Rhodes, Greece 2021

In 2020, the world was thrown into disarray by the outbreak of the Covid pandemic. Foreign travel was just one of many things that came to a virtual standstill. With little improvement during 2021, our proposed trip was put on hold right up until the last week before departure when we made the decision to go for it. We curtailed our original route taking us through France, Germany, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece, as the mountain of paperwork involved was just too daunting. As it was, reams of paperwork were still required, both online and in hard copy form, that would enable us to cross borders and visit France, Switzerland, Italy and Greece. The shorter route would entail driving over 4000 miles, ferrying a further 1600 miles, overcoming the unforeseen, and at times, pushing ourselves and our van to the limits. This was not so much a holiday as an adventure.

(Please click on a picture to enlarge the image and find a description, and go to the bottom of the page for a written account of our trip with a translate option)

Our return route with overnight stops shown (straight lines indicate the ferry crossings)

France We arrived in Dieppe early in the morning, hopeful that we had the required paperwork for entry into France, and we were pleasantly surprised to soon be on our way south with little hold up at the border. The road to Kaysersberg is a joy, and that early in the morning we made good progress to the campsite.

Switzerland and Italy – we were looking forward to our two night stop in picturesque Melano, Switzerland after the long drive through France the day before. It gave us a chance to relax before having to drive through Italy in less than 36 hours to avoid a five day quarantine and Covid tests. We need not have worried, there were no checks at the border and we could have stayed as long as we liked. We aren’t keen on the Italian roads, or the drivers, and the industrial north and touristy east coast have never attracted us, so it was a pleasant surprise to find a sosta in the lovely old town of Corinaldo. Corinaldo is a small commune that is home to a well preserved 14th century walled town, about one hours drive from Ancona where we had to catch the ferry the following day.

Greece – We had booked a luxury cabin on the ferry from Ancona to Patras as we intended to isolate ourselves as much as we could for the 23 hour crossing and wanted a bit of comfort. We spent much of the time watching the news about the tragic fires sweeping across Greece. Small villages were wiped out, century old olive groves destroyed, services and communications were in ruins. We did not know what to expect when we landed, but we were grateful for all the German fire trucks that had surrounded us in the ferry garage on their way to help control the fires. Our planned route through the mainland should have kept us clear of the worst fires until we reached Athens when we would board the ferry for Rhodes, all being well.

Rhodes – against the odds, we arrived in Rhodes! Not Covid, Brexit, nor a few mechanical problems could stop us. We would spend the next six weeks on the perfect Dodecanese island of the Gods. The soft golden sunlight would wake us each morning, like a gentle hand stirring us to explore and enjoy this magically diverse island. We would spend time with lifelong friends, make new ones, and experience new sights and adventures that will remain with us forever. Rhodes combines a cosmopolitan atmosphere with medieval architecture in a unique way. The natural landscape, imposing buildings, ancient towns and picturesque villages nestle next to amazing beaches, forests and mountains like no other place. In Rhodes town, the new and fashionable areas rub shoulders with the medieval walled city with ease. There is something for everyone. Our trip this year would keep us slightly away from the more crowded places, we would visit fewer of the tourist attractions and spend more time either on our own in remote locations, or socialising with our Greek friends. For the kindnesses that can never be repaid, with love to Federa and family.

Mainland Greece – We had allowed several days for our return trip across Greece before catching the ferry at Patras back to Italy. With no real itinerary, we opted to look at some places recommended to us by a friend on Rhodes, we were not disapointed. Following the coast road around southern Greece, we would visit the ancient theatre at Epidaurus, the hidden castle town of Monemvasia (built to be unseen from the mainland), and the spectacular Caves of Diros, and other points of interest in between.

Italy and France, the return journey – We were still keen to comply with the 36 hour deadline for driving through Italy, even though we knew that it would not be enforced, so we only stayed one night before the picturesque trip through France. One day we will get to enjoy the west coast of Italy that promises so much, but for this year we would spend a little more time in France, visiting the small towns along the Rhone and the Loire until we reached our departure port of Caen.

