Big Hair and Flat Batteries

Our aim for the end of this week was to be in Alexandroupoli which meant a fairly hefty 500 miles of driving coming. We decided against a sight-seeing route and went for the motorway, it must have been our two days for being lucky – instead of being charged Class 4 due to our height each of the four manual toll booths gave us the Class 1 car rate – result as our total tolls for the completed journey were €8.20. We don’t know why, we just smiled and handed over our cash.

As we headed North from Kastraki the countryside changed so much that it began to resemble North Wales more than what we have become used to as being Greece. Plenty of rolling hills with conifers and farmland in place of olives and citrus groves, the only exception was the almond tree orchards. A very quiet and pleasant drive with the exception of a motorway closure near Kavala, no diversions, no signs just a big blockade across the road. We went  straight to Plan B, follow the traffic into town and hope they are all looking for the diversion. All seemed good until we arrived on Kavala docks and vehicles started parking up on the quay! Luckily we spotted a lorry heading up a hill from the docks and decided to follow him, good plan as he took us back to the next open junction on the motorway – more luck than judgement as usual.

For me the best bit about the motorway trip (of course except the cheap as chips tolls) was the road signs, not sure why but seeing a sign for Bulgaria and Turkey was a bit of a special moment for us, made us realise how far we have travelled. And let’s be honest, a sign with a mummy and baby bear would be just amazing no matter where in the world it was. I never knew we had wild bears in Europe, a bit stunned to find they reckon upwards of 150 pairs are roaming free. For about 40 miles there were massive fences along the motorway, not sure if that is to keep the said bears off the motorway but couldn’t see any other reason.

We broke the journey with a stopover at Zampetas Camperstop at Thessaloniki, its a caravan and motorhome repair shop that has a free camperstop area. It was over 35 km off the motorway, albeit down another motorway, and smack bang at the end of the of the airport runway. They had a quick look at our ‘dint’ that was once a back bumper panel and said they couldn’t do anything in just 24 hours so we will continue with the gaffer tape look. We asked if ok to stay, they could not have been more welcoming, parked us up and settled us in for the night.

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Closer to home than we thought at Zampetas Camperstop

After a second long day on the road to Alexandroupoli when we arrived we went mad, ignored the budget and ate out in the campsite restaurant. The menu was full of different choices but the owner kept pointing us towards pork dishes. I tried for a moussaka and then Iain told him twice that he really wanted beef, owner just kept repeating ‘you want pork!, its winter so you chose pork’ It was just as easy to agree that we did want pork, of course we did how had we not realised. You cannot beat a bit of gyro and chips and for the two of us with drinks and bread €14 (£10) we were happy enough

We are now as far East as we can go in Greece, it’s very out on a limb with not much of the rest of Greece close by. Turkey is 40 km away and this may be why the town has a massive army and police presence, very much a Garrison town. Looking at the history of the town its been owned or occupied by pretty much everyone in the region at some time, the Russians, Turks, Bulgarians and Germans have all staked claims at different times. There is a very calm and unhurried feeling here, the pavement cafes are heaving, standing room only in most of them, especially the ones that seem to be for those who want to look and be looked at. Going our for coffee in Greece seems to be the corner-stone of Greek life and they certainly do it with style.

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If you cant park in the space you want then pop it half on the pavement!

Surprisingly for us we have made two forays into town and we actually quite like it. Big wide streets, good shops and prices that seem lower than the rest of Greece, a very laid-back vibe that we maybe didn’t expect in one of the bigger towns in the country. The promenade is one that will be lovely when its finished, looks as if it has been a work in progress for some years. The landmark lighthouse is based squarely in the middle of the promenade but other than that there doesn’t appear to be too much in the way of tourist attractions other than the beach, suits us fine. In the park the main pastime was playing cards at an upturned cardboard box, at least ten card schools taking place and whilst we couldn’t see money changing hands it looked fairly intense if it was for match sticks.

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Alexandroupoli’s iconic lighthouse

The time came Friday for the well overdue (5 months) haircut. We went into a rather snazzy hairdressers, I mimed ‘haircut’ and  stylist nodded. Iain was only intending waiting for me but in the blink of an eye the male stylist had him in a chair where we was styled and blow dried despite his protestations, he is just about recovering from the whole episode :). If you look around in Greece the women do big hair, seriously big hair, think Mari Wilson and then double that thought. They were coming into the shop looking pretty normal and leaving with hair do’s that they struggled to get back out through the door, warning signals? When it was time for my cut the stylist roped in a customer who could speak a few words of English, between the three of us I thought we agreed on a trim. Not a hope in hell, my hair is now four inches shorter and was back-combed, with half a can of hairspray laminated in, to a height and width that would prevent me accessing many a low bridge restriction.

Tomorrow we should cross the border into Bulgaria. We are fairly well prepared in that we have some campsite details and a reasonably vague idea of where we want to go, even emailed the first campsite we planned to use to check they are open. We received a response that no they are closed 😦 but they live 15 minutes from the campsite so come and camp on their driveway for a few days, or even use the spare room in their house :). Bulgaria is already sounding like the kind of country we are going to like. We have loved Greece more than we ever imagined but Bulgaria and Romania are beckoning and we are both very much looking forward to countries we have never visited before.

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Our route up, down, around and across Greece

The ‘should’ above comes about because we have a niggly little problem which may delay our departure – the van wont start! We tried to pop out this morning to visit the Turkish border and the Elvros Delta park, the van battery is dead as the proverbial Dodo.  Left it on the in-van dual charger all day and still not a hope of starting. It’s not worth calling out the breakdown on a Sunday so we will give them a call tomorrow as see what they suggest (we know its likely to be a new battery!). So we may be in Bulgaria tomorrow but then again – who knows! On the positive side thank the Lord we didn’t pop into Turkey as I wanted to – we don’t have breakdown cover there, phew!

