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Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Europe Trip 2008 - Mani Beach to Epidavros

12th June.
Camping Mani Beach could get addictive, but after only 2 nights we reluctantly dragged ourselves away – what a superlative swimming beach, and in the early morning, all ours to enjoy alone, unforgettable.

Making our way around the east side of the Lakonikos Gulf we spotted a beach with access from the road – two motorhomes visible through the scrubby vegetation. There was a campsite nearby, just before the turn off for the beach, but it was closed, the tatty sign forlorn.
Parking up by the beach we soon noticed that fresh water showers had been installed along the pavement. Two were in working order and even had a screw connection water tap fitted into the pipe – how very thoughtful!

Sue had a chat with the German and French couples in the two elderly coachbuilt vans: they both intended staying the night; the French for 3-4 days. At the far end of the lane there was a rough turning circle and in a tiny battered panel van were a middle aged couple and a young girl, with what looked like all their worldly possessions. We guessed they were probably an immigrant family, but they looked harmless enough, in fact we felt sorry for them.

The beach shelved very slowly and we had to wade out a long way to find the depth to swim in; the water was not as clean as Mani Beach but it’s obviously a popular spot with families.

When all the day trippers had gone there were just the four vans left, the wind died down and we dined with the sound of waves lapping on the shore, together with a field of crickets singing their heads off! The simple street lights, with just a single domestic size energy-saving lamp, gave off a little more light than a full moon – I rather liked them.

13th June.
The family in the little van drove off at the crack of dawn – off to do some fruit picking?
We topped up our water and carried on working our way down the coast. Plitra is a pleasant little resort and fishing port with a small harbour. Good for a swim stop-off, but nowhere really to stay overnight.

Boat maintenance in Plitra

At Paralia there is a simple church on a small promontory, made of reinforced concrete but immaculately and typically painted in white and blue.

Amazing how effective blue and white can be in the sunshine

We took the turning off to Marathias, another small coastal resort, thinking we could find our way to Neapoli, but out of town the road disintegrated into a gravel track. Time for some lunch. We turned back slightly and stopped in a gravel car park for a newly made little yacht haven, simply constructed by filling in the gaps between the rocks with a mechanical digger – I wonder if the locals had planning permission for that?

Neapoli is a fairly well developed tourist resort with a long beach front but it didn't light our fire. There was no obvious easy road to the tip of the peninsula so we retraced our steps a bit, then over the tortuous but beautiful mountain road through the tiny villages of Lira and Kalives. By their expressions, we appeared to be something of a novelty to the local residents – sitting outside their tiny café/bar, sipping their cold frothy coffee out of long glasses. It would have been nice to stop and pass the time of day, but there was just nowhere to park the van.

Reaching the coast again a few kilometres south of Monemvasia we found a grassy beachfront pitch which we shared with a pleasant Belgian couple and a late arriving German campervan. The beach however was difficult to swim from, some gravel but mostly treacherous porous rock.
A huge amount of flotsam and jetsam from passing ships littered the foreshore – “over the side” is obviously not “over” yet!

14th June.
Monemvasia is a partially ruined medieval fortified town sitting on the end of a steep rocky peninsula jutting out into the sea, thus making it invisible from the coast behind. It is linked to the mainland by a narrow causeway, but no vehicles are allowed in the medieval centre. The settlement was founded in the 6th Century and had its most prosperous times in the 11th -14th C and the 17th -18th C. After the Russo-Turkish war it fell into decline, but is now being revived as a desirable location for holiday homes as well as tourism.

Main street, Monemvasia
We parked on the gravel coach park just at the end of the causeway and walked past lines of parked cars up the gentle hill to the fortified gate. Despite our early start in the cool of day, by 0830 beads of sweat were already breaking out.

Yes, we did climb to the top!

After a quick inspection of the lower village of Kastro we started the climb to the church of Agia Sofia built on the edge of the cliff. The views became ever more breathtaking (literally) as we picked our way upwards over the rough stone path. The church has been recently restored but there was no public access, however the vertiginous view down to the sea made the hike worthwhile. You can ramble on to the highest point and the old water cisterns but we thought we’d done enough.

By 1000 we were down again but already uncomfortably hot. We visited the church of Christ Elkomenos (Christ in Chains) which was blissfully cool inside and equally atmospheric. Taking refuge next in the air-conditioned museum, there was some interesting stuff on the history of Monemvasia and on the recycling and economic use of building materials.

Finally, it was getting too hot for sight seeing and we beat a retreat. Some provisions were required and I nipped into a nearby butchers. The butcher happened to be female, which struck me as unusual; blown away bouffant blonde hair and heavy mascara added to my curiosity. Queuing for an age whilst she attended to a huge order, I sensed some anger or frustration about her – had her husband done a runner and she then carried on the business? The way she brought that meat cleaver down on the rack of lamb made me wince every time! Thinking about Sue sweltering in the van I thought I’d better move on and made my apologies as best I could – a fearsome returning glare sent shivers down my spine and I half expected a kitchen knife to thud into the door frame as I exited!

Across to the bakery, a shop spectacularly stuffed full of baked, sweet and chocolate delights, I snapped up some mini Baclavas stuffed with fig, which were later served up with Crème Caramel ice cream – sensational. Lastly, into the mini-market for more groceries.

