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Stacey & Max’s Spectacular Greek Adventure September 11-27, 2006: Peloponnese and the Mainland

Stacey & Max’s Spectacular Greek Adventure September 11-27, 2006: Peloponnese and the Mainland

Nov 12th, 2006, 02:55 PM
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Stacey & Max’s Spectacular Greek Adventure September 11-27, 2006: Peloponnese and the Mainland

General itinerary: the Peloponnese (Nafplio, Mystras, Monemvasia, Mani, Olympia), Mainland (Delphi, Meteora, Pelion, and Athens), and numerous other sites in between!

Others have provided background information which I found useful so I will do the same.

About us: I’m 32 and my husband is 36 (we celebrated our 4th anniversary while in Greece). This was
our second “big” trip together (the first being Mexico on our honeymoon). Normally, we only take 3 or 4 day long weekend trips once, maybe twice a year, along with a week every Christmas to visit our families who live far away from us. So, this was the trip of a lifetime for us, as we are ready to settle down and have children--who knows when we’ll have the time or money to take another big vacation. We love tropical destinations, beaches, history and ruins, local character….hmm… Greece was a perfect choice for us! Not yet having traveled to Europe (well, I’ve been to the former Soviet Union…but that is different from the typical travel destination for most), the center of western civilization seemed like the perfect place to start.

So, hopefully this put things into perspective as I mention the following. We had a jam-packed itinerary, but did not want to miss anything! Many people urged us to slow down, but, but we’ve found we like traveling this way (we can relax at home!) Many urging this (on another forum at least) were Europeans who do not to have to pay the extra expense to fly over the Atlantic (some visit Greece every year!) or were fellow North Americans fortunate enough to take yearly trips to Europe. So, in my humble opinion, it’s easy to say this when you have that luxury. We did appreciate the advice though, and took it under consideration as we honed in on our final plans. Originally, we had planned to visit the islands (Santorini at least), but decided to cut it out due to the extra expense, time, and more of a desire to see the other places on our itinerary. Some may remember my Peloponnese vs. Pelion dilemma—well, we chose both and both were unique and wonderful in their own way. At one point we cut out the Mani, opting to just visit sights around Nafplio, but ended up leaving it in. We do not regret any of these decisions, as we had a fabulous experience in Greece. We hope to return again someday and visit more of Greece, (exploreing more of the Peloponnese and the Pelion) and include some of the islands, and Turkey.

We like a fast pace, recharging in the evening while enjoying the local atmosphere. We did not get up at the crack of dawn every morning, but took our time. We had time to take detours, adding things to our itinerary and exploring…perhaps not every nook and cranny, but enough to satisfy our curiosity and give us a taste of delights off the beaten path. We liked the excitement of visiting new places each day. I will admit, we were tired by the end of the trip, but I think that would have been the case even had we spent our days basking on the beach. As I will mention later, there were a few spots we would have liked to have spent more time in, but more so because we found them charming, rather than feeling as if we did not get to experience everything there way to offer. All the more incentive to try and return in the future, but it’s nice to not have any regrets.

Guidebooks: Lonely Planet Greece (7th ed.), Cadogan Guide Greece (1st ed.), Cadogan Guide Peloponnesse (2000). Maps: Michelin Greece, Road Editions Peloponnese and Pelion. The Cadogan guides were great for more in depth history and local flavor—highly recommended. Lonely Planet was a good all around guide. We used both interchangeably for sites, restaurants, hotels, etc. The Cadogan guides had sites and information we would have missed using just the LP guide…so I would recommend them, esp. if you are spending any measurable amount of time in the Peloponnese. Ditto for the Road Editions maps—indispensable. I was so disappointed when we crossed the Rio-Antirio Bridge and I had to switch over to the Michelin map—still serviceable, but the relative lack of detail was hard to revert to!

We did all of the trip planning using the guides and the internet: Fodor’s, Virtual Tourist, Lonely Planet Thorntree, and TripAdvisor forums. The community here at Fodor’s was especially friendly and helpful. Murphy, Jojanna, TexasAggie, and Stanbr’s trip reports were helpful and a source of inspiration. As some may remember, I asked here about using a Athens travel agent and pre-booking hotels. However, we decided to go on our own and only pre-book the first two nights and last two in Athens. This turned out to be the best advice we received on the forums. I was reluctant at first for many reasons, not the least of which was not wanting to spend precious time hunting for a place to stay, and Max flat out said no originally. But we continued to discuss it; he read the numerous posts and finally decided to agree to it. It worked out well, there were only one or two stressful nights, but everything worked out in the end and we saved money this way (but of course spent it elsewhere). I would recommend it for this time of year, it really was no trouble. However--definitely do not try this in Athens (unless you know your way around)! We came back a day early and had to pay extra for a triple—but at least we had a place to sleep! In many others places we got a triple room for the price of a double. I had an idea of where to stay and a few choices for each destination, this pre-planning helped but the flexibility turned out to be good in several spots, as we detoured from the itinerary along the way (not too much though).

We tried unsuccessfully to use FF miles with Delta—trying in April & May of 2006. We called repeatedly to no avail, and upon hearing they were going to charge us to transfer my miles to my husband’s account to make up the difference he needed for the international ticket, we decided it would be better to keep them for domestic flights to visit our families here. After tons of searching we found tickets on Delta, decided to bite the bullet and pay the exorbitant price—who can bet when and if the price of gas will go down. From what I’d read, tickets to Europe are higher than normal right now anyway, so even had we booked earlier we may not have gotten any better prices. We are at a disadvantage because we fly out of a small airport, and had several connecting flights—but it wasn’t cost effective to drive and fly from the larger airports nearby, due to the extra time off from work, gas, and parking fees.

We pre-booked a rental car from AutoEurope with no trouble—however my husband pre-paid which was not a good idea since we returned it early and could not get a refund from the actual supplier (Hertz). Oh well… We loved the freedom of having a car to explore. My husband is very tall, so we paid a bit extra for a larger car to ensure his comfort—we spent a great deal of time in the car so that was a good decision (it was only ~$100 more for the larger car for two weeks). It was also nice to have a trunk, which many of the subcompacts do not have. We would leave our big bags in the car and just bring in a smaller bag with valuables, necessities and changes of clothes as we moved around from location to location.

