BRINDISI TO ATHENS
I think we saw Greece as a bit of a hop, skip and a jump before reaching Turkey. We didn’t have any great plans for this stretch of the journey and in our pre-country language training were finding Greek words and spellings baffling. As we weren’t planning to visit any of the well known attractions we just thought we would get our heads down and go.
How wrong we were to feel like that. Greece has been one big friendly smile and we have seen beautiful sights, cycled along some smooth and lovely roads, eaten wonderful food, met some very nice people and generally had a great time.
We said goodbye to Italy and after a heart pounding journey along the coast with a full on headwind we fell onto the boat in Brindisi and 8 hours later cycled into a very quiet Igoumenista on the west coast of mainland Greece, just below the Albanian border. The following day we cycled south with Corfu just an arm stretch away to our right.
We passed through quiet villages and the road was smooth and almost traffic free.
We came across Nekromenteoin, an eerie place which we explored on our own on a grey, cold day. It was a temple devoted to the dead and where people came to talk to their dead ancestors. The site is meant to be the door to Hades which puzzled us as they must have assumed their ancestors had been naughty and gone to hell rather than heaven. I think there were quite a lot of narcotics involved in the ceremonies which might explain the confusion.
On leaving, we entered our own version of hell as the wind and rain gods punished us for some crime that we weren’t even aware of committing. Maybe it was that extra ice cream we had on our last day in Italy. The rain dashed into our faces and the cycling wasn’t easy.
At the end of the day feeling rather soggy and dispirited we thought we would find a hotel and headed for the nearest town. There were just two hotels, both of which were rather posh and anyway didn’t have anywhere to store our bikes. We headed away feeling rather sorry for ourselves, thinking those rain gods were taking things a little too far. We arrived on the beach and there we met Palm Tree. Maybe it was the result of rain bashing against our heads all day but that Palm spoke to us and both of us heard it. It said “come and pitch your tent next to me and I shall shelter you from this horrendous wind and rain and keep you safe and dry all night”. So we did and it did. As soon as we got into the tent thunder and lightening began and the wind roared but we were safe and sound under the protecting Palm fronds and slept soundly. Who needs a hotel when you have a friendly palm tree?
The next day we woke to bright sunshine, gave Palm a goodbye hug and headed to the tunnel which would take us across and under an estuary. We had no concerns about the tunnel other than they are not very pleasant to cycle through but it was just 1km long and we’d soon be through. Or so we thought. We were just about to enter the tunnel when a red traffic light demanded we stop and then a voice with no body and sounding very “Big Brother” told us bicycles were not allowed through the tunnel. We were stunned because if we couldn’t go through we would have a 100 km detour through the mountains. The voice repeated it’s message sounding very stern so we stepped to one side to allow the accumulating traffic to pass us. We did contemplate a tunnel dash but decided that time in a Greek jail might not be fun and had almost resigned ourselves to a couple of days extra mileage when a very nice man in a big yellow van stopped , heaved our bikes into the back and took us and them through to the other side in a matter of minutes. This is the first time the bikes have been carried along a road since we left home and I think they quite enjoyed it.
After continuing down the coast for a few days we decided to head into the hills. Often coastlines can seem over developed. Everyone wants to live and be by the sea, the roads are busy, it is built up and crowded and we needed a break. We saw a very tempting road and took it and immediately felt more relaxed. Gone were the sleek motor cars which were now replaced with beaten up old pick ups splattered in mud. Friendly waves from the farmers cheered us and the scenery and cycling were lovely.
We entered one town at dusk and seemed to cause quite a stir. Everyone was out and about in the bars and cafes and watched as we cycled by, nudging, pointing, laughing, beckoning us in. We went into one bar and a schoolboy was asked to come and translate. Are there any B and B’s in the town, we asked. No, no, no they replied with smiles and laughter. Anywhere we could put our tent? No, no, no with more laughter. We laughed too. Isn’t life fun especially when you have nowhere to sleep? They were still smiling and being terribly nice and helpful in an unhelpful sort of a way as we remounted our bikes and cycled away waving regally and trying to maintain our dignity. After half an hour we found a beautiful spot, flat and surrounded by bushes so all was well.
The towns seemed poorer up in the hills. We stopped at one village looking for some breakfast and were approached by Filitas who said there was no food shop but he opened his closed cafe for us, made us a sandwich and refused any payment. He was intrigued as to what we were doing there and asked why we were there, repeating the question twice and pointing to the ground as if to say , why here of all places? He had a point. The day was grey and cold and the town was crumbling and sad. Filitas had 3 daughters and he worried for their future. Life was expensive and wages low. His cafe wasn’t earning enough but there were few employment opportunities for him. We waved goodbye to Filitas feeling rather sad for him and his family.
Onwards towards Patras and the beautiful Rio Antirio bridge over the Gulf of Corinth.
We couldn’t work out how to get onto the bridge so took yet another ferry and in 10 minutes were on the other side of the water.
