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In Greece Winter 2014/2015 PDF Printable Version E-mail


A Motorhome Journey of 1,600 miles through Greece in the Winter of 2014/2015
 

At the End of an Overland Journey from the UK to Greece via the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria 

Margaret Williamson

Continued at: In Greece in the Spring of 2015 

The whole journey is summarised and linked together at:

A European Journey 2014-2015  

See also the map, table of distances and photographs of the route and an account comparing this journey through Eastern Europe with parallel bicycle journeys made in the days of the iron Curtain:

An Autumnal Journey through Eastern Europe 2014 

Follows on from the detailed Travel Log of the Journey from Ijmuiden, near Amsterdam, to Alexandroupoli in the far northeast of Greece:

Travel Log from the Netherlands to Greece 

There is a full gallery of photographs on this website:

Images of a Journey through Greece Winter 2014-2015 

Images of the journey can also be found under the general heading:

http://www.magbazpictures.com/greece-2014.html 

Introduction 

After a wasted monthCarado_(10).JPG of July in England, wrestling with the phenomenon of Marquis Malpractice, August passed pleasantly in the purchase, equipping and testing of an excellent Carado T337 motorhome from the rejuvenated Brownhills Motorhomes of Newark. By September we were riding the long-distance river cycle paths of Germany, and October saw us motorhoming through the Eastern European countries of Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Our aim - to reach the warm shelter of Greece before winter strikes! 

What changes they had seen.

FROM BULGARIA INTO GREECE 

Sofia to Camping Sakar Hills, Biser – 168 miles

Open 1 April-31 Oct. www.sakar-hills.com. Bulgarian Leva or Euros accepted: €14 inc elec and hot showers. Free WiFi. Excellent own-label Merlot wine for sale! N 41°52'13”  E 25°59'29”

Our host, Nedko, offered us coffee before we made an early start, south on the roughly surfaced outer ring road for 10 miles, then SE on the A1/E80 for Plovdiv - a good motorway with 2 lanes in each direction. It was fairly quiet on this cold Sunday morning as we climbed to 2,640 ft/800 m in a ski area before a gradual descent. There are regular service areas along the route, with catering by KFC, Burger King or McDonalds. After 63 miles we had a coffee break (but not a Burger) north of Pazardzik, down at 850 ft/257 m.

At the Happy Grill, 20 miles later, we stopped for a 'Full English Breakfast' – the best Bulgarian motorway food at any time of day! For 10 Lev (€5) a head, we each had a large glass of fresh orange juice, 2 eggs, 2 sausages, Heinz beanz, bacon, mushrooms, tomato and warm bread (credit cards accepted). Happy indeed!

We continued east past Plovdiv to the next exit, the end of the A1 near Kalekovec. Some day the motorway between Plovdiv and Harmanli will be complete – but not today. We had to turn south, cross the railway and join the rough 2-lane rd 8 that runs east to Harmanli (from where you can again join the motorway to Svilengrad and the Turkish border). Driving along past Haskovo, avoiding the bumps, there are many stalls selling cheese (Peynir in Bulgarian, Kasar in Turkish) – a local speciality that we've never tried.

After 159 miles we parked by the soulless new market in Harmanli and had a walk round the dusty town, drab even in afternoon sunshine. 3[1][2][3].jpgMost shops were closed except for the Billa supermarket (which the locals call the Museum – they can look but not afford to buy). The Lidl store (new since our last visit) was already closed up for renovation after flooding. It all looked rather depressing.

Another 9 miles along the old main road to Biser. Turn right at the sign, go under the new railway bridge, and Sakar Hills Camping is on the right just before the village. We immediately felt better, welcomed by the owner, our old friend Martin Jeffes, who had kept the splendid little site open just for us. 

See our Account and Map for more on Sakar Hills Camping.

INTO GREECE

Biser, Bulgaria to Municipal Camping Alexandroupoli Beach, Alexandroupoli, Thrace – 117 miles (Sea level!)

Open all year. www.ditea.gr. €17.63 inc local taxes, 8-amp elec and hot showers. Free WiFi. N 40.84679  E 25.85614

With an early start, heading east along the old main road, we paused after 5 miles at Lyubimets for a fill of diesel. The new motorway from Harmanli to Svilengrad now bypasses Lyubimets, to the detriment of this once thriving service station, now deserted and offering a very limited menu. Instead of the anticipated ham & eggs for breakfast, we spent our remaining Bulgarian change on toasted sandwiches.

At Svilengrad we turned right for Greece (well signed), rather than straight on into Turkey. At the Greek border (14 miles) there was just a passport check at the joint crossing point, the strip of no-man's land now redundant. The onward route down this south-east corner of Greece, past a turning for the Turkish frontier at Kastania at 33 miles, was remarkably quiet until we turned into the first Greek town, Orestiada.

The town centre was the usual muddle of Greek driving and double parking, as we made our way through to Lidl at 45 miles. It was a joy to restock (they even had genuine Cheddar cheese) and we celebrated arrival in our favourite winter country with tea and biscuits in the car park.

Now it was south to the Mediterranean Sea, actually feeling the warmth of the sun as it broke through the clinging mist. The new dual carriageway down from Orestiada was no nearer completion than it was 4 years ago, but traffic was light. We drove past fields of unpicked cotton, watched a train going by laden with sugar beet, and passed the Thracian towns of Didymotico and Soufli.

On meeting the A2 (E90) we turned west for Alexandroupolis, rather than east for the main Turkish border crossing at Ipsala. There were no tolls at this end of the empty motorway (and no services, just an occasional parking area). We took exit 41 for Alex'polis and turned south down a narrow road that led straight into the city centre traffic. Turn right (west) along the main road for about a mile, then left at traffic lights into the campsite gates.

It's a huge level site run by the town hall, with fairly basic facilities and no washing machine, but it does provide a good stopping place on the way to/from Turkey or Bulgaria. Popular in summer, it is almost empty now: just a couple of German campers on the beachfront. Surprisingly, the campsite restaurant was open for the weekend but we were deterred by the loud music needed for the locals to enjoy themselves. Besides, we still have plenty of pumpkin & vegetable soup, and the pumpkin & apple cake is good with custard!

At Camping Alexandroupoli Beach, Alexandroupoli

Next day we walked into the town, along the beach as far as the stream and then through the park to the stadium. It was just good to be in Greece and to feel warm, with no heating needed in the motorhome. We called at Multirama (computer shop) for a cable to link TV and laptop, then strolled along the sea front to the lighthouse. The many cafes were all busy, despite the recession

Returning along the main thoroughfare, we replenished our Euro fund at an ATM and had lunch at Goody's, which had moved one block back from the promenade. It's a Greek chain, selling a range of good burgers and real chips, with free iced water.

The free WiFi worked at our pitch but it has the annoying habit of cutting off every 30 minutes without warning, and requiring log-in and password again. Barry wrote to Alexandroupolis town hall about this on our last visit and was assured they would look into it. That was 4 years ago and they are still looking! They also reacted to Margaret's suggestion that a washing machine was needed, as there is now a poster advertising a launderette somewhere in the town!

We were extremely sad (not to mention angry) to learn that John Radford, a nationally-known cyclist Margaret rode with in the Huddersfield CTC, had died shortly before his 71st birthday. He was knocked off his bicycle over a year ago by a hit and run driver, 23-year-old Michael Gledhill, and never recovered from serious head injuries. See the report in the Huddersfield Examiner. Initially found guilty by a unanimous jury of causing serious injury by dangerous driving, Gledhill is now likely to be charged with causing the death of the well-known and respected cyclist.

Alexandroupoli to Car Park at Porto Lagos harbour, Thrace – 73 miles

Open all year. Note: closed Saturday night and Sunday morning/afternoon for huge weekly Sunday market. Free parking, no facilities. Good fish taverna opposite. N 41.00633 E 25.12028

Today, Remembrance Sunday in the UK, is also the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The end of the First World War and (for Eastern Europe) the end of the Second. Much to think about as we set off on a sunny morning after overnight rain.

Driving west from Alexandroupolis we soon passed Lidl (closed on Sundays) on the right, opposite Santa Rosa Hotel & Camping, a very tight camping area with poor facilities. Joining the E40 at Makri (exit 40), we continued west past the humble villages of Thrace. Home to ethnic Turks, with an occasional minaret and field crops of cotton and tobacco. This quiet motorway, the Odos Egnatia named after the Roman Via Ignatia, crosses northern Greece from the port of Igoumenitsa to the Turkish border.

Exit 38, Komotini east, is now also signed for Bulgaria, as a new crossing point has recently been opened in the Rodopi Mountains to the north. We took exit 37, Komotini west, after driving 35 miles and made our way for 3 miles to the Archaeological Museum in the centre.

We paid €1 each (reduced entry for Seniors) and found ourselves outnumbered by staff in the empty museum! On a previous visit we'd talked at length with the Director and had now brought him a gift of a book on Troy (a special interest of his). Sadly, he wasn't there and no-one else spoke English, so it was a short visit. There are prehistoric, Greek and Roman finds from local sites, labelled in English. The familiar ancient artefacts and grave goods do include two remarkable exhibits: the iron-studded leather soles of a pair of Roman soldier's sandals, and a beautiful gold head of the second century AD emperor Septimius Severus.

