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2008 Greece into Turkey PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

FROM GREECE INTO TURKEY: SPRING 2008

By Motorhome from Finikounda in the Greek Peloponnese to Alexandroupoli on the Border with Turkey

Margaret and Barry Williamson

March 2008

This illustrated travel log describes a motorhome journey to Turkey by motorhome in the spring of 2008. We started from Finikounda in the south-west Greek Peloponnese where we had spent the winter of 2007/08. For full details of this period of cycling, walking, writing and spending time in the company of good friends, click: Winter at Camping Finikes.

Our journey to Turkey took us first of all to Gythion (for the opportunity to cycle round the Mani peninsula). We then drove to Alexandroupoli on the Greek/Turkish border via Sparta, Corinth, Athens, Thessaloniki and Kavala.

For Galleries and a Slide Show of images, click: Motorhome to Turkey

For the story of our ride round the Mani, click: Cycling the Mani Peninsula

For full details of our Fleetwood Flair Motorhome, click: Fleetwood Flair

17 March 2008   85 miles   FINIKOUNDA to NEO ITILO   Overnight Parking on the Seafront

From Messinia to Laconia, into the Mani

After 3 months' stay, it was IMG_1683.JPGtime to leave our favourite winter base in the little fishing village of Finikounda. We were sad to bid farewell to the good friends who live in the area (especially John & Lisi, Gordon & Wendy and Rose & Alf), as well as to fellow motorhIMG_1523.JPGomers and travellers met on Camping Finikes and Camping Thines, particularly Rod (click: Sundance Kid Out West), Malcolm (click: Lithuania: Camping Harmonie), and a fine cook and raconteur from Glasgow. But the sun shone and the Spring weather made us restless: the road beckoned. With motorhome and cycle maintenance, cleaning and laundry up to date, we had decided to head for Gythion and to cycle round the Mani Peninsula before heading for Turkey.

After picking a laGreece1_07_(86).JPGst bag of lemons from the campsite trees, we were gone, following the familiar road which climbs through lush olive groves to Iamia. From this tiny village the road drops to the east side of the Messinian peninsula at Nea Koroni and follows the twisting shoreline north, through Petalidi (a good place to park on the waterfront) and on to Messini (about 30 miles). Here, as usual, we stopped at the Lidl supermarket by the roundabout to restock and eat our lunch (warm pies from the nearby Champion store, which also supplied a roast chicken for dinner later).

Cupboards and fridge/freezer packed, we continued past Kalamata Airport (which only has flights to Thessaloniki in winter, opening to international package holiday flights from May-Oct). The busy city of Kalamata, which gaveRTT_(21).JPG its name to succulent black eating olives, is the capital of Messinia. It's not our favourite town, with chaotic traffic and no chance of parking except out by the port. There are a couple of campsites to the east end of the long waterfront but they are too small and overgrown for larger motorhomes, and usually closed in winter. We were glad to pass through Kalamata during the quieter afternoon and turn south, down the wonderfully scenic road which skirts the coast, twisting its serpentine way between the Messinian Gulf on one side and the Taigetos Mountains on the other: the Outer Mani.

We climbed inland, a scene of wooded slopes and rugged peaks, deep gorges and high ridges, before dropping to sea level at Kardamili. Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose many excellent books include 'Mani', chose to settle in this delightful old village, where we believe the author and WW2 veteran still lives, now well into his 90's.

From here the road Flair_(43)[1].jpgpasses the holiday resort of Stoupa before climbing high again, through tiny villages with delightful little Byzantine churches and bell towers - Pigi, Platsa and Lagada – reaching a height of over 1,500 ft. Coming down, we crossed the border from Messinia into Laconia. At Itilo the stone walls of the ruined fortress of Kelefa could be made out on the harsh silent hillside to our left, before we descended swiftly to the coast at the little harbour of Neo Itilo, tucked beneath steep cliffs below the looming Taigetos.

The village is almost deserted in winter: a good place to park for the night alongside the shore, quiet and well-lit. In summer, we're told a fish restaurant on the north side of the bay offers free camping to customers.

18 March 2008   25 miles   NEO ITILO to GYTHION   Camping Gythion Bay   €12.00

Via Areopoli and Gythion to Mavrovouni Beach

The day began with a 5-mile climb to Areopoli, perched 840 ft above itRTT_(28).JPGs port. Sadly, the remote stony landscape was blackened by last summer's fires, the trees clinging to the slopes mostly dead. We got a fill of petrol (now €1.10 a liRTT_(29).JPGtre) and parked easily at the edge of town to walk the cobbled streets of the Mani's small capital, named after Ares, the Greek god of war (known as Mars to the Romans). Blue and white bunting (and free sweets in the post office!) told us that we had just missed a weekend of celebration commemorating 17th March 1821, when the Maniot hero 'Black Michael' is reputed to have begun the uprising against the Turks which became the War of Independence. A statue in the square portrays his legendary courage. We lit a candle in a tiny old church, the better to make out the wall frescoes in the dim interior, and wandered along to admire the little stone cathedral built in 1798, so well described by Leigh Fermor (in 'Mani, Ch 4, The City of Mars').

