Sarah Coles

2022 – GREECE AGAIN, 2. The Peloponnese and Athens

Over the new bridge and the blue Gulf of Corinth onto the Peloponnese.  A peninsula.


Industrial buildings all the way to the port of Patras, happily not that far.  We are disgorged at the dock for Italian ferries.  No hotel booked, but eventually a taxi comes and I tell him the Astir Hotel because my ipad showed a swimming pool on its roof.  A large, dark, shiny impersonal hotel, used for conventions, weddings and the like.  Yes, a room, and when we get there it is a view (oh how views matter!) across the gulf to Byron’s Messolongi.

A day to spare, and I walk – it’s some way – to the new museum which the Lonely Planet raves about.  At last I see a glittering mushroom rising above warehouses.  Inside, it is vast and virtually empty of people.  Lots of Roman stuff, mosaics etc, a frieze of naked athletes – the Olympic games surely.  A sweet little Eros and Psyche (surely?), and a skull entwined with dainty coloured flowers, young girl who died.  I love personal things like this, the humanity of it, but overall the place is designed to impress and I’m not overly enthralled, I don’t know why.  No café – they lose a trick, museum cafes are restful interludes as well as jolly meeting places.

Back, and join B on roof for lunch.  We can see the bus station below, that’s a help.  Supper on the roof too, with distant grand waiter who makes me feel scruffy, which I am.  Usually I don’t mind the anonymity of scruff.

On to Pyrgis next day, we must go there to get the bus to Olympia, which B had said was a must.  So after breakfast – dining room very full after a wedding yesterday – to bus station.

This is a different Greece!  From Patras down the west coast of the Peloponnese, and it’s all flat fertile plains, dark soil and not a mountain in sight, and what look like market crops in plastic tunnels, can’t see what they are growing.  It reminds us of the fens.   I thought there’d be other tourists heading for Olympia, but not one.  The bus occasionally turns off the highway and wriggles in and out of a silent village or two, grubby modern cubes.

Pyrgis bus station.  Vast and almost empty.  There’s no bus for Olympia for nearly three hours.  Lunch?  Go outside, but restaurants are shut.  It’s Sunday.  Get ‘cheese’ roll and drink from the ticket office/café.  The seats are metal but comfortable, and I don’t know, this is what travelling is – we settle down with our ipads, the lavatories are decent, and just outside is a charming modern chapel for travellers’ prayers (many bus stations have these chapels. I love the Greek religious sensibility).  Eventually our bus draws in, our cases are loaded, and off we go. 


After Pyrgis, unremarkable, there is change!  Climb through wooded hills, reaching Olympia in half an hour.  Amazingly green for October.  And here we are at a the friendly Pelops b & b, in a decent ground floor room.  Pelops is the mythical hero after whom the Peloponnese was named.

Next day a walk through this village of cafes and souvenirs, and past a mass of coaches, to the site of ancient Olympia via a bridge.  It’s in a valley with the river Alfeios (‘where Alph the sacred river ran …’) and surrounded by hills, including one where women and slaves could watch the games from a distance.  (A few women allowed in, but not married.  Because the chaps ran in the buff?  If caught trespassing, they were seized and drowned!).   I am amazed at this sylvan beauty now.  We have coffee under the trees.  Columns of the (previously covered) gymnasium, where athletes practiced javelin throwing – just stumps now.   Temple of Jupiter which now only has its base with one massive re-erected column – was originally splendid and coloured but – to me – looking rather garish in the reconstructed plaque.  Think of the Parthenon.  Originally the pediment, entablature and metopes though not the pillars originally were painted, and with a roof and inner chamber it would have looked dark … would I have found it so magical then?   (Think of Hindu temples in southern India, gods etc all painted and more fairground than temple in feel).  Priests quarters (the theokoleon), from which they organised sacrifices, games, catering etc.

B finds too many people – and there are now a lot – he sits on a bench beside an exhausted woman (they all look exhausted) and when her tour leader waves his flag B says, ‘Off you go’ and she smiles at him wearily as she gets up – but, I don’t know, perhaps it’s because I’m a bit deaf, I just shut them out and hear the long vanished shouts, applause and raucous cheers of the spectators.

We are back in the main drag for lunch, then B goes back to the Pelops but I return to the museum beyond the wood – nearly empty – Hermes by Praxitiles, and a flying Nike, a lascivious Zeus with Ganymede, part of pediment of Jupiter’s temple and more.  A leafy walk back over another bridge.  It’s just the atmosphere of the place.


And now?  We have another week before home, and B wants to go to Kalamata and the Mani which Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote about.  So, back to Pyrgis, (B = moan, moan), and after a coffee catch the bus which again weaves in and out of villages and takes nearly three hours to get to Kalamata.  B is exhausted.  Taxi to Kalamata Art Hotel (booked), which gives us a flat overlooking the wide pedestrianised street.  All very urban, and just my cup of tea.  Lunch in restaurant below, with wonderful massive plants, all chic and delicious, as is breakfast next day with flaky croissants.   Off I go, to find out our next stage, to the bus station, quite a walk, and then back by the ‘old’ town.  Not that old.  There was a massive earthquake in the late 19th century.   Tell B I think the Mani will be too much for us.  He is tired, and says all he wants is to be beside the sea.  So next day I walk south, through a park which was the old railway station and is still full of carriages, to the port, and then off eastwards along the esplanade with hotels.  I ask about a room facing the sea, and eventually get to the Hotel Plaza which has a tolerable room available with a miniscule balcony.  Book it.  Back, and into Next, to indulge in a couple of blouses, one blue, another with an animal print.  An ouzo in a bar.  This place has a city vibe which I love.

