One of the caves contains two tiny churches. It’s a truly magical (or should that be spiritual?) place. One story we heard was that the craters were created by meteorites, and the churches were built to remind God to keep the stars in the sky!

Ancient sites

There’s so much ‘old stuff’ around here, it’s easy to get overload. Some highlights:

Epidauros / The Sanctuary of Asklepios:

To confuse things, there are 3 Epidauros’ around here. There’s Ancient Epidaurus on the coast, which has various rather unidentifiable archeological remains and has it’s own ‘small theatre’ – impressive in it’s own right, but less so when you’ve seen the ‘Big’ one at Asklipio Epidaurus, which is up in the hills near Ligourio. There’s also Nea Epidaurus, again on the coast and north of Ancient Epidaurus. We visited the ‘Big’ one on 25th January on a dull, chilly day, which in many ways makes it even more dramatic as for most of the time we are the only people on site. Having seen the size of the carpark (big enough for thousands!) we could imagine what it would be like later in the year. It’s a huge place, and the theatre is only a part. It’s one of the best preserved Classical Greek structures existing and the acoustics, as with all these old theatres, are astounding. There are seats for up to 14,000! People. It’s still used for performances in the summer months.

The extensive remains of the Sanctuary of Asklepios were founded in the 6th Centuary BC and was “the most famous centre of healing in the ancient world”. Everything extends over a vast area and is rather overpowering. A few more helpful signs telling us exactly what we were looking at would have been helpful. There’s not much of the hospice / infirmary left, but it’s foundation stones disappear off as far as the eye can see! Then there’s a huge athletics stadium built-in a natural hollow with some of the carved stone seating remaining – big enough for thousands. Both the games in the stadium and the theatrical performances were dedicated to the god Asklepios, one of Apolo’s many sons, as part of his worship. The healings that took place here were considered to be down to his powers in the main. Patients, having received some ‘instruction’ on his powers, were told to sleep and dream of how they would be cured of whatever ailment they had, and then that is what was carried out. There are temples to various other deities, sacrificial and dining halls, what amounts to hotels / boarding houses for visitors, wells, bath houses… It goes on and on! Libraries and a Christian Basilica were added later. Much of it has either been destroyed by earthquakes or ransacked for the building materials for later Christian Basilicas, Islamic Mosques and Venetian fortresses built-in the surrounding areas. Excavation work continues and a program to reconstruct certain parts is underway. What little has been done so far only goes to emphasise the gigantic scale of everything. I was impressed by the extensive scaffolding and lifting gear in place to slowly achieve this – which only serves to emphasise what an incredible feat of engineering was required to build it in the first place without such modern kit! There are also plans, after some more work, to begin to use the athletics stadium again.

Argos:

We visited Argos, primarily for the market (Wednesday and Saturday mornings), but there’s ‘old stuff’ there too, so we thought we’d better have a look. The site is a bit run down and overgrown, which is a shame, but it is free. There’s very little left of the Roman Agora (market place) and the surrounding buildings. Part of the old drainage system was exposed and I dare say it worked better than current Greek drainage! – which is virtually non-existent (we’ve been many places where heavy rain floods the roads, several inches deep, within a few minutes). Opposite is the theatre, not as impressive as many others around this area, until you realise that it is carved out of the hillside in one piece! and not made from individually placed blocks of stone – perfect curves and symmetry, and acoustics as usual. There’s the remains of a Roman ‘Therma’ (thermal bath house) here too and pictures! of all the impressive statues the archaeologists found there – now in a museum somewhere else. Why can’t they put them, in a glass case say, here!? This seems to be common practice though.

Mycenae:

Yet another major archaeological site. This one much, much older. A lot of what’s there dates from a period between the 16th and 12th Centuries BC and there’s evidence of human habitation here going as far back as the 3rd millennium BC – that’s OLD! We visited on a rare sunny day and were able to enjoy the far-reaching views from this hilltop vantage point too. Much of the site, as usual, is just a series of the remains of stone walls, but there are some astounding bits still intact. One way that the remains here differ from those of other periods is the sheer size of the stones used for the walling. They’re massive! Just how was it possible to manoeuvre them into place? One explanation is that they were placed by that infamous one-eyed giant; Cyclopes. As usual again, all the really impressive finds are in the adjacent museum, and there’s a lot of them! This is perhaps the most impressive feature of this place. There are literally hundreds of pots and vases and statuettes, along with coins, parts of tablets containing the earliest examples of ancient scripts and other artefacts. Much of the pottery is either whole or has been reconstructed to look as if it is. And there’s so much of it! And it’s over 3500 years old!

