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Monday, 25 August 2008

Europe trip 2008 - Epidavros to Thessaloniki

19th June.
is famous for its open air theatre and it doesn’t disappoint - it is vast, capable of seating 14,000 spectators in 55 rows. It has been skilfully restored for modern productions and is certainly the most impressive part of the Sanctuary of Aesculapius. Apparently the acoustics are so good that a piece of paper crumbled on the stage can be heard from the back row!

The acoustics are amazing
Asklepios was the Greek god of medicine and it is from the representation of him leaning on a stick neatly entwined by a serpent that the widely used Doctors Emblem is derived. According to legend he was a son of Apollo, but was struck dead by Zeus for overstepping the mark in his medical endeavours and subsequently buried at Epidavros. Consequently people came from all over Greece to consult the oracle and seek rejuvenation.

The rest of the ruins take an hour or so to wander around and there is also a museum with the best of the recovered statues and artefacts.
Around the perimeter of the old gymnasium (now considered to be a vast dining room where devotees of the god ate food sacrificed in his name) new blocks of stone have been added to redefine the boundary. It’s hard to estimate the cost of sourcing, cutting, dressing and laying these huge blocks of stone but they are only one part of a big project. A considerable amount of very meticulous restoration – even re-creation – is taking place around the site, and in the centre is a massive steel staging with lifting gear that has been built around more intricate reconstruction. Overall it must be a hugely expensive effort, apparently financed by the Peloponnese and the EU.

Such expenditure is probably worth it from our point of view, as it's giving the average visitor more to look at; we are not all classical scholars who can recreate the edifice in our minds from just a few broken foundations and scattered capitals!
I believe that a small section or part of the monument, rebuilt as near as possible to the original, can give you a sense of scale and as well as the artistry and dedication involved. What does seem a waste is putting up rows of plain “dummy” columns just to build up the spectacle, one fully detailed replica with pedestals for the rest will do. The unexpected thing is that given a few decades of weathering, restored stone can sometimes be hard to distinguish from the original.

The old town of Ancient Epidavros turned out to be a pleasant little fishing port and yachting base. There is a car park near the yacht berths and a main street with most of the shops you might need. We bought some more Baklava but they didn’t match the sensual eating experience of the ones from Monemvasia.

On to Korinth, and the famous canal that divides the Peloponnese from the mainland and links the Gulf of Corinth to the Saronic Gulf. We looked at the Corinthian, western end first. The exit through the road bridge looked incredibly narrow to me, hard to imagine how the old P&O Sea Princess/Victoria had squeezed her way through - a trip down memory lane for me anyhow.
Off to the spectacular eastern end, three bridges spanning the amazing rock cut. Begun in 1882, it was completed in 1893, permanently altering the shipping routes and enabling Pireaus to become the major port it is.
Passage through the Corinth Canal

The ancient town and acropolis of Corinth sits on a hill 7 km southwest of the modern metropolis, which was founded in 1858 when an earthquake shattered the old city.

We drove swiftly through the spa town and seaside resort of Loutraki, then the never-ending trail over Mount Geránia to the Gulf of Alkionides. Hoping for another beachside pitch to cool off we followed the heavily advertised and twisting narrow track to Camping Alkyoni. We think “on the beach” was pushing it a bit in the trade descriptions: all the pitches on the “beach” side were terraced down a steep incline to no more than a small rocky inlet, and most of those were taken over by static caravans – by the time we’d have returned from a refreshing swim, another one would have been in order to cool us off again! We did however pick up another pot of cooling ice cream in the local store, but its effect was short lived with our outside temperature gauge indicating 43° C in the shade!

A few kilometres along the road towards Psatha we found our own beach, adjacent to a marina. Deserted apart from a lone fisherwomen, we parked directly on the stony waterside, stripped off and scrambled over the rocks into the silky cool water.

20th June.
Another peaceful free night and we headed across country to pick up the E962 to Thiva. Unfortunately, partly due to an unintelligible road sign with a poster stuck on it we took a wrong turn and found ourselves on the way to Megara. It was rather a large detour and eventually we became lost trying to find E962 outside of Elefsina, near Athens. A helpful truck driver guided us through this complex junction – you actually have to join the motorway from the coast road and then leave it almost immediately to find the road north to Mandra.

At Thiva we easily found the Jet Gas station (GPS: 38.3454 N, 23.3231 E) listed on our downloaded internet file of Greek LPG/Autogas outlets (http://www.shellgas.gr/ ). Again we were allowed to help ourselves to water to fill our tank.

Then we pressed on through Livadia towards Delphi. Stopping briefly in Arachova, the base for the Parnassos Ski Center; it was weird to see fur hats and mittens still on sale in this heat.

