Things had changed while we were on Paros and I don’t just mean the tyres on the bike. Greece now has a brand new government and many people are half joking about the possible return of the Drachma to replace the unpopular Euro.
It’s impossible to speak to anyone here for more than 5 minutes before the discussion turns to politics and who can blame them for wanting to try a new tack. We’ve heard stories of huge property taxes on existing homes, 50% unemployment in some areas, retrospective taxes on income earned years ago and pensions being halved leaving people in their 80’s having to grow their own food to survive. Whether Tsipras and his new coalition have the answers to countless problems remains to be seen but the weight of expectation is enormous.
Our changes were a bit smaller. In our quest to try every model in the Schwalbe tyre range we’ve now fitted Marathon Plus Tour, reputed to be ‘unpuncturable’. We’ve had great service from our kit suppliers with Trekit (on behalf of Exped), Portapow, Power Traveller and Leatherman all replacing under warranty equipment that was playing up. Pleasingly, the new Leatherman penknife is purple. After all the issues at the end of last year I’ve rebuilt the rear hub with new cones and bearings having found what could be the last spare parts in the UK for our 14 year old ‘vintage model’. Luckily there were 2 sets available so we have 1 as a spare in case we have problems again but I’ll keep a closer eye on it this time.
The temptation to stay on Paros longer was tugging at us but with everything packed back into its rightful place on the bike we manage to roll away from Jim and Irini’s house and down to Parikia to catch the boat back to Pireaus. We couldn’t have asked for better hosts and they, along with all the animals will be sorely missed. On the animal front, Mississippi made good inroads into being accepted into the family, albeit only with outside privileges (for now). Unfortunately Paco the dog was being sent to the local animal sanctuary to be re-homed due to the imminent arrival of two more rescue dogs. We would have loved to have taken him with us but we’re not sure he would have liked Turkish food. But if you can give him a new home then get in touch with PAWS (http://paws.parosweb.com/) who send stray animals all over Europe. It would be great to see a happy ending for Paco.
The overnight boat deposits us bleary eyed in Pireaus at 5am. Rolling off with us is Georg an Austrian cyclist who has just completed his first tour through Italy and Greece on the advice from his doctor that he needed to lose weight. He’s had great fun and already planning something longer so could well be chasing us to New Zeappearance. ( https://m.facebook.com/pages/Ich-bin-dann-mal-weg/1548861935349607?ref=hl)
I love riding into the dawn and soon the sky begins to get lighter before the sun eventually makes an appearance. We make good progress out of Athens helped by it being early enough for most people to still be in bed. There is an incident with a closed road forcing us onto a pavement and colliding with an orange tree leaving Kirsty with a bruised leg and me with a guilty conscience. I try to remember to recalibrate the width I need for the bike now the panniers are back on.
There are plenty of hills to test our rested legs on but the bike appears to be much heavier and slower than last time we tried to climb on it. It must be the bag of almonds that Irini sent us off with. To help lighten the load we stop to cook porridge in a layby and get told not to start a forest fire by a concerned cafe owner.
By lunchtime we’re in Thiva and while stopping to consider bakery options we meet Anson, a cyclist from Hong Kong. He’s already ridden from Cape Town to Cairo and has just arrived in Greece to continue up into Europe then across Asia back home. He has Afghanistan and Pakistan on his itinerary so is both braver than us and presumably more persuasive when it comes to obtaining visas. We promise to keep in touch from time to time via his Facebook page – The Answer is Out There.
The early start is taking its toll by the afternoon and at one point I’m sure I hear snoring from my sleepy stoker. But we make it 30km from Thiva into the middle of an enormous plain with tractors busy working away in all directions.
While eyeing up a suitable camping spot in the corner of a field a pick-up pulls alongside and the driver asks if we need help. After telling us to camp anywhere as no one will mind he drives off only to return a few minutes later to dispense some historical facts about the area. Apparently the plain used to be a lake but 150 years ago ‘…an Englishman came along and dug a tunnel into the mountain and took the water…’. So we spend our first night camping at the bottom of a lake and are back to deciding how many layers of clothes to put on before climbing into bed instead of which setting to put the electric blanket on.
