Minty and I spent most of our working lives in marketing roles with banks, insurers and hotels.
For us a symposium was something that cost you a fortune to attend and where you listened to over inflated egos quoting wildly exaggerated data regarding their latest fancy pants campaigns.
To read the Greek definition of symposium made it seem a whole lot more attractive. Sign us up.
Last week we left you in the pretty harbour village of Korfos. Already we were pleased to be on the Argolis peninsula.
Twenty miles down the coast we pulled into Epidaurus and our joy reached a new level. The road was steep, generally a rich green, dotted with orange groves (we’re picking and eating every day now) with views over the Saronic Gulf and the islands of Methana, Agistri and Egina. The Greek effect has kicked in today in a way that it hasn’t since Lefkada. Even the much loved Pelion and Sithonia didn’t match this. And better still, development is light, people live in the towns, and so there are always places open.
New Epidaurus, a few miles up the road, is the site of the best amphitheatre in Greece. It’s also where my solo performance of Harry Safari’s “St Just Ladies Song” entertained tourists from the world over.
Here in the coastal village bearing the same name there’s a smaller theatre off to the south of the prettiest harbour we’ve come across in a long time. There are plenty of people about a few places open. Most of our Christmas fresh food has now been eaten and so we’ll have a New Year’s treat tonight.
It would be boring to recount all of our meals out. The interesting bits are generally the situations rather than the food.
In Epidaurus The Acropolis restaurant probably heaves with guests for much of the year. Last night its sole Wanderer customers were overseen by Waiter (52), Chef (59) and The Other Guy (65). The Other Guy (65) just sat there, petulant in his coat, trying to be glued to his phone, except that it was plugged into a socket a tad too far away. He wanted to lean back in a nonchalant fashion, but couldn’t quite see his screen when he did so. Chef (59) insisted that, due to our presence, The Other Guy (65) went outside to puff on his fags. The Other Guy (65) was unimpressed.
Tonight. Taverna Agio Gitikon. The old boy is alone in his kitchen. The fire is lit, but it’s colder inside than out. The football is on the TV. Loud. Each time Minty fettles the fire old boy comes to check. The horror of having a woman touch HIS fire. Later his very own woman comes along. For a while they sit back in the freezing kitchen, but eventually they join us huddled around the fire. The great dinner cost us €19, including a litre of wine.
Methana, once an island, is attached by causeway to the Argolis.
And it is utterly stunning.
When the sun shines and the beauty kicks in Greece delivers a delight that few places can match, and my god it’s delivering today.
This place is only about three hours from Athens, and yet it’s underdeveloped and an empty rugged space where the olive trees do their own thing. Views across to Pireaus and the island of Poros below us. The still sea surrounds us, reflecting evening light. Hardly a car goes by.
There are few people here, but most of the homes look lived in. There’s no sand, and the pebbles are volcanic red, I guess that deters folk, and if that works then it’s good by me.
This is the first place that has tempted me on this trip. Tempted me to stay for longer than a passing visit. To take up residence, become immersed in the language and… (I was going to say culture, but for blokes that means spending an unfeasible amount of time in a café nursing a drink).
Oh the joy of seeing an old couple go by riding on one of these…
What makes a great beach?
I have had the good fortune to sit on many of the special beaches of the world, and often I contemplate what lifts a particular stretch of sand from good to great. Here in Greece many of the beaches combine white pebble with the clearest deep blue sea you can imagine. Fish glitter and leap. The beach is often bathed in sunshine from dawn to dusk. The day regularly draws to a close with a sunset the like of which many people may not see for a whole year. And yet for me few of these beaches can hold a candle to the likes of Gwenver and Pedn Vounder.
I am hugely biased towards Cornwall even though I contemplate living here in Greece.
I have to have reason for such a statement.
Perhaps it’s connected to challenge and rarity. When the sun shines on Pedn Vounder you embrace it, you make the most of every moment. You swim no matter how cold the water. You snigger at the nudists. Or join them.