I kept up with our expenses as we went along, if anyone is interested I’d be glad to share that information with you but won’t include that level of detail here. I will post some overall impressions at the end. The historical commentary is taken from various guidebooks and internet research. Thank you in advance for reading!

PELOPONNESE: ARGOLIS
Day 1: Tuesday, 12 September
The flights from Florida were long, but uneventful. The plane ride to Athens from New York was consistently bumpy, but bearable, even for me. We started traveling at around 6 a.m. on September 11 and landed in Athens around 10:15 a.m. the next day (7 hours ahead). We picked up the car with no trouble, exchanged our money for some Euros, and set out to navigate Greek traffic towards Nafplio. It’s easy to get out of the airport, despite our initial anxiety and confusion, which was probably more a result of jet lag and feeling of disorientation that anyone experiences while traveling.

Everyone will probably laugh and say I told you so when they hear how the rest of the day unfolded… I had the following planned for us to do on the way to Nafplio—stop and see the Corinth Canal, Ancient Corinth and Acrocorinth, with a possible side trip to Perachora (all with the caveat IF we weren’t too tired). Well, guess how many of those things we accomplished? We stopped at the Corinth Canal, oohed and awed and took pictures, then promptly got lost. I somehow got disoriented and had us on the road to Tripoli, but nowhere near Perachora (duh…it’s on the other side of the canal stupid…) or Ancient Corinth. We ended up turning off somewhere near Ancient Nemea—confused, tired, and by this time, hungry. We decided to cut our losses and head to Nafplio—and proceeded to get lost yet again. We thought we were on the “red” road to Nafplio, but somehow ended up heading back east, ultimately on a “yellow” road.

It was all trial and error from there on out. For those wondering the same thing I did…NO the road signs are not all in both Greek and English! In some cases they would be only in Greek in one direction, but after turning around the sign coming from the opposite direction would have both (so getting lost was usually a benefit in that respect). Except for the major highways (E95, etc) the roads are not numbered and marked, the only signs are those for towns. I quickly developed a strategy of keeping an eye out for a sign with the next “big” town, trying to identify the first few Greek letters, which worked fine in some cases but not in others (invariably I would pick the wrong town to look out for). I know many of the letters in the Greek alphabet (at least the “capital” version), but trying to sound it out and translate at the same time, all while whizzing past a sign, was next to impossible. We did a lot of backtracking, not only this day, but on many others as well!

Despite our disoriented nature, it was wonderful driving around this part of the Peloponnese—interesting sights (and smells!) around every turn. We saw our first goats and I was so excited I had to stop and take a picture. I can still hear the sounds of the bells around their necks, a sound we heard in numerous places around Greece, even when there were no creatures in sight! We finally stopped for our first meal at a taverna in Agia Triada near Nafplio—I do not remember the name but it was delicious, and one of the best meals of the trip! The owner showed us what she had available and sat down to enjoy a fulfilling meal of roasted chicken and potatoes, and roast and rice. We headed to Nafplio and found Pension Eleni (in retrospect Nafplio is not as confusing as it seemed when we first arrived…). The proprietress was so sweet, I thought it cute that she asked if we were married and nodded and beamed her approval and indicated that we were a good couple. I wondered afterwards if she would have let us room together if we were not…seems like I read that does happen in some places, I just didn’t expect it in a more touristy area such as Nafplio. I think she was just curious though. She hugged us both when we left; she was one of the warmest people we encountered on the trip.

We then promptly settled in for a nap, despite my urgings to the contrary based on what others have posted regarding jet lag. We woke up and took showers, and refreshed, set out to explore the town. We ate at Ta Fanaria—a very popular place with tables on a side alley, well worth the wait. We discovered saganaki…mmmnnnn…and barrel wine, both of which became a recurring theme on the trip, well that and spicy cheese dip. The meal was delicious and the atmosphere perfect for our first evening in Greece. Afterwards we walked around and found an outdoor bar on a side street and enjoyed ice cream and wine while people watching.

A word to the wise—one salad (a typical Greek cucumber, tomato, onion and feta) is plenty to share between two, even three people. The portion sizes were extremely generous pretty much everywhere we went. Had we not been eager to try different things there were many times we could have shared one entrée, especially at lunch and definitely if you also order a salad and perhaps an appetizer.

Day 2: Wednesday, 13 September
Having planned a full day of sightseeing, we got an early start and headed to the 3rd century theatre and sanctuary of Asclepius (the god or healing or medicine) at Epidaurus. It was nice to get there in the morning before tons or tour buses arrived—we were able to enjoy our first ancient ruin in relative peace. The theatre is very well preserved and well worth the visit. We had fun watching people test out the acoustics by dropping pennies or attempting a soliloquy.

We headed up the coast back towards Ancient Corinth, and made a few stops to ooh and awe at the Saronikos Gulf on the way. Selonda Bay had interesting rings which we assumed were some sort of aquaculture. I just did an internet search and it turns out they are for harvesting Puntazzo puntazzo, sheepshead bream. We sat and watched as a tugboat moved them around to various parts of the bay.

We found Ancient Corinth this day. The site is small and easy to explore, but hard to visualize. The museum did not do justice to what Corinth was to the ancient world, but we later were intrigued to note how many items were made at Corinthian workshops at the fabulous museums later on.

We then headed up the mountain to Acrocorinth, and my first challenge with heights (I discovered I have issues while in Mexico…). From the bottom, it’s hard to envision how one could get to the top, but the road twists and turns and eventually lands you at the first at the outer wall of the fortress. The site was definitely a treat—it was interesting to see the ruins representing the transition from various periods—the Franks, Turks, and the Venetians, not to mention the thought of the clandestine activities of the ancient Greeks at the Temple of Aphrodite on the highest summit. We ate at the taverna next to the site—definitely worth a stop for a delicious fresh greek salads and saganaki.

