The Athos Peninsula.
Much of Greece is interesting because of its past. The early democracies. The first organised European cities. Philosophers whose work we read still today.
The semi-autonomous Orthodox state of Athos is fascinating, mysterious, alien, right now.
The 335 square kilometre state is a time warp, and vast nature reserve. It’s home to 2300 monks, most of whom who live in 20 surviving monasteries (down from the 180 that had been built by the 11th century).
Some choose complete isolation as modern day hermits. Not even an iPhone.
While many of us fear that globalisation is eroding our culture today, it’s not a new thought. In 1060 AD Constantine IX Monomahos feared that the religious traditions of the Athos peninsula were being diluted. He acted by banning women, female domestic animals, beardless men and eunuchs.
Women and female animals (except cats) are still not allowed.
Even access by male visitors is tightly controlled. Only 10 non-Orthodox can visit each day, having applied six months earlier.
During WWII, despite the ruthless Nazi occupation of Greece, this area was left unscathed. How did that happen?
If this whets your appetite then learn more by watching the two part BBC Simon Reeve documentary.
The closest we got to Athos was our night at Ouranoupoli.
In the morning we were there to see the ferry arrive and disgorge its passengers, every one of them male. Even in Greece that’s a strange sight.
Wandering the town we saw a ragged population of fellows sitting drinking coffees, blissed out on God and strong tobacco.
It’s an unusual place. The town is scruffy, but filled with expensive restaurants, religious icon shops, and high-end jewellers. The Russians come. Even Putin comes. And I guess that means money comes too.
After the rain.
I posted last Saturday after a week of rain, and our strange confinement at the Zampetas Motorhome centre where we waited for new batteries.
We weren’t actually confined there, but with huge dogs howling at every attempt to leave by the back, and a busy three lane road in the front, the wanderers felt that any escape by foot was fraught with danger.
On Friday our journey east showed us that we’d actually avoided the worst of the rain.
In low lying areas the road was often deep in silt. The trunks of mature trees had been pushed to the side. Rocks that crush kill a car sometimes blocked a lane. JCBs worked to keep the roads open.
After Ouranoupoli we twice had to turn back when our chosen road had ceased to exist after the downpour.
Rather than try a third time to reach the central Sithonia peninsula Minty navigated us to a beach only a few kms from where we started 50 kms earlier. Xiropotamo is little more than a few homes at the end of a steep winding road, a beach, and a few fishermen. And it’s a joy. This feels like the most peaceful place we’ve stopped at in a while, and I’m writing outside in the dark now at 5.30pm to absorb the last of its beauty despite the onslaught of bity flying things.
The sea is so utterly calm.
The fishermen wait by still rods in the dark.
And laughing, the fish jump for flies just metres away from the lines set to trap them.
The torrents of the last few days seem so far away tonight.
Dinner’s ready. It’s time to duck inside.
Amazingly the fishermen were still there in the morning. Still there when we left. They’re Bulgarians. They sit, mumbling, smoking, watching their lines. I commented frequently when we travelled through their country, and Romania, how every puddle had its fisherman, though we rarely witnessed a catch.
Getting used to vanlife.
Do you ever get used to vanlife? I hope not.
I hope that we can remain excited about the opportunity to experience the new every day, to live a life with less stuff, but more life.
Nonetheless we’re a whole lot more accustomed to this strange existence than we were 18 months ago.
The big difference came home to me a few days ago while chatting the subject with a young Dutch couple.
Vanlife concentrates everything.
Few relationships cause a couple to live as close as we currently do. It was a shock to our systems. Previously we worked in cities many miles from each other and got together at weekends, not even on consecutive ones. Now the most intimate of moments are spent with someone only feet away.
Good moods, euphoria, moments of madness are all so special when they coincide for us both.
When the opposite coincides then the clouds darken.
Yet I believe we understand what’s going on better now than we would have before we set out.
Vanlife is the death of some relationships. Yet 20 months in we’re still going, still planning new trips. That’s encouraging.
