I think this is my favourite time of day. I seem to be the only one awake to see the glorious sunrise over the calm sea which laps gently onto Vagionia beach, within the bay of Palaia Epidavros. The view is the same, but every morning the experience is different. The cloud formations and the changing colours surrounding me are captivating. I believe that I will never tire of the scene as I watch the pink and orange hues draw across the inky water. There’s an iridescent, turquoise flash of a Kingfisher crossing the water and I’m filled with an overwhelming sense of wellbeing. I put the kettle on for a cup of tea and attempt to photograph the rising sun. A small fishing boat with its outboard motor gently purring moves into the light beaming across the water. It is a beautiful picture, but the recorded image will never be able to capture the moment. I crawl back into bed for half an hour and cuddle up next to the warm and sleeping Armand as the distant church bell chimes seven. This is definitely my favourite time of day.
Greece is in lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic. We were fortunate to travel to Patras from Italy and onto Palaia Epidavros before the travel restrictions came into force. We knew the area well, having visited the nearby ancient Greek amphitheatre to see a performance of Electra in 2018. (That was a long awaited experience that didn’t disappoint, the pleasure enhanced by seeing Donald Sutherland in the audience in front of us). We had also spent time at the coast, sunbathing and swimming in the calm clear waters between Vagionia beach and a small ‘secret’ cove set amongst pines and beneath ragged, yellow lava rocks on the nearby peninsula.
Located on the Eastern finger of the Peloponnese, the area around Epidavros is protected from over development. It’s an area of special interest with numerous ancient ruins to be found within the pine clad hills and even beneath the sea just a few meters from the shore.
We made our way through this fishing village, past the quiet cafes, tavernas and the grocery shops to the small harbour where modest, white fishing boats are moored. Out of season, there was little going on. We continued west along a narrow lane set between the beach and a grove of olives, citrus and pomegranate trees. The village had taken the time to place ornate lamp posts along the lane which successfully elevated the modest nature of the place and from beneath some large palm trees the lazy village cats rose from their positions and scattered into the undergrowth. At the end of the lane we reached the beach and a patch of rough ground backed by reeds and olive trees which is used as the beach car park. We found three campervans already in situ. Fortunately, the beach had more than enough space for privacy, and there was a useful, cold, beach shower and water tap.
We felt comfortable and relaxed here. Wearing obligatory masks, we went shopping and to a bar, to enjoy the last opportunity for gathering for some weeks to come. The lockdown in Greece was due to commence in the morning. At the bar, we met some delightful locals including Jimmy the builder, whose son was residing in Brighton where I hail from (small world it is) . I had an interesting conversation with some Dutch sisters, one of whom usually resides in Croydon and we met some expats, one of whom runs the village diving company. With the Coronavirus rates low in the area, everyone seemed determined to enjoy their last night of freedom and there was singing and dancing to the accompaniment of a bazouki.
It was a shame that we would no longer be able to move about Greece in the van, but we were content to sit out the three week lockdown in Epidavros.
This morning, there’s no sign of Armand stirring for a refreshing sea swim so I decide to go for a run whilst it’s cool and very quiet. I plod off towards the port, passing the ruins of ancient steps, the Little Theatre of Dimos and some Mycenaean tombs. I reach a far beach, where, just fifty metres from the shore, there are the sunken remains of a trading post lost in 238BC after a volcanic eruption increased the sea level. We snorkelled over the site yesterday and discovered the remains of the walls, tiled floors, a well and some large amphoras. I return to the van by retracing my steps, a decent route of 4 miles.
As I return, I can see in the distance the ‘secret’ cove and beach of Kalamaki and the elderly couple from Germany who reside, close to us, in their motorhome at the end of Vagionia beach. They seem gentle creatures of habit. They come here to this place every year and stay from September to November. They walk slowly, two minutes, three times a day to the secret beach and there at 730am, midday and in the evening, they strip off naked, swim and then sit sedately on a bench on the beach, together in the sun. Sometimes she rests, feet on the bench, head on his lap. It’s an enchantingly serene scene. Beautiful. They shuffle off back to their van and seem to live a quiet, simple life, without anybody noticing them. I’ve said ‘guten morgen’ to them and attempted a little conversation, but their English is poor and my German is worse. We seem to have acquired a seemingly monastic style of appreciation and manner between us. We clearly both like to be left alone to do what we wanna do. No need for more company or chit chat. I don’t know them, but I like them very much. With little regard for the lockdown restrictions, and as they are creatures of habit, they’d leave next week for the thermal springs in Northern Greece where they’d spend another month before returning to Germany.