Driving north-east towards Gythion, we found that at Nea Marathea a new road had been cut across to join the road to Sparta, bypassing Mavrovouni and Gythion. Watch out for a right turn signed 'Gythion' if you want to reach the campsites at Mavrovouni Beach, or the port 4 miles to the north of them!

We drove into Gythion and parked on the seafront north of the harboRTT_(33).JPGur. The town, which has a small ancient theatre, was the port for Sparta, lying 30 miles to the north. Legend maintains that this is where Paris spent the night with the fair Helen (the King of Sparta's wife) before they set sail for Troy. Today it's a bustling town, with plenty of places to stay or dine (featuring octopus strung on lines to dry). Even in the winter months, there is a weekly ferry to Crete (departing at 1.00 pm on Wednesdays, taking 7 hours to reach Kasteli) and more frequent boats to the offshore island of Kithira. Walking along the main street towarRTT_(31).JPGds the ferry office, we were pleased to find an ATM with cash (most are empty at present, due to bank workers' strikes!) There is also a good newsagent for maps, postcards or the 'Athens News'.

The Tourist Office ('EOT') is hard to find - and hardly worth the effort! The lone assistant could not tell us if there was any internet access in Gythion, nor which of the campsites at Mavrovouni might be open. Her job was simply to hand out glossy brochures describing Laconia in flowery prose, which she did very nicely.

Driving south from Gythion, over a low hill, there are 3 large campsites set along the beach on the left: first Camping Meltemi Beach (gate closed and no room to park on the road), then Camping Gythion Bay, followed by Camping Mani Beach (both open, same price). We chose Gythion Bay, as it had a large level pitch near the sea, a handful of Austro-German residents and all the oranges we could pick! Facilities were minimal (the only hot water being in the dingy showers). OK for short stay, as the guidebooks put it.

After lunch we made some plans and phone calls, packed our panniers for a 2-day ride round the Deep Mani Peninsula, picked oranges, curried the remains of yesterday's roast chicken and anxiously watched the weather forecast!

19-20 March 2008   See CYCLING THE MANI PENINSULA in the European Cycling Section, and it is also copied below.

This is an excerpt from Patrick Leigh Fermor's excellent classic account of a journey round the Mani in the 1950's, before the road was completed, before tourists, before new building, before charabancs and before wirelesses; when the caique and the donkey and perhaps the bicycle were still key to travel.

The Abomination of Desolation

"On the map the southern part of the Peloponnese looks like a misshapen tooth fresh torn from its gum with three peninsulas jutting southward in jagged and carious roots. The central prong is formed by the Taygetus mountains, which, from their northern foothills in the heart of the Morea to their storm-beaten southern point, Cape Matapan, are roughly a hundred miles long. About half their length - seventy-five miles on their western and forty-five on their eastern flank and measuring fifty miles across - projects tapering into the sea. This is the Mani. As the Taygetus range towers to eight thousand feet at the centre, subsiding to north and south in chasm after chasm, these distances as the crow flies can with equanimity be trebled and quadrupled and sometimes, when reckoning overland, multiplied tenfold. Just as the inland Taygetus divides the Messenian from the Laconian plain, its continuation, the sea-washed Mani, divides the Aegean from the Ionian, and its wild cape, the ancient Taenarus and the entrance to Hades, is the southernmost point of continental Greece. Nothing but the blank Mediterranean, sinking below to enormous depths, lies between this spike of rock and the African sands and from this point the huge wall of the Taygetus, whose highest peaks bar the northern marches of the Mani, rears a bare and waterless inferno of rock." (Mani, Travels in the Southern Peloponnese by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Penguin Books Paperback, 1958.)

21 March 2008   At GYTHION   Camping Gythion Bay   €12.00

Preparing for the journey to Turkey

Today is the Equinox, marking the start of Spring, and a Full Moon, and Good Friday in most of Europe (the Orthodox Easter being later this year, at the end of April).

An auspicious day to rest - or rather to write up our Mani cycle ride and make preparations for the onward journey.

22 March 2008   119 miles   GYTHION to CORINTH   Overnight Parking on Seafront at Isthmia

Via Sparta and Tripoli, then by motorway to the Corinth Canal

Turning left from the campsite, it was only 2.5 miles to the new Gythion bypass. Heading for Sparta, we climbed northwards, in the shadow of the Taigetos range, to our next stop 25 miles along at the Lidl store (on the left, a couple of miles before the city centre). There was still some snow on the highest peaks of the Peloponnese.

Sparta, capital of Laconia, was very busy on this sunny Saturday morning, as we made our way through the centre, over the Evrotas River bridge and away north towards Tripoli. Apples and potatoes were on sale at the roadside as we climbed to over 2,600 ft, crossing the border into Arcadia.

Just before Tripoli, 63 mileRTT_(34).JPGs from our start, we joined the motorway for Corinth. There were no services along the way on our side but we lunched in the first of several rest areas. After 9 miles we paid a single toll of €3, then climbed gradually for another 6 miles to a short tunnel. Emerging at 2,400 ft, we crossed the mountainous border into Korinthia.

Past the exits for Ancient Mycenae and then Ancient Nemea (both wonderful sites with excellent museums, previously explored at leisure from a base at Camping Mikines in Mycenae). The neatly pruned vineyards which stud the dry landscape bear the grapes for the famous Nemean reds of the area.