Leaving Komotini we took rd 2 south-west to Porto Lagos, past the heronry at Lake Vistonida and the little island monastery of St Nikolas in the Porto Lagos lagoon, which was busy with visitors, the car park full of coaches. Turning left to the port, to check the area listed in 'Camperstop Europe', the approach road was lined with cars and the harbour area full of marquees and market stalls: it's the site of a huge Sunday market all year round!

Turning back, we retraced our route past Lake Vistonida and the lagoons (home to heroGreek_Autumn_2014_(10).JPGns, pelicans and flamingo), then turned right and along through Fanari to the sea front, where there is ample free parking beyond the seasonal campsite. We sat out the rainy afternoon, then returned 8 miles to Porto Lagos, where the enormous market had gone. Just four workmen and a van remained, clearing up all the debris and plastic.

We parked in a quiet well-lit corner by the water and had a good meal at a fish taverna, though we chose to eat chicken. It was a quiet night apart from the fish a'jumping – a constant splash of fish leaping into the air and plopping back into the water. They didn't look large enough to be porpoises and remain a mystery!

Porto Lagos to Car Park at Orfani Beach, Nr Kariani, Thrace – 97 miles (with detour to Amphipolis)

Open all year. Note: closed from Sunday night until 4 pm Monday for weekly Monday market. Free parking, no facilities. N 40°45'49”  E 23°54'7”

A couple of early morning anglers had set up their rods but spoke no English, so we never learnt what the flying fish were.

Back on rd 2, heading north-west, we joined the A2 motorway (E90 Odos Egnatia) near Xanthi and continued west in warm sunshine. At 22 miles a new motorway bridge crossed the River Nestor, from Thrace into Macedonia. On through a couple of tunnels, climbing to 1,115 ft/338 m as we bypassed Kavala. At the top, in thick fog which lasted until the Filippi exit, we glimpsed a new memorial to a motorbiker and wondered if it was foggy that day too.

At 62 miles came the first toll point (just €2.40), then we turned off 2 miles later for the first services, Moustheni (listed in 'Camperstop Europe). It's a Shell station with plenty of parking space, restaurant and (unusual in Greece) a motorhome dump point. We just stopped for coffee and bought croissants and cheese pies, though it looked a good overnight place.

Further west along A2, we took the exit for Amphipolis and followed the signs to the impressive Amfipoli Lion statue at 82 miles. Another 4 miles up to the museum in Amphipolis village, which was closed (Mondays). No matter, we'd been before, but we did get in to ask the Director about the new excavations of tombs nearby. She pointed across to activity on a distant hillside but said there was no access for visitors at present. See http://www.theamphipolistomb.com/  Disappointed, we ate lunch on the car park and walked over the scant foundations of ancient Amfipolis in the woods.

Back on the A2 motorway we returned east for one junction, then turned down to the beach at Orfani, where the official car park had a Sunday market. We followed the coast road another 3 miles along to Kariani, noting damage and repairs to the sea wall in places. Seeing nowhere better, we returned to Orfani Beach where the market was just packing up. Though smaller than the one at Porto Lagos yesterday, it had many of the same stalls selling produce, winter clothes, bedding etc.

This was a good place for the night, sunny and well lit, with a few shops opposite. The cafes were doing good business, cooking souvlakis over coals for the stall holders. We walked along the beach, watching a few fishing boats on the calm shining sea, and had a good view of the sunset over Mount Athos.

Orfani Beach to Zampetas Camper Stop, Zampetas Caravans & Motorhomes, Perea, Nr Thessaloniki, Greek Makedonia – 83 miles

Open all year. www.zampetas.gr. Note: closed Sundays. Free parking with free elec, water, dump point and WC. Free WiFi inside the accessory shop. Servicing, repairs etc available. N 40°30'9”  E 22°58'15”

For more photographs, click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/zampetas-motorhomes.html

An early bird-watching breakfast at Orfani Beach in the company of crested larks, wagtails and chaffinch. No seagulls, they seem to be scarce on the Mediterranean. Heading west again, we joined the A2 at Amphipolis and continued along a new section, through short tunnels high above the coast road. After 20 miles we took exit 27 (Asprovolta), a mile from Lidl, arriving to shop at 9.05 am just as they were opening up. Then back on the A2, with a toll at 49 miles (€2.40 again) by a layby/WC.

Following signsGreek_Autumn_2014_(14).JPG for Airport and Halkidiki, we turned south before Thessaloniki on E79, the inner ring road (peripherique), neatly avoiding the centre of Greece's second city, though these highways are all extremely busy. After the airport, we turned off (signed Epanomi) and followed the SatNav to Zampetas Motorhomes, which turned out to be on the left across a dual carriageway. U-turn at the next traffic lights and back to the entrance.

It's not a peaceful night stop, being next to a car Greek_Autumn_2014_(13).JPGwash on a noisy road under the flight path of Macedonia International Airport (handy for Ryanair!) but they do offer all the facilities for a free night, as well as motorhome repairs, service or accessories without obligation. We parked with hook-up, had lunch and then talked to Alexander Zampetas who, with brother Antonis, runs the business established by their late father in the 1970s. They and their staff speak English and German. We have never seen such aGreek_Autumn_2014_(11).JPG good place in Greece: official agents for several German brands (including Hymer and Carado), with a well stocked accessory shop and competent workshop.

In the course of the afternoon, Alexander replaced all our inside light bulbs with LEDs and convinced us of the need for air springs on the rear suspension. By 6 pm Barry was reversing our Carado out of the workshop, newly fitted with Goldschmitt air suspension complete with air compressor and pressure gauges. The difference in handling proved remarkable.

See our article English-Speaking Motorhome Service in Greece.

Perea/Thessaloniki to Coach & Motorhome Park, Vergina, Greek Makedonia – 69 miles (500 ft/150 m high)

Open all year. Overnight parking €4 inc water (no dump point). Elec hook-up €3. Free WiFi. N 40°29'6”  E 22°19'10”

On a drizzly grey day we filled with diesel at the adjacent car wash garage, headed north past the airport to join the inner ring road E79, then the E90 motorway signed Athens. We paid one toll at 35 miles (€3) and turned off 5 miles later at exit 17 for Kozani and Veria. After passing a service station, take exit 14 for Vergina and Veria, then follow the signs for Vergina and its Macedonian Royal Tombs.

Mr Theocharopoulos, owner of the guarded car and coach park next to his house, speaks German. It's a good secure place, gates locked at night, and only a short walk from the magnificent Royal Tombs. Since we've visited the site more than once before, we spent the wet afternoon on-line, the WiFi working well with our antenna. Finished with a warming meal of corned beef hash, the last of the pumpkin & apple cake with thick Greek yogurt, and the Flashman film 'Royal Flash'.

At Vergina, Greek Makedonia

Next morning the rain had stopped and we walked along to the royal tombs, a highlight of Greek Macedonia, including the burial tomb of the Macedonian King Philip II (father of Alexander the Great): http://www.ask.com/wiki/Vergina. A noisy school party was about to go underground, so we didn't revisit them. We had come to ask whether the remains of Philip II's Royal Palace, a mile or so away, are now open to visit. The site was closed when we were last here in 2011- and it is still closed for 'restoration'! Back at the motorhome park, we mentioned this to Mr Theocharopoulos. He said that even the villagers cannot get near the palace site and have no idea what is happening there.

The villagers do, however, know a tourist when they see one. Buying a loaf at the local bakery, Margaret noticed the price charged was higher than usual but paid up. Only back at the motorhome did she find a receipt in the bag for the normal price, which had been raised by 50% (and the difference pocketed). Not worth the walk back to the bakery to argue, but a reminder to check more carefully before leaving a shop. Sad times.

Vergina to Camping Vrachos Kastraki, Meteora, Nr Kalambaka, Thessaly – 106 miles (250 m or 825 ft high)

Open all year. ACSI Card rate €16 inc 16 amp elec and showers. Free WiFi at or near Reception. N 39.71313   E 21.61420

It was 6 miles back to the A2 motorway (E90 Egnatia Odos), where we headed south-west for Kozani. Rain fell, with a fog warning as we climbed through a series of short tunnels into the cloud. After 15 motorway miles the toll station at the top (2,880 ft/873 m) charged €2.40. There are no service stations, just a parking area with Kantina and WC 19 miles later, after Kozani. The rain gave way to sunshine as we paused for coffee. Signs warned of bears along a 15 mile stretch and there was high net fencing to both sides of the motorway as it cut through the mountains. We exited for Grevena West, still high at 1,980 ft/600 m, after 60 miles of brand new motorway with only the one toll. A real bargain, remembering the old road along this tortuous route!

