Along the Ionian coast

Saturday 17th May 2008, Mitikas
This morning we left Lesley and David in Delphi and made our way down from the lofty heights to the coastal plains around Itea, an area of dense olive groves. We followed the north coast of the Gulf of Corinth back along the same route we had taken a few days previously, passing the point where we had disembarked from the ferry. The hillsides really are bleak and rugged with no sign of habitation while the silver sea stretched away through the morning haze, showing the vague, grey outline of the mountains on the opposite shore of the bay. As we continued we could discern the long suspension bridge in the distance at Patras linking the Peloponnese to the rest of mainland Greece. It was at the far end of this bridge we had camped and Modestine had met up with Erik just three weeks ago! It seems infinitely longer!

The bleak northern coastline of the Gulf of Corinth

Our travels are to some extent dictated by the accessibility of camp sites. These tend to be concentrated around the coast and even then they are widely scattered. We hope to reach the Byzantine site of Meteora in northern Greece eventually but have decided to relax from cultural activities for a few days and enjoy the coastal scenery and perhaps some of the Greek Islands.

Needing money and shopping we turned off the near deserted main coastal road to the busy seaside town of Nafplaktos. This was jammed with vehicles double and even triple parked, many straddling the pavements. There was shouting, hooting, banging – all the usual chaos we have come to accept is part of everyday town life in Greece. Eventually we parked Modestine on the far edge of the town and walked back. On the way we bumped into the same people who had given us a lift near Delphi a few days ago! It seems likely we will do so again as their programme is similar to our own.

Nafplaktos has a busy fishing harbour protected from seaborne attack by high, defensive walls. It is edged by chic pavement cafes while inland, above the town, is a picturesque defensive castle dating from Venetian times, its walls straddling the hillside. We found it to be an interesting and relaxed old town, bustling with activity with a pleasant, shaded seafront - a very agreeable place to loiter on a hot afternoon.

Harbour, Nafplaktos

Harbour defences, Nafplaktos

Castle, Nafplaktos

Exploring the harbour we discovered a statue to the Spanish writer Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. It was only then that it began to dawn on us that Nafplaktos was once known as Lepanto and was the scene of heavy fighting between the combined forces of Spain, Venice and the Papal States against the Ottomans back in 1571. Cervantes was at that time a Spanish soldier who acquitted himself well in the battle and is honoured in the town for helping the Greeks in their attempts to overthrow the Turks. Further investigation lead to the discovery of a plaque to Don Juan of Austria, half brother to Philip II of Spain, honoured for his role in commanding the battle. It is strange how our travels are beginning to tie up different threads as we move from country to country. Back in 2005 we found ourselves in Regensburg in Germany, birthplace of Don Juan, where we discovered another commemorative plaque to his command at the battle of Lepanto. Once again we mused over half remembered couplets from G.K.Chesterton's rousing poem of the Battle of Lepanto learned at school so many years ago!

Statue of Cervantes, Nafplaktos

Memorial plaque to Don John of Austria, Nafplaktos

We continued along the coast until we passed Patras on the far side of the bridge. This stretch became very busy and we realised once again why Greece has such a high death rate from road accidents. Some drivers seem to lead charmed lives, driving at speed right down the centre of the road while others are doing the same in the opposite direction. Such drivers rarely slow down, simply forcing other vehicles to the broken edges of the road as they surge through.

Soon though we were following the coast road northwards towards Igoumenitsa and the heavy traffic gradually eased. At Messolongi we turned off to visit the town. It was here that the poet Lord Byron died from a fever contracted in 1824. Always a lover of Greece, he had come to help organise the Greek troops gathering at Messolongi in their battle for independence from several hundred years of Turkish rule. His death was sadly mourned by the Greek people, who honour him still today as an outsider who gave his life to help them in their cause. There is a statue to him in the town and another in the Heroes' Garden, a sort of memorial park for the great names connected with Greece's struggle. It includes poets and philosophers as well as fighters. There are plaques there to those from France, Germany and Finland who came to help the people of Greece. It seems to have been something of a "cause celebre" that captured the enthusiasm of many individual Europeans, in a similar way to the Spanish Civil War a century later. Byron's heart is buried in the Heroes' Garden at Messolongi though his body was returned to Britain for burial. Having been exiled from home for many years because of scandals in his personal life, the British government of the day refused him a burial in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner, despite the sensational popularity of his writings. It is only in recent times that a plaque to him has been placed in the Abbey.

