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2008 Winter in Greece PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

Winter in the Greek Peloponnese 2008

Margaret and Barry Williamson

January 2008

This is a fully illustrated daily travel log of a winter 2008 stay in an American Fleetwood Flair motorhome at the southern tip of the Messinian Peninsula in the Greek Peloponnese, including walking and cycling in the remote mountains.

After a 1,453-mile journey through France and Italy, from Cherbourg to Ancona, we arrived in the Greek Peloponnese for yet another winter in our favourite corner of Europe.

For the full, illustrated account of our motorhome journey to Greece (including some cycling and visits to expatriate friends in the Dordogne and Provence), click: Across France and Italy 2007

For images of our motorhome journey from Provence to Ancona, click: Going East.

For images of our journey south through the Greek Peloponnese, click: Going South.

For images of our winter stay in the southern Peloponnese, click: At Home Again.

For more images of our new-to-us Fleetwood Flair Motorhome, click: Flair.

10 December   32 miles   PATRAS to KALOGRIA, Greece   Taverna Car Park  

Landing in Patras and heading south to Kalogria Beach

Tucked up in our Greece1_07_(13).JPGinside cabin, away from the noise of departing lorries, we missed the early morning call at the port of Igoumenitsa opposite Corfu.

We had a leisurely set-breakfast in the Wild Rose Restaurant (3 waiters serving 2 couples!) for just €10 each. Fresh orange juice, all the coffee we could drink, rolls and croissanGreece1_07_(15).JPGts with butter and jams, a generous cooked platter of bacon, eggs, sausage, ham and tomatoes, a variety of fresh fruits and a mound of thick Greek yogurt and honey! We couldn't understand the queue in the Green Pepper cafι, where such a spread cost much more! We watched the Ionian Islands pass our window, as the ferry slipped between Lefkada, Kefallonia and Ithaki. It had been a good crossing.

Entering theGreece1_07_(22).JPG calm Bay of Patras, there was a view of the new bridge across the Gulf of Corinth. The snowy peaks behind the town were shrouded in ominous dark cloud as we docked at about noon and followed the trucks to the EΞOΔOΣ (EXIT). Turning right (south) from the harbour gates, we were immediately plunged into the chaotic traffic of Greece's third city. The new motorway bypasses Patras, well inland, but it has no easy link to the port!

Following the Greece1_07_(25).JPGmain road along the coast past St Andrew's Cathedral, we passed 'Praktiker' (large German DIY store), its car park full. A little further on, after the Eurospar supermarket, there was a free car park on the left with plenty of space. We walked back to Praktiker with a shopping list of items needed for the motorhome (rubber mats for the cab, anti-rust paint for the LPG tank, etc). The store had a full range of Xmas decorations, trees, lights, inflatable Santas, musical cards – trying desperately to sell the North-European version of Christmas to the Orthodox Greeks. Celebrations are much lower-key here, with Easter the most important religious festival, but we have noticed a gradual change creeping in over the years. We made coffee but did not need any lunch!

Keeping to the 'Old National Road' (rather than E55 New Nat Rd), we headed west to Kato Achaia, about 14 miles from the port, and turned down a narrow lane to the beach where we had previously parked (nicknaming it Goose Beach after the flock grazing there). However, some 'improvements' now made the shore inaccessible behind a high concrete curb – such is progress! Our breakfast waiter, who had learnt perfect English working on cruise liners, came from Kato Achaia and described the little village in the forest where he grew up, his voice heavy with nostalgia.

As we joined the NewGreece1_07_(26).JPG National Road and headed south-west, we noticed that the groves of orange and grapefruit looked green with bright healthy fruit, despite last summer's drought and fires. Fortunately it has been a wet autumn. Fuel prices have risen alarmingly since we left Greece last March (as they have everywhere), with petrol and diesel now costing about the same, at a touch under €1. Still less than in Italy and France, but the gap may be closing.