The moment stays with you. And you know that when you’re older it’ll be but a memory because it’s so stupidly difficult to get to.
There was a winter when I’d go to Gwenver every morning, and swim unless the waves were raging. I still remember the thrill. Gwenver is easier, but it’s still a struggle.
The incredible beaches of Greece delight me every time, but I’m now confident that I won’t forsake the rugged beauty of the far west of Cornwall for this place anytime soon. I only have to flick through some winter photos from West Penwith to know that the decision is right.
Faded Glory. Methana.
Methana town was once a thriving spa. There’s a warm sulphurous pool with many deco style buildings, exciting experiments in early concrete curves, softened by time and faded blue shutters.
Once glamorous hotels plead with passers by to dig deep and invest in restoration. Take my imagination working alongside a thirty year old with significant wealth and boundless enthusiasm and it could be a winner. Tens of millions are needed to bring this place back onto its feet, but once there nothing should stand in the way of its success. What a shame I’m fifty five and only have the cash in my pocket.
The inter-island ferry pulls into the dock and instead of a blast of its whistle it treats the town to a few lines of Perry Como’s “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”. Strange. Delightful.
I refuse the dreadful combination word that’s banded about right now. Just as I fake vomit at the mention of staycation, or chillax. I even retched typing the terms.
Until now I’ve had no problem with people wanting to avoid all animal products, but as I consider it more I wonder if many are actually defeating the morally driven aims they seek.
On the radio a chef talks of using an agave plant syrup to replace honey. That got me thinking. If pollinators are under threat, and that threat threatens our food security, surely bees need all the help they can get. No one will bother with bee keeping if we stop buying honey.
I support the call for everyone to drastically reduce the amount of meat they eat, but I no longer expect us to cut it out altogether.
My thoughts run deeper, but this is a travel blog with digressions so let’s move on.
Red cabbage and big tomatoes. What’s new?
Red cabbage. The Wanderers started buying red cabbage in Romania and enjoying its crunch in salads. Great. But in these parts they tend to sell cabbages that are bigger than a giant’s head and we weren’t getting through ours fast enough.
Recently I’ve added shredded red cabbage to dahl. Bingo! The colour boost is exciting, and the new texture takes the dahl up a level. Now there’s never any cabbage left.
Big tomatoes. The Mediterranean Diet and all that. There are always tomatoes in the fridge. You can buy them for peanuts anywhere in Greece. What’s exciting is cutting them. We’re all used to slicing tomatoes, sharp knife required, but these big fellows need hacking, cut them into chunks. Beef tomatoes, some call them beef tomatoes, and I understand why.
Zucchini Balls. On Epiphany in a great Methana taverna we ate our first zucchini balls. Wow. Taste explosion. Little soufflés of courgette and feta. Light as air. Irresistible. We then noticed that every table in the (packed) restaurant had ordered them. To Steki (that’s what it’s called). Up a side street. Brilliant.
Galatas and Poros.
Scruffy little Galatas looks across the swimmable channel to beautiful Venetian Poros on its eponymous island.
In summer a score of water taxis ply the straights and five ferries ensure that the next boat is only minutes away. Today there’s a queue of cars on the island waiting for ferries that can’t leave port due to the raging sea driven on freezing 50 mph winds from the north.
Of the opposing towns Galatas is the winner.
Poros, less than half a mile across the water is hugely expensive, heaving with tourists, and has all those inconveniences of island life that we consider romantic until we try to live with them. And it has to look at Galatas.
Seemingly down at heel, honest, rough and ready Galatas has none of the above but gazes admiringly at its pretty island neighbour.
Leonard and Marianne*.
My unintended mentor Debra Hepburn introduced me to Leonard Cohen decades ago. It was deeply unfashionable to love the troubadour when most of my music purchases were rock of a gothic persuasion, but I was hooked.
