Time to leave Greece

Monday 26th May 2008, Ioannina
We are back on the same campsite beside the lake in Ioannina. This time it is just for an overnight stop on our way to Igoumenitsa from where we hope to book a ferry up to Venice. If anything the day has been even hotter than yesterday. Definitely time to move north in the hope of finding more comfortable temperatures. Lesley and David have sent us a message to say they will be another couple of weeks exploring around Thessalonica before making their way to Igoumenitsa for the ferry so not to wait for them. It is rather a disappointment for both Erik and Modestine that they will not be together on the ferry. They had been looking forward to it and have even taken to sending emails to each other since our ways have parted! (Modestine has her own account and is happy to receive messages so long as they are complimentary. She can be a little vain sometimes.)

Our route back across the mountains went smoothly enough. There is not a great deal of traffic but most of it consists of huge international freight lorries. The twists and gradients mean that passing them in a right-hand-drive vehicle is well nigh impossible with the front end going into one bend while the rear trailer is still coming out of the previous one.

We stopped for a picnic coffee near the top of the pass with an almost alpine view down onto the little town of Metsovo. Because of its strategic position it received certain privileges under the Ottomans in exchange for guarding the pass – the only way across the Pindos mountains. As we sat with our coffee two separate trains of pack horses came out of nowhere, crossed the road and disappeared into the pine forests on the other side. There were about a dozen mules and ponies in each caravan lead by one muleteer. Each animal was loaded with large panniers. We can only surmise they carried handicrafts made by villagers higher in the mountains to be sold at the souvenir shops of Metsovo down on the hillside below.

Metsovo seen from the road near the Katara Pass

Pack horses near the Katara Pass

We made our own way down the steep descent to this village lying just below the main road between Meteora and Ioannina. We were rather surprised to discover how much of a tourist attraction it is – but then it is considered to be a quaint mountain village of shepherds where they speak their own dialect of Greek and still wear their national costume. The streets were packed with coach parties and vehicles, restaurants and overpriced souvenir shops. It made a pleasant break however and climbing up the steep steps between the houses soon brought us out into the village streets where people actually lived. Here there really were ladies from another era and another world, hanging kelim rugs over their balconies, pruning their roses and calling to their neighbours. They were quite ageless. They appeared to be the twin sisters of Methuselah but logic says they could not have been so very much older than we are! It is a sobering thought! These ladies wore socks and slippers, dark calf length skirts, aprons and headscarves, even in their own homes. Are they the last remnant of a bygone era or will the pretty young girls we see around the town wearing jeans and skimpy tee shirts as they park their motor scooters to meet with friends over a beer or coffee eventually become like their grandmothers?

Main street of Metsovo

Tuesday 27th May 2008, Igoumenitsa
Ioannina is high in the hills so the temperature cools down over night. We slept comfortably and left before the full heat of the day. Nearby at Bizani we stopped at an isolated spot to visit a war memorial to Greek Resistance fighters during WW2. Seeing someone hurriedly approaching and looking rather wild I returned to check we'd locked Modestine's doors. He came up to us, tugging our arms and pointing repeatedly at his hand in which he held a non EU coin. We have decided he was probably a homeless Albanian. He was weathered deep brown, old and thin with clothes that would have looked sad on a scarecrow. Most of his teeth were missing and he had two ends of cigarettes tucked between those that remained. At such a remote place he was unlikely to make much money begging and it seemed such a pitiful existence, particularly under such a relentless sun. We gave him a couple of euros and I was going to find him some water and food in Modestine but he simply snatched the money and ran off without a word.

Monument to Greek fighters in WW2, Bizani

Deep in thought we continued to the ancient Greek site of Dodoni, the last we are destined to visit. It is set at the foot of Mount Tomaros. After so many Byzantine churches it was good to find one last ancient site before we move on. Dodoni was the site of the first known oracle in Greece, dedicated originally to Gaia, later to Zeus. A sacred oak tree once stood there and its rustling leaves were interpreted by the priests. The Oracle was the most important in Greece until superseded by Delphi. The theatre was built in the 3rd century BC and was one of the largest in Greece. The site is widespread and much work needs to be done to stabilise the deterioration of the excavated remains. There was little shade on the site, the sunlight was dazzling and the experience exhausting.

General view of Dodoni

Theatre at Dodoni

Site of the original oak tree to Zeus, Dodoni

We somehow found ourselves on a section of the Egnatia Odos, the new motorway that is gradually being constructed between the Greek coast at Igoumenitsa and Istanbul. It will be wonderful once it is completed but so far only limited sections are operational with tunnels several kilometres long slicing through the mountains. Suddenly, almost without warning, the motorway turns into a building site and you are sent up into the hills on a series of hairpin bends before coming down again for a few kilometres along the next completed bit. At one point we were bowling along a deserted motorway at sixty mph when it simply ended and we were confronted with a couple of cows wandering around on the last few yards of tarmac!