Greece, a road trip across Europe – 2021

We were one hour from home before I needed to use the handbrake for the first time on this trip. I don’t use it on our level drive at home as it tends to ‘stick on’ if the van is not moved for a couple of weeks. The van was freshly serviced, and new brakes fitted so we should have been good to go. Those were my thoughts as we slowly rolled back towards the car behind while attempting our first hill start at a junction. We did not know it yet, but this was to become much more complicated to fix than we first thought, and we would drive the next four thousand miles with a handbrake that refused to hold.

Although the final decision to go ahead with this trip was eventually a last minute one, we had spent months planning it and completing the varied forms required for each country. They may have all been members of the EU, but there were no consistent rules. The emission zones, COVID tests, certificates, and vaccinations were bigger hurdles than the few issues resulting from Brexit, but we were confident that we had them all covered despite the restrictions changing daily.

They cast a cursory eye over our paperwork at border control into France, almost ashamedly asked us if we had any meat or dairy products onboard, and then waved us on our way. It proved even easier at the land borders that we crossed after that where we could drive straight through. Only when picking up our ferry tickets were we asked to present any form of certification, and even they were not checked properly.

French roads and French drivers are a joy after driving in the UK. The roads are smooth and straight, and the drivers courteous and considerate to our lumbering vehicle. The only hold up on our way south was later and the queue for the Gotthard Road Tunnel, a one-hour delay so that vehicles could go through the ten mile tunnel in controlled batches, a small price to pay for safety.

With an early start, good roads and a tail wind, the drive from Dieppe to Kaysersberg can be done comfortably in one day. It means missing a big chunk of France by sticking mostly to toll roads, but we consider this a small price to pay to be able to enjoy the scenery of the Alsace that never disappoints. Another longish drive, and another personal favourite is Camping Paradiso in Melano on the side of Lake Lugano near the Swiss/Italy border. With two nights booked, we could enjoy not just the scenery, but also a wonderful little bistro where you eat outside on the pavement while people watching.

I had been managing well enough with the faulty handbrake, and I had decided to leave repairing it until we got to Rhodes where we would have more time in case it was not an easy fix. I was concerned then, when one of the rear air bags started to leak and the need to jack up the four-and-a-half-ton vehicle with a flimsy looking scissor jack on the side of the road appeared to be more of a necessity. Fortunately, I could keep inflating the airbag with the onboard compressor, so I still decided to leave repairs until we got to Rhodes when we would not have the pressure of ferries to catch.

In Italy we were alarmed to hear a cacophony of sirens as we drove down through Ancona towards the port, and we were soon surrounded by about thirty German fire engines on their way to help put out the wild fires in Greece. They formed a colourful and noisy escort all the way to the dock where we would all board the ferry to Patras, Greece.

With COVID and social isolation being important, we had booked cabins for all of our ferry crossings. This proved to be a good decision, particularly on the longer crossings that were twenty-four hours each way. On deck there was little sign of caution, people seemed to wear their masks around their arm, seated areas were crammed, and bars were busy. Our cabins not only allowed us to isolate, but we also had private bathroom facilities, a comfortable bed, and the chance to watch telly to catch up with the news. I still tell Linn that they are cruise ships not car ferries, but I think she is getting suspicious.

Normally our arrival in Greece is marked by the smell of pine trees, herbs and heat, but with fires still burning haphazardly across the mainland, the welcoming smell this time was of smoke and ash in the air. The damage was catastrophic and the news disheartening. As soon as one fire was under control, another would break out. At our first stop near Olympia, the owner of the campsite told us how the fire had got within one kilometre of the town and people had started to evacuate. From our hilltop position, we could see smoke hanging in the valley from the fires a few days ago. When it was time to move on, both our sat nav and Google assured us that we could not drive across the middle of southern Greece, but anxious to follow our planned route we ignored them. In places the fires burnt on either side of us, black tree stumps pierced the scorched and still smoking ground. Power cables traced the routes where the poles had once been. A handful of buildings were ruined, but miraculously most had been saved by the efforts of the fire crews and locals who worked in overwhelming conditions to save them. It was eerily quiet now. We saw few cars and not many people. This fire had nearly burnt itself out and the fire crews had moved on towards Athens where we knew fresh fires had broken out, and where we would be in a few days time.

