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Rambles in the Peloponnese - Sept. 19 - Oct 4, 2018

#1
Why we were there
The genesis of this trip came at the Living Locally Fair in Russell, Ontario in January 2017. A man was selling olive oil from his family’s property in the Peloponnese part of Greece. Along with the bottles of oil there was a small display with photos, maps & text. I was intrigued.
“What’s it like there?” I asked Rob Andrew.
“It’s beautiful,” he replied.
Good enough for me.
Planning
Over the next year+, I made dozens of decisions that led to our two weeks in the Peloponnese along with a last day near the Athens airport. We were also fortunate to have Colleen & Bob as our travel companions for the third time, following visits to Sardinia and Crete.
Resources: There are not many guide books devoted to the Peloponnese. Fortunately, there is at least one that is excellent – Greece: The Peloponnese by Andrew Bostock, (Bradt, 2016).
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I picked up a laminated map of the area at the first gas station stop away from the Athens airport. Both the book & the map were invaluable.
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I can highly recommend the movie Before Midnight with Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy. It is set in several locations in the Peloponnese.
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Also, a friend recommended a visit to Monemvasia.
Along with internet searches, that was it.
Flights: Air Canada from Ottawa to Athens & return, with a connecting flight from Montreal both ways.
Locations & Accommodations:
The biggest decisions were where to stay, for how long and in what accommodations. Below are the results after much consideration.
Nafplio - 2 nights – Porto Bello - problematic for those with mobility issues. The “street” is actually a staircase. You have to walk UP (about 80) or DOWN (about 30) steps to reach it; else excellent.
Finikounda - 8 nights – Vereneki Apartments – our Slow Travel base for the south-western Peloponnese, the most interesting region. An EXCELLENT place to stay in the area
Monemvasia - 2 nights – Flower of Monemvasia Hotel – located on the mainland, not the island.
Kardamyli - 2 nights in the Mani – Marina Studios – great location; modest, but very acceptable rooms.
Rafina -1 night – Margarita’s Villa – out of the Peloponnese, north of Athens, a short drive to the Athens airport. Superior accommodations.
All our accommodations met or exceeded our expectations.
Car Rental:
We rented a VW Caddy via Greeka.com. This site appears to be a broker for smaller companies. We were very satisfied with our choice. We dealt directly with the company owner at the Athens airport and saved a lot of money.
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#2
What we did

Nafplio is a lively commercial centre & port. In 1827, it was the first capital of modern Greece after Turkish rule was overthrown in the region. Its Venetian historical connection makes it comparable in some ways to Chania on Crete, although the latter has a much more attractive seafront & harbour area. Nafplio offered the best shopping of any of our locations, some nearby beaches, the impressive Palamidi fortress overlooking the town and the unique Bourtzi castle in the middle of the harbour. That's Nafplio, showing the Bourtzi castle on the guide book cover. We climbed to the top of the fortress, shopped & walked the busy streets, swam in one of the beaches, ate in the restaurants. Nafplio is also within easy driving distance to the ruins of ancient Mycenae, the theater of Epidaurus and a wine route. But we didn’t indulge in those activities.
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Finikounda is a small seaside village at the southwestern tip of the Peloponnese. Its main assets are several restaurants and nearby beaches, a flat terrain and location on a good highway that makes day trips near & far possible. We spent parts of several days on Lampes Beach, every dinner at one of Finikounda’s restaurants and made several excursions, including to the following: Pilos, Methoni, Koroni, Vourania, Gialova, the spectacular Voidokilia Beach and both modern and ancient Messini. Our 8 days based in Finikounda was the favourite part of our time in the Peloponnese.
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Monemvasia is a small community located on an island off the east coast of the Peloponnese. It is linked to the mainland by a small causeway. Cars park on the road leading up to the entrance of the town, but none are allowed, or indeed likely even able, to enter the community. Monemvasia is often unfairly compared to Gibraltar. Unfair, that is, to Monemvasia. While a tourist magnet, Monemvasia still has a lot of charm and appeal to the visitor. We stayed on the mainland, but spent most of our time on the island. A two-day visit was enough for the area. That's an overhead view of the community on the cover of the Peloponnese map.
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Kardamyli is a tiny village in a great location between the waters of the Gulf of Messinia and the Taygetos Mountains. Entering, leaving or driving anywhere around the area involves a lot of hills. It is near the beginning of the Mani Peninsula, the middle peninsula of the Peloponnese. The Mani was an isolated region until a few decades ago. It features some stunningly bleak landscapes, small villages, excellent olive oil, and Vathia, a virtually abandoned community of tower-houses in the Deep Mani. Vathia bears a slight resemblance to San Gimigiano in Tuscany, except that almost nobody lives in Vathia. However, the Mani also shows many signs of revitalization - at least one large resort, a “trendy” village (Gerolimenas), and lots of new construction visible from the highway. Kardamyli was our base for a visit to the Mani – where we slept and ate and did a bit of shopping. We paid a brief visit to the nearby village of Platsa and we also managed to get some beach time at Kalogria Beach.
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#3
Nafplio, Greece - Sept. 19-20, 2018
 