Feeling that we just had to cool off we parked by the side of Pori Beach for a quick swim. A largish and obviously popular bay, but again the slabs of porous rock under the water made swimming shoes essential and the water was a bit rough to enjoy a vigorous swim.

Just as we were rinsing the sand and salt off with the outside shower a workman across the road started up a compressor and started spray-painting his trailer. As the wind was blowing our way and I didn't want a blue tint to the van we made a hasty move. Some large signs by the road proclaimed that free camping was prohibited by law (N2741/1999) and that transgressors would be fined €147 per person per day. I think we got the message.

Next we turned off to Ioannis looking for Laconia gas, an LPG gas depot we had been shown in the German Womo guide and where we thought we could refill our rechargeable bottles. It was closed but I’m not sure we would have ventured in anyhow: the two rusty gas tanks sat in an overgrown compound festooned with fishing nets, an abandoned old tractor and stacks of portable gas bottles – it looked like an accident waiting to happen.

Onwards, we passed a narrow lane turning off to the coast, but climbing the cliff road we could see that the track led to a beautiful little bay, entirely deserted. A quick about turn and down the lane and we were parked a few feet from the stony beach, the water as clear as if it had come from a tap – perfect. Out came the snorkels and flippers and we had a beautiful swim. A few minutes later a car with four young people turned up, but they smiled and went for their swim.

As we were returning from our dip a second car arrived; a rather plump women and a tanned, long haired, younger man emerged. "You can't park here!" – a harsh American accent, probably East Coast. The woman had attitude to match her accent and a rather surreal argument ensued between her and Sue. It turned out that she “was born here” and always camped in this spot, and she was staying for 4 days. No matter what Sue offered to do she wasn’t happy, basically she wanted the whole place to herself and had no intention of being polite or rational about it. Eventually we came to a stalemate, a lot of ruffled feathers on both sides. We stayed where we were, whilst she pitched her tent on a raised area behind. Later, when they went off in their car we moved to another pitch well away from the beach to be out of earshot of her grating voice. We had time to enjoy the sunset in peace.

In the morning we noticed with satisfaction that a German van had come late and parked in the same spot we had vacated. We hoped that they had noisy kids and were staying for a week!

Deserted apart from a little German van and a tent!

15th June.
The road followed the coast for a while and then inland past the amazing sea water lagoon of Limani Gerakos. We passed through several small, almost deserted and dilapidated villages – now we were seriously out in the sticks. We passed an elderly goat herder, riding his donkey back for breakfast, he gave us a friendly wave.

Suddenly Sue shrieked "Snake!" Through the shimmering heat haze in the middle of the road emerged a brown reptile with a pink underbelly, side-winding across the road at amazing speed. Fortunately the van wheels missed it but we failed to get a photo of a very unusual sight.

Our plan had been to reach the coast at Leonidio by rural roads but we came unstuck north east of Agios Dimitrios. Despite our Greek-published map showing a secondary road it came to an end at Kremasti. Arriving past a newly built “Welcome” sign and stone embellishment and a parade of fancy street lights we came into the village square and found it blocked with vehicles. We were advised to go back as the road north of the town “is ended”.

I did an excruciating 5 point turn in the square, squeezing past the parked vehicles – which earned me a round of applause from the spectators in the taverna. There was an interesting looking domed church but we didn’t linger.

So we passed through Agios Dimitrios and Geraki to hit the "main" road north. The scenery became ever more spectacular as we climbed. The village of Kosmas was packed with Sunday-lunchers and their cars and we suffered another bout of white knuckle manoeuvring through its narrow streets.
Stopping for lunch at a spectacularly elevated layby where the cars below seemed like mere specks on the road, we were suddenly disturbed by several large coaches wanting to use the spot as a turning space for visiting the nearby monastery of Theotoku Elonis. One of the drivers got quite irate that we were parked there, but there was no indication we could see that the layby was for that purpose only. We moved as close as we dare to the edge and hurriedly finished our lunch.

The white line at the bottom of the valley is a continuation of the road!

This was one of the most isolated and desolate roads we can remember anywhere; descending, we criss-crossed a dried up river bed until we reached Leonidio. Here we fuelled and were offered the use of a tap to fill up our water tank . Driving to the coast we came across some Camper parking at Plaka; a rough painted sign partially obscured by bushes the only clue, but basically a large car park with access to the beach. €5 a night with a useful pump and dump service – what more do you need? (GPS: 37.1886 N, 22.9050 E)

16th June.
We had a swim before breakfast and continued up the coast, some inviting spots and beautiful vistas, Par.Tirou particularly so.

Then our route moved inland at Myli, on to Argos, arriving at Mycenae around 1700. We drove up to the visitor’s car park, intending to stay there the night and get an early start in the morning. It seemed ideal and we had soon had the place to ourselves – apart from a young man who was hanging around, watching us, long after everyone else had gone. When he started going through the garbage bins, we decided that for peace of mind we’d retire to Camping Mycenae. (GPS: 37.7300N, 22.7541 E)

This is a cramped town campsite under the awnings, but run by a nice family. An ill maintained water pump nearly drove us nuts with its constant starting and stopping until it was switched off around midnight. The support poles for the awnings could have done with some welding as well – rusting through, ours seemed on the point of collapse. Apart from two tents, we were the only guests. (€17)

17th June.
The ancient city of Mycenae was established in the 16th C BC and occupies a wild site on a rocky hillside, surrounded by barren mountains. It became one of the principal cities of what was later known as Mycenaean Culture, reaching the height of its power during the late Bronze Age in the 14th and 13th Century BC, its influence in the Mediterranean world spreading as far as Crete and even Egypt. There is a new museum displaying the treasures excavated on site. (Entry for site and museum € 8).

