31st December 2010 to 10th January 2011
The New Year’s Eve festivities began at around 4 p.m. when everyone started gathering on the beach, the adults carrying chairs and tables from the campsite. Wood had been gathered over the previous two days, and had already been piled up ready for a bonfire by impatient children who were eagerly awaiting darkness.
A barbecue pit was dug with much discussion, and after rearrangement of coals and grills, Swiss intervention with a blow-torch, plus German assistance with a tiny hand- held battery fan, the charcoal was finally hot enough for the various kebabs and other goodies that people had brought along. As dusk fell the fire was lit, the chairs were moved to form a ring around the roaring pyramid of flames and heat, and we all sat chatting and drinking into the night.
New Year’s Eve celebrations
We were a group of Brits, Germans and Swiss, in fact all the guests that night on the Gythion Bay campsite on Mavrovoúni Beach near Yíthio. We came from five camper vans and a tent and were a mixed bunch, which included our neighbours the Pritchard family, John the motorcyclist, a retired Swiss couple, a German couple in a small van similar to our own and a German woman who had just arrived in a van and trailer to buy new olive oil to take back to Germany, but who knew the area well, having previously spent several years living a hippy lifestyle on a neighbouring beach.
New Year’s Eve celebrations
It was a fantastic evening which brought everyone together, and the conversation – like the wine - flowed. Most were still there to see in the New Year at midnight, and the last stalwarts sat around the still-hot embers until about 2 a.m. (although to be honest our memories are pretty hazy by that point).
New Year’s Eve celebrations
We stayed at the Gythion Bay campsite for a total of 17 days, from Christmas Eve to 10th January, which was by far our longest stop anywhere since leaving home last May. To misquote a song (prizes if you can identify it), we spent the winter wasting, the time passed by so pleasantly. I (Rob) would often go into Yíthio on my bike for some shopping, and pass a couple of hours happily checking out the different butchers’, fishmongers’, greengrocers’ and bakers’ with maybe a Greek coffee and pie of some kind for good measure, while Lesley spent time on her writing. We, and Charlie, had plenty of walks on the long beach, enjoying the changing light on the sea and the surrounding hills. After months of travelling on our own, it was nice too to be in a place with some company, and we liked having people around each day to chat to.
I (Rob) went for a couple of longer bike rides, once into the villages at the foot of Taíyetos (Taygetos) mountains inland from Yíthio, and once across the top of the Máni peninsula to Areópoli, which included some lovely coastal stretches.
Bike ride to Areópoli – taking a break on Skoutári beach
We went into Yíthio with John one day for lunch at one of the many restaurants around the harbour, and then walked around the quayside trying to work out the fishing methods used here. One fisherman will place a number of small hand reels on the quayside, the lines in the water, and wait. Small fish are caught with a bread bait, and they then seem to be used in turn as bait for larger fish, or, we wondered, for octopus. Local fishermen’s lore evidently plays its part, for some days the quayside was empty, and on other days you could not move for fishing lines.
Meal in Yíthio
The 6th of January is Epiphany, which appeared to be a more important date in the Orthodox Christian calendar than the 25th December. In Greece this day is marked in many places with a Blessing of the Waters ceremony, which in Yíthio takes place on the harbour. We were in town bright and early with John, and settled down for a coffee in the square, where a decorated table and microphones had been set up at the water’s edge by local coastguards in full dress uniform. We, however, soon felt quite underdressed as the crowds began to arrive in their Sunday best, and by the time the marching band and military guard of honour had processed with the priests from the church, we realised that sitting had been an error and we would see only the backs of heads. The form of the ceremony is apparently much the same everywhere; the priest intones a blessing, then casts a cross into the water, and young men dive in competing to be the first to retrieve it. In Yíthio there were three priests, and the quayside rang out to a loud, insistent chanting that passed from one cleric to another. To our foreign ears it all sounded quite primitive and mesmerising. We saw the cross fly through the air, attached to a long ribbon, there was a flurry of excitement in the crowd and suddenly people were leaving and we saw a small number of youths drying themselves on the harbour steps. It was all over.
Blessing of the Sea in Yíthio
The celebratory atmosphere continued though, as people quickly occupied all the café and restaurant tables and settled down for big sociable lunches. We just about managed to find a place, and enjoyed the warm sunshine while waiting a very long time for service from the overstretched waiter and kitchen.
With such good weather we had wanted to have a small beach barbecue that evening, but as we gathered wood at 5 p.m., a strong wind blew up and we decided to hold it by our van. We got a good blaze going in the brazier and John joined us for drinks and grilled meats.
The weather continued to get warmer, and we got our first swim of 2011 in the sea on the 8th of January. Not all that warm, but after years of swimming in the North Sea off Norfolk, it felt pretty good to us.
Gythion Bay Camping is sited in a grove of olive and orange trees. We were tempted to try and cure our own olives, but on reading that you need to change the water daily for two weeks to remove the bitterness, before storing in brine for a couple of months, we decided it was too much like hard work in a van and opted instead to make marmalade. With none of the usual equipment available – no weighing scales and no jam thermometer – we still managed to perfect a recipe and made about 6 lbs of golden orange nectar. Get in touch if you ever find yourself camped near a plentiful supply of the fruit and we will share our secret!
Orange trees on the campsite – and a campsite pig
Lovely as it was at Mavrovoúni Beach, we decided the time had come to move on and see the rest of the Peloponnese. We were going to go on Saturday, but it was very sunny. We were going to go on Sunday, but glorious weather delayed us yet again. Eventually, on Monday 10th January, we packed up, paid up, said all our goodbyes and left, heading towards the rugged and austere landscape of the Mani, which we visited two years ago, and where the mad idea of giving up our jobs and travelling for a while began to form.
Gythion Bay Camping, and view of the Taíyetos mountains
It’s a hard life – January 9th 2011