On the opposite south-bound side of the motorway we saw a large RTT_(35).JPGrest area in front of the neatly cut hillside of a historic stone quarry, which supplied ancient and medieval Corinth. Soon the imposing mass of Acrocorinth could be seen above on our left – the largest and oldest fortress in the Peloponnese, built on the ancient acropolis. Atop a pinnacle of rock at a height of 1,900 ft, the Franco-Byzantine-Venetian-Turkish fortifications rise above their curtain wall. The view alone is worth the climb – but not today (we have cycled up and explored it once before).

On meeting the PRTT_(38).JPGatras-Corinth-Athens motorway, we turned towards Athens, taking the exit just before the motorway crosses the Corinth Canal (signed to Epidavros). We parked alongside the nearby RTT_(36).JPGAB Supermarket and walked onto the old main road bridge, 218 ft above the Canal, for photographs. We were sorry to miss the chance of a summer boat trip through the Canal (but not sorry to forgo the opportunity of a bungee jump above it!) The cut, linking the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf, looks remarkably narrow, with both ends visible. The Canal, completed in 1893, is also spanned by a railway bridge to our north and the new motorway to the south, as well as a small bridge at each end that rises from the water, for light traffic.

We had driven RTT_(39).JPG114 miles and decided on a good overnight parking place we know, 5 miles away. By the southern entrance to the Canal at Isthmia, it's quiet and well lit along the waterfront, with an occasional boat being tugged through the Canal entrance for entertainment. We watched a couple of fishermen on the beach, setting up their rods on tripods, and wondered at their patience. As darkness fell, the sea was illuminated by several large ships anchored off-shore. Were they waiting to go through the Canal, or to dock in Pireus where there has been strike action?

23 March 2008   296 miles   CORINTH to SKOTINA BEACH   Overnight Parking on Seafront

A long day via Athens, Thermopylae, Larissa (for LPG) and the Vale of Tempe

Sunday (Easter in 'Catholic' Europe) proved a good day for travelling round Athens, with light traffic and no congestion. We made an early start from Isthmia, straight onto the Corinth-Athens motorway, across the Canal and, after 3 miles, paid a toll of €3.30. It was a dull grey day, with no wind and cooler: 14 deg C at 8.30 am.

The motorway runs through several short tunnels, 250 ft above the sea, while the old road hugs the coast below. There was one service area (complete with Goodys Restaurant and overpriced fuel), 21 miles after the toll. In another 9 miles the motorway divides at Elefsina, with an exit for Athens centre and Pireus (to be avoided if at all possible!)

We continued on the 'Attiki Odos' (built to access Athens' new Markopoulo Airport), which neatly bypasses much of the chaotic capital. A small toll was paid 6 miles along, just before we passed a service station (with no space for us to park). After another 9 miles we left the smooth tarmac of the new motorway (which continues to the airport) and joined the busier Highway 1, the old motorway northwards from Athens to Lamia and beyond. The next toll station was 10 miles along, 3 miles before a larger service station, where we took a coffee break. We were surprised at our height, over 1,000 ft, as there was no mountain scenery.

Dropping gradually to 500 ft we crossed a flat dusty plain with light industry, pasta factories and flour mills strung along the highway. The next toll, 20 miles from the previous one, was just before the exit for Chalkida and the bridge across to Evia (Greece's next largest island after Crete), looming uninvitingly to our right.

93 miles from our start, we passed the exit for Thiva (Thebes), remembering how we once took the Thebes-Elefsina road, which appears to be a quicker route to Athens or Corinth than the motorway. It may be shorter, but it's a very steep, narrow and tortuous road for a large vehicle – never again!

Lake Yliki, a huge reservoir that looked alarmingly low, bordered the next stretch of motorway on our right. Then we passed the exit for the village of Kastro, which gives access to the little-known site of Ancient Gla, a citadel on a low hill which was once an island in the drained marshes. It's worth the short detour for those interested in Mycenean remains, freely open.

Continuing north, the motorway met the coast, passing Akritsa (from where ferries cross to the northern end of Evia) and Ag Konstantinos (for ferries to the Aegean islands of the Sporades). A new section bypassed the holiday resort of Kamena Vourla, where we have sometimes spent a night outside the large campground (closed in winter). We emerged from a new long tunnel before running parallel with the old highway as far as Thermopylae (= warm gates, due to the hot springs there). Another good place for off-season overnight parking by the spa complex on the left of the highway.

We stopped just before that, at the larger-than-life statue of LeonidFlair_(46).JPGas, the hero of Thermopylae (you can't miss it, on the right!) Having joined the tourists to take the obligatory photograph, we deserved a lunch break after driving 164 miles. The recent film 'The 300' gave the Hollywood version of the battle for the pass of Thermopylae in 480 BC. The ancient historian Herodotus reported that an army of 1,700,000 Persians, led by Xerxes II, invited the 300 Spartans to surrender their weapons. The reply of their King Leonidas was 'Come and get them', before he and his men fought to the death. A short walk across the road leads to the burial mound, bearing the famous inscription which has been translated as 'Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by, that here obedient to their laws we lie'.

