Day 16: I Am Sparta!

Today I joined the legions of fearsome warriors when I detoured down the Peloponnese peninsula and entered the town of Sparta. 

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This is how I looked before crossing the town boundary:

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While this is how I looked immediately after crossing into the town:

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I'd ended up here as the ferry docked at 6.30 this morning near Athens and my evening ferry was on the northern end of the mainland, giving me a lot of time to kill. I've always wondered what the Peloponnese is like so rather than a five hour drive straight up I turned it into a 13 hour elongated 461 mile route, taking in Sparta on the way. To get there you cross the Corinth Canal onto the peninsula then basically aim for the hills. 

I have a small problem when it comes to describing Sparta as 300 of them fought off the entire Persian army, so they're definitely scrappy buggers. But, at risk of having the entire town come and lay waste to Tewkesbury in a fit of rage, it is a bit of a dismal nowhere-town. I'm brave enough to say that now as if they read this today and turn up next weekend for a fight, Tewkesbury has a small chance of survival as it's Medieval Festival weekend so a larger proportion of the population than normal will be wearing chainmail and carrying swords. And drunk on cider so up for a bit of a brawl. 

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Actually, I'm maybe being a bit overly harsh on it and it's just a bit of a run-down town. Sparta is an inland town in what seems to be a mildly poor area, so it stands out after the pretty touristy places along the coast. I don't know what I was expecting though - oiled men in leather skirts sharpening swords on the high street and fighting each other while wrestling with bears or something, but what you get is the inevitable concrete apartment blocks and a Lada dealership. I never imagined the Spartans going to war in a Lada. And certainly didn't even know there were still Lada dealerships!

But, and there is a big 'but' coming, Sparta is in a stunningly beautiful position, surrounded by  impossibly high mountains from which it looks as though there is no way out other than the main road you come in on, but there is and what a road! 

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From Sparta, heading towards the coastal town of Kalamata you go onto the small road above, heading for seemingly impassable mountains. You eventually enter a small gorge and the road narrows and starts to get higher. 

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The road then just climbs and climbs and climbs in an endless series of hairpins and vertigo-inducing drops until you finally seem to reach the top, then it climbs a bit more for good measure. It's an hour and a half of driving heaven, accompanied by views which look almost unreal. The road just keeps twisting its way up, under overhanging rock and through the occasional short tunnel, every so often requiring you to pick your way through fresh rockfalls.

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The landscape becomes wooded then turns into forest and even the rocks change as you climb from the dry yellow stone everywhere else to a rusty red sandstone colour. At the bottom of the valley it was about 32C but towards the top it had dropped to around 24C so I opened the windows and turned the aircon off and I'm very glad I did as the smell up there was exceptional. There are yellow flowering shrubs everywhere and the intense smell was identical to a shop selling incense, with a thick rich odour coming from everywhere, accompanied by some of the noisiest wildlife I've come across. I had to stop for a while just to take it in. 

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While on the climb, this was the first time I'd seen the warning sign below in Greece, although it does seem a little optimistic. I'm not sure Greece needs snow warning signs out in July. And find it hard to believe it is overly necessary in January for that matter!

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Eventually you drop back down, round a corner and the coast is there in front of you but the temptation is to turn around and have another run over the mountains again in the other direction. 

From there it was my old favourite the E65 again - the same road I drove down through Croatia on.  

 Bridge on E65 linking Peloponnese to the mainland

Bridge on E65 linking Peloponnese to the mainland

I was a little knackered on the long drag then from Kalamata right up to the top of the mainland, not helped by having had very little sleep the night before on the ferry from Heraklion. It had been freezing in the cabin and there was a rotary control to turn down the ventilation, but which way is off? If clockwise is 'closed' then which direction is 'open'?

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I eventually arrived back in Parga again in time for some food so there is no better choice than the 5 Senses Restaurant back at the Hotel Alfa. Octopus followed by a beef stew followed by ice cream cherry cheesecake followed by a thick coffee. Perfect. I couldn't resist another go though as the octopus was just too good so I had to have it again before I left and ordered a second starter after the coffee. One of life's little indulgences! The waitress did look at me as though I had crossed into being 'a little bit odd' though :). Best food in Parga. 

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It's about 45 minutes from Parga to Igoumenitsa so a nice easy run. The customs chap at the port in Igoumenitsa was entertaining - I drove up to him, he said 'where you stay', so I showed him my map of the complete route. He got very excited and said 'Sitia? Very beautiful!' And quizzed me for several minutes on the route, especially Croatia, completely oblivious to the massive queue behind. 

I guess the other thing of note and a warning to others is that I almost came a cropper today with a petrol station which looked very posh but didn't take cards at all which I only discovered once I'd filled up. I had cash thankfully or I'd still be there, but worth remembering for the future - always have a cash alternative handy just in case.

And on a final note, I appear to have had an aftershave spill in my suitcase sometime during the day so all my clothes, and indeed the whole car, now smell like a gigolo's outing! Thankfully I won't see anyone I know for a few days yet so hopefully the whiff will have lessened a bit by then. 

Next stop, via the MV Catania is Italy, arriving in Brindisi at 8.30am on Tuesday morning then north to Pescara. 

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