Twists, turns, dead ends and a man with a four-foot snake

Getting lost in the hills of Peloponnese was all fun and games until our car quit in the middle of nowhere.

All the dead ends, narrow lanes edged with scratched walls where intrepid drivers before us had left pieces of their cars’ quarter panels, and all the landslides, manure-covered roads, goats and even a man with a four-foot snake hadn’t fazed us.

But a dead car hung up on a bridge covering a ravine well away from the so much as the tiniest of Greek villages was of more than a little concern.

We were crossing a crude bridge after taking the 3,987th wrong turn in our quest to find our way out of the mountains and back to the ocean’s edge when our Toyota Yaris sputtered, stalled and wouldn’t start. Worse, the bridge lay between two sharp rises of the road, so pushing it out of the way was going to be a challenge. Worse yet, the desolate, narrow road was experiencing a surge in traffic, and a guy and his wife on a motorbike was fast approaching with no room to pass.

Stupid us. We misread a sign, taking this goat path through a village as National Road. We broke down not far from here.

Stupid us. We misread a sign, taking this goat path through a village as National Road. We broke down not far from here.

Good for us, he got off and helped me push the car up the hill 15 feet so he could pass. Bad for us, he hopped on his motorbike with his scowling wife and took off without so much as an inquiry if we might need further help.

But no worries! I can jump start the car by rolling it down the incline.

On my first attempt, alas, poor Yaris seemed committed to making its 74,997th kilometer its last. I grunted and pushed the car back up the short rise myself, determined to spare us the displeasure of walking up the hill a mile or so to the tiny village to seek help.

Old Faithless happily started on the second try, just as a pickup truck with two Greek guys in it caromed around the bend. They stared at us as we wheeled to the side of the road, me riding the clutch to keep the engine roaring to prevent another stall. They blasted across the bridge and were gone.

We made it up the hill, through the village and even to a gas station. We filled up, but I failed to impress the attendant with my need for a hand to get our wheels back on the road. He made a beeline for the safety of his shop while I put my shoulder to the task and added another layer of sweat to my soaked t-shirt.

I must have been quite a sight. Sweating and grunting as I pushed the car, then running alongside and jumping in to slam it in gear and pop the clutch to engage the engine as it picked up a head of a steam and rolled downhill. Surely it would have been the village’s entertainment highlight of the month, if only there had been villagers on hand to witness the epic moment.

This was all just one of the challenges in our 250-plus kilometer, 9.5 hour marathon excursion through the hills of Peloponnese from Olympia to Gialova. We had told our hotel owner that a remote drive through the mountains sounded like fun. “Getting lost is the best part,” I’d said, lending understated prescience to the moment as he marked up a map with a tour through the heart of the region.

One of the breathtaking scenes from our marathon drive from Olympia to Gialova.

One of the breathtaking scenes from our marathon drive from Olympia to Gialova.

If getting lost is fun, we had a rib-tickling day of pure enjoyment. Which it mostly was, in honesty, as we wandered blindly from village to mountain peak, valley to dead end, open-mouthed by the scenery and awestruck by the remote nature and enormity of this part of the country.

It was thrilling, beautiful, desolate but occasionally a bit alarming.

At one point, I rounded the corner of a guard rail-free road as we plummeted down the side of a mountain and hit the brakes as I realized that a landslide below had caused the road to abruptly drop six inches dead ahead. The pavement was intact, but the sinkhole had created a fairly significant step in the roadway that would have made for an interesting interruption in service at anything much more than 10 mph.

A tiny church sits in a wheat field deep in the heart of the Peloponnese mountains.

A tiny church sits in a wheat field deep in the heart of the Peloponnese mountains.

We navigated safely, only to encounter a flock of goats blocking the road not far ahead. I was forewarned of their presence when the road suddenly became slick with goat dung.  To add to the fun, a dog minding the flock took after us from the underbrush along the road, chasing us through the poo and toward the edge of the cliff.

I rolled up my window and deftly steered through Mt. Manure.

Oh, we got lost, alright.

We took yet another wrong turn, following a sign in Greek that looked something like this:  &*)^%$^&) **&^ in search of a village called Neap that on a map looked as though it might lead to civilization. We eased down a hill as Gabi feverishly searched our map to find out where the hell we were.  Ahead, overgrown brush had turned the road from two to one lane. Then the surface abruptly changed to cobblestones and wound through a village of several houses. We eased down the hill, avoiding three potholes each big enough to hide the entire Greek army, and encountered a sign under an enormous olive tree that read in English: “Archaeological site of ancient well.”

What? Huh? It's all Greek to us.

What? Huh? It’s all Greek to us.

Well, there was no water in sight but the road ended there, so we turned around and headed back up the hill, carefully avoiding Pothole Canyon. Ahead, an elderly man appeared at the side of the road. He held in his right hand a four-foot snake by the tail, grinning and pausing by the side of our car to proudly display his catch. On a balcony in a house not far from the road, two elderly women laughed and clapped their hands.

It clearly was high times in town. Catching snakes can be such fun! And what a way to break up a sleepy, uneventful afternoon in GawdKnowsWhere, Greece. Seemed to us that roughly 50% of the town’s population was involved in the snake’s extraction.

All this lost and found nonsense doesn’t do justice to the drive’s beauty, however. We wound along mountain switchbacks, gazing with wonder across vast, verdant valleys and into rocky gorges below.

We stopped in a village for lunch and sat on a tiny balcony with just enough room for two, munching on sandwiches and listening to Barry White on the café’s stereo.

We were amused and frustrated by the inconsistency of Greek signage – some “bi-lingual”, as the American tourist on our flight to Athens recalled to the unfortunate seatmate who had to listen to his blather, some in Greek.

Here’s the thing about signage in this part of the world. Yes, sometimes they appear in Greek and English, sometimes with kilometers to your destination conveniently listed, though more often not.

Not helpful at all.

Not helpful at all.

Sometimes it’s just in Greek, leaving you to stare at your map and try to match destination with the corrupted spellings that tend to appear on signs. Sometimes the writing on the sign has been defaced by tape (omigod! They’ve gotten rid of Megalopolis!), or graffiti, or as we witnessed in many a case, a shotgun blast.

Typical sign, in Greek and English, but partly obliterated to make things more challenging.

Typical sign, in Greek and English, but partly obliterated to make things more challenging.

Occasionally there is nothing at all on the signs, or the relevant part has been obliterated or removed entirely.

It adds to the challenge, the confusion and the head-scratching wonder of this place.

We rode at times back and forth along dead-ended roads past bemused villagers who watched us as though witnessing the world’s slowest tennis match: “Look, Vlassos, there they go again!”

I watched the gas gauge miserably as it fell below one-quarter tank, yearning as much for a gas station as for the road leading to the beach. A path to the ocean side highway would complete our exodus and show us the way to the ocean and then, south to Gialova.

Rising across yet another peak, I said to Gabi, “How cool would it be if there, in the distance, we could see the ocean?”

And there it was, just beyond the next mountain range, surely not more than a 20 minute drive. At last, our road from perdition.

Two hours later, we had jump started the car and were on our way, engine racing as I rode the clutch past yet another group of villagers sipping coffee and looking on in amazement. We arrived back at our place just after 8:30, too late to return the heap to the car rental office in Kalamata.

So today’s agenda is simple. Get rid of the Yaris at the Kalamata airport Hertz depot. And stick to the main roads on the way.