We raised ourselves quickly and got to the site just after eight, there were only four other Dutch visitors at this time. The low sun makes this a very atmospheric place. From the peak there is a fantastic view and in the quiet of the early morning it was just possible to imagine the valley as it looked 3000 years ago, people pressing olives and mixing clay for pots, smoke rising from kilns used for firing pottery and preparing bronze for casting.

From the ancient city of Mycenae

Some archaeologists were scraping off the topsoil under casually rigged sun shades, elsewhere workmen laboured under the direction of a young conservation officer to rebuild a fragile wall, replacing stone by stone, working from drawings and photographs. So meticulous, but you have to wonder how would most visitors know the difference.

After our look at the tholos “beehive” tombs it was time to visit the museum, I found it fascinating to learn that Bronze tools were being manufactured 3000 years before the birth of Christ, the skills developed on the island of Crete.

So it was back to the coast and Nafplio. Once the capital of Greece it has an old town, several forts and a waterfront crowded with luxury yachts, commercial vessels and pleasure boats. Lots to see but very crowded. Failing to find anywhere suitable to park we decided to find a nearby campsite and use public transport for a visit.

We chose Camping Kastraki, a posh looking site with tight pitches under tall trees and direct access to the beach – an oasis of cool, the sea breeze wafting through the leafy shade. After lunch Nafplio suddenly didn’t seem that interesting anymore, a snooze, a swim, this is more like it.

18th June.
At five o'clock in the morning Sue woke me up to tell me that, for her, the earth had moved! More than that, the van had been rocking on its axles! But alas, I slept through it all!

A few people were up and about, but the rest obviously didn't have Sue's super-sensitive rocking-van indicator. However, we weren't in a great spot if there were any more tremors – wedged between some large trees and a few metres from the water – but I managed to nod off again. Sue stayed up waiting for the aftershocks. As we ascertained later, there had indeed been an earthquake:  5.7 on the Richter Scale, the epicentre close to Argos.

Our next discovery was Iria Beach (GPS: 37.4893 N, 22.9917 E), a gently sloping gravel beach on the east side of a large bay south east of Nafplio. Devoid of any building for hundreds of metres but with an access road, we literally parked on the beach. We holed up for the day and the swimming was glorious.

The simple and glorious pleasures of a beach all to yourself

Later we drove up to the isolated site of ancient Epidavros and parked in the huge grass car park. It was still almost unbearably hot and we left all the windows open (with fly screens) till long after dark. We were just about to do the washing up when I noticed blood running down my arm! Washing it off, a puncture wound was clear to see, and the blood continued to run freely. After a while it stopped, but I had felt absolutely nothing. Thankfully the greedy mossie didn’t leave anything behind and it healed quickly with no other adverse effects.

An early start the next day for our tour of the ancient ruins, including the famous open air theatre.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Europe trip 2008 - Bari to Mani Beach

27th May. On route to Greece.
The vibration from the engines shook us awake at daybreak for the brief stop at Igoumenitsia. The Superfast XII is a smart modern ferry, built in Germany in 2002. In the sparkling morning sunshine we discovered she had a swimming pool and a bar on the bridge deck. In the main deck lounges there are notices warning those without accommodation not to sleep on the seats, but up by the pool there are any number of long fibreglass bench seats containing life jackets – the backpackers were busy packing away their sleeping bags as we scanned the horizon for a first glimpse of Patras.

The ship docked early and we were off in minutes. There was a bit of confusion and shouting with ships officers and customs officers both trying to direct the flow of traffic at the same time, but no passport check, and we turned right to follow the national road N55 down the coast towards Pygros and then Olympia.

Camping Diana (www.greek-holidays.gr/camping-diana) is just a couple of hundred metres from Olympia, yet its shaded terraces obscure all evidence of this small town's tourist shops, hotels and restaurants. It's one of those campsites where you can kid yourselves you have parked in someone's back garden; it has also small but well sited pool, half shaded later in the day. It had been a hot and sticky journey, despite the cab air conditioning and Sue soon had her cossie on and was slipping into the cool water.
At €22 a night (including electricity) it seemed a little pricey but it was perfect for a few days recuperation from my back injury.

28th May.
It was hot overnight, and as soon as the sun was high the temperature shot up to 35ºC plus. Sue looked as if she was going to melt, but we took some gentle swims in the pool and I felt my back starting to loosen up.

29th May.
Another sweltering day and two more trips to the pool. Late in the afternoon a pickup truck laden with fruit and vegetables drove into the campsite and we gratefully stocked up with honeydew melon, huge beef tomatoes, cucumber and more.

30th May.
A slightly cooler day and we ventured outside the campsite for the first time. The town of Olympia is well geared for the tourist trade with the main street lined with Greek art, jewelry and souvenir shops. It had a pleasant atmosphere in the evening nonetheless, and some of the goods on display were of high quality. Sue’s eye zeroed in on a jewel encrusted gold necklace – a mere €5,000. As ever there was a special price on offer, but we didn’t stop to haggle.

