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Return to Greece Spring 2014 PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

RETURN TO GREECE - SPRING 2014

Margaret and Barry Williamson

Continued  from: In Sicily Winter 2013-14

Early in March 2014,  following 3 months in Sicily, we return briefly to mainland Italy, breaking our journey at Camping Onda Azzurra before taking the overnight ferry from Brindisi to Patras in the Greek Peloponnese, our favourite destination. After an absence of almost 2 years, it was a welcome return.

BRIEFLY IN MAINLAND ITALY – MARCH 2014

At Camping Onda Azzurra (=Blue Wave), Corigliano Calabro, Calabria

Open all year. http://www.onda-azzurra.it/. €11+metered elec (10 amps) at €0.35/kWh. (€7+elec for stay of 14 days plus.) Free showers and unreliable WiFi. N 39Ί42'16” E 16Ί31'32”

We settled on the same pitch we had on our way out in December, next to the same Dutch caravan and behind the same German motorhome. The site was still busy with long-stay, largely Teutonic residents, who complained how cold the winter had been. The area is rather depressing with a rubbish-strewn beach, stray dogs in the woods and prostitutes lining the main road, so we didn't enjoy the short walk we took. But we'd stopped here to break the journey, do the laundry and shopping, book a ferry and move on.

Ferry Booking to Greece - Our first task was to book a ferry to Greece, from either Brindisi or Bari. We found the choice at this time of year very limited. Superfast (who have merged with ANEK) from Bari, or Grimaldi (merged with Minoan Lines) from Brindisi, both offer only one overnight crossing a day. The lack of competition means higher fares and busier boats. In the past we would just turn up at Brindisi and compare the cost of rival companies: Endeavour, MyWay, MedLink, Agoudimos, Ventouris, Blue Star … those were the days, with Camping on Board (sleeping in motorhome, campervan or caravan) any time, weather permitting. This is no longer allowed between 1 November and 31 March. After checking timetables and prices on-line, we tried to book by phone but neither Grimaldi nor Superfast would accept telephone bookings, saying they can't handle the payment! It must be done either on-line or at a travel agency. To cut a long and frustrating story short, we finally booked our passage and a 2-berth cabin with Grimaldi: dep Brindisi at 8 pm, arr Patras next day at 12.30 pm (or 1.30 pm Greek time).

Camping Onda Azzurra to the Port of Brindisi, Costa Morena, Puglia - 131 miles

We left Onda Azzurra on a lovely calm sunny morning in mid-March, pleased that the weather forecast had been accurate. Driving north up the busy E90/SS106, the 2-lane road hugged the coast, past Trebisacce (with a Lidl sign) at 15 miles. Ten miles later it became a good dual carriageway, almost motorway standard with tunnels, occasionally interrupted by road works where improvements were not yet finished. Lunch was enjoyed in a layby with sea view.

At 80 miles the cranes of the port and naval base of Taranto (capital of Puglia) appeared. Three miles later we turned off onto E90/SS7 for Brindisi: a good dual carriageway that bypasses Francavilla and Mesagne, then continues arrow-straight following the line of the ancient Via Appia Antica that led to the Roman harbour of Brundisium. A Roman column in Brindisi still marks the end of this Appian Way.

With time in hand before the ferry, we turned off at 118 miles into the huge shopping mall in the Mesagne Zona Industriale, complete with vast free car park. In Auchan's sale, Margaret bought a pair of genuine warm-lined 'Crocs' for Barry. We also had a Mc-takeaway, followed by slices of strawberry gateau, before continuing for 7 miles to the outskirts of Brindisi. Then turn right at the sign for Porto and follow Grecia or Costa Morena or ship symbols for another 5 circuitous miles to the Grimaldi terminal.

Our 2-page computer printout, headed 'Ticket' and showing the Booking Reference, Ticket Number, several barcodes and full details, did not convince the check-in staff, who vaguely pointed backwards and told us to go to the Terminal. We turned round with difficulty and eventually found the building, disguised as a Bar, to be issued with acceptable tickets.

The good ship MV Catania carried mainly trucks, a few cars, a trio of French motorhomes and us. The only other passengers were a loud American High School group and their minders, bound for Delphi and Athens. We were directed to leave the caravan on the lower deck, with plenty of space but no electric hook-ups, meaning soft ice cream on arrival!

Our 2-berth inside23._Into_Patras_(12).JPG en-suite cabin was functional though stuffy (a constant 25°C), with no heating controls. At around 4 am we went up on deck to watch the moonlit arrival in Igoumenitsa near Greece's border with Albania. It was calm and inviting, with a warm breeze: welcome to Greece. Most of the lorries disembarked and disappeared up the well-lit motorway, bound for northern Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey or beyond. The French motorhomes also left, to park on the dark empty terminal to finish their night's sleep. We stayed on board to Patras (it's the same price). Unable to sleep again, we read until breakfast - any or all of fresh flaky croissants, rolls, butter and cherry jam, orange juice, yogurt and coffee, but nothing cooked.

GREECE – MARCH 2014

Arrival in Patras, Greek Peloponnese

After a smooth voyage between the Ionian Islands we reached Patras, arriving at the new port24._Into_Patras_(22).JPG at 1.30 pm Greek time (an hour ahead of Italy). Wonderful to stand on deck taking photos: the elegant Rio Bridge across the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth, St Andrew's (the largest Orthodox Cathedral in Greece) on the waterfront, and the snowy peak of Mt Panachaikon rising to 6,400 ft behind the city. It's almost 2 years since we were here and it felt like coming home.

See our pictures at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/ferry-into-patras.html 

We shared Oscar Wilde's emotion, in his 'Impression du Voyage':

"The sea was sapphire coloured, and the sky
Burned like a heated opal through the air;
We hoisted sail; the wind was blowing fair
For the blue lands that to the eastward lie.
From the steep prow I marked with quickening eye
Zakynthos, every olive grove and creek,
Ithaka's cliff, Lycaon's snowy peak
And all the flower-strewn hills of Arcady.
The flapping of the sail against the mast,
The ripple of the water on the side,
The ripple of girls' laughter at the stern
The only sounds - when 'gan the West to burn,
And a red sun upon the seas to ride.
I stood upon the soil of Greece at last!"

Patras to Ionion Beach Camping, Glyfa, Greece - 50 miles

Open all year. www.ionion-beach.gr.  ACSI Card €16 inc 16 amp elec, heated showers and 3 hrs free WiFi per day.  N37.83555 E21.13333

Once through 26._Into_Patras_(26).JPGcheck-out at Patras, we were able to stop on a secure guarded truck park to eat our lunch - so different from the old port that was plagued by illegal immigrants trying to stow away to Italy. Twice in the past we had people climbing under and on top of our motorhome – although we were actually arriving! With the highway link to the new port not yet finished, we had to drive 5 miles along the sea front to join the E55 (Athens-Pirgos). Then it was south for 50 miles to a favourite winter campsite, Ionion Beach at Glyfa near Gastouni - t27._Into_Patras_(32).JPGhe start of a new journey.

At the campsite entrance we were warmly welcomed by George Fligos, happily in charge on his tractor. We settled on our usual pitch by the sea, greeted regular Austrian winter residents, Hans & Inger, tuned in to the local TV and immediately felt at home. A full moon shone from a clear sky over the water; the lights of Zakynthos twinkled 10 miles off-shore. This is a special place.

See our pictures at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/around-ionion-beach.html 

Around Ionion Beach

Vartholomio – In Vartholomio (8 miles away) several shops had closed down, including the dry cleaners and one of the two small supermarkets. But the good butcher, the ironmongers with helpful German-speaking assistant, and the 'Alati & Piperi' (or 'Salz & Pfeffer')  restaurant are still in business. We had an excellent evening meal at the Salt & Pepper, enjoying tzatziki, feta and salad before tender beef in a tomato sauce, talking all the while to Michael, the owner, and his father about Greece, England, politics, food, customers … Dad is 'retired' but runs a gift shop in the village and helps out at the restaurant! 

Amaliada – Saturday is market day and Amaliada (15 miles south) was buzzing. We parked at CaIonion_Beach_(23).JPGrrefour on the way in, to walk the last mile into the busy town centre. We found CD and DVD disks at a new computer shop called Ink4All, run by a bright English-speaking lad. The Vodafone shop didn't have any 'dongles' on sale – just empty boxes! The good old 'Athens News' (weekly English-language paper) has disappeared, replaced by the thinner 'Athens Views' which we tried (that's €1.50 we won't waste again!) After the usual excellent chicken & chips at the Pikantika (its genial host now 83 years old), we drove back, calling at Lidl on the way home. Volunteers were collecting supplies for local food-banks and we donated some tins and biscuits. There is real poverty in the villages and much less traffic on the roads.

Cycling – The fine weather saw us out cycling the quiet lanes and hills around, aiming to regain some fitness after the winter in cycle-unfriendly Sicily.

Ionion_Beach_Area_Cycling_Map_3.jpg
Three Short but Steep Hill Climbs from Ionion Beach

1. To Arkoudi, Loutra Kyllinis and the Roman Baths, returning via Lygia (20 km): A Cycling_in_Greece_2014_(10).JPGshort circular Sunday morning ride with a light wind. Into Glyfa, along the lane past Camping Aginara (all but deserted) to the tiny resort of Arkoudi. Here we stopped for mugs of coffee with home-made biscuits at one of the two cafes overlooking the harbour: an unexpected treat! On to Loutra Kyllinis and a short detour into the woods. Returning we paused at the Roman thermal baths, then climbed the steep hill to Lygia, ending with the 3-km downhill swoop from the water tower to Glyfa.

2. Up to Lygia, Kastro and Chlemoutsi Castle, returning via Arkoudi (24 km): ACycling_in_Greece_2014_(15).JPG sunny afternoon ride with a climb to the castle. Started by climbing up to the water tower, then left at Lygia and right along the new link road, then left for Kastro. We rode the steep short track from the village up to Chlemoutsi Castle, a magnificently restored medieval landmark at 600 ft (180 m) with a superb view over the port of Kyllinis and the Ionian Islands. The castle is now fully open, with a small museum in two of the rooms (8 am–3 pm daily except Monday, entry €3, Seniors €2). Well worth a visit, but this was Monday and we have been before. The new kiosk has historical information in Greek and English – a fine job. Return down the zigzags of the old road, then past the Roman Baths and round via Arkoudi.

