Methoni, Greece – Dec 2017

The weather forecast for the Messenia Peninsula over the next few days is not good – lots of rain is on its way. Because of this, I determined early this morning to head east towards the Mani Peninsula but, with the poorer weather not likely to hit Messenia until the afternoon, I decided first to visit Methoni Castle which is just a few kilometres to the south of Pylos. Really glad I did.

Clearly, there is a storm coming up from the south. That much was obvious this morning from the rough seas that almost surround Methoni Castle but the deteriorating weather made for a much more atmospheric visit and it seemed to keep everyone away today except me.

Originally a medieval fortress, Methoni Castle was developed in turn by the Venetians, Turks and French to become a castle town complex spread over almost 10 acres of the southernmost part of Messenia; with an additional octagonal tower (the Bourtzi) built in 1500 by the Venetians on an islet to the south to help with the defences. Two more recent additions include the Church of Santa Sotira and a narrow causeway from the castle to the Bourtzi (both built by the French in the early 19th century).

With the sea on three sides and a deep moat separating it from the mainland, the castle town could only be accessed from the north by a narrow wooden bridge (subsequently replaced by the Venetians with an impressive stone bridge) or from the south by a sea gate protected by the Bourtzi.

The castle town is for the most part in very poor repair; the exceptions being the impressive North Gate, the Stone Bridge, the Southern Sea Gate, the Bourzi and some of the Outer Walls. Some restoration work has begun (particularly on the south east Coastal Tower) but the full potential of this complex as a tourist resort and as a national treasure is not being realised and this is sad because the place is truly captivating.

 

First photo is of Methoni Castle from the beach. Second photo is of some of the inner defences while the third is from the castle ramparts towards the stone bridge at the north gate. Not great photos but they help illustrate how large the complex is

First photo is of the Bourtzi from the castle ramparts to the left of the Sea Gate (I shouldn’t have been on that wall but since I was the only one around I was able to clamber all over the place). The second photo shows the French built causeway with a fairly rough sea crashing through the arches

The Sea Gate from Bourzi. The Turks used the Bourtzi as both a prison and an execution centre. Most of the garrison were executed in the Bourzi when the Turks first took Methoni Castle

The last comment with regards to Bourzi is not a very nice note to end this blog on so I will change all that by remarking on how very clean and tidy the village of Methoni was today. Not a blue plastic bag or empty plastic water bottle in sight. Well done Methoni.

Olympia, Pylos (and an unplanned Acropolis), Greece – Dec 2017

Back on the road (27 December 2017) and headed south.

First stop was Archea Olympia, about 65 km south east of Glyfa, to view the site of the original Olympic Games.

It is believed the first Games were held in Olympia in 776 BC (and they continued until 393 AD when a Christian Emperor Theodosius I banned them because he considered them a pagan festival) but most of the archaeological finds that can be seen now at Olympia were constructed during the “Classical” period between the 5th and 4th centuries BC (e.g. the Hippodrome for chariot racing, the Greek Baths for the athletes and, most important, the Temple of Zeus) although the site was further developed during both the Hellenistic period (e.g. the Palaestra for wrestling and the Gymnasium for general training) and the Roman period (when almost everything was Romanised).

There’s not much left of the original buildings now (in 426 AD another Theodosius instructed that as part of a further clampdown on pagan festivals the Temple of Zeus should be totally destroyed – earthquakes and flooding put paid to the rest) but there is an aura here and; the location, the sheer scale of the development and the size of the Temple of Zeus lends the site a certain majesty that, with just a little imagination, it is possible to conjure up a vision of the Archea Olympia at the pinnacle of it’s popularity.

 

The Temple of Hera (at the altar of which the Olympic Torch is lit for each of today’s Modern Olympic Games) and, in the second and third photographs, the Temple of Zeus. This latter temple once housed a 12 metre gold and ivory statue of Zeus that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world

You wouldn’t know it to look at them but the empty plinths leading towards the archway into the Games Arena in the above photo once identified the names and offences and home cities of athletes caught cheating in the Games. The plinths were located at the entrance to the Games Arena to dissuade other athletes from cheating – that is one idea that could be resurrected in the Modern Olympics 

I wanted to stay and run (well, jog) a circuit of the Games Arena but a cruise ship had docked at Patras and suddenly the site was being overrun by 30+ coachloads of tourists. It was time to move on.

