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Published: October 1st 2017
Most of the time these days, Maria Chiara and my holidays have something to do with weddings - either ours or other peoples'. On this occasion friends had invited us to their nuptials in Nafplio, a pretty town in the Peloponnese Peninsula, with Greece basking in late summer heat.
It's a widely known fact that Greece is a summer paradise, and so plane tickets were incredibly expensive. After days of searching we found cheap tickets arriving on one Greek island and leaving from another, neither of which were particularly close to the wedding. It was a bizarre scheme, despite which we still managed to pull off a fairly stress free holiday and most importantly we didn't miss the wedding (although that was by a fine margin.) Once we had safely negotiated the attendance and enjoyment of this wedding we had slightly over a week to drive around the Peloponnese in a Citroen that I'm sure would have been regarded as mediocre even when it was new, some two decades ago.
Firstly we took a boat trip from Nafplio to two islands up the coast: Spetses and Hydra. The latter is particularly famous, partly as one of its biggest fans
and sometime resident was Leonard Cohen. I suspect he would have been slightly vexed seeing hundreds of day-tripping tourists spilling off a ship (including MC and myself) but despite the fact that Hydra is definitely no hidden paradise, it's still pretty hard to be in a bad mood there. It has a gorgeous little harbour, old white buildings creeping up the steep surrounding hills and best of all... no cars! So how does one transport heavy things, I hear you ask? By donkey, naturally!
Europe as we all know is steeped in history, but Greece takes it to a new extreme for me. There were frequent signs to ancient sites along every main road, and there seemed to be a craggy ruined fort on top of just about every hill. It was difficult to spend much time sightseeing when the temperatures were well into the thirties, but we did notch up a few spots that we regarded as unmissable. We were in a bit of rush so we had to get to Olympia early in the morning. For the hour before the first tour bus arrived, we had a spectacular and really quite large site from the classical Greek
age completely to ourselves! It suddenly became obvious why races start at the "starting block"... in the original Olympic stadium sprints started on a ruddy great block of marble. The modern Olympics have been played every four years (outside world wars) since 1896, so 121 years. Before they were stopped by a Christian Roman emperor in the 4th century AD who regarded the games as pagan, the original games had been staged in Olympia every four years for well over a thousand years!! One of the other sites we visited, Mycenae, was already an ancient site by the time of Homer. The mind boggles! The byzantine ruined town of Mystras, spectacular in itself and with sweeping views of the valley of Sparta below, is a baby comparison... a mere seven hundred years old.
Road trips can take their toll, staying in several places and living out of a suitcase, but the Peloponnese was a pleasure to drive through. It's virtually all mountainous, with fruit stands along the road selling gigantic pumpkins (a natural enemy of hand-luggage-only budget airlines). And some of the places at the end of a day's drive were magical, like Monemvasia, an impossibly picturesque medieval fortress
town carved out of a gigantic rock island.
Our favourite part of our Peloponnese road trip in the naff Citroen had to be the Mani peninsula, one of the furthest south parts in mainland Europe. It is a remote feeling place fringed with stunningly beautiful bays and sleepy villages. It was mountainous in the extreme, and there were some intense moments on some very small roads. This rugged environment is populated by the descendants of the Spartans. This race, that fought against the Athenian Greeks for centuries, was a strange bunch. The unique way they treated their youth is evidenced by the fact that when a couple married, the woman would need to shave their hair to look more like a man - until that stage the groom would have barely seen a woman, so busy were they with sadistic military training and catering to the whims of older male companions. These days the ambiance is somewhat more laid-back, most especially on the couple of afternoons MC and I spent lounging by the infinity pool... a life first for both of us.
Although we had been to Greece once before (both to Crete, in our wasted youth before
Spartan hilltop village
we had met each other) I had quite forgotten how good Greek food is. Really good! First of all, Greek salad - what an absolute winner that is. We had one every day for all ten days of the trip and never got sick of it. Saganaki: tomato sauce, pepper (read "capsicum", NZ readers), feta, and then whatever meat/fish/veggie you want to get involved. Moussaka... don't even get me started. "M" for "magnificent". We had all sorts of other culinary treats, some fancy but most quite simple, and the running themes were: tasty, top ingredients, good value, and healthy. This was all washed down with farcically cheap house white wine from a carafe. Quality was patchy but at 7 euros per litre I wasn't quibbling. We did avoid the house red after one or two traumatic incidents. Coffee is another story: the "freddo cappuccino" became my caffeine hit of choice... the rest of the world needs to seriously catch up, they are exceptional.
The holiday was book-ended by two islands for some beach action, Zakynthos and Lefkada. It can be a tricky business for me in the Mediterranean; as readers of previous blogs may be aware, my misanthropic tendencies
The one, the only. Undisputed lightweight salad champion of the world!
tend to flare up when greeted with sand and sea. As my youth was spent in New Zealand - a country fringed with stunning and often empty beaches - I don't expect to have to share these beautiful places with the rest of humanity. It's fairly unrealistic to have the beach to oneself at the hottest time of year, in the school holidays, in famous beauty spots, in a heavily populated continent. We had to leave one beach when cheesy pop music blaring from the bar was destroying the vibe. I like Despacito as much as the next bloke, but in the right context! It wasn't all bad though; before we left Greece for good we visited one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen, Kathisma, on Lefkada island. The colour of the sea was quite ridiculous - the pictures below required no Photoshop enhancement whatsoever. The beach was still seething with other people of course, but the misanthrope in me just had to tolerate the company and soak in the glorious sun, sand and sea!
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