See our pictures at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/chlemoutsi-castle.html

3. Via Arkoudi to Kastro, returning via Lygia (23 km): A warm afternoon ride Ionion_Beach_(20).JPGreversing route 2. Out via Arkoudi and past the Roman Baths, to climb the Z-bends of the old road up to Kastro. Rewarded with a coffee, as all 3 cafes were open – yesterday at a similar time they were all closed. Greek logic!

Return down the gentler new road to Lygia and the exhilarating descent of some 500 ft (150 m) from the water tower to sea level.

See our pictures at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/cycling-in-greece.html

Glyfa to Camping Finikes, Finkounda - 122  miles

Open all year. www.finikescamping.gr.  Winter rate €12 inc 16 amp elec, private WC & shower, and free WiFi.  N 36.80283 E 21.78098

Towing the caravan, we reached the New National Road (E55) by turning left at Lygia, then right on the new link road, and right through Neohori. If heading south on E55 (as we were) this is about 5 miles longer than turning right at Lygia, but it avoids going through both Vartholomio and Gastouni. Much easier – and shorter if coming from or heading north.

It was a warm dry sunny morning and a splendid drive south, past Pirgos then through Zacharo and Kyparissia, where we had a break at Lidl after 73 miles. From Filiatra we prefer the coastal road rather than climbing inland via Gargaliani. The tiny harbour of Ag Kyriaki at 86 miles was a lovely quiet spot to park for lunch before continuing to Marathopoli, including a short and challenging diversion along a narrow lane between olive groves when our road was temporarily closed.

And so down to negotiate our way round the central square of Pylos at 111 miles - a port badly in need of bypass surgery! Along the familiar road past Methoni to Finikounda, we arrived at Camping Finikes at 4 pm for another warm welcome from Rod.

Cycling - This is a favourite base for cycling, with a hinterland of extremely quiet country lanes climbing inland on 7 serious hills. After a reportedly very wet winter, spring has arrived and conditions are perfect for riding.

Messinia_Cycling_Map_1.JPG
Based in Finikounda, these are our own Cycle Tracks plotted in mountainous Messinia

1. To Methoni, return via Finiki and Evangelismos (26 km): Began with the easiest route to Cycling_in_Greece_2014_(20).JPGMethoni, 10 km along the main road. On the way down the last of the 3 gentle hills, with its fine view of Methoni castle beyond the harbour, we turned down the steep narrow lane to the waterfront and rode in past the municipal campsite, signed 'New Methoni Camping'. Closed and overgrown, it looked just the same apart from the addition of the word 'New' to the signs! We bought cheese & spinach pies from the bakery, eaten sitting in the square outside the town hall where we were married. We returned on the main road over the first hill, then turned left to climb steeply inland to the tiny village of Finiki. A gentler climb then leads on to the next village, Evangelismos, from where it's a 4 km downhill race back to the campsite. The traffic on the main road was very light, on the back lanes non-existent.

2. To Koroni via Vasilitsi, return via Harokopio and Iamia (47 km): At the Spring Equinox (and warm as high summer in England) we cycled through Finikounda and east along the main road past Akritohori to a windsweptCycling_in_Greece_2014_(37).JPG col (a 13-km climb) before descending through tiny Vasilitsi and on to Koroni on the Messenian Gulf. Eating our sandwiches on the harbour wall below the Venetian castle, we looked across the water to the snowy peaks of Mt Taigetos hovering on the horizon. The little port with its waterfront tavernas was busy, as we enjoyed coffee and cakes at a favourite cafι there before climbing back up to the main road, past Camping Koroni (open but quiet). On to Harokopio, with its new free car park as well as a couple of cafes. Turn west here for a strenuous but beautifully quiet road, gradually climbing zigzags through olive groves and flowery meadows to Iamia. A curious 'black granny' closely observed us as we took a break in the village bus shelter by the church. Then it was downhill all the way, through Akritohori and along to Finikounda. Our longest and hardest ride so far this year, ending with well-earned home-made hamburgers followed by 'Game of Thrones' (currently on our way through Series 2).

3. To Kaplani via Grizokambos, return via Zizani and Lachanada (21 km): A shortIonion_Beach_(10).JPG hard morning ride through a quartet of tiny hamlets. Turning off the main road a mile or so east of Finikounda, we climbed steeply through Grizokambos and up to Kaplani (9 km), where we had coffee in the little taverna behind the church. Then briefly north through Zizani, followed by more climbing before the descent through Lachanada into Finikounda. The verges and fields are now a riot of wild flowers, the orchards and gardens scented with orange blossom – wonderful to sense the arrival of spring on these hillsides.

4. To Finikounda and Loutsa Beach (12 km): The sea was stormy after a windy night, though the weather remained warm and dry.  We extended a short ride to tOn_the_Road[1].jpghe local shops in Finikounda (3 km) by continuing along the waterfront, up past the school, down to the main road and along to Loutsa Beach and Camping (closed). Return along the main road, with a short detour past Camping Anemomilos (= Windmill) and Camping Thines (= Dunes). The lane was indeed wind and sand blown, with sea-spray coming over. Both sites are open, with a few campers on Thines.

5. To Evangelismos, return via Finiki (16 km): A short ride on a warm windy afternoon. Began with the steep climb from the campsite through Kamaria to Evangelismos (5 km). Then west climbing gradually past the olive mill before turning south to drop down through Finiki to the main road and along to our base. No cafes, but the bus shelter in Finiki is good for a break.

APRIL 2014 – Camping Finikes, Finikounda

As March ends and the clocks are put forward an hour, the days lengthen in the southern Peloponnese, the weather warms up and Greece prepares for Easter.

More Cycling

6. To Militsa via Evangelismos, Kalithea and Ambelokipi, return via ZizaniCycling_in_Greece_2014_(38).JPG and Kaplani (40 km): A hard day's ride with several prolonged climbs requiring low gears. Began with the steep climb from the campsite through Kamaria to Evangelismos (5 km), where we took a break on the seats thoughtfully left outside the closed Taverna. We were soon chatting to the owner's father, who happened to pass. He speaks German, having worked at BMW in Munich for several years, and we learnt that the popular little Taverna (where we have eaten well in the past) is due to re-open at the end of April. Riding north through Perivolakia, our next break was in the shade of the old oaks in the church courtyard there. Up and down to Homatada, then a stiff climb northeast to the larger village of Kalithea (= beautiful view) at 14 km, where we rested over excellent mugs of coffee on the terrace of the shop/cafι.

The lovely lonelyCycling_in_Greece_2014_(30).JPG road linking Kalithea to Ambelokipi is a 6-km climb, with just a church garden and a bus stop at Kato (= Lower) Ambelokipi for a break. Greek bus stops usually offer a good seat with shelter from sun, wind or rain. A nice touch in this one is a wall clock in memory of a local grandmother! From the crossroads at Ambelokipi, it's mostly downhill south to Militsa, where we were more than ready for our sandwiches, sitting in the playground by the long-closed village school. Continue south, downhill then up to Exochiko, another all-but-abandoned hamlet, the few remaining residents subsisting alongside their chickens, goats and donkeys. Oranges, lemons, olives, vines, spring flowers – it all looks idyllic from a distance but times are hard for these old folk. South through Zizani to Kaplani, then the steep descent through Grizokambos and back along the main road to Finikounda. Reached the campsite at 4 pm, for a welcome pot of tea after a strenuous circuit.

7. To Iamia via Akritohori, return via Kaplani and Grizokambos (22 km): A short IMG_2936.JPGsharp morning ride, east on the main road, then a short climb to Akritohori, where we had a break sitting by the spring across from the cafι. Then more climbing to Iamia, one of the highest inland villages at almost 1,000 ft, with a favourite bus shelter at the top. Return on the lane twisting north to Kaplani, where we'd intended to stop at the cafι behind the church. However, dark clouds threatened so we dropped rapidly down to Grizokambos and home, just as it began to rain.

8. To Militsa via Lachanada and Exochiko, return via Ambelokipi, Kalithea and Evangelismos (38 km): AnotherCycling_in_Greece_2014_(33).JPG hard day's ride, much of it reversing ride number 6 above. Started with the extremely steep ascent from Finikounda through Lachanada village, then onwards and upwards to a breathless hilltop before descending to meet the road from Zizani. North to Exochiko (a village so poor that we couldn't even find a church to rest by) and on to Militsa, a protracted climb. Again we ate our packed lunch in the shelter on the old school playground , disturbed only by the loudspeaker of a van selling plants, flowers and bags of charcoal (ready for the Easter kid/lamb roasts), though there were no customers here. Continue north to Ambelokipi, from where it was mainly downhill to Kalithea, with its favourite cafι and a few cars – the first we'd seen since Lachanada. These hill roads are empty, apart from an occasional tractor or farm vehicle. Poorly maintained, pot-holed, but our access to magnificent scenery with sea and mountain views and colourful wild flowers. Refreshed with mugs of coffee and glasses of local spring water, we finished the ride, mostly downhill now, via Homatada and Evangelismos. 

See our pictures at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/cycling-in-greece.html

And: http://www.magbazpictures.com/around-finikounda.html

Out and About from Finikounda

Walking Aris the Campsite Guard Dog: Our regular hour's walk is when Aris(totle), the largIMG_4956.JPGe but gentle campsite dog, takes us along the shore towards Finikounda, then back through the sand dunes. A deep rivulet cuts across the beach just before Camping Thines, ideal for a doggy paddle and drink. This stream, normally dried up by April, shows how wet the past winter has been. Now 12 years old, Aris is still keen to lead us out and somewhat reluctant to return to guard duty.

Visiting Methoni Castle: The picturesque Venetian castle at Metho10._Methoni_Castle.JPGni (10 km away) has a car park and is freely open every day from 8 am-3 pm (except, we discovered, Easter Sunday!) The Venetians built on the site of an earlier fort, leaving an extensive defended settlement later used by Ottomans, then Greeks. At the time of our visit, with Rod's friend Peter (aka 'Bunny'), the interior was a riot of wild flowers and butterflies. We walked across the short causeway to the Bourtzi, once a prison tower, marvelling at the clarity of the sea with shoals of small fish.  Later we walked the coastal footpath north from the castle past the coastguard station for about half an hour, until it ended abruptly at a private building.

Climbing up to the Paleokastro (Old Castle), Navarino: We drove north to Pylos, parked on thPylos_Old_Castle_(28).JPGe harbour to shop for picnic pies, then on through Gialova and left on the lane along the top of Navarino Bay. This leads past Camping Erodios (= Heron), which is closed in winter, to the Voidokilia wetland lagoon, eventually ending in a parking area at the start of a footpath up to the Old Castle. A sign warned 'Castle closed due to extreme danger' but the path was open. We ate our pies, donned our boots and climbed up the flowery track. Reaching the vast crumbling castle, the main entrance archway was open but clearly in danger of collapse. The interior was very overgrown, the walls only accessible to a herd of goats sleeping along the top of them! It had certainly deteriorated since we last came, several years ago, but is still worth the climb for the fantastic view over Navarino Bay and out to sea beyond. It took about one hour return from the car park.

