Tag Archives: Greece

Failed Fairy Tales and a Grim Voyage

dscf3735Out of season, there are only two ferry operators who offer the route between Patras and the heel of Italy. Superfast have a huge cruise-like ship which will take me to Bari for €203 or Grimaldi lines, really just a cargo vessel, which docks at Brindisi for €164. I’ve already checked the costs online but I’m hoping for an even better rate at the ticket desks in Patras port, especially as the Grimaldi Lines website indicates that I am entitled to a 30% discount, having already travelled to Greece with their sister company, Minoan.

The polite but stressed Antonius at the Grimaldi/Minoan check in desk seems surprised when I mention the discount but he looks it up and I also show him the website page on my phone. He says he has to contact the Grimaldi call centre for authorisation but, after several attempts, no one will answer his call. I suggest that I come back later to ease his stress and go back to the motorhome for lunch.

dscf3734-2Trixie is parked up next to a German motorhome who she met at Monemvasia, close to the lorry parking area. While I have lunch I am provided with free entertainment by a dozen or so illegal immigrants seeking the opportunity to stowaway to Italy, where they think they will be able to live a fairy-tale life. They sit around in groups of two or three and wait for the drivers to go and check in. Then they spring into action, looking for ways into the containers or places to hide beneath or on top of the truck.

As one driver walks away, a young man climbs up onto his cab to conceal himself behind the wind breaker. The driver spots him and quickly returns with a handful of rocks. Another joins him with an electric cattle prod. There’s no visible police or port security presence so the drivers take it upon themselves to protect their loads and their jobs. If they are found to be hiding illegals then their company can be fined and they can be jailed.

Another couple gain access to the back of a German truck and when the driver reappears, the remaining illegal (or possibly trafficker) who has shut them inside, just shrugs, apologises and walks away. The driver thinks he has avoided the problem, but I know different so I point out his mistake and then move Trixie to the other end of the port terminal where there are no lorries and therefore no illegals.

When I return to Antonius to check on his progress, he tells me that he’s spoken to the call centre and is now waiting for authorisation. After another hour and some coffee, I return and he is smiling with success. I can now have a ticket for only €122, including a cabin. It takes him forever to process the paperwork and then, in his excitement, he gives me the ticket and bids me a safe journey without taking any money. I point out his omission and, now slightly embarrassed, he takes my card and a small gift of biscuits to thank him for his perseverance.

dscf3736By now, it is 3pm and the ferry is due to leave in two hours. I still have to pass through security and Trixie is thoroughly checked over by an official with a sense of humour who laughs when I joke that I’ve only paid for one person. I drive over to the ferry and wait to board. Small lime-green tow-trucks are skilfully loading cargo containers into the belly of the ship and it’s quite mesmerising. However, after 2 ½ hours of watching them, the novelty has worn off, but I’m finally boarded and we leave an hour behind schedule.

dscf3737The only communal area which is open, other than the reception, is a small bar/restaurant where the truck drivers are openly smoking despite the ‘no smoking’ signs and, as I have my own food, I decide to hang out in my cabin instead. It’s a large 4-bed outside room with a big picture window but no curtains. The linen is clean but very threadbare and the towels are tiny. There’s a large desk with a redundant phone and a working fridge. I wonder if I have been given a ‘superior room’. I’ve been told I will have the cabin to myself, at least until we dock at Igoumenitsa around midnight. So I take a shower, avoiding the forest of mould growing from the corners, and settle down to a relaxing evening.

In the end, no one joins me, but when I venture out at 7am I find several bodies sleeping in the corridor, and the bar is a lot fuller than before. It’s still filled with smoke so I buy a coffee and take it back to my cabin while I wait for the ferry to reach Brindisi. We arrive two hours late at 10am, dock at 10.30 and I finally disembark at 11.00 only to be immediately pulled over by plain clothes immigration officers who want to search the motorhome. I expected this but they subject Trixie to a very detailed search including using a ferocious-looking sniffer dog and unscrewing the seats to confirm that there is a water tank underneath and no tiny illegals. I’m also aggressively interrogated, not helped by all the African and Middle Eastern stamps in my passport. Finally, I’m dismissed and told that last year a single female with a motorhome was found to have 7 illegals hidden within it. One might be construed as a mistake but seven does seem a bit premeditated.

