Friday, 4 February 2011

Greece 6

We’ve got gas again. Regular followers will have realised that the hunt for gas suppliers who will refill our Norwegian 5kg bottle or the little Camping Gaz 907s is a recurring theme on our travels. This time it was a gas bottling plant tucked away beside olive groves on the edge of Kalamáta that did the business for us. They were obviously used to foreigners turning up with different shapes and sizes of bottle, as the transaction was completed quickly and almost wordlessly, for the princely sum of €9 for 5 kg of gas – compare with up to €28 for 2.75 kg of Camping Gaz in some countries we’ve visited!

Kalamáta is the largest town for miles around. It was almost levelled by an earthquake in September 1986, not that you’d know that now, since the straight, apartment-lined streets leading down to the harbour look little different from other modern Greek towns we’ve seen. On the drive out we skirted the older Kástro district further inland, whose stone buildings, little squares and attractive winding streets withstood the quake better. We wished we had stopped for a coffee and a wander here, but something was calling us on, so we headed straight out of town.

The road out of Kalamáta had several stretches of well executed wall art on an ecological theme. We had visions of the local school sending its naughty kids out there with “go and paint by the busy roadside, dears”.

For nearly a month now we been within sight of the snowy peaks of the Taíyetos (Taygetos/Taigettos) mountains, which rise to over 2400 metres and catch the eye from miles around. They kept calling to Rob in particular, so, taking advantage of the continuing warm weather, we decided to make a little detour into the mountains to get a closer view. We left Kalamáta on the main road to Spárti (Sparta), which began almost immediately to climb into a steep gorge in a spectacular series of hairpin bends. We soon left behind the olive groves, to drive by pale, stony hillsides dotted with scrub, which gave way conifers as the road began to level further up. Occasional villages nestled in niches in the hillsides, and we noticed areas of terracing hacked out of the steep slopes around them, mostly abandoned, but a few in the valleys still sporting patches of brighter green or signs of recent ploughing.

The Scalextric track that is the road to Spárti

We stopped for the night on a broad ledge that had obviously served at one time for logging operations, but now gave us a magnificent vantage point for sunset. If anything it looked even better by moonlight and again in the morning sun, and our only reservation was the mountain temperature, which at nearly 1100 metres dropped to 1°C compared to the 10°C or so that we’d been enjoying on the coast. The next day, Tuesday 18th January, we followed a minor road parallel to the ridge of the mountains north towards the village of Diráhi, stopping to picnic by a chapel at the end of a steep track at over 1500 metres. The views along the ridge to the snowy peaks from here were stunning, but the air had an icy edge even in the warm 2 o’clock sunshine. The road from Diráhi back towards Kalamáta ran along the side of a deep, deep gorge, whose depths were in shadow by the time we headed back down to the coast.

Overnight spot in mountains and chapel

The gorge below Diráhi

We continued westwards around the coast after Kalamáta. The plains around Messíni were very fertile, and sacks of oranges, onions and potatoes were on sale at the roadside. We noticed here many groups of gypsies, some living in shack-like tents like the semi-nomadic gypsy tribes in Bulgaria. We saw this no-where else in the Peloponnese, either before, or (to date) after.
Snow on the Taíyetos mountains

The Messinian peninsula forms the south-west corner of the Peloponnese, and is guarded by huge mediaeval Venetian fortresses at Koróni and Methóni. On the angle between the Ionian and Aegean seas, this coast lay on important pilgrimage and trade routes from the western Mediterranean to the Middle East, which the Venetians sought to control and protect. Methóni in particular became a key stop-over point for ships on these routes, and the Venetian presence lasted for several hundred years, on and off.