Somewhere between Skillounta and Kyparissia on the road south to Pylos (my next planned stop) I paused to climb a hill. While driving I had seen what I thought was a “kalderimi” (i.e. a stone mule path that connects many of the mountain villages in these parts) and, having also read that there is an  ancient acropolis in the area, I surmised that the kalderimi could lead me to the acropolis. In any event I needed a quiet hike if only to rid myself of the memory of all those cruise ship tourists. Unlike the time at Sivota, I was on the right hill and I found what I was looking for but (a) the kalderimi was nothing more than a seam of lava rock (that cut my trainers to ribbons during the ascent) and (b) the acropolis was surely someone’s idea of a joke (take a look at the photo) and (c) I got drenched when it rained cats and dogs. I really must stop making spontaneous decisions.

That could easily be a kalderimi snaking it’s way up the hill, don’t you think?

… but if that’s an acropolis, I reckon Theodosius I, II, III, IV and V and all their progeny have been at it

Final stop for the day was Pylos (previously known by it’s Italian name of Navarino), the principal harbour on the Bay of Navarino and about 100 km south of Olympia.

One of the earliest mentions of Pylos is in Homer’s Iliad. He identifies Nestor, who fought for the Greeks against the Trojans, as King of Pylos and the ruins of Nestor’s Palace are but a short distance from Pylos. However, the area is arguably more famous for being the site of two significant naval battles -the first in 425 BC when an Athenian fleet trapped and destroyed a Spartan fleet in the Bay (part of the Peloponnesian War) and the second in 1827 when a combined British, French and Russian fleet entered the Bay and annihilated an Ottoman armada (supposedly to save the fledgling Greek Republic).

I parked up overnight on the harbour with excellent views to the left and right and enjoyed a very quiet and comfortable evening with absolutely nothing occurring in the Bay of Navarino.

The view to the right of the Van

The view to the left of the Van

Pylos Harbour during an evening stroll

 

Glyfa, Greece (Christmas) – Dec 2017

Christmas Eve – Absolutely no chance of a White Christmas here this year. I’m not complaining 

Christmas was very much about the people I met while staying at Ionian Beach and who went out of their way to show me some considerable consideration over the festive period- Katharine & James and Julia & Simon. Thanks very much. Merry Christmas, everyone!

 

Kyllini (Castle & Springs), Greece – Dec 2017

I was intending to drive south yesterday to Methoni in Messinia but I totally misread the weather. A cold front came up from the south just as I arrived at Glytha and since then there have been two days of non stop rain (while the Lygia I left has been enjoying two warm and sunny days). I need to be more alert in this regard.  Lesson learned and the sun is back!

Currently parked up on the edge of an olive grove sipping wine, looking at the snow capped mountains to the East. The view is fine and I’m in no hurry to move.

The view from the Van. I’ll be heading South shortly after Christmas and on to those mountains early in the New Year

I passed Chlemoutsi Castle the other day and decided this morning that I would track back and check it out not least because it looks totally different to many of the (Venetian built) castles seen during the drive south… and it is totally different.

When built in the early 13th century it was known as Clermont Castle and it was built by a couple of French Crusaders during their return from the 4th Crusade in the Frankish style. It is built on a 220m hilltop a short distance from the coast and has good views across the Aegean to Zakynthos and Kefalonia. Having said that, it has never been of any real strategic value and that perhaps explains why it has largely been left alone and is now considered “one of the best preserved castles in Greece”.

 

 

 

It’s a smaller castle than you would think from the outside. It’s not one of my favourite castles – I like them steeped in history, drama and, of course, a little bit of legend

 

The views from the castle weren’t too bad. That’s the island of Kefalonia in the background of the first photo

After lunch I pulled the bike out of the back of the Van and set off towards the Kyllini Springs. It was only 12 km (round trip) of fairly level cycling, mostly along the coast road, and the scenery and the weather were both brilliant.

 

If ever you tired of the sea views (that one is of Arkoudi Beach), there were countless orchards of olive trees, lemon trees and mediterranean pine all backed by the snow covered mountains of the East

Of course I’d overlooked the fact that the Kyllini Springs are Thermal Springs and as I approached them the scent of lemons and mediterranean pine gave way to that of sulphur – ugh!  It wasn’t helped either by the place being so run down. It clearly isn’t tended during winter and looked a bit of a mess.

