A few days off…
It’s a sunny Monday morning somewhere in Athens. The little Vespa scooter is standing on the side of the road, waiting with all our baggage on it. I’m jumping over the saddle bags to find myself in the most comfortable place in the world: on the seat right behind Stergios. “Let’s see if Calliope can take as far enough!” he said and opened the throttle. For more than a year now, we have pushed the “pause” button in out RTW trip and got back to Greece in order to work on our book and film and raise money for its next part. We bought another PX 200 we named “Calliope” and while Kitsos is taking a break waiting for us in Brazil, our new scooter helps us with our everyday chores. Time for some holiday!
We left Athens behind, headed to Peloponnese through the old highway – a road that nowadays is mainly used by residents of the nearby towns. The industrial suburbs of the city were ugly as usual but after Eleusis the scenery started to change. The plain-looking buildings were hidden by hundreds of various conifers and the sea took our eyes off of the ugly cement constructions. The breeze and the sun brought us memories from our previous journeys. That’s exactly what we needed: a few days off with no fixed schedule.
We continued to Kakia Skala, the place near the town of Megara where – according to Greek mythology – Theseus killed Sciron, the vicious robber who forced travelers along the narrow cliff-face pathway to wash his feet and while they knelt, he kicked them off the cliff, where they were eaten by a giant turtle. “I had no idea that there is a bridge down here!” I admitted embarrassed about my lack of knowledge when we got to Isthmia and crossed the Corinth canal via the unique sinking bridge to Peloponnese. The wooden parts of the bridge that had just emerged from the water were soaking wet and along with the sand from the bottom of the sea, we could spot some dead fish who had been trapped on its surface.
Calliope – Kitsos’ white sister, was working fine but the big moment to prove its capacity was about to come. A friend had told us about an abandoned 11th century monastery built under a huge rock, hidden in the mountains far from civilization. There were some folktales about miracles that Holy Mary had performed in the area, but the only reason we wanted to get there was to spend a quiet night in our tent away from everyone. The road was steep and unpaved, but not very difficult. Calliope easily made it to the top. Around us, only mountains and somewhere in the background we could spot some small pens and the few goats that lived there. “It reminds me of Lesotho!” I screamed happily at Stergios’ ear but on the last turn before the monastery, our enthusiasm abruptly finished. We almost crushed with three ladies who were holding toilet paper, looking for a place to relieve themselves. We greeted them without being able not to look surprised and wondered what saint of the christian orthodox calendar may have his special day! There was no point in scratching our heads though, as it wouldn’t make any difference. When we got to the monastery, it was nothing but quiet. It was one of the 2-3 days of the year that a big religious celebration is organized there and all the people from the nearby towns come to attend the festive mass and spend the night. As, we were deeply familiarized with the Greek folklore, we decided to take off for the beach!
Sorry for the weird vertical video. It was filmed on a smartphone!
We slept under the huge eucalyptus trees of a campsite on the beach of Iria, after having enjoyed an all-raw dinner due to our good old stove that always had a character. No matter how Stergios dismantled it twice in order to make it work, the stove refused to cooperate. The next morning, we took our coffee (hot – as the stove finally gave in) and continued through all the well known touristy beach towns of eastern Peloponnese. The heavy clouds became black and filled with rain as we entered the gate of the campsite in Leonidio. We pitched our tent under the rain and with our raincoats on, we went for a walk in the streets of the beautiful town with the traditional architecture and the nice, smiling people. Leonidio lies under a big steep red rock in the region of Tsakonia, where the unique dialect “Tsakonika” used to be spoken. Today, only the elderly can use the strange dialect and many attempts to document it have been done by cultural institutes and universities.
Our next stop was Fokiano – a beach with white pebbles and crystal clear waters 30kms south of Leonidio. To get there, we had to climb on the eastern part of mount Parnon, through some villages that seemed untouched by tourism. Our only concern while admiring the amazing view was the lack of filling stations along the way. “You should get back to Leonidio!” were the words of a local when we asked about fuel. “The next place you’ll find fuel is Monemvasia” he assured us. When we returned to Leonidio, the employee at the gas station had some stories about tourists on caravans who arrived in a sweat with dry tanks. “Calliope is just fine but I believe Kitsos had more power” said Stergios thinking about his favorite scooter while we were climbing on second gear. Calliope proved reliable as well and after we reached the top, we started going down the cliffs until we saw the wonderful color of Fokiano beach. The water was so clear and transparent that we thought of throwing off our clothes and plunge in. The chilly breeze completely changed our minds, so we got on the scooter and continued our way towards Kyparissi. The construction of a paved road from Fokiano to Kyparissi had recently finished – so recently that our GPS got confused. Maybe it was due to the lack of connection through land that the village of Kyparissi had maintained its traditional color until nowadays.
Calliope is just fine but I believe Kitsos had more power
We left the picturesque village behind and headed to Limin Ieraka (Port of Ierakas) – the tiny, peaceful settlement at the end of an extensive fjord-like inlet, unique in Greece. Before we got back at sea level, we had to climb again on one of the most breathtaking routes in southern Greece. At some point, the road became so narrow and carved as it was on the side of a massive rock standing vertically over our heads, it made us hold our breaths until we crossed it. While we were climbing, we could gaze at the infinity of the Myrtoan sea and watch the big tankers sailing away from the ports of Greece to Africa – I don’t really know if that’s their itinerary, but in my mind Africa is very close to Peloponnese…
We spent two days in Monemvasia which, apart from the famous medieval fortress and some beaches around, has nothing special to offer. The fortress though, is a very interesting place to visit and spend some time to walk and shoot photos. It is located on a small island off the coast. The island is linked to the mainland by a short causeway 200m in length which leads into the byzantine old town through the main gate. The town’s name derives from two Greek words, “mone” and “emvasia”, meaning “single entrance” and despite being a well known destination, it is not very crowded – at least in October.