Meteora – rocks

No matter how much we enjoyed the week at Kato Gatzea, it was lovely driving off and being back on the road. Even better we found the new Volos ring road this time, so what took 3 hours last time took 25 minutes this time – its all so easy when you know how 🙂  The ring road is so new its not on Sat Nav yet and possibly not on the radar of many locals as hardly a car on it, therefore I do not feel as bad that we didn’t find it on the way in. We couldn’t find a reason to visit the city of Volos but driving round the edge you get a fabulous view right across and down to the sea, miles of white buildings with hardly a high-rise in sight it looks more like a large town than the second city of a country.

We were straight out to the motorway where we treated ourselves to a toll (€10) from Volos up Larisa. Tolls are odd here, we paid based on our height not our length, if we have been 6 cm lower then it would have cost us €4. Then again if we had come off at the exit half a mile before the toll booths it wouldn’t have cost us a penny – they don’t have that many toll booths so it would be easy to just come on and off and skirt around them if you so desired. From there is was straight up the dual carriageway to Kastraki, and the nearest campsite to Meteora. You can see it from 10 km away, amazing outcrops of sandstone rock towers that loom over Kalambaka and Kastraki. We pulled up at Camping Kastraki and as usual not a soul about, its right in the middle of the village of Kastraki beneath  the sandstone pinnacles which look close enough to touch.

The name Meteora means “middle of the sky” and very aptly describes the monasteries here which are perched atop the most incredible sandstone pinnacles. From some angles it looks as if they are built on top of mountains, which would be impressive, but they are each on a pinnacle. The tradition of Greek Orthodoxy has continued uninterrupted here for over 600 years, the complex is second in importance only to Mount Athos. We can’t visit Mt Athos though as they do not allow women or children into their ‘state’ at all, even people working there must be over 18 and be men. I have no qualms on the equality piece, just a bit rubbish I can’t visit and see such an amazing place.

Anyway, Meteora welcomes everyone, its actually a tourist centre nearly as much as a monastic centre to be honest. There were 24 monasteries but now only six monasteries are left, four are inhabited by monks and two by nuns. There are less than ten monks or nuns in each monastery, they have been all but turned over to tourism now and the whole area declared a UNESCO site. So they don’t really mind who comes and visits as long as you show a bit of respect, don’t wear shorts, women wear a skirt and you spend a few Euro.

There is now a road that takes you around the mountain to each site, we took a taxi to the top and walked to each monastery and then back down. More than a bit of a hike, we only went inside one monastery and it still took us over 4 hours. The best way to describe the landscape is like something out of a science fiction film, a bit like the Hobbit with better castles. Slightly surreal where everything looks like a Hollywood film-set as surely no-one would really build massive buildings on top of 1200 ft sandstone rocks.

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The road up around the monasteries

The steps cut into the mountains that lead to each monastery are fairly new additions, most of which were completed in the 20th century, Before that everything and everyone was either hoisted up or down on ropes, climbed ladders lashed together or hoisted up 1200 vertical feet in a net (pilgrims included). The story goes that the priests used to decide it was time to get new ropes when the old ones broke! Not sure there isn’t some poetic licence there but new ropes or old there is no way on earth you would have gone up or down the sides of those cliffs held in a net unless you were one very brave monk.

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Outside Megalo Monastery – a drop of 1200 ft between me and it

To get to all but one of the monasteries you need to climb the steps, first down the side of the mountain to a bridge and then back up the pinnacle the side, its hard going at this time of year so in summer it must be unbearable. The monks have their own transport system, they installed cable cars at three monasteries – if you can call it that!  We saw them in operation at two different places, to be honest you would not get me on one of them for all the tea in china.

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Cable car at Megalo Monastery

The highest and largest is Megalo Meteoro Monastery, supposedly the best monastery with the most to see inside, so we started there – just our luck then they close on a Tuesday. The next largest is on the next pinnacle, Varlaam Monastery, which was built in 1541 and thankfully open. We arrived at the same time as four tour buses, but managed to keep out of their way fairly well. I was allowed inside the monasteries here, but the strict dress code means women must wear a skirt – not something I bought with me. The monks thoughtfully provide skirts for those of us that need one, mostly very fetching checked little numbers which were fine.

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Happily appropriately dressed and admitted

Whether they are still used as fully functional monasteries wasn’t clear, there were a few monks about but many more builders doing repairs. We were allowed into the church, a small exhibition and to see where the nets for hoisting goods and people were (are) dropped from a balcony. Everywhere else was off limits, a shame as the interesting thing we hoped to see was where and how they lived. In all honesty, the inside was lovely but really doesn’t compare with looking at the structure from afar. Being Greece the old H&S doesn’t apply, people were literally climbing to the edge of pinnacle for the best photos. We didn’t do that! hence our photos are a bit rubbish – if you want to see how awesome it really is Google it 🙂

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Monastery Varlaam from below

All around the area are hundred of caves, before the monasteries were built the monks lived in them. Many look as if people still make use of them today, would guess its just locals and climbs. One cave has literally hundreds of flags hanging all around it. The taxi driver told us one man regularly climbs up to the cave and each time hangs a new flag. Amongst the caves are ruins of old churches, some perched on the edge of the caves, other just outside. Again, how they were built defies understanding.

We walked across the couple of kilometres to probably the monastery that most people would recognise, that of The Holy Trinity as it was featured in the 1981 James Bond film ‘ For Your Eyes Only’.  We sat down by the ‘cable car’ to have our picnic and as we did so the thing started moving. We saw the priest let someone in on the other side and send him over the gorge with a flick of a switch. It was mesmerising and terrifying all at once. The fella who came over didn’t even shut the door!

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Monastery of the Holy Trinity – aka St. Cyrils of James Bond fame

There are a few tacky tourist tatt stalls outside the monasteries but not too many. There isn’t a cafe, restaurant or even a drinks wagon at any of them, which we did think was missing out on some major euro profit.  They do provide loos, just not of the porcelain variety, obviously the one thing they never bothered hauling up the side of the rocks then!