We then headed to ancient Mycenae, the “well built city rich in gold,” mentioned in Homer’s Illiad and the Odyssey. I now have a desire to revisit the Greek literature I read in my interdisciplinary honors classes at LSU—which no doubt contributed to the inspiration for this trip. Luckily I didn’t sell any of those books back so will have to dig them out next time I visit my parents. The museum is small but very nice. Max was very drawn to Mt. Zara. The Treasury of Atreus is massive; it must have been amazing to discover the treasure within. We later saw some of it including the famous so-called Mask of Agamemnon at the museum in Athens. This was the first stop we encountered hordes of tour buses—but it wasn’t difficult to get around as we were there in the mid to late afternoon.

I couldn’t convince Max to make one last stop at Tyrins, and admittedly we were both exhausted at that point so headed back into Nafplio, took another nap and set out to explore the town that evening. We ate at Taverna O Vasilis, a popular place on one of the main strips. It was ok, but our experience the night before was better, with both the food and the service. We tried our first retsina, which was interesting and delicious. We stopped for a nightcap and enjoyed watching children run around the marbled main square. It was refreshing to see how laid back Europeans are with their children—I don’t know if it was because many were on vacation as well, but it was fun to see two and three year olds running around at 10 and 11 at night, which would be unheard of in the US! We were even entertained by a teenage girl posing as a statue in the center of the square…we were not sure if she was doing it on a dare from friends or served as a regular attraction.

Nafplio is very charming, a romantic, picturesque town, the first capital of modern day Greece. We really enjoyed the atmosphere and would love to go back and visit. We figured that due to its proximity to Athens, this was certainly in the realm of possibility someday.

stay tuned! more to follow...


swfeken is offline  
Nov 12th, 2006, 03:08 PM
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Stacey- great report, so well written too! Can't wait to read more.
Debi
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Nov 12th, 2006, 04:21 PM
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Hello swfeken,

I am very much looking forward to the rest of your report! So pleased you enjoyed your Greek vacation.

Thank you for taking the time to write all of this down.

Cheers,

Murphy
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Nov 12th, 2006, 06:27 PM
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Thanks for your report. It brought back wonderful memories for us. We too stayed at Pension Elaini in Nafplion. Elaini doesn't speak more than a couple of words of English but somehow manages to communicate her warmth and enjoyment to her visitors.
You provided great advice to future travellers to Greece. A Greek Salad is huge and should be shared by two people. When we first arrived we ordered two salads,appetizers and two entrees. It was simply too much food. This trip we discovered that a tomato salad is actually a Greek salad without the Feta. It is half the price, and the feta is actually too much protein if you are ordering a meat appetizer later. We shared the salad the appetizer and then each ordered our own entrees. This saves money which can be used on the house wines. For the most part they are quite good and inexpensive although every once in a while the barrel wines can be really bad.

We also ate at Ta Fenaria in Naphlion and we consider it to be one of the best taverna's for quality and price that we have found in Greece.

I am looking forward to the rest of your report.

stanbr is offline  
Nov 13th, 2006, 03:59 AM
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Stacey, thanks for posting!

Because of Murphy and Texasaggie I've already added Greece to my list of future trips so I'll be following your report with interest.

moolyn is offline  
Nov 13th, 2006, 05:04 PM
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Thanks for the comments! Murphy and Stanbr, I'm glad to see you're still perusing the board. Your reports and comments were so helpful to me during planning.

PELOPONNESE: MANI, MYSTRAS, & MONEMVASIA

Day 3: Thursday, 14 September

We enjoyed a hearty breakfast on the waterfront before leaving Nafplio to head to Mystras. We did not officially stop in Argos but did spend more time there than planned—it was a bit confusing and we drove around in circles trying to find our way out on the right road (is anyone sensing a theme…). An interesting thing we saw along the way in each town were local women carrying small bouquets of fresh flowers and looking as though they were dressed for church. Our Lonely Planet guidebook says that Sept 14 is the celebration of the Exaltation of the Cross, so we can only assume the two events were related.

Mystras, originally founded in 1249 by the Franks, with its delightful medieval ruins of castles, palaces churches, monasteries, was once called the “Florence of the East.” Mystras was the last Byzantine stronghold after the fall of Constantinople. It is a fascinating ghost town, a highlight well worth the strenuous tour around the three tiers of the site. Definitely allow at least 3-4 hours to explore. We parked at the top near the Kastro and worked our way around and down, then climbed back up—I would recommend this route. We saw our first frescoes in the churches here—they truly are amazing.

We then headed to Monemvasia, which turned out to be quite a treat and a nice compliment to Mystras. I wouldn’t miss either one. Yes, it’s touristy, but it was a unique experience to stay overnight within the walled city and get a feel for what Mystras might have looked like as well. You can’t beat the atmosphere. This was our first night not having pre-booked, and my first choice was available at a very reasonable rate (significantly cheaper than expected based on what I’d read about staying on “the rock”). We stayed at Hotel Goulas and highly recommend it—it had a ton of character, including the fact that it was like a hobbit hole straight out of Tolkein. It took us awhile to find it (I forgot what “gamma” looks like) but we did eventually. We poked around the shops which are open quite late, then had a delicious meal at Matoula. We returned to our lovely terrace overlooking the sea and enjoyed a bottle of wine by moonlight. This was one of the most romantic evenings of the trip.

Day 4: Friday, 15 September

We explored the upper part of the town in the morning…first getting lost trying to find the path and ending up at the small cave church in the side of the cliff. I was definitely freaked out by the narrow steep climb and knowledge that this was not in fact the way we needed to go. We climbed back down and eventually found the right path (it’s signposted but we had somehow missed a turn). The residents were quite successful in making access difficult for attackers. We eventually found our way to the top and enjoyed touring the ruins. I would love to return in spring, when the thistles and other dried flowers we saw are in bloom, but the barren landscape lended a certain eerie charm to the place. The church of Agia Sophia is haunting and worth the hike itself, not to mention the breathtaking views of the sea and the lower town.

