Backpacking Reblog Week Two: Deep into the Pelopennese

Here’s what I wrote in my diary on the evening of January 16th, in Kalamata.

Today started off brilliantly. I slept predictably awfully, but got up feeling happy and strong. I breakfasted cheaply, got some dough, mailed some letters and set off for the site.
Along the way I trod on a rock and went arse over turkey. My left knee is grazed and a little swollen. Predictably, my right ankle is dudded. My Reeboks seem to be sweating, too.

I’m surprised by this diary entry, because I remember the fall I took that bright morning as being rather more serious. I had indeed slept badly, but cannot remember the breakfast or the money changing.

But I do recall walking towards the site of Olympia, which involved taking the main road out of town back the same way I had come. The road sweeps around to the left.

I walked on the shoulder and didn’t see the rock coming. I planted my right foot and went over. Splat.

I was carrying all my kit at the time. I’d bought a travel pack for the trip and at the time it was fashionable to include a zip-off day pack. I bought the pack months before I left and experimented with it a lot. I eventually decided the zip-off day pack was too small to be useful, so acquired another day pack. The zip-off pack became my toilet bag.

So as I walked towards Olympia I had on a rather full pack and a day pack on my front. I was buoyant and excited to visit the site, so between euphoria and a heavy load I can see why I fell.

The diary mentions a knee and a “buggered” ankle. My ankles troubled me all the way through my later teenage years. They just ached a bit, without ever really stopping me from doing anything. But this fall made the right one really hurt. I recall lots of swelling and to this day there is a small lump near that ankle that I’ve been told is a Ganglion (maybe a Ganglion Cyst) caused by the fact that when I fell my joint hyper-extended and some bits of my ankle’s innards got squirted out into a new location.

I remember limping about Olympia and deciding, as it stiffened and the pain dulled, that I would not seek medical attention. I imagined returning to Athens to find an English-speaking doctor and being told not to walk on the ankle. That wasn’t an outcome I was willing to accept, so I limped on in no real pain but worrying discomfort.

Olympia itself didn’t impress me. Some ruins retain a powerful sense of how the site was used or the minds of the makers. Olympia’s not one of those.

My diary mentions the temple of Olympian Zeus as impressive for the massive size of its masonry and laments the lack of signs describing the other ruins. My entry also notes that I decided not to visit the local museum as “After my spill, I just wanted out.”

Out was a town called Pyrgos whose only interest was that it lay on a train line. I hoped to reach Sparta, but settled for Kalamata. I remember dozing happily on the journey, which took me through flat country covered in Orange orchards. It was all very idyllic until some local kids threw oranges at the train, striking the windows and waking me suddenly and unpleasantly.

I’ve two regrets about Kalamata.

The first is that I was ignorant of its status as the home of the world’s finest olives. Had I known, I would have indulged.

The second involves a jacket I’d bought in Athens.

I left Australia without a winter jacket. I think I had decided that nothing suitable could be acquired in Sydney, given the difference between its climate and that of Europe in winter, so I planned to buy one in Athens. In 1992 Athens was not a good shopping destination. I eventually bought a padded cloth jacket which looked alright but was not very warm. I discovered that the hard way in Nafplion and Olympia. Neither were very cold, but I had not been very warm.

Kalamata, I discovered, was home to a Levis factory. Every kid I spotted had a nice jacket. I’d blown my dough on a dud in Athens 😦

The next day I decided to go to Sparta, via. Megalopolis. This modestly named town was founded by slaves after they threw off their Spartan oppressors. I wanted to visit it because it had been pointed out to me a in a classics lecture that its agora (town square and marketplace) was probably covered due to high rainfall. I remember the town having a broad, treeless square that I crossed feeling a little odd – there were local eyes on me. The site was unattended, guarded by just a gate and a single signpost.

The agora was barely distinguishable but the earthworks of the theatre were obvious. My diary notes with disappointment that only six rows of stone seating remained.

Various other buses, through loathsome Tripolis again, led to Sparta where budget hotels were closed for winter. My diary notes I had to pay 3000 drachmae a night – about twenty budget-blowing dollars – a night for a proper hotel.

I arrived in the evening and was quickly struck by Sparta’s beauty:

“As the bus arrived it was the very end of dusk. Only grays were left of the day’s light and clouds were scattered through the sky, some hanging over snow-capped mountains. In the dim light it became possible to seperate the mountains, the snow, the snowline and the shadows in the clouds.”

