Thessaloniki to Istanbul

There are some cycling records that are truly remarkable feats of human endurance. The round the year award which is to cover as much distance as possible over the course of a 12 month period is probably the most impressive. The current record was set by Tommy Goodwın in 1938 when he rode a staggering 75,065 miles in one year, an average of 205 miles per day. 3 men are vying to better that this year including Steve Abraham who I had the pleasure of riding part of the Mille Cymru with in 2014 and I can only wish him the best of luck for this huge commitment. Incidentally the ladies record of just over 30,000 miles (average of 81 per day) remains uncontested since it was set by Billie Flemming in 1938. Perhaps its time for someone to have a go at this one too?

Taking 6 months to get across Europe isn’t exactly a new world record (last year a friend did it in 2 weeks) but it is a personal milestone for us that we have to admit we’re quite proud of. We’ve also crossed the 10,000km mark without realising. It turns out the trip computer had been calibrated for smaller tyres so had been underestimating our distance and speed by 4% each day sınce the beginning of the trip. This all adds up so we’d covered 400km more than we thought we had! Steve Abraham will cover this distance every 33 days throughout the year.

The White Tower, Thessaloniki

Our snow day in Thessaloniki starts with a spin across the city to Georgios’ shop, Action Bikes. On the way a car pulls alongside while we ride and the passenger insists on giving Kirsty a pair of gloves shouting “Take them, TAKE THEM!”.

Georgios has managed to find a new freehub, the one remaining part İ wanted to replace on the rear hub making it effectively now all brand new. His father, Costas, used to turn spanners for the Greek national cycling team so goes about the task of fitting the part and giving the bike a thorough service with a meticulous eye.

Costas the master mechanic

The Action Bike team

We try and arrange meeting up with a walking tour guide later in the day but they send us the wrong location for the rendez-vous so we end up standing around in the cold on opposite sides of the town. Instead of the tour we head back to Georgios’ office (the first one) where his partner Eleni shows us to our accommodation for the night: the floor of the board room.

Camping on the board room floor

On our way out of Thessaloniki the next day we pay another visit to Action Bikes to pick up a new Ortlieb rack bag that Georgios sells us at a price we can’t refuse.  We have been contemplating buying one of these for several months as, with a bit of rear end reorganisation, it should give us a bit more capacity for when we need to carry more than 1 or 2 days worth of food and water. Georgios sends us off with some recommendations for our route east and also the number for a friend who lives in a village along the way who he suggests we visit.

The posh new bıscuit carrier

..with easy access to our supplıes

 

We’ve been sent on the hilly but quieter route and pass through the appropriately named Panorama that gives great views back down to the city. There’s still plenty of snow high on the hills all around us but it’s a cloudless bright day. Over the top we get to see a range of much bigger mountains over the border into Bulgaria as well as the lakes that we drop down to follow for the afternoon.

Panoramic view of Thessaloniki

Up to the snowline

Snowy Shrine

Bulgarian mountains in the distance

İncoming!

By the evening we’ve made it to the coast at the north east tip of Poseıdon’s Trident: Halkidiki. The forecast is for subzero temperatures overnight so we’re keen to find some shelter if we can but there are no cosy churches in sight along the sea front at Vrasna. We stop to ask someone if we can camp in an olive orchard on the basis that he has a scarecrow on a bike in his front garden so must be cyclist friendly. While he’s trying to direct us to a campsite (that will definitely be closed), his wife comes out and invites us in for coffee.  Their wood burning stove, fresh coffee and even fresher roxakia cakes, a traditional Macedonian delicacy, are all very much appreciated and bring some warmth back into our toes. Ah yes, this is the Greek region of Macedonia and the reason why the country that sıts to the North West has to be called FYROM.

Tiny cyclist on rocking chair

While we enjoy the coffee and cakes their Dutch neighbours are brought round to translate so we explain what we’e doing on a bike on a freezing February evening. Before long we’ve been invited to make use of a carpentry workshop just round the corner, and the owner, Vassilis, sets to work sweeping the floor and loading up a huge stove with broken pallets. It soon becomes very warm and inviting and we’re left to set up our beds and use the huge band saw as a dining table.

Dinner in the carpentry workshop

Vassilis brings us fresh bread in the morning then sends us on our way back following the coast to the east. Its cold but clear and when we get the chance we turn up towards the mountains to generate a bit more heat with some climbing.

The lion of Amfipoli from 4th Century BC

Riding towards the mountains near Mesropi

Standard chicken selfıe

A kind cafe owner refuses payment for our coffees at the top of the hill, then we drop down to the coastal town of Kavala. Here we get chatting to the owners of a small kiosk while we try to buy some stamps for some nieces’ birthday cards and get another complimentary coffee and a big bottle of water. This side of Greece seems to be much friendlier than the west, possibly as it sees fewer tourists but also maybe because we’re getting further east.

Spring blossom above Kavala

Kind kiosk owners in Kavala

The mercury is set to plunge again overnight so once we’ve found a nice spot on a clifftop looking back to Kavala we get a small fire going and sip some of the ouzo we were given before pulling on all our clothes and diving into the tent

The aquaduct in Kavala

Cliff top camping near Kavala

Sophia and Antonis, the friends that Georgios had recommended we visit, live in a small village on the banks of the river Nestos which is where we’re heading the next day. The factor that convinced us to call in is that Sophia runs a small bakery, so when we arrive in Toxotes we head straight there and begin choosing from her range of delicious pastries. It happens to be the first day of a carnival season that runs up to Easter so to celebrate there will be some festivities later that afternoon and Sophia tells us we’re welcome to attend.