The jewellry shop salesman was unwilling to make a recommendation for a restaurant, and we settled on a back street place which didn’t have the usual plastic placards to entice the tourist in. The Tzatziki was thick with a sharp bite and very refreshing; the Greek salad was on the money, but the spit roasted chicken had been hung out to dry. €22 with wine and water.

31st May.
Now for the main event: The Sanctuary of Olympia. Dedicated to the God Zeus, it began to take shape in the 10th and 9th Century BC; the first monumental buildings being erected in 7C and 6C BC. The institution of the Olympic Games – established in 776 BC – thus played an important role in its architectural development.

The games are said to have reached the height of their popularity in the 5C BC, with around 200 thousand people attending. To improve the quality of the competition, a sacred truce for ongoing conflicts was observed for a month while competitors gathered and trained, but the games themselves lasted only five days – including running, boxing, wrestling, discus and javelin, plus horse and chariot racing and cult ceremonies. The last games were held in AD 393, the site afterwards gradually destroyed by earthquakes, floods and plundering, then finally covered in a thick layer of mud.

In 1828, scholars with a French military expedition began the first excavations – removing mosaics and friezes to the Louvre in Paris. Between 1875 and 1871, German explorations uncovered the main layout of the buildings. Excavations periodically continued in the 20th Century, revealing many of the artefacts now displayed in the museum.

The ruins of Olympia are within easy walking distance from the campsite – a stroll over the bridge from the coach park takes you to the modern archaeological museum and ticket office, but you can also buy tickets (€9) from a booth at the entrance to the site itself.

The many coach tours (which have a habit of descending like locusts around you as you attempt to take your photos) visit the ruins in the early morning, then do the museum in the heat of the day. However, if you haven’t done your background reading in advance – and have got your sunhat – you can pick up some history from the museum first and then do the dusty old rocks, thus avoiding the bustling tour groups: Mad dogs and Englishmen...!

The best ploy is perhaps to go mid afternoon when it starts to cool and then have the place virtually to yourselves. There are also museums of the Ancient and Modern Olympic games, both within the town.

1st June.
We prised ourselves out of Camping Diana and said goodbye to the delightful elderly couple who run it, carrying a bag of oranges and a pack of sweet biscuits they had presented us with. With Sue driving once more, we again hit the N55, the “main” road south.

A circuit of Lake Kaiafas on the outskirts of Zacharo didn’t reveal any obvious free camping spots – a tour on a bike would be required to check it out thoroughly. There is an official campsite though on the seaward side. After lunch, we moved onto Kiparissia, the beachfront here sporting a “No Camping” sign in English.

Filiatra and Gargaliani passed by and then the road got interesting, climbing steeply and becoming, what we would consider to be, a narrow minor road. On our Greek-published Orama map however, it was still indicated as a thick red main road, the same as used for sections of dual carriageway!

Having got our GPS up and running again we discovered that Greece was about the only country that CoPilot 6 didn’t at least have rudimentary maps for, (CoPilot 7 has main roads and some cities). Shows how well we did our homework! We did however meet another couple complaining that their Garmin GPS was lost in Greece, so we are not alone.

On down towards Pilos, the landscape below just one endless swathe of olive trees. The Caravan Club book had thrown up Camping Navarino Beach (GPS 36.9469 N, 21.7071 E), so feeling that we had had enough for one day we took a look. “Beach” was the right description for once, and to our delight we were offered a pitch on the edge of the sand – 20 metres from the silky water.

The bay here is virtually a lagoon, almost enclosed by the island of Sfaktiria, but accessible to ships. The beach slopes ever so gently down, the sandy bottom still beneath your feet 50 metres out and the water only up to your waist. Ideal for some gentle splashing around.

There is a restaurant attached to the campsite and we enjoyed some tasty cooked pork and potatoes, with wine and water for less than €20. Dining with us were the only other Brits on the site, Lynne and Russell and Pat and Dave. Pat and Dave were about to leave Greece and planning to do the Albanian coast on their way home. There was some discussion on the merits of this venture (the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website advises against it), but Pat and Dave's research by an MMM Magazine travel consultant had given a green light. They intended to buy compulsory insurance cover at the border.

2nd June.
We slept like babes through the night, lulled by the sound of lapping wavelets and a cool breeze floating through the rear window. So began a sybaritic daily routine of breakfast in the sun: swimming, Greek salad for lunch, afternoon snooze, swim, shower and dinner - Class A rest and recuperation!

3rd June.
Venturing into the village for dinner we discovered a multitude of restaurants to choose from and in a beautiful waterfront setting too. We settled on “Oasis” and were well pleased; the portion of Stifado (Beef stew) was large, perfectly cooked and lifted out of the ordinary by spices and cloves. Sue had what looked like half a leg of lamb on her plate, equally well cooked and presented. Including wine and water, €22.

4th June.
The weather took a dive a bit, becoming cooler, with clouds and more wind, a bit of a chop on the bay. Hard to say what the typical weather is in this location, it’s obviously a popular wind surfing spot as many of the German and Dutch campers appeared to be well entrenched, their windsurfer sails hanging from specially prepared racks to dry.

Many campers also have small inflatable dinghies with outboards, anchored just a few metres off the beach with bits of chain. Our Dutch neighbour upset the residents in the beach house next door by using his giant quad bike to pull a rigid inflatable boat and trailer up the beach – the bike’s spinning wheels creating a sand storm that enveloped their terrace and no doubt landed in their evening gin and tonic!