The castle was built by the Franks around 1280, fell to the Venetians and then to thePylos_Old_Castle_(37).JPG Ottomans c 1500. It was abandoned when the Ottomans built the better preserved New Castle, on the opposite side of Navarino Bay at Pylos, in1572.

As we drove back along the lane to Gialova, we parked by a sign pointing along a short path to a bird hide on the side of Voidokilia (= Cattle Valley) lagoon. We were impressed that a Greek bird-watching society had erected the wooden hide, complete with bird identification poster, but it was too late in the year to see the overwintering flamingo, or much else except for a few egret and a heron.

See our pictures at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/pylos-old-castle.html

Exploring Ancient Messini (which is 72 km/45 miles from Finikounda)

The extensiveMessini_(43).JPG ruins of Ancient Messini (various spellings, also known as Ancient Ithome) lie scattered across a fertile valley below the tiny village of Mavromati, tucked beneath Mount Ithome 25 km northwest of Kalamata. From Finikounda, we took the scenic drive via Iamia to Harokopio, then up the coast to Petalidi, where it's easy to park by the harbour (even overnight) unless it's Friday market day. On through the modern town of Messini where we turned north at the large roundabout (with Carrefour and Lidl supermarkets on each side) signed for Meligalas. Turn off left at the brown sign for Ancient Messini about 15 km after the roundabout and follow the twisting road that climbs through the village of Arsenoi to Mavromati.

We remembered Ancient Messini as a remote and barely accessible site, freely open toMessini_(17).JPG the rare visitor who managed to park in the tiny village and walk down the track. We first came here by motorbike many years ago and subsequently visited during a cycle tour when we spent a night in a simple room in the village, collecting the key from the only taverna. On our approach this morning, we met at least ten huge tourist coaches descending the narrow road from Mavromati. They could only be coming from the ancient site – but where had they parked?

Arriving in theMessini_(62).JPG village we discovered that a new access road led down from the small museum to a large free car park at the site entrance, where two coach-loads of high school children were just leaving! There is now a ticket office, cafι, toilets, information boards and leaflets in Greek and English - all very impressive. The site is open daily from 8 am to 8 pm, entry €4 (€2 for over-65s), or slightly more if you include the museum which closes at 4 pm.

After a picnic in the car park we spent a good 2 hours raMessini_(54).JPGmbling round the substantial remains of this once mighty city, founded as the capital of the independent state of Messenia by the Theban general Epameinondas in 369 BC. Its sanctuaries, temples, public buildings, houses, funerary monuments, theatre, stadium and gymnasium were still of political and cultural importance in Roman times and were never destroyed or built over, leaving the site open for continuing excavation and restoration.  

The city was forMessini_(77).JPGtified by massive stone walls and battlements high on the bare slopes of Mount Ithome, with square towers protecting the Laconian Gate to the east and Arcadian Gate to the west. The acropolis on the summit of Mt Ithome had separate walls to defend the sanctuary of Zeus Ithomatas, near the abandoned Monastery of Voulcano. Before leaving we drove up to the massive remains of the doubly defended Arcadian Gate, 1,000 ft above sea level, where a strong westerly wind blew. The rough road through this gate had been our onward cycle route to Meligalas.

See our pictures at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/ancient-messini.html

Driving back, we naturally stopped to shop in Messini, the site of the nearest Lidl to Finikounda, though some 30 miles away. This was a good chance to prepare for Easter, with chocolate rabbits and other treats!

Food, Shopping and Cooking

Finikounda village has basic shops, with 2 butchers, a pharmacy and a couple of small supermarkets (the best being the one behind the church, even stocking Heinz peas, beanz and soup – albeit at over €2 a tin!) There is an ATM outside the newsagent, which also sells stamps, though the shop had closed for the winter until early April. Methoni (10 km) has the nearest post office and banks, as well as a small Carrefour. You can buy bread locally but we much prefer to bake our own, as brown loaves are hard to find – and the white loaves are just hard! There are no local produce markets, the nearest being Petalidi (Friday morning) or Pylos (Saturday morning).

Around the site we picked oregano, rosemary and thyme, as well as lemons for lemon curd, lemonade and much else. (see Margaret's Lemon Drops) The campsite owners, Spiros and Giotta, kindly gave us a bag of super-sweet juicy oranges from the family orchards, some of which Margaret used to make marmalade to supplement our stock made in Pompei and Sicily – enough to last the year! We bought fresh eggs laid by the camp's own hens, as well as oil from the family olive groves.11._Hot_Cross_Buns.JPG

The first weekend of April we invited Rod in for a belated Christmas dinner – roast turkey breast with carrots, cauliflower, roast spuds, apple sauce, stuffing and gravy, home-made Xmas pudding and custard, followed by an exchange of good books and films.

Other highlights among Margaret's baking were a Black Forest Gateau made for her birthday, and a batch of hot cross buns for Easter. They were a first (mixed in the bread-maker, baked in our gas oven) and turned out very well.

Dining Out

There are several tavernas in Finikounda and Methoni with good Greek cuisine. Don't expect a menu (or a dessert, or coffee) but there will be a choice of salads, starters and meat or fish main courses. The owner usually speaks enough English to explain what is on offer that day. Local wine (white, red or rose) is sold by the half-kilo or kilo jug (rather than half or one litre). For loud live music, go to the Elena Restaurant (Finikounda's most expensive) on a Saturday night – the one we choose to avoid!

Taverna Andreas, Methoni – A tiny taverna on the main street near the bank (look for the sign of the cockerel). It was empty when we arrived with Rod but by 7 pm the tables were filling up, locals and ex-pats alike appreciating tender meat and hearty portions. We feasted on Greek salad, saganaki (beautifully cooked cheese, melting inside and crusty on top) and courgette fritters, before a main course of pork or beef with piping hot chips. It's two years since we ate in Greece and this was an excellent start!

'To Kastro' (= The Castle) Taverna - Another good choice in Methoni is the friendly taverna on a corner opposite the castle car park. The owner speaks English and his wife cooks excellent meat, sometimes including rabbit stew. We had a salad made with their own tomatoes, olives and oil, followed by a generous pork chop from the grill and a tender chicken fillet, finishing with fresh fruits.

'To Karavi' (= The Ship), Finikounda – One of a row of tavernas along the main street of the village, each with outside seating overlooking beach and harbour as well as an ind12._Greek_Mother.JPGoor restaurant. It's a friendly family-run place, advertising 'taste and quality for four generations' and 'a Greek mother cooked in the traditional way'! Here we celebrated Margaret's birthday, along with Rod. Our host, Takis, has taken over since his father died last year. Mother is in charge of the kitchen, while his sister served us. The food was excellent, starting with the usual Greek salad and feta, followed by a choice of Stifado or fresh fish, accompanied by Briam (a piping hot dish of mixed fresh vegetables). We all chose Stifado – tender pieces of steak cooked long and slow with baby onions in a tomato sauce and hot chips.

A second jug of wine and glasses of ouzo were brought 'on the house' and Takis talked at length in good English about the financial situation, speaking wistfully of the days when the English came to Finikounda in droves, filling the tavernas every night, before the Kosmar package holiday company folded  (we remember it well). He added that Germans are now the only people in Europe with money to spare and the politicians should encourage tourist income rather than taking loans that can never be repaid. It was a memorable end to a birthday that had started with a walk through meadows and olive groves up to the village graveyard, where we saw our first tortoise of the year emerging from hibernation to munch on the clover.

Dionysos, Finikounda – The last restaurant before the harbour (closed Monday and Tuesday in winter) had a blazing log fire that tempted us inside one chilly Friday evening after walking into the village. The saganaki (grilled cheese) starter was the worst we've eaten, like fried chewing gum, followed by tasty chicken roulade with cold limp chips. The food had obviously been cooked much earlier in the day at the bar across the road, then reheated for the 6 pm opening. Unusually, a dessert of small syrupy donuts appeared 'on the house' just as we were leaving, but it didn't make up for the disappointing meal. The wind had dropped and we strolled back under a black sky studded with blazing stars (no light pollution here), listening to a chorus of frogs in the roadside ponds.

Poste Restante

During the winter months any mail for the Finikounda is left at the main supermarket, about 3 km away (we guess that Greeks don't write many letters). Post for our campsite is passed to Ilias, who runs a bar in the village, for collection by Spiros, who brings it back. This method actually worked for us, receiving 2 packets of post from the UK!

We had more fun with orders from Amazon, delivered to the campsite by DHL courier and needing a signature. A box of water filters made it here from England, handed to Rod as we were out cycling. A replacement Kindle proved much more elusive, since Amazon UK couldn't supply that to Greece, though a few other EU countries were allowed.

After some debate, on-line and on the phone, we were advised to order from13._DHL_Summary.JPG Amazon International in the US, at a considerably higher price that included import duty. Five days after placing the order an email came from DHL in Greek, which seemed to be about VAT and customs duties! Replying that we didn't understand, the next email (in English) included a form to be printed, completed, scanned and emailed back to DHL. This we did, declaring that the item was for personal use and duty had been paid. Tracking the delivery on-line, we anxiously watched the progress of our new Kindle as it was released from Customs in Athens. It finally arrived at the campsite 13 days after ordering. One last problem: the driver remembered handing the previous package to Rod and took some persuading to leave it with Margaret, though he didn't ask for any ID on either occasion!

Gas Refill in Kalamata

Motorhomers or caravanners with refillable gas bottles or fixed LPG tanks no longer have a problem in Greece, since many petrol stations now offer an 'autogas' pump.

Exchangeable bottles, such as our British Calorgas one, can only be refilled at a limited number of places. The nearest to Finikounda is 45 miles away in Kalamata: a Petrogaz depot on the shore to the west of the port. We duly drove there with two bottles (one for a friend) and joined a couple of German campervans on the same mission. It took less than 30 minutes to have the bottles filled, wait for the cashier to return from his break and pay just €8 per 6 kg bottle!

To find the depot coming from Messini towards Kalamata, pass the airport on the left, go straight on at the next roundabout (not left for the new motorway), then take the next right turn (a narrow road confusingly signed 'Roma Camp') over the railway. On meeting the minor coast road, turn left towards Kalamata and look out for the Petrogaz depot further along on the left. There is plenty of parking space inside the gates.

