18th to 31st December 2010
“We’re going over the canal!” And there it was, below the road, the ruler-straight length of steep-sided canyon slicing through the bright orange earth, wide enough for one ship only. We hadn’t expected to be on this road. Last time we came this way, on a fly-drive holiday in 2008, we’d gone over an odd little bridge at the Gulf of Corinth end, which submersed to let boats through. This time we were on the main road bridge, about half way along the canal, and quite invisible from the surrounding land until you are upon it. You get a real feel of the canal’s length and depth from this bridge. They were advertising bungee-jumping here. I think not!
Present-day Corinth is modern port city little more than 100 years old, but 7 km inland is Ancient Corinth, the site of the city from classical to mediaeval times (and which the apostle St Paul visited, complaining afterwards in his letters to the Corinthians (see the Bible) about the loose behaviour of the inhabitants). We drove through the modern city for a quick look, but then headed inland to Ancient Corinth, arriving yet again just as the ruins were closing for the day. There was a “camper-stop”, being built in the village, but we decided to carry on wild camping. On our way out we looked at the excavations of the ancient city through the fence and decided we could see all we wanted from there.
Another 4km inland, high above Ancient Corinth on the crown of a steep hill and dominating the landscape for miles around, lies the site of Acrocorinth. It began life as an acropolis for Ancient Greek Corinth, and the commanding fortress remained in continuous use through the periods of Roman, Byzantine, Frankish Crusaders, Venetian and Turkish rule. The citadel was occupied and maintained right up until Greek independence from Turkey in the 1820s. However, it was also closed by the time we got there. On a less windy evening we would happily have overnighted in its car park and waited for it to open the following morning, but with a virtual gale blowing, we knew it wasn’t to be our spot for this night and decided to head to the nearest coast in search of a bit more shelter.
We ended up at Loutrá Oréa Elénis on the west coast, by a small harbour frequented by fishermen – always a good sign in our experience. Nearby we met a Greek chap who came over to chat. He and Rob got talking about fishing and the guy inspected our Norwegian rod and lures, pronouncing them usable here in the Med. He must have known his stuff, because following his advice Rob caught his first fish since Norway. It was an impressive metre long, but only about 4cm wide – about the size of a man’s belt, hence one of its names, belt fish or scabbard fish. When Googled, the catch even turned out to be edible, and we found a reassuring picture of it on sale on an Italian market. Cooking it had to wait though, as we had already decided that it was an evening for a meal out, and we had some superb fresh fish in a nearby restaurant.
First catch since Norway, at Loutrá Elénis
On Sunday 19th December we drove back to truly impressive Acrocorinth. The views from the top were stunning, and the weather was hot and sunny (14˚C at the top), making it pleasant to just clamber about until the site closed at 3 p.m.
We decided to head next for Náfplio (Nafplion, Nauplion), on a secondary route driving south across the hills, which climbed to over 700m after the village of Ayionóri. The rocky hillsides were covered in low dry-stone terracing, creating hundreds of tiny fields. There were a great many of the animal fold shacks on these hills and in them we could see lots of very young lambs and kids. Once over these hills we were on the plains around Argos, where the orange groves stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. It was obviously harvest time and lorries stacked high with crates of oranges trundled past us and unloaded at big distribution warehouses, where they were then loaded up onto even larger lorries for their journey to wherever. Perhaps one ended in your Christmas stocking!
Oranges and olives
Stone walls near Ayionóri
We liked Náfplio. The old town has a rather un-Greek air about it, and the shuttered stone townhouses on little squares and narrow pedestrian streets could easily be in Italy, or in old Venetian towns on the Croatian coast. Like much of the Peloponnese, Náfplio was indeed ruled by Venice for some time, and the fortress above the town is liberally plastered with the Venetian emblem, the lion of St. Mark, to prove it. It also has a number of well-preserved mosques, although all now serving other purposes such as the cathedral and the council chambers. This in itself is unusual in Greece where most traces of the 400-year Ottoman period were either destroyed or left to rot after Greek independence in the 1820s. The old town is largely given over to tourism these days but that can’t disguise its charms, and on the Sunday we arrived it was full of Greek weekenders who were gone by Monday morning. The harbour-front cafés made excellent places to sit watching the world and catching up with emails.
Náfplio – town
Life in Náfplio is easy for motorhomers, as the huge carpark by the dock provides almost unlimited free parking. We met the Belgian couple from Vólos again, and spotted French and Greek vans nearby. We stayed for two nights.
Náfplio – van on harbour
After Náfplio we continued down the east coast of the Peloponnese, to the old Byzantine port of Monemvasiá. The road at first hugged the coast, running high above the sea past endless coves and headlands, but after Leonídio it turned inland to avoid a wild area of particularly steep cliffs. We drove past mountain villages and over a high plateau covered in gorse-like scrub. The whole area seemed to be devoted to herding, and we camped up in sight of a collection of sheep and goat huts. The shepherds’ dogs were both wary and curious about us, and barked at us episodically through the night.
