Not mad about Mani

Wednesday 31 July 2013

We have spent a few days driving around Mani - the middle peninsula of the Peloponnese and the second most southerly point in mainland Europe (after Tarifa in Spain). We’re not sure what to make of it really. It is quite barren and isolated in parts and we didn’t find the same welcome we have found in most other areas of Greece.

Gytheio - gateway to Mani from the east

Limenas beach with barren backdrop
Sunrise on the hillside near Kotronas

Famous for its tower houses, Frankish castles, Byzantine churches and fortified dwellings the architecture is quite distinct to this area, but sadly many of the houses are abandoned and derelict.
Tall tower houses - tiny villages
Just one of many derelict and abandoned houses

The scenery is certainly stunning. Along the spine of the peninsula runs the Taygetos mountain range and until the 70’s when the new roads were built some villages were only accessible by sea. Most of the narrow winding roads hug the coastline or follow the valleys and gorges and there has been little investment in signposting. A few nights before we even arrived at Mani I had a dream that I took a ‘short-cut’ and drove straight down a mountainside track rather than take the normal zig-zag route. Thankfully Dave stuck to the main road and we survived the trip – albeit with a few scary moments! 

Looking south towards the headland
Single lane - for miles, with steep drops and no Armco in sight!
Arriving at the most southerly point of Inner Mani we watched the large shipping containers rounding the headland. There was a weird sanctuary which Gareth and I went to investigate. Inside was an odd collection of offerings from todays ‘pilgrims’ – broken flippers, coins, packets of condoms, toys, jewellery, cigarettes, pebbles and shells together with a book full of multi-lingual messages. Quite a contrast to the beautiful votive offerings of carved models, miniature vases and weapons left in ancient times that we have seen on display in museums on our trip through Greece.

Today's offerings to the Oracle!

The area has a long and chequered history. Neolithic remains were found in coastal caves and artifacts from the Mycenaean period (1900 BC - 1100 BC) have been found here. It was occupied by Dorians in 1200 BC and became a dependency of Sparta.  Over the subsequent centuries, the peninsula was fought over by the Byzantines, the Franks (Italian and French knights), and the Saracens. In 1460, after the fall of Constantinople, local chiefs, wanting to retain their own internal self-government in Mani, arranged to pay an an annual tribute to the Ottomans – although it is reported they actually only paid it once! Even after the Greek War of Independence they wanted to retain local autonomy and violently resisted outside interference. Ultimately the area became a backwater and many locals moved to the cities or abroad in search of a better lifestyle. They certainly came across to us as a feisty bunch! A guy ‘parked’ his car in the middle of the small road running through Gerolimenas, and staggered into the mini-market. He returned about 5 minutes later with a can of beer in one hand, cigarette in another and swore at all the, now very impatient, drivers stuck behind him.

Main road through Gerolimenas - gridlocked!

Apparently the name Mani originates from the Greek word "Manîa" (Μανία), meaning "crazed" or "wild"  and the English word "mania" is said to have derived from this. In all honesty we weren’t crazy about Mani but it was an interesting drive out to this remote area of Greece.

Sea-turtles, sand-dunes, shipwreck and sunbathing

Sunday 28 July 2013

Summer weekends are crazy in Greece. We have discovered the best thing for us to do on a weekend is find somewhere to 'sit-it-out' while it all goes on around us then move on out on the Monday. 

Calm before the storm...
The towns become gridlocked. Car parks fill up. Beaches heave with families all having a great day out. The partying begins. Last night and into this morning a wedding function in the nearby restaurant and a beach party on the sand were in competition as to who could last it out the longest. The music booming out from the restaurant speakers stopped at 7am but the beach party crowd were still packing away at 9am!

Last to leave with tables, chairs....and a huge hangover!

So here we are still on shipwreck beach - or to give it it's proper name Valtiki beach which is about 4 miles east of Gytheio at the northern part of Lakonikos Bay.

We love it here - it has everything we need. A big car park with shade, a safe place to BBQ, free wi-fi at the beachside bar/restaurant, a clean sandy beach, a lovely place to swim and a huge hulk of a rusty ship that changes colour chameleon-like during the day. One morning I was up at sunrise and a couple of nights ago we were still out in the inky darkness transfixed by the milky way and shooting stars in the sky as we gazed up over its rusty bow. The fridge is full of cool drinks and the cupboards full of food - we're staying put!

