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Greece: Kamping Karpouzi PDF Printable Version E-mail



Barry and Margaret Williamson

The following satirical look at Greek campsite life was first published as an article in the MMM (Motorhome Motorcaravan Monthly) in the UK.

The Greeks invented paradox. Here is one: Kamping Karpouzi does not exist, but you will find yourself staying on it, all over Greece, and everything we have written about it really happened.

We have spent two of the last 8 years in Greece, spread over 5 winter visits. Our motorhome takes us to Ancona or Brindisi on Italy's Adriatic coast, camping on board a Greek ferry until, in the early hours, we reach Igoumenitsa (near Greece's northern border with Albania) or, if we sleep in, Patras, the gateway to the Peloponnese, the southernmost part of the Greek mainland.

Linked to the rest of Greece by a narrow isthmus cut through by the Corinth Canal, the Peloponnese contains more empty beaches, snow-capped mountains, ancient sites, remote villages, monasteries, castles, traditional markets, working donkeys, tiny fishing ports and colourful history than you can shake a walking stick at. It also has many beachside campsites with a peculiar fascination all of their own.

Imagine a remote beach, unsignposted, unmapped, and unknown to all but the intrepid motorhomers who somehow make their way along narrow lanes, past landslides and through impassable villages to Kamping Karpouzi. Offshore there may be an island where an Italian Captain played his wartime mandolin or there may be straits down which Odysseus sailed on his way to Ithaca. Perhaps, nearby, the combined fleets of Britain, France and Russia once inadvertently sank the whole of the Turkish and Egyptian navy, ensuring the future independence of Greece.

But none of this needs trouble the happy camper whose more immediate concern is: "How do I find my way back to the main road?"

Karpouzi is Greek (and Turkish) for 'watermelon', which hints at the original use of the seaside field, before the canny owner realised that a better and easier crop was to be harvested from the kind of tourists who bring their own beds and toilets with them - the Grey People.

The Greeks know that northern Europe is home to the Grey People: grey by age, by nature, by lack of sunlight and by the million. Their Grey Spirit is well captured in the following words we recently saw engraved on the rear of a Dutch van: Voor Werken te oud; Voor Sterven te jong; Voor Reizen top fit. As northerners we particularly like the oud and think the whole thing translates as: For Working too old; For Dying too young; For Travelling top fit. The van, aptly enough, was a Kip Greyline Special! (And we thought Kip was Dutch for chicken!)

Money seems to grow and flourish in the grey northern light and then flows south to scatter its bounty into many an eagerly opened pocket. A little of this money travels with the motorhomers who drive south, ready to give handfuls of the stuff (now in the familiar euro) to otherwise honest Greeks. And who could be blamed for letting strange foreigners pay to sleep in rows in former fields and orchards: visitors willing to spend more than enough on simple food and to pay yet more to take photographs of ancient ruins, piles of stones, in other overgrown fields?

Puzzled they may be, but we have yet to meet a Greek orchard-owner who would refuse to take part in this annual harvest of windfalls, given half a chance. So here we go again, channelling major portions of our hard-earned pensions into the open hands of assorted Balkan rustics.

It is said that the smile of the Greek campsite owner is only on the front of his face, like the mask in a Greek Chorus: it's their version of the McDonald Welcome. Behind this false front, the Greek gets on with his real life which rotates around family, gossip, politics, keeping an ancient car on the road (most of the time), crops other than tourists, family, gossip, politics.

As we write, northern Europe is winding itself up for the Easter break, the first opportunity for a mass getaway after the cold, grey winter. The Orthodox Easter varies a lot; it moves around according to esoteric laws and full moons, as does ours and they never seem to coincide. So you can celebrate both!

Easter is far more important to the Greeks than Christmas: it's the time to leave Athens and head back home into the hills from whence they came; visit their ancient black-clothed mothers and grannies; shout Khristos Anesti or Christ is Risen - to which the response is Alithos Anesti or Truly He is Risen' - at midnight in the churches; light bonfires; then spit-roast lambs on Sunday morning in the embers.

The lamb's intestines, yards long, twisted round a spit over the fire, are a rare delicacy and have to be eaten whole else bad luck will prevail on all, or at least that is what they tell naïve foreigners, who just happen to be passing on their bikes, wondering if there is a bit of shoulder left. But there never is. Sometimes, we wouldn't mind getting the cold shoulder. But we never do.

Over Easter, the open decks of ferry boats, empty at first, slowly fill with campers, already sleeping in their own beds, their greyness hidden beneath brightly coloured nylon tracksuits. The trickle of 2 or 3 motorhomes a week driving through Karpouzi's gate grows to 2 or 3 a day, then 2 or 3 an hour, successively taking their place in the former watermelon field.