A selection of towns

Ermioni:

We found Ermioni to be one of the most interesting places to spend any time in, down in the south, especially in the winter. So many places are rather depressingly deserted out of season. We visited on a couple of occasions. The first time was market day (Thursday mornings). We bought fresh fish, which is also sold daily, direct from the boats, or from shops in town. We chose bass, one of the few we recognised. They seemed very small, as did several of the other varieties. One stall was selling Red Snappers, which as far as I’m aware are usually big enough for a single fish to make a big portion? that were tiny – you’d want a handful for one portion! We’ve heard that over-fishing is becoming a problem in some places. They won’t help things by catching them that small! Still, they seem plentiful enough around here, we’ve watched the small boats go out for no more than a couple of hours and come back with a box full. There was also loads of fresh veg. There’s not much variety, and everyone is offering the same thing, but you can be sure it’s fresh and local – and we’ve discovered the market stuff lasts a lot longer than the supermarket stuff. There was honey too. Different colours and tastes depending on where the bees have been collecting from. It’s nearly always in litre jars, or bigger. The Greeks love their honey and that too has never travelled very far. We bought ‘Erika’ (heather) honey which is darker and stronger tasting than some – Yum! We went back again and spent a few days there. There’s a few good bakers. There’s more bars and restaurants open than a lot of solely holiday places. There’s an attractive short walk around the wooded point with plenty of benches overlooking the blue, blue sea. There’s ‘old stuff’ out on the point too, but it’s just the foundation stones and it’s all overgrown – see, ‘old-stuff’ overload. The attractive old town makes a fascinating stroll too, perched on top of the hill with the sea in both directions, it’s got impossibly steep ‘streets’, many of them effectively staircases. It still constantly amazes us where the Greeks can get a car – definitely not motorhome friendly! You can catch ferries out to the islands of Hydra and Spetzes, and beyond, from here too. Hydra sounds fascinating; there are no vehicles and transport is predominantly on foot or by donkey. Unfortunately that means staying in one of the expensive hotels if you want to spend any time there – maybe when the weather improves?

Poros:

On the 22nd January, we stayed at Ghalatas, and in the morning took one of the small taxi/ferries across the narrow strip of water to the island of Poros – our first Greek island (well this trip anyway). It’s a very attractive little place, mainly due to it’s setting, and is a popular yachting destination. Even at this time of year, there were plenty of boats around and at least one flotilla company has a fleet here. The front is lined with bars and restaurants, many closed for the season, but several open and busy even mid-week in winter. It’s no doubt buzzing in season. We enjoyed a morning wandering the traditional, ridiculously steep and narrow back streets before catching another taxi-boat back.

Ancient Epidaurus:

We spent 5 nights, in total, staying at Ancient Epidaurus, a quiet (well at least at this time of year) little harbour town. There were just enough locals about to give it some life. We did several long walks from here. Unusually, there’s a marked trail leading out around the wooded rocky promontory, to the lighthouse, and into the next bay. We sat and watched a fishing boat setting his nets in a big arc around the edge of the bay, and then retrieving them – not sure he caught anything? Unfortunately where the path went from there was less than clear. We ended up scrambling up to a goatherd’s place and cutting back across a steep slope, until we found a track leading in the right direction to take us back to the village. On a subsequent day, following the old coast road (a track really only suitable for a 4×4), we discovered an isolated Byzantine church, which was once surrounded by the remains of a monastery. The church, probably down to it’s location, is still in good condition. These are the delights of walking in Greece; you never know what you might find, or, whether a path actually goes anywhere or just peters out and becomes a goat track leading nowhere. Like many places here, Ancient Epidaurus is surrounded by orange and lemon groves, and no more than a short walk is required to procure a few – there are plenty of branches, laden with fruit, hanging enticing over a nearby path J. You can by 10kilos of oranges around here for 3euros – but what are we going to do with that many! An awful lot seem to go to waste, rotting on the ground.

