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2011 Spring in Northern Greece PDF Printable Version E-mail



Initially following the Roman Via Egnatia westwards from Alexandroupolis
(and in the footsteps of St Paul)

Margaret and Barry Williamson
February 2011

Following Anzac_(18).JPGour 6-week, 850-mile journey into Turkey during December and January, we crossed the border into Greece at Ipsala. Our intention is to make our slow way westward across northern Greece, exploring the lesser known sites of Ancient Greek and Roman settlement in Thrace and eastern Macedonia (as the Greeks call it). Research showed that there are up to 30 possibilities, as well as museums in the major cities of Alexandroupolis, Komotini, Kavala and Drama. We will have to choose!

For images of this journey, click: Travels in Northern Greece

Anzac Cove, Turkey to Alexandroupolis, Greece     Alexandroupolis Municipal Camping     125 miles     €17.00 (after CCI discounts)

At the end of January we returned from Turkey, pausing at the Ipsala crossroads to spend Turkey1_(10).JPGour remaining currency at Kipa (Tesco) supermarket and Burger King. The stray cats enjoyed the cold chips! A chill north-east wind blew as we turned west to cross the border and the Evros River into Greece and the EU, immediately appreciating the smoother road of the A2/E90 motorway (toll-free until beyond Thessaloniki). 

The exit for Alexandroupolis airport and port brought us onto the main road a few miles east of the town, right opposite a convenient Lidl store. Through the town centre, busy as ever, we soon reached the Municipal campsite along the beach, which we'd left 6 weeks earlier. Once again, the huge site was completely empty, the water piping hot and the lonely Receptionist pleased to see us. We wondered if she'd had any guests over Christmas and New Year?

Asking for theFlair_(50).JPG price per night on arrival is a complicated and unpredictable business. The base rate (low season) with 2 adults and electricity is €18.30. Then, if you have a Camping Card International, deduct the CCI discount of 10% on the first €100 of the bill, and 20% on the remaining amount (if you stay long enough to accrue more). Then add the local tax of 0.5% and VAT at 6.5% to the total. Then divide the answer by the number of nights and there you are! Only a Byzantine bureaucracy could come up with that. The resulting bill must be paid in cash on leaving, but there is a handy ATM at the entrance.

Settling onto our pitch, we were soon remembered by the pair of ginger kittens who were even more pleased to see us. They are growing nicely, getting tamer and have learnt to catch the odd sparrow.

At Alexandroupolis, Greece     Alexandroupolis Municipal Camping    

We enjoyed some down-time here, catching up on correspondence, updating our website and researching some little-known ancient Greek and Roman sites that lie along our onward way. The weather remained bright and dry and our peace was only disturbed by workmen pruning the tall trees. All we lack is a washing machine. The local TV signal is terrible but we have a good stock of films on DVD for the evenings.

The Municipality provides free WiFi internet at over 50 access points in the town (including the camRTT_(56).JPGpsite). Great, except that the connection cuts off without warning every 30 minutes and you have to re-enter the password and log in again! We did get a prompt and polite reply (in English) when Barry emailed the providers about it. The system is designed to limit overloading during the summer tourist season but they promised to review it for wintertime!

We walked the mile into AlexRTT_(57).JPGandroupolis regularly, to the waterfront post office and the Multirama computer shop (for a better WiFi antenna). If we went as far as Goodys (Greece's very own fast food chain) past the lighthouse, we could enjoy large hot mugs of filter coffee with chocolate biscuits for €1 each – a real bargain! We also found a very reasonable restaurant in the centre, the 'Nea Klimataria', where we had a good lunch, choosing from various hot dishes on display.

There isn't a historical/archaeological museum in Alexandroupolis but it does have an excellent private folk museum, which we visited for the first time. The Ethnological Museum of Thrace (open 10 am–3 pm in winter, closed Mondays) is in a splendid town house built in 1899. It was surprisingly interesting, especially concerning the Turkish heritage in Thrace and the population exchange of the 1920's. There is even a little indoor/outdoor cafι. Entry is free if you are over 65, disabled, in the military, in the police, a teacher, a student, doing research … or have a nice smile. Others pay €3.

Alexandroupolis to Ancient Maronia, Greece     Maronia Harbour     48 miles

Heading west from Alexandroupolis on the coast road, our first stop was a mile along at the town's second Lidl. Then we continued 5 miles to Makri, where you can turn north and join the E90 motorway, known as the Odos (= road) Egnatia, after the Roman 'Via Egnatia' whose route it approximately follows.

Instead we kept to the coast on a minor road, passing extensive olive groves, an oil mill and a mZoni_(42).JPGonastery where a new multi-domed church was being built. After the village of Dikella at 10 miles, we reached the ancient Greek site of Mesimvria-Zoni, 3 miles later. There was a small car park by the entrance, with no-one there but a friendly guardian. The €2 entry for Seniors included good leaflets in English on both the site and the Via Egnatia, published by the Archaeological Museum in Komotini.

The ancient cityZoni_(36).JPG and port of Zoni was founded in the 7th C BC by colonists from the island of Samothrace, its bulk hovering off-shore. Exploring the well-signed remains, we learnt at the kiln how the intricately figured red and black Attic pottery was fired in a 3-stage process. There is also a rare example - unique in our experience - of rows of amphorae (large storage pots) laid upside down under the floor of a building to provide a damp course.

We drove round the periphery of the site to park by theZoni_(48).JPG sea shore for lunch, from where it was a short walk to the ancient cemetery, the Necropolis of Mesimvria. Beyond here the road turns to a dirt track, so we had to return to Makri.

Avoiding the new motorway, we took the older road that runs parallel to it but climbs higher –the age-old route across Macedonia and Thrace. It was along here that the Persian armies of Darius and Xerxes marched in the 5th C BC; the route taken by Alexander the Great and his army, on their expedition in the opposite direction a century later; and it became one of the most important military and trade routes of the Roman world, the Via Egnatia, built between 146 and 120 BC under Gnaius Egnatius, proconsul of Macedonia. The first public Roman Zoni_(57).JPGroad outside Italy, leading from their port in present-day Albania all the way to Constantinople, it was to play a significant role in the fortunes of both the Roman and Ottoman Empires. Yes, that was our route!

At 32 miles, after the village of Avra (marked by a minaret), we saw the first sign indicating the Via Egnatia, which we were shadowing on its way to Komotini. A signed layby, 2 miles later, gave the opportunity to park for a short walk on the hillside to photograph a visible section of the Roman paving.

After another mile, just past the town of Mesti (where there is a motorway junction), we turned left onto a minor road for Krovili and Maronia. From the village of Maronia, at 45 miles, follow signs for the Archaeological Site of Ancient Maronia, 3 miles south at the coast. We ignored a turn promising 3 km of gravel track to the Ancient Theatre and Sanctuary of Dionysos, and continued past remains of Byzantine fortificationMaroni_(11).JPGs, the Roman forum, an early Christian basilica and baths.

At the small fishing harbour (on the site of the ancient anchorage) there was plenty of space to park overnight, alongside the boats keen to sell their catch. After a pot of tea, we walked around to see some of the scattered remains, freely open. Refugees from the Aegean island of Chios founded a Greek colony here in the 7th C BC, beneath a prehistoric Maronia_Harbor_(12).JPGacropolis, and the fortified settlement (surrounded by 10.5 km/6.5 miles of walls) lasted until Byzantine times (at least 9th C AD).

On the beach we met a local fisherman, a native of Egypt, who spoMaronia_Harbor_(15).JPGke in a sadness of broken English of the situation in his country. When we returned to the motorhome, he appeared with a bag of fish, straight from the sea. We hadn't the heart to turn him away, so took 2 fishes and paid the price asked for the full bag. Then the fun began!

The fish was so fresh that when Margaret tried to decapitate one with scissors it moved. Deciding this was a man's job, Barry moved in with a hacksaw, as the thing was too far gone to return to the sea. We then gutted and scaled the pair, washed them well in the motorhome's outside shower and baked them in foil parcels with lemon, herbs and onion. Wish we could say they had not died in vain – but we really couldn't enjoy them. Angling was never one of our hobbies.