There’s time for a coffee and to tuck into the pastries before we join Sophia at her house then walk down to the village hall where a BBQ has been loaded up with souvlaki and meatballs. With loaded plates and cups of wine we get introduced to some of the other villagers while the local priest fires up a pair of turntables to try and instigate some dancing.

Souvlaki and wine!

The children are all dressed in various costumes and Sophia’s daughter Eva has come as a leopard. We get to watch a puppet show in Greek that we think involves a witch, a river and a judge that is actually a love story. Afterwards there’s sack racing, more music from DJ Dog Collar and then we retire to the house of some friends of Sophia and Antoni’s for another BBQ and homemade tspirou. Strong stuff!

Puppet show

Lunging for the line in the sack race

Home baking and home brew

The couple who put on the puppet show, Miltos and Sozo have given up life in Athens to set up a farm in the mountains and suggest that this is something more people should be doing. It’s a surprisingly popular dream amongst people we’ve met all through Europe with a common desire to become more self sufficient.

Sophia and Antonis kindly offer to let us stay for the night to avoid having to pitch the tent so we’re grateful for another warm bed. We’d only originally intended to stop to buy food!

Sophia and Antonis

In the morning we call into the bakery again to load up the Ortlieb bag with fresh supplies for the day then wave goodbye before rejoining Route 2 eastwards.

After 20km we spot a sign for thermal springs at Loutra Potamias so decide to take a look. We find a steaming hot ditch full of water with a small bath house alongside that the proprietor lets us dip into in return for one of Sophia’s biscuits.

Hot springs at Potamias

Hot springs at Potamias

A collapsed bridge forces us to push through a stream to get back onto the main road again and then we come alongside Lake Vistonida. It’s a prime spot for bird watchers, but even with our limited ornithological knowledge we can recognise the flocks of flamingos all on one leg, then later a dozen or so pelicans.

Short cut at Potamias

Flamingos at Lake Vistonida

Lake Vistonida

Pelıcans on lake Vistonida

More Flamingos at Lake Vistonida

After lunch we venture onto another shortcut that takes us onto a minor road beside cotton fields. As with previous shortcuts it presents the odd challenge with 3 or 4 fords to negotiate and one that requires shoes and socks to come off and we get cold toes.

Cotton fields near Komotini

Cold feet (Mum)ford

The landscape is changing with rolling plains and bigger gaps between basic villages. We’re also seeing more mosques than churches as this region was formerly Turkish and retains a large Muslim population.

Spot the photographer

We set up camp next to the remains of the Via Egnatia, a Roman road that linked Rome to Istanbul and crosses from Albania through Greece into Turkey. There’s enough of it left to invoke images of chariots making a similar journey to ours 2100 years ago but we’re glad to have nice smooth tarmac instead of cobbles.

Our last campsite in Greece, near Mesti

Mesti

The Via Egnatia

We’re woken just before dawn by the ezan sounding out from the mosque in a village below us then the sound of barking. A pack of 7 or 8 dogs have decided they don’t like the look of our tent, and they like the head that pops out of it even less. They soon get bored though and leave us to enjoy our last breakfast in Greece.

We climb over a ridge then swoop down to the coast again into Alexandroupolis. Here we pay an emotional visit to what could be the last Lidl in Europe so stock up on some of our favourite biscuits and sheep’s milk yoghurt.

Plain near Mesti

We need to print out our Turkish visas before we reach the border and look for possible options while riding down the high street. A computer printer shop seems suitably equipped and is more than happy to oblige.

But at the border our freshly printed visas aren’t even checked and after visiting 5 different men behind 5 different windows we’re through and into our first new country for over 2 months. As is often the case with roads leading away from borders, there is a large dual carriageway with barely any traffic due to the natural throttling effect of the passport control. Also typical of roads in and out of a border are the number of petrol stations. İt’s as if drivers are being told that this is their last chance to fill up with good quality Greek/Turkish fuel before crossing into the unknown.

Country #24

After 20km we’re still 15km from the nearest supermarket and the light is fading fast, so we stop at a petrol station with restaurant attached and ask if we can camp behind it on the basis we’ll be buying our dinner from them. This seems to be a popular tactic with most cycle tourists passing through Turkey as there is almost always a nice picnic area beside each service station. So the answer comes back “Of course, but we have a hotel here too!” but we politely decline and pitch the tent then enjoy a romantic valentines meal in the empty restaurant, huddled round the only heater in the room.

Do we need a reservation?

As well as the picnic area the service station has a coop full of chickens and a peacock and also a mini mosque so we get the combined cry of cockerels and ezan to rouse us in the morning.

Standard Turkey selfie

We have a windy and hilly day on a road that reminds us of a similar stretch in Finland. Curiously this is the D110 and the road in Finland was also the 110 so this is clearly a number saved for tedious roadways. The day is brightened a couple of times by some complementary çay when we stop for a breather at a cafe and later a service station.

The picturesque D110 into Turkey

By the afternoon a heavy drizzle has set in so we’re thankful that we have a reply from a Warmshowers host in Tekirdağ offering us a place to stay. But there are some complications. Zafer won’t be home until 11pm so has suggested we go to stay with another friend until he gets back. While we’re sat in a cafe trying to arrange this, another email arrives from Serpil saying we can stay with her, so to save rushing around town in the middle of the night we accept Serpil’s offer and send our apologies to Zafer. He doesn’t mind as Serpil is one of his friends too!

