The Greek Islands are usually the first choice of visitors to Greece, but we wanted to do something different, avoid the crowds and explore the Greek mainland. I didn’t want to go island hopping Greek islands by boat, preferring instead to explore the backroads, small towns and villages by car. Whilst I enjoy the sea I’m not a fan of beaches…and I love the countryside…mountains, wildflowers, birdsong, wild landscapes. We’ve always chosen the more personal experience of smaller places over packages and resorts. A glorious first day arriving in dazzling sunshine and discovering that the place we booked way back last June…is a gem. Ban Sala is in a small village called Vounaria, part of The Peloponnese overlooking the Gulf, surrounded by mountain ranges…it’s a beautiful place. 5 or 6 stand alone chalets with small kitchens set in gardens with a pool and a small bar. Quiet, relaxed and very laid back. Perfect.Swallows swoop the pool… twittering, awaiting dusk. A short wander out of Ban Sala, walking in early evening hazy sunshine down a winding lane, the low sun dappling the olive trees and wild flowers, bees hanging dozy in their petals. Birds flying to roost. The smell of jasmine everywhere…still 28 degrees in the early evening. This was my first time in the country and it is stunning. The sky an intense blue, the sea reflecting back the same dazzling colour. The scenery here is quietly breathtaking; it 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 tourist place, and the care shown in the cooking and ingredients is evident. 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. Parking near the harbour we wandered through the lanes and alleyways, many of these narrow streets inaccessible by car, best explored on foot to appreciate the buildings and meet people in the street. The Orthodox Koroni Church sits at the angle of one of the steep streets it’s built on.
Walking higher, above the harbour, a stone arch lead us through an area of private houses and further along a cobblestone path a gated entrance took us in to the grounds of the Koroni Monastery; beautiful gardens and a church…it’s doors open, 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 creamy Tzatziki. Some of the menus are entertaining. ‘Spaghetti The Gordon’ and “Fantasy (with staff of your preference)” …surely undercharged at 10 Euros.
Next day and a drive to Mystras; the ancient Byzantine city dating to the 13th century, covering a steep hillside overlooking the vale of Eurotas. A two and a half hour drive from Vounaria, passing though Kalamata en-route. A 7am start to try and beat the sun reaching its scorching peak. The drive itself an adventure; hairpin roads snaking 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 the hairpin bends that curled back on themselves…a zigzag route. Close to the site the SatNav led us down a tiny ‘road’, un-surfaced, filled with potholes… loose stones flying up from under the wheels. Nervous of the car’s paintwork Dave negotiated the path slowly, wincing as we scraped past thorn bushes, me freaking out as chipped rocks bounced off the car. This was a trail not a road. We passed a couple of lads on off-road bikes, they 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 at the other end to a perfectly tarmacked highway which 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. Boulders sit among wildflowers, orange and olive trees…tall conifers 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 atop a steep hill with churches, private houses and a palace complex on the hillside leading down.
Jaw-dropping views from the hilltop. Mystras is an UNESCO heritage site, wide stone steps skittered loose earth, wildflowers sprouting from the smallest of cracks…the steps lead us in to the ruins and higher to the castle. Rocky uneven ground but the steps widely spaced…the sun fierce on our backs. A small archaeological museum had coins, pottery, clothing and incredible 13th century frescoes glowed in the Saint Theodoroi church. Walking back down ancient cobbled paths, cracked terracotta plant pots an wooden ladder angled towards a wall, a ginger cat climbing up it. Dust kicked up from our shoes, the ground arid…grasses, dry but golden, bending in a breeze against a cloudless cobalt sky.
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…colder still when sheet rain slings a downpour and mist rolls in. Still worth the adventure, a gorgeous small town with traditional stone houses cradled by the mountain.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, known for its gold and silversmithing. High in the hills, with a steep winding drive all the way up here, it’s a picturesque location. Populated with historical Byzantine churches and stone mansions…often used as a base for hikers exploring the Lousios Gorge and River Lousios.
After leaving Stemnitsa and 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…obviously no toilets in the middle of the mountains and it was steep as hell. Don’t know why I worried I’d be seen, no-one around for miles…who the bloody hell goes in to high mountains in this weather…oh.Just over a 2 hour drive back down steep switchback 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 popular local restaurant built on the side of the cliff with views of the harbour…but disappointing food; 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.