Ancient Maronia to Fanari, Greece     Parking by Fanari Lagoon     45 miles

AnotherMaroni_(21).JPG beautifully dry sunny day, after a low of 4ΊC overnight. Driving back towards Maronia village, we turned right after 1 mile on the gravel road to the Greco-Roman Theatre. TherMaroni_(17).JPGe was just space to park among the trees.

The 5,000-6,000 seater Theatre is currently being excavated and rebuilt. Through the wire mesh fence we could see a semicircle of seats facing the scene and the sea beyond. There was very little trace of the adjacent Sanctuary as we took a walk through the spMaroni_(34).JPGlendid hill country, high above the coastline. We met no-one except a couple of hunters, bravely camouflaged against the birds they were pursuing - the usual Sunday pastime of the Greek male.

Returning to Maronia village, we turned left for the minor road to Komotini. Xylagani, at 11 miles, is an agricultural town processing the local crops of olives and cotton. Passing under the E90 motorway, we reached Komotini – the provinicial capital of Central Thrace. Once a staging post on the Via Egnatia, it is now home to a university, several museums and a busy one-way system. Its population is about 50% Muslim (the largest proportion in any Greek city, as Thrace was exempt from the forced exchange in 1922).

We eventually found the Archaeological Museum on Simeonidi, at 25 miles, and parked in the wide street. This museum was a pure delight: open 8.30 am-3 pm in winter, with free entry for all. The sole attendant, Giorgos, spoke excellent English and was the friendliest, most knowledgeable curator we have met in Greece. He had a wealth of free leaflets and booklets in English and several other European languages on the sites of Thrace and Eastern Macedonia, including an excellent Archaeological Map of the region, much better than anything we'd found to buy. His enthusiasm was such that he was reading a book about Ancient Troy and was delighted to hear about our recent visit!

The collection, with informative wall boards in Greek and English, illustrated Thracian history from prehistoric to the Roman and Byzantine eras. Many of the memorable exhibits are grave goods from the ancient cemeteries, including particularly delicate gold ear-rings found at Mesimvria-Zoni. There was a famous terracotta mask of Dionysos from Maronia, as well as statues, a wealth of coins, clay figurines and ceramics from these and other sites. It's always good to see the finds from an ancient settlement after visiting it; the everyday objects of the life – and death – of the inhabitants give substance to the ruins, and the artefacts are not disembodied in a glass case but have a context.

As we left the museum, Giorgos ran after us with a parting gift: a DVD film that was an evocation of rural life in Thrace at the turn of the 19-20th century, with original photographs and modern re-enactment. It had been made by the local historical society, of which he was a prominent member. The commentary was in Greek but we enjoyed the music, dance and costumes. Fascinating to see the thatched dwellings, like giant beehives, in which country folk lived the simplest of lives.

From Komotini we took rd 2 south-west (the main highway prior to the motorway). Before leaving we needed fuel and, this being Sunday, some filling stations were closed. The two we found open were cash-only - unusual in Greece these days - but we always keep an emergency stash of Euros.

At 39 miles the highway turned west, between Vistonia Bay and Lake Vistonida, but we continuedFanari_(13).JPG another 5 miles to the seaside village of Fanari. Here there is a large EOT (Greek Tourist Board) campsite, only open 1 June-30 September. However, there is plenty of free parking space just beyond the closed campsite, running for at least a mile alongside the first of 3 salt lagoons. We've spent a night here before and it's on Pete Jenkins' Google-mapped list of over 130 'Night Halts' in our article Greece: Overnight Parking.

It's a magiFanari_Birds_(15).JPGcal spot, right by the shimmering water, with the beach and sea across the road. On the lagoon were large flocks of black Coot, Flamingos on the far side and a few Whooper Swans swimming in the middle distance. We couldn't put the binoculars down – bird watching on one side; ships and fishing boats on the other.

Practically deserted in winter, the only sound came from the nearby Taverna Akrogiali. Investigation revealed a group of lively musicians with violin, accordion and drum, circulating round the tables where people lingered after Sunday lunch. By evening all was quiet and we had a peaceful night.

Fanari to Ancient Avdera, Greece     Parking by the Ancient Site     21 miles

Where else but in Greece could you get up close to Cormorants, Pelicans and Herons, talk with an Orthodox monk and scramble round the ruins of an ancient site in a single morning, travelling only 21 miles? And all under a sunny blue sky in February.

Returning through Fanari, it's 5 miles back to highway 2, past more wetland supporting Heron, more Flamingo and assorted ducks. At the crossroads there is a reconstructed group of thatched beehive-like huts, devoid of any signs or information. We'd wondered at these in the past, imagining they were medieval shelters, but now recognised them as the type of dwellings in use until the early 1900s, seen in the film Giorgos gave us yesterday.

Turning left on rd 2 (the old Komotini-Xanthi highway, still following the Via Egnatia route) we stPorto_Lagos_(16).JPGopped a mile along at the car park for Agios Nikolaos. This small Athonite monastery, administered by the monastery of Vatopedi on Mt Athos, lies on a tiny islet in the mouth of Lake Vistonida. The island and church are open to visit (closed 2-4 pm) and accessed via a wooden footbridge.

Walking acrossPorto_Lagos_(20)_-_Copy.JPG we paused to photograph the bird life on all sides. Cormorants sat on rocks to dry their wings; Grebe dived and reappeared; both Grey and Great White Herons (usually solitary anglers) stood alongside each other, showing how rich the water is in fish, eels and even oysters. Pelicans sailed regally by, while others perched among more Cormorant on a wooden barrier that retains the lake. We'd never seen such a variety of Porto_Lagos_(23).JPGwater birds as in this Wetlands Nature Reserve and Heronry.

On the islandPorto_Lagos_(24a).jpg we met a supremely gentle Brother of the Order of Joseph, inside the small church. He spoke English with an Australian accent, having worked in Sydney before becoming a monk, and was keen to talk on a range of subjects. He explained that the icon of Mary was a copy of a precious miraculous icon brought from Turkey during the population exchange and now kept at Vatopedi Monastery, from where he was temporarily seconded. A fellow monk worked in the gardens, watched by a contented cat.

Continuing on rd 2, we passed the sea-port of Porto Lagos at 8 miles, then salt pans on VistoniaAvdira_(17).JPG Bay. After another 3 miles we turned off left on a minor road for our next destination, Avdera. At 18 miles, there is a right turn for Avdera village and museum but we turned left, following the sign for Ancient Avdera, 3 miles along by the beach and harbour.

Avdera was an important colony, founded by Greek refugees from Clazomenae and Teos (in present day Turkey near Smyrna/Izmir) fleeing the PerAvdira_(41).JPGsians in the 7th C BC. The fortification walls and cemeteries of the ancient settlement extend well beyond the enclosure, where excavation of baths, theatre and dwellings continues.

We settled on the parking area opposite the entrance and had lunch before exploring. Despite a sign 'Open every day', the gates were locked. As museums and sites are often closed Mondays, we decided to wait for tomorrow.

In late Roman times the city had declined and by theAvdira_(35).JPG Middle Byzantine period (9th C AD) the little town was renamed Polystylon. We scrambled up a path to the top of the acropolis hill, overlooking the harbour (ancient and modern). On the summit are the overgrown remains of fortifications, a late Byzantine cemetery and church, as well as an earlier Baptistery and Episcopal church.

Down in the harbourAvdira_(25).JPG there was more parking space, a few fishing boats, a coastguard station and more Cormorants, sitting on rocks and spreading their wings in the sun. The weather remained glorious: dry and calm. Our monk had agreed that these are the legendary Halcyon Days heralding the spring, when the wind is stilled for birds to build their nests ready for mating on St Valentine's Day. Halcyon is from the Greek for Kingfisher, which was (mistakenly) believed to nest on the water. Back in the motorhome, we watched Goldfinch and White Wagtail picking over the grass and hoped they knew the rules.

The sunset at about 5.30 pm was stunning, as the enormous red ball slid from a cloudless sky into the sea, illuminating the island of Thassos behind. Then all was peace, with no visitors to the ancient site or the tiny church of Agios Pandeleimonos across the road.