The D110 ın Tekirdağ

Serpil’s flat is at the top of a very steep hill but once we arrive and catch our breath she, along with her daughter Ada and cat Bleu Orage make us feel at home allowing us to dry out and warm up again. Although she’s not a cyclist Serpil loves travelling and loves hosting travellers just as much. It seems a shame that she’s never been to Greece despite it being so close though but the EU Schengen visa is prohibitively expensive for her. We should be very grateful for how easy it is to travel as a UK citizen.

In the morning Zafer makes a surprise visit so we get to thank him in person for trying to help us. He offers us a generous gift of a kilo of chocolates which should require roughly the same number of calories to haul them up the hills as we get from eating them.

Zefar and Serpil

Back on the D110 its a similar ride to the day before only the traffic begins to get heavier as we get nearer to Istanbul. At the risk of sounding like a broken record the wind is of course blowing in an againsterly direction so we’re keen to find shelter when it gets to lunchtime. While standing out of the gale behind a closed supermarket, a couple of securıty guards spot us and invite us into their cabin to offer us some sort of fruit drink that tastes fantastic. The four bar heater is a welcome sight too and there’s a rısk we’ll not be able to extract ourselves and get back on the bike. But we just about manage it and just in time for the rain to start again.

1kg of chocs

The D110 becomes the notorious D100 at Silivri and the change of number only seems to increase the volume of traffic. Inevitably a city of 15 million people sat on a land bridge between two continents creates a mighty bottle neck that has to be served by some major infrastructure. The subject of how to ride into Istanbul without perishing is the subject of dozens of blog posts and Internet articles with many reaching the conclusion that the best plan is to use the train. Minor roads are few and fiddly and cycle paths start to appear nearer the city centre but for now we have to just grin and bear it on the hard shoulder, which is thankfully wide enough to keep us away from the trucks speeding past.

At the top of a long, soggy climb ınto Büyükçekmece and with energy levels low after a tough day we pull into a service station to check for emails. We’d sent 2 last minute Warmshowers requests and were praying that one of them had been accepted but unfortunately both of them had to decline. The garage staff take us into their office and serve us çay while we check for nearby hotels on Bookıng.com. 15 mınutes later we’re checked in, muddy panniers are chucked in the shower and its a relief to lie down in a warm and quiet room after all the noise, fumes, cold, rain and hills.

It was colder than we thought outside as in the morning there’s a compete white-out. A few centimetres of snow has fallen and its beginning to snow again when we set off which should make the D100 even more interesting.

Snowy start to the day in Büyükçekmece

Slidıig cars in Büyükçekmece

Snowy start ın Büyükçekmece

Luckily the road is well gritted and the weather is slowing the traffic down to a speed not much greater than ours. I position the bike right in the middle of the lane to prevent any unwanted overtaking manoeuvres and we seem to be getting plenty of space from all the drivers. Most of them quite rightly think we’re mad being out in this weather and a few wind down their windows to tell us exactly that, but with plenty of smiles and waves of encouragement.  The snow is falling heavily again and after a long downhill from the hotel the front of the bike is coated like a giant coconut cake and I have to prevent total snow blindness by wiping my glasses every 30 seconds.

Snow and traffic and snow on the D100 into İstanbul

Stoker’s eye view during a blizzard

Snow capped bar bag

Eventually we get to turn off the main road and pick our way through side streets crammed full of shops selling anything and everything and with the aromas of all sorts of interesting smelling foods wafting out of doorways.

We arrive at the tall apartment block that the Garmın tells us belongs to our host, Erdınç but the entry code we’ve been given doesn’t seem to work. Nor does the doorbell and he’s not answering his phone. Cold and wet and standing in the foyer we contemplate our options but just as we’re trying to explain our situation to someone living in the block Erdinç calls back and asks where we are. We’re not outside his flat that’s for sure as that is where he is calling from, so we hand the phone to a bemused cleanıng lady who has been watching us and she describes to Erdınç our location. While we wait for Erdinç to rescue us we get given an orange by the cleaning lady and offered çay by a security guard. We were actually a 10 minute walk from the correct apartment block so not too far out.

So now we’re finally in Istanbul, gateway to the east  and with a vast city to explore. Only we’ve been housebound for the last 2 days. The snow continued to fall heavily and there’s at least 50cm filling up the balcony and covering cars and the surrounding roads. Flights have been cancelled and there were 800 reported traffic accidents on Tuesday so we have to be very glad we made it here when we did. İt’s the heaviest snowfall for at least 10 years. But the chances are that if we try to get a bus into the centre we may be stuck on it all night, so our best option is to sit tight and wait for the big thaw which should be starting by the weekend. Luckily Erdinç and his parents are superb hosts with the typical generous Turkish hospitality that we’ve already seen so much of. If we’d been one day later then we could well have been holed up in the tent behind a service station right now!

Cars stuck everywhere

Deep frozen fish

Comparing snowy beards with Erdinç

Snowy Istanbul skyline




Paros to Thessaloniki – Back on the road

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.

Peeping Kirsty

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 new boots.

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.

Jim and Irini (+Zoo and Charlie)
Jim and Irini (+Zoo and Charlie)

Mississippi

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)

Parikia harbour

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.

Sunrise near Athens

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.

Helping a lorry driver fix his truck

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.

 

Anson. He’s from Hong Kong.

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.

Road closed, unless you’re on a bike

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.

Herbie goes to Greece

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.

Waiting for the ferry at Arkitsa

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.

Chimney tops

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.

Gated camp site, Agio Kampos

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.

Waiting for the ferry at Agio Kampos

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.

Lindy Hopping

Larissa street art

The theatre, Larissa

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.

Panagiotis leads the way

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.

Mount Olympus

Kiwi orchard by the coast

Sulphurous spring at Kokkino Nero Melivias

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.

House covered in shells

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.