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#4
The Kalamata Airport, Sept, 21, 2018

Before Midnight, the movie with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, was filmed at various locations in the Peloponnese in 2012. I watched & enjoyed the movie shortly before we left Canada.
The opening scene takes place at the very small airport in Kalamata located just off the road between Kalamata and Messini. I recognized the airport as we approached and decided to pull into the parking lot & take a quick photo of the exterior. I didn’t want to inconvenience my travelling companions, none of whom had seen the movie. While I was taking a few photos, they decided to get a coffee in the airport, so I followed them inside.

I recognized the details of the interior from the movie – the concession stand, the seating area, the departure gate. I approached the concession stand & asked the young woman behind the counter if she knew about the movie. She didn’t have a clue what I was talking about, but then a female voice on my right said, “I was here, and so was she,” pointing to another woman nearby. They have the same name, Voula. And they are both in the movie. We had a very enjoyable conversation about the movie and the passage of time – “6 years ago! It seems like yesterday.” They asked me to send them copies of their pictures and so I shall.

A personal highlight of my time on this, or any other, trip.
 

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#5
Finikounda, Greece - Sept. 21-28, 2018

Finikounda is a small seaside village at the southwestern tip of the Peloponnese. It is basically one long street with restaurants on the water side and shops with local, artisanal and tourist offerings on the other. Away from the main street there is a small supermarket, some homes, local businesses, rental accommodations and a Greek Orthodox church, whose priest was watering the lawn most times we walked by in the early evening. There is a main road defining the edge of the village.

We stayed at Vereneki Apartments, located on the other side of the main road, a few minutes walk to the seaside. We thoroughly enjoyed our time based in Finikounda. We had an excellent apartment. It even included a pool a few steps away. Parking was very convenient, just across the road. We walked to dinner each evening. We spent parts of several days on beautiful breaches – on a couple of days that’s all we did. The Zanzibar Beach Bar on nearby Lampres Beach took care of all our needs.
We made several day trips throughout the area. It was very easy to travel around the region because it is a mostly flat or reasonable terrain for driving – something that cannot be said for everywhere in the Peloponnese.
If you read online reviews, you will discover that the village is like Sara Lee – “Nobody doesn’t like Finikounda.”
 

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#6
Pylos, Greece - Sept. 23, 2018

Pylos, like most coastal towns in the Peloponnese, has a long & significant history. There is even a monument in the town square that fronts on the sea to commemorate an important naval battle. But I was most impressed by the beauty of the square and the lovely restaurant canopies formed by large trees.

A morning pause in Pylos for some shopping, a walk through the weekly market, pics of another Before Midnight scene, and a coffee before moving on. Worth a re-visit, but we never made it.
 

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#7
Gialova & Voidokilia, Greece - Sept. 23, 2018

Lunch at Zoe resort hotel in the small village of Gialova on Navarino Bay. Gialova is a popular holiday area. We were drawn there by positive reviews of the restaurant at Zoe. "The veg comes from their own organic garden .... The tables are practically on the sand."

We spent most of the afternoon at nearby Voidokilia Beach. I had to resort to a postcard to show the full scope of this amazing beach. We weren't alone, but the beach is so extensive we might as well have been.
 

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#8
Messini & Messene, Greece - Sept. 26, 2018

The modern town of Messini is a vibrant community a reasonable drive from Finikounda & a few kilometres west of Kalamata. It has an attractive, busy centre featuring several cafes, a wide variety of shops & street vendors selling food over hot grills, crowded pedestrian sidewalks & roadways, a large market on streets running off the centre, and a good vibe – or at least it had when we were there one morning. We parked, probably illegally, but not alone, a short walk from the centre; walked around for a bit; stopped at one of the cafes next to a fountain; bought some meat from a guy who chopped off pieces of a pig with a cleaver (see pic); then headed north about 15 kms and back in time over 2000 years.

The ancient city of Messene was about the same size as the modern Messini and likely as lively. The site is the largest & most complex in the Peloponnese. Its remote location & distance from Athens means that there are no large tour buses at Messene. I’m not a big fan of visiting ruins at this stage of my life, but Messene was certainly worth the time & effort.

