The popular Greek Islands are usually the first choice of people looking for a trip to Greece, but we wanted to avoid the crowds and explore the Greek mainland instead. I didn’t want to go island hopping Greek islands by boat, preferring instead to explore the backroads and small towns and villages by car. Whilst I enjoy being by the sea, I love the countryside and mountains more; wildflowers and birds and beautiful trees. Whilst Dave loves to lie on the beach I get bored very quickly so we strike a balance, rent a place with a pool, usually choosing somewhere small and off the beaten track…sourcing places which are a little bit different. We never book packages or resorts, preferring instead the more personal expereinces of the smaller places. That glorious first day of your holiday when you arrive in a country and it’s dazzling sunshine and you realise that the place you booked is a gem. We booked ahead last June to make sure we got what we wanted and found this great little place on one of our favourite websites https://www.i-escape.com called Ban Sala http://www.bansala.com in a small village, Vounaria part of The Peolponnese on the mainland. Ban Sala is a beautiful place; 5 or 6 stand alone chalets with your own kitchen, set in lovely gardens with a great pool and a small bar. Quiet, relaxed and very laid back. Perfect.Swallows swoop across the pool twittering awaiting dusk. A short wander out of Ban Sala took us down a winding lane. Walking out at early evening is beautiful; a hazy low sun dappling across the olive trees and wild flowers, bees hanging dozy in their petals. Birds flying to roost in preparation for evening. Vounaria overlooks the Gulf and is surrounded by mountain ranges. The smell of jasmine perfumed our walk and it was still 28 degrees in the early evening. This was my first time in the country and it is STUNNING. Everything looks like a postcard. The sky is an intense blue, the sea reflects back the same dazzling colours. The scenery here is quietly breathtaking; it doesn’t shout it’s beauty but hangs heavy with it, drowsing and sensual in the heat. Huge flower heads bowed by their weight and acres of dusty fields crowded by ancient olives twisting to catch the sun.A 10 minute walk from Ban Sala is a local restaurant called Atki where we sat at a table overlooking the sea. Mythos greek beer and huge portions of creamy fresh Tzatziki served with homemade bread. Squid and octopus, fresh fish and lamb…a typical Greek menu but off the beaten track this is more a family affair than a heavily touristed place, and the care shown in the cooking and ingredients is evident. Fresh made Tzatziki is quite different to the shop bought tubs and pretty easy to make. There’s a good recipe here on the Wanderlust Kitchen blogsite: https://thewanderlustkitchen.com/authentic-greek-tzatziki/Koroni
Koroni or Corone is a Venetian Port with hillside houses and narrow streets leading down to the sea through tall cypress trees and conifers.
We wandered through the lanes and alleyways after parking the car in a car park near the harbour. A lot of these narrow streets are inaccessible by car and best explored on foot to apprecaite the buildings and people you will meet in the street. The Orthodox Koroni Church sits at the angle of one of the steep streets it is built on.
Above the harbour you will find a stone arch which leads through to an area of private houses and a cobblestone path , further along which you will see a gated entrance to the Prodromos Monastery, it’s beautiful gardens and the Church. The church doors were open when we visited and the Nuns who live here invited us in to look around.
We walked back down in to the town to eat overlooking Koroni harbour. Squid and sardines are on pretty much every Greek menu in harbour/seaside towns. Freshly caught and served up sitting right next to the sea they came out of…and more delicious creamy Tzatziki. Some of the menus are very entertaining. I wonder who Gordon is and if he only eats spaghetti? But the “Fantasy (with staff of your preference)” is surely hugely undercharged at 10 Euros… ha ha ha!
