Acropolis now!

We purposely left the Acropolis until now, partly because of the heat when we were last in Athens, but mostly because we wanted to finish our travels with something spectacular.

The Acropolis didn’t disappoint. Our apartment is very close but even though we got there early it was pretty busy. We zoom past a huge tour group to admire the whole site. It is one of the sights of the holiday, the buildings at the top are stunning and there are truly tremendous views over Athens.

Chloe spots the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Allan then finds the old Panathenaic stadium and then we both see the ancient Agora (Chloe is still unreasonably excited to be able to see the route of the old Panathenaic Way). Amazingly, we can see where the two Long Walls were located that provided secure access between the Acropolis to the port, even during times of siege. They are now the route of two tree-lined roads that stretch between the rock and Piraeus. The sites we saw six weeks ago all now come to life, knowing where they are compared to the mighty Acropolis.

Our last dinner was in true Greek style; lamb chops, salad and ice cream. Yum.

A stupendous end to our time in Athens, Greece and the whole holiday. All that is left is our review of Greece and our holiday award roll call, so keep watching Hardcowtravels for a couple more interesting posts!

Poros – A pause before the end

Poros has been 10 days of doing very little. Days have involved sitting around, going to the beach and swimming in the sea in the mornings then more relaxing and sleeping in the afternoon. Exactly what we wanted to do. We even now have a bit of a sun tan, although that is bound to disappear in the next 2 week maximum!

The only expedition has been to the main town, all 15 minutes away by bus, where we climbed quite a few steps up to an old clock tower – the highest point in the town. The views were great, although it was remarkably busy up there with a Russian tour group noisy chatting away. We go to the bottom of the hill, buy our ferry tickets to Athens and get back to our little flat very quickly and the standard Poros daily schedule is resumed.

In preparation for the real world, we’ve been in contact with job agencies and Chloe has even done a job application, although the job hunt starts in earnest when we get back. This, and our budget spreadsheet shouting “number of days left” going down to single figures, has depressed us a little, but also allows us to look forward to all the good things about returning home.

Next up is the final two days in Athens, a night in Heathrow, then it’s back to reality. Boo hoo.

Greek Food every day? I should be Souvlaki…

It has always surprised us how few Greek restaurants there are around the world compared to other nearby cuisines, such as Italian, as the food here is so damn good every time we’ve come on holiday here.

Whether it was the lack of choice in Sri Lanka, but we have enjoyed almost every meal here. The slow-cooked meat is tender, seafood is fresh, salads are tasty (why, oh why, can’t tomatoes taste like this in the UK?), pastry treats are generously filled and the desserts are melt-in-the-mouth lovely. All washed down with wine at under 3 euros for 1.5 litres in the supermarkets.

Particular favourites of this part of holiday have been the lamb (garlic sauce, lemon sauce, chops etc.), spinach pie (Spanakopita – σπανακόπιτα) and orange cake (Portokalopita – Πορτοκαλόπιτα). Calories are high, but the taste is sensational.

We have challenged ourselves to make these delights at home, but they will undoubtably come out worse than the worst ones we had here. However, the biggest challenge after over seven weeks in Greece is whether we still fit into the clothes we had custom-made in Vietnam.

All that remains is to get in touch with Kylie Minogue to see if she wants to go into partnership with us on a Greek grill restaurant called “I should be souvlaki”. Ah, there it is, the Greek puns start, more to come, Apollo-gies in advance.

I love Poros in the summer when it sizzles…

We decided to end the holiday of a lifetime with a little holiday. We’re not much given to sitting around on beaches but we thought we’d probably rather fancy it by this point. We fly home out of Athens, so we planned our route to include a ten-day stop on the island of Poros (not to be confused with Paros, where we started the Greek leg of our journey). It’s only an hour from Piraeus and has reasonably priced accommodation, beaches, tavernas, forests and the sparkling Aegean. Sounds perfect. 

So on Sunday lunchtime, our taxi dropped us at the quayside in Galatas. One euro and a few minutes’ boat ride across the strait and we were in Poros Town. The roads were quiet and we quickly picked up another taxi to take us to the other end of the bay.

Askali Beach looks like a typical little holiday suburb: beaches (check), decent accommodation (check), tavernas (check). Time to grab a little lunch.

We wandered down the hill in a little fog of travel weariness to be greeted by…hell. Well, our idea of holiday hell. Music from four tavernas competed to insult our eardrums; every square inch of the (admittedly bijou) beach was packed with sunloungers, all of them occupied. When we eventually took the plunge, we had to leave the first restaurant because of the music. After that, the 80s pop offerings of the café down the road seemed like sweet balm. 

