Greek tragedy averted on causeway

We finally got around to visiting Gythio this week. Our plan was to catch the bus into town for the market and for our first proper explore of the town. Having done a little research it wasn’t looking too promising as the Gythio tourist office themselves state “there are not really mentionable ancient objects to be seen, only a small Roman theatre, so just enjoy Greek life’. We need a few bits, such as a new mobile phone as our emergency phone no longer charges, perfect opportunity for our first retail experiences in Greece then. We were up with the lark and stood waiting for said bus at 8.45 – it came along bang on time, just unfortunate we were stood in totally the wrong place so it sailed straight past! The reason we were stood in wrong place is currently not clear, some believe it was the campsite receptionist giving duff information, or though it could also be that one of us didn’t actually listen to what she told him – jury is out. As the next bus wasn’t due for five hours it was shanks’ pony to town for us, no complaints from someone else so possibly that was tilting the evidence against said person?

Just before we arrived in town we came to what is apparently a small island, called Kranai, although an island it is now connected to the shore by a causeway and is more of an island-let – it’s just a little patch of land a few hundred metres from the shore. It’s major and possibly only claim to fame is that it’s where Paris and Helen stayed before heading off to Troy, after Paris had abducted Helen from nearby Sparta. I am never sure whether this is Greek history or Greek mythology and will admit I had to look it up it, for anyone else as unclued up as me it is the latter  The island also has a museum of the Mani (third one so far) and a lighthouse but the major draw seems to be the taverna. When we passed it was heaving, Nico (bet that was his name) was singing loudly and many a Greek mama could be seen twirling around the restaurant after having had an ouzo or two too many. On a dreary day the ouzo and dancing looked more fun than the tourist stuff. We kind of disagree with the Greek Tourist Board that there isn’t anything that good to see here though, Kranai on its own is worth the stop.

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Approach to town with Kranai lighthouse on the island

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sunshine or not –  the colours make up for it

Back in town there are two waterfront areas, the first runs along from Kranai to the port, then a second area around the harbour front. Waterside restaurants line the streets on both stretches, where the waiters risk their lives daily running across the roads to serve people sat on the harbour edge tables. At the far end of town there is a shopping area, not sure about shopping its more about cake. Every third shop was a bakery or a cake shop, either very old fashioned where you could see the bread being baked in the wall oven or at the other end of the scale with the most exquisite cakes imaginable. We found a phone shop and bought a cheapy for €18 but other than that there wasn’t much we wanted to spend our money on so we made do with a latte in one of the harbour-side cafes. The street market was in full flourish, not a massive market with the majority of stalls selling fruit and vegetables.

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Gythio waterfront

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Good old fashioned bakeries

On the harbour front we happened upon a shop selling fridge magnets (I know, but I am loving them) so we popped in for a browse. The shop sold all manner of tourist tat, some good some not so good but it also houses the studio of the owner, a Mr Yiorgos Hassanakos. Checking it out later we found he is a respected artist in Greece and uses one side of the shop as his workshop, from where he creates the figures used by the Greek puppet theatre.  As we stood he was working on new puppets and the walls were full of his creations and he kindly allowed me to take some photographs, amazing what you find in a fridge magnet shop me thinks 🙂

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A couple of miles around the coast at Valtaki beach is the weirdly fascinating hulk of metal that is the “Dimitrios” is freight ship built in the 1950’s that was shipwrecked in 1981.  Considering the length of time its been there at first it looks remarkably intact, you can walk right up to it, nothing stopping you except you will get wet ankles. Closer inspection does show its disintegrating, gaping holes through the sides and the structure doesn’t look like it has that many more years before it collapses. As with pretty much everything in Greece there is nothing that tells exactly why it is there and what happened to it.  According to the internet rumours range from a ship smuggling cigarettes from Turkey to Italy and being set on fire to evade capture by the Greek authorities, to it being a ghost vessel of unknown origins. What the true story of how and why its there, who knows. Whatever it is, its very eerie being left there to rot but it is very photogenic and must be a bit of a tourist draw as there is a very good looking restaurant on the beach named after the ship.

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We needed to refill one of our LPG tanks this week and I was  just a bit nervous after the problems we faced in Tuscany with filling. Greece continued to prove that everything is easy as we pulled in and the chap filled us up without any questions or concerns. We thought we had used a full tank in the last 7 weeks but as it was only €5 to fill it there must have been at least a third of a tank of gas left. As we don’t use gas for heating a tank usually lasts us a good couple of months, as I intend to cook less and make more use of salad as the weather improves we should be using even less.

On the cash / budget front we are doing brilliantly so far. Campsites are all reasonably priced here in Greece so we are benefiting there with good deals even when we do not do long stay. Fuel is coming in way under budget as we are now moving only fairly short distances between campsites. We admitted at the start we really just stuck a finger in the air to set our budget, it would be easy to think that therefore it isn’t difficult to be under the plan but it could just as easily been the other way round.  We are by no means feeling restricted on our budget, for us the being away and experiencing these places is outweighing any need to go out for meals or buy crazy souvenirs (with the exception of fridge magnets of course!).

