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Monday, 1 September 2008

Peloponese and the Ionian Islands: Part 3 Further Adventures on Peloponese

Continuing the diaries of one of my old trips.

Tuesday began with a ride, relegated once more to the cheap seats, in that pick-up truck I knew from yesterday. This was a short trip to visit the monastery at Ayios Yiorgios. Here, when Andy had last visited there were only two monks remaining, both of them over eighty. We were surprised to find that it was a well kept building with a large wooden cross, overgrown with roses, in a neat and beautiful central courtyard. We were even more surprised when a monk in his twenties came to show us round but not as surprised as when he started to speak and we found out that he was Canadian. Seven new monks had come, three of them from Canada, to join the two original ones and repair the monastery. Personally he had been a monk in Canada since he was sixteen but had only recently joined this particular order.

He showed us the chapel with its ceiling frescoes of the flood and he showed as the secret school where the Greek language was kept alive in hiding during the long years of occupation, first by the Turks and later by the Communists. He also showed us a scrapbook of the most appalling atrocities that the communists had inflicted on the local people.
After our guided tour we were given glasses of water and small bowls of rose petal jam which had a pleasant perfumed taste but was so sweet that it could have sent a diabetic into shock from six hundred paces.

We started the days walking back in the village with cheerful farewells from our hosts who had been almost ridiculously pleased to see us. Normally I am cynical enough to believe that they were ridiculously pleased to see their paying guests but this once I don't believe that was the case. Throughout my extended visit yesterday I had been treated like an honoured guest and we hard been served last night with effusive hospitality and unbelievable friendliness even if the food had been rather rustic. (I can't remember the last time I ate rabbit.)

Now our host stood and watched us make our way through the village and up the hill towards the church until it was no longer possible to see us. We ascended steadily on good paths, sometimes steep, sometimes less so until we reached a grassy col where we had lunch which strangely enough consisted of Feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, onions bread and sardines with fresh oranges for desert. There was a chance to ascend an 'optional' peak but once more the meaning of the word had mutated. Now 'optional' meant 'you will not' rather than 'you will'. Everyone was pleased at this definition and no-one insisted preferring instead to take along siesta.

On our descent, which was steep but not difficult as it led down through a ridge of trees which made the walking quite easy, John and Angela led a rag-tag choir at the back in a performance of as many popular songs as anyone could recall the words to. I was told that this was a repeat of yesterday afternoon.

The descent finally levelled out onto a track which was flat and even and this turned after a mile or so into a tarmacked road leading to the village of Zarouhla which was to be tonight's overnight stop. Long before the village was in sight Simon had strode off ahead of us intent on reaching it first and getting a bottle of Heineken. This, like train spotting, seemed to be an obsession with him. I could not tell if it was the reward or the reaching of it that was important to him. Perhaps it was just that he preferred his own company. By the time we reached him there were two empty bottles on the table and a third on its way. We all ordered beers and sat around talking and watching a three inch long beetle crawl along a wall while Jenni and Andy went off to check our accommodation. When I take a holiday I know how to have fun - I don't actually do it but I do know how.

When they returned they led us up a final few hundred yards of path alongside a stream to a refurbished mansion tower house. In this we would be sharing four to a room which necessitated the two couples splitting up for the night. The building looked impressive, if not quite finished, from the outside but inside it was more so. The room that I was sharing was large and spacious with plenty of room for the four beds that were in it and had its own en suite facilities. These were a bathroom completely clad in pine except for the immaculately tiled floor. The sink had a plug, a mirror and a shaver point. The shower had hot and cold running water and a shower curtain. Something had to be wrong. When I took a shower I discovered what that was. The shower curtain seems to be a relatively new concept to the Greeks (it's the only one I've ever seen there) and they haven't, if you'll excuse a dreadful pun, quite got the hang of it. In fact they had missed the hang of it by about six inches so that fully closed it was this distance outside the shower tray meaning that the bathroom floor got just as soaked with it closed as with it open. Oh well, ten out of ten for effort.

Ablutions done I strolled down into the garden (or building site) where Roy and Louise (wearing matching Morris Dancing T-Shirts !) were standing chatting and John the birdwatcher was peering into the distance through his binoculars. Simon was also there watching John. Eventually he asked
"When you've seen them do you underline them or tick them off in your book ?"
John gave him a puzzled frown.
"Neither," he said as if it should be obvious "I remember them."

It was Simon's turn for puzzled frowns but he wandered away without further comment.
"He's a train spotter," some remarked "He probably thinks you should write down the leg and wing arrangements."