The mountain village of Langadia, at the head of the impressive Lousios Gorge, was untouched by fire and welcomed us with a fresh greenery and clean air that we would enjoy until we entered fire ravaged Athens later in the week. In the meantime, we went off grid on the beaches of the Argolic Gulf, to explore a region new to us. Beaches of tropical beauty, turquoise seas, and uncluttered by tourists.

The Corinth Canal is always a must see on our route. This four mile long man-made spectacle connects the Gulf of Corinth in the Ionian Sea with the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea, saving vessels the two hundred and twelve mile trip around. It cuts through the narrow Isthmus of Corinth and separates the Peloponnese from the Greek mainland, arguably making the peninsula an island. Impressive today, it is amazing the think that the first attempts to construct it were way back in the seventh century BC. The modern-day bungee jumpers seemed almost disrespectful given the legacy of the gorge they were jumping into.

While waiting for our ferry to Rhodes at Piraeus, I received the unwelcome email that our return ferry in October from France to the UK had been cancelled until March 2022. This being a little later than we planned, we set about the task of finding a substitute crossing. I was grateful for the large data bundle on my mobile phone as I scanned through alternative routes and dates and finding one on the same day but at different ports, we booked it straight away. I could re-plan our route through France nearer the time, we were just relieved that we would not have to wait until 2022 to get home.

The cruise from Piraeus takes us through the Dodecanese Islands of Greece, mostly in sight of Turkey, briefly stopping at the picturesque harbour on Symi before arriving on Rhodes.

It was around forty degrees at the end of August on Rhodes, and we were glad that the temperatures had decreased slightly from the record-breaking highs of a couple of weeks before. With no air conditioning, the van gets very hot, so most mornings would find us in the sea before seven, building up an appetite for breakfast in one of the local tavernas. There being no campsites on the island, wild camping is the only option, and we like to pay our way wherever we stop by supporting local business. Some of our favourite haunts are so isolated that there are no such amenities nearby, and in these places, we can survive on a simpler diet and by sensible rationing for about a week before returning to civilisation and the luxury of dining out.

One of the most important aspects of our time on Rhodes, is the time we spend with friends. Friends we have made over the last twenty plus years as their families have grown up and a new generation begins. The boys we once knew in short pants are now the men we know with families of their own. This is no holiday romance, this is true family. Meeting again is always a pleasure as we are bonded with the love and familiarity of years of acquaintance. If we have a problem, they will try to sort it. Their problems are ours to share and help with. Nothing is too much trouble. From this comes the kindnesses that are so lacking elsewhere, the small impromptu gifts, to the generous thoughtful acts that the Greek islanders are famed for. What makes Rhodes so special, is that even strangers behave in this way. We were given bunches of fresh grapes from a guy in a beaten-up old pickup who shared the isolation of a remote jetty with us one afternoon. Another time an old man handed us a handful of figs after we had all enjoyed a morning swim on a secluded beach. And even near the city, where life is so much busier, we were given a couple of sprigs from a basil bush and a plastic cup to put them in water so that they would root and keep the insects from our van: back home again now and they are flourishing on our kitchen windowsill. Such kindnesses exist in few places, and we treasure every one.

