Dave the motorhome’s within sight of the Diros Caves, on the edge of a wide white-stoned beach (N36.64122 E22.38325). Greek nippers along the beach are celebrating being let of school for Easter by fooling about in the pure blue ocean and cooking up a BBQ. We’ve also some friendly German folks for company, their shiny silver motorhome is pulled up behind us. The sun is beaming down, it’s glorious.
Sorry folks, my gush mode is back into play. Our ability to travel for this length of time has always been a privilege for us, something we worked hard for but otherwise have done nothing to deserve. Being on the road has always felt a wonder, the freedom of it, the empty diary, no conference calls, 6am flights, PowerPoint presentations, profit warning worries, no nothing. Sometimes though, a combination of things comes together to fill me with joy. I can’t express it, or why it happens. The last time was being stood on the side of a mountain road looking out below at the southern Tunisian desert, this time it was here, last night, as I cooked up some sausages and turned to gaze out of the door at the expanse of ocean a few feet from me, sparkling smooth below the ragged rock cliffs. My vocabulary failed me and I resorted to a crude expletive. What I meant to say was ‘this is my heaven’. Last night a fisherman set up his rods next to us, coming over and asking in English if we could ‘call him at five tomorrow’? ‘Of course’ I told him, wondering why he was giving me his brand new mobile phone. It gradually dawned on us that he was planning on sleeping in his van and wanted the alarm setting on his phone. The Greek menus defeated us, so Ju loaned him our alarm clock, setting it to the right time. This morning he’d silently placed it on our step as he left several hours before we woke.
Today we’ve headed south into the Mesa Mani, or Deep Mani (there’s a brilliant resource on the area here). Above where we slept last night stood the remains of a Turkish castle. One of two at this latitude, both with the same purpose although on opposite sides of the peninsula; to contain the rather rowdy people of the Deep Mani, the Maniots. These guys had a fierce reputation as belligerents, even their priests carried a gun or two, preaching to folks with a firearm within reach.
This part of the world looks much to me like a sunny version of the Scottish Highlands, with a similar feel of being too far away and too rugged for central authorities to care much about. Perhaps another similarity: the locals were tough, only stopping fighting each other when someone else turned up to kill, then they’d get back to work on one another.
Blood feuds ruled among these slave-traders, pirates and farmers. Travellers here of old were few and far between – warned off coming as there was a fair risk they’d end up getting cut down in the cross fire, or stabbed in some dark alley, as a mistake enemy. The rough story goes that a kind of aristocracy developed here, a group of families who claimed noble descent from the Spartans. With few resources (excluding stones and thorns), they’d easily enter into squabbles over land or honour. Two families in the same town would build stout stone towers and once a feud had been announced formally with the ringing of church bells, they’d retreat inside and batter each other with guns and cannon, sometimes for decades! They’d come out at night to obtain supplies, and declare temporary truces to enable harvests to be collected, and even build new towers under the cover of darkness. Bonkers stuff, finished for 150 years, but I still love it.
Ten or twenty minutes of Dave pulling us up the side of the hill and around over the top brought us to Areopolis. The Rough Guide described the place as ‘austere’ and we’d both expected that meant ‘dead’. Following signs for free parking we pulled in next to a college, kids and teenagers slouched about, or kicked a football, dressed much the same as those anywhere but with far better tans! Their shouts and laughter set the tone for the place, although quiet, it was most certainly alive. Yesterday our laptop decided to eat our SD card, only letting go over the thing when challenged by tweezers, yanking and a foul word or two. An unexpected bit of plastic came with it, rendering it a bit useless. A few days back the Micro SD card in our phone died too as I faffed about trying to download a decent map of Greece. Would these things be available here, on the edge of Europe? Ah, yes. Ju spotted some stencilled lettering, in Greek, but which still shouted to her ‘tech geeks live within’. They surely did. Walking with Charlie four guys turned to look at us. Within a few minutes one was giving Charlie a massage, explaining how he hated having to work away in Athens for 3 weeks out of 4, and how he was on his 3rd Boxer dog, the other two taken by cancer ‘like losing a child’. When I asked how the chap helping me was he said ‘on the last day of the month, if we have some bread, then it will be a good day’. He almost laughed it out – perhaps they were living hand to mouth but it didn’t seem to bother them much.