As always there has been an upside of a downside, this week the poor weather has had a positive impact on route planning.  I now have some squiggly lines on the maps all the way up to Hungary. These lines have varying coloured stickers on them that denote whether there is an aire or campsite or other place we might be able to stopover. Experience has shown that we cannot trust campsites that advertise as open to actually be open. Emailing ahead is proving the best bet and so far less than half have emailed back to say they are open. Then there is the other extreme with a lovely Dutch site in Romania telling us they are closed but if we are stuck then just turn up and they will put us up in the garden somewhere for a few days, we love Dutch campsites and the Dutch – they never seem to see anything as a problem. Our experience in Portugal, when we used seven Dutch sites as we could never find a good small Portuguese one, was the Dutch run some of the best small campsites anywhere.

With both Romania and Bulgaria looking like they were ‘planned’ I was extremely happy until I took a closer look and realised my campsites either side of the border where absolutely nowhere near a point we could cross the Danube. Again ignorance plays a major part as I thought there would be hundreds of crossing points not just a handful. Back at the drawing board it looks like we will take one of the extortionate ferry routes, we don’t have a budget at all for any ferry crossings (how rubbish is that?) so it will be whatever it is and we will make a saving somewhere to cover it.

As our week finishes we were out earlier today and popped out to Kranai island on the way back, it was something we should have thought more about first. The causeway is about wide enough for a car and a motorhome can just barely squeeze down – which we realised after we were on the causeway – nothing else to do but carry on turn around and slink back down it. This photo was on the way back – it was worse on the way out as my side of the van was teetering over the sea but I was too nervous to pick up the camera!  Fair-play to the boss man, he might be rubbish listening to where the buses run from but he is pretty damn good on squeezing the van up the tight spots!

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Our plans for the next week are not as exact as they are for the next two months, if we see the sun we head for the Mani for a few days, if we don’t then there isn’t currently an alternative. Luckily the weather has done a real about turn since Saturday lunchtime and we have been back with sunshine and its been very warm. There is still a blustery wind, which occasionally blows up to a gale for half an hour and brings an accompanying sandstorm, generally though its warm and hazy. Our forecast for the week is storms tomorrow followed by a fried egg forecast – fingers crossed.

Rain has slowed play, but not stopped it

The forecast for this week was heavy rain, we were ready for it to start on Monday. Instead we had clear skies and not a hint of rain. We sat out in our chairs feeling smug that no rain was coming our way, discussing how rubbish the weather forecasts were.  Obviously this is the Greek way of lulling you into a false security because for the last 3 days it hasn’t been what you would call heavy rain, more akin to standing under a very fast flowing waterfall. The Greeks are telling us they need the rain so its welcome which I guess is understandable, we aren’t too devastated by it as despite rain, thunder and lightning its still warm. Now if it carries on past this week my sympathies may change but its fair to say that the inside of the van has never been so clean or tidy so we have made good use of the time in between venturing out between storm clouds. The lightening has been fairly spectacular, close enough to take the wifi box off the wall in reception a couple of nights ago, hence no internet here until today. Forget that we pitched up by the pool, we now have our own pool on one side of the van, a good couple of inches of water which doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Our Swiss neighbours left yesterday to catch the ferry to Crete, a lightbulb moment as we too could pop up the road 10 minutes for the weekly ferry. The idea was mulled around for an hour or so and all the pros and cons considered. The main pro is that the weather is better in Crete, but then its already better in Greece than some places. The main con is cost and time, €350 and its 6 hours each way on a ferry. Add the two together and we probably don’t need to go as there is plenty to keep us here but its so annoying that people keep giving us great ideas :). At this stage we are not going but never say never, if this rain hasn’t stopped by the time the ferry goes next week we may well be on it and hang the expense.

Our home for the next couple of weeks, if we stay put, is Gythio (Githio), another town with the trademark steep and narrow lanes with the houses hugging the side of Mount Koumaros right down to the sea. We did walk along the beach to town on Sunday, it was a little further than we thought so by the time we arrived we only had an hour or so of daylight left so we had to turn straight around and head back. The further South we go in the Peloponnese the postcard prettier places become and this certainly lives up to that image. It is as much a working town as a holiday destination with the habour having ferries leaving for several islands, as well as cruise ships docking, mainly in summer. We drove through on our way out yesterday and there is plenty there to see and do so tomorrow we will investigate further with a full day in town combined with a visit to the local markets.

Our campsite backs onto Mavrovouni beach, its just over 5km long and at this time of year very peaceful. The sea is crystal clear and very clean, due to this the caretta sea turtles come here to lay their eggs early each summer. Despite the number of campsites and bars along the beach the turtles are looked after by groups of volunteers who monitor the nests and many of the bar owners dig trails for the turtles to make sure they can come up and down the beach without being disturbed by holidaymakers. We are loving the ‘modesty huts’ on the beaches, it would seem the Greeks like a bit of propriety when changing for a swim – then next door there are beach showers hidden amongst the banana plants so not sure how much modesty goes on in those!