Another thing that sets the island of Rhodes apart, even after so many visits, is its ability to keep giving. We spend much of our time swimming, snorkelling, walking, kayaking, climbing and exploring, and these never fail to bring new experiences. The underwater world is as spectacular as that above, the colours and the diversity of life are stunning. Our frequent dives have familiarised us with the indigenous species, so we were stunned by our first sightings of the beautiful Lionfish that have migrated to these waters from the Indo-Pacific. Characterized by their conspicuous warning coloration of white and creamy bands, showy pectoral fins with venomous, spiky rays, we watched mesmerised as they glided effortlessly amongst the rocks. Their beauty hides the damage that these voracious predators do by decimating smaller native species to the point of extinction. It is not just other fish who should be wary of them, such is the potency of their venom it can be harmful and even fatal to humans. We are mindful to keep a respectful distance from them, and frustrated that I did not have my camera with me on that dive. Our many visits mean that we know the island intimately, better than many locals who may not travel much beyond their normal area, and we still find exciting new places. During this year’s explorations we found the gorges of Gadoura and Koufos. Gadoura Gorge is reached by a four mile walk up a dry riverbed, passed the charcoal burners remote homestead, and where the riverbed forks aside a high rocky centre piece. A tree stump, the size of a telegraph pole, sits wedged by the raging winter waters high above our heads. Streams and pools of greenish water idled in the sunlight with occasional splashes as nervous frogs leapt in at our approach. Flashes of silver sparkled as tiny fish darted hither and thither catching bugs. In places it was dry, and tufts of spiky grasses forced their way through the rounded pebbles for goats to chew upon. Butterflies fluttered their uncertain flight, landing occasionally to lay their colourful wings open as if relishing the sunshine before jerkily rising skywards out of sight. This is a remote location, seldom visited by people, where nature can exist uninterrupted and undisturbed, and we felt privileged to have found it. Koufus Gorge, on the other hand, is alongside a popular mountain road where drivers speed past with seldom a second glance. It is a short climb down to the smooth rounded rocks that have been worn by the seasonal waters for thousands of years. Stratified layers of rock, some as straight as rulers and others contorted by ancient volcanoes, wrap around us as we climb from one level to the next. Huge boulders lay piled in the bottlenecks, scarily demonstrating the power of the water that at times rushes down this mountainous crevice. Dark, indistinguishable shapes are visible in the whitened rocks, unidentifiable fossils of fauna from an earlier millennium. As close as we are to the modernness of a tarmacked road, it is easy to be transported back to the times of cavemen with spears hunting their prey in this once living larder of plenty.

Far from the tourist routes, locals acknowledge complete strangers such as us with a nod, a smile and a wave in a way that sadly does not happen back home anymore. These brief passing encounters often led us into conversation with people we might otherwise not have spoken with. On one such occasion we had pulled over to let a pickup truck by when the driver waved indicating that he wanted to talk to us. With a huge smile, he pointed to our van and said –

“This is my dream. To own a car such as this that I can take my home with us.” We are used to the locals’ interest in our motorhome as they have nothing like it of their own and very few visitors with one. With the unabashed manner that the Greeks have to money, he asked –

“How much is one of these?”

We told him a slightly exaggerated figure, not to impress him, but to indicate how hard we had to work to afford one.

“Bah” he scoffed, “that is a small price to pay for such freedom”, so Linn added another ten thousand to the price and offered it to him. We were surprised when he again gestured that this was not enough, and we half expected him to produce the cash from his denim overalls. He explained that he and his friend were on their way to a small mountain chapel where they would sit, eat and drink, and sleep to escape the bedlam of life in their town. Knowing that there were no towns nearby, only quiet little villages, we reflected on our own desire to escape a busy modern life back home and theirs to escape a comparatively pastoral one here. We were worlds apart but with the same ideals, kindred spirits with much in common. In the middle of nowhere on this God given island, we often meet people of a similar disposition that can make us feel that we belong there like in no other place.

