Around Greece on a Vespa

The kindness of the Greeks

June 12, 2011 by Debra Dawson

Thursday, June 9: Andritsaina. This morning we visited the site of Olympia (having seen the archaeological museum last night when we arrived) along with many tourists and groups. We were there early and the place is so large that it can handle crowds as easily as DisneyWorld. Here we are sitting on some stones.

We returned to our family-run, nice hotel in town. We were using the WiFi in the deserted dining room when the owner, a widow who operates the hotel with her son, brought us (unexpectedly) two plates and forks with freshly-sliced watermelon and a 1/2 liter of water since it was such a hot day. The water and the fruit were a very welcome refreshment!

We left Olympia and thought that we’d explore a bit of the western, unspoiled coast of the Peloponnese thinking that we’d rest near the beach for a couple of days, since we’d missed going to the island of Zakinthos on this trip. We found miles of unspoiled beaches with a few apartments and rooms to rent along the way. We took a look at an apartment to rent for a couple of days, but in the end, decided to get back on track for the historic sites.

We drove through the mountains (again), using the iPad AND George’s Greek map, to go to Andritsaina, a mountain-top ancient town of stone houses and many wooden structures of Turkish influence. This was a long drive through winding mountain roads. We had just over a 1/2 tank of gas and I suggested that we fill up the tank, but B said that we were only driving about 32 kilometers and that we had more than enough to make it. Well, somewhere along the road, the sign for Andritsaina did not obviously point to the left and we kept going straight. After some time, we both decided that we should pull out the iPad to see where we were. We were, actually, on a parallel road on the opposite mountain of where we should be! So, we turned around and instead of going all the way back to the original fork in the road, one of us decided that we would try the smaller roads that the iPad displayed which appeared to be more direct “short-cuts.” One attempt got us into a tiny road that turned to only gravel and on which we could only drive very slowly. We quickly turned around and tried yet another short-cut to get back on the main road, but that turned into grass. In the end, I got off and walked the steep hill back to the main with road with my backpack and B rode the scooter up by himself so that we would have less weight. Once we were on the right road, it eventually deteriorated in sections, occasionally full of stones on one side, or a trench where the road was washed away. At the same time, we had not seen a gas station for hours. We continued to drive expecting that in one of the next mountain villages we’d find a station. We drove through a couple of towns, the tank was almost empty, and we were thinking (independently) of a plan for when we ran out of gas.

Just a little while later, we drove around a bend and there it was — our gas station oasis. The station was in the middle of nowhere with two large palm trees flanking the pumps. There were two guys sitting, playing cards; one of them came to pump the gas and the other asked us, in a British accent, where we were from. We learned that this young man was from Birmingham and had come to spend a couple of days in Greece and then decided to spend the entire month. He said that he was teaching these Greek guys some English. The station attendant did use his English to ask B what his name is. With my prompting and a little hint, B used his Greek to say his name, so this was a nice exchange. Here is how we found the young man from Birmingham (left) and the Greek station attendant (right).

Oh yes, there were two other men (one old, one younger and we didn’t photograph them) sitting off to the side in a separate part of the station who were drinking the local red wine “krasi kokkino” — the old man kept gesturing to me to come over and join them to drink some wine. When they heard where we were from, the younger man said that I look like a lovely Greek lady which I took as a compliment and I made a polite gesture to thank him. We declined to have some wine “because we were traveling by scooter” and with a full tank, we were off and made it to Andritsaina long before dark.

We found a room in the center of Andritsaina and the proprietor, finding out where we were from, kept saying something about Michael Dukakis. And 2000. It is possible that Michael Dukakis visited in 2000, but I’m not sure! The danger of asking for a room in Greek is that each time these folks think that I understand and want to keep talking to me! In Olympia, the proprietor had told me that I spoke excellent Greek. And now this man wanted to tell me about “Mike Dukakis” and I couldn’t appreciate it all! Then we heard “Obama” and B figured that we are now talking politics. (Has Obama visited Greece?) Here is a view of our room (on the second floor) and the scooter in front.