Memorial to Byron in Heroes Garden, Messolongi

Byron did not live to see the defeat of the Greeks by the Turks at Messolongi in 1826. After a long siege 9,000 people attempted to escape from the city through what is now known as the Exodus Gate. They fled to the surrounding hills where many were hunted down and killed by Albanian mercenary troops.

Exodus Gate, Messolongi

But this was supposed to be a restful period for us without using lots of brain power learning new things! So we turned our back on the town and headed on along the coast across the flattest area we have seen anywhere in Greece. The entire green coastal plain is heavily used for crops, fruit growing and arable farming. It is almost the only place where we have found water in any of the rivers! Our route rose back up into the mountains. There was hardly another vehicle on the road and certainly no camper vans. We passed the sleepy seaside resort of Astakos. There was no sign of a possible campsite so we continued for a further thirty kilometres along a high mountain road, with stunning vistas out to sea with the islands of Kastos and Kalamos off shore. Countless smaller, dark islets floated on the water, each ringed with a silver band of light in the late afternoon sun. During the entire journey we did not see a single habitation on the mainland. This stretch was nothing but bare rock sparsely clad with broom, herbs and scrubby bushes. All along the roadside were chips of fallen rock and more than once our way was blocked by free roaming cattle and brown hairy pigs. We assume they were once of domestic origin and have gone wild.

Ionian Islands in the evening haze

Pigs along the roadside near Astakos

Our map indicated a campsite at Mitikas, the next settlement. A kilometre before reaching it we found the first camping sign we have seen all day and turned off down a tiny track towards the sea. Eventually it led out onto the beach along which we drove for half a kilometre before reaching the campsite. Neither of the two old men running the site as a sideline from farming sheep and goats spoke any English and looked rather amazed at Modestine turning in, seemly straight from the sea. We are the only touring vehicle on the site though there appear to be a couple of Greek boat owners staying in the static caravans. The scenery is to die for, the water crystal clear and even inside Modestine we can hear the sea breaking on the white pebbles. This really is a coastline that is totally unspoilt.

Sunday 18th May 2008, Ionian island of Lefkada
We didn't wake until nearly 9am today! By the time we'd showered and had breakfast beneath a shady olive tree, the sun was already hot. It has been around 32 degrees for much of the day. After a stroll on the deserted beach we packed up and went to pay our bill. We were handed a piece of paper, a pencil and a list of charges to work it out for ourselves while the little old man went back to his snooze! We left the money on the table and departed.

Jill on the beach at Mikitas with the island of Kalamos behind

Just along the coast we stopped for a stroll through the village of Mikitas. The main street was bustling. Every cafe and taverna was busy preparing Sunday lunch. It would seem the whole village goes out on Sunday to eat together. Outside the doors of the little houses lining the street, elderly ladies, dressed completely in black, including a headscarf, sat on chairs watching the world, happy to talk to anyone with time to spare. On the main street a fisherman was selling his morning catch to his neighbours. On the jetty, from where a small ferry boat crossed to the island of Kalamos, a couple of villagers were busy fishing. A lorry, loaded with large decorative terra cotta flowerpots was moving slowly around the village, causing general traffic congestion, as the driver announced his wares through a megaphone. On the harbour young boating and canoeing enthusiasts were setting off to make their own way across to the island.

The road continued to be quite deserted as we drove on, weaving our way between potholes, fallen rocks, goats and even a snake. In need of diesel we eventually found a garage open and noticed that the price has risen dramatically since the fuel strike last week. Presumably the tanker drivers got what they were demanding.

Fallen stones by the roadside near Mikitas

Goats crossing the road near Mikitas

Today was intended for pottering. Seeing a sign for an archaeological site we turned off and drove for several kilometres through pretty countryside along rapidly deteriorating lanes. Harvesters were out in the fields gathering hay, crops were being sprayed from a water cannon, and rounding a bend, we found ourselves in a heaving sea of recently shorn sheep being shepherded along the lane for milking.