Higher peaks appeared in the distance as we drove south on rd 15, a narrow twisting mountain route that advised snow tyres in winter. We dropped to cross a river bridge, then climbed high again through a magnificent rocky landscape. After lunch in the village of Ag Theodori at 77 miles (2,600 ft/790 m), we climbed to almost 3,000 ft before hairpinning down. On through wooded hills, glowing with autumn's russet shades like copper burnished in the low winter sun. The road was empty, the only sign of life being 2 flocks of sheep, each with a man and his dog.

We met the highway from Metsovo (E92) by a large well-stocked fruit stall, down at 825 ft/250 m, and turned left for Kalambaka. Past more fruit stalls to the edge of the town, where we turned left at 104 miles, signed Meteora/Kastraki. The entrance to Vrachos (= Rock) is 2 miles along on the left, opposite Hotel France. There are several campsites in and around Kalambaka, the area famous for the Meteora Monasteries, but only two are now open in winter: the choice is Vrachos or the much smaller Camping The Cave (a little further along on the right).

Camping VrachosGreek_Autumn_2014_(15).JPG is a huge place, though most of the site was closed off, being too soft and muddy. The two new toilet/shower blocks looked good but were locked up. The dismal winter facilities consisted of one old toilet for each sex, a single outside basin with hot water (seen in use for both cleaning teeth and washing up!) and two grubby shower cubicles with cold water, reluctantly heated on request. Two German vans filled the only level hard-standing area. Use of an old washing machine cost €5 (no drier – and no takers). The free WiFi only worked outside the restaurant (not serving food) and a loose dog ran around barking. The site really should not be open if that is the best it can do. It sells itself on the location, right below the Meteora Rocks with a view of the sandstone pillars. A bus for the circuit of the six monasteries open to visitors stops outside the gate. It's a popular campsite in summer, especially for climbers in tents, and has an outdoor pool.

As it was now dusk, the days being short in mid-November, we stayed, needing to fill the water tank and dump the waste before looking for somewhere better.

At Camping Vrachos Kastraki, Meteora, Kalambaka – 9 miles driven round the Meteora Circuit

Next morning we drove through Kalambaka, glad that it wasn't Friday (market day), when the narrow streets would be thronged. Along the Trikala road to Lidl (3 miles from camp), where the new in-store bakery was offering 25% off everything. M had to elbow her way in to buy savoury and sweet croissants, donuts and rolls!

Leaving the motorhome parked at the store, we walked back into the town centre to buy new maps (Road Series: Map 3 Epirus-Thessaly and Map 4 Central Greece at €7.95 each, the best we know). Also called in the ironmonger's that Jennifer runs with her Greek husband. She came here from Canada 22 years ago, after graduating in Vancouver, to teach English; married and stayed. We spent an hour talking in the shop – and only bought a washing line!

Back to Lidl for lunch in the car park before driving round the Meteora circuit,  anticlockwise like the tour buses to avoid meeting them head-on. It makes a great challenging cycle ride but not on this November day, misty and drizzling with cold rain. We passed our old favourite campsite, sadly closed down since the owners retired, and the two large icon workshops: souvenir traps where the coaches pause for free samples of loukoumi (the Greek name for Turkish delight).

Onwards and upwards to the Artemis Taverna (restaurant and guesthouse) on the right about 2 miles along. This place appears in both the Bordatlas and Camperstop Europe offering free overnight parking for customers, with hook-ups for a small fee. Hoping this would be an improvement on Camping Vrachos, Margaret went to find the owner, Kostas Arseniou. The adverts were misleading, to say the least. There were not '30 places' (Bordatlas), nor even '8 places' (Camperstop). In fact there was room for 4 to 6 vans at the most, on very sloping ground. The one German motorhome in residence was propped high on ramps. There were just 2 electric sockets on an outside wall of the Taverna, at €5 a night but only accessible with a very long lead across the public road. Kostas gave us a hard sell for the restaurant ('my mother is an excellent cook, dinner is served at 6 pm, today it is local sausage …') and added that he charged €2.50 per person for a shower, though use of the WC and WiFi inside were free.

Not tempted by the compulsory meal, we left to continue our drive round the circuit, with some superb views as the mist cleared. Having visited all the monasteries over several previous visits, we left them to the few tour groups out today. It is rightly a World Heritage site: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/455. On the descent to Kastraki, we paused to check out the only other campsite open, Camping The Cave. It proved small and rough, with basic facilities and no campers. The price was too much at €20, or €30 for 2 nights, though the man in Reception did throw in 'free coffee and free WiFi' as he tried to persuade us to stay!

Reluctantly, we returned to Camping Vrachos for a second night. Soon the German motorhome from the Artemis Taverna arrived to check in, as they couldn't face another night and meal there! There was also a noisy crowd of trainee climbers who were practising with ropes and knots around the site, since the weather was too poor for the rock face. Click here for a video of climbing on the Meteora rocks below the monasteries.

In the evening we tried the only taverna open in Kastraki, a short walk away. They served us a generous Greek salad, then chicken breast or pork chops freshly cooked over coals on an outdoor grill. Very good, apart from the luke-warm reheated chips.

Meteora to Moucha, Lake Plastira, Thessaly – 109 miles (790 m or 2,600 ft high)

Open all year. Free car park by the reservoir near the dam bridge. No facilities except a water tap. N 39.23816  E 21.75011

For more photographs, clickhttp://www.magbazpictures.com/northern-mountains.html

Mist still shrouded the rock pillars of Meteora when we left, aiming to reach the Gulf of Corinth by a route on back roads through the mountains that was new to us, plotted on the maps bought yesterday. It took 3 slow days and is not recommended for anything longer than our 7 metres or for those of a nervous disposition – and certainly not for caravans!

Guided by Road Map 3: Epirus and Thessaly, we left Kalambaka on the Metsovo road, turning off left shortly after passing the right turn for Grevena.

After 18 miles5[1][2].jpg the road had reached a height of 2,755 ft/835 m. It dropped a little before climbing higher through Kastania village to 4,600 ft/1392 m at 27 miles after a serpentine ascent with a 10% gradient sign. This is the Elatou Wildlife Refuge in the South Pindos Mountains, though the only animals at large were sheep, goats, cows, horses and, of course, dogs. Red and black snow poles stood ready along our way. The SatNav didn't like it, crying 'Unpaved Road', though it was roughly surfaced. We parked for lunch after 36 miles, down at 2,800 ft/850 m, by the turn-off for Haliki.

As the sun gradually penetrated the cloud, our drive continued through a high andGreek_Autumn_2014_(17).JPG rocky ravine by the Aspropotamos (= white river). Leaving the river after Ag Paraskevi to climb to Ag Nikolaos, we emerged from lovely deciduous golds into a sparse landscape of firs. The road was mostly good, if narrow, though two short sections had been washed away by a stream and rock falls. A tiny pilgrimage church stood by the roadside and cows were still grazing above 900 m (2,970 ft). In the village of Dessi (3,320 ft/1005 m high) we overtook a fully loaded cattle truck and trailer, with two layers of live animals on their way to lower pastures at Trikala. It was the first vehicle we'd seen on this mountain journey. A weather-beaten couple herding cattle further along the road did not return our wave – transhumance is a hard way of life.

At 4,190 fGreek_Autumn_2014_(18).JPGt/1270 m there was a newly built pilgrim chapel, before the larger villages of Neraidochori and Pertouli, each with a couple of well-lit tavernas and even a hotel. These were explained when we came to Pertouli Ski Centre: a car park on the main road by a deserted ski lift at 3,860 ft/1170 m. We stopped for a break and walked round: no sign of life, just some stationary logging trucks and stacks of wood. It was 3 pm and we'd managed 62 miles in about 4 hours driving!

Snow poles again marked the road as we zigzagged down to the tourist village of Elati with its hotel and souvenir shops. Continuing downhill, now below 3,300 ft/1000 m, we met a better road (from Arta) and turned left for Pili. We thought the mountains were behind us as we reached Pili at 75 miles, down at 600 ft/200 m. At Paleomonastiro we turned south for Mouzaki and Lake Plastira, climbing once again: up to 1,815 ft/550 m at Kriopigi, then 2Greek_Autumn_2014_(21).JPG,375 ft/720 m in Anthochori. The narrow road rose steeply through Kerasia to a maximum of 3,2285 ft/995 m, with a wonderful view of the dammed lake below.

We came down to cross the dam on a narrow bridge at the foot of Lake Plastira and were then relieved to see a large empty car and bus parking area on the left, behind an abandoned concrete tourist building of some kind. At least it was level and we'd seen nowhere better for the night. It became very dark, very cold and still, with nothing and no-one to disturb us.

Moucha to Domnista, Central Greece – 94 miles (1011 m or 3,335 ft high)

Open all year. Well-lit free parking area in front of village museum. No facilities. N 38.75873  E 21.84596

An early start after a quiet and lonely night. Heading east, after Kastania village the road climbed above the clouds to over 3,000 ft/912 m. Then it dropped steeply down round a hairpin bend to a mere 520 ft/158 m in Kallithiro, at 16 miles. Here we turned right for Zaimi, then right again (south-east) along arrow-straight roads between the cotton fields of the Thessaly Plain. What a contrast with the mountains. There were even stork nests. In Kallifonio at 20 miles we topped up with diesel: 'Pay Cash' was the only English the attendant knew!