The morning clouds disperse. I undertake some stretches on my yoga mat on the beach and wait for a small Greek fishing boat to pass before walking to the secret beach myself.
It’s still early and I’m inclined to strip off in the sun before taking to the crystal clear water and swimming back to Vagionia beach, upon which the van has been parked for the past week. I take a cold shower on the beach, kindly provided by the local authority for beach users, and relax back into my old and tatty reclining chair to catch some rays. It’s so quiet.
That’s when Chris turns up to tell me where the nearest laundrette is and that he is leaving soon to go to the west Peloponnese, where he believes the temperature is warmer. I like Chris. He’s a portly Netherlander, ex coach driver, and he’s been living a van life for ten years, mostly in Spain. He’s helped me tap into the beach water supply (the shower), by using a contraption made from a piece of old hose attached to a funnel. The funnel itself being made from a 5 litre water container, its bottom removed. He’s a little grumpy, his social comments are amusing to me and sometimes remind me of my own menopausal, opinionated rants. He shouts at his old, stubborn, terrier dog called DJ, who growls back at him. I can’t help feeling there’s a touch of an old and feisty marriage about those two.
Chris is engaging, rough round the edges and his smoking habit has turned his top set of false teeth yellow and his bottom teeth are in poor shape. He’s complaining that he’s just broken a tooth, but he won’t go to the dentist in Greece, he thinks they’re too expensive. He tells us that he will get a new set of teeth for his lower gums implanted, when he returns to the Netherlands. He points at his tooth and hopes he won’t get an infection. I mention that we have some tooth cement in our medical bag, suitable for making temporary fillings and fixes and that may help him make a temporary dressing. He’s very happy with that and goes off rapidly to brush his teeth. I unmake the bed, lift up the mattress and search the rear storage boxes, under the bed frame, to find the medical bag. Chris returns with gloves and hand wash and using a mirror, the cavity in Chris’s mouth is plugged. It will set in 15 minutes.
Whilst the rear of the bed is up, we pull out a few things that we’ve been meaning to retrieve, an allen key from the tool box to tighten a screw on a bike and some superglue to fix a mirror back to its handle. We refill water containers before lowering the bed frame and mattress and remaking the bed. Time for a late breakfast. The day could easily turn into one of domestics with mention of a cycle ride to the supermarket, but the sun is out and I swiftly return back to my chair and write this blog.
I’m happily disturbed by a beautiful young woman and her man shouting Hi! It’s the young, Swiss couple we met when we hiked to Polemarcha beach. The hike to Polemarcha beach and the nearby monastery took about an hour. It was a rocky path lined with pines and cyclamen and the views of the turquoise sea were magnificent. The beach, upon which we found this Swiss family Robinson couple and a few other youngsters camping, was isolated and set beautifully in nature. They had been busy cleaning the beach, catching fish, cutting wood, building fireplaces with mud and rock and making a wilderness camp. All very impressive. We chatted about van life, our countries and the pandemic. We indicated the route on the delightful path that they could take to our village. They had taken our advice and the path and visited to pick up supplies and water. It was nice to see them again. We concluded that we would visit them again soon, perhaps when their fireplace had been extended to a terrace. We all had a little giggle.
As an aside, I’m reminded that we also met another Swiss family on that hike. They directed us to the monastery. Later that day I flicked across Instagram and noticed their profile and photos of the beach. It really is a small world. Unfortunately, all the young campers on that beach would shortly be moved on by the police. Moving static, isolated vans to other areas of the country in a pandemic lockdown seems a nonsense to me. I don’t get the logic.
