The Saronic Islands

September 30th, 2014

Situated in the Saronic Gulf, near to the Mirtoon Sea, are the gorgeous Saronic Islands – Aegina, Poros, Hydra and Spetses. There are a couple of others (as in the way of Greece) but these four are the most visited. In easy reach of Athens via the port of Piraeus, they are just a day trip away, either by tour or by simply catching the regular hydrofoils (the Flying Dolphins) and speedy catamarans. Aegina is the least interesting, in my view, but it does have an interesting temple built in 480 BC, the Temple of Aphaia.

Poros

1210 Tavernas,  Poros DSC07534You would be forgiven if you thought Poros was not an island at all. It’s only a few hundred meters (five minutes in a tiny boat) from the shore of the Peloponnese. In actual fact there are two islands – the main port, Poros Town, sits on the tiny island of Sferia, separated from the main island of Kalavria by a canal. Boats of all descriptions tie up at the waterfront, and it’s pleasant just to sit and watch them as they ply to and fro. The waterfront stretches for some way and is full of interesting tavernas and shops, while steps lead up to lanes and squares that make up the upper town. At the top is the focal point – a clock tower and cathedral. The interior of the island is wooded and sparsely populated. It was devastated by fire in 2007 and has taken some time to regenerate, but Poros has some quite nice beaches and is well patronised by visitors from Athens. Also it has a very active group of wildlife rehab workers who are doing a sterling job with native birds and raptors.

Hydra

Hydra is one of my favourite islands in Greece. Here’s a quote from my travel memoir “Make Mine a Moussaka.”

P1070684“We disembarked from the catamaran onto the cobbled quay and stood and stared. It was like landing in the middle of a postcard. The marina was so full of craft it looked like a Boat Show poster. Modest rented yachts to luxury cruisers and everything in between were there – quaintly painted caiques (fishing boats), pleasure craft for every occasion, tiny tinnies, revving water taxis, huge rusty cargo boats and even small ferries.

Behind the perfect horseshoe harbor, the stone town rose in tiers to form an amphitheater, the houses rainbow painted, their terra cotta tiled roofs like matching flat hats. The paralia (waterfront) was lined with the usual quaint boutique tourist shops. Eclectic tavernas spilled out across the flagstones, their rows of cane chairs facing the action, and the whole place buzzed with people. Narrow cobbled streets led back into the town, like slits between the walls, mysterious and inviting. A stoic string of donkeys stood unmoving while crates of vegetables, soft drinks and bags of cement were transferred from one of the cargo boats to wooden racks on their strong backs.”

Hydra has always been a barren rock, stuck in the sea like a beached whale, with very little vegetation, hardly any trees and no water. Early settlers couldn’t follow their tradition of agriculture so they took to boat building, which explains the strong maritime influence in the town and its history of seafaring. During the Greek War of Independence, Hydra was responsible for supplying ships for the blockade of the Turks. A maritime school is still in existence. The shipping merchants accumulated much wealth and built large and beautiful mansions around the town, most of which are restored and used to this day, some as galleries and museums, others as hotels, or weekenders for the rich and famous.P1070894 As it is now proclaimed a Greek national treasure, the island cannot alter, rather it dresses up, evolves and reinvents itself. A wander around the back streets of the town finds little narrow cross streets suddenly opening into tiny squares, each with a taverna tucked into a corner, and little shuttered shops concealed in odd places. Behind old whitewashed stone walls the houses hide in cool courtyards, their pergolas hung with vines and bougainvillea, shaded with lemon trees and decorated with eclectic plants in pots. Each corner is a tiny idyll, a fascinating glimpse, an enchanting surprise. Back of town, houses cling to the hillsides, staring down at the harbor, and across the Saronic Gulf to the misty Peloponnese.

All streets eventually lead to the paralia (waterfront). You can’t get lost, no matter how far you ramble through the labyrinthine back alleyways. Under the clock tower is the archway leading to the peaceful Monastery of the Virgin Mary where the Byzantine Museum is housed, icons and oddments, a haven from the hurly-burly. My all-time favorite hotel, the Hotel Miranda, is a challenging pull up Miaouli Street, one of the narrow lanes. It’s an eighteenth century sea captain’s mansion, converted and stylishly restored into a hotel, retaining much of the old ambience. Luggage bounces over cobbles polished smooth by eons of donkey hooves. It has been decreed there be no cars or mopeds on Hydra (except for rubbish, sanitation and construction vehicles), so you travel by donkey (or mule) or walk. I could sit all day and watch the donkeys. DSC07272The village of Kamini is walking distance along the cliffs and is picture perfect. All the beaches on Hydra are pebble, but it is fun to dive off the rocks into the crystal clear water. Yellow and red water taxis take you everywhere, and it’s quite an experience zipping along.P1050833

Evening lends enchantment. Down at the port the water ripples change color as the sun sets over the far shore of the Peloponnese, flooding the harbor with orange and pink. The yachties come home to roost, berthing among the caiques, as the water taxis dash to and fro. The occasional hydrofoil, the Flying Dolphins, and the Catamarans skate in and out. As it grows dark, lights come on around the paralia, washing the shadows and the shiny cobbles with yellow, and the whole waterfront becomes illuminated with a string of white fairy lights like a giant stage necklace. I’d describe it as beautiful, but that’s an understatement. For dinner it’s fun to opt for a taverna with tables perched right on the edge of the narrow cobblestone street, or out on the edge of the harbor where you can watch the action while you eat. As darkness slips over the harbor, the fishing caiques chug into port, easing into their berths through the golden ripples of the reflections from the fairy lights. The water taxis gradually park for the night, the beautiful people emerged from their boats looking for tavernas, and the local youth gather to sit on the sea wall and eat yiros and ice cream.

Spetses

Spetses is an island not so often visited by tourists, and therefore is a little more “normal Greek” than Hydra. However it does have a certain charm, and is well worth a visit. The Dapia Harbor of Spetses Town is another of the fascinating waterfronts of the Saronic Islands. I was particularly interested in the water taxi rank (see here) – much more organised than elsewhere, and the horse-drawn carriages all waiting for customers. DSC07482A wander around the tranquil town shows leafy alleyways, shops, and boutiques. The delightful main square is full of tempting tavernas – check out the brightly coloured signage. I haven’t seen much like it anywhere else. Spetses has a strong maritime influence, and like Hydra grew wealthy from ship building. Captains from here led ships to the Napoleonic wars, and of course the War of Independence. Although there are remains of Hellenic, Roman, and Byzantine settlements, it seems Spetses was virtually uninhabited from the 10th century to the 16th. Once again, there are some interesting museums in the town.

Next time I’ll take you to the Cyclades Islands. These islands are where everyone goes – but there’s more to them than just Mykonos and Santorini…

Kalamata to Patras

September 23rd, 2014

Have you ever travelled along the west coast of the Peloponnese – from Kalamata to Patras?
Well, to complete my travel diary of the circumnavigation of this part of Greece, we will do just that! In my last post I traveled through the Mani country, but there’s another wonderful way to get to Kalamata – from Sparta and through the Langada Pass. P1040419The journey through the Langada Gorge and across the amazing Taygetos mountains to the pretty village of Artemisia is spectacular, then the switch-back road on the descent quite incredible.