We visited Koróni first. It is a pretty place, small and quiet out of season but in many ways like a mini Náfplio, the neat streets of its old town squeezed between the harbour and the hill-top fortress.  On the way into town we passed several signs telling motorhomes to use the designated parking space, but we blithely drove straight past them, imagining that they were to ease summer congestion only. When we got to the very clear “NO MOTORHOMES” sign, in English, we did waver momentarily, before plunging into the narrow street leading up to the fortress. By the time a man started waving at us and saying ‘no’ we knew it hadn’t been our best idea, but thought there must be somewhere to turn round outside the fortress. It all made for a long, white-knuckle reverse, and the next time we visited we sheepishly parked in the designated carpark on the edge of the old town. (note: Lesley is all for substituting ‘Rob’ for ‘we’ in these sentences).


The fortress’s military days are long over, and these days the interior is occupied by olive groves and quiet village-like cobbled lanes, with a nunnery taking up one end of the site. We were amused by the fact that I (Lesley) was given a wrap around skirt to wear in the nunnery, my trousers obviously not being considered decent enough for female attire.


That night we found an ideal spot on a sheltered little beach at Faneroméni to the south of Koróni. We stayed for two beautiful clear, moonlit nights and one hot day, and only moved on when the weather changed and the rain started.

Overnight spot at Faneroméni beach

It rained pretty much for the next five days, and we decided that that was a good time to be on a campsite, where at least we had electricity and internet and could put our feet up until the weather improved. Camping Finikes at nearby Finikoúnda (Foinikounta) fitted the bill, and we were there from the 21st to 26th of January. It is an attractive and well-run place, with a lot of shade (not so vital now, but very welcome, I would imagine, in hotter seasons), and rather strangely, keys to a private shower and toilet cubicle for each van. There were also more Brits in one place than we’ve seen since the Motorhome Facts meet on the Mosel last June, many on extended winter stays.


Finikoúnda village in the winter is rather forlorn, with closed tavernas and bars and hotels far outnumbering the open ones. The campsites, however, lie on a very attractive long, sandy beach, but unfortunately when we were there it was more suited to bracing dog-walks than swimming or sun-bathing.


We’ve been foraging again. This time it has been for wild leafy greens, otherwise known as horta. We’d been buying them to have as salad greens, but we began to realise that several people were obviously out and about gathering them, either that or doing a bit of general weeding of the countryside. We spotted these horta-gatherers, armed with a knife and a plastic bag, and on asking what they were picking they kindly showed us as a variety of dandelion-like plants. Horta can be sweet, tart, or bitter, and Rob has developed his own scientific approach to discovering which ones we can eat – he tastes them. They are meant to be tremendously healthy and we’ve been eating different kinds raw in salads or lightly wilted as a side dish, simply dressed with fresh lemon juice and olive oil, and hunks of feta cheese on top (though maybe the oil and cheese negate the health benefits). One excellent discovery has been wild wood sorrel – or oxalis stricta - which has a wonderfully lemony flavour. The clover-like leaves and yellow flowers look just like the pink oxalis I grow at home and has me wondering if the flavour of my garden oxalis would be as good – I’ll have to get Rob to taste it some time!


Methóni’s fortress occupies a long promontory beyond the modern town, and on first sight the massive walls appear to almost enclose the bay. The battlements and bastions remain almost intact, and bear the lion emblem of Venice at several places in the stonework. The inside, however, is a jumble of grassy mounds and low masonry, the buildings having been demolished by the French forces that took Methóni in the 1820s during the Greek Wars of Independence.


The next stop on our way round the Peloponnese was Pylos (here I (Rob) depart from our usual spelling of Greek names – I would normally write Pílos but ‘Pylos’ with a ‘y’ is too well established to be worth fighting). It is another pretty harbour town with strong echoes of both Yíthio and Náfplio, although much smaller than either. The reason for its appeal lies not only in its own inherent charm, but also its location on Navaríno Bay, a large expanse of sea that appears almost landlocked by the long, craggy Sfaktiría (Sphacteria) island that separates it from the open ocean. The bay was the site of a decisive sea battle in 1827, when the Turkish fleet was sunk by a combined British, French and Russian naval force, thus opening the way to the first stage of Greek independence from the Ottomans. The white needles of memorials to the sailors of the three allies can be seen on the shores of Sfaktiría and other islands in the bay.