Panagiotis on Olympus beach

Sunset on Olympus beach

Low cloud on mount Olympus

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.

Precision landing

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.

Someone forgot to build the bridge

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.

BBQ man giving us some Dutch courage with his ouzo

 

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.

 

Don’t look down

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.

Carefull now

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?

Safely across

 

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.

Flooded road into Thessaloniki

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.

Meat feast

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 Rotunda, Thessaloniki

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.

Thessaloniki harbour with Olympus behind

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.

Bread in all shapes and sizes

 




Weeks 2 and 3 on Paros

At around 11 o’clock each morning we hear the jingle jangle of goat bells on the hills above the garden. The goat herder spends all day walking them round the valley while they eat everything in their path so the trick is to not walk them over the same route until the scrub has had a chance to grow back. It’s not a bad way to spend the day, walking on some beautiful hills then home for some fresh feta and yoghurt as long as you don’t mind permanent tinnitus from the bells.

Goat in a tree
Goat in a tree

Our hosts on Paros, Jim and Irini have got a great lifestyle too. Both talented craftspeople with skills in leatherwork, sculpture and jewellery they seem to be able to turn their hands to making all sorts of things. But Jim has found a good niche with men’s wedding rings and has a successful internet shop through Etsy for selling them around the world.

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Jim’s workshop

 

It’s a fantastic lifestyle business that in theory he could operate from anywhere that has a good internet connection and reliable postal system (it’s debatable whether Greece offers the latter) and there seem to be a steady but manageable stream of customers interested in his work.

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Meanwhile when not preparing a feast in the kitchen Irini looks after the letting of the three pretty cottages that are tucked away in the garden. Popular with anyone who wants to get away from the usual holiday spots and find some tranquility they’ve had all sorts of writers, artists, dancers, yoga groups and families staying for a few days or a few weeks. If you don’t mind having to drive to the beach and not having a bar within walking distance then this is the place to come.

The Olive House
The Olive House

Kirsty and I have been enjoying trying out a career in gardening for size. I’ll admit that I’ve never really had the patience for horticulture in the past as there always seemed to be something more exciting or more pressing in the diary but by removing any other distractions, and also any time constraints, it’s allowed me to see what some of the attraction is. Ok, Alan Titchmarsh and Charlie Dimmock shouldn’t be fearing for their jobs just yet as most of what we’ve been doing is pulling out weeds and tidying up but that in itself can be quite satisfying.

The weeds then get chopped up and mixed into the compost to then be spread back onto the beds to allow more weeds to grow. I think this is what Elton John was referring to when he sang about The Circle of Life.

 

Steaming hot compost

There’s been a bit of dry stone wall repairing which also rewards patience with some satisfaction when the stones fit together just right. Paros is covered with enough dry stone walls to surround every field in Cumbria, Yorkshire and Derbyshire but luckily I only have to work on a very small part of a very low stack of stones.

Walled terraces

Kirsty has been broadening her skill set in other ways too. She revealed to me that her childhood ambition was to become a hairdresser so I handed her the scissors and invited her to practice on my unruly barnet (but not the beard). I came away looking nearly as smart as the flower beds we’d been working on and even retained both ears so I think this could be a possible job opportunity for when we return home.

Before the chop
Before the chop

Post chop

Away from the garden we’ve had some time to explore a lot of the island on foot and by bike and even managed a night in the tent just to make sure we remember how to put it up and to make sure we haven’t gone soft having spent so long under a proper roof and with a proper bed.

Prodronos

Sampling the local Bugatsa

View of Kolimpithres from the Myceanian Acropolis

Amazing rocks at Kolimpithres
Amazing rocks at Kolimpithres

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Lighthouse at Dawn

We’ve also been able to read proper books from Jim and Irnini’s extensive collection. Although the Kindles are brilliant when we’re on the road they’re never the same as holding real paper in your hands. In line with developing some patience for gardening I picked up a book called In Praise of Slow by Carl Honoré which explores the virtues of taking your time in all aspects of life. It’s an interesting read so comes recommended for anyone who spends most of their time running around like a headless chicken. It’s premise also rings true when it comes to cycle touring. Go too quick and you’ll miss the good stuff. I hope Kirsty will agree that I’m getting better at changing down a gear or two and stopping to admire the view but there’s probably a bit more work to be done before I’m fully switched out of ‘race mode’.

Choppy crossing to Antiparos. There is a swim across here each summer with local resident Tom Hanks taking part last year.

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Agio Theodora Monastery

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A windy island means plenty of wind mills (big and small)

 

And it’s not long before we pack up and (slowly) ship out again. We’ve bought our Turkish visas and are plotting our route to Istanbul with a view to heading North from Athens next week. Our plan to stay put while the weather starts to improve in Turkey seems to have been worthwhile as the forecast has been improving day by day further north. Hopefully it’ll continue. We could easily find ourselves staying here indefinitely but a whole new continent is waiting and besides, those goat bells are getting a bit iritating.

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Week 1 on Paros

By popular demand here are a few stats from the journey so far:

Total distance ridden: 8554km
Number of countries visited: 23
Nights in the tent: 83/141
Coldest night in tent: -6c
Highest altitude: 1,233m
Longest day: 121km (Brighton to Felixstowe)
Number of ferry journeys: 24
Favourite country for biscuits: Latvia
Favourite country for pastries: Poland
Favourite country for bread: Serbia
Most expensive coffee: €4 Turku, Finland
Cheapest coffee: 50 dinar (32p) Pančevo, Serbia
Surprisingly useful bits of kit: Zefal spy rear view mirror, Click-Stand and Grabber inc. Space Blanket (used to line the tent and for picnics)
Lost kit:
Zefal spy rear view mirror (somewhere in Lithuania)
1 tent peg (somewhere in Sweden)

And finally the current score in the worlds longest game of ‘Horse’:
Kirsty: 1009
Marcus: 1008

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So here we are in our wonderful winter accommodation on Paros in the middle of the Aegean Sea. Somewhere for us to sit tight while the worst of the winter passes with time to give the bike a thorough clean, rest cycling muscles and build up gardening muscles.

