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Three Days of Step Aerobics in the SE Peloponnese

dscf2589After 48 hours of non-stop precipitation, I awake to blue skies and snow on the distant mountain peaks. I’ve been waiting in the coastal town of Nafplio for the weather to improve so I can climb up to the Palamidi Castle. Guidebooks and locals differ in their opinions of how many steps must be climbed from the town to the castle gate but it’s a lot and I’m determined to count them all. When I reach the top I’m at 813, 913 or 1013. After a while I lost track of the hundreds! Luckily, the lovely lady at the gatehouse, after getting over the shock of my appearance so early in the morning, confirms there are 913 which matches one of the predictions in my guidebook.

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dscf2629Once inside it seems that there are another 1000 or so steps within the sprawling complex. Much of it is in ruins but at the centre there is a small church dedicated to St Andrew. The previous day locals were celebrating the Saint’s Day, hence the lines of Greek flag bunting hung in the small square outside. Next to the church is the prison where Kolokotronis, hero of the War of Independence, was imprisoned. The entrance is barely 2 foot high but I manage to squeeze through into the dark, damp and very hot chamber.

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I take one last look at the amazing views across the harbour to the mountains before I tackle the steps again. Of course, I could have driven up the circuitous access road, but where’s the fun in that? Plus, after two wet, miserable days, I need the exercise and the climb is better than any 1980s step aerobics class!

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As a cool down, I follow a lovely coastal path around the headland where local men are fishing for octopus, casting their lines by hand out amongst the rocks.

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The mountains are calling me so I leave the sea and head inland, climbing almost to the snowline to Tripoli and then heading south to Sparti. There’s not much traffic on the road but I do get buzzed by a low flying fighter jet.

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The next day I drive to the upper gate of the ancient Byzantine site of Mystra. People still lived here until 1953 when they were moved out by the government to the new village down below. Now the old town is a World Heritage Site and, although some buildings are being restored, many are still in ruins.

dscf2666I start early and climb even more steps up to the highest point where the citadel was located. I am alone with the views and a few blue tits which flit among the trees. Above me are the snow-dusted peaks while below are the plains, carpeted with olive groves, and in the distance is the large modern city of Sparti. The upper site features the restored Palace of the Despots. Work has been ongoing for over 20 years and it is still off limits to the public but it does look as if it’s almost completed. There are also two of the many Byzantine churches with fragments of ancient frescos and mosaic marble floors.

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dscf2768Down in the lower site my timing could not be more perfect as a Greek coach party are just departing. I complete a circuit of the museum and several more Byzantine churches before climbing up to the Pantanassa Convent where I find one of only five remaining nuns who still live there. The cells where they live seem very simple and I wonder how they coped during the recent rains, but I suppose part of their life choice is to endure the hardships of just such a place and there’s a lot to be said for the simplicity of their world. One of my favourite areas in the huge Mystra site is also one of the remotest where a church has been built into the rock face.

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dscf2839On the third day I have relocated back to the coast. The town of Monemvasia is located on the side of a high rock which juts out into the Myrtoon Sea and is joined to the mainland by a causeway. When I reach ‘The Rock’, as it is known by the locals, I find a footpath which runs along the base of the cliffs and passes through the upper gate into the town. Climbing up even further – more steps – I reach the fortified upper town. Again, most of it is in ruins but the church of Agia Sofia has been beautifully restored. Higher still are the remains of the castle with amazing views back to the mainland.

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dscf2905Descending into the lower town I get lost in a maze of narrow alleyways, eventually popping out at a huge square dotted with heavy cannonballs and flanked by the large white church of Panagia Chrysafiotissa which is annoyingly locked. Up in the smaller main square is the cathedral whose 14th century icon of The Crucifixion was stolen in 1979 and sadly broken into pieces to facilitate the theft. Fortunately it was recovered a year later and restored. After many years in the Athens Byzantine Museum, for reasons of security, it was finally returned to Monemvasia in 2011 and is now in a corner of the cathedral guarded by cameras, lasers and a thick iron grill.