Nafplio:

We’ve mentioned our visit to Nafplio in a previous post (Criss-crossing the Canal) so we’ll try not to repeat what we wrote there. It’s the region’s capital; the only major commercial port in the area; a large modern town, sitting alongside the ancient one. We’ve returned several times. Elaine’s sister Clare, arrived and departed from here for a weeks holiday with us (via a bus from the airport at Athens). It’s a very popular place for a day out at the weekends and the bars and restaurants are lively. There’s a big market here too (Wednesday and Saturday). We’ve been doing our bit to support the local economy and doing as much of our shopping as we can in the markets. There’s also endless free parking next to the harbour here. Supposedly this is where a lot of the agricultural produce of this region is exported from, but the only boats we’ve seen are bringing huge wind turbine parts in from Holland and Germany. They’re all lined up here, awaiting their journey to a nearby ridgeline – there’s quite a few already, and many more, what we can only assume are, prepared clearings and tracks to get them there.

Getting cultural

Sun 1st February – in Napflio, we watch a big procession of people carrying the icon of Saint Anastasus, patron of Napflio, apparently from one church to another (perhaps it goes back again later? We didn’t hang around long enough to discover). There were lot’s of priests and lots of bishops in their finery (struggling to keep their hats on in the gale –what MORE bad weather!), along with the local military, a marching band, and a throng of locals following behind. The Church and it’s calendar remains a big part of life here.

Sun 15th February – We watch, and take part in!, the traditional dancing in Ermioni. It’s part of the Carnival celebrations leading up to Lent and then Easter. On a beautiful, sunny, day – which definitely made a change as it had been pretty grey and miserable for the previous 2 weeks – we set out without having much idea where we’re going. We’d seen a poster on trees and lamp-posts in the vicinity, but, since it was all in Greek lettering, all we’d really understood was the date and the time.. We eventually heard music and followed them round the town. Led by a drummer and a clarinet player, they performed various circular, traditional dances, some with a ‘maypole’. The maypole was much the same as the English variety – well, Spring begins much earlier here! At least we hope so! The main dancers all wore their traditional costumes, and many of the locals were in a variety of fancy dress. We saw a Harlem Globetrotter basket-ball player, a masked Mexican, a ‘Japenese’ lady in her silk kimono, a flower-power hippie etc.etc. As was explained by ‘kimono lady’ (who was actually a teacher from Athens), everybody is expected to join in, and those standing on the sidelines, including Elaine!, are grabbed to take part. The procession moved slowly through the streets, stopping wherever there was a space to dance – the streets are mostly very narrow, and cars just had to wait! ‘Kimono lady’ continued to look after us, supplying us with sweets made from coconut and chocolate and tiny glasses of ‘tsipouro’ – a variety of Greek firewater – to give us ‘the spirit of the dance’. She insisted that tsipouro was good for your health, and a little should be drunk each morning – the dancers were certainly being well supplied as they made their rounds. Enjoyable as it was, after a couple of hours we’d had our fill and wandered off in search of lunch. The diehards were still going well into the afternoon.

On the 21st and 22nd February, it’s the last, and main, weekend of Carnival in these parts, before we head into Lent. We went back to Nafplio, having been told there’d be a good ‘vibe’. There were plenty of people in fancy dress wandering around and sitting in the cafes, and on Saturday evening there was some good live music in the square. There had obviously been something going on there in the afternoon too, but we had unfortunately missed it, having not been able to find any sort of program of events. Sunday was wet and cold, and although we joined the throngs wandering round the old town clutching umbrellas, nothing seemed to be happening except coffee drinking and some private parties in clubs in the early hours (not really our scene). We had expected a parade of satirical floats, but it may well have been rained off – shame! We never found it anyway.

