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A solo drive around the Greek mainland

Now I don’t know about you but I am a massive Grecophile, for me its my second home and a place where I instantly feel at ease and relaxed. I tend to always find myself here on the route home from a long travel stint, I find it centres me and gets me ready for life back in the fast lane in the UK.

I have visited Greece and her Islands numerous times since a child, probably near on 15 times now and it never gets boring.

As a child we frequented various islands on beach holidays where I always asked to go to the ruins, temples and historical sites so a passion for Ancient Greece and Mythology has always been there.

So last year, after spending 3 months in Asia I headed to Greece in late May for a few weeks of respite.  After chilling out on the stunning Cycladic island of Naxos for a week, I headed to Athens with a self-created itinerary, Barbara (my sat nav companion), and I hired a car and headed in the direction of the Athenian ring road.

So, there I was in view of the acropolis, jumping into my maroon Nissan Micra with Barbara and a scrap of paper on which was scrawled a load of Ancient Greek sites I was planning on visiting, along with a daily schedule and hotel locations for each night.

I must admit I was a tad nervous about pulling out on to the Athenian ring road but having a good knowledge of the city I knew which direction I needed to head to and was feeling confident in Barbara’s ability to navigate her way out of Athens to Corinth.

So off I set… was going well then 15 minutes in Barbara told me to ‘go straight’ even though the approaching junction was signposted ‘Corinth’.  The age old debate of  ‘do you listen to your sat nav, or follow the signs’ commenced. I had seconds to make a decision and ignored the signs and follow Barbara’s instructions…it quickly became evident that this was the wrong decision…so after some explicit language aimed at Barbara and some additional circumnavigating of Athens I got back on track and re-approached the junction.  Again, Barbara was adamant that I should go straight, this time I ignored her and followed the signs….it suddenly became clear that ‘go straight’ also means come off at a junction…very helpful that!

So, now I had sussed the communication issue with Barbara, the navigating got much easier and I made good progress to Corinth.

I made it to Corinth for late morning, it was scorching but I was so excited to be visiting my first site of the day and the first site on my Odyssey.

Ancient Corinth or Korinthos is an amazing place, it was occupied from 6500BC until 2000BC when it was destroyed, it was re-built again and declined in the 6th Century AD.

According to Greek Mythology it was the place that Jason (as in Jason and the Argonauts – my favourite film of all time) abandoned Medea.

There were quite a few people present, mainly groups of Christian people sitting in the shade of a few gnarly old trees listening to stories about Saint Paul and how he was connected to the site.

I spent a good hour and a half roaming around the site taking in huge columns, thick stone walls, a natural spring, statues and mosaics.  I was absolutely loving life…on my own, doing my thing, mooching about in the sunshine surrounded by fascinating ruins and history…I had a whole week of this stretching out ahead of me…bliss.

After Corinth I drove to Mycenae, what a stunning drive up through the mountains…windy roads, beautiful flat valleys and then the mountainsides draped in vineyards.

So quick Mycenae factoid….it’s an acropolis site that also, like Corinth, dates to the Neolithic period circa 6500BC and was inhabited until 1200BC. According to Greek Mythology Mycenae was founded by Perseus (as in Clash of the Titans my other favourite film of all time!) before finally being inherited by Agamemnon who was the Brother of Menalaus,  Menalaus being the Husband of Helen of Sparta who become Helen of Troy and the reason behind the Trojan War. Exciting huh?

Again, there were a fair few people at Mycenae, it was swamped by any stretch of the imagination but enough people to make it difficult to get a photograph devoid of other people!

I headed up the heavily cobbled path, under the famous stone gate depicting the Mycenae Lion and towards the summit of the city. It was 2pm and absolutely roasting…most of the other visitors were sheltering under umbrellas or in patches of shade to escape the sun.

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I was so excited by the fact that I was actually at Mycenae, this ancient citadel with so much history and mythology associated with it.  I stood for a while taking it all in marvelling at the stunning vistas from the top

Eventually I dragged myself away and jumped back in the car and retraced my drive back down and headed to the place I was most excited about…Sparta!

Again, the drive was stunning and it’s at times like these you wish you had a travel buddy who could take photos as you drive and could marvel at what you can see with you.