We parked for the night on the large harbour-front area just at the edge of Pylos town centre. There was another, more attractive jetty right in front of the main square, but the obvious ‘no camping’ signs made us think twice – but not so a German motorhome, which spent the night there without any obvious problems.

Pylos – Buildings on main square, sunset over entrance to Navaríno Bay and memorial to 1827 sea battle

The next night we moved on a short distance around Navaríno Bay, and parked below another old fortress, Navaríno Castle, whose ruins crown the next crag beyond the end of Sfaktiría island. On one side of us ran the narrow outlet from Navaríno Bay into the sea, on the other lay Yiálova (Gialova) Lagoon, which is separated from the bay by a narrow sandspit and attracts many species of birds – the most interesting of which, for us, were the flock of flamingos. It poured with rain most of the night, and we correctly calculated that no-one would be enforcing the ‘no camping’ signs in January.

Navaríno Bay and flamingos on Yiálova Lagoon

On Friday and Saturday, 28th & 29th January, we drove slowly north through another fertile coastal strip given over to smallholdings and olive groves. Several villages had been enlarged by the addition of holiday homes and at several points along the main road side roads ran down to small, secluded beaches, one of which we stopped at on Friday night. The only place where we spotted any particularly tasteless holiday developments was just outside the small town of Filiatrá, where a returned émigré, Harry Fournier, had built the most spectacularly awful Disney castle affair. He also erected a mini Eiffel Tower and a replica of the globe from the 1964 New York Expo in Filiatrá.

Filiatrá kitsch

Why? Heaven only knows. However, on the whole this stretch of coast is very low key in terms of landscape and sights. It is pleasant and I’m sure would be wonderful in warmer weather, but the rain made it feel a bit dull in all sorts of ways. We spent Saturday and Sunday by a pretty stretch of sandy beach, among the dunes, just north of Kyparissía, by the village of Kakóvatos, and took the opportunity to go out for a great Sunday lunch in a beach front taverna.

Kakóvatos beach

We were ready for a change though, and the forecast of a couple of warmer, drier days, made us decide to head inland from the small town of Zacháro, and get Rob another of his longed-for mountain fixes. Our map had the route marked with a green ‘scenic’ line, and boy was it! We climbed steadily, going round many hairpin bends, through a landscape which gradually changed from terraced fields to steep, rock-strewn hillsides where small towns, such as Andrítsena, Karítena, Stemnítsa and Dimitsána, clung precariously to gorges. The towns were stunningly pretty, with stone houses lining twisting cobbled streets and small squares with tavernas and cafes. All had seen much restoration, presumably for a busy summer tourist trade (what these roads must be like then!) but in January they were mostly dormant, with just a few smoking chimneys giving off any signs of life. These highlands were also the first place in Greece that we had seen real running water rather than dry stony riverbeds, and the valleys were full of fast-flowing streams amongst the lush meadows.

Mountain villages of Andrítsena and Dimitsána

The 31st of January also marked the anniversary of buying the van, and we thought back to the chilly Sunday afternoon one year ago when we first drove it out of the dealer’s.

We had been including the snowy peaks of mountains in the background of our photos for days, and as we climbed higher they were always just above us. Then, just after Dimitsána, we found ourselves driving through a landscape of thick snow. The roads were perfectly clear, but a good few inches of pristine white blanket was all around and the temperature plummeted to 1°C, which was worrying, given that we had planned to overnight on a ledge somewhere up there. Luckily, just as suddenly as we drove above the snowline, we also drove out of it, and eventually, by 6 p.m., found a suitable roadside spot above a gorge, between the tiny villages of Mygdaliá and Drakovoúni, where we kept our fingers crossed that the temperature would not dip into minus figures causing our water to freeze. As it was we were fine, and woke to bright morning sunshine, though with a bite, rather than a nip, to the air. The intensity of the light lent a real crispness to the views across the layers of peaks stretching into the distance and we had a great many ‘wows’ as we continued north through the heart of the mountains.