The following day we drove to Mystras; the ancient Byzantine city dating back to the 13th century covering a steep hillside overlooking the vale of Eurotas. A two and a half hour drive from where we were staying in Vounaria near Koroni, passing though Kalamata en route. A 7am start to try and beat the sun reaching its hottest. The drive itself was an adventure; hairpin roads snaking up higher and higher in to the Taygetos Mountains. Huge boulders jutting out over the road creating natural underpasses. Intimidating but stunning.We had the SatNav with us which in most instances never steered us wrong… it was fun to watch the blue line for the road unfolding ahead; twisting and snaking backwards and forwards as we climbed higher on a road of hairpin bends that curled back on themselves creating a zigzagging route. Close to the site the SatNav led us down a tiny ‘road’, unsurfaced, filled with potholes and loose stones flying up from under the wheels. Nervous of the hire car’s paintwork Dave negotiated the path slowly, wincing as we scraped past thorn bushes and chipped rocks bounced off the car. We passed a couple of guys on off-road bikes who looked at us with bemused expressions. With no space to turn back we had to go on forward, precariously maneuvering around fallen boulders from the mountains… only to pop out on the other end to a perfectly tarmacked highway that the SatNav had overlooked.The first view of Mystras from the road; restored churches nestle next to tumbling ruins, clinging to the steep rocky hillside of the Taygetos Mountains. Loose stones and huge boulders sit among wildflowers, orange and olive trees, tall confiers reach like spires towards the sky. The views are breathtaking. Mystras was known as the second Constantinople, the hill it sits on near to Ancient Sparta, which it was mistaken for by early Western travellers. In the 14th and 15th centuries it was the capital of the Byzantine Desppotate of the Morea. It was abandoned in the 1830s and Sparti was built as a new town approximately 8 km away to the east. A castle sits at the top of this large hill with churches, private houses and a palace complex on the hillside leading down.
If ancient ruins aren’t your thing it’s still worth making the trek here for the jaw-dropping views from the top of the hillside. Mystras is a beautiful UNESCO heritage site to explore, and wide stone steps lead you easily in to the ruins and higher to the castle. Wear good shoes as the ground is rocky and uneven but the steps are widley spaced and you can take your time. The sun was fierce, so don’t forget the suncream, hats and water. There’s a small archaeological museum with coins, pottery, some clothing etc and incredible 13th century frescoes can be seen in the Saint Theodoroi church.
You can park at the bottom and take your time working your way to the top and walk down afterwards or start at the top and work the opposite direction. There are carparks at the bottom entrance to the site and also at the top near the castle walls.
Stemnitsa and Ancient Gortys
Stemnitsa is a mountain village, at around 1050 metres elevation in the municipal unit of Trikolonoi, Arcadia, Peloponnese. I persuaded Dave to drive us here today because looking at the weather I predicted “it’s going to be a bit rainy at the coast, so it’s a good time to get out and explore”. Of course at 1050m altitude it’s not only a bit rainy… it’s really bloody cold in flip flops and t-shirts, and colder still when the sheet rain slings a downpour and the mist rolls in. Still well worth the adventure, gorgeous small town with traditional stone houses hanging on to the mountainsides.This will look like nothing to you but to me it will always be a reminder of ‘impending doom in a hire car’. A decision to drive several hours in to high mountains; cold, rain, narrow roads with sheer drops to the side and then my added suggestion “oooh Dave monastery up there let’s go off the road a bit”. Tiny winding lanes barely one vehicle wide ending in an extremely abrupt halt with a drop off straight into someone’s house. Dave’s reversing skills down a steep mountain lane without scraping the car on either side were rewarded with a promise to spend the rest of the week chilling out doing nothing. Stemnitsa is considered one of the most beautiful villages in Arcadia and known for its gold and silver-smithing. High in the hills, with a steep winding drive all the way up here, it is a very picturesque location. Poulated with historical Byzantine churches and stone mansions it’s a great base for hikers exploring the Lousios Gorge and River Lousios.
And after Stemnitsa despite gathering storm clouds I wanted to visit Ancient Gortys “a charming site of scattered Byzantine ruins”. We saw one ruin…before I peed on my foot balancing precariously on a steep slope in pouring rain trying to shelter under a stunted olive tree with thunder and lightning roiling overhead. There are no bloody toilets in the middle of the mountains and it was steep as hell. Easy if you’re a bloke! Don’t know why I worried as there was no-one around for miles…who the bloody hell goes in to high mountains in this weather…hah!Just over a 2 hour drive back down steep zig zagging mountain roads in an unnerving torrential downpour with evidence of recent rock fall, we get back to bright sunshine on the coast and a cat who likes spaghetti at Akti. I’ve cancelled our 5 and a half hour drive to the Pelion Peninsular and we are staying at Ban Sala!