Next day we drove to Pylos in the Messinia region of the Peloponnese, another fishing town, home to two castles, both known as Navarino Castle; one outside of town the other inside on a southern hillside. Unfortunately the castle closed at 3pm despite being advertised as open, but as we’d climbed up the steps through dusty scrubland we were rewarded with views down through green cloud-like Stone Pines to views of boats listing in the Navarino bay. Red tiled houses climbing up amphitheatrical hillsides and old stone houses further built on but still showing their original rock foundations. No beach in Pylos but an attractive town square overlooking the harbour and lined with tavernas, cafes, grilled seafood places and regular boat trips. 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 explore 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 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 occupied us for a couple of hours.
Then to their wonderful rooftop restaurant where we took a rest under the cool shade of parasols on a large outdoor balcony where we ate the most delicious cake stuffed full of fresh cream. Walking 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 here. We were barely aware of it in the small towns and villages but like in most capital cities this is where the population comes together to demonstrate.
We walked 13km around Athens on our first day…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 people were friendly and helpful; Athens still a vibrant proud city.
We stayed at Hotel Periscope in a quiet residential neighbourhood a 20 minute walk from pretty much everything we wanted to see. Our view from the hotel balcony looked down on to a street of mixed residential apartments and commercial use buildings… neighbours on their balconies in the evenings, the sound of life through open windows. Our second day in Athens and we walked 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 the 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 (displayed in London at the British Museum), there is an enormous empathy with the Greek government who want to have them returned. It’s busy with other tourists, but I clamber around framing photographs to exclude them…a group of women in high heels negotiate the steps and scattered rubble. 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…Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra, Pavarotti and Elton John. And further down police are chasing thieves who’ve robbed a tourist, sliding on the loose stones, shouting and blowing whistles. Everyone stops to watch, clutching their bags a little closer. In the centre of Athens we visited the Temple of Olympian Zeus which dates back to the 6th century when construction began… but not completed until 600 years later. A former colossal temple, dedicated to Zeus the head of the Olympians. Originally said to have 104 collosal columns and the largest temple in Greece during Roman times. The Acropolis Museum is based at the foot of the descent from the Acropolis; a must see museum to truly appreciate the history of the ruined temples. Huge wide open spaces, walls of glass and thick glass floors built over an ancient preserved excavation site. We walk the glass walkway…part of the ruins open-air, others enclosed. Young children run across it peering down.The museum 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 the stars of the Acropolis Museum, dating to 421-415 BC; these magnificent statues once supported the south porch of the Erechtheion. (Photo credit below The Acropolis Museum Athens Greece).
We met a 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…so much to see that it becomes daunting…the amount of antiquites, the history, the wish to impossibly absorb it all. Zeus with outstretched arms a leaping horse and boy…it’s all breathtaking beauty.
We wandered through the French School Gardens to see the Terrapolis exhibition. Contemporary art sculptures including Yayoi Kusama; one of her well known spotted pumpkins on display. The residential streets in this area are beautiful; the scent of orange trees 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, we were wiped out from so much walking…we chilled out in the hotel room watching the Greek referendum on TV. Talking to locals a No vote popular…mainly amongst the young and less affluent. It was quiet outside when the polls closed. Some kind of demonstrations were expected later but the main square was nowhere near as big as shown in the media. If a Yes vote wins, we expected trouble…for us, where we were based, it was a very peaceful Sunday. We saw riot police 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. News reporters, cameramen and satellite vans swarmed 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%. Precedent setting stuff. 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 hope to go back to Greece, I’m pretty sure I’ll visit other parts of the mainland rather than the islands like Crete and Mykonos. I loved the quiet slow tranquility of the villages, exploring ancient ruins on long day trips, eating at low key family restaurants where more Greeks than visitors dined.
Where we stayed
Peloponnese Vounaria. Ban Sala https://www.bansala.com
Athens. Hotel Periscope http://periscope-hotel.athens-greece-hotels.net/en
Where we visited
Koroni Monastery http://www.tm-mehl.de/dasklosterEN.html
Athens Benaki Museum https://www.benaki.org
Athens Acropolis https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/404
Athens The Acropolis Museum https://www.theacropolismuseum.gr
Athens The National Archeological Museum https://www.namuseum.gr/en
Athens French School Gardens, Didotou 6 https://www.efa.gr/en