The Uists, Benbecular and Berneray…. .

Across the causeway from Eriskay brings you into South Uist, home to long, white, sandy beaches on the west coast and rolling peat moors, inlets and rocky hills on the east coast.  There are sooo many deserted beaches on these islands.  Waking up in the morning and rolling out of the van straight onto a sandy beach all to myself to do my morning exercise routine has been another highlight of our trip.  Swinging about a couple of little yellow dumbbells whilst watching sanderlings skitter up and down the shoreline or listening to a couple of terns squawking their displeasure at having unwanted company sure beats wiping down the sweat of the previous occupant on the equipment at my local gym before using it.  Of course I don’t do this routine every morning as I’m really not that disciplined but when I do remember to do it and make the effort it is always worth it…….even more so on an empty beach without curious onlookers making me feel acutely self conscious and ridiculous…….except on one occasion when two gorgeous coffee and cream coloured young bullocks watched me with expressions that distinctly said WTF?

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A beach all to myself:)

After our first night on South Uist the fickle hand of the weather had us scuttling off to Lochboisdale on the other side of the island to seek some refuge from the wind which had battered us overnight at our exposed position right behind the beach.  As I’ve mentioned before high winds have us praying that our roof vents will still be intact when we wake up in the morning.  Being made of plastic they really aren’t the best and the wind manages to get under them constantly making them rattle.  Tim has solved the problem on three of them with a simple system of elastic bands and suckers to hold them in place but we have one which is a wind up affair with an integral fan within it which makes it impossible for that solution to work without taking it to bits and punching a hole through a fly screen.  On the second night of the ruddy thing rattling and constantly waking us up Tim got up in the early hours to deal with it.  I woke up a few hours later to find the temporary solution in place.  Mmm, not ideal but it did give us a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.

 

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The temporary fix to the rattling roof vent.

Cable ties have sorted the little blighter out now.  We can’t open it or use the fan and the fly screen is in tatters but that’s the price we have to pay for a better nights sleep and it’s preferable to a hole in the roof.

 

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Lochboisdale on not such a good day.

Once at Lochboisdale we found some shelter behind a couple of containers in the harbour and sat out the inclement weather until it was time in the early evening to visit the hotel bar, sit round an open fire and upload the last blog post.  As there are next to no trees on the islands I asked the lady behind the bar if it was expensive to import wood or coal.  She said they buy a tonne of coal at a time which a few years ago cost them £700 but now costs £1300 and they sometimes mix it with peat if they’ve cut any that year.  Peat used to be an important natural fuel source here on the islands but now electricity, oil and gas have largely taken over.

 

A couple of days later we were waylayed by the most perfect pile of peat we’d ever seen before.  It was a work of art I tell you.

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The perfect peat pile.

We had to stop and take a photo of it.  The owner of the house was pottering about outside and after checking it was OK to take a photo he very happily answered all our questions about it.  He gathers it once a year from the moorland which has been allocated to him and it takes six people just one day to cut enough peat to supply his home with free energy for cooking, hot water and heat for an entire year.  After it’s cut it’ll take him three to four days of numerous trips to get it back to the house where he spends the next two weeks of his spare time building his masterpiece to dry it out before it can be used.  Marvellous.  The actual pile in the pictures is half of what it was and he showed us a framed picture of the completed work of art.

 

P1120801.JPGHe also told us all about how the peat is cut and showed us the tools they use which he keeps submerged in water all year round.  We were so glad we stopped and it is good to see an old tradition alive and well.

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Two consecutive days of clear dry weather had us out on the bikes again.  Apart from the punishing wind it really is a great place for cyclists and we’ve seen many a happy smiling cycle tourer blasting along with a tail wind heading north.  Those heading south are generally grimacing but I’m sure they’re enjoying every minute of it.  For us, as we are doing circular routes or out and back routes, it’s fifty fifty for the wind with or against us…..grimace on the way out and smile on the way back.

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Loch Druidibeag.
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Shetland ponies?  Not being a pony afficianado I wouldn’t know.
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Overlooking Loch Sgiopoirt.
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Shame about the car in front!
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A novel way to hold down the wire netting covering the thatch.