I pulled into the modern town of sparta, which had immediate charm. There was a tree lined boulevard with car parking spaces in the middle of the two sides of the road, a few small local hotels, bakeries, cafes and shops. I managed to park the car one block from the hotel I had booked for the night.

I dumped my bag, freshened up and headed out as I was so eager to see Sparta and tread in the footsteps of not only Helen, countless spartan warriors but also Leonidas! What a man!

Modern Sparta is quite small, so it didn’t take long for me to find the quaint square round the back of my hotel which had loads of lovely restaurants around the outside which had seating areas around the fringes and a statute of a spartan warrior.

I then wandered off to find the modern stadium which had a huge statue of Leonidas outside, phenomenal!

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After all that driving, sightseeing and history I was famished, so I headed back to the square and found a little spot facing the spartan warrior, in the last rays of sun of the day and tucked into some saganaki (if you haven’t tried this…its battered and deep fried cheese with a squirt of lemon juice….it’s been a favourite of mine since I first came to Greece as a child!) and greek salad.

The next morning, I quizzed the hotel receptionist as to the whereabouts of any ruins of Ancient Sparta…I had yet to find any signage clear directions to anything Ancient.

I was told that if I headed to the stadium again, took a narrow residential street up the side it would bring me to the old Spartan road.  Sounded easy enough…so 9am off I head towards Ancient Sparta…the sky was clear azure blue and the sun already fierce, what an amazing day.

Upon reaching the stadium, I followed the directions given and at the end of the residential street was the beginning of the stone Spartan road. Just there, something thousands of years old with such a prominent place in Greek history.

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I wandered upto the gate, worried it would be locked as there was no ticket office or personnel manning the gate.  I tried the gate and it swung open in my hands, inviting me into the ancient world.

I wandered up the cobbled stone path (spartan road) which was surrounded on both sides by olive groves and began to roam about the ancient city alone. It was just me, the birds and some cicadas.

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I couldn’t believe how peaceful and quiet it was, there was no one else there apart from me. I wandered around the ruins of the city, envisaging Leonidas’s leather sandals slapping along the stones.

I found the remains of the amphitheatre which faced out from the city overlooking the Taygetos mountains.  I climbed down into the centre of the amphitheatre expecting to find the famous ‘THIS IS SPARTA’ pit where enemies were kicked into (well in the film 300 anyway!).  Didn’t find the pit but I have to admit I did stand alone in the centre of the amphitheatre and shout ‘THIS IS SPARTA!’

Eventually I had to leave the ruins, as I had a long day ahead of me with another couple of sites to reach so with a heavy heart I wandered back, looking back as I left.  What a place!

The next site on the itinerary was literally 5 minutes down the road…although technically not an Ancient Greek site Mystras is a hugely important Greek historical site.  It was the stronghold of the Byzantines and then the Ottoman Empire from the late 1200s to the late 1600s when it fell into the Venetians hands before once more being re-taken by the Ottomans before its decline.

The site contains some beautiful churches, chapels and buildings which cling to the mountain side precariously.  There are numerous steep, cobbled stone paths which criss-cross the site.  I wandered about for about 2 hours with probably another 6 or 7 people which was just amazing.  I was planning on heading right upto the citadel at the top but at this point it was nearing 40 degrees and I knew I had a long drive to my last stop of the day so I covered as much ground as I could and just marvelled at the citadel from below.  Next time eh?

I jumped in the car for the long drive to Olympia.  I couldn’t get over the driving…I was using, for the majority of the time, big sweeping 2 lane motorways that carved through the Peloponnese. They were totally devoid of other people…I drove for about 75 minutes without passing another car, the only human beings I saw were toll clerks. I cannot describe to you how utterly stunning the scenery was on this drive. Fertile, verdant mountains, the road ahead carving though the middle, sweeping green plateaus, tunnels through the mountains….I would go again tomorrow.

I reached Modern Olympia at around 4.30pm, checked into the bizarre hotel. It was a old but grand building with an old couple in their 80s that ran it, they checked me in and showed me to my room which was simple and clean but very old fashioned. I am pretty sure I was the only person staying in the hotel.