Camping Delphi (http://www.delphicamping.com/ ) (GPS: 38.4786 N, 22.4737 E) is a lovely campsite perched on a cliff, with spectacular views over the town of Chriso and towards the coast. The manager/owner is a young guy with a young family and the atmosphere is very relaxed and laid back. There is a super pool next to the restaurant terrace and a small shop.

Not a bad view from your dining table!
21st June.
Chilled out for the day. The Wi-fi service is cheap (€2 a day), but it did not prove very reliable whilst we were there; the owner blamed the state owned telecommunications system.

22nd June.
We rose early again and got the bus to the town, the two principal streets are one-way only. The museum is a short walk from the bus stop and you can get tickets (€9) there or from a kiosk below the site itself, 500 metres further down.

Delphi (Delfi) is the site of the celebrated Oracle of Apollo and was considered by the ancient Greeks to be the centre of the earth. The oracles were given by a priestess (in her later years), who would go into a trance and deliver ambiguous replies, on behalf of Apollo, to questions asked by pilgrims.
The sanctuary itself is situated on the slopes of Mount Parnassos overlooking a deep gorge carved by the river Pleistos – during its heyday it attracted pilgrims from all over the Greek empire. After the Roman conquest of Greece and the spread of Christianity Delphi declined, much of its treasure being removed by the Romans, particularly Emperor Nero (quite a boy this one) who helped himself to 500 statues. The oracle continued however until AD 390 when it was disbanded by a Byzantine Emperor.

Thus we climbed the “Sacred Way” to the temple of Apollo, the paving dating from the Roman period. The air was still and the sun’s rays had not yet found the temple, though the other side of the gorge was warmly lit. A few worshippers (pilgrims?) were sitting in silence on the terrace in front of the columns.
A Homeric hymn to the God Apollo
Out of nowhere, a man dressed in tee-shirt and jeans walked up to entrance, spread his arms high in the air and made a long recantation lasting several minutes! The other visitors seemed rapt and appreciative throughout his recital – he certainly grabbed our attention.

Other worshippers arrived, some apparently meditating. We waited expectantly for the shafts of sunlight to creep around the mountain and gild the remains of the temple. A cloud had temporarily obscured the sun, but suddenly it lifted and the columns were illuminated for the first time, as if by stage lights. Undeniably a magic moment.

Later on we saw the poet on the street and Sue engaged him in conversation via his English speaking companion. He told us that he was the son of Apollo and he had been reciting the Homeric Hymn to Apollo which tells how Apollo killed the son (a python) of the Earth goddess Gaia, expelling her and then giving his own oracles through a priestess called Pythia. Whether he literally thought he was descended from a God or just a disciple we don’t know – a lot can be lost in translation!
Overlooking the site of the temple of Apollo
The hike up to the ancient stadium above the temple was more impressive for the fantastic views than the stadium itself, particularly as you are now not allowed to enter it for fear of getting a falling rock on your head! Guides are on sentry duty in little tinted glass boxes to make sure you don’t trespass.

Lunch was at a hotel in town and comprised Mousaka, salad, souvlaki and chips and ice cream: €25.50 with beer and water. Some American visitors came to join us on the terrace overlooking the valley and we were soon swapping stories again. (Thanks for your message Mei and Vincent).

There was no bus until 1600 so we sat outside a bar, watching the empty taxi rank. Chatting to a gentleman who we presumed to be the owner of the bar we waited some time for a taxi, despite his assurance that one would soon appear. Eventually he hailed a passer-by, had a quick conversation and then came back saying "this man is my cousin, he will drive you home"!
Despite our protestations we were bundled into the car and proceeded at high speed to the campsite. We arrived in one piece and thanked him heartily. In how many countries would a local do that for tourists?

23rd June.
Hit the road again, through Amfissa, Lamia, Karditsa and Trikala. The heat seemed to increase hour on hour – the cab A/C was still working, but well out of its own comfort zone; without it we would have fried.

Eventually we got to Metérora. James Bond addicts will remember some breathtaking shots of this group of monasteries from “For your eyes only”. Miraculously constructed on the top of precipitous grey rocks that rise bizarrely out this corner of the Thessalian plain, they look like fantastical images from a computer game.
A view and a prayer
We turned right just before Kalambaka, took a drive up the minor road to the monasteries and snapped a few pictures – scary stuff as the scrubby edges to the rock towers have no barriers or borders (hang glider heaven, I should imagine).
Unfortunately we couldn’t complete the round trip as the road was closed for repairs, so we retraced our steps to Kalambaka and through the town to Camping Meteora Garden (http://www.camping-meteora-garden.gr/ ) (GPS 39.7087N, 21.6100E). The site has a nice pool but was generally not very clean or well cared for, it looked and felt tired and there was a lot of road noise.