Ancient Avdera to Kavala, Greece     Camping Batis Terra    51 miles     €18 (incl CCI discount) 

No-one came to open up at Ancient Avdera, so we drove 3 miles back to Avdera, turned left (signed Xanthi) and parked outside the Tourist Information office (also closed). Walking round the delightful little town, with its fine Ottoman houses, we found the brilliant Archaeological Museum. This was indeed open daily (until 3 pm in winter) with free entry.

There were 2 floors of well labelled exhibits, covering Avdera-Polystylon from the 7th C BC to the 13th AD, arranged under the themes of Public Life, Private Life and Burial Customs. The highlight (among much of interest) was the upstairs room containing finds from the cemeteries – not only grave goods and tombstones but sarcophagi with interments (complete with skeletons) and funerary urns from cremations. It was all extremely well done, the modern building was warm and one of the attendants spoke English. She gave us leaflets about the ancient site and the museum, apologising for the site being closed due to staff illness. The only visitors, we spent a happy hour in this museum. We certainly hope to return, when visiting the site itself next time we pass.

From Avdera we continued north towards Xanthi, crossing the E90 motorway by a junction at 12 miles. However, the only access was eastbound (for Komotini/Alexandroupolis). To head west (for Kavala/Thessaloniki) we turned left for 2 miles, almost into Xanthi, then left again on highway 2. We had a good view of Old Xanthi, pressed on the hillside against the Rhodopi Mountains, which form a solid border with Bulgaria.

After 5 miles we joined E90/A2 at the next junction and crossed the Nestos River, the border between Thrace and Macedonia, on a brand new bridge at 25 miles. There are no tolls on the motorway east of Thessaloniki – but no service stations either. We turned off at J32, the exit for Kavala East, at 43 miles, parking a mile later in a layby for lunch.

Heading for Kavala on highway 2, we turned right at traffic lights 3 miles later for a Lidl store. Kavala_Camping_(13).JPGThen rd 2 led into and through the busy town, along the waterfront and away, with no chance of parking. After 3 miles, by the small Batis Beach, there is an old EOT campsite which was privatised (and supposedly renovated) in 2004. It is ACSI-listed as open all year and its website (www.batis-sa.gr) promises 'all the modern infrastructure'. Do not believe all you read!

The newKavala_Camping_(20).JPG owners have built something called Batis Multiplex, with Sports Club, Beach Bar, Pool and Cafι, all dominated by a huge modern Restaurant. Naturally, all of these were closed. What was open was the totally unreformed campsite, with sordid facilities, all hidden behind high hedges to block the sea view. The toilets did not have seats, let alone paper. The chemical WC disposal point, its floor thick with the droppings of hibernating snails clustered there, was the filthiest we've ever seen. There was only one tap with potable water, situated right outside Reception where we blocked the entry lane Kavala_Camping_(15).JPGwhile we filled up (just as the workmen pruning trees wanted to drive out). There was no internet (maybe available in the restaurant when open, at weekends). At least the showers were hot, if you closed your eyes to the grime and cobwebs of the cubicles.

We had imaginedKavala_Camping_(18).JPG a good break here, taking a bus into Kavala to visit the museum and getting the laundry done. There were 2 washing machines in the dank and dusty laundry room but these were padlocked and labelled 'Private Use Only'. The Receptionist told us that tourers “do not want washing machines”. She was probably too young to remember when the facilities were last cleaned.

One night here (with road noise) was more than enough and we had to leave Kavala unexplored. We have put our review on the ACSI website.

Kavala to Orfani Beach (via Philippi), Greece     Beach parking area     67 miles

Continuing westwards from the dire Kavala campsite on the coast road, there was another Lidl store 6 miles along at Nea Iraklitsa, a mile before a junction with the E90 motorway. We joined it to head east, taking the next exit (J31) 8 miles later (for Philippi/Drama or central Kavala). This section of motorway climbs high above the coast to over 700 ft/200 m, with views across Kavala to the island of Thassos.

Road 12 (for Drama) took us north across the Macedonian plain of wheat, corn and tobacco fields, to the archaeological site of Philippi. The turn for the ancient city is well signed near the village of Krinides - you can't miss the Greco-Roman theatre behind it. There is an enormous free car/coach park, with a small cafι and souvenir shop and a site entry fee of €3 (Seniors €2). The museum, which costs extra, contains mostly finds from French excavations at the nearby prehistoric site of Dikili Tash, so we concentrated on exploring the widespread ruins of the Roman colony.

Here is the potted history. Named after its founder, Philip II of Macedonia (father of Alexander the Great), the city developed in Roman times. After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC (as every schoolboy used to know) Brutus and Cassius fled east with their forces. Caesar's nephew Octavian (the future Augustus, Rome's first Emperor) marched after them with Mark Antony and finally defeated the Republicans in 42 BC near Philippi, whereupon Brutus and Cassius committed suicide.

Octavian and Antony then shared power until the Battle of Actium (a Cape south of Preveza in north-west Greece) in 31 BC, when Octavian won and founded Nikopolis (= Victory City) overlooking the scene of the naval engagement. Antony fled with Cleopatra to meet their tragic ends. The veterans of Octavian-Augustus's victorious army were settled at Philippi, now granted the status of a Roman colony. It grew prosperous, with fertile countryside and nearby gold mines, and the Roman Via Egnatia actually ran through it along the north side of the forum.

Along this very road came St Paul in 49 AD, to preach for the first time in Philippi: “And from there to Philippi, a leading city in that district of Macedonia and a Roman colony” (Acts 16, 12).  He and his companion, Silas, were denounced, flogged in the forum and imprisoned without trial. A few hours later, taking a sudden earthquake as an ill omen, the magistrates asked the pair to leave the city. When Paul 'the Apostle of the Gentiles' returned 6 years later, the Christian community had rapidly spread. St Paul's Epistle to the Philippians was sent much later, from his prison in Rome in 64 AD. Philippi remained important in the Byzantine era, with its Bishop's Palace, and the medieval city walls and towers still exist in places.

The archaeological site is divided by a minor road along the line of the Via Egnatia. In the North Section we climbed the terraced theatre set into the lower slopes of the Acropolis hill. It dates back to the 4thC BC Macedonian era but was remodelled by the Romans in the 2nd/3rdC AD for gladiatorial combat, with a high wall to prevent the animals eating the spectators. Currently used for summer performances, its appearance is marred by a hideous light/sound projection hut.

There are other ruins in this section but nothing is labelled around the overgrown site. A path leads from the theatre to the museum, via the remains of an early Christian Basilica destroyed by another earthquake in the 6thC. Steps lead down to cross the road to the South Section (by a second ticket office to check you've paid). At road level, below the Basilica, is a Roman crypt which is thought to have been Paul's prison.

The South Section is a vast jumble of ruins, with a very occasional brief sign in French. A map of the site was broken and washed out by rain, the 2 custodians spoke no English and the whole place is in need of attention. With the help of our Michelin Green Guide to Greece, we made some sense of the remains. Strangely, our new Lonely Planet completely ignores Philippi.

We identified wagon wheel ruts in the paving of the Via Egnatia, alongside the huge marble-paved forum with traces of temples and municipal buildings. An unlabelled marble slab hidden in a corner has different-sized hollows in it, used for measuring according to the Green Guide. The most substantial building is the Pillared Basilica, begun in the 6thC AD but never finished, as it proved impossible to construct a roof or dome over such a large church. Beyond that are the traces of a market and gymnasium, then the public latrines, which are in a much better state of preservation with marble seats and water ducts. Another Paleo-Christian Basilica lies in a fenced-off area, where we were followed round by a silent attendant in case we looked too closely at a mosaic floor.

Returning to the car park for lunch, we agreed that a site of such historic and religious significance deserves much better care and display. We were the only visitors, apart from a school outing.

The tiny village of Lydia, 2 miles north of the Philippi site, is named after the first convert that Paul baptised in Europe, here in the River Gaggitis, on his arrival in 49 AD. Lydia and her household formed the earliest Christian community in Europe. We parked outside the Hotel Lydia and walked across to photograph the modern church and its outdoor baptistery at the sacred spot, where the river has been diverted into a side stream with steps and a small bridge.

On the way back to the E90 motorway, we passed a sign to 'Prehistoric Settlement: 5 km' (Dikili Tash) on the left about a mile after Philippi, down a narrow lane. Joining E90 at 34 miles, we took the motorway westbound to bypass Kavala, exiting at the next junction 6 miles later.