I went out for late afternoon walk and after discovering the ruins were still open until 6pm, thought I would swing by so that I could leave first thing in the morning.

I walked the length of Modern Olympia, which was again a tree lined boulevard but this time the town was awash with souvenir shops and tourists.  It was the most touristy place I had been so far on my Odyssey.

At the end of the road running through the town is the entrance to the Ancient City of Olympia, which obviously is where the Olympics were born and held from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD.

Olympia factiod….one of the buildings here is the Temple of Zeus which contained a huge sitting statue of Zeus in ivory and gold which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

I spent about 2 hours roaming around amongst sprawling ruined walls, temples and buildings marvelling at the colonnades of columns still standing after all this time.  I even headed out to the stadium where the track events were held, its merely an oval grass area now but using your imagination you can imagine how it would have been in the days.

The following day was another long drive day, it commenced with Barbara (the sat nav woman, remember!) directing me out of Olympia via some of the smallest and remotest country lanes I had driven on.  At times I am pretty sure I was driving through people’s farms.  The lanes were lovely though, very peaceful and for the whole 2 hours I was navigating the lanes I didn’t see another person or vehicle.  It was just me, the narrow road and the Greek countryside, although at one point I did overtake a herd of sheep that were also trundling along the lanes.

After the 2 hours of country lanes, I finally made it onto a motorway and crossed the stunning suspension bridge into Patras before driving up towards the Albania border to visit a lesser known site called Dodona.  Unfortunately, upon arrival at Dodona I discovered the downside of it being ‘lesser known’, it shut at 3pm and I had arrived at 3.15pm! Arse!

So, I admitted defeat and drove into the town of Ioannina which is where I was staying for the night.

The following morning, I headed out early in the direction of Dodona. Barbara has decided that today’s route was going to be another single track road with no signs of life along it, in fact the only things along this route were copious amounts of signs declaring ‘danger, rockfall’ along with huge amounts of rocks and boulders littering the road! Nice one Barbara! I drove along this ‘death road’, towards what I envisaged was impending doom, for 10km after which Barbara pipes up ‘in 800m take the third exit at the roundabout’, seriously Barbara, you are taking the piss now, a roundabout with at least three exits….!

But lo and behold…800m later I come to what can only  be described as a derelict roundabout with concrete barriers blocking the first two exits with the third exit taking me to the car park of Dodona.

What can I tell you Dodona, this amazing site that doesn’t feature as a prominent tourist destination…well nowadays it’s a huge and really well preserved amphitheatre in the middle of a field.  I had the site all to myself so ambled amongst the long grass, wild flowers and bees to take it all in.

Factoid…Dodona is actually the oldest Hellenic Oracle in all of Greece dating to the second millennium BC. It’s Oracle was considered to be second only to the infamous Oracle of Delphi (which I visit near the end of my Odyssey).  I was also reliable informed, by an archaeologist working on the site, that the Argo, which is the ship that Jason and the Argonauts sailed to Colchis in search for the Golden Fleece, had a timber built into it that came from Dodona and was blessed by the Oracle.  See all the stories link up….

I left the buzzing of bees at Dodona behind and jumped in the car for the long drive across the width of mainland Greece to Thessaloniki.  I had gone from seeing signs for Albania to seeing signs for Bulgaria in a day!

The drive was, yet again, astoundingly beautiful and I counted 28 tunnels on my route to the east of Greece.  At one point Barbara took me along another ‘death road’ which again had huge boulders spread across the width of the road, bountiful ‘beware rockfall’ signs, a sheer drop of 2000m to the left and then warning signs depicting ‘wild boars’!  Excellent – if one didn’t kill you the other would!  I passed many shrines for people who had succumbed to the perils of the route, I just didn’t know whether it was the rocks, the drop or the boars that had got them!

The next amazing site I stopped at was just outside of Thessaloniki at a place called Vergina. This is a small village really which has a large car park, coach park and a smattering of local artisan shops and tavernas.  At the heart of Vergina is the most amazing historical site of The Royal Tombs of Macedonia containing the tomb of Phillip of Macedon who was Alexander the Great’s father. Immense!

