Saturday, August 28, 2010

Highlights of the Peloponnese

Time for another list. Having tackled some of the lesser-known ruins that the Peloponnese has to offer, I feel I’ve neglected the more famous sites, of which the area has many. Whilst there is a sense of discovery and adventure in exploring some of the more obscure historical remains, there is also much to be said for the big ‘tourist’ destinations. They are famous for a reason, after all. So here are my highlights, along with some tips about how to make the most of them.


It took a while for me to see Olympia’s charms, which is a shame as they are plentiful. It is second only to the Acropolis itself in renown, and this brings its own problems. Let’s tackle these first. The village surrounding the site has grown into a tacky touristville, catering to the thousands of visitors with crappy restaurants and indifferent hotels. The ruins themselves are often overrun with herds of the most obnoxious type of tourists, and the remains can appear as a confusing jumble, with little of beauty or interest.

So why visit? Put simply there’s something magical about this place, which saw the games run uninterrupted for over a thousand years. Visit sometime between late autumn and early spring. Arrive early in the morning and pass quickly through the village and over the river towards the Hill of Kronos. Turn right into the ruins (they’re free on a Sunday) and stroll through the tree-shaded valley towards the stadium. Pass through the same arch under which famous athletes and cheating emperors (I’m talking about you, Mr Nero) once walked, and take off your shoes by the stone starting line. Place one bare foot on the line and close your eyes for a moment. Then run . . .


For those who equate Greek ruins with white marble columns the remains of the bronze age people who inspired Homer’s epics can come as a surprise. These massive stone walls set on an imposing, tooth-like, crag speak not of art and philosophy, but of blood and war.

Once again try and come off season and visit the site first thing. To really feel the atmosphere of these ancient rocks try and brave the steps down into the secret cistern, hidden at the back of the walls. You’ll need a torch, and the descent is officially discouraged. Few make it to the bottom.


This is the perfect Greek theatre, a stunning sweep of tiered seats each with faultless acoustics. For once the tour groups prove useful as they give you a chance to test this out. Take your seat and wait; before long someone is bound to try out a quick song or Shakespeare soliloquy. The rest of the site, once a healing sanctuary (a health spa in modern terms), rewards exploration as well, with the added advantage that most people don’t venture past the theatre. Look out for the Tholos, where patients would crawl through a snake-infested maze in the hope of a divine cure. In high season you can even catch a performance of Sophokles at the theatre, an experience that makes the summer crowds worthwhile.

Ancient Corinth

The mainly Roman remains of this city allow you to walk the same streets as St Paul did when he first preached, and give a startlingly fresh insight into day-to-day life two thousand years ago.

Above the old city looms the castle-topped bulk of Acrocorinth. Most people don’t bother with the detour up to the top of this; you should, if only to admire the triple gateway through the walls that takes you back through history as you walk through it. The first gate is Turkish, the next Venetian, and the last has stones dating back to the 4th century BC. The views from the walls are stunning. Also keep an eye out for Pegasus, this is one of the winged horse’s favourite hang outs.


I’m going to write about this Byzantine city, nearby Sparta, at more length another time, suffice it to say it’s one of my favourite spots on the planet. Come in the spring, when wildflowers fill the site and the mountains above still glisten with snow, but Mystra is worth a visit anytime. A truly special place.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Why the Greek economy failed . . .

Having now written a fair bit about Greece I often find people asking my opinion about the present economic woes in the country. My first response is to make clear that none of it is my fault, closely followed by the observation that I am not an economist. I also like to point out that anyone who thinks that the current wave of rioting in the streets, and mass strikes, are in anyway unusual, has not spent much time in Greece. In the end, though, I usually tell them the following story; I think it explains a lot.

About 15 years ago I was chatting to a Greek acquaintance late at night, or possibly early in the morning, in a small village taverna. We’ll call him Panos – it might even have been his name. Much beer, wine and tsipouro had been consumed, and Panos had got down to the favourite Greek pastime of setting the world to rights. (I’ll leave out the swearing).

“I’ll tell you what the problem with this country is, Andy. It’s taxes! No-one pays them! Everybody complains: about the schools; about the roads; about the hospitals. Everybody complains that the government does nothing. But what can the government do? It has no money! If people gave the government what it was due, perhaps then they could start to sort out the problems, but instead everyone just looks out for themselves. It is the Greek way.”

I thought this was eminently sensible, and told Panos so. “It must make you angry,” I said, “being one of the few that contributes”.

“Good god,” said Panos, “I don’t pay my taxes either! Why should I, no-one else does . . .”

So there you go. I’d only like to add that, although it may take time, I have no doubt that the Greeks will weather this particular storm, helped, no doubt, by their sometimes insufferable self-belief and pride. I wish them well.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tiny Campsites

Over the last few years, and in no small part due to these times of austerity, camping has become fashionable. Helped on by the festival scene tents, sleeping bags and other paraphernalia have jumped out of the specialist shops and into supermarket aisles and even the shelves of trendy boutiques. For those of us who have been extolling the virtues of life under canvas, or at least nylon, for a while now this can be ever so slightly annoying, but the one big advantage is the influx of new guidebooks. Old camping guides were aimed firmly at the caravanner, whose needs and desires diverge greatly from those of us with tents. Now a new breed has arrived, with an emphasis on beautiful and isolated spots, rather than the size of the shower blocks and the availability of electric hook ups.

One such book is Tiny Campsites by Dixe Wills, in which the author lists 75 places to camp that are all under an acre in size. The idea appealed to me, so last week I packed up the family and decided to check out one of his (yes, his) recommendations.

A long haul round London and along the M4 into Wales brought us to Middle Ninfa Farm near Abergavenny, which Dixe lists as his third best site in Britain. It poured down the whole way, which was rather dispiriting. We even had to partake of that great British institution, the in-car picnic. Fortunately the sun came out as we crossed the Severn Bridge, but the still wet conditions meant that my overloaded Golf couldn’t make it up the driveway to the site – this is very definitely a Welsh hill farm. It also explains why, on a 23 acre farm, there is far less than an acre that is flat and available for camping.

No-one was around when we arrived, despite Radio 4 playing loudly from a nearby shed, but a kind note told us to make ourselves at home. The farm has a “main" campsite by the farmhouse, as well as three “remote” pitches. Having already lugged tent and bags up the driveway I opted for the main site, which in reality was a cosy little space in which we were the only occupants, and has stunning views back down the hill. The remote pitches, which we explored later, really live up to their name, and you wouldn’t want to have to carry too much stuff up to them.

The farm, now only home to a few ducks (avid Radio 4 listeners it seems) and two retired, and friendly, horses, is owned by Richard and Rohan. This well-travelled couple (mainly Africa) are enthusiastic and informal hosts, and can provide local information and maps, as well as home-grown veg. The facilities are basic, and rightly so. The one toilet is a long drop, and bottles of filtered water are available on the farm window sill. Apparently there is a cold shower somewhere, as well as, believe-it-or-not, a wood-fired sauna, but we didn’t bother with these.

In fact we didn’t bother with much of anything, apart from enjoying the views and some light exploring. Campfires, so unusual these days, are not only allowed but encouraged; so each night we settled in to watch the light fade and the stars come out. To top it all we were at the start of the Perseid meteor shower, so our evening drinks were accompanied by shooting stars.

Dixe reckons there are two better campsites than this. I can’t wait . . .

Monday, August 16, 2010

Take Down the Union Jack

Sorry not to have posted for over a week. I was away camping, far from even the merest hint of Wi-Fi. I’ll write more about this shortly, but first I wanted to get down some random thoughts about nationality, and what it means to us. These have been prompted by my listening to the estimable Mr Billy Bragg on constant loop over the past few weeks, particularly his pro-devolution ditty Take Down the Union Jack.

I was born in Kenya, but only stayed there a few years. My father is English and my mother was Scottish. Because of this mix, when asked, I would normally identify myself as British, but what does this really mean? Frankly, without looking it up, I would be hard-pressed to state the difference between Great Britain and the United Kingdom. If we go to Norman Tebbit’s infamous “cricket test”, I find it much easier to cheer for England than Britain, Scotland or Kenya. As Billy puts it:

Britain isn’t cool you know, it's really not that great
It's not a proper country; it doesn’t even have a patron saint
It's just an economic union that’s passed its sell-by date

Interestingly this comfort with the notion of England may be a fairly modern phenomena. I recently watched clips of the 1990 World Cup semi-final, and was slightly surprised by the sea of Union Jacks in the crowd. It seems to have been only recently that we have reclaimed the St George’s Cross from the Far Right.

I’ve also been reading Andrew Marr’s two books about the history of Britain in the 20th Century. I was cautious of these, as they went along with a TV series (not usually a good sign), but they are excellent. Definitely a journalist’s view of history, with an emphasis on the big personalities and the telling anecdote, but none the worse for it. They also make it clear what a profoundly odd connection there is between the various countries that make up our nation.

So how to I define myself? I guess, when you combine background, the environment I grew up in, and football, then I’m English. And I’m proud of it. I would also have no problem with a full break up of the UK. On the other hand  I’m also very much in favour of more extensive links with the rest of Europe. In fact, at the end of the day, I’m in favour of a world state. National identity is a fairly random thing, a mixture of birth and background that you have no say in. This doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate it, just don’t take it too seriously. Back to Billy:

Take down the Union Jack, it clashes with the sunset
And pile up all those history books, but don’t throw them away
‘Cos they just have a clue about what it really means
To be an Anglo-hyphen-Saxon in England-dot-co-dot-uk

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Five Greek ruins you can have all to yourself . . .

Apparently everyone on the internets loves a list. So here is the start of what I hope will be a regular feature in which ::drum roll:: I present you with a list. First up, and in no particular order, are five archaeological sites from the Peloponnese (the southern mainland of Greece) that, despite being stunning, hardly a soul ever visits. In any other country these would be major tourist destinations, but in Greece they await the solitary pleasure of the persistent few that seek them out.


The town of Megalopoli, with its two power stations belching steam, looks unpromising, but the surrounding peaks hide many delights. One is found on the slopes of a mountain once renowned for werewolves. Here the remains of a temple preside over a majestic view back down to the plain. Even the power stations look good from up here.



The ruins of this sanctuary dedicated to the Homeric couple of Menelaus and Helen (the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’) are pretty sparse, and to get here from nearby Sparta involves a walk or a 4x4. Once again the view makes it all worthwhile, stretching past Sparta to the medieval city of Mystra and the mighty Taygetos Mountains.


Lake Stymfalia
If the ruins of Menelaion are sparse, this site by the beautiful Lake Stymfalia is almost non-existent. It is worth seeking out, however, as the setting is mesmerising and evocative (Hercules completed one of his labours here). Reached by an easy walk from the road, you will feel a million miles from anywhere.

Ancient Messene

Gates of Messene
This one is on the cusp. In recent years a lot more work has been done on the site, unearthing new treasures, but also making it better known and more regimented. Last time I went there was even a ticket booth, but so far no one I know has ever seen anyone manning it. It deserves to be better known because unlike Olympia, a religious / sporting complex, and Epidavros, a healing centre and theatre, this is an entire classical Greek city, immaculately preserved. The walls alone are worth the trip, and you can even drive your car through the ancient gate as the modern road still goes through it; a weird and wonderful experience.


View from Geraki
To get away from the classical ruins, this is a medieval city, a sibling to the nearby Mystra. Unlike Mystra not many bother visiting, and getting in relies on you being spotted driving up by the Spurs-loving caretaker. You are compensated by yet more stunning views, and three well-preserved and intimate Byzantine churches, complete with frescos.

To find out more about these sites, and to explore this fascinating region more fully, I am forced to recommend my own book, the Bradt Guide to the Greek Peloponnese. It’s quite good, honestly.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Down the Blue River

I’ve just finished reading Andrew Eames’ Blue River, Black Sea. It’s a great, if not original, idea for a travel narrative (and not in the let’s carry a domestic appliance whilst hitchhiking kind of way). The author simply sets out to trace the course of the Danube as it winds through Europe towards the Black Sea.

This starts off in the supposedly familiar territory of Germany and Austria, but approaching both from the river gives one a new perspective on them. As Eames finds out, and I discovered when I fell into it in the late 80s, the Danube in Vienna is a rather smelly, if enormous, canal in the city’s industrial northeast.

Later on Eames tackles the lesser-known course of the river through Eastern Europe, proceeding on foot and by boat through Romania and Bulgaria. His last two-day journey through the Danube Delta to the sea in a particularly uncooperative rowboat deserves a particular hurrah.

He is not the first to dedicate a book to the river, as he himself makes clear. Claudio Magris’ Danube is a more erudite, and some would say pretentious, take on the great European river. It is hard going at times, but I loved it; a book to stretch the mind and often send you scurrying to your reference books (or Wikipedia), which is no bad thing.

The spirit that really lies behind Eames’ book, however, is Patrick Leigh Fermor. I will have plenty more to say about him if this blog continues (I ended up living near him in Greece), but here’s the bluffer’s guide.

Paddy, as he is known, was chucked out of school aged 17 in the late 1930s, and decided it would be a good idea to walk to Constantinople (not Istanbul). His rough and ready route was to follow the Rhine upriver and then the Danube down. This experience led to two of the all-time classics of travel writing; A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. If you want to give yourself an enormous favour this year, then give them a read.

I retraced some of Paddy’s footsteps in my year off before university, and I’ve often thought about doing it more seriously, and writing a book about it. Eames, curse him, has beaten me to it for now, but you never know what the future might bring.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Seeing is Believing

It's a face?!

The ability to recognise patterns is one that is vital to us humans. This starts with babies being able to distinguish first faces, and then the particular faces that are of import to them, but it was also a driving force in our harnessing of technology and the world around us. Agriculture started when the first person noticed that a plant grew in the same place that he, or she, had previously dropped a seed – two facts coming together to form a recognisable pattern. We still do it all the time today, and it forms the basis of much of our decision-making.

Martian masonry?
There is a massive problem with this. Pattern recognition might be an immensely powerful and useful tool, but it also has the ability to lead us massively astray. Correlation does not mean causation, as the mantra has it. In other words, just because two events happened at a similar time, or in close proximity, does not mean that they are related. They could be, of course, but they don’t have to be. So if you take a pill and a short while later your headache goes, did the pill cure it? Maybe, but maybe it was going anyway

Jesus toast!
The best way to show how easily we are deceived into seeing patterns is the phenomena of pareidolia, particularly that aspect of it that can be more usefully termed as ‘seeing faces’. Go back to that baby we all once were, whose first talent was the ability to recognize their mum and dad. This is so deeply ingrained in us that all that we need is three circles and a line and we can conjure a face. Given more information we begin to see them everywhere; from monumental sculptures on the Martian surface to Jesus appearing in the morning toast. Believe in little green men if you like, or that our Lord is manifesting himself at the breakfast table, but I think we are just kidding ourselves. These kind of stories might be amusing, but actually they’re proof of how incredibly easy it is for us to be completely and utterly fooled by our own senses and brains. More of this later.