Travel: Watch out for scorched tarmac

Joanna Pocock rode pillion through Europe's only semi-desert, the rugged terrain of the Mani in the Peloponnese
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The Independent Travel
IT WAS 45C in the sun as we scrambled onto the bus heading into the centre of Athens and the driver, spotting the sweat on our faces, waved us on without waiting for us to excavate our fare. My boyfriend had just passed his motorbike test and, spotting a motorbike rental shop near Omonia square, we jumped off. We had decided to put his new passion into play by biking through the Mani, the only semi-desert in Europe. After several cautionary tales about kamikaze Greek truckers, crumbling roads, and lack of third party insurance, we remained undeterred and mounted our Yamaha 250cc Classic, leaving Athens in a cloud of smog.

Our first stop was Navplion, a fishing town 150km from Athens whose cobbled main street is described in the guide books as a "haven for Hellenophiles". What we saw were overpriced tavernas and shops selling keyrings. Going in the opposite direction towards the modern part of town, we discovered the "real" Navplion. Here we stumbled upon a simple taverna full of teenagers gearing up for the night, well-dressed couples and not a word of English anywhere. We tucked into our Greek salads dripping with olive oil, just one step away from olives on the tree, and some grilled lamb, and decided from now on to follow our noses instead of the guidebooks.

The next day we biked down the coast, towards Yithion, the gateway to the Mani. We had planned to stay just long enough to change some money, as there are no banks in the Inner Mani but unfortunately, our plans changed - on the road to Yithion we hit a piece of tarmac that had buckled in the heat, and we came off our motorbike. Although we were going slowly, we managed one sprained wrist and two scabby knees between us.

Luckily it all happened in front of the house of a woman who, seeing we were hurt, came to the rescue. After offering us coffee and fruit from her garden, she cleaned my knees and arranged for a mechanic to fix the bike. Once satisfied that we had eaten enough, and that the bike was in working order, she sent us on our way with hugs and kisses.

Arriving in Yithion that evening, bruised and bedraggled, we found a crumbling domatia with a turquoise balcony overlooking the port. We took advantage of our recuperation by getting to know Yithion and its backdrop of pastel buildings. We also got to know the ouzerias and tavernas along the port, decorated with octopus hanging to dry like white flags. It is impossible not to be enchanted by this town, which after all is where Paris consummated his love for Helen of Troy.

Once our injuries had healed we hopped on the bike and headed for the hills and the Mani beyond. We crossed the mountainous peninsula to Areopolis and then made our way down the western coast to Yerolimin. At last we were off the beaten track and into the land of unforgiving soil dotted with stone towers. These towers, many of which are now crumbling, were built as hide-outs from inter-family feuds, and stand as testimony to the independence of the Maniot people. When they were not fighting off foreign invaders, Maniot guns were pointed at each other in clan warfare passed from generation to generation. Proud of their descendancy from the Spartans, the Maniots have traditionally been considered fierce and inhospitable. Even Napoleon sought military advice from their chieftains. They also have a reputation for piracy, which is understandable as the land is almost totally barren. Before the building of roads they would have needed to supplement their diets and coffers with a bit of pillage. We never experienced any of this fierceness and were disarmed by the generosity of the people we met.

Once settled into our hotel, we wandered to a taverna run by a soft-spoken Greek who had lived for a time in Suffolk. After our meal he poured us more retsina to share with him while he told us his story. We couldn't quite make out why he had come to England but his wistful telling of it made me think it was something to do with lost love. Yerolimin's pebbled beach and rocky shores had given us a taste of the Deep Mani and although we could have stayed longer, our appetites had been whetted. We headed for what looked on the map like the end of the earth.

The village of Porto Kayio at the tip of the peninsula was our next destination. Leaving Yerolimin we got caught in a rainstorm and our motorbike, unhappy with the downpour, spluttered to a halt. We managed to jump-start it and in the pitch black, negotiated some of the wildest roads in the Mani. With only the narrowest strip of badly patched road between a drop into the sea on one side and the mountain face on the other we wound our way through the mountains to Porto Kayio. We arrived hungry and wet to be told that the only hotel was full up. We were at our wits end yet in retrospect it was a blessing as Porto Kayio's beach was littered with trailers which wasn't quite what we had in mind. We carried on, and just on the other side of Porto Kayio's bay was a village as close to heaven as we could have imagined This was to be our home for several days.

The sandy beach of Marmari forms a bay surrounded by mountains. A few steps uphill from the beach is a Maniot tower which has been turned into a hotel by the large, affable Yorgos. Days were spent here, swimming and going for walks in the hills. When hunger struck we would amble into Yorgos's kitchen to choose from clay dishes brimming with stuffed tomatoes and peppers, grilled fish, chicken stew and moussaka, all made with ingredients picked daily from the garden. Over our late-night meals we listened to the sea lapping below and watched the stars come out in huge clusters. We could barely tear ourselves away and in our flurry of emotional farewells, my boyfriend forgot his passport. A sure sign that we would return.