Road 2, the former main road, took us south to Nea Perama, then west round the empty coast on a beautiful afternoon (another Halcyon Day). It was completely free of traffic, owing to the recently opened alternative toll-free motorway (which itself is far from busy). It seems Greek fuel prices, currently the highest in Europe after Holland, are having an effect, with more motorbikes around towns and less leisure-driving.

At 55 miles we passed the Byzantine 'Tower of Apollonea' overlooking the sea. This mid-14th century defence was misnamed, as ancient Apollonea is actually further west on the way to Thessaloniki. A right turn 3 miles later leads to the Thermal Springs and Baths of Elefthero.

We exited rd 2 at 65 miles (signed Orfani) and turned left for Orfani Beach, 2 miles along a minor coastal road. This is a superb place for a quiet night or two in the off-season, found on PJ's List. There is a level sandy parking area right by the beach, opposite a small snack bar (closed), with a splendid view over Mount Athos, the easternmost peninsula of the Halkidikis. Sunset was magnificent.

At Orfani Beach, Greece     Beach parking

Next day was again sunny, dry and calm – perfect cycling conditions.

Leaving the motorhome on our peaceful overnight spot, we rode eastwards along the coast. The asphalt road ran past a ribbon development of holiday homes (all closed up), then turned into a dirt path through olive groves and along the beach. We walked the  occasional rough section and saw no-one except a sole fisherman with his dog. After about 9 miles we joined coastal highway 2 (still devoid of traffic) and returned home for lunch. If only all roads were as quiet as this!

We found Orfani Beach has a Municipal Camping (seasonal), less than 2 miles west of our parking place, then a row of cafes and tavernas (mostly closed). The small supermarket and a pharmacy were open, but we saw no bank or ATM.

Orfani Beach to Vergina (via Amphipolis), Greece     Guarded Car Park     121 miles     400 ft asl     €6 inc electricity

Continuing west through the little resort of Orfani Beach, it was 3 miles to the old highway 2, then left for Thessaloniki. At 7 miles, rather than join the E90 motorway, we turned right on the Seres road. The village of Nea Amphipolis, with its Museum of Ancient Amphipolis, are signed off to the left after a mile. This is hill country, the sloping museum car park lying 300 ft/90 m above the sea.

The splendid new museum (open daily except Monday, 8.30–3 pm; entry €2, Seniors €1) is well laid out, with more than enough information in English. The history of Amphipolis is well covered, with excellent displays. Founded in the 5thC BC, it prospered under Macedonian rule. Alexander the Great gathered his fleet here to sail for Asia Minor – and it was here that his widow and son, taking refuge after the division of his Empire, were both murdered. In the Roman era it became a staging post on the Via Egnatia, visited by St Paul on his way west from Philippi. Like so many settlements it declined in the late middle ages when its harbour, at the mouth of the River Strymon, silted up.

Outside the museum we climbed a track through the woods, where there are picnic tables and traces of the Hellenic 4-mile-long double city walls. A path in the village leads to more ruins, which we left unexplored for now.

Returning to highway 2, we crossed the Strymon on a narrow bridge and paused at 10 miles by the colossal Amphipolis Lion on his pedestal – a late 4thC BC statue of marble, thought to have marked the grave of an admiral of Alexander's fleet. The pieces, discovered by soldiers during the Balkan Wars, were carefully reconstructed in situ in1937 (photographs in the museum tell the story).

We continued on road 2 along the coast to Asprovalta, rather than bypassing it on the E90 motorway. East of the town are 2 campsites: Camping Achilles at 17 miles was actually open but hardly an attractive option. It has no washing machine or internet, the whole place is sadly neglected and the owners seem to run it as a home for stray dogs and cats. OK if you want to make a €20+ contribution to their upkeep and can stand the noise. The large EOT campsite 3 miles later spreads along the beach and is no doubt popular when open (1 June-30 September). Noticing a young woman in Reception, we stopped to check. Her job appears to be to sit there for the other 8 months of the year in order to tell anyone who comes that it's closed and hand them a leaflet! Small wonder that the Greek economy is in such a state.

Asprovalta, at 21 miles, has a choice of supermarkets, banks etc. We managed to park outside the cemetery and walk back to shop. A mile beyond the town centre is a junction – turn right to join E90 or left to stay on road 2, both leading to Thessaloniki. Keeping to road 2, we parked at a new Lidl store at 23 miles for more shopping and lunch.

Skirting the south shore of Lake Valvi and Lake Koronia, past the site of ancient Apollonea, we were still following in the footsteps of Paul along the Via Egnatia: “They travelled by way of Amphipolis and Apollonia and came to Thessalonica” (Acts 17, 1). The E90 motorway runs to the north of the lakes and is devoid of services east of Thessaloniki, whereas the old highway 2 has regular fuel stations, competing on price at a little under €1.60 per litre (second highest in Europe - not counting Turkey, which even beats the Netherlands).

At 64 miles we finally joined motorway E90/A2/Odos Egnatia, to avoid the traffic-snarled centre of Greece's second city. Following signs for Athens, we circled Thessaloniki, exiting briefly 5 miles along to access an Eko fuel station offering LPG, which was too busy to get near! Back on the motorway heading west, we crossed the Gallicos River at 79 miles, then the wider Axios at 86 miles. One mile later was the very first toll point, coming from Alexandroupolis and the Turkish border: €6. There was a large parking area after the toll booth, with a couple of enterprising 'Kantina' vans in the field just over the fence, supplying drinks and snacks.

At 94 miles, rather than continue to Athens, we turned right on E90: the motorway that now runs the whole way across to the port of Igoumenitsa – quite a feat of engineering, which has taken many years to complete. There was a service station after a mile (though not LPG). Climbing very gently up the fertile valley of the Aliakmonas River, there were vast orchards of bare fruit trees (apples, peaches and cherries) and mountains looming ahead.

Taking the Veria exit 14 (signed 'Vergina's Tombs') at 115 miles, we headed east, crossing the Aliakmonas, to the village of Vergina (pronounced 'Vairyeenah' and named after a Byzantine princess). In antiquity this was Aigai, capital and burial ground of the Macedonian dynasty.

Entering the village, signs for Parking lead to a guarded coach/motorhome park run by a very helpful German-speaking Greek, who emerged from his adjacent house. Hook-ups and water are available and it is a very short walk from the Royal Tombs. There is also a large open car park on the edge of the village which is free of charge.

At Vergina, Greece     Guarded Car Park    

For more information, click: The Treasures of Vergina at the Ashmolean Museum.

We arrived early at the World Heritage listed 'Royal Tombs', hoping to beat the coach parties, but were soon overtaken by a group with an intrusively loud guide. Winter opening hours are 8.30-2.30 pm except Mondays, and there is a small cafι and souvenir shop in the garden. Entry is €8 (Seniors €4) but, this being Sunday, it was free - an offer that applies from November to the end of March.

After King Archelaos (413-399 BC) moved the Macedonian capital to Pella, Aigai (Vergina) remained the site of the royal cemetery and summer palace. Philip II was assassinated at the wedding of his daughter in the theatre here at Aigai in 336 BC, when his son, Alexander the Great, was proclaimed king.

This is our third visit to these breathtaking Macedonian Royal Tombs. On the first occasion, there was little to see and we went on to view the finely worked gold objects and other grave goods in Thessaloniki Museum. Next time we came, the finds had been returned to their rightful place in new displays here inside the huge burial mound. It is an astonishing place, all well labelled in English. Walking into the tumulus you can view the underground temple-like sealed entrances to 4 tombs, which were excavated as recently as 1977 by Prof Andronikos and his team from Thessaloniki University, finally confirming the site of the ancient city of Aigai.

Tomb 1 is named Persephone's Tomb, after its accomplished mural of Hades carrying said maiden off to the Underworld. It was looted of any other treasures in antiquity.

Tomb 2 yielded a magnificent gold chest (larnax) with the 16-point star of the Macedonian dynasty on its lid and the cremated remains of Philip II inside, identifiable from a wound in the skull as well as the sumptuous grave goods. A smaller gold larnax in a separate chamber held the bones of his young wife or concubine, wrapped in a purple cloth embroidered in gold. This cloth, exquisite gold diadems and other jewellery, and Philip's armour are among the many items exhibited.