A day of walking followed where we had intended to walk to Uisinis Bothy and back on the eastern side of the island but was curtailed when we realised, when the path fizzled out after an hour or so, that we’d taken the wrong fork earlier on so retraced our steps and spent a while listening to the birds over a long lunch overlooking the sea.

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Peat cutting.

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Striding out on the wrong path to reach the bothy…..or not reach the bothy.
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Overlooking Loch Sgiopoirt again.

 

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Ah well, back after retracing our steps to just relax and listen to the birds.  We saw two cuckoos here.  We’ve heard them often enough but it’s the first time we had actually seen a cuckoo in the flesh.

The cycle of the weather has been such that a couple of days of decent weather have been followed by a wet and wild one.  Either a library or a museum come in handy on those days.  The Kildonan Museum on the A865 is a very pleasant place to while away an hour or so followed by coffee and cake in the attached cafe.  It tells the story of Island life through its exhibits, collections and pictures.

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Another restored croft house.

Benbecula gets quite an unkind write up by our guide saying ‘the only reason to come to Balivanich, Benbecula’s grim, grey capital, is if you are flying into or out of Benbecula airport, or you need an ATM or supermarket’. As the weather had closed in again with mist and drizzle I confess we did what most people probably do and that is drive straight across it to get to North Uist.  It is apparently pancake flat but we couldn’t tell as the mist denied us seeing it.  We did stop at the Co-op to do our weekly shop though to spread our spending on all the islands less one feel left out.

North Uist is more of the same landscapes as we had seen on South island but I don’t mean that in any disparaging way at all but I’m running out of superlatives to describe how fabulous these islands are.

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Moorcroft Campsite on North Uist.  They’ve thought of everything here.  Well kept grounds, spotless facilities, campers kitchen,  washing machine, tumble dryer, bunkhouse and three little hobbit houses to hire. 

You see some curious things when out either walking or cycling.  From a couple of fields away, through the binoculars, I spotted a sheep with all four legs in the air.  I dimly remember reading something somewhere that said if a sheep is on its back then it’s not that way deliberately and will die if it’s not turned over.   Well we got to her and got her turned over but she was too weak to get up so we went to the nearest house to let them know.

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If you see a sheep in this position it needs to be turned over.

The very friendly lady who answered went next door to talk to who she thought was the owner.  We didn’t linger around as there wasn’t anything else we could do so hopefully she was saved.  I looked it up later and, when the sheep is in the upside down position like that, it’s the gasses in their stomach from all that grass eating that swell up and eventually press on their lungs eventually suffocating them.  They don’t get into that position on purpose but it can happen if they are carrying lambs or their fleece is heavy with water.

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Traigh Ear beach when the tide is out.

Another curious sight also involving sheep happened after we’d done a long walk around the peninsular at Granitote.  Traigh Ear beach at low tide is a vast expanse of hard packed sand.  Just as we were finishing our walk we watched a ewe with her two lambs trailing behind her wander down onto the beach.  She then just kept going.  And going .  And going.  She was on a mission.  She must have walked a mile or so to get to the grass on the other side of the bay.  Obviously ‘the grass is greener’ isn’t just a human thing after all.

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Traigh Udal beach – that’s Tim in the middle above the seaweed line!

Later, when the tide had come in creating a vast expanse of knee deep water, the farmer with his dogs, rounded up his flock and walked them all down into the water where the dogs held them there for about ten minutes or so.  They were only in up to their knees so I doubt it was a swimming lesson. The dogs looked to be thoroughly enjoying racing around in the water making sure they kept together.  They then all ambled back up the beach to recommence eating grass.  Maybe the salt water stops them getting foot rot?

 

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It was polystyrene but it was still quite heavy!

The final island before getting the ferry across to Harris is Berneray linked by a causeway to North Uist.

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Berneray.

It is just a wee thing measuring two miles by three, with a population of just 140.  It is just delightful.  I think it could be my favourite island so far.  Mind you, that could be because the constant blasting wind we have had everyday had finally tempered down to a light breeze and we could actually hear the silence .  I even had a burnt face by the end of the day.  Sun burn in the Outer Hebrides.  Who’d have thought?

