Our smooth arrival was quickly interrupted by the rental car company asking for a copy of my international drivers license. Dani had made all the arrangements for our Airbnb’s and rental cars, and knowing I had rented a car in Italy last year assumed I had the international license. After a minor heart attack that the first three days of our itinerary would be relocated to a more local plan, I was actually able to utilize my “executive status” (read: “I travel too much” status) at National/Enterprise and secure us a car for a few dollars more without needing the international license... thankfully we were back in business without too much of a headache. Fifteen minutes later we had found the tiny, blue, four-door, stick-shift Suzuki, and after a quick talk with the exceptionally friendly rental lot agent were on our way under our own power. The plan for the day was a three and a half hour drive to a tiny costal town overlooking the Aegean Sea, located on the eastern side of the Mani Peninsula. The drive had no real expedited timeline, and our only planned stop was in the ancient city of Sparti, located almost exactly halfway between the airport and our final destination for the evening, Oitylo.
The highways navigating us south of Athens proper were four lanes wide and relatively empty of traffic, a welcome change from the vehicular headache Boston is. I kept us a little bit over the speed limit traveling down highway E65, as cars passing 40-60+ km/hr faster were whizzing by in the fast lane, and less reliable looking vehicles trudged along in the breakdown lanes. There were a few tolls points of $2.80 each, roughly $3.50 USD, and I utilized the toll booth workers to practice my very poor Greek conversational skills, “hello” and “thank you”, both which got big smiles from the toll agents. We stopped at a highway rest station for bathrooms and to buy a few liters of water for the day. Continuing on, we eased out of the plateaued landscape, skirting by one of the oceanic shipping ports, and began climbing into the mountains.
Had you blindfolded me and taken me here to this exact location, I’d have guessed we were in southwestern Wyoming or even parts of Southern California. The dry hills towered above us as the highway cut into the sides of these mountains through four-lane tunnels. We spent an hour or so in terrain like this, constantly shifting the car between fourth and fifth gear as the 1.4cyl engine worked hard to provide A/C for us, battling the 90-degree heat outside, while climbing and descending the roads. A little while later we took a curvy off ramp exit off of E65 and began a more meandering adventure on the backroads of E961 towards Sparti.
Shortly before 15h00 we arrived in the quaint town, the speed limit dropping to 40km/hr while luscious green trees began lazily sprawling over the two lane road. Beautiful homes adorned each side with identical off-white exteriors and red clay roofs, colorful flower boxes hanging outside each window and a great many Greek flags flying outside their doors. Following signs for The Fortress, we navigated through the town square and up into the hills where the majority of the famous Sparti ruins remain. Noted as one of the less famous “wonders of the world”, these ruins date back to 400BC and are built into the side of a jagged and rocky mountain. Inside the tall security walls of the compound are deteriorating but surprisingly present buildings that have stood for centuries as monasteries and palaces to those in power, as well as courtyards that served as festival/bazaar grounds to the local townspeople. The mountains behind us stand nearly 6,500 feet tall and tower over the Fortress itself, built at the the highest point of the grounds, while the vast valley lays out ahead of it. It’s easy to understand how the elevated position was a benefit to the Spartans as they were able to see enemies moving across the valley and prepare to stage an attack.
Upon finishing a few hours of exploration around the lower ruins and higher fortress, we headed back down the mountainside, ready to find some sort of early dinner. Between the flight, drive, seven hour time difference, and 4 miles of hiking the Sparti ruins with 500+ feet of climbing, our bodies were becoming very hungry and somewhat confused as to when they were being fed. We pulled off at the first available restaurant, noting the dining balcony and impressive vantage point of the valley floor. Sharing a large Greek salad, tzatziki sauce, and olive oil marinated chicken breast, we enjoyed the views and talked about the days ahead. Family of the restaurant owners were eating at the table behind us, and after some friendly conversation in English we learned they actually live in the Central Florida area, in the small town where Dani grew up. George and his wife Cindy were exceptionally kind and gave us some great local recommendations of places to visit during our trip. We finished our meals, said our goodbyes, and began the remaining hour and a half drive to our final destination, starting with some exceptionally questionable roads out of town courtesy of Google Maps. For a second we actually thought this had become an overland trip, traveling down bumpy dirt roads (nearly bottoming out our tiny Suzuki) and for a moment wondered if we actually had to drive through a small river to stay on the route it was recommending. Thankfully we did not, and the road sharply turned down another narrow path instead, eventually finding ourselves on a main thoroughfare with adequate pavement and normal speed limits.
After the roads climbed back out of the Sparti area valley, we continued on until we saw the Aegean Sea for the first time, the sun hanging low on the horizon and ocean water a deep blue hue shining back at us. We made a quick bathroom stop and refueled the tiny car to the tune of $30 Euro despite its kid-sized gas tank (I paid zero attention to actual tank capacity, but now that I’m writing this I am actually intrigued and will report back). Another ten minutes down the road and we arrived at the Panorama Inn, a small six-room bed and breakfast some 20 feet back from a cliff that went straight down to the sea. We were checked in by the owner’s young daughter, shown to our rooms, and after well deserved showers (we had walked just under four miles and climbed 500’ of elevation at the Fortress after the previous night of trans-Atlantic flying), proceeded to both fall asleep in small chairs on our small balcony overlooking the big sea.
Tomorrow we’re going to explore a few local attractions down by the water’s edge before hopping back in the car and proceeding another hour east towards the small oceanside town of Monemvasia. Cameras, drones, and phones are each on the chargers for tomorrow’s adventures, and we’re officially calling day 1 in Greece a success.