On our way back into the village the last monastery was St. Nicholas, the tour buses don’t stop there so its very quiet. Outside was a local lady selling the gaudiest hand knitted goods, whereas all the other tatt sellers had been to the wholesalers. Iain reckoned she just buys rubbish looking knitwear from the wholesalers but I believed she makes it herself.  I decided to buy something off her as she looked freezing and probably hadn’t sold anything all day. She tried to rip me off €15 for a woolly hat! We did a bit of bargaining between us and I got her down to €10 – get me 🙂

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It is difficult to write about Meteora without listing out superlatives, for us it has been magical and we think one of the most memorable places we have yet to visit. The pinnacles themselves really would be worth seeing, add the caves and then the monasteries and its going to have to be a big contender for one of our Seven Wonders of the Baxterbus Tour.

That’s us done with monasteries now, heading off today for Thessaloniki.

Holiday over – let’s get travelling

That was the week that was our mini break holiday, We had nearly a full week of glorious weather where we really did very little. The beach was a full six steps from the van door so our exercise was reasonably limited to popping in and out for drinks or food. Its been warm enough to sunbathe but not yet warm enough to feel the need to jump in the sea. For those at home shivering please do not envy us, for the last two days we have seen the tail end of a massive storm and some fairly torrential rain. The awning is out and we have made do with sitting on the step and looking at the sea through the rain :(.

Our total exclusive use of the campsite only lasted three days, then we were joined by a Dutch couple with a super de-mountable who we meet all over the place, this is the fourth time we have met them at various campsites. They are on their way home from Turkey, taking their time and stopping for a week here and there. We may meet up again as they will be in Bulgaria before heading North West into Serbia when we go North East into Romania.

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the ace de-mountable

The village next to the campsite is Kato Gatzea,  a tidly holiday village just about 40 minutes out of the city of Volos. As with most places in Greece its suffered horrendously with the financial crisis, there are literally hundreds of part built houses around the edge of the village and up into the hills. Work stopped when the money ran out 10 years ago, building materials are still where they were left, mountains of bricks, tiles etc never been touched since. To add to the woes here, this is a holiday area for Greeks and as they do not have the money to go on holiday then Kato Gatzea has seen numbers of visitors fall ten fold.

Despite all that it has a lovely atmosphere, there are several tavernas lining the beach and whilst none are busy they are open and doing some trade with day trippers from the city. The village also has a fabulous bakery and a great mini market, both of which brace themselves for the daily visit where I attempt to speak a bit Greek and they have pretty much no concept of most of what I mean. The mini-market owner is very tolerant of my attempts and resists speaking English depending on the length of queue waiting to be served; in the bakery we have established a small dialogue as I buy the same loaf and two cakes each day. Iain asked why we always buy six slices of cheese or meat – it’s because the only numbers I know the words for are  ‘two’ and ‘six’ so we only buy in those multiples – simples really 🙂

Just 10 minutes walk in the other direction is another village, Kato Nera, similar to Gatzea just scaled up with many more tavernas.  At the end of the promenade in Nera is what appears to be a very well-kept 1950’s Butlins. On approach the “no photograph” signs and the armed solder give it away as actually being a holiday camp for Greek soldiers. Everything is painted blue and white, the chalets, the fences, the ice-cream kiosk, even the stones around the trees. All very patriotic but seemingly very outdated, its never going to a place they send them to let their hair down, more Clacton than Corfu.

Hellas International Campsite really has gone to the top of our list as one of our favourites, a combination of the site itself, the owners and the village. Add on the beach and the glorious weather (for the first 6 days) and it’s really been a whats not to like. In 2016 they are doing an Olive Harvest month from October to November – not sure they are offering you anything for the work but sounds fun and if we were able would be here for it. We have both said Greece will be a one-off visit for us as its so far to travel to get here, then again we said that the first time we went to Portugal(!) Greece has really taken a hold of us both and I am not so sure we wont be back at some stage and if we are then Kato Gatzea would be very high on the list of choices for a long-term winter stay.

We haven’t been totally idle all week, most of it yes but we did get out and explore a bit too. The Pelion peninsula is a very lush area where there are literally millions of olive trees.  It forms the shape of a hook between the Pagasetic Gulf and the Aegean Sea, so from where we are it looks like a ginormous lake. We took a walk into the hills high above the village, using what we thought was a footpath. In places it was dug out, in others just a worn path and then surprisingly every so often a ton or so of concrete had been dumped.  As we climbed the path passed houses and shacks, a good number of which had cars outside. For the life of us have no idea how they drive up this type of track, it would be akin to driving cars up the steepest bridle paths you have seen, some of the paths were barely wide enough for us to walk up.

As planned, we have avoided any forms of cultural tourism this week. I did give Iain a choice on Friday of visiting an attraction of some sort or food shopping – he chose the latter! Me thinks he is over the whole ancient Greece thing in a big way if Lidl is winning out. As our nod to tourism we walked up to the station in the hills for the Pelion Narrow Gauge railway, both of us are quite partial to a narrow gauge so we were fancying a day out, alas the train doesn’t start running until mid April, another fail in the planning department by us 🙂 but a plus in we didn’t spend a cent on touristy stuff for the first week in ages.

We have passed another milestone, exactly one-third of our trip completed as of today. When we first planned this trip we were very aware we didn’t want to get to half way and then it was all about turning round and heading back. So, to avoid this our destination is Belgium and we are taking the long route to get there. We will need to head for home only once we hit Brussels, until then its all about the outward leg not the return trip. It may all be in the mind but it works for us :).