In Kedros, 6 miles later and still below 500 ft, we parked to find bread. What a nice experience. Margaret tried the small supermarket, where the shopkeeper wouldn't let her buy the single loaf on the shelf. Another customer who spoke some English explained that it was yesterday's and not fresh. Then she led Margaret through the village to the wood-fired bakery where the loaves were still warm - and she wasn't even going that way herself. Compare with the baker's in Vergina earlier, a village living on tourists, who blatantly overcharged us!

Here we turned south, on a mountainous route towards the ski resort of Karpenissi. By LoutropigGreek_Autumn_2014_(20).JPGi village, at 38 miles, we were above the clouds again at 2,310 ft/700 m. A few hardy locals sat outside the café in the chilly sunshine but there was little room to park. By a wayside church, 6 miles later and up at 2,800 ft/850 m, we stopped for lunch. The new church of Ag Fanourios was locked but the lovingly fitted interior could be seen through the windows: the traditional carved wooden iconostasis with all the favourite saints, splendid chandeliers and carpets. Outside were picnic tables, a water fountain and an autumn forest view.  

Still climbing, we came to a memorial by the turning for Redina village, up at 3,300 ft/1000 m. A fighter plane was mounted above 2 marble busts of pilots, who presumably crashed into the mountainside. Onward and upward, we passed 3 separate drovers and a pack of dogs steering cattle along the road. We reached a height of 4,420 ft/1340 m before descending through lovely mixed woodlands and past a logging camp on the cloudy side of the mountains. Then after Fourna village, still up at 4,290 ft/1300 m and without warning, our road to Karpenissi was closed!

Consulting Road Map 3 (Epirus-Thessaly), we turned left on the longer and more winding route to Ag Georgios, down at 1,200 ft/363 m, where we met E952 (Lamia to Karpenissi). We had driven 69 very varied miles. Changing to Road Map 4 (Central Greece), we turned right for Karpenissi expecting a wider and easier main route, but were soon climbing a serpentine road lined with snow poles up through the tight village of Trimfristos to over 3,300 ft/1000 m.

Shortly before the new road tunnel leading on to Karpenissi, we had to turn right on the old Greek_Autumn_2014_(24).JPGmain road in order to turn left and go south, crossing above the tunnel! We were still climbing, to 5,100 ft/1545 m (beating yesterday's maximum of 1392 m), before dropping a little through the steep village of Krikello (nowhere to park at all) and on to Domnista. On the way out of this village we were relieved to see a reasonably level paved area by the little museum (closed) and a war memorial with a date in June 1942.

It was almost 5 pm and dusk soon fell as we put the kettle on and settled down for another peaceful night. It was cold, up above 1000 m, but the blown air gas heating worked a treat and our recent evenings are absorbed watching 'Breaking Bad'.

Domnista to Kyllini, Peloponnese – 138 miles (Sea level!)

Open all year. Free parking at the harbour. WC nearby. N 37.93460 E 21.14664

Away early (a bonus of 'free camping'), heading south on another narrow mountain road leading down to Nafpaktos on the north shore of the Gulf of Corinth. The weather had changed to a slate grey sky and light rain.

Over the first 3 miles we climbed 300 m (1,000 ft) to 1312 m and had our first view of the lake/reservoir Ag Dimitriou below. Along the next stretch the road had dropped away at one side, followed by a rough mile or so of pot holes and fallen rocks, but we were encouraged to continue by 3 cars coming the other way. The SatNav repeatedly advised a U-turn as we crawled along at 15 mph.

Suddenly, aGreek_Autumn_2014_(23).JPGt 6 miles, the road was newly laid with good tarmac! A mile later, up above 4,000 ft at 1217 m, there was a fine windswept war memorial dated 1 August 1950. It bore a crown, indicating which side it represented in the Greek Civil War between Monarchists and Communists that followed WW2. History is never far away in this country.

A dramatic serpentine descent followed, the steepest yet (first gear all the way), by Arachova on the lake, then past the turning for Neochori. The water level was low and we glimpsed the remains of drowned houses that the reservoir had claimed. Before crossing the dam bridge down at 1,685 ft/510 m we parked for coffee in a sudden heavy rainstorm. At almost 11 am we had completed just 16 miles!

The road climbed away from the lake, through Ag Dimitrios at 20 miles and up and up, reaching 3,860 ft/1170 m as thunder and lightning raged round the mountainsides. In Platanos, at 30 miles and 1,000 ft lower down (870 m), we parked by the springs for lunch, sitting out a hailstorm that was washing stones into the road.

On we went, down the bends to cross a river at a mere 1,000 ft or so (320 m) before hairpinning up again through Pokista to over 3,000 ft (928 m). Water gushed down the mountainsides forming brown waterfalls. This was a journey to remember! Descending through Simos village, the road was all but washed away. In Perivolia, still high at 2,660 ft/805 m, we were surprised to see a bus coming from Nafpaktos. The rain had stopped and there were terraced hillsides with signs of life and agriculture.

We stopped to photograph a fascinating line of very new bronze sculptures at thGreek_Autumn_2014_(25).JPGe roadside in the middle of nowhere, at 48 miles and a height of 810 m. They depicted a refugee family on the move – mother, father, granny, 5 children, a horse, dog and cat – with some names and the date 1930. Later we searched the internet but could find no information about this poignant tableau.

For more photographs, click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/transhumance.html

As the road dropped to below 1,000 ft/300 m after Paleopirgos there were olive groves and flowering cyclamen. We were approaching the fertile shores of the Gulf of Corinth, with a first view of the water from Dafni at 59 miles and almost sea level. On meeting the coast road we turned west through the port of Nafpaktos, ignoring the bypass as we needed to shop at Lidl. Then south-west to the new bridge over the Gulf of Corinth (toll €13.20), to join the E55 motorway south past Patras. We had reached the familiar Peloponnese at last!

After bypassing Patras through a series of new tunnels, the E55 motorway ends and becomes the 2-lane 'New National Road', continuing south-west (signed Pirgos). We soon turned off at Kato Alissos, to take the 'Old National Road' and continue through Kato Achaia to the coast at Kalogria.

There is an official paying Camper Stop at Kalogria (listed in Bordatlas and Camperstop Europe), open from the beginning of April to the end of October. Out of season the gates and facilities are locked, with water and power turned off, but there is plenty of space to park freely on the road outside, a short walk from the beach. We settled here for dinner but felt uneasy after dark, with stray dogs roaming and occasional cars coming and going.

Eventually we returned to the E55, drove south a short distance to Lechena, then turned off for Killini. At the ferry harbour there is a well-lit free parking area and we settled there next to a German motorhome. It was now after midnight.

In our 3-day journey through the mountains from Kalambaka, we travelled at least 3 times the distance a crow would have flown, with new roads and new experiences the whole way. The Carado had performed perfectly and we're very satisfied with having 'downsized' from a series of 6-ton RVs and vans pulling caravans. Lower fuel consumption is also a bonus, even when mountaineering.

Kyllini to Camping Ionion Beach, Glifa, Peloponnese – 11 miles

Open all year. www.ionion-beach.gr. ACSI Card rate €16 inc 16 amp elec and very hot showers in heated bathrooms. (Winter €15, or long-term deal with metered electricity possible.) Free WiFi (300 MB daily limit). N 37.83640   E 21.13340

We awoke to a view of ferries coming in and out of the harbour, serving the Ionian Islands of Zakynthos and Kefallonia (spellings vary for this, the island of Captain Corelli). It was warm and windy as we strolled round to collect ferry timetables before driving up the hill to park in Kastro village and walk up to the fortress.

Chlemoutsi Castle, Greek_Autumn_2014_(26).JPGvisible from miles around on its hilltop overlooking the harbour, was built in the 13th century when the Franks ruled this part of the Principate of Morea (Peloponnese). Over several visits, usually cycling up from the campsite at Ionion Beach, we've seen it transformed from a crumbling ruin with free entry (at your own risk). Now, still undergoing impressive renovation, it has opening hours (8.30 am-3 pm, closed Mondays) and a small entry fee (€3, or €2 for Seniors). There is a rough parking area but it's advisable not to attempt the short steep lane from the village in anything bigger than a car. The site is well worth a visit, even when closed, just for the view over the harbour and across to the islands.

We were amazed by the work in progress, the small museum (opened since our last visit) Greek_Autumn_2014_(28).JPGand the quality of the new information panels and signs in Greek and English. Chateau Clermont (Chlemoutsi), was built in 1220-23 by Geoffrey I de Villehardouin to guard the port of Glarenza (Killini) and the capital of the Principate at nearby Andravida. After the Franks, the castle was variously held by Turks, Greeks, Venetians, Turks again, until the National Uprising in 1821. It finally suffered major damage during bombardment by Pasha Ibrahim in 1825. See http://www.ask.com/wiki/Chlemoutsi for a full history. For more photographs, click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/chlemoutsi-castle1.html

From Kastro Greek_Autumn_2014_(30).JPGwe drove down to Lygia and on through Glifa, past the right turn for Camping Aginara, taking the next right for Ionion Beach - our favourite site in the whole of Greece, owned and run by the friendly Fligos Family. We settled on a sea-front pitch, chatted with the Sikh gardener/handyman from the Punjab and met the three winter-resident Austro-German couples who we've known for many years.