The capital city of the prefecture of Messinia, Kalamata, was rebuilt in the 1830s after the Turks demolished it during the War of Independence. An earthquake in 1986 wreaked havoc once again, so consequently it’s now a rebuilt, sizeable, modern, busy city. Earthquakes are fairly regular in this area, but not of great magnitude (fingers crossed). Kalamata is a small Athens without the antiquities, and cleaner, tidier and not so cramped, but still with the obligatory old town and kastro. As Greek cities go it’s rather pleasant. Everyone’s heard of Kalamata olives – well, if you haven’t, I’m here to tell you they are just as large and delicious as their reputation acknowledges. The Kalamata variety is a great big black beauty, twice the size of other varieties. The best Kalamata olives are grown in the rich soils around the town of Messini, just out of Kalamata itself – although they’re also grown very successfully on Crete and on Lesvos.

Due to the closure of most of the train lines in Greece, to proceed on our journey we either bus it or drive.P1040436 There’s a large newish bus station out of Kalamata, overlooked by an ancient castle ruin, and it’s easy to catch an onward bus. The last time I traveled from here it was market day in Messini – the first town along the way. A lurid carnival occupied the central square, swinging children on lethal-looking rides. We stopped somewhere in the middle of chaos, and the bus emptied like suds from a washing machine, only to be refilled immediately with school children; Mamas struggling with huge bundles yakking loudly; and older, stoic, wrinkled, silent codgers. The aisle was sardine-packed. A large woman sat heavily next to me holding a huge bulging shopping bag that extended onto my knee. The bus groaned off with its new load into heavy traffic. I loved it!

We headed out through the market garden of Greece – citrus and stone-fruit groves, vegetables and vineyards and, of course, field after field of olives. The grape harvest was in progress at that time, and the bus sailed past tractors pulling trailers piled high with grapes. Such a contrast to the Mani country. We wound through low hills, across picturesque flowing rivers, and through lush green country, while passengers disembarked willy-nilly in little villages, at gates or corners, or just in the middle of nowhere. Eventually we crested a hill, and there below was the beautiful wide Bay of Navarino. We almost free-wheeled down the winding road into the picturesque port of Pylos, rattling to a stop in a large plateia, shaded by huge trees.

P1040483And just in time. The bus station at Pylos was suddenly seriously challenged. A procession was coming down the main street, led by the school band. Following them moved what seemed to be the whole town, pacing slowly for maximum effect. This solemn procession took some time to round the plateia and head off to the church. In the meantime all traffic came to a halt, buses piled up, camper-vans stopped, and drivers fumed and cursed. When the last of the procession disappeared, as is the way in Greece, chaos reigned as everyone tried to move off at once. I was staying in Pylos for a few days, at the Hotel Miramare. Bliss – I found my room had a lovely balcony with harbor views, and I could sit there in the glow of the late afternoon, gazing at the bay stretching as a huge circular, peaceful body of water, with a large tanker wallowing plum in the middle like an exotic island. Pylos, once known as Navarino, overlooks this bay, where in 1827 an Allied fleet (British, French and Russian) defeated the Turkish, Egyptian and Tunisian fleet in a battle that wasn’t meant to happen. The Allies sank fifty-three ships with a huge loss of life, on what was later described as a “misunderstanding”. However it was a turning point in the Greek War of Independence.

Pylos is a most attractive town, strung around the bay with a very attractive marina full of boats. P1040443It has two castles in its near vicinity, but I only had energy to climb to the nearest, the Turkish Neokastro. It’s a huge place in an excellent state of preservation, with crenelated battlements and a citadel so complete it’s used for a museum and offices. It’s surrounded with soughing pines, under which grow skirts of tiny pink crocuses. The whole area is a mecca for castle-lovers. Apart from the two Pylos castles there is a massive fortress at the seaside town of Methoni, south of Pylos and well worth exploration. Another extensive castle can be seen at Koroni, across the peninsular from Methoni. I think I’ve mentioned before that I’ve always been fascinated with the Trojan War. Having been to the home of Ulysses on Ithaka, and the fortress of King Agamemnon at Mycenae, I wanted to find the palace of old King Nestor, to complete the Trojan triumvirate. A short bus trip out of Pylos took me to the site – an important, well preserved, and well defined, Mycenaean ruin – but somehow it lacks the ambience of Mycenae.P1040460

The next stage was Pylos to Kyparissia. As the bus climbed the steep road out of town, the water of the Bay of Navarino and Pylos harbor was pink, yellow and green glass. The morning light shined golden on the sandstone houses with their red roofs. Our conductor looked hung-over – maybe he’d been among the wedding cars I’d heard roaring around the town the night before, tooting madly. We wound a tortuous way through wine country, up into hills gray-green with olive trees, where crocuses spread in circles in their shade, like pink petticoats of flowers. We overtook a farmer, as old as King Nestor himself, hefting his scythe over his shoulder as he walked along the road. The blade winked in the sun. Kyparissia is an attractive market town, busy as a beehive. Well, busy for some, for every street corner boasted a kafeneion full of men playing cards, draughts or backgammon and lifting the odd beverage. Magnificent fruits and vegetables stocked the shops, testimony to the bountiful farmland of the surrounding countryside.

But I caught the next bus onward to the main town of Pyrgos. Out of Kyparissia we literally flew along, for we were now on a two-lane highway and our driver was obviously late for an appointment. There were continual loud and angry cries of ‘Stasi! Stasi!’ (stop), and much argy-bargy from the passengers as we rocketed along the coastal plain, past market gardens, vineyards and orchards, and tootled past their desired destinations. But stop for them he did. I wasn’t impressed with the Pyrgos bus station, with few amenities and full to overflowing with disgruntled passengers, but fortunately I wasn’t stopping. From Pyrgos you can catch a bus to Olympia. Of course everyone makes a pilgrimage here at one time or another if you travel around Greece. The site is a lovely place, set in attractive country, within walking distance from the town. You must run the Olympic track, just to say you’ve done it! And the museums are stunning. But for me it has been ruined by the tourists – there were 18 buses parked there the day I went, and the town of Olympia is really just a collection of hotels and kitsch souvenir shops. But you’ve gotta love it.

The bus to Patras continued through the low coastal plain. There are not many villages along here and it’s a relief to finally arrive at your destination – the largest city in the Peloponnese and the jumping off point to Italy and the Ionian Islands.

Next week I’m taking you to one of the delightful Saronic Islands – Hydra. Come with me! Meanwhile – there’s always a good read in my book “Make Mine a Moussaka” available here: http://www.amazon.ca/Make-Mine-Moussaka-Helen-Ellis-ebook/dp/B00FQJ0KX2

The Mani Country

September 16th, 2014

In the strange, bleak Mani country of the Peloponnese, time is irrelevant to all but the traveler. I believe this area is one of Greece’s best-kept secrets, and time should not be an issue when discovering it. The Lakonian Mani country, barren, gray and somber, is certainly gloomy but intriguing, a place of secrets, of early blood feuds and fierce independence.

