A finale in France…. .

Sitting in the queue waiting for the ferry to dock at Igoumenitsa we were sad to be leaving Greece but equally excited to be moving on to pastures new.  We’d decided that when we got to the other side at Ancona we would head straight across Italy making a beeline for the south of France to finish Season 2 of our European tour.  Italy will have to wait for another time.

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The view arriving at Ancona, Italy.
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The boat reverses in to the port.

It was a wise decision to splash the cash for the tolls on the motorways. The roads in Italy really aren’t great.  No, that’s being kind.  The roads in Italy are diabolical.  I know we have only seen a small part of Italy on our travels which isn’t really enough time to make an informed judgement but going by what we have experienced so far I think it’s a fair assessment.  The road surfaces are just crap.  Travelling at any reasonable speed would be pure folly.  If you wear dentures then it’s probably wise to leave them in their jar for the day.  It’s maybe not so bad in a car but in a motorhome it’s oh so tedious.  Constantly being shaken to bits, avoiding lumps, bumps, potholes and humps is just no fun.  It’s also no fun for the other motorists trailing along behind us as we crawl along at a reduced speed.  Even so, it still seemed like a long drive to get to France and it took us two days.

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Ah, the joys of being back on busy motorways in Italy.

We were, though, extremely happy to be back in France and both punched the air when going over the border despite the gloomy weather and heavy rain.  We exited the motorway just over the border into France and dropped down the steep winding hill to the wonderful, beautiful, picture postcard town of Menton.  Ah, what a marvellous looking place (even in the pouring rain) set at the foot of a steep hill on the French Riviera.  It was such a shame, then, that we never actually got to see it.

We parked at one of the marinas giving us a view back over the town.  I had a little gander at the parking metre and discovered that you were only allowed to park for a maximum of three and a half hours.  Undeterred we had lunch whilst contemplating our options.  It looked like there was an industrial estate outside the town where we might be able to park up for the night and then come back down to the town in the morning for a look see.  The rain might have stopped by then too.  There was also an Intermarché supermarket there and we needed provisions and diesel.  Tim never tires of cruising the aisles of large supermarkets even though they all seem to sell the same stuff so it would keep him entertained for several hours on a wet day.   Excellent.  Off we went back up the hill in search of a likely place to stay overnight.

We discovered that everything is very compact in Menton, including the Intermarché which has an underground car park with height barriers.  Tim was not to cruise the aisles that day.  The industrial estate was also extremely compact with only on street parking with not a metre of space to be had.  As we were alarmingly low on diesel we swung in to the Intermarché, went down an extremely steep ramp, grounded the tow bar on the tarmac at the bottom, looked at the layout designed for nothing bigger than a Smart car, sat blocking everyone’s way whilst deciding what to do, decided to exit the garage, at the exit changed our minds, swung in to the entrance again, went down the extremely steep ramp, grounded the tow bar on the tarmac once again (rolleyes), and took another go at it.  There wasn’t enough room for us to drive in, fill up, and then follow the one way system around two tight bends to get to the pay booth so I queued up in the rain behind the cars to pay what we owed whilst Tim kept dry in the van.  Obviously, being British I didn’t like to jump the queue.  We then had to reverse back from the pump to get out causing more chaos.

By this time we were a tad fed up with the traffic, the rain and seemingly no options to park up for the night.  We took another attack on the town to see if we could park further along the sea-front but with ‘NO MOTORHOMES’ signs everywhere we gave up, decided to get back onto the motorway, exit at the first services and decide what to do next.  By the time we got to the services we really couldn’t be bothered to move again so stayed the night.  It’s not something we’d normally do, in fact, I don’t think we’ve ever stayed at a motorway services overnight but it’s always nice to do something new for a change!  We slept pretty well considering that lorries were coming and going all night.  This is the reality of living the dream folks 🙂  Those sorts of days are few and far between though and the following morning we awoke to bright sunshine streaming through the skylights, the smell of diesel and lorry engines revving all around us.  I can’t think of a better way to start the day.

On the road again by seven o’clock and having decided that Menton and the French Riviera would be better visited with a car, we headed for the Ardèche Gorge.  The Ardèche is somewhere that we almost visited on a trip to France in 2014 but decided against it as we didn’t fancy spending four days of our two week holiday travelling there and back.  We stopped off on the way at a lovely little free aire complete with picnic benches just outside the village of Chusclan.

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The aire at Chusclan.

