I can never be away from Greece for too long, so less than a year later, here I am again. This time, though, I’m doing something a little different – instead of going to my usual haunts in Athens or one of the islands, I’m exploring the mainland by car. We’re hitting up the Peloponnese, Delphi, Thessaloniki, Halkidiki, and Meteora before spending the final few days of my summer in Athens, and there’s no better way to kiss goodbye to the sun than on a rooftop bar in my favourite city in the world.
I couldn’t have been gladder to leave the UK, but as I’ve most certainly mentioned before, I am a nervous flier, and my way of dealing with that is to drink copious amounts of wine on the plane. And on Aegean Airlines, alcohol is *literally* free (Eurovision reference for those who don’t get this fantastic joke), so two glasses of Greek wine saw me through the turbulence. I landed, left the airport in record time and blasted off on the motorway towards Corinth. Of course, I was banging out Eleni Foureira the entire way… because are you really in Greece if you don’t sing Fuego at the top of your voice?
Crossing the Corinth Canal via a bridge with a bungee jumping platform (which I wouldn’t want to do because it’s not even vertical, it points towards you), I saw the sun set over the water and looked down into the ravine. But bloody hell, it’s a steep drop…
Eeeeek. Imagine getting a cruise ship through there.
I was faced with less dramatic (but equally spectacular) views at breakfast.
Our apartment faces onto the stunning Gulf of Corinth, which separates mainland Greece from the wild Peloponnese. For those of you into Modern Greek history (there aren’t very many of you, so my blog is more like an echo chamber here), the Peloponnesian peninsula played a huge role in winning Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire, supplying some of its finest warlords, weapons and warfare to help win the cause.
With this in mind, we’d programmed the Sat Nav to go to Nafplio, a port town which saw many battles in the War for Independence. It’s also where many Greek heroes, such as Theodoros Kolokotronis, were from. He led his band of men through the mountains and brought the fight to the Ottomans, and rightfully won a place in history in the process.
We could have done with Kolokotronis’ navigation skills, because we’d made a wrong turning somewhere along the way and ended up on the road to Epidavros, the home of a renowned ancient Greek theatre. Going there was not initially the plan, but finding ourselves heading very quickly in that direction anyway, opted to complete the journey and do Nafplio later on.
The road took us around the right hand side of the Peloponnese, facing into the Saronic Gulf and Athens beyond. This time last year, we sailed from Athens to visit Agistri, a charming, small and quiet island next to the much larger Aegina. We walked for miles over the hills to get back to the boat, because there was only one taxi on the island and after realising our destination was not open, we were too embarrassed to call him back five minutes after he’d dropped us off. Now, from the road, we could see Agistri whizz past our windows. It looked so wonderfully calm. Almost calm enough to make us forget about our somewhat arduous experience there 12 months ago.
Arriving at Epidavros and clambering up the hill, the theatre surpassed my expectations. Once you make it through the thicket of fir and cypress trees, away from the deafening sound of crickets, you’ll find stone steps and decaying marble seats that rise high above your head. Capable of seating about 12,000 people, the theatre is a work of ancient genius. No need for hi-tech audio equipment here – the acoustics are so great that even the plebs in the very top seats can hear the actors talking at normal volume on the stage below. Provided everyone in the audience was silent, of course – if your mate Eurystaces decided to tell you about his crazy drinking party the night before, you wouldn’t have been able to hear them.
Shut up, Eurystaces, I’m trying to watch the show.
A Russian lady decided to stand on the stone marking centre stage and sing us all a song in Russian. It didn’t go down well. Firstly because nobody had asked for this performance, and secondly because she was standing in the spot everybody wanted to take selfies in. After she’d finished, her mates gave her uproaring applause, but the silence from the rest of the people sat in the theatre was far louder. She picked up her handbag and gave up the space for vain selfie-takers. Myself included, of course…
Though the cheap seats at the top were a steep climb, they were worth it for the view alone. At least if you got bored of the show, you could sit back and enjoy the panoramic view of the mountains behind you.
By this point, I was getting hangry, so hopped back in the car and drove to Nafplio. I get the sense that the vast majority of tourists visiting the town were domestic ones – there isn’t a lot of ancient Greek merit there, I suppose, so nothing to draw the international visitors in. Most of its history is Ottoman, Venetian or modern, and while the beaches are lovely they’re not much to write home about when compared with the rest of Greece. So now would really be the time to test out my Greek skills.
After having lunch and mostly getting through the transaction in Greek (though, admittedly, we didn’t have an in-depth chat about matters such as the political situation in the EU), I got myself a coffee, also in Greek – though Konstantinos tells me the frappe I ordered was “so last year” and that I need to be drinking espresso freddo in order to keep up with the Greeks – and headed out to explore the old town.
My first stop was, or so I thought, a statue of Kolokotronis. It was a man in a fustanella with pom pom shoes and a gun, so I assumed it was him. But on closer inspection I could see that the statue was actually of some dude called Stavros. I took a picture anyway, rotated 180 degrees and walked back the way I came. I found Kolokotronis in the end – he was on a horse, but still wearing the fustanella and pom pom shoes, and carrying a gun, so you can see why I was confused. I paid my respects and wandered off.
