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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.

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