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Jim and Irini have lived here for something like 40 years and in that time they have built themselves a home, a huge garden and several smaller houses for rental to artists, sculptors or anyone who wants somewhere peaceful to retreat to. They have also hosted numerous WWOOFers in that time and a lot of the construction work and garden upkeep has been carried out by the volunteers. In return the WWOOFers (including us) get room and board during their stay. It’s an arrangement that works really well for all concerned.

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It’s been particularly well timed for us as the cold days in Athens were followed by even colder days once we sailed into Paros with the unexpected arrival of a few centimetres of snow. Our surprise was matched by Jim as this is the first snowfall for 10 years and unwelcome by most of the islanders, apart from the children who get to enjoy what is probably their first ever snowball fight.

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As well as Jim and Irini the house has several other occupants with 2 dogs and 3 cats with inside privileges and 1 dog and 2 cats who are not supposed to come indoors (occasionally Paco the dog gets a taste of how the other half live). The outside animals are lucky strays who have found their way to the house and been adopted but not fully integrated into the family (yet). There are also nearly 30 Muscovy ducks that provide the occasional egg….or Sunday roast.

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The snow that turned to sleet that turned to rain has hampered our progress in the garden at the beginning of the week. Disappointingly it also meant that the traditional Epiphany ceremony whereby the priest throws a cross into the harbour at Alyki to be rescued by some hardy local swimmers didn’t happen. I was stood on the harbourside with my speedos and goggles, ready to dive in only to find it wasn’t going to happen this year.

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But as we’ve already found, the weather in Greece changes rapidly so by Wednesday the sun was starting to make an appearance and the island was able to thaw. A bit of work shifting bales, digging out rocks and pulling up weeds helped keep us warm.

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The main project for the week was the construction of two compost silos out of the bales we had gathered up. Building the silos didn’t take too long but they then needed to be filled. That meant harvesting a huge pile of green stuff and learning the fine art of wielding a scythe. It’s a surprisingly satisfying tool to use when you get a good swing with it but we may need a bit more practice before we take on a field of corn.

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Composting is much like baking a cake, only not as tasty. It needs the right ingredients, mixed the right way and plenty of heat and moisture to get it going. There are also plenty of different recipes and advocates for a variety of techniques but we stuck with the traditional 3:1 straw to green ratio plus some special additions. We hope to see some signs that the clever little bugs and grubs have started breaking it down by next week.

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There are hills all around us so lot of walking to be done. On the way back from one particular stroll we were ambushed by a small and noisy kitten who then clung to our heels and followed us home. Jim had seen this little animal before and was not happy to see it again. It had turned up with some other guests last week and had been taken back down the valley but this time it seemed determined to stay. And stay she did after a half hearted attempt not to encourage her and being chased up a tree by the dogs a few times before they began to accept her. So Mississippi is now the 6th cat to join the family.

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Apologies if you logged on to read a cycling blog but found Gardeners World and Pets at Home instead. The bike has been used for a short ride down to the village for supplies but has mostly been left neglected. Hopefully we’ll get out on it for a ride round the island soon.

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Christmas on Crete, New Year in Athens

Christmas in the UK is nothing if not predictable. We’re introduced to the idea that it’s on its way with a few hints around September with shops bringing in the odd bit of Christmas paraphernalia and bars and restaurants imploring us to make that Christmas party booking ‘NOW, BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!’. It creeps up a bit more in October then by November the brakes are well and truly let off as the Christmas machine rolls into every town with tinsel and lights appearing everywhere you look. By the time advent actually starts the whole country is in such a Christmas frenzy that it’s hard to imagine that it can last another 25 days (or more). But somehow it does and the expectation heaped on the Big Day is finally released in a flurry of gift unwrapping, turkey stuffing and TV viewing.

 

And it’s usually great with the whole family getting together and enjoying a fantastic feast but it’s just a shame that the Christmas spirit is diluted so much in the build up. We’ve been able to avoid the whole pre December build up and thankfully only started to hear Chris Rea crooning about Driving Home for Christmas very recently (even in Greece they have the same soundtrack). But without the family gathering to look forward to it hasn’t really felt like Christmas at all.P1060613

The ferry to Crete from Piraeus is busy so there’s a rush to occupy the best seats that have a plug socket for charging gadgets and some space to stretch out for a snooze. We make ourselves at home with our sleeping mats and pillows and settle in for the 10 hour crossing.

There are three largish towns to pick from on Crete and we’ve decided to head for Chania based on a recommendation from Karen who we stayed with on Lefkada as she had lived on Crete a few years ago. It’s just gone 6am when we roll off the boat so we find a bit of shelter outside a closed kiosk and make a brew and some porridge before heading into the town.

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We’ve only got a couple of days before Santa does his rounds so we want to make sure we’ve got somewhere booked for our Christmas dinner. In the hope of getting some advice on where to go we head to the Tourist Information office, but they tell us that it’s too early to know which restaurants will be open on Christmas day. We should come back tomorrow with a copy of the local paper as by then the restaurants will have advertised their Christmas offers and so they can translate and make the booking for us. This is on 22nd December. Surely most people will have made their plans 2 months ago?

