I’ve skipped a few days. Fortunately I did the publishing side of last week’s blog on Wednesday morning. Since then it has been too hot to contemplate the laptop.
Now it’s Saturday morning. I’m sitting under a stand of young chestnut trees, perhaps planted for a millennial event. We’ve had our best sleep in a while. It’s a cool dappled green morning. On the Polly walk we feasted on cherries and mulberries (first time I’ve tried them). This feels good.
When a language such as Greek or Spanish pronounces its B as a V it needs a new way of writing B. In Greek that’s achieved with Mp. We were chuckled when we stared at the word Μπόζα on the signs, then announced “This place is called Bozza”.
There’s not a lot at Bozza. A beautiful beach. A taverna. Enough trees to give a degree of shade. Enough caravans that have taken root to give it a free-living feel. All around are groves of fig trees, the air is heavy with their sweet scent.
Bozza’s not far from Neopoli our mainland arrival port. And it was a good home for 24 hours. We swam. Showered. Filled the water tanks. We ate sardines, greens, beetroot salad.
We laid the map out for the first time in a while. We planned. We have a commitment in Bulgaria in mid-July so we’ve dropped our idea of returning to Lefkada. Instead, for a taste of familiar comfort we’ll spend some days in Nafplio. Temperatures look frightening next week, but we know we can find shade there for much of the day.
Now there’s an interesting subject.
In Greece common trust is rather different to Britain.
In Greece the best place to leave your car keys is in the ignition, you know where they are then.
The Greek habit of leaving the car door open is endearing, but perhaps a little risky as the passing traffic is likely to be driven by people simultaneously on the phone, smoking and drinking a Freddo.
At the Bozza taverna they have found that the best place to store their wine is at the back of the restaurant, in the car park. There were 20 x 5 litre flagons of wine there, resting until required. It’s so cheap in the taverna, there’s no point stealing it.
Frequently a place will have trouble taking a card payment. They usually suggest popping back next day. Sometimes they suggest that because they’ve been hitting the Raki and they can’t be bothered to take your money.
Our Cretan campsite hosted us for three months. They brought us all manner of fruit, vegetables and seasonal gifts. We’d leave for a bit then come back, but only on the last day would they discuss money (the Greek for money is χρήματα chrimata).
Finishing with Bozza.
To finish with Bozza. Curiously the only non-football graffiti across Greece is “Boris” writ large. There’s no connection. But it does cause the van dwellers to shout “Boris” like school kids when we pass one. It prompts discussion about the NHS, and the same old conclusion is that it’s the health of the nation, not the health of the NHS, that’s our biggest issue.
This quote sums it up: “People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are treated by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.” Wendell Berry.
Two cities. Sparta.
The Spartans were the world’s most feared fighting force. Such was their strength and confidence that the glorious city of Sparta had no city walls. It vied with Athens for supremacy. It colluded with Athens for military success.
Weak male babies were left on the slopes of Mount Taygetos to die. At seven boys entered a military training regime that may not be deemed altogether wholesome today. Their moto was “return with your shield, or on it”
This fellow, Leonidas, was a warrior king of Sparta who led an army of just 300 Spartans into battle against at least 70,000 Persian invaders. Heroes have to die and those odds were harsh even for a man said to be descended from Hercules. Now he lives on in statues across the region.
All that was a long time ago. 300 years before the more famous son of another god walked Jerusalem Sparta had been wiped from the map, while Athens lived to tell its tales.
Sparta rose again a couple of times. There are some interesting Roman remains to wander around, and of course it exists today. The modern town consists a couple of busy streets, and most important for us – people. It’s the first time we’ve seen lots of people in a while. These aren’t country folk, they’re people who can take living for granted and who take pride in their appearance. Interesting clothes. Wild hair. Cars that are more than bare essentials. We haven’t seen the like since January. And we loved it. Sitting outside a bar late into the evening, in our faded and tattered travellers’ rags (me at least) observing it happening around us.
This gentle coffee drinking culture feels like a civilised way to emerge from the extreme Greek lockdown.