5th June.
We arranged to have dinner with Lynne and Russell, but Lynne came and fetched us early – or so we thought – it eventually came to light that were still on Italian time. Oops! 10 days in Greece and we hadn't noticed that everyone was an hour ahead of us – laid back or what.

6th June.
We said our farewells and stopped off at Pilos for some more cash; a pleasant coastal town with a small harbour and shaded central square dotted with café and restaurant tables.
Methoni was next, Sue navigated the narrow streets and we found ourselves by the small port and a beachfront Venetian Castle. There is a dirt car park here suitable for an overnight stopover.

On the way we had a look at the Finikes campsite at Finikounta to check out their rates: daily charge €17.50 without a hookup. Sue engaged the multilingual German receptionist in conversation, and on the subject of the Eastern route to Greece, she said that her friends had come through Albania without any problems. In The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) however, she'd heard of children throwing stones at camper vans – perhaps trying to hurt the Greek tourist economy because of the ongoing dispute over the name of Macedonia; Greece of course with her own territory by that name.

We headed down the peninsular as far as Vasilitsi but didn't attempt to get right to the tip of it. Nonetheless we had some tempting glimpses of azure blue sea as we traced the coast northwards.

From our reading, Greece apparently has very high road accident figures within Europe; but after Italy, the traffic, apart from a few boy racers, seemed more relaxed and certainly the roads were less crowded. A red VW Golf had whistled passed us earlier in the afternoon, and a few kilometres before Messini we sadly saw it again, this time in a ditch, the car stove in at the side as if with a giant axe. A large crowd had gathered and we were waved frantically on. As we continued on the road to Kalamata there was a stream of police cars, ambulance and fire service racing towards us.

On the way into Kalamata there seemed to be every major car franchise you could think of, including a FIAT main agent – handy to remember. We stopped off at a French "Champion" supermarket for a large stock up  – my first outing with a shopping trolley since the incident in the Carrefour – and then followed the signs to the waterfront. None of the campsites took our fancy, so after a brief look down the coast we headed on to Stoupa. The road soon became mountainous with many twisting hairpins. We passed through the small town of Kambos and enjoyed some beautiful evening views of the coast approaching Kardamyli.

Camping Calogria (GPS 36.8478 N, 22.2602 E) at Stoupa was easy to find and we settled on a quiet pitch by some eucalyptus trees; with a view over the valley. Only a handful of vans were on site, clustered near the entrance for a glimpse of the sea. (€18 without electricity).

7th June.
Another lazy day, still recuperating. Took a short walk down to the beach and had a cooling and energising swim. This is a great swimming beach in a small bay, sheltered and sandy with the mountains as a backdrop  – we even found ourselves rubbing shoulders with some package tour Brits.

8th June.
As we checked out of the campsite the owner apologised profusely for the power cut, but we hadn't noticed; our solar panel and inverter supply all our needs in this weather. Later we realised that it was probably due to the earthquake in Patras; 6.7 on the Richter Scale, a lot of building and roads had been damaged, and two people killed. We hadn't felt a thing!

We were heading for the central “finger” of the southern Peloponnese, the Mani Peninsula. The main road soon moves inland and becomes more interesting, a series of small villages with tiny chapels and narrow streets. Sue was now happily driving the van through this kind of terrain.

The Mani people were originally from the North of Lakonia, and have defiantly maintained their autonomy from Greece’s many occupiers, particularly the Turks. Because of their tribal and stroppy nature, many of their villages, even fields, were fortified. There are about 800 square stone Maniot towers in the area, some dating from the 17th Century. Moorish in appearance, they consist of 3 or 4 rooms linked by ladders and trapdoors. Many now are ruined and unoccupied, but we started to notice that there was quite a lot of new building and restoration going on, the Mani stone style being faithfully copied, each new dwelling having a square tower, even down to faux ruined crenulations on the top.

Suddenly we hit the coast again; a deep bay, commanded by a huge fortress – the Turkish Kelefa Castle. There are small hamlets on both sides of the bay, Karavostasi to the North and Itilo to the South, the stony beach in between accessible by a turn off the main road.

The beach front was deserted apart from a couple of Belgian camper vans. It was a bit early in the day to stop, but it was such a nice location, the sea breeze was cool, and we were getting fed up with paying around €20 for an overnight and some water.

Chatting to the Belgians it was soon apparent they had been free camping in Greece for weeks. They showed us a beautifully produced German book which contained many suitable free overnight spots and a wealth of other information; including driving tours, places to see and Autogas outlets, all clearly marked on maps with GPS positions. One of a series of guides for many parts of Europe, €14.90 each. (http://www.womo.de/ )

Free (or Wild) camping has apparently been illegal in Greece since 1999, but all the Belgians, Dutch and Germans we spoke to had been doing it more or less continuously, without any bother. As in other countries, it seems that if you don’t make a nuisance of yourselves, a blind eye may be turned – we are tourists – bringing in foreign currency – after all.

A fish restaurant in Karavostasi was offering free parking for campers on some waste ground a 100 yards from the tables, but we stayed put and sampled one of the two restaurants on the south side; a lovely setting, sitting on a stone terrace just above the surf. The Menu was still basic, as they were just gearing up for the season, but the food was Ok. We weren’t so keen though on the dozen or so feral cats dining off our just departed neighbour’s plates, one even tried to snaffle Sue's bread!