This is why we love France so much as so many villages provide facilities for camper vans.  We thanked the village for their hospitality by spending the evening at the local bar swapping stories with Pam and Paul who were in the van next to us and on a six week trip.  We also bought some wine from the Chusclan vineyard next door to the aire.  About a dozen motorhomes had stayed the night and nearly all of them had been over to the vineyard to purchase some of their produce.  It’s a win-win.

The Ardèche Gorge is a summer playground for families who enjoy messing about in boats…..or kayaks and rafts to be precise.  The gorge runs for thirty two kilometres from Vallon-Pont-d’Arc down to Saint-Martin-d’Ardeche.  We stopped at a free aire just outside the beautiful village of Aigèze on the other side of the river from Saint-Martin and spent a couple of days walking in the area above and through the gorge.  The sun was out and life was good.

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The aire at Aigèze.
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A walk up to a viewpoint over the Ardèche gorge.
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Aigèze.
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We had to breathe in going over the bridge in the van.
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A walk along the river.
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A nice spot for some lunch.

Then it got cold…………really cold.  Well, I have get this in perspective.  It was about two or three degrees during the day which isn’t that cold but we’ve been used to balmy temperatures for so long now it was quite the shock to the system.  And there was the wind chill too.  Tim took it all in his stride, switched back to long trousers and layered up.  I just moaned.  And moaned.  And moaned.  I can’t say I’m proud of myself as I didn’t come out of it until the end of the week when the temperatures got back into double figures again.  I was also not a happy bunny when we did the washing at one of those outdoor Intermarché self service machines and it didn’t spin it leaving it soaking wet after the program had finished.  We spent twenty minutes in the supermarket carpark wringing it all out before we could put it into the drier.  Ah, happy days indeed!  Can you tell we’re missing Greece?!

After two days at the aire at Aigèze we drove the D290 which follows the top of the gorge as far as Vallon-Pont-d’Arc.  There were plenty of places to stop and pull over to admire the magnificent views down over the gorge and we had the whole road to ourselves for over an hour.

 

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The river will be chock full of kayakers in the height of the summer.
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We’ll come back one summer and hire a canoe.

It was a bit surreal really as not one vehicle passed us in either direction. Weird.

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No-one else around.

After twenty five kilometres we realised why when we came to a Route Barrée sign telling us the road up ahead was closed during the day.  Mmm, maybe the locals were in the know but it was the first we’d seen of the closure.  Fortunately we were able to do a detour around but we didn’t get to see the Pont d’Arc natural arch over the river.  Ah well, maybe next time.

For the last few days we’ve been trundling along following the Ardèche river to its source in the Massif-Central area of France stopping at some of the sleepy villages along the way.

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Balazac village on the Ardeche.
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Vogue.

 

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A pretty section of the Auzon river near Vogue.
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Devils Bridge on the Ardeche at Thuyets.

 

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It was a narrow steep path down to the river from the aire at Thuyets.

It’s time now to head further north.

À bientôt!

Back to mainland Greece…. .

We will be saying goodbye to Greece today.  We arrived at Camping Drepano in Igoumenitsa, having completed a 2600 mile circular tour, exactly four months after arriving at the same spot in Greece last November.  The cancellation of our ferry back to Italy from Patras two weeks ago was a blessing in disguise as we have missed ‘the beast from the east’ in Northern Europe and we’ve returned to where we started out on our Greek adventure.  A nice little tying up of loose ends we think.

We left the Peloponnese heading back to mainland Greece ten days ago via the eye wateringly expensive Rio-Antirrio bridge.  €13.30 for a 1.8 mile journey.  Streuth!

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Rio-Antirrio bridge.

Wikipedia informs me that the bridge is considered to be an engineering masterpiece. Seismic activity, probable tsunamis and the expansion of the Gulf of Corinth due to plate tectonics contributed to the difficulty of the build.

 

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View from our overnight spot in Antirrio.

It seems the hefty price puts off many truckers though as we had a very enjoyable hour or so watching them squeeze backwards onto the ferries that ply the strip of water below the bridge.  Depending on the number of axles, lorries are charged between €20 to €41.50 on the bridge as opposed to €11 to €21 for the ferry.

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The trucks all had to reverse onto the ferry.

Over the bridge back onto mainland Greece we were but a stone’s throw away from Ancient Delphi which, according to legend, is the centre of the earth.  In Greek mythology Zeus released two eagles from opposite ends of the world and Delphi was the point at which they crossed after encircling the globe, thereby establishing it as the centre of the world.  So, there you go.