Sheep on the road near Palairos

Eventually however, we reached the ancient site of Palairos dating from the 5th century BC. Its isolated location meant that apart from the caretaker, we were the only visitors. It is built on the steeply rising hillside overlooking the surrounding plain and lake Voulkaria. Although the site has been cleared of vegetation, it has never been properly excavated so gives an excellent impression of what the sites were like when the archaeologists arrived and before any restoration work took place. This site turned out to be particularly interesting as an example of defensive architecture with over two kilometres of the city walls still reasonably intact and standing to their original height. There were several entrance gates, one showing the original wheel ruts, a watch tower and gigantic flights of steps. There were a couple of water cisterns that served the city and the remains of the Agora. The original flagged road ran up through the city, complete with narrow grooves to prevent slipping! The views from the hills out across the plain to the sea were stunning with the defensive walls of perfectly dressed ancient stones snaking down the hillside. Despite the great heat and steep scramble up to the site, there was a steady breeze that made it bearable.

Defensive wall, ancient Palairos

Entrance gate, ancient Palairos

Watch tower, ancient Palairos

Water cisterns, ancient Palairos

Grooved flagstones in the main street of ancient Palairos

Down on the plain we stopped Modestine on the edge of an olive grove for a picnic lunch. It really is a deserted countryside. The only person we saw was the caretaker from the site on his way home for lunch on his motorbike. We'd been his only customers all day and he gave us a cheery toot as he passed by.

By late afternoon we finally reached the coast again and the point where a causeway running between a lagoon and the sea leads to a bridge that links the Ionian island of Lefkada or Leukas to the mainland. We have been unable yet to buy a proper map covering this area of Greece but managed to find the campsite we were seeking quite easily. It is cool and shady with orange, lemon, grapefruit and banana trees as well as olives, vines and medlars. Weary from the heat we opened a Greek beer from Modestine's fridge and collapsed in the shade. The season hasn't started yet so there are very few camping cars here. One of them turned out to be the couple who gave us the lift near Delphi! We really are following each other around! They are very friendly people and we all find it quite amusing.

This evening at dusk, a Dutchman came to tell us there are owls in the trees at the top of the campsite. We investigated and found four of them perched together in the same tree, with a couple of others flying around nearby! We could get very close to them, watching them through binoculars. Unfortunately it was too dark for decent photos. They seem quite oblivious to us and we have been told a colony has been nesting there for the past twenty years!

One of our neighbours at the campsite, Lefkada

Monday 19th May 2008, Ionian island of Lefkada
This evening we have returned to the same campsite we used last night despite our intention to take the afternoon ferry across from Vasiliki at the far end of Lefkada to Kefalonia. When we arrived there it was to discover the ferry had been cancelled due to severe winds. As the campsite at Vasiliki was very expensive and there was no guarantee tomorrow's ferry would be running either we decided to abandon plans to visit Kefalonia and return here. In any case, the ferry fare was far more expensive than we had imagined. We could cross from Portsmouth to France with a nice cabin and still have change for a meal on board for what it would have cost us for a return trip between Lefkada and Kefalonia – a journey of fifty minutes each way!

Although Kefalonia is probably not very different from Lefkada, it holds a particular interest for us since reading Louis de Berniere's novel "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" which is set on Kefalonia during the time of occupation by both the German and Italian troops. Their uneasy alliance was broken when Mussolini was overthrown and the Italian troops surrendered to the allies. This effectively made then enemies of the German occupying forces and ultimately led to a massacre of the Italians by the Germans. In 1953 the island was severely damaged by a major earthquake.

So our experience of the Greek Islands looks like being limited to Lefkada. It is sufficiently large, covering an area in excess of 300 square kilometres, to make you frequently forget it is an island at all. It also regularly suffers minor earthquakes and the main town of Lefkada was devastated by a major quake in 1948 when almost all the buildings were destroyed or severely damaged. Since then some of the older churches have been closed as unsafe and the old stone houses that make Greek island villages so picturesque have been replaced by lightweight constructions using corrugated iron. We were impressed at how attractive it is possible to make such buildings look. Painted in pastel shades with bright bougainvillea against the walls, wrought-iron balconies and attractive shutters and blinds it is easy not to be aware they are such flimsy, functional buildings.