Astonished, we ride out of Chania and up onto the Akrotiri Peninsula to investigate three different monasteries. The island has hundreds of orthodox monasteries and convents though many are now abandoned while others may only have one monk left to look after the place. We stop for lunch at the beautiful convent of Agia Triada and then climb up a progressively steep track to Gouvertneto where the monks have found a very pleasant secluded spot near the top of a short ridge of hills that fall right down to the sea.

Agia Tria Monastery
Agia Triada Monastery

Gouvertneto
Gouvertneto

Gouvertneto Monastery
Gouvertneto Monastery

It’s a hike to the third one so we park the bike and make our way down a rocky path where we find the ruins of Kotholokin carved out the rock face and forming a wide bridge across a gorge. This was a place for monks who really didn’t want to be disturbed but probably enjoyed a swim as it has it’s own small beach very close by. There’s also a cave where St John the Hermit lived in the 5th century AD, how he survived in there is anyone’s guess.

Walking down to Kotholokin
Walking down to Kotholokin

Kotholokin
Kotholokin

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Kotholokin
Kotholokin

Cave of St John the Hermit
Cave of St John the Hermit

Once we climb back up to Gouvertneto it’s all too tempting to try and pitch the tent in the grounds of the monastery but there are enough signs to let us know that the monks wouldn’t take too kindly to that. We stop briefly to listen to their singing in the small chapel and then drop a bit further down the hill to pitch in an ancient olive grove instead.

Sunset over Chania
Sunset over Chania

Sunrise in the ancient olive grove
Sunrise in the ancient olive grove

Lefka Ori Mountains
Lefka Ori Mountains

On our way back to Chania in the morning we pass signs to a velodrome and are curious enough to investigate if this is actually what we think it is or just an unusually named Greek village. But sure enough we round a corner and find a full size but partially built cycling arena. The location is fantastic with the mountain peaks rising over the open air track but it’s a sad sight as it’s all going to ruin. It was never complete as the project ran out of money and it’s unlikely to see any more funding for quite some time now, if ever. We had hoped to take the tandem out for a lap but this idea is soon dispelled when we see the broken glass and steel struts sticking out of what should be a smooth wooden surface.

Chania velodrome
Chania velodrome

Once back in the town we have a look round the Venetian harbour, the mosque that is now a market place and check our possibilities for places to eat for Christmas dinner. But unlike the UK none of the restaurants are advertising any special Christmas meals so we return to the tourist information office, this time armed with a local paper, to see what they suggest. The paper now has several adverts in it which we work through and eventually pick one that has a mouth watering 5 course menu, live music and a great location down near the harbour which is promptly booked up for us by the helpful TI lady.

Chania harbour
Chania harbour

The rest of the afternoon is spent riding uphill. The Therisso gorge had been recommended to us by a contact we’d made through Warm Showers and he’d said it was a ‘must see’ while in the area. What he hadn’t warned us about was that the 10km climb would take us up 650m and although it’s very beautiful it’s hard to appreciate fully while hauling the bike up in the granny gear. But we make it to the top and reward ourselves with a drink in the small taverna in the village before pitching the tent behind a church. We ponder the possibility of setting up our sleeping mats in the church itself as it looks very cosy but given the next day is Christmas Eve it’s likely we’d be discovered in the morning.

Therisso Gorge
Therisso Gorge

Instead we have a frosty start first thing and with 10km of freewheeling ahead of us no chance to get warmed up. We do get a better opportunity to admire the wonderful gorge though with high sided cliffs on either side of the narrow passageway that the road follows. We bought a Christmas decoration with bells on it while in Argos and now have it jangling off the back of the bike to accompany the goat bells.

Therisso Gorge
Therisso Gorge

Therisso Gorge
Therisso Gorge

Jingle bells
Jingle bells

Once again we find ourselves heading back into Chania and on our way pick up some Christmas treats from the inevitable Lidl. In fact the panniers are so full of stollen, cream liquor and tasty cheeses that one of them is literally bursting at the seams which will require some kind of repair job later.

Sacks of olives waiting to be pressed
Sacks of olives waiting to be pressed

Olive oil sold by the gallon
Olive oil sold in industrial quantities

The real treat however is that we’re staying in a very nice hotel right in the old town and a stone’s throw from the harbour. This is thanks to a very generous gift of a hotel voucher given to us by lots of our friends and family and something we’re extremely grateful for. Thank you everyone who contributed! The Porto Del Columbo is a converted 600 year old Venetian town house with plenty of history and our room comes complete with a four poster bed. It’s similar to being in the tent. But different.

Alleyway to the hotel
Alleyway to the hotel

Once checked in we check out the details for the restaurant we’re going to on Christmas day and discover that we’d overlooked one small but important fact: the Christmas feast is on the 24th not the 25th, i.e. today! There’s just time to get to the launderette then a 2nd hand shop for a shirt before heading back to the hotel to get smartened up.

View from the roof of the hotel
View from the roof of the hotel

The feast at Pallas is quite something with almost everything being produced on the island from the wine to the wild boar. Granted it’s not the same as a traditional roast turkey with all the trimmings but it’s a very tasty alternative. We discover that it’s possible to make an Andy Williams song even cheesier by playing it in a freeform jazz style on a white saxophone. Niiiice.

A suitable decoration
A suitable decoration

Christmas feast
Christmas feast

Christmas day lacks the usual excitement as there are no presents to open and no chocolate fuelled nieces and nephews running around but we start with a swim across the harbour then spend most of the day grazing on our Lidl goodie bag which includes roast turkey flavoured crisps. Skype helps us wish our families merry Christmas and get a glimpse of Christmas day back home before a stroll round the town. As much as anything else, it’s nice to have a relaxing day without turning the pedals, the first since we were in Belgrade 6 weeks ago although there have been some very short days in the meantime.