We then set out for the Mani, noticing that a fire had recently blazed through the area. We stopped in Gythio for lunch—we enjoyed wonderful souvlaki at one of the waterfront restaurants. We both agreed however that we were glad we weren’t staying overnight here; we just did not enjoy the vibe. This may have had something to do with the smell emanating from the place. The trash cans were overflowing here and in several other towns nearby, we wondered if perhaps there had been a strike by the garbage workers. I know many use Gythio as a base, but I would recommend venturing elsewhere if you are spending several days in the Mani. We found that moving around in the Mani facilitated our exploration of the area, it had been quite a challenge originally to try and select a base and appropriate route so this was our first indication that not pre-booking had been an excellent idea.

We stopped at the Marathonisi Islet where Paris and Helen reportedly spent their first night together, and toured the Museum of Mani History. Honestly, though the exhibits were interesting as they viewed the Mani through traveler’s perspective, I would only stop if you have extra time to kill. There was a newer, much nicer Mani museum in Kardamyli.

I had originally planned for us to spend the night somewhere around Aeropolis or Itilo, but we decided to head towards Gerolimenas as we had plenty of daylight left. I have to admit by the time we reached this tiny fishing village, apparently we were both unwilling to say it but it turns out thinking the same thing… we were starting to wonder what the fuss was all about with the Mani. We had seen a few tower houses here and there, there had even been a few on the road from Monemvasia to Gythio, but the landscape just did not seem as impressive as everyone said. We stopped and had a few Amstels at the small waterfront in Gerolimenas, while watching a man row his boat not far from the shore, then back, handing the bowline to his wife, only to immediately repeat the scene all over again. It was odd. I’m pretty sure I recognized him from other’s pictures, so perhaps this is his daily routine. We were thinking of treating ourselves and staying at the Kyrimai guesthouse, but it looked like there was active construction taking place so we decided against it.

We decided to continue on, and our doubts were quickly erased as not far down the road we were awestruck and excited to get a glimpse of the unique scenery of the Mani. Max was particularly excited by the time we reached Vathia. We stopped to see if we could stay in one of the tower houses, but couldn’t find anyone around, despite a few cars parked here and there. We decided it was too spooky anyway, with the wind howling around the desolate landscape, and foraged on.

By this time into the trip I was maintaining a death grip on what many call the “oh sh**” handle in the car…the views truly are literally breathtaking--especially with the knowledge that you could easily tumble to the sea below due to the lack of guardrails on the steep twisting roads. The strong frequent gusts of wind did not help, but certainly add to the atmosphere. Luckily, there is not much traffic in this part of the Mani, so we did not yet have to add that level of anxiety to the driving experience.

In addition to its scenery, the Mani is known for its turbulent history, and proud inhabitants. The families were segregated into clans, constantly feuding with one another. A families’ wealth and power was indicated by the height of the tower they resided in. The Mani was important to the Ancient Greeks as well, with Gythio, Itilo, and Kardamyli noted in the ancient texts. As we drove through we noticed the low stone walls that snake around the landscape. We were trying to guess what they were---territorial boundaries that the different clans set up, barriers for livestock, but then read the more plausible explanation in the guidebooks that are the result of attempts to farm the landscape in a terraced fashion.

We discovered Porto Kagio, and decided to stop for the night. We stayed at Akrotiri and would recommend it. We had a room with a balcony and view of the small bay. Marmari was beautiful as well, there were several hotels there. It was too chilly and windy to do any snorkeling, but both bays had a few spots I would have loved to try out.

That evening we ventured next door to the Porto restaurant to try some fresh fish. Despite having read the warnings regarding fish being priced by weight, I guess we were a bit confused and caught up in the moment. The waitress ushered us to the back where the chef showed us the fresh catch of the day. We selected a whole fish—and we thought he said 4 euros, and even after clarifying a few times, we knew that couldn’t be right, so just sat back and acknowledged we were about to have our most expensive meal of the trip. It was delicious, and we laughed about fresh fish the rest of the trip.

swfeken is offline  
Nov 14th, 2006, 12:13 AM
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I'm really enjoying your report. It makes me want to go back and explore Greece in more depth.
Nikki is online now  
Nov 14th, 2006, 03:51 AM
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Really enjoying your report - we're planning some of the same stops next May.

Do you remember what time you left Nafplio and, after Mystras, what time you arrived in Monemvasia? I didn't think there'd be enough time to stop in Mystras on the way but if there is it opens up a lot of possibilities!

Thanks again.

Jana
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Nov 14th, 2006, 09:13 AM
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Hi Jana--

We can't remember exactly, but will give approximates. This is the one thing I wish I had taken better notes on--but I was too busy navigating, acting as tour guide, or enjoying the scenery!

I think we left around 9:30 or 10 a.m. I remember feeling anxious because we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on the waterfront in Nafplio--but it turned out to be fine (and gave us fuel to explore!). The road to Mystras is easy--Natl. Highway most of the way (~1.5 hrs). We were at Mystras for about 3.5 hours. This put us exploring the site in the middle of the day, but it wasn't too hot since it was mid-September.

We grabbed some pastries at a stand near the entrance rather than eat a "real" lunch that day. We left mid-afternoon, then arrived in Monemvasia somewhere between 5 & 6. This stretch was a little bit slower, more mountainous, a smaller road, but still took around 1.5 to 2 hrs.

I hope this helps!
swfeken is offline  
Nov 14th, 2006, 02:58 PM
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Day 5: Saturday, September 16

We hiked around Porto Kagio the next morning, out to a tiny church on the peninsula. It was open so we were able to see the icons inside. We then ventured out to explore the rest of the Mani. We took several detours on some really steep, scary roads around Porto Kagio. There was one we abruptly turned around and headed back down after finding a wide enough bend, it was steep and narrow and not just freaking me out. I can’t tell you how many times Max was amused at me for being such a chicken, but this road made him nervous too. Going up is harder than coming back down, I have this irrational fear of the car slipping backwards and careening off the side of the mountain, not to mention meeting someone coming down when there is no room for two cars. Immediate proximity to the water 1000 feet below only exacerbates my anxiety. For perspective—I grew up in Texas and Louisiana—very flat. Needless to say I did not do any of the driving on this trip! Max has experience driving in the mountains, as he grew up in Colorado and lived South Carolina, but this was not the only time on our trip that he encountered a challenge (see later in the Pelion).

