GREECE  2006 - Weeks 3~4

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WEEKS 3~4 NEWS -  the Southern Peloponnese:  Navarino Bay at sandy Pylos, Ancient Messene, Kardamyli and The Mani, Monemvasia, and finally Sparta and Mystras

Our camp at Navarino Bay overlooked the site of the naval encounter in 1827, when a small European squadron destroyed a massive Turkish fleet, so ensuring Greek victory in the War of Independence. But at this time of year it was idyllically peaceful; from under the trees that fringed the beach, we looked out across the still waters, enclosed on the seaward side by the length of Sphacteria island, with the town of Pylos nestled into the hills to the south.
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The sweet scent of orange blossom wafted over our camp from the trees growing behind us, with the tiny swelling of next year's fruit forming in the centre of the waxy white flowers (Photo 1).

We had begun this week's journey south down the Peloponnesian coast from Tholo, where the campsite owner had declared that,  since he was not open, he would not accept any payment, but we were welcome to stay anyway; and further to underline his hospitality, he picked us oranges from his orchard. Saturday morning shopping in busy Kyparissia was a pleasant necessity, and from this week's Athens News, we learnt a Greek saying quite relevant to our busy programme: Τρεχω και δεν φτανω - I run, but am not arriving (so much to do, and little time to do it all). Continuing south, we got our first glimpse of Navarino Bay spread out along the horizon. Our camp in this wonderful setting, with the morning sun lighting the limestone cliffs of Sphacteria island and the waves gently lapping the beach, was unsurpassed. And that evening, we were rewarded with a sunset performance like no other (Photo 2), trailing a golden tail across the Bay, and an afterglow casting a darkening pink aura across the western sky.

The glorious Spring weather continued for our day's walking over to Voidokilia Bay. By the Lagoon trapped behind the northern headland, egrets and grey heron fished under wispy tamarisk trees in full blossom. From the narrow sea channel separating Sphacteria island, the path sloped upwards through juniper groves and a colourful paradise of wild flowers, towards the remains of the Frankish fortress of Paliokastro which crowns the headland. From the overgrown ruins, we could look down over the craggy cliffs to Voidokilia Bay 400 feet below. The name means 'Ox belly' which perfectly describes its circular outline. The shallow waters glowed turquoise in the clear light (Photo 3), backed by the distant mountainous skyline. A challenging path down the northern precipice led to the dunes enclosing Voidokilia, and along the Lagoon behind the Bay we enjoyed further rewarding birdlife sightings.

We had to revisit the magnificently preserved Mycenaean Palace of Nestor, which had formed the power-base of an extensive kingdom in the late 2nd millennium BC, ruled over by the garrulous King of Sandy Pylos as described in Homer's Odyssey. To say such archaeological sites are 'managed' by the Greek Ministry of Culture would be a misnomer, and unhelpful attendants regard visitors with bored indifference. Even so, there was that feeling of awe as we approached the Palace's entrance court, with its stone bases of the columns which had supported the upper storey. The centrepiece is the Throne Room with its huge ceremonial hearth where official visitors were received. And at a more personal level, the excavations revealed a bathroom exactly as described by Homer, with terracotta bathtub decorated with painted scrolled patterns. The Palace complex was destroyed by unknown invaders around 1200 BC like the other Mycenaean citadels, but an amazing wealth of excavated finds are displayed in the local museum in the nearby town of Chora, including elegant pottery, magnificent gold cups and jewellery and clay tablets inscribed with Palace archives in Linear B script, an early form of Greek. But most of all, the wonderfully preserved fragments of frescoes which decorated the walls and floors of the complex enlivened one's imagination of Palace life.

We moved on for a brief stay at the delightful family-run Thines Camping at Finikounda, where we had arranged to meet with Barry and Margaret Williamson. And what a privilege it was to share conversation with such like-minded travellers, whose world-wide ventures and long-distance cycling journeys are so impressive. Do be sure to visit their website on for so many fascinating details of their journeys.

Our journey now took us back into the mountains of inland Messinia, to wild camp by the walls of Ancient Messene, refortified in 371 by the Messinians newly released from serfdom after the defeat of Sparta by the Thebans. In the late afternoon sunshine, we took a turn of sentry duty along the best preserved section of fortification walls over the steep hillside. Our camp at 2,500 feet was blessed with a crystal clear night with just the lights of nearby Mavromati village twinkling across the hillside. The following day, in a fiercesomely gusting SW gale, we climbed Ithome the sacred mountain of the Messinians, topped now by the ruins of a Byzantine monastery, looking down over the Messene archaeological site.