DSC06187Maniots, descended from the Spartans, defended their territory through the centuries from invasions by Romans, and Byzantine Turks. Continually warring with their neighbors, mainly over possession of the few fertile pieces of land, the Maniots built their distinctive tower houses in fortress-like towns, and from these strongholds kept watch for marauding clans. The whole area of the Mani is scattered with these gray stone towns complete with towers, many in total ruin, but many still alive, and much the same as they were three hundred years ago.

The Mani is still a part of the Peloponnese mercifully under-patronized by tourists and therefore highly desirable to those seeking locations where the very essence is authentic and free-spirited, and where tourist buses don’t fill up the parking lots. It’s the lower section of the middle finger of land – the very southerly part of the Peloponnese. Contrary winds moan through mountains of gray rock, which in turn fold down to hills dotted with wild thyme, which then tumble to narrow plains of inhospitable stony fields, to eventually fall into a restless turbulent sea – here is solitude in isolation. It’s difficult getting around the Mani by public transport. Buses are scarce and don’t service the really interesting spots – the secluded bays, the hidden ruins, the rocky valleys, the isolated fishing villages, the somber deserted tower towns. The clever way to do it is to be footloose and fancy-free with a car, to stop, ponder and potter, not whiz past in a bus.

One of the most fascinating of the old ruined tower towns is Vathia. DSC06224Spread in a jumble across a bald hill, its square austere towers stick up like giant broken teeth from its rocky vantage point. This amazing place is a gaunt reminder of the past. Tall turrets like mini-castles complete with slits for windows and with crazy stone steps leading up to nothing, crumble into piles of bleached stone. Figs, prickly-pear and weeds encroach where mamas originally tended their small vegetable plots and their pots of geraniums. An effort has been made to restore a few of them, but most are left to endure the dry sharp winds and the ravages of time. The view from Vathia is breathtaking – scattered tiny farmlets, rugged coastline, hidden bays encircled with fishermen’s cottages, brown fields and the endless backdrop of gray stony mountains.

The pristine fishing village of Porto Kagio, right at the bottom of the middle finger of the Peloponnese, is a tiny gem – about twenty buildings nestling together on a windswept horseshoe bay. It’s about as remote as you can get, yet often visited. There’s a path up along its rocky headland to a point where one can see out across the Lakonian Gulf to the Mediterranean itself. Right there is the tiny white-painted stone church of Agios Nikolaos, complete with a large iron bell hanging from a rusty iron rail attached to the austere building, a little incongruous under the circumstances, considering the church’s isolation. Travelling north one comes to Gerolimenos – another tranquil seaside village, perfect for R&R.

DSC06178The Mani capital is Areopoli – named after Ares the god of war. The guesthouse where I stayed was one of the old towers – the walls of my room were three feet thick, the tiny window a gun slit, and the ceiling cylindrical, an authentic tower room. An afternoon spent walking the flagstone streets of Areopoli revealed an austere town of gray stone dwellings, hiding behind ancient gray stone walls. The late summer sun beat relentlessly on silent tower houses, many in sad decline, others restored in a sort of converted pseudo authenticity. But as dusk enveloped Areopoli, lights came on, and the blank, austere buildings opened out like flowers. Tables and chairs emerged and tavernas sprouted. Children yelled, motor cycles farted, cars revved, dogs barked, cats fought. Areopoli rocked.

From Areopoli it’s best to continue along the west coast. One gem along here is Limani, a tiny seaside hamlet of spectacular stone houses, and towers, with the bald barren backdrop of hills looming above it. A few small boats lie on a tiny pebble beach like toys. Nearby are the Diros Caves, worth a visit. The village of O-Itilo is a backwater worth exploring and further along one begins to experience the perfect seaside holiday spots of Agios Nikolaos, Stoupa, and Kardamyli. I love the latter and have stayed there several times – its Old Town of typical stone towers is worth a visit. Hiking is really good here – the mountain village of Exohorio is a challenge, also the nearby Vyros gorge. Eventually, all roads lead to Kalamata, the second-largest city in the Peloponnese.

DSC06097Wandering around the Mani in a little red car at the end of summer, when the grass is dried to the color of sand and the stone ruins blended into the bald hills, is one of life’s enchanting experiences. Nobody emerges to challenge you as you clamber among the deserted stone towers and piles of crumbling masonry, among the rampant prickly-pear plants, the stunted figs and contorted olives. There are no signs saying “Keep out”, in Greek or English. Where have all those independent, proud people gone? Athens? Melbourne?

More pictures in the gallery. Enjoy!

Monemvasia

September 8th, 2014

From last week’s fascinating Sparta and Mystras it’s time to continue on to one of my very favourite places. This piece comes from my book “Make Mine a Moussaka”
(http://www.amazon.ca/Make-Mine-Moussaka-Helen-Ellis-ebook/dp/B00FQJ0KX2)

Monemvasia

P1090868What do you do when you step through a gateway into a small piece of Paradise? You stand there, and boggle. (Boggle: to allow one’s mind to arc out.)

For two and a half hours the bus wound its way from Sparti through the pouring rain. Along narrow winding roads it went, grinding up into craggy alpine country and rolling down into orange groves, up again to where the pink heather clung to the rocky hillside, and finally down again to rattle along the last decline to the sea. As though they had done their worst, the storm clouds melted away and the sun burst out just as the bus pulled up in a small village. Everyone scrambled out. I presumed this was journey’s end. But not quite…

P1090704The collection of shops, tavernas, houses and domatia, clustering at the edge of a perfect pebble beach, is called Gefyra, pretty as a picture, somnolent in the early afternoon. I had come to see Monemvasia, described in my guide book as “the Gibraltar of Greece.” So far I couldn’t see anything resembling Gibraltar, just a pleasant little hamlet sprinkled across a small promontory facing a crescent of azure water. Behind the main street, Gefyra hid its tiny marina. Colorful caiques, runabouts and small boats nudged each other, a perfect little spot surrounded with outside tavernas and a wide paralia (waterfront). Domatia and small hotels straggled around the water to a yacht harbor and breakwater.
The road which brought the bus to Gefyra continued onwards to cross a causeway, and then to skirt the edge of a towering rock the color of dark chocolate. I’d never seen Gibraltar, but I guessed this was Monemvasia. It drew me like a magnet. I boarded another little bus and headed towards it.

When your road is suddenly blocked by a medieval stone fortress wall, complete with ramparts and circular turrets, just at the time you’re expecting an ordinary, albeit picturesque, town, that’s when you begin to boggle. This grand wall began way up at the top of the “Gibraltar” rock and swooped down to the road, its crenellated stonework resembling the back of a crouching dragon – sort of like Camelot on a cliff. Where the road ended, the gaping mouth of an arched stone entrance beckoned, then the wall continued, to finally drop into the sea. Inside the dim tunnel-like interior there was nothing but a blank wall at the end of the passage, then a blind-alley path which turned at right angles and led from darkness into bright sunlight again.
There it was. Monemvasia.