Before I can escape the port, I’m stopped again by customs but this time the officer is in a smart uniform and polite with his questions, even charming. He shows a genuine interest in my travels and waves me off with a smile. I head straight for the fast road towards Lecce and finally stop when I reach the heel of Italy.

dscf3831Otranto has a large port filled with pleasure boats and a few grey navy patrol boats. It’s overlooked by the old town, surrounded with thick, fortified walls. I park at the port entrance, opposite an unusual sculpture. It’s an Albanian guard ship which sank in March 1997 while carrying more than 100 refugees. 81 drowned, mostly women and children, and the recovered boat, enhanced with large shards of glass, is a memorial of this event and a reminder of the thousands of illegals who drown whilst trying to flee their war-torn countries to a better life in Europe.


The town is no stranger to death. In the cathedral lie the bones of 800 martyrs, the remaining townsfolk following a bloody battle in 1480, who were beheaded by the Turks for refusing to renounce their catholic faith.



Homer and King Nestor

nestorAt school I studied Latin and as part of the literature module I had to read the 1st century BC “Aeneid” by Virgil. The story has many similarities to Homer’s 12th century BC “Iliad” and tells the tale of the Trojan Aeneas who travelled to Italy and founded Rome. It also refers to the Trojan War and the heroes who took part in it.

Nestor was the son of King Neleus who inherited the Kingdom of Pylos after his father was killed by Hercules. He fought in the Trojan War and frequently gave advice to others such as Agamemnon and Achilles. His life ended when he was killed by an arrow shot by Paris.

dscf3466I decide to go in search of Nestor’s legacy, starting at Voidokilia Beach, on the far side of the Gialova Lagoon and beneath the Paleokastro of Pylos, the old castle, built in 1278 by the Frankish Nicholas II of Omer. All over Greece, ancient sites are marked by small brown signs and I follow one now, fording a small stream and scrambling up a rocky slope to find what I hope is a cave, once used by Nestor to shelter his cattle. When I finally arrive at the site, it’s not a cave at all but a ruined tholos tomb that is thought to have been for Thrasymedes, Nestor’s son. It’s surrounded by a high fence but someone has helpfully removed the gate from its hinges so I am able to access it easily.


dscf3475As I look across to the Paleokastro, I spot the cave in the cliffs below it. There’s is just one problem. There’s a lot of water between me and it. I backtrack down to the beach and see that it’s possible to reach the cave by walking along the beach, across the dunes and up the cliff face but it’s a long way, so I settle for a zoomed photo instead.

dscf3495A few kilometres inland is a palace complex, excavated in 1938 and attributed to King Nestor. The site has recently been covered by a huge domed roof and is now viewed from a raised platform to protect the ruins. All of the removable artefacts, including 600 Linear B tablets, have been transferred to museums.


However, one key feature remains – a carefully sculpted and decorated bathtub. Could this have been the place where Polycaste, the youngest daughter of Nestor, bathed Telemachus who was visiting the king while searching for his father Odysseus?



The Messiana Castles – Koroni, Methoni and Pylos

During the 13th to 14th century the Venetian Republic was huge with outposts in the Adriatic and Aegean Seas as well as the city states in mainland Italy. I have already found the Lion of St Mark in Palamidi Castle, Nafplio. Now in the Messiana region of the Peloponnese, I find three defensive strongholds which have seen plenty of action and which are free or ridiculously cheap to visit, always a bonus.

dscf3239I start in Koroni, billed as one of the prettiest towns in the Peloponnese. However, after visiting the Mani, I find it’s not really living up to the hype. The whitewashed walls are a little grimy, the streets a bit dirty and the paint is flaking from the waterfront restaurant terraces. I do find some nice, classy souvenir shops, a rarity so far in Greece. They are selling jewellery, wooden items and local food products, but I’m not here to shop.

Making my way through the narrow backstreets, I climb up to the castle, perfectly situated on a high outcropping with views of the neighbouring bays and the town down below. A lot of fortifications are in ruins, but in places an effort has been made to restore some of the walls.

dscf3287People still live here, in a few small cottages with kitchen gardens, and in the large Timiou Prodromou Convent, where visitors are made to feel very welcome indeed. At the entrance is a polite notice asking guests to dress appropriately and providing a colourful assortment of shirts, shawls and wrap around skirts. I tie a skirt over my trousers and enter the peaceful sanctuary where I discover a couple of elderly nuns chatting away in the courtyard, eating mandarins picked from their orchard. One of the nuns gives me a suggested tour in Greek, but through hand gestures her meaning is perfectly clear. ‘Round behind the church and up the steps for a nice view. Through the orchard and up the steps for a nice view.’


dscf3268However, I start in the central, white church, the interior of which is adorned with modern painted icons. Each saint is made clear by particular objects being included within the icon from rules laid down in the 16th century by an artist monk named Dionysios of Phournia. The easiest to recognise is John the Baptist who is always holding his head on a plate, despite there being one still attached to his neck! Behind the church are some of the original cells where the nuns slept – tiny, dark rooms with a small, narrow entrance. Luckily, they now live in larger, brighter quarters.