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Restored Black houses.

P1120889.JPGThe little museum run by volunteers tells the story of island life with hundreds of donated photos to peruse.  Seals bask off the rocks close into the shore without seemingly a care in the world.

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Who couldn’t love a seal?

As our friend Chris would say………..happiness on a stick!

Time for a ferry ride to Harris and Lewis, the last island we’ll be exploring on the Outer Hebrides.

Feumaidh mi ruith!

 

       

 

 

 

Eriskay…. .

The forty minute boat ride to Eriskay with a tail wind and sunny skies, making it actually pleasantly warm out on deck, proved to be a very enjoyable one with seals spotted basking off the rocks.  Such is the fickle nature of the weather here that the ferries were cancelled the following morning due to inclement conditions (aka: it was blowing an absolute hooly).  If you get some bright weather here you have to make the most of it immediately as it’s sure to change in a matter of hours…….or minutes.  I’m not whinging, just making an observation.

 

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A dozen or so seals came into the beach for more sheltered waters.

In the week or so we have been on the islands we have had sunshine, wind, rain, wind, cloud, wind, mist, wind, drizzle, wind, sunshine, wind and wind.  As you can see the wind has been the only consistent element within the mix.  The windswept look is definitely ‘in’ up here.  Again, I’m not moaning I’m just letting you all know that even though it looks all sunny skies in the photos they don’t portray the full picture so to speak.  I’m not about to go out taking pictures of greyness just to show the other side of the weather and anyway even if I’d wanted to I can barely get the door of the van open at such times.  It’s too windy.

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I wonder how much washing is lost to the wind on the Islands?

On these occasions (about fifty fifty so far) you’ll find us hunkered down in the van, in our sleeping bags, reading our kindles whilst gently swaying in the gusts.  ‘3’ doesn’t seem to have reached the islands as our mifi hasn’t had a signal since we have been here.  It has actually been really good for me to have an enforced lay-off from the internet as I’ve enjoyed reading a whole lot more when I’m not constantly distracted by the thoughts of ‘oh, I just need to look up such and such’.  There’s too much else to look at anyway.  For example, last night I spent a good couple of hours just enjoying watching two Hebridean lambs frolicking around together on the grass outside the van.  They were having a whale of a time skipping around playing together it was just a joy to watch them.  It had me thinking out loud ‘do only lambs miss out if they don’t have a sibling or do they make friends with other lambs’………..’what, like on Fleecebook’………..très drole Tim, très drole.  The two were joined by another two later in the evening which, I guess, answered that question.

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The quartet of quadrupeds who kept me entertained for a couple of hours (photo take from inside the van on South Uist late into the evening).

Back to Eriskay.  Although only measuring just over two miles by one it does have some interesting stories to tell.  Probably the most famous was the sinking of the SS Politician in 1941 on her way from Liverpool to Jamaica which inspired Compton Mackenzie’s book Whisky Galore.  264 000 bottles of whiskey were on board at the time.  Great, finders keepers thought the islanders but Custom and Excise officers thought otherwise and nineteen islanders were found guilty of illegal possession and imprisoned in Inverness.

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View to South Uist from Eriskay.

The only pub on the island, the Am Politician, has one of the original bottles.  An Olde Worlde pub it is not but it is welcoming and has a conservatory that heats up nicely when the sun is out which it was when we were there.  Handily, it also has free wifi which was pretty fast so I could upload my photos and the last blog post.  If you have a dog though there is no room at the inn as they aren’t allowed in which is a shame as with all those deserted beaches to play on I can see why dogs would choose the islands as a holiday destination.  Equally the Polachar pub on South Uist (owned by the same people I think) doesn’t allow dogs in either which is a shame if you are either a dog, have a dog or are a dog lover.

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More fabulous beaches and coastline.

As an aside, we went to the only pub on Barra at Castlebay and hardly flinched when we were charged £9.80 for two pints as we thought it must be the going rate for the islands.  Later though, and after a change of barman, we were charged £7.20 for two pints of the same beer.  Mmm, odd.  After being charged £6.80 for two pints in the Am Politician the beer barometer says that £9.80 was extortionate and we will be more vigilant next time.