We are away from here tomorrow,  next stop is the amazing monastery at Meteroa, it’s a place that has been recommended by several people and looks brilliant. From there its a pit-stop at Thessaloniki and then onto our last stop in Greece – Alexandroupolis.

katogatzea (37)Kato Nera promenade

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yes indeed that is a bit of a suntan there 🙂

For the next week – life is a beach

Our stay at Camperstop Afrodites ended perfectly, the owners lovely 12 year old grandson appeared at our door mid evening with a plate of freshly fried doughnuts and some dipping syrup. Ok so the site needs a little work but we care not, it you are being given free fresh doughnuts then motorhomers should be visiting in their droves. There was a note hung up in reception to say the family were having a lamb roast on March 12th and anyone staying was invited to join them – where else does that happen? A lovely family, doing a sterling job at trying to set up a good stopover – more power to them and more visitors we hope too.

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The National Road to Athens – not too shabby at all considering the views

Our next destination was Delphi, according to Sat Nav just over 7 hours away and 203 km, obviously thinks we are both over 85 years old and drive a Lada! We took the National Road which runs parallel to the motorway to Athens, both roads were quiet so we decided against paying out the €4.60 to sit in a lane a few yards to our left. Our choice was a bit twisty and had more than it’s share of potholes, but hugging the coast and giving views out to the islands it did its job well enough for us. About 30 or so miles before Athens we headed North over the mountains, a good wide road where we saw only a handful of other vehicles in over an hour. We actually saw more goat herders than pretty much anything, at least five different ones in the space of a few miles on one mountain. The landscape changed to being a bit more scrub-land, no olives or citrus just mile after mile of views over to the next sets of mountains.

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 Views heading North of the Peloponnese

At Distomo there is a powerful WWII memorial next to the main road. It commemorates the 1944 massacre by the SS of 214 Greek men, women and children all of whom were civilians living in the village. The first time we have seen anything relating  to the war here, despite the fact Greece suffered some terrible atrocities.

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Distomo memorial

We pulled in at a one donkey village to stock up with provisions and the shop owner and local Greek Orthodox Priest both started speaking to me. We established I was British, at which the Priest took a bit of a jolly fit, he spoke no English but according to shopkeeper said Priest visited UK many years ago. This all resulted in Priest needing to do a little jig sort of dance, with me needing me to take part! Luckily only the shopkeeper and one member of staff were around to witness this, I brought what we needed and made a quick exit back to Iain in the van. I have to say I have never before danced a jig with an Orthodox Priest and I pretty much bet I will never do so again, it wasn’t on my Bucket List but probably should have been 🙂

The ski resort of Arachova was an unexpected pleasure, worth the winding route up the mountain to just over 3000 ft, where it is perched on the edge looking as if it belongs somewhere in the Alps (that says us who have never been to the Alps). Whilst there are a lot of ski shops, ski wear and people wandering around with ski looking equipment we didn’t see anywhere near enough of the white stuff for anyone to be seriously sliding anywhere.  At a glance it seems a place where its good to be seen, a bit Nafplio on snow; plenty of trendy looking shops, lovely eateries and lots of beautiful people with crazy woollen headgear.

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Arachova – Nafplio on snow (if you can find snow)

Just a few miles down the other side of the valley and we were at Delphi and our campsite, Apollon Camping.  As campsites go it has a captive market in the winter, the others in the area are all closed. At €20 a night its a bit steep, especially as the ladies loos had a flood of 2 inches of water on the floor, the ceiling had started to collapse along with the light fittings and there wasn’t any hot water – all very not 5 Star. But as we  looked out the front window at our view – right down to the Gulf of Corinth and over to the Peloponnese, the facilities didn’t matter so much. 

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The view from our windscreen

Whilst at Camping Apollon we suffered what we will from now be calling  ‘dint day’. We decided at 7am to move the van from the lower level to the upper, slightly better view level before breakfast. Iain reversed off our pitch with my guidance – perfect, I climbed back in the van. We then had to reverse up behind the other pitches and oooops – we took out an electric post! How? cutting a long story short my shouting “oh watch it” without giving a bit more information meant Iain has no idea what to watch, therefore he watched something else close on his side! We now have a poorly rear bumper panel 😦  not to worry, gaffer tape cures all, should last until we are home when Paint & Trim will wave its wand and perform a no doubt faultless repair. On the upside, we now blend in much more with the locals – they all have smashed and dented panels on their cars and vans, it seems no one ever gets anything repaired. A dent here is a badge of honour and we are wearing ours proudly. Of course it could have been worse, I could have been driving!

We agreed Ancient Delphi was going to be the absolutely last archaeological site for us and we are seriously thinking of a theme park next week to go to the opposite end of the holiday experience. At first glance it is just another very well excavated city, climbing up the side of Mount Parnassus. What apparently makes this site so special is that it is the site of the ancient Oracle.  For us, and we are not real archaeological buffs, it was impressive but not as much so as Olympia or the Theatre of Epidauvrus. May have been the coach loads of tourists, of which there were several even at 9 o’clock in the morning; may have been the theatre wasn’t quite so impressive or it may have been we have seen way too many partially rebuilt temples. For us the views down to the coast over mile over mile after mile of olive groves, or the view up into the snow capped mountains were just as good a reason to visit Delphi as the more famous attractions.

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We left Delphi Friday morning heading for Camping Hellas on the coast near Volos. Heading back the way we came to the National Road, from where it should have been a good 20-30 minutes to the motorway. Time dragged a bit and I saw a sign for a town I was sure was South of us, a quick check of the atlas and yup indeedy, Sat Nav is taking us back down the National Road to join the motorway 40 odd miles South of where we could have joined. Bloody brilliant then that is an extra 80 miles (we were way to far along when I spotted it to change route and we still don’t have a proper map, just the large scale atlas). To add insult it cost us €12.50 in tolls to get back to where we had started an hour before.