Beach starting to fill up

This whole area which includes the beach, extensive sand-dune system and the delta of the River Evrotas is an important natural habitat. The river bed is all but dry at the moment as 7000 wells and numerous irrigation systems extract the water all along its 50 mile course for the local population and citrus fruit plantations. As well as being a stretch of coastline known for its sea-turtles breeding, it is one of the few remaining wetland areas in Southern Greece and is home to some rare and endangered plant species.

River Evrotas dry river bed

Dotted along the beach are a handful of protected sea turtle nesting areas, competing for space with the dedicated sun worshippers. The locals seem to be aware of the fragile balance here and on the whole there is less littering than we have seen elsewhere. 

The poor hulk of a ship hasn't escaped the graffiti 'artists' though and like every other surface in Greece within arms length has been defaced with names and pictures.

Tomorrow we will pack up and move on along towards the Mani Peninsula then up towards Kalamata - where Dave is hoping to stuff every available space in the van with its world famous olives!


Friday 26 July 2013

Driving south from Nafpoli we followed the coast and passed a huge ship moored 'stern-to' in a little bay with its anchor out and a line to the shore. It was an unusual scene as we are more used to seeing yachts anchored this way in the Med so we took a couple of photos and carried on.

The road headed inland and climbed up through the Parnonas mountain range before descending to the coast on the southern Peloponnese. With temperatures reaching 40 degrees it was a long hot day driving along hairpin bends and through very narrow villages - with roads not much wider than the van itself, but the scenery was stunning.

Turning west towards Githio / Gytheio we came across a rusty shipwrecked hull on Valtaki beach and found the road down towards it ended in a fantastic wild-camping car park with 3 campers already squeezed under shady trees.

This link leads to a site with information on the wreck and here are a few of the 64 pictures we took of it in the afternoon sun, in the moonlight and at sunrise. Dave doesn't believe there is any truth in the superstition that changing a ships name is unlucky, not sure I agree on that. But it does have something of a happy ending in that rather than having been sold for salvage and dismantled it has now become a popular tourist attraction.  

Dave and Gareth up close to the wreck

Waves crashing through the holed hull

Eerie moonlight scene

Behind the scenes

Thursday 25 July 2013

After bemoaning the fact that the theatre at Delphi was cordoned off and the one at Ancient Corinth was behind a locked gate it was wonderful to be able to wander around the majestic 14,000 seater at Epidaurus with its stunning backdrop of trees and mountains.

Every evening in July and August the site comes alive with thousands of guests as this main theatre and also the nearby ‘Little Theatre’ at Nea Epidaurus host open air music and plays.

The sections and rows are all marked up, lighting rigs are positioned up high and thick cabling is running dangerously up the aisles. Ready and waiting for the influx of visitors is a huge car park, a number of ticket booths and plenty of catering and toilet facilities – on an average day though the handful of tourists are well dispersed across the vast site and it was a lovely way to spend an early morning. Whenever we have visited Ephesus in Turkey someone usually bursts into song much to the delight of visitors sitting in the theatre. Today there was plenty of shouting from the lively Italian tour group but nothing to judge the reputed excellent acoustics by

It’s a real mix of rambling remains, reconstructed sections and works in progress. Methodical digging is being carried out under huge umbrella's in the searing heat whilst new column sections for the Tholos are being crafted and assembled behind a mass of scaffold.

Work in progress.....albeit very slowly

How long would it take to reconstruct the original 40 columns?

The modern day scenery was quite basic and reminded me of the lads primary school plays - plastic citrus trees, artificial doves and some lightweight columns along with a couple of costume changes! If they need anyone to help with the papier-mâché they only have to ask!


Doric....Ionic....Corinthian......or polystyrene!

Behind the scenes

Don't worry...

Wednesday 24 July 2013

We are back for a third night in Nafpoli having had another couple of days on the beaches nearby and a day at the nearby ancient site of Epidavrus. We have grown quite fond of Nafpoli which has the first, and reputedly only, Komboloi  (worry bead) Museum ‘in the world’.