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The Post Office within the well stocked village shop which also has a tiny coffee shop.

Another of Eriskay’s claims to fame is that Prince Edward Charles Stuart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie to his friends, landed on the islands main beach in July 1745 at the start of his campaign to regain the throne of Great Britain.  Following his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746 he fled into hiding on the Outer Hebrides with a price of £30 000 on his head.  After a couple of months keeping a low profile he escaped to the Isle of Skye helped at great personal risk by Flora MacDonald.  You can follow his story by visiting various places associated with him on the islands along the Bonnie Prince Charlie Trail.

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Another lovely, simple Hebridean dwelling.

We walked up to the top of Ben Sciathan, the islands highest point, which gives views as far as the islands of Skye, Rhùm, Tiree and Coll.  We were lucky to have clear weather even if it was a tad blowy.   The semi wild Eriskay ponies that roam free on the island can, apparently, often be spotted grazing in the centre of the island around Loch Crakavaig which is the islands only source of fresh water.  Alas, we didn’t spot them.

 

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Views towards the causeway which has linked Eriskay to South Uist since 2001.

So that’s Eriskay.  Onwards now across the causeway to South Uist.

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Not a sign you see everyday 🙂 

Feasgar math!

The Outer Hebrides…. .

Arriving on the bonny bonny banks of Loch Lomond just north of Balloch on a calm day in bright sunshine I just thought why?  WHY?  WHHYYY?  Why have I never been to Scotland before now?   What have I been doing all my life to not have experienced this before?  What was the matter with me?  I’ve been all over England and Wales and parts of Southern Ireland so why did I leave out Scotland?  Strolling along the Loch shore into Balloch I started to lament all the missed opportunities over the years.

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A tranquil Loch Lomond.

With all the rugged hills in the distance contrasting with the stillness of the loch I almost felt like I’d found my spiritual home.  I’d been living half a century in the Westcountry when I should have been born in Scotland!

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The sea plane comes in for a smooth landing.

Two days later my questions were answered.  Scotland isn’t green for no reason.  Plenty of rain helps to keep it the way it is.  After a bracing windy walk across the hills near Oban the rain came in and stayed for twenty four hours.  Ah yes, I remember now, that was why I’d never been to Scotland before, the unpredictable weather.

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The ferry bound for Barra at Oban.

Living in the South West it’s a looong drive to the Highlands and every time we’d mooted about doing a tour of Scotland for a one or two week holiday we’d always decided against playing Russian roulette with the weather and opted to visit areas closer to home.  Why we were put off by the drive really is beyond me as Tim had many a family holiday in the Highlands in his younger days travelling from Devon with half a dozen other family members crammed into a Hillman Imp borrowed from the next door neighbour!  With more modern transport and road networks it’s hardly the end of the earth but we always found an excuse to go somewhere closer to home.

We had originally planned to ‘do’ Scotland last year but chickened out and went chasing the sun instead.  This year, though, we are ready for it!  Fear not, I am not going to be a whining, whinging, moaning Minnie about the weather whilst we are here.  We are embracing Scotland and all the wild weather it has to throw at us.  The waterproofs are out, we’re layered up and we are ready.

Our first stop in Oban served as a jumping off point for visiting the islands of the Outer Hebrides.  Over two hundred islands make up the Western Isles as they are officially known with just a handful being inhabited by the 28000 or so hardy residents. The plan for the first couple of weeks is to island hop our way from South to North taking in the islands of Barra, Eriskay, Benbecula, South Uist, North Uist, Harris and Lewis before jumping across to the Isle of Skye for a week or so.

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Leaving Oban.

Although I usually HATE trips by ferry I was actually quite looking forward to the nearly five hour journey to Barra across the Minch at the southern end of the Isles as for the first half of the journey the boat meanders through a narrow stretch of water flanked on one side by the coast of Western Scotland and on the other by the islands of Mull and Coll.  We’d been lucky that the weather had cleared up and was clear and sunny for the trip over giving us fabulous views all around.  Once out into the open sea though my queasiness took over and I spent much of the time outside on deck trying not to bring up the contents of my lunch.

