Winter in Greece Pt 3: Athens, the Corinth Canal & the Peloponese
Before we set out on our travels Callum & I both picked a place in Europe that we wanted to be for our birthdays. I chose the tranquil Lake Garda, in northern Italy (which didn’t happen thanks to coronavirus!) and Callum chose Athens. A huge part of his childhood was a love for Greek mythology and the associated history and stories so the evening before his birthday we arrived in Athens. We were now used to wild camping and parking up wherever we could for the night in Greece. As we arrived in Athens we turned to our trusty park4night app, found secure parking for €10 per night and drove down the narrow streets of Athens looking for a place to park. The first recommended place was a tiny space that we couldn’t fit the van in, so we moved on. The second was a fenced parking lot covered in graffiti and we were getting more and more stares & less and less comfortable as we moved further into the city. This is when you just have to be sensible & go with your gut. If it doesn’t feel safe, DON’T park there!
We ended up parking at ‘Camping Athens’ which was reasonable for a city campsite. When we checked in we asked the owner about doing some laundry (take the opportunity to do it when you can!) and she said “Yes, we have facilities. Follow me”. We quickly got all our laundry together and followed the owner out of the campsite gates (which is a bit unusual, facilities are normally all on site). As we walked through the gate we saw a UK reg Vauxhall Corsa parked up with what looked like a giant solar panel on the roof. Always eager to chat to travelling native English speakers (especially if they’re near our age) we said “Hi, are you staying here tonight?” They said no, they were looking for somewhere else. For some reason the owner just looked at us all and laughed and motioned for us to keep following her. We did our laundry (at her full laundrette!) and got on with our evening, including a roast chicken dinner (it’s so great to have an oven in the motorhome!)
The next day was Callum’s birthday. We went off to explore Athens with another Secret City Trail (& try to get my phone fixed that I’d dropped in a thermal spring on Evia Island!). We ended up at the Acropolis just as it was closing but watched the sun set over Athens, which was definitely worth the trek up the hill. A long held tradition of ours, since being in Jersey, is to go to celebrate special occassions at TGI Friday; eat lots of starters and drink cocktails. We had found a TGI Friday restaurant on the other side of Athens so we unlocked two Lime electric scooters and made our way through the park and towards the restaurant. On the way there my scooter ran out of battery so we, somewhat foolishly, tried to go up a hill with both of us on one scooter. Now, we are not small or light people… and we were trying to go UP hill! We could just about both fit on the scooter but couldn’t balance because we were laughing so much. The more we laughed, the more we fell off, which of course made it even funnier! We were getting some strange looks from people standing at the side of the pavement. We thought that we probably did look quite ridiculous but these were turning into looks of disgust. It was just then that a local man shouted to us “The guards”. We had stumbled onto the road of the Presidential Mansion just as they were starting the ceremonial changing of the guards! We quickly jumped off the scooter and tried to calm our giggles long enough to look respectful as the new guards arrived to change places. After that we walked the rest of the way up the hill, had Callum’s birthday dinner (& a few too many cocktails) and headed back to the campsite.
Since we’d arrived at the Acropolis as it was closing the day before, we decided that our mission for the day was to explore the site, which included the Parthenon. You can’t go to Athens without seeing the Acropolis and the Parthenon! I have to admit that they were pretty cool and again, we were glad to be in Greece during the winter season. The area was SO busy but nowhere near as packed as it would be during tourist season. We were just making our way back down the hill when we bumped into the English couple from the Vauxhall Corsa. They introduced themselves as Frankie & Jon, they had ended up staying at our campsite in the end and they’d like to meet up with us back at the campsite later. And so began our next memorable travel friendship.
The next day we chatted to Frankie & Jon (asking all the usual traveller questions): which direction they’d come from (through Hungary & Romania), where they were headed next (south through the Peloponese then back up through Albania, Montenegro etc) how long they’d been out travelling (5 months, 2 longer than us) and what that box was on the top of their car (a roof tent!).
Most excitingly they told us all about their time taking part in the Mongol rally: “The Mongol Rally is an intercontinental car rally that begins in Europe and ends in Ulan Ude, Russia. The rally originally ended in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. However, to avoid punitive costs and taxes associated with vehicle imports and disposal, the rally now passes through Mongolia and ends in Ulan Ude.” Wow! What a great experience to be a part of!