10 miles further down the New Nat Rd, we turned right onto a lane which crossed the railway line and took us to the Arachos air force base. Here we took a left, past the acropolis of Ancient Dyme, with evidence of recent archaeological work behind a locked gate and a sign forbidding photographs (it's a military zone). After an area of wetland (with surprisingly few ducks) we reached the coast at Kalogria.

It's a popular summer beach, with several tavernas tucked among the shady pine trees, but all was closed for winter. We parked by the shore, at the mouth of a stream, until a deluge of rain heralded a massive storm with flashes of lightning illuminating the more than wine-dark sea. Feeling too exposed to the wind and waves, we retreated a short way back down the lane, past the Hotel Amalia, to the shelter of a tree-fringed car park alongside a deserted taverna. We settled in to cook a fish stew for supper, only disturbed by more lightning and thunder overnight.

11 December   66 miles   KALOGRIA to LAKE KAIAFAS, Greece   Sulphur Baths Car Park

Chicken for Lunch in Amaliada and the Horror of Summer Fires round Lake Kaiafas

In the calm after the storm we returned 8 miles along the lanes, now busy with quarry trucks, to the New Nat Road. Heading south-west, a Shell station 3 miles along provided a fill of water and petrol (one free, the other at €0.979 a litre).

As we passed the familiar turnings for Lehena, Andravida and Kilinis, the sun appeared to light our first view of Chlemoutsi Castle. Over the Pineios River and through a brand new set of traffic lights (!) at the Gastouni/Ancient Elis crossroads, we continued to the next lights, then left for Amaliada, our favourite little Greek market town.

Parking at Maxi-Dia supermarket on the way in, we shopped before walking into the centre for the traditional chicken & chips lunch at the 'Pikantiko' grill. Our genial host (who grows ever larger) remembered us well. The periptero (kiosk) still had a copy of last Friday's 'Athens News', to catch up with the latest political scandal and environmental disaster. We had come home!

Back on the New Nat Rd, we pointed south, through Pirgos and overGreece1_07_(26c).JPG the Alfios River which flows down from Ancient Olympia. There was still no sign of the summer's disastrous fires until we turned left down the lane to Lake Kaiafas, a few miles north of Zacharo, where we have often joined a couple of motorhomes for overnight parking by the sulphur baths, which are closed up in winter. It was even possible to take a warm swim in the overflow pool if you could stand the smell!

Now all Greece1_07_(26b).JPGhas changed. There are no over-wintering motorhomes and the deserted cave-pool is blocked and stagnant. The water has been diverted to a brand new baths complex, including an outdoor pool covered by a sliding greenhouse, all behind railings and locked gates. We parked outside, near the lake, where there is still plenty of space. A walk around, through what had been lush woodland and reed-beds, gave us a stark impression of the inferno which had raged here (and presumably destroyed the old baths). Dead trees, charred stumps, blackened cliffs …

This year's Greek forest fires began in late June and spread to ravage the Greece1_07_(27).JPGcountry – the worst on record, following a record heat wave. 4,000 hectares of fir and pine forest were destroyed on Mount Parnitha above Athens; 3 firefighters died trapped in a ravine in Crete; 2 water-bombing planes crashed on Evia killing the pilots; 2 elderly people in Achaia were burned to death; and by the last week of July 100 fires per day were breaking out. But the Greece1_07_(32).JPGworst was yet to come at the end of August, when devastating fires tore through the area of Zacharo, Andritsena and Megalopolis in the central Peloponnese, claiming more lives. Altogether, the summer fires destroyed about 3,000 sq km of forest and orchard (2.3% of the country's surface area) – and killed 67 people.

Locally, the environmentalists' worst fears were confirmed when the government, right-wing ND (New Democracy), granted Zacharo Municipality a 20-year lease to develop the protected (but burned) coastline for tourism. Presumably the new baths are just the beginning. (Facts and figures from 'Athens News: Year in Review', 28.12.2007). And the residents who lost their homes or orchards still await compensation, as the wheels of Greek bureaucracy grind slow. Zacharo means Sugar Town (grown in the area) but things are far from sweet here.