Arriving on the island in the early evening it struck us almost immediately that the bobble hat is alive and well on Barra.  They are everywhere!  Barra is certainly a bijou island at just eight miles long by four miles wide but it is known as the Western Isles in miniature boasting sandy beaches backed by machair, Gaelic culture, prehistoric ruins and a few mountains thrown in for good measure……….and……..quicksand!

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Over the last week we have got out to explore Barra by boot and by bike.  Nearly all the roads are single track but with passing places every few hundred metres or so and little island traffic it has been completely stress free getting from place to place.  Everyone seems to drive at a sensible speed and gives a little wave on passing which is all very civilised and a welcome change from our usual type of driving.

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Island residents.
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A walk on the western side of the island.

P1120703.JPGOne of the islands claim to fame is that the airport that sits on the edge of Traigh Mhór bay is the only beach runway in the world receiving scheduled flights.  It is quite the attraction.  The runway is tide dependant and the public aren’t allowed on the beach when the windsocks are flying.  Whilst we were walking on the other beach behind the airport a little twin otter plane circled above us in the squally wind and rain getting ready to land but because the dunes are in the way obscuring our view we didn’t see it touch down on the sand.  When we  arrived at the airport cafe fifteen minutes later, the place alive with steaming waterproofs and steaming people, the three cheery ladies working at the cafe were  belting out Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I will survive’.  I guess it must have been a bit of a bumpy landing.

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The only scheduled flights in the world to land on a beach.
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The tide goes out a looong way.

The plane taxis right up to the airport building to drop off its passengers where they can then take a short walk to the bus shelter around the side of the building which also doubles up as the baggage reclaim.  Fantastic.

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Be careful not to slip on the seaweed as you exit the plane.
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The baggage handlers go to work.
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Also doubles up as the bus shelter!

We whiled away a couple of hours over coffee and cake drying out and soaking up the jovial atmosphere of the place only leaving after the plane had taken off again.

We’ve tramped around various areas of the island in some interesting wild weather but we’ve enjoyed every minute of it.  The beaches are some of the best we have seen on our travels so far with the ground up sea shells giving them their distinctive light colouring.  Learning that the crushed cockleshells are used to make harling (the rendering used on many Scottish houses) changed my opinion of what I deemed to be ugly pebbledash which I had assumed was imported in.

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The shells are also used in other ways.
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A scallop sea defence.

 

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The beaches are all empty.

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I love the contrast of all the colours of the fishing paraphernalia.
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Lobster kennels.
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You don’t come to the islands for the picturesque villages.

Cycling round the island yesterday in beautiful sunny weather was an absolute treat despite being against the wind for half of it.  Stopping to take photos at low tide with the seaweed revealed captured some of the iconic views that the islands are famous for.

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A spring lamb taking five. 
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We were going to walk across this field until Tim spotted the bull.
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Some of the best beaches we have seen on our trip so far.
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That could just be my dream house……
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……or that one!
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Fab…..u….lous.
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Views don’t get better than this.

So far our Scotland trip has already surpassed our expectations and I’m still bashing myself over the head for not having visited before.

Today we hopped onto the ferry which took us, in the warming sunshine, across the water to Eriskay  where we docked forty minutes later scraping our back end on the tarmac coming off the ferry (roll eyes).  It doesn’t take much of an angle to ground out the electrics on our tow bar!

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Off to Eriskay.

Happy days 🙂

Mar sin leat!

 

 

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!

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!

The final finger of the Peloponnese…. .

Well, it was bound to happen at some point on our gallivant around Greece.  An extended period of rain has grounded us.  Meh.  We can’t really complain as we’ve been in the country since the second week of November and any rain we have seen has generally been overnight, just for one or two days, or dried up pretty quickly.  So what better time to update the blog then.  I’m sitting in bed at four o’clock in the afternoon looking out at the rain streaked windows on the windswept harbour at Katakolo whilst writing this.  If it wasn’t for the blog I might be climbing the walls.

