Et in Arcadia Modestine

Monday 28th April 2008, Messinia
We are now back on our own for a while having parted from David and Lesley this morning at the campsite. We will almost certainly meet up with them again as our plans are broadly similar. In fact, we drew in to admire the view during the afternoon and discovered Erik was right behind us! For the next 20 kilometres of mountain road we travelled in convoy through the little villages along our route before Erik suddenly disappeared from view. We must have been a peculiar sight together, particularly as no normal sized camper van could hope to negotiate the narrow streets of the little villages where cars are parked as near as possible to the tavernas, practically blocking the only street through.

The interior of the Peloponnese is very empty, with just a few villages widely scattered along the mountain roads that wind for ever through the hazy, mountainous landscape with just an occasional shepherd guarding his flock of goats as the only sign of life. We have spent all day following the twisting, winding roads through this daunting landscape of bare, grey, rocky mountains and deep, green ravines with their little rivers hidden way below us. We drove up amongst the wooded hills of Arcadia. This, to the ancient Greeks was the remote idyllic land of pleasure, peace and beauty, the internal Peloponnese, away from the military tensions along the coast and the belligerent rumblings of Sparta. It is just as peaceful and picturesque today though cavorting nymphs and shepherds were in short supply in the sylvan groves.

In Arcadia

Mountain village, Arcadia

Landscape in the rain, Arcadia

Stopping to allow Modestine’s engine to cool we noticed a wood carver’s cottage nearby with all kinds of rustic items for sale. We had no need for a shepherd’s crook with a real ram’s horn handle, nor for a little wooden flute. Even less did we need a wooden spoon with holes in, a spindle whorl or a bread stamp bearing crudely carved Greek letters. The wood carver had other plans however! He spoke no English but dragged us into his cottage to see his collection of photographs of English ladies he'd kissed and sent off with rustic spoons. On the table he had huge boxes arranged by country of himself with different ladies. Athanasios then proceeded to add me to his collection with lots of hugging and the rattle of euro coins as we made good our escape clutching a wooden bread stamp for which we have absolutely no use whatever in Modestine. Already, as we drove off, he was out in the road waiting hopefully for a lady from Finland in need of a large ladle and a kiss.

Athanasios with Jill

Our hopes to walk a few kilometres down one of the deepest and most spectacular gorges in Greece were thwarted when it started pouring just as we parked Modestine and found our hiking boots. From then on it rained steadily and wreaths of mist blotted out the landscape. As we drove ever higher it became freezing cold and the roadside was crusted with recently fallen snow. We eventually reached the Temple of Apollo at Vassos – at 1200 metres it is an icy cold, deserted, desolate place where the wind chilled us in seconds. Built in 420BC it was dedicated to Apollo Epicurus in gratitude for being delivered from plague. The temple has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1986 and since that date it has been permanently encased in a massive tent undergoing continuous restoration to repair the damage the stonework has suffered from its exposed location. We were almost the only people there despite the freezing young man on duty telling us it was free today. Greek temples and fluted columns lose some of their fascination, even for Ian, in a biting wind, clammy fog and slushy snow, so we didn't linger.

Outside it's a tent, Vassos

Inside it's a temple! Vassos

Unlikely setting for a UNESCO site, Vassos

From then on it was all downhill. There was nowhere to camp inland so we headed down towards the sea. With the state of the roads it took several hours. They were unfenced in the main with sheer drops down into the gorges. Apart from perpetual spirals and hairpin bends the roads were pitted and broken. Sometimes there were huge cracks across the surface, presumably from minor earthquakes. The rock face is very friable and the surface of the road was littered with fallen debris and boulders around which we had to steer. Any one of them falling onto Modestine could have wiped her out and us too. At one point we came across a flock of sheep, survivors of the Easter massacre. Mediterranean sheep are ugly, scrawny creatures with vast udders so they walk with bow-legs and a fleece that is so shaggy and matted it's hard to believe any self-respecting Argonaut would wear one. They effectively blocked our way, obliging us to crawl through their wake of urine for ages before one of them thought of climbing the bank and the others followed.