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When I first arrived in the Monemvasia, at 9.30 am, it felt as though it had been abandoned and not a sound could be heard in the streets down below. Even once I’m in the heart of the lower town I find very few people and it is surprisingly peaceful for a sunny Saturday. However, life can be detected by the chink of ice in glasses and the smell of roasting meat wafting out the windows of the tavernas.

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Epidavros – Snakes and Suspicious Cures

dscf2548Each summer the Hellenic Music Festival takes place in the ancient Roman theatre of Epidavros. Up to 14,000 people can be seated to watch performances of Greek classical plays in a technically perfect setting where you can literally hear a pin drop. The stone seats are as uncomfortable today as they were in the 4th century BC, but the theatre is not the main reason that pilgrims arrived at Epidavros.

dscf2523The sanctuary at Epidavros was dedicated to Asklepios, son of Apollo, and was renowned for its healing powers. There were hospitals and hostels, baths and spas, temples and stadiums. Some restoration of these ancient buildings is underway with the Corinthian and Doric columns of the Tholos being repaired and erected, a jigsaw puzzle of ancient and modern pieces. Whilst others are being swallowed up by the vegetation, such as the bath houses in the north west corner.

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dscf2510The Tholos was perhaps one of the key places for pilgrims, where snakes were used as a kind of shock therapy. Close by, in the Abaton (a dormitory for patients), harmless snakes were released at night to assist in the various treatments and cures. Inside, I find a rather interesting photo of a marble frieze with accompanying text from a Roman visitor to Epidavros.

 

 

 

Andromache of Epirus came to the sanctuary for the sake of offspring. She slept in the Abaton and saw a dream. It seemed to her that a handsome boy lifted up her dress, and after that the god touched her belly with his hand. After the dream a son was born to Andromache from her husband Arybbas.

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In my opinion, the dream sounds suspiciously like modern day date rape. But if she was happy and her husband was happy, I guess the cure was a success.

 

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Confusing Corinth – Ancient City, New City, Citadel & Canal

Corinth is the gateway to the Peloponnese from mainland Greece and it is a confusion of ugly modern city, touristic ancient city, lofty citadel and 6kms of canal plied by cargo ships.

My introduction to Corinth is the coastal city, congested with traffic and decorated with graffiti. I’d planned to stay near the harbour where two Polish motorhomes had already marked their territory but it’s a depressing place overlooked by disintegrating tenements and used as a rat-run by the local vehicles. So instead, I aim for the oldest inhabited site of Akrocorinth.

dscf3374The route is well signed and takes me through the backstreets of Ancient Corinth. Somewhere, behind the white-washed houses, are the ruins of the Roman city, but I can’t see them. The road forks at the beautiful Ottoman fountain of Hatzi Mustafa, where a wandering horse is slaking its thirst. I make a mental note to stop and fill up Trixie on the way back. The approach road twists and turns and climbs up to the top of the hill where the citadel is perched at 565m above sea level. The views from the top are incredible and I can finally see the Roman ruins lying far below like an incomplete Lego model.

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dscf3382The main entrance to the citadel is quite formidable with a steep, slippery, stone path through three gateways with thick, fortified walls. I’m surprised to find the ticket office closed and the gate open, so I’m free to scramble around the ruins at leisure. I find very few other people on site. Some surveyors with a modern electronic theodolite and a couple of builders slowly transporting materials down the narrow, uneven paths from the highest watch tower, which is being restored.

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dscf3400At the furthest corner of the site, with a vertical drop over the cliffs, I locate the Fountain of Peirene, an underground spring which has never run dry and served as the main water source for the fortress. Mythology says that it was created by Pegasus when he stamped his foot on the spot and water gushed forth. On the way back down, dodging perilous holes in the ground which were formally water cisterns, I stop at a building with a domed roof. Sadly the dome now has a large hole in it and the walls are propped up with wooden supports.

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However, a little further on is the small chapel of St George. At least I assume it is dedicated to the saint as there are numerous icons depicting him slaying a dragon. As I didn’t have to pay to visit the site I consider it appropriate to make a donation and light a candle in thanks for my good fortune and to ensure a safe descent back down the hill.