Have a look at 'Greece Behind the Headlines' on this website - stories from just 2 editions of the weekly English-language Athens News.

12 December   32 miles   LAKE KAIAFAS to AGRILI, Greece   Parking by the Shore

Down the Coast through Pirgos and Kiparissia

Down the New Nat Road we turned right after 5 miles, just before the centre of Zacharo, following a new sign advertising Wohnmobil+Caravan Stellplatz. In Germany, a Stellplatz would be the equivalent of an Aire in France: a place for overnight parking of motorhomes, with dump and water, free of charge or for a nominal fee.

It was the first time we had seen such a sign in Greece and it led us to a scruffy clearing in what had been the pine forest on the sea-front at Zacharo. The only occupant was the German caretaker, complete with motorhome (Wohnmobil), dog, cat and satellite dish. He told us the price was €10 per night, including electricity and hot showers. Long-term rates might be negotiable with the owner, who was away for a week.

We continued south down the coast, with burnt forest still lining the roadsides as we passed a marble-cutting works, and petrol stations in pairs on opposite sides every few miles. After the crossroads for Tholo Beach Camping (right) and the Temple at Bassae (left), the trees became green again, with small olive groves pecked over by hens and turkeys, always guarded by a thin chained dog. The olive nets were spread on the ground as the harvest began.

About 10 miles from Zacharo we entered the region of Messinia – the south-west corner of the Peloponnese. It was showery and in the orchards the wet oranges shone like globes on the glossy trees. 9 miles into Messinia, just before Kiparissia, we stopped to shop at Maxi-Dia and its neighbouring Lidl, on the left (the last large supermarkets before our destinGreece1_07_(43).JPGation of Finikounda). Both stores had sold out of icing sugar, as Christmas approaches!

Negotiating the narrow road round the little port of Kiparissia (look out for the Ano (above) 3.5 ton route to avoid the worst), we continuGreece1_07_(39).JPGed south down the minor coastal road. Before reaching Filiatra, we took the second right turn signposted Agrili (the first being too narrow). After almost a mile, the lane reaches the shore, with a view of a 20th Century mock castle. Turn right, past a windmill, taverna (closed) and church, to the end of the sea-front and there is a large well-lit parking area right by the sea.

We made lunch and watched the birds on the shore, where a dipper bobbed along looking for food and chasing an intrusive wagtail away. As rain set in for the rest of the day we decided to stay and were lulled to sleep by the heaving of the waves.

13 December   43 miles   AGRILI to FINIKOUNDA, Greece   Camping Finikes €8.00

Revisiting Harry Fournier's 'Castle', Marathopoli and Pylos, as we head for Finikounda

Before leaving Agrili, we took a walk along the beach to the gGreece1_07_(48).JPGrotesque 'castle' built by Harry Fournier (a son of Filiatra who made his fortune in America). Clearly, he didn't have Walt Disney's resources or Ludwig of Bavaria's craftsmen at his disposal! The place looked sadly neglected, if not abandoned, since our last visit.

Continuing to Filiatra, there is a choice of route to Pylos. The main road climbs inland through the mountains, via Gargaliano and Nestor's Palace, while the narrower but easier road follows the coast via Marathopoli. Familiar with both, we chose the coast route. To take this, look out for a right turn in front of the church in Filiatra, signed 'Ag Kyriaki 4 km, Marathopoli 10 km'.

The narrow lanGreece1_07_(53).JPGe led through mature olive groves and past an olive mill, the air heavy with the smell of the presses, the route busy with tractors delivering sacks of olives, which were stacked high outside. Waving to the workers cutting and pruning the precious trees, we reached the sea at the little fishing harbour of Ag Kyriaki and continued down the coast, past rows of outdoor tomatoes.

In Marathopoli, 12 miles from Agrili, we Greece1_07_(54).JPGparked by the harbour, near the Taverna O Faros (the lighthouse). The colourful fishing fleet was at anchor, though the sea was calm, with a clear view of the little monastery on the offshore island of Proti. We had coffee and a walk round – the olive mill was working, the internet cafι was not.

