Eastern Peloponnese

I enjoyed the sunset views and aroma of citrus orchards as I drove southeast from Gythio along the coast toward Vigklafia where I would catch a ferry to the island of Elafonisos.  I arrived at a small dock around 8:40pm, where a young man and some kids were fishing. He was very kind and told me that the next ferry was at 9pm.  I watched he and his siblings fish while I waited, then bid them farewell. The ferry ride was a quick 10 minute ride, and I arrived at the main town of Elafonissos in time to walk the narrow streets and enjoy the taverna scene before dark.  There’s a small rooved floating house for ducks connected to the harbor by a rope. Every morning, a man pulls the houseboat in and fills the ducks’ bowls with fresh water, veggies and bread.  When I was watching, five or six  ducks squeezed onto the tiny platform.  It reminded me of the caring nature of Greek people.  They feed and care for all manner of animals.  If I were a stray, I’d head for Greece.

After walking around for 1 1/2 hours, I headed for Simos beach, and looked for a place to pitch my tent that was both protected from the savage wind and out of sight, but not on a trash heap, which seemed to be everywhere. My tent almost blew away several times. In the morning, I was even more horrified at the trashed state of the beach.  Litter blew down the sand, and several garbage cans were overturned, with garbage strewn about. A friend from Kardamyli had highly recommended this beach, but I think he hadn’t been for many years. Now it seemed like a giant landfill, but I did my best to clean it up.

After walking the expanse of sand, I decided to explore the island by car, and drove as far as I could along the beach and inland toward the main town.  I saw a man walking with a stick, and used the few words I knew to ask him if he wanted a ride.  He didn’t understand me, and I drove on, then came back as I felt bad that he had to walk an hour or more to get to town, presumably for work. This time he got in the car, and we sped along in silence till he indicated that we’d reached his destination.  I did this for another man leaving town, and felt glad that I could do something to help these good people.  Most tourists never want rides – they are there to walk.  Locals, however, have to walk every day, and a ride is often a welcomed respite from their tiring routine.  In the light of day, I liked this place less than I had at night.  I explored the port town by foot, and ordered a waffle with fruit at a cafe on the sea.  Grateful for wifi, I answered email on my iphone before catching the ferry back to the mainland.

Once back, I headed for Neapoli Vion, arriving around 2pm just in time for the Greek 3 hour siesta. Almost all stores in Greece close between 2pm and 5pm, and I had no luck trying to find a plastic buckle for my day pack.  I walked through the town toward the beach, and found a taverna where I ordered a Greek salad and some kind of meat dish. I then tried to find the maritime museum but discovered that it was currently closed to the public. I bought a gelato on the way back to my car and was surprised at the surly attitude of the waitress.  On retrospect, it’s amazing that more Greeks aren’t surly, given the economic crisis and difficult life here.

I wanted to reach Monemvasia by evening. For an hour I drove through deserted landscape on a treacherous road, finally reaching a small town a few miles south where I inquired about shelter. The couple running a hotel had not yet opened for the season, as July and August are their busy periods, but said I could stay for 35 Euros. I thanked them anyway and drove on to Monemvasia, parking outside the town walls as no cars are allowed within. I stepped through the western gate which faced  the mainland into another world, an experience something like the Renaissance Fair or Dicken’s Fair only it wasn’t reenactment.

A bit of history: The town, which during the Middle Ages was completely encircled by a stone wall, was separated from the mainland by an earthquake in 375 AD, providing it with natural fortification. It is divided into two areas: the lower and upper city. Built on a large plateau 300 m wide and 1 km long, the upper city was separated by the lower with a fortified gate, and which included a medieval fortress.  The name Monemvasia derives from two words: mone meaning single and emvasia meaning entrance. It may been the site of a Minoan trading post in antiquity.  Beginning in the 10th century, the town developed into an important trade and maritime centre. The fortress in the upper city withstood the Arab and Norman invasions in 1147; farm fields that fed up to 30 men were tilled inside the fortress.  Between 1248 and 1821, it was alternatively ruled by the Frankish Despotate of Morea, Venice, the Ottomans, and briefly by the papacy.