Finikounda and Pylos.
Finikounda or Foinikounta, everything seems to have two or three different spellings; a small seaside resort only a 30 minute drive from Vounaria.
We ate in a well known local restaurant based on the side of the cliff. Fantastic views of the harbour which the food sadly couldn’t come close to matching. The only place we ate on the two week trip where the food was bland and uninspiring. A pretty little town but more tourists here than Vounaria and slightly spoiled by some ugly resort style buildings and a cluttered beach. The following day we drove to Pylos, Messinia region of the Peloponnese. Another local fishing town and home to two castles, both known as Navarino Castle but one based outside of town the other inside the town on a southern hillside. Unfortunately the castle was closed at 3pm despite being advertised as open, but as we’d climbed up the steps through the dusty scrubland surrounding it we were rewarded with great views down through the deep green cloud like Stone Pines to views of boats listing in the Navarino bay, red tiled houses climbing up the amphitheatrically desgined hillsides and old stone houses built on and still showing the original rock formations. There isn’t a beach in Pylos but there is an attractive small town square overlooking the harbour and lined with tavernas, cafes and grilled seafood places and regular boat trips run out of the harbour. We chose to head back, stopping to eat again in Koroni, watching the sun set over the sea.
Athens. The Parthenon, Museums and Protests.
Dave and I seem to be experts at visiting countries at times of turmoil; 2008 Bangkok when massive riots were going on, streets closed whilst police corralled protesters. Egypt when the government had been overthrown and was being run by the military. Sri Lanka last December during Presidential elections shock results meant the main guy got booted out the same day we went back to the capital of Colombo where the ex-president ran in to hiding. Back in 1999 we were in Havana, Cuba when the Elian Gonzaleses situation blew up and Castro came out to give public speeches televised worldwide…the war started in Syria around 10 months after we’d left and now we are in Greece whilst the country goes bankrupt and the banks and stock exchange have closed.
But after 9 nights staying at Ban Sala we were ready to move on to the city. We drove to Athens, left the ‘beige’ hire car at the airport and wandered the streets after checking in to our hotel. We visited the Benaki museum housed in the Benaki’s family mansion in downtown Athens. The museum houses Greek works of art from the prehistorical to the modern times. After suffering damage from an earthquake the museum went through an extensive overhaul in the year 2000 with its Asian, Islamic and other artifacts being relocated to alternate museum sites to enable the Benaki to make Greek history and culture its main focus, the only museum in Greece to do so. Stunning sculptures, pottery, jewelry, books, documents and other ancient Greek artefacts are displayed. https://www.benaki.org/index.php?lang=el
There’s a wonderful rooftop restaurant at The Beanki where we took a rest under the cool shade of parasols on a large outdoor balcony. We ate the most delicious cake stuffed full of fresh cream. On the walk back, we dropped in to a cool little gallery opposite our hotel called The Kalfayan Gallery and saw a local art show by Tassos Pavlopoulos.
Evidence of the current financial upheaval in Greece is everywhere in Athens. We were barely made aware of it in the small towns and villages but capital cities are usually where the population comes together to demonstrate.
We walked 13km around Athens on our first full day in the city; the banks were still closed, big queues of people at the cashpoints, lots of political graffiti, news cameras everywhere in the main square…but despite everything they were going through, the people here were really friendly and helpful. Athens is a vibrant city and I hope they get what they need.