Through the orchard of trees dripping with oranges and mandarins, I find another corner of the fortress. The warning sign feels familiar: ‘Enter at you own risk.’ Last time I ignored it I had to turn back but this time I safely reach the summit and the views are worth it. I can see the town, the sea and the sheep and chickens in the yard which also supplement the nun’s diet.

Back in the courtyard, as I browse the small souvenir shop, I am offered some sweet, sticky loukoumi (the Greek version of Turkish delight). I want to buy something in order to thank them for their hospitality. In the end, I settle for a small wooden icon of St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, which seems appropriate and will hopefully keep me safe as I continue my nomadic adventures and which will remind me of the kind nuns in Koroni.

Methoni is situated at the end of a long crescent shaped bay with a sandy beach and sheltered by the long island of Sapienza. The new town is a long line of modern houses and a huge paved square surrounded by tavernas and overlooking the sea. However, 600 years ago the inhabitants lived in the citadel at the tip of the peninsula.

dscf3295Established by the Mycenaeans and fortified by the Venetians in the 15th century, it is a huge complex hidden behind thick stone walls and an incomplete moat. I have to cross the beautiful 19th century stone bridge to reach the first of three gates where a lonely lady sits in a small metal and plastic booth for the occasional winter visitor. It seems like I might be the only one today.

dscf3304As I enter the inner area, I am greeted by two worn, stone plaques depicting the Lion of St Mark and a huge red marble pillar that looks a bit lonely and rather out of place. A long, wide, stone road, turned green due to the grass and weeds, leads to the most eye-catching part of the citadel, the sea gate. I pass two small, brick, domed buildings along the way with cracked interior terracotta pipes and looking more like pigeon lofts than the bath houses that they once were.

dscf3325Beyond the sea gate I’m presented with the Bourtzi, a fortified tower on a small islet surrounded by sharp, jagged rocks and accessed via a creaking, wooden footbridge and a narrow, stone causeway. The last of 7,000 Venetian soldiers were slaughtered here at the end of a fierce battle with the Turks in 1500. I think I can hear the eerie cries of their souls, then I realise it’s just more pigeons asking me to leave their home.


dscf3370Near to the Orthodox Church, open but disappointing inside, is a curious pyramid structure. I wonder if it is an ancient tholos tomb but it doesn’t seem ancient enough. My guidebook suggests it was an armoury but that doesn’t explain the strange shape and when I ask the lovely lady at the gate she confesses that it’s her first day at the site and she doesn’t have a clue.

dscf3441After the peace and quiet of Koroni and Methoni, Pylos seems a loud and busy place. The main square near the port is surrounded by cafes and tavernas and the locals are sitting outside soaking up the sun, chatting and observing each other. But before I stop for morning coffee I want to see the Neokastro – New Castle. It’s hidden by a forest of pine trees on the southern edge of the town, within a thick enclosure wall built in the 16th century by the Turks to replace the 13th century Paleokastro at the northern end of Navarino Bay. From the top of the inner citadel I am afforded splendid views across the bay to the old castle and the Gialova lagoon.

dscf3447Feuding Maniots were imprisoned here in the 19th century but today the cells are used as offices by the Ephorate of Maritime Antiquities who also have exhibits of their underwater archaeological projects dotted around the castle. The most interesting is one on local Greek shipwrecks and I discover that in 1802 the brig ‘Mentor’ sank off the SE coast of Kythia while carrying the controversial Elgin Marbles back to Britain. It cost Lord Elgin a great deal of money and 2 ½ years to recover them using local sponge divers, Another, known as the ‘column’ shipwreck, produced Egyptian red granite columns similar to the one in Methoni Castle.


dscf3453Back in the main square of Pylos I discover a large monument surrounded by cannons. It is in honour of the 3 admirals from England, France and Russia who arrived in 1827 to support the Greeks in their fight against the Ottoman fleet of Ibrahim Pasha. In Navarino Bay the sailing ships blasted each other with cannon fire and attacked with swords. It was a bloody battle but the Greeks and their allies triumphed. The victory is still celebrated in Pylos each 20th October with parades and celebrations.