A stop for a late lunch at the hillside village of Ithoni, with a view overlooking Messene.
 

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#9
Koroni & Vounaria, Greece - Sept. 27, 2018

Koroni is a small town on the Gulf of Messinia about 20 km from Finikounda. Its history goes back to ancient times. At various times it was under the control of Venice & the Ottoman Empire, like most of the area. It is built on the side of a hill, which means that the visitor has to negotiate heavily inclined, twisting, narrow streets on entering or leaving. Large tour buses and camper trailers are banned from entering Koroni. However, there is a regional bus service, which creates a distraction when the bus arrives.

The main features are the harbour and the Venetian castle, but the most attractive parts of the town to me are the largely pedestrianized back streets with attractive storefronts and good quality products. As in many towns we visited, there is more than one bakery. There is also a pastry shop functioning like a restaurant. We spent a few pleasant hours in Koroni.

Vounaria is a tiny village a short drive north of Koroni. It has an excellent beach, which we didn’t visit, a new luxury resort - Camvilia Resort Messina – and not much else. The only reason for our visit is that Vounaria is the source of the olive oil that led to our time in the Peloponnese. So, I had to pay a brief visit.
You don’t have to go to Vounaria.
 

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#10
Methoni, Greece - Sept. 28, 2018

Methoni is another small seaside village, the next one to Finikounda, only 11kms away. I was interested in a visit to Methoni, since I was considering using it as our base in the area, before opting for Finikounda. It is best known for its Venetian castle, which we toured, but we have a much better memory of Methoni.

The first several days in the Peloponnese, we had very warm weather & cloudless skies all day long. We had similar conditions for all or parts of the rest of our days, but on a few days we had cloudy skies & high winds for part of the day. The two worst weather days – rainy & windy most of the day - were long travel days, so we weren’t sitting around waiting for conditions to improve. Our day in Methoni was one of the variable days. We sunned ourselves by the pool in the morning & braved the elements touring Methoni castle in the afternoon.

The highlight of our time in Methoni was lunch at Taverna To Kastro (The Castle), across the street from the entrance to Methoni castle. A large party that had taken over most of the restaurant, with only a single table for 4 available. We soon discovered that our dining companions were members of the same family that had moved away from the village decades ago, with some members returning from time to time for variable lengths of time. One couple had been coming back to Methoni from Vancouver for a few months each of the last 20 years. In addition to the Canadian couple, people had come from Boston, Australia and Italy. It was a very friendly group and we were invited into some of their conversations.
And the food was excellent. The owner sat with us for a time, explaining that the cooks were his wife & son – the wife prepared traditional dishes & his culinary school trained son introduced more modern dishes to the menu. Unfortunately, the lease on the property expires in 2019, so they will have to relocate.
The castle is spread over a wide area, with many interesting features. Our time exploring the castle was a bit of a challenge in the day’s conditions.
 

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#11
Monemvasia, Greece – Sept. 29-30, 2018

On Saturday we drove across the Peloponnese from west to east, arriving in the amazing village of Monemvasia in the early afternoon. We had inclement weather almost all the way. A cyclone had passed nearby in the night – some large rocks/boulders were on the road early in our trip & we had a couple of periods of very heavy rain – but overall, not nearly as bad as we had been expecting. Conditions improved greatly as we came closer to Monemvasia.

Monemvasia is a small community on a large rock, an island connected to the mainland by a causeway. Vehicles can drive over the causeway and up to the gateway entrance to the town, but cannot enter. It is a pedestrian-only village of winding narrow streets and staircases, a few public squares, a lighthouse, ruins of a castle & early settlement at the top - the Upper Town - and a very tourist-friendly Lower Town of shops, cafes, restaurants, churches & small hotels. The main point of Monemvasia is to wander around, taking in as much as you want in however much time is available. We had almost a day and a half.

Actually, we didn’t stay in/on Monemvasia. Our hotel – The Flower of Monemvasia - was on the mainland near the causeway, and a short walk down to a rocky beach – great for swimming in the late afternoon. The mainland village has another name, Gefyra, but I’ve only seen used it in guidebooks
 

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#12
Into the Mani – Aeropoli, Vathia, Gerolimenas, Greece - Oct. 1, 2018

The Mani is the middle of the 3 peninsulae of the Peloponnese. It is hemmed in by the Targetos Mountains and in days past was a rather remote and forbidding region. When modern roads came into the Mani a few decades ago, there was widespread rural depopulation which now seems to be reversing.

From Monemvasia we drove over to Aeropoli (first 2 photos), then turned south into the Deep Mani and the unique towered village of Vathia. Vathia is an almost totally abandoned settlement. There is no commerce, with the only sign of life being some clothes drying on a line. Stony pathways wind up, down and around the village. Rubble, bits of old furniture and collapsed roofing are common to most of the interiors, with only a few tourists, including ourselves, walking around.