That’s the first piece writing in the diary I am proud of. The entry for Sparta also mentions finding a souvlaki bar run by Americans and says I hoped to interview them. Reading that reminded me of the fact that before I left, friends had won the election to edit the University of Technology student newspaper, Vertigo. But for my trip I would have been part of the team, although I had discussed sending back stories. Apparently my naive news values imagined the souvlaki guys could be a story! I didn’t pursue it – the idea of sending home stories never got going. The diary says I asked for an interview but was gently rebuffed. The next day I met another Spartan American, in the bakery where I bought what I recorded as “today’s bread” – an insight into my diet. The diary says “my journalistic nerves tingled, but I feel short on chutzpah right now.” I felt short for the rest of the trip, actually. Looking back, I cringe at my lack of application! I wonder if someone had written a story about the expat Americans of Sparta since or if the idea is and was madness.

For some reason I did not visit Sparta’s ruins next. Instead I went to a Byzantine ruin called Mystras about which I remember nothing (my diary says the views were great) before retiring to my hotel room and reading for three hours. “My ankle certainly felt better for the rest,” says my diary entry.

What was I reading?

Writing this reblog ha jogged my memory and I think it was Pausanias, a roman who wrote an extensive guide to greece.

The next day Sparta was stunning. The ruins are free. Main street drains out to the north into an olive grove littered with ruins. Sparta famously didn’t build monuments, so most of what’s left is Roman. The same lecturer who told me about Megalopolis told a story about the Spartan Cheese Festival which involved Spartan youth attempting to steel cheese under the gaze of whip-wielding elders. Originally a part of passage from youth to manhood, my lecturer explained that the Romans built a theatre for it and turned it into a tourist attraction. I saw the theatre!

Witnessing this kind of site was important to me back then – I liked to consolidate my study. Even though by 1922 I was on the cusp of finishing a degree in Communications, Classics was my academic love.

It seems I left Sparta after visiting the site bound for Monemvassia, a town notable for a colossal rock just offshore. The rock was of course fortified by various civilisations.

I recall the rock as dull – being winter it was mostly closed so I got in a quick walk through the old town built beneath the fortress. The highlight of the trip was a winding bus ride through ancient olive groves. I’m not hyping it up when I say ancient – these trees were obviously very, very old. I could see how they had grown in and around themselves over many years. I can picture those trees still today.

I think by this stage I realised that being off the beaten track in the Pelopennese in winter wasn’t very fruitful. So much was obviously closed. What was left wasn’t very interesting. Athens beckoned because:

“I hope to be able to spend a day in a laundrette, a day in a museum and a day or two at Delphi. After that, it looks like Crete.”

I remember feeling a little let down. The Pelopennese was the only part of the trip I had planned. It had gone well, but not super-well.

At least on my return to Athens I found better lodgings. “Festos” was a downtown budget hotel with dorm rooms and lots of young travellers. I wrote that it was “more expensive, but worth it for the vibe. The bar is good and it’s a good meeting place.”

I called home, read a newspaper to get the cricket score and met Dave and Veronica, a pair of honeymooning Americans who were also keen on visiting Delphi. I bet none of us imagined we’ sleep together the next night … as I will explain in my next post.


Backpacking Reblog Week One: Greece

In my last post I promised to write a prelude to this one. In preparation for that prelude I spent some time arranging for old photos to be scanned but ran out of time for writing, so here comes a double post with some background to the trip and the first week.

Why did I decide to go backpacking in the first half of 1992?

My diaries are silent on the topic, but I had one semester to go at university and felt it would be best to travel, graduate, then enter the post-university phase of my life in a new year with all that behind me.

I planned to travel alone – this was all about me and my agenda, not a buddy thing. And not a relationship thing either.

One reason for the trip was the fact I studied classics and ancient history at university and wanted to see some more ancient sites, but aside from that had very little motivation. It seemed like a good idea to take in the newly-visitable cities of Eastern Europe, for an eyewitness view, but I had no firm plans to do so. Beyond that my plans were flimsy. I knew I would land in Athens and leave from London six months later. I recall planning to visit the Peloponnese, a decision made poring through what I later learned to be the tame and unlearned pages of Let’s Go Greece. Beyond that I had no idea.