After another 5 miles, past the right turn for Mati Beach (another good place for an overnight), the road to Pylos climbs to 295 ft, affording a good view of Navarino Bay, which shone like silver in the morning sun. We descended through olive groves hedged with prickly pear cactus (not native to Greece but plentiful in the south). At the turning for Voidokilia (a bird sanctuary/lagoon where flamingos can be seen), the sign pointed us straight on: 'Pylos 11 km, Camping Finikes 30 km'. There was another busy olive mill at the junction.

At Gialova, 13 miles from Marathopoli, we paused to check out Camping Navarino Bay on the right. It was open, with a couple of German windsurfers minding the place. We learnt that the winter price was €12 per night or €250 per month but were advised that better deals might be found in Finikounda!

In Pylos, 4 milesGreece1_07_(55).JPG later, we parked alongside the buses on the huge harbour (another good place for a night). After lunch we walked to the post office in warm sunshine to send our love to England (taking just 5 days to arrive, despite passing the 'last posting date for Xmas').

The last stage of our journey ran south aloGreece1_07_(56).JPGng 8 miles of narrow road (linking Methoni with the rest of the Greek world), then 6 miles of good road eastwards, over 3 hills, to the tiny fishing village/summer resort of Finikounda. A pair of good campsites cater for winter visitors: Camping Finikes (between the main road and the beach, 2 miles before the village) and Camping Thines (turn right to the shore, a mile past Finikes).

We found the gates to Finikes open, just 3 other motorhomes present, and a notice on Reception door inviting newcomers to settle in. We did just that.

14 December 2007 to ?? January 2008   At Camping Finikes, FINIKOUNDA,   Greece

Christmas and New Year, Meetings and Greetings, the Earth Quakes and the Waves are Blessed

For the time being,Greece1_07_(84).JPG we are settled by the shore at the foot of the westernmost finger of the Peloponnese, between the harbours of Methoni (where we were married) and Finikounda – one of our favourite winter haunts.

Time passes easily, walking the beach or ridingGreece1_07_(61).JPG in the hills behind, which provide many miles of quiet but challenging cycling. We have old friends to visit in Finikounda, Mistraki and Lachanada, as well as new ones to be made on both campsites. Bicycle and motorhome maintenance, reading and writing, 'Athens News' crossword puzzles, Greek TV, films and music (thanks to the wonders of compact disks – and to the friends who lend/exchange them), a cat to feed … a full life!

Our neighbour on Finikes is a lone English motorhomer, Rod in a Swift Sundance - see The Sundance Kid Out West on this website), with whom we've spent many hours talking and walking. Barry has helped to overhaul Rod's bike, so we might yet have company on a cycle ride or two. B also fitted electronic alarms to our new cycles, which work well (that is, they've not been stolen yet!)

We caught up on the campsite news with the marvellous multi-lingual receptionist, Andrea, and joint owners, Ilias and Spiros. The olive harvest is drawing to a close and the prolonged drought of last winter/spring/summer has taken its toll, with the yield down to as little as one-fifth of last year's.

There areGR_07_08_(182).JPG several good places to eat, including the new 'Palamidi' in Finikounda where we celebrated the birthday of John, our sturdy friend and walking companion, with him and Lisi. Regular visits to their hillside home above Mistraki are another of the joys of this area, climbing a thousand feet on our bicycles, raiding their library and sharing long conversations, which are continued in the tavernas of Finikounda and Methoni on many a Saturday night!

The weather is pleasant, alternately sunny and showery, but always well above freezing with daytime temperatures in the 60's F. Our new digital 'weather centre' (from Lidl, of course) adds interest, recording min and max temperatures indoors and outdoors, as well as humidity, air pressure, phases of the moon, date, time, etc. Just a little worrying that it's all controlled by wireless from Frankfurt-in-the-Fatherland!