In the afternoon we enjoyed the luxury of good hot showers, did the laundry (dry in no time on the line) and washed the motorhome down after its long journey. Then it was time to relax, with a meatloaf for supper.

At Camping Ionion Beach, Glifa

For more photographs, click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/at-ionion-beach.html

A week of mild weather followed, ideal for short cycle rides in the local hills, walking the beaGreek_Autumn_2014_(31).JPGch, and driving into Vartholomio (5 miles) or Amaliada (17 miles) to shop.

Walking: We strolled along the shore to Camping Aginara, its overgrown pitches empty and forlorn, returning round the lanes. Pickers were busy harvesting olives, pruning the trees and taking sacks of olives by tractor to the local mills at Lygia, Kastro, Macho and Vranas – all working on full power. In the lemon groves the plentiful fruit was still ripGreek_Autumn_2014_(32).JPGening.

A longer beach walk in the other direction to the little harbour of Porto Glifa involved some scrambling, as the waves had exposed the rocks that lay below the sand and undercut the holiday shacks. The offshore island of Zakynthos makes a wonderful backdrop to the seascape: sometimes clear, sometimes lost in mist, bathed in the reds and golds of the setting sun, twinkling with lights at night. An ever-changing view from our pitch and the subject of many photographs.

Amaliada: To shop at Carrefour (for delicious spit-roast chicken) and Lidl (all the seasonal goodies: Stollen cake, chocolate covered marzipans and gingerbreads, Gluehwein …). Our visit to the Pikantika restaurant, where we've enjoyed many a lunch of chicken & chips, was the only disappointment. The genial old owner seems to have been replaced by his son, prices have risen and chickens have shrunk! We won't be back.

Vartholomio: For or the nearest bakery, bank, small supermarket and post office. We also like the well-stocked ironmongery/bicycle shop, where one of the women speaks German. Above all, we go to Vartholomio to eat at the comfortable taverna known as the Salz und Pfeffer (Salt & Pepper), owned and run by Michaelis Stergiopoulos and his father.

Salz und Pfeffer: The restaurant, signed down a side turn off the main shopping street, is open all day, every day, all year round – quiet in winter, busy in summer. You can also order a meal to take away. The skilful and dedicated Moroccan chef, Ibrim, has cooked there for many years and all the team speak English, as well as German. The food is excellent, using local produce and the best meat and fish to create dishes that are way above the average Greek taverna meal, yet not above the average price. A bowl of plump olives (their own produce), fresh bread and a bottle of chilled water always appear before any dishes are ordered. When we went for lunch with two friends (one vegetarian, one eating no red meat), a feast quickly followed: Greek salad with feta cheese, horta (wild greens), saganaki (breaded cheese fried in olive oil), stuffed peppers, chicken in a white wine sauce, tender oven-cooked beef in a tomato sauce (for us two carnivores), roast potatoes, a carafe of wine, with fresh apples and mandarin oranges to finish. All this on a quiet weekday afternoon!

In addition to all this, there is good free WiFi and you are welcome to stay and use it after your meal. Coffee is also available.

The enterprising Michaelis has undertaken a new venture this winter selling home-produced olives, olive oil and sweet preserves. The top quality, certificated extra virgin oil is available in 3 sizes in smart glass bottles under his own label, and we bought half a dozen. We wish them well with plans to export some of their produce to Germany and England.

Cycling:

1.  Via Arkoudi (with coffee and biscuits overlooking the Blue Flag beach) to Loutraki and Loutra Killinis, past the sulphurous Roman baths for a short steep climb to Ligia, along past the olive oil mill and water tower, then downhill all the way to Glifa and home. (18 km)

2.  Uphill through Glifa to Ligia, round the new link road climbing gently to Kastro (coffee available when the bar is open), then steeply down the old road to Loutra Killinis and return via Loutraki and Arkoudi. (24 km)

3.  Out via Arkoudi and Loutraki, steep climb to Kastro on old road, return via Machou to Vartholomio, climb to Ligia past Vranas church, downhill home through Glifa. (29 km)

The following week, the last in November, the weather changed dramatically, turning wet and stormy though still warm at over 20°C. That meant more time inside, reading and writing, working on-line and baking a Christmas cake. We finished watching 'Breaking Bad' to the end of series 4 and enjoyed some good films, including 'The Trap' (1966) with Oliver Reed and Rita Tushingham in the Canadian wilderness, and 'The Bridge at Remagen' filmed on-site with a reconstructed bridge, on a stretch of the Rhine that we know well.

Ford Garage in Pirgos: One damp morning we took the Carado (based on a Ford Transit) for a service. On the left of the New Nat Rd (E55), shortly before Pirgos, there is a very competent Ford dealershipGreek_Autumn_2014_(36).JPG (24 miles from our base-camp). The owner, Themistocles Vasilopoulos, speaks English and will service or repair all types of vehicles (including our American RV in the past). The work included an oil change, new oil and fuel filters (the air filter was found to be clean), fluids and antifreeze topped up, tyres and brake pads checked (all OK), service record stamped - all thoroughly and professionally done in 2 hours for a very reasonable charge (less than £100). There is a small waiting room, with TV, water fountain and toilet, and one of the staff fetched coffees on his motorbike, riding one-handed carrying a tray! The garage is next to an enormous 'China City' shop, so we passed an hour in there buying 2 rolls of non-slip matting and a new sweater for M!

Neighbours: We got to know our neighbours, Carol and Di from Hastings, and Margaret had a couple of good evenings with them playing Scrabble and sampling the Merlot brought from Sakar Hills Camping in Bulgaria! Barry fixed Di's folding bicycle, adjusting the brakes and handlebars, and advised her to take the buckled rear wheel to the shop in Vartholomio to have the spokes trued up (they charged just €5). The four of us then had a good long lunch together at the Salz und Pfeffer, for which we thank Carol and Di very much. The only otheGreek_Autumn_2014_(38).JPGr campers were a Swiss couple, Martin and Jacqueline, who we also came to know (see below).

Autumn ends in a Fall: On 3 December we were all set to move on, water filled and waste emptied, campsite fees paid and goodbyes said. Then, after dark, a brief hurricane came suddenly out of nowhere. A terrific east wind rocked the motorhome and blew the trees almost horizontal, snapping any weaker branches. Rain and then hail hammered on our roof, followed by a terrible cracking and banging. Opening the cab curtains, all we could see was a tangle of branches and twigs across the windGreek_Autumn_2014_(41).JPGscreen: a tamarisk tree had fallen and lodged a branch below the wipers. As soon as the rain and wind eased, Margaret waded through the rainwater pouring down the site to alert George Fligos, a very sound man in a crisis. George drove down to our pitch to illuminate the sceGreek_Autumn_2014_(43).JPGne and did a great job with his chainsaw, helped by the Swiss motorhomer, Martin Walter, who came out to help. They removed branches from the fallen tree until it could be lifted clear of the bonnet, allowing Barry to reverse onto the pitch behind. We saw no obvious damage but waited anxiously for daylight.

Next morning, to our astonishment and great relief, we saw there was not a scratch on the motorhome! Many branches and at least 7 trees had come down round the campsite, mainly tamarisks, but luckily there was no damage to property except to some railings in front of the apartments and a fire hydrant. For photos of that exciting night, see http://www.magbazpictures.com/the-fallen-tree.html

DECEMBER 2014

Ionion Beach to Panopoulos, Peloponnese – 53 miles (575 m or 1,900 ft high)

Open all year. Well-lit parking area at the 'Silk' petrol station/café on road 33. Water tap and WC. N 37.82325  E 21.68269

We finally left Ionion Beach in the late morning and drove to Amaliada, with a fill of diesel at a Shell station on the way at the ever-decreasing price of €1.19 (or less than £1) per litre. At Carrefour we bought sugar for marmalade making (on offer at €0.49 a kilo) and a plump roast chicken. Then to Lidl for more shopping and lunch on the car park. Rather than simply going south down the coast on the familiar E55, we decided to take an inland route through the mountains to Sparta.

We drove throughGreek_Autumn_2014_(45).JPG the busy centre of Amaliada and away north-east into the hills, an area of small vineyards, with flocks of sheep herded along the muddy lanes for milking (to make yogurt and feta cheese). The road was rough in places and narrowed through the villages, but improved after we joined rd 33 (a broader road from Patras to Tripoli). By 5 pm, with night falling and nowhere obvious to park, we asked at a petrol station/tyre depot/café just before the village of Panopoulos.

'No problem' said the young man in charge of the pumps and café, pointing to the forecourt, so we settled there for a rainy night, had a roast chicken dinner and watched the brilliant John Huston film 'Judge Roy Bean, with Robert Redford as the man who was 'the law west of the Pecos'. We once spent a night in Langtry (home of the Judge) when cycling across the USA. Happy memories of visiting his bar/courtroom.