But, come on, the baths here have been renowned since ancient times for their hot springs, fumes and mud as a cure for arthritis, asthma and skin diseases. Now I don’t suffer from any of those problems but prevention is better than cure…

 

What? I’ve got to strip off and sit in that big hole of funny coloured water?

Fortunately, a local guy turned up while I was there who told me he often bathed in the Springs in the summer and he swore by it but that “it is too wet and I should wait until some of the water drains off and there is more mud”. Of course, he was speaking Greek throughout and he may have said something totally different but, that’s what I think he said.

There were a couple of old Roman ruins near the Springs; a bath house (in a particularly dilapidated state) and an amphitheatre but within the hour I was on my way back to the Van.

Not the best Roman amphitheatre you’ll ever see but the only one my bike has ever been rested against

Arkoudi still looking good albeit this end of the beach is a bit rocky

 

 

Glyfa (Pelopennese), Greece – Dec 2017

It seems there are a number of villages across Greece by the name of Lygia – it is Greek for “musical”. There is a Lygia close to where I am currently parked in Glyfa in the Pelopennese Region but the Lygia I left this morning was in the Preveza Region far to the north. I shall remember that short stay. It was very pleasant and the fish was superb.

I forgot to mention that, whilst drinking the local red wine yesterday afternoon, Ikis was continually providing me with small plates of pickled vegetables that didn’t look too nice but tasted divine…

Soggy looking pickles (lot of olive oil) but they tasted great

Today was about the drive down through Greece, across the Rio-Antirrio Bridge to Patras (in Pelopennese) and then on to Glyfa – a journey of about 180 miles – although I was prepared to take another day or so to complete the journey if necessary because I also wanted to stop off at Nikopolis.  Nikopolis (Victory City) was built by the Roman Emperor Augustus (then known as Octavian) to commemorate his victory over Anthony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. The ruins are supposed to be  spectacular.

Unfortunately (at least so far as my planned stop at Nikopolis was concerned) a new motorway has been built since my so called state of the art sat-nav was installed and before I knew it I was on the motorway and well past Nikopolis. If nothing else, that explains why things went so wrong for me whilst  driving in Albania. I mentioned on the Shkoder to Vlore blog that I was continually being directed towards a ferry. That’s why; the sat-nav is so out of date the road I should have taken isn’t even recorded in my sat-nav system! There was  another occasion in Albania, that I didn’t write about, where I (again) found myself on a motorway that according to my sat-nav didn’t exist. Not impressed.

Because of the motorway I soon found myself parked up at the Ionian Beach Camping Site. It’s impressive. It’s on a pretty beach and has all mod-cons. All things being equal I’ll stay here for a day or two before starting my exploration of the Peloponnese Region – Sparta as was.

That’s us heading across the Rio-Antirrio Bridge towards Patras. Next time I am here it will be to get a ferry across to Italy. I need to do something about that over the next few days

…and there’s the beach. Can I gather the courage over the next day or so to go for a dip?

 

Ammoudia & Lygia, Greece – Dec 2017

Yesterday was good and it was always going to be difficult to follow but I think today matched it and, if chill factor were to be a primary consideration, today would have surpassed yesterday.

It was cold when I awoke this morning and it speaks well for the Van (and the quilt that I am currently sleeping under – only yesterday I considered changing the quilt to a lighter one because it’s too warm) that I had a really good night’s sleep even ‘though the temperature slipped to -3 last night. No matter, it was warm and sunny this morning and that is the forecast for days to come. A quick cup of coffee and some cereal and I was off back to the coast, to Ammoudia (where the River Acharon hits the Med), for something more substantial to eat. I could have knocked up some bacon and eggs in the Van but I’m getting lazy.

Ammoudia was pretty (and different) from many of the coastal villages/towns seen so far but it was also a bit of a disappointment. Very little  was open (I’m sure it would be different in the summer) and after an hour or so of checking the place out I moved on. I didn’t even stop for a coffee.

The fishing boats in Ammoudia are moored on the Acheron River as opposed to in the bay…

… and they sail (or motor) out of the Acheron into the Aegean…

… not that there is anything wrong with the beach

I don’t know what caused me to pull off the coastal road into the village of Lygia but I’m so glad I did. Lygia is in the middle of nowhere and aside from a small harbour (there’s only room for a handful of fishing boats) and a small taverna, there is absolutely nothing else.