Cohen spent many years living with, parting from, and then returning to his muse Marianne Ihlen on the then barely known island of Hydra.
Sheltered behind a tiny cliff top church, we’re looking across at it now.
There’s only one town, and a scattering of other houses.
There are no cars.
In theory at least there’s no development allowed.
It sounds like paradise to me.
Had the weather been favourable we planned to visit, but that north wind is still gusting, keeping the temperatures down in single figures.
It’s calling me. I hope we’ll be back.
Later we’ll listen to So Long Marianne, and Minty will weep.
For now though, this stretch of the Argoli (see Amanda’s Our Travels on the web site for the map) is perfect but for the weather. Tiny sandy beaches. Minimal development. A rhenium sea shattered by occasional glints of crystal beneath the watercolour sky. Islands behind islands as the distance fades mountains to grey.
There I was feeling good about our simple uses of red cabbage when suddenly Minty ripped up the rules and reinvented the food game.
We don’t eat meat in the van. Until last night.
As I slumbered between Instagram and Evan Davis my mate worked her magic to produce a Moroccan inspired chicken in ras el hanout marinade, served on saffron rice with a red onion and barberry dressing. On a miniature two ring burner. In a van. Food photography is a lot harder than it looks and we didn’t try to capture this delight on film (or in pixels) so you’ll have to believe me that it was delicious and beautifully colourful.
Go to Porto Cheli they said. Take it easy among the luxurious restaurants and bars as you gaze across the yachts of the rich and famous.
We know we’re in the wrong place when we see helipads and adverts for personal security.
The villas here are all gated and many top their high walls with razor wire. Why? Greece is possibly the safest country in Europe. Security is self perpetuating. The more people have, the more their neighbours want.
Our stop was brief.
Our relief came within a few miles and we’re now writing and reading in another winter idyll called something like Ververonta Beach. Roads are gated. Footpaths fenced off. The villas are huge. And of course, they’re empty.
But, they’re all behind us.
ArchieVan has the sparkling sea on three sides and looks out across the Argolic Gulf, the small sea separating the Argoli from the rest of the Peloponnese. Ten miles across the water the snowy mountains of Arcadia glisten. Alongside us the long green needles of the contorted Aleppo pines shine in the winter sun, there’s a hint of retsina as their sap warms for the first time in weeks.
Early in the morning Polly pulls herself from her pit to shiveringly protest that her heat mat and luxury bed are not enough to protect her old bones from the 2 degree cold. I lift her so that she can see the two Greek dogs sleeping alongside the frozen puddles outside the van. She snorts her derision.
Waking early. Waking wonderful.
The rising sun pink tinged the snowy mountain across the water. Deep shadows exaggerate the crags that will disappear as the light increases.
There’s a sparkle to everything.
It’s going to be a good day.
*If Leonard Cohen interests you and you haven’t seen the film Words of Love then I urge you to watch it.
The titles of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and George Monbiot’s Feral appear to create a strong link between these two. They are very different books, one an adventure, the other a manifesto, yet the second goes some way to explaining the lure of the first.
Wild. Cheryl Strayed. Cheryl is thrown into a personal maelstrom by the death of her mother. She leaves the husband she loves, gets involved with dodgy men and hard drugs, then decides to tackle the utterly punishing c.3000 mile Pacific Crest Trail, with barely any experience. It’s brutal, dirty, honest and occasionally beautiful, and I suspect far more impactful than the film based on her story.
Feral. George Monbiot. This was a big surprise. Monbiot writes of landscape with the beauty of Robert MacFarlane or Simon Sharma, yet intertwined with the kick-ass arguments of an environmental activist. His case for selective wilding of Britain is compelling and importantly acknowledges the need for land to work for people and profit. His thoughts on what inspires the most contented office worker to read gruesome murder tales, or a comfortable CEO (D?) to tackle the hardship of the Artic ring true and make the connection to Cheryl Strayed’s adventure.