Gradually the number of people hanging around increased. John went inside and got his bottle of Jim Beam and shared what was left among us and we made our way down to the village for a delicious supper consisting of about six pounds of char-grilled lamb chops each. Afterwards we strolled back up in the clear evening air looking at the stars and chatting. All it had been a pretty good day.


Breakfast, we had been informed, was to take place in shifts due to a lack of capacity in the kitchen. The men were to go first, at eight, the women second at eight-thirty.

At eight, when we arrived the woman who had come in to cook breakfast had put a gallon kettle of cold water onto the gas stove but did not light the gas under it until eight on the dot. When it actually boiled, at shortly after eight thirty when the distaff half of the group were already impatiently waiting for their turn, she proceeded to fill a half pint jug from it and place it in the middle of the table. Half a pint filled one and half of the cups that were sitting in front of the eight of us. She then took the jug, hobbled back to the stove, heaved the kettle down with enormous difficulty and filled it again. Then she hobbled back, put it down and waited. On the sixth trip the last person filled his cup leaving over half a jug full of by now tepid water. She waited. Obviously she intended to do nothing until her jug was empty. It was by now past nine and the women were all giving us 'hurry up' glares. Taking our cups we moved away and let them try their luck. Outside the owner of the house, a belligerent fat man not at all like our previous charming hosts, was explaining to an uncomplaining Jenni that it would be no use if she did complain because the house was only for twelve people not sixteen. This would have had a better ring of truth if they had managed to serve the first eight with some semblance of organisation. I went upstairs to complete my packing.

My knee was by now much improved although towards the end of the previous day I had been beginning to limp a little. On the other hand Caroline who had lent me the Kenneth Williams book was having problems with her Achilles' tendon from a too tight boot so that today was to be her day to ride down in the truck. I had already given back the book as the promise of a pot of gold wouldn't have tempted me too finish it. I wished her luck with it as she climbed into the passenger seat.

Our walk led initially up a path along the side of the stream and then angled off up a quite steep slope into a wide grassy meadow where the smells of Oregano and fennel mixed with a strange curry smell from one of the plants that most of the group didn't seem to be able to detect at all. We continued on across the meadow until we reached a gently ascending dirt road. As we paused for a water stop in the shade of a few scrubby trees Angela and Ann said that they were going to go on ahead. Andy agreed, saying that it was not possible for them to get lost as it was a single road. They should, he told them, wait for us when they reached the saddle. I strolled up the hill with Angela's husband. He was a some-time drummer with a wide knowledge of Rock music and as we strolled we discussed such weighty matters as whether Gary Moore can function in a band or only as a soloist, which ten people are the greatest drummers in the history of the Universe and why Live Albums are always terrible. As the week wore on our conversations were to become more and more surreal and our companions more and more lost in the bizarre intricacies of our minds' workings.
"John ?" I asked. We had been silent for a couple of minutes thinking of our favourite keyboard players.
"Isn't the 'saddle' the bit where all that tedious uphill stuff turns into equally tedious downhill stuff."
"It is." he agreed.
I thought for a moment.
"And aren't we heading rather steeply downhill at the moment ?"
"I take your point." he said without slowing down.
"Shouldn't we have passed Angela and Ann then ?"
We continued to amble on down slowly, accompanied by John the birdwatcher and Drew.
"Still going downhill. " I observed needlessly a few minutes later.
We paused.
I had an odd sense of déjà vu. From a long way behind us a distant tiny voice could be heard shouting
"stop.... stop.... stop"
We turned. Racing down the hill at a sprinter's pace was Andy. He paused as he reached us.
"You should have stopped at the saddle." he panted pointing back along the trail.
"There are more ahead of us." we pointed out.
He nodded breathlessly.
"I know."
Then he was off down the trail again at a dead run. We turned and started back up the slope. It took us about ten minutes to reach the point where those who had been behind us were all waiting. Before the others who had been ahead of us got back I had had time to relate my similar problem in Peru when I had wandered six kilometres further up the trail than I was supposed to before anyone found me.

When everyone was sufficiently recovered Andy told us that we were going to leave the trail for a while and climb up through the trees to a grassy spot where we would be able to have lunch. There was no path as such through the sharp and spiny trees but as long as we were heading upwards we couldn't really miss the place. In the trees it was cool and very beautiful with carpets of flowers and several stops for the orchid watchers to kneel down and examine various plants and take pictures. As we came clear of the trees we did indeed find ourselves at a very scenic lunch stop. Mountains rose dramatically around the horizon with nearer smaller ones straight ahead of us. We sat down and started lunch which was the usual fare. I found that was beginning to develop an aversion to Feta and Sardines.