For a post office, supermarket or WiFi internet bar, we cycle into MetGR_07_08_(176).JPGhoni. It's 5 miles (and 3 hills) by main road, or almost twice as far by our preferred route on the back lanes, climbing through Kamaria and Evangelismos. Whichever way we go, we never tire of the splendid view of Methoni Castle and harbour before dropping to sea level.

Cycling and Greece1_07_(87).JPGrambling remain a joy in this deeply rural area. In the mild damp winter, the orchards are thickly carpeted with yellow oxalis, the waysides lined with clusters of beautiful purple iris, the meadows studded with jewel-like anemones. Even a humble dung beetle, gathering goat droppings on a track, had us reaching for the camera.

Over the festive season we spent plenty oGreece1_07_(80).JPGf time cooking (and therefore eating!) There were mince pies and Xmas puddingss to be made, while the cake baked in France had to be marzipanned, iced and shared. A gift of oranges and lemons was turned into lemonade, marmalade and lemon curd. Other presents of local mountain tea, olive oil and giant cabbage are all appreciated. Good use is being made of our new bread-making machine, setting it to work overnight so that we wake to the smell of a fresh morning loaf. Highly recommended!

Christmas celebrations are still fairly low-key in Greece, compared with the main religious festival at Easter. The Orthodox will go to church and gather for a family meal of stuffed turkey, while the custom of present-giving on this day is gradually being adopted, though not on the lavish scale of Western Europe. Those called Christos, Christina or Chryssa also celebrate their name-day, while Emmanuel and Manolis take the 26 December and Joseph/Josephine wait till the 30th. (Name days are given more importance than birthdays.)

On Christmas Eve we Greece1_07_(78).JPGcycled into Methoni to collect our mail (thanks to those who sent us cards) and heard the uniformed school band from Pylos playing carols. We were surprised to be greeted by a mature trombonist – Rose, an old friend and former motorhomer, now living in nearby Lachanada! Traditionally, Greek carol-singers also turn out for New Year's Eve, accompanying their Kalanta with tinkling triangles (on sale at 3 for €1 in Finikounda newsagents!)

On the morning of 25 December an intrepid group of Finikounda WomenGreece1_07_(79).JPG took a dip in the sea, as we watched from the safety of our bicycle saddles. Our own exercise that day was a 15-mile ride up to Kaplani and Zizani, returning via Lachanada. In Kaplani we met a despondent group of Bangladeshi immigrant workers hanging round the phone box, wondering why there was no olive-picking work that morning! We tried to explain and gave them one of the packets of Marlborough cigarettes we carry for Greek shepherds.

In the evening we walked along the blustery darkening beach into Finikounda and joined a trio from Camping Thines at the 'Dionysos' restaurant. It was quiet (only one table taken, by the cheery log fire) and the usual range of meat and fish dishes was on offer from the grill at normal everyday prices. An extra treat was the Melomakarona (honey macaroons, the traditional Christmas cookies) and cherries in syrup for dessert 'on the house'.

New Year is an important festival on the Orthodox calendar, being St Vasilios or Basil's Day. He was the Bishop of Caesaria, who prayed for help when the local tyrant demanded the citizens' wealth. Basil's prayers were answered, the tyrant disappeared, and the loot which had been gathered was distributed to the poor, hidden inside cakes. A nice story. Children here used to be given their presents on New Year's Eve and the western figure of 'Father Christmas' (invented by Coca Cola in the 1940s) is known to them as Ag Vasilios (St Basil) rather than Santa Claus. Confused - who should they believe in?! At least their letters to Santa are now answered, thanks to a new service introduced by the Hellenic Post, who had a special box in each post office (even Methoni!)

The New Year cake, Vasilopita, is still cut in every home on New Year's Eve and the slices distributed in a set order: the first for Christ, the second for Mary, the third for Vasilios, the fourth for the house, the fifth for the head of the family, the next for mother, then for each child. A piece is also cut for any absent member. Whoever finds the coin hidden in the cake is especially lucky. (The 'Athens News' doesn't say who eats the first 4 slices, though!)

