Nightmares and Paradise in Arcadia

 22-23 June 2019

We wanted to drive into Arcadia because it’s the heartland of the Peloponnese,  described as beautiful with dramatic hills crowned by medieval villages, and even better the Rough Guide says its roads are “some of the broadest and emptiest in the Peloponnese”. So we planned on savouring it slowly and wild-camping for a night before heading back out. Well, generally speaking it all went to plan but sometimes it’s the details that matter. This was a drive that will live in our memories.

The 108 miles to our overnight wild-camp took us just over 8 hours, which if you take into account 20 minutes for lunch means an average of around 14mph. For long periods we were a lot slower than that. It started well, Driving into Arcadia we entered a region of oak and fir-clad slopes, of steep gorges, small sleepy towns with men sitting in the shade watching the world stand still, and widows in black go about their arcane business.

Goats and goatherds, dead snakes on the tarmac and more than one tortoise crossing the road – once a woman stopped her car to give one a hand to safety regardless of the fact that hers was the first vehicle we had seen in over an hour. The broom was at the end of it’’s flowering with only a few sprinkles of yellow left, but it must been a glorious blaze earlier. Vistas of green surrounded us, the tall oaks and pines giving a different green to drab olives of Ilia. A man in a pick-up went past with a donkey tied to the back, trotting happily behind. 

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Goatherds at lunch

About 5 miles before Paloumba, 2500 feet up a mountain, the road suddenly deteriorated, becoming narrow and pot-holed. Then somehow, in the middle of the one-road, 3-horse village, despite a map, a sat nav and no apparent option, we took a wrong turn onto a minor road. Descending through twists and turns it quickly transformed from tarmac to loose stone, more like a dry river-bed than a road. Too big to turn we carried on very, very slowly. Bumping and rattling, swaying and rocking, through stands of cannabis growing wild, past signs rendered unreadable by bullets and shot, edging round hairpins and squeezing through the occasional hamlet where we got looks of utter astonishment. Somehow we added over 20 miles and at least 2 hours to our journey and gave Danny as he said THE most challenging drive of his life. He helpfully pointed out that a flat tyre would not be a good outcome here – Kate said that farmers with pick-ups and tractors could surely help, but perhaps that was overly optimistic. We looked forward to linking with the ‘B’ road, only to find it was no better.

It seemed as if we would never find our way onto a proper road again and the constant concentration on what was coming up ahead became tiring mile after mile. Then for no apparent reason, just before Paleokastro, the road changed without warning to real tarmac and we both heaved a sigh of relief. A road we would previously have viewed as poor now looked like a major highway and our speed actually increased into double figures. 

The road climbed and fell and wiggled and squiggled its way south to a “main” road at the dramatic fortress town of Karytena where we finally started heading back in the direction we originally wanted to go.

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Karytena

We  passed through the pretty hill-towns of  Stemnitsa and Dimitsana (where we had to wait for a shop-owner to reel in her awning to let us squeeze past on the narrow main street) and followed the Lousios river further into the mountains. Soon the twists and turns started in earnest again but the road remained tarmac, the traffic remained almost non-existent and we were almost relaxed and enjoying the views. At Tropea we took another wrong turn but found somewhere to turn and headed back through the village to the amusement of some and exasperation of others who clearly thought we were too big to be there.

Danny had now been driving for over 8 hours so it was with relief that we saw below us the surreal turquoise waters of Lake Ladhonas reservoir. Half an hour of twists and turns took us down below the dam then back up and alongside the lake where we found the parking spot we were looking for, a rough track to the waters edge. We checked it out, noting the toppled sign warning against parking at the waters edge as water-levels rise and fall, and parked up. It was a hell of a drive but worth it for this spectacularly beautiful spot. Still over 30C even this high up, we sat on a rock in the shade of a tree and opened a cold beer. 

It was so quiet and isolated there that we broke the rules and got 2 chairs out. We sat and watched as the sky darkened and marvelled at the stars emerging, so many more than we are used to. Mars and Mercury shone in the night sky and frogs sang to us. Paradise.

We woke to perfect silence and emerged into a beautiful morning. It was actually difficult to tear ourselves away. Neither of us have ever stayed this close to a lake before and we can really see the attraction. There was no sign of another human being and the tranquillity was alluring.

But we had to move on. The road along the lake was narrow and pot-holed but not bad compared to yesterdays nightmare and blissfully quiet on an early Sunday morning. Our first traffic of the day was a flock of recently shorn goats and their herder who we happily sat behind until they veered into a farmyard to be milked.

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Along the way we saw  old-fashioned type milk-churns at the side of the road, and the occasional pick-up collecting them. At villages the men drinking coffee gave us smiles and waves as we edged through and we were actually sorry to pick up the ‘main’ road, leaving character behind.  

The A33 Tripoli-Patras road varied in width and quality but thankfully remained tarmac for which we were very grateful after yesterday. We followed the steep valley of the Erymanthos river, crossing it at Lambia and slowly left the mountains of Arcadia behind. We moved into the gentler country of Ilia with fewer and fewer native trees and more empty grazed land with scattered livestock sheds. We skirted the bottom of the Pinios reservoir entering more fertile land with olives and citrus fruits, vines, runner beans on 5-cane teepees,

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Gentle Ilia

and unfamiliar to our eyes, field after field of ripening watermelons, a water and nutrient-hungry plant that we just didn’t expect to see. As we approached the coast through Ghastoni and Vartholomio water-melons seemed to dominate and we saw HGV’s filling up with loads  of the fruit despite it being Sunday.  

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Watermelon Farmers

We had really left the beauties of isolated, rural Arcadia behind, a place that tugged at our imaginations and our fantasies of the improbably perfect rural existence. Instead we were about to spend our last week in Greece in a luxury campsite by the beach. In Europe’s heatwave.