In the Footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor – The Mani

plf-and-goatI’ve been reading the book ‘Mani’ by Patrick Leigh Fermor (affectionately known as Paddy) in order to prepare for visiting this region of the Peloponnese. Paddy was a nomad, like me. He left home aged 18 and walked through Europe to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and then onto Greece. In 1958, he visited the Mani, travelling by bus, boat and on foot, while I am making my journey in a motorhome. In 1958 the region was still remote and cut off from modern life but now there are good roads around the coast and through the mountains as well as down to the tip of Cape Tenaro, the most southerly point in Greece.


dscf2938Contrary to everyone else and also Paddy, I am travelling around the Peloponnese in a clockwise direction which means I start my tour of the Mani in Gythio where Paddy ended his. He described it as having Victorian charm and as being full of life with wirelesses, motorcars, law courts, schools and greengrocer scales. He stayed at the Actaeon Hotel, which still exists today and overlooks the small island of Marathonisi (Fennel Island). It is believed to be Kranae, where Paris took Helen after abducting her and they spent their first night together. Today the island is accessed by a narrow harbour wall which is barely wide enough for Trixie.

dscf2933In the centre is an 18th century tower house, surrounded by pine trees, which was formally the home of the Grigorakis family and more recently a museum of the Mani. However, the museum has now been relocated to the former girls’ school at the other end of town. It’s a very educational place, with interesting exhibits about the traditional Mani way of life, a lifestyle that still existed 60 years ago when Paddy first arrived.

dscf2979As I leave Gythio it starts to rain and sets in for the afternoon, so I drive to the small port of Kotronas to wait out the bad weather. Paddy was also left waiting in Kotronas, though he needed to shelter under a fig tree from the hot summer sun until the steamer to Gythio arrived. He noted the fishermen making nets along the shore and I also find piles of netting on the dock but it’s the commercial plastic kind. He also found a fierce bandit-like kapheneion keeper who has luckily been replaced by a charming lady who now runs the bizarrely plush bar overlooking the harbour.

dscf3030The new road takes me south and across the saddle of the mountain ridge to the village of Vathia, sitting proudly on a hilltop overlooking the west coast. Paddy met a young girl called Vasilio, carrying a lamb around her neck, who came from the village and invited him to stay in her home. Her family owned one of the tallest tower houses and they dined on the roof in the cool breeze, hauling up chairs and food by rope, and Paddy even slept there overnight. From his eagle’s nest he observed Vasilio’s sister threshing on a sledge pulled by a horse, a mule and a cow, circling a stone disc, while their mother sat weaving. It’s hard to imagine such activities taking place in the 21st century when we can buy bags of flour at the supermarket and ready-made clothes from the shopping mall.


Today Vathia has sadly been abandoned and most of the towers are in a perilous state of semi-collapse, though it is possible to wander around them and even inside them without any difficulty.


dscf3025I leave the village of ghosts and drive south to Cape Tenaro which Paddy rounded in the caique ‘St Nicholas’ (a Greek sailing boat). I’d barely seen another car on the roads for the last two days so imagine my surprise when I get to the end of the Mani and find another British motorhome. Michael and Judith were rather shocked too.


dscf3043Paddy had sought out the entrance to Hades, where Orpheus had searched for Eurydice, using his lyre to put Cerberus to sleep, and Hercules had dragged the hell dog out of the underworld. There are other entrances to Hades, such as the Nekromanteion of Ephyra. He swam from the boat to a cave that could have been the spot. Given the strong winds blowing across the cape there wasn’t much chance of me following him, but the three of us seek out the ruined church built on the Temple of Poseidon and the beautiful mosaic floor of a Roman villa, part of a larger Roman settlement, before walking out to the lighthouse. We are rather surprised to find a lone Navy guardian posted there as I had believed it to be unmanned. He is equally surprised by the arrival of three British tourists but doesn’t seem to mind us sitting there, enjoying the views and watching the ferries and cargo ships pass around the point.


dscf3060It is a bit too windy to stay at the cape so I drive down to Geromelinas where Paddy also spent a night. He dined at a local house where some sailors were also eating. When the hostess gave him some water with his coffee (as is the Greek custom), he noted that it had a slight taste of wine. Apparently a barrel had split above the cistern and the wine had slowly leaked into the water. When Paddy asked to pay for his meal he discovered that the sailors had already settled the bill. Such was Greek hospitality in those times before the commercialism of tourism took hold. I enjoy a ¼ litre carafe of rose in the local hotel where the four members of staff are clearly excited about having an off-season client. Unlike Paddy, I have to pay for my wine and the manager even short-changes me. It’s still ridiculously cheap so I ignore what I hope is just an error on his part.