On our New GR_07_08_(127).JPGYear's Day, while Rod was with us enjoying a glass of wine and a slice of Xmas cake, we were all startled to see the sky blacken behind an enormous flock of wheeling starlings that circled over the campsite, the sea and the village for several minutes. GR_07_08_(130).JPGThousands of them. It was around noon, so they were not gathering to roost, nor is it the season for migration. Just as we found the binoculars to try and identify them, 3 shots rang out from the brave huntsmen in camouflage gear and the birds scattered.

Epiphany (6 January) is also a religious holiday in Greece. In Finikounda, the faithful gathered in the church at 8 am for the Wave Blessing service (said to commemorate Christ's baptism, when the waters of the River Jordan were stilled). At 7.14 am that morning, we had all been shaken by an earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter Scale, its epicentre in the sea just off Leonidio in the SE Peloponnese. It was apparently felt in Athens and as far away as southern Italy, but luckily caused little damage due to its depth, 50 miles (80 km) below sea level. A minor tremor had occurred off the island of Zakynthos a few days earlier.

Greece is the most seismologically active country in Europe, with a long history of destructive earthquakes. At Ancient Olympia, columns still lie where they fell. More recently, in 1986 a force 6 hit Kalamata (30 miles from Finikounda), leaving 20 dead, while in 1999 a 5.9 Richter killed 143 in Athens. The most deadly in living memory was in 1953, when a 7.2 quake hit Zakynthos, killing 455 (perhaps inspiring the earthquake described in the book 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin', set in neighbouring Kefallonia). We are told that for the last 40 years all new buildings must be earthquake-proof, and hope this claim is not on shaky ground!

Returning to GR_07_08_(139).JPGEpiphany: We went down to the village harbour in time to seeGR_07_08_(140).JPG the procession make its way from church to jetty, where the impressively attired priest cast his cross into the waves at 11 am. When we saw this ceremony in the ports of Corinth and Killinis, a silver cross – at the end of a blue silk ribbon – was thrown to a group of men, who had to dive for the honour of retrieving it. In the Finikounda version, a small wooden cross (which floats) was chucked at 4 young swimmers, the oldest of whom immediately grabbed it. By 11.05 am it was all over. We hoped the prayers had been enough to calm land as well as sea, as we went on to cycle up to Mistraki for lunch with John and Lisi.

28 January – 1 February 2008 57 miles FINIKOUNDA to MISTRAKI, Greece

Among Friends and Villagers: Walking and Talking, Feasting and Mourning

We left Camping Finikes for 5 nights at the end of January, driving first towards Kalamata to shop at Champion/Carrefour (a superb roast chicken) and Lidl in Messini. Returning, we headed for the remote and semi-abandoned hill village of Mistraki, inland from Harokopio (locally known as HK).

We parked and lived among Mistraki's tiny and charming population of geriatric goat-herders, enjoying the generous hospitality that is only given by those who have so little themselves. We have got to know them very well indeed. Nikos (head goat-herder and proud donkey owner) and his wife, Fotini, asked us in for a drink and we finished up staying for 3 hours and consuming large plates of chips, fried eggs, goats cheese, bread, horta (wild greens cooked in oil), wine and sweet cookies – all of it their own produce. Not home-made was the Nescafe and evaporated milk that Fotini opened specially for us. Not a word of English was spoken and our Greek vocabulary was soon stretched to its limits!

Lovely people – lots of closeness and touching and laughter. Their beautifully kept cottage was the home of Nikos' grandfather, a tall bearded man in the family portraits. Fotini came from HK, where she worked in the rice fields as a girl. The photographs we had left there a year ago were still displayed on the mantelpiece and we took some more – all we can offer in return for their unforgettable kindness. We left laden with more fresh eggs and pure white goats cheese.