Returning the same way, we stopped to shop at Messini, where Lidl and Carrefour are easily accessible.

New Life in Mistraki

Mistraki is a tiny 14._Nicos.jpgvillage at the end of a hillside road, less than 10 miles inland from Finikounda. In June 2011 the few inhabitants were mourning the loss of Nikos Kyriopoulos, a man we knew and loved. (See 'Death of a Greek Gentle Man') When we last visited Nikos' widow, Fortini, 2 years ago it was a delight to meet Helen - a lovely young Nigerian woman who had married Fortini and Nikos' son and moved into their homely cottage. Speaking English, as well as15._Nicos.jpg Greek, Helen was able to interpret for Fortini and they were both pleased to see us.

On our latest visit to Mistraki, Helen gave us a very warm welcome and proudly presented baby Nikos, named after his grandfather! A delightful little boy, smiling and happy, born in January 2014. We called in 3 times, taking a teddy bear as well as books and DVD's and leaving with happy memories and photographs, which we printed and returned. It was a real joy to see new life in the village, while also walking to the cemetery to pay our respects at the beautifully tended grave of Nikos Senior.

MAY 2014

May Day

There are16._May_Day.JPG colourful wreaths on many of the houses around Finikounda, including our campsite Reception. They appeared on the first of May – Protomagia – when Greece celebrates the Spring in a Festival of Flowers, a public holiday with all shops closed.

Greek women make beautiful May Day wreath16a._Rod_at_his_Bonfire.JPGs of wild flowers to hang on the door of their home, traditionally leaving them there until St John's Day (24 June), when the dry wreaths were once burnt on midsummer bonfires. The custom of jumping over their embers is still observed in some of the Greek islands, though bonfires are officially banned after the end of April because of the fire risk. Camping Finikes staff observed this rule by having a beach bonfire of tree prunings during the final week of April, though no-one tried jumping over the 20 ft (6 m) flames!


Yet  More Cycling Routes from Camping Finikes, Finikounda

To Mistraki via Grizokambos and Kaplani, return via Iamia and Kaplani (32 km) – An afternoon visit to deliver prints of photographs to our friends in Mistraki (see above) was combined with a strenuous detour on a rough track climbing to Iamia.

A mile or so east of Finikounda, we left the main road to climb sharply through Gri17._Taigetos_Summit.JPGzokambos and up to Kaplani (9 km) where the little new taverna behind the church was open for coffee, though we didn't stop.  Continue northeast towards Harokopio, turning left after 2.5 km at the sign 'Mistraki: Traditional Village'. The village of stone houses lies at the end of the road after another 2.5 km, mostly uphill through olive groves. Its landmarks are a water tower next to the well tended church and cemetery, with a wonderful view of the Taigetos peaks seeming to float in the sky across the Gulf of Messina.

After our visit, ignoring a few drops of rain that quickly passed, we dropped back to the main road and continued 1 km towards Harokopio. At the crest of the first rise there is a roughly shod track on the right (unsigned), which winds its way past a small church then climbs through rocky countryside to the village of Iamia. It is little used: we saw one tractor, one goat-herder + dog, and one tortoise as we rode, and sometimes walked, the steep rugged path of gravel and stones for 5 km. It finally emerged at the back of Iamia village, 1,000 ft/303 m above sea level, where we had a break in our favourite bus shelter by the church. From here, we descended towards Akritohori but soon turned right on a minor (but sealed) road that took us to Kaplani, ready to retrace our outward route from Finikounda. The descent from Kaplani to Grizokambos was exhilarating, requiring good brakes, skilled balance and a knowledge of the potholes! 

Short ride (or walk) to the Chapel of Prophet Ilias and back (8 km) – We cycled along the main road towards Methoni. After about 2 km, at the top of the second hill (before it d20._Prophet_Ilias_Chapel.JPGrops to Lambes Beach) a dirt road turns left, marked by a model of a church on the corner. Follow this lane up and down through the maquis to the tip of the Koulouras peninsula, where the little chapel dedicated to the Prophet Ilias (or Elijah) offers shade and seats, inside or out, with a wonderful view over the sea and beach below. The 4WD track is fine for cycling in dry weather and also makes a good walk - there is really nowhere to park on the main road before the turn. We had the place to ourselves, lit a candle and enjoyed the peace. It would be a different matter on 20 July, the feast day of Prophet Elias, popular for pilgrimages to the high places associated with this saint in Greece.

 See our pictures at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/chapel-of-prophet-ilias.html

The Paleochristian Rock Tombs of Holy Onoufrios, near Methoni

During our r24._Catacombs.JPGecent stay in Sicily we discovered several early Christian catacombs (rock tombs) but had never seen any in Greece. Then we read that near Methoni there is a catacomb with almost 50 graves carved into the soft rock of the Podarina hillside. This site, dating from the 4th-5th centuries AD, was used by ascetics into Byzantine times and is named after the ascetic monk, St Onoufrios. With some rather vague directions, we set out to find it.

From Methoni's football field/athletics centre, turn right along the main road towards Pylos22._Catacombs.JPG. After about 900 m there is a small stone-built chapel on the left, where there is room to park (or leave locked bicycles behind the church). We then followed the unpaved path uphill, past a concrete water cistern on the left. The view across the green of the olive groves down to the blue of the bay at Methoni was itself worth the effort. Shortly after the cistern, the path turned into a narrow goat track through the maquis – a riot of flowers, with the scent of crushed thyme and other herbs beneath our feet.

Further along the track, so21._Catacombs.JPGme rough stone steps led up to a wire mesh fence in front of the tombs, apparently blocking access. However, we turned left along the fence to the end, where there was a gap to slip through! There are no signs and the path seems little used. Watch out for snakes! The roughly hewn limestone chambers have weathered but the tombs survive. It was about a 20-minute 23._Catacombs.JPGwalk from the little chapel, needing sturdy shoes and reasonable fitness for a lovely excursion.

Checking out St Onoufrios later, we found that he was an early ascetic monk who led a particularly hard life living in caves on Crete. Icons depict him wearing nothing but a loincloth of leaves and a straggly white beard down to his feet – which explains the image of an hairy man that had puzzled us inside the small chapel!


See our pictures at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/onoufrios-catacombs.html

Farewell to Aris

On the second of May26._Aris.JPG we took Aris, our old friend the gentle campsite guard dog, on what was to be his last walk. Luckily, none of us knew that. At the end of a long rope, he splashed in the sea, dug in the sand and picked up every scent along his favourite trail.

Shopping in Methoni a few days later we bought him a new 25._Aris.JPGcollar of smart red leather, along with a couple more packets of 'dog treats'. But back at the campsite we found his kennel empty, the old collar on the ground still attached to his chain, and feared he had escaped. No, we soon learnt that he had simply died peacefully that very morning and Spiros, the campsite owner, had given him a quiet burial.

Aris was variously described as 12 or 14 years of age and had outlived his sister, Irma, who used to stand guard with him. They were a boisterous handful to walk when younger but both of them had a lovely nature – the only dogs that Margaret (a cat-lover) ever liked! We left the new collar as a present for a replacement dog but it cannot be the same. We already miss the old lad.

See our pictures at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/the-last-walk-of-aris.html

Barry's Birthday Ride

We celebrated Barry's birthday with a circular cycle ride from Soulinari (a small town on the Pylos-Kalamata road, at a height of 1,155 ft/350 m, 24 miles from Camping Finikes in Finikounda). We drove via Pylos, pausing there to buy lovely warm cheese & spinach pies for a picnic lunch in Soulinari.  Leaving the van parked there, we rode quiet back roads linking tiny hamlets in a strenuous anticlockwise route that was rarely level across the grain of the land and several ravines. It was a perfect sunny day, with no wind.

Soulinari to Aristomenis via Xatzis and Pelekanada (25 km) – From Soulinari it was 2.5 km north to Velanidia, where we turned right through wooded hills and olive groves to Xatzis. Onward and upward, we wound our way through Kourtaki, Drosia, Pelekanada and on to the larger village of Aristomenis, complete with 3 cafes and a couple of shops. We'd ridden 25 km, had climbed many hundreds of feet and were more than ready to sit outside the cafι next to the church, with mugs of coffee, glasses of chilled water, and chunks of Margaret's fruit cake. (One of the civilised things about Greek cafes is that you can buy a drink and eat whatever you've brought along, since they rarely serve food and would not turn any customer away.)

Return to Soulinari via Vlachopoulo and Kremydia (35 km) - Refreshed, we tackled the hill out of Aristomeni, southwest to Milioti (at 1,650 ft or 500 m) and Touloura Hani. From here a broader road took us south to Vlachopoulo, as thunder rumbled over the further hills. We eventually found the lane to Papoulia. On via more hamlets - Glyfada and Kremydia – until we reached Velanidia and repeated the initial 2.5 km back to Soulinari.

These are all humble rural settlements, surrounded by olive groves, vines, lemon trees, goats and chickens. The roads are so quiet that snakes bask on the potholed surface and we saw several, alive and dead. The cottages may look cosy but the poverty is evident, for example in broken-down furniture still in use, inside and outside, until it falls apart into firewood. Signposts are few and a good map is essential – we used the 'Road' series, number 538, Messinia (scale 1 cm=1.4 km), the best we know. 

Post- Birthday Breakfast

Next morning we cycled into Finikounda (3 km each way) to enjoy a 'Full English Breakfast', as advertised all week on a blackboard outside the Medusa Cafι. It promised “Fresh Juice, Croissant, Coffee, Bacon & Egg, Toast & Marmalade” - all for €6. It seemed too good to be true and so it was. The board still stood at the door but it was firmly locked at 9.45 am on a Saturday morning. Being Greece, there was naturally no indication of when, or if, the place would open.

We resigned ourselves to a late breakfast of porridge and bananas back in the caravan before preparing to move on the next day to Gythion. In the evening we had a farewell meal of roast chicken at 'To Karavi', our favourite taverna in Finikounda.

Finikounda to Camping Gythion Bay, Gythion – 106 miles

Open all year. www.gythiocamping.gr. ACSI rate €16 inc 16 amp elec and showers. Free WiFi in the common room and pool area only.  N 36.72913 E 22.54519

On a warm sunny day we left Camping Finikes after almost 2 months, our comfortable spring hibernation over. We set out via Pylos, thankfully quiet round the central square on a Sunday morning (not a route to take with a caravan/motorhome on Saturday which is market day, when the place is heaving and double-parked, even outside the police station!) The Pylos-Kalamata road twists and climbs, reaching over 1,000 ft after 21 miles at Soulinari (the base for Barry's recent Birthday Ride). Then more gradually down for 9 miles to Rizomilos, where it joins the coastal road from Petalidi. (The coastal route to this point is only one mile shorter from Finikounda and more awkward for large vehicles in places – especially on Fridays, Petalidi's market day!)