It remained part of the Byzantine Empire until 1460, becoming the seat of an imperial governor, a landing place for Byzantine operations against the Franks, the main port of shipment (if not always production) for Malmsey wine, and one of the most dangerous lairs of corsairs (pirates) in the eastern mediterranean. The Emperors gave it valuable privileges, attracting Roger de Lluria who sacked the lower town in 1292.  Its commercial importance continued until the Orlov Revolt (1770) in the Russo-Turkish war, which saw its importance decline severely. The island was finally linked with the mainland via a causeway in 1971.  The Byzantine town has seen a resurgence in importance with increasing numbers of tourists visiting the site and the region. The medieval buildings have been restored, and many of them converted to hotels. No cars are allowed inside the town, as most of the streets are too narrow and fit only for pedestrian and donkey traffic.

I love exploring the ruins of Byzantine churches, and wandered along the easternmost city wall to the gate of the upper city and a cave where a hermit had dwelt.  Sadly, the upper city is currently closed to the public as it is undergoing archaeological excavation.  I met a young British couple who were sailing along the coast. They had just come from Kyparissi, a coastal village about 30 miles north as the crow flies.  I decided to explore every nook and cranny as I made my way north.

I spied a good camp spot before reaching Monemvasia, and now made my way back to said beach.  I pitched my tent in the shadow of a tree, as I’d noticed many nosy passersby.  I didn’t want to attract unwanted attention.  I awoke the next day eager to explore Monemvasia, but after trying to back up, found that I had instead dug them deeper in the sand.  Being resourceful, I remembered a time that I had been stuck in the mud and used cardboard under the tires to increase traction.  I found two flat large stones and inserted them behind the tires.  Ecstatic, I felt the tires grab as I backed up onto the stones.  I wouldn’t spend the day stuck on the beach waiting for a tow.

Again I made my way to Monemvasia and parked outside the main gate.  I made my way to Christos Elkomenos Square, where Agios Nikolaos of sits next to the bishop’s residence.  This is the only church that is open to the public, and I admired a guilded wooden iconostasis locked into a niche which had been cut out and stolen years before and had finally been returned.  Unfortunately, as the upper city was closed, I was unable to see the church of Agia Sofia, one of the oldest and most important Byzantine churches in Greece.  It is the highest church in Monemvasia and was originally established in the 12th century by the Byzantine emperor Andronicus II.  It was dedicated to Panagia Hodegetria, the mother of all who leads the way.  In the Venetian times, it was converted into a Catholic Convent. After the Greek Independence, it was dedicated to the Wisdom of God and was named Agia Sofia.  It was severely damaged by war and time, and was restored in the middle 20th century by Eustathios Stikas.

On the other side of Christos Elkomenos Square is an old mosque built when the town was under Ottoman occupation.  It is now a museum, and inside is an exhibit of eccliastic and secular objects discovered during its excavation.  I had a long talk with a woman who works in the museum and generously gifted me a book on the history of Monemvasia.  She told me about a museum that will open soon in Neapoli about Pausanias’ journey from northern Peloponnese to Elafonisos.  She bemoaned the wrong-headed priorities of the Greek government regarding museums, and the fact that the people in charge are completely out of touch with tourist’s interests.  I had a lot of writing to do, so I found a hotel in the nearby town of Gefira and holed up for several hours to write.  I didn’t pass up the chance to get a waffle, fruit, and a fancy latte.  They had a really good bakery and ice cream place, and I stocked up on several tasty pastries before heading north toward Kyparissi.  The road was one of the worst I’d seen thus far, turning into dirt for 5 miles, making me wonder whether I was on the right road.  I drove through the quaint town of Metamorfosi, where an English-speaking young man, son of a taverna owner, told me how to find my way out of town after I’d driven in circles.  For some reason I felt like staying in Metamorfosi, but pressed on.  After another half an hour of driving, I came to a dizzying vista overlooking the sea, a lonely stone monastery on the promontory, and a hairy one lane road with hair pin turns that led to Kyparissi.  A very friendly man named Byron (of Byron’s wine bar in Monemvasia) recommended that I see the work of James Foot, a British watercolorist who lives and paints in Kyparissi.  I never found Foot’s studio.