After settling in, we walked over to the bar next door and ordered a cold beer to share. We were sitting for what seemed forever; B thought that I should go inquire to see whether the man forgot that we’d ordered, but I could see the man in the distance in his kitchen, so I said that we should be patient; after all, we’ve waited extraordinarily long for the cappuccino that we order each day. Wow, were we surprised. This man brought us a plate of cut up salted tomatoes, cucumbers, and olives along with our beer. Something to snack on! We thanked him over and over. Another generous person.

We later had a dinner of pork souvlaki and horiatiki at a little restaurant operated by mother and daughter. Here’s mama at the grill with daughter in the background.

Local horiatiki:

The iPad fails us.

June 12, 2011 by B Ruml

Thursday, June 9: Andritsaina. [Written Sunday. On Thursday and Friday we were in "rooms to let" accommodations which, although very satisfactory in other ways, had no WiFi. We're taking Sunday, Pentecost, as a rest day to get caught up on posts and doing nothing.] Well, you’ve already read Deb’s account of today. We thought it might be amusing to give you two versions of the same day.

We started the day at the Olympia archeological site. Unlike Delphi, there’s not much left. A large collection of stones, many portions of colums so fluted, occasionally arranged in a rectangle. Happily, in 2004, a German organization decided to restore a single column from the major building, the Temple of Zeus.

We spent some time trying to get a new banner photograph similar to the one we managed to do last summer. We used the terrific eight-inch tripod Wheeler gave me and it worked very well. Unfortunately, we need more practice getting our heads at the same height. This is the best be could do this time but we’ll keep at it!

Deb described our delight at being spontaneously served some watermelon as we were doing our last post in the hotel dining room midmorning. She was embarrassed that I had failed to photograph it until there was just one piece left but it really conveys the pleasure we had in it.

We left Olympia about noon for the coast where we were told there were some wonderful beaches. We found them but they were isolated and rather than stay we decided to push on to Andritsaina. Deb has given her version of our next adventure but you can get a very good idea of the situation from this map photographed at the end of the day after it could do us any good. Olympia is just northeast of Krestena (the circle in the upper left) and we went from there along the coast road to Zacharo. A bit south of Zacharo, we decided to head towards Andritsaina. We did what we always do, entered the destination into the iPad and watched it draw a blue line from our current location to Andritsena. We didn’t really know how secondary (perhaps tertiary) the roads were. And indeed, if we had actually followed the road the iPad had selected, we would have been fine. But at some point we took the wrong fork and the next time we checked the iPad, the blue dot which shows one’s current location was quite a bit off the intended path. We tried to find a way back to our route but the possibilities all turned out to be unpaved (and quite steep in a downward direction [probably fine for sheep]) and we finally (and wisely) decided we’d have to backtrack about five kilometers. It was still a bit rough going until we hit the main Krestena-Andritsaina road but a big relief from what we’d been facing before we backtracked.

So, this gives me an excuse to say what an unbelievable device the iPad is when traveling. We rarely consult paper maps and can always determine where we are and how to get somewhere else. We read the New York Times every morning (WiFi or not, via 3G), answer our email, listen to music (our JamBox bluetooth speaker turns out to be fantastic), and read books. This will give you the background to understand our trauma of tomorrow!

The drive today was again full of terrific scenery and we arrived in Andritsena in plenty of time to find a nice place to stay and to eat at the mother-daughter grill house.

Another encounter in the mountains

June 12, 2011 by Debra Dawson

Friday, June 10: Kalamata. We made the short drive to the wonderful temple, Epicurious Apollonas, not far from Andritsaina. The temple is high atop a mountain and in spectacular condition, in some part due to the fact that ten years ago a large canopy was erected to protect it from the elements while restoration work is being done.

Here is a photo of the site when it was still exposed to the rain.

We decided to drive south toward Kalamata and onward to the Byzantine remains of Mystra. After driving through the mountains for about 45 minutes or an hour, it was time to stop for coffee. We found a small, not fancy, “taverna” off the side of the road. (Niki: could this be the type of place where sheepherders stop to eat?)