Due to the way that we travel (moving from place to place every few days), we rarely spend more than a few days with the same people. As it turned out, Frankie & Jon were planning to head the same direction as us; south through the Peloponese then north over the Patras bridge (Rio-Antirrio bridge) back into mainland Greece, a journey that would see the four of us travel together for the next 13 days. From there we would be catching a boat to Italy then onto Malta, whilst they were heading north through Albania.
Heading south, our first stop on the way to the Peloponese was the Corinth Canal. We took some time to stop there to explore, take some drone footage and for lunch- more Souvlaki! The canal is an incredible, if not somewhat underused, feat of human engineering.
It was great to spend time with travellers nearer our own age, just exploring and having fun. We parked right next to the beach at Loutra Elenis and swam in the sea in our santa hats. Much to the amusement of the locals as they drove by in their cars, with their coats & hats on, beeping their horns and waving at us. We visited Methana which, as you can imagine, stank of methane & sulphur from the thermal springs (we were SO disappointed that the old spa there was now run down). Callum & Frankie found their shared joy of climbing up to high places to take photos to scare their mothers (sorry Mums!). We stayed at Kiveri then in the Xenia Taverna car park (after a delicious meal in the restaurant) that overlooked the ruins of Sparti (ancient Sparta), stopping for a night in Kalamata then on to Gialova where I finally cooked a roast dinner for us all. Living in a car with a roof tent Frankie & Jon just had a small gas stove so everything they made had to be produced in one saucepan, which usually meant lots of ramen noodles. Our full kitchen (including an oven), was pure luxury so we swapped dinners & evenings warm & sheltered in the van for fresh coffee in the mornings.
It was great to have both vehicle cameras so we could film each other driving and get that footage that we wouldn’t have been able to on our own. Following their little Corsa, we drove through the mountains to so many places that our motorhome certainly should not have been able to go. One of those was Neda Falls where the van lost grip as we tried to climb a near vertical wet & muddy cobbled path, not much wider that the van itself. As Callum was attempting to negociate the path, a motorbike pulled up and the rider signaled for him to cut the engine. After a ten minute discussion, three things were clear – Firstly, it was a bad idea to continue, the road got worse at the top of the hill. Secondly, if we got up the hill, the pathway down was even worse (even the Corsa would struggle later that evening!). Thirdly, the English get everywhere – the man on the motorbike was from Brighton! Thankfully, he allowed us to park on his land for the night (near the bottom of the hill) and we were able to leave in the morning without any issues, which was lucky as there’s no way that a tow truck would have made it out to us!
Continuing south, we began to find more cities that had been hit by the huge storms and earthquakes earlier that month. When we were in Halkidiki (northern Greece) we had been inundated with messages from friends and family asking if we were anywhere near the destruction – we weren’t at the time, but now we could see remnants of the aftermath. It had all be cleared and cleaned up so quickly, we were surprised by how efficient the people in those towns had been. We parked up in an olive grove in Gialova just in time to avoid another storm and, whilst it was clearing the next day, went out to watch the waves which were just immense.
We carried on through to Viotopos Beach where the storms had pulled up so much rubbish onto the beach that we just had to clean it up. We drove through Patras, crossing the awesome Rio-Antirrio bridge back into Northern Greece with a stop at Artas Castle before our final night together at the Amvrakikos Wetlands National Park
Amvrakikos is a “magnificent place with many rare species and special traditions and it is considered a miniature of Mediterranean…Amvrakikos is a large and complex ecosystem formed by the deltas of two rivers (Louros and Arachtos) and contains the largest Greek marsh (Rodia), as well as several very productive lagoons (Logarou, Tsoukalio, Rodia). Additionally, there are extensive areas of mudflats, shallow bays, reedbeds, wet meadows, forested hills and farmland.” It is a magical place- with a tiny, narrow strip of road running across lots of little islands, water on either side and a multitude of wild birds everywhere you turn. We had a BBQ at the beachside which attracted the local dogs and more laughs and strange looks form the locals who were, again, huddled up in their coats and hats. It was the middle of December after all!
As we headed to Igoumenitsa and our last meal together, we knew that we’d remember these past couple of weeks and would keep in touch. We’d planned to meet up again in Spain a couple of months later, but inconveniently a worldwide pandemic ruined those plans! Like most of the people that we meet on the road, we’ve kept in touch with them and look forward to having more adventures in the future.