Having paid my €2 entry fee I climbed up the creaky wooden stairs to the first floor. As I arrived a family of 3 left – just as well really as the four ‘halls’ were tiny. The museum owners have been collecting komboloi for 50 years and  have rare beads dating back to 1550 as well as a selection of prayer beads used by Hindus, Buddhist, Muslims and Catholics. They are all known by different names – Malas, Tesbi, Sebhas and Rosaries. The lady in charge downstairs had already pointed out the ‘No photos’ sign which was a disappointment but the low light upstairs wouldn’t have made for great photos anyway.

Downstairs in the well lit workshop was a different matter and I would have loved to have taken loads of photographs of the mass of colourful komboloi hanging from the display boards behind  her desk. The previous evening when we walked past I did sneak a quick photo through the door but it doesn’t really do the treasure trove the justice it deserves.

Visitors can watch the process of conserving old komboloi, creating replicas for sale or design their own made-to-order komboloi. Beads can be made from a number of different material types including pure amber, mastic-amber, bone, shell, coral, horn, wood, crystal and artificial resins. The number of beads can vary according to the size of the bead and the users palm width, but it’s normally an odd number. 

There are numerous shops in Nafpoli specialising only in komboloi as well as the usual tourist stalls with the prices ranging from a cheap and cheerful selection starting at €5 to a worryingly expensive one priced up at €1500.

Its fascinating to watch the twisting and twirling of the beads in the hands of the older generation who play with them subconsciously, and there is apparently a loud and a quiet method of handling the beads. The Greeks do not use the komboloi for any religious purpose – you see the menfolk twirling their beads as they walk along, whilst sat drinking or just passing the time. You wonder whether it is a sight that will be less familiar in years to come as the younger generation have their phones to play with these days. The komboloi may them become real museum pieces. 

No worries in Nafpoli

Sunday 21 July 2013

We are spending a second night in Nafpoli, a lovely lively harbour which was briefly the capital of modern Greece. It boasts three forts, one out on a little island in the bay, and two high up overlooking the town. We walked around the one but to reach the other meant a walk up and down 999 steps. As the temperature has been hitting 38 degrees we decided to give that a miss.

The town has dozens of worry bead shops and even a museum dedicated to the ‘Komboloi’ but they seem to be a pretty chilled out bunch here. We have parked up in the main harbour car park for  2 nights along with a few other campers without any problem, unlike in Galatas harbour car park the other night where we received a polite – ‘Don’t park here’ notice on our windscreen the following morning!
Don't worry about a thing.....cos every little thing is going to be alright
We took a day trip today to Ancient Corinth setting off early to avoid the heat and the crowds. It’s an impressive site and the scene of many power struggles as it was a strategic location for controlling trade between northern Greece and the Peloponnese and between the Ionian and Aegean Seas. The ruins are split over two sites – the lower town and Acrocorinth, towering 575m on a rocky hill only accessible by a 4km climb. We didn’t make the exhausting trip to see the chapels, mosques, houses and battlements contained within the 2km fortified walls.
Temple of Apollo with Acrocorinth in distance
Instead we rambled around the ruins and the museum of the lower site which included the Temple of Apollo, fountains, a huge stoa, odeon, rostra and theatre.

Amazing carved oarsman

More Do's & Don'ts, fences and locked gates

1908 - Not so fussy then about climbing on the ruins!
The museum alone was a little treasure with all manner of artifacts including mosaics, pottery, jewellery, bronze works, reliefs and statues. It has a much more recent history than the objects on display though – some of which date back to prehistoric times. In 1990 it was the scene of a robbery where the museum night guardsman was attacked and bound up whilst 285 artifacts were stolen along with 1,000,000 drachmas. The money was to pay the staff which beggars the question why that much cash was held on site and why a government organisation was still paying its staff in cash – but this is Greece and cash is king here.

It was the largest robbery from a Greek museum and unusual in that a secure museum with catalogued artifacts was targeted rather than an unprotected unexcavated site. The story has a happy ending though - 274 of the items including marble heads, pottery, glass and jewellery were recovered in Miami in 1999 and finally returned to Corinth in 2001 after diplomatic negotiations.

Last night as the sun set we watched the locals in Nafpoli sitting out with their fishing rods all along the harbour wall. 

Nothing was caught but we saw some big’uns jumping out to sea. So after a trip to the local angling shop Dave is now kitted out with a line, hook and bait - I have got some sausages in the fridge though if the big one gets away!

Fishing..... or feeding the fish????