I had two weekends off in Greece, so I tried to figure out what to do.
As a tourist destination, Greece is famous for its islands, its beaches and its historic sites.
So, naturally, I went canyoning.
I'm not really sure why. Never had any interest in canyoning. I was looking for rafting sites in Greece when I came across a site that offered canyoning trips and decided to give it a try.
And I was fairly lucky in my timing.
The company doing the canyoning mainly do multi-day tours, visiting another canyon every day. And on the day that fitted my schedule, they were doing Rodokalos canyon, which is well suited for beginners, as it requires no previous experience, but still has a great scenery and interesting things to do (such as rappelling down waterfalls). Had my schedule been off by a day, they would be doing Goropotamos Canyon, which quite clearly is not suited for beginners. There's an 85 meter rappel next to a waterfall and it also includes a number of jumps, with the highest being 18 meters, neither of which seems like a good idea if you haven't done anything remotely like it.
But Rodokalos was just right for me.
Of course, the first step is to actually get to the canyon.
It took some time to get everyone kitted out and do the 'before' picture.
The actual canyon is somewhere to the upper left of this, so it was a bit of a walk.
As the weather was hot, we didn't change into the canyoning gear at the parking place, since walking in thick neoprene suits in 35°C isn't really a fun thing to do. So everyone carried gear on their backs.
The path was well marked, but not always that obvious.
Finally we reached the entrance to the canyon. (The starting point was at the bridge, so we gained a bit of altitude - all needed to abseil later...)
Time to get dressed properly.
Trouble with canyoning gear is, of course, that you end up looking like a group of surfers that seriously lost its way. (Or someone who couldn't really decide on whether to go ziplining or diving.)
Then it was off into the canyon.
After that, it was much easier than expected. Since it's all downhill. (That's the 'secret' of canyoning - once you reach the canyon entrance, all the hard work is already done.)
All there is to do is to walk a bit along the stream, stop at the next waterfall, be clipped into the rope and abseil down. Easy.
I had a 'proper' introduction to rappelling once, but that was only indoors and covered just a short distance and I also did some abseiling while ziplining the previous year. But that turned out to be of little help, since that involved getting down a free hanging rope, while the rappelling down the canyon meant 'walking down' the rock face, which is different (I got told off by one of the guides for just 'hanging there'...)
But, in essence, it was really easy.|
Note: I always thought that 'abseil' would mean to go down a free hanging rope, while 'rappel' meant 'walking' down some wall or rock face, but it seems both words seem to be interchangeable.
The first couple of waterfalls were simple 'just follow the course of gravity' things.
All quite enjoyable.
Later there was a bit more variety, so at one point they set up a sort of 'zipline', where you were clipped into a second, almost horizontal rope, abseiled down a shorter rope over a rock and then the shorter rope just ran out and you slid down the second rope.
One of the areas where 'not having a clue' helped. One of the guys on the canyoning trip was a mountaineer, but hadn't done any canyoning - and he was quite irritated about having the end of the rope being open. One of the basic rules of mountaineering is that you always make a knot into the end of an abseiling rope. Always. It's sort of drilled into mountaineers, so to him, it was like telling a driver to put oil on the brakes of a car - it's just something you don't do. Since I didn't know anything about either canyoning or mountaineering, I wasn't bother about that at all. (Technically, the reason is that in canyoning you usually have a 'flat' area at the bottom, so you can adjust the length of the rope accordingly, while in mountaineering, one steep bit is usually followed by the next, so you don't want the rope to suddenly run out. And if you are at the bottom of a waterfall and get somehow under water or the rope gets trapped, you don't really want to start to unclip things - it's much easier to just pull the rope out and be free. So it all makes sense - it's just that all his experience told him never to do this.)
Another interesting part was where the 'obvious' way was not the correct one. Following the course of water would not been the best way, but you needed to leave the water flow after a bit and go down straight.
That was where my lack of climbing experience was worrying me a bit, since that meant that the rope was no longer hanging free, but going over a rock edge. And I haven't got the slightest idea on how easy or hard it is to break a rope over a rocky edge. I assume that rarely happens and ropes are fairly sturdy, but all I have is the knowledge of bad movies to guide me, where a rope over a rock edge is always the visual used to indicate that the rope will break a couple of moments later...
Of course, in real life, it's quite hard to break a mountaineering rope this way. A assume.
And the really tricky parts of the canyon were the trivial ones. Like arriving at a rock with two potential ways of going down and having nobody to tell you which way is the better one.
Yes, that left side is the better one - the right one is very slippery.
Easier to do without a backpack, though.
We were well beyond the halfway point by then, so there was time for a bit of rest.
Some were having a quick lunch.
