Waking in the shadow of the ancients.
For New Year’s Day we woke in a municipal car park that could be anywhere – except that we know what’s over the hill. A mere 100 metres away lie the extensive ruins of ancient Corinth.
Corinth was founded around 700BC and was a large city of 90,000 people by 400BC. To put that in perspective – Greece only has two cities that are more than twice that size even today.
The ruins that we so nearly slept among are of its main market area, fountains and temple of Apollo. The theatre and opera could be put back in service after a little weeding. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to picture traders bartering with the slaves of the rich in the arcades that are still paved in marble.
Once we were installed in the car park and the dog’s business was done we headed to a bar for our early New Year’s celebrations.
Last year I commented often on how Greeks ignore the smoking ban, puffing away in every bar and most restaurants. This year we hadn’t witnessed it until we arrived in Corinth. I guess it’s an ancient place and old habits will die harder here.
The towering owner welcomed us in many languages and was pleased to find we spoke English, his favourite after Greek. After 20 minutes he replenished our ouzo and tsiporo (I’ve retreated to the slightly more gentle ouzo) on the house. On the house? We’d die of shock if we were sitting in The Old Success and the landlord presented us with as much as a bag of nuts for free. Generosity makes everyone feel good. I wonder how we can remind Britain of that?
On the subject of generosity: We ate in a Lagonisi restaurant having walked 40 minutes through the rain to get there. We asked them to call a cab to take us home. 30 minutes later the lad came back and said he couldn’t get a cab – so he drove us home. Thank you Barba Giorgis.
It was the smoke that drove us from the bar rather than any desire to leave. We’ll be back for coffee in the morning.
At midnight a 15 gun volley woke us to usher in the New Year. No standing in freezing cold squares for The Wanderers. Once the dog had finished shaking out her fear we slipped back into our best sleep in weeks.
We started planning for it back in October, but then everything changed a couple of days before our guests arrived.
Last minute we ended up renting a good house at Lagonisi, only 30kms from Athens. Rick and Peggy lived downstairs with the warmth of good oil fired heating. Minty, Janice and I had the upstairs flat.
With my sister’s hire car we were mobile and a trip to Athens on Boxing Day was less challenging than it would have been in the van.
Edinburgh has its castle hill with views over the city and out to the Firth of Forth.
Athens has Lycabettus Hill with St George’s church at the peak and 360 degree views of the city, mountains, the port of Pireaus and a cracking line of sight to the Parthenon and the Panathenic Stadium.
With his hips worn down by decades of abuse Rick stayed at the lower level entertaining the cats and enjoying a world class view. Peggy pushed herself to get to the top and saw even more.
And the big surprise – only the third public toilet that I’ve seen in six months of travelling Greece. One of the others was in Corinth where I’m typing now, but today, when it would be most welcome, it’s closed.
Both of our octogenarians kept up a good pace through their week, we saw some sunshine, and some old stuff too. Thank you both, and Janice, for making the big effort to get to us.
Back in the van.
It was good having a house for a week or so.
The best bits revolve around hygiene. To be able to shower when you want, to wash your clothes, to use a toilet that doesn’t need emptying.
The extra space didn’t excite me much, not even in the kitchen, and with all the Christmas fare around it’s far too easy to over eat. Minty has food discipline, I have none.
Even for careful folk like us it’s easy to slip back into hugely wasteful habits in a house. Simply heating the large un-insulated space cost over a hundred pounds a week, while in the van heating and cooking costs us around ten pounds a month. The temptation of a bath when you haven’t had one for a year is too great to resist, as it is the next day, and the next. It was a luxury to have around two hundred square metres of space between five people, but vanlife has made me realise how ridiculous that is too.
All around us hundreds of similar sized houses sit empty and the concrete shells of those that were never finished create the largest pieces of litter in a country where discarded rubbish is commonplace.
New Year’s Day.
It has always amused me that on the very few days when everyone is on holiday the tourist attractions are shut too. In Greece it’s even more odd as the staff often turn up so that they can tell you that they’re closed. Such was the case with the ancient city.
Instead we slowly climbed the 4km hill to the Byzantine Acrocorinth castle 500m above the city. It was closed (with staff in place) but it didn’t matter, the walk and climb to the nearby Frankish Penteskoufi Castle opened ever more stunning views over the coasts to the north and south and our wow metre soared for the first time in a while.
As the sun fell the clear sky became clearer still, revealing more snow covered mountains before closing the day with a display of oranges, purples, and reds that more than compensated for any New Year fireworks we may have missed.
Did I mention the New Year’s Day sunshine? Overnight the temperature fell to 2 degrees, with a bone chilling wind from the north. Today looking up at the castle with freezing cloud swirling about it brings visions of Tolkein’s Mordor.
Stripping off for a scrub on frozen mornings morning doesn’t feel like a good idea, but you always feel better afterwards.
It would have been easy to suggest leaving the high ground and coming back on another day, knowing that that day probably wouldn’t happen. Instead we pulled coats on top of coats and braved the blizzard.
Acrocorinth. The castle.
The only entrance is through the west gate. It’s protected by a moat followed by successively stronger fortified walls one, two and three, each overseen by ever taller and more numerous towers.
The steep slippery limestone cobbles alone are enough to defeat any technical shoe clad modern day invader. Even the teenagers had to forsake all dignity during their efforts to descend from the castle. I pictured the chaos that must have occurred when the soldiers of old tried to exit in haste, armed to the teeth and running on leather soles.
There are remains of defensive positions here that date from the c.4th BC and it was occupied right through until the c.19th during which time the lingua franka would have swopped between ancient Greek, early German, Venetian, early French, and Turkish before reverting to Greek.
Within are temples, churches, temples that became mosques, mosques that became churches and defensive towers. The walls stretch for over 3 kms, all precariously perched over 500 metres up.
In the crazy way of such things in Greece, visiting the castle is free. There is scant information but this remains a seriously impressive fort. If you’re tempted to visit wear strong shoes and go in winter when the hordes are elsewhere.
At the ramshackle café opposite the car park a fellow who I suspect was there to do repairs made us a coffee and let us sit by his fire for a bit. He talked us through the archaeology, stretching my few hundred words of Greek, but making enough sense to be interesting.
A new peninsula.
Last year we travelled around much of the Peloponnese, but missed the little peninsula that faces Athens. Friends are coming our to us in a couple of weeks, and until we return to Athens to collect them we’ll tour this sticky out bit. If we find out what it’s called I’ll update you.
It’s hilly, very hilly, green, and tomorrow if the sun shines it’s sure to look rather special.
The Argolis (that’s what’s it’s called, thanks Minty) is superb.
We woke on Friday morning on the main street in little Korfos, and while it was only a few degrees outside, the sun was up and the van was warming nicely.
A pair of gnarly old fellows moored this knackered looking craft and headed straight for a 10.00am tsiporo.
Minty fed the cats.
I practised a bit of Greek for the first time in a while.
More important than all that was the sunshine. It’s transformative whatever your lifestyle, and living in a van it lifts the day like nothing else can.