Fortunately, the deluge held off until we’d spent an enjoyable few days mooching about in Kóroni and Methóni situated towards the end of the fourth and final finger of our Peloponnese clockwise tour.  The two were both key Venetian ports in their former lives surveying the shipping lanes between the Adriatic and Crete.  First up, then, was Kóroni.  We parked beyond the town and walked the two kilometres along the beach and climbed up the steep hill to take a look at the remains of the castle walls.

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Colourful houses on the hill towards the castle at Koroni.
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I love the painted pavements.

The Timíou Prodrómou convent occupies the area within the walls and visitors are welcome to take a stroll around the grounds.  An eclectic mix of wrap around garments at the entrance provides suitable respectful cover for those unsuitably dressed.  Tim chose to stay outside.

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Outside the convent.

All the buildings are beautifully kept and surrounded by extensive gardens with a few chickens and sheep foraging about.

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View over the convent grounds.

The views over the rooftops of the town from the top of a completely unfenced crumbling building with sheer drops of ten metres off any of the sides were superb.  Curiously, it was fenced all the way up the forty or so steps but then at the top………..nothing.  The nuns had made sure they’d covered themselves against any litigation, though, with a sign saying ‘enter at your own risk’.  If I’d had children with me I’d have wanted them on a very short lead.

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View down to Koroni harbour.
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Compact Koroni.

The town below with its narrow streets and colourful buildings had a lovely feel to it and despite its obvious popularity as one of ‘the’ places to visit on the Peloponnese hasn’t succumbed to the more usual tat shop tourist scene.

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Heading down to the harbour.
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More pretty painted steps.
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View of the castle walls from the harbour.

Methóni, on the other side of the pointy bit of the peninsular, was our next stop.  After our first night in Methóni we realised that the campsite was open.  It didn’t look open as the gate was across and it looked a bit unloved and run down but open it was.  It was rough and ready but the owner was only charging €10 a night with electric, hot showers and use of the washing machine for free which was more than fair.  Shame it was broken though.

We were too late to visit the castle on the day we arrived as all the historic sites close at three o’clock in the winter so Tim decided it was high time he gave his new busking venture a go.  Whilst he entertained a small number of people sitting inside the few cafes and restaurants in the town plaza I kept a low profile and had a mooch around the beach and town.  I can’t watch.  I’m like a tense nervous parent watching their offspring at the Christmas Nativity play.

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Billy no mates!
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The bay at Methoni, sheltered by Sapientza island.

Apparently all went well and he wasn’t asked to leave so he gave it another crack the next day.  Alas, it was a little bit breezy and a gust blew over his music stand which then knocked his clarinet onto the floor.  So that was the end of that.  It wouldn’t play and now needs repairing.   It’s a cruel world the life of a busker.

To cheer him up we had a walk around the castle.  It hardly seems worth charging an entrance fee at €1 each at this time of year.  A couple of men sitting in the plastic porta cabin just beyond the entrance took our money though and gave us a shiny printed admission ticket.  Surely they can’t be paid to do that?  Surely not?  We were the only ones there.  They must get a handful of visitors at this time of year.  Maybe they were volunteers.  Still, at €1 it was a steal and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit made even more interesting by the rough (for Greece) seas.  We spent a happy half an hour watching the waves crash over the rocks.

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The bridge across the moat to Methoni Castle added by the French in 1828.
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Looking out beyond the Venetian sea-gate to the islet of Bourtzi fortified by the Turks.
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A breezy sunny day we had the whole place to ourselves.

 

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The 16th Century octagonal tower.
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View back to the castle walls.

The following day seeing as it was a Saturday and lots of people were around Tim braved the busking again.  This time with his back up clarinet.  Oh yes, he’s prepared is our Tim.  He has a spare.  Off he went whilst I read my book.  I met up with him after an hour and found him just packing up whilst swigging a beer.  Mmm, obviously things had gone well then!  Everyone had seemed to enjoy it and he was €8 and a beer better off.  He’d even taken coins off children.  Has he no shame?  Still, if they want to pass over their pocket money who am I to argue?  Not bad, almost minimum wage and this is Greece after all.  Time to celebrate with a beer at one of the cafes and a cheeky Ouzo on the beach before dinner!  I just need to get him out for eight hours a day, seven days a week and he’ll be earning enough to pay for our trip.