 

We could also visit on the first Sunday of the month for free.  Big bonus.  All the state owned historic sites are free on the first Sunday of the month in the winter.  It was the first time we’d timed it just right to be near a site for a free visit.  We made sure we arrived early as we expected it would be busy.

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The Athenian Treasury built after the battle of Marathon and reconstructed in 1906.

From the end of the 8th Century BC individuals from all over the ancient world visited Delphi to consult the God Apollo, via a priestess, on which course of action to take in both private and public life.

 

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Temple of Apollo.  The remains seen today date from the mid 4th Century BC.
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Temple of Apollo from the other end.
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Looking over the Theatre built 2,500 years ago and capable of seating 5000 people.

Delphi was also home to the panhellenic Pythian Games.  These were, after the Olympic Games, the most important sporting event in the Greek calendar.

 

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The Stadium, almost 180m long and partly hewn out of the rocks above the main sanctuary.  7000 spectators gathered every four years to watch the Pythian Games.
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Across the road and further down the hill from the main site is the Marmaria Precinct.  It is still unknown what the purpose was of the circular Tholos.  Built in the 4th Century BC it was originally surrounded by twenty columns. 

It has to be said that the site itself is set within spectacular scenery at the foothills of Mount Parnassos.  Even though it was a bit hazy the views through the valley were superb.

 

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The Sacred Way leading to the Temple of Apollo.  It was lined with up to 3000 statues and treasuries built by city-states to house their people’s offerings.

We had a very enjoyable couple of hours roaming around the site, basking in brilliant sunshine, with very few other people about.  By 11.00am though it was heaving and we only managed a quick lap around the museum as it was engulfed with people so just not enjoyable for us.  We’re not anti-people we just like our own space!

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Naxian Sphinx Statue in the Delphi Museum.

P1120451.JPGWe spent the afternoon walking one of the footpaths from the village which climbs up above the site and gives far reaching views down to the sea at Itea where we had stayed the previous night.

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Looking down the valley towards Ithea.
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The view above the site of Delphi.
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We had to wait for this guy to cross the footpath in front of us.

DSC05530.JPGAll in all a top day which we were glad we’d made the detour to do.

Back along the coast we stopped for the night at the very pretty little fishing port of Galaxídi where we made the most of the evening sunshine people watching from one of the numerous cafes.

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Galaxídi waterfront.

The town was home to some of the most important shipping families back in the 18th Century.  The neoclassical housing and mansions nod to its former wealth.  It had such a lovely atmosphere with many Greek families out enjoying a meal together.

 

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International memorial to the Wife of the Seafarer at Galaxídi.

Continuing up the west coast of mainland Greece we stopped in at Mesolóngi which is famous for its salt pans, eels and pressed cod roe.  Also Lord Byron died here in 1824 after joining the resistance during the War of Independence.  Much of the town is run down and reminded us of parts of Ioánnina we’d seen last year.  It is a fascinating place though and we stumbled across an old Ouzo shop which didn’t look like it had changed since the day they started trading in 1907.

 

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Ouzo shop in Mesolongi.

Such a lovely couple running it too who were very proud to tell us that the marble fireplace had come from the Acropolis in Athens.  Mmm, not so sure about that.

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What a place!
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We have yet to taste the Ouzo we bought.

Another little gem was a tiny bakery which still had the working wood fired bread oven along with a wizened old lady just behind the counter who did a remarkable job of upselling us some spinach pie along with our bread.

 

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The little bread shop.

Then there were the boxes of eels outside the fish shops.  I watched in morbid fascination as a chap stood perusing a box full of the sorry looking creatures before reaching in to choose his victim to take into the shop to be weighed.  I wouldn’t have the stomach to deal with an eel especially as some of them were still alive.

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A box of eels outside one of the fishmongers.

Driving out of Mesolóngi the following day we spotted flamingos, some avocets and a handful of pelicans which was a real treat as the only place we’d seen pelicans before is in Green Park in London.

 

Our last stop before completing our circular tour of Greece was the island of Lefkas connected to the mainland by a causeway.  Here we saw the most beautiful turquoise sea and probably the best beaches we have seen in Greece.  If I’d said ‘just look at the colour of that sea’ once I said it a thousand times.  What can I say I don’t get out much and I was bowled over by it!

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Just look at the colour of that sea!
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The view towards Pefkoulia beach.