What were we going to do? Could we put up with this for ten days? We couldn’t face the beachfront on Monday and spent much of the day enjoying having a level bed to sleep in. 

Then something wonderful happened. We were driven out of our studio by hunger and boredom. The beachfront? Quiet and peaceful. The sunloungers? Half empty. That first restaurant we had to leave on Sunday? Transformed with restful background music, great food and lovely staff. 

We should have expected it. Being so near to Athens, Poros is a good place to escape the heat and hassle of the city. Who can blame people for grabbing a few days off?

So now we have the place largely to ourselves, just not at the weekend. That’s OK. That’s when we’ll head into town, do some window shopping and even ride the one euro ferry a couple of times, just for the hell of it. 

Epidaurus – more than just a theatre

Our last day trip in the Peloponnese is Epidaurus (or Epidavros, or many other variations of the name for this UNESCO world heritage site).

We travel by public bus, so we are again at its mercy regarding the number of tour groups will be at the site when we arrive. The bus timetable forces us to be dropped off at the height of the midday sun and we won’t be picked up again until later on in the scorchio afternoon – a little concerning as we have heard that Epidaurus has very little shade.

The bus is barely half full when we leave Nafplio and, once it has finished weaving in and out of a number of small villages perched on the side of the mountains, only us and another couple remain. Only one coach is in the car park and there are barely a dozen cars, so we’re very hopeful of a quieter time than Mycenae.

We have been spoilt by scenery here in Greece, and Epidaurus is another archeological site in a truly stupendous location. It is surrounded by mountains, deep valleys and olive trees for miles around. Considering it is the height of summer, it is so green – spring here must be something else.

We hit the main attraction first, the theatre. Built in the 4th century BC it holds 14,000 and is still used for some concerts and Chloe gets to see the arena where her current read – The Oresteia – has been performed for many centuries. The acoustics are meant to be outstanding, they allow performers to be heard everywhere even when talking normally. However, our own attempts are not entirely successful, probably because of the wind.  The theatre itself is visually stunning, atmospheric and not at all busy, although it is the definition of a sun-trap.

With two hours to spare, we wander around the rest of the site. We see the ancient stadium (unfortunately, unlike Olympia, it was not possible to run a Stadia), the Gymnasion, a bath-house that the Romans invariably added and a lovely little museum. The site rivals Delphi as the best we’ve seen in Greece in terms of scenery but also genuinely interesting things to see.

Job done, all that was left was to drink a freezing-cold, luminous-yellow, lemon-flavoured slushy, find some shade and wait for our bus.

A great way to finish our time in the Peloponnese, although our sight-seeing wasn’t quite finished. We left Nafplio the next day and were treated to one of the best travel journeys of the whole holiday, climbing up mountains, vistas over coastal villages (including Ancient Epidauras) and a slow descent into the port of Galatas.

A suitable end to our time in this beautiful part of Greece.

A big old blood-drenched rock

Some families attract misfortune like a magnetic force. Pity, then, the House of Atreus whose bad luck, questionable personalities and plain old murderousness wasted lives for generations. Remember that speech from Gladiator, ‘father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife – and I will have my vengeance’? That. Times a hundred.

There’s no room here to list all of the murder, divine retribution, child sacrifice, macho pride, adultery, cannibalism, and ‘eye for an eye’-ing. If you want the gory details, click here.

The deeply impressive fortress at Mycenae may or may not have been the backdrop to much of this bloodshed. Perched in the dip between two mountains, high up above Nafplio and Argos, it commands an impressive view. No one is sneaking up on anyone here.

Huge stones, metres wide, make up walls that are still standing over two thousand years later. For centuries, no one could imagine how they were moved and lifted into place, so the construction was credited to the Cyclops. Even now, the walls are described as ‘cyclopean’.

The bus drops us in a hot and dusty car park. No chance of beating the tour groups when you’re wedded to Greek transport schedules. All we can do is grin and bear it.

Actually, it’s not so bad. Despite encounters with incredibly loud Chinese cruise passengers, path hogging French students and Greek tourists in search of the ultimate selfie, we managed to climb the citadel, ooh and aaah at the view and take the little used path back.

We have 40 minutes until our bus home. Just time to walk down the hill to the supposed-but-probably-not Tomb of Agamemnon.