Food and drink:

We always enjoy trying the local food on our travels. Having discovered where and when the markets are, we are now doing most of our shopping there. The fruit and veg. is good and usually sold by those who have picked / harvested it. If you stick to what’s in season, it’s very good value – and if it’s not in season, it’s often not available. There’s usually wine – sold in unmarked plastic 1.5l bottles and local olive oil too. The oil is good, but the wine can be a bit of an ‘aquired taste’ and is often fairly sweet; still at often less than a euro a litre! we’re not complaining too much. The Greeks are fond of their ‘horta’ or wild greens, which come in many varieties. We’re constantly seeing the locals gathering it, but identifying it is a bit more tricky! Elaine especially, likes her foraging, so we keep trying. Choosing it at the market, and knowing what to do with it, is not much easier – we’ve had some horribly bitter experiences. We’re getting into the Greek ‘mountain tea’ too, which is sold in dried bunches – something else we’ve yet to identify correctly in the wild. The Greeks love their Feta cheese; you can tell by the huge containers it is available in , in the supermarkets. We found a local cheese shop in Nafplio where you can buy it very cheaply straight from the barrel. The breakfast of choice, at least in the towns, seems to be a ‘pita’ and a coffee for most of the locals. A ‘pita’ is pie or pastry. There are a great many unidentifiable shapes and types. They’re rarely labelled; you’re supposed to know what’s likely to be available! Our favourite is still ‘Spinakopita’ (Feta cheese and spinach or some other type of wild greens, wrapped in pastry). They’re sold in most bakers and often from special pita and coffee places. We haven’t appreciated the coffees as much; usually sweet, frothy, often cold, served in a plastic beaker with a domed top and drunk through a straw. The locals double and triple park outside these places in the morning to get their ‘fix’, whereupon the coffee remains permanently stuck to the palm of the hand – it seems they are unable to drive without either one of these coffee cups, or a phone in their hands. Then there’s Gyros Pita; a bit like a British kebab, but so much better! They’re served in a twisted cone of paper, so it doesn’t explode all over you, and are stuffed full of either chicken or pork, salad, tzatziki sauce (yoghurt and cucumber), and a few chips! For good measure – yum!

Politics and Money:

We continue to follow the unfolding events in Greek politics and the continuing financial crisis (mainly via a selection of articles at http://www.greekcrisis.net). It’s all been ‘kicking off’ recently, following the recent election of the, often called, ‘radical left’ party ‘Syriza’, led by Alexis Tsipras. After watching the date approach when many economists suggested Greece’s money would run out (we’ve heard that those at the ‘top’ have been rapidly transferring funds abroad in recent weeks), a short extension (4 months) on their Eurozone loans has just been approved to enable them to stay ‘in the system’. Promises such as writing off the country’s debt, raising the minimum wage and rehiring recently laid-off public servants that have won them the votes have either ‘gone by the wayside’ or ‘been put on hold’ depending on your point of view. They are certainly fighting hard not to adhere to the strict austerity measures that the European Central Bank et. al. are trying to impose. Hopefully 4 months will give them time to come up with some viable alternatives! From our point of view, things seem unlikely to change whilst we’re here now, but we’ll continue to make sure we have plenty of cash on us and diesel in the tank so we don’t end up stuck somewhere. If you, like us, support the Greek’s efforts to escape the ridiculous financial system that we all toil under, have a look at Greece Solidarity Campaign: http://www.greecesolidarity.org . They’ve a facebook group too.

A final thought (Very apt this last month!): DSC04138

Manoeuvres through the Mountains

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.

Petralidi harbour

Petralidi harbour

a COLD! morning

a COLD! morning

Main square, Petralidi

Main square, Petralidi

What's going on?

What’s going on?

Diving into the icy waters to retrieve the cross

Diving into the icy waters to retrieve the cross

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.

Snowcapped mountains in the distance

snow-capped mountains in the distance – can you spot Heidi?

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.

Onother ideal spot - Kalamata

Another ideal spot – Kalamata

Playing trains :)

Playing trains 🙂

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.

into the mountains

into the mountains

DSC03951

looking cold!

looking sharp!

looking sharp!