There was a service station 6 miles on, before the Lamia exit, for those desperate for overpriced fuel. The next length of motorway was unfinished and we drove east on the narrow 2-lane highway through the little port of Stylida, where we spent Christmas 2006 at Camping Interstation. After about 17 miles of this busy road, the new Aegean Motorway began at Raches. We duly paid a toll 6 miles along, then crossed an expanse of empty featureless wheat country, heading inland to Larissa.

We took the first exit for Larissa in search of a fill of LPG, to run our heating, cooking and fridge when not hooked-up to electricity. It's not yet commonly available in Greece: the outlet we knew in Patras had closed and those in Athens and Thessaloniki (supplying city taxis) are very difficult to find. Along the main road towards Larissa, about 3 km before the centre, there is a lane on the right signed 'Autogas' which indeed leads to an LPG filling station, next to the city's playing fields. It was firmly closed on this Sunday afternoon, so we settled on the adjacent empty car park with a pot of tea. When we enquired whether it was OK to stay there for the night, the nice young man in the stadium office explained there would soon be a football match, starting at 5 pm! He phoned the Autogas station (whose owners live in the house behind) and they kindly opened up especially for us!

On through Larissa, after driving a total of 265 miles, we rejoined the motorway for a brief spell before traversing the Vale of Tempi. This 25-mile stretch of twisting, narrow, dangerous old highway runs through a gorge alongside the Tempi River. The motorway tunnel which would ease the congestion is nowhere near completion. It's far too busy to be scenic – a notorious road for accidents, with only one overcrowded parking area on the riverside. Paying a €4 toll to use this absurd road was the final insult!

Emerging from the gRTT_(44).JPGorge, we regained the coast at last, with the welcome Flair_(48).JPGsight of Platamonas Castle, built to guard the northern entrance to the Vale. At the first opportunity, we turned off to the beach, at Skotinas. The long empty waterfront, between a small Air Force base and Camping Afroditi (closed), provided an ideal place for the night. With a view of the illuminated castle, we were parked between the sea and the towering mountains that culminate in Greece's highest peak, Olympos (at 9,626 ft or 2,91 7 m). We took a walk round the little resort, the moon glinting on the snowy mountain range to the west.

It had been a long drive (our longest day so far in the Flair), on mostly completed motorways with regular small tolls totalling €20.60. We were charged at Class 3 (motor caravan or minibus), which is slightly cheaper than Class 2 (car + caravan).

24 March 2008   260 miles   SKOTINA BEACH to ALEXANDROUPOLI   Municipal Camping Alexandroupoli Beach   €17.50

Past Thessaloniki and Kavala, almost to the Turkish Border

A bright morning, with the snow covering the rounded shape of the foothills of Mount Olympos reflecting the sunshine. Driving north on the minor coast road for 3 miles until we could join the motorway at Leptokarya, we found we had unintentionally bypassed a toll point (shame!)

The smooth 6-lane motorway soon took us past the sign for Mt OlymRTT_(43).JPGpos, then the exit for Ancient Dio (another site worth our previous visit). There are many campsites along this stretch of coast, all very crowded with Greek visitors in the summer months and closed in winter. A new tunnel bypassed the town of Katerini, 18 miles from our start, and 6 miles later we came to a smart new Shell service station advertising 'Autogas' (LPG). We pulled in to check and found the LPG pump not yet in service, but learnt that Shell are to start selling Autogas in Greece as the restriction on LPG cars is being lifted. Good news (see http://www.autogas-forum.de/lpg-stations/a-lpg-stations.htm).

Continuing towardsRTT_(46).JPG the port of Thessaloniki, capital of Greek Macedonia, the motorway follows the coast across flat marshland. We crossed the delta of the Aliakmonas River and then the Axios River, which flows down from the Republic of Macedonia, where it is known as the Vardar. The Macedonian 'name game' is currently being played out, with Greece alone in its unwillingness to stop calling the country FYROM (= former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), and still using 'Yugoslavia' on road signs.

We willingly paid the only toll of the day (€4.30) just before the Axios bridge, happy to contribute to the wonderful motorway we joined 9 miles later, the new E90 or 'Egnatia Odos', which bypasses the chaos of Thessaloniki, circling to the north of Greece's second city. It has no campsite that we know of and is best avoided!

This new motorway towards Alexandroupoli and Turkey is now mostly completed, with one advantage – no toll points yet; and some disadvantages – no services, fuel or rest areas, and very few exits! Perhaps these will be added later. It was strangely quiet as we headed east, along the north shores of Lake Koroneia and the larger Lake Volvi, to the north of the Halkidiki peninsula. The older highway ran to the south of the lakes, perhaps still taking the traffic. At exactly 100 miles from our start, we passed the exit for Mount Athos (the holy peninsula of monasteries, open solely to men - and only with a permit).

6 miles later we were relieved to reach the coast and the exit for Asprovalta, as fuel was running low. Driving on the old main road, back towards Thessaloniki, we soon found a Jetoil station (a bargain at €1.09 a litre) and a nearby Lidl. There was even an Aldi store being built between the two, the first we've seen in Greece. Returning to the centre of Asprovalta, we followed the old main road up the coast, passing Camping Achilles on the left after about 4 miles. Unlikely as it seems, this was open (as listed in the Caravan Club guide) but we had our sights set on completing the drive to Alexandroupoli. The new motorway could be seen high above us, disappearing into a tunnel.