Heading up the eastern side of the peninsula the road still winds, offering the most breathtaking views. The Inner Mani felt like a dream and as we passed through it the rocky land was gradually replaced by cyprus trees and groves of flowers.

Between sea and mountains we found Kardhamili, in the Outer, more northerly part of the Mani, where lush scents waft down from the hills. Walking through the town one night we came across a square lit up with fairy lights. Here was a taverna serving food produced on the fertile land around us - okra, stewed spinach, green beans and butter beans, fried aubergines and courgettes, plus a variety of meat and fish. The only thing occupying our minds over dinner was how we could stay here forever.

Unfortunately, it was time for us to think about getting back to Athens. We decided Monemvasia would be our last stop. It was a bit of a detour - back down in the south-east - but well worth the effort. Monemvasia is a Byzantine town built on a rock jutting out of the sea and joined to the mainland by a narrow causeway, which we drove along at night. We left the bike at the town's entrance and stepped through the fortified wall and were dazzled by what lay before us. From the total darkness of the causeway, we emerged into a magical world of glistening cobblestones, cafes, bars and alleyways winding upwards, disappearing into the black sky. There is an otherworldliness to Monemvasia which feels as though it has stayed unchanged for centuries.

On one of many wanders through the town we came across a hidden swimming place. We climbed down the ladder leading from the rocks and jumped into the turquoise water. Floating on our backs we traced the walk we had done earlier in the day, up the gnarled streets to the church of Agia Sophia, at the top of the hill. Its roof is caving in and the frescoes are peeling from the walls but candles still burn and chairs are lined up, waiting for the women to make their way to mass. Around us in the water children were snorkelling, diving after octopus with three-pronged spears like little Poseidons. They shrieked with delight every time they caught one, and rushed back to the rocks where their mothers were sunning themselves. The sound of the children and the waves and the silence of the town and its ancient rock, as I floated in this octopus garden, felt a million years and miles from London. The call of the Mani is strong, and anyone who ventures through its rough terrain will find it hard to resist going back again and again.

Mani fact file

Bike hire

Manser SA Bike shop, 3rd Septemvrioy 126, Athens, 10434 (825 2640/881 1993) has a wide range of well-maintained bikes. We hired a Yamaha 250 for two weeks for Dr93,600. Ask for Paul who runs the place and speaks perfect English. He will go through the much needed ins and outs of biking in Greece. (For instance, he will tell you it is insane to bike on motorways, especially at night, and he is right. Also worth knowing: there is no third party insurance.)

Athens

The Capri Hotel, Psaromiligou, 6 Eleftherias Sq, Koumoundourou, Athens, 10553 (325 2091) is central, clean, no frills and cheap. It costs Dr7,000 per night, with en suite bathroom.

Yithion

On the way to Yithion, in Plaka (near Leonidio) is the Hotel Dionysios which is beautiful and on the beach. Large en suite rooms cost Dr8,000 with a balcony overlooking the sea. It does not have a phone but ask in Leonidio and people will direct you.

There is plenty of accommodation in Yithion. On the main drag is a sign on a turquoise balcony saying Domatia-rooms for rent and the ramshackle house, where we stayed, is splendidly crumbling. Ask for the room with a balcony overlooking the port and you'll get a fine view of the sea and the Parnon mountains. Cost Dr6,000, no en suite bathrooms. Shared kitchen with refrigerator. Tel: Kontogiannis Grigoris (0733 22518).

"To Nisi" restaurant (1308 8830) serves wonderful fish. Meal cost Dr3,300.

Yerolimin

The Yerolimin Hotel (733 54297), run by Theodorakis Georgios, is quite a large hotel, newly renovated but still characterful. Rooms with en suite bathroom and balcony, Dr6,000.

There is only one taverna that does grilled fish on the barbecue. Follow the smell. A meal for two with wine costs Dr3,000.

Marmari

The Castle Hotel (0733 52101), Marmari bay, which is sited in a renovated Maniot tower, is heaven on earth. Dr9,000 for a room with en suite bathroom. The Taverna here is wonderful and overlooks the bay. Everything is fresh and the prices are very reasonable.

Kardhamili

Alexandra Cook's hotel (0721 73679) has large, clean en suite rooms with refrigerator and balcony. It is off the main drag, up the mountain a bit and because of this, incredibly cheap. Dr5,000.

Epameinondas Georgio Linkourias (0721 73713) is one of the best places in Greece for vegetarian food. Price for two with wine, Dr3,200.

Monemvasia

The Malvasia (0732 61323) has beautiful rooms with marble bathrooms and breathtaking views for Dr15,500, including a wonderful breakfast. The bar in this hotel is magical. There are no electric lights nearby so the stars and moon do the job.

For a cheaper hotel a short walk across the causeway, try the Hotel Aerogiali in Gefyra (0732 61360). Not much character but very clean room for two with en suite bathroom and tiny balcony Dr7,000.

I Matoula (0732 61660) is a magical place to eat,under lime and pomegranate trees lit with fairy lights. Fantastic, fresh food. Meal for two, Dr7,600.

All prices for meals are for two with starter, main course and copious amounts of wine. All room prices above are for doubles.

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