Once we arrived at Volos we negotiated the city reasonably easily  (second biggest in Greece and yet the roads weren’t too chaotic) At the junction for the coast road, massive bollards – the road was shut! Words resembling ‘massive bollards’ were bandied around the van.  Our options were take the Sat Nav  88km diversion or if we wanted to stay at another campsite, the nearest one 230 km in Athens. We went with the diversion, a quick check on screen showed another mountain pass coming up but Iain is taking these in his stride now.  This mountain was a seriously high one at 5000 ft, Mt Pelion, amazing switch backs for miles upon miles, Greek ‘alpine’ villages and good 2 ft of snow around as we climbed over the top (although the road had been snow ploughed so was clear). It took us 3 hours to do 88 km, amazing road, shame we couldn’t see anything much for fog 😦 Did everyone seriously know Greece was this mountainous and not bother to tell us? People continually warn us not to go to Bulgaria too early due to bad weather in the mountains, how can it be any worse than here – we dread to think.

We pulled in at a bakery just before the campsite (cheese pies and cakes required). Iain mentioned our long diversion, baker says “No, road isn’t closed”.  Apparently the actual diversion is less than a mile back onto the coast road. If we read Greek we could have read the sign, epic fail from us, more epic from flipping Sat Nav who is in danger of being dropped off the top of the next mountain pass. Oh well, we did it, another mountain ticked off and Iain is fast becoming a candidate for Greek Mountain Motorhome Guide of the year. Yes, we know, we need a decent map and we will be buying one soon and then we will start to plan the odd journey and we know that will mean smoother trips, but possibly not as much fun.

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the red line alongside  our actual  ‘switch-back’ route

Seven hours after leaving Delphi we finally arrived at Camping Hellas, looked brilliant but not a single motor-home or caravan on site! For one awful moment we thought it was closed. Then the wonderful Antonios appears, he says they are doing work on the site for the season so not fully open, no facilities,  loos, showers etc, but we can stay. We have a cheaper rate than the normal discount rate so what’s not to like. It is beautiful here, we are on the beach, literally our front wheels are less then 10 ft from the sea. We love it, it was more than worth the journey, just us, a whole campsite to ourselves and our own private beach. We are both feeling like we have just left the UK on a airplane and arrived at our holiday beach, we have been just a bit giddy and over excited 🙂 The weather forecast was for torrential rain today – wrong! its been glorious. For the rest of the week we have a scorchio forecast, 22 / 76 degrees by the middle of the week.

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Our very own beach

Due to good weather, our own beach and because we can, the plan has slightly changed – we are staying for a while, at least a week. We are rebelling against cultural attractions and we are going to sit on our beach, get suntans read books, cycle and walk into the village for very tasty spinach pies from the local bakery.

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Its a tough life but he is up to the job!

If you don’t hear from us don’t worry, we are on holiday. The Grand Depart will be back on in a week or so when we can tear ourselves away.

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Dora’s spot just off the beach

We found the canal and a whole lot more at Korinth

It seems we were not in Korinth (Corinth) as we thought, we were in Ancient Korinth which was 5 km away from the newer version. It did mean we were very close to another set of ruins and we just had to brave the rain and make the 400 metres walk into the centre of the village to the archaeological site. We agreed we would only pay the entrance fee if it looked more spectacular than anywhere else we had been, as we both felt a bit all ruined out.

The ancient bit refers to a town from 400 BC with an estimated 90,000 inhabitants, which is reasonably new as they believe the area has been occupied by man since 6500 BC. During the war of independence the Turks pretty much destroyed the ancient town and then in 1858 an earthquake finished the job off and lead to the new town being built. The excavations site is pretty much in the centre of the current village, probably the size of several football pitches it sits within the modern day village with just a wire fence around it. You can pay to enter or, as we did, you can walk right around the perimeter on the public roads. We chose the free option purely due to being a bit tight, it probably was more than worth the €6 each but when the option of a freebie presents itself we couldn’t resist. As with all the ruin sites one temple was partially rebuilt (perfect  for photo opportunities), in this case it was the Temple of Apollo.

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Temple of Apollo

Even from the fence the whole thing was quite impressive, the buildings have some depth to them, in some case even the arches of window frames and its much easier to see the city outline than at other sites were its been piles of rocks that you have to picture as buildings.  Even better its seems they are discovering more of Ancient Korinth by the day, on the outskirts of the village there are ruins a plenty, not sure how big this place was but its going to be a few hundred more years before they find and uncover it all. As one of the greatest cities of Ancient Greece we were more than impressed, it seems that even when you think you have had a total fill of ruins the Greeks have something a bit more special to entice you in to another one.

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Ancient Korinth

Alongside the ruins there is a good little cottage industry of shops and cafes, even on a wet and grey day the coach loads were arriving and everywhere was open for business. The tourist area of the village was pedestrianised with tavernas and souvenir shops each side and the Temple of Apollo at the end. The weather wasn’t at its best and we didn’t do the visit justice in terms of going in, yet would still give this place a big thumbs up and say its well worth visiting, especially if you are staying at Afrodites Waters.

We stopped off for a coffee and ordered a couple of slices of toast for Iain – we received a toasted ham and cheese sandwich each! Not totally sure they don’t understand what we want, I think there may be a ruse going on as you get what they want you to have and you happily pay for it. At €8  (£5.80) for two lattes, two toasties and a few crisps it was quite a bargain and it kept us out of the rain for half an hour. From there it was time to embrace the souvenir shops and hunt out a couple of magnets for the collection. In general Greece isn’t cheap for some stuff but on the tourist tatt its not bad at all – €1.50 for a magnet here vs €6 at Pont De Gard, bargain.

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Precinct cafes with the Temple of Apollo at the end – good planning

We have both very much loved Campsterop Afrodites Waters, very different to anywhere we have stayed in Greece. The toilets are air conditioned, well I think that is why there was a hole in the roof anyway :). The mini market is just the best ever, 3 bottles of home-made olive oil, 4 jars of home-brew olives and some jam – what more could you need. The reception area has a BBQ grill, hot plates for cooking and a table and chairs if you want to eat there. If the Greeks need to make some money out of the tourists they could do a whole lot worse than have a string of these cheap and cheerful motor-home stop off points, no fuss, no hassle, just ace for a couple of days stop.