The view from our Hotel balcony (below). We stayed at Hotel Periscope in a quiet residential neighbourhood a 20 minute walk from the main attractions. http://periscope-hotel.athens-greece-hotels.net/en/Day 2 in Athens and we managed to walk 16km. Climbed up the steps entering through the Propylaea (gateway to the Acropolis), the most important ancient site in the Western world. The Acropolis is the name given to the flat topped rocky hill first inhabited 4,000 to 3,000 BC and is where three world famous temple ruins stand; the 5th BC Athenian temple ruins of the Parthenon dedicated to the Godess Athena, the Erechtheum dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon and the small temple of Athena Nike. Confronted by the temples and knowing that the stolen Elgin Marbles were ripped from these ancient sites and now displayed in London at the British Museum; there is an enormous empathy with the Greek government who want to have them returned.Climbing back down the steps on the Southwest slope we pass the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, or Herodeon, a stone theatre completed in 161 AD by Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife Aspasia Annia Regilla but renovated using pentelic marble in 1950. Used as a venue for the Athens Festival, huge worldwide stars have played here such as Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra, Pavarotti and Elton John.Down in to the centre of Athens where we visited the Temple of Olympian Zeus (below) which dates back to the 6th century when construction began but not completed until over 600 years later. A former colossal temple, it is dedicated to Zeus the head of the Olympians. Originally said to have 104 collosal columns and said to be the largest temple in Greece during Roman times. The Acropolis Museum is based at the foot of your descent from the Acropolis and is a must see musuem to truly appreciate the history of the ruined temples. Huge wide open spaces, walls of glass and built over, whilst preserving, an ancient excavation site open to view by vistors on a walkway which bridges over it; some parts open air and others underneath the glass walkway. It is home to several of the renowned Caryatids; stone female sculptures built as an architectural support and used in place of a column or pillar with an entabulature on the head. They are easily the stars of the Acropolis Museum, dating back to 421-415 BC these magnificent statues once supported the south porch of the Erechtheion. (Photo credit below The Acropolis Museum Athens Greece). https://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/We met a friendly West African musician from Sierra Leone called Douda playing a traditional instrument from his country.Me “Dave take my photo in Greece! No! Not yet I look like a right berk. My hair’s all in my face”.
Dave “Yeah leave it where it is that’s a good thing”.Our last day in the city. We visited The National Archeological Museum Athens. Another impressive collection. https://www.namuseum.gr/en/ There is so much to see that it can become daunting. Plan your trip to Athens to allow as much time as possible to visit and learn about Greek and Athenian culture. Zeus with his outstretched arms is one of many magnificent statues on display.
We wandered through the French School Gardens address: Didotou 6, Athens to see the Terrapolis exhibition. Contemporary art sculptures including one of my favourite artists Yayoi Kusama; one of her well known spotted pumpkins on display. The residential streets in this area are beautiful; the scent of orange trees hung heavy in the air as we walked up long flights of stone and tiled steps lined on either side with apartment buildings shaded by tall citrus trees.So much to see and do in this fabulous city and we were wiped out from walking all over it in three days; we chilled out in the hotel room watching the Greek referendum on TV. Talking to local people a No vote seemed popular…mainly amongst the young and less affluent. It was so quiet outside when the polls closed. Some kind of demonstrations were expected later but the main square was nowhere near as big as they show it to be in the media. If a Yes vote wins it we expected there might be trouble…but there could have been trouble either way. For us where we were based it was a very peaceful Sunday. We saw riot police but only in small numbers with one riot vehicle down a side street; two riot police were chilling out on a bench with their riot shields resting against a tree. There were news reporters and cameramen and satellite vans all over the city. Apparently the shoe shop where I bought sandals had loads of journalists going in making shoe purchases! The day we flew back, the results were in and the No vote won by 61%…which was pretty much predicted by so many of the locals we spoke with. There will be a lot of happy hotel staff in our place as they’d told us they were voting no. It was precedent setting stuff. Will be interesting to see what happens next. BBC news reporter John Humphreys sat down next to us in the airport lounge; I did ask him a couple of questions and he very diplomatically responded that it was an extraordinary turn of events.
I will go back to Greece one day and I’m pretty sure I’ll visit other parts of the mianland rather than the islands like Crete and Mykonos. I loved the quiet slow tranquility of the villages, exploring ancient ruins on our long day trips and eating at low key family restaurants where more Greeks than visitors dined. Add the Greek mainland to your Greece travel bucketlist. I can guarantee it won’t disappoint.