Sunday, 27 October 2013

camp life

We decide to stay a little longer in Paleohora - to take advantage of the good weather, the nearby beaches and the cheap camping.  The campsite here looks like it's hardly changed since it opened.  You can tell this, apart from the old toilet/shower block with 70's tiled walls, because the main part of the site is for tents only.  We haven't seen a site where the tents get the best pitches, in the shade, away from the road.  Most sites these days are really designed for vans.
view from the campsite cafe
It's low season now and the site is quiet.  There are three Austrians camping nearby.  Karl first came here 29 years ago, as a teenager.  He confirms that little has changed.  A little landscaping, some new toilets and hot showers behind the cafe which it took us a few days to discover.  He comes every autumn.  He looks like a Robinson Crusoe to me - tall, bronzed, long hair, vivid blue eyes.  He and his friends are evidently happy here and when we ask when they will leave they all just shrug their shoulders.  On the far side there's another Austrian woman who came in June and has returned for a week's break and near to her a young Greek hippy called Nico, who helps out in the cafe in the evening.  Nico lived in the UK for 9 years, training sniffer dogs.  He doesn't look the type, with his beard and long hair, baggy trousers. He says he loved it in Dorset but after 9 years the weather finally broke him.  The man is Greek though.  He refers to a swim he had a few days back when it was still warm enough to swim.  Now it's too cold. In contrast there's an older German couple in a campervan who have come for the winter.  A few others come and go, but rarely stay long.  We have become residents.
Karl and Irmi, always relaxed, always smiling
The campsite is run by a family, Manolis and his wife.  Manolis has an Asterix-style moustache and a penchant for a dramatic pause when speaking, when there is no need for drama.  There seem to be other extended family who come and go, an old fella who turns up with his fluffy dog to watch the telly and play backgammon, some other locals who drop by for a drink in the evening.  One fella turns up in a camouflage bandana and matching fatigues most nights.  It's the dress of people out hunting in Greece, and it looks a bit odd on him, because he doesn't look like he's been hunting.  He has two of these matching outfits in different shades of camouflage.  He also boasts an Obelix-style moustache. Karl tells us that this man is Manolis' half-brother by the same father.  His name is also Manolis.  They are preparing for revolution, for the army to overthrow the government, for an end to corruption, an end to idiotic politicians.  The owner tells us this and explains why he will vote for Golden Dawn, the fascist party that has risen in popularity.  This is alarming stuff.  Here in Crete you do not feel that the people are really suffering from the economic crisis.  Food prices are high in the shops - maybe higher than UK prices - and if you earn the average of 570 euros a month then that's a problem.  The difference is that if you have land you can grow your own vegetables, keep animals, produce olive oil.  So it seems that if you work in tourism or live in the country you are probably protected from the worst.  However, if you live in the city and have had wages cut, or you're unempolyed, then.......
from Chania - not everyone is a Golden Dawn supporter

So why does Manolis want to vote for fascists?  Didn't his family fight the Germans to stop fascism?  Actually, when you look at the history of Greece, they appear to have already had a fascist government when the last World War broke out.  It just wasn't interested in getting involved.  When Mussolini demanded that his army be allowed to enter Greece, the Greek General Metaxa, who like his namesake brandy was often drunk, famously replied "Ohi!" (No!).  Benito was not chuffed.  The Italians invaded and the Greeks fought them back.  Tough luck, here come the Germans.......(The Greeks still celebrate "No!" Day on 28th October, with military parades and marching schoolchildren, with all the verve of any new nation.  And this is what we realise makes Greece so vulnerable - it is still a relatively new nation.  New and divided.  In the civil war that followed when the Germans left, more Greeks died than during the World War.) Manolis explains his frightening right-wing tendencies: he hates the communists and he hates the corruption in the country, the lying politicians.  Life would be simpler with a military government.  The judiciary would function properly.  Oh, so simple it would be!  In the meantime he is refusing to pay his taxes.  So, no change there, then...

After the night of rain and the day of cloud and high winds the weather settles down again and the temperatures rise once more.  Karl refers to this as the African side of Crete.  The mountains form a barrier with the northern European side.  We stay a while.  On the site there are quite a few cats that wander about.  One of them pisses on our tent.  Not once, but twice.  We take to deterring them from coming close by throwing stones at them.  But you have to hit the cat, otherwise it thinks you're throwing food, and it gets all sociable with us.  After a week we explain to the Austrians why we are not so kind to the cats.  Karl tells us it's the fluffy dog that pisses on the tents - he saw it do it to his own....

