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Greece: Motorhoming in the South-East Peloponnese PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

GREECE: MOTORHOMING IN THE SOUTH-EAST CORNER OF THE PELOPONNESE

Barry and Margaret Williamson

The following article was first published by the MMM (Motorhome Motorcaravan Monthly) in the UK as 'South-East Enders'. It describes a journey around the Mani Peninsula, the south-east corner of mainland Greece and of Europe.

Following early retirement, Margaret and I slowly travelled south and east through Europe in our 27 ft Four Winds motorhome, trying to discover just how far we could go.

'Furthest' is a word to stir every motor-home traveller. We each have our own private list of 'furthests' which are the limits of what we have done and what we might yet achieve. For the turbo-charged, it may be the furthest they have been in an hour, in a day, in a week; measuring themselves against the remorseless clock. For the budget-conscious, it's the furthest they have been on a gallon, on a tankful, on a set of new tyres. For the traveller, it's the pleasure of exploring the gap between the furthest we have been and the furthest we hope to go, into the many corners of the British Isles, Europe and the world.

The furthest south for you may be down through France and into Portugal and Spain, perhaps to Punta Marroqui below Tarifa, the furthest south it is possible to go on the European mainland. Your furthest north may lie in Scotland or, on the mainland, in Germany, Denmark, or perhaps in Norway where Europe can go no further north than Nordkapp. Where is your furthest west, on the mainland or among the islands of Europe? And how far east have you been and where is the 'furthest possible' in that direction?

Nature leads the traveller towards the 'furthest': the points of the compass, the direction of the sun, the length of the day, the flow of a river, the barrier of mountains, the seasonal flight of birds and, finally, the shore of a sea.

The furthest south-east corner of mainland Europe is easily defined but rarely visited. It's the last, rocky headland of a remote but fascinating peninsula at the far end of the Balkans: Cape Matapan, where the Mani peninsula finally plunges into the Mediterranean sea. How do you get there? Face the morning sun, then steer south-east until land's end.

We entered the Mani from the north-west through Kalamata and, a week later, we left the peninsula through Gythion. From our motorhome-base, on foot and by bicycle we explored its sombre present and its rich past. The only campsites on the 150-mile circuit are at Kardamili on the way in and at Gythion on the way out. Otherwise, there is space and opportunity to spend a few nights along the road by the sea in Neo Itilo, Gerolimenas, Kotronas and below Skoutari, among other possibilities.

Everywhere, the road runs across the shoulders of the Taygetos mountains as they dip into the sparkling sea, switchbacking between beach and mountain village. This is wild and desolate country, home to thorny scrub and prickly pear, little changed since feudal times. Descendants of the Spartans, the few people who remain here (the Maniots) live in their stony towers, 50 to 80 ft high, behind trapdoors which once protected them from feuding neighbours, high above the shoreline where pirates prowled. Over 800 of these square towers still stand, gathered into sometimes deserted and often remote hamlets, a continuing challenge to the outsider who would visit them. On Sundays and feast days, the Maniots gather in their 12th century Byzantine chapels, under naive frescoes in warm colours embellished with gold.

Kalamata ('Beautiful Eyes') is a bustling seaside city of 40,000 people. Its modern concrete appearance has emerged from the rubble of the 1986 earthquake in which it was almost completely destroyed. For us, it made a good centre for touring the surrounding coast and mountains and for refuellling with food and gas (the BP depot at the west end of town refills many different kinds of bottles). There are several campsites on the long and bustling seafront, south-east of the town centre.

The Mani peninsula begins abruptly as the Messenian Gulf Road climbs south out of Kalamata, crossing the Koskaras Defile (a limestone gorge) before climbing again and then dropping steeply into Kardamili (population 300). Perched below mountains which are snow-capped in winter and spring, Kardamili has Camping Melitsina on a wonderful beach, a tiny port, a small supermarket, a couple of tavernas, and access to the giant Viros gorge which runs east, deep into the heart of the 8,000 ft Taygetos mountains.

Beyond Kardamili our road climbed again, always poised between mountain and sea, before zigzagging steeply down into the tiny port of Neo Italo where space by a waterfront taverna was our home for a night or two. Above us, to the north-east, lay the huge 16th century Turkish castle of Kelefa, where no road goes. Above, to the south-east, lay the village of Areopoli, where our road twisted up through a series of steep hairpin bends.

The history of Areopoli (pop 600) is given by its name: 'the town of Ares' (the god of war). It's the capital of the Mani and it has square tower-houses, tradesmen's workshops, a large square, tavernas, 2 fine churches and diesel! 5 miles further south, we continued our exploration in a small wooden boat, rowed from the stern, along the 2 arms of an underground river which had forced its way through limestone cliffs and into the sea. For 30 minutes we passed floating lights, curtains and pillars of rock, stalactites and stalagmites in the form of fantastic animals, flowers and buildings, as head-high passages gave way to soaring caverns, poised on clear water up to 50 feet deep. These are the spectacular sea-caves of Diros.

Back on the road and still travelling south and east, tracks and a 3-mile cliff-top walk took us to the 13th century Castle of the Maina, one of the many strongholds the crusaders built on the coasts and islands of Greece. Further on still, the hamlets of Nomia and Kita gave us easier access to Byzantine churches and traditional towers, many of them now abandoned.

There was space behind the beach in Gerolimenas for a couple of nights, a base from which we could cycle and then walk to the very end of this journey - Cape Matapan. We could have driven the first 10 miles or so, but we would have missed the exhilarating climb up to the many-towered hamlet of Vathia and the pleasure of cycling the corniche beyond, until the road died and became a track and the track died and became a path. We left the bicycles at the last house, in the care of a shepherd who wouldn't exchange them for his donkey! The last mile led past traces of a temple to Poseidon and a Roman town, over a cave giving entrance to Hades and out to the lighthouse which marks the south-east corner of mainland Europe and the end of this remote wilderness.

Now we could only go north, along the narrow and twisting east coast road of the Mani, recently opened to give access to villages previously linked to the world only by sea. The road, as so often in Greece, gave rewarding but challenging driving; the real problems occur in the villages and small towns where the route often isn't or can't be improved. Houses, shops, cafés and stalls crowd into the already narrow streets; corners and junctions have a sharpness that cuts; balconies loom overhead; cars, pickups and tractors park where they will; the cab mirrors become cat's whiskers, reaching and testing for space to pass.

A very new road, not yet hard-topped, cut along the cliffs from the port of Kotronas towards Gythion, via the steep village of Skoutari. An alternative is to return to Areopoli over one pass and then drive to Gythion over another, a much longer route but on good roads and through the heart of the mountains.

We loved Gythion, a bustling port with ferries to Kythera and, sometimes, Kasteli in Crete. 3 campsites lined the beach as we approached the town: Campings Mani Beach, Gythion Bay and Meltemi, at least one of them open all year. Later, we drove north to Sparta, to our old friends Peter and his dad, owners of Camping Mistras Paleologico (campsite cum petrol station cum shop cum restaurant cum orange grove).

One ending leads to another beginning and we now began the search for Europe's most southerly point, south of the mainland, accessible by road or accessible on foot. Where would it be? Could we get there?

Practicalities

We used the RV Verlag Map of Greece and the Islands which is unusually reliable and, at 1:300,000, detailed enough for cycling and walking on minor roads and tracks. The Rough Guide to Greece is entertaining and informative. The Michelin Green Guide to Greece details a tour of both the Messenian Gulf Road (which gets its top award of 3 stars) and the Mani (2 stars). For the fascinating history of the Maniot towers and the centuries-old blood feuds, Patrick Leigh Fermor's book 'Mani' (published by Penguin) is well worth £5.99.

'Camping in Greece', published annually in English by the Greek Camping Association, is available free of charge from Tourist Information Offices in large towns. It is a comprehensive guide, lacking only details of location, price and opening dates.

'Wild' camping is illegal in Greece but the rule is very rarely enforced unless, during the high season, the owners of a nearby campsite 'encourage' the police to encourage campers to use their services.