Two cities. Mystras.
Within sight of Sparta the Frankish leader Guillaume de Villehardouin founded the city of Mystras in 1249. It’s location on a ridiculously steep spur of the Taygetos Mountains was just what the Byzantians would have chosen, so when power fell to them the city was strengthened and grew in cultural significance with a centre of humanistic philosophy in the 1400s.
Later the Venetians favoured the city too. Under them it became an important trade centre, particularly for silks. At its height the population reached 40,000 and bearing in mind that most of the peasant population would have dwelled outside of the city, the daytime crowding can only be imagined.
450 years later it all started to go wrong. The Turks destroyed the place, the Russians burnt it, the Albanians burnt it, and Ibrahim Pasha finished it off in 1825.
Today it’s a World Heritage site of impressive scale. We tackled it in searing heat. My usually hungry mind was 90% occupied with simply raising one heavy foot in front of the other as we climbed massively steep cobbled paths through the remains of monasteries, churches (thankfully cool inside), and other important dwellings to the castle at the top.
The views are incredible across 50 miles of fertile plains growing citrus and olives. The Taygetos Mountain range soars behind.
Usually on a trip to Mystras you’ll join a procession of coach tours snatching information from guides in many languages. Yesterday we shared the huge site with two other couples and about twenty staff. I urge anyone to go, but go in April, or October, when it should be cooler.
Thoughts from Mystras.
The gradients here are truly awesome. Moving goods between areas would have been extreme work. Building the castle, right out to the edge, would be an engineering feat even today. The overcrowding must have made health issues a major problem. Water supply was a Byzantian speciality, but even so this place would have challenged their skills. It must have been so exciting, awe inspiring, for peasant visitors, many of whom lived in little more than caves. Even the rich flocked to the city from every corner of the empire.
Today nuns still live at the convent. A few battle weary cats wander the streets. Beyond that it’s empty.
Other than birds you’re only likely to see wildlife in the mountains to the north of Greece. Even the roadkill is mostly cats, a few stoats and the occasional fox.
So yesterday’s treat was all the more exciting.
We were bombing along a big road. We were in sixth gear for the first time in weeks. We were coming back to life after the heat of Mystras. Suddenly I gripped the wheel. I’d seen something interesting (to me at least), but I wasn’t certain.
We eased down, did a multi point turn on a fast road, and headed back.
And there she was.
Two thirds of the way across a fast Greek road plodded Gertrude, a rather large tortoise.
We stopped. Hazard lights on. Sheltering Gertrude.
The intrepid Minty leapt out, swept up Gertrude, and carried her to safety 50 metres into the scrub.
As Minty was in action I sat nervously watching the cars speed by, then I spotted Toby a little further down the road.
New instructions were issued. Minty shouldered her rescue pack and sprinted after Toby, caught him, and carried him off to meet his mate.*
This is cherry country. In the few hours since we pulled into our chestnut tree shelter last evening we have seen more cherries than in our whole lives up to this moment. There’s even a village called Kerasita (cherrytown). The roadsides are lined with wild cherries that are as much stone as flesh, but still pleasingly sweet. Behind fences commercial trees are heavy with plump fruit that’s just out of reach.
All along the roadsides stalls sell their wares.
Hot, even under the shade of huge eucalyptus. Regular swims. Beach showers. Trying to sleep when it’s 30°+ in the van.
It’s busy here. Busy with Greeks. And it’s interesting to watch their way of taking on the beach.
The Nemo café’s serving team is amazing. One girl trots up and down the beach taking and delivering orders for a full 12 hours, then she’s back to do the same next day. Her mother tells me all about the area and where to visit. She wants to visit Cornwall. I hope she does.
Across the bay we can see Nafplio. The weather apps suggest it’s even hotter there, but it’s our favourite Greek town. It draws us, and we know we can find shelter.
(Google ref 37.5622340, 22.8004751).
Straight through the Venetian town. We’ll be back later when it cools a little. Climb the saddle between the two castles. Descend to the car park we know. It’s busy. But at the end there’s space, just where we want to be.