Kyparissi was lovely.  If I wasn’t running out of time, I would have stayed there a week.  I met a lovely Austrian couple who were traveling for several months throughout Greece, and who’d already been here a week.  I could see why.  The water was clear blue and enticing, there were no tourists, tree-covered mountains surrounded the village, and the houses were traditional.  I stayed for a quick swim and shower, then headed north toward Leonidio, an ancient city named after the king of Sparta.  The scenery continued to dazzle, and I decided to find a place to stay in Poulithra, a few miles before Leonidio.  I found a place for 25 Euro, but it wasn’t that nice and the people said they weren’t ready for tourists, as the season doesn’t really start till mid-July or early August.  I decided I’d stay on the nearby beach, my mainstay, and headed into Leonidio for a bit of exploring.  I really liked this city.  It was a good size, had a lot of neoclassical buildings as well as a very old town, several museums, and the wonderful narrow alleys that I find so enchanting.  I had my usual chicken souvlaki, walked for an hour or so in town, then headed back toward Poulithra, stopping at the ancient port of Plaka Leonidiou.  There I found a great taverna called Michael and Margaret, named after the current owner and her father, the original owner.  I should have ordered there but didn’t realize how good it was until after they stopped serving.  I resolved to return the next morning for a Greek salad.

I returned to the beach in Poulithra around 11pm, and found a spot as far as possible from beach chairs, residences, and roads.  The next morning I realized I left my mouth guard somewhere in the parking lot of Plaka and searched before ordering a Greek salad at Michael and Margaret restaurant.  Odd, as it is the name of my father and his second wife.  I didn’t find it, unfortunately, as it is an expensive item. But I had a great salad and lively conversation with a waiter there, Panagiotis, who was very sweet and showed me old photos of the restaurant and told me a bit about its history.  I took off toward Nafplio, and noted that it got less pretty as I headed north towards Athens and the oil refineries nearby.  The sea was dirty, the air smelled bad, and I distinctly disliked this part of Greece.  Not until I reached Thermopolis did the landscape appear attractive.  But I pressed on, determined to see Mycenea (Mykines in Greek) and the historical city of Nafplio.

On the way to Mycenea I passed the city of Argos and the impressive Castle of Larissa on the hill overlooking the city.  I should have stopped to explore the city and castle, as well as the Roman agora, Hellenistic theater, baths and Nymphaeum.  Argos is one of the oldest cities in Greece. The first findings of human habitation date to the end of the third millennium BC.  Inachon, the mythical hero and founder, was the first king of the city.  A later king named the city after himself.  The hill on which the Castle of Larissa is built was first fortified during the 6th Century BC, and was named after the daughter of the mythical hero Pelasgos.  Some ancient Cyclopean wall sections of the fortifications are still visible, dating from the Mycenaean period, which were incorporated into the 10th Century double ring of stone walls.  With each new conqueror, additional wall sections, towers and bastions were added to the castle defenses. Invaders included Romans, Frankish Crusaders, Venetians and Ottoman Turks.

The castle overlooks the church of Panaghia, the Hidden Virgin of the Rocks.  This church was originally a monastery, built over an ancient cave sanctuary of the goddess Hera Akraia. Aspis (Aspida) and the ancient city of Deiras lies below the castle on a circular wooded hill.  Archaeological ruins at the bottom of the hill have identified it as a sanctuary of Pythia Apollo and Athena the Sagacious, erected in the 5th Century BC.  During the excavations of the sanctuary area, tombs, temples and an ancient market with its stoa were found.  At the summit of Aspis hill there are pre-Mycenaean ruins of ancient Deiras from the middle bronze age 2000-1600 BC, the small chapel of Aghios Elias. The Ancient Agora is located on the slopes of Mt. Larissa. Archaeological site includes the large Hellenistic theatre, constructed at the beginning of the 3rd Century BC, which originally included 20,000 seats due to the relocation of the Nemean games to Argos. The theatre was one of the biggest in Greece, and the seats were carved directly into the rock, though roughly only half remain.