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In between rain the olive harvest is taking place all around the area, including on the campsite, its usually done in October / November but for whatever reason its done much later here . For the last few days a couple of guys have been climbing in the trees ‘combing’ the olives out of the top branches. Then they start up the chainsaw and hack out half the branches before throwing said branches into a mechanical comber to get the olives out of them. Its all very labour intensive, despite the machinery six trees took a full day. There must be 100 trees on the grove so the sound of chainsaws is going to be with us for sometime to come. The better quality olive oil comes from harvests where no machinery is used, the cheapest comes from harvests where full tree shaking machinery is used. As our site is midway between the two we will be buying a bottle of two to bring home and see if we can taste any difference from mass produced supermarket oils.

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As Wednesday was Iain’s birthday we braved the weather and cleared off for a day out in the van. There is nothing he likes more than clambering up hills in the rain (not!) so I had chosen the medieval fortress-state of Mystras, which is perched on the the side of a mountain, as a suitable destination.  Approaching from Sparti we went through Mystras new village and the old city seemed to appear in stages, the castle is at the top of the hill, then there is the palace probably half way up, a monastery to the left and then a dozen or so churches scattered across the hill. Between all this are the remains of the houses, shops and various other buildings that formed the city, together with parts of the two walls that enclosed it all. The castle was built in 1249 but the city took off when the Byzantines became rulers a few years later and the whole hill was covered with the densely populated city when it fell to the Turks in 1460. Whilst the imperial family of Constantinople held power the city became an important cultural centre where the growth of humanistic studies impacted throughout 15th century Europe.

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The ancient city of Mystras

There are two entrances, one near the top of the hill and another midway down. We took the top entrance first, €5 each entry and that covered the lower gate entrance too. The lady who took our money told us the palace was closed for renovation but we should climb to the castle at the top of the hill. Mainly cobbled or with large flat stones as a path we went up, and up, and up. It is one hell of a walk to the top, made so much more interesting by the stone and cobble path being good and slippy. When we finally arrived at the top I have to be honest, we both said “is that it?” Lots of castle walls, yes very old walls but walls all the same, looks better from a distance as some castles do. The views though made the whole trek worthwhile, snowed capped Taygetos mountains on one side and a view across the valley over Sparti (or is it Sparta, it depends on which map you have with you how you spell any town here) to the other. Coming back down was even more entertaining, the two of us slipping and sliding over the stones, discussing just how far the drops over the side were and wondering why we were the only tourists there (what is with people who never go out in the rain, because when it rains we never see anyone out other than in the coffee bars?).

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Worth the climb for the views

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The long and slippy path

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We drove down to second entrance, from where the paths were nowhere near as slippy, and access to the numerous churches, cathedral and the monastery itself. The churches are beautifully restored on the outside, inside they have preserved amazing high quality frescos that date back through the 18 century in some, to the 13th and 14th centuries in others. The monastery is still occupied, although we didn’t see anyone we could hear the chatter of the nuns behind the tiny cell doors and the multitude of cats they keep were clear to see, although their donkey was nowhere to be seen. Without a doubt it would be easy to spend a whole day there just wandering around the site. We must be way too touristy because we were both shocked and a little disappointed not to be find a cafe there, all that history and our major concern is where is the cake! After all that traipsing around we were well looking forward to coffee and a good pastry, instead it was back to the van for birthday toast – no, not quite the same.

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We drove back through Sparti (Sparta) and we were intending to stop off for a look, but as we came to the edge of town it was one of those ‘do we need to’ minutes, too many cars, too many people and not enough interest to park up and walk around. I always have the feeling we might be missing something amazing when we bypass out these places but bigger towns are not holding a lot of interest for us when there seems so much to see and do in the villages where its so much easier to park up and get out and about.  Neither of us feel that comfortable parking the van in busy towns, we only stopped at Lidl for a couple of bits on the outskirts of Sparti and within minutes there were Roma children begging at the van. Young children probably only 6 or 7 years old but their parents were sat in a van on the otherside of the car-park watching, makes us uneasy so we would rather just avoid the whole thing and keep away from the areas they frequent.

Now the internet is back up we can resume normal service, post a blog, read emails and as importantly track Royal Mail as my new Kindle is on route (hurray and mega thanks to Al), I cannot survive another week let alone the next 10 months without books.  We do not have a satellite dish so we can’t pick up any English tv, this doesn’t usually bother us as we usually spend evenings planning what to do next, researching on the internet or in my case reading. The last couple of weeks have been so weird with not being able to read of an evening, I have tried reading with the Kindle pc app but on a thousand year old mini lap-top its rubbish. There is a book swap here on the campsite and I was hopeful of absolutely anything to read, out of over 100 books I managed to find a Caravan Club Europe sites book – that does not count as reading.  Iain’s ears will be taking a well deserved rest as soon as the postman delivers 🙂