Greece, part three – The Mani and volunteering in Athens

Greece, part three – The Mani and volunteering in Athens

It was October in Greece, and the sun was shining strong in the Southern part of Peloponnese. We were having the time of our lives, seeing waterfalls and beaches and beautiful mountainous areas, but all things come to an end. It was time to head north and start our journey towards Turkey. We wanted to stick to the cost, which offered less climbing and more beach camping, so we went straight to Kalamata, where we realized that our route won’t be as short as we thought.

The Mani

Once we reached the city, we had the good fortune to have a super nice family to host us through warmshowers. For my fellow sci-fi fans out there, they were hard-core Doctor Who fans, so that is a big plus in my book. 😀 They gave us insight about the olive oil production and tipped us on the farmer’s market, where we realized that Greece can actually be pretty cheap (not counting all the free food lying on the roadside of course), you just have to know where to shop. Some vegetable prices were actually pretty close to the ones we saw in the Balkans, and olives were almost free, compared to what you have to pay for them in Hungary for example (3-4 eur vs 8-10 per kilo)

The first village after we enter the Mani
Real Mediterranean feeling

Konstantinos, our host advised us to go for the Mani, the middle finger of Peloponnese. Travel guides say that if you want to have a remote, more of an untouched nature type experience this south down in Greece, then this is the place you should go to. The Mani was so remote before, that there were no roads to access the small fishing villages along the cost, only by boat, making it ideal for pirate hideouts and such. We really enjoyed riding through it; although you could already see a bit of tourism seeping in since they built the roads a few decades ago. We spent more time on beaches, swam out to a cave, discovered the biggest town called Aeropoli, and in general had a great time cycling through the coastal road, seeing a myriad of small little beaches while the way went constantly up and down. We even saw an old pirate shipwreck lying on a beach, and of course the beach café was named after it, being quite a tourist attraction.

The road to Athens and change of plans

Although it was almost in our route, we chose not to go to Sparti after leaving the finger, having heard that today, mostly the name remains and there is not much to see there anymore. Instead, we sticked to the coast as much as we could to avoid more climbing, especially since the weather changed and we wanted to get as fast to Athens as possible in this colder, rainy period. So it was only one mountain we had to get through, and as usual, we were riding along long kilometres of olive plantations and orange groves. When we finally reached Astros on the coast, it was really deserted, the cafés and beaches, surely buzzing with thousands of tourist in the summer, stood empty and served only the few fishermen hoping to catch something. Autumn finally hit us, but it was still nice temperature, and once we got to the capital, summer gave a long visit again before going away for good.

Olive plantation as far as you can see
Cute village in the mountains
You can always find a puppy, even in the middle of nowhere
The main street of Astros
Deserted beach road
Making breakfast at the beach

We thought we would just buy a few things and move on to Thessaloniki from Athens, where a package already waited for us. But we couldn’t find any hosting through warmshowers or couchsurfing (we don’t really use the latter that often anyway), and as we were getting closer to the industrial areas, it got pretty hard to find a good wild camping spot, and in the city, it is almost (but not completely, looking at the homeless situation in nearby forests) impossible to do it. As a last resort, we checked to look for some volunteer work in a hostel. We found only one suitable for us, so we didn’t really hope for anything, but we sent a message anyway. Being only half a day away from it, we were not sure what to do, but then, as we were standing between the industrial areas on the beautiful coastline, weighing our options, a miracle happened. The owner sent a positive reply in just 5 short minutes, and there you have it, we had a place to stay for weeks, completely free, breakfast included. You gotta love technology which makes these exchanges possible, I have to say.

Between Corinth and Athens
A frequent sight in Greece, miniature chapels
Our last camping before Athens in a park

Volunteering in Athens

The hostel we ended up in was called Small Funny World, and it was right in the heart of Athens, so it was more on the partying side, with loud music playing until 3-4 in the morning. But we had a bed to sleep in and in the first two weeks the owner even gave us her empty apartment a bit further out of town which was pretty awesome. Staying for free (and having a ton of free food and some extra stuff from travelers) in one of the most famous cities in the world seems hard to believe, but there you have it. So far, this was our best volunteering experience anyway, and we enjoyed our one and a half month there a lot. Being in a touristy city also had the advantage of offering a lot of vegetarian and vegan options, so we were finally able to eat out more often, but I think we went a bit overboard with the falafel (although you can never have enough of that).

A must have pic, this is actually a low amount of people
The famous Olympic stadium

In exchange, we had to do some light cleaning for around 10 to 20 hours a week, so we thought it was more than fair. We met a lot of cool people there, went to the Acropolis for free (we were there in the right period this time), and I was finally able to catch up on my running. Athens has a few huge parks right in the middle luckily, so I didn’t have to inhale all those fumes. The weather was mostly sunny and so warm that most of the times I went running in shorts and tank top, while all the locals were already dressed in winter coats. Other than checking out some historical sites and all the hills surrounding the city, I loved going to the green markets, which pops up in a different location every day, and there’s the ever constant central market as well, where you can also find the fish and meat market

Entrance of the ancient agora
Getting that room clean
Arrival day
Sunset from a hill
Enjoying the sunset with friends
Ottoman era pic in the oldest house of Athens
Seeing a tent is typical in a park at the edge of the city
The Acropolis is always the center of attraction
Found some nice graffities too
Lots of little alleys like this (except the Jackson pic, that's pretty cool too)

These markets were for the locals, offering a ton of fresh produce, and so many different greens that I barely recognized half of them. Of course you can find almost anything in bulk, from olives to grains like bulgur or lentil, and even tahini and peanut butter is available on tap at the big market. I discovered a spice shop there with around a 100 different options, so I went frequently to fill my containers. By the end of our stay, everyone knew me and my habit of buying everything in my own stuff, and I loved the shopping experience which was a cultural exchange by itself. It is also important to mention that prices are half or sometimes third of supermarket ones, especially if you go around closing time when you even get stuff for free or on a huge discount.  

Full of fresh, local produce in November
Buying a loofah is pretty easy here.. check it out for zero waste solutions
Zero waste haul was a no brainer
Olives of all kind

The decision to stay longer came from two main reasons (it helped that the environment was really relaxed and extension was as easy as writing a short text). In a long bike trip, we think it’s good to have some longer breaks to let the body regenerate a bit, and we didn’t want to get to Turkey too early. You see, we have three months there on the tourist visa, and we had to time it right. We figured we don’t want to end up in the Georgian mountains in the winter, and getting to the Pamir highway in the warmest months possible is also important (our sleeping bags are not the best for minus temperatures). When the day came to leave the city, it was already December and the super late summer finally ended. In Greece, that means the rainy season, and it was a bit of a shock to get cold rain after staying indoors for so long, but there was no turning back now, so we set out to the next part of our adventure.