Afterwards there was an optional, this time in the conventional sense of the word, scramble up to the nearest peak. A few of us set out and after a few minutes climbing were at the peak much sooner than I had expected. We waved back to the others at the distant but strangely still audible camp. Several of our little group elected to stay where we were while the others went on to try a second peak nearby. They reached it even more quickly than we had reached this one and soon they were on the way back. Joining them as they passed us we re-descended to the main party.

The afternoon walk began as a reprise of our extra-curricular walk from the morning but soon we had passed the furthest point that any of us had reached and continued on down the dirt road which would eventually bring us to Solos village where we would take a rest for a few minutes before the final section of our day's walk to Peristera. Andy pointed out an unremarkable site which was the scene of the Bloody massacre of Turkish-Egyptian forces by Greek partisans in 1827. The Greek forces were led by Nikos Soliotis, a hero of the Independence wars whose home was reputed to be a tower house still present in Solos village where the church still has a shrine dedicated to him. Several other villages in the area also claim to have been his home but Solos' claim is as good as any.
After our rest stop at the restaurant in Solos we retraced our steps briefly and then descended to a ford where the river was cold and fast flowing and about knee deep. As carefully as possible we crossed it barefoot and then continued on our way. Ten minutes later we reached Wednesday's accommodation in the village of Peristera. This was another village house, albeit one that seemed to have been specifically converted for tourists. It was a large, pleasant building with only one problem - there was only a single bathroom between all of us which contained the only toilet, the only shower and the only sink. Jenni drew up a rota allocating half the group ten minutes each in the evening and the other half of the group ten minutes each in the morning. We were to stay here for three days. Everyone took the situation calmly. As I was on the morning rota I got a five second wash in cold water, a change of T-Shirt and an early choice of seats in the Restaurant for a couple of additional beers. After dinner (a rather fine grilled trout) a few people, including Jenni, went home but most of us stayed around drinking. Andy said he would teach us phonetically a Greek equivalent of Old MacDonald Had A Farm which he did with great gusto. Our final, somewhat chaotic, rendition of the song lasted about fifteen minutes and brought the house down. There were standing ovations from the locals who found the whole thing hilarious. Particularly well received were the 'mosquito' which was accompanied by a whining buzzing noise followed by all of us simultaneously slapping our cheeks and the Donkey which was performed solo by John who put his whole soul into a positively explosive 'Eeeeee-Haaawwww'.

Finally, with promises of a reprise before we left we took our leave of the Cafe and strolled back down the hill to our lodgings.


I was third up on the morning shower rota which allowed me ten minutes to shave, shower clean my teeth and use the toilet. Surprisingly I managed it and then hurried back to my room to dress for breakfast. Back at the cafe, now without our audience of the previous night, tables had been set out under the trees and we ate a gorgeous breakfast of yoghurt so thick and creamy that it could have been sliced with a knife and honey with a sweet perfumed taste that contrasted beautifully with the tart sharpness of the yoghurt. This was accompanied by delicious hot home-baked bread and mugs of tea. Today we were to visit the source of the river Styx. It was in the river Styx, which was supposed to give invulnerability to anyone who bathed in its waters that Thetis bathed her baby Achilles because the oracle had prophesied that he would be a great warrior. She immersed the child completely in the waters except for the heel by which she held him and in which he later received the wound from Paris' poisoned arrow that ended his life.
Last night over dinner one of our more frivolous conversations had been a serious of increasingly bizarre speculations about the exact nature of protection afforded by the water. If it made you invulnerable we decided then it must also make you immortal and it stood to reason that if you had a cold when you bathed in it it would also make the germs immortal so that you would spend the rest of eternity sniffling and wheezing and blowing your nose. Everyone agreed that we were all thankful that no-one had got Diarrhoea.
The walk began with an easy but quite exposed walk up a dirt track in blazing sunlight. Eventually it steepened slightly as we met the tree line and wound our way in and out of the pine forest along a steep mule path. Several times we dropped down onto scree to cross gullies, each one a little more difficult than the previous one. Louise gave up after one of these and spent the rest of the day on an isolated but shady outcropping while the rest of the group continued on. After another descent into a gully and up the opposite side we reached the point where we were to have today's lunch. However before that was the rest of the trip across to the source of the Styx. The picnic stop was a large tree covered ridge called the Huntsman's Saddle. From here there were excellent views back to the previous ridge where Louise had remained and forward along the valley to where we could see the massive Maveroni Falls at the foot of which was the point we were aiming for. Several people decided to drop out and stay at the saddle. They would, they said prepare lunch for the rest of us.