I checked it out with a couple of locals and they said it would be in order to park the Van on the quay while I had my breakfast in the local taverna. I’m still there 12 hours later and I’m staying overnight. The locals are happy for me to stay on the quay as long as I want to.

Breakfast wasn’t brilliant (the taverna, Skaloma, only had the one egg and they apologised for that) but the setting and the friendly reception from the owner of the taverna (Ikis, he’s called) was second to none. He asked if I would be staying for dinner and, after explaining that they only do fish, enquired as to my preferences. I had to choose 2, preferably 3, options as my choice would influence where and how his man would fish. Promising or what?!? Well, that night (this evening) I got my first choice – a local sole – served with a Greek Salad and two half litre carafes of the local dry white wine. This place is simply not real. I love it.

One of the first views I saw of the beach at Lygia…

…and two subsequent views

 

As for the food, it was my first choice and it was outstanding. Which one do you want? That one, please!

I don’t know what the (complementary) dessert was but while I have eaten most fruits in my lifetime I have never eaten this one (served with a cold yoghurt). In it’s natural state it is a white wine colour and very bitter but it was served having been boiled with sugar. Nice

Don’t ask what my plans are for tomorrow.

Sivota, Parga & Acheron Springs, Greece – Dec 2017

A good day that would probably have been a great day except for a slight miscalculation on my part.

It started well. I was on the road by 8.30 am and covered the 30 km to Sivota within about 45 minutes. Sivota is a small seaside town with a pretty harbour, crystal clear water, a surprising number of cafes that are open notwithstanding that it is well out of season and free wifi anywhere in the town. A cup of coffee, a quick tour of the town and to buy some supplies and then I was off up a hill at the back of the town seeking the long abandoned traditional stone village known as the Vrachona Settlement. That is where the miscalculation occurred. I walked 10 km up, down and around a much bigger and wholly incorrect hill and never found the Settlement. Wally!

 

 

Sivota waterside- pictures taken in the town

Looking down on Sivota but not from the Vrachona Settlement. Well I got my exercise today and a photo opportunity that would have otherwise been denied me

The next stop was the smaller coastal town of Parga. I hadn’t been too sure about going to Parga but it wasn’t going to be too much of a detour. So glad I did. It’s a beautiful town with, for so small a place, a surprising number of interesting features.  In particular, there’s the local church on the island in front of the harbour and a Venetian Castle on a rock overlooking the town.

Ali Pasha (the same Ali Pasha who has figured in so many of these blogs) bought the town from the British in 1819. Greece regained it in 1913 but by then many of the Greek inhabitants were long gone, fleeing to Corfu. Don’t ask me what we were doing with it. I would have visited the Venetian Castle (if only because there would be fantastic photo opportunities from the battlements) but I was running well late because of a certain hill outside of Sivota (not to mention my pig headedness in thinking the Settlement must surely be over the next rise) and I wanted to reach Acheron Springs before nightfall.

 

 

I must have taken dozens of photos in Parga

As I drove inland to the Acheron Springs the weather deteriorated but upon arrival I couldn’t have received a better welcome:-

That’s the Van and both ends of the Rainbow were visible from where I stood. The end you see appeared to originate at the entrance to the gorge where the Springs are

In case you didn’t know (and apologies if you did), Greek mythology tells us that Hermes and Charon would guide the souls of the dead down the Acheron River to Lake Acherousia and the underworld, Hades. I stayed parked at the Acheron Springs overnight reflecting as to whether it was Hermes himself who had organised the Rainbow for me. Some welcome. I just hope he wasn’t intending I stay longer.

On to Ammoudia in the morning (where the Acheron empties into the sea).

Igoumenitsa, Greece – Dec 2017

I’ll be wild camping over the next couple of days and I therefore decided to stay one more night in “Drepano Camping” (near Igoumenitsa) although it vies with the place I stayed at in Munich as the worst campsite on the tour so far. It has all the basic facilities and is well placed (right on the coast with some nice views and just a short bike ride from Igoumenitsa Town)  but it looks as if it hasn’t been cleaned in weeks.

The view above is from near where the Van is parked. That is Igoumenitsa the other side of the bay

… and that’s the wetland (a bird sanctuary) behind where I am parked. Like I said, Drepano is not badly sited

The only other people staying on the site are Simon and Julie Thomson whom I met briefly in Shkoder, Albania. They are the only Brits I have seen for weeks (since Belgium) and last night we polished off a few bottles of wine swapping stories and catching up on events in Albania.