P1040244It was certainly a mind-boggling place. When the brain slowly comprehended one was standing in a town where building commenced earlier than the eleventh century, and it was occupied from then until now in some form or other, the fascination was absolute. So this was what the Middle Ages looked like? From the ruins of the old fortress way up on the very crest of the rock, the whole town of Monemvasia hid below the chocolate colored escarpment and cascaded down to the sea wall, with each salmon-pink or washed-sandstone house facing out to sea. Authentic Byzantine stone buildings crowded in along the cobblestone pathway, but real people were toing and froing and getting on with their lives – the fact they were in sundresses, shorts and T-shirts didn’t lessen the time warp, for everything was so totally bona fide. So very non-twenty-first-century.

A little potted history here – during the sixth century AD, barbarians forced the residents of the surrounding area to locate onto the natural rock fortress, and by the thirteenth century the complete town was a thriving commercial center, totally hidden from the mainland and only accessible by sea. Over the centuries Monemvasia declined like Mystras, but it didn’t descend into total ruin. Consequently, when it was “rediscovered” in the latter part of the twentieth century it was easily restored to unspoiled charm by those seeking a paradise invisible to present-day mainland marauders.

Slippery cobblestone streets, worn smooth by eons of feet and hooves, led into the main plateia, but lining the way were present-day shops, set like grottos into the original dwellings. Ah, the usual souvenir kitsch, but somehow it all looked different, kind of olde worlde. Tavernas, their outside tables tucked in single file along old sandstone walls overhung in the way of Greece with pink bougainvillea, were also hidden inside restored buildings. Only the stainless steel of the new kitchens set them apart from hostelries of the past.

P1040209Exploring Monemvasia was a discovery-fest. Narrow stone steps and winding passageways; unexpected corners; secluded courtyards decorated with beautiful old pots tucked into niches; hidden gardens softened with creepers and shaded with figs and pomegranates; red brick and sandstone walls; and mysterious archways. The main path eventually led out to the far ramparts and a twin wall to that of the entry gate, thus enclosing Monemvasia within the square of the two walls, the fortress on the crest of the rock and the sea wall below. Up on these ramparts a path three feet wide allowed the original defenders to walk along the inside of the crenellated battlements right along the sea-front, and now permitted tourists to lean out to watch the sea fling itself onto the rocks below. A climb through the town right to the top culminated in the precipitous staircase leading up to the fortress. From this rear vantage point one could look over the jumble of orange tiled roofs and walled gardens, across the rippled ultramarine waters of the Mirtoon Sea to the southern Aegean and infinity.

In the central plateia of Monemvasia, guarded by an ancient cannon, stood the thirteenth century Cathedral of Christ in Chains, its landmark square stone bell-tower rising above all other buildings like a lookout post. Opposite, an ancient tenth century church had been tastefully restored into a tiny museum. In the lower parts of the town much restoration of the old buildings was taking place, all kept in perfect harmony with the ancient beauty of the old stonework.

At dinnertime, an estiatorio in an old restored house just before the plateia drew me in. The front of the house had been cut away and the interior remodeled, but the old rickety stairs led to upstairs rooms and an outside patio of stone, once a terrace, set out with tables. Red tablecloths and matching napkins. Balloon glass of iced water. Citrine colored wine. Delicious rigatoni. And a view like no other as the sun gradually sank into an indigo sea in a blaze of pink and orange. Daylight slowly faded, and the rooftops of the ancient town faded from orange to gray. One by one old lanterns lit up the paths and secret places. Silently Monemvasia slipped back into the middle Ages. It was black night when I left the restaurant. Following the lamps along the main street, each circle of lamplight became an island, surrounded by a sea of deep shadow. People appeared and passed silently, like wraiths and shades of ages past, disappearing into stone stairways and vanishing into complete darkness. For a moment their hushed whispers hung in the present, their shadows leapt as they passed the pools of light, and then were no more. In a tiny ruined church, someone had placed a lighted oil lamp on the remains of a little altar. It flickered and set grey and yellow ghosts dancing on the crumbling stone walls. Outside, beds of night-flowering Chonakia, which we call Four-o’clock Plant, were bright pink and yellow under the lamps, like confetti sprinkled on leaves, a sweet and musky fragrance suffusing the warm still air.

DSC05951Drawn toward the sound of music, I found a bar, down a few stone steps, backlit with flickering candles, its tiny terrace overlooking the sea. A crescent moon now rode high, silvering the water across to the far shore where a few scattered lights twinkled. Wavelets near the battlements were touched with the silver moonlight and sparkled like sequins. Occasionally, clouds scudded across the moon and the mood changed, darkening the sea to ink. A tiny feather of breeze touched my face. It was so lovely. I was not ashamed of the tears running down my cheeks. The music came to an end and the spell was broken. Some days are diamonds… I vowed I would return.

P.S. – I did. I have returned several times. Each time has been memorable. Monemvasia remains one of my most favorite destinations in Greece. I usually stay at the restored Malvasia Hotel right in the old town itself. This hotel has everything, ambience, authenticity (albeit in twenty-first century style), comfort, views, genial and helpful hosts, fab brekky, seclusion, peace and quiet, and marble mod cons. The New Malvasia backs against the chocolate rock-face, and at night an errant zephyr whispers against the rock, telling stories of long ago. Its surroundings are illuminated with old-style lamps, its communal rooms cozy with stone fireplaces, hand-woven mats and cushions, and its outside terrace scattered with sequestered tables and chairs. It’s a private place, one for complete rest and recuperation (bring lots of books) – or for a wonderful honeymoon (don’t bring any books at all).

Sparta, and Mystras

September 1st, 2014

Sparta

We’ve all been fed stories of ancient Sparta. Inhabitants of that grim warmongering city left weak and sickly infants to die of exposure, pushed unwanted or useless people off cliffs, and ordinary existence was pretty harsh. Anyone who couldn’t take the rigors of military discipline was disposed of – which means if I had been alive then, well I probably wouldn’t be. I’d be off the cliff.

Maybe you’ve heard of the legendary Spartan King Leonides, whose courageous band of three hundred soldiers defeated the Persians at Thermopylae in 580BC. Maybe you haven’t, but he did. And thanks to Brad Pitt and his friends, we know that in Mycenaean times the whole area of the province of Lakonia was ruled by the Spartan King Menelaus who goes down in legend and history as the unfortunate cuckolded husband of Helen of Troy. (Hence the word “laconic”, no doubt).

R001-048The modern town of Sparta (or Sparti, as the Greeks know it) is set in a wide peaceful valley of the Lakonia plain, surrounded with lush citrus and olive groves, and guarded by the awesome dark mountains of the Taÿgetos range. The north-south main street is rather like a disturbed anthill – people everywhere enjoying its eclectic collection of tavernas, kafeneia, cafés and fast-food joints – but there are enough interesting shops and reasonable hotels to distract the visiting tourist.