Blocking our way

It was gone 7pm by the time we reached the sea. Down here the air was warm and the sun shining. The campsite we hoped to use was closed and overgrown. Fortunately we eventually discovered another a few kilometres further on. There are just a couple of campers here with us. We half expected to see David and Lesley. Hopefully they are not benighted in the mountains. It has just started raining in earnest again and there are thunder claps which will surely dislodge yet more boulders up in the hills!

Tuesday 29th April 2008, Near Pylos, Messinia
We took a sunny stroll along the sandy beach this morning before packing up and moving on. The sea was blue, the fields deep red with poppies and the beach completely deserted.

Beside the campsite

On our way southwards along the coast we stopped at a little town, unremarkable for its architecture but bustling with activity. In common with almost every town we have passed through, people were milling around all over the road, while cars pulled up anywhere, happily double parking, effectively blocking the main coastal route down to Pylos. Here we shopped for food, spent an hour on the internet, refuelled Modestine and finally drove down to the sea front with a picnic lunch of cream cheese pasties in flaky pastry. The temperature was perfect for lounging on the sand with lovely views of the arid grey mountains along the coast.

We were planning on visiting Nestor’s palace where Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, called for help from the wise king when searching for his long-lost father. However, the roads were steep and winding and Modestine leaked so much diesel from her full tank as it was sloshed around on the bends that it stank dreadfully and the screech from the polluted brakes on every bend was worse than the Ferraries in Italy! By the time we had sorted the problem and reached the palace it was 3pm and had closed until tomorrow.

So we continued to Navarino Bay, the scene of the decisive naval battle for Greek independence from Turkish rule back in 1827 when British, French and Russian forces sailed into the bay and despite being outnumbered, sank most of the Ottoman fleet. Here we walked through sand dunes along a narrow spit of land that separates Gialova lagoon, a nature reserve for birds, from Navarino Bay. Tortoises roam wild in Greece. Unfortunately the tiny one we saw in the dunes today had had a brief encounter with the tyres of a passing vehicle and was fit only for ant fodder.

Pylos seen across Navarino Bay

Landspit separating Navarino Bay and Gialova Lagoon

Towering above us on the top of Koryphasion Hill were the 13th century ruins of Paleokastro which we fondly hoped to reach but quite underestimated the difficulty of the terrain. Any path there may have been was so indistinct we simply scrambled up the cliff as best we could, heading for the mouth of a cave about half way up. By the time we arrived we were sticky and exhausted. Inside we wallowed in the cool gloom looking back across the lagoon to the mountains and the sea beyond. The cave is massive with a huge domed roof. According to Greek mythology it is supposed to be the cave where Hermes hid the cattle he stole from Apollo and is known as Nestor’s Cave.

Koryphasion Hill

Paleokastro and Nestor's Cave

View down from Nestor's Cave

Here we had a wonderful experience. A young shepherd was sitting alone in the cave and explained to us, by means of signs, animal sounds and drawings on the sandy floor, that he had a hundred goats to care for but they had wandered off and he was waiting for them to return. He made us understand that they needed milking so would not be too long. He showed us their hoof prints in the cave and made indicated that sometimes he would sleep up here in the cave with them overnight but today he had to take them all down to the lagoon where he would then milk each one by hand. At first we thought he was deaf or dumb, or even slightly deranged but as we struggled to understand his strange noises and signs he jumped up and eagerly pointed up the rock face. A goat’s head with curling horns appeared. The shepherd made all sorts of strange noises and the goat gingerly scrambled down to the cave, her little bell tinkling as she came. Soon there was a cascade of goats, each with her own bell, slithering over the rocks, pausing to look at the shepherd who became a man transformed, talking and calling to them in a strange language of his own to which they responded with bleats. They were accompanied by a huge ram. As they each went past he would tell us with signs, this one has a damaged ear, that one is last because she cannot see properly having only one eye. There were indeed at least the hundred he’s promised us. At the end came his huge dog. It had been rounding up the goats. The shepherd explained that if a goat fell over the edge, the dog would haul it back again in his teeth. Finally the young man smiled goodbye and leapt off down the cliffs as nimbly as his goats. It was such a privilege to have seen the same traditions continuing in that cave today that have existed since the times of Greek mythology. It took us far longer to slither our own way down to the sea again.