NB: not my photo, stole from Google. Thank you Greece.com.
Nafplio’s old town is lovely at this time of year. The winding Ottoman streets are lined with pomegranate trees, which have burst into a vibrant pink bloom, as well as carrying nearly-ripe pomegranates on their branches. I tried to get some pictures, but the lighting wasn’t very good, so I continued my stroll of the city.
Now, carrying a frappe in my hand has usually been a vital tool in ‘Operation Try to Look as Greek as Possible’. When I’ve got one of these bad boys, nobody tries to sell me anything or drag me into their restaurant. Look, here’s me posing like a prat with it. Do I not look like the picture of Greekness?
Unfortunately, I am now dealing with the down sides of blending in so well. As I wandered up one of Nafplio’s many hills, I found myself being aggressively catcalled by two men on mopeds – all in Greek of course. My Greek is not brilliant, but I know enough words to understand when I am being called ‘sexy lady’ and told to ‘come here’ repeatedly. Like most women, I hate being harassed, and when I’m walking about by myself it is quite terrifying. Nobody should have to deal with this kind of behaviour, but for some reason treating women in this way is seen as normal across the world.
It’s a frightening experience for women, and many of us seek to get out of the situation as quickly as possible without causing a scene – though we really should cause a scene, because this bullshit shouldn’t go unpunished. What did I do? I hurried up the stairs and ducked into a back alley, which genuinely seemed like the safer option.
Out of breath and by now a little afraid, I meandered back down into the main drag and looked up. High above Nafplio is the Palamidi fortress, which was built by the Venetians, conquered by the Ottomans, then reconquered by the Greeks. It’s a thousand steps from town to the top, but I decided to do it anyway, because I’d regret it if I didn’t do it now. After all, it’s 200 less steps from the time I climbed up that mountain in Thailand, so this would be a piece of piss.
(Also stolen from the interwebs)
Wrong. So wrong.
Initially, I struggled to even find the entrance to the castle – it’s not particularly well signposted. After being catcalled some more (gross), I followed the crowds to what I thought was the entrance, but wound up at the beach instead. Oops. Oh dear. How sad. Never mind.
Thankfully, this afforded me the opportunity to dip my feet in the crystal clear water. That’s one of the things I love about Greece – the beaches are fantastic, totally unrivalled anywhere else in the world. Every inlet, bay and beach is a real hub for snorkelling and diving. Fish and other forms of sea life swim freely, and all you have to do to see them is look down at your feet, for unlike in the UK you can actually see your feet.
I would have liked to throw myself in fully clothed, like I have done in the past, but sadly there was nobody on shore to look after my valuables as I did so. Feet sufficiently cooled, I put my sandals back on and embarked on my climb, having found the start of the steps up to the fortress.
Perhaps doing this in the blazing sun was not the most sensible idea. I had to stop and catch my breath every 100 steps or so, but found it was quickly stolen again by the breathtaking views I was faced with…
A thousand steps later, I stumbled into the gates of the fortress, a sweaty mess vaguely resembling a tomato. I paid 8 Euros for the privilege. It looks like most other fortresses in Greece, to be honest – it’s Venetian with Ottoman influences, but the Greeks have used it for their own purposes since winning their independence in the early 19th century. One of these was as a prison, but the Greeks weren’t the first to do that. The Ottomans had actually kept Kolokotronis captive there for daring to fight them, and moreover they’d crammed him into the tiniest, most claustrophobic room in the entire castle. Now, you can see where they kept him, if you’re willing to crawl through 2 small archways, each about 3 feet high.
After clambering through the cavern-like prison, I sat for a little while and tried not to feel claustrophobic. I imagine Kolokotronis would have hated it, but the chilly room actually helped me recover from my climb.
Very dark. Wow.
Wandering around the fort, a couple in their wedding outfits passed by me a few times, taking their wedding photos. I assume they drove up to the fort from the other side and parked in the car park, which I would have done if I wasn’t such an adventurous spirit (read: stupid and didn’t realise there was a way to get to it by road). I wasn’t sure how to say congrats in Greek, so I awkwardly smiled at them. You can see why they’d come here, though…
Descending the thousand steps downwards, I stumbled back to the car and headed back home, exhausted and very hot. Thankfully our apartment is merely steps away from a small beach, so I rounded off the day with a sunset swim and snorkel. The water was a bit chilly, but I have been in the English Channel all summer so I had practice. From the surface of the water, I could see all manner of fish, some silvery, some black, some yellow. I also noticed menacing black sea urchins, which I was very careful not to touch, and I was terrified I might find something really scary like a crab, octopus or jellyfish. For someone who loves to snorkel, I am remarkably afraid of all forms of marine life, so as it got dark I swam back to shore and got out.
What a perfect way to end a beautiful day in the Peloponnese.