Others were having a rest in a natural 'whirlpool'.
And, after having a bath in the whirlpool, it seemed like a good idea to have a quick shower in the next waterfall.
Turned out that it wasn't a good idea - the water is quite cold and if you take of the helmet and stand in a waterfall, it has the same effect as eating too much ice too fast on a hot day - instant headache, hence my slightly pained face.
There was one slightly nasty waterfall a bit later.
You followed the waterfall to a 'pool' and then got out of the pool and went on. People before me where going to the pool and then sideways along the rock, before going down again. I was told to go just go out of the pool and continue climbing on the other side, since they 'changed the route'. Trouble was that there was a lot of moss there and it was quite slippery, so it was hard to 'walk' down there. And the road was pulling a bit sideward as well. I slipped off the rock, but when I did, I was almost down, so I just splashed sideward into the water.
The woman who climbed after me slipped a bit earlier and smashed into the rock face below. Nothing serious happened (and it provided a fairly good argument for wearing a helmet when canyoning, since you could hear it banging against the wall), but that waterfall was treacherous.
They changed the route back to 'go sideways after the pool' after that.
Some more waterfall and canyoning pictures.
And then we were almost at the end of the canyon.
Since you spend most of the time in the canyon in the shadow, some went a bit sideways and up for a break in the sun.
All that was left to do was the final attraction - a 37 meter high waterfall.
Since this is the 'big one' for the trip, it's also the place where they do photographs, just as you are about to descent (a bit like a rollercoaster in that respect). I found it quite surprising to look at the difference of my facial impression between the 'smile for the camera and put on a brave face' shot and the actual 'now this is getting serious' shot...
Going down the waterfall was surprisingly easy, except for the first and last bits.
The tricky bit at the beginning is that the first two meters or so are 'dry' and then the water comes in from the side, so you're hanging up there, can't breathe, can't see and have no idea where you are going. But then, the way is just 'down', so none of that does really matter, just run the rope through the 'abseil eight' and you're soon out of the water.
The other unexpected (but fun) part comes near the bottom. Mountaineering ropes have a certain amount of stretch. That wasn't noticeable on the shorter sections, but after 30 meters or so there was a bit of a 'bounce' in the rope. Which made going down a bit strange (at least for beginners like me). As I didn't feed the rope smoothly through the abseil eight, I went down at an irregular speed, so the rope started bouncing, which made it even harder to feed the rope properly. So I went down a bit, started to bounce, stopped, waited until the bouncing stopped and then went down again for a bit. Not the most elegant descent, but it got me down in the end. (Also, they put in four ropes for this final bit, so four people could go down at the same time, so there was no hurry and I could descent at whatever speed suited me.)
Back on the ground, I could join in with the other spectators, relax and watch the show.
Though, for the guides, the day wasn't done yet, since they needed to arrange the ropes properly, so they wouldn't have a big pile of knots next time.
And then all there was left to do is to do the big 'after' group photo.
Though it was noticed that some imposter had tried to sneak into the group picture without having been there at the beginning. And was promptly eaten as a penalty.
Shouldn't be necessary to note this, but just to be on the safe side: No salamanders were eaten or harmed during this canyoning trip.
And with this (well, and a bit of walking back to the car and going to a taverna afterwards), the canyoning trip was over.
After spending the week in Athens, I went to the Peloponnese peninsula the next weekend.
I did some driving around for a day.
I walked a bit in the mountains near Vytina.
Followed by a short visit to the 'Cave of Lakes', which was slightly disappointing, since the 'lakes' in the first sections have long dried out, so you only get to see them near the end of the tour. And then you're told that there are more interesting places further down cave, but that you're not allowed to go there. At some places they have the 'normal' tourist tours, but also, from time to time, guided excursions into the less prepared areas of the cave - and this one was a cave that I would have really loved to go further into.
But at least caves give you a good place and reason to go out of the sun and the heat, before getting outside and see some more of the landscape, including odd buildings in artificial lakes.
And even though I did ignore beaches and islands on this trip, I didn't quite manage to avoid historic sites. So I made a stop at Olympia to take a look at the Olympic Stadium - the original one.
As with the modern Olympics, the actual sport areas took up less space than all the support and administrative building.
The stadium itself is somewhat at the side of the place, looking more like an afterthought than the main attraction. Seating was on the slopes around the sports arena - only the event judges had a 'VIP seating area'. The marble blocks with the grooves were the starting lines for running events, the grooves being used to get some grip with the toes for quicker starts.
But enough history.
As mentioned at the beginning, I came upon the canyoning trip while looking for rafting opportunities. And while that led to canyoning, it also led to rafting, which was the real reason for going to the Peloponnese peninsula.
