week 28 – greece week 5 – the third peninsula, corinth and heading for bulgaria

This week we travelled to the right hand finger of the Peloponnese and east to Argolis before heading north on a 450 mile journey to Kavala, one of our last stops in Greece before we cross the border to Bulgaria.

We visited the home of the Gods at Mount Olympus, saw the amazing Corinth canal and returned to Thermopylae where we wild camped beside a bankrupt hotel that now provides a temporary home for Syrian refugees.

Leaving Gythio:

While we’d spent few days close to Gythio, we never actually got to see the town. Such was our level of sloth that we didn’t budge from the beachside campsite. Even the van was chilled out….it refused to start when we were trying to leave which meant unpacking the boot to get at the engine…

..and giving this gadget its first airing on the trip. It’s a power pack which comes with its own jump leads. It started the van straightaway and we headed off to get to the right hand finger of the Peloponnese.

We followed the coast past this ruined ship…

…and through miles and miles of orange orchards…

…to this Gibraltar-like rock. It’s Monemvasio, linked to the mainland by a causeway.

We climbed the hill leading to the old town spotting a peregrine falcon on the way…

….and a great surprise, bumped into Nadia, Gunte, Ella and Blackie, our friends from Koroni.

Monemvasio is a beautifully restored Ottoman town. Everything is picture perfect with it’s narrow cobbled streets now crammed with smart bars and restaurants….

..and colourful blooms amid the ruins…

…and beautiful views over the red tiled roofs of the Ottoman homes.

We didn’t stop for long though. After a farewell coffee with our friends, we set off on our journey – our ultimate destination as yet unknown. Our only plan was to find a Greek village somewhere near the border with Bulgaria where we could insinuate ourselves into some family’s Easter celebrations.

At least that was the plan.

Our first stop was at the east coast village of  Leonidio on a route which took us across the most isolated countryside we’d seen since coming to Peloponnese. There was scarcely a house and on the two-hour journey we passed just two cars and one donkey.

Nearing the top of the steep slopes overlooking Leonidio, we thought we were driving into a forest fire….

…but we were driving into cloud…..

…or maybe sea fog. It was a challenging drive down. The steep switchback turns left the wheels of the van burning from the heat of the brakes for about an hour after we finally reached our beachside campsite…

…which had the oldest olive tree we’ve seen so far.

Leonido is becoming a really popular place with climbers…at least that’s what we heard from the two Yorkshire men we got talking to at the nearby taverna. They were there to tackle these limestone cliffs overlooking the village.

And continuing our big shunt northwards, our next stop was at a campsite near Nafplion. It’s in the guidebooks as one of the prettiest towns in Greece. It’s also a big cruise stop which explained the number of Americans wearing naval hats we met climbing the many, many steps up to the Venetian fortress overlooking the town.

Up top we paid the 8 euro a head entrance fee in, had a peek into the prison and eh, that was about it up there.

If the admission fee was payable at the bottom of the steps, we might have felt the ticket price included a cardio workout. As it was, we felt, well, a little stung.

So maybe that’s why when we arrived at the ancient site of Mycenae and got to the ticket booth, saw the queues and the prices we  turned round.

The car park was full of tourist coaches and the lines of visitors snaking round the ruins was off putting…

…so we kept going.

Now Mycenae, now you don’t.

We could easily have missed our next stop. Here it is looking like a scruffy wasteland ….

…..very different from how it looked when it opened in 1893 as this print in a nearby cafe depicts.

It’s the Corinth Canal and we headed there knowing it was something special but with only a vague idea of the story behind it. Um, wasn’t it built centuries ago in an amazing feat of engineering with all excavations done by hand? Eh, actually no. Got that one wrong.

Carving a canal from the Aegean to the Adriatic may well have been a dream for many of the ancient rulers but construction didn’t actually start on it until the 1890’s. By then the technology had advanced somewhat from slave labour having to scoop the earth out with their hands.

Up close, the canal is an impressive sight. It’s tall and narrow and steep and for those of us who prefer to be nearer the ground just  a tad nerve wracking to look into.

Eyes straight ahead, firm grip on handrail, terra firma is near….efharisto but am most definitely not interested in bungee jumping into the canal as have not as yet been certified mad.

Here’s the view out to sea….

…and into it’s depths.

It was a shame we didn’t see any ships go through it on the day we visited but nowadays it’s too small to accommodate most modern ships. You can go through it on a tourist cruise though. That’s definitely one for the bucket list.

This week we have mostly been eating…

More Greek salads. Fashion your feta whatever shape you like, it’s still delicious.

But coming in at number one this week is this dish…

It is gyros, the perfect fast food dish, made with chicken or pork with tomato, onion and  tzatziki sauce wrapped in warm pita and –  new  since my days Greek island hopping days as a 19-year old – a few chips thrown in for good measure. Truly a wondrous innovation.

And this week when wild camping with low stocks and a craving for carbs, I had a go at making my own flatbread. Just chuck together flour, a few dollops of yeast, some olive oil and water…..

….knead till it glues to your hands.

Wait for it to rise.

Then cook in the frying pan given no electricity means no oven. The result was perfectly edible flat bread…

…though the leftovers were still not good enough for the stray dog who adopted us that day.

Mount Olympus:

We stopped off in Litochoro, the town which acts as the base camp for hikers climbing Mount Olympus. It had the feel of a Swiss ski resort…..

….which wasn’t surprising given the peaks of the home of the gods are still snow covered.

Every summer thousands arrive to trek its peaks and stay overnight in the refuges up top.

And the scenery on Mount Olympus does look wonderful judging by the photos on display in the interpretation centre….

…but they look seriously challenging so in our case best left to the gods and experienced mountain climbers.

The Refugee Hotel at Thermopylae:

One of our overnight stops on the long road northwards was back at Thermopylae. We had already visited the hot springs on our way down to the southern Peloponnese and now heading back on a route with seemingly no open campsites it seemed a good place to spend the night. After all where better to wild camp than beside an endless supply of hot water?

But on our first visit, we had completely missed the fact that the building we’d seen in the distance  is a temporary home for Syrian refugees. It used to operate as the Aigli hot springs hotel but went out of business and had fallen into disrepair. Then last year, thanks to an initiative by the local governor, it’s doors were opened up to give shelter to some of the many refugees now trapped in Greece since the Balkan borders were closed to them.

Returning to Thermopylae, we drove close to the hotel to be near other motorhomes already set up for the night.

It’s new role as refugee shelter was obvious. The place was filled with families. Laundry was hanging out of every window, little boys were playing around the waterfall and nearby a boisterous football match was underway.

Another motorhome drove up alongside us.  It was a group of young Belgians, all taking part in a relay run to raise money for Syrian refugees. They had already been to visit one of the camps near Athens. I asked if they intended going into the hotel, half thinking we could visit with them. ‘No, we wouldn’t do that. We will only visit if we have contact with a representative there. We don’t want to intrude on their privacy or dignity.’

Point taken. Without an invitation, we didn’t venture closer but it was an incongruous situation – holidaymakers like us parked up to enjoy the sun and hot springs and next day free to carry on with our travels. Meanwhile the new residents of the hotel stay trapped in the Greek bottleneck, waiting for their asylum applications to be processed before they can find a safe and permanent home.

And finally:

We’ve changed our plans. Having got this far north, we’ve decided to keep going and spend Easter in Bulgaria. So we’ve only a few days left in Greece.

So head for the city or the beach? We opted for Kavala for another few days of sloth. We are getting good at that.

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