Photos of Areopolis, loads of ’em:
Tech procured, we walked the town, a place of stone and sunshine, funny little corners to draw you in, sights and sounds everywhere. In one spot it would feel aged, a little lost, with rusting swings and a slide-less slide. In others alive and bright, the square felt new, Easter decorations were starting to appear and a few folks sat in the shade, some watching us, almost all saying hello as we passed. One fella sat in his garden playing a guitar-like instrument as I stood and recorded him, completely non-plussed, have a listen if you like:
Mission accomplished, we set off again. Tech man had told us we must visit the Diros Caves, and somewhere else, which he scrawled in Greek on the plastic bag with our bits and bobs in, and which I’m now struggling to decipher. The Caves are, apparently, the biggest tourist draw in the Deep Mani. And that means one thing: coach-capable roads! If a coach can get there so can we, easily, so we followed the signs along a descent beside yet another stunning cove and up to the gates, Ju grabbing a couple of €12 tickets. Inside the place couldn’t be more different to the production line Postojna Caves in Slovenia we visited last year. The whole experience was, as we’d say in the eighties, ace.
A school trip was slowly reforming their group, sat under shade at the exit, being swelled in 3s and 4s as their compatriots left the cavern naturally burrowed into the side of the cove, known about locally since about 1900 but only opened for punters in the late 60’s. No-one else was going in though, and the ticket man asked us to wait ten or fifteen minutes as we watched someone repainting the place. The Slovenian caves are fronted by airport-sized car parking, a massive glass fronted building flogging all manner of tat to folks from every corner of the Earth. Here we watched a new shade of blue being slowly rollered on. Called in, our man ushered us onto a two-man wide flat bottomed boat, asking us to sit behind each other in the middle, slowly saying a few times, ‘be careful of your heads, keep your hands inside, thank you very much’. He then pushed off, with clonks of a wooden stick on the side and timed grunts he deftly had the thing through some infeasibly low and narrow caverns. None were huge, most were beautiful, especially reflected in the sometimes metres-deep crystal water below us.
After what seemed like an hour he dropped us off, pointing up a tunnel which would have challenged Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs fame. After that, for a section of about 300 meters, we walked on dry land through more beautiful twisting caverns. The experience was magical, in part because of the low-key feel of it all and the silence of being alone beneath the Earth.
Out in the sunlight, the cave’s tat shop at the exit amounted to a wooden cupboard, left open with no-one attending, with a few shelves of pot Maniot Towers and little caves. The boards to display photos taken of you in the caves, like on a ride at Alton Towers, was thankfully empty, so it was good job we grabbed a few ourselves. Looking to our left we could see a pick-up truck parked up alongside the beach, although there was no obvious way of getting down here. Back in Dave, re-united with an unexcited dog, we checked an email from Rose which explained exactly how to get here – back up the road from the caves, look for a small turn off to the left, a bit steep at first but quickly cutting through the trees and stone walls and landing us again in a wee paradise.
A few minutes after we arrived a young Greek couple from Athens arrived, George and Thomie with their pooch Stratos. Speaking perfect English, they struck up a conversation. They’re here on holiday, just a few days outside the rat race. We chatted about our trip, about dogs on Greek public transport, about Fish and Chips and our (mine and Ju’s) complete inability to work out which wild plants we can eat and which will see us off this mortal coil. They translated for us as the local kids shyly asked for some salt and olive oil for the feast they were cooking up at the edge of the beach, and eventually headed off to carry on their holiday as I headed for a swim. The kids said thanks later on with four sausages on sticks, nom nom.
The sun’s lowered enough for us to head off out for an evening wander up along the edge of the bay. Time to go folks.