However, the ruins of ancient Sparti lie just out of the town. There, hidden among ancient gnarled olive trees, repose remnants of venerable walls, piles of timeworn building blocks, marble fragments, and the rubble of ages past. If you’re there in May you’ll see a magnificent collection of wildflowers decorate the scene. Ramblings lead to the remains of the ancient acropolis where, with another leap of the imagination, it’s easy to fantasize about grim Sparti, the place where life was so laborious. P1180541Built on top of the ruins, a Byzantine church and monastery, now itself reduced to hardly more than rubble, stares blankly down at a once mighty theater, a rival in size to Epidavros, but now nothing but a shell, an imprint left by time. The few pathetic remnants of the seats, columns and blocks, have been lined up in symmetrical rows by somebody with restoration in mind. It looks as though this person said, ‘Wait here, while I get help,’ and never returned. But archeologists are at work now and the new excavations are revealing much more of the ancient town.

Over everything broods the black, misty, magnificent Taÿgetos Mountains resembling a present-day Mordor, reaching for the heavens through drifts of fuzzy clouds which continually reveal higher and yet higher peaks and then close over them like drawn curtains. Heady stuff, I can tell you.

Mystras

0522 Top Entrance Gate to Mystras P1030935A taxi from Sparti will take you to the top entrance of the Byzantine ruins of Mystras – a must-see of the Greek Peloponnese. How can I describe the magic of Mystras? Mere words are not adequate. Entering the stone gateway transports you into one of the most fascinating, spectacular, astonishing places imaginable. Every turn of the cobblestone path, every flight of stone steps, every archway, or doorway, or rubble strewn courtyard brings a new vista, a new perspective of Byzantine life. Ruins of mansions, palaces, houses, churches, all draped and festooned with wild flowers, bushes, figs, pines and leafy trees, cascade down the hillside from the thirteenth century fortress crowning the very top.

From the thirteenth to the fifteenth century AD, Mystras was a city of over twenty thousand inhabitants, and although it suffered the same fate as most other early cities and was captured and lost by most of the warring states, it grew to major importance and reached a population of forty thousand under the Venetians from 1687. But from 1770 it was successively burned by Russians, Albanians and Turks and gradually fell into the abandoned and ruined state of the present time. Nowadays it’s the tourist invasion – but at least Mystras is cherished as a World Heritage Site.

It’s best to begin a tour of Mystras from the top of the hill, as the climb is steep, and down is best on the rough, original cobblestone street! From the fortress crown, the path leads past the Church of Agia Sofia, almost at the top of the upper town. This is a unique little Byzantine church with an arched portico and little round cupolas in the orthodox style, capped with ribbed terra cotta tiles. A bit further down is the youngest of the Mystras churches, the church of Agios Nikolaos, sixteenth century, a wonderfully peaceful place with original uneven tiles on the dirt floor and more striking frescoes on the walls.

0533 Palace of Despots, wildflowers and view, Mystras DSC05769Approaching the “Palace of the Despots” through the arched Monemvasia Gate, an incredible vista of the Lakonian Plain opens out, with Sparti Town in the distance like a pile of colored pebbles. The Palace is a collection of large buildings, the seat of the former rulers of Mystras, a Frankish leader with a rather exotic name, Guillaume de Villehardouin among them. It’s undergoing renovation and reconstruction – I can’t wait to see inside when it’s finished. Around the heights above this site is a bonanza of ruins, bones of dwellings, leavings of lives long gone.

One of the most interesting of the Byzantine churches is Agios Dimitrios, also called the Mitropolis, a thirteenth century place of crumbling vaulted arches, old balconies and a peaceful courtyard entry surrounded with potted plants and flowers. Inside the church are fine frescoes. Much restoration work has kept the building in a remarkable state of preservation. Another rough, narrow pathway leads to the convent of Panthanassia, where the beauty and serenity of the place is unexpected and particularly tranquil. The convent perches precariously on the hill slope, anchored to the rock by a high thick wall. Into this wall was built the cell-like rooms still occupied by a few nuns.
Inside the church are more beautiful frescoes in the original state. 0543 Convent gallery, view over Lakonia, Mystras P1040029Sitting outside on the ledge of the balustrade and soaking up the views from this sublime place, sets you wondering how many others over the past seven centuries have viewed the vast panorama of orchards and olive groves, farmlets and hamlets, surrounding brush covered hillsides, and mist laden mountains.

A tiny rough pathway leads onwards to the monastery of Perivleptos, with another amazing fourteenth century decorative church, looking rather like an elaborate birthday cake in stone, sprouting from the rocky hillside itself. Inside, the walls are painted with the most perfect of all the frescoes, each scene depicting some biblical event, the nativity being the most exquisite.

Pathways continue wandering around the hillside. There are wild gardens of old ruined mansions, stone walls, arched gateways and staring, empty colonnades of windows, draped with an abundance of wildflowers, creepers and greenery. Against the backdrop of trees and conifers and the wild mountains it’s sheer poetry.

More pictures of Sparti and Mystras in the galleries of this website. Enjoy!

Epidavros, Mycenae and Tiryns

August 25th, 2014

Nafplio is the stepping stone to three of the most interesting tourist destinations. If you like to commune with the homes of the Gods and ramble through archaic ruins, these are the ones for you!

Epidavros

After an hour of pleasant pottering through attractive mountain villages draped with flowers, and surrounded with lush greenery and gardens, the bus turns into a tree-lined side road and pulls into the entrance of Epidavros. The ruins of this sanctuary of Asclepius, the god of medicine, are hidden in tranquil seclusion. Guarded by gnarled pine trees and sprinkled with cypress pines and olives, back-dropped with rugged wild mountains, the foothills of Mt. Arahnes, the crisp air is redolent with aromatic pine and herbs. Here, the ancient (third century BC) Greeks came to be cured of their illnesses. It’s immediately obvious why Epidavros became the most popular place for a health cure. Just a mere respite in the peaceful surroundings, lulled by the chirruping of cicadas and crickets, the luscious soaring song of the nightingale and the soughing of pines, must have been a perfect restorative. Strangely enough, one of the famous curative treatments given here relied on the “lickings of snakes”, a practice which would have sent me running full pelt in the opposite direction. However, attention was given to special diets and herbal treatments, which sounded slightly more in my line.

P1180500The main attraction of Epidavros is, of course, the theater, which is one of the best preserved and restored in the whole of Greece. It still accommodates fourteen thousand patrons for festivities in July/August each year (bring your own cushion). After an uphill climb, one rounds a corner and there it is, just as it was in ancient times, set in a natural amphitheater, almost pristine. The whole semi-circle of tiered limestone seats fills the side of the hill, topped with a crown of dense pines and olives, like a frizzy hairdo. It’s a place of great drama. You can feel the vibes. You can see the ghosts of actors past, not literally, but in your mind’s eye.