We passed a dump of old steam locomotives at Míli (Myli, Myloi)
We got to Monemvasiá on Wednesday 22nd December. At first you see only a huge flat-topped rocky outcrop sitting just offshore, connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway to the pleasant but nondescript village of Yefíra (Gefyra) opposite it on the landward side. However, as you continue around the side of the rock, you are suddenly confronted with a fortified stone wall, whose gate is wide enough for pedestrians only.
The rock of Monemvasiá
Inside the gate are the remains of a complete town, the first few streets lined by restored houses serving as hotels, tavernas or tourist shops, which gradually give way to shells of buildings and unidentifiable ruins. Monemvasiá had its heyday under the late Byzantine empire, until that was snuffed out by the Turks in 1453. After that it survived Turkish and Venetian rule and continued to be occupied until the early 20th century, by which time the newly-opened Corinth canal rendered a major port in this position superfluous, and it dwindled to the size of a village before mass tourism came along and suggested other uses for the abandoned houses.
Monemvasiá – lower town
We stopped for Wednesday and Thurday nights some 16km to the south of Monemvasiá, in the attractive little bay of Ayiós Fókas where the tarmac road finally runs out at a causeway to a little harbour chapel. It was a quiet spot, where the few houses had mostly a closed-for-the-season look, and we were able to cook over an open fire a couple of metres from the sea. We returned the next day for a second look at the ruins of Monemvasiá, and did the bulk of our Christmas food shopping in Yefíra at the same time. I (Rob) concentrated this time on Monemvasiá’s upper town, which sits above precipitous cliffs that loom over the more accessible lower town which most visitors see. It is a different, wilder world up here, where a vast jumble of ruined walls poke through the vegetation. Of all the buildings that once populated this plateau, only the Ayia Sofia church still stands substantially intact, having been restored in the 1950s. The rest seem to have been abandoned quite quickly after the expulsion of the Turks in the 1820s, when the military need for such a citadel disappeared.
Monemvasiá – upper town
The weather took a remarkable turn for the better in the days before Christmas, and by Monemvasiá we were enjoying daytime temperatures in the mid-20s, as well as balmy nights that saw us opening skylights and throwing off the extra blankets that we’ve come to rely on these last few months. With the winter warmth came the more unwelcome side effect of flies and so the painstakingly hand-sewn (it took Lesley most of Norway) fly curtain for our panel van’s gaping side door, was once again velcroed into position The warm weather also meant we started eating a lot of salad again – and Greece is a good place for this as there is so much excellent fresh local veg on sale, plus the addition of great olive oil and feta cheese.
Ayiós Fókas camping spot
One of our aims for this trip was to be in Greece for Christmas and to have a bit of a break from travelling. Staying put in one place for more than two days really means we have to hook-up to electricity (oh how we wish we had solar panels!), and so we decided that of our Christmas break would be spent on a campsite near the pretty harbour town of Yíthio (Gythio, Gytheio, Gythion). We chose Yíthio partly because we liked the place two years ago and partly because we knew a couple of the campsites there were definitely open all year. We’d heard from an English family, the Pritchards, who were staying at one of them, Gythion Bay Camping, and said it was great, so we headed off in that direction.
Ellinikó village, Laconia
The journey from Ayiós Fókas to Yíthio turned out to be a very long 65 miles by the route we took across the hills. We wouldn’t advise it for anything big, as it climbs steeply with some sharp switch-back bends that saw our wheels slipping a bit. It was a wonderful drive though, which crossed the mountains of the Maleas peninsula through villages which seemed to tumble down the hillsides. Once down the other side, the land levelled out until we were driving across another area of flat, agricultural plains where numerous migrant workers of very Indian appearance, obviously Muslims by their clothing, were engaged in harvesting oranges.
Shipwreck on beach near Yíthio
We arrived in Yíthio by late afternoon on Christmas Eve. The numerous harbour-side restaurants looked inviting but they were for another day, and we drove on through until we found the campsite, which is one of several along the broad sweep of Mavrovoúni Beach. Christmas Day itself was a very low key affair, with none of the usual trimmings for Rob to get all bah humbug about. On Boxing Day evening we had far too much to drink with another Brit staying on the campsite, John, who intends to make his way to China at a leisurely pace on his motorcycle. Not being ones to learn our lesson we repeated the whole event two nights later and enjoyed our wide ranging conversations with an interesting guy.
So that was it. Our aim to be in Greece by Christmas was fulfilled after 8 months of travelling. We think we’ll see in New Year at Yíthio and then slowly move round the bottom of the Peloponnese for most of January. After that it should be a ferry to Italy, where we have plans to meet family for a weekend in February, before we have to think about routes home which avoid cold or snow.
Happy New Year to all of you from Lesley, Rob and Charlie dog. XXX
Hristópsomo – Greek Christmas bread