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The perfect reception

The Camperstop advertises being just 100 metres from the ‘hidden and forgotton spring of Afrodites’ godess of beauty. At first we thought it was very well hidden as we couldn’t find it. Possibly well forgotten too as even the guide at the ruins didn’t have any idea where it was. Then I noticed a sign on site, followed a rough path up the side of the hill and hey presto it appeared I had found the spring. A craggy rock face with water dripping, the first part did look like it might be part of the mains system (the pipes visible in the mud gave it away) but the second, larger set of rocks were for my money the original springs of Afrodites, as advertised. I have therefore anointed myself quite liberally with the said spring  water and should I not resemble a Super-Model by Thursday I will be returning for a full refund!

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The Waters of Afrodites

Our main reason for stopping off here was more for the canal that the ruins. The Corinth canal connects the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean sea, being the bit along the top of the Peloponnese. Our first challenge was finding it, we found the top end fairly easily but there was a 3 tonnes weigh restriction on the bridge, we could see down the canal but the bit we wanted was a mile or so along – looking down where it was carved through the rock. We went down to the other end and hey presto there was another 3 tonne weight restriction. By now we were both getting slightly fed up with the idea of the canal – yes we have a map but the bit where the road crosses the canal has writing over it – we agreed to take the main road over and if we couldn’t find it give up. Turn right, 1/4 of a mile up the road one canal, at last. Once you find it you wonder how you could of missed it in the first place, well I think that was what Iain was trying to say when he queried why it had taken me several attempts to get us there.

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Gulf of Corinth entrance to the canal

Was it worth it? for us a massive yes. Slightly disappointed there wasn’t a cycle path along side :), we were looking forward to adding it to our lists of canals cycled, but other than that its an incredible sight. It is a 70 ft wide cut through the land at the Isthmus of Corinth,  and makes the Peloponnese effectively an island. The canal is 4 miles long and it’s very, very deep, built at sea level so it doesn’t require any locks. It was never really a great success, when it opened it suffered rock slides which were a major deterrent to users, nowadays  the width of  only 70 ft makes it impassable for most modern ships. As a tourist attraction it does it’s job and would probably do even better with some decent flipping road signs to it.

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The Corinth Canal

Since we had arrived here we kept looking up to Akrokorinthos way up on the hill, 1800 ft above sea level. Being 4 km up hill we weren’t going to walk it, but the sun came out on the way back from the canal so we thought we would pop up for a look. Basically a monolithic rock with a whacking great castle perched on the top. It’s the home of the God of the Sun, probably as its one of the closest building in Greece to the sun. I suffer from a fear of heights, it was high and I suffered. The pain eased when it was free to enter, but the even though the rain has stopped the stone paths were very slippy and this didn’t help me calm my irrational fears. We walked / skidded up through the first two gates, the path went right to the top but I decided that was a destination we didn’t need to achieve.

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Akrokorinthos – another one that cannot be missed

According to the tourist blurb it is “the most impressive acropolis in mainland Greece”, whilst we haven’t seen enough acropolis to be experts we did think it would be difficult to better this one. From the road looking up it seems to cover a fair sized area, it’s only as you start to climb the pathways and go through each gate you see the area is much larger than it at first appears.  Not sure we did it justice, well we didn’t as they say it takes 3-4 hours to walk around everything and we were less than an hour. For the views alone its worth the drive up there, I cannot help keep promoting Greek tourist must sees – they really are so impressive you must see them if you can.

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On the way up

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The views just before the Sun God got home and started work

Seen from the village                                 Up close

The weather here continues to run through the full spectrum. Monday afternoon we had three hours of torrential rain accompanied by thunder and lightening right overhead. Today we had a bit of rain and then the sun came out and reminded us why we are in Greece – a glorious afternoon of sunshine looking down over the Korinthian Gulf whilst listening to the sound of the local dogs barking and the motorway just below us 🙂

Caterpillars 1 v Baxter 0

We were very happy with the site at Iria Beach. Whilst the area was a little run down and lacking in love with everything closed for the winter, the site itself was busy with 20 or so units and it was reasonably warm – once the snow melted both mornings. Our decision to move on was pretty much hastened by those creepy little caterpillar critters. Iain went and asked the owner what we should do with the first one, ‘not much really as they don’t bother anyone but you can kill it if you want’ was the response! Next day there was another one but on the next but one pitch. Our Austrian neighbour obviously feels a relationship with Arnie, he was out with a gas canister, a flame thrower and then torched the whole thing until it was just dust, that’s one that wont be bothering anyone again.

The cotton wool ball like nests are pretty much everywhere right now so I guess its hard for the sites to deal with. After a third one was torched we decided we didn’t feel comfortable and we were a bit concerned at the advice that they ‘aren’t a problem’ when we know from reading up on them in Spain just how dangerous they can be. We packed up and within an hour were back to Triton II campsite, on arrival we did a double-check and the only nests were outside the site so we booked on for a couple of nights.

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Friday morning view from the beach

On both Thursday and Friday mornings we woke to a white world, it may have only been a dusting but all the same it had snowed at sea level (the campsite owner told us it was the first snow since he had been there in 16 years). By mid morning the sun was warm enough to melt any signs of winter but the wind had an arctic feel to it. In the sun it was glorious, enough for a couple of days of sunbathing and we both have a good red glow now. Everywhere we go the main topic of conversation between motorhomers is the snow, our Norwegian neighbours were out doing mountain passes yesterday, they say it’s just like being at home for them – long drive though from Norway to Greece to feel like you are still at home! The campsite went from nearly empty to pretty much full in a few hours, it’s a Greek bank holiday called ‘Clean Monday’.  We were a little worried when our next door neighbour strung up an outside light in the trees, luckily for us they do not party as hard, long or loud as the Italians and Spanish.