We pulled up and a very old grandmother came out to see who had arrived. We said “kalimera” and walked inside to what was a bit of a strange, or unexpected situation. The two (or three?) tables were against the walls, one of which had two men sitting, drinking Amstel, and one man had been lying down napping on a bench to the right. The grandmother was in the middle of all of this and I (quickly decided not to turn around and walk out) asked if we could please have coffee since it was obvious that there was no espresso machine. She asked me in Greek about what kind of coffee I wanted, and since we were unsure of what she actually had available, I went into her kitchen with her. She pointed to a can of Nescafe, and I said that we’d like two of those. I went back to join B and the three men were now talking to us! Imagine these three guys asking us where we were from, and when learning that we were American, the man on the left said something about Obama and kept making a motion like pulling a trigger.

Eventually, we were able to understand “Obama kalos” or Obama good, and when he said “Obama…bin Laden..” with a trigger finger, I was able to say “katalavainoume” or “we understand.”

We had the iPad out with the road map displayed and showed it to them. I don’t know whether these guys ever see a normal computer, but it was mesmerizing to one man in particular. The grandmother (yia yia) brought out two iced cappuccino drinks which looked exactly like the ones that we’d been served at the fancy bar in Andritsaina the day before! How did she do it??? While the men continued to talk with us in Greek (of course!) B pulled out his camera and set it up in the video mode so that he could capture their conversation hoping that we could ask Niki and George to listen to it when we return and tell us what the heck they were saying!

We drove on toward Kalamata, drove a bit south along the coast, and stayed in a nice room with a view of the sea (tnv thalassa) for 30 euros. We found one of the only places open (still low season) with a large group of people finishing dinner and shouting to each other, even though they were only two feet away from the person to whom they were speaking. This is a recurring theme that B has observed in our travels.

We make an (almost) inevitable mistake

June 12, 2011 by B Ruml

Friday, June 10; Avia. [written Sunday] A rather uneventful day with a beautiful drive through the mountains.

We stopped, as Deb described, at the Temple of Apollo Epicurius which will be a highlight of the trip for me. A staggering job of restoration ahead but the foundation of the front columns has been stabilized and the temple is certainly worth the effort.

The next stop was ancient Messene, a large archeological site with some features still visible, such as the amphitheater.

We got to Kalamata at about 6pm and were in a small seaside resort in Avia a few minutes later. Then, as we unpacked, it hit: we did not have the charger for the iPad! I’d left it plugged into the waist-high outlet this morning and we’d overlooked it as we checked out the room on leaving. I’ve given you a rough idea of the importance of the iPad to me and the possibility of being without it for the balance of our journey was a cruel blow. After recovering for a while, it occurred to me that the iPad charger is the same as the charger for the iPhone which we’d seen for sale in the phone store on Corfu. (We haven’t seen any indication that the iPad is for sale in Greece.) So, one possible solution would be to head into Kalamata in the morning, find a phone store and hope that they could sell us a charger. A rather traumatized night’s sleep!

To Mystra and Sparta

June 13, 2011 by Debra Dawson

Saturday, June 11: Sparta.. We drove from the area south of Kalamata to the Byzantine city of Mystra. Along the way, we stopped at a mountain taverna for coffee and cigarettes (B, not me) and the proprietor was asking many questions about the iPad, so B showed him several of the things that it does: map, newspaper, e-mail, music, etc. The man understood that it was a computer and couldn’t stop looking at it and inquiring. When I paid for the coffee he insisted that I write down how to find information on the iPad. I gave him the Apple URL and wrote down the name of the product on a piece of paper. After we finished our coffee and were getting up to leave, he came back with his wife, who spoke perfect English. She was asking me to explain. She looked and recognized that this was an Apple product and I told her that the Vodafone dealer in Kalamata said that they would be carrying the iPad in one week. I hope that this man actually gets his iPad!

We’re staying in a nice, modern hotel in Sparta and have learned that this is a 3-day holiday weekend of the Holy Spirit, or Pentecost. We were able to get this room for 50 euros despite the holiday traffic and look forward to a nice Sunday meal today and a second visit to Mystra on Monday, on our way to Areopoli, where we’re looking forward to finding tavernas with grilled octopus since we missed the suckling pig in Messene.