A passageway slices into the side of the hill, flanked by more impressive wall-ery and a huge gated arch. Inside, the beehive shaped brickwork (no mortar, just good joins) curves inward above our heads. We are impressed, but we have to get our bus.

We leg it up the hill in time to board and surf our way back down the mountain on a wave of mythical blood.

Palamidi fortress conquered

The imposing Palamidi fortress has been staring at us for the past week. We see it early in the morning, glowing with a beautiful golden hue in late afternoon, watching the moon rising above it in early evening and shining when lit up at night. The one thing we have been putting off is climbing up to the top.

A bit of background and statistics for our readers. Palamidi was built in the late 18th century by the Veneticians in a remarkable three years. It is, by our calculations (well, from Wikipedia), higher than Sigiriya in Sri Lanka at an imposing 221 metres. There are only 999 steps, 200 fewer than Sigiriya.

Allan decides enough is enough, leaves our flat at before 9am and the climb starts. Chloe stays at home to shoot a short movie for our god-daughter, fully utilising the zoom on the camera to show Allan at the top of the fortress.

There are not that many people around but fellow climbers are friendly and encouraging. The marble steps are sometimes ridiculously steep and fairly slippy – just don’t do this climb up after some rain, otherwise the descent down may be quicker than the video at the end of this post.

As with most climbs, the views just get better and better and there is a huge sense of achievement on reaching the summit.

Chloe expertly records the video, although Allan’s face is the same colour as a ripe tomato – thank goodness the zoom doesn’t get too close-up. Then it is time for the climb down and slow walk back to the flat. Legs are already aching and the eight flights of stairs to get up to our top floor flat are a real struggle, but Palamidi is conquered!

See below for the 26 minute walk down compressed into 26 seconds.


Nafplio – it’s all gone a bit Venetian

Squeezing our belongings into the backpacks for the third last time of the holiday, we go from Olympia to Nafplio. As per all of our journeys in the Peloponnese, our choice is to either get up very early, take three buses and arrive six or seven hours later, or take an expensive two hour taxi ride. We chose the taxi option.

 Rocky and tree-covered mountains, small villages with terracotta roofs, roads zig-zagging up and down to altitudes higher than anything in England or Wales, all made for a spectacular ride through the Alpine-like scenery. It was still expensive though.

Our AirBnB place was a bit of a punt. It was suspiciously cheaper than most others, had only one photo of a not very nice sofa but on the upside, it had rave reviews. We therefore struggle up to the third floor of the building in the old town with a great deal of trepidation. What we are confronted with is a pretty decent size one-bed flat with a huge 10mx10m private terrace, which is overlooked by two Venetian fortresses glowing in the sunset. And, as a bonus, there is a slightly smaller terrace with a line of sight to the sea on the other side. The bed is slightly uncomfortable, but wow, check-out the view!

We are inspired to go to the supermarket and try to remember how to cook for ourselves again. Pasta, gnocchi and other delights are eaten on the terrace, often with the sound of choirs and bands that seem to go from restaurant to restaurant below us or firework displays for the cruise ships in town. Apart from these pleasant distractions, it is very quiet and pretty wonderful. Even a three hour gap in which mains water isn’t available doesn’t spoil anything. We later find out that this is a common problem and subject to a bitter dispute between the town and the water company – must be a nightmare for those who live here.

The old town of Nafplio is like walking around Venice, without the canals and mass crowds. There are piazzas, ice cream shops aplenty, posh boutiques, cafés, good restaurants, lots of jewellery stores and enough outlets to keep up Nafplio’s status as the worry-bead capital of the world. All very picturesque, but clearly some of the prices are for the owners of the Phillip Green-sized yachts moored in the harbour.

We have 10 days here, but have just found out that there are no buses to our next destination on day we leave, so it looks like we need to get another one of our budget-busting taxis that day. Every silver lining….




Faster, higher, stronger: from Ancient Olympia to London 2012

One of the many great things about being lucky enough to take such a long holiday is that we can stay a few nights at big tourist sites, instead of rushing everything on a day trip. It allows us to choose the best time to visit the main attractions and to see more of the town than the average tourist sees.

We were in Olympia for three nights. This allowed us to find out that the busiest time was first thing in the morning, especially when a cruise ship was in town. We therefore managed to avoid the 40-odd coach loads of tourists and plumped for a late afternoon visit. As this is such an important and interesting site, we also hired a guide.

