“Now you are going to the real Greece!” proclaimed the man at the car rental agency, when I asked him for maps of Southern Greece and the Peloponnese along with the standard Athens map he had proffered. “Everyone, they go to the islands. But that is not Greece,” he added definitively.
Content that we weren’t following any of the usual passé tourist routes Johnny and I picked up our tiny European car and started our road trip South.
We were both exhausted from catching the 8-hour ferry back to Piraeus earlier in the day and solidly sun-burnt from our week on the islands (despite it being early May.) The drive from the airport in Athens (where we picked up our car) to Isthmia, (where we were spending the night) was a bit of blur.
I’m all for catching buses, but honestly for the price, having a car paid off in so many ways. Johnny and I are big believers in the journey as well as the destination (blah blah cliché blah) and enjoy the freedom of being able to stop whenever we see something interesting or the urge for a frappe overcomes us. We always add an extra hour or so to our trips travelling like this, but it’s never something we regret.
After all, if we hadn’t rented a car we wouldn’t have been able to buy bags of these delicious oranges from the side of the road!
We arrived at Kalamaki Beach Hotel a few hours before sunset. After being exposed to the rocky, relatively barren islands for the first leg of our trip, Kalamaki was an oasis. The hotel is a relatively plain cube, but it’s nestled amongst the cool, shady gardens with a lush lawn that surrounds the swimming pool and a twinkling little beach just below the property.
After a walk along the sea wall next to the beach, we sat on the patio, raised glasses of wine, and watched the sun dip below the hills.
I woke early the next morning after a restless night of being bitten by mosquitoes. Bug spray, stupidly, hadn’t even crossed my mind when packing. My reward was one of the most brilliant, perfect sunrises of our trip.
Beneath me, a scrawny cat stalked a bird across the lawn while the sun turned the water shades of lavender and gold. The air was still and clear, broken only by the gentle murmur of a fishing boat heading out for the day.
After a refreshing morning swim and a breakfast of baklava, yoghurt and honey (what else?) we piled back into the car for the drive down to Gythio where we would spend the next two weeks in my grandmother’s house.
The drive from Isthmia to Gythio is roughly three hours. We decided to take the entire day and take the long route, stopping in Epidavros to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Epidaurus, and then for lunch in Nafplio, which according to my lonely planet, has the best traditional gelato outside of Italy.
Sites like the Epidaurus theatre and towns like Nafplio remind me why I am so amazed when people tell that they have visited most of the Greek islands but haven’t even considered venturing around the mainland.
When you arrive at Epidaurus, it looks relatively simple: a few typically ancient Grecian pillars peeking from above the pine trees and a small orange stand selling freshly squeezed juice and whole fruit.
Epidaurus is a surprising combination between art and science, which made it a perfect attraction for Johnny, the scientist, and myself, the artist, to visit. Epidaurus is best known for its theatre. Built in the 4th century BC, and made out of a mix butter coloured limestone and other rocks, it is still used for star-lit performances and concerts today. Mind-blowing.
The theatre also has really cool acoustics. It’s designed so that the rows of seats dull low frequency sounds (like the crowd) but amplify the high-frequency sounds of the performers on stage. Johnny and I spent a good hour roaming the rows and listening to different languages floating up from the stage below us.
Along with this incredible theatre (there’s more to Greece than the Acropolis), Epidaurus was also the most celebrated healing center in the classical world. This is apparently the birthplace of Apollo’s son, Asclepius the healer.
After the theatre, the rest of the site (although historically fascinating) is as visually unremarkable as the entrance suggests. Still, it’s worth a wander with a cold, freshly squeezed orange juice and the attached museum is filled with all sorts of creepy, ancient medical tools and apparatus.
After spending most of our morning exploring Epidaurus, we were starving. All I wanted to do was devour a heaping plate of grilled flat bread drizzled in olive oil, loaded with thick tzatziki and a delicious stick of dripping souvlaki.
Arriving in the sweet little town of Nafplio, we put our hunger on-hold and joined two other couples on one the tiniest fishing boat I have ever seen, let alone been on, to visit the castle of Bourtzi. The castle is located on a little outcrop of rocks in the bay and has had various uses, including housing the executioners of the convicts from the castle of Palamidi.
Bourtzi is one of those typical attractions that make the perfect backdrop for your photographs, but once you get close enough and it’s not actually in your photos, it looses a lot of its appeal.
Never one to lose sight of a destinations photographic appeal, Johnny made the most of the €5 boat fare and took full advantage of any of the photographic opportunities the fortress presented us with.
Back on land, we found a quiet café off one of the main squares to enjoy the souvlaki I had been craving in the car and washed it down with €2 Heinekens the size of my head. (FYI, booze is super cheap is Greece. Cheaper than water we often found, which suited us just fine.)
And of course, we followed lunch with scoops of gelato from Antica Gelateria di Roma. We finished the gelati half way around the block and promptly turned back for a second cone each. I tried the cherry first and the pistachio second and if you’re not big on ice cream at least go for the cones, which are home made and taste like toasted biscotti.
After an indulgent lunch, we should have made the hike up the 999 stairs to the Palamidi castle. Truly, we contemplated it. But it was now getting late in the afternoon, we still had a decent drive ahead of us, and I wanted to reach Gythio before dark. Until next time Nafplio!