Near the theater is a smaller older 5th Century BC Odeon theatre, so called as the Romans later covered this theatre with a roof, which could seat a smaller audience of up to 1,800 people. Greek writers like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes may have been familiar with these theatres. The Nymphaeum, once a monumental Roman drinking fountain, is close by, as is the Aqueduct, built during Hadrian’s time, which brought fresh water to Argos from the nearby mountains.  Water was required for the thirsty population, and also for the large Roman baths constructed from Roman mud-bricks.  At the far side of the Odeon there is the ancient Sanctuary of Aphrodite, and the ancient Agora (market place) is located across the modern road from the main archaeological site.  Argos was initially destroyed by the Visigoths in 395-396 AD and later by the Ottoman Turks in 1397 and 1821.

I should have spent at least a day exploring these sites, but didn’t realize what I’d missed until days later when I was far away. Instead, I headed to ancient Mycenea, stopping first at the Treasury of Atreus, also known as the tomb of Agamemnon, located just outside the ancient site.  In August 1876, a complete excavation of the site by Heinrich Schliemann commenced with the permission of the Archaeological Society of Athens (ASA) and the supervision by one of its members, Panayiotis Stamatakis, who first discovered the ancient shaft graves with their royal skeletons and spectacular grave goods. Upon discovering a human skull beneath a gold desk mask in one of the tombs, he declared: “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon.”  It turns out that the tomb has probably no relationship with either Atreus or Agamemnon, as archaeologists believe that the sovereign buried there ruled at an earlier date than the two.  The tomb perhaps held the remains of the sovereign who completed the reconstruction of the fortress or one of his successors.

As with other thalos tombs I had seen previously, I loved the echo effect as I walked toward the center of the chamber which had once housed several tombs. There were several tour groups, but most spoke a language unknown to me.  I eavesdropped on a presentation by a Spanish tour guide, and found out that the lintel stone above the doorway was 8.3 x 5.2 x 1.2m and weighed 120 tons, the largest lintel in the world. Mentioned by Pausanias, the tomb was still visible in 1879 when the German archeologist Schliemann discovered the shaft graves under the ‘agora’ in the Acropolis at Mycenae.  The grave is in the style of the other tholoi of the Mycenean World, of which there are nine around the citadel of Mycenae and many more in the Argolid. In its monumental proportions, it is one of the most impressive surviving monuments from Mycenean Greece.

After gazing at the immense tomb, I continued to the site of ancient Mycenea.  The first thing that impressed me upon walking up the path is the entrance to the citadel, the so-called Lion Gate.  The gate, like the wall of the citadel, is made of cyclopean stone blocks.  The entrance has two carved lionesses on either side, and is the only known monumental structure from the Bronze Age.  It is truly breathtaking to behold.

The area of Argos, Mycenea, and Corinth is rich in history.  In the second millennium BC, Mycenae was one of the major centres of Greek civilization, and a military stronghold which dominated much of southern Greece. The period of Greek history from 1600 to 1100 BC is called Mycenean because of Mycenae. At its peak in 1350 BC, the citadel and lower town had a population of 30,000 and occupied an area of 32 hectares.  Mycenae, an acropolis site, was continuously inhabited from the Early Neolithic down through the Early and Middle Helladic periods.  The first burials in pits or cist graves manifest in the MH (circa 1800–1700 BC) on the west slope of the acropolis, which was at least partially enclosed by the earliest circuit wall.  During the Bronze Age, the pattern of settlement at Mycenae was a fortified hill surrounded by hamlets and estates, in contrast to the dense urbanity on the coast (Argos). Since Mycenae was the capital of a state that ruled, or dominated, much of the eastern Mediterranean world, the rulers must have placed their stronghold in this less populated and more remote region for its defensive value.

Outside the partial circuit wall, Grave Circle B, named for its enclosing wall, contained ten cist graves in Middle Helladic style and several shaft graves, sunk more deeply, with interments resting in cists. Richer grave goods mark the burials as possibly regal. Mounds over the top contained broken drinking vessels and bones from a repast, testifying to a more than ordinary farewell.  Stelae surmounted the mounds.  A walled enclosure, Grave Circle A, included six more shaft graves, with nine female, eight male, and two juvenile interments. Grave goods were more costly than in Circle B. The presence of engraved and inlaid swords and daggers, with spear points and arrowheads, leave little doubt that warrior chieftains and their families were buried here. Some art objects obtained from the graves are the Silver Siege Rhyton, the Mask of Agamemnon, the Cup of Nestor, and weapons both votive and used.  Burial in tholoi is seen as replacing burial in shaft graves. The care taken to preserve the shaft graves testifies that they were by then part of the royal heritage, the tombs of the ancestral heroes. Being more visible, the tholoi all had been plundered either in antiquity, or in later historic times.