It’s also a place of compulsive performance. The acoustics are said to be perfect, with every sound audible at the farthermost seat, and, of course, it is human nature to put it to the test. Last time I was there, with a group of six other Aussies, we performed “Waltzing Matilda” to the applause of other tourists! Tour guides, with various degrees of stage aplomb, proceed to demonstrate the acoustics by calling for hush and then dropping a coin onto the center stone. It’s audible right at the top seats.

Originally, somewhere amongst the ruins stood hostelries for pilgrims and patients, festival and civic buildings, temples, gymnasiums, bathhouses and shrines, but there’s very little except foundations and piles of stones to mark the once vibrant town. However, a considerable amount of excavation and restoration proceeds. The original stadium, a venue for athletic competition, remains, like a dried watercourse lightly dusted with green grass, its perimeter marked by six rows of tiered stone seats, still in situ.

Epidavros seems to stretch away to the far hills, the protruding stones and rocks awaiting another millennium of excavation. Over it all, the soughing pines whisper an accompaniment to the song of the nightingale – a truly blissful performance, worthy of center stage anywhere.

Mycenae

I’m particularly interested in King Agamemnon. From an early age I’ve been fascinated by the Siege of Troy. Here, at Mycenae (Mikines as the Greeks know it) you actually stand on the site where the good King, with his son Menelaus, and ally Ulysses, planned revenge for the snatching of beautiful Helen. Mikines has existed for so long that myth, legend, and history are intertwined, but by 1300-1250 BC and the time of King Agamemnon, it had reached its most powerful period, documented for eternity by Homer in his epic, The Iliad.

P1180447Walking up through the entrance of the huge Lion Gate is definitely an awesome experience, not to be missed. That it’s still there at all is fantastic, due no doubt to the inability of subsequent peoples to cart away the building materials. Towering on either side, the huge blocks of gray stone, stacked with superb precision, form the monumental impregnable walls of this Mycenaean citadel. The immense gate is supported by massive pillars and surmounted with the enormous carved stones of two lionesses. This grim fortress was the ultimate in defense. Brooding on top of a flat hill between two towering bald mountains, it commands a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside: a formidable presence indeed.

Very intriguing is Grave Circle A. (Grave Circle B is down the road a bit). It was a royal cemetery, but not Agamemnon’s, and some superb finds were made here. One can gaze into the depths of time, into grave shafts of antiquity. I wondered what those royals would say, if someone were to tell them people were staring into their graves 3500 years later. (A young man next to me was sure they’d say two words – piss off!)

But I was more concerned to climb the main path to the remains of Agamemnon’s palace and the Great Court. I allowed myself to imagine Ulysses and the old King with Menelaus, hatching the plot to rescue Helen from the arms of her seducer, Paris. To achieve this, they would have to sack the court of King Priam of Troy. What clanging of swords, what shouting of curses, what scheming and conniving and swearing of oaths went on in these halls!

P1180467The magnitude of the site isn’t immediately recognizable until properly explored. Determined scrabbling discovers dark passages, arched arrow slits, the ruins of artisan’s cottages, the Postern Gate and the piece-de-resistance, the secret cistern that held Mikines’ water supply, thus rendering it impregnable to siege. Water still lay there, deep down, turgid. Enclosing it all was the grim forbidding barrier. No peaceful soughing pines here, and no trilling nightingales. Just dark deeds and suppressed intrigue, fierce sun and bitter cold, somber stone and dreary confining gray walls…

Tiryns

Tiryns is another ruined Mycenaean citadel, only a short distance from Nafplio. There’s not a lot of info about Tiryns. It was purported to have awesome stone walls, in parts some twenty meters thick, constructed of massive stone blocks so large only the giants known as Cyclops could have built it. Indeed, legend said Heracles (Hercules) was born at Tiryns. If so, such sheer power behind those massive grim fortifications must have been inspiration for him.

P1090452The site itself is right beside the main road, easy to find. The ruined ancient citadel stands on a rocky hill, overlooking the lush green plain of Argos. In its heyday (1,400 BC) it co-existed with powerful Mycenae – some say it was the port for King Agamemnon’s mighty fortress. If so, the two cities must have been a force to be reckoned with in Ancient Peloponnisos.
Today, all that remains are the encircling walls, huge blocks of gray stone thirty feet high in places, some interesting storage chambers, foundations of buildings, and a gloomy vaulted arched passageway. In lower parts of the citadel, excavation and restoration work is ongoing, but inaccessible. When I stand in the remains of Tiryns I am always overcome with the timelessness of it all.

However, as Tiryns is nicely elevated, panoramic views stretch over the surrounding plain, the fields, olive groves, orange orchards, and scattered farms. Maybe Heracles once joined the Mycenaean guards to stare out over a similar view from the massive ramparts of their fortified town…

Next week we visit Sparta and beautiful Mystras. You can read more about my experiences in my eBook “Make Mine a Moussaka” available from: http://www.amazon.ca/Make-Mine-Moussaka-Helen-Ellis-ebook/dp/B00FQJ0KX2 )

Nafplio – Venetian Charmer

August 18th, 2014

Back in Athens from the excursion to Diakofto, I taxi to Terminal 2 for the bus to Nafplio, first capital of Greece after Independence, with a port that goes back to the Bronze Age. It’s a three hour journey, but interesting all the way. I’m going to quote from my travel book “Make Mine a Moussaka” here. (You can purchase the eBook from: http://www.amazon.ca/Make-Mine-Moussaka-Helen-Ellis-ebook/dp/B00FQJ0KX2 )

P1090554aThe town of Nafplio is a place the Gods smile upon. An aura of decaying antiquity haunts the Old Town and a breath of crass modernity pervades the New, while the Gods hang around to see what the daft tourists are going to do next. Then they whizz back to Mount Olympus and have hilarious show-and-tell mornings, to keep themselves from dying of boredom.

Nafplio is a place where things happen, like the time I met Pammy, who lives just down the road from us, at the next table in the restaurant and I didn’t even know she was overseas. Like the time I saw the ghost up in the fortress (well I swear it was a ghost although Pammy said it was just a stray cat). Then the other time, when weird shadows leapt on the wall for no reason as Marios played soulful rembetika music on his bouzouki in the tiny restaurant under the stars.

Think of an old Venetian town, the houses jostling each other for elbow room on either side of winding narrow streets paved with gray flagstones. Imagine shuttered windows, each with a Juliet balcony attached in various stages of disrepair, like bags under the eyes. Mamas lean over them to gossip at high decibel with neighbors across the way. Over the top of the brash gold and jewelry shops, traditional bakeries and awesome caves of wondrous tourist kitsch, they discuss their worthless men and useless daughters-in-law. Picture in your mind faded paint peeling off doors and shutters, and cement render lying in chunks, revealing ancient stone masonry. Nafplio. Ah, the ambience…

0211 Acronfplio Castle, battlements, NafplioThe town leans on the oldest of its three castles, the Acronafplia – a gray stone ruin steeped in history. The strategic heights of the Nafplio promontory hold the key to dominance of both sides of the Argolic Gulf and the plain of Argos in the Peloponnese, thus rendering it of huge importance to conquering Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Franks, Turks and even Germans in World War Two. Not a lot of the Acronafplia remains except for the battlements and stone walls. Each invader added interesting bits to the original walls, parts of which are said to date back to the Bronze Age – turrets, symbols, fortifications, more walls. Now tourists are the invaders, and they pause only to gaze over the giant prickly-pear cacti at the magnificent view over the old town and the sea beyond.