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dscf3435The archaeological site of the Roman ruins is surrounded by a fence but it’s quite easy to see everything through it without paying to enter. Besides, I can’t believe the experience can live up to the dramatic location of Akrocorinth. In addition, next to the parking area are the unfenced remains of the theatre, so access is free to all, including the local stray dogs. The main road from the site entrance to the town square is lined with tavernas and souvenir shops but the photo menus and the tourist tat are a complete turn off.

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diolkos_western_endI still need to find a spot for the night so I head to the Corinth Canal, or ‘the ditch’ as it is locally known. Even in Roman times, this short cut between the Aegean and Ionian Seas was used by boats, though they had to be hauled on a wheeled platform overland. The diolkos, a paved way, helped in the process and this method was used up to the 12th century. A small section can still be seen at the western end of the canal.

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dscf3455Modern technology and engineering resulted in the new canal which took 12 years to complete and opened in 1893. I cross it three times. Twice on the ‘sinking’ bridges at either end and once on the main road which spans the highest point of 52m and is a popular stopping place for the tourist coaches and public buses. Up to 12,000 boats a year use the canal to shorten their journey but there don’t seem to be many passing through while I am there.

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dscf3461I end up at the port of Isthmia, at the eastern end of the canal, where I excitedly watch the road bridge submerge to let through a boat. Disappointingly, it turns out to be a small fishing vessel but later I get to see the skilled pilots manoeuvre a large cargo boat into the canal. There’s a limit on the size of vessels which can enter as it is only 21m wide and 8m deep.

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dscf2476Watching the boats pass through gets me wondering about how much the cost of passage actually is and the practicalities of payment. Luckily some sailing websites come to my assistance. A small yacht can cost up to €300 while a large cargo vessel can be over €500 and a foreign registered boat will pay more than a local one. Finally, given the large amounts, it is possible to pay by credit card and payment is usually taken in the modern control tower at the eastern end of the canal.

 

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The Tooth Railway and the Massacre of Kalavryta

dscf3265It’s an early start as I head inland using a rack and pinion railway which has been in use for over 100 years. The 22 km line which climbs from sea level Diakofto to 900m Kalavryta was built by Italian Engineers at the end of the 19th century. Originally steam trains puffed their way up to collect minerals from the mountains and brought them back down to the sea port. However, today I’m riding in a modern, air-conditioned carriage powered by diesel.

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dscf3299Ten minutes into the journey, the conductor takes over from the driver who collapses on the back seat, sick or hungover? I’m not sure. A local woman is continually crossing herself which only adds to the tension. Luckily, the journey through the narrow gorge is quite spectacular and distracts me from the other problems. The train curves around the sheer rock faces, through tunnels and over rusty iron bridges as the Vouraikos River tumbles beside and below us. The train is assisted by the rack and pinion for the steepest sections and it is these ‘teeth’ which give the line its name of ‘Odontotos’. It takes an hour to reach our destination and the town of Kalvryta is still shrouded in low cloud.

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dscf3319While I wait for the sun to burn off the mist, I visit the museum which is housed in the former primary school opposite the station. Exhibits provide information about the massacre which took place here on the 13th December 1943. In retaliation for the shooting of 78 German soldiers captured by the ELAS resistance fighters, the villagers of Kalavryta were rounded up and held in the school. All the men over the age of 13 were then led up to a hill above the town and mown down by machine guns. Those who didn’t die immediately were finished off with a head shot.

dscf3304Meanwhile, the school was set on fire with the women and children still inside. Luckily they managed to escape, only to discover their men had been murdered and their houses burned to the ground. Over the next few weeks they buried the dead, some where they lay, others they dragged down to the cemetery and buried there. Then they had to survive the harsh mountain environment with no food and only the clothes on their back. Survivors tell their stories in a moving documentary video and personal possessions of the dead are displayed in glass cases: damaged pocket watches, identification documents and even a wallet with a bullet hole through it.

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dscf3340The mist has cleared by the time I leave the museum and I walk up to the hill where the massacre took place. It is marked by a huge white cross, surrounded by the graves of those buried there and large stone memorials inscribed with the names and ages of the schoolboys who perished. A total of 468 men and boys were slaughtered in this place. Back down in the main square, the clock face on the church is permanently fixed at 2.34, the time of the massacre.