Saturday, 19 October 2013

a minor tour

The ferry to Crete arrives at midnight.  We roll off the boat and onto a tiny dock.  The port at Kissamos doesn't get much action.  Up on the main road we turn right, away from the town and past a few houses.  On the left are some olive trees and a track, so we head down it.  It smells a bit of animals, but there's no sight nor sound of any.  The grove is flat, so we quickly pitch the tent and fall asleep.  At sunrise Gayle sticks her head out.  "John, you know how it smelt like a farmyard when we camped?" "Mmm." "That's because it is a farmyard."

We are meeting our friend Laurence in Hania in a couple of day's time.  He is bringing Vanessa and we will cycle together for a week.  We mooch along the coast and check out campsites.  It's end-of-season quiet but the sun is out and still very warm.  We stop at site and get ear-bashed by a couple who have been here over a month.  They are friendly enough, too friendly, full of patronising advice and slightly sensationalist information about the locals.  There's lots they can't tell us, or don't want to know, but "everyone is carrying guns these days".  Later on I chat to a man who has come to kayak with his wife.  He said he felt depressed after talking with the Residents, because they said stuff like "people die in the sea here every year".  We ended up laughing about it - he seemed to have got over it.  The campsites all seem to have odd characters.....

Saturday comes and finds us climbing the road up to the airport outside Hania, excited at the prospect of meeting Laurence and Vanessa.  They appear on schedule and we just have to find the bike rental people - this has saved them the hassle of bringing their own bikes on the plane.  Finally the bike people appear and while they sort out their bikes we are given a pile of goodies from home to look through and pack.  When people ask us what do we miss most from home on a long journey like this we reel off the usual platitudes - y'know, family and friends etc.  But usually the first thing that pops into my head is something bizarre like pork pies, crumbly Lancashire cheese, salt and vinegar crisps, port...... So when Laurence asked us if they should bring us anything from home we jokingly listed these items, along with other more useful items we can't find here.  Vanessa kindly did all the shopping and even these items were included.  Mmmmm, pork pies.  Melton Mowbray pork pies.  After a spontaneous picnic we ride back into Hania and stop outside a cafe for drinks.  A lovely place in a square with plenty of shade from some big old trees.  Talk, talk, talk.  At some point the terrace we're sitting on feels like it is floating on water - a strange sensation.  We look at each other, and then the whole place shudders and shakes like an almighty fairground ride.  People cry out.  An earthquake.  6.4 on the old Richter scale.  Nothing collapses.  At least not around us.  We head across the old town and out to the nearby campsite and settle in for the evening.

Our idea is to do cycle a small circuit in the south west of Crete and we begin with the hard part - heading straight into the mountains.  The road is good, but it's hot work climbing all day and we are unsure what Vanessa and Laurence will make of it.  But they are as tough as the route, and just before sun-down we are setting up our tents on a patch of land with olive trees before eating our tea in the light of the moon. 
The road continues to climb in the morning.  We have to negotiate a road crew who are widening and resurfacing - so plenty of mud and dirt to ride through on switchbacks - before we emerge at a pass and descend to a plateau surrounded by mountains.  The route then drops into a valley on the other side, but first we have to circle around the head of the valley before a big descent towards the sea.  There's a cruel twist though, because as we are descending we know our road has to climb out of this valley.  So mid-afternoon sees us huffing and puffing our way up a smaller road, with steeper sections.  We have passed through several little villages but none with an open shop.  We don't have food for the evening.  We decide to push on to Paleohora on the south coast.  At the top of the climb we get two great views: one of the sea and one of the mountain range behind where we have cycled.  And then we begin to head down and across some of the ridges tipping into the sea.  The sun is dropping and we're kind of excited because we know we can reach Paleohora before dark.  But the road twists and turns, becomes dirt, then back to tarmac, and it's quite a dramatic descent with fantastic views. Happily we arrive at the campsite exhausted but triumphant.  It's been a great ride but have we pushed a little too hard? Who cares - the next day is a rest day we all agree.