At Nea Kerdylia, 12 miles after Asprovalta, we turned left and parkedRTT_(52).JPG opposite the Amfipolis Lion for a lunch break. There was no information about the huge statue, sitting on his plinth below a wooded hill, next to rows of ancient stones neaRTT_(49).JPGtly stacked like dominoes. A shepherd grazed his flock, a van pulled up hoping to sell us some apples and a couple of stray dogs watched hopefully. None of them seemed to notice the lion!

The next section of the 'Egnatia Odos' is not yet complete and we had to turn right, over the Strymonas River, to rejoin the coast road for the next 30 miles or so, via the spa resort of Loutra Eleftheron.RTT_(53).JPG Our route became a motorway again10 miles before Kavala, with 2 busy lanes in each direction (and still no tolls or services).

We didn't take the eRTT_(47).JPGxit for Kavala, knowing that the port lay over 600 ft below on a headland. In the past, we have explored the area from Camping Irini (one of a pair of campsites, a couple of miles each side of the town). From there we visited the site of Ancient Philippi and the place where St Paul christened Lydia, the first Christian baptism. We also took a ferry to the island of Thassos for a day – but not this time.

Staying on the motorway, we climbed to over 1,000 ft. After another 25 miles, a short section of old road took us across the Nestor River, the border from Macedonia into Thrace, Greece's easternmost region, home to a substantial Muslim community. Rejoining the motorway, we bypassed the town of Xanthi, then passed the exit for Lake Vistonida, exactly 200 miles from our start. Previously driving this way to Turkey, the road crossed the lake - a wonderful sight with its resident herons, pelicans and flamingo – and we had camped at Fanari.

Now, the new motorway cuts a swathe across country, well north of the lake, towards and past the city of Komotini. It's a noticeably poor area, with headscarved women working in the wheat and cotton fields or tending the flocks. The small villages were signalled by a new pencil-slim minaret or a Muslim cemetery. To the north lie the Rodopi Mountains and Bulgaria; to the east, beyond Alexandroupoli, the Evros River forms the Turkish border. It seems a long way from Athens!

25 miles afterFlair_(53).JPG Komotini, we left the motorway (signed Plaka) to drop to the coast and follow it for the last few miles to Alexandroupoli. The vast municipal campsite (open all year) is on the right, about 1.5 miles before the city. Arriving just as a fierce gale blew up, we parked on the pathway near the shower block, clear of the many high trees. An electric storm raged through the night and we were pleased to be in off the road, moving onto a sheltered pitch next morning when the wind died down.

Amazingly, there was only one other van on the huge campsite - and it left next morning before we made contact. In past visits, we have found this place a meeting ground for those going to/from Turkey and Bulgaria, exchanging information and travellers' tales. It was here that we first met Bec and Kev, our good friends now living in Australia. And a pair of Dutch cyclists on their way to Istanbul, who we encountered more than once. Where is everybody?

25-29 March 2008   At ALEXANDROUPOLI   Municipal Camping

Time to prepare for Turkey

The Flame RTT_(66).JPG(or Floga) Lighting ceremony had taken place at Ancient Olympia on 24 March and the TV news showed the flame's progress via Patras to the marble stadium in Athens, for its onward flight to China for the Beijing games. The diminutive and peaceful Tibetan protestors were very roughly handled by the brave Greek police, in sharp contrast to the way that petrol bombers and rock throwers in Athens are normally left alone.

The TV also showed celebrations for Greece's RTT_(56).JPGNational Day, 25 March, with parades in all the towns (armed forces and uniformed schoolchildren, an alarming combination and not at all in step). At Alexandroupoli, we heard the canons being fired on a very wet cold morning. This annual ritual attempts to prolong the myth that the Greeks actually fought a War of Independence from the Turks, after centuries of collusion and mutual benefit.

AlexandroRTT_(57).JPGupolis, modern capital of Evros, is located near Ancient Sali, on the Roman road to Constantinople. The last major town before the border, it is still an important staging post on the route to Turkey. The port began to boom when the railway came in 1871 (the Orient Express came through) and the wide streets were laid out by the Russians in 1878, when the imposing lighthouse was built by the harbour. We admired it from Goody's restaurant, opposite, on our way to the Tourist Information office further along the waterfront. They had a range of glossy leaflets about the town and the Evros Delta, along with a promotional DVD, but were of little help on the practicalities, like laundry and internet facilities. The only internet place we found was full of disaffected youths playing noisy games and smoking.

The island of Samothrace lies a 2-hour ferry ride offshore: soRTT_(60).JPGmetimes clearly visible with snow-flecked peaks, at other times shrouded in mist. We made the crossing on a previous visit and marvelled at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, whose mysteries were celebrated until the 4th century AD (St Paul's visit having failed to convert the population). The rough sea deterred us from going over this time. Click here for a link to the previous visit on 1 September 1997).

