My Greek friends told me that Peloponnese is not an island but with the construction of the Corinth canal in 1893 I argue that technically it now is, either way crossing the Corinth canal is an impressive way to enter the Peloponnese. Building the canal was originally proposed in the 1st century AD but it wasn’t until almost 2000 years later that it was finally constructed, a quick stroll across the bridge will give you a birds eye view of the ships passing through 60 meters below, 2 navy boats were being escorted through the narrow canal as I was looking on and it was definitely a sight to remember. As I passed the bridge over the canal I also passed into an area that arguably contains the richest amount of ancient history in Greece, the next week would take me to sites that would stir the imagination with stories of great civilisations and epic battles. My first stop was the ancient theatre of Epidaurus who’s ruins still had surprisingly good acoustics but I was soon back on the bike enjoying the ride along the coastal road around to the city of Nafplion. The city of Nafplion was a wonderful place to stay, it was easy to spend hours strolling the narrow, romantic streets lined with historical houses with the impressive Venetian mountain top fortress in view high above. The Fortress was well worth a visit and for those with a little energy to spare a walk up the 1000 or so steps will reward you with some very impressive scenery, I had a little too much energy to spare and decided to jog up the steps 3 times for a little exercise, I could barely walk the next day. Not far from Nafplion lies the plain of Argos and the Ancient city of Mycenae, a place that I was very much looking forward to visiting. From the 2nd millennium BC Mycenae was one of the major centres for Greek civilisation and a military powerhouse that flexed its might over much of Southern Greece. Once ruled by king Agamemnon who along with the city itself is perhaps best known for their mention in Homers epic the Iliad and their role in the Trojan war. Many of the huge stones that formed the foundation of the city are still in place and as you make your way through the lion gate and up the to the palace it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture what life was like in this once impenetrable stronghold.
The coastal roads in the Peloponnese were a joy to ride with every corner seeming to deliver scenery that was more spectacular than the last. The coast line is littered with ancient ruins from thousands of years ago along with many Venetian fortresses, some of with house quaint villages that are now tourist attractions. The island of Monemvasia was the best example of this that I had seen, a short ride over the small bridge that connects the island to the mainland will seem to transport you back to a different time. When it came to romance Monemvasia was like the old town of Nafplion but on steroids, the old homes that once housed locals in the postcard worthy streets were now quaint guesthouses and restaurants to cater for couple in search of a romantic getaway. I was by myself so as much as I enjoyed the beautiful streets the romance was lost on me and I was wearing motorcycle boots so walking up the hill to the fortress wasn’t something I wanted to do either, after meandering through the lower part of the village I decided to put Monemvasia on by list of places to return to when I had more time to spare. I continued along the coastline to Cape Matapan, which is the southernmost point in mainland Greece and Mainland Europe. The road to the cape was amazing with several bays that contained small villages which were the perfect place to stop for a coffee and a bite to eat. Not far from the end of the cape I had to park the bike and put on my walking shoes for the last few km to the lighthouse that marked the southernmost point, it was well worth the walk, especially when I rounded the last corner and saw the old stone lighthouse that had no doubt saved many a sailor in its time.
The other great city that I wanted to see while I was in Peloponnese was Sparta, there is no way I could come here and not pay homage to the famous warrior class city-state. A visit to Sparta is sure to create high expectations but luckily my Greek friends and given me the low down and told me what to expect, and that was very little. When I arrived I realised that the advice was right, there really was nothing here from ancient Sparta and the only sight worth seeing was a bronze statue of a Spartan warrior. Despite this, I wasn’t disappointed, It was still an amazing place to visit and while I was there a fun run was taking place so I stopped for a while and cheered on some of the middle aged competitors with beer bellies who were harnessing a little of that Spartan spirit. The road from Sparti (which is the name for new Sparta) certainly didn’t disappoint, it wound its way through the mountains and as I negotiated the twists and turns I could envisage the young Spartan soldiers being sent out alone into the high snow covered peaks to prove themselves.