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Yay, Ouzo o’clock!
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Sunset over Methoni.

We left Methóni pootling further up the coast for a pitstop in Pylos before going on to Gialova Lagoon where we were hoping we would see flamingos amongst other birds which come every year.  We had a glorious day for the ten kilometre walk around the lagoon having a spot of lunch at the crescent shaped Voidokilia beach.  Fab..u..lous.

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Gialova Lagoon.
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You see how pink they really are when they take flight.
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A lovely, calm, tranquil day to visit.  Perfect.

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Views from one of the bird hides.
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Voidokilia beach.
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Yeah, right.  We’re not turning back after seven kilometres!

And there ended our good run of weather.  The day before yesterday it rained nearly all day.  Yesterday it rained nearly all day and today it has rained nearly all day.  Whether it’s the weather or the fact that our thoughts have started to drift towards our departure on the ferry next week to Italy we aren’t really feeling the love for this part of the Peloponnese since moving north of the Gialova lagoon.  We can still see the mountains in the distance, some of the time between the low flying clouds, but it is much flatter here and a bit sprawling.  Also, we pulled in to Lidl on Monday morning to find it closed as it was a bank holiday.  Always a disappointment!

I looked out of the window this afternoon and had one of the rare moments when I thought ‘what are we doing here’.  Those times are few and far between though and I’d have been thinking the same thing if I’d been in the UK with similar weather.

We. Must. Not. Grumble!

We may visit Ancient Olympia tomorrow if it’s dry.  There’s a train that runs once a day from where we are in Katakolo.  If I hadn’t seen the train this morning with my very own eyes I’d have never believed the line was still in operation looking at all the grass growing across the tracks.  Leaving the van on the harbour here and going by train will be more of an adventure but only if this weather bucks up.

Yia sas!

 

A Moody Máni…. .

And so to the Máni, finger number three, of our clockwise tour of the Peloponnese.  It was in bright sunshine that we said a sad farewell to the colourful little town of Gytheio heading for the southern most point of the Peloponnese.  It would take us a few days to get there as we were, once again, in need of a washing machine.  After a long drive of 4.9km we pitched up at Mani camping for the night to get everything turned around as it would be our last chance to find an open campsite until we reached Kalamata which was several days away.  Washing done, waste tanks emptied, water tanks brimming and campsite cats fed we commenced our meander down the Máni.

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The view from the beach near Kotronas.
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The Maniots must have been quite short as we saw many tiny chapels like this one.
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The church in Kotronas.
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Curious sheep.

Dominated by the Tygetos mountain range it is wild and rugged, quite different to anywhere else we have been to in Greece.  The fiercely independent Maniots have left their indelible mark on the landscape.  Villages made up of distinct tower houses and byzantine churches clinging to the hillsides blend in with the landscape.

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A beautiful day on the Mani peninsular.
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Villages blending in to the hillsides.
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A closer view.
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This has to be the cutest little chapel I’ve ever seen.

The area’s population of over 30 000 in the early 19th Century had slowly dwindled to less than 5000 by the early 1990’s.  We made our way down the eastern side of the peninsular taking it all in.  Having read and heard that the roads were particularly narrow we were quite relieved to see that, other than a few tight spots through the odd village, the roads were pretty good.  It also helped that we only passed a handful of cars coming in the other direction.

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Squeezing through Kotronas village.

On our second day we parked up in a large layby six kilometres from the end of the peninsular preferring to walk to the end rather than drive all the way to the tiny hamlet of Kokkinogia as the road did seem to get a tad narrow at that point.  Also the exercise would do us good.

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View towards Cape Matapan, the southern most point in Greece.
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Our parking spot.
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Looking towards the hamlet of Marmari, all closed up for the winter.