Four other old ladies in black passed to and fro with their goats – knocking on our van door so that we would look and wave and laugh: Angeliki, Efgenia, Vassilo and Gramatiki (she is 94). Everyone in the village (including those in the churchyard) had the surname 'Kyriopoulos'. If we had stayed any longer, we would have become Bari and Margarita Kyriopoulos. The sad ruins of other houses were once home to a larger population, who emigrated to the USA in the first half of the 20th century.

Whilst at Mistraki, we did a 10-mile walk in the hills, in the company of John, our venerable friend of many years who lives in a traditional stone-built house a kilometre above the village. Miles of farmers' tracks, in every sort of condition, wend their way among mountains, valleys, headlands, bays, orchards, vineyards, olive groves, remote villages, grazing goats and the ruins of bygone eras. We paused to light candles to the Panagia (Virgin Mary) in a tiny well-kept church in the middle of nowhere, wandering at will, meeting with no gates, no problems, no sense of private ownership.

The ubiquitous Oxalis carpeted orchards and olive groves with lush clover-like foliage and delicate yellow flowers, which will die down during the summer. A native of South Africa, it only arrived in the Mediterranean some time in the 20th century. The plant clearly found conditions to its liking, preferring cultivated soil and becoming rampantly invasive. Many other wildflowers (including iris, anemone, grape hyacinth and crocus) were attracting colourful butterflies. Almonds (the first trees to blossom, ahead of their leaves) were thick with white or pale pink flowers.

After 4 hours of this glorious rambling, Lisi welcomed us back with bowls of hot soup made from the produce of their vegetable plot. Temperatures dropped below freezing at night, though the days were clear and bright. Margaret made gifts of cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and pumpkin into a large curry (along with the remains of the Champion chicken), which warmed the four of us in our motorhome one evening. Another memorable meal was taken by a log fire in nearby Falanthi, where John drove us to his local - the Ag Pelagia Taverna.

The last day of January was the funeral of his Beatitude the Archbishop of Athens (and all Greece), Christodoulos, who had died from liver cancer: a day of national mourning with schools and businesses closed. He was succeeded by the splendidly named Ieronymous, Bishop of Thebes.

2 February 2008    10 miles    MISTRAKI to FINIKOUNDA,    Greece

The Village Festival

Woken in Mistraki village by the ringing of the bell, we soon found our motorhome surrounded by parked cars and pick-ups. Younger people and children had joined the six elderly inhabitants, wending their way up the track to the village church, built on the high point near the water tower.

Investigating, Margaret met first Nikos and then Angeliki, dressed in their Sunday Best – but it's Saturday! We soon learnt that today is the name day of the little church dedicated to Ypapantis: a festival attracting the extended families of the villagers. The church had been decorated with fresh flowers, palm fronds framed the entrance and bread was being handed to the congregation as they gathered outside after the service. A stall had plastic toys for the youngsters. We'd never seen so many people in Mistraki, most staying for lunch with their elderly relatives.

After walking up for a farewell coffee with John and Lisi, we drove back to Finikounda and settled once more at Finikes, to be greeted by the lone occupant, Rod. Nice to be missed!

February 2008    Back at Camping Finikes, FINIKOUNDA,    Greece    €8.00

Return to Finikounda for all the fun of Earthquakes, Strikes and Snow

At Camping Finikes at the end of the Messinian Peninsula, in the far southwest corner of the Greek Peloponnese, we passed an eventful February. Finikes is one of 2 good winter campsites near the fishing village of Finikounda. We have used both sites in previous years and have even written a report on the other one, Camping Thines, for the MMM (Motorcaravan Motorhome Monthly, the UK's premier magazine in its field). You can read the report on this website: click Camping Thines. This year we chose Finikes – a mile further from the village but quieter and more spacious (visit: www.finikunda.com/c/finikes). Finikes costs less, though Thines now has the advantage of WiFi internet for those who need it.