Christmas day swim in Chania harbour
Christmas day swim in Chania harbour

Basia Nansy
Basia Nansy

Harbour cat
Harbour cat

But It’s business as usual on boxing day as our stay in the Porto del Columbo comes to an end and we’re heading back out of Chania. Not far though as we’ve been invited to stay with a Warm Showers host just outside Kissamos, 45km away. Progress is slow as I’d woken up feeling under par perhaps due to an over dose of stollen and cream liqueur, but we eventually make it to the home of Manu and Fiona with their two daughters Sofia and Giulia.

The bay of Kissamoss
The bay of Kissamoss

Manu is from Boulogne and Fiona from Stockport and they met while working on a turtle preservation project on Kefalonia. (Unfortunately we were there at the wrong time of year to see the turtles.). After an adventurous year travelling round Europe they’ve just settled in Crete for no better reason than it seems like a nice place to live. Children are often the barrier for people to do more travelling but Manu and Fiona seemed to just about manage it. The main difficulty was that at least one of the girls suffered from acute car sickness which meant that they were limited on how far and how fast they could go.

Fiona, Giulia, Sofia and Manu
Fiona, Sofia, Giulia and Manu

In the morning we’re waved off with a belly full of home baked cinnamon bread and more in the panniers. We’re now at the far west of the island where things are very rugged and start to get more remote. It’s a great road that follows the coast with views down to pink sandy beaches and out to some smaller islands. On a clear day we’d be able to see the tip of the Peloponnese but today it’s shrouded in rain showers apart from one rock that always seems to be in the sunshine. Its a damp morning that requires a mid morning coffee stop with complimentary raki to warm us up. We’re not the only ones braving the weather though as we bump into a Chilean cyclist who has been exploring the high mountains and loving it. His Christmas day was spent on his own on a secluded beach.

Looking down to Phalasarna
Looking down to Falasarna

Pontikonisi, always in sunshine
Pontikonisi, always in sunshine

The west coast road
The west coast road

After lunch it dries up and we reach the highest point of the route before turning inland to begin our descent back down to the road that follows the north coast. On our way down we pass through another magnificent gorge at Topolia. In this gorge we’re on a road perched half way up the side of the cliff with a steep drop to one side and walls of rock up above. The road narrows to a single lane with a slab of overhanging rock and a convex mirror to see round the corner for oncoming traffic. But we have the road to ourselves.

Topalia Gorge
Topolia Gorge

Topalia Gorge
Topolia Gorge

Tunnel in Topalai
Tunnel in Topolia

Topalia Gorge
Topolia Gorge

Once back at the north coast the light is fading fast so we pull over at a small church with an inviting lawn. As we’re eyeing it up a car pulls up and seeing our camping gear the driver tells us to sleep in the church as it’ll be warmer. It’s just the invitation we needed and the little church makes for a very cosy shelter for the night.

Cosy church accomodation
Cosy church accommodation

Cosy church accomodation
Cosy church accommodation

Dinner in the church
Dinner in the church

It’s a main road blast to Rethymno the next day via Iordanis in Chania for the best Bougatsa on the island. This is a delicious sweet pastry cheese pie with sugar and cinnamon that we could have tucked into all day.

Camping next to Rethymno fortress
Camping next to Rethymno fortress

At Rethymno it’s Kirsty’s turn to feel under par so in the morning we spend some time looking round and drop into an internet cafe for some blog updating. Here we have to endure a dozen or more Greek kids shouting at each other while they play some sort of shoot em up computer game. Just as the noise level reaches a crescendo the cafe owner tells them all to shut up but that just delays the next outburst.

Rethymno harbour
Rethymno harbour

Out of Rethymno the road continues to follow the north coast, sandwiched between snow capped mountains and the sea. Most of the population live in the north of the island as most of the mountains live in the south. The highest peaks are over 2600m so would make for a great climb. We’re tempted to return and take on some or all of the popular E4 walking route that runs the length of the island as it promises some amazing views.

A tiny hitch hiker
A tiny hitch hiker

Someone wants our biscuits
Someone wants our biscuits

Another small church by the side of the road provides our shelter for the night before we continue along to the 3rd and final main town on the island: Heraklion where we’ll be catching a ferry back to Piraeus.

More cosy church accomodation
More cosy church accommodation

More cosy church accomodation
More cosy church accommodation

First we’re keen to visit another archeological site and so ride up to Knossos. This is the site of an enormous Minoan palace from 1900BC and is also where the myth of King Minos with his Minotaur was said to have occurred. We get a bargain basement tour at 1/10th the normal price from a guide who is struggling for customers in the pouring rain, although I think the whistlestop tour lasts about 1/10th the normal amount of time as a result. It’s a very odd place as parts of it were completely rebuilt in concrete by English archaeologist Arthur Evans in the 1930’s. His intention was to give the visitor a better impression of what it would have been like but in reality it just looks very false and is hard to establish what is ancient and what is Evan’s interpretation. The damage is irreversible and in fact Evan’s work is now being preserved and renovated as historical material in its own right. We avoid getting lost in the labyrinth and see no sign of any minotaurs.

Evan's reproduction of the Queens bedroom
Evan’s reproduction of the Queens bedroom

Part 3000 year old palace, part 100 year old concrete
Part 3000 year old palace, part 100 year old concrete

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Hunting for the minotaur
Hunting for the minotaur

King Minos' Throne
King Minos’ Throne

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Horns of the Minotaur
Horns of the Minotaur

After our history lesson there’s time for a quick bite to eat in Heraklion, with complimentary raki before boarding the boat for Piraeus.