Paleohora's a quiet little resort town with a couple of beaches.  We plan to continue around and up the western coast and circle back to Hania.  But in the evening we are told that storms are forecast.  We check the weather and it's hard to see whether the rain will come across this area, but the winds are forecast as westerlies with strong gusts.  After much discussion we opt to stay put in Paleohora and go for a day ride without our luggage.  Sounds easy, eh?  The roads only go uphill from here, so uphill we go, climbing up a quiet back road through gorges and tight valleys that begin to open out as we ascend. We have lunch by a church in a quiet and rather empty-looking village and then continue uphill for another hour or so to a point where we can see all the mountains around.  This feels a world away from the coast.  And then the fun of the big descent on new tarmac all the way back to the sea, popping out from a valley amongst polythene-covered farms. 

the easy bit

We try a different kind of day-ride the next day.  Vanessa opts for the rest and relaxation, whilst we head up another gorge and past a couple of villages and out onto a high point over the coast.  The predicted storms came in the night, some rain and a lot of wind, and the wind is still gusting now.  Laurence is proposing to cycle down a dirt track to the E4 walking trail that runs along the coastline and trying to cycle back to Paleohora.  Gayle takes a look at the landscape and chooses to take the road back.  I know Laurence is disappointed we haven't continued touring around the coast as we'd planned, and he is determined to do something to recompense for it.  Against my better judgement, but caught up in Laurence's gung-ho spirit, I join him.  We drop down the track to a plateau where we find the E4 markers.  It looks fine as we cycle along a decent track, and then drop off the plateau.  Now we can see along the rugged coastline the beach we are heading for in the distance.  It doesn't look too far.  Only now the path is not cyclable.  In fact, we can't even push the bikes.  We have to carry them down a distinct trail which winds down to the sea and then climbs up and over the ridges protruding from the cliffs.  It's madness. Folly.  The day has been cloudy and it tries to rain again, so the trail is virtually empty of people.  What would be a good walk along the coast becomes an endurance feat.  Laurence is stronger than me and I soon find myself muttering curses as we work our way through the prickly scrub and rocky pathways, finally emerging on the beach completely knackered.  The ride back to the campsite from the beach on the dirt track, just as the sun is setting, is the most enjoyable cycling I could ever imagine.

In the morning we have a short walk through a gorge that brings us back to the beach Laurence and I had been to the day before.  The week has gone quickly and Vanessa and Laurence have to get back to Hania for their flight home and to hand over the bikes.  So in the afternoon they take a bus back to Hania.  We hope they have enjoyed themselves - did we overdo the first couple of days? For sure, the cycling here is unlike anything you could do in the UK.......

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

no man's land

The Mani is probably the most renowned part of the Peloponnese. It's the central 'finger' pointing southwards into the Mediterranean, the tip is the most southerly point of continental Europe.  For years the Mani remained isolated and the people developed a reputation largely based around the blood feuds that ravaged their families and villages and altered their architecture.  The ridge of mountains running southwards become more barren and desolate as you go southwards and the bleak landscape creates a suitably brooding atmosphere.  As we cycle around the coast we are followed by dark clouds hanging over the mountains.  The land is covered in olive trees and maquis and the short stubby trees reflect the people, who seem small by Greek standards.  Blood feuds that lasted years led to families building protective tower houses in which the men and boys would hide.  The women and girls, who were immune from the feuds, would go out to work the land.  The nature of this kind of society can only be imagined.  The Mani was seen as a law unto itself and when the Turks were here, they left the people to themselves.  Nowadays there's nothing left from this macabre history except the tower houses.  And close on the heels of tourist development comes the building of new holiday homes - in the guise of tower houses.  The effect is quite kitsch.

We cycle through several villages, climbing ridges and then dropping to the coast.  There are a couple of little tourist resorts - quite low-key - and we find a nice olive grove to camp in, at the foot of a climb. The next day we find ourselves entering the real Mani, away from the faux tower houses.  The land seems so dry and harsh, and the olive trees look so windswept and withered that it seems remarkable that people ever lived here.  In one very pretty and unspoilt village we ask in a cafe for a water refill.  The man takes a bottle of water from the fridge - the tap water is no good, he explains, and refuses money for the bottle.  Clouds continue to menace the mountains and threaten rain, but a strong wind seems to keep them at bay and keep us blow-dried.  There is a fire burning at the end of one headland.  We swoop down into a bay looking for a place to eat lunch and start chatting to a friendly English couple cycle-touring with their credit card.  They've been coming to Greece for 20 years.  As we chat we are able to watch two aeroplanes circling into the bay to collect water from the sea and then dump it on the scrub fire on the headland.  The planes chug slowly around and down to sea-level and touch the sea before rising slowly again and arcing round to the fire.  It's an impressive sight.