Elsewhere on our drive in the Deep Mani, we saw signs of new private residences on the hillsides, a large luxury resort on top of one of the hills and revitalization in some of the small villages.
I missed a turn & ended up driving into one of these villages – Gerolimenas – set in a sheltered harbour and featuring old stone buildings and fishing boats resting at anchor on one side, a small, beautiful beach & hills on the other side and newer seaside restaurants in the middle, looking out onto a gorgeous blue sea. If you look up “picturesque” in the dictionary, there’s a good chance you’ll see a photo of Gerolimenas. Attracted by the charms of the village, we made an unscheduled stop in Gerolimenas before heading north to Kardamyli.
 

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#13
Kardamyli, Greece - Oct. 1-2 2018

Early in our time in the Peloponnese, I stopped at the airport in Kalamata because that was the setting for the opening scene in Before Midnight. We spent our last two nights in a Marina Studios apartment next to the sea in Kardamyli, where, by chance, I had an unobstructed view of the setting of the bittersweet final scene of the movie (first photo).

Kardamyli is another small seaside village, one of the larger and more appealing ones in the area. It is a hub for travellers & hikers of all kinds. It is a very pleasant place to just wander around for a short time – attractive homes & sea views, interesting back streets. There are many places to stay, several cafes, some good restaurants (Lela’s Tavern & Harilaos were locally recommended – both good choices) & good shopping at several stores on the main street offering local products, artisanal jewelry, clothing, food and typical tourist tat. I purchased some local olive oil at one shop (Dimitra Greengrocer's) and in another store the owner pulled the tin from my bag & pronounced it “good oil.”

Kardamyli is known as a busy place, but we were there at the end of the season. It was pretty quiet, except for some traffic passing through the village on the main street. Almost nothing was open until 9:30am and not many people were around at any time of the day. The village is a very good base for the Mani region.

Kardamyli has some literary connections. The ashes of Bruce Chatwin, author of In Patagonia, The Songlines and Utz, among others, are scattered above the village. The British soldier, adventurer and writer Patrick Leigh Fermor lived most of his post-war years in a house in an olive grove near Kardamyli. His home is the setting for a long dinner scene in Before Midnight. The home is undergoing renovations and will re-open as a writer’s retreat.
 
#14
Kalogria Beach & Platsa, Greece - Oct. 2 2018

A warm sunny day for our last one on the Peloponnese. There are several beaches around Kardamyli. We selected Kalogria, the one with the easiest access – no steep, narrow descents on rough roads/pathways as in a couple of others. There until mid-afternoon, then off to the village of Platsa a few kilometres away for a short visit.

Kardamyli may be quiet at this time of year, but Platsa seemed almost deserted. No businesses open on the square; few signs of activity anywhere we ventured. The narrow winding streets of Platsa were part of the setting for another Beyond Midnight scene. We met a local who said that her neighbour was thrilled that her shutters made it into the movie.

Back to Kardamyli in the late afternoon. Wine on our balcony overlooking the Gulf of Messina, dinner at Harilaos a few steps from our door & packing for tomorrow.
 
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Corinth Canal, Lutraki & Rafina, Greece - Oct. 3, 2018

Rain off & on this morning from Kardamyli through the Peloponnese. The passage from Kardamyli to Kalamata is a sinuous two-lane road. My usual driving strategy in such situations is to get behind a bigger vehicle - a bus is best - & stay there. From Kalamata on, we drove on a modern multi-lane divided toll highway all the way to Athens.

Our first stop was at the iconic Corinth Canal. Pretty impressive sight – worth braving the elements. I asked for lunch recommendations at the tourist office – was directed to the town of Lutraki a few kilometers away. The “beach” there was cluttered with debris from the recent stormy weather, I think. Good lunch at an almost-empty restaurant, then off toward Rafina. As we approached Athens we saw the effects of the deadly summer wildfires that ravaged the area – large swaths of hillsides denuded of vegetation – only the charred remnants of thousands of trees. And it got much worse as we drove through communities like Marathon, even to Rafina. Block after block of houses with only the concrete shells standing. The devastation reached to within 100 metres of our villa apartment.

Rafina is a port town, perhaps best known as embarkation point for Greek island cruises or ferry service to islands like Santorini and Andros. It is a few kilometres north of the Athens airport. We had our last meal at a recommended restaurant Seirenes (Sirens) on the harbourfront.

Uneventful flight back to Ottawa, via Montreal on October 4. Uneventful, just the way I like it.
 

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