Goats near Nestor's cave

Returning to Modestine we decided to spend the night at a clean, modern site right on the edge of Navarino Bay, directly across the water from Pylos. While supper cooked we browsed through our travel books outside and discovered a reproduced contemporary painting of the Battle of Navarino, executed from exactly where we are camping. It really is so easy to imagine the Allied fleet sailing into the bay and the Turkish ships being sunk off Pylos, directly in front of where we were sitting. The painting even shows army tents on the shore where this campsite stands today!

Wednesday 30th April 2008, near Pylos, Messinia
It was so delightful eating breakfast on the beach this morning that we found it hard to drag ourselves away. We have returned to the same site this evening to experience again the peaceful murmur of the waves breaking on the sand a few yards from us as we sit outside in the warm evening sunshine, content with the world.

In this respect we are luckier than David and Lesley. We have just received a text message saying they have a puncture. Not knowing where they are there is nothing we can do to help and when a Romahome has a puncture it is a major problem as we have already discovered. We are still having problems with Modestine's screeching brakes. We have driven over seventy miles since our fuel tank was over-filled, but the camber of the roads, the potholes, bends and hills are such that she rocks around and the fuel is sloshed out of the overflow and somehow gets onto the brakes. Just how much do we need to siphon off to stop it?

We returned to Nestor's Palace this morning. It had once been a two storey building but there was little to see really except for some rubble walls covered in mud. Ian found it interesting and the surrounding olive groves, vineyards and views across towards the sea were enchanting. Nearby we found a tholos tomb, used for generations of the same family. There are a number of them in the area and artefacts removed from them are on display in the archaeological museum in Hora, as we discovered when we visited to see some of the finds from Nestor's Palace.

Remains of a bath, Nestor's Palace

Tholos tomb near Nestor's Palace

The Palace dates from around 1300 BC, (three times older than the classic Mayan sites we recently visited!) There are definite links with the culture of Minoan Crete. It is the earliest site in mainland Greece where clay tablets inscribed in Linear B script have been found. (Don't ask, just look it up if you are interested.) Some of the ornamentation, wall paintings and artefacts reflect the bull culture of the Minoan temple at Knossos.

Linear B script in the museum at Hora

Gold vessels found at the palace, now in the museum at Hora

Vase found at the palace, now in the museum at Hora

During the afternoon we drove to Pylos, a little town of 2,000 inhabitants on the opposite side of the bay from where we are camping. We parked right on the harbour to explore. The sea was clear and bright blue with many large fish swimming right to the harbour wall. Above the town stands the church, a strange building with a huge silver dome. The castle was closed but the climb up to it offered us a different perspective of Navarino Bay and the offshore islands. Ian had developed a sore throat during the day so was keen to indulge in tiramisu and chocolate ice cream under a shady canopy on the town square. Here we found a three-sided column with a tribute to each of the generals – French, Russian and English - who lead the seaborne attack against the Turks in the battle of 1827.

Harbour at Pylos

Domed church at Pylos

Monument to the allied generals of the battle of Navarino, 1827

By this time it was too late to continue travelling so we happily decided to return here for a second night of peace, cleanliness and comfort.

Greece is a very hospitable, relaxed country where the people really do go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome. We have met with nothing but kindness and smiles. Many people speak English and are more than happy to teach us the odd word of Greek though we seem to be managing well enough with just half a dozen words.

They are none too hot on manhole covers however. This has been a great disappointment for Ian who finally found his first proper one in Pylos today. The reason though is obvious. Greece is none too hot on drainage either! Everywhere there are notices warning you not to put anything into the sewage system and all toilets have a discrete bin provided for used paper. Despite this major handicap they are all spotlessly clean.

Greek manhole cover, Pylos

Tomorrow we move on to discover whether the campsite at Sparta will live up to the reputation of the city.