Towards the tip of the Mani the road gets mean.  We stop in Vathi, perched on a ridge, for a picnic lunch in the lee of the wind that howls through the village.  There is a sense that the Mani has almost died, that it can barely support any life.  Empty houses.  Sad-looking cafes with no clientele.  All the traffic is tourists in hire cars doing the circuit.  The tower houses hint at the menace, the fear, the paranoia of olden days.  It's a strange effect.

keep 'em peeled

At the isthmus of land connecting the very tip of land at the end, we turn northwards and start a monstrous climb uphill.  We push a bit, and then some more.  On the eastern side of the Mani there are little sign of holiday homes or tourist villages.  A prickly low-level gorse now coats the land that was once cleared and terraced for crops.  Some of the villages look a bit scruffy and poor.  Plenty of olive groves for camping.  Along here we meet Paul, on a folding Brompton.  He's Austrian and would prefer to be kayaking, but his friend was bitten by a mosquito earlier this year and contracted Western Nile disease.  So the kayaking trip is on hold.  Afterwards we recall an English couple telling us they wouldn't visit Kosovo because of the chance of contracting Western Nile disease.  I wonder if you can catch it west of the Nile, and what it is.......

The ride along the coast here gives us views to the other finger of the Peloponnese in the east.  Our ride ends in Gythio where we hole up at a campsite until our ferry to Crete leaves. The weather continues to be cool and cloudy - is Autumn here?

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

head space

on the descent to Kalamata, a little bit of uphill
After our high mountain pass crossing from Sparti, we descend into the town of Kalamata, the town of oversized olives.  I'm disappointed to find there is no giant olive marking the entrance to the town.  On the way down to the town we had passed a long stretch of graffiti art covering a concrete retaining wall which decries the environmental destruction taking place.  Needless to say there is lots of litter lying on the roadside.  Apparently every vehicle in Greece is fitted with a rubbish bin, by law.  It's called the window.  Kalamata offers up its Saturday market to us to peruse and check out all the fresh local produce.  People are buying kilos of fruit and vegetables at very good prices.  Down at the seafront there are lots of locals on bicycles using the bike lane.  We stop for lunch and then continue to Linda and Peter's house which is in the countryside south of town.  
Gil lives! in Kalamata
Our couch-surfing hosts have suggested we head to their local village and ask in the cafe for someone to phone them.  Otherwise we might never find their house.  We skirt the coast and then head inland up a cruel and impossibly  steep road.  We have barely recovered our breath when a man in an old Merc accosts us.  Are we Linda and Peter's couchsurfers? Yes, we are.  Then you're going the wrong way.  Are we? The man is Herbert, an Austrian emigre and neighbour who phones Linda and redirects us up another cruel and impossibly steep road where Linda meets us.  We suffer some sort of momentary culture shock as Linda chats to us in her familiar and friendly northern accent.  Where are we again?

At the house ("a work in progress") we meet Peter, who seems to be arc-welding something in his workshop.  Their house, which they've been building for about the last 9 years, is a fantastical and unique construction, set in a vale of olive trees with an enviable view of the sea below and the western Peloponnese on the horizon.  It's hard to describe the house and immediately we resort to what are undoubtedly cliched comparisons with Gaudi and Hundertwasser.  When asked later about the design, Peter smiles and   says "We kind of ad-libbed".  

We are warmly welcomed into their home with a nice cup of Yorkshire tea.  It's better than the stuff from China, I can tell you.  They are great hosts - we are camping on a terrace in the garden and a young couple from the States, Kat and Chris, are also staying in the nearby wooden house that Peter and Linda built as an interim home while they worked on the Bigger Project. We sit down to a fabulous chicken curry and good conversation.  It turns out Kat has been here scouting for crew and actors for a film she is writing, directing and producing herself.  Peter has just finished making a film about the vendettas of the Mani.  We are surrounded by artists and art - the house is tiled with mosaics and Peter's sculptures abound.  Linda sings in a local choral group and one morning Peter is heard working his way around Lullaby of Birdland on the flute.  His conversation is peppered with aphorisms and some very dry wit all delivered in warm northern vowels.  We suddenly discover something we have been missing on our travels without ever realising it: English humour.

Kat and Chris have less time than us and depart a couple of days later and Linda encourages us to move into the wooden house.  They have been in their proper home now for over a year and are still busy each morning finishing the tiling on the roof.  The house looks almost completed and it's hard to imagine the amount of sheer hard work that has gone into the construction.  Interestingly, they have no electricity connected, but rely on some solar panels and gas.  Linda teaches English part-time and Peter, who retired early, is free to work on other projects when not finishing off the house.  He has been bending and welding steel for a 3 metre-tall sculpture.  What we see are two legs.  "They're like the Wrong Trousers" he jokes.

the view from Linda and Peter's

We find in their home a place of calm and good vibes, man.  How to describe it?  Linda thinks that living here gives her "head space".  That's it.