Two important lessons

June 13, 2011 by B Ruml

Saturday, June 11; Sparti. I woke up greatly excited to know that we would somehow get our iPad charger back: Deb called the place where we left it and discovered that they had found it and would hold it for us. The only question was whether we would have to backtrack an entire day to recover it or could replace it in Kalamata at some unknown phone store.

(Interruption to show 30 euro room in Avia with balcony overlooking Kalamata Bay:)

We hopped on the Vespa and drove into the center of Kalamata, found a Vodafone store immediately, and were shown an off-brand charger which they assured us would work just fine. We demurred and they kindly directed us to the competing phone store 30 meters up the street. When we got there, it took a few tries digging in their stock but they came up with the Apple charger (the 30 euro price was outrageous but a bargain under the circumstances). We were back in business!

We left Kalamata with big smiles on our faces and headed towards Mystra and Sparta. We didn’t realize that we would be traversing the only road over the intervening mountains with very, very little but wilderness on both sides. An absolutely breathtaking experience which we look forward to repeating in the other direction when we return via Kalamata to go down the famous scenic route to Mani.

We stopped at the upper town of Mystra and exhausted ourselves climbing to the top of the castle (perhaps 150 feet up a rocky path). We explored the small palace church of Agia Sophia with frescos and a nice patterned marble floor. Then into Sparta to find a place to stay. We learned an important lesson in this process. After we had checked out the more modest options, Deb decided to try the most modern of the hotels in the center of town. It turned out, after a bit of bargaining, that at 50 euros it was only 5 euros more than a very basic place down the street. We were delighted and will spend two nights. Here’s the lobby:

and here’s the room:

We learned another important lesson when dinner time came. The Rough Guide said that the hotel restaurant was excellent and especially known for their Greek dishes (of course, the friendly desk clerk also said that it was the best restaurant in town). So we made a reservation and were one of two parties dining. When we looked at the menu, everything other than the specials of the day was Italian(!) and the specials didn’t seem all that Greek. We should have packed up and left but inertia got the best of us and we had one of the worst meals you could imagine — even the horiatiki was the worst (and most expensive) we’d had. Lesson learned.

We tried to make up for it by asking for some ice to put in our bedtime ouzo and they kindly provided a very cute miniature ice bucket (note Deb’s Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress!):

We drowned our sorrows in ouzo!

Lazy rest day

June 14, 2011 by B Ruml

Sunday, June 12; Sparti. Since this was our rest day, we have little to report.

We had some light showers midday so didn’t venture far to eat. In fact, we returned to the excellent fast food joint on the main square that we’d been lucky enough to select for our lunch coming into town. Today they had a freshly made pastitsio which we thought was an outstanding exemplar:

We also went for their full-bore souvlaki plate:

Walking around we came across this mannequin in a store window. Somebody get the Harvard lawyers on the case!

[1842km; 50; 15; 26]

Pushing on to the Mani

June 14, 2011 by B Ruml

Monday, June 13; Stoupa. This morning Deb surprised me by eating breakfast — of course, she insists that she always eats breakfast; it’s just that I don’t notice.

After a very slow morning packing, we finally got off at about 12:30pm to return over the fabulous mountain road to Kalamata. Just out of town, we stopped at the lower town of Mystra, which we I’d been too tired to see following our visit to the upper town on Saturday. It was most worthwhile, including a church still in use with well-preserved frescos.

We stopped for cappuccino at a substantial cafe at the top of the pass. We had the idea of again using Wheeler’s tripod to take a video of us driving up on the Vespa. It was only a mild success (we’ll keep trying) but Deb took some pretty good video of what traveling along mountain road looked like from the back seat.

About 3pm we passed a psistaria tucked in a nook in the mountainside; it was jammed with people eating lunch. I’ve learned not to pass up such unsubtle signals and we turned around and went back.

It was a clear candidate for “best meal yet” especially because of the ambiance of the setting. But the food was terrific! Of course, you want to see another horiatiki!