0217 The Bourtzi Castle, NafplioOut on the water of the harbor floats the smallest castle, the Bourtzi, on a tiny island in the middle of the bay. After a bit of hunting around the paralia I found the small boat that served as a ferry. As we chug out across the glassy water, I sit in solitary splendor. I’m deterred from trailing my hand in the water, as Lady Muck would have done, for huge brown jellyfish, the size of dinner plates, pulsate in groups below.
Needless to say I am the only visitor to the Bourtzi: that perfect little fifteenth century Venetian fortress, all complete and untouched, looking rather like a fully rigged ship guarding the entrance to the harbor. I do my own little tour, from the underground rooms to the battlements, along terraces, up and down stone staircases inside and out, peering through gun emplacements and window slits. On the round tower old cannons point across the gulf in mock menace.

The third castle, the vast citadel of the Palamedi Fortress, perches on top of a steep hunk of rock two hundred and sixteen meters high to the left of the town. There are supposed to be nine hundred and ninety-nine steps to the summit of Palamedi, and they zigzag very steeply up the precipitous sides of the huge rock. In deference to the delicate condition of my knees, I reluctantly decide climbing them to the top might not be a good idea, but I think I can manage a few stages to position myself for a photo shoot of the old town.

As I stand with my camera to my eye, a party of gung-ho young people race past me, running. Up, mind you. Not quite content with the photographic view I climb another flight, and then another, and then yet another, until I become bold and decide to give it a try. Why not? I keep going up and up, resting to look at the scenery at every zig, then climbing up the next zag, then resting, climbing some more and resting again, and so on. I’m passed by every tourist in Nafplio, or so it seems, but I keep doggedly on at my own snail-pace. Siga-siga (slowly-slowly) takes on a new meaning. I lose count of the steps about half way up. Dried grasses and pretty wild flowers cling to the rocks, and tiny pink cyclamen sprout from crevasses, like little people peering out to watch the parade. The sweet trilling of nuthatches hiding in the bushes becomes nature’s musical accompaniment. The spectacular vista opens out – the coastal cliffs hung with aloes and cactus, the Acronafplio castle, the spread of the town’s orange roofs to the water’s edge, the tiny island of the Bourtzi, and the far hazy shore. Stunning. Awesome. Greece.

0209 Palamedi Fortress, interior, NafplioThe final section is almost a vertical climb, and I’m ragged and pretty much done in by the time I reach the ticket office at the entrance to the fortress. Yes, I find I have to pay for the privilege of killing myself on the climb. But I have the most amazing sense of achievement. Not bad, not bad, I keep telling myself as I flop onto the battlements to take full advantage of the panorama. Exploring the fortress itself is almost an anticlimax after such a climb. Built between 1711 and 1714 by the Venetians, who lost it immediately to conquering Turks in 1715, this amazing and quite large citadel is in a remarkable state of preservation. The mysterious inner courtyards; archways leading into gloomy depths; stone steps climbing up to battlements; concealed secret passages and massive cannon emplacements all add to the feeling of time-warp.

Wandering around, it’s easy to imagine defenders and their camp followers going about their business, horses rattling in through the gates, sentries on watch, troops marshaling, bugles sounding, flags flapping… As the day wanes, it becomes time to leave the fortress to its shades. Descending the stairs is a doddle – albeit a slow doddle, for with fading light and treacherous steps, it’s not a good time to go quickly. But ah, what a magnificent prospect. How great to be a sentry, up on these battlements with a view like that over the Argolic Gulf – the great plain of the Argolis Peninsular stretching to infinity.

That evening, as dusk fades to warm velvety darkness, fairy lights festooning the narrow thoroughfares twinkle like Christmas as the populace comes out to volta (promenade). In the centre of the Old Town is the large square – Plateia Syntagmatos, and here it all happens – food and entertainment. But the flagstone back streets are transformed into Wonderland as the fascinating, sophisticated shops, all created from the restored Venetian buildings, open and tempt.
A ghostly voice wafts from somewhere when I take a mounted nineteenth century photograph of Nafplio to the counter.
‘What are you going to do with that?’
‘Frame it, that’s what,’ I say to the ghost, ‘and hang it. On a wall. Somewhere in the house. Go away.’

P1090255aAlong the edges of the pathways cling the taverna tables, cheerfully clad in colorful cloths. Eating my moussaka mopped up with crusty bread as the waiters sashay through it all, and Marios with the bouzouki weaves his magic, is pretty damn good. There are those shadows again. Candlelight sets them dancing on the old walls while the bougainvillea taps a staccato cadence overhead…

More pix of the castles and Nafplio in the gallery. Check them out!

PELOPONNESE – Diakofto and Kalavryta

August 11th, 2014

My favourite way from the Ionian Islands to Athens is to catch the ferry from Sami on Kefalonia to the Peloponnese port of Patras. P1040492bOne gem experience on this ferry was when the locals took out their guitars and bouzoukis and played, sang and danced to lovely Greek music (see photo). Doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s gold!

From Patras I catch the bus to Diakofto and stay a couple of nights there, then take the bus to Kiato to catch the Proastiakos train to the city. But the reason I break the journey at Diakofto is to take the rack-and-pinion train from Diakofto to Kalavryta! Don’t miss it!

Diakofto
Once upon a time (in the way of Greece) the Intercity train used to travel from Patras direct to Athens. Therefore the railway station of Diakofto was the centre-piece of the town where everything happened. Shops and tavernas on both sides of the track faced inwards to the station, and attracted all travellers. Now, the bus dumps people at its stop and that’s that, and the town has a rather neglected look. There’s not a lot to do in Diakofto, but a walk across the town to the sea is interesting. There’s a sandy beach and a pretty marina of boats.

P1060628aHowever, the station still has one train – the little rack-and-pinion train taking passengers up and down the nearby spectacular Vouraikos Gorge. Catch the early morning train at 8.45 and try to score a seat at the back of the back carriage, or right in the front with your own window, especially if you are a photographer. Use your elbows if the train is crowded! The views are breath-taking as the train travels over narrow bridges and through tunnels, climbing 720 metres over and through the Gorge. Wild streams cascade down the valley and rock cliffs tower over the railway. (And don’t worry about the guard doing his Sudoku while the train negotiates the steep and winding track.)

There’s a very picturesque town on the way called Zahlorou, where you can get out, explore, and then walk back to Diakofto along the railway track if you wish.

Kalavryta
The train brings you to the attractive old station of Kalavryta. This town has a rather sad historical event connected to WW11, for in 1943, 1436 inhabitants were killed by the Nazis for resistance. There is a moving museum here, and also if you look at the old clock on the cathedral, you will see the hands are permanently fixed at 2.34 when the massacre began. There’s also a huge white cross on the hillside overlooking the town.