Halkidiki consists three peninsulas, Athos with its monks, Kasandra with its heavily built up tourist traps, and between the relatively tranquil Sithonia.
After a long route to avoid washed away roads we arrived on the central finger feeling less enthusiasm than we hope to greet the new with.
But the enthusiasm built. Quickly.
Pulling into tiny Kalogria Beach on the western (sheltered) coast we both smiled at the perfect clean sand, the still sea, and a shaft of sunlight beaming across the water to greet us.
The only polite reaction was to strip off and dive in.
Later the goatherd brought his mates for their swim.
More wet, then sun perhaps?
Neither of our weather apps has any doubt about Monday. 100% rain from dawn for at least 24 hours. Testing stuff.
But from Wednesday there’s the hope of sun.
I often wonder whether weather was better in the past when we’d hope that the skies were about to clear, or now when we know it’s not going to happen. I guess now there’s no excuse for not starting a challenging read, perhaps from bed.
In Neos Marmaras we headed to Itamos. It’s a small restaurant, but in a town where little was open this place looked inviting with its many lights.
Inside Christmas was in full swing. There were no other customers when we arrived, but once a Greek family came in to raise the volume all felt good.
We ordered our favourites of grilled sardines, Greek salad, beer and tsiporo. We were upsold the best bread we’ve had in ages, which was served with a strong tapenade and a soft cheese dip. It was the best. Great salad, fantastic sardines, and last up came chips that were nearly as good as mum’s.
And should the promised sun shine tomorrow then we’re excellently placed to receive its glory, just 5 metres from the gently lapping sea.
Lidl on two floors.
Previously. We stocked up at Lidl.
Before we left home I would have never believed that I was destined for as many supermarket visits of any persuasion. Now we’re in a Lidl more than once a week. They’re all different, yet none has responded to the grief they cause their customers at the checkout where there’s no room to receive the goods at the speed of the barcode sweep demon at the till.
This was our first store spread over two floors. The format wasn’t great, but at least it saves on footprint.
At home in St Just we didn’t bother with a freezer.
All we kept had in previous ones was ice, and peas and soya beans (called edamame to make them taste better).
Our tiny van fridge came with a freezer compartment. But it didn’t really work. So we took it out to give more fridge space.
But we love frozen peas.
So now we’ll occasionally buy a small bag of frozen peas with which I’ll cook something like a pea risotto in the evening, and Minty will finish the bag in the morning with a fab pea omelette. Minty’s omelettes are world class. Soft onions and a couple of centimetres of peas make one of the greats.
Above I said how vanlife can be a challenge. Get it right though and there are times when you have to pinch yourself, times when you pull up at the perfect beach, with no one around, and it’s yours, for a day or two.
Azapico Beach is probably heaving all summer, there’s a large resort complex just up the road, but we woke there on Thursday, and not one single person came for the whole day. Not only that but the sun shone, really shone. We walked, swam, ate, read, planned, but mostly we just were us.
It was tempting to stay a third night, but I’d promised that we’d eat out, and to do that we had to find somewhere open.
As we passed the end of the Sithonia peninsula two beautiful fishing villages delivered on the view, but both were deserted.
This really is a particularly beautiful part of a generally beautiful country. We’ll hopefully come for a holiday some time. The drive around the bottom had us uttering wows even before we crested a hill and saw Mount Athos rising in all its glory across the bay.
It’s only a small town, but people live here. And in Greece where people live there’ll be tavernas open to serve them.
Our simple souvlaki dinner was the best. The many men sat nursing their tsiporos through the night. All looked up when the weather girl came on the TV, she’d been a good looking woman, and the old boys had probably lusted after her since they first had TV.
Dinner, a half kilo of red (wine is measured in kilos here) and two huge tsiporos cost a princely 22 euros. There was laughter. Everyone said goodbye when we left. And even though few words had been shared it felt that for a short time we were part of their world.
Minty’s pack was waiting for us at the van. And guarded us through the night.