A largish hotel and restaurant is under construction right in the middle of this otherwise almost barren stretch of waterfront and newly installed yellow street lights gave us a well illuminated sleep. If you fancy a visit, don’t leave it a couple of years!

9th June.
Left Itilo beach and climbed the cliff road to Aeropoli, some fabulous views across the bay. Sue caught a great shot of a huge spider residing on his web between two poles. We topped up with fuel and groceries and continued our trek around the Mani peninsula.

Now we began to feel really out in the wilds, the landscape is rugged and bleak and as we moved southwards we would regularly see groups of Maniot towers dotting the high ground.
We made a brief stop at Gerolimenas, a small resort and fishing village settled into another large rocky bay, below a massive limestone cliff. A very quiet atmosphere, one of those places where you wonder if you have stepped into another world.

The fuel garage east of Gerolimenas advertised itself as the "last one", and as we turned off the main road towards Vathia the scenery became ever more magnificent. Still there seemed to be something of a building boom going on, large apartment blocks going up on a narrow foreshore, but impeccably designed and dressed in stone in the Maniot style.

Vathia was definitely the most impressive of the tower communities, perched on a steep ridge with the road winding through it, many of the old towers abandoned but others inhabited, hard faced women still dressed in long black dresses.

So onto Cape Matapan, the southernmost point of mainland Greece. The road ends in a rocky car park, a small settlement of stone faced buildings above and a newly built Taverna facing the promontory. There are two small stony inlets, one with a few fishing boats moored, the crystal water light turquoise to azure.
Lo and behold there were three other campers already there, two Germans and a Swiss.
A swim was called for – mind the sea urchins!

10th June.
A peaceful night and I rose early to get some pink-sun-kissed shots of this beautiful cape.

After breakfast we had another long chat with our new German friends, Wolfcang and Ursula from Karlsruhe. They bought their Hymer second hand complete with a built in generator and air conditioning - Sue was positively green.
Wolfcang is the second German motohomer to try and persuade me of the merits of the SOG system for our toilet cassette, basically a small extraction fan that operates when you open the sluice, thus relieving one's surroundings of any smells, and supposedly the need to use any chemical. I think I’m convinced this time, especially as we haven’t been able to buy any of the Thetford chemical stuff in Greece.

Leaving later than the rest of our fellow travellers, the sun was well up and the day’s heat was on the rise. A quick look at Porto Kayio, a tiny resort in a little bay – perfect if you arrive by yacht.

From here we had to retrace our steps to Vathia, taking a sharp right for the road to Kotronas, rising steeply with more bleak and beautiful vistas. Tortuous in places, the road led us to the village of Lagia. This was a settlement in the process of being reborn: most of the buildings were ancient and in ruins, but the central square had been repaved and a new memorial erected. Elsewhere new houses were under construction and others undergoing painstaking renovation. It was like the equivalent of a deserted set of Scottish Crofters cottages being rebuilt, restoring the community. That so much labour and money was being expended in such isolation says a lot about what people find important these days.

We the road hit the coast again it was again precipitous and breathtaking in places; we sweated a little more than usual at the prospect of meeting a larger vehicle than us coming in the opposite direction.
More cliff-side houses under rebuilding, this time “traditional” white painted concrete houses getting the stone faced treatment. Nowhere did we see any new building other than in strict stone Maniot style: complete with little rounded gun turrets, covered terraces with open round arches, and lights set into wall recesses. This style would seem to be something of an obsession, or perhaps the outcome of strict planning laws, but either way the overall effect is to make the peninsula feel unique, and blended beautifully with its rugged landscape – something special.

Kotronas is a small resort with a nice swimming beach and parking for a short stay. Shortly afterwards the road changes into a modern dual lane highway, and before we new it, the magic of the Mani Peninsula was behind us.

Before Githio there is a large sandy bay with a series of beach side campsites. We selected Camping Mani Beach (GPS: 36.7257 N, 22.55440 E). Many of the pitches are under frames, covered with green netting to give shade, but they seemed hot and claustrophobic; we settled into a spot a few yards from the beach, near the bar and with some sea breeze.

11th June.
Before breakfast, around 7.30, we got our cossies on and slipped into the sea – it was utterly flat and the water empty of swimmers. After our bodies had cooled from the night’s heat the sea temperature was perfect. We could get addicted to this!

Europe trip 2008 - Seiano to Bari

22nd May. Camping Seiano Spiaggia.
After 18 days – a record stay in a campsite for us – it really was time to move on.
Admiral Nelson I think it was, who said: "Ships and Men rot in port"; well, apart from a couple of dozen rotten oranges on our roof I thought we were still Ok, though we had slowed down almost to a standstill – it’s nice once in a while but not our main thing.

We did suffer an ant infestation (swiftly dealt with by some powder from the shop), and the windscreen vents had become absolutely choked with orange blossom, but after a good clean and tidy up we said farewell to our new Dutch and British friends; as well as the owner and his wife, who had been running the campsite for 36 years!

Greece was our next destination and we booked our ferry on the 'net the day before, whilst the rain cascaded off our awning.
If you have not looked before there is a plethora of Greek ferry companies, and to sort it all out the two best websites we found were: http://www.ferries.gr/ and http://greece-ferries.com/
Of these two, greece-ferries.com is more modern and slicker, but having chosen Superfast Ferries we used their own very slick site to be sure we were getting the same deal. Email confirmation and booking number came back in minutes. Departure from Bari was at 2000; arrival at Patra 1230 the next day. With the camping on deck option – available from 1st April to 31st October – it came to €273 (one way), including a €30 fuel surcharge.