The campsitRTT_(58).JPGe itself is well placed, less than a mile east of a Lidl store and just over a mile west of the town (a pleasant walk along the beach). The brand new laundry rooms, with deep sinks and hot water, still lack washing machines, so the washing was done by hand. We also used the time to collect a packet of mail from the post office (on the long waterfront), to catch up on writing letters and emails and to update our website. Health insurance (by internet) and a Green Card for the motorhome (by phone) had to be arranged. We got a final stash of Euros from the bank, walked to Lidl with a rucksack, emptied our waste tanks and finally felt ready for Turkey.

30 March 2008   125 miles   ALEXANDROUPOLI, Greece to GALLIPOLI PENINSULA, Turkey   Kum Camping & Motel   €12.50 (YTL 25.00)

Across the Border to Turkey: Kesan and Gallipoli

Correctly judging Sunday to be a quiet time for crossing the border, we were away early - or so we thought, until we discovered the clocks had been put forward an hour this morning for 'Summer Time'! Still cold and dull, however.

After our last fill of petrol at Greek prices (about €1.10 per litre: much less than it was to be in Turkey), we were away through a sleeping Alexandroupoli. After 3 miles we turned left onto the A2 link road, to meet the new motorway (the Odos Ignatia which began life in Igoumenitsa) 6 miles further on. There is an exit 15 miles later for the road north, following the Evros River towards Bulgaria or the minor Turkish crossing point near Edirne; or south to the Evros Delta. We stayed on the motorway for its final eerily empty 7 miles, exited Greece with a cursory passport inspection and entered a No-Man's-Land, crossing the Evros River on a bridge guarded by a pair of splendid Greek soldiers in white kilts and pom-pom shoes.

Halting at the main Turkish border post, the entry formalities had been streamlined since our last visit and it took only about 30 minutes to: 1) Show our passports at a kiosk; 2) show them again at another kiosk; 3) park, as instructed; 4) walk over to the large white building issuing Tourist Visas (for ₤10 each, valid 3 months); 5) return to Passport Control to have the visas stuck in and stamped; 6) drive through Customs (no problems); 7) exit, with a final passport check. We only shared this performance with a group of Turkish motorbikes. Trucks formed a separate queue in both directions, their patient drivers shuffling slowly forward when called for paperwork and inspections.

And so we left the EU and entered Turkey.

For the continuation of the journey, click: In Turkey April 2008

 

CYCLING THE MANI PENINSULA

IN THE GREEK PELOPONNESE

Riding from Gythion to Gerolimenas and Return

Cycling 79 miles (126 km) and climbing 5,860 ft (1,776 m) in 2 days

Margaret and Barry Williamson

March 2008

Here is an edited version of the diary we kept when we cycled a 2-day circular route in the Southern Peloponnese in the spring of 2008. Starting from a base in Gythion, the port for Ancient Sparta on the Gulf of Laconia, we rode SW to Aeropoli and circled anticlockwise round the Mani Peninsula, returning via Kotronas.

The Mani Peninsula is the southern continuation of the Taigetos mountain range which rises to nearly 8,000 ft above Sparta. The Mani runs down into the Mediterranean Sea, ending at the lighthouse on Cape Matapan, the southernmost point of the Greek Mainland. Only 4 roads cross the peninsula in its 100 km length: the 4,500 ft (1,350 m)Keadhas Pass linking Kalamata to Sparta; the road from Areopoli to Kotronas and the two passes we rode – Gythion to Areopoli and Alika to Kokala.

Given the lack of accommodation open in the low season, we phoned ahead and booked a room for the night in Gerolimenas at the tip of the Mani peninsula's west coast and the halfway point in our ride. We carried a small gas stove and pan for making tea, coffee and soup, but not full camping gear.

We could have bought the best map available of the Mani, in the Road series (www.road.gr), available from good newsagents, including one in Gythion, at a cost of €6. Instead, we got by, but only just, with a free map of
'Laconia' produced by the Laconia Chamber of Commerce and Industry from the Tourist Office in Gythion, one of the very few offices run by the National Government Tourist Agency. The same Office also gave us a illustrated booklet, 'Lakonia', produced by the Prefectural Government of Lakonia. This is the sort of booklet that provides information for the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet and therefore saves even more money!

We include a map and altitude profiles which were produced by our Magellan Meridian Color GPS. Bought from Ian Shires' outdoor shop in Budapest and now many years old (it was an early model), the Meridian still gives excellent service.

Our excellent touring bicycles were specially built for us last summer by Paul Hewitt in his workshop in Leyland, Lancashire. In a lifetime of cycling, crossing continents and circling the globe, these are the best bicycles we have ever ridden and approach a kind of perfection for machines of their kind. Smooth and easy uphill, fast and stable downhill, they are undeterred by rain, wind or a load of several bags (which is more than can be said for us).

For a full specification of our bicycles, click:
Hewitt Tourers Specification.

For more images of our bicycles, click: Hewitt Tourers Images.