The setting for the campsite is idyllic: on the beach, in the shade of pine, mimosa, tamarisk, oleander, palm, banana, hibiscus, wisteria; in an area of olive, lemon and orange groves; on an empty peninsula below low hills with snow-capped mountains beyond; the nearest market town perhaps 10 miles distant.

The field and the business are owned by the ancient ex-watermelon-grower, Nikolaos Papadopoulous. It is 'managed' (that's not quite the right word) by members of his dysfunctional family led by Constantine (Costas) and sister Angelika (Angelic?) who argue and shout from dawn until long after dusk. The 'work' (and that is not quite the right word either) is done by a disparate group of part-legal (or perhaps fully illegal) Albanians. The more technical aspects of campsite maintenance are carried out by seasonal cleaners from the local village.

Only by arriving at the gate can a major dilemma (another Greek invention) be resolved: "Is it Open?" If it is, the gate will be open and you can find your own place, paying as you leave. In the meantime you may or may not meet the owner or any employee. You may or may not discover the price. It may be Low Season or High Season or, better, Pre-Low Season. There may be a discount for membership of a club you didn't know existed or, rarely, for the presentation of your camping carnet. Staying longer may also attract a discount. Or it may not. However much it is, don't wait for a receipt.

Even if the campsite is closed, it may still be open for a special price, bearing in mind that there will be no water, electricity, toilets . . . Could you help with clearing last year's litter?

Every few years the tattered row of flags strung up by the gate is replaced by a standard set of 9, fresh from Athens. This year only 8 arrived - the Union Jack was missing. The explanation was simple: none were left in stock after their many burnings in street protests over Iraq!

There are hedged spaces into which you manoeuvre your home and bed, under the low overarching trees. This rectangle of unkempt grass defines your rented space and it is to be jealously guarded for the length of your stay. Now carpeted with spring flowers - wild iris, field gladioli, yellow daisies, rock rose, bird's-foot trefoil, cyclamen, hyacinth and many more - its value to the Papadopoulous family doubles as it turns to brown dust in the heat of high summer.

Settling in, the fortunate get a place by the beach, the incontinent by the toilets, the alcoholic by the bar, the affluent by the restaurant, the restless by the gate, the withdrawn in a corner. For everyone there is just enough space for essentials - the downhill version of the mountain bike, a scooter, awning, carpets, reclining chairs, table, video camera, sunshades, barbecue, satellite dish, canoe, whatever.

If there is room, you can wash your motorhome, overhaul your bicycle, hang washing from tree to tree, cut other people's hair, create and sell paintings, erect a fence, grow watermelons, build a bird table, fly a kite, light a bonfire, bring or adopt a cat, dog, tortoise or cage-bird, come and go in the early hours: in fact, everything the Caravan Club doesn't allow! You will love the freedom - but then so does the Italian on one side and the German on the other!

Cheap electricity is supplied through a 2-pin socket, but make sure you check the voltage between your chassis and the earth - it's usually about 60. Cut-outs or fuses are rarely on offer, giving the scientific impossibility of an unlimited current for a small charge. Sadly, limits are placed on your kilowatts by the length and thinness of the wiring, the progressive blackening of the sockets and the likelihood of plunging the whole campsite, if not the nearest village, into darkness.

The 'facilities', or 'amenities' as caravanners call them, consist of ancient toilets that do their best to preserve and present back to you the results of your daily labours, the final and most humiliating part of the digestive process. The only time that any notices become multi-lingual is when they demand you do not put any paper down the toilet. It is to be placed in a nearby plastic basket which sometimes has a lid. Various explanations are given for this ancient Greek custom. It's not about recycling - it's just that the paper is unlikely to pass along the narrow pipes leading to the septic tank, even on new installations.

One well-known UK guide to selected European campsites, the sort of guide that starts with the assumption that 'Europe' lies somewhere beyond the borders of Britain, categorises toilets east of Calais as being either 'British' or 'Turkish'. On the former you can sit; on the latter you squat. Greece lies somewhere between the two - it's best not to sit and it's impossible to squat!

In a remote and unpopular corner of the field, behind the Albanians' hut, there is a hole in the ground into which you pour whatever liquid waste has collected in your motorhome's tanks. Don't ask what happens to it next.

The water supply for campers comes from a bore hole beside a usually dry stream, just outside the gate. Each morning, water is pumped to a tank on the roof of the facilities, but no-one knows how much water is in the tank until it is empty, usually at the time an evening shower is due. The tankful of silt we once carried back across Europe was later explained as the result of an earthquake.