We then headed to Cape Tenaron or Matapan, where the entrance to the Hades or the underworld is purported to exist (I think we found it…a tiny smelly cave). We hiked out to the lighthouse at the tip of the cape, the southernmost point in continental Greece and Europe (with the exception of one other place in Spain, I believe). We encountered a few others on the path but were able to enjoy the view in solitude when we reached the end.

We stopped so that Max could explore the inside of one of the tower houses, then ended up back in Gerolimenas for lunch at one of the tavernas on the small bay. It cracked us up when we asked for a menu and the waiter pointedly told us “I could give you a menu, which has many items, or I could just tell you what we actually have today.” I guess we should have learned by this point in the journey. We then set out to explore the eastern side of the Mani. It is different from the west, and worth the trip to see the contrast. We took a few detours here and there, at one point trying to find the ruins of ancient Aigila, a temple to Demeter, described in the Cardogan guide. We found some ancient ruins, but I do not think we were at the right place based on the description. It was an interesting part of the adventure nonetheless.

We crossed over the interior and ended up in Itilo for the evening. There were plenty of hotels to choose from—I had been looking for the Exilirion guesthouse, but we went with more of a budget option not far past it. There were some guys sitting around calling out Kalispera (good evening) to us as we drove through—looked as good a place as any so we stopped. I went snorkeling in the bay but there wasn’t too much to see—a ton of sea urchins, a few fish here and there, but it was so enjoyable and refreshing after the long day we’d had. I didn’t venture too far out though since it was getting dark, so there may have been better spots. This was our first hotel without a shower curtain—we laughed at our failed attempts to not get water everywhere. Luckily there are drains in the bathroom floor. The restaurant across from the hotel was excellent—we tried our first spicy cheese dip which was very yummy.

Day 6: Sunday, September 17

We headed back down the coast to the Dirous Caves. We had planned to skip it, as we’ve both visited Carlsbad Caverns in Colorado, and the Marianna Caverns near us in Florida, but it was well worth the visit despite the steep entrance fee (12 euros each, as much as all of the ancient sites in Athens combined)! It is really unique since you go through in boats—the labyrinth of underwater caverns with colorful stalactites and stalagmites is truly amazing. We forgot to take a picture of the boats though; perhaps I can borrow one from someone for our personal collection (Murphy if I recall you had some really nice ones). There were some German tourists with us who made references to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries as we began the trip, which would have certainly been appropriate background music.

We went back towards Itilo. I had printed out some pages from John Chapman’s Mani guide (which is incredible, a true labor of love), and was determined to find Dekoulou Monastery. I was fascinated by the frescoes with pictures of the Zodiac—seemingly a contradiction. He has maps sketched on the web but I hadn’t printed that particular one out. It turned out to be high on the hill on the same side of the bay we had stayed at the night before. The road was the narrowest and scariest we’d been on yet (one lane—very steep, but paved) but well worth the trip. There were dogs chained up that were barking furiously as we drove up, but luckily they alerted the lady who lives there. I felt bad, we must have interrupted her shower, as she came out in a towel and signaled to give her ten minutes. The church is tiny but absolutely amazing—this was one of my favorite parts of the trip because we were the only people there and it truly was off the beaten path. There are not many windows (if any, I can’t recall) so the frescoes have been well preserved. Everywhere else we had been we were not allowed to use a flash, we think because of photo degradation. She told Max it was ok and he took pictures to his heart’s content. Stupidly, I stopped him from taking a picture of the iconostasis; I had read the night before that it was considered back luck, so I guess I was feeling guilty that it might be irreverent. We left an offering, thanked her profusely, and headed back down the road. http://www.zorbas.de/maniguide/

We headed towards Kardamyli, one of the seven cities offered to Achilles by Agamemnon. This section of the coast is very different from the rest of the Mani and increasingly lush as you head north. There are ruins of Byzantine churches everywhere—and from what I understand there are many more if you take the time to seek them out, all with unique architecture and a fascinating history.

We were starving and ate lunch at a small café in Kardamyli, sharing lunch with two kitties. We found Lela’s Hotel and Taverna, but they were booked for the night. We ended up finding Hotel Gorgones around the corner, a nice new place right on the water. We snorkeled a bit in the bay but a storm was brewing—the first of the trip—so that was cut short. We ended up napping to wait it out.

We then set out to explore, heading up north near Kambo to find Castle Zarnata. The signs in Greece can be quite perplexing—as we drove through the town we saw a sign for the castle, but the one actually pointing up the correct road was a sign to the Church of Zodochris Pigi (which is next to the castle). We could see the castle, but not when right under it, so couldn’t figure out how to get to it. We walked up the hill but didn’t feel we were going the right way, it was a path that led from someone’s driveway and Max thought we were trespassing. We encountered an old Greek woman and man and though they understood we were asking about the castle, we couldn’t understand their directions. It was a classic case of “if it was a snake, it would have bitten us.” We headed back down, convinced we were not in the right place, headed across the road and saw it—it turns out we were on the right path, so we went back and retraced our steps.

The castle is interesting and worth the detour. Much to my chagrin, the church was locked. As a cruel joke, there was a key in the lock, but it was not the right one, despite our best efforts to jiggle it open. I was very disappointed because it apparently also has beautiful frescoes, with more zodiacs. We encountered an Australian man on the way back down, who must live in the house at the bottom of the hill, he said others had tried but weren’t able to get in, but didn’t know the whereabouts of the key (had I known we were going here I would’ve referred to Chapman’s instructions on finding the keys to theses churches).

We went to old Kardamyli and visited the small, but excellent Mani museum. The ladies at the entrance were particularly friendly and we chatted with them for a bit—they shared a piece of gum with us which was sweet. It was getting too late to hike up to Agia Sophia, as I had originally planned, so we drove instead. There are several monasteries and churches and we were a bit confused at first as to which one was which (they look similar). We enjoyed the sunset at Karavelli monastery then at Agia Sophia (thanks again to Chapman’s guide for the information). It was beautiful watching the glorious colors of the sun retreat behind the Viros Gorge.