P1060698However, these days Kalavryta is a beautiful tourist place and well known for its winter ski slopes. You will notice the clean mountain air. A wander around the town and its interesting shops is a must. On sale are amazing herbs, spices, wild tea, lavender etc, great pasta, plus home-made preserves, and even wooden artifacts all interestingly displayed. There’s a lovely central plateia (square) where you can eat under the trees and watch the world go by.

The return journey by the train is another spectacular ‘whizz’ as it hurtles down the steep track back to Diakofto. I love to walk up from Diakofto along this train track, and take my time viewing the beginning of the Gorge, the market gardens and farms, the rushing river and the wildflowers. I don’t go far, but it’s so peaceful and scenic, well worth a ramble. As long as you stay on the path beside the train track and don’t do anything silly, you’re fine.P1060876

Next week we’ll go from Athens to my favourite town of Nafplio. Most tourists end up here at some time or other, and I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about it… Let me show you around!
There’s pics of Diakofto and Kalavryta on my gallery – have a look.

Kefalonia and Ithaki

August 4th, 2014

There’s an intrepid little ferry one can catch from the town of Vassiliki on Lefkada. It will take you for a pleasant trip across the Ionian Sea to both islands – Kefalonia and Ithaki (or Ithaca) so you can choose which one to visit first. Both are lovely in their own way.
Kefalonia
P1050841aThe ferry takes you to the magical town of Fiskardo on Kefalonia. Fiskardo was the only town not to be ruined by the 1953 earthquake, so many of the old Venetian style buildings are still to be seen, albeit restored and refurbished. I love this place, and for R&R it takes some beating. Because it’s so popular with the yachties (one trip I counted 90 yachts in the harbour marina) it’s an expensive place to stay, but worth an indulgence. There’s not a great deal to do here but veg out along the waterfront in the most attractive tavernas, but hiring a car to take in the rest of the island’s beauty spots is a good idea. There is a local bus, which will take you to the main town of Argostoli, but the bus service on the island leaves a lot to be desired, in my opinion.

With a car one can visit the famous breathtaking Myrtos Beach, and the village of Assos on its picturesque isthmus, with its nearby Venetian castle. P1040588aThe town of Sami, on a lovely bay on the eastern side of Kefalonia is another worthwhile place to stay, and, as it’s the port for ferries to Ithaki, and Patras on the mainland, this is where I usually prop. Of course Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was filmed here and there’s still a cafe of that name. From Sami it’s walking distance to one of the famous caves – Melissani. Do the boat tour of the cave and experience the blue water and the ambience! Drogarti is another cave worth a visit if you like stalactites.

A bus from Sami takes you to the neighbouring fishing village of Agia Evfymia, another laid-back attractive place, and to Argostoli, through very pretty country. Everything happens in Argostoli – it’s main square in the evening is very lively – but it’s not a picturesque town, due to rebuilding after the 1953 earthquake. On the waterfront of the serene Gulf of Argostoli you can see the fishermen cleaning and selling the day’s catch. Along the coast from here are some quite good beaches, easily accessible.

IthakiP1040605a
A trip to the legendary home of Ulysses, Ithaki, is a must! Some ferries from Sami will deposit you at a miniscule village on the west coast called Piso Aestos from where you have to get a taxi to the main town of Vathy, but others now go straight to Vathy. It’s a great little place, Vathy, and I’ve stayed here many times at the Hotel Mentor. A walk around the town doesn’t take long, (see if you can find the brass bust of Ulysses), but take yourself up the hill and look out over the glorious bay. Sit by the service station and ponder! At night, eat at Nikos’ where everything cooked in the kitchen is on display, and you are encouraged to “view the goods” before purchase! Service is exemplary, and watching the whole performance is pure theatre.

P1040741aA short bus trip along the coast road with amazing views takes you to the tiny village of Kioni on the north-east coast. Views to die for – walk along the road to the right up the hill. Waterfront tavernas serve great food. There are some great walks around here, and the tiny beach is good enough for a swim in crystal water. The R&R is fantastic. Zzzzz

From Kioni it’s a fair hike to Frikes, another tiny village sitting on yet another pretty bay, guarded by old windmills. Penelope’s Taverna is here, but I don’t think you’ll find Ulysses eating out! Experiencing Frikes at rush-hour is fun (see photo). Another good walk is to head up the road to Stavros, a typical Greek village with pretty gardens and great views. There are a couple of very good places to stay at Frikes especially the Hotel Nostos (with swimming pool).
P1040772a
It’s time to leave the Ionians, for next week we’re heading to the Peloponnese. Most tourists head straight for the Greek Islands, but I love the Peloponnese – so much to see and do! When we come off the ferry at Patras, will we go left or right?

See my photos of Kefalonia and Ithaki on my gallery!

Lefkada

July 28th, 2014

P1040844aToday we’re leaving beautiful Parga, catching a bus, and heading down the coast to Preveza. There we stop at the bus station and wait for another bus to take us across the isthmus to the island of Lefkada (sometimes known as Lefkas).

You can be excused for thinking Lefkada is not really an island, for it was once joined to the mainland. But Corinthians, way back in the 8th century BC, dug a canal through the isthmus and a causeway now sees you across. It’s a pretty drive over the flatlands, with sea views on either side, culminating at the Venetian Fortress of Agia Mavra (well worth a visit), obviously built to defend the island from pesky invaders.

From there it’s a short drive to Lefkada Town, the main town of the island. Due to earthquake damage and modern rebuilding, this town, to me, lacks ambience, so I prefer to move on. But Lefkada Town has a relaxed feel, a good place for R&R. It’s a great place for “yachties,” for the lagoon and its marina are peaceful and attractive.

Moving south, after a most attractive drive, the bus comes to the town of Nydri. The waterfront quay is probably the most interesting part of this town, and the only reason I can see for anyone stopping here is to catch a ferry to see the islands of Meganisi, Skorpios, or Madouri. Or to discover the hill towns such as the pretty village of Karya, which is noted for its special embroidery. Nydri itself is a souless place full of unlovely tourist shops – even the beach is not as pleasant as some.

P1060327aBut further south is Vassiliki, a lovely tranquil place, situated on a bay known for its watersports, and backed by high wooded hills. Because of prevailing winds, it has become known as the must-visit place for windsurfing in Europe. Here you can have the complete package – enjoy the peace of the little village, or live it up at the waterfront hotels across the bay – or both! Windsurfers fascinate me and I can sit on the pebble beach and watch them for hours, especially the windsurfing classes. I’ve stayed many times at Vassiliki – walks along the coast are very pleasant (look for the yellow butterflies).

Around the coast from Vassiliki are several very interesting villages and beaches – the one most visited by tourist boats is Porto Katsiki. Its sandy beach, sheltered by towering cliffs, is very picturesque.

From Vassiliki one can catch a ferry south to the islands of Kefalonia and Ithaki – where we’ll go next week! Come with me!
More pictures on my photo gallery…