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 a couple of monastries - this one, half built into the rock face

one of a couple of monastries – this one, half built into the rock face

The palace - under renovation

The palace – under renovation

one of the last nuns - and donkey!

one of the last nuns – and donkey!

outside the nun's quarters :)

outside the nun’s quarters 🙂

a steep climb

a steep climb

DSC04007

ancient frescoes in one of the many churches

votive offerings. we've seen these a few places. ..requests for children, mariage partners, and the healing of various body parts..

votive offerings. we’ve seen these a few places. ..requests for children, marriage partners, and the healing of various body parts..

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ancient Mystras on the slopes high above, leading down to the orange groves below

Ancient Mystras on the slopes high above, leading down to the orange groves below

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.

old olive presses in the museum

old olive presses in the museum

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.

up towards the snow again

up towards the snow again

The village of Kosmos - Heidi's not scared of ice - honest!

The village of Kosmos – Heidi’s not scared of ice – honest!

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.

Monastery - what a spot!

Panayia Elona Monastery – what a spot!

walking in the dry riverbed below the monastery

walking in the dry riverbed below the monastery

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.

The narrow streets of Leonido

The narrow streets of Leonido

on the coast near Plaka

on the coast near Plaka

The storm, just before it hit

The storm, just before it hit

Parked up at Leonado under the towering cliffs

Parked up at Leonido under the towering cliffs

setting sun over Leonido

setting sun over 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.

Harbourside at

Harbourside at Poulithra

walking through the olive groves in the next bay..

walking through the olive groves in the next bay..

..along the beach to a tiny church

..along the beach to a tiny church

back at home :D

back at home 😀

 

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.

Paralia Astros - lunchstop

Paralio Astros – lunchstop

Kiveri

Kiveri

DSC04113

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..

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                                         

 

Finikes Festivities

Out walking in the Olive groves on a perfect sunny day :)

Out walking in the Olive groves on a perfect sunny day 🙂

They're still collecting (even on Christmas day) it's a long job!

They’re still collecting (even on Christmas day) it’s a long job!

A common sight - The Olives heading for the press

A common sight – The Olives heading for the press

                                                                                                                                                 

We last left you outside the abandoned Salandi Beach Hotel, near Kiladha, in the Eastern Peloponnese….

We’re awake a lot of the night listening to the rain and when we look outside in the morning we discover we are parked in a lake! Luckily it’s only a few inches deep and the ground beneath the water is still firm. We make a quick exit!

We’d decided to move on anyway, so having moved to higher ground for breakfast, we begin to retrace our route towards Nafplio, before heading West and South to the bottom of the Westernmost finger of the Peloponnese and a recommended campsite where we hope we’ll spend Christmas and New Year.

We stop to refill the water and have a cuppa at Karathonas Bay again (just south of Nafplio), and are surprised to find most of the same ‘inhabitants’ still there. It’s tempting to stay, but we continue with the plan and travel over the mountains through dramatic scenery and no doubt far-reaching views – if we could see through the clouds and rain! We pass through Tripoli, avoiding the expensive toll motorway, over a high pass (about 750m) and back down to a flat plain covered in olive trees leading towards Kalamata.

Stopping for the night on the beach front, south of Analipsi – a vegetable growing area with lot’s of roadside stalls vying for our attention. A short walk west along the beach reveals another huge abandoned holiday complex (Sias Hotel and Bungalows). The scale is incredible. The bungalows are numbered and I noticed numbers in excess of 800! It’s all in pretty good condition too. I never discovered what the ‘story’ was; perhaps another illegal development? An encounter with the local dogs had me on edge and beating a hasty retreat. Some were on chains, but others came running at me, at speed, from a distance. The usual trick of picking up a stone and making to throw it at them didn’t work this time. I walked backwards for a long time, keeping eye contact with a particularly snarly, drooling specimen, before he gave up. Presumably I was now out of his territory? Scary!

Another perfect spot at

Another perfect spot near Analipsi

a morning walk along the beach..

a morning walk along the beach..