I managed to find some very nice wild camping spots in the Peloponnese, whether it was next to the beach or in the forest I always seemed to get lucky with a great location and my campsite just outside of Olympia was no exception, I pitched my tent next to a peaceful lake with some natural hot springs close by, perfect! As the site that was dedicated to the worship of Zeus and home to the Pan-Hellenic games since 776 BC, Olympia offered even more history, is it possible to overload on ancient history? If so, Peloponnese is the place to do it. I took a stroll through the museum and the ruins of the ancient arena while I imagined the athletes competing here thousands of years earlier.
My tour through the Peloponnese was almost at an end, the area was as impressive as I’d hoped, I’d seen plenty of the sights but there was still lots to see so I have a good reason to return, for every large attraction I visited I seemed to find several more smaller ones that were also quite amazing. I made my way north from Olympia and crossed the Rio-Antirrio bridge back to the mainland, this wasn’t an end to the historical sights however, my next stop was the town of Delphi. Famous as the seat of the Oracle that was consulted for important decisions throughout the history of ancient Greece and at that time thought to be the center of the known world. Delphi is located on mount Parnassus and has a spectacular view of the valley, I was glad about this as I spent more time enjoying the scenery than the ruins because over the past few weeks they were all blending into one and the cost of visiting each site was seriously eating into my budget.
From Delphi I began making my way back through central Greece where I would cross into Albania, I was looking forward to experiencing the natural beauty of areas such as Meteora and Ioannina but first there was one for historical sight I had to see. On the coastline not far from the city of Lamia is Thermopiles, it’s not much more than a large sandy field were you can camp for free, with no fees to pay and no monuments in sight you could be excused for not realising the importance of the site. After setting up my tent I took a short 5 minute walk to the highway where a bronze statue of a soldier commemorates the battle that was fought here. The statue is of King Leonidas and the battle was that of the 300 Spartans that held off the Persian army at the Hot Gates (yes, just like in the movie). When It comes to free camping this has to be one of the coolest spots I’ve found, The hot springs that give the name to the area are still there and I took a soak in the warm waters while I imagined the battle that took place here. The coastline today is vastly different to the narrow pass that blocked the Persian army 2500 years ago but a map near the memorial shows the original area and from the top of the hill where the Spartans and Thespians made their last stand it’s not hard to see how a small force could hold off an army that greatly outnumbered it.
I’m not sure what I was more excited about, my visit to Thermopiles or my next destination, Meteora. If you wrote a list of places in the world that offered the most natural beauty then Meteora would have to be pretty high up there, not only are the forested mountains themselves a wonderful sight but they are home to Monasteries that are built high on the cliffs. I had planned 2 days in Meteora but kept extending my stay and eventually stayed for 5 days, it’s still a place I want to go back to because it has so much to offer. On top of visiting the monasteries and hiking through the mountains, the area has some great rock climbing and I spent a few days climbing up cliffs and scrambling my way over maintains with my friend Vasilli, a local climber that loves anything extreme, his stories of slack lining, paragliding and base jumping definitely got my blood pumping for some more adventures. This area of central Greece offered no shortage of great roads to ride and as I made my way to Ioannina I made sure I took the twistiest roads I could find. I only stopped in Ioannina long enough to admire the view over the lake, my next destination was much more spectacular, Vikos Gorge. Listed in the Guinness book of records as the world’s deepest Gorge, Vikos was something Remarkable, the forest road took me through plenty of traditional villages and passed by some scenery that was mind blowing, I didn’t know if I wanted to keep on riding or put on my hiking boots and start exploring by foot, in the end I did both over the next few days but as always felt that I could have stayed for much longer.
As I approached the border of Albania I wasn’t too upset to be leaving Greece, I felt the opposite, why? Because I planned to come back and explore this wonderful country once again. I had barely scratched the surface of things to see here and many of the places I did visit begged for a return trip to explore further, “Greece, I’ll see you soon”.
|Morning view of a ship wreck from one of my free camping sites|
|Romantic laneways of Monemvasia|
|Campsite at Thermopiles|
|Lion gate, Mycenae|