Between April and October most Greek ferry companies permit camping on board in your motorhome or caravan – which saves money and hassle. Hook-ups and bathroom facilities are also provided. Superfast have mobile phone and Wi-fi Internet access via satellite (€10 for 90 minutes).

Sticking to the Autostrada we made our way to Matera, about 65 km from Bari. There is an excellent AA here at the back of Masseria del Pantaleone, a "Bread and Breakfast" and a restaurant. (www.sassiweb.it/pantaleone) (GPS 40.6528 N, 16.6065 E).
If you are into horses there are stables and you can take guided expeditions around the spectacular surrounding countryside.

23rd May.
Well, that was yesterday's plan: instead I spent the day in hospital. Nothing dramatic;  one minute I was pushing a shopping trolley around a supermarket and the next I was flat on my back! I had done some jobs in the van in the morning; which involved a little twisting and bending, but nothing strenuous.

However, just reaching over the side of the trolley my breath was suddenly taken away and I sunk to my knees. When I tried to stand up my head spun... and I woke up on the floor! It was like a scene from a TV sitcom: a man lying in a supermarket aisle – refusing to get up – but chatting to his partner on a mobile phone whilst a crowd gathered to gawp!

I just couldn't move without feeling that my back was breaking; anybody who has slipped a disk will know what I'm talking about, but it was a new and scary experience for me.
Good fortune arrived in the shape of a doctor (also doing his shopping) who spoke excellent English and explained to the ambulance men that I wasn't just some dubious type who liked lying down in public making phone calls!

Sue was minding the van as usual, but on arriving breathless at the sliding doors she was escorted by one of Carrefour’s security guards to the scene of the incident. Knowing the correct technique – from past experience – she encouraged me to get up, but I failed dismally. Thusforth the public exhibitionist was carried off to a nice red and white camper van with blue flashing lights!
Sue followed the ambulance (despite her pleas – driving Italian style) to the hospital and was told to park our van in a vacant ambulance bay!

The Ospedale “Madonna Delle Grazie” is a modern small town hospital, but there any similarity to a UK hospital appears to end. I was seen immediately by a shaven headed triage nurse with good English who seemed to know his stuff, then wheeled into an empty room – there was no hubbub, no shouting, in fact the place was extraordinarily quiet.

Then things nearly went astray. Another nurse arrived, this time without any English, but with a large multi-coloured, multilingual book with "triage" scrawled on it – really just a glorified travellers phrasebook. If you ever come across these in a similar situation – beware. Despite a seemingly perfect interpretation between me and the triage nurse of what the problem was, I was soon having an ultrasonic scan for a colon conditon!

With Sue's intervention we got things back on track and I was told I would have some X-rays and another scan. Sue had meanwhile phoned the Norwich Union emergency number on the card that came with our Comfort Insurance travel cover. They were very on the ball and swiftly offered translation services and repatriation if necessary.

I had a very thorough ultrasonic scan of all my internal organs by two doctors and 2 spinal X-rays. All of their kit looked state of the art to me. One of the English speaking doctors came back shortly afterwards and told me that, thankfully, that everything looked Ok but I was probably suffering from age-related osteo-arthritis. Sue is no stranger to back pain and reckoned on muscle or ligament damage. She was still hoping we could make the ferry at 2000 – though I must admit to having my doubts.

Anyway, I tried to sit up and promptly passed out again! This time I woke up in the ER, not sure whether it was real life or the TV series – all I knew was that those few seconds of unconsciousness were blissful. I was getting more wires stuck on me than a Christmas tree, but after a while they relaxed, the wires came off and the doctor asked when I last had something to eat. They had taken a blood sample and the results came back very swiftly, again everything Ok.
After a consultation with the head white-coat it was agreed I would stay in overnight. I was wheeled into an adjacent room (with a view of our van outside the window) and given another intravenous dose of some good stuff.

Italian hospital food. Not bad really - penne with shrimps and broccoli, a pot of cheesy mashed potato, bread roll, an apple and a whole ball of tasty mozzarella cheese. Sue stayed until the night shift came on and then retired to the van to feed herself.
Around midnight, I was starting to dose off, finally…..
"Ah, l'inglese qui parlo un poco Italiano - you want to stand up?!": a forthright young nurse with an excellent command of English. After some nervous negotiation on my part we settled on my preferred activity of sitting; which I did for an hour or more without causing another incident.

24th May.
In the morning I managed to get myself in and out of a wheelchair to go to the bathroom. That was good enough for me – wonderful though the treatment and the staff had been, I had had enough.
The senior doctor gave me a prescription for Ibuprofen and a muscle relaxant to be taken for seven days. I was discharged with all my test and examination results; no mention was made of any payment, the treatment was all delivered on inspection of my E111 card.

For a few hours I slept in the van in the hospital car park. To add to Susan’s woes, our usually reliable CoPilot 6 had gone belly up and despite several re-installations was refusing to respond to treatment. With Sue at the wheel, we drove back to the fateful Carrefour supermarket for her to do the shopping.