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Palamidi castle

Saturday we decided it was time to go into Nafplio, we had resisted so far purely out of a mixture of laziness or being on our way somewhere else as we passed through. The sun was shinning so we dusted down the bikes and took a gentle cycle into town. The roads were quiet and easy to cycle on, plenty wide enough for a car and a bike and just 10 miles later we arrived in town. Wow, where did all these people appear from? It was so busy we had to push our bikes along the road into the centre as there wasn’t room to cycle. We later discovered everyone was there for the annual kite festival, we saw quite a few kites that looked a bit home made on the roadsides for sale but not a one in the air, maybe it was the wrong type of breeze?

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Nafplio harbour

Nafplio is a lovely town, very trendy and cool, the sort of place you need the right handbag and sunglasses and then you can just see and be seen. People were busy doing nothing much except wandering along the promenades or sitting in the pavement cafes. The town itself is fairly posh and very lovely but the harbour area outdid it for us, it was incredibly beautiful.  From there you can see the three castles that Nafplio can boast to owning. There is one on top of the hill on the edge of the old town, another mid way down just above town but the true star has to be the one plonked out in the harbour. Similar to the one we saw at Methoni that was some sort of jail it is quite simply a breath taking scene.

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Bourtzi Castle

Nafplio was once the capital of Greece, it was pronounced as such by the first Greek Head of State following independence in 1829, for his trouble he was assassinated on the church steps in Nafplio just 18 months later by some very ungrateful independent Greeks. By 1834 the new king had decided Athens was going to be the capitals so Nafplio settled down to becoming a rather swish and stylish holiday resort that took off in the late 1960’s, predominantly for the Athenians who kept that coveted capital title.

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From the harbour towards Palamidi castle

We cycled to the end of the harbour where there was a footpath around the cliff, the sign saying “no pedestrians” had been moved and anyway we were cyclists so we carried on. As we rounded the corner the path stretched out to the next bay, another postcard view. As we are in Greece there were fairly steep drops straight into the sea off the path, the Greeks are tough and don’t do handrails or really any type of safety. After a brief and confusing conversation with a Greek lady we understood we had to turn back as we couldn’t follow the path as far as we need to go.

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A beautiful path to cycle – but the drops were scary

We crossed over to the other side of town and followed the road out of town looking for a good picnic spot, not the best route as the road doesn’t touch the coast and was fairly busy. As we dodged the cars we saw the Wanderlings chugging towards us, we waved – they didn’t.  We gave up on the picnic spot and turned back to town which if anything it was busier, so it was time to head back towards Drepano. As we cycled along we saw the Wanderlings again, we waved – they drove off! Not wanting to labour a point but a couple of miles later we spotted a certain Dethleffs coming out of Carrefour – as we said ‘oh look who it is’ they were gone, again.

The monastery of Metamorfosis Sotiros has intrigued since we were here last week, its so high on the hill you can only just see it. Out of our league in terms of climbing up there but I did try and research something about it on the internet, a little disappointed that the first thing I found was a web site where I could make an online donation! Looks like the Greek monasteries have well and truly embraced the powers of money making on the internet.

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The monastery is the tiny blip at the top of the rock next to a tree

Back at campsite after 21 miles we sunk down for a rest and noticed a calling card on our door. Yay! Roland and Claire were on the same site, an afternoon in the sun discussing the merits of  various tourist attractions, campsites, feral dogs and snow. They assured us they hadn’t seen us on any of the occasions when they had passed us during the day. Well Claire said she saw a bloke in a yellow jacket on a bike waving at her but she couldn’t think why he kept waving so she ignored him, fair enough :). We left them this morning heading for the carnival in Tolo but we are fairly confident we will run into them again over the next few weeks, hope so as it’s always lovely to see them.

At long last we have made the move and off, well nearly off, the Peloponnese. We took the main road directly North, a very quiet run up with some glorious views over to the mountains. We are stopped at  the Camperstop Aphrodite just a few miles before the Corinth Canal. As we approached we passed the entrance to Ancient Corinth, we had said no more ruins for a few weeks but it looks fairly interesting so will head back there in the morning before having a look at the famous canal.

This is our kind of Camperstop, it does what it says on the tin, there is everything you could need for €10 (well we hope it is because we forgot to confirm the price). The owner is a wonderful gentleman who explained everything in a mixture of Greek, French and English with the biggest smile you could wish for. By the time we had parked up and plugged in he was back with a tray containing complimentary bowls of currants soaked in honey and a couple of glasses of water. The site is a work in progress but then so is a lot of Greece!

Our plan now is to get a real plan and stick to it a bit more, so we will be here a couple of days then head onto mainland Greece. The new / real plan is now bypassing Athens (too busy), probably seeing Delphi (it’s been highly recommended) then out to Volos (another break on the beach). A quick stop at Meteor (top of our must see list) and then we will then be driving East and stopping just before Turkey (Iain has vetoed Turkey) and crossing the border into Bulgaria, from where its North all the way to Finland. This is all subject to no better plans coming up in the meantime but we are pretty confident its the way to go.

If Heineken made caves…

We have spent days checking out on the internet what there is to see on the South East side of the Peloponnse, the guides books seem to miss out an awful lot that you may or may not come across just by chance. The passes around Mt Didimo were worth the trip in themselves,  full of sunshine and spring flowers and offering up wonderful views over the valleys down to the coast. The roads were wide enough to enjoy the twisting and turning hairpins but the lack of armaco on many of the higher roads does cause more than a few heart stopping moments, more so when you are the one on the side hanging close to the edge.

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View over Argolikos Gulf from Mt Didimo

Looking on the map we saw Big Cave and Small Cave both marked at the town of Didima, not too far off our route South so we diverted off for a look. Once in the village there is a sign pointing up a fairly unmade road, we followed it to the bitter end, and  there is nowhere at all to turn around even a 6 metre motorhome. Well there is but Mr Olive Farmer had his tractor and trailer parked there. After watching us struggle he finally offered to move but only after all the olive branches he had been pruning had been picked up and put in his trailer. The speed he was going it was going to take the rest of the day so I took his slowness to mean he could do with a hand and helped clear the branches whilst he went in search of his keys. Eventually he moved his tractor (that was built when Adam was a lad) and we moved the van back down the lane. After all that effort Big Cave was probably the least impressive, its more like a massive cavern and it can be seen from the main road. To go and explore further would have meant wandering across Mr Olive Farmers land again so we skipped that one.