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dscf3361During the return train journey, I sit in the last carriage with only the conductor and a local man for company (I notice that the driver has been replaced). Despite a sign saying the windows should not be opened, they don’t seem to care and I manage to get some great footage as the train trundles back down through the narrow gorge. As we descend, I can’t help but think of another similar massacre which occurred in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, southern France, on the 10th June 1944.

642 innocent men, women and children were also killed for revenge and the village remains undisturbed, capturing the moment that life ended in those streets.

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James Bond and the Monks of Meteora

I grew up in the 80s when Roger Moore was the popular choice to play James Bond. In the 1981 Movie ‘For Your Eyes Only’, the climax of the film featured an amazing rock climbing stunt with the monasteries of Meteora as its backdrop.

Apparently the monks were not that impressed with their domain being invaded and tried to disrupt the filming by hanging out their laundry during takes. In fact, the interior and some of the exterior scenes were shot on a set in Pinewood Studios, England.

 

dscf3123I set out to visit Meteora from the village of Kastraki where I hope to catch the 9am bus up to the highest monastery. It turns out that I’m over two weeks too late for any bus but then a miracle occurs. George pulls up in his taxi and offers to take me for only €3. He already has two Spanish girls in the back so I’m really just a bonus for him. He points out ruined monasteries as we swerve up the road and gives information about the monks and nuns who live in the monasteries which remain in use.

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We pull up at Megalou Meteorou just as two coaches are disgorging their loads, so I hang back and wait for the crowds to clear before descending and ascending the numerous steps. Megalou Meteorou is the highest and luckily the largest of the monasteries so it’s easy to avoid the other visitors. In fact, I’m surprised by how much there is to see. Various museums, a carpentry room, the smoke-blackened kitchen, a shop selling soap, honey and religious items, a creepy ossuary, as well as the main chapel, or Katholikon as it is known.

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The main theme of the 16th century frescos are the martyred saints who were killed for not renouncing their Christian beliefs. Scenes of their hanging, beheading, dismemberment and crushing with stones adorn the walls while haloed icons gaze up from their frames and incense fills the air.

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dscf3095A little further down the road is Varlaam, one of the earliest monasteries to be established in the region and with an impressive old ascent tower and modern electrical cable car which I get to see in action. Today it is only being used to transport building materials for restoration work taking place on the large exterior patio. These days visitors use the steps carved into the rock and bridges which span the chasms. However, when Patrick Leigh Fermor visited in the 1950s he ascended by the ancient windlass mechanism. When he asked the abbot how often the rope was replaced, he was simply told, ‘When it breaks’!

dscf3114Very few monks now actually reside at the monasteries but there are a flourishing community of nuns living at Ayiou Stefanou and Roussanou. The steps up to the small but precipitous monastery of Roussanou are steep and the two bridges narrow and worn, but the nuns seem quite content there, producing honey and worshiping Saint Barbara, whose relics are kept in the chapel there.

 

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The Spanish girls declare that they are too tired to attempt the ascent to the last monastery on our route back to Kastraki so I climb up to Ayiou Nikolaou alone. For me, this monastery turns out to be the most authentic that I visit, with only one elderly monk in residence and a small katholikon that doesn’t actually have the gruesome scenes of martyrdom. Instead the walls are decorated with more positive scenes depicting monastic life and episodes from the Old Testament.

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As I climb up to the patio and bell tower at the very top, I can hear the monk praying in a back room somewhere, and when I see the stunning view back down the valley I can understand why all those years ago they chose the arduous task of constructing their places of worship on the top of these monolithic rocks. So they can be as close to heaven as possible.