There’s more flat riding in the morning before we reach the edge of the plain and have to climb back onto ‘dry’ land again. And up we go for several km on a warm sunny day that makes us glad to be back in the saddles.
Once over the ridge we get views down to the coast again and in the distance our destination for the day, the island of Evia.
This of course means another ferry but after a rapid descent we arrive at the harbour of Arkitsa 30 mins too late so have to make do with a leisurely lunch in the sunshine while waiting an hour for the next one.
The plan is to land on Evia then ride the 10km to the other side where we can catch another ferry back to the mainland. This corner cutting exercise should save 100km or so compared to just staying on the mainland and takes us into some more scenic countryside. There’s an hour between the first ferry landing and the second one leaving which should be plenty to cover the distance but as soon as we bump off the ramp of the first ferry I can feel that something isn’t right. It’s a flat on one of our unpuncturable tyres. Hastily squeezing air back into it we hope that it’s slow enough not to go down before we get to the second ferry but it needs topping up another 3 times on the way. We make it with what we think is only a few minutes to spare only to find that the timetable changes each week and in fact it won’t leave for another hour.
As it’s getting late we decide to stay on Evia for the night and find a piece of waste ground to begin pitching the tent and replacing the inner tube. The flat tyre has actually been caused by a patch that has come unstuck from a previous repair rather than a puncture so the Marathon Plus Tour’s retain their unpuncturable title, for now.
While unpacking our kit an old man calls us over and asks what we’re up to. After miming our explanation he tells us to pack up again and follow him. We’re not sure if we’re in trouble or if he wants to help but follow him anyway. He lives just up the road and says we can camp in his garden where it will be safer. His huge Alsatian should keep an eye on things for us and we have a great spot securely behind his gate. He even brings some fresh water for us to use for dinner.
The Alsatian is a bit too effective by barking at us for trying to take our own bike in the morning but we manage to get away with it and catch the early ferry back to the mainland. We ride through more rolling farming country where almost everyone drives a pick up truck. After a winding climb at a comfortable 5% gradient we drop onto another huge plain and a rare thing occurs: the wind is actually behind us! We barrel along nicely feeling like we have super strong legs.
But it can’t last for long and with another ridge to climb over it begins to rain and then we turn West while the wind turns to hit us from the side.
The last 40km into Larissa are unsheltered so we get buffeted by the cross wind and by the huge trucks speeding past. But 10km from Larissa we have a short break when we spot Eric and Charlotte, a French couple riding in the opposite direction. While we chat and exchange blog addresses the wind seems to drop (www.plqa.fr). We hope to see them again in Cappadocia or on the silk road so we wave an ‘Au Revoir’ and have a nice final spin into Larissa.
Our couch surfing host Panagiotis welcomes us into his flat but after a shower we’re off out again as he’s invited us to join him at a swing dancing lesson. We’re clearly out of our depth as everyone around us spins and bobs in perfect time so we spend most of the time practising the basics in the corner.
Our talents seem to be stronger in the simple movement of legs going round and round and in the morning we get to demonstrate the fine art of tandem riding to Panagiotis as he has offered to guide us for the day. He’s a keen Audax rider so jumps at the chance to spend a day in the saddle and takes off with all the enthusiasm that riding a lightweight, unladen bike deserves.
We spend most of the day chasing due to our slightly more cumbersome steed but it’s a great route that he leads us on with views of Mount Olympus from several angles, a lovely swooping road along the coast and then the final stretch over expansive marshlands.
Here, housing is prohibited without a licence but this is largely ignored as there are plenty of holiday homes, including one belonging to the mayor of Larissa. The road we follow was funded and built solely for bikes but is conveniently wide enough for two cars to pass.