The vertually intact remains of Hotel Sias

The virtually intact remains of Hotel Sias

..and 100's! of bungalows

..and 100’s! of bungalows

Following the coast road south through ‘private beachfront villa land’, we wonder who decides it’s ok for individuals to claim the beach as private and prevent access to the coast by us ‘commoners’? We find a spot for the night at Agios Andreas; a quiet, almost deserted village with a fishing harbour and lot’s of big harbour side   restaurants. The restaurants are all closed up for the season and the weather has turned very grey. We stop in the carpark next to a small abandoned campsite. It’s hard to see why. I’m sure it’s a nice enough place in the season.

another deserted

another deserted seafront place. Harbourside at Agios Andreas

In the morning, the bakers are friendly and we relieve them of some bread and a couple of ‘spinakopitas’ (spinach and cheese pie wrapped in filo pastry – our favourite). Back at the van, we have a visitor. An old man comes to sit on the bench outside the door and stares for a bit. After a bit he comes to the door and wraps his arms around himself showing he’s cold and in sign language asks for clothes. I really haven’t got anything to give him. We’ve pared down our clothes to a minimum as it is. I’m considering whether I should give him something I’d pretty quickly miss, when he asks for food. I give him half the spinakopita we’ve just bought. Perhaps he saw us go to the bakers? His eyes light up in thanks, but before long he’s asking for clothes again, pointing at his jumper, socks and shoes. As we leave he smiles and waves and I’m left wondering whether I should consider buying something to give in the future? The same goes for food. We’ve been approached and asked a few times (this was the first in Greece though) and I always regret not having something to easily give to someone who seems genuinely in need. We don’t consider ourselves rich, but these things are all relative. How must we appear in our obviously expensive van? Who’s to know it’s our only home and transport and one of the reasons we live like this is it’s the cheapest way we’ve found?

Taking the ‘scenic’ route, we follow increasingly narrow roads with no passing places and come to a stop in someones ‘drive’. It’s a track between red mud cliffs and there’s nowhere to turn a Heidi around. After a slow and tense reverse, we eventually manage to turn in a gateway and thankfully don’t meet anybody. For anybody following in our footsteps, don’t try taking what looks like the beach road at Vounaria! We escape and end up in Koroni on the point. There are signs as we enter the village showing no busses, lorries, caravans, campers etc. The only available carpark for us is chained off so we continue. I hope it’s not going to be one of ‘those’ days…. Luckily we don’t meet anybody on the single track road between the houses. There really does seem to be only one way in here. We ignore the Sat-Navs suggestion, which turns out to be a stepped! footpath and make it down to the harbour and plenty of parking – at this time of year anyway.

Harborside at Karoni

Harborside at Karoni

looking up to Karoni castle. The weather prevented an exploration. Maybe next time..

looking up to Karoni castle. The weather prevented an exploration. Maybe next time..

Koroni’s an attractive up-market little place. They’re putting up the Christmas decorations in all the cafes and there’s still enough locals around to give the place some life. The weather, however, has gone from bad to worse and we move back from the front to avoid the worst of the approaching storm and don’t leave the van. It rains hard, all night.

It’s still raining in the morning as we head towards Camping Finikes just beyond Finikounda. There are several long-term residents and we decide it’ll do. There are very few alternatives anyway.

Camping Finikes (Friday 12th Dec – Mon 4th Jan):

At this time of year, reception is closed up and there’s a note on the door saying speak to Rod on pitch 1A. Rod is English and has run things for the owners over the winter in exchange for his pitch for the past 6 years – not such a great deal, we decided, especially considering all the gardening and tree maintenance work he does. He looks after the chickens too; meaning an easy supply of fresh eggs whilst we’re here.

The campsite is unfortunately a bit dark and dreary under all the trees and artificial shade made from palm fronds supported on metal ‘pergodas’. It may well be necessary in the summer heat, but it’s not great at this time of year. Thankfully we manage to get a spot on the front line which is somewhat open and we can see the sea across a narrow stretch of sand-dunes.

The beach on our doorstep

The beach on our doorstep

DSC03796

We settle in and meet the neighbours. We’ve got German couples both sides of us. Both have been coming here for years and stay all winter. There are more Germans, some of whom live in Hungary, confusing us with their Hungarian number plates. There’s also French, Dutch and later a couple more English and an Austrian. Oh, and a Norwegian, who is actually another German in disguise. Quite a multi-national community, the majority of whom speak good English – luckily for us!