Section of the motorway from the Greek coast to Istanbul

We are melting! When we arrived in Igoumenitsa this afternoon around 3.30pm the temperature on the illuminated display board registered 43 degrees and the tarmac was soft and oozing! Right along beside the port and the sea front there was not a patch of shade. We had intended to spend several days either here or over on Corfu which is an hour by boat across the water. However, we both decided immediately we got out of Modestine that we did not want to spend one minute longer than necessary in Greece before moving north.

43 degrees in Igoumenista

In the ferry booking office we were told there were no places on the ferry up to Venice for camping cars until next Tuesday! A week in this heat! Our pleading fell on deaf ears. We could go to Ancona but not Venice. I still tremble to remember my fears driving through Ancona to catch the ferry when we came here and have no wish to return there ever again. We placed our children's entire inheritance on the counter - money was no object. "Just get us out of here fast or we will sit in your air conditioned office until you find us a place!" Minoan Lines head office in Athens eventually took pity on us - and a large slice of the inheritance - and found a place for a tiny camper early on Thursday morning. So it just leaves tomorrow to survive before we will be SKIing up the Adriatic. (Spending the Kids' Inheritance if you hadn't realised.)

Outside in the blistering heat we found the town deserted. Eventually we discovered a noisy internet shop crowded with teenagers playing interactive war games on a series of LAN linked computers. The room was black, the computers were black and the kids all seemed to be wearing black. Never mind. It had air conditioning and only cost us 2 euros an hour!

Ten kilometres along the coast we found a pleasant campsite with the best showers we've had anywhere in Greece so we are reasonably comfortable again now it is 10pm. We have discovered our Greek olive oil soap has melted and turned to a gooey mess so we now have to keep it in the fridge with the yogurt! Several friends have emailed us to say how chilly and wet it has been in Devon over the bank holiday. At the moment we rather envy you!

Thursday 29th May 2008, On board the Icarus Palace heading towards Venice
We have survived the heat of Greece and are now on a covered car deck where sunlight cannot reach us. Joy! We are squashed in between huge lorries and big burly German camping cars. The one near Modestine says "We brake for nobody" right across the back. If they must be aggressive, why can't they do it in their own language rather than giving the impression it's the English who are anti-social bullies?

Modestine on the car deck, hoping the German bully isn't behind us when we leave the ship

It is such a relief to have survived the searing sunshine of Greece and to be heading north again. Even here we need the fan running all the time in Modestine, but it is an almost comfortable 27 degrees. Sleep has been in short supply over the past couple of nights. Within minutes of being on board at 9am today I was sound asleep for at least four hours!

Early yesterday we drove down into Igoumenitsa to purchase a final consignment of retsina and worry beads to take home with us. Soon though, we ceased to care about anything but escaping back to the campsite for some shade. On the way we stopped at a tiny village on the water's edge where we found a shady pine tree by the council offices – no more than a cottage really – to park Modestine. At the baker's shop we bought slices of spinach pie and a portion of baklava cake oozing in syrup. The lady was so surprised at Ian asking for it in Greek she gave us each a fresh baked bread stick covered in seeds for nothing! She also corrected Ian's Greek. The people we have met during our five weeks here have all been wonderfully friendly and helpful.

Waterfront near Igoumenitsa

We sat beneath a shady tree, the slightest of breezes from the harbour stirring the air, to eat our lunch. Opposite us, across the water, was the massive green and grey outline of the next headland with a lone eagle gliding on huge wings across the sky above it. The water of the bay was blue and clear, reflecting the dazzle of the sunlight. Even here though, in this charming village, it became too much for us English wimps. So we returned to our shady campsite pitch and holed up until this morning. We used our improvised awning constructed from a shower curtain for additional protection. It last saw active service in Dubrovnik a year ago. It's a brilliant success and only cost us a couple of pounds in a charity shop! Down at the private beach, crowded with Dutch and German co-campers floating on inflatable beds, I went for a swim. It's the only time we have been near a beach for long enough to bother. We generally find them too hot and boring after twenty minutes. I have to admit though that it was bliss to feel the cool, silky water across my back as I slipped into the clear, limpid sea, swimming with a view of Corfu on the horizon. The therapy was completed after exiting from the waves in a slightly less alluring manner than Aphrodite and squelching back up through the camp site for a cool shower.

Cooling off in the bay

During the evening we were involuntarily entertained by a band of Greek musicians. A contingent of about 60 Dutch campers, presumably from a club, took over the campsite restaurant below our pitch for the evening and the band entertained them for four hours with traditional Greek folk songs and music accompanied by bouzoukis and guitars. We heard "Zorba the Greek" and "Never on a Sunday" rather more times than we wished as we tried to get some sleep, but in general it was a pleasant, free concert for us and great fun for the Dutch.

So that's it for Greece and thanks for your company everyone. Tomorrow I will have to face driving back to mainland Italy along the causeway from Venice. We have decided not to linger in Venice this time, delightful as we have found it on visits over the past two years, but to press on towards Lake Garda and the Dolomites. We hope you will continue to travel with us.

Ian enjoys the delights of camping on board!

High tea on the high sea