I wandered around ancient Mycenea and wondered at a civilization so advanced thousands of years ago.  Every time I am at an ancient site, I feel a powerful connection to the culture that lived in that time.  I stayed till closing and headed to Nafplio, arriving around 8:30pm.  After mistakenly parking in a taxi stand, I found a place to park at the end of a dead-end street in the old town.  Not thinking about the consequences, I parked and began walking the cobblestone covered squares and streets of the old town.  What a pretty town!  I walked toward the sea, exploring the relatively small foot print of the town.  Hungry for gelato, a place caught my eye: Gelateria Da Roberto.  A pretty place beautifully decorated inside and out, and the gelato was out of this world.  As good as any I’ve had in Italy, and definitely the best I’ve had in Greece.  I ordered 3 scoops and couldn’t believe the flavor.  Then I met the owner’s wife, a lovely Greek woman who told me about their life in Genoa and how her husband wanted to live in Greece.  She had decorated the colorful shop, including the large bike out front built specifically for gelato delivery to parties.  They had chosen Nafplio to relocate, because of its Venetian influence.  I was so impressed with the gelato that I told her I’d write a TripAdvisor review.  I stuck with my decision that I would write reviews only for places I could in all fairness give 5 stars.  She was headed to Patras the next morning with her son for surgery.  She was clearly nervous about the outcome and I reassured her and checked in with her later the next day to see how it went.  She was relieved and said it went well.

I went back to my car around 11pm, wondering where I’d camp for the night.  I had planned to come back to Nafplio the next morning and explore Epidavros in the afternoon.  To my dismay, upon returning to my car, I found that someone had parked not only behind my car but next to it such that I was completely trapped and unable to move.  I quickly considered where I would put my tent up along the street, as I couldn’t drive anywhere that night.  I walked up and down the street, knocking on doors and asking people sitting on their terrace (it was a balmy 80 F) if they knew who had parked there.  No one had.  Flummoxed, I decided to ask at the hotel around the corner.  Maybe a guest had parked there in desperation.  I could only hope.  I walked in, and asked the hotel staff about the car.  He nonchalantly replied that it was his.  I was so relieved I didn’t bother scolding him.  He didn’t appear to feel in the least bit guilty, and asked me to wait a few minutes.  I did, and he pulled ahead, allowing me to reverse 300 feet to a suitable turnaround spot.  The night continued in this vein, with my driving half an hour to find a suitable spot for camping and finding none.

I arrived in a tourist beach town which I was told would have places, but all they had was a brightly lit fenced camping area for RVs. Not my style. I drove down the narrow beach front road, and decided that I couldn’t camp on the beach.  It was a narrow strip of sand 10 feet wide along the road, and I finally decided on a narrow strip of land in front of a front gate.  I would park my car in front and put up my tent behind so that no one could see it.  I crossed my fingers that the owner of the house was not home.  If they were, I’d be camping in front of their front gate. It was a tense night.  People kept driving by and I was sure I’d be found out.  But I wasn’t, and when morning came, I packed up quickly and returned to Nafplio for another look around.  I decided to explore the Palamidi Fortress before the heat of the day, and began the climb of 576 steps to the outer gate and another 901 steps to the Agios Andreas Bastion.  It was only 10am, but was already 90 F, and it seemed that I had picked the hottest summer on record for my Greek travels.

The citadel was a very large and ambitious project, but was finished within a relatively short period from 1711 until 1714. It is a typical baroque fortress based on the plans of the engineers Giaxich and Lasalle. In 1715 it was captured by the Turks and remained under their control until 1822, when it was captured by the Greeks.The eight bastions of the fortress were originally named after the Venetian provveditori. When it fell to the Ottoman Empire, the bastions were renamed. Lastly, when the Greeks overthrew the Turks the bastions were renamed after ancient Greek leaders and heroes (Epaminondas, Miltiades, Leonidas, Phocian, Achilles, Themistocles. The two remaining bastions were named after St. Andrew (Agios Andreas) and the French Philhellene Robert who died in battle on the Acropolis of Athens. Miltiades was used as a prison and among its walls was also held Theodoros Kolokotronis, the hero of the Greek War of Independence.