This is our third visit, but the first in summer.
Previously our otherwise ideal spot was difficult because the good shade shaded the solar panels. Today that shade is just what we need. We can rest awhile here.
Cats and the men who feed them.
Alongside our parking spot there’s a derelict building skeleton. It looks as if it was destined to be an ambitious beach restaurant before the Greek financial crisis closed down so many projects in 2009.
In the winter it was home to some poor fellow who was low on comforts but with a million Euro view. Now it’s only home to some cats with four kittens.
While we were parked there three men came on separate occasions to feed the cats. Many others knew they were there and called to the kittens as they passed.
There are plenty of people who leave piles of biscuits for the cats, but these are treated to Whiskers pouches. There are probably people in the town who don’t eat as well.
After strolling the pretty streets of Nafplio we sat on the beach enjoying the sunset’s afterglow. Gentle tunes drifted over from the beach bar.
We were settled by 10.30pm, expecting that the heat would be our only challenge.
Until 1.00am it was.
Then the bar kicked into life, pumping tunes through to 3.30am.
We’re a little ragged today.
I never liked late nights, even when I was young.
Over the hill from Nafplio is yet another stunning beach.
There’s a footpath between the two and it’s the fitness regime of young and old to walk, run, cycle or even swim the distance.
It’s where we moved to after we were bass binned out of town.
Waking under eucalypts.
Waking under tamarisk the van is bathed in soft green light.
Waking under eucalypts the van is showered in sticky sap, fairy cups and a million stamens.
Minty noticed during the day that the solar panels weren’t charging, so we moved the van out into the sunlight to help them along. Out into the sunlight that brought the temperature in the van close to 40°.
At the bar my Greek was stretched as I asked if they had a ladder that I could borrow. It worked. I could go in the morning.
The afternoon move into the sun wasn’t enough.
When I went to move the van back onto the flat for sleeping the engine battery had run flat. I suspect that it has been knackered for a while and just been topped up by the solar.
Now my Greek flexed, getting ready for a bigger stretch.
There are just two guys left on the beach in the near dark of 9.30pm.
I asked them to help.
Ten minutes later we were jump lead connected to their SUV. Theirs had a sickening momentary power drain that made us think we’d killed both batteries, but then ArchieVan roared into life, cables were disconnected, and we set off for a night drive to get some charge.
Before bed at a similar spot, but within an easy push of a good bump-starting slope, we shared a calming bottle at the water’s edge. In the dark.
I rolled into the water for a night float, and had a cooling beach shower before bed.
At 5.30am the light begins to pinken and twenty bees start work on the eucalyptus flowers, soon there are a hundred, and then a thousand. It’s loud when there’s no other sound.
A couple of hours later the cicadas tune up and suddenly you don’t hear the bees. By then the sun is blazing and the temperature races through the mid-30s.
It’s time to clean those panels.
Back down at the curious middle aged man’s bar I fetched the ladder, climbed up, and scrubbed six month’s worth of sap, leaves and general grime from the panels. That should help.
After a while the barmen reached consensus and offered directions to their favoured battery supplier. All the way there I practised saying “Νομίζω ότι η μπαταρία μου έχει τελειώσει, μπορείτε να τη δοκιμάσετε παρακαλώ, (I think that my battery is dead, can you test it please?)”.
The battery certainly was dead, the garage had the right size, and there was a sweet end to the tale. The huge van battery plus a tank of diesel cost just £125. I paid that much just to fill up in Italy last year.
I’ve kept you long enough. Let’s catch up next week.
*In 1968 my maternal grandfather bought my sister and I a tortoise each. Mine (Toby) died in 1982, but Janice’s lived on. Gertrude was always a challenging name for mum and when she took charge of the survivor Gertie became known as Toby.
Confusing for us humans, but imagine processing that at tortoise pace!
More recently care of Gertie has passed to our cousin Ryan.
These days Gertie lives in luxurious retirement in Hertfordshire. And I think she rather likes her male moniker too.
Here she is with Ryan, her new human, and probably her first who’ll outlive her.