This was the final stretch to Athens and once again we found ourselves following a motorway. Roads appear to be the one thing that we seem to need more, rather than less of and it seems that no expense is spared even where the economy is in such a dire state.
We knew that there was a public holiday coming up. This was Shrove Monday and the start of Lent in the Greek Orthodox Church. The aim is to make as much noise, and have as much fun as you can before giving up nice things for 6 weeks. We cycled through towns that had loud speakers on every corner blasting out pop music so loud that it hurt our ears. We came across a carnival parade in one town and stayed to watch the fun.
We have at last begun to meet other travellers. We met the amazing Alex and Caroline and their two gorgeous Alaskan dogs who have walked and ferried from Germany. They were so cheerful and optimistic, have no particular destination in mind and are looking for a place that attracts them and where they can stay and live.
We have also met Jamie and Karen from Canada who set off from London round about the same time as we left home. Their route has been very similar to ours and they are going to China! We met them in Athens when we stayed with our Warm Showers host Filipas who is the most amazing, generous hearted person who it seems can never turn anybody away. Jamie and Karen were there along with Juliette and Nicholas from France who have been cycle touring with their two young children Lucien (4) and Leona (2). What an amazing family and they have cycled through Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US and Cuba. They were stuck in Athens waiting 6 days for their bikes to turn up as the airline had lost them. They were so calm!
We have eaten lovely food, some of it sweet and sticky , a lot of it greasy and filling, lovely cheeses and the most amazing yoghurt.
Athens was huge and we didn’t stay long, neither of us being a fan of big cities. We did however stay long enough to meet the amazing Vangelis Pappas who owns a bike shop – Action 3, that specialises in Brompton bikes and Thorns. He is also an expert on the Rohloff Hub and we visited him for an oil change. It was like entering a doctor’s surgery as Vangelis donned his apron and laid out his tools and talked reassuringly to us as if he was calming anxious parents before he set to with the operation. He declared the bikes fit and well and ready for another 5000 km.
We visited the Acropolis of course and wandered the streets of this amazing, dense and vibrant city.
We are now on our way to Turkey via the Island of Kos where we will spend a few days girding our loins, before leaving Europe and slicing off another piece of that poor elephant.
Prosperity. We left southern Italy from Brindisi and for the first time chose a day time crossing. Well actually the night-time boat, with a cabin, was ridiculously expensive so we booked a little hotel in Greece for when we arrived. Just writing that last sentence – we booked a little hotel in Greece – I have to pinch myself from time to time to remind myself that this is all real. The crossing was not too boring really. We sat, we read, we dozed, we ate an indifferent, overpriced meal surrounded by truck drivers. It was fine.
We found our little hotel, received a warm friendly welcome, put the bikes to bed and very quickly followed them ourselves. Cycling out of Igoumenitsa in the morning it became quickly apparent that prosperity had jumped over night. Breakfast moved up 5 notches from a sweet croissant and cold coffee, to bacon and eggs and some scrumptious yoghurt with a sweet quince and walnut sauce. People were shopping and drinking coffee in the cafes and were smartly dressed. In fact I wondered if I could devise a scale of prosperity that ran from holes in jeans caused by wear and tear at one end to holes in jeans made in the factory at the other end.
Scales. Speaking of scales I’ve definitely decided that there is a scale of roads. There’s a P road which is a road you can more or less make pee pee anywhere, to a C road where you can have a conversation side by side and an F road where you just have to follow one another. I suppose for completeness there could be an M road at one end of the scale for the motorway which cycled onto by mistake and at the other end an R road which would be the river bed which our over optimistic map on the computer took us along.
The joys of out-of-season travel. I think that on balance they are mostly joys. Right now we’re sat on a ferry heading for Kos (our stepping stone to Turkey) and we’ve got this whole deck to ourselves. There are no insects – nothing to bash into your face when you’re cycling and none to storm the tent everytime you open the door. No snakes. They are all fast asleep for a few months yet I hope. And no extreme heat. The sunshine at the moment is perfect 14 – 18 degrees, warm and sunny. We do still have to go to bed at 1900 because it’s dark. That’s no real hardship. Certainly in some areas everything is closed and the beaches look a little forlorn but we’ve camped in some places that I’m sure we wouldn’t get away with in high season.
Thank you for all the comments that are sent to this blog and please forgive us for not responding to each one. We’ve read, re-read and read again. We love receiving them and they are an enormous boost to our confidence and help us to feel less alone in what sometimes seems like a bit of a bonkers journey. One Greek man came marching towards us recently and asked ” how old are you?” It was as if he was saying that really we shouldn’t be doing what we are doing and should be at home doing whatever it is that 63 and 65 year old people are meant to do. But he gave us a big thumbs up! We feel amazingly privileged to be doing this journey and to know that friends and family are supporting us so thank you again. Much love Chris and Pete xx