It’s now the afternoon and some large fish seem determined to beach themselves. A couple of Greek gents, complete with masks, walk to the benches along the beach. I hear them, animated, talking or rather shouting at their phones. One undresses and wades out into the sea for a swim. Being a Brighton girl, I am used to having the sea on my doorstep, but the grey, frothy, cold water of Brighton cannot compare to the warm, clear water that this gentleman can swim in daily and I’m rather jealous.
Rhiannon, who is parked next to Chris, has been inside her van all day. She has a computer and works remotely teaching English to foreign students, mainly Chinese and Saudis. We will see her later walking her dog, a black Labrador, adopted in Croatia, which she is now in the process of training. He seems to be doing well.
From British parents, Rhiannon was born and raised in Germany. She seems to me an amazing role model for youth. Before she’s 24 years old, she’s travelled and spent long periods of time in China and Peru teaching English and has been living a van life in an old, basic, mobile home in Spain and Greece. I admire her resilience and chutzpah. She’ll sit with me on the beach for a chat over Metaxa, a Greek brandy, until almost midnight tonight.
Late afternoon and Armand is putting on the kettle. A dog is barking in the distance. A boat is chugging into port. Simon appears and says “Hello”, a pleasant surprise. He’s a Brit on holiday in Greece during lockdown and we’ve got chatting as a result of a joint passion for hiking. We’d bump into each other everyday whilst walking and pass a friendly greeting. Those greetings have developed into long, socially distanced, conversations and we are getting to know each other rather well. A kind, well spoken, middle aged, restaurant manager and lover of classical music, Simon was an actor and teacher and is currently rejoicing in the banishment of Trump.
One of the great joys of travel is the apparent ease in which friendships can develop on foreign soil. There seems an immediate bond between fellow travellers in a foreign land. I feel it’s a shame that this warm, mutual camaraderie, that occurs so easily overseas, does not occur so often on home ground. Why are we less likely to strike up conversations with strangers, less likely to be so communicative or receptive to new friendships on our own turf? I’m dismayed that we will have moved on before exchanging contact details with Simon. I hope we will meet again.
There’s strange goings on at campervan number five, or perhaps it’s me going stir crazy. The last van to turn up at the beach is a smart, silver van from Germany. Apart from a wave of a hand, there’s been no communication. She comes out occasionally to topless sunbathe. He is a ghost, a secretive being, keeping himself inside the van at all times. Most of my van neighbours are currently static during the lockdown and walk or cycle to get groceries. These guys drive everyday during the lockdown and relocate themselves, often around the port and beach. They go off every evening in their van and then return. I’m intrigued. Are they travelling to pick up a takeaway every night? Or going fishing?
I’m turning into a van curtain twitcher. I think I’ll need to move on very soon. Perhaps it’s the intrinsic nature of all van lifers, van livers – we just can’t settle and keep still.
The Brits who run the Dive Centre at the harbour and who we met at the bar before lockdown are walking along the beach and they greet us. They thought they’d see how we were getting along. We have a long chat about their life in Greece and their life back in the UK, the pandemic and the local places to eat that are still doing a take away service. They know someone with an apartment that we could rent for the winter. Renting cheap accommodation for December and January was already in our plan. Our van was never designed for winter travel. We were supposed to use it in the summers and fly off to warm destinations in the winter, but Covid 19 has somewhat thwarted our plans. Later, their friends would pop by to discuss rental options. The people here are so genuinely nice. Epidavros has been very kind to us.
I have the overwhelming sense that my pandemic lockdown has been somewhat of a paradox. The mere fact that we are living outdoors but statically located makes for social interaction by way of a greeting or wave. Those greetings are frequent. Despite being socially distanced from people whilst talking outdoors, I’ve actually been more social than when I am travelling unrestricted in the van.
Whilst it’s a disaster for many, for us, the Greek lockdown has been quite fortuitous. We have been moving around almost consistently since August. Through France, back to the UK for a wedding and then swiftly through Belgium, Germany and Italy. We kept saying to each other that we would like to find a beautiful place to stop and read and relax for a week or so, but it’s so difficult to stop when you live on wheels. It seems impossible to do. There’s been plenty of beautiful spots, but we have never stopped for long. The Greek government has forced us to take a break in a beautiful little fishing village and it’s been a delight. Truly, memorable. Thank you Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis.