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2009 Greece to Bulgaria PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

FROM GREECE TO BULGARIA - SPRING 2009

The Travel Log of a 900-mile (1,440-km) Motorhome Journey from Finikounda in the Southern Greek Peloponnese to Biser in South-Eastern Bulgaria

Margaret and Barry Williamson

April 2009

This illustratedExGreece_(11).JPG travel log describes our motorhome journey from one end of mainland Greece to the other. From Finikounda, in the southwest corner of the Pelponnese, to Ormenio in the far northeast where Greece meets Bulgaria and Turkey. We then crossed the border into Bulgaria and travelled a further 20 miles to a warm welcome on a return visit to Sakar Hills Camping in the bucolic village of Biser.

We were more than ready for travel after spending yet another quiet winter on a beachside campsite in Greece near the small fishing harbour of Finikounda, settled between the twin Venetian ports of Methoni and Koroni at the tip of the Messinian Peninsula.

To discover how we got from the UK to the southern Greeke Peloponnese, click:

Travel Log of Our Motorhome Journey from Cheltenham to Finikounda

For more images of our time in Greece in the winter of 2008-9, click:

Our Motorhome: a Flair for Travel

Our Paul Hewitt Touring Bicycles

Images of Winter Life in and around Finikounda

Our Greek Winter Campsite Brochure

Time Out at Ionion Beach, the Best Campsite in Greece

Slide Show of the Road Out of Greece 2009

Now here is the current travel log, which begins as we leave the gates of our Winter Quarters.

24 March 2009   21 miles   Finikounda to Petalidi Harbour, Greece

We're on the Road Again!

Having settled our bill for 101 days at Camping Finikes (plus countless loads 15_Dog_Washing.JPGin the washing machine at 3 euros a time), we needed strong coffee! After sending a last round of emails from Finikounda, we bade farewell and Auf Wiedersehen to our few long-term neighbours. We shall miss Rod and Dan – and expect the campsite dogs and cats will miss us too.

With everything loaded and the waste dumped, we finally headed ofThe_Unter_._..JPGf into the afternoon sunshine. Our very last act was to give Rod a printout of our Greek Winter Campsite Brochure, in which he figures as the Untersturmfeldgruppencampingplatzfόhrer.

The Flair ran smoothly, if briefly, after its long rest. Intending to shop in Messini tomorrow, we aimed for Petalidi, where there is plenty of level well-lit space for free parking by the harbour.

To avoid the bottle-neck in Harokopio, we drove to Petalidi via Iamia, Kaplani and Homatero (villages and roads we know well from cycling these hills), joining the coast road at Nea Koroni about 8 miles south of Petalidi. The traffic was light (afternoon siesta time), the spring flowers a riot of colour, still a little snow glistening on the peaks of the Taigetos across the Messinian Gulf. Even the white concrete jungle of Kalamata looked good from a distance, across the bay.

There was just one other motorhome (German) parked at Petalidi, where we spent a quiet evening reading, catching up on the 'Athens News'.

25 March 2009    62 miles   Petalidi to Gianitsochori Beach, Greece

Shelter from the Storm on Independence Day

Walking into Petalidi for some cash, we suddenly realised today is IndepeFinikes_2.JPGndence Day: a public holiday throughout Greece, marking the beginning of the War of Independence from 500 years of Ottoman rule (in 1821), a self-comforting myth for the Greeks. We'd quite forgotten until the church bells and strings of flags reminded us! A hasty departure was called for, before the congregation emerged from the packed church and began to march round the square, blocking our exit.

We drove the 10 miles to Messini on very quiet roads, with most shops and businesses closed, including of course Lidl and the other supermarkets. Continuing past Kalamata Airport, we turned left (north) before reaching Kalamata itself, past the hospital, on the road which could have taken us to Tripoli and the motorway for Corinth/Athens.

However we turned off, westwards, after about 16 miles on a good road that follows the railway tracks through a pass (maximum height 620 ft) in the Mountains of Messinia. After about 20 miles the road dropped down to meet the Ionian sea at Kalo Nero (= good water), 4 miles north of the little port of Kyparissia. All was quiet on this holiday, a solemn occasion falling during Lent.

ContinuingExGreece_(13).JPG north up the coast with a strong back wind for 6 miles to Gianitsochori, we turned down to the beach for a break. The access road to the shore and its dilapidated beach bar had been widened since our last visit, with a paved parking area at the end by the sea. By the time we had eaten lunch, the wind had blown into a gale bringing hExGreece_(10).JPGeavy rain pouring down. We moved under the shelter of the pine trees and decided to stay, joined by an Austrian motorhome which had left the stormy highway. For details of our other recommendations, click: Free Overnight Parking for Motorhomes in the Greek Peloponnese.

An afternoon of baking resulted in apple flan and salmon risotto for supper, followed by a short walk on the beach once the storm died down. We later heard that a series of 4 small tornadoes had hit the west coast today (2 on either side of the Gulf of Corinth), with a rumour of 2 dead in an overturned car.

26 March 2009    65 miles   Gianitsochori to Glyfa, Greece   Camping Ionion Beach

Meeting Old Friends

It was fine again as we drove north up the familiar coast road through Zacharo and alongside Lake Kaiafas, the charred tree stumps a stark reminder of the fatal forest fires here in the summer of 2007. Bypassing the congested centre of Pyrgos by turning right to join the road from Olympia, we continued north up the New National Road.

After a right turn at traffic lights towards the market town of Amaliada, we parked at Lidl after 35 miles. As we filled our trolley, we met our good friends Mike & Flo, closely followed by another pair of old friends, Cliff & Eileen, all wintering on the 2 campsites at Glyfa. By sheer coincidence, we last saw Mike & Flo in this self-same store as we travelled down to Finikounda last December!

Parking the Flair at the Dia superstore, a little nearer Amaliada, we walked into the town centre for our customary lunch treat of chicken & chips at the Pikantika (highly recommended). Then it was back to the motorhome, the New Nat Rd and on to Glyfa.

The obvious route is to turn left through Gastouni to Vartholomio but both Mike and Cliff warned that Gastouni is currently impassable for a large vehicle, due to extensive and messy road works. Instead, we took a longer way round on country lanes, via Andravida, Neochori, Machos and VExGreece_(15).JPGranas – much further but it did avoid Gastouni. From Vranas it's just 3 miles uphill to Lygia, then left (south) to Glyfa, where a pair of year-round campsites lie along the beach (both signposted on the right: first Camping Aginara, then Ionion Beach).

Greeted and welcomed at Ionion Beach by the Fligos family, who own what we consider Greece's best-equipped and best-managed campsite, we settled on our usual sea-front pitch. We had a good view of the sunset over Zakynthos off-shore, a holiday island served by ferries from nearby Kyllinis.

27 March - 22 April 2009    At Camping Ionion Beach, Glyfa, Greece

Fine Weather and a Double Easter

During the days we spent at Ionion Beach, the weather settled into a warmExGreece_(25).JPG calm spring after the ravages of the wettest and most stormy winter we have known in the Peloponnese. The shoreline and the buildings edging it bear witness to the ferocity of the gales, up here as well as down in Messinia.

Walking: We strolled along the beach, which has turned into shelves of shingle in both directions, making the going difficult. The sand has all but gone, more rock is exposed and the ground falls steeply away under the sea.

First we walked sExGreece_(26).JPGouth-east to the tiny fishing harbour at Port Glyfa, where we saw the wrecked beach bar, its giant umbrella stands resembling the crosses of a cemetery marking enemy landings. Returning to the campsite along the lane, the number of seaside cottages (legal and illegal) had proliferated. Building continues without recourse to any overall plan or idea of how it all may look.

A longer walk in the opposite direction, nortExGreece_(19).JPGh-west to Arcoudi, took us past Ionion Beach's neighbouring campsite, Aginara Beach. Arcoudi itself has a handful of hotels and eating places, mostly closed in winter, but it was starting to come to life, with a few surfers riding the waves. One hotel owner greeted us warmly but soon lost interest when we needed neither a meal nor a room. After failing with us, he did ask hopefully if we were part of a larger group that might turn up later. We returned to the campsite round the lanes, past a sheep farm, olive orchards, lemon groves, rows of watermelons and – a crop new to the area – serried ranks of plastic polytunnels housing strawberries. Must be the latest subsidy from the EU!

Friends: On the Greece_Stevens_Flo_and_Mick.jpgsite we spent time catching up with Mike & Flo, former motorhomers who now have a useful combination of a small caravan towed by a campervan. We have known them for 13 years - since first we came to this area in our motorhome and found them ensconced at Aginara Beach. They became well known to a whole generation of campers before retiring to a quiet corner of Ionion Beach. We also know the Austrian couple, Hans & IngGR_2_BG_(78).JPGer, who winter here every year in a static caravan.

Our other old friends, Cliff & Eileen, winter at Aginara Beach (10 minutes' walk along the shingle or 4 km round by road). Visiting each other, we spent several hours together, catching up and exchanging the tales that only travellers know. We did admire their splendid new twin-axle caravan and KIΛ 4WD 'tug'. What an excellent combination for a prolonged stay.

Campsite: The FligosExGreece_(18).JPG family are still hard at work developing what must be the premier campsite in the Peloponnese and, indeed, the whole of Greece. We do appreciate the new winter toilet/shower block, fully enclosed with central heating. When we first came here 13 years ago, George and Theo's parents were making the campsite from their own seaside field, helped by their 2 sons. Over the years we've seen the building of splendid apartments, swimming pool, bar, shop, restaurant and playgrounds. Paths have been paved, a fountain installed … The brothers have married and increased the family by 4 new youngsters (so far - but we hear that a fifth is on its way!) They all live on-site and their commitment to the daily maintenance and management of the place shows in its five stars.

The only drawback here, for us, is the mixed blessing of WiFi for using our laptops. The good news: it has recently been installed; the bad news: it isn't free! It has to be paid for: €2 for 1 hour or €6 for 5 hours. It is managed by an external agency with very simple (crude) software. The time doesn't have to be taken all in one session, but it can only be used on one machine. You have to log in every time it is used and the time used is only shown at the time of logging in (not out). All this distracted us from the task of actually doing some work - emails, our website, research, booking, etc - against the clock.

We already look back with nostalgia to Finikounda, where Camping Finikes (and nearby Camping Thines too) gave FREE WiFi 24/7. There, we just left one laptop on-line so that we could listen to Radio Four or check the local weather forecast! We feel that WiFi should be a service to the campsite customers, not a profit-making device for the owners. If a charge is made, it should either be a small fixed daily charge or one based on usage - not time. The profit margin, given the way charges are made, must be very large, whilst the administration of those charges will be cumbersome when the campsite gets busy.

Cycling: Poised at the south-west corner of an agricultural peninsula, Camping IonioExGreece_(17).JPGn Beach does not make a good base for easy cycling, nor is there much variety of half-day rides. Apart from a very short excursion to Arcoudi and Loutra Kyllinis and back, any route out involves climbing a steep hill past the water tower to Lygia, or an even steeper hill to the village and castle of Kastro.

Ride 1. With dry weather aExGreece_(29).JPGt last, it was a joy to cycle again wearing shorts and t-shirts. Our first ride was a 30-km circuit via Arcoudi and Loutras Killini (where there are the sulphurous remains of Roman Baths near the more recent spa), followed by a switchback climb to the hill-top village of Kastro, crowned by Chlemoutsi Castle up at 845 ft (256 m). When we drive south from Patras we always scan the horizon for this fine landmark, rising on its lone hill above the fertile plain of Elis which has been reclaimed from marshland over the past century.

Reaching the locked gates of Chlemoutsi (originally named Clermont Castle), ExGreece_(51).JPGwe recalled previous visits, when we could clamber freely along the ramparts of the derelict fortress. It was built in 1220 by Crusader Geoffroi de-Villehardouin, as a vast Frankish watchtower over the Kyllene Peninsula and Clarence harbour. Now, its battlements restored, it presents the best preserved Frankish monument in the Peloponnese, open from 8 am to 3 pm daily (closed Mondays): entry €3.

Its long history involved capture by a Byzantine Emperor (Constantine XI Palaiologos) in 1427, falling in turn to the Turks in 1460. The Maltese Knights of St John took it in 1620, until it returned to Turkish hands in 1687. The Greeks held the castle from the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1821 until it was besieged by Ibrahim Pasha in 1827. And each change of fortune meant damage, rebuilding and alteration.

There is a wonderful panorama from the fortress, over the modern port of Killinis and the Ionion Islands of Zakynthos and Kefalonia. On a clear day the view stretches south-east to the mountains of Arcadia and northwards across the Gulf of Corinth to Missolonghi. There was still snow to be seen on the distant peaks. And the best thing about being up there, for a cyclist, is the return - downhill from 845 ft, all the way to the sea!

Ride 2. On aExGreece_(32).JPG second ride to Kastro (totalling 38 km), we began by cycling over the hill to Vartholomio (9 km), where we bought pies from the flaky bakery and coffees by the church. Then we followed a quiet lane past the abandoned railway station, with its legacy of a rusty steam engine and rolling stock. A now-disused branch line ran this way from Gastouni (which is still on the main Patras-Kyparissia line) to the spa at Loutras Kyllini – recently enough to be marked on our GPS and Peloponnese map. On through the tiny village of Machou, then a more gentle ascent to Kastro, followed by a swift descent to Loutras Kyllini and home. Probably 1,500 ft of climbing.

Ride 3. Thursday is Market Day in Gastouni, the nearest town of any size ExGreece_(36).JPG(16 km). It was known as Gastogne in the Middle Ages, when it was a residence of the Princes of Morea (the Peloponnese). On Thursday morning we duly cycled through Vartholomio and across the bridge over the Pinios River into Gastouni, to shop. Laden with fruit and veg (including delicious local strawberries at €0.70 a kilo), we rested over coffees. There were old friends to greet, like Nikos the potato-man, who didn't want his ExGreece_(38).JPGphoto taken, and Maniatis the town photographer, who used to develop all our films before we turned digital!

The town itself is developing, with several new shops including a 2-storey Carrefour supermarket. Older stone buildings, left derelict for many years after an earthquake, have been restored since our visit of 2 years ago. It will be quite nice when the roads have been put back together! We varied the route home by going round the villages of Kavasilas and Dimitra, rejoining the main road at Vartholomio. Total distance 36 km, with around 1,000 ft of climbing.

Ride 4. Our longest ride (48 km or 30 miles) also began by cycling ExGreece_(50).JPGover to Vartholomio (for our nearest post office and bank), then via Machou and Neochori to join the main road to Kyllini for its last 6 km. The port area, with ferries serving Zakynthos and Kefalonia, has been much improved, with plenty of parking space and newly laid pavements and seating.

We ate a picnicExGreece_(40).JPG lunch by the small beach, watching a newly white-washed ferry arrive. Continuing north-west along a path, past Anna's fish taverna, there is a signed track on the left leading gently uphill to 'Glarentza Cathedral'. The recently excavated foundations and low stone walls are all that remain of a Frankish cathedral church, built here at the Medieval Port of Clarence, founded by the Crusaders in the 13th century. The church's ouExGreece_(41).JPGtline is similar to the more substantial ruins of a cathedral built by the Knights Templar at Andravida, less than 10 miles inland. Andravida was the seat of a Roman Catholic bishop and the main residence of the de-Villehardouin family, who ruled the Morea (Peloponnese) in the 13th century.

Another path signed to 'East Gate' led us through a flowery meadow to the scant remains of the town of Clarence itself, set among olive groves on a bluff above a sheltered bay, about a mile to the west of modern Kyllini. There are only a few traces of the curtain wall and citadel, but the view alone was worth the walk.

We stood overlooking a tiny island with a modern lighthouse, set in thExGreece_(47).JPGe crystal clear Ionian Sea. The sun was hot on our backs, lizards darted between the warm stone walls, even a baby tortoise had ventured out. Beware snakes! We also tried not to tread on the silken petals of scarlet poppies, with fine black stamens like filaments at their sooty centres. It was all very reminiscent of April last year in Turkey, rambling among more ancient stones, with not a soul in site.

'Proud Clarence' (laterExGreece_(43).JPG named Glarentza by the Venetians) was a major Crusader port in the Morea for 200 years, growing rich on trade with Genoa and Venice. It eventually came under Byzantine control before falling into oblivion, though the title Duke of Clarence was brought to the British throne, when a great-niece of the founder, William de-Villehardouin, married Edward III of England!

Back in Kyllini, we took the steep road that climbs due south up to Kastro, riding hard in the heat of the afternoon. Our reward was the descent to Loutras Kyllini before returning via Arcoudi.

Wildlife: Cliff & Eileen GR_2_BG_(79).JPGkindly took us along on a bird-watching picnic at Lake Kotychi, a lagoon lying about 10 miles north of Kyllini, where there are a couple of precarious wooden bird hides and an information board (in Greek only). We accessed the lake from the New National Road, past Lechena, by turning down a lane to the coast signed for the village of Areti. This shoreline is a nesting place for turtles, though their future looks threatened by a newly built children's holiday camp, ironically called 'Green Turtle'. The ditches of the marsh were alive with frogs.

At the lake we saw a couple of Little Egrets and some small guGR_2_BG_(86).JPGlls (Mediterranean Gull or Kittiwake?) wheeling overhead. The main sighting was of Black Winged Stilt – a pair wading at the water's edge, searching for food in the mud, and a small flock flying around above the lake, their long red legs trailing out behind. According to our 'Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe' they winter in North Africa – indeed, the only place we'd seen them before was in Morocco (March 1999) – so these were probably early arrivals at their summer breeding grounds, round the Mediterranean shGR_2_BG_(88).JPGores of Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. They are almost unknown in Britain, except as a rare vagrant.

At the point in the lagoon where fresh and salt combine, as the sea breaks in, a cluster of globular bobbing heads attracted our attention. Fish or frogs? Eventually we guessed they were young eels, also arriving to breed, feeding by the eddy - an unusual sight. It was a grand picnic, inspiring us to buy a better pair of binoculars!

Easter: A moveable feast, whose date is fixed by the church. The rule in both Western ('Catholic') and Eastern ('Orthodox') Christianity is that Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon falling on or after the day of the spring equinox (21 March). The deviation in date between the two Easters is because Orthodoxy continues to use the Julian rather than the more modern Gregorian calendar, so that Orthodox Easter usually (though not always) falls later. (Thanks to the 'Athens News' for this explanation – the simplest we came across!)

Easter, Part 1: Along with the German, Austrian and Dutch campers, we celebrated Catholic Easter, beginning with Good Friday on 10 April. It was an especially Good Friday for Margaret, marking the birthday from which she could start to draw her pension! She made a celebratory gateau, decorated with glacι peaches (a gift from Bulgaria's summer bounty).

On the Sunday, the Fligos family organised a campsite barbecue (at a price), where we enjoyed local sausages and huge pork chops, along with plentiful salads, tsatsiki, bread, chips - and more than enough wine, not to mention ouzos 'on the house'. The guests all brought their own tables, chairs, plates, etc, to sit under the trees near the wood fire – an extremely pleasant way to spend the afternoon with Mike & Flo, joined later by Cliff & Eileen for coffee and birthday cake in our motorhome.

Easter, Part 2: Orthodox Easter fell one week later this year andGR_2_BG_(93).JPG on Sunday, 19 April, the Fligos family laid on another feast for everybody – this time free of charge. No less than 6 whole lambs began turning at 7 am, spit-roasting over the embers that were fuelled from a wood fire. Once again we gathered at noon, sitting with Mike & Flo, whetting our appetites with the sausages (100 were cooked), bread, small spinach and cheese pies and 'kokoretsi' (lamb's liver, kidneys and other bits, wound on a skewer and barbecued alongside the lambs). The Paschal lambs were pronounced ready at about 1 pm, chopped up and served with salads, tsatsiki, chips, red wine, etc.

This was followedGR_2_BG_(94).JPG by a round of Easter biscuits and red-dyed hard-boiled eggs. Traditionally, the eggs were boiled on Maundy Thursday, with poppies, onions or beetroot to obtain the crimson colour representing Christ's blood, but now they can be soaked in cold-water dyes. The custom is to play 'conkers' by tapping eggs until the winner is left uncracked – which may have a religious symbolism about the rending of Christ's tomb and the release of eternal life.

In the north-west, of course, we prefer chocolate but our Easter eggs still relate to growth and rebirth of man and nature, recalling the goddess Eostre (Easter = 'Ostern' in German) and the pagan spring festival.

The Greek/Roman name 'Pascha' is derived from the Hebrew word for the festival of Passover, which also occurs around the spring equinox. In fact, the Easter lamb (or kid for the less affluent), a vital component of Greek Easter representing the sacrifice of Christ, also has its origins in the sacrificial lamb of the Old Testament, slaughtered on the eve of Jewish Passover ever since the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt.

Returning from the religious and cultural aspects of Easter to the social – we had a jolly good party, ending with a round of delicious assorted cakes. Thank you George and all the family: 'Kalo Pascha'.

22 April 2009    184 miles   Glyfa to Thermopiles, Greece   Hot Springs

Over the Bridge and over the Mountains

It was showery as we headed down through Gastouni to the New Nat Rd and turned north for Patras, pausing only for a fill of petrol, the price now varying a couple of cents each side of €0.90.

After about 45 miles we joined the Patras bypass, a new 4-lane highway which turns inland to climb behind the sprawling port. 11 miles along, at 585 ft, it enters the first of a series of 5 short tunnels. Exits are marked for the centre of Patras (to be avoided!) and for the port (for ferries). We took the last exit – Bridge and Rio – after which the highway would have become the toll road to Corinth.

The bridge, spanning the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth, opened Ex_Greece_(61).JPGjust before the 2004 Athens Olympics, is an impressive landmark. The old ferry boats below still sail to and fro from Rio to Antirio, used by pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles that prefer to queue for a place on deck. The bridge toll of €11.70 was paid at the far side. We'd driven 64 miles and were ready for a break but there was no exit to park down by the ferry terminal. Almost immediately, a T-junction gave the choice of left for Mesolongi or right for Nafpaktos.

Turning right (east), the E65 followed the north shore of the Gulf – a brand new road for the first 10 miles, bypassing Nafpaktos, before joining the old road on to Itea. We lunched in a sunny layby at 81 miles, overlooking the village of Marathias on the shore below. Continuing to Itea, Ex_Greece_(62).JPGthe road twists and turns its way, passing off-shore fish farms and the little port of Ag Nikolaos, from where a vehicle ferry crosses to Agio.

Reaching Itea at 122 miles (the port for Ancient Delphi, used by ancient pilgrims and modern cruise-tourists), we took a right turn signed 'Athens and Desfina'. We'd previously used Camping Ayannis about 3 miles along this road, listed in guide books as 'Open 1st April'. It was closed and locked, appearing abandoned.

Returning to Itea, we headed briefly north, then turned right towardsEx_Greece_(63).JPG Delfi to check out Chrissa Camping, 4 miles along on the left. However, access proved to be down 300 m of very narrow winding lane, overhung with trees. Our memories of the other Delfi site, Camping Apollon 4 miles away, were not good (overpriced and under-developed) so we decided to leave Delfi – its ancient site is magnificent but we'd visited twice before, including our first Christmas in Greece.

Returning, we continued north to Amfissa, a crowded town at 136 miles, up at 500 ft with a view over the 'sea of olives' down to the Gulf. As we turned sharp right to ascend a pass through the foothills of the Parnassos Mountains, towards Lamia, there was a sudden torrential downpour. We found a layby after 3 miles, made a pot of tea and waited for the rain to stop.

By 140 milesEx_Greece_(64).JPG we were above 1,000 ft climbing a good, if twisting, road. At 146 miles we mistakenly thought we'd reached the top, at 2,450 ft. There were wayside alpine cattle wearing bells, a petrol station charging over €1 a litre and some mining works before the actual summit (2,890 ft) at 150 miles, where there was still snow piled at the roadside.

Descending the zig-zags for 5 miles toEx_Greece_(65).JPG Gravia (at 1,400 ft), snow poles marked the verges, the sky blackened and it felt colder. We passed a tiny British Military Cemetery from WW1, set among lush alpine meadows as we'd climbed again to 2,100 ft. At the village of Bralos, the signs disagreed with our maps, while our GPS added to the confusion, but we eventually found the new section of E65. A vast plain spread below us to the sea – the Maliakos Gulf lying off Lamia.

At 182 miles we met thEx_Greece_(66).JPGe coastal toll road (Athens-Lamia), crossing straight over it to join the old highway. Turning right for Thermopiles (or Thermopylae) we soon turned off down the lane on the right signed 'Thermo Springs'. A huge rough parking area here is popular with free-campers, attracted to bathe in the steaming pools and stream (lovely and warm if you can stand the sulphurous vapours!) We joined about 15 assorted motorhomes, mainly German and Dutch, just a stone's throw from a Shell petrol station/restaurant on the main road.

Rain set in for a quiet evening.

23 April 2009    243 miles   Thermopiles to Asprovalta, Greece   Camping Achilles   €20.00

Past Mount Olympos and round Thessaloniki to the Asprovalta Riviera

Awoke on a damp drizzly morning to the eerie sight of steam risingEx_Greece_(70).JPG all around from the warm stream. Thermopiles (or Thermopylae) means 'Hot Gates' and this area, where warm sulphurous waters emerge from the foot of Mount Kalidromo, was known in antiquity as the Baths of Irakles (Hercules). There are some spa buildings, all closed up, and a gap made in the wire fence for unofficial bathing, used by free-campers and local visitors alike. We wandered round anEx_Greece_(68).JPGd took photos, thinking how beautiful the site might once have been, with its spa complex, gardens, paths and seats, all tucked below the brooding mountains clad in cloud. Instead it was neglected, overgrown and litter-strewn – a home to stray dogs and stray campers. A place of such historical and geological interest is obviously of no interest to present day Greek authorities.

Less than half a mile along the old highway towards Athens is the larEx_Greece_(69).JPGger-than-life white marble statue of Leonidas, King of the Spartans, wearing only his helmet and shield. With just 300 men, he heroically defended the Pass of Thermopylae against the great Persian army led by Xerxes in 480 BC but it was an unequal struggle and they were killed to the last man. Over the road from the statue lies the burial knoll, with its famous inscription: 'Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by, That here obedient to their laws we lie.'

Since we'd Ex_Greece_(71).JPGexplored all this before, and it was now raining hard, we drove a mile back from the Hot Springs to the new road and headed north for Lamia. Northern Greece felt distinctly cooler than the Peloponnese (56° F/13° C on waking).

After the exit for Lamia the road turned east, following the northern shore of the Maliac Gulf. The most recent issue of the 'Athens News' (17 April) carried an article entitled 'Greece's Dead Sea', reporting that over recent months the fish in the Maliakos Gulf are being killed by an algal bloom. It's a prime fish-farm region and millions of fish, both wild and farmed, have died – 3 million on one farm alone. As to the causes, the paper mentions the usual suspects – insecticides and herbicides, washed into the sea during a winter of heavy rainfall, provide nutrients for certain algae to grow; untreated or partly-treated human waste from Lamia increases the nitrogen level of the River Sperheios; hundreds of factories, olive oil presses and industrial livestock operations along the Sperheios Valley add to the pollution – despite the river delta being designated a nature reserve. We despair; the fishermen are devastated; the authorities do nothing.

A mile or two after the silent fishing port of Stylida there are 2 beach-side campsites. The first looked closed; the next - Camping Interstation – 18 miles from Thermopiles, is open all year, provided you like cold showers. We once stayed briefly over Christmas.

At 25 miles, our 2-lane highway became the Aegean MotorwEx_Greece_(72).JPGay, with 4 lanes and a central barrier. The first toll point, 7 miles later, charged €4.80. After passing the exit for Glifa (the ferry port for the NW tip of Evvia island) the road turned northwards across a headland, reach 850 ft. It was still drizzly and cool as we reached the next toll point at 85 miles (€6.30) before Larissa. There are 4 exits for this, the capital of Thessaly on the River Peneios. It's an agricultural centre, surrounded by flat plains at about 200 ft, growing wheat and cotton under irrigation. Greece's Trade Unions began here in the early 20th century– and so do modern farmers' strikes, when highways are blocked by tractors.

The broad motorway Ex_Greece_(73).JPGended abruptly at 109 miles, 2 miles before the entrance to the Vale of Tempe. The toll of €2.50 through the Vale (the next 17 miles of extremely dangerous narrow road) is payable right by a Goody's restaurant. Very tempting, but absolutely no chance of parking, so we made lunch in a tight layby 5 miles later. Most parking places in the Vale lie on the opposite side of the road, alongside the River Peneios, with entry denied to north-bound drivers. Tempe was once a verdant beauty spot but now the atmosphere is marred by heavy traffic and the memorials to a couple of horrific road crashes.

It was a relief when the road widened into a 4-lane motorway agaiEx_Greece_(74).JPGn but it only lasted for 4 miles, before another narrow section ran past Platamonas Castle (at 126 miles) and the turning down to Skotina Beach: another good place for overnight parking. Another toll (€5.80) marked the start of the motorway again – continuing all the way past Thessaloniki and Alexandroupolis to the Turkish border. The view of the Mount Olympos range, inland on our left, was obscured by low cloud.

North of Katerini,Ex_Greece_(75).JPG there is a motorway service station at 151 miles – a rare event and the last before the Turkish border! It boasted 'Shell Autogas' (an even rarer event) and we pulled in to top up the LPG tank. No such luck – they had a 'Problema' with the 'Pumpa'. We were advised to try Thessaloniki Airport (way off our route).

Continuing north, we crossed the Aliakmonas River at 167 miles, 8 miles before the final toll (€4.30). Soon we crossed another wide river, the Axios, which flows down from the Republic of Macedonia, through Greek Macedonia to its estuary. Then we took the exit signed 'Kavala-Serres' for the EgnEx_Greece_(77).JPGatia Odos, A2/E90 – the motorway looping north round Greece's second city, Thessaloniki or Salonika.

After a 10-mile loop, the new motorway (currently free of tolls and any kind of parking or services) heads east for Kavala. It skirts the northern edge of Lakes Koroneia and Volvi (reservoirs for Thessaloniki), while the original highway runs to the south of them. The 2 roads meet at Asprovalta on the coast, where we left the motorway after 237 miles.

Less than 2 miles along the old road, back towards Thessaloniki, there is a pair of filling stations (BP and the cheaper Jetoil) and a pair of new supermarkets (Lidl and Aldi). We filled at the Jetoil but found both of the stores closed, slowly realising that today is St George's Day (a patron saint of Greece as well as England). An important name day for all the Yiorgi's and Yeorgia's! Not an official public holiday but …

Driving back into the small holiday resort of Asprovalta we tried the beachside Camping International, a mile or so north of town. This vast EOT (Tourist Board) site was about to cloEx_Greece_(81).JPGse on our last visit (30 September 2008). Today the Reception door was open, a man sitting behind a desk – to inform all campers that it was closed until 1st June. A steady job!

The privately owned Camping Achilles, 2.5 miles further along on the left of the road, is open all year and we turned in. The €20 price reflected 'High Season', though there was only one other motorhome (Swedish) on the site and the facilities are best described as 'unreformed'. We regarded it as a donation to what seems to be a home for stray dogs and cats.

24 April 2009    141 miles   Asprovalta to Alexandroupolis, Greece   Camping Alexandroupolis (Municipal)    €17.50 (with CCI discount)

Rather than return to the new motorway, we continued east along tEx_Greece_(86).JPGhe coastal highway for 10 miles to Ancient Amfipoli to park by the huge stone lion on the west bank of the River Strymon near the old bridge. This monument to martial virtue is part of a late 4th C BC funerary sculpture erected in honour of Laomedon of Lesbos, one of Alexander the Great's 3 greatest admirals, who settled here at Amfipolis. The lion has been restored and placed high on a conventional base, at the spot where the pieces were found by Greek soldiers digging here during the Balkan War of 1912-13. There is a parking area and information board.

After turning right and over the bridge, there is now a choice of route: to stay on the old highway that follows the coast via Loutra Eleftheron or to rejoin the brand new section of motorway and cut inland, as we did. The two roads meet a few miles before Kavala, then the motorway climbs to over 1,000 ft.

The Kavala exit, looking down on the port and across to the island of Thassos, is well signed for 'Kavala – Ferry to Thassos – Drama'. The road that runs north from Drama now leads to a new border crossing to Goce Delcev in Bulgaria, so a much smaller sign has been added reading 'Bulgaria 80 km'. Previously, there were only 2 border posts: to the west, lying north of Serres and Lake Kerkini, and in the east, north of Alexandroupolis and Orestiada. Another new crossing point is planned, to the north of Komotini (which would have been a good route for us) but only the road on the Bulgarian side is yet finished. The Rodopi Mountains do present a barrier to easy communication between the two countries.

From Kavala the 'Odos EgnatEx_Greece_(88).JPGia' motorway now continues unbroken towards the Turkish border, with a new bridge over the Nestos River (crossing from Macedonia into Thrace). The road was eerily quiet, each village marked by the slim minaret of a mosque as there is a substantial Muslim population in this remote eastern end of Greece. Tractors ploughed the large open fields, bright poppies flanked the verges and a distant shepherd herded his variegated flock of goats.

Between the towns of Xanthi and Komotini, we had a glimpse Ex_Greece_(89).JPGof Lake Vistonida over on our right. The old (pre-motorway) road runs via Port Lagos between the lake and the sea – a wonderful place for watching herons and flamingo – but today we stayed on the fast track. We'd seen no parking areas or service stations since before Thessaloniki, so we turned off into a village (Iasmos) for a tea break. Later we passed a half-finished rest area at 116 miles, after the 2 exits for Komotini (with WC but not fuel), full of trucks.