To reach the barren wilds of the Mani peninsula meant driving through Kalamata, a notoriously unattractive city, still marred by the aftermath of the 1986 earthquake, and having in our view the most homicidal driving standards in Greece. But over the mountains, we descended to one of our favourite Greek villages, Kardamyli, to camp among olive groves (Photo 4) at the delightfully straightforward Ta Delphinia (Dolphins) Camping. Ioannis the owner recalled our previous visit and welcomed us with characteristic Greek hospitality. The southern Mani has an idiosyncratic culture and history to match its wild and barren landscape. Some have suggested that the Maniots were descendents of the Spartans, and their warlike social system based around clan-loyalties supports this. With so little fertile land to support a sizeable population, piracy and brigandage became a way of life. Inter-clan blood feuds and vendettas lasted for years, and the only law was that of the gun. Clans occupied tower-house complexes, easier to defend against the cannons of neighbours, and many such Maniot towers survive, either in ruins as at hilltop Vatheia (Photo 5) or tarted up as tourist hotels or 2nd homes for Kalamatans. Despite this lawless history, the first shots of the War of Independence against the Turks in 1821 were fired by Maniots, led by Petrobey Mavromichalis, whose fearsomely moustachioed statue still dominates the square in Areopoli. The Mani peninsula terminates at Cape Tenaro, and there we wild-camped in a bleak and wind-swept spot, the southernmost point of mainland Greece. From here it would be north all the way.

An overnight stop at Gythion enabled us to catch up on functional chores like clothes washing, but the only worthwhile feature of this campsite was the view from the showers of swallows, newly returned from African migration, building nests on the light-fitting. Our appointment next day however was with the Nautilia taberna by the port for our lunch of grilled octopus; if you've never tried it - you are missing out on one of life's luxuries (Photo 6).

To complete our circuit of the Southern Peloponnese, we crossed the orange orchards of the Evrotas delta to the east coast for a short stay at the aptly-named Paradise camping near to the spectacular geological phenomenon of Monemvasia's 1,000 feet high offshore rock bastion. It was fortified during the Byzantine Empire and is now a fascinating site to explore amid ruins overgrown with giant fennel. It was a peaceful camp with just the sound of surf washing onto the shore below us and the sun streaming through the scented eucalyptus trees. The journey over the Varika peninsula mountains was spectacular, as were the views across the blue waters of the Lakonian Gulf and the misty outline  of the Mani on the distant westerly horizon.

And so up to Sparta to revisit old friends Georgios and Elizabeth at Castle View Camping near Mystras. It had been a hard winter for them, with floods from the Taigetos mountains causing much damage; but they welcomed us again with oranges from their orchard. The Greek people have many paradoxical ways (and why not - they invented the word), but their open-hearted hospitality is humbling. Ancient Sparta, with its ruthless militaristic constitution and economy dependent on serfdom of the Messinian Helots, triumphed over Athens in the 5th century BC Peloponnesian War, but by the early Christian era, was no more than a community of farming villages in the broad Evrotas valley. The Franks had in 1250 AD fortified the nearby 2000 feet precipitous hill of Mystras; as times became more unsettled, the inhabitants from the valley sought safety around the fortress and the town of Mystras grew up. The city flourished to become a wealthy trading centre and seat of learning and the arts during the final years of the Greek-Byzantine Empire under the Palaiologoi emperors. Mystras survived only a few more years after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1454. The scholars of Mystras fled west, taking with them their knowledge and learning of Classical Greek literature and philosophy, sowing the seeds of the Renaissance which so changed the culture of Western civilisation, but left the Greeks to languish under 350 years of Muslim barbarism. With Independence in 1831, the modern town of Sparta was refounded, using as building material stone blocks from Mystras which had originally  been plundered from Classical Sparta. Across 2000 years, the stones had come full circle.

Our camp looked straight up to Mystras, the hill still topped by the Frankish fortifications and the overgrown ruins of the medieval city spread across the lower slopes. We spent a wonderful day exploring the monasteries of Byzantine Mystras with their superbly preserved frescoes, and the impressive aristocratic mansions. And the following day, we caught the bus into modern Sparta, one of our favourite Greek towns, whose citizens are welcoming to visitors, so unlike their dour Classical predecessors. If you visit Sparta, we thoroughly recommend the Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil, with its impressively informative displays on the history and cultivation (almost unchanged since Mycenaean times as described on the Pylos Linear B tablets) of the olive and the significance of olive oil for the modern Greek economy.

It is now Holy Week, leading up to Easter, the most important festival in the Greek Orthodox calendar, when Greeks return home  to spend the holiday with family. We shall now be heading up to the Argolid to spend Easter with the Darsinos family at Mikines Camping, in Mycenae village. Join us again next week to share in the traditional Greek Easter celebrations.

Sheila and Paul                                                                                  Published: Monday 17 April

Music this week:
Traditional Greek air  Bradiazi


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