Tomb 3, similarly rich in grave goods, was the burial place of Alexander the Great's son, young Alexander IV, and the 13-year-old's mother. They were brought here after their murder at Amphipolis, as we'd read in the museum there yesterday. Piece by piece, we slowly complete the jigsaw of Greek history!

Tomb 4 was found empty, robbed in antiquity – or prepared for Alexander the Great, who died out in Babylon? His grave has never been found.

The displays of items taken from Tombs 2 and 3 are almost beyond belief - can these artefacts of gold, silver and ivory really be over 2000 years old? Astonishing. The souvenir shops in the village sell replicas, at a high price.

After lunch we walked about a mile uphill along the lane to the extensive ruins of the palatial complex. On the way another Macedonian tomb has been excavated (free to view through the marble-leaved entrance doors), believed to be that of Queen Eurydike, mother of Philip II.  Beyond are the overgrown ruins of the Sanctuary of Eukleia and the fateful theatre. The palace area (where we remember a striking mosaic floor) is currently closed for renovation until the end of 2011. It developed through the Roman and Middle Ages (home to the eponymous Byzantine princess Vergina) and was finally destroyed by the Turks.

There was a guard on duty with his dog at the palace gates and black plastic sheeting covering everything visible. With an EU budget of €7 million, it should be good when it's finished! Before returning, we climbed up the Acropolis hill on goat paths, where yellow crocus and mauve anemones were also enjoying the February sunshine on their faces.

Back in the village, we ambled among the fields to the east of the Royal Tombs. This was the archaic burial ground and several more tumuli are being excavated, fenced round with wire netting and covered in corrugated iron. Worth another visit in a couple of years.

Vergina to Kalambaka, Greece     Camping International Rizos     121 miles     610 ft asl     €17

Following signs for Veria, it was a mile back to the main road then 3 miles to the Aliakmonas River, crossing on the reservoir dam bridge. After another 2 miles we joined E90 motorway by Veria, where we parted company with St Paul. He went down the coast to Dion and took ship for Athens, while we headed inland for Kozani.

This impressive stretch of motorway, nearly 20 miles from Veria to the next exit, was the last to be finished. It climbed from 325 ft/100 m to over 1,000 ft/330 m before entering the first of a long series of short tunnels. We emerged from the last tunnel at 2,500 ft/757 m, high in the mist, and continued climbing to a toll post at 21 miles, up at 2,830 ft/857 m, by the next exit. The toll of €7 was a bargain, compared with climbing the old pass via Kastania (over 4,000 ft/1200 m), as we did one hot summer's day in the long-suffering Four Winds motorhome!

The motorway now ran alongside road 4, across a high hanging valley. The flat agricultural land was dominated by a huge power station, served by a railway from Kozani. At 35 miles, still high at 2,250 ft/680 m, came an exit for Kozani or Florina and the Republic of Macedonia. Our host at Vergina recommended the Natural History Museum in Kozani but it's probably closed Mondays, so we kept on towards Grevena and the snowy Pindos Mountains. The first rest area was welcome 3 miles later.

After the exits for Siatista and Kastoria/Albania at 52 miles, the motorway turned south and descended gradually to Grevena. Here it gets complicated! Take the first exit (J14, Grevena North at 62 miles) for the town, or to access road 15 to Kalambaka/Trikala. Or stay on the motorway for Ioanina and Igoumenitsa. Or continue to exit 16 where there is a new Shell services by the junction with LPG (which we needed). After a fill of 'Autogas', we returned a few miles on the motorway to exit 15 (Grevena South), from where we took road 15 for Kalambaka.

This is a quiet narrow mountain road, twisting and turning to a pass just short of 3,000 ft/909 m, with some snow along the verges. A sign at the top, at 87 miles, warned of Bears as well as Deer! After snaking downhill, dropping 1,000 ft in 6 miles, we paused in the village of Anoixi for lunch, keeping a wary lookout! Continuing south, we crossed the river border from Macedonia into Thessaly.

At 108 miles (870 ft/265 m) we met road 92 from Metsovo and turned left for Kalambaka. It was 1 pm and a pleasant 17ΊC. After another 6 miles we were shopping in Lidl (on the right of the main road).

There are several campsites around Kalambaka, all of which used to open year-round. However, our old favourite (Camping Kalambaka) closed down when the owner retired and the only one apparently open this winter is Camping Rizos International, well signed 2 miles out along the Trikala road, and empty. The English-speaking owner was pleased to see us again and kindly agreed to fix up an internet connection from our motorhome to his apartment (above the toilet/shower block).

Before settling in we drove another mile along the Trikala road to the excellent Karakostas garage (recommended by the first place we tried, near Lidl). The owner had worked in Germany, acquiring both the language and the skills of that land. The underside of the motorhome was efficiently greased (for a mere €5 + tip) and we learnt a new word: Schmiernippel (grease nipple – that will be useful!)

Back at the campsite, it was good to see a small washing machine (the first since Turkey!), though at €7 per wash it seems we were being taken to the cleaners! But we have a good TV signal and enjoyed the evening watching 'Forrest Gump' (an all time favourite) on Star.

At Kalambaka, Greece     Camping International Rizos

Kalambaka is where the flatlands of the Thessaly Plain suddenly meet the foothills of the Pindos mountain range, giving rise to the lofty monastery-capped rock towers of Meteora (a World Heritage Site). These spectacular columns of sandstone fill the skyline, attracting Orthodox pilgrims, tourists, photographers and rock climbers.

From the 11th century, solitary hermit monks had lived in the scattered caverns of Meteora. By the 14th century, the Byzantine power of the former Roman Empire was on the wane and Turkish incursions into Greece were on the rise, so monks began to seek safe havens away from the bloodshed. The inaccessibility of the rocks of Meteora made them an ideal retreat and eventually 24 monasteries were built on these pinnacles. The earliest monasteries were reached by climbing removable ladders. Later, windlasses were used so monks could be hauled up in nets.

Today, 6 are still active religious sites, occupied by monks or nuns and visited by the faithful and curious alike. Access to the monasteries is now by steps, hewn into the rocks in the 1920s, served by a convenient back road. Some windlasses can still be seen, used for lifting goods.

Camping here often in the past – in the snow of winter and the heat of July – we've cycled the circuit of the monasteries, visited each one, and climbed Greece's highest road pass via Metsovo to Ioanina (by motorhome and by bicycle).

Our intention was to cycle the monastery circuit again on this visit but the weather suddenly turned against us. It poured … and poured … the only view of the rock pillars being through a curtain of mist and rain. The mountain peaks gathered a fresh dusting of snow. Watching the weather forecast intently, we eventually left on the first dry morning, keen to drive while there was no danger of a blizzard.

We did enjoy time to read, write and rest, though the campsite internet link was slow and spasmodic. We walked into the small town (2 miles along a busy road in the rain!) to see if a more reliable internet connection could be found but there were only 2 places, both on the main street, Trikalon. The 'Hollywood Bar' advertised WiFi at €2 per hour but it wasn't compatible with our laptop, nor were we compatible with the ambient music. Another bar across the street also had computers (not WiFi) but this was too dimly lit to see and too noisy to think!

Internet aside, Kalambaka is a pleasant little town, with post office, banks, shops, eating places and a Friday morning market. Unusually for Greece, there is even a launderette ('Green Wash' on Trikalon) offering to wash and dry a load, including powder, for €8. It's a much better deal than the campsite's smaller machine (wash-only, no powder, €7) but a long way to carry the laundry. At the Carrefour supermarket, sited in the old cinema, we found 2 good films among the bargain DVDs (€2 each - original American soundtracks with Greek subtitles). They helped to pass the wet evenings!

Our incoming email included an article in the 'Sophia Echo' about Camping Veliko Tarnovo (near Dragizhevo) mentioning us as its first customers in the summer of 2009. Another piece of news is that GB Privilege's proposed convoy-tour of Albania (read our response) has been cancelled due to lack of interest. Why are we not surprised?

Kalambaka to Thermopiles, Greece     Thermal Springs Car Park     95 miles

It was cloudy but dry (at last!) as we set off south-east down E92, taking the ring road after 10 miles to avoid Trikala's busy town centre. At 13 miles we spotted a Lidl store on the right, accessed by a short unpaved lane. The puddles hid a deep pot hole, in which the front number plate snapped – a job for Barry and superglue.