On through Messini, past Lidl (closed on Sundays) and Kalamata Airport, then turn right (left is for Sparta) at 40 miles in Kalamata itself. To avoid the port, follow signs for 'Mani, Areopoli' which lead along a road parallel to the busy sea front, joining it after 5 miles. Pass Camping Faro on the left (sadly, a tiny site with awkward access), then turn right for Areopoli at 46 miles.

Now begins the first of three serious ascents along the beautiful Messinian Gulf Road – 60 slow and dramatic miles to Gythion. We have travelled this route several times, including twice during circular cycle tours of the Peloponnese, and it continues to impress. In the first 7 miles out of Kalamata the quiet road climbs away from the coast, twisting up to 925 ft/280 m, then dropping down to a bridge spanning a gorge at 660 ft/200 m. Up again through Kambos, a busy little village with a ruined tower and quaint old church; still climbing to Stavropigi (1,120 ft/340 m) and on to the view point at 60 miles. The sea lay clear and blue 1,435 ft/435 m below on our right, while the snow-streaked Taigetos Mountains reared up on the left.

A 5-mile serpentine descent, past Prosilio village, zigzagged to sea level in picturesque Kardamili. Sadly, there was nowhere to pause along the narrow road through the village and we drove on past Stoupa at 70 miles, a small resort that has spawned hillsides of new concrete 'holiday homes' and pseudo stone tower-houses to blight the landscape of the Outer Mani. After Ag Nikolaos, a mile later, the road climbs again through a series of tiny hamlets, each with a lovely little old church, some ruined, some restored. First is Pigi at 725 ft/220 m, then Platsa at 1,120 ft/340 m, Nomitsi at 1,485 ft/450 m, culminating in Thalames at 1,515 ft/460 m. Thalames at 78 miles has a cafι, springs, seating under a shady plane tree, a small private Mani Museum and a man selling mountain herbs and honey – but the only possible parking space for us was already taken.

The road continues for a mile to Langada (1,390 ft/421 m), a village with a beautiful old church and a cafι or two, though again no chance of parking anything but a small car. Then a steady descent, down through the narrow stone-walled village of Ag Nikon (1,190 ft/360 m ), across the border from Messinia into Lakonia at 84 miles (1,100 ft/333 m), with a grand view of the extensive walls of Kelefa Castle at Itilo on the left 3 miles later, at 595 ft/180 m.

After a 90-mile journey we parked on the waterfront at the tiny sleepy fishing port of Neo Itilo and took a short walk by the shore. The Black Pirate fish taverna was open for Sunday lunch, with octopus tentacles hanging on a line outside and lobsters skulking at the bottom of a stone trough, filled with sea water. We were content with a sardine sandwich, opening all the caravan windows to catch a sea breeze as it was 30 deg C inside.

The final climb of the day was up to Areopoli, gaining 860 ft/260 m in under 4 miles. This little town is the capital of the Mani, its character not yet spoilt by tourism – and there is a large area where you can freely park as you turn to join the main road which heads east. This road climbs for another 3 miles to 1,085 ft/329 m, then gradually descends to the coast just before Gythion.

There are 3 campsites on the old road along the shore on the right, 2 or 3 miles before Gythion. The second one, Gythion Bay, is the only one offering ACSI Card rates and is probably the best – though that's saying very little! Driving in along the access lane overhung by unpruned olive trees was an obstacle course, with low branches a great hazard to anything bigger than a car and tent. Complaints fell on deaf ears, the owner regarding it as an olive grove/orange orchard rather than a campsite. To make matters worse, a French convoy  had taken all the more accessible places (how sad to need to enter Greece in convoy – we thought that was the prerogative of the Germans in 1941).  An new EU-funded ornamental 'swimming pool' now occupies what little open space there once was, displacing the former games area and the sea-front pitches where larger outfits used to park! We squeezed our caravan over a kerb and under the trees with difficulty and minimised driving in and out, not wishing to dent the VW on the ever-encroaching olive branches.

At Gythion

We found the WiFi (only in the common room/pool area) very intermittent and the beach unpleasantly gritty. During our 4-day stay we saw no-one use the pool, which is not really deep enough for swimming. It is surrounded by lush green lawns, while campers have a lumpy field of uncut weeds under low trees. A French camper who complained about his pitch was told that all the grass is cut every week: an obvious lie. The new toilets and showers are an improvement (anything would be) but do not make up for the unkempt state of the site.

The campsite restaurant only opened on one evening, supplying the French convoy with overpriced moussaka and Greek salad, so we didn't join them.

The port of Gythion is only 3 miles away, though the route is along a busy road over a low headland. We wandered round the town and out to the lighthouse (not open to the public) and found that the seasonal ferry to Crete (Kissamos) that we once took still runs weekly, on Wednesday afternoons.

The weather was extremely windy throughout our stay (there is a windsurfing school adjacent), so at least the laundry dried quickly and there was no shortage of trees to fix a series of short lines!

A Hard Cycle Ride in the Mani

Two years ago we had a circular ride from this campsite on Margaret's birthday, via Areopoli and Kotronas, returning absolutely soaked through. We shall never forget it (nor the meal Viv and Al had ready for us)! To vary the route a little, we now decided to drive 12 miles, park in Areopoli (at 860 ft/260 m) and cycle a circuit from there. With a good weather forecast ('dry, light winds') we packed a lunch and set out. 'Dry' proved to be true but the wind soon gathered into a formidable handicap. All the lanes were very quiet and sealed, though none were level.

Areopoli to Kotronas via Chimara (16 km) – South from Areopoli on the main road that circuits the Mani, turning 27._Drosopigi_Ride.JPGoff left after 2 km to leave any tourist traffic behind as we climbed to the tiny villages of Pirichos and Chimara. Then a steep drop down and down to the coast at Kotronas on the east side of the narrow Mani peninsula. We ate our picnic by the little harbour, watched over by the statue of a proud sea captain (1882-1960): a splendid figure with Balkan moustache, cloak and boots, a rifle slung over his shoulder and binoculars round his neck. After coffees from the small taverna we felt good to go, though the wind was getting stronger.

Kotronas to Areopoli via Drosopigi (28 km) – On round the headland, climbing th28._Drosopigi_Ride.JPGe empty coast road above Skoutari Bay: fantastic sea views, blue on blue, bypassing Skoutari on a scarcely used new road. Rather than continuing to meet the Gythion road (as previously), we turned off left signed Parasyros. The relentlessly steep lane bypassed that village, as we climbed and climbed and sometimes walked, pushing into a gathering head wind that had definitely not been forecast! This route cut over the hilltops to Drosopigi, which at 1,390 ft/420 m is over 500 ft higher than Areopoli. One or two of its houses had been restored, including a taverna (closed). The ruins of the little shop/post office were poignant, with a black & white calendar for 1956 still hanging on the crumbling wall. At last we had a steep descent, through Vachos, to join the main road from Gythion at 39 km, for one last climb along to Areopoli and our waiting van. The total ride of 44 km and about 2,500 ft of climbing had taken over 6 hours, a good measure of how strenuous the day was.

See our pictures at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/areopoli-cycle-ride.html

Gythion to Camping Castle View, Mistras, Sparta – 31 miles (alt 915 ft/278 m)

Open 1 April-20 Oct. www.castleview.gr. €23 inc 16 amp elec and showers. Free WiFi by restaurant only (hardly working). N 37.06941 E 22.38163

It was a relief to extract the caravan from Gythion Bay Camping unscathed, running the gauntlet of olive branches. The Receptionist 'noted our complaint'. We turned west towards Areopoli, then onto the new Gythion bypass at Marathea, which took us north on the main road that gently climbs to Sparta. There is a Lidl store on the left after about 24 miles.

The centre of Sparta is a grid pattern of narrow streets and right angle turns, with parked cars on all sides. Both the campsites are west of the city, near the medieval site of Mistras. The easiest route is to turn left by a Shell station (signed 'Mistras, Kalamata') just before the city centre and follow 'Mistras'.

We passed the first c46._Castle_View.JPGampsite, Paleologio, on the left behind its petrol station and continued another mile to Castle View on the right. This site does indeed have a magnificent view of the pinnacle fortress, below which the ruins of Mistras tumble down the hillside. The French convoy we'd encountered at Gythion Bay Camp had just left!

The owner, who had quoted €23 a night on the telephone and assured us he had “WiFi, yes, it is free” was temporarily absent, so we settled into a corner of the almost empty site. On his return he looked at our caravan/van combination and decided he should charge €27, though we only occupied one pitch! After protracted argument and threats to leave, he gradually came down to €23, with ill humour, insisting it was 'normal' to charge extra for such as us. Who might that be?

The site is in a small orange/olive grove but at least the trees are trimmed and the facilities adequate. There is a swimming pool (drained empty) and a small restaurant/bar, outside which the WiFi worked slowly and intermittently on our first day – then vanished.

The Fortress-State of Medieval Mystras

Next morning we walked the half-mile into Mistras village, a cluster of cafιs, rooms and a shop or two.30._Mistras.JPG There is a generous car park on the way in, outside a new Camera Museum, though signs threaten fines and even imprisonment for overnight camping.

Our unhelpful31._Mystras.JPG campsite host had claimed there was always a taxi waiting outside the Hotel Byzantio to take visitors up to historic Mystras. There was none, though a friendly woman in the mini-market offered to ring for a taxi from Sparta. To quote from the local 'Tourist Guide to the Municipality of Mystras': “The access to all the public departments is easy for those who have their own mean of transportation.”  We walked back to the campsite to get our van, a much better option.