The ancient Olympic games started in 776 BC and continued until the late fourth century AD. It was then deemed ‘too pagan’ by the Christian Roman emperors of the time, who looted and burned the site over a few decades in order to save everyone’s souls. Cheers.

We find out that the idea of the games was to educate and promote peace between warring city states, on the grounds that understanding your neighbours made you less likely to attack them. For one month every four years, a truce was enforced, alliances made and deals agreed.

We visit buildings where competitors stayed for a month before the games. They arrived early not just to train, but to be educated both intellectually and spiritually. Fascinating facts come by the minute from our excellent guide, including that building columns were designed to be smooth on one side to avoid injury during wrestling practice. We do the tourist thing of posing exactly where the boxing practice took place.

We see the Temple of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. One column (of the original 65) has been reconstructed to give some indication of how massive this must have been. In the middle of the temple, there would have been a huge statue of Zeus made of ivory and gold, encrusted with precious jewels with an olive oil lake below to reflect light and make the statue sparkle. No wonder it was described with awe, it must have been spectacular.

The games themselves were huge events. The 45,000 spectators must have been awe-inspiring for competitors who had never seen so many people. If they won, a statue was made of them and lots of the plinths with inscriptions still survive. It was a men-only affair, though, with just one woman (a priestess of Demeter) allowed to observe the competition.

As with the current Olympics, some competitors cheated. If found out (via a variety of methods including urine tasting) they had to pay for a bronze statue of Zeus, accompanied with an inscription naming and shaming them forever. A notable exception was the Emperor Nero, who entered the four-horse chariot race with an obviously cheat-worthy 10 horses. He promptly crashed, but this didn’t stop Nero declaring himself as the winner!

Continuing into more modern times, we see where the Olympic flame is lit before every games. We take a collective breath on discovering that this tradition was actually resurrected by Hitler before the 1936 Olympics. Finally, we saw the ancient stadium, used for the shot-put competitions during the 2004 Olympics. We were the only people there, so it was deathly quiet apart from the ghosts of Olympics past.

Allan did a re-run of the 1 stadia race (192m from one end of the stadium to another) in a time that wouldn’t have won any race, in either ancient or modern times. Excuses range from “it was very hot” to “it was bumpy ground”. In truth, he admits it was because of being unfit, in his late 40s, and with his marathon running days a distant memory.

The air-conditioned museum was a welcome break from the sun. This, like the site itself, was compact but stunning. The pediments of the Temple of Zeus and the statue of Hermes with the infant Dionysus were highlights, but the sheer quantity and quality of the artefacts was remarkable.

It is very quiet in the evenings here, so all that was left was to have a couple of cold beers followed by one of the best meals of the entire holiday at the wonderful Taverna Orestis.

We agreed that Olympia has a very special place amongst Greece’s archeological wonders. It is the start of a golden thread that directly links events of 2,500 years ago with our own lives in a very immediate way. As Londoners who felt the magic of the 2012 Olympics transform our city, even if only temporarily, we felt we had completed a historical circuit of sorts.

13 December 1943

Our hotel in the picturesque village of Kalavryta is next door to a bar. There’s not a single woman to be seen, card tables are cluttered with coffee cups and the clientele are exclusively men over the age of 65. Up until yesterday, we imagined that if we walked in the music would stop and everyone would stare as we disrupted their ‘men’s talk’ about nothing in particular.

Today we go to the town museum. It gives a brief history of the area but is rightly focused on the events of 13 December 1943. This was the day when a true horror of WW2 happened and when Kalavryta changed for generations.

On the pretence of revenge for the killing of German troops, the whole village was rounded up and locked in the local school by the Nazis. Every man and boy over 12 was separated from his family and led to the top of a nearby hill. They were then machine-gunned. It took two hours. Only 13 survived out of nearly 700.

The whole town was then burned to the ground. The women and remaining children only escaped the burning school by somehow opening a locked door. They then faced the horror of finding their slain husbands, brothers and sons and dragging their bodies down from the hill. They didn’t even have the tools to bury them – it was winter and the ground was rock-hard. To add to this desperate situation, the Nazis took all livestock and food from the village.

In the final room is an entire wall of photographs of the murdered. With this, the tears start flowing and the museum curator is ready with tissues and more upsetting stories.

We now imagine many of the conversations in the old-man’s bar are of lost fathers and brothers and how their families somehow managed to survive after 1943. They still should have some women in there though…

A lesson from history. There is no sharing of blame and there are not two sides to the story. F**k you, Nazi scum.