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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!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Ian and Sue,
We are the four travelers from USA who met you both at a restaurant over lunch in Delphi, Greece on June 22.
Just checking up on your blog. We have been home in Boston for about 2 weeks. Wishing you the best for the rest of your trip.

Mei and Vincent