We had dinner at Lela’s Taverna which was excellent. We were a bit disappointed to again be in the company of Americans (there was a big tour group at the table behind us), we had felt special and unique up to this point to be off the beaten path. At the places we'd visited so far, the locals seemed surprised when we mentioned we had traveled all the way from the US to these relatively remote parts of Greece. Some may understand what I mean; I remember feeling the same way in Mexico upon encountering the more touristy areas. I wouldn’t miss Kardamyli though, it has a great deal of character, and there are many things to see in the area. I would love to return and explore the area more, as we only hit a few highlights.

up next: Olympia & Arkoudi
swfeken is offline  
Nov 14th, 2006, 03:05 PM
  #11  
 
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What a great report. Not too many get to see the places you have talked about---we did in 1998. That is the real Greece---we did love Santorini but the Mani really got to my soul.
bobthenavigator is offline  
Nov 14th, 2006, 04:21 PM
  #12  
 
Join Date: Feb 2005
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Thanks swfeken! That helps a lot.

Jana
janaturner is offline  
Nov 15th, 2006, 05:01 PM
  #13  
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PELOPONNESE: OLYMPIA & ELIA

Day 7: Monday, 18 September

We had breakfast at a café on the main strip in Kardamyli—my first yogurt and honey, which was delicious. I also tried a custard pie which was divine (and huge, I had the rest later for lunch). We headed towards Olympia—a very easy drive once past Kalamata. We had originally planned to skip Olympia, since it is so far away, but are so glad we ended up keeping it on the itinerary. We had a brief stop to take at look at Kaifas Lake on the way—a spa known for its sulphur springs. Legend has it that the centaur Nessus washed his wound here after being struck by Heracles' poison arrow, and that is why the water smells.

We headed first to the museum, which is wonderful, and spent at least two hours there. It amazes me how much has survived from ancient Greece—from tiny figurines that seems as though they would be impossible to discover, to larger than life statues and buildings. This put us exploring the ruins in the late afternoon, which was nice as many of the tour buses had cleared out. Max was especially intrigued by the remains of the Temple of Zeus, which must have been massive. They’ve restored one of the pillars so that you get a sense of it, but it’s also interesting to see the towers toppled over, stacked neatly on the grounds. I was disappointed that Nero’s Villa and the Leonidaion were roped off to tourists, as both are supposed to have beautiful mosaics in the floor.

We headed back towards the coast and stayed in Arkoudi for the night. The Cardogan guide describes it as a “delightful little oasis” and we wholeheartedly agree, we loved the atmosphere and could easily have spent another day or two relaxing. We walked around and settled upon Hotel Soulis, and arrived just in time to see a glorious sunset over Zakynthos. We enjoyed a delicious meal at a colorful restaurant up the street; the owners took us into the kitchen for us to pick our dishes for the evening, which was a treat. We enjoyed a nightcap at the bar on the beach with groovy music in the background.

The next morning we enjoyed a nice breakfast at the hotel then stopped to tour Chlemousti Castle, built in 1220-1223 by the Frankish prince Geoffrey I Villehardouin. Active restoration is taking place, and we saw archaeologists restoring pots and other artifacts. They are building a museum, but it was not yet finished. Another favorite for Max, he really enjoyed all of the castles and fortresses we encountered along the way. The views over Elia prefecture are amazing; it is a lush and fertile area.

Arkoudi and Chlemousti are detours well worth the time off the beaten path, about an hour from Olympia; it is a great alternative to actually staying in Olympia if you’re spending the night in the area.

swfeken is offline  
Nov 16th, 2006, 03:03 PM
  #14  
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CENTRAL GREECE: DELPHI

Day 8: Tuesday, 19 September

We left Chlemoutsi and headed towards the mainland. The road to Patra was lined with stands selling pumpkins, gourds, and other goodies. We crossed the new Rio-Antirio Bridge connecting the Peloponnese to the mainland. We stopped for lunch in Nafpaktos—a medieval city with a Venetian castle on a hill above the town. Murphy--we tried finding that church, but ended up at the wrong one.

We struck out for Delphi—due to the winding coastal road, this part of the trip took a great deal of time, longer than it seemed on the map (which I think was more a result of not yet being used to the difference in resolution from the Road Editions map, but there were some really beautiful views over the Gulf of Corinth along the way.

We arrived at Delphi and first visited yet another excellent museum, again spending almost two hours, and then visited the site in the late afternoon. Allow plenty of time, there is a great deal of walking if you explore the entire site (you can see why the ancient Greeks were in such fabulous shape!). We were patient and took our time in the museums, it never ceases to amaze me how rude some people can be, especially the herd mentality of many on tour groups. People think nothing of stepping right in front you as you’re admiring an exhibit or reading the informational plaques. I always try and respect another person if they "got there first," by waiting patiently or looking at something else until the spot is open. Oh well, sorry for venting.

Delphi is stunning—the combination of the setting—nestled among the slopes and valleys of Mt. Parnassos, and the romance and mystery associated with its history and myth—I think it was my favorite of the classical sites we visited. Delphi was the center of the world to the ancient Greeks—the place where two eagles met after Zeus released one in the east and one in the west. And who can forget the oracle. My work colleagues kept joking about me coming back with an “answer” for a major project that we’re working on—I’ve yet to come up with the appropriate cryptic (as the Pythia would undoubtedly have delivered) yet witty response.

We headed into Arahova and had our first stressful evening with respect to finding a hotel. Arahova is a bustling town and parking was nowhere to be found. We were trying to find Pension Alexandros, but kept ending up on a one way street that took us out of town. After walking around, trying a few places that didn’t suit us (we’re not keen on sharing a bathroom), now past dark, we finally found a road up the hill that led to some parking on a back street, and ended up a Pension Ro (the parking directly adjacent to the hotel was full). This was a very nice place, newly remodeled. We ate at the restaurant in front of the hotel, which I can’t really recommend, as it was touristy and a bit bland. We walked around and did some shopping, and then enjoyed a glass of wine and people watched from the main square.