Panopoulos to Dimitsana, Peloponnese – 66 miles (867 m or 2,860 ft high)

Open all year. Large free car park at Open-air Water Power Museum. Water tap. (Café and WC inside excellent Museum: entry €3, free if aged 65+)  N 37.58485  E 22.04657

For more photographs, click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/southern-mountains.html

A fine morning as we climbed rd 33 past hillside sheep farms to a pass at 2,840 ft/860 m, Greek_Autumn_2014_(46).JPGthen down 200 ft/60 m to the village of Labia, which tumbles down the mountainside with cloud clinging to the slopes above. Along its narrow thoroughfare, Labia has 2 butchers, 2 bakeries, 2 small tavernas, a post office and a council office, as well as a hotel on the road out! We continued downhill, slow going on this section of rd 33, weaving between pot holes and the flocks of sheep and big black goats (known as 'horn-wearers' in Greece!)

After 45 Greek_Autumn_2014_(47).JPGmiles, still up 2,235 ft/745 m, we stopped for lunch by the junction of rd 33 and rd 74, then climbed south-west to 3,630 ft/1100 m along rd 74, passing a closed campsite on the left. At 58 miles we turned left for Dimitsana, a couple of miles later. The long narrow village was almost impassable with parked cars and Saturday afternoon tourists. Breathing in, we squeezed past a good hotel, restaurants and souvenir shops selling shepherd's crooks and mountain honey. These once remote Arcadian mountain villages have been discovered!

Emerging onto the road south towards Stemnista, we soon turned right, downhill, signed to the Greek_Autumn_2014_(53).JPG'Water Power Museum: 1 km'. The narrow steep lane led to a large free car park, a short walk from the museum. Below is the Lousios Gorge, where we once walked to find the remains of Ancient Gortis and a couple of early monasteries.

The imaginativeGreek_Autumn_2014_(51).JPG open-air museum opened in 1997, co-funded by the Piraeus Bank Cultural Foundation and the EU Peloponnese Community Support Programme. It is open daily except Tuesday, from 10 am–5 pm, entry €3, Seniors free, including a leaflet in English. There was a small café, toilets and a souvenir gift shop. We asked permission to park overnight if we stayed to visit: 'No problem'. It is actually listed in Camperstop Europe, though the co-ordinates given there are at the turning off the main road.

The museum proved an unexpected delight, walking through a seriesGreek_Autumn_2014_(49).JPG of original buildings that made repeated use of the water falling down the hillside, from a fulling mill to make woollen cloth and blankets, to a tannery, to a gunpowder factory that supplied the Greek War of Independence in the 19th C. There were detailed explanations in Greek and English and an interesting 20-minute film (Greek with English sub-titles), shown in the original gunpowder mill. Watch this video!

After the museum closed at 5 pm, we were left alone for a peaceful night on the dark empty car park.

For more photographs, click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/dimitsana-museum.html

Dimitsana to Camping Paleologio, Mystras, Sparta, Peloponnese – 120 miles (230 m or 760 ft high)

Open all year. €23 inc 16 amp elec and showers. Free WiFi. Free oranges! N 37.07187   E 22.40531

Awake early, Greek_Autumn_2014_(57).JPGwe watched dawn break through the mist filling the Lousios Gorge below. Then came the rain! We drove back up to the main road (1 steep km) and parked in the bus lay-by. Over the road we climbed a flight of steps leading up to an open-air theatre, built in 2002. High in the cloud, the view was lost on us!

Driving on south, Barry edged the Carado through the next Arcadian mountain village of Stemnitsa, a long narrow passage of cafes, guesthouses and souvenir shops, at over 3,300 ft/1000 m high. It was quiet on this damp December Sunday morning but we couldn't imagine how tour buses reach the Water Power Museum in the summer season, coming through either Dimitsana or Semnitsa: there is no other route. Greek_Autumn_2014_(61).JPG

As we continued towards Karitena, the sun broke through and shone on the cloud-filled Lousios valley below us. It was like looking down from a plane. Only the distant towers of two separate power stations (operating near Megalopoli) poked their heads through the cloud beneath, resembling the masts of floating steamers. 

WGreek_Autumn_2014_(63).JPGe turned off the main road after 16 miles for the short detour to Karitena, parking in the village square, still high at over 1,500 ft/480 m. The place was deserted as we set out to walk up to the ruins of the 13th C Frankish castle perched above us. The steep path was paved and had a hand rail as far as a pair of canons flanking a statue of the Greek General Kolokotronis, a hero of the War of Independence. The panoramic view was already magnificent.Greek_Autumn_2014_(66).JPG Karitena formed one of the first strongholds of the rebellion in 1821 and Kolokotronis used it as a base of operations against Ibrahim Pasha, as well as a shelter for women and children. The castle was pictured on one of the old Drachma notes (and may yet be again!). Then we turned back, as the castle was closed and the slippery onward path had deteriorated to the point of being dangerous.

For more photographs, click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/karitena-castle.html

Returning to the main road, we continued west and across the Alfios River on a new bridge, near the fine Byzantine bridge that is closed to traffic. Karitena Castle remained visible on its hilltop, dominating the landscape for miles. We parked at the roadside for lunch with a view, shortly before Andritsena, another long tight village, at 34 miles and a height of 2,425 ft/735 m. Luckily we followed a bus through the narrow twists and turns!

Climbing up through a rainstorm, we turned left 8 miles later and continued the twisting ascent above 3,700 ft/1125 m, past the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, hidden in the mist and rain. This was not the day to revisit this remote antiquity, shrouded in its giant marquee. We have cycled up from sea level to view it more than once! Today the only other people out in the steady downpour were a couple of huntsmen standing by their pick-ups, wearing camouflage trousers and brandishing shotguns. Good way to spend Sunday!

After dropping through a series of hairpin bends, we took a break at Kato Melpeias at 62 miles, down at about 200 ft/60 m. As we sat in the motorhome drinking hot chocolate, a dog trotted by with a full-grown hen clamped in its jaws, legs dangling! Perhaps he had tired of guarding the chickens and broken free. At this lower level, the scenery changed from scrub, forest and goats to a landscape of olives, lemon and orange groves, but still it rained.

Meeting the E55 before Meligalas, we turned east, then took the old road towards Megalopoli rather than joining the new A7, as we hoped to find an overnight parking place in one of the villages along the way. No such luck - any space at all was filled by parked cars or a tractor or two! We climbed again to about 2,000 ft/600 m, then down to Paradeisia, where we turned right for Sparta. Rain and dusk fell as we continued along a narrow sinuous road, thankfully well surfaced. Still nowhere to park in tiny Georgitsi, so we finally decided to go on into Sparta and seek the shelter of the campsite near Mystra. At least we know the way in the dark!

The campsite behind the petrol station was empty but Peter, the English-speaking owner raised in Canada, is always to be found in his adjoining café/bar. We parked on a concrete path between the orange trees, since the grass pitches were flooded, plugged in and had a quiet evening after a longer drive than intended.

At Camping Paleologio, Mystras, Sparta

Following a very wet night, we dried out in bright sunshine. The facilities here are baGreek_Autumn_2014_(69).JPGsic, to say the least, and the price is too high, but the campsite is ideally placed for Mystras or Sparta with a superb view of the snow-capped Taigetos, the highest peak in the Peloponnese.

Peter, an amiable and gentle soul, turned the boiler on for hot showers and invited us to freely pick all the oranges we wanted, even supplying a pile of plastic carrier bags. His oranges are big, sweet, juicy and pipless, ideal for juice or for orange & lemon marmalade. Margaret soon filled all the bags. Peter explained that there is a glut of oranges this year and it's not worth the trouble ofGreek_Autumn_2014_(68).JPG harvesting them, since he would only get €0.03 per kilo – for the best oranges we've ever tasted. They were so good that we emailed a 'Still Life with Oranges' photograph to a select circle of friends, wishing we could send them some.

For more photographs, click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/spartan-oranges.html

The free WiFi worked well in the café/bar and intermittently inside the motorhome. Thinking ahead, we ordered the 2015 ACSI Camping Card & Books, to be delivered to Finikounda (from Vicarious Books: www.vicarious-shop.com. Also available from Amazon, or directly from ACSI in Holland: www.campingcard.com).

Mid-morning Greek_Autumn_2014_(71).JPGwe took a walk into Sparta (about 2 miles), posted a few cards and bought a second WiFi antenna at the computer shop. Decision time: do we buy coffees before walking back, or skip coffee and get a taxi? The taxi won and the price was about the same at €4 (though as we left our umbrella in the taxi, it eventually cost more!) We didn't go up to Mystras this time, as we visited it when last here with the caravan in June 2014. A lot has happened since then!

After lunch Barry hosed the motorhome down, washing off the mud from miles of country lanes, while Margaret cleaned inside. We also had to sort out the garage, to make room for our hoard of lovely oranges.