B is still tired, and the next day after breakfast (those croissants!  With butter and jam.  They flake as we eat) I go to the museum (takes some finding, ask ask ask and you’ll get there).  It is great.  I am the only visitor, and low ambient music is switched on.  I am not really interested in prehistoric stuff, but the early and classic Greek bowls, figurines and the like, and to some extent the Roman mosaics are just my cup of tea.  Writhing sea horse.  Charioteer.  Herm of a squared column headed by a bearded man and with his penis sticking from the flat surface below.  Great the way that nudity and genitalia were no big deal.  (Then came Christianity and body shame…  Adam and Eve at Moni Lukas are hauled out of their grave fully clothed).

A small restored church with gold icons, and a man passionately praying in front of one icon but then getting up and kissing another.  Devout.

An evening walk to the castle, nothing much inside the precincts, just locked chapel.  Sea view over the city, and also back to the plain of olives Kalamata is famed for.

And now, off by taxi to the Hotel Plaza.   Happily B loves it here.   Wonderful sea view from our room, owner’s mother most solicitous, and across the road there are several restaurants with what can only be local fish.  Here we eat all our time left in Kalamata, and I swim in the sea.  Rather wobbly coming out, pushed by the surf, and women two times come to give me an arm.

On the advice of owner, go by bus (mother shows me the stop) to the bus station, and buy Express tickets to Athens.  After lunch walk as far as I can eastwards, and another day round by the docks, loads of graffiti some rather good, and along the base of the massively long sea wall, where men fish, and I look over the empty harbour to the town front and the massive mountains beyond.  It’s mountains that separate and shape places into countries –

Goodbye to Kalamata.  Mother phones for taxi, says ‘I will miss you’.  Bus station, and in due course our bags are stacked in a huge beast of a bus.

Past the castle and all these places where I have walked, through a tunnel, and we are on an empty motorway.  Wow.  Bus roars ahead at B guesses 90 mph, and we soar over mountains and dive through long dark tunnels.  Driver, crucifix dangling from mirror, chats on his phone but doesn’t let up.  Whoosh, through check points.  Ah, all so beautiful.  We never stop, still an empty motorway.  Then, industrial buildings, Corinth, glimpse the blue Gulf and the Corinth Canal, and then we are mired in slow traffic outside Athens, and then the bus station.  It has taken us well under three hours.


Now it becomes grim.  We have not booked a hotel (B insisted on not booking, and the Jason cannot fit us, and B cannot remember the name of the one at Syntagma Square where he’d like to go) and we end up at the Odeon Hotel, which is ok, but it’s downmarket and no restaurant nearby, just Chinese and Paki clothing warehouses.  We never find the place the receptionist recommends, and B anyway can’t walk far.  We ask the way, & young man looks it up on his phone – it is miles away.  ‘Take care, this is a dangerous area’ he says.  See chairs with men outside – food surely there.  Go and sit, but though ok it is just a men’s drinking hole.   I have an ouzo, brought with water & nuts, and B nothing except a couple of nuts.  Supperless to bed.

Next day, taxi to Archeological Museum, an old friend, and coffee beside the atrium garden, silvery with olive trees.  That evening, after reconnaissance, I lead B to a squashed Paki cafe, with decent chicken but no alcohol because it’s halal.

Our last day, and back to Jason Inn where we booked a room, and I head down Ermou, via three ancient sunk churches in a line (ley lines surely) to Syntagma (Constitution) Square, where they gather for protests etc.  Then beyond to a smart area with lots of embassies and the Benaki Museum. Oh very chic in here, are there any tourists apart from me?  Lovely Greek and Byzantine stuff.  Love the pots, the animals on them, the designs and novelty and symmetry.  An icon with baby Christ stroking his mother’s chin.  To smart roof restaurant for a coffee, but not allowed on the terrace because not booked.  The glitterati of Athens are eating or drinking there.

Back via Monastiiraki, and it’s rather a relief to head for our Gyristroula restaurant with the welcoming old boys – I know I will find B.  We’re supposed to order at the bar, where they give you a zapper which buzzes when your dish is ready.  How the old boys laugh when I get all excited at it ringing when in fact it’s the warning sound of a reversing bus, (we’re at the end of Ermou here).  An old boy brings my dish.  And there I can see the Acropolis, and there the Temple of Haephestos.  I am in Athens.

The end.  Next day a taxi to the airport – we go to Assistance, and are carefully watched and eventually escorted through security and I never have a chance to buy honey etc from duty free.  No matter.  Decent flight, B ok, and at Gatwick T is there to greet us.

B liked Kalamata best, sitting beside the sea, eating sardines sandwiched with herbs and feta cheese.

I write about Greece, and as I stop I feel like Caliban, ‘When I waked I cried to dream again.’

Pindar: ‘Creature of a day, what is man?  What is he not?  Man is but a dream of a shadow.  Yet, when there comes as a gift of heaven a gleam of sunshine, there rest upon him a radiant life and, aye, a gentle life’

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