We certainly were not planning on camping in the snow. Instead we plumped for this overnight spot near Drakovoúni

We stopped for a brief shop in Klitoriá, an attractive small town on a flat plain surrounded by the mountains, after which we climbed steeply, passing close to (but not through) Kalávrita (Kalavryta) and heading above the snowline again. This time we saw the temperature drop to -1°C, which, in the middle of the afternoon, had us feeling happy to leave the cold and make our descent towards the coast at Eyio (Egio, Aigio), where we overnighted by the beach. We ate out again here, and had a superb meal, very different to any we’ve had in Greece so far, having a definite (say it very quietly!) Turkish feel – it included sogana (stuffed onions), stuffed peppers, and yiaourtolou, which was stewed beef chunks on a bed of pitta topped with tomato sauce and yoghurt, which was remarkably like a meals we have tasted on the other side of the Aegean.

Mountain views

Our thoughts by now were turning to Italy, and which ferry route to choose from Greece. There are ferries to Brindisi from both Pátra in the Peloponnese, and Igoumenítsa in north-west Greece. Initially we favoured Pátra, but with a journey time of 15 hours as opposed to only 7 from Igoumenítsa, we eventually opted for the latter as it will make travelling with the dog easier. That gave us an extra 250 km or so to do up the west coast, which we decided to take at a leisurely pace, sticking as close to the coast as possible rather than use the new inland motorway. We set off on Wednesday 2nd February, crossing over the Gulf of Corinth on the new suspension bridge from Río to Andírrio.

Bridge from Río to Andírrio and fortress

The coast around Messolóngi was flat and marshy, and after one wrong turn that put us on an unmarked piece of motorway for 14km, got back to the rocky Ionian coast at Astakós, where we stopped for the night in a deserted cove backed by a olive trees. It would have been a beautiful spot, save for the piles of rubbish left presumably by years of holidaymakers and fishermen. Sadly, this aspect of Greece, the ever-present fly-tipping and ‘don’t care’ attitude towards rubbish, has increasingly come to bug us during our stay here. The constant, buffeting winds that rocked the van all night didn’t improve matters but we awoke to another fine bright morning.

Marathias beach nr Astakós - overnight spot with accompanying fly-tip

The Ionian coast up to Igoumenítsa is a highly scenic succession of cliffs, quiet beaches, bays and views of islands, including big-name destinations such as Kefalonia, Paxos and Corfu. We stopped for a second night by a long sandy beach north of Préveza in front of an out-of-season restaurant, then meandered the last few kilometres into Igoumenítsa on Friday 4th February, where we bought a ticket for the 23:59 sailing that night to Brindisi in Italy.


So it’s goodbye to Greece after 9 weeks. I (Rob) am pleased that I can now get by in survival Greek to the same level as the many other languages in which I can string a mangled sentence together, despite the efforts of so many Greeks to frustrate me by speaking fluent English. I can do most of my shopping in the language, and was making great advances reading a Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlet (honestly, it’s just because the language is straightforward and I know the stories already!). But anyway, it’s back to Italian from tomorrow.

I (Lesley) had really looked forward to going to Greece, and it has not disappointed. It’s been a very easy country to motorhome in during this off season period. I’ve no idea what it might be like in the summer – hot and crowded is my bet – but for December and January it has been great. The people have been friendly, the food tasty, the tourist sites interesting and the scenery spectacular – and you can’t ask too much more of travel than that. 

1 comment:

  1. you're very lucky people! as we sit in wet and windy South Yorkshire, we dream of returning in July to the Peloponnese. We love it there and have been for the last five summers. It's never really busy- except for the Stoupa beaches and even there you can find somewhere quiet. It's a pity I hadn't seen your blog till now as I could have helped you out- especially with Koroni!! check out if you haven't already. I've written some stuff there- (maggie bevis) happy travels,