Back on the highway, we turned right after 2 miles onto rd 30/E65 for Karditsa. The flat Thessaly Plain, at about 330 ft/100 m, is featureless in winter, its rice and cotton fields bare and muddy, flooded by a week of rain. The Pinios River, crossed at 19 miles, swirled brown and high below the bridge.

E65 turned left at 29 miles on the Karditsa ring road, past another Lidl where we parked to eat lunch – wishing we hadn't noticed the earlier Trikala store! After another 3 miles we turned left again (signed Lamia) at a junction with a huge Police presence: 2 police stations swarming with officers, followed by roadside checks. Perhaps the infamous Larissa farmers were out on their tractor road-blocks again, in support of today's national strike?

A range of hills faced us at Neo Monastiri at 56 miles. From a height of 500 ft/150 m at Pournari, 4 miles later, the hair-pinned ascent began to Domokos village (at 64 miles 1,736 ft/526 m). There was no snow, though dark clouds gathered ominously around the peaks. The good 2-lane road, studded with cafes and petrol stations, levelled into a high plateau, dipping before rising gradually to a maximum of 2,500 ft/757 m at 76 miles.

Rain began as we made the gentler 12-mile descent to Lamia (almost at sea level). We bypassed the town, joining the Athens-bound motorway E75/A1, and took the next exit 5 miles later (signed Thermopiles). The old main road led south for the final 2 miles to the Thermal Springs, accessed by a lane on the right, by a Shell garage. The steaming hot sulphurous springs feed a spa/hotel (closed) and a couple of informal outdoor pools, popular with locals and free-campers.

Known in antiquity as the 'Baths of Hercules', Thermopylae (= Hot Gates) is famous for the nearby heroic defence of the pass by King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans in 480 BC. This brave band managed to temporarily halt the massive invading Persian army of Xerxes. A statue of Leonidas (further south on the main road) honours the heroic battle site, where the Spartans ultimately perished against overwhelming odds.

The vast area of rough ground near the springs is usually covered with motorhomes and caravans. Today, to our surprise, there was just one motorhome – and a huge amount of litter and household rubbish. Our friendly Austrian neighbours explained that the police had recently evicted a Romanian squatter camp (illegal immigrants or gipsies – they weren't sure).

The Austrians were returning from an untimely journey to Tunisia, where the revolution that overthrew the government and President had started one week after they arrived in the country. They described the chaos, gunfire in the towns, police road blocks everywhere advising them to leave, and the scramble for the ferry back to Trapani in Sicily. How lucky we were to make that same journey a year ago!

We spent a peaceful, if very rainy, night here, safe in the knowledge that the police station near the hotel was keeping watch.

Thermopiles to Episkopi (via Karpenisi), Greece     Parking by Lake Kremaston     92 miles     950 ft asl

Returning 7 miles north on the motorway, we passed a services (Goodys Restaurant and maximum-price fuel). Exit for Lamia, then left after 2 miles on E952 signed Karpenisi (a ski resort), as we'd chosen to take the scenic route west across the mountains (not recommended during snow)! Easier routes from Thermopiles are the road south via Amfissa, or the toll motorway to Athens, both of which we've taken before. The driver (a former mountain climber) wanted a new challenge.

We followed the 952 through the busy sprawling outskirts of Lamia, then away westwards, rising gently along the valley of the River Sperchios. By 10 am it was raining but at 12ΊC there was little chance of snow. Makrakomi at 28 miles was a squeeze, with double-parked shoppers and decorations going up for the coming Carnival season. Then the road climbed through small villages, with houses selling local wine, honey, eggs and chicken. In Ag Georgios, 10 miles later, we were above 1,000 ft/330 m and by Tymfristos at 44 miles it was 2,600 ft/790 m and misty. 

For the next 5 miles the road hair-pinned up to reach 4,620 ft/1400 m, with a little snow on the verges and marker poles still in place. Then a short tunnel (height limit 5 m) avoided the old pass. At 53 miles and 3,000 ft/910 m we passed the turn into the mountainside resort of Karpenisi and skirted the town on E952.

Clearly, the winter tourists arrive from Lamia (or by helicopter), as our onward route proved much more tortuous and was devoid of traffic. At 56 miles, the road forked, both ways signed Agrinio! We stayed with the 952, turning right, as the alternative is a very minor road unsuitable for trucks.

Leaving Karpenisi and its alpine hotels on the slopes of Mt Tymfristos, the road climbed for 5 miles, reaching over 4,000 ft/1210 m again before snaking down an 11-mile descent to cross the River Tavropos at the bottom of a gorge. Slightly alarmed by the smell of hot brakes, we kept going up the next hill to let them cool down and the engine heat up, stopping at the top of the pass (2,800 ft/850 m) at 78 miles. Here we parked to let everything cool down while we ate lunch, watched by a lonely goat in the middle of the road, as the rain stopped and the sun came out. Suddenly everything felt better!

A mile later in the village of Anatoliki at 2,320 ft/700 m the road turned south, zigzagging steeply down to 1,810 ft/550 m. The road rolled on - up again a little, down to 1,100 ft/333 m, up to 1,400 ft/425 m – finally dropping below 1,000 ft/330 m at a large dammed lake, Kremaston.

We parked opposite the turn into Episkopi village, on a patch of ground by an abandoned half-built cafι on the right, just before the bridge over the lake. On a breezy 1.5 mile walk across the bridge to tiny Psilovrachos and back, we found nowhere level to park outside the tavernas, so stayed at Episkopi. The views of the dark lake ringed in mountains was brightened by spring flowers (wild iris, grape hyacinth, anemones and almond blossom). It had indeed been a challenging day.

In the absence of TV and internet (what a blessing), that evening finished a book that neither of us had been able to put down – 'Imperium' by Robert Harris - immersing us in Cicero's republican Rome. Must get hold of his 'Pompeii'.

Episkopi to Vonitsa, Greece     Vonitsa Beach     82 miles

With more hills to cross before reaching Agrinio, we were away early on a dry morning with a very cold wind. Over the bridge, as the road climbed away from the lake, the peaks around were freshly dusted with snow under a halo of mist.

After 6 miles we'd risen to 1,920 ft/580 m. The road climbed on to Houni village, then it narrowed and steepened through Parakampylia at 10 miles (a few houses, petrol station, church) and Kato Ag Vlasios (police, doctor, school bus, smoking chimneys), reaching the top of the pass (2,770 ft/839 m) at 12 miles. The superb view now encompassed the next lake to the west, Kastrakiou.

By Potamoula, 6 miles later, we were down at 800 ft/240 m, the 'hairy pins' now all behind us. At 30 miles (420 ft/125 m) we paused on a large empty car park outside the closed Oneiro Club Restaurant for a welcome coffee break, a mile before Kamaroula.

Soon reaching the edge of Agrinio, a busy industrial/agricultural centre, we followed signs for the 'New National Road' (E55) at 34 miles, turning north on this highway (leading to Ioanina). A visit to the BP filling station (still handing out those tulip-perfumed boiled sweets), we saw how thirsty mountain-climbers get – but the Flair (and driver) had handled it well.

Starting and finishing at sea level, we had climbed (and therefore descended) a total of  9,700 ft (3,000 m) in a total distance of 120 miles from Lamia to Agrinion.

The New York Roadhouse (a 24-hour pizzeria/cafι on the right at 40 miles) is on PJ's list of overnight spots but its car park is directly on this very busy highway. Two miles later in Stratos there is a good Dia supermarket on the right. At 48 miles, west of Kypseli, there's a turn onto a new motorway southbound for the Rio-Antirio Bridge – northbound for Ioanina is not yet open.

Passing Lake Amvrakia we came to Amfilochia, a little port at the south-east corner of the Amvrakikos (or Ambracian) Gulf. Here, at 60 miles, we turned left on E952 to follow the southern shore of this large inlet. Passing waterfront tavernas, a slipway and a small fishing fleet, we parked a mile later, clear of the town traffic, and had lunch overlooking the bay. No need to check our altitude now – 8 ft above sea level!