I did not intend to work – I had enough cash to last six months and liked the constraints of a fixed period of travel.

I wasn’t seeking love, or even romantic adventure. In some ways I was happy planning to be solitary wanderer. On a previous short trip, a few years earlier, I packed condoms and thought I might find it easy to find company on the backpacking circuit. I’ve never been much of a bar-goer. Not have I ever understood the appeal of nightclubs so they did not figure in my plans. I imagined reading in the evenings, or conversing in hostels.

Perhaps the intention to visit some out of the way cultural attractions set me on that path – I wanted to be a bit hardcore about the places I went, rather than following the party circuit.

That sets the scene nicely for my arrival in Athens and the first page in my diary.

Week One – Athens and Nafplion

I’d been to Athens before and knew that the official youth hostel was nasty, so booked a cheap hotel for my first night in town.

When I got to it, I realised that I had not made a budget for the trip. I had a thick wad of travellers cheques with me, concealed beneath my shirt in a money pouch I wore over one shoulder. The pouch’s thin cord went over my shoulder and across my chest. It hung against my ribs, sufficiently far below my armpit that it didn’t reek. Around my waist I had a small black leather bum bag with a zippered, inward-facing pocket. I wore the bum bag facing forward and threaded the waist strap through one of the belt loops of whichever one of the my three pairs of jeans I was wearing. I had a blue pair, a green pair and a black pair of Country Road jeans that were my concession to smart dressing. The zip of the inward facing pouch was invisible so I stored my wallet inside. There was no tell tale bulge in the bum bag to hint at the wallet’s presence, but in my right rear pocket I kept a small hardback notebook that did make a lump that looked like a wallet.

I felt that pickpockets would go for the notebook first. If a knife-wielding thief went for the bum bag they might be able to slice its belt, but it would snag in my jeans’ belt loop before they could escape with my wallet. The money pouch’s cord was visible around my neck, but was indistinguishable from a necklace. I felt well-protected, but added an extra layer of security in the form of a small nylon pouch that wove into the shoelaces on the black Reebok boots I bought for the trip. Many of my savings for the trip came from working behind the counter at the UTS Union University gym, which at the time hosted a sports clothing and equipment store. I spotted the shoes months before the trip, saved for them and had great hopes – they were waterproof, light, boasted all sorts of cushioning. I remember feeling they were a very important piece of equipment. The pouch contained an Australian $20 note, emergency cash I felt could buy me a meal and a phone call if all else failed. The shoe pouch also contained a list of all my important documents, and their serial numbers. It was my last line of defence

As I sat in the hotel, the name of which I did not record, I scrawled out the budget you can see below. I had no idea if it was a feasible budget, but was willing to give it a go.

The next page of the diary starts with these three paragraphs:

“After 40 hours with no sleep and about 30 minutes after a deadly bloody mary, the New World Order started to make sense.

There they were – about 2 or 3 hundred Austrians. Tall. Well Fed. And all just atrociously dressed. So this is the new Fleurope?

Anyway. Old Euro Money buying American technology from the Asians. In this case the Thais, who didn’t quite know exactly what they were doing, but sure tried hard anyway.”

I have an inkling of what I was trying to say here. In 1992 the term “New World Order” had a lot of currency, thanks to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Austrians had boarded my Thai Airlines flight in Bangkok, where I had been re-seated next to two Austrian passengers of similar dimensions to myself – 190 cm and broad shoulders (I swear that airlines have an algorithm to match large people and seat us next to one another to inflict mutual misery. The re-seating involved me being paged in the boarding lounge, an experience that scared me a bit. I’ve probably taken 100 flights since and it hasn’t happened again. I still don’t know why I was asked to move seats on that day).

I think what I was trying to say in that terrible opening was that there was some demonstration of a re-ordered world on display in the plane. Other than that the first entry is drivel even more embarrassing than the stuff above.

The January 10 entry sees me still in Athens and again attempting some analysis. I decided Athens looked like the third world and noted “bad tenements, no public works, small cars only and mopeds everywhere. Smog you can drink rounds it out.”

The entry mentions a Canadian called Ed Coombs, with whom I visited various bits of Athens. Just which bits I cannot recall – the diary is frustratingly silent and mentions only “the sites”.

