Once happily reunited with Mr. Baggins in Athens, we pointed all four of our noses briefly back in the direction of Africa and headed for the absolute southernmost point of mainland Europe – the remote Mani Lighthouse on the sole of the Pelepponese Peninsula.
Crossing the narrow Corinth Isthmus, we wildcamped next to a dried-out river bed south of Tripoli before arriving, next day, at the car park of our destination. While Laura sunbathed/swam at a secluded cove, Lesley and I tramped the two kilometres along the sun-drenched path to the Lighthouse at the very cliff-end of Europe. We cooled off in celebration afterwards by rejoining Laura and swimming together in the aquamarine waters of the Ionian Sea. Wonderful!
We camped five more nights in Greece; taking in Delphi, the incredible rock-perched monasteries of Meteora, ancient Berea (near where Alexander the Great was proclaimed king in the 4th century BC) …. Our last night in Greece, just south of Philippi, we wildcamped on the beach, before heading into Bulgaria.
The beautifully scenic countries of Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia followed in rather quick succession.
Possibly the best campsite in all these countries was the family-run camp on the River Drina, one mile south of the Bosnian village of Patkovina on the M-20 road. This is the first privately-run campsite in the country since the 1992-95 Bosnian war – possibly the most devastating conflict in Europe since WW2.
The Adriatic Coastal road is a gentler, longer version of Italy’s spectacular Amalfi Coast. One evening, we pulled into a secluded, tiny seaside wharf in Croatia and wildcamped next to a German camper van and an Austrian Audi A4 roof-tenter! We swam in the Adriatic Sea, evening and morning, as an alternative shower 😁.
Exactly one year and 37,819 miles after leaving Fleetwood, we landed in northeastern Italy; on our way to a long-planned visit to Tarvisio, the outstandingly beautiful mountain village home of Alessia, a great Italian exchange student who lived with us for a year three years ago. Becky and Sam flew into Venice to join us for a long weekend altogether.
Allie, Matteo and Allie’s parents, Fluvio and Paula, gave us an incredibly warm welcome. Wonderful people 😁. We visited Lake Garda, Venice and Lake Bled in Croatia … and ate some wonderful pizzas! Our last day with our adopted Italian family was a Sunday. Our chef son, Sam, and Lesley cooked a traditional beef roast lunch for nine (complete with horseradish sauce, Yorkshire Puddings, gravy, cauliflower cheese, butter-glazed carrots, etc etc). Italy has not seen the like!
Looking back on this first part of our European journey home, if we had to wait ten days anywhere for Mr. Baggins to arrive from Alexandria, then Athens was a good place to do it. We wandered down the crowded streets and up the tucked-away alleys. We sampled moussaka, falafel, feta cheese and the Greek salads. We sauntered past the Acropolis, strolled through the gardens of the Areopagus, watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, visited the marinas of Piraeus, and ambled under Hadrian’s Arch. [Hadrian was the 14th Roman emperor and, unlike most Roman emperors, loved to travel throughout his vast empire. Perhaps he is most famous, though, for the construction of Hadrian’s Wall at the northernmost boundary of his empire – a 73-mile long wall built to keep the ‘Barbarian’ Scots at bay! Less known, maybe, is that Hadrian also built a temple to Jupiter on top of the ruins of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. The enraged Jews of Judea rebelled against Rome in what became known as Bar Kokhba’s Revolt. The ensuing war saw 580,000 Jews killed and the banning of the practice of Judaism throughout Hadrian’s empire. So devastated were Jewish communities that some historians refer to what happened as ‘genocide’. Makes one reflect on later events in European history ….]
At one point, Lesley went clothes’ shopping. Knowing this might, mysteriously, require several days, I meandered off on my own … and very usefully bought an ancient German army folding shovel of great historical antiquity from Athens’ Flea Market.
I ended up, though, espying a clerical vestments shop sitting quietly at the end of an enticingly-shadowed alleyway. The elderly husband and wife owners were charmingly welcoming and offered me chocolates. We chatted away about this and that; they gave me another chocolate for the absent Lesley … and then dropped a bombshell! “If you had been in our shop just 15 minutes ago, you would have met your Prince Charles and Camilla”. Smiling at my astonishment, they explained that C and C had, out of the blue, popped into their shop while visiting Athens that day! Imagine if just ten minutes’ earlier:- “Prince Charles, I presume?”!
Sadly, I had to eat Lesley’s chocolate – only because she was shopping so long that the fierce sun was rapidly turning the wrappered sweet in my pocket into a hot chocolate drink. I’m not sure quite how it happened, but soon afterwards Lesley emerged from the bowels of her shopping expedition; not with yet another garment, but … a small potted cactus! She never ceases to amaze me.
Athens seemed to us a somewhat religious city. We sat for hours on metros and buses, and noticed that a good number of citizens – young as well as old – would make the sign of the cross every time the bus passed a church.
Maybe this religiosity of contemporary Athenians prompted our christening of Lesley’s paragon of a cactus: Epimenides.
Epimenides, you see, was a 6th-Century BC Cretan philosopher at a time when Athens experienced a severe drought. Eventually, after much ineffective sacrificing to their many gods, Epimenides was sent for. Embarking from his ship and walking to the city, Epimenides was struck by how many altars to the gods there were. He concluded that there must be an unknown god yet to be revealed to the Athenians; so, instructed the Athenians to let loose a starving flock of sheep on Mars Hill, overlooking the city. At every place the hungry sheep didn’t graze, but simply laid down on the grass, stonemasons were to build an altar and inscribe the words, Agnosto theo – ‘to an unknown god’.
Epimenides then prayed publicly on Mars Hill: “O thou unknown god … if indeed you feel compassion to forgive and help us … reveal your willingness to respond, I plead … acknowledging our pitiful ignorance of your name”. The drought ended soon afterwards.
Six centuries on, the Christian apostle Paul was himself a tourist in Athens, waiting for colleagues to arrive. Wandering the city, he too was struck by the altars to many gods. But when he found the altar with the inscription, Agnosto theo, he also found his famous introduction to share with these religious people the good news of God, the Father of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps Epimenides continues to speak 26 centuries’ later to anyone who senses there is a loving Creator God who can apply grace to ignorance and still reach out to anyone who yearns after him. As we travel homewards from Africa through Europe, I increasingly think that Europe especially needs God’s grace. Lesley’s cactus provides, maybe, a pointed reminder of this to us 😊.
Blog #35, June 2018. Written from Germany.