Continuing west, we passed Shell and Eko oil terminals on the gulf, though fuel in the next village, Sparto, was no cheaper than average (over €1.60 in general, or €1.70 on motorways or remote mountain villages!) This, we hear, is the second highest in Europe (Holland wins – no wonder they cycle).

After following E952 along the coast and over a headland, we turned right at 82 miles just before Vonitsa, on a lane to the beach signed 'Plaj'. This led to a large parking area alongside the gravel shore. An excellent place on PJ's List of Overnight Parking, with a good view of the 17thC Venetian fortress overlooking the town, as well as the mountains rising on the far shores. There is a footbridge to the islet of Koukovitsa, and a good cycle/footpath into the centre of Vonitsa.

We had the whole area to ourselves for a few peaceful nights and rediscovered the Greek Third Programme on the cab radio, with a great selection of classical music.  

At Vonitsa Beach

We strolled over the bridge to and around Koukovitsa, a small wooded island with the tiny church of Ag Nektarios and a circuit path round the rocky shore. A couple of joggers and walkers passed us, sheltered from a fierce east wind by the thickly clustered pines.

A family of gipsies arrived on the shore, in a truck and a van both loaded with plastic chairs and giant plant pots. The matriarch, washing the cooking pots at a tap by the bridge, gave us a friendly wave and posed no threat. We assumed they'd come to park overnight but they left in the afternoon and we pictured them trundling round the villages with a loud-hailer, shouting their wares. Hard to imagine any profit in that.

With plenty of LPG and water, we were prepared for 'free-camping' – until we had a problem with the hot water boiler. Our Gas Alarm sounded and cut off the supply whenever we lit the boiler, though we could smell nothing and the Carbon Monoxide detector read zero. We could boil a kettle for washing up but hot showers were out! The problem did resolve itself once we left Vonitsa, so we concluded it wasn't a gas leak but the strong wind across the gulf blowing fumes back in.

It was a short walk into Vonitsa itself, for the post office and a bank machine. We found a bar with internet (not WiFi) at €2 per hour and swiftly checked our email. It wasn't the price that deterred us from staying but the noise level, as the barman was holding a political argument with a couple of customers (regulars, by the look of them!) Thanks to an email from Ian Shires, we now learnt of the latest devastating earthquake in New Zealand and quickly wrote to friends in Christchurch for reassurance (later hearing that the family had survived unscathed, though their house was full of mud and dust). They were lucky: the BBC news reported at least 113 dead and many injured, including people inside the Cathedral when its spire toppled into the Square. The Tasman Glacier near Mt Cook (where we once photographed ourselves with bicycles on our round-the-world ride) has splintered and formed icebergs. And aftershocks continue.

Feeling shocked ourselves, we explored the waterfront and yacht harbour in search of a lunch. The friendliest simplest Taverna provided an excellent Greek salad (not difficult!), soft bread, hot chips and disappointingly tough pork chops. The only other customer, an old sea-salt now running a dry-cleaning shop round the corner, reminisced over his coffee in broken English about his time in the Greek navy from age 15 to 22. He especially liked Denmark, Whitley Bay (described as 'near Scotland') and New York, and told us Vonitsa is a fine place except for 'too many German peoples' coming in the summer. With the current financial situation, Germans are less welcome in Greece, meaning less tourists, meaning less money …

The 17thC Venetian fortress overlooking the harbour has been partially restored and we climbed up to the entrance gates, which were firmly padlocked with no indication of opening times. As we came back down the lane we were greeted by a resident outside his house – a man who had lived in Australia for 15 years and married a girl born of Greek parents in Melbourne. He seemed to regret the decision to bring his wife and children back to his native town, much as he loved it. Asked about the fortress, he explained that it came under the jurisdiction of the National Ministry of Culture rather than the town. The Ministry had locked it up unfinished, the local Mayor had broken in and sent a couple of workmen to carry on, and now the Ministry is taking the Mayor to court – and it remains locked. We could only agree that in Greece things are 'complicated'.

This journey through Northern Greece, which began by following the Roman Via Egnatia westwards from Alexandroupolis, has now ended on the shores of the Ionian Sea. From Vonitsa there is a great choice of onward directions: (1) North, through the Aktio-Preveza tunnel at the entrance to the Amvrakikos (or Ambracian) Gulf, and on to Parga and Igoumenitsa (for a ferry to Italy or overland through Albania); or (2) South, to Messolongi and over the bridge to Patras (for a ferry to Italy or down into the Peloponnese or east to Corinth); or (3) South-west to Lefkada, before taking the other options; or (4) South and east to Delphi; or … How hard it is to make a choice, thereby eliminating choices.

This is the choice we made:

MARCH 2011

Vonitsa to Kalogria, Greece     Kalogria Beach     160 miles

Unwilling to leave Greece, with the promise of Spring and warmer weather ahead, we decided to spend time in the Peloponnese before taking a ferry for Italy.

The E55 from Vonitsa sounds like a major highway but is actually a narrow country lane, that ran through the busy town centre for a mile before reaching a key junction: right for Lefkada/Preveza or left (our route) to go south, signed Mitikas. It was another bright sunny morning, very dry with a cold wind. (20% humidity on our weather centre – the lowest it will show.) 

We met the coast of the Ionian Sea after 11 miles in Paleros, a very tight little fishing village (where a right turn for Pogonia leads a mile or so to another stopover on PJ's List). 7 miles further south there was space to park for a coffee break by the shore, where the views of Lefkada (an island reached by a causeway) and the clarity of the blue sea were magical.

In Mitikas at 22 miles, the Ionia Camping/Taverna was closed. Passing several off-shore fish farms and dodging the various flocks of sheep, goats and cattle in our path, we reached the end of this beautiful quiet coast road at the small fishing and inter-island ferry port of Astakos (= Lobster). The main road runs behind the town, then at 42 miles it turns right to park (or left for Messolongi). It's a short walk to the harbour and into town from this parking spot (also on PJ's list).

Continuing south-east, the road climbs inland, twisting up to 575 ft/175 m before dropping back to sea level at 66 miles to cross the short bridge to the village of Etoliko, on an island in Messolongi Lagoon, then a second bridge to the mainland to meet the busier highway from Agrinio at 68 miles. Turn right here, past the glistening white pyramids of the salt refinery on the way to the 'Sacred Town of Messolongi'.

This town (also spelt Missolonghi or any variation thereon) is famous for its role in the War of Independence, including the death of Lord Byron here in 1824 and the siege of the town in 1825. Byron's heart is buried below his statue in the Heroes' Garden, while the rest of his body was embalmed and returned to England.

There is good overnight parking at Messolongi Harbour or at Tourlida, the eel fishing village on the lagoon about 4 miles south (PJ's List again). As we've explored the town more than once before, we bypassed it on the main road, past a range of shops (Lidl, Dia and Carrefour) at 75 miles. Early strawberries were also on sale along the roadside.

At 94 miles we parked at the new 'Olympia Plaza' services to make lunch, with a view of the elegant suspension bridge across the Gulf of Corinth from Antirio to Rio (opened just before the Athens Olympics in 2004). Crossing the bridge (for €12.90) we noticed the ferries still running below us (essential for pedestrians and cyclists). Once across, we joined the motorway southbound to bypass Patras. This section is free, while eastbound for Corinth and Athens has tolls.

Beyond Patras the motorway merges with the 'New National Road' E55 down the west coast of the Peloponnese. We turned off at Lapas, 23 miles after Patras, and followed country lanes to Kalogria, where there are several parking places by the beach (see PJ's List once more). The shaded motorhome/caravan parking area (with water, hook-ups and a fee) next to the old Hotel Amalia was abandoned, with the hotel up for sale. Opposite is a glossy new hotel/restaurant offering pizza and pasta. Its rooms are closed for winter, though the bar and restaurant open at weekends.

We parked beyond these, at the end of the road among the sand dunes, joined by an occasional fisherman. Three stray dogs soon accepted us (given a biscuit or three) and we had a quiet few days, reading and walking the beach.

Kalogria to Kourouta via Amaliada, Greece     Kourouta Beach Car Park    34 miles

Driving 7 anxious miles back to the 'New National Road' E55, we were alarmed by the squealing noise from a slipping engine drive belt. It gradually subsided – but was it sand and dust or something more serious? Remembering an excellent Ford garage at Pirgos (whose owner, Themistocles Vassilopoulos, once rescued our Ford-based Four Winds when a transmission fluid pipe broke), we continued south.