While I wanted to go rafting for quite some time, it never worked out, so this was my first rafting trip. So it seemed like a good idea to take an 'beginners' trip. The Lousios River is doesn't have much water at this time of year, so it's less of an adrenaline white-water ride, but more 'technical'. (Where 'technical' means that you have to paddle a lot to try to stay in the right line and not get beached on the rocks all the time.)
The outfit was fairly small, but well guarded...
On our tour we had two larger inflatable rafts, one two-seater inflatable kayak and two rigid-body single-seater kayaks. Due to the variety, it felt more like an outdoor tips with friends than a commercial tour (nothing that feels more like 'assembly line tourism' than having all identical boats...)
As it was a bit off-season, we were only four people in our rubber raft, the guide, a couple and me, so we had to put in some extra work. (Usually these rafts seat six clients and a guide.)
After some basic instruction on how to sit and paddle properly and a couple of commands, we went down the river over the first few easy rapids.
Then it was time for a stop and a quick lesson in 'what to do if you screw up' (i.e. fall out of the raft).
Basically you just float downstream, try to keep your feet in front of you and not to sag in the middle, so you don't hit any rocks with your bottom. Don't try to swim, unless you find yourself in an eddy or slow section and want to get out.
So we all had a go at 'proper floating downriver'.
Time to go down the next bit of the river.
And while it's not really hard to raft here, it's also not entirely trivial, as one of the kayakers found out by getting separated from the kayak in one of the rapids.
After a while you stop being on Lousios River as it runs into Alfeios River and you continue on that.
Time for a little lunch break, with tea and cookies.
And some playful showing off between kayaker and swimmer (much harder going with a human outboard motor, it seems).
At the final stretch of the tour, there are three class 3 rapids.
At this time of the year, they are more like walk-ons.
Still, the first two are fun to do, namely the 'toilet' (since it has a bit of a whirlpool, depending on the level of the water) and the 'S'.
Slightly less exciting, as far as rafting is concerned, is the 'waterfall'.
I've seen picture of people rafting over it in springtime and it looks impressive.
In late summer, however, it's more like a dam than a waterfall.
So you need to get out of the boat, push it over the 'waterfall' and get back into it on the other side.
But you can do it the easy way or the interesting way.
The interesting way is to have the guide handle the boat, walk along the rocks, jump into the river, float towards a rock in the middle of the stream and wait for the boat to pass by.
It also showed that I'm a wimp and how a good guide works.
Since I didn't know the place and hadn't really jumped into unknown rivers before, I asked the (I thought) sensible questions: Is this deep enough? Are there any rocks or other things I needed to be aware of? Where should I get out of the water?
While one of the guides tried to answer my questions (after all, it is one of the basic tenets of water safety: 'Donít jump into the unknown'), one of the other guides got bored of it, got out of her kayak, stood on the rocks above me, jumped into the river and got back to her boat without a word.
A classical case of "Show, not tell".
I can't really put this into a nice little one-liner phrase, but I think there is a clear distinction between 'tourist guides' and 'adventure guides'.
Basically a tourist guide tells you the things you should do and even more that you shouldn't do. An adventure guide just goes and does stupid things and assumes that you will follow. Which usually works out well and is more fun.
As already mentioned, it's hard to turn this into a proper or clever definition, but by any reckoning, she is a proper adventure tour guide.
In the meantime the other three had pushed the raft over the 'waterfall' and were coming to pick me up.
And just a bit further downstream there was a road bridge, which provided access to pick us up again - so the rafting was over.
But there was one final thing to do.
We followed a small stream upstream (walking, not rafting) and arrived at a nice waterfall for some after-rafting shower and a couple of photographs.
A nearby piece of a tree looked a bit like a huge, mystical water snake or giant tentacle, so we tried to stage some 'fight against the monster' photos, but with unconvincing results...
But even without successfully fighting Greek river monsters (and, frankly, Greece already has enough mythical heroes - it can do without me), this was a pretty satisfying trip.
Just a final look from the bridge at the river and it was time to drive back to 'base camp'.
And that should have been the last picture of the trip, but traditionally, there can't be a series of pictures from Greece without including a cat picture. (It must be a tradition, or on an old charter or something.)
So here's the obligatory cat picture.
Next day it was already time to drive back to Athens and fly home. But I had a reasonably late flight, so I had the time to stop at the cave near Kapsia. As a cave it's somewhat disappointing - the formations inside are great, but they built big, concrete walkways inside, so it looks more like a walkthrough diorama from a theme park than an actual cave. (But they got a 'no photographs' policy, so I don't have any pictures to prove it.)
But the experience was sufficiently strange to make the trip worthwhile.