For the full set of images of the ride, click: Cycling the Mani Peninsula

For the story of our motorhome journey, click: From Finikounda toTurkey

 

CYCLING THE MANI PENINSULA

IN THE GREEK PELOPONNESE

Riding from Gythion to Gerolimenas and Return

Cycling 79 miles (126 km) and climbing 5,860 ft (1,776 m) in 2 days

Margaret and Barry Williamson

March 2008

Here is an edited version of the diary we kept when we cycled a 2-day circular route in the Southern Peloponnese in the spring of 2008. Starting from a base in Gythion, the port for Ancient Sparta on the Gulf of Laconia, we rode SW to Aeropoli and circled anticlockwise round the Mani Peninsula, returning via Kotronas.

The Mani Mani_Map.jpgPeninsula is the southern continuation of the Taigetos mountain range which rises to nearly 8,000 ft above Sparta. The Mani runs down into the Mediterranean Sea, ending at the lighthouse on Cape Matapan, the southernmost point of the Greek Mainland. Only 4 roads cross the peninsula in its 100 km length: the 4,500 ft (1,350 m)Keadhas Pass linking Kalamata to Sparta; the road from Areopoli to Kotronas and the two passes we rode – Gythion to Areopoli and Alika to Kokala.

Given the lack of accommodation open in the low season, we phoned ahead and booked a room for the night in Gerolimenas at the tip of the Mani peninsula's west coast and the halfway point in our ride. We carried a small gas stove and pan for making tea, coffee and soup, but not full camping gear.

We could have bought the best map available of the Mani, in the Road series (www.road.gr), available from good newsagents, including one in Gythion, at a cost of €6. Instead, we got by, but only just, with a free map of 'Laconia' produced by the Laconia Chamber of Commerce and Industry from the Tourist Office in Gythion, one of the very few offices run by the National Government Tourist Agency. The same Office also gave us a illustrated booklet, 'Lakonia', produced by the Prefectural Government of Lakonia. This is the sort of booklet that provides information for the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet and therefore saves even more money!

We include a map and altitude profiles which were produced by our Magellan Meridian Color GPS. Bought from Ian Shires' outdoor shop in Budapest and now many years old (it was an early model), the Meridian still gives excellent service.

Our excellent touring bicycles were specially built for us last summer by Paul Hewitt in his workshop in Leyland, Lancashire. In a lifetime of cycling, crossing continents and circling the globe, these are the best bicycles we have ever ridden and approach a kind of perfection for machines of their kind. Smooth and easy uphill, fast and stable downhill, they are undeterred by rain, wind or a load of several bags (which is more than can be said for us).

For a full specification of our bicycles, click: Hewitt Tourers Specification.

For more images of our bicycles, click: Hewitt Tourers Images.

For the full set of images of the ride, click: Cycling the Mani Peninsula

For the story of our motorhome journey, click: From Finikounda toTurkey

For more accounts of cycling in Greece, click: Riding Among the Greeks

19 March 2008   GYTHION to GEROLIMENAS   Hotel Akrogiali   Tel 27330-54204

Distance: 59 km (37 miles). Riding time: 4 hrs 27 min. Max speed: 44 kph (27 mph).

Max height: 1,085 ft (330 m). Total height climbed: 2,200 ft (667 m).

Setting out atMani_Profile_1.jpg 9 am from Camping Gythion Bay at Mavrovouni (by the beach 4 km south of Gythion), we battled strong gusts of wind from the west as we rode south-west for Areopoli. The road rolled gently at first, through wooded hills with a glimpse of the restored battlements of Passavas, a Frankish Crusader Castle high above on our left after 6 km.

Shortly before Areopoli we paused Mani_(12).JPGat a new memorial on the left, dedicated to a 43-year-old fireman who perished in August 2007, when deadly fires ravaged the country. The blackened trees on the charred slopes bore witness to the tragedy. We reached a high point of 1,085 ft before dropping about 200 ft into the picturesque stone-built town which is the Capital of the Mani_(17).JPGDeep Mani, 875 ft above the Gulf of Messinia, whose waves crashed below. Away to the north, across a deep gorge, we could see the familiar outline of yet another castle: that of Kelefa as far south into the Mani as the Turks were willing to venture.

Having ridden 21 km through empty country, mostly into a head wind, a well-eRTT_(29).JPGarned coffee was needed. From our café on the square, we admired the more-then-life-size statue of Mavromichalis (Black Michael), the local hero of the 1821 Revolution, the 100-year-long struggle for freedom from Turkish domination. Down a cobbled street to our right stood the lovely little cathedral with its signs of the zodiac and a separate bell tower in the Italian fashion.

Our route down the wesMani_(18).JPGt side of the finger of the Mani Peninsula was easier now, with a gentler side wind. The rolling road trends downwards from the heights of Areopoli, running above the cliffs with frequent views of the rocky coast. It stayed fine and warm, though threatening dark clouds shrouded the high mountain tops behind us. Soon we passed the right turn for the Diros Caves, which are well worth seeing (as we did on a previous visit). The ticket covers a 2.5 km (1.5 miles) boat trip through the floodlit caverns and entrance to the museum showing evidence of Neolithic inhabitants. Today we continued southwards, stopping 20 km after Areopoli for a picnic lunch in the shelter of the tumbledown walls of an abandoned stone house.