Alexandroupolis is badlFlair_(52).JPGy served by motorway links. Approaching from the west, take the exit for Makri and follow the coast road for the last 10 miles. A mile or so before the city centre there is a huge municipal campsite along the beach on the right, open all year. We were welcomed (not the right word) by a sullen receptionist and directed to a pitch with a tree in the middle that was too small - and fenced off! The site was quiet and we soon found a better place to settle in. Nothing has changed (still no washing machine or internet possibility) but the phone box works and the water is OK.

25-26 April 2009   At Camping Alexandroupolis

A Weekend Break in Alexandroupolis

The all-year campsite is a good place to break the long journey from RTT_(56).JPGGreece to Turkey/Bulgaria. It's about a mile into town, past the municipal park and along the sea-front, with a range of shops, banks, post office, restaurants etc. We walked into Alexandroupolis to shop at Multirama (Greek chain, selling computers and accessories) and Carrefour, with a lunch at Goody's by the lighthouse.

A ferry serves the mountainous island of Samothrace, which we once explored by motorbike, visiting the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. At this mysterious site, set on the slopes of a ravine, a beautiful 3rd C BC statue of Nike (= Victory) was found in 1863 during excavations by the French consul to Adrianople (Edirne). It remains in the Louvre in Paris, though there is a replica at the Sanctuary. Today there was still snow on the peak of Mt Fengari (the Mountain of the Moon at 5,495 ft), just a 2-hour voyage away.

Our weather was still cool and showery. We made lemon curd with the fruit picked down in the Peloponnese, updated the travel-log, did some cleaning and phoned our friends in Bulgaria that we were well on our way.

27 April 2009    125 miles   Alexandroupolis, Greece to Biser, Bulgaria   Sakar Hills Camping

A Happy Return to Biser

To regain the motorway from Alexandroupolis means returning wEx_Greece_(90).JPGestwards for 10 miles to Makri or, for eastbound traffic, driving through the main street of the town where double-parking is the norm! We negotiated this busy route for 4 miles until the turning for the Egnatia Odos (A2 motorway), which is now well signed (turn left, opposite the town's second Lidl store). 5 miles later we met the actual A2 – the first entrance is for Komotini, the second for Soufli and Turkey (and those bound for Bulgaria, though that is unmentionable!)

After 12 miles of motorway (empty on a Monday morning), we turned ofSakar_(13).JPGf to head north on E85 for Soufli and Bulgaria, leaving the A2 just 6 miles short of the main Turkish border crossing to Ipsala. Our road following the valley of the River Evros, which forms the Greek/Turkish border, was partly dual carriageway, with some road works. As we approached the silk-making town of Soufli we saw our first storks of the year, a pair soaring high above. (They actually arrived back in Bulgaria at the beginning of March – much earlier than usual.) In the village of Lavara (at 51 miles) a stork stood on its nest atop a telegraph pole, perhaps surveying the winter damage, unperturbed by the sparrows squatting in the basement!

Taking the second exit for the town of Didymoteicho, there is aDidimotika_(18).JPG Lidl store with ample parking on the left (at 62 miles). We had a coffee break and a quick look in the busy shop. The Carrefour, further along, had very little parking space and we returned to the highway, having visited Didymoteicho's border castle last summer. Turning off 13 miles later for Orestiada, we parked at yet another Lidl to shop (a small 150-watt inverter was a good buy), eat lunch and take a walk into the town centre.

Driving north again, we passed the turning for the frontier village of Kastanies with its minor crossing point to Turkey (Edirne), which keeps office hours! We continued north-west to Oremenio, where we left Greece at 108 miles: an EU border complete with Duty Free shop, then a mile of no-man's-land to the Bulgarian (now EU) border!

After a passport check anSakar_(14).JPGd a brief internal inspection at the Bulgarian customs post, we bought our compulsory Vignette (the minimum being €5 or BGN 10 for 7 days). Yes, the Bulgarian Lev is still valued at approximately 2 to the Euro, whatever may have happened to Stirling!

9 miles of Bulgarian road later, we stopped at Lyubimets, the water melon capital of Bulgaria, for fuel and cash. There's a filling station next to the Snack Bar Boliarka – for good food and an ATM - on the left of the highway, just on the Harmanli side of town. Fuel was about the same price as in Greece (both much cheaper than in Turkey) and LPG is widely available (unlike Greece). A pair of policemen came to inspect us – was it because we hadn't stuck the Vignette in the screen yet? No, they were jusSakar_(23).JPGt curious to look inside!

Arriving at Sakar Hills Camping in Biser village, 7 miles along, Matt Jeffes was waiting to greet us at the gate. The younger cop, a friend, had already rung to tell him we were near! We caught up on news of the expatriate community, most of whom we'd befriended last summer, then took our place in a corner of the peaceful campsite. The kind neighbour Maria remembered us well.