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Metsovo and the Katara Pass

dscf3041Described as one of the most spectacular routes in Greece, I decide to attempt the Katara Pass instead of remaining on the efficient but rather boring motorway which crosses northern Greece. As a bonus, I get to explore the alpine town on Metsovo which clings to the mountain slopes. I scan for a car park as I descend into the heart of town but find none and so continue along the road as it gets steeper and narrower, eventually emerging into a large square surrounded by busy tavernas. There’s still no car park and the even narrower road where one is signed also has a sign in Greek which seems to imply the road is closed for 3 days. Frustrated, I drive back up out of town and eventually find a suitable place beside the road and walk back in.

dscf3037There’s a lovely church in the centre with gloomy icons and the scent of incense, and several souvenir shops selling wooden items and local food products including the expensive, local, dry white wine called Katoyi. The town certainly has an alpine feel with wood fires burning in the tavernas and people wrapped up against the cold in woollen hats and scarves.

dscf3055If I could find a suitable place to park for the night I’d stay and enjoy some local food but I reluctantly leave and drive up to the snowless ski resort and beyond into the desolate mountains. When I reach the road junction for Meteora, there’s a sign which says, ‘Caution – Crossing at your own risk.’ As this is still a main road, according to my map, I wonder what all the fuss is about. A little further on I find out.

dscf3051A rock slide has recently blocked the road but has now been cleared. Further still, I find areas of road which have been poorly repaired following subsidence and finally, just when I think I’m over the worst and nearing the top, I find snow. Not just a bit of melting snow beside the road, but thick icy snow all over it. I don’t know how far it goes and I don’t have winter tyres so I have no choice but to turn around and head back down the mountain to the motorway, much to the surprise of the fluorescent jogger and the two young chaps who have been Nordic skiing their way along the road behind me.

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The Gates of Hades and the Oracle of Zeus

dscf2955About 70 kms south of the port of Igoumenitsa, set above the Fanari marsh and the former Acherousia Lake, is the ancient site of Ephyra and the Nekromanteion. It’s no coincidence that the name gave rise to such words as necromancy as it comes from the ancient Greek meaning divination from a dead body. The Nekromanteion was a place where pilgrims came to communicate with the souls of those they had lost.

Homer wrote about the site in his ‘Odyssey’, describing it as,

Hades’ Kingdom of Decay, where the River of Flaming Fire and the River of Lamentation (which is a branch of the Styx) unite around a pinnacle of rock to pour their thundering streams into Acheron. This is the spot to seek out the souls of the dead and departed.

dscf2947The geography certainly fits and the vaulted underground chamber seems the perfect spot to commune with the dead. It’s a spooky place, lined with porous volcanic rock that dampens any echo. However, there is a dispute between the findings of the first Greek archaeologist and a later German one who believes the site to be nothing more than a fortified farmhouse.

When I visit the Archaeological Museum in Ioannina, where they have finds from the site on display and information about their uses, it seems that the scholars there agree with the German opinion, though I’d like to think that both could be correct.

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dscf2956Inland from the Nekromanteion, I arrive in the town of Glyki and follow signs to the source of the Acheron which lead me along a narrow road beside a fast flowing, spearmint blue river. The last section must be completed on foot along a narrow, muddy and slippery path. The gorge is quite narrow when I reach the end of the path but on the far side I can make out a small cave where a source emerges to join the main flow. I’m sure it’s quite a popular place in the summer, but I’m lucky enough to have it all to myself.

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dscf2977Next to the Via Egnatia motorway, which crosses northern Greece, is another well-preserved ancient site. Homer also wrote about Dodona and the Oracle of Zeus, while Herodotus describes its origins as the site where a dove from Egyptian Thebes settled in an oak tree and ordered that it be made a place of worship. The oracle apparently spoke through the leaves of the tree.

dscf2981Though the original oak was destroyed by Christian zealots in the 4th century AD, a keen archaeologist planted another at the remains of the Sanctuary of Zeus, allowing the legend to live on. Excavations also uncovered a huge theatre built in the 3rd century BC and one of the largest on the Greek mainland at the time.

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Dodona became quite a wealthy place as pilgrims from all over Greece came to consult the oracle. Their questions were written on lead tablets, some of which are displayed in the Museum in Ioannina. Questions relate to paternity, ‘Am I her children’s father?’ and theft, ‘Has Piestos stolen the wool from the mattress?’ I wonder what sort of questions people would ask today.