Corrugated iron buildings, Lefkada

Residential street of lightweight housing, Lefkada

The churches often have separate bell towers in open iron work so that they can withstand quakes. We went into one of the churches where a lady in black was snuffing out all the candles and kissing every painted icon while a priest, also in black with his beard, long hair and hat, busied himself at the iconostasis. Once they had left we took the opportunity to take a photo which we hope gives an impression of how richly decorated with chandeliers, metal picture frames and painted icons a typical, small Greek orthodox church can be.

Open ironwork bell tower, Lefkada

Iconostasis in one of the churches at Lefkada

One of the churches that survived the earthquake, Lefkada

We have spent best part of the day in the island town of Lefkada. It has been very hot again and down by the marina, the easiest place we could find to park, it is without any shade. Between the water front and the town is an unpleasant wasteland of dust, rubble and broken roads. So we were unprepared for the pleasant experience we found when we finally entered the main pedestrianised streets of the town where it was cool and shady in the narrow roads. In the main square were several cafes and although obviously catering for tourists, the small shops in the centre also served the local community. There were people chatting outside the butchers and piles of sprats, sea bass and huge swordfish at the fishmongers. Greengrocers displayed piles of shiny purple aubergines, ropes of garlic heads and huge red tomatoes. Bakers' shops were crammed with almond or ginger biscuits, brown seeded bread sticks, sticky baklava cake, spinach and feta cheese pies and batches of bread, all produced on the premises.

Main square, Lefkada

We searched in vain for a map of this area of Greece as we have fallen off the northern edge of the one we bought back in Nafplio. It has caused Ian great distress but he has still managed to navigate us all over the island today and get us safely back to our campsite. Nor did we discover a tourist information office or a museum. In the Cultural Centre we did chance upon an exhibition of modern Greek paintings, pleasant enough and a cool respite from the heat, but not really to our taste.

The marina covers a huge area with hotels, supermarkets, car hire, showers, restaurants and bars. Here the seriously wealthy boat owners sat half naked on the prows of their vessels sipping Pimms as they fried. The predominant language was English. It all looked rather boring really.

So we decided to drive down the east coast to the far end of the island. The road passed through several small towns and was generally heavily populated all the way. Continuous roadworks made it all a slow and bumpy drive. When we finally reached Vasiliki we parked by the harbour to investigate the ferry before realising it had been cancelled because of the strong winds. At the time we thought it rather an extreme precaution but shortly afterwards the first gusts hit the shore and we are very glad indeed not to have been out at sea on a battered iron ferry boat in such weather! There is no rain and it is a hot wind, but very powerful and gusting. We remember a similar wind when we were in Corsica. It can be difficult to stand upright into it.

The village of Vasiliki is pleasant but consists only of cosy tavernas and tourist bars around the port where yachts were moored waiting to ride out the storm. When we tried to get some money from a cash machine we were told the electricity was down so there was nowhere we could get any money until it was fixed.

Port at Vasiliki, Lefkada

We returned to the north of the island, following the west coast along steep, deserted minor roads that climbed up into the high mountains that dominate all but the coastal strip down the east coast along which we had driven earlier. This road was beautiful, the hillside covered in yellow broom with steep vistas down to the sea. We saw very little traffic as we wound through the occasional mountain village. Without a map we paused frequently to work out the Greek road signs. If it happened in one of the villages we were usually directed on by a little old man on a chair by the roadside. Presumably he is placed there by the island municipality expressly to guide tourists unable to purchase a suitable map!

Route back through the mountains of the west coast, Lefkada

As we continued and reached the highest points of the route the wind became increasingly violent, tossing the trees and whistling around the hillside. Eventually we came over the crest where we looked down far below onto the pontoon road across the lagoon that separates Lefkado from the mainland. It was so much easier to understand how we had arrived on the island yesterday when seen from above. Our descent was precarious as we navigated countless hairpin bends but eventually we reached the main road out from the town which took us straight back to our campsite. It has been a full, agreeable day even if we ended up not doing what we expected.

View down onto the lagoon and the pontoon road from the mainland to Lefkada