This morning I cycled into Igoumenitsa to have a look around but stayed only for a quick coffee and to buy fresh doughnuts (I’ve been craving doughnuts for weeks). You’ll understand why I didn’t stay longer when I tell you that Lonely Planet describes Igoumenitsa as “a port city and… is not very attractive and there’s little to draw you here other than the promise of sailing to lovelier shores.” Not very kind but… true.

Igoumenitsa. Enough said.

 

 

 

Ksamil to Greece – Dec 2017

Waved cheerio to Mairin & Todd but, otherwise, I did very little yesterday. It was a total “chill” day. I simply drank some wine and watched the first four episodes of the latest Peaky Blinders series on the BBC catch-up facility.

Actually, it hasn’t been all that different today with my only priorities being a short drive across the border into Greece and to put my watch forward another hour.

I have really enjoyed Albania. Yes, the roads and the standard of driving are about as bad as they could be and; there is a marked shortage of the luxury items I currently crave (after almost 2 months on the road) and; there is a really serious rubbish problem (the place makes Canterbury look spotlessly clean) but, without a doubt, I have not come across a more friendly and welcoming people anywhere in Europe – so many total strangers have gone out of their way to offer help or advice or simply ask how I am finding Albania and if I am enjoying my stay. Lovely place, lovely people.

I would have stayed another couple of days but the weather forecast for the Ksamil area is not good for the next two weeks or so and, while the north of Greece (about 30 miles away) is likely to be very wet for the next two days, it is scheduled to get significantly better in the area just south of Igoumenitsa. It is amazing how the weather can vary so much over such a short distance; it’ll be the mountains I suppose.

By Albanian standards the roads weren’t too bad coming over the border to Greece today but there was monsoon style rain for parts of the journey. At times the windscreen wipers on the Van couldn’t cope and I had to pull in. I’m currently parked up just outside Igoumenitsa; it’s raining cats and dogs and I am not going any further. There’s an open bottle of Bailey’s in the fridge and the freezer is half full of ice. Job done!

The main road to Greece – Been on worse since arriving in Albania

The Greek side of the border

Do I stay with Igoumenitsa and the coast road to Syvota (which has long been on my list of places to visit) or make a short detour to Ioannina (and take in the road to Papingo which I also fancy)? I suppose I could stay in the region a little longer and do both

The road to Papingo

 

Sarande, Albania – Dec 2017

I decided to stay on in Albania a little while longer and took the bus yesterday to Sarande with a really nice couple from the USA, Mairin and Todd, whom I met a couple of days ago and who are themselves currently touring Europe in a van (although they are following a different route to me).

In Albania too the bus services are frequent, regular and cheap and for just 100 leke each we were soon in Sarande, a fairly sizeable coastal town some 8 miles to the north of Ksamil. I passed through it on the way down here.

There is not a great deal going on in Sarande at this time of the year but we had a very pleasant afternoon; starting off with a brief walk along the promenade; followed by a leisurely walk to and from the mostly derelict Lekuresi Castle (which sits on a small hill at the back of the town and offers sensational views) and; finally, relaxing in a seafront restaurant (with a litre of the local white wine, a pretty good pizza and some fried squid &  prawns) waiting for the sun to set. Then it was time to take the obligatory sunset photos and take a taxi back to the Van for a proper drink.

 

Sarande sea front

These silly one man pill boxes are everywhere, even in the town centre. It seems more than 750,000 were built – nice contract for someone

  

The entrance to the Lekuresi Castle and a view of a part of the castle which has been converted into a restaurant 

 

Two views from the Lekuresi Castle. Had the restaurant been open we would have stayed to photograph the sunset but it wasn’t to be…

… but the sunset from the promenade wasn’t bad

Mairin & Todd are heading north tomorrow and we therefore took it fairly easy on the alcohol; a bottle of Albanian Berat (or was it a Fernet Branca?), a bottle of Amarone from Italy, Bailey’s with ice, a couple of cask strength Ardbeg Whiskies and then Todd produced a very unusual and very nice raki (Raki me Arra from the Cobo Winery in Albania) which tastes unlike any other raki I have tasted, probably because it is mixed with various unripe nuts and herbs.

All the best Mairin & Todd. Stay well.