dscf3068The next day I drive up to Areopoli, the capital of the Deep Mani and still the largest town in the region. The main road is lined with ugly garages and supermarkets but I strike off into the old cobbled streets trying to imagine how it was 60 years ago. Paddy describes the small cathedral as being surrounded by mulberry trees with a whitewashed cupola and a tapering belfry. I locate it in a small square but the mulberry trees have been replaced by cars and the church is no longer white.

dscf3089There is one tale in ‘Mani’ that has gripped me more than any other and I stop at the tiny coastal resort of Limeni to try and verify the story. When Paddy was there, he was researching the miroloyia (funeral dirges), created and sung at the graveside by Maniot women. He is introduced to Eleni who sings a miroloy about an English airman who was shot down at Limeni during WWII and was buried by the local villagers. It mentions the Church of Saint Saviour, amongst the olive trees.

dscf3113I find three small churches in the village of Limeni. The first is close to the main road and in ruins and the second is next to the restored tower house of the Mavromichalis clan, and appears to be a family chapel. The last is out beyond the port at the point and is the only one to have a cemetery but there are no more than half a dozen graves and none belong to an English airman. Unhelpfully, none of the churches are named and my scant knowledge of iconography means I am unable to identify them from the icons inside.

dscf3103I stop for a drink in the nearby village of Nea Itilo and ask the friendly taverna owner, who speaks very good English, about the story of the airman. Eva goes to get her brother Ilias, who then goes to get Ioannis, an 86 year-old resident who may know about the tale. The old man speaks no English but Ilias translates for me. Ioannis was small boy, tending goats in the hills, when the British fighter plane dived at a German boat. It struggled to pull up, having been damaged by return fire and crashed into the bay. The pilot washed ashore in pieces but the navigator / gunner survived for 3 days before succumbing to his wounds. They were buried at the small church at the point but later removed by the British and returned to the UK, which explains why there are no gravestones in the cemetery.

dscf3117-2It’s incredible to find someone who still has first-hand knowledge of this event and I am humbled to meet Ioannis and hear his story. Later, I meet Panayotti fishing next to Trixie. He happens to be the President of the village and invites me for a drink later at the taverna. There, I get to experience the same Mani hospitality as Paddy and I’m not allowed to pay for anything.




The last town on my tour of the Mani is Kardamili, one of the first places that Paddy experienced after travelling over the Taygetus Mountains from Mystras. He describes it as a castellated hamlet of the Mourtzinos clan, possibly direct descendants of the Palaeolgi, the reigning dynasty during the Ottoman Empire. I find the fortified settlement beyond the old town, recently restored and now opened as a museum of Maniot life. The bargain €1 entry fee gives me access to the tower with its ladder-like steps and I finally get to experience tower living as Paddy did all those years ago. Sadly, I’m unable to access the roof.


Following a cobbled footpath beyond the Mourtzinos tower, towards Agia Sophia, I also find the tombs of Castor and Pollux (the Gemini twins), as Paddy did before me. Though, as he said, they seem a bit short for such heroes!


dscf3226Paddy described Kardamili as,

…….too inaccessible and there is too little to do there, fortunately, for it ever to be seriously damaged by tourism.

Sadly, that no longer is the case for the town has become quite the tourist resort with everyone advertising rooms and the supermarket shelves filled with overpriced ‘local’ products. It can only get worse since they filmed ‘Before Midnight’ here in 2012, the last part of the Sunrise/Sunset trilogy, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. I wonder if Paddy is turning over in his grave at the thought of his primitive and hospitable Mani becoming just like any other seasonal tourist region.


Life in the Mani

dscf3032Life in the Mani has always been hard. The land is very mountainous and rocky, cut off from the rest of the Peloponnese by deep gorges and high peaks. In the summer the sun scorches what little earth there is and in the winter the wind blows everything away. Despite the difficulties of this territory, it has been fought over by the Ottomans, the Venetians, the Turks and the Germans. Local clans also fought amongst themselves in Sicilian style vendettas resulting in fortified villages with tall towers, in addition to the Frankish castles which stand proud on the hilltops.

dscf2943However, the local Maniots managed to live here, making the most of what the land and sea had to offer with enterprising agricultural schemes. I learn a lot from a marvellous exhibition in the north eastern town of Gythio where displays teach me about the various aspects of life in the Mani.