Poor Tim had to endure hours of me going on and on about it.  He always puts a brave face on it.  After all, he’s used to it now after thirty years.

 

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Kathisma beach.
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Agios Nikitas.

Lefkada town is a really vibrant place too with a huge marina where a good number of people see the winter out moored up on their boats.  We spoke to a German lady who, along with her husband, spend their winters at Lefkada on their boat and the summer touring the rest of Europe in their motorhome.

 

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Identical sailboats lined up in Lefkada marina.

The old town is a wonderful warren of tiny narrow alleyways, independent shops, restaurants, cafes and brightly coloured corrugated iron clad houses.

 

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The pastel coloured corrugated iron clad houses in the old town of Lefkada.
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Such a lovely place for a wander.
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A doer-upper.
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Church bell tower (earth quake proof) in Lefkada.

So that brings us full circle back to Igoumenitsa.  We’ve spent the last couple of days on the campsite getting all the washing done, cleaning the van inside and out and watching the comings and goings of all the ferries from our front row beach side pitch.  It sounds idyllic but it looks more like a building site than a campsite.  Even though the campsite is open they are doing some major renovations so the shower and toilet blocks are closed, the wifi is flaky and the electricity goes off randomly.

 

Tim had set himself up to watch the Six Nations Rugby on Saturday night but had a mild tantrum when the wifi suddenly disappeared ten minutes before the first match.  He went off to see what was going on to be told it would be switched off for an hour or so along with the electricity as some trees needed to be felled.  Oh dear.  I could have balanced a dinner plate on his bottom lip when he returned to the van.  Ah well, this is Greece!  I’d been able to get three loads of washing done so at least I was happy.

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Goodbye Greece.

Onwards then to the manic roads that are Italy.

αντιο σας!


	

An Encore in Greece…. .

What?  An encore in Greece?  What’s going on?  I’d planned to write this blog post whilst on the ferry back to Italy last Thursday as a distraction on the twenty one hour crossing.  I’m not good on ferries and find them interminable.  The time seems to me to drag on endlessly.  I’d be absolutely hopeless on a cruise.  Assuming I wasn’t seasick, which is quite often the case, writing the blog, then, would have kept me absorbed for a significant chunk of time even if I wasn’t able to upload it to the internet.  However, I received a text from the ferry company a couple of days before our scheduled departure date which prompted a rethink of our plans.

The Minoan Lines ferry leaves from Patras, cruises for four or five hours, makes a pitstop at Igoumenitsa further up the Greek coast, before continuing on to Ancona in Italy.  Even though we’d booked the 17:00 ferry to depart on 1st March from Patras the text let us know that we had three options:  ·

  • 1. Depart from Igoumenitsa at 23:00.   ·
  • 2. Depart from Patras at 17:00 the following day.  ·
  • 3.  Have a full refund.

Oh, OK then, no apology, just a bit at the bottom of the text saying ‘thank you for your understanding’.  It’s a three hundred kilometre drive from Patras to Igoumenitsa on toll roads so option number one wasn’t favourable as we’d be out of pocket and the ferry is the same price whichever port you decide to leave from.  Option two sounded pretty good and we were going to go with that.  Ah But…. But….  That was until we read on the news and heard from friends and family about ‘the beast from the east’.  Oh yes, the good old weather in Northern Europe was freeeeeeeezing with ridiculous amounts of SNOW.  It was even snowing in Rome.  Mmm, what to do.  Option three was looking like the best option then.  We’d had several days of rain here in Greece at that point and we were really looking forward to a change of scene and a different country to explore but, if you have read this blog on a regular basis, you’ll know by now that we don’t do SNOW.   We also don’t like being cold if we can help it.  I make no apology for this as we wouldn’t be British if we weren’t always wittering on and whinging about the weather now would we?   So, we took the refund and have decided to stay in Greece a bit longer until the temperatures ‘on the other side’ look a bit more favourable.  After we’d made our decision and contacted the ferry company the sun came out.

That’s it then, now you’re up to speed on where we are I’ll let you know what we have been up to.  Well, we had a break in the weather to visit Ancient Olympia, a religious and athletic centre in its heyday and birthplace of the Olympic Games in 776 BC.  To give Tim a break from driving we took the train from Katakolo harbour where we were parked up for a couple of nights watching the rain run down the windows.

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Katakolo harbour where we stayed for two nights.

We thought it was an excellent service until we realised we would have to get two buses back as the last train left Olympia at lunchtime and only went as far as Pyrgos anyway (about halfway).  Still, it was an adventure!