Brief History: In 1249 William II of Villehardouin, the Frankish ruler of Achaea (we came across him a32._Mystras.JPGt Chlemoutsi Castle near Kyllinis), built a fortress atop the naturally-fortified hill of Myzithra (or Mystras). It fell to the Byzantine Emperor, Michael Paliologos, in 1262 and the hillside developed into a walled fortress-state of great importance, taking over administration of the province from Monemvasia in 1289. In 1389 Mystras was made capital of the new Despotate of Morea, responsible for the whole Peloponnese. With a population reaching 20,000, it had churches and fortified monasteries, mansions and palaces, becoming a leading spiritual and cultural centre closely connected with the imperial family in Constantinople. Eastern Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453, leaving Mystras the capital of the last Byzantine stronghold. It was finally subjugated by the Turks 7 years later, after which the castle-state was abandoned and fell into ruin. In 1687 it was taken over by the Venetians, recaptured by the Turks in 1715, then freed during the Greek Revolution, only to be burned down by Egyptian forces (under the Ottoman Empire) in 1825.  The foundation of New Sparta in 1834 marked the end of Mystras City. In 1921 the Greek State declared it a Byzantine Monument to be preserved, followed by World Heritage recognition in 1989. Restoration continues.  See UNESCO, Wikipedia or Rough Guide websites for more detail.

The extensive 33._Mystras.JPGsite of Mystras is now open daily 8 am-8 pm and has two entrances: the Main Gate at the bottom of the steep hillside and the Fortress Gate at the end of a winding lane, about half way up. Tickets (€6 or €3 for Seniors, including leaflet in Greek and English) are valid all day and there is a free car park near each gate. We parked at the upper Fortress Gate (3 miles from campsite, up at 1,650 ft/500 m) from where it was still a stiff climb up a rocky track to the impressive ruins of Mystras Castle and its watch tower, perched on a crag in the eastern foothills of the Taigetos. We had breathtaking views over the well watered vale of Sparta, ringed by mountains on three sides - a patchwork quilt of greens, its squares made up of olive groves and orange orchards, with a dense white splash of tall concrete buildings clustered in the centre.

Just beneath the Fortress Gate, in the middle section of the city inside a curtain wall, we looked34._Mystras.JPG into one of the many churches, Agia Sofia, founded by the first Despot of Mystras (1348-1380) and used by the monastery at the time. The partly preserved frescoes (with colours based on plant dyes, egg yolk and gold) include a monumental scene of Christ. There is hardly any role for the 'Virgin Mary' in Byzantium, in contrast with the Roman church. Below, past the Church of Agios Nikolaos, the Despot's Palace stands on a level expanse of the hillside. It's a large complex, early 15th C, dominated by the throne room.

As it was starting to rain, we drove back to the campsite, well satisfied with the climb to the citadel. Easier access to the other Byzantine churches and a museum, within the outer wall, is via the Main Gate (though you can walk down from the upper level). We might have returned after lunch to explore this lower level but thunder rumbled as the rain closed in.

See our pictures at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/byzantine-mystras.html

The WiFi wasn't working but our host just shrugged, blaming the weather. (As ever!)

Mistras to Camping Paleologio, Paleologio, Sparta – 1 mile (725 ft/alt 220 m)

Open all year. €20 inc 16 amp elec and showers. Good free WiFi in the bar/cafe area only.  N 37.0716 E 22.4049

Next morning the WiFi at Castle View Camping was still down. At first our spookily hostile host said to wait a few minutes for it to come on. When we threatened to leave, he said a man was coming to fix it “soon” (on a Sunday morning?) Tired of his games we left, moving a mile or so down the road to Paleologio, a simpler and cheaper site. It may lack hot water (unless the sun shines) but it is definitely friendlier!

We were welcomed w29._At_Petes_Place.JPGith a big smile by gentle Peter, who remembered our visits many years ago when he ran the campsite/cafι/petrol station with his late father. Born in Canada, Peter speaks both English and French. The site is level and grassy, with plenty of space under the orange trees. There is a good swimming pool (not yet filled), the WiFi works reliably at the covered seating by the bar, and the laundry has a new washing machine and drier. The only negative is that the toilets and showers (best described as long overdue for replacement) are reminiscent of a prison block, except that none of the doors lock! We settled into a corner of the site, shared for the most part with Bernard, a long-term campingcariste from Paris, and relaxed – something that was quite impossible at the last two camps!

A Short Walk from Parori

Parori (meaning 'beside a mountain') is a tiny village 1 km south of Mistras. In the centre, by a row of gushing fountains (the Keramos Springs) under shady plane trees, a pleasant taverna is open from 7 p39._Easy_Riding.JPGm weekdays, and for lunch (until 5 pm only) at weekends. Its speciality is live trout, alongside the usual Greek fare.

A track from Parori is signed to the Cave Chapel Panagia Lagkadiotisa (a 15-minute walk), then the path continues along the gorge to a footbridge by Sotiris Church, where it joins the cobbled footpath linking Mystra with Faneromini Monastery. Recalling the interesting grotto and the spectacular gorge walk to Sotiris that we completed years ago, we set off from Parori with boots and sticks for an afternoon's ramble, starting with an uphill 5-minute walk to a disused quarry in the rock face. Beyond that point the narrow path of stones and gravel had deteriorated, with an unguarded 50-metre fall on our right into the Apothetes Ravine - where the ancient Spartans left any weakling babies to die! Sadly we considered the path too eroded and the drop too dangerous, so we turned back. We had had a reminder of the stunning ravine, cleft through towering orange-grey cliffs, and the forces of nature that were reclaiming the pilgrims' path.

Cycling from Camping Paleologio, nr Sparta

1. Mountain Riding: from Paleologio via Ag Ioannis, climb to Anavriti and on to Faneromini Monastery, and return (34 km and about 2,400 ft of climbing) – Into Mistras (3 km west) to buy pies from the bakery, then south through Parori to the larger village of Ag Ioannis (at 7 km). From ther37._Anavitri.JPGe a hairpin road winds its way up the eastern flank of the Taigetos to the mountain village of Anavriti – a favourite cycle climb that we aimed to repeat. The road is well graded and we rode the zigzags, pausing at the major bends to take in and photograph the spectacular view of the road snaking down to the plain of Sparta. The 8-km ascent (climbing over 2,000 ft) ends in quaint 36._Anavitri.JPGAnavriti, mountain water streaming down its cobbled lanes. The only cafe provided coffee and glasses of spring water to go with our cheese & spinach pies, sitting in the sunshine up at 2,805 ft/850 m. Refreshed, we rode north for another 2 km (1 km uphill, 1 km down) to the substantial gates of Faneromini, a working monastery, to sit in the shade with a banana and watch a lone hiker trudge by.

We'd reached t38._Anavitri.JPGhe end of the bitumen at the monastery and knew, from previous rides, that the roughly cobbled track (part of the E4 long-distance footpath) now wound steeply downhill to a bridge across the gorge by the Sotiris church, then climbed hard up to Mystras. A shorter but much more difficult route than simply retracing our steps – nor did we know what state the track might be in, in view of our recent walk from Parori. So we returned to Anavriti to enjoy a 5-mile freewheel down the serpentine road to Ag Ioannis, then back to Paleologio. Only a cyclist can imagine (let alone describe) that glorious feeling of controlled brake-testing descent down a smooth mountain road, devoid of traffic. It is addictive and the Peloponnese is the perfect place to indulge in the pleasure.  

See our pictures at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/anavriti-cycle-ride.html

2. Easy Riding: from Paleologio via Ag Ioannis to Anogia, and return (33 km) – There is a maze of extremely quiet lanes, running between orange orchards and olive groves, that link the tiny villages that lie to the south of Mistras and west of the main Sparta-Gythion road. With only gentle climbs and regular cafes, they provide easy peaceful cycling for an hour or two, turning back whenever you want. There are very few signs, so a map, compass or GPS (or better still, all three) are needed!

One of several such easy routes was a morning ride via Mistras, Parori and Ag35._Parori.JPG Ioannis, continuing south past the site of an ancient temple to Demeter (just a few stones) and on to Anogia (16 km), a village with a choice of 3 cafes! At the first we tried, by the church, the barman told us that the woman who did coffee had just gone out to see to some paperwork but would be back soon! How we love Greece. Success at the second cafι, by a war memorial, just as a heavy shower began. By the time we had drunk the coffee and donned our waterproofs, the rain had stopped! On the way back to Mistras the roads quickly dried out and we paused only to buy a loaf at the bakery. Home to lunch on chicken sandwiches. Can't believe that no-one else is doing this, short easy riding with a backdrop of the Taigetos range, splendid weather, no traffic, lovely little stone Byzantine churches, friendly folk, lizards and tortoises crossing the road at very different speeds …

3. Hard Riding: From Paleologio via Magoula, Logastra and Soustiani, return via Karavas and Magoula (36 km and about 1,900 ft of climbing) – A clockwise circular ride to the north of Paleologio, with some long climbs in the shadow of the Taigetos. From Paleologio we rode briefly east, turned left into Magoula, then took the road40._Soustini.JPG northwest through the village of Ag Irini to Logastra – 8 km from the campsite and uphill all the way, climbing over 1,000 ft (from 220 m to 525 m, or about 725 ft to 1,730 ft). The cafι owner rewarded us with large coffees and iced 'mountain water', sitting in the garden, for a total of €2 (well off the tourist trail here!). He was very friendly, once assured that we were not German. We had the usual conversation: 'No, we're not from London. The North, near Manchester.' 'Ah, Manchester United, very good.' More climbing and wonderful scenery from Logastra to Soustiani, the next village and high point of the ride, at 2,145 ft/650 m.

On through Lopesi, on empty lanes across rolling country until, at 18 km near Serveika, we met the road from Kastoria. There was a handy picnic shelter at this junction, the half-way point, stil41._Soustini.JPGl above 1,300 ft at 400 m, for a snack with a wonderful view. Then southeast, dropping down towards Sparta. A racing cyclist, the first we'd seen in these parts, overtook us with a cheery shout of 'Ya Sas' (= Health to You, plural). 'Ya Soo' (the singular version) we replied, but he was gone! Traffic was light on the 13 km descent via Karavas, then we avoided the centre of Sparta by turning right at the hospital sign and finding our way on back lanes to Magoula and home. It was a beautiful ride through small villages, not abandoned but full of life of every age. The inhabitants were out spraying olive trees, tending bees, hanging out washing, chatting in the cafes, waiting at bus stops – all with a friendly wave for these two ancient cyclists, fuelled by home-made lemon squash, muesli bars and caramel toffees (beats any 'energy drink')! We were back at the campsite before 2 pm, seeking shade from the high afternoon sun.  

A drive via Kosmas to Leonidio (52 miles), a Cycle Ride from Leonidio to Elonis Monastery and back, then return drive to Sparta

On a sunny42._Leonidio.JPG morning we began by driving 34 miles, via Sparta and Goritsa, across the Lakonia/Arkadia border and up to the splendid mountain village of Kosmas at 3,745 ft/1135 m. We parked behind the central church, where a villager rinsed the dust off her car at the gushing springs and Barry washed our windscreen. A magical place for coffee with a view. Walking round the square we saw the oldest of the shady plane trees bore a brass plaque for its centenary (1983), the cafes were busy and the souvenir shops open. The little hotel/restaurant 'Maleatis Apollon' had happy memories of a welcome night stop on more than one cycle tour we had made.