Salt – Down by the coast, the locals would carve salt pans into the rocks, filling them with sea water and allowing the summer sun to evaporate it until only the salt was left. This would then be placed in sacks and transported over the mountains to Kalamata or taken by boat from the small ports of Geromelinas, Mezapos or Kotronas. These days only a few people continue this tradition providing small quantities of the local sea salt for restaurants or tourists.

Caille arlequin. This species lives in open grasslands, cultivated areas and savannahs. It is locally abundant and intra-African migrant. It feeds on varied weeds and grass seeds, plant matter such as shoots and leaves, and it also consumes invertebrates. Cette espèce vit dans les plaines découvertes, les cultures et les savanes. Elle est abondante localement. C'est un migrateur intra-Africain. Elle se nourrit de graines d'herbes variées, de matières végétales comme les feuilles et les pousses vertes, et consomme aussi des invertébrés. Famille des Phasianidés. Ordre : Galliformes



Quails – Each autumn quails migrate through the Peloponnese from the cold European countries to the warmer African climate. Gathering at Cape Tenaro before continuing on their southward journey, they were easy prey for the locals who set up nets to catch them. A lot of money could be made from the small game birds and most were exported to France where they were a popular dish. Today EU regulations prohibit the hunting of migrating birds.


dscf3181-2Honey – The pine forests and rocky slopes covered with aromatic herbs, such as thyme, sage and lavender, are also a magnet for bees and the Maniots would fashion square chambers in the stone walls to entice these busy little insects and then collect the sweet honeycomb that they produced. Today, the locals still practice the art of apiary but tend to use the more common wooden hives. Honey is a key ingredient of a local sesame seed candy called pasteli.

dscf2979Fish and Meat – Down on the coast, fresh fish is plentiful and nets need constant repairing to ensure a good catch. Higher in the mountains the Maniots kept goats, sheep and pigs. Sygline, popular on Christmas Eve, is pork which has been preserved by being placed in salt, smoked with sage and then stored in fat. Before eating it is usually boiled in orange water. As well as providing meat, the sheep and goats also provided milk, cheese and wool. However, these days it is rare to see anyone spinning the wool and knitting their own clothes.


dscf3123Olives – The harsh rocky landscape of the Mani seems to be no obstacle in the growth of the olive. In fact these hardy trees thrive in such an environment. The small black fruits are harvested today in much the same way as they were hundreds of years ago. Large nets are spread on the ground in late autumn and the olives are knocked from the trees using long poles. They are collected in large hessian sacks and taken to the local olive press, once powered by mules, then steam but now electricity. Traditionally each village would have its own press but now the locals take their crop to a cooperative where the oil is produced and sold on.


dscf2945Cereal crops – Terraces were carved into the hillsides to grow barley and corn to feed the villagers and their animals, but legumes, such as peas and lupin beans were easier to cultivate in the harsh conditions. The lupin beans look a lot like sweetcorn kernels but are not naturally sweet. They need to be left in salt water for about 8 days to reduce their bitterness. Then they are dried in the sun before being stored. Apparently they have very low gluten levels so are now filling the shelves of health food shops. A lot of the arable land now lies bare but I did see some jars of lupins and olives for sale on a table outside a local house beside the road.



Fruit – Oranges and lemons are easily cultivated in the Mediterranean climate but traditionally figs were the naturally occurring fruit trees of the region. Harvested between August and October, they are frequently sun dried to preserve them. The hot, dry weather is also perfect for prickly pears, named by 16th century European explorers. This strange fruit contains many antioxidants and is a great cure for constipation.


dscf3220Soap – It is thought that 7th century Arabic chemists were the first to use olive oil in soap production. In Kardamili there is a disused olive oil soap factory, easily spotted by the tall chimney beside the sea. It was founded in the early 20th century by Palmolive and was possibly one of the largest olive soap factories in the Mediterranean. Artisanal soaps are still produced in the Mani and can be found in the souvenir shops.





Bread and cakes – There are some marvellous bakeries in the Mani producing fresh cakes and artisanal loaves, but traditionally the Maniots would carry paximadia. Like rusks, they could be reconstituted with water or dipped in wine or coffee. Other popular afternoon treats include tiganites (like pancakes) and lalangites which are fried in olive oil and resemble the Spanish churros. They are a popular choice during Christmas and Epiphany.

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.









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.









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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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.