Camping Paleologio, Mystras to Mavrovouni Beach, Gythion, Peloponnese – 32 miles

Open all year. Level parking area outside taverna (closed) alongside beach. No facilities. N 36.73120  E 22.56095

Leaving Sparta on the main road south, we paused at Lidl and then continued, turning right (signed Areopolis) to avoid Gythion centre, then left at Marathia for the road that leads back towards Gythion. After passing 3 campsites, there is a lane on the right signed Mavrovouni Beach, at the foot of the hill that climbs to the town centre. (Camping Gythion Bay is open all year but we had no wish to return there after our experience last May. See http://www.magbaztravels.com/content/view/1541/30)

We'd heard that two friends (who once were motorhomers) had an apartment here for the winter, costing less than any Greek campsite. We soon found them in a tiny ground-floor bed-sit at Villa Antigoni, a short walk from the beach, but were not tempted to join them for a bargain winter-let, having seen it and met the neighbours! We did enjoy talking at length over a good lunch and shared a bottle of our Sakar Hills Merlot before retreating to the comfort of the Carado for a peaceful night by the sea.

Mavrovouni Beach, Gythion to Bus Station Car Park, Areopolis, Peloponnese – 26 miles (259 m or 855 ft high)

Open all year. Large free car park/market place. Water tap. WC and café at bus station. Note: Avoid Friday night due to Saturday morning market. N 36.66810  E 22.3828

After a farewell coffee with our friends, we drove through a rainstorm round the coast road via Skoutari to Kotronas, on the east side of the Mani Peninsula. The level concrete pier at Kotronas harbour is listed in Camperstop Europe as a suitable place for the night, but there was no shelter from the wind and waves that washed over the harbour

To avoid exposure to the storm we drove north-west across the spine of the Mani, climbing to 1,190 ft/360 m at Chimara before a 5-mile descent to Areopoli – a route we know well from many a cycle ride. On the edge of the quaint little town, 'the capital of the Mani', there is a large free parking area (that becomes a morning market on Saturdays) between the bus station and the school. It was still wet and the Carado rocked in the wind but at least we were high above sea level

Later we braved the weather to walk round to the central square, where only one simple taverna was open. We were the only customers apart from two old lads who played backgammon and nursed small coffees. There was very little choice of food and we didn't particularly enjoy the overpriced meal: rubbery Saganaki (fried cheese) followed by Smoked Pork of the Mani (a local speciality that is obviously an acquired taste) and luke-warm chips.   The TV news reported the latest Katastrofe (a favourite Greek word). This time it is flooding along the Evros River (the border between Greece and Turkey), along with the impending possibility of a Greek exit from the Euro

Areopolis to Gerolimenas, Peloponnese – 29 miles

Open all year. Free parking beyond Akrogiali Hotel near harbour. No facilities. (Meals available at excellent hotel; double room €35 plus breakfast. Free WiFi for guests.) N 36.48241  E 22.3997

It was still showery as we walked round Areopoli to find a bank, post office and bakery, and a replacement for the umbrella left in the Spartan taxi. Then we drove back via Chimara (up at 1,190 ft/360 m), to turn south at the junction for Flomochori at 430 ft/130 m (rather than dropping back to Kotronas).

The rain stopped as we followed the wonderful switchback route through the dramatic Mani landscape. The road rises and falls, almost at sea level through the villages of Ag Konstantinos and Nyfi, down to Kokola bay, then a long climb through Kozounas and Dimaristika to Lagia, the highest point at over 1,300 ft/396 m. Here we parked by the church and made a stray dog happy with Smoked Pork of the Mani, smuggled out of last night's taverna! Then it was down to the head of the gorge, up through Tsikala, and a final steep drop to Alika at 260 ft/79 m

Turning alongGreek_Autumn_2014_(74).JPG to Gerolimenas, a delightful sheltered harbour at the south-west corner of the Mani, we stopped in the free parking area behind the Hotel Akrogiali. We had stayed here while cycling round the peninsula last June and remembered a good room, with satellite TV, a bath, a fridge and a balcony directly overlooking the bay. Yes, the same room was available tonight, so we moGreek_Autumn_2014_(76).JPGved in

In the afternoon we walked round the tiny port, noting a plaque on the wall of the only other hotel declaring 'Patrick Leigh Fermour (Michaelis) stayed here while writing his book on the Mani in the 1950s and 1960s'.  The changeable December weather had turned so mild that men were fishing from the quayside in shorts. From our balcony we could see the pebbly sea-bed through the clear calm water.

It was good to have a long relaxing bath and watch TV before a tasty meal in the restaurant.

For more photographs, click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/gerolimenas-port.html

Gerolimenas to Neo Itilo, Peloponnese – 20 miles

Open all year. Free parking along well-lit sea front promenade. No facilities. N 36.69246  E 22.3896

Next morningGreek_Autumn_2014_(78).JPG continued sunny and warm, hardly credible for mid-December. After a 'continental' breakfast we walked out to the graveyard at the end of a 1-km track by the sea. The walled cemetery was fascinating, with small marble or stone houses containing tombs, since the ground is much too hard for grave-digging. They often had modern doors and windows giving a view of the interior, with photos of the deceased, flowers and lamps. One even had a mop and bucket in the corner. Returning to the Carado for coffee, we saw butterflies, anemone and crocus in bloom, and even a lizard darting among the stones

We drove up the west side of the peninsula (a much easier route than the east side) to Areopoli (16 miles) and parked beyond the bus station to look round the Saturday market that was in full swing. The stalls sold clothes, shoes and produce, including local honey and olives. Oranges cost €0.40 per kilo, which seems reasonable until we remembered Peter at the Sparta campsite being offered €0.03 for his large and luscious fruit.

Then down the hill for 4 miles to the sea front at Neo Itilo, where we had the entire promenade to oursGreek_Autumn_2014_(79).JPGelves, apart from a flock of goats in the field behind. There was one early kid: a pretty light brown with white spots like its nanny. On a walk round the tiny fishing harbour we noticed that the Black Pirate fish taverna has a new sign on a nearby patch of muddy gravel: 'Free Parking – Black Pirate' with a pictograph of a motorhome. It wasn't clear if that was for customers only but we preferred our spot on the road, by the sea. The Black Pirate was open, with octopus tentacles hanging on the line outside, though the lobster tank was empty. We were not tempted!

Back inside the Carado, we made an omelette for supper, watched a film (Sandra Bullock in 'While you were sleeping') and slept soundly under a clear starry sky.

Neo Itilo to Ag Nikolaos, Peloponnese – 18 miles

Open all year. Large free car park along the sea wall. Water tap. N 36.82314  E 22.28353

After a lazy Sunday breakfast of porage and fresh orange juice, we set off north along the beautiful Messinian Gulf road. It climbed sharply up to Langada, with a Christmas crib outside the lovely old church, and on to Thalamos at almost 1,500 ft/450 m. Sadly, there was nowhere to park and we wondered whoever manages to stop to visit the Mani Museum or buy mountain herbs and honey from the little stall.

From here the road swoops down to sea level again before we turned off left to Ag Nikolaos Beach (17 miles). We stopped by the small shore opposite a café/bar (closed), where one German motorhome was parked. After lunch, feeling uneasy about the three No Camping signs, we walked along the sea front for a mile into town and saw a much better place - a large level free car park between the sea wall and the road, with cafes opposite and a tap, where a bus driver was washing his vehicle. We fetched the Carado to park here for the night, and the German motorhome followed us!

Looking round Ag Nik we found a small lighthouse (no entry), several eateries (mostly closed) and 2 supermarkets that cater for holidaymakers or ex-pats, selling such luxuries as Quaker oats, Heinz beanz, Weetabix and corned beef at highly inflated prices. We did buy the English-language weekly paper 'Athens Views' (nothing like as good as the 'Athens News' that it has replaced), as well as a miniature size liqueur, Tsipouro with Honey, with which to feed the Xmas cake Margaret had made. We'd been looking for brandy but Metaxa only came in large bottles and we don't  drink it!

Back to home-made burgers and a thought-provoking film: Colin Firth in 'A Single Man', based on Christopher Isherwood's novel.

Ag Nikolaos to Petalidi, Peloponnese – 47 miles

Open all year. Free parking on sea front. No facilities. Avoid Thursday night due to Friday morning market. N 36.95758  E 21.93368

Another lovely morning as we drove north past the resort of Stoupa and through Kardamili, home of the late Patrick Leigh Fermour. Then the road hairpins up to Prossilio at 1,070 ft/325 m, its white stone church gleaming in the sunshine above the village. On to a maximum of 1,430 ft/434 m before Stavropigi, then down via Kambos to bridge the gorge bottom at 595 ft/180 m. One last climb before the descent to Kalamata – a massive blot on the coastal landscape, seen long before arriving.

We drove along the sea front, through the port and the busy town, quite a contrast to the quietness and beauty of the Inner and Outer Mani. Continuing west we stopped for diesel, passed Kalamata Airport (seasonal), and then shopped at Lidl in Messini (35 miles). Barry stayed inside the Carado as there were some unsavoury characters hanging about; last June we met a Dutch couple whose motorhome was broken into while they shopped at this very store.