Camping Finikes faces south and is at the far western end of a long beach, sheltering under a rocky headland but with very easy access from the main Methoni–Finikounda–Koroni road. It is owned and managed by 3 members of local, related families. Ilias has a shop in Finikounda, while Spiros lives and works at the campsite for much of the year. The helpful German receptionist, Andrea, speaks excellent English, Greek, Dutch and other languages and has used these skills to produce an illustrated multi-lingual guide to local natural and historical sites. Living in Finikounda, she is quickly available on her Dominator motorbike when needed.

The winter price is the same as last year: a fixed €8 (under £6) per night for 2 people with a motorhome/caravan, regardless of length of stay. This includes all the electricity you can safely use, copious hot showers and the key to your own toilet. The pitches are all generous in size and clearly demarcated by hedges. Oranges, lemons and grapefruit grow around the well-wooded site in winter. There is a kitchen with electric hotplates, fridge and freezer; a laundry with automatic machines and large sinks with hot water. In-season there is also a bar, shop and restaurant. Off-season, you could have the campsite to yourself, as we often did, and free access to the washing machines.

The month was punctuated by a series of earthquakes in the Peloponnese, all measuring around 6 on the Richter scale. We slept through the first pair (Richter 5.4 and 5.5), which rattled Patras during the night of 4/5 February.

The second pair, at about noon and 2.15 pm on St Valentine's Day, were stronger (6.5 and 6.4) with their epicentre below the sea just 26 km/16 miles south of Methoni. These quakes were felt in Italy and Egypt. In Finikounda, the mini-market floor was sticky from smashed honey jars, while at John's house, up above Mistraki, some of the many books tumbled from their shelves. We were sitting in the garden there enjoying lunch when the second tremor shook the stone walls. 'Un tremblement de terre?' asked their French-Canadian guests in surprise. Oddly, we hadn't felt the first quake at all as we cycled the route between Iamia and Mistraki. A smaller tremor (4.6) followed the same evening.

Next morning the local TV news showed cracks and broken windows in older property in Methoni and Koroni and many schools had closed for safety checks. We saw no obvious damage though – Methoni's splendid castle is in about the same state of ruin as before! The 'Athens News' reported 'Strong Quakes Strike Southern Greece', fortunately without casualties.

A sixth earthquake (we're beginning to lose count!) shook our motorhome on the evening of 20 February, its epicentre again out at sea off Methoni, force 6.1. We hope it's the last for now.

Greek Government proposals to delay the age for pensions caused one-day national strikes on 13 February – naturally, a day we tried to go into the Post Office in Methoni. Returning there 2 days later, M asked if there would be more strikes: 'Bound to be!' She asked when: 'No idea, we'll just get a fax'. She asked why: 'Pensions – they want us to work till we're 80'. She went on to ask the young sub-postmaster what had happened to his usual boss (a man probably in his 50's): 'He's retired, I'm in charge now'! Trying not to laugh at the unconscious irony, M also asked when Carnival Sunday/Clean Monday fall this year, as the Carnival decorations were appearing on the lamp posts. The postmaster helpfully gave a date in early March. When we came to write it in our diary, it turned out to be a Thursday!! Greek Post Offices are wonderful institutions (as we often think, while standing in a long slow queue, all smoking beneath the No Smoking sign – postmaster as well).

As if earthquakes and strikes were not enough, the mild weather of December and January suddenly turned much colder and windier in mid-February. Overnight on 17-18 Feb, Athens experienced its lowest temperatures for 40 years, with widespread snow around Corinth, Athens and Northern Greece. Many villages were cut off and schools closed. Here at Finikounda, early risers found a temporary dusting of snow and the water pipes were frozen all morning. Bitter cold weather was also reported from Britain, while a motorhoming couple from New Zealand told us they were missing the best summer for many years Down Under. We should be there!

An eclipse of the full moon in the early hours of 21 February completes the month's phenomena. At least we haven't had a shipwreck yet. Margaret's native Blackpool has a new tourist attraction: an Irish Ferry, grounded on the beach during a storm whilst heading for Heysham, is attracting record numbers of sight-seers and looters. Beware bargain packs of McVitie's Chocolate Digestives!

to be continued . . . .