The handbrake had caused several problems, particularly while exploring the mountainous interior of the island, and rocks to put under the wheels were not always available. So the decision was made to find a flat hardstanding, jack the van up for the first time using the manufacturers scissor jack, get the rear wheels off and see what the problem was. It sounded easy. The first problem was that the jack supplied was for the base vehicle and not the motorhome conversion. Using it had always been intended only for emergencies, not maintenance which was done at home using an industrial size trolley jack. The scissor jack took huge effort to turn the winding handle that did not reach from under the converted vehicle. Lying flat with my face on the ground and turning the handle less than a quarter turn at a time, it took several minutes to lift the back wheel off the ground. Undoing the standard wheel nuts proved easy, the problem was that the locking wheel nuts would not shift. All that effort wasted as I could not undo any of the locking wheel nuts. Not being able to remove any of the wheels could be more of a problem than the dodgy handbrake if we had a puncture, and we were grateful when friends suggested several mechanics who should be able to help. The first, a lovely man called Vaggeli, was truly upset that he too could not undo the locking nuts, even with two of them trying.  He recommended a bus and lorry company in the city who would definitely be able to do it. Here, they preferred to sit in the driver’s seat that was on the wrong side and make engine noises than attempt the job in hand. Next, we called at a likely looking workshop with tractors outside; the mechanic there confidently tried, and failed. No one would accept money for trying, and all but the bus company were mortified not to be able to help. Another day and another town, we called at a tyre depot where the diminutive mechanic told me to get the van as close as possible to the workshop door, it being too big to go inside. He was struggling with a small scooter repair, and it looked unlikely that he could succeed where others failed. He tried an air gun, just as the others had, to no avail. He tried a wheel brace with a prop shaft over the handle for leverage, which did not work. He then appeared with a heavy iron bar and a lump hammer. Fearful for our newly re-plated alloy wheels, we watched as he carefully lined the bar up with the locking nut, and belted it with the lump hammer. He did this three times on the first nut and then managed easily to spin it off with the air gun. The same happened with the next wheel, but he could not undo the third one and shook his head sadly which we interpreted to mean that he could not do it. He moved to the fourth, and that too succumbed to the heavy hammer. We were delighted at this outcome after so many unsuccessful attempts. We were a little surprised then when he returned to the obstinate nut, sucked a deep breath through his teeth, and hit it square on with the bar and hammer combo. He attached the air gun, it paused for a moment, and then spun into life. It was a great moment and he seemed as genuinely relieved as Linn and I. The smile did not leave his face as he put replacement nuts back on, and he refused any money until I managed to press a folded note into his pocket. I would have hugged him too if it were not for COVID.

It was a couple of days later that as we left an overnight stop on a beach, we heard a horrible scraping noise from the front wheel. I stopped to have a look but neither of us could see anything out of the ordinary, so I drove on a little and just as we reached a small roundabout the noise got worse. I stopped again and crawled underneath to take a better look, Linn stood by to direct traffic if needed. Finding nothing amiss, I was poking around when I heard someone shouting above me, so I shuffled back out from under the van. A small Greek man clutched his chest, fell weakly onto the verge, and shouted curses at Linn who he was convinced had run me over. He took some convincing that I was unharmed, and I even performed a little jig to show that I was alright, I am certain that we ruined his day with the shock. We were still left with the problem noise, and as this was clearly not the place for further investigation, I crept the van across the road to a small car park where we were able to jack it up and I could take the wheel off thanks to our friend with the lump hammer. The problem was immediately clear, a pebble the size of a large marble was wedged between the brake disc and the back plate. It took some removing but with no damage done, it proved many times easier to sort than some of the problems I had envisaged when I first heard the noise.

Having precariously, and with my face in the dirt, jacked the van up using the lightweight scissor jack, we decided that as I had coped so far without a handbrake it would be better left until we could get the van back to our mechanic at home. We further reasoned that if specialised parts were needed, they would not be available here anyway and we could be left stranded. It was a sound decision and did not cause too many problems for the rest of our journey.

We had few other breakdowns in the van. The toilet flush proved intermittent not liking the high mineral contents of the water that kept corroding the contacts on the switch. The habitation door slammed shut in the wind one day and needed re-aligning. And the sidelights developed a nervous flicker that proved as simple as failing LED’s. Apart from that we were lucky, four thousand miles, some of it off road, can have a damaging effect on modern technology.

Our time on Rhodes had come to an end, six weeks had flown by leaving only memories and a deep tan. We were sad to leave but it is always made easier knowing that we will be back one day.