The rainy weather and our genuine reluctance to go on hiking missions left us gazing at the path towards Cape Maleas without taking the decision to set foot on it. Maleas is the southeastern edge of Peloponnese. The seas around the cape are notoriously treacherous and difficult to navigate, featuring variable weather and occasionally very powerful storms. We left Cape Maleas and continued northwest to the Laconian Gulf. After a while, we found ourselves lying at a campsite in the city of Gytheio. The campsite, which was in the heart of an olive grove was inhabited exclusively by Northern Europeans who preferred to travel in Greece during the ideal season. The sun wasn’t blistery anymore and the coasts of Peloponnese were almost empty. We felt like we were in a place beyond time and space. Everything around us was extremely familiar but we couldn’t hear a Greek word. Even the employees at the campsite and the cafeterias around or the locals we met, greeted us in English.
We left Gytheio and went south to Cape Matapan (Tainaro). We were in the heart of Mani region. Thick grey clouds kept the sun hidden, leaving small holes in the sky for one or two sunbeams to penetrate and shed light to the arid land and the rocks, making the scenery absolutely majestic. Mani, a region famous for the harshness of its environment which gave the same quality to its people, always caught my imagination. The wars, the “vendettas”, the traditional lament songs and the emigration – all parts of Maniot history – still reflect on the abandoned “house-towers” and the fortified villages that give Mani its cultural uniqueness. While going south to Cape Matapan, the view from the “neck” of the peninsula before Porto Kayo was breathtaking. We could admire the open sea from both sides of the peninsula and we couldn’t choose between the beach of Marmari or that of Porto Kayo. Cape Matapan (the ancient holy place of Tainaro) is the southernmost tip of mainland Greece, but what we also keep is that according to Greek mythology, somewhere around there lies the Gate Of Hades – the way to the underworld.
Our route on the map (roughly)
Since it was impossible to find a quiet place for wild camping (all the remote beaches could be approached only on foot and not by scooter), we unwillingly rented a hotel room in Gerolimenas. The hotel which seemed untouched by time, offered us a journey back to the ’60s and only the view from the balcony to the bright blue sea and the picturesque houses recompensed us. We were now going north towards Areopoli and our destination for the day was Kalamata. Nature was constantly changing and from the arid and hostile land of Laconian Mani, we found ourselves in the green and blooming land of Messinian Mani. The touristy villages of Stoupa and Kardamyli provided us with an especially good view of Mount Taygetus and its peak “Profitis Ilias” which was half hidden behind heavy clouds. We passed from Kalamata’s seafront and headed west to Messini to meet with a good friend who had a house away from everything, in the heart of an olive grove. “It looks smaller than I thought!” he admitted laughing, when he saw us riding Calliope. For the next two days, after we turned off the engine, the only thing we could hear was the cicadae that thought it was still summer.
“This leg looks crippled to me!” said Stergios when he saw the next part of our trip on the map. The western peninsula of Peloponnese was not that far but we had to return to Athens soon, so it was impossible to enjoy the rest of our trip the way we usually do: with no schedule. We left our stuff at our friend’s house and went for a quick ride through Koroni, Methoni, Pylos and the famous beach of Voidokilia. Before we started climbing from Messini to the center of Peloponnese, we promised to grab the opportunity and get back to continue on the west coast some day.
The new highway that connects the capital cities of the Peloponnesian districts, makes the distance between them ridiculously short, but guess what! We never take the highway. We climbed on Mount Mainalon through the city of Megalopolis to the small villages of Lykohia and Hrisovitsi. The olive and the orange trees gave their place to the walnut and chestnut trees that grow in colder climates and we soon entered the evergreen forest and saw the first firs. The fresh breeze became cold and the colors of nature reminded us that it is autumn in the mountains. In just a few hours and only 100kms north of Messini, we reached 1200m of altitude and we were about to arrive at my grandmother’s house in the village of Vytina. “What a nice feeling to have someone waiting for you!” I told before I rang the doorbell. The smell of grandma’s cooked food mixed with that of freshly chopped wood, brought me memories of my childhood. With tears in my eyes, after two days of resting in the big old family house, we left Vytina waving goodbye and headed towards Athens.
From all the alternative routes to Athens, we chose the one we had no idea about, which hid a pleasant surprise. From Nestani, we took a small road and found ourselves climbing up the top of a mountain whose only residents were goats and cows. The paved road soon ended and for some kilometers we did a perfect off-road route that reminded us of our adventures in the Andes. “I hope I won’t have to push!” I said laughing to Stergios and the familiar feeling of nostalgia came again only to make us plan our departure from Greece as soon as possible…
We were on our way to Athens, having crossed the big bridge of the Corinth Canal and we were now moving faster than usual. While waiting at a traffic light in Eleusis, a young petrolhead on a shiny moped approached and warned us about our weird looking rear wheel. We immediately stopped and found out that the rim was about to shatter. It was full of rust but someone – before we bought the scooter – had painted and polished the rims to look like new. Not even the guys at the garage had spotted it! The good thing about riding a Vespa is the spare wheel that carries and after we thanked the man, we replaced it and continued our way. We didn’t want to think what could happen if it weren’t for him…
Now in Athens safe and sound, looking back at the previous two weeks, watching the photos and the videos we took. There were countless times in the past when we postponed a short trip around our country, thinking that it’s too close to be interesting. Well, what a stupid thought…
To be continued…