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Big cave – with nowhere to turn around a motorhome!

Small Cave on the other hand is amazing, there are two small metal gates which you enter, it looks like walking into a grave. Then we followed the steps carved into the rock which took us through a  tunnel / passage which leads through to the inside of Small Cave. It isn’t what I would expect of a cave, its more like a massive sink hole or cavern, once you have gotten through the rock then above you is clear sky. Climbing down the steps there is a balcony and from which you overlook both the cave and the two small Byzantine Chapels. A small path runs around the cave linking the two churches which are one on each side, Aghios Georgios (St George) which has wall murals dating back to the 13th century and the church Metamorfosis of Sortiros which is built into the rock. Both churches were unlocked and contained plenty of religious icons and lit candles and yet there wasn’t a soul around. It is truly a magical place, just the entrance through the side of the rocks makes it special and yet it is not mentioned on an tourist literature we have found anywhere, if you are ever near Kranidi then it is a must to see, trust us, its truly unlike anywhere else we have ever seen or heard of.

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Entrance gates looks like a grave

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Passageways painted white and carved from the rock

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One of the churches carved into the rock

We spent the night at Kilada, a very busy fishing port with hundreds of small fishing boats, pleasure cruisers and even a few that Mr. Cowell might be seen using. We parked up out of the way on the promenade, not as out of the way as we should have as the small kiosk selling cigarettes and newspapers must be the busiest in Greece, a roaring trade of cars coming and going until the early hours. Over in the cafe at the other side of the road the sound of accordions drifted over, it was going to be a very quiet and peaceful night. Then the wind got up a little and we must have had some olive branches on the roof which flicked around all night scratching and rattling. Just after 2 am I awoke to Iain climbing out through the small sunroof, just a pair of legs dangling through a 2ft square gap whilst he tried to reach the said branches. It scared the life out of me for a few minutes as I thought it was someone coming in, well it was but I didn’t think it would be Iain. After all that he couldn’t move whatever it was so resorted to ear-plugs and went to sleep.

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Kilada promenade

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We drove down to the tip at Kosta to have a look over at Spetses, we made do with a look as we didn’t want to shell out for a ferry over. Instead we parked up and walked to the Cap D’Or hotel. Closed for the winter it may be but we wanted a look at what was the scene of many a past exploit of our niece Emma when she worked there a good few years ago. We had a look in the bar and your tab had gone Em so we didn’t need to settle up for you:)

Moving back up the other side of the coast we passed through what are known as the island towns, some are linked by causeways and some are true islands. Most of the towns appear quite similar with whitewashed houses and red roofs squashed in together at the bottom on a hill, next to a harbour. For us the most attractive was Poros, seen from the mainland village of Galatas. To be fair though as Iain pointed out if we had been to Poros and looked the other way then Galatas would probably have looked just as good.

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Poros – prettier than any postcard could be

From Portoxeli around to Ermioni we saw more signs of 1960-1970’s tourism than anywhere else on the Peloponnese in terms of bigger hotels built with no thought other than pack ’em in high in a square box with a balcony. By no means is it as overdone as some areas in the Med but seemed so out of place as we haven’t seen many at all in the whole of the region. A good number of them now stand empty and look as if they have for a few years and some are slowly falling down of their own accord, not a bad thing.

We took the causeway over to Methana, almost an island with the weirdest causeway that climbs high over a mountain then dips straight down the other side. Right at the top was a very photogenic white and blue church, freshly white washed for the summer trade we did stop for yet another church photo, it was too lovely not to. A few miles along is the biggest town on the nearly-island being Methana. Iain loved it, I was a bit undecided. Some of the hotels were very 1970 and yet some were clearly much older and built with a thought as to how they looked from the outside. The main street was quiet but immaculately clean, a chap wandering along on his moped with a bin-bag picking up any rubbish as he went. The two cafes were busy with the usual worry bead conventions but other than that it was eerily quiet. We parked up just off the harbour, hidden away from the mains street behind a small park. We were joined by a dozen feral cats and a couple of hungry stray dogs and spent a very quiet night.

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Beautiful church on the causeway

As we head back along the coast in the morning we came across a nature reserve of some sort, pink flamingos by the road side and several bird hides. We pulled in and got our binoculars out ready for a bit of spotting, as we climbed out of the van it started snowing. We were at sea level, Roland and Claire were miles away so where was the snow coming from? We gave up with birding as it was way too cold and decided to head for campsite back over at Iria. Firstly we needed to continue up the coast and a real stunner of a road carved into the side of the cliff. Then we started up the mountain, thought better of it, turned at the first junction and went across country. As we headed round the mountains we decided time to stop at one of the many, many bakers. They seems as frequent as the garages and most actually bake themselves rather than have stuff delivered in. We treated ourselves to traditional Greek cheese pies and some very stodgy cream cakes. The lovely lady baker insisted on a tour around her bakery, including the back room containing the massive bread ovens and the tower of ovens containing cakes just baking.

We are now set up at Camping Iria for a night or two whilst we plan our next few days. We are a little out in the sticks but its very flat where we are, that seems a good enough reason to stay and take the bikes down for an airing.  By lunchtime today the sun was back and any signs of snow were well and truly gone. Its been a a very pleasant afternoon, becoming warmer by the hour. The campsite is fairly busy, mainly Austrians but a Dutch de-mountable pulled on just after us. We have a lovely big pitch in the middle of the site away from the trees. Despite that I spotted this these little critters at tea-time, our first Processionary Caterpillars, Iain was dispatched to remove them as that job comes under Logistics for sure.

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