When the stream flows, draining surface water after winter rain, it may not be possible to enter or leave the campsite for the day. Further along, just before the stream empties itself across the beach and into the sea (suddenly turning it brown); a small dam is sometimes built to make a reservoir. From here water is pumped noisily along surface irrigation pipes laid along the campsite's hedgerows: the resulting spray of muddy water refreshes the trees and bushes, washes intervening vans and soaks any personal items left in the rented space.

Communication with the outside world is maintained 15 miles away in the nearest Internet Café. Above the din of affluent teenagers playing computer games, the traffic noise outside, the distant calls of the market, the in-house Greek Musik, the hiss of the espresso machine (awaiting a spare part from Athens), the drumming and shouting of the latest Anti-Globalisation Demo (mounted by a group of mixed infants, led by their radical RE teacher), we once waited for an Email with attachment.

The attachment was opened with trepidation, not knowing what a Greek computer might make of this foreign invasion. But slowly, slowly (cigar, cigar in Greek), it appeared. Was there a virus? No! An assortment of boxes, labelled in Greek, each demanded a prod with the mouse, which they got, until the machine stopped crashing and the attachment finally appeared, in colour.

Wanting to read it at our leisure, something not possible at 5 euros an hour, we asked if we could print it. The Greek has a wonderful way of blowing out slowly, through slightly pursed lips, if something is only just possible, but is likely to be a lot of trouble, which he is only just likely to undertake, just for you, but obviously it will take some time and cost quite a few drachmas, he means euros. Imagine that slow blow when you take your large American motorhome in for a service, or you want to know if the ferry boat is likely to leave today, or you'd like your vegetables at the same time as the chicken.

It could be printed but only after we had been to the market and come back. Not in colour, that was another slow blow, but in very nice black and white with only slightly blurred graphics.

What else might there be? The makeshift beach-bar stays open in the well-named High Season until the last drunk leaves or falls over. The till is managed by a quite-legal Albanian who bemoans the loss of the deutschmark/drachma exchange rate, which once moved in his favour as each night lengthened into Homer's rosy-fingered dawn.

What is that noise over by the children's play area? A large crowd has gathered, tables and chairs have appeared from nowhere, the radio is turned up loud, retsina and ouzo are flowing, the singing, dancing and arguing go on late into the night and the barbecue singes the sign saying No Fires! Should you complain to Management? It is the Management! It's Uncle Yorgo's Name Day (St George's Day to us), and the Papadopoulous's have gathered from as far away as Alexandroupoli to wish him well. You could join in too, if your name were George.

The restaurant makes a profitable outlet for the acres of watermelons, artichokes and olives that fill the family's other lands, as well as the lamb, chickens, tomatoes, feta cheese, wine and bread that are supplied by members of the Papadopoulous extended family. A mutually blind eye is turned when the local tax inspector contributes fish pieces from his weekend seaside activities with dynamite.

The small shop (or Mini Market) sells bread at only twice the price you would pay by cycling or driving 20 miles! If it's thought you're fresh off the boat (and a lot fresher than the bread), you will be sold the same lemons that are free for the picking in the surrounding lanes! And there is a washing machine, a venerable top-loading Speed Queen, which, as we write, is having its burnt-out plug replaced yet again. This simple matter can be handled by a slightly legal Albanian; more complex matters usually wait a week or two for a part 'from Athens'. In fact, anything more than can be grown in a nearby field, supplied by a member of the family, or fixed by a semi-legal Albanian, has to wait for a part to come from Athens.

Yet here we are again, planning to move on tomorrow to yet another Greek campsite! In this way, we will make a circuit of the Greek mainland, visit an island or two and, above all, get in some more miles on our bicycles. This is an excellent country for cycling - a large network of back country roads links very little traffic to countless villages strung along the coast or lost within ranges of mountains and valleys.

The Greeks are terrible drivers - they vie with Portugal to be Europe's worst as measured by the number of dead and injured. But at least the drivers are used to small motorbikes, sheep, goats, landslides, cracked roads, old ladies on donkeys. They are used to the unpredictable, for who could predict the behaviour of a Greek driver in his ancient pick-up or completely ruined Datsun? The average age of a Greek truck is 21 years! Nothing is taken for granted on the road and neither are we - obviously eccentric north Europeans, absurdly riding bicycles, trying not to be so Grey. So we are given a wide berth and an occasional patronising but friendly toot.

We do love Greece - its empty beaches and the peace and space of its remote places - and we hope to spend as many future winters here as their many gods allow. This may explain why we encourage other motorhomers to go to Spain!