Ancient Olympia is in a beautiful setting and we thoroughly enjoyed our wander around the whole site on the first sunny day we’d had in several days.  It was practically empty with few visitors and just the sound of the birds to keep us company.

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Remains of the Philippeion, commissioned by Philip II, honours the dynasty of Macedonian kings.
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The Olympic Stadium.
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Remains of the vaulted stadium entrance added in 3rd Century BC.
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Remains of the Leonidaion, accommodated distinguished guests.
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Archaeologists still working on the site.

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Metope sculptures from the temple of Zeus in the Olympia Archaeological Museum.

After the beautiful day we’d had at Olympia the weather, once again, closed in with rain so we decided to spend a couple of days at Ionion Camping at Glypha further up the coast.  It gave us the chance to get everything recharged and turned around before moving on to what would have been our last stop before leaving Greece.  The campsite is the most modern and tidy site we’ve stayed on in Greece so far but it’s a bit isolated which wouldn’t normally bother us if we are out on the bikes but with the inclement weather it was all a bit dull and miserable.  After two nights we’d walked both ways along the beach and seen what there was to see so it was time to move on.

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Camping Ionian at Glypha.  

I’d been saving the Diakoftó to Kalávryta Railway till last on our clockwise trip around the Poleponnese as it was a fifty kilometre drive beyond Patras where we were going to get the ferry from.  Conveniently there is a good size car park at the station in the little village of Daikoftó where we were able to stay for a couple of nights.  Also very conveniently the weather bucked up just at the right time giving us two brilliant days in the area.

Built between 1889 and 1895 by an Italo-French consortium to bring ore down from the Kalávryta area, the narrow gauge railway running from the coast at Diakoftó through the Voraϊkós gorge covers fourteen miles and reaches gradients of up to one in seven in parts.  A third rail (a ‘rack and pinion’ system) helps the little train up the steeper bits.  The original steam locomotives were replaced in 1959 by diesel trains and we were quite surprised that the trains used now are all modern.  We were expecting something a little more rustic but we weren’t disappointed as the route up through the gorge is just magnificent.

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The train now is really modern.

The fourteen mile journey through fourteen tunnels and over several bridges took about an hour and we arrived in Kalávryta feeling buoyant.  As the only ones on the train we’d had a ring side seat behind the driver and we were able to keep swapping sides of the carriage to take advantage of the best views.

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A ringside seat behind the driver.
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View from one of the many bridges.
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The train gets really close to the river and practically scrapes down the side of the gorge in parts.
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View from the back of the train on our return.

If Tim thought he was going to have a mooch round Kalávryta for a couple of hours before the next train ride back he was sorely mistaken.  I’d planned a walk up to a monument dedicated to the Independence of Greece in 1821 which I thought was doable in the time we had.  It was all on road but only a few cars passed us and it gave us glorious views over the snow capped mountains down through the valley.  We had our lunch sat on the monument enjoying the views.

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Flooding after all the rain we’d had.
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Views of the hills surrounding Kalávryta.
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The monument dedicated to Greece’s independence in 1821.
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View across to the hills from the monument.

Back in the village we had time to visit the Holocaust Museum housed in what had once been the village primary school.  A very humbling experience where we left very subdued indeed.  On 13th December 1943, in retaliation for the killing of seventy eight German soldiers by the Greek guerilla resistance fighters, all the male inhabitants of Kalávryta aged twelve and over were marched up to the hill overlooking the town by German troops.  It was there that they were all shot.

Only thirteen of over five hundred of the boys and men survived.  The troops also set fire to the whole village and the primary school where all the women and girls had been locked in but fortunately they managed to escape only to find their husbands and sons dead.  They then had the unenviable task of burying their dead and trying to rebuild their lives.  We walked up to the site where the atrocity happened which is now a memorial to those that lost their lives.

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The memorial at Kalávryta to those that lost their lives on 13th December 1943.

The following day we picked up a footpath and walked up through the gorge in bright sunshine passing little goat farms with their ramshackle shelters to follow the route of the train.

 

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Walking through the Voraϊkós gorge.
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A goat farm nestling in the hillside.

So now with some extended time in Greece we plan to mosey on up to Igoumenitsa to get the ferry back to Italy in a week or so when the weather has settled down a bit.  We’ll leave from whence we came having completed a big lap of Greece taking four months.

Καληνυχτα!