The tombs are contained within a purpose built museum which allows you to enter darkened rooms and descend steps so that you are standing in front of the sealed tombs of the Kings. The museum is a right gem, it has all the golden armour that Phillip was wearing on his funeral pyre, placed on him by Alexander himself. There are golden headdresses, the golden casket containing his ashes and personal items that made you feel closer to him and Alexander.

If you ever find yourself in that neck of the woods, make sure to pay it a visit.

I finished the day taking a quick drive through Pella on route to Thessaloniki, I didn’t stop as it was late in the day but I wanted to swing by as it was the birthplace of Alexander so a nice way to round of the day.

Thessaloniki proved to be a challenge for both driving and Barbara!  The ring road was 6 lanes wide, I had no idea where I was heading and the traffic was full-on.  I decided the best course of action was to try and sit in on of the middle lanes so that if I had to turn left or right quickly then I had more of a chance of doing so.

Sadly, Barbara didn’t follow that logic and promptly told me to keep right, so I edged my way into the far right lane, the road went round a slight bend before straightening out at which point Barbara then said ‘turn left’.  Thanks Barbara, I am now 5 lanes over on the far right, turning left is not going to happen! I then got lost around the city centre, driving down one way roads which kept bringing me out on the inner ring road (yes there is an outer and inner ring road just to make it even harder to navigate!).  My hotel was actually on the inner ring road itself but I couldn’t locate the car park, it didn’t help that every time I drove past the hotel it was at speed with cars either side of me and up my arse. In the end I found a space down a side road, abandoned the car and walked to the hotel, seemed the easier option!

The following day was spent mooching about Thessaloniki and having a non-driving day, although I did go and retrieve the car from where I had abandoned it and move it to the hotel’s underground car park.

Thessaloniki was very interesting, especially to see the ancient buidings which have been swallowed up by the modern city.  I paid the beautiful promenade a visit at sunset to see Alexander’s statue which takes pride of place there.

After a day’s respite in Thessaloniki, I headed out of the city and to the next site on the itinerary…Dion.

Again, Dion is not a well known site but is pretty amazing.  It sits under Mount Olympus which is cool to start with…but it was an important sanctuary for Alexander the Great.  He visited the site before going into battles to sacrifice an animal at the alter in the Temple of Zeus and he prayed in the Temple of Isis (the Egyptian Goddess).

I wandered around this vast site for 90 minutes or so, only bumping into 3 people from a German family.

It came across as a very mystical place where the temple of Isis is overgrown and sunken down under water and small statues of cherub looking beings poke up through the long grass and water.

After Dion my drive took me to another place I was excited to see, the battlefield of Thermopylae. There isn’t anything to see here really apart from the sign stating you are standing in the battlefield itself where Leonidas (my man from Sparta), along with his 300 men were defeated by Xerxes and the Persian Army. Just the fact that this large, flat piece of land which is nestled in valley is the final resting place of 1000s of Persians and Leonidas and his army, is moving.

I drove up into the mountains above Thermopylae and stopped to take a picture of the landscape because it really reinforces the story of the battle and the lay of the land at that time.

The final stop of the day and the final site of my Odyssey was Delphi.

I reached the town quite late in the afternoon during a thunderstorm (hopefully not a sign from angered gods!). It was too late to visit the ancient site of Delphi so I grabbed some dinner and crashed out.

The next morning I got up early to try and beat the heat and walked the length of modern Delphi up to the entrance to the ancient site.

This was, by far, the busiest site I had stopped at all week.  It’s a very popular place to visit and there were coachloads tourists there.

I made a start roaming around the lower ruins, which were amazing but nothing prepared me for the views from higher up. You can climb up (it is hard going; big cobbled stone paths, steps and heat!) and stand above the amphitheatre looking down on it and the valley below.

I managed to climb up to the stadium up the top before finally giving into the heat and making my way back down into the shade.

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And that was that, sadly I then jumped in the car for the final drive back to Athens where I dropped the car off and left Greece for Croatia.

What a week taking in all the ancient Greek sites I have always wanted to see, driving the length and breadth of mainland Greece with all those vista and stunning landscapes. For anyone who is Greek Geek like me this is a must do in your lifetime.  If you need a driver or guide let me know because I would happily do it all again.

This was simply one of the best weeks of my life and reinforces why I travel.

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