When I arrived, I was the only tourist around, which wasn't unexpected (I didn't expect many visitors on an off-season Sunday morning anyway).
But they are not really geared towards non-Greek visitors. Since I was the only visitor, I got a private tour of the cave (which is always nice), but my guide didn't really speak much English, so she read the English descriptions from a Greek phonetic text sheet. Hard to describe how it sounded like, but it seemed a bit like an early 90's text-to-speech synthesizer, with most of the pronunciations slightly off and usually without any intonation on the sentences, so she came across like some alien from outer space.
Realistically, it didn't matter much - I wanted to see the cave and not listen to the descriptions anyway. They are pretty much the same for most caves anyhow. And I also had the English info leaflet, so I could just look things up if I wanted to - but the whole thing was a bit surreal.
About a month later I was back in Greece. I didn't have much time to spare, but someone recommended visiting the Diros Cave in Peloponnese. As might be deduced from the preceding text, I'm somewhat overly critical of 'show caves' - if they are too 'developed' they sometimes feel more like a little diorama presentation in an old museum (or, even worse, something from a theme park) than a natural cave. But this one seemed worth a visit.
So I looked for a hotel in Mani (the part of the Peloponnese where the cave is located) and found a rather neat place that looked like an ancient border keep (but is in fact a 'tower houses' built in 1750, so it's not as ancient as it looks). I was a bit surprised by it, since it seem like the kind of place that acts as a resort for rock stars and oil magnates, but turned out to be a lot cheaper than my hotel room in Athens (and that wasn't an expensive place either).
But the primary destination was the cave, to which I drove next morning.
The Diros Cave (at least the one I went to - actually there are three 'Diros Caves' in the area, which are just different entrances to the same underlying cave system and cover different parts of the cave) is unusual in that most of it is flooded.
So the main way to cover most of it is by small boat.
There is an, obvious, disadvantage to this. Sitting in a boat and being ferried through the cave makes it feel even more like a theme park ride and somehow it doesn't seem quite real.
And, of course, too many pop culture references automatically spring into mind to allow to enjoy the cave just on its own sake (from ancient sagas about Styx and Charon via children puppet shows like "Kalle Wirsch" to not being able to ignore the Chris de Burgh song).
But, to be fair, there is no other way to allow visitors into the cave - and the tour is sufficiently long to relax, settle back and actually enjoy the place. (I've been on cave 'boat' tours in Hungary and New Zealand and those were more like 'get in the boat, claim that you had a boat tour in a cave, get out of the cave' situation). And since they didn't build any paved or elevated walkways, the cave is (beyond the unavoidable lamps and the possibly more avoidable orange buoyancy devices swimming everywhere) mostly untouched.
And, as a cave, it is very impressive; it has large halls, small tunnels, lots of side passages that, presumably, lead to the other entrances, all kinds of interesting formations from big pillars to tiny spaghetti stalactites. It's pretty much the cave you want a cave to look like.
Due to the way the passages wind back and forth, it's hard to tell how long the boat trip actually is. I've seen one web page that mentions 100 meters, while the sign at the entrance of the cave says 1200 meters. Given the length of the boat trip and the perceived speed, I think 1200 meters is more likely. (You are constantly moving for about 20 minutes and the speed seemed to be slow pacing speed.)
At the end of the boat trip, you arrive at a different place from where you started and then walk out of the cave. While that part is like a normal show cave, it is still quite nice, since the path is mostly rock (so nobody put in elevated metal walkways or poured concrete walks, except for a couple of stairs). And you can just walk out on your own, so you're not pushed along a group, but can just stand there, have a look and enjoy the cave - which was an unexpected bonus and, since I arrived early, it was late in the season and there weren't that many visitors there, had that part of the cave almost to myself.
So while it is somewhat arguable whether it's really worth driving about four hours from Athens Airport to Mani mainly to visit the cave and then drive back four hours, at least the cave wasn't a disappointment or too gaudy, but a lot more interesting than I had hoped for.
While I needed to be back in Athens in the evening, I had enough time to drive a somewhat indirect way, took the coastal road and had a couple of stops along the way.
I also didn't hit the toll road back to Athens at the first opportunity, but followed the smaller side roads until I came to Megalopolis. There wasn't any particular reason for going there, except that it was on the route back to Athens and the name sounded somewhat cool - like something from a superhero comic. If "Metropolis" is essentially New York, maybe "Megalopolis" could be comic name for Los Angeles.
When I got to Megalopolis, I paid a short visit to the ruins of ancient Megalopolis.
The remains of a couple of temples are freely accessible and also completely deserted, so I had the park-like historical area all to myself.
The only irritating thing is that they built a big factory or power plant right next to it, which spoils the serene atmosphere a bit.
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