Then it was back to the AA at Masseria del Pantaleone. Not having found a pharmacy on the way back, Sue mentioned this to the owner, who offered to run her out to one when he had finished serving dinner. However, a chap turned up offering tours of the historic town. On hearing our predicament he immediately sat Sue in his car and found an open Pharmacy. Is there no end to the kindness of these people?

25th May.
Sue got up early to go on the tour, but unfortunately there were no more takers and so it didn’t go, but the chap insisted on coming to see how I was and we had a multilingual chat in pidgin English, French and Italian; we were glad Sue had slipped him €10 for his trouble the night before.
I was benefiting from Sue’s experience in dealing with her own back problems and the tips she had picked up in consultations with physiotherapists, though I slept a lot and walked gingerly around the gravel area.

26th May.
Sue did the usual chores of filling and emptying tanks and we left around midday for Bari. A good road and after a couple of hours we parked up near the ferry port.
Check in time is officially two hours before, but we arrived an hour earlier at 1500 and were told to go straight on board. This was a good move as we were placed in a great spot on the outside “open” deck, next to the showers and the entrance to the main accommodation. We were issued with a special electronic card which gave us access to the car deck at sea when it was closed to all other passengers. I had a half hour long, blistering hot deluge of a shower in the deck bathroom, wonderful. Right on the stern were three other campers, ready to discharge at Igoumenitsia at five in the morning.

Across the dock was an Arab luxury yacht, Al Said, complete with its own matching support ship, which looked suspiciously like an old British Royal Fleet Auxiliary to me. We watched as the visiting celebs and dignitaries arrived, TV cameras wheeling about - but they were shown up the gangway to the support vessel! Obviously one’s home is one’s castle.

After watching the lights of Bari disappear from the observation deck above our van we retired to the restaurant for dinner. We slept reasonably well, but as the van was parked over the stern
there was still a fair amount of vibration, even with the vehicles tyres and suspension between us and the ship.

Our verdict on leaving Italy.
Recent happenings to us have of course favourably coloured our impressions of Italy and its people, but our exemplary experience of health care in Italy was only a snapshot in one small town hospital on a quiet day; if I had pulled the same stunt in Naples, who knows what may have unfolded. Suffice to say that I am very grateful to the staff of Madonna Delle Grazie and the health system that supports them.

The People.
Italy, to us, seems frenetic and frantic, but life has to be lived with style – whether it’s riding your scooter or slicing a pizza – if you can’t do it with panache, don’t do it.
On the whole we were met with great friendliness and helpfulness, and you can see the change in people when you attempt a few words of the language, they really do appreciate it.

The Art and Architecture.
Basically there is so much of it, they cannot afford to look after it all, but it is everywhere. Rome is just awash with it.

The Food.
Not much we can say that hasn't been said elsewhere, except that the best exceeded anything "Italian" we have had outside of Italy; but the quality did vary a lot – you really have to avoid anything produced specifically for the tourist market. Our best pizza was in Ancapri on the island of Capri. The artichoke, ham, olives, cheese and olive oil blended to produce something greater than its parts, a really satisfying meal.

The Driving.
I guess Italian driving is legendary in many areas, and you do start to believe that every Italian has some Ferrari genes in their blood. Our exposure to their driving skills reached its nadir (or zenith, depending on your point of view) in Naples. Basically it was a free for all – no rules driving – everyone doing what was necessary to complete their journey in the quickest possible time.

The only unwritten rule apparently is not to hold the traffic up – either by driving too slowly or hesitating at a junction. Don't think of letting in more than one vehicle – from either side – or even, when on a single track road controlled by lights, waiting for the light to turn green after vehicles had stopped coming from the other direction!

Any of these misdemeanours will get you a cacophony of horns in retribution. Anything else, like reversing directly into oncoming traffic to do a three point turn, passes without comment! Double unbroken lines in the centre of the road are made to be crossed.

It would be interesting to see comparative accident statistics for England and Italy, particularly for urban driving. With everyone at such a heightened state of alertness, maybe there are actually fewer serious accidents per car on the road?

Signage and timetables.
Really it is just part of the semi-chaotic life (in our eyes) that the Italians lead. If you see a signpost, don't expect the signs to continue to its destination, if you have a timetable, don't expect it to be consistent, and don’t be surprised if a venue closes without explanation.

The Grafitti.
You could be kind and say that it is just expression of that innate artistic temperament, but it is omnipresent. Even what we might consider to be otherwise "nice" neighbourhoods are scarred with it. The commuter trains are so bad you sometimes cannot see out of the windows. Perspex sound shields put up on roadsides are just new canvases to be filled.

The Cash Machines.
I don't know whether it was just my bank, but I struggled continuously to get cash from ATM's, far more than in other countries we have visited, including Spain. As a general rule I had more luck with machines built into an actual bank, rather than in a supermarket for instance, but a machine belonging to the same bank would work in one city and not another. Non-Italian banks worked more reliably than native ones.

One day in Siena after five attempts and five variations of: "Your bank doesn't want you to have the money" I phoned my bank again and this time they came back with "Did you tell us you were coming to Italy? You have probably invoked fraud protection!"
Well, no, actually, and why then, when we had been in Italy for 6 weeks? And why did my credit card fail as well? Often my credit card would fail when trying to use chip and pin, but would work OK when swiped - worth asking if the assistant doesn't try it.

Will we return? Of course, we still have the “boot” of Italy to see and the Islands of Sicily and Sardinia.