A lesser-travelled path via the Peloponnese

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With a sick passenger offloaded as we sat on the tarmac in Abu Dhabi and an aborted landing and recircle of Athens Airport – our already tight connection to a domestic Olympic Air flight had shrunk from 1.5 hours to barely 45 minutes. Following a weary 30 hours travel, I was mentally preparing myself to forgo our next flight, find storage for our heavy bags and book an expensive night at an Athens Airport hotel.

Waiting 20 minutes to disembark from seats at the rear of the plane, talking our way past a very long customs line, scooping up our luggage, receiving very specific directions from airport staff and literally running with a loaded trolley through domestic departures – while mum hobbled along behind – we dashed up to the check-in counter minutes before our flight to Kythira Island closed.

I still shake my head with disbelief that we made that flight!

Soon our little Dash 8 turbo-prop plane was cruising high above the shimmering Aegean Sea and Peloponnese Peninsular with only about 15 others on board. Touching down at tiny Kythira airport we were welcomed by the familiar, tanned faces of our salty sea-dog husbands; one month apart for Mike and I, and for mum and dad it had been three. The crew was reunited!

Stepping back on board finally my darling felt familiar yet momentarily strange since our last rendezvous in October. Though reacquainting with our dear floating home didn’t take long as we settled in and unpacked our belongings into the few drawers and hanging closets so narrow it would give any female heart palpitations.

The first night for mum and I was anchored in pretty Kapsali Bay on Kythira Island (about 55 nautical miles/100 kilometres NNW of Crete). There the guys had already dwelled for five nights and befriended the locals: awaiting a convenient location to collect us, hunkered down to shelter from a fierce slow-moving storm and had unfortunately endured the damaged cleat and fiberglass that we’d now seek to repair in Kalamata.

Greece’s Peloponnese Peninsular is a large mass of land to the south west of Athens – physically separated from the mainland by the narrow Corinth Canal. The canal was man-made in the late 1800s to originally operate as a trading route from the Western Mediterranean to Athens and beyond. Last July we transited from the Ionian Islands off Greece’s west coast, across the northern side of the Peloponnese, through the Corinth Canal and onto Athens.

Too narrow for most modern commercial ships, today the canal is mostly frequented by pleasure craft to shave about 150 nautical miles off the travel distance to Athens, than if otherwise taking the longer southern route.

Spring boarding off Crete, this year we were rounding the remote Peloponnese Peninsular to complete our clockwise circumnavigation of Greece and her islands – en route to the western Med.

Likely assisted by glassy calm conditions – thankfully we avoided beating against the usual prevailing north westerlies – pottering through the Peloponnese was scenic and subdued. The landscape was dramatically mountainous with grassy rolling flanks or uniformly terraced olive groves. Sleepy seaside villages were barely alive with patronage from a handful of visiting yachts, the odd domestic Greek visitor and nomadic motor home-driving Germans and Austrians who’d braved the twisting, unsealed roads.

The Peloponnese is best known for the elegant Venetian-influenced village of Napflio and various historical ruins including the precious site of ancient Olympia – where the Olympic Games originated in 776 BC. Other than that I think it’s safe to say the peninsular, especially the areas further south, are some of the lesser-visited regions of Greece.

We anchored off blissful Elafonisos – separated from the mainland by a wide, three metre deep channel. With the afternoon sun high in the sky, the aqua-blue waters filling the shallow bay and its sandy bottom resembled a scene typical of the Caribbean. The next morning a dozen or so playful dolphins ducked and dived on the bow pressure wave as we moved further west to the protected natural harbour at quaint Porto Kayio.

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If it wasn’t for a bay-by-bay description of the coast by our trusty Rod Heikell Greek Waters Pilot Guide, we may have just cruised past an astonishing network of fresh water-filled subterranean caves at Diros. Anchored adjacent to the tourist entrance, we followed a busload of visitors several flights of stairs underground. In the cool depths of the dimly lit cave were handed stylish fluro life vests and seated in a tippy, flat-bottomed boat resembling an oversized esky lid. In the half-darkness our guide gently paddled and pushed gondola-style through the water-filled caverns, where tens of thousands of ancient stalactites stretched down from overhead. At times we had to duck to pass under the low ceiling and in the eerie silence the only sounds were the dripping of mineral-rich water droplets as they continued to evolve the fascinating geology of the cave.

The Caves of Diros were founded in 1958 when a shepherd apparently fell through a hole and into the cave; then explored extensively in 1970. With a spider web network of tunnels stretching more than five kilometres, I can only imagine such a site would be a speleologist’s whet dream to first discover, explore and chart.

Without a steady platform and tripod, I quickly gave up taking blurry photos and the otherwise blown-out flash could do no justice to capture the cavernous underground setting. A setting so surreal at times it felt we were in a Movie World theme park ride or a spectacular backdrop for a Halloween haunted train (esky lid) ride.

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On approach to the once-busy port town of Kalamata, thousands of hectares of terraced olive grove plantations lined the coastal mountain foothills. Just as France’s Champagne region has trademarked the exclusive use of the name over its sparkling wine imitators – in the European Union only olives originating from this region can be sold under the Kalamata brand.

Despite being home of the world-famous Kalamata black olive, this claim to fame has not put the destination ‘on the map’ per-say and tourism appeared relatively non-existent, except a boost from Peloponnese locals in July and August. As a visitor I’d anticipated an abundance of olives, oils, tapenades and associated products at our disposal in the town itself. Perhaps the locals had grown tired of the little black fruit or were not innately proud of their livelihood crop that skirted the town in every direction. Either that, or it wasn’t yet olive season!

Refreshingly Kalamata was a very Greek place, with seldom an English sign in sight. One mid-week evening on a bar street popular with locals, we were surrounded by the hum of animated conversation. And in an interesting cultural gap display, we were the only table drinking alcohol, amongst dozens of tables where every last Greek was contently sipping frappe coffees, water and chain smoking cigarettes.

Experimenting with some local recipes is always a useful way to pass the time – below photos include BBQ’d ricotta and feta stuffed peppers, plus aubergine and zucchini au gratin.

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Patiently waiting a week of slow fibreglass repairs to the damaged aft port quarter, Mike and I hired a car for a short road trip inland and north. On passing through customs at Sydney Airport a week prior, when the customs official learnt mum and I were headed to Greece, he was more interested in where we would be going, then if we intended to overstay our tourist visas. He proudly advised that he was Greek and along with returning our stamped passports he pushed over a hand written note with two places on the Peloponnese that we must visit. One of which was Nafplio.

Hailed as one of the prettiest villages on the mainland – like many regions of Greece – Nafplio’s history is intriguing yet explosive. Built onto a peninsular jutting into the Argolic Gulf, the Palamidi Fortress dominates the southern ridgeline. At sea level, the township is tucked out of the view from boats approaching from the Aegean Sea. The fortifications, mansions and residences bear a style reflecting the various ruling influences of Byzantine, Franks and Ottoman – though Venetian architecture dominates.

Nafplio was an Ottoman stronghold during the Greek War of Independence. Eventually the Ottomans were overwhelmed and surrendered, and for a short period in the early 1800s it was named the capital of Greece, before the capital was moved to Athens.

Mid-week in early summer, it was hard not to wander about feeling Nafplio’s wide, sun drenched boulevards were somewhat deserted.

Given we travel around with our floating home, we rarely stay in land-based accommodation. So when we must part with our hard-saved cash, we agonise over booking something characterful, central and still within our budget. Our choice of Kyveli Guesthouse  was just what we’d hoped for with a plush king-sized bed, steaming hot bath, floor to ceiling shutter doors, petite terrace overlooking the bougainvillea strewn laneway below and of course, walls that didn’t move with the passing swell!  Luck so had it, we were also perched above the most atmospheric street in town, when come nightfall the simple taverna below filled with diners and the vibrancy of a talented bouzouki-playing duo permeated the air.

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For a week we waited alongside at Kalamata’s basic marina, as a local repairman visited the boat on a half dozen occasions to layer fibreglass, re-apply gel coat and re-tap the cleat back into its strengthened position on the port aft side. Following weather delays the guys encountered in Kythira and resulting boat repairs from the storm – we were now about two weeks behind our anticipated schedule. Yet as there should be no such thing as a schedule when living life on the water and by the weather, we were just happy to depart, as marinas are rarely where we like to spend a night – let alone seven. From Kalamata we continued a short distance onto the peaceful and fresh-aired anchorage at Koroni, directly underneath the crumbling bastions of a Venetian fortress.

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Venetian fortresses and towers in varying states of restoration or decay riddled the landscape at strategic points along this once fiercely protected trading route. At Methoni the remains of another fort occupied a rambling walled corner that formed the mainland’s south western-most point. Although heavily controlled by the Venetians, they were often challenged by and sometimes fell into Ottoman hands, who added their own towers and touches. As such, a Turkish tower guarded the land spit and the distinctive shadowy remains of a Turkish hamam (bathhouse) could be seen nestled amongst the tall grass. A short distance away sat a more recently constructed church. Along the fortress walls secret tunnels disappeared into the darkness – and as always when exploring with Mike we must go in and see where they lead!

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On the far southwest tip of the Peloponnese, Pilos would become our final departure point from Greece.

Another location of intense importance in Greece’s history – Pilos rested on the partially enclosed Bay of Navarino. It was there in October 1827 – during the Greek War of Independence – that an allied naval fleet of 26 warships from Great Britain, France and Russia confronted a much larger fleet of 78 Ottoman-Egyptian ships that controlled the harbour. Cannon fire ravaged in a four hour-long battle where extraordinarily the smaller allied force out-fought and defeated the Ottomans. As the last recorded battle fought solely by sailing ships, over 70 ships and 3,000 men were lost – the vast majority on the Ottoman side. Yet thanks to the allied force’s courageous effort, the defining historical event would ultimately set Greece free.

In modern-day Pilos’ main square, two large bronze cannons were displayed. While children played around them unknowing of their significance, it was mind-blogging to think that hundreds if not thousands of similar cannons once littered the sea floor of the adjacent harbour.

After patiently waiting another four nights, the prevailing westerlies finally alleviated and offered a window allowing us to move west. We dropped ropes and set off to make finally my darling’s longest passage to date – a comfortable 62-hour transit to the tiny island of Malta, south of Sicily. A taste below with more video and photos to follow soon!

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  1. James says

    Great post and awesome photos!
    Hope you guys have settled back in and are having a great time (although it looks like you are). Miss having you guys around! Say hi to Mike and the family for me.
    Take care.

  2. says

    We have just returned from Zante, where we spent a month relaxing and waiting for passengers to fly with our flying inflatable boat. Reading your text I can only say : Congratulations for the photos and the writing Brooke! Keep going!

    Let me guess : red peppers were stuffed with feta cheese? hahahaha!

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