The onward road descending to Leonidio, at sea level on the east coast of the Peloponnes45._Leonidio.JPGe, is much steeper, hairpinning precipitously for the first 8 miles to the Elonis Monastery, clamped onto the cliff side at 1,740 ft/527 m. The route then sweeps down well-graded zigzags and through a gorge for a further 10 miles to Leonidio. On entering the long narrow town, we turned right (at the caravan-route sign) to bypass the chaos of the centre. There is plenty of parking space after the turn, alongside the dry river bed or across the bridge. Even today on market day (Saturday) we had no problem, parking outside the old DOY (vehicle registration office). A home-made banner still hung from the upper storey, which translates as 'No to the closure of the Leonidio DOY'. The building was shuttered and long deserted. We walked the length of the narrow and busy main street in search of lunch - coffee, toast and omelettes in a lovely traditional cafι/bar – before setting off to cycle back up the gorge.

4. Cycle climb from Leonidio to the Elonis Monastery, and return (31 km and about 1,800 ft of climbing) – Riding out44._Leonidio.JPG of Leonidio, past the monument to the fallen Civil War heroes of January 1949, we soon left the traffic behind. We climbed gradually up the impressively wild gorge, alongside the dry course of the Dafnon River, until eventually we glimpsed our goal - the white buildings of the Elonis Monastery clinging to the rock face high above. Onward and upward, scaling zigzags once the road left the river, we finally arrived at the Monastery. It still operates as a convent, open to visitors, with a new small car park and43._Leonidio.JPG toilets at the entrance. A stall outside sold honey and mountain herbs, while inside there was a religious souvenir shop, manned by a monk who handed out the traditional Loukoumi (don't call it Turkish Delight!) Barry watched over the bicycles while M went round with the camera (though no photos were allowed inside the venerable old church housing the miraculous icon that was found on the nearby mountainside!) The site and the view are certainly spectacular, whatever our beliefs.

The return ride, swooping 10 miles down to Leonidio, took less than an hour – much faster than the ascent. As we paused to rest our brake-fingers on the way back, a local man on a small motorbike stopped to ask if we needed water - typical Greek kindness.

See our pictures at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/leonidio-cycle-ride.html

With the cycles safely stowed in the van, we drove back the way we had come: up to Kosmas and down to Sparta. A very satisfying day, which we rounded off with an excellent wood-fired pizza and salad in Sparta's Business Pizzeria, an old favourite (eat in or take away). 

A Drive to Monemvasia, a night away in Hotel Annema, Palia Monemvasia (50 miles) and a circular Cycle Ride over an 855 m Pass

Monday morning and Spring Bank Holiday in England, with reports of record traffic jams. Terrible rain and floods in Bosnia and Serbia, where the overflowing River Sava (tributary of the Danube) forms the border.  How lucky we are to be here in the Peloponnese, with sunny weather and empty roads.

Leaving the 50._Monemvasia.JPGcaravan at Camping Paleologio, we drove from Sparta via Skala to the Byzantine fortress and town of Monemvasia, where a magnificent ruined castle crowns the island fastness above the Upper Town. There is free parking (popular with motorhomes) by the harbour in Gefira, or more limited space just across the short causeway that replaced a 14-arch bridge to Monemvasia's Lower Town in the early 19th C. We parked over the causeway to eat a picnic, then walked half a kilometre past a continuous line of parked cars to the archway and into the pedestrianised lanes of Monemvasia (meaning 'Only Entrance').

The main cobbled street, thronged with tourists, was lined with souvenir shops and up-m51._Monemvasia.JPGarket cafes, bars and restaurants, but we only needed to turn off down the warren of side alleys to find ourselves alone and able to take in the medieval atmosphere and clear blue sea views. To leave the crowds well behind, we took the steep path to the Upper Town: flights of rough steps, followed by a winding track of cobbles, worn dangerously smooth over the centuries. Stout shoes, a stick and a dry day are needed. The dwellings and churches of the Upper Town are mostly in ruins, with some renovations underway. Reaching the gates of the castle on the acropolis, we found entrance was barred 'for restoration' – of which there was no sign - but it was still worth the climb for the view over Monemvasia Bay.

Down in the 56._Monemvasia.JPGLower Town, we cooled off with ice cream in a shady cafι and considered finding a room, in order to cycle locally the next day. Our SatNav listed several hotels in Monemvasia itself (expensive) or Gefira (noisy), with a single entry for Palia Monemvasia, a tiny coastal village just 7 miles north, which we went to inspect. What a find! At Hotel Annema (www.annemahotel.com), a modern family-run hotel/restaurant, we had a lovely en-suite room on the first floor with TV, fridge and a balcony overlooking the Bay with a view of the Monemvasia Fortress. The low-season rate was just €45 for two, including a substantial breakfast. Nicos and his father looked after us well, with a splendidly cooked and presented evening meal of Saganaki and chicken in cream & mushroom sauce, finishing with orange Glykos (spoon-sweets) on the house.

5. Circular Cycle Ride from Palia Monemvasia via Gerakas and Richia, over an 855 m pass to Metamorfosi, and return via Sikea and Angelona (63 km and about 3,500 ft of climbing)

Down in the airy restaurant at 8 am, we were served the set breakfast by a smiling Nicos –52._Monemvasia.JPG orange juice, coffee, scrambled eggs on toast, pancakes with chocolate Nutella, then more toast with honey, jam and butter! A surprising spread, which set us up well for a hard day's ride. Leaving the van parked at Hotel Annema, we cycled north on an anticlockwise loop.

The ride b54._Monemvasia.JPGegan with a short climb to 330 ft/100 m at Ariana, then down again to sea level and a short side-trip to the tiny fishing port of Limenas Geraki. We had coffee at a little fish taverna by the harbour before returning to the main (empty) road which climbed steadily north to Gerakas. We had another break here, sitting under a shady tree until wasps chased us off. The sun and gradient remained relentless as we cycled the quietest of roads, north through Ag Ioannis (St John, a popular village name) and up to the larger village of Richia, at 25 km and a height of 1,585 ft/480 m. Here we bought more coffee (always served with essential53._Monemvasia.JPG glasses of icy cold water) and snacked on crackers and bananas – all we needed after such a good breakfast. Chocolate is no longer an option in this heat!

After another 2 km from Richia, and now at 1,750 ft/530 m, we came to a road junction and a decision point! The choice was to turn back for an easy 27 km ride, mostly downhill, or go southwest to climb the pass over to Metamorfosi, a road we could see snaking off up the mountainside in the distance, which would be further and much harder. We decided to give it a try – we could always turn round.

It was hot,54._Monemvasia.JPG dry, dusty and bleak as we scaled the hairpins, soon leaving the cattle who stared at us way below. Above, on the ridge, a herd of massive black goats stood sentinel and we hoped there were no guard dogs! The goat-herd was outlined against the sky, leaning on one of a pair of ruined round towers. The wind turned against us as we struggled to the top of the pass, at 32 km and 2,820 ft/855 m, but we had ridden it all. A foo55._Monemvasia.JPGtpath to the left led to a Profitis Ilias chapel (Prophet Elijah, commonly worshipped on mountain tops) and on to radio masts atop Mt Koulochera (1125 m). But we had a glorious 12-km descent, hairpinning rapidly past more goats, sheep, a dusty working quarry and eventually into well-named Metamorfosis, still high at 1,363 ft/413 m.

Ice creams and iced water here, before continuing 6 km to join the main Molai-Monemvasia road at Sikea. We soon left it, to return to the Hotel Annema via the villages of Angelona and (yet another) Ag Ioannis. This was a much quieter route, though involved more climbing before dropping to the coast.

See our pictures at: http://www.magbazpictures.com/monemvasia-cycle-ride.html

The day ended with a drive back to Camping Paleologio near Sparta, large helpings of beanz on toast and home-made gingerbread in the caravan and a good sleep!  

JUNE 2014 – Camping Paleologio, Mistras, Sparta

With settled weather, a peaceful campsite, ideal cycling conditions (but reports of heavy rain and storms in Bulgaria), we linger in the fertile vale of Sparta, in the shadow of the still-snow-capped Taigetos. The grid-like streets of the modern city, laid out in 1834, are of little historical or architectural interest, mostly overbuilt with blocks of concrete flats. The remains of Ancient Sparta are few, and scarcely signposted since Byzantine Mystras is seen as the major tourist attraction.

Exploring Ancient Sparta

The two main roads of Sparta - Lykourgou (east-west) and Palaeologou (north-south) - cross at the central square. At the northern end of Palaeologou stands a statue of King Leonidas (hero of Thermopylae) in front of the modern soccer stadium. To the left of the stadium a sign points along a lane (where parking may be possible) to the scant ruins of the ancient acropolis and theatre. We passed a private kindergarten/school, where the mixed infants had dressed up to fight the Turks and dance in the garden, then on for about half a km through venerable olive groves, past a few ancient stone walls, to the acropolis.

New excavation was underway, with a few workmen in evidence and some sections fenced off, but most of the site was still overgrown and there was no information or entry fee, nor any other visitors. Beyond the acropolis the path leads to the foundations of a sanctuary to Athena. To the west we found the more discernible remains of a theatre (3rd - 2nd century BC), partly excavated out of the hillside. The clear view of the Taigetos mountains beyond was impressive. We could see Mystras Castle standing proud on its crag, and the narrow road we had recently cycled winding its way up the mountainside to Anavriti. Wild flowers were wilting now in the dry undergrowth and we kept a careful watch for snakes basking among the warm stones as we took our seat at the theatre.

In his 'Histories', the Ancient Greek historian Thucydides prophesied that:'If the city of the Lacedaemonians were destroyed, and only its temples and the foundations of its buildings left, remote posterity would greatly doubt whether their power were ever equal to their renown.' And so it seems. The once mighty city-state, protected not by walls but by its military prowess (not to mention mountains on three sides), gradually fell into decline and what was then Roman Sparta was destroyed by Visigoths in 396 AD.

There is more to see at the nice little archaeological museum, in a park on Lykourgou, which has Greek and Roman artefacts from the site, including votive sickles that Spartan boys dedicated to Artemis, statues, mosaics, theatre masks and gravestones.