24th June.
We were out of the gates by 0815 and drove the other end of the road to the monasteries. We visited Varlaam monastery and although the chapel was interestingly dark and intensely decorated, there was not much else to see, it was so twee’d up with modern paving and recessed lights it lacked the haunting or invigorating atmosphere you might expect.

The views to and from the monasteries are the thing, it beggars belief how the monks constructed the monastery in the mid 16th Century with no more than ropes and pulleys.
Note. There are notices outside saying that any woman turning up in shorts, short skirt or slacks will be refused entry – but in fact they are offered wraparound sheets to cover up. The influence of coach parties!

Back to Trikala, then Larisa. We got our noses put out of joint on the E75 motorway to Thessaloniki as several times we were charged the same tolls as large freight trucks, despite picture signs indicating we were in the same bracket as cars, towed caravans and mini-buses! This, we were repeatedly told, was because we were over 2.2 metres high. It felt like a scam, but we got the usual “I don’t make the rules, guv”, argument.

We came off the motorway and found a free camp at Methoni, just above Makrigialos. We shared the spot with a French couple who gave us a “help yourself” wave from their deckchairs by the waters edge. The beach was scummy though and jelly fish lurked in the water, but there were a few people swimming. We declined a dip despite the temperature being over 40 C; it was still 30 degrees plus long after it was dark.

25th June.
Back on the motorway, then the Thessaloniki ring road to pick up the E79 to Serres. A sprawling, dusty metropolis, Thessaloniki held no attractions in this heat. Interesting to see the billboards for a very youthful looking Nana Mouskouri concert tour, or if you prefer, Gloria "I will survive" Gaynor is still on the boards!

Our plan was to drive through Bulgaria and Romania, have a look at Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and some of Germany, then through Belgium to Calais for the ferry back to Blighty. Our Insurance company told us that Albania and Macedonia are rated the same as Iraq and Iran for risk and no cover would be given! Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in January 2007 and thence full cover would be available.

Our verdict on Greece:
Sue loves Greece, she studied some of its history during her education and has spent a couple of holidays there, I have had a visit from a cruise ship in the early 1980’s and a weeks holiday in Crete with Sue.

The People.
Apart from the lady butcher with the ferocious meat cleaver (and who scared the hell out of me) almost everybody we met were friendly and helpful – some exceptionally so – and it wasn't hard to find someone who spoke English .

Food and drink.
We had a few meals out which were quite good and elevated my opinion of Greek cuisine somewhat, but some very mediocre ones as well. We like to cook for ourselves, and alter our diet to use the best produce that is available, but a lot of the fruit and veg seemed poor compared to Italy – it probably just wilts in the heat! Transportation and storage at elevated temperatures is obviously a problem.

The monuments.
Generally well looked after, like Italy they have a huge amount to maintain and European money is being put to good use in most cases. We only really scratched the surface of what there is to see, but Delpi was probably the highlight.

The beaches and scenery.
Some of the best we have seen, the Mani peninsula was magnificent, truly memorable vistas and deserted beaches, rugged hillsides, tiny unspoilt villages.

The weather.
From the moment we arrived at the end of May temperatures lifted to the mid 30’s and above, the maximum temperature we recorded with our own instrument mounted underneath the van, i.e. in the shade, was 43° C.

We did acclimatize over the weeks, but as it got progressively hotter the comfort level didn’t really alter. Everyone has their own reaction to temperature but at those extremes you really don’t want to do anything else but get under the shade by some water. We spoke to one grocer who told of 48° the previous year and had invested in larger refrigerators to store his vegetables.

The roads and maps.
What you see is definitely not what you get, we bought Greek-published maps thinking they would be good, but we should have been forewarned by the fact that there is very little Satellite navigation mapping available  – for a country that has been in the EU since 1981!  Road intersections, road types, even destinations were totally misleading in some cases. We soon developed the catchphrase: “this isn’t the main road – it’s the only road!” Road surfaces generally weren’t that bad even in the most remote regions and the scenery usually more than made up for it.

We did however take exception to being charged the same as a 40 tonne freight truck on the motorway tolls – whether this was just a local aberration or a concerted effort to upset motorhomers we have no idea; we argued the toss, but the reply came back “you are over 2.2m high” – what about the number of wheels and the load upon them?

Would we come back? Most definitely, but the monuments have to be seen off season, the heat and the coach parties just suck the magic out of the ancient sites. The Peloponnese was wonderful, at places like Mani Beach we could have chilled out for weeks, just swimming and cooling in the sea breeze under a tree – gone native in fact.

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