As we near the end of the day Panagiotis’ engine seems to be running low on gas and admitting he feels ‘a bit tired’ he drops behind us and we provide a strong tow like only a touring tandem can. However he does have a swing dancing party to get to so he may be saving his energy for that. We wave goodbye so he can catch a train home while we set up camp by the beach behind a hotel’s tennis court with the gods on Olympus keeping an eye on us.
Thessaloniki sits in a huge estuary with three major rivers pouring into the Aegean sea. Cars have been well provided for with a motorway following the direct route round the coast from the south but bikes have to come inland by 20km to get to a suitable bridge to get across the first river. We have a cunning plan though to avoid the extra distance.
We approach the motorway with the intention of riding the 4km on the hard shoulder to get across the river then back onto minor roads on the other side. But there’s a problem: All our maps, both paper and electronic show a junction where we’re standing but in fact it’s not been built yet. They’ve made a start but seem to have abandoned the idea leaving half a slip road and no bridge to the other carriageway. Time for plan B.
Kirsty had spotted another bridge on a very minor road not far away so we make our way towards that. While stopping to consult the map our nostrils detect the unmistakable aroma of meat being cooked on charcoal. The man in charge of the BBQ spots us and can obviously tell we’re peckish as he invites us over. But before we get to sample the burgers he offers us some of his homemade ouzo. It’s not bad but the burgers are better. We eventually leave after asking about the bridge we’re trying to find and he points us in the right direction then hands us a bottle with more ouzo for the journey.
The road becomes a track and before long we find the crossing. It’s an old railway bridge that spans a fast flowing river in full spate and by the looks of things it’s not carried any sort of traffic for several decades. There is an attempt at a walkway in the form of rows of 3 sleepers running the length of the bridge on each side and these are laid on widely spaced cross struts that leave a 30cm open gap down to the torrent below. It’s not rideable.
I carefully lift the bike up onto the sleepers and begin inching my way across. Occasionally some of the sleepers have rotted away and I have to balance on the same one as the bike, tightrope style. There’s also some carrying of the bike from one side to the other when all the sleepers on my side have collapsed.
After a precarious 50 mins the bike and I have safely negotiated the 100m bridge and 10 mins later Kirsty makes it back onto terra firma too. No doubt the 16km detour would have been quicker but where’s the fun in that?
After the bridge a muddy track spits us out into a motorway service station where we get plenty of confused looks while wolfing down a baguette. Then we’re back out onto a proper road for what should be a straightforward run into Thessaloniki.
And it is, apart from the road we want being flooded and requiring some extra km to get across the next river.
Finally we make it to the home of our host, Georgios which is in fact an office block and is his temporary accommodation as he’s ‘between houses’. He coordinates the EuroVelo routes that pass through Greece along with various other cycling initiatives so is hoping that the new government will find more money for cycle infrastructure. We suggest a bike path into Thessaloniki that uses the old railway line as a good starting point. We’re very pleased when he presents us with a large map showing all the EuroVelo routes as these are surprisingly rare.
We don’t stay at the office for long though as Georgios has to catch a late train to Athens for a meeting, a 7 hour trip to cover the distance that has taken us 5 days to ride. So we’re whisked across to the home of his friend, also called Georgios who has kindly offered to host us instead. On the way the first Georgios points out the roadworks for the metro system that they have spent 4 years trying to build. But each time they dig they find ancient artifacts which complicates things. The same happened in Athens and there each station is a mini museum showing some of the items that they found.
The weather forecast looks to be cold and snowy so the plan is to spend 2 nights in Thessaloniki before continuing on east with the hope the snow won’t last for long. This gives us a chance to pay a visit to Georgios’ (the 2nd one) shop, Action Bikes, and have a stroll round the city.
It’s been a great return to life on the road and just the kind of week we needed to get us fired up for the next stage of the journey. Just a few days left of Greece… and of Europe.