Rather than riding straight down to Gerolimenas, we soon turned right to cMani_(19).JPGlimb to the tiny village of Stavri, in search of the Castle of Mainis Tiganis on the headland of Cape Tigani. At the centre of a confusion of signposts, a helpful villager advised us that it was not possible to cycle right out to the Castle, as it was a diMani_(26).JPGfficult footpath - and he was right! We rode the lane he indicated, first downhill and then up, until it became a rough track, along which we wheeled our bicycles. We could see the remains of the castle and the outline of its walls covering the plateau of the Cape in the distance, high above the sea. When the stony track came to an end, we were at least near enough to photograph the inaccessible castle. It was 2.15 pm and we had covered 6 km since our lunch stop – time for a chocolate bar!

Returning to the main road via Kounos, we freewheeled down quMani_(28).JPGiet back lanes and into the splendid little fishing port of Gerolimenas – the only village on our route round the Mani where food and accommodation could be found off-season. We had booked a room at the Hotel Akrogiali and the warm welcome included a safe place for the bicycles in a locked store room. We were the only guests and we had a corner room on the first floor, with a splendid view from our balcony of the harbour directly below. The restaurant was open all day for meals and we dined theMani_(30).JPGre later on cheese croquettes, followed by pork chop and beef stew, very nicely cooked.

A national strike was promised for the next day, a protest at proposed reforms to pension schemes for public employees (just about everybody!) All the channels on the TV high above our bed promised a complete disruption to their programmes for at least 48 hours: the diet was to be old films and game shows but no news – so Mani_(29).JPGwhat was different?

It didn't take long to walk round Gerolimenas, a port only accessible by boat until less than 50 years ago! It has a small supermarket, a phone box (which worked), a couple of cafés and another hotel/restaurant open near the harbour: the Akrotenaritis (tel 27330 54205), which also looked very accommodating.

Despite the windy night, sending the waves splashing over the harbour walls below our window, we slept very soundly after welcome hot baths.

20 March 2008   GEROLIMENAS to GYTHION   Camping Gythion Bay

Distance: 67 km (42 miles). Riding time: 5 hrs 9 min. Max speed: 59 kph (37 mph).

Max height: 1,322 ft (400 m). Total height climbed: 3,660 ft (1,110 m).

As we woke, the weather remained windy and dull, but was warm and dry.

AfMani_Profile_2.jpgter a light breakfast in the hotel (coffee, bread, jam and honey), Mani_(37).JPGwe climbed out of Gerolimenas and turned SE, riding into the wind (which had kindly changed direction) to Alika, a village large enough to have a little school. We could hear the teacher's voice above the children's chatter inside, as we paused before the start of the serious climb NE, for the route up the rugged east coast of the Mani Peninsula.

By the next village, TsiMani_(44).JPGkalia, we had ridden only 8 km around the head of a valley, but reached a height of 984 ft. From here the road swung south, with a good view of the stone towers of Vathia, before turning north, with an easier wind, climbing through bleak mountain country over the top of the range and down the east side. In Lagia, 7.5 km from Tsikalia at 1,322 ft, we rested by the church porch on the little square while we made coffee on our gas stove. This is a good place for a break out of the wind, we've seen it change over the years from an old church with a patch of overgrown garden and children's playground into a scene of 'restoration', with stone cladding and stone paths – and nowhere to play, the basketball goal lying rusty and forlorn on the yard, the swings gone.

We enjoyed a 7 km descent from Lagia to Kokala (a village large enouMani_(49).JPGgh to have a supermarket and a butcher). Then the road climbed and dropped, twisting and turning, with superb views of the coast below and the clusters of original Maniot towers and their stony terraces, where stunted olives struggle to survive. The spring flowers flourish, though, to the joy of the black bees and colourful butterflies.

A wayside church pMani_(51).JPGorch gave us shelter for a picnic lunch at 300 ft, about 10 km after Kokala. Another 4 km of rolling road brought us to the village of Flomohori, followed by a 1.5 km climb to a road junction at 736 ft. The choice is: straight on to return to Areopoli (a steep climb over the spine of the peninsula); or right and downhill to the little port of Kotronas (from where a largely new road returns to Gythion). An easy decision!

A swift 3.5 km descent brought us down to sea level at KotronaMani_(56).JPGs (41 km from Gerolimenas). There is a Taverna with simple rooms above, where we once spent a night after cycling from Areopoli. Now we simply needed a break and a brew-up of tea on the camping stove, sitting by the harbour, before completing the return to Gythion.

Having climbed Mani_(54).JPGeastwards out of Kotronas, the narrow lane becomes a splendid new road, whose purpose still mystifies us. It climbs a lonely route above the sea, round a headland, with very little traffic – the dead badger we saw along the way was truly unlucky to meet a vehicle! Since we last rode it, the new road has been completed, bypassing the little resort of Skoutari, to meet the main Areopoli-Gythion road 18 km after Kotronas. Truly a road to nowhere!

We turned right for the final 8 km, past the scarcely discernibleRTT_(33).JPG landmark of Passava Castle high above on the right, and on to our campsite (the middle one of a row of three, set along the beach of Mavrovouni, south of Gythion).

Arriving before 5 pm, we found the campsite in the throes of a power cut: 'A government problem' explained the site owner, who had tried (and failed) to get his generator to work! No problem for a motorhome, though, with a gas cooker and 12-volt battery lighting, TV and water pump! Welcome home.