And some more paidakia:

The bill was jaw-droppingly modest:

The rest of the day was spent working our way down the west coast of Mani until we got to the best beach town. Only later did we discover that it is the favorite destination for British package holidays (direct flight from Manchester anyone?). Actually, aside from having to overhear English all evening, it was very nice, especially the sunset.

[XXXXkm; 45; 24; 41]

Rain at last

June 16, 2011 by Debra Dawson

Tuesday, June 14: Neo Oitilo. B and I left the town of Stoupa at around noon (we waited for a local laundry to wash and dry our clothes) amid threats of rain. The ideal would be to find a fish taverna where we could order grilled octopus. We drove a few kilometers south to Agios Nicolaos, which has tavernas along the waterfront and had our first grilled octopus

plus grilled sardines with a salad.

“Nostimo” (delicious) with a squeeze of lemon. The restaurant, Limani, had seating that overlooked the fishing boats.

Our waiter, who was most polite and attentive, turned out to be French, but one of the two brother proprietors had traveled extensively in the U.S., especially the southern states, and came out to talk with us and tell us what we should see as we drove south toward Areopoli.

Our drive along this very picturesque coast was interrupted by threatening gray clouds in the mountains which occasionally brought rain. When that happened, we’d find a covered shelter along the road. The first shelter was a covered “lookout” where we sat and ate Greek cookies and listened to thunder as a few cars rolled by.

The second shelter was a concrete “bus stop.” B was passed the time by reading using the iPad.

After a while we dried off the scooter with a beach towel and drove off. We were only 7 kilometers away from our destination of Areopoli, and driving around the winding mountain road, when the rain started coming down more seriously. As we slowly, slowly, rode down the final turn and were closer to the water, B spotted a stone “Hotel Itilo” just as we were arriving in the town known as “Neo Oitilo” (New Itilo) and we took shelter on their terrace after I inquired about a room. B used their rest room and came back to report that this was a very nice place and we may want to consider staying. We had already learned that the rooms started at 75 euros with breakfast (this, from the owner’s 12-year old son who runs the desk) and felt that it was just a little too expensive, but with the afternoon rain and a desire to rest after the day’s drive, we were weighing our options while sitting outside. The owner came out after talking with his son and offered us the room for 90 euros with breakfast and dinner. B explained that we’re in Greece for two months on the scooter and that this is more than we wish to spend for one night since we need to conserve our resources. After considering our options alone again, B suggested that I go in and offer them 150 euros for two nights including breakfast and dinner. They accepted the offer but said that we would not have a view of the sea. That was fine with us and we learned that our balcony in the room on the side of the hotel actually gives us a view of the sea and of the mountainside that we had just negotiated on the scooter.

The hotel is only about three years old and turned out to be a nice base for exploring the Mani region. It also had many Greek guests so we were back to listening to Greek, and not English. We dressed for dinner:

which included these “small fish”:

Tip of the Mani

June 16, 2011 by Debra Dawson

Wednesday, June 15: Neo Oitilo. Although the weather forecast said rain, the skies were clearing a bit, so after a very substantial breakfast buffet, we drove south to Areopoli, looked around, stopped for cappuccino, then drove to the tip of the peninsula. The town of Vathia consists of ancient stone tower-like houses (fortification) clustered on a hilltop. I’m afraid that we forgot to take a photo of the town.

We drove back to Gerolimenas to have lunch at a taverna on the water, a beautiful setting and order grilled octopus again:

and “horta” or wild greens that are available at this time of year and are steamed and served with olive oil, squeezed lemon juice and needed salt.

We were served tzatziki adorned with the cutest little olives and, as I speared one with my fork to place it in my mouth, the olive fell on my newly-laundered shirt (darn) and smeared tzatziki on the front. B insisted on documenting this since I’m always telling him to be careful about spilling food on his clean clothes.

Here’s a view of our hotel from the road to the south taken as we returned:

Dinner at our Iitilo hotel on our second night was delicious braised lamb with artichokes and potatoes:

On to Gythio and Monemvasia; we’re on schedule, George!