Another 12 miles south-west brought us to Petalidi harbour, a favourite overnight spot. After lunch we strolled round and indulged in chocolate mousse cakes at the confectioner's. Dinner was a pizza from Lidl and the evening entertainment an excellent film called 'Flight'. Denzel Washington played an alcoholic (but brilliant) airline pilot and presented an interesting moral dilemma.

Petalidi to Camping Finikes, Finikounda, Peloponnese – 23 miles

Open all year. Winter rate €12 (€11 if staying over 2 months) inc 16 amp elec, showers and private WC. Free WiFi. N 36.80238  E 21.78171

On the way to Finikounda we took a side turning to the 'traditional village of Mistraki' up among the olive groves at 710 ft/215 m. This was to visit our old friend Fotini, along with her 11-month-old grandson Niko (named after his late grandfather) and Niko's proud mum, Helen. Niko is a delight, now walking and into everything, including the chocolate Santa we'd brought. It was very seasonal to sit drinking coffee with them by the Christmas tree in front of a cosy log fire in their cottage before driving the final 9 miles down to the coast and along to Camping Finikes.

After lunch rain set in again. Our old mate Rod came in for the afternoon, bringing post from England that had beaten us here, as well as a gift of freshly pressed olive oil and some good films to lend. He showed us the fine photographs he took at Stavroula's wedding last September (the daughter of the campsite owners, she was married in Pylos with a splendid reception here at Finikes).

After a night of torrential downpour, the campsite paths turned into flowing streams. After paddling over to the showers, we sheltered inside, sorting our pile of mail, catching up on-line and watching one of Rod's DVDs: Cate Blanchett in 'Charlotte Grey', based on Sebastian Faulks's excellent novel set in WW2.

The following day the rain gradually ceased, leaving the site very damp, muddy and gloomy, overhung with dripping trees. We drove into Methoni, for bank and post office, and parked in a drier place up by Reception on our return - and here we stayed over Christmas.

We had intended to remain at Finikes into the New Year but we became profoundly dissatisfied with conditions at the campsite (see our report on The Deterioration of Camping Finikes). Like several other regular winter campers (German, Dutch and English), we left earlier than planned.

At Camping Finikes, Finikounda

There were the usual domestic jobs of laundry, cleaning and motorhome maintenance, as well as the more exciting culinary preparations. Barry drained and cleaned out the water tank, among much else. Margaret made and pressure-cooked two Christmas puddings and 6 jars of marmalade (using oranges from the Spartan campsite and lemons from this one), as well as making treats like Millionaire's Shortbread, Lemon Cream Tart, a quiche and a dozen mince pies. Together we marzipanned and iced the Xmas cake. It should be noted that we celebrate the Winter Solstice on 21 December, the point at which the days start to lengthen - more important to a traveller than a commercialised version of a late Bronze Age Jewish myth – but we do like the traditional mid-winter food!

Rod joined us on the day for a roast chicken dinner, Xmas pudding and custard, bringing an extra large bottle of good white wine. A musical interlude followed, including the beautiful Elbow concert with the BBC orchestra: One Day Like This a Year will see me Right!

Over the festive period we also enjoyed 'Blackadder's Christmas Carol', the Stieg Larsson Millenium film trilogy: 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' etc, and a wonderful Australian animation 'Mary and Max' (a true story narrated by Barry Humphries), among much else. Thanks again to Rod (and to absent friends Dan and George), our prime sources of entertainment for the long winter evenings.

A younger English couple, Peter and Elaine (www.heidihymer.wordpress.com) touring in a Hymer, came in for an afternoon of good conversation. We also spent some time with Ian & Judit (www.bessyonthemove.weebly.com), sampling each other's cake, mince pies and snacks.

We cycled into and around Finikounda (4 km each way) several times for local shopping at the small supermarket and the butcher's. The newsagent was closed until April and both the bank machines were sealed, as they only operate April to October. For bank, post office or a better supermarket, we drove or cycled into Methoni (10 km each way)

Walking along the shore was not the same without our old friend, Aris the 'guard dog', who died during our last stay here in April. On midwinter's day, we did stroll as far as the stream that cuts across the beach before Camping Thines. It was a fine afternoon and the only form of life we saw was a lone male nudist bravely sunbathing - and a dead turtle washed up on the sand!

On a chilly Christmas morning we cycled into Methoni and warmed up with hot chocolate at the only bar open. It was packed with what seemed the entire male population, drinking coffee and playing snooker, sent out of the way while the womenfolk prepared dinner! 

One evening we cycled to our favourite small taverna in Finikounda, To Kima (= The Wave), one of the very few open. Yianni was engrossed watching TV (no other customers) but he immediately remembered us, brought out a dish of olives and put some bread to toast on the griddle. A meal of stuffed tomatoes, giant beans, enormous pork cutlets cooked over the coals and fresh hot chips soon appeared. Simple but perfect. The room was warm and welcoming, decorated for Christmas with a tree and all. It was sad to find the place empty on a Friday night, the local people obviously short of spare cash for non-essentials.

Our only other meal out was at the Kastro taverna in Methoni, where again we were the only diners. We had freshly cooked Saganaki, stuffed aubergine, steak & chips and chicken & chips, all good and hot, followed by complimentary home-baked Christmas cookies.

A less pleasant visit to Methoni for Margaret was to the dental surgery, next to the post office, with a painful tooth that waited over the Christmas holiday. Zoe, the dentist, works entirely alone (no assistant, hygienist or receptionist) and patients just sit and wait their turn. She took an x-ray, then extracted the molar after two anaesthetic injections. Total cost €30, all done in 30 minutes! Zoe is active in animal welfare and it's always worth a look in her waiting room, where there are piles of books and films for sale (mainly in English or German) in aid of the Stray Cats of Methoni.

After Christmas the weather deteriorated, becoming wet and stormy. The news was of snow drifts in England, with cars stuck overnight around Sheffield. Much worse was the tragedy of a cargo and passenger ferry, the 'Norman Atlantic' that had caught fire on its way from Patras to Ancona and was slowly sinking in a force 8 gale somewhere between Corfu and Albania. By nightfall on 28 December, less than 200 of the 500+ passengers on board had been rescued by helicopter. The horror was unimaginable. At the end of 29 December, another wild wet and windy night, we heard that everyone alive had now been rescued, with the Captain the last to leave, though the number of deaths was still unknown. The fire had started among the trucks on an Italian vessel that was on hire to ANEK Line. It was eventually towed to Brindisi, still smouldering.

Click: Latest News of the Norman Atlantic

Naturally, this disaster was of great interest to everyone on the campsite and led to much discussion of ferries and alternative overland routes. Our appreciation goes to Stan, at Camping Luminoso in Sicily, who immediately contacted us to make sure we were not involved.

Finikounda to Kakovatos Beach, Zacharo, Peloponnese – 65 miles

Free parking area at beach.  N 37.45721  E 21.63869

The day before New Year's Eve we drove north to Methoni in a thunderstorm, parked by the school and braved the rain to paddle round to the baker's. As Methoni seafront was awash, we continued to Pylos and stopped on the harbour there to eat lunch. Once the storm passed we went to the ATM to make sure we had plenty of cash, in view of warnings in the media about a run on the banks before the Greek elections in January. Also bought a back-up hard drive from the computer shop on the top road.

Continuing north along the very quiet coast road via Marathopoli, Ag Kyriaki and Filiatra, we stopped at Lidl just after Kiparissia and took advantage of reduced prices on Christmas favourites, such as Stollen cake. It was good to be back on the road.

Further north, shortly before Zacharo, we turned left at 63 miles, crossed the old railway line and followed a good road for 2 miles to the sea. There is a good well-lit parking area on asphalt outside a hotel (closed), opposite a taverna (open). This spot is in the Camperstop Europe book but we had it to ourselves, enjoying a pizza for dinner and a quiet night. We might have stayed longer but the taverna would surely be busy and noisy tomorrow, on New Year's Eve.

Kakovatos Beach to Camping Ionion Beach, Glifa, Peloponnese – 51 miles

Open all year. www.ionion-beach.gr. ACSI Card rate €16 inc 16 amp elec and very hot showers in heated bathrooms. (Winter €15, or long-term deal with metered electricity possible.) Free WiFi (300 MB daily limit). N 37.83640   E 21.13340

After a cold night it was only 8°C inside next morning, with a dusting of snow on the hills behind Kiparissia. Warming up with porage and the blown air heating, we realised we preferred to find a good campsite until the weather improved, so we headed for the comfort of Ionion Beach.

We headed north up road E55, through Zacharo busy with shoppers, then turned off for a break by Lake Kaiafas. The sulphurous baths were closed up and there is a tidy parking area, suitable for overnight off-season, but again there were no other motorhomes staying.

On past Pirgos and through Gastouni to our favourite site, arriving on New Year's Eve. Unusually, we shared the sea front with a trio of hired Bulgarian motorhomes from Sofia, though they left after a couple of days and we had the superb view of Zakynthos all to ourselves.

The month of January remained the coldest, wettest and windiest period we can remember in Greece and we were glad to return to a well maintained site with good heated facilities and its resident owners, the friendly Family Fligos.

Continued at: In Greece in the Spring of 2015