I shopped a bit more in the morning before leaving and bought some beautiful tapestries—Arahova is known for its weaving. They said they were handmade, but Max is not convinced due to the volume we saw in the stores. Regardless, they are beautiful, now I’m trying to figure out how to hang the pillow covers and wall hanging I bought. Arahova has a great deal of character and I would have liked to have spent more time exploring the picturesque back streets.

up next: Meteora and the Pelion

swfeken is offline  
Nov 16th, 2006, 03:56 PM
  #15  
 
Join Date: Oct 2005
Posts: 644
I am really enjoying your report swfeken! Sorry to hear you weren't able to find that church in Nafpaktos -you went into the cemetary up in the hills? I only happened upon it by chance myself. Did you like what you saw of Nafpaktos?

So glad you enjoyed the Mani after all. I have to agree about Gythio - what's with the smell? -lol! Central though.

Looking forward to more,

Cheers,

Murphy
murphy89 is offline  
Nov 28th, 2006, 03:25 PM
  #16  
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Hi Murphy,

It was definitely a church by a cemetary, but obviously the one you instructed me not to go to. Had we started from the top down rather than bottom up perhaps we would have found it. We were anxious to get on the road at that point so didn't try very hard. We liked Nafpaktos--a bustling, picturesque town. It would have been interesting to explore further.

I thought you had mentioned the smell in Gythio in your report as well, I remember mentioning it to Max while we were there. Very strange.

I can't believe you explored the Mani on a scooter! A car was scary enough...

More to come soon!
swfeken is offline  
Nov 29th, 2006, 03:42 PM
  #17  
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THESSALY: METEORA & PELION

Day 9: Wednesday, 20 September

We set out to find the monastery of Osias Loukas, founded in about 1011 AD, dedicated to a local Greek holy man who endured much suffering at the hands of the Moors and Saracens and finally made his home in this remote area of central Greece. Built upon the foundations of an earlier religious structure dating from 944 AD this octagonal Byzantine structure is a hallmark of medieval church design and in excellent condition containing many well preserved mosaics and paintings. The monastery and churches are fabulous, beautiful, and awe inspiring. The intricacy of the gold mosaics is fascinating. The saint’s body is preserved in a glass case—creepy, but interesting. It is in one of the churches rather than the crypt below, which would seem appropriate. This was one of our optional side trips—I’m so glad we took the time to include it.

We settled in for the long journey to Meteora. Though I was hoping to see the famous crossroads of Oedipus, we somehow missed it. We did end up driving right past the Lion of Chaironea, erected as a memorial to the Sacred Band of Thebans who fell in the losing battle against Macedon (both Philip and Alexander participated) in 338 BC, putting an end to the Classical Age. The remains of 254 soldiers were found buried within.

If you’re headed to Meteora from the Delphi area—stop and eat wherever you see food. Otherwise, it will be difficult to find. We went the most direct, scenic route rather than heading up the National highway and cutting over. There was a strange roadside place at one point that had a zoo theme, but we were the only people there and it didn’t suit Max for some reason. So we continued on, starving, and finally found a supermarket in a small town and gathered snacks to keep us content for the rest of the ride (mmm…pistachios are so much cheaper in Greece).

We arrived late afternoon, and despite my careful planning, only saw one monastery. Despite being the most recent edition, the days and times in Lonely Planet were incorrect. The monasteries are open at different times and each closed at least one day a week—I had carefully planned a route based on those closed Wednesday, but open Thursday, and vice versa, but we only ended up able to see one, and it turns out that Varlaam and Agia Triada were closed Thursday so we missed them. We saw Rousanou, run by nuns, with its hair raising access via a small wooden bridge and church with beautiful frescoes. The courtyard is a delight, very colorfully decorated with endless pots of flowers. We then drove around and took in the spectacular scenery. It was so nice to experience everything this way—the place had cleared out and there were just a few others like us with their own transportation.

There are truly no words that adequately convey what Meteora is like—it is simply an amazing feat of both nature and man. Even without the monasteries perched precariously on top of the narrow pillars, the rock forest itself would draw travelers from far away. Meteora, which literally means “hovering in the air”, was first settled by hermits seeking solitude around the 11th century.

We set out to find Doupani House in Kastraki—it is well sign posted off the main road. We got the last room. We had dinner in town then found an internet café—and spent an hour here touching base with family and friends from home and making sure we had enough cash in the bank (Max spent his time checking scores for the football games he had missed).

Day 10 Thursday, 21 September [Our Anniversary!]

The next day we started at Moni Agiou Nikolaou Anapafsa. The frescoes in the church were beautiful, but you are not allowed to take pictures inside any of the churches in the monasteries, which is understandable. We bought the tourist guide they had selling in shops instead.

We headed to Moni Megalou Meterou (the Metamorphosis) and quickly learned how fortunate we had been the day before, as the tour buses descended upon the place. Now, I realize we are tourists too, and want to see these places just like everyone else, but it really does detract from the overall experience. Max said he now knows what an ant must feel like—watching swarm after swarm of groups descend from the monastery. We waited for a relative break in flow and wrestled our way in. Once inside we took our time, there is a great deal to see here and numerous interesting exhibits and museums.

We also visited Stefanou, also run by nuns. It was damaged by fire and we were also shocked to see where the eyes of saints and other figures damaged by bullet holes. This was our last moni as the others were closed unfortunately. But, we only missed two of the six that are open to tourists.

We continued on our journey to the Pelion. This was not a bad drive at all; we arrived much sooner than expected. They are building a by-pass around Volos to the mountain villages, but it was not yet ready. We navigated the traffic in Volos and started our way up the mountain. The roads here were again narrow, winding, and steep, and my former anxiety returned. There is more traffic and the locals whiz around the curves without a thought, despite the lack of guardrails in most places.

The Pelion mountain was famed to be the summer residence of the twelve Olympian Gods and the mythical land of Centaurs, half-man and half-horse. We were intrigued by the area based on reports of the combination of its picturesque villages, mountain forests covered in beech, oak, maple and chestnut trees, with numerous babbling brooks and ravines, all dropping sharply down to picture perfect Aegean beaches below.