We got out of the van making ready for our assault on the southern most tip of the Peloponnese to a strong smell that I can only describe as smelling like cannabis.  Mmm.  Weird. The smell followed us all the way to the village.  Either the Maniot inhabitants have found a more lucrative way to make money or there is another plant that smells similar growing in the area.  We never did get to the bottom of it and with nobody about to ask it will remain a mystery.

The weather started to get a bit blustery but we made it down to the lighthouse for a spot of lunch without the weather closing in on us.

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Looking back to Kokkinogia the final village before you fall off the end.
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Cape Matapan lighthouse.
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A lunch stop with stone table and chairs provided free of charge.

Once back at the van, though, the weather did get more menacing.  Squally showers came and went in waves.

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The calm before the storm!

We went to bed that night being buffeted by gusts of wind on our very picturesque but exposed spot on the cliffs above the beach.  It was a loooonnnng looooonnng night.  I’d spent most of it thinking we were doomed.  The wind was snatching at the roof vents, which Tim had secured a few days previously with a Wallace and Gromitesque series of suction hooks and rubber bands.  They were doing a fine job.  If they hadn’t been there I think we’d have probably had three gaping holes in the roof by the morning.  It was reminiscent of a very windy night we’d had in Tarifa in Spain the previous winter but without the luxury of a town to hunker down in a couple of miles away.  Tim did even confess to having had a disturbed night and to thinking, at one point, that we had actually taken off.  My mild hysteria, then, wasn’t completely unfounded.

We had planned on staying another night to do another walk but thought it prudent to ‘get the hell out of there’ before we did, in fact, blow away.  We slowly pulled away from our parking spot heading back up the steep winding road praying that all four wheels remained in contact with the tarmac.  We took refuge in the pretty little port village of Gerolimenas to sit out the weather.  Over several hours, torrential rain came and went until the storm finally blew itself out.  Phew.  When the Máni’s in a mood it’s not a particularly hospitable place to be.

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See, it’s not always sunny.
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Geromilenas after the storm.
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Another petite chapel in Geromilenas.
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A walk to the next village of Ochia.
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Agios Nikolaos church in Ochia and our two companions who’d walked with us from Gerilomenas.

Further north we parked up and pottered around Areópoli, the main town on the western side of the peninsular.

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Areopoli.
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The back streets of Areopoli.

A pretty little place it is too where a footpath from the bottom of the town took us round to the next bay.

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The next bay around where you’ll find Pyrgos Dirou cave system, one of the largest and most colourful in Greece.
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The walk back.
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Wild flowers lined the way.

We’d parked in the large carpark just outside the village next to the school and bus station.  We spent the evening in the adjacent cafe watching the Six Nations Rugby on the laptop whilst troughing pizza, chips, beer and half a kilo of Rosé.  The locals were probably a bit bemused by us eating and drinking glued to the laptop with our headphones on and not exchanging a word.  Who says romance is dead!

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A quick pitstop in……..one of the towns along the way………can’t recall the name.
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The bay above the little village of Limeni.
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Looking across to Aghios Dimitrios.
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Sunset on a craggy coastline.

Our six night Máni meander, then, came to an end as we reached the Lidl on the outskirts of Kalamata.  As always, coming back to civilisation is a two edged sword.  We quite like to see more people again but instantly miss the solitude of rolling hills and wilder places.  The marina at Kalamata provides a handy stopover to do all the necessaries for another week of wandering.  Kalamata itself, as far as we made out, didn’t have much to recommend it except for a stroll through the ‘Railway Park’.

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Kalamata Railway Park.

DSC05330.JPGWe just stayed the one night and made ready to head off to Koróni but not without first speaking to our English neighbours, Jay and Fi, who had arrived late afternoon the previous day.  They turned out to be an interesting travelling troubadour couple from Edinburgh who seem to have sussed out the ‘work, life, balance’ conundrum.  Work for six months, travel for six months.  They had a big bouncing fluffy white puppy with them who we suspected hadn’t come with them from Scotland.  Said puppy was one lucky girl.  They’d spotted her foraging amongst rubbish on the outskirts of Olympia, gained her trust and taken her in.  You can read about her on their Website.

So I’ll end on that happy story:)

μέχρι την επόμενη φορά!