At 32 miles, it was left at the traffic lights towards Amaliada for some familiar shops: first Lidl (where we always meet someone we know – this time Swiss Kurt and his Chinese wife, who live locally). Further along is Carrefour, then Dia, where we left the motorhome to walk the last mile into Amaliada, a favourite town, always busy (and even more so on market day – Saturday). Chicken & chips at the Pikantika, an Athens News (Greece's English language paper, published Fridays) from the kiosk to catch up on events, then along to see our old friend Peppas at his motorbike shop, which proved to be closed and empty.

Back in the Flair, we returned to the New National Rd and straight across the traffic lights to the coast at Kourouta. There is a large well lit car park on the sea front, several cafes and a Municipal Camping (closed in winter). Another good free night, with an excellent TV signal for watching films on the Star and Net channels.

Kourouta to Katakolo, Greece     Katakolo Harbour     21 miles

It was 10 miles south to the Ford garage of Themistocles Vassilopoulos, on the left of the New National Rd just before Pirgos. The charming owner, who speaks fluent English, gave us his personal attention, treating the drive belt with silicon spray and equipping us with a can of same, all for €8. Themis remembered our Four Winds (several years ago!) and longed for the time when he too could retire and travel.

We had a long conversation about Greece's financial problems. The main complaint was that taxes had increased but he still needed to pay for all his children's schooling and family health care, as the national education and health services were abysmal. We were to hear this lament many times during our current visit to Greece.

On towards Pirgos we called at the AB Supermarket on the right, in search of exotic foreign foods such as Golden Syrup and HP Sauce (success with the HP but no Tate & Lyle's). Returning briefly to the main road and turning northwards, we then turned left via Ag Ioannis to Katokolo – a deep water port, popular with summer cruise ships for excursions to Ancient Olympia but extremely quiet off-season.

There is a large parking area between the end-of-the-line railway halt and the harbour, with the possibility of electricity on the waterfront. Friends had reported paying €5 for a hook-up here but we could find no-one to take our money (see the Pippins Diary and PJ's list). Either way, it's a wonderful overnight spot – and empty.

It didn't take long to explore the 3 parallel streets of Katokolo after lunch. One or two of the tavernas fronting the water were open, while the many jewellery and souvenir shops remained closed. Some were starting to clean up and prepare for the season and we picked up a post card at one shop with an open door. 'Take it, no charge, we're closed' called the proprietor! At least the post office was open, keeping the usual Greek hours of Mon-Fri, 7.30 am-2 pm (if you're lucky).

Sadly, the private Museum of Ancient Greek Technology and Musical Instruments was closed, with a sign saying 'Entry €2' but no indication of when. We'd like to have seen that, after Rosemary's intriguing description (see the Pippins Diary again). There was no timetable at the Halt for the railway from Katakolo to Pirgos (sometimes continuing to Olympia). However, we did see a 2-carriage train leave next morning at 9 am. The line originally served the port, for shipping currants and fruit.

Katakolo to Glyfa, Greece     Ionion Beach Camping     31 miles

Back 5 miles to Ag Ioannis, then left at the traffic lights (signed Ancient Olympia), to meet the New National Rd a mile later. It was raining hard, with a warm south wind.

Heading north again we stopped at 14 miles, shortly before the Amaliada turning, on noticing Peppas (of the former motorbike shop) at his new business 'Peppas Motors', importing and selling small vans. Another long discussion of Greece's economic woes brought to mind a line from 'Evita' – 'a pretty poor state for a state to be in'.  We left with a great deal of sympathy - and some enormous lemons from his trees.

At 22 miles we took the second turn for Gastouni, then drove 4 miles west to Vartholomio (crossing the Pinios River on the NEW bridge, that was under construction when we were here a year ago). Another 6 miles via Lygia and Glyfa, to be welcomed onto Ionion Beach, our favourite Greek campsite by the Fligos family.

Rain poured all afternoon, as we dumped and filled the tanks and settled in with a sea view, Zakynthos hovering 10 miles off-shore. M made some delicious lemon curd and set the bread-maker going.

At Glyfa, Greece     Ionion Beach Camping

As always, this well managed campsite provides a good respite after our winter's journey. There is a reasonable TV signal, heated modern bathrooms, 3 hours' free internet per day (off-season), a long beach to walk and a network of lanes to cycle. Amazingly, the site is empty – as is the nearby Aginara Beach Camping.

The weather was very varied. Wet and stormy days were spent reading, writing or on-line, with Carnival Sunday something of a wash-out, followed by good winds for the traditional kite flying on Clean Monday at the beginning of Lent (then Shrove Tuesday, with our own tradition of pancakes and lemons, fresh off the tree). There were bracing walks along the sands to Glyfa harbour or, in the other direction, as far as Arcoudi.

Other days were warm enough for cycling in shorts, with a range of rides – short, long, steep, easy – from 10 to 30 miles. In the local villages, we found favourite Kafenions for coffee: in Kastro, where the magnificently restored castle overlooks Kyllinis harbour; Andravida, with its Frankish church; Vartholomio, site of the nearest market, post office and bank – and beyond it to Thinon Forest.

On Greek Independence Day (25 March) we rode down to Vartholomio to watch the wreath-laying parade. It was led by mixed infants in an unlikely national costume (pleated white skirts and pom pom shoes for the boys), followed by older pupils in school uniform (white shirts and the shortest of tight black skirts for the girls), and brought up by the best bit – the band.

Vartholomio also has the best restaurant in these parts, the 'Alati & Piperi' or 'Salz & Pfeffer', run by a father and son. Their chef is a talented Moroccan, fluent in American, whose conversation with us ranged from the Cat Stevens song 'Father and Son' to the novels of DH Lawrence!

The site of Ancient Ellis lies 6 miles east of Gastouni's New National Road junction, along the way to the huge lake behind the Pinios Dam. The extensive ruins and theatre are freely open to visit, while the new museum (signed to the right off the road) has a small entry fee. The parking area at the site provided the starting point for several circular cycle rides among the vineyards, orange groves, sheep pasture and farm land, including crossing the top of the dam wall. The mountain peaks beyond the reservoirs were still flecked with snow, while spring flowers carpeted the orchards: anemones, wild iris, grape hyacinth and others in a riot of colour. Spring is also the time for gathering Horta (wild greens), with black-clad grannies and shepherd boys alike wielding knives to cut wild asparagus, fennel and rocket.

So the season turned, clocks were put forward throughout Europe for 'Summer Time' and the end of March heralded the 'Camping on Board' season for ferries between Greece and Italy. Our thoughts turned to an April journey back across Europe, starting with a boat to Ancona. Three ferry lines operate this route: Superfast (Patras to Ancona or to Bari), Minoan (Patras to Ancona or to Venice) and ANEK (ditto).

Phoning the various agents in Patras, we learnt that for 2011 things have changed slightly. Superfast (generally the most expensive) still have Camping on Board between 1 April and 31 October and are offering reductions of 45% on early booking for vehicles up to 6m long (which doesn't help those of us in larger motorhomes). Minoan allow Camping on Board to Venice, but on their Ancona-bound ferries this is no longer possible – instead, they offer a free cabin to those travelling with a caravan, camper or motorhome. ANEK, on the other hand, still have Camping on Board to Ancona, but not to Venice – and they offer a free cabin, dinner and breakfast for campers etc taking this longer voyage. However, all this could be subject to change at any time! Check out the websites at: www.superfast.com , www.minoan.gr  and www.anek.gr .

In addition to all this, flexible pricing now applies on some of these ferry lines, as on cross-Channel ferries. It is no longer advisable just to turn up at the terminal and buy a ticket (this was our previous recommendation). Booking online is also not recommended nor is it always possible – use the telephone well in advance to discover the best offer and lowest fare for you and your motorhome. Use the website to see what special offers there may be and then get the phone number nearest to you. In Greece, we always ring the numbers in Patras.

When all this becomes too much for our patience, we consider again driving to or from Greece overland. Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia et al, all beckon. Have a look at our article: To Greece by Sea of by Land.