Our itinerary allowed two weeks to get home via mainland Greece, Italy and France. We had a rough route planned that had to be adapted to arrive at the new departure port in France on time for the ferry, but apart from that we were winging it. A friend had mentioned three places in Greece that we should try to see, but it was going to be a challenge to see them all in the time we had. A challenge that we readily accepted and enjoyed immensely.

Ancient Epidaurus is a small, ruined city on the east coast of the Peloponnese famed for the stunningly intact amphitheatre. The site dates back to the 6th century BC and was mostly devoted to the healing gods, but the newer theatre, considered one of the purest masterpieces of Greek architecture, dates from the 4th century BC. It is considered to be the most perfect ancient Greek theatre with regard to acoustics and aesthetics. It was here that we experienced the only post Brexit consequence when I was refused an age-related concession on the ticket price because I was not a member of the EU.   

The drive to Monemvasia took us over the mountains past the monasteries clutching the hillsides at Leonidio, through the colourful coastal town of Nafplion, and around the hilltop fort that overlooks the city of Argos, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Monemvasia is an ancient town and fortress, founded in 583 by inhabitants of the mainland seeking refuge from invasion. It is on an island, separated from the mainland by a two hundred metre causeway, and total unseen other than from the sea. The walled town is a spider’s web of tiny streets, beautifully preserved buildings, and Byzantine churches. On the day we were there it also happened to be the day that the Tour du Peloponnese classic car rally visited, a fine collection of prestige and classic rally cars.

The final recommendation from our friend was that we see the Caves of Diros, located in a cove on the west coast of the Mani Peninsula. The existence of the caves was known to local residents as early as 1900, but it was not until 1949 that Giannis and Anna Petrochilou began to systematically explore them to discover the caves’ unique beauty. To date, nearly fifteen kilometres of routes have been mapped. Most of the caves are below sea level. The main Vlychada cave is the more impressive subterranean chamber with white stalagmites and stalactites, sparkling crystals and striking curtains of limestone rock. We explored it onboard a small punt and by foot, and found it a truly breath-taking place despite our visit being shortened because of the concerns of COVID in enclosed spaces.

We had reached the end of our Greek odyssey and we started the final leg north to catch the ferry at Patras to Ancona. In no particular hurry we followed the coast road past small sandy coves increasingly occupied by campervans and motorhomes. Being within easy reach of the arriving ferries, many set up camp as soon as they could, missing the delights we had seen on our trip. As we looked for one last overnight stop, a storm rumbled overhead, and black, menacing clouds warned us to find a sheltered spot. At Pyrgos the heavens opened in biblical proportions, driving became impossible because of the lack of visibility and deep flooding in the streets. Cars were stopped anywhere, abandoned as the drivers ran into the nearest buildings. We were forced to seek refuge quickly, and regrettably it took the form of a Lidl’s car park. This was not our finest moment after so many wonderful overnight stops, but we reasoned that at least we could do an early shop before boarding our ferry the following lunchtime.

By the morning the tempest had passed, and the once raging sea was flat calm. Our crossing to Italy was peaceful and without incident, but we were late arriving and had to make up time to get back on schedule. We spent an arduous ten hours, covering six hundred miles on busy toll roads until our first stop in France on the return journey. In fact, with a day in hand we could have lingered, but I was keen to move on to a place recently put on my bucket list, Oradour sur Glane.

On the 10th June 1944, weeks before France was liberated by the English in September 1944, over two hundred Waffen SS troopers entered the quiet town of Oradour sur Glane. They most violently killed over six hundred and forty-three innocent civilians including two hundred and five children. Buildings were burned and the town destroyed. There were only six survivors who managed to escape and later tell the horrific story. After the war, General Charles de Gaulle decided the village should never be rebuilt, but would remain a memorial to the cruelty of the Nazi occupation. It is a chilling place to visit, and like so many other places we saw during our trip, one we will never forget.

Two days later we had taken our final ferry and arrived back in the UK to be welcomed by rain, roadworks and bureaucracy at the border like nowhere else we had been in the last ten weeks. Our European 2021 tour had come to an end. We were wiser, more enlightened, invigorated and tired, and eager to do it all over again.