Ed was my first companion of convenience. He was 30-ish, a short order chef, and full of stories of the almost-girlfriends he had waiting for him in two or three places around Europe. I recall finding those stories implausible but tantalising.

I’m pretty sure I visited the big bits of Athens – The Parthenon, Museum and Agora. I tried to appreciate the old town, which was tacky and only half-awake in winter.

My memory has dimmed and I cannot recall if this happened on this trip to Athens or a previous visit, but on one of the trips I ran foul of a bar which lured me in off the street for a beer, sat me down with an attractive woman I realised later was a prostitute and sold me very expensive beer. When the penny dropped, I backed out. Fast. And got slugged with a bill for about $100. Very early on this trip – this time the memory is crisp – I saw something moving quickly in my peripheral vision. I decided instantly it was a possible threat and gently pressed my arm onto my money pouch. That action, and a heightened awareness of things that just might deserve my attention, quickly became a habit. I was not on edge, but was a little more constantly alert to potential danger and aware that with all my money and travel documents on my body I was a little vulnerable.

Ed and I decided to visit Nafplion, a town nicely proximate to the acoustically perfect Theatre of Epidaurus and the site of Mycenae. The theatre came first and delivered – a whisper from the stage was clearly audible in the back row. Ed liked to recite Shakespeare and did so with gusto. We stayed in an apartment attached to a private home in the old section of Nafplion. We ate in a small cafe in town, dining on small flatbreads filled with souvlaki and hot chips, washed down with Amstel beer. There were other travellers in town and I surprised myself by picking a pair of Australian girls before they opened their mouths.

We arranged to meet them for dinner – Ed never missed an opportunity and I was happy to go along. They arrived with their boyfriends.

Nafplion sits beneath a colossal hill, atop which sits a venetian fortress. We decided to climb the staircase to the top. 900 stairs later, we kept going to a nearby beach called Tolo we’d seen on a map. A path that headed in the right direction quickly ended, leaving us in a thorn-strewn plateau with awesome views of the Aegean but no way home. Lost, we spotted a road, headed for it and trudged back into Nafplion. Souvlaki and beer fixed things up.

Ed wasn’t interested in Mycenae so I went alone and found a site that was as atmospheric as any I have ever visited. Mycenae’s Lion Gate is enormous, so much so that the method of it’s construction is a topic of archaeological controversy. The city’s walls are described as “cyclopic” architecture, a term I understand suggests that only a giant like the cyclops mentioned in Homer could have hefted the stones into place, given there’s little evidence of contemporary technology which could have handled these big slabs of stone which my diary says were more than three metres long.

However the giant sculpture of two lions was erected, the site was a very moody place. Walking among the ruins of a long-dead people and perceiving that they built their city in such a familiar configuration affected me strongly.

My diary mentions several of the famous tombs of Mycenae by name, complete with impressions of the materials used in each. That’s the level of classical geekery what was important to me back then.

The day after Mycenae, January 15th, Ed and I parted ways. I wanted to visit Olympia. He wasn’t interested, but our story wasn’t over. It will be months before I can reveal why.

I figured I could get a bus to Olympia from Tripolis. At the time, travel guides recommended stopping in Tripolis only if desperate, an assessment I agreed with after about ten minutes. A bus materialised after two hours, then took nearly five hours to wind its way through the mountainous heart of the Pelopennese. I found this a fascinating trip as it passed through tiny villages. I saw real, live, goatherds and a genuinely rustic way of life that surprised me. My diary mentions “a series of hills that could have been miniature mountains” and a “long, deep, steep valley.” The road was one narrow lane, the bus basic. I just used Google maps to plot a route from Tripolis to Olympia and reckon it follows the route I took that day.

I still marvel at the spontaneity of it all. I’m pretty sure I did not know if it was possible to get to Olympia via Tripolis. Had it not been possible, I don’t know what I would have done that day. I often feel this trip was the free-est time of my life. Days like this probably gave me that idea.

Here is my impression of Olympus:

“Olympus is a dump. Two streets deep either side of the main drag, it’s all hotels and junk shops with a few restaurants for good measure.”

Arriving in Olympus as evening drew in, I struggled to find accommodation and settled on a modest and unheated hotel in which I spent an uncomfortable night.

The diary mentions, for the first time, some forward planning. I suggest Sparta or Megalopolis as my next destinations.

But first I had to survive Olympia. I’ll explain that vivid verb next week.