We went on.

After a few hundred yards the path disappeared and we were on a steep bank of loose scree which we had to traverse. Andy kept on going ahead to find a suitable path but rain had washed out all of the ones that had previously been there. After one particularly hard and unpleasant scramble I decided that if the chance was available I would go back. A couple of other people said the same thing. When Andy returned from a foray down a gully to the river's edge he said that the route got easier but those of us who had decided to go back stuck with the decision and headed back.

Among the defaulters was John although Angela had chosen to go on. As we finally reached the path that led up to the saddle he remarked.

"I'll chose life over immortality any day."

Back at the saddle we explained that the others would be some time and that we thought we should begin lunch without them. Diving into the bags we found Feta cheese, sardines, bread and tomatoes. Every day the fare that had seemed so appetising at the start of the trip looked less and less appealing. Nevertheless we tucked in, making sure that there was plenty left for those who had gone on. After a while Kate announced that she could see them and sure enough they had descended right to the river and crossed it and were now climbing the much easier grassy bank on the other side. For about ten minutes they were in sight before they disappeared again around a bend in the valley.
We spent the next few hours relaxing and reading and exploring our immediate environs before Kate announced that she could see them again. They were now higher up and further round and had evidently reached their destination as they seemed to be coming back. We watched as several times they appeared to lose the route and stand discussing it but finally they reached the grassy bank and thirty minutes later they were eating the remains of lunch and telling us how good it had been.

After that all that was left to do was retrace our steps back to the village and have a few beers and some dinner.


Friday was to be an easy relaxing day. The walk was a simple descent along good roads and tracks which would see us arriving at a Lake Tsivlou, high above the Krathis river gorge, for lunch. At around five we would be driven back on another of those ubiquitous pick-ups. There was only to be about three hours walking all day. We began, straight after another yoghurt and honey breakfast, by leaving the village on the tarmacced road but soon we left this for a path that led along an overgrown trail through some fairly heavy pine forest. In among the trees it was cool and refreshing although from time to time the sharp needles of the trees scraped painfully along our exposed arms and legs. The trick was to try to only brush against the much lighter green growth at the ends of the branches where the new needles were soft and spongy and had not yet hardened and darkened into the wickedly pointed instruments of torture found further along. After about an hour of this we cleared the trees and came out into a rocky river valley leading towards a sandy road. John and I were passing the time discussing who would be the stupidest possible presenter for Question Time. Danny Baker and Chris Evans were both strong contenders, as was weather man Ian McGaskill but in spite of a late challenge from Marcel Marceau we eventually agreed on Dougal from the magic roundabout. By then we had reached a small village with a strange little church built like an air raid shelter. We paused here for a moment's rest before continuing down the hill to the lake and to lunch.

Lake Tsivlou is a famous local beauty spot and deservedly so. As you approach down the hill you see its wide and remarkably blue waters spread out below you in an irregular diamond shape. The shore line is two thirds surrounded by a wide sandy looking beach which runs up to the tree line which then slopes up and away to the horizon so that the lake looks like a smear of blue paint in the bottom of a green bowl.

We descended towards the lake and in among the trees was a picnic spot with wooden tables and benches. To nobody's surprise lunch was Feta cheese and the usual trimmings. We struggled through it and then went round the edge of the lake to the nearest of the beaches. On close examination this turned out to be stonier than it had looked but all the same everyone changed into swimming costumes and alternately sunbathed and swam.

The water of the lake was warm and calm and filled with fish to the extent that if you swam with your hands open you could catch them without trying. I did a couple of relaxed lazy lengths of the lake and then sunbathed some more. Eventually the truck arrived to take us back. The first group climbed aboard and the rest of us stood at the top of the road waiting for it to come back. I watched a small light brown spider crawling over the leaves of a broom plant. As I tried to get closer to make some notes to pass on to my spider crazy brother it scurried round the leaf and out of sight. Turning it over I was just in time to see it make a prodigious jump onto the next plant where I lost sight of it. After about thirty minutes we decided to start walking and about half a mile down the road we were met by the truck.

After the evening meal Roy and Louise organised some folk dancing which several of us refrained from participating in necessitating some of the locals, in particular the restaurant owner's wife, being press-ganged into taking part. After about forty minutes they got bored and returned to sitting around drinking and chatting. For the benefit of those who had missed it we reprised the animal song from the night before and once again received a standing ovation from the locals.

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