A Weekend down in the Mani Peninsula (based in Gerolimenas at the Akroyiali Guesthouse)

The Mani, the central peninsula at the foot of the Peloponnese, ends in Cape Tenaro: the second southernmost point of mainland Europe (after Tarifa in Spain) and almost on the same latitude as Tangiers. The Inner Mani (the rugged promontory south of the main town, Areopolis) is a wild and barren area whose fiercely independent inhabitants, the Maniots, claimed descent from the Spartans. Fertile land, carved from the rocky hillsides in backbreaking terraces, was so scarce that it was fiercely fought over and settlements of square stone towers were built from the 17thC onwards as refuges during clan wars and blood feuds.

Even in Patrick Leigh Fermor's time (his 1958 book simply called 'Mani'), the region was only accessible by boat or mule track, though now a loop road runs down the west coast from Areopoli to the little fishing harbour of Gerolimenas, returning up the more rugged eastern side across the grain of the land. With sheer cliffs plunging into the sea, rocky outcrops sheltering pebbly beaches and very little tourist infrastructure, the circuit presents a tough but rewarding challenge to cyclists, as well as opportunity for strenuous walks.

Driving to Akroyiali Hotel at Gerolimanas - Leaving the caravan at Sparta, we drove to Areopoli (39 miles) where parking was free and easy by the bus station. We bought pies from the little bakery and even found a good map (Road series, Mani & Taigetos, 1:50,000) in the bookshop. Then it was14 miles south to Gerolimenas, where the Gerolimenas and Akroyiali Hotels (same management and phone number) stand together fronting the crystal clear bay. Despite this being Friday morning at the start of the Whitsuntide Weekend (Whit Monday is a public holiday in Greece), we were offered an excellent room at the front of the Akroyiali (meaning Land's End) for 2 nights. It had a balcony overlooking the harbour, a TV on which CNN were covering the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landings (with a considerable US bias), air-con/heater, and an en-suite with a small bath. The restaurant was open from 8 am until late in the evening. Perfect!

A Walk from Kokkinogia to Cape Tenaro Lighthouse (4 km return) – In the afternoon we drove 11 magnificent miles to Kokkinogia, a tiny settlement with one taverna, at the end of the road near the foot of the Mani peninsula. There is a rough open parking space by the ruins of a small temple to Poseidon Tenarios, now incorporated into the later ruins of the little church of St Asomati. The footpath to the lighthouse, signed from here, leads past the scant remains of an ancient settlement by a pebble cove, with a Roman mosaic floor still intact. Turning away from the shore, the path climbs to 200 ft/60 m before dropping again as the copper roof of the (now unmanned) lighthouse appears. It's a fantastic place to sit, to listen to the gulls and watch the shipping slide past in the distance: nothing but blue sea and blue sky on all sides on this hot, bright and breezy afternoon. As far south as it is possible to go, at the very end of the Balkans, but definitely not the place to be in a storm!

As we walked back we thought about the lighthouse keepers who used to welcome visitors to this lonely point, probably arriving by boat. The hotel was still quiet on our return and the two Albanian waiters looked after us well, suggesting dishes of lamb and chicken from the oven. The local deaf & dumb fisherman called at the restaurant with his catch, then went to sleep on his boat moored outside.

Cycling a circuit anticlockwise from Gerolimenas (68 km with 3,500 ft of climbing) – Breakfast at 8 am, and warm enough to eat outside on the terrace, with fresh orange juice, coffee, bread, jam, butter & honey. On the rocks a man was bashing the octopus he'd just caught 40 times, to tenderise it. Another was busy gutting a live fish and rinsing it at the limpid water's edge. Three cats hung about hopefully.

The sun was already hot, with no wind, as we set out to cycle round the peninsula. The road climbed gently SE for 4 km to Alika, then abruptly turned NE, away from yesterday's road to Cape Tenaro. Over the next 7 km we climbed (cycling or walking) to the highest point on our route at 1,250 ft/380 m. The narrow road twisted on, up and down, empty of traffic or habitation except for a locked church at Tsikalia and the occasional stone tower (abandoned ruins or new mock tower-houses, always empty).

The first possible coffee break came at 14 km in Laggia, still high at 1,100 ft/333 m, in the garden of a small taverna as we entered the tiny village. The iced water was even more welcome. Continuing, we noticed a cafι opposite the church in the centre, catering to all the tourists (one car!) The road now took us north, up and down, falling to 165 ft/50 m at Kokkala at 22 km. It had a bakery and a butcher's but no cafι. We sat in the shade, snacked on the crackers & cheese, bananas & yogurt that we'd carried, then continued 3 km to Nyfi, down at 99 ft/30 m where the bar sold us coffee and water. On we rode, above the wonderful undeveloped coastline, to the village of Flomohori. At 34 km, we were only half way round in distance but most of the climbing was done. A delightful old woman at the taverna interrupted her lunch of omelette and bread to serve us ice creams, with complimentary and very welcome iced water. An interesting conversation over the choc-ices with a man who worked in the Health Dept of the Municipality in Flomohori, a place that didn't look big enough to have its own phone box! He had strong opinions about immigrants ('except Albanians, they work hard') and was a supporter of the right-wing premier, Mr Samaras.

After another 2 km – and over half way at last – we reached the junction (up at 725 ft/220 m) from where a road sweeps abruptly down to Kotronas harbour. No descent for us though, as we turned left to zigzag up to Loukadika and climb on to Chimera, recrossing the mountain spine from east to west. The heat, which had built into an oppressive haze, resolved itself in a roll of thunder and heavy raindrops as we rode into a freshening wind beneath a dark sky. This was the same stretch on which we were drenched while cycling in the opposite direction on Margaret's birthday in April 2012!

At 40 km we reached the top of the final climb by Chimera church (1,200 ft/363 m), where we took shelter under a tree to put on some waterproofs. Now it was easy: 7 km down to meet the Areopoli-Gerolimenas road, some 2 km south of Areopoli. It had stopped raining and we paused in the bus shelter to strip off again before continuing 21 km south without stopping: an easy finale with a back wind after a very rewarding day. Our waiting hotel was a welcome sight, with hot baths, Greek salad, pork chops and chips. It had been our hardest ride for many a year, with over 1000 metres of climbing. The secret was to take our time (this is not a race), with frequent breaks and plenty to drink.

Next day (Whit Sunday) we drove back to rejoin the caravan at Sparta. We might have broken the journey for a walk to the Megali Maini Castle on Cape Tigani (south of Areopoli) but the day again turned wet and stormy. How lucky that we'd cycled round the Mani yesterday!

Sparta to Camping Isthmia Beach, Corinth (Korinthos) – 92 miles

Open 1 April-mid Oct. www.campingisthmia.gr. €19.70 inc 10 amp elec and showers. Free WiFi around Reception only.  N 37.88886 E 23.00575

After weeks of deliberation we were still undecided about taking the caravan on to Eastern Europe, or whether to return to the UK and exchange the caravan/VW combination for a motorhome. The ideal would not be another weighty and thirsty RV but a 3.5 ton coachbuilt model, preferably with a garage for the bicycles, and we'd found a possible contender on-line at Marquis Motorhomes.

Reluctantly we bade farewell to our host at Sparta, the ever-smiling Peter Kapetaneas, and set out for Corinth, which would be the decision point: west to Patras for a ferry to Italy, or east to Bulgaria.

We circled round the congested centre of Sparta, crossed the bridge over the Evrotas after 4 miles, then headed north for Tripoli (Sparta's new motorway link as yet unfinished). The smooth road climbed to 900 m or almost 3,000 ft before joining the A7 motorway at 37 miles. The first toll, 9 miles later and just past the services, was €6. We drove through a mile-long good modern tunnel, followed by a shorter one, before passing the ancient stone quarry from which Greco-Roman Korinthos was built, at 71 miles.

A second toll (€6.40) came at 75 miles, then another service station. There was a good view of Akrokorinth high above on our left, before joining the E94 (Athens direction) at 83 miles. At exit 10, 5 miles later, we turned off south for Isthmia. The left turn down a lane to the campsite is signed after another 3 miles.

The securely fenced site lies along the pebbly shore near the southern entrance to the Corinth Canal. It was very hot – over 30 deg C inside the caravan – and the site was mainly filled with statics, with no sea-view pitches free. The young man in Reception warned of a group of students due to arrive tomorrow.

After lunch we went on-line to check availability on ferries to Italy. Disappointingly, both Minoan Lines and Superfast appeared to be fully booked for at least a week. On the telephone it was the same story from Minoan but Superfast had just got one cancellation for the next day. Decision made, we booked the 5.30 pm sailing from Patras to Ancona tomorrow, with 'Camping on Board'!

Excited, we nipped out to the AB Supermarket 2 miles away, for supplies and cash, then parked and ate over the road at Goody's, before walking across the bridge and back for a view of the Corinth Canal. Its sheer rock sides and long narrow channel are an unforgettable sight, also available as a bungee jump!

Back at the campsite it was still hot and airless, the mosquitoes were out in force and a thumping disco sounded from the adjacent hotel. One night here would be more than enough!

Corinth to Patras, South Ferry Port – 111 miles

Overnight Ferry 'Superfast XII' to Ancona, Italy

Away after breakfast: 3 miles back to the motorway, then west for Patras. There was a toll of €6.30 at 14 miles, after we'd passed Corinth, though much of the road is not even a dual carriageway. It's a dangerous and very busy highway, with road-widening works underway, but there is no alternative except the impossibly narrow coast road. The weather remained hot and humid, with a short heavy rainstorm along the way.

We passed the service station near Ancient Sikyon after 20 miles, taking a break at the next services, Akrata, at 50 miles. A third services is at Egio, 15 miles later. To avoid the mayhem of Patras city centre, keep left (signed Pirgos) after passing the turn-off for the new Rio Bridge. The best exit for the new (south) ferry port is junction 2.

Inside the new port it was chaos, with nowhere to park, wait or queue and no signs, but at least the men with guns and dogs were keeping away any would-be illegal emigrants, who had plagued the old port. Barry circled while Margaret went in search of a ticket office and we eventually managed to park among the trucks, though a lorry driver protested.

On board, the Camper Deck was packed full, airless, vibrating and noisy. We have many happy memories of 'camping on board' but it was on a spacious open deck - never like this! After sailing at 5.30 pm Margaret went to Reception to complain and ask about the cost of a cabin. The nice young man in uniform accompanied her to see the situation for himself, then offered us a 2-berth en-suite outside cabin FREE OF CHARGE! We celebrated with an excellent 3-course meal in the a la carte restaurant, a great treat, then had a restful quiet night.

(Continued at: Return to England Spring 2014)