I peered down over the wall of the citadel at the sea below and spied thousands of people floating on rafts. They had the surreal appearance of tiny ants against the bright blue of the sea. Grateful to hide from the sun, I headed back down the steps, happy that my knees were thus far managing the climbs and descents that I had been subjecting them to.  I returned to Gelateria Da Roberto, which I had discovered by luck the night before, and had a 3 scoop cone of pistachio, fig, and ricotta.  To die for.  I’d drive back to Nafplio just for the gelato. After finishing my feast, I decided to walk the entire old town, zig zagging back and forth on every street from the harbor to the castle.  I decided to stop for a Greek salad in front of one restaurant that was packed with locals, and I found out why. It was one of the best I’d had thus far, and for only 4 Euro. Wow. Did I mention that Greek tavernas put restaurants in San Francisco to shame?  Tons of food, the best, locally grown ingredients, and very affordable prices. Can’t beat it.

After walking my crooked path, I went back to my car, which thankfully had not been blocked after the scare of the night before, and headed to Epidaurus. The asclepion at Epidaurus was the most celebrated healing center of the Classical world, and ill people made pilgrammages there from all over in hopes of being cured. To determine the correct cure, they would spend the night in the enkoimeteria, a large sleeping hall. In their dreams, the god Asclepius would advise them of what to do to regain their health. Within the sanctuary there were 160 guestrooms, as well as mineral springs nearby, which were used for healing.

Reputed to be founded by or named for the Argolid Epidaurus, and to be the birthplace of Apollo’s son Asclepius the healer, the cult of Asclepius at Epidaurus began in the 6th century BC, when the older hill-top sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas was no longer spacious enough. At the beginning of the Late Bronze Age, an open-air altar was used where animals were sacrificed and votives deposited in the ash. Dedications include votive bronze double axes, bronze swords, and clay animal figurines. There is also evidence for cult activity in the Geometric period.

Asclepius, the most important healer god of antiquity, brought prosperity to the sanctuary, which in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC embarked on an ambitious building program for enlarging and reconstruction of monumental buildings paid for by Sextus Iulius Maior Antoninus Pythodorus, a Roman senator and aristocrat from Nysa, Anatolia. Pausanias reports that “everything about the sanctuary of Maleatas, including the cistern in which the holy water is collected, is also a gift of Antoninus to the Epidaurians.” Remains from the building campaign include Roman baths, an underground cistern, a Roman fountain, a small Doric temple of Apollo (4th century BC, hexastyle prostyle), an altar, a shrine of the muses, living quarters for the sanctuary staff, a Roman gateway, and a stoa (late 4th century BC). Fame and prosperity continued throughout the Hellenistic period. In 87 BC the sanctuary was looted by the Roman general Sulla, and in 67 BC it was plundered by pirates. In the 2nd century AD the sanctuary enjoyed a new upsurge under the Romans, but in AD 395 the Goths raided the sanctuary.  Even after the introduction of Christianity and the silencing of the oracles, the sanctuary at Epidaurus was known as late as the mid 5th century, although as a Christian healing center. Epidaurus was also known for its theater, which is in use again today.

I spent 7 hours combing the museum and walking around the site, and at a little after 8pm realized that I was the last one there and that the site was closing.  Luckily they hadn’t locked the gate.  Actually they had, but they saw me and unlocked it for me. I had planned to spend time in Corinth, which has a long and fascinating history, and to see the isthmus, but it was getting dark and I didn’t fancy camping in the area, as it was getting more industrial as I drove north toward Athens. It was with the same regret I had felt about not seeing Argos and environs that I sped past historical Corinth, promising to return and learn about its history another time. It was dark as I continued to drive toward ancient Eretrea, where I had hoped to camp for the night.


2 responses to “Eastern Peloponnese

  1. nice installment. your camping adventures are very suspencesful and i envy your souvlaki, waffles, and gelato. xoxo r >


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