The surrounding area is dotted with empty holiday villas and even the town is virtually deserted at this time of year. It feels a bit odd living in our isolated expat world with virtually no local contact. We don’t even see them much of the time.

There’s a wonderful beach, great for swimming, only a minute from our door. We swim a few times whilst we’re there (Christmas day – check), but really it’s too cold to stay in for long.
We get out walking and cycling a few times whilst we’re here. We cycle to Methoni several times. 3 long slow hills both ways – must get some training in! The other way is worse. The town is disappointingly empty of people. Oops, it’s siesta time again. We’re not very good at getting up and out in the morning, and by the time we’ve got anywhere it’s often lunchtime and shops are beginning to shut up, and any people there are about, disappear indoors. After siesta, 4 – 5pm, it’s definitely time to be heading home and hiding from the plummeting temperatures at this time of year, so we’ve been missing the action. We visit the fort/castle on a particularly beautiful sunny day. It was started by the Venetians, around the 14th century, as much has around the coasts of Greece it seems. It was subsequently completed and improved by the Ottomans before the Venetians managed to take it back.
It once housed the whole town and is mostly in ruins and overgrown now. There’s an interesting mix of Turkish and Christian architecture. We spot both the ruins of Turkish bath houses, with their domed roofs and a multitude of light / ventilation openings (I always wonder if they’re designed to look like stars?). There’s an intact Othodox Christian church, though the roof ‘s been leaking badly and, under restoration, what looks like a more Catholic Christian church. Wandering through the overgrown remains of past centuries, we pick wild baby leeks which are growing everywhere and some lemon sage. There’s a couple of locals picking stuff too. There’s been gardens and cultivation here for centuries, so there’s bound to be some interesting bounty remaining.

3 big hills, Oh and a ford to get to Methoni

3 big hills, Oh and a ford to get to Methoni

inside the extensive fortress

inside the extensive fortress; the remainsof building styles spanning many centuries

The remains of the 'stary' roofs in the turkish style bath houses

The remains of the ‘stary’ roofs in the turkish style bath houses

an Ottoman addition

The lighthouse / prison / lookout / ultimate retreat point on the islet beyond the castle – it made a good lunch spot for us.

wild leeks  in the grounds

wild leeks in the grounds

Mmm tasty

Mmm tasty

A drive out to Pylos, a little up the west coast, reveals ‘Divari Lagoon’ just to the north. It’s home to migrating birds including Flamingos, Black Winged Stilts and others. We ‘daringly’ spend a night away from the campsite here, and walk to Paleokastro castle the following day. The route out the opposite side of the castle has to be seen to be believed! It goes almost vertically downwards, with much use of dodgy improvised steps and handrails, to the stunning perfect horseshoe cove beyond. It’s a good job we found the alternative route back or Elaine might still be there; having flatly refused to return by the same route. We spend a beautifully quiet night in this isolated spot and wonder why we’re staying at a campsite? Heading back into Pylos the following day, we find a busy ‘proper’ town where the locals live, as opposed to deserted ‘holiday land’ where we are. We shop here just before Christmas and everything seems very festive and people are wishing each other “Kala Christougenna” (Merry Xmas). It’s tempting to stay parked up there by the harbour.

a perfect 'Heidi spot'

a perfect ‘Heidi spot’

Looking down from Paleokastro to the perfect curve of Voidokilid beach

Looking down from Paleokastro to the perfect curve of Voidokilid beach

made it!

made it!

The weather is very mixed. We do have some warm sunshine and occasionally even get the shorts out, but we also have days and days of rain and cold, meaning we hibernate in the van and don’t manage to get out and speak to people as much as we’d like. We meet ‘the famous’ Barry and Margaret from MagBaz travels: http://www.magbaztravels.com and spend an enjoyable afternoon getting to know them over a glass of wine. Barry and Margaret have been travelling in various combinations of motorhome, van and caravan and of course bicycle for more than 20 years. If you’ve got similar plans, do have a look at their website; you won’t be disappointed! We also met Ian and Judit: http://www.bessyonthemove.weebly.com whos website has been another source of useful information to us. Much as we enjoyed their very spacious van, I don’t fancy driving 7.6! metres around some of the places we’ve bee