We found our way to Makrinitsa—what a charming place! The village is closed to cars; there is a parking lot outside the “entrance” to the cobblestone lined village. We stopped for refreshments under the huge plane tree in the main square and decided to stay for the night. Then we had another stressful experience trying to find a hotel—many of the ones on my list were closed, and though Arhontiko Repana was open, Max decided he wasn’t too keen on staying in the musty restored traditional houses. We walked around for about an hour, hot and tired, and finally settled on the Achilles Hotel, primarily because the room had a balcony (we had by now become accustomed to this small luxury) overlooking the main square. It was more of a budget option, simple and clean with friendly owners. It was the night of our anniversary, and I was a bit disappointed later to find that one of the traditional mansions that had intrigued me—Theodora—was right under our nose—ironically we even stopped to take a picture of the stenciled paintings on the building! We visited a few shops and had dinner at one of the restaurants off the main square, I do not remember the name but it was built on several levels with a restaurant and bar area. We enjoyed the rest of the evening on our balcony watching the relative lack of activity in the sleepy main square. Based on the rest of our experience in the Pelion, this appeared to be the “down time.”

up next: more Pelion

swfeken is offline  
Nov 30th, 2006, 04:03 AM
  #18  
 
Join Date: Jul 2003
Posts: 106
Our anniversary is Sept. 21st too! We were in Croatia this year for our anniversary, but we'll be in Greece next year at the same time!

I'm enjoying your trip report!
dixieland is offline  
Nov 30th, 2006, 03:32 PM
  #19  
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Thanks Dixieland! Enjoy planning your trip--it's part of the experience!

Pelion
Day 11: Friday, 22 September 18

We walked around some more in the morning, but were disappointed to find that many of the shops were still closed, even at 10 a.m.! We popped our head in the folklore museum, but there were several school groups there and we decided not to stay. We then headed back down the mountain to Volos to get some cash—we hadn’t yet seen an ATM and Max didn’t want to take any chances since we were headed to the eastern side of the peninsula. We tried unsuccessfully to find the Theofilos Museum on the way back up the mountain, then set out across the extremely twisty interior roads. It was a gloomy day, a hazy fog had settled across the area, and it was drizzling. This did not stop us from getting a feel for the beauty of the area— lush forests of chestnut and beech trees, with hidden small streams and ravines around the various bends and turns. It was such a dramatic contrast from the other parts of Greece we had already seen.

We headed up to Zagora, enjoying the landscape of apple orchards we passed along the way. I then convinced Max to head to Pouri—the roads here were the steepest we’d been on yet—and it was quite nerve racking, even for him, as we made our way down to the beach. But when we got to Elitsa Beach—we saw the other part of what makes the Pelion so enchanting--crystal clear, sparkling turquoise water—the most beautiful we had yet encountered in Greece. Rather than head back up the mountain—we decided to forge the back roads—yellow and white roads (unpaved) on the map. I thought Max was surely ready to kill me at one point when we actually scraped the side of a wall through a narrow pass. We ended up at Saranda Beach, which was also amazing. By this time, the weather had cleared up and the sun had come out, but we were hungry and needed food (there wasn’t anything at the first beach and nothing open at the second). We headed back up to the main road and made our way to Kissos. We had a delightful lunch at the only open taverna in town, and then walked around the main square. I was disappointed that the church was locked, as it is supposed to have beautiful frescoes.

We headed back down the main road—I wanted to stay somewhere around Tsagarada. We found Diakoumis Rooms on the road to Milopotomas Beach, and after receiving the quote for the cheapest rate yet, we took a large fabulous room with a balcony overlooking the sea. The owners were a friendly young couple, they didn’t even have us leave or passport or anything else to check in, and were very laid back about the fact that we did not yet have a set number of nights to stay.

We went down to Milopotomas Beach and were absolutely delighted to see the gorgeous water. There were people snorkeling, kids fishing off the rock—we were so excited and couldn’t wait to spend the next few days here. We have a running joke between us, based on a corny waiter a few years ago asking us, seriously, if the tiramisu we had enjoyed was “everything we dreamed of and more.” Well, this was everything we’d dreamed the Pelion would be and more. We had planned this as our “down time” and were looking forward to relaxing on such a beautiful beach. Since we were relatively isolated and the hotel doesn’t offer breakfast, we decided to find a market and get a few supplies for breakfast. We left with the thrilling promise of tomorrow. We enjoyed the view from our balcony until well after dark (the sun sets behind you here though).

Unfortunately, the restaurant by Milopotomas was closed and we ended up eating in Tsagarada, at Paradisos Restaurant on the main road. The owner gave us a complimentary shot of tsiporou with our meal, the first and only time we tried anything close to ouzo on the trip (neither of us is fond of black licorice).

We went back to enjoy our balcony and a storm brewing over the Aegean. As we started to see lightning blaze across the sky, Max was feeling feisty and exclaimed, “Bring it on, Poseidon.” Turns out it was not a good idea to tempt fate, myth or no myth.

Day 12: Saturday, 23 September

We woke up the next morning to rain and a gloomy hazy sky. We were hopeful at first, as it had cleared up mid-day the day before, but it only seemed to rain harder as the minutes ticked away. It started to clear up somewhat to a constant drizzle, and we set out to explore. This turned out to be another day of harrowing steep inclines and wet roads did not make the journey easier. I wanted to go hiking (the Pelion is known for it cobblestoned trails connecting the villages), but a bone-chilling cold had set in with the rain and we did not have appropriate clothing. We stopped for lunch at a taverna in Mouresi. It poured the remainder of the afternoon and we hid out in the hotel, growing depressed by the minute. That evening, we ended up at Dipnosofistis Restaurant on the road to Milopotomas. It was pricy, with a trendy atmosphere, jazz music in the background, and gourmet menu, but was such a refreshing change of pace that it lifted our spirits. Max was so excited when the meal came—he was served rice instead of French fries! I guess I hadn’t mentioned that yet—we were so surprised at how this was often this was the only accompaniment to the main dish, especially if you ordered a meat item.

up next: Athens
swfeken is offline  
Dec 2nd, 2006, 05:00 PM
  #20  
 
Join Date: Jun 2005
Posts: 24
Don't leave us in suspense. Please ... post the rest! It's wonderful reading about your journey.
spartakos is offline  

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