Heraklion
Heraklion

It’s not nearly as busy as on our way out so there’s no problem finding a quiet spot to sleep. Off the boat the wind has picked up and it’s noticably colder so we begin the ride towards Athens but pull over to find shelter in the porch of a church to make breakfast and try and warm up. As you can see we’re regular church goers now.

Breakfast booth
Breakfast booth

The plan is to spend a couple of days in Athens to see in the new year and have a look around the city. We’d also hoped to find a Warm Showers or Couch Surfing host but the only positive reply was from someone who could only host us on 1st Jan and even he disappears off the radar after we accept his offer. So we find ourselves a cheap hotel for New Years Eve and prepare ourselves for the Big Night Out.

Athens is a grubby little city with plenty of uninspiring architecture and most of it covered with graffiti. In fact most of Greece is covered with graffiti. But it does have its almighty trump card which sits above the town like a beacon for the thousands of tourists: The Acropolis.

Greek graffiti
Greek graffiti

We catch our first flood-lit view of it from a roof level cocktail bar and  the view is added as a premium on the drinks so we don’t stay for long. The atmosphere out on the streets is decidedly subdued and it feels much like any mid-week night in a city with a few people drifting from bar to restaurant but nothing like the revelry that was no doubt taking place on the streets of London or Edinburgh. In fact some bars are shut so clearly aren’t expecting much business. We spend some time in a funky little jazz bar, grab some huge plates of kebab in a restaurant and then make our way up to Syntagmos Square at 11:30 which is supposed to be where the main celebrations take place. But other than a few groups milling around in the cold there’s not much going on so we abandon that idea and return to the jazz bar. Midnight arrives, a few people shout Happy New Year and there are half a dozen fire works going off but that’s it. Apparently there would normally be a big display over the acropolis but the austerity measures have put paid to that this year.

Lift to the trendy cocktail bar
Lift to the trendy cocktail bar

The Acropolis by night
The Acropolis by night

Somewhat despondently we return to the hotel with a feeling that we’ve missed out on something.

The advantage of a relatively quiet night is that we feel great the next day and make it to the free walking tour at 10:15am. Our guide, George, explains that NYE is a time for family and gambling so most people will have been at home until well past midnight. Things may have livened up by 2am if we’d waited but by then we were tucked up in bed. We’ll know for next time.

As it’s New Years Day a lot of things are shut but George shows us round the main sights that don’t need a ticket and is full of facts and figures to illustrate what we’re looking at. The highlight of the day is running a lap of the panathenaic stadium, constructed on an ancient site for the 1896 Olympics, the first of the modern games and as they repeatedly tell us, the world’s only marble stadium.

Presidential guard and Lucy the official presidential street dog
Presidential guard and Lucy the official presidential street dog

Pananthemic stadium with Acropolois in the background
Panathenaic stadium with Acropolis in the background

The worlds only marble stadium
The worlds only marble stadium

Kirsty in the back straight
Kirsty in the back straight

Winners and losers
Winners and losers

Odeon of Herodes Atticus
Odeon of Herodes Atticus

Bear, one of the many friendly and well fed street dogs
Bear, one of the many friendly and well fed street dogs

We get to visit the Acropolis the next day and also the excellent New Acropolis Museum. The museum was completed just after the Olympics in 2004, not helped by the fact that if you dig down far enough in any part of Athens you’ll find some sort of archaeologically important remains, so the whole thing is now built with a glass floor so you can see what they uncovered when they began digging. As with any good museum it’s not so much what you are displaying but how you display it, and this has been laid out in a very stylish way. The amazing thing is that none of the artefacts are protected or hidden behind glass so if you were so inclined you could touch the 3000 year old paintwork on the marble statues. This doesn’t seem the best way to preserve these priceless items but it is great to see everything up close. Of course there are a few mentions of the ‘terrible damage’ carried out when Lord Elgin plundered the site but I suspect that the British Museum will continue to hold on tight to the remnants that ended up there.

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The Parthenon
The Parthenon

View of Athens from the Acropolis
View of Athens from the Acropolis

View of Athens from the Acropolis
View of Athens from the Acropolis

New Acropolis Museum
New Acropolis Museum

Glass ceiling in the New Acropolis Museum
Glass ceiling in the New Acropolis Museum

Acropolis Museum and Acropolis
Acropolis Museum and Acropolis

Copies of the Elgin Stones
Copies of the Elgin Stones

The goddess Nike adjusting her sandles (with cushioned air sole)
The goddess Nike adjusting her sandles (with air cushioned sole)

But where to go after Athens? Well Turkey is the plan but January in northern Turkey is surprisingly cold and unpleasantly wet. Not only that but based on current progress we would arrive in Central Asia while the high passes will still be impassable so we need to bide our time. The solution is that we will be travelling to the island of Paros in the Aegean sea to do some WWOOFing. This is a volunteer programme primarily set up for people to help out on organic farms but now extends to all sorts of different projects. Our hosts, Jim and Irini have a large plot with extensive gardens all built on the principals of permaculture so we’ll be helping with the maintenance and getting green fingers. It’ll give us time to service the bike, sort out some bits of kit that need replacing or repairing while also learning a few new skills and helping someone out. Hopefully it’ll work out well but the only worry is there may not be enough anti-itching powder for our feet.




The Peloponnese

While travelling through Eastern Europe we’ve brushed up on a lot of our knowledge of modern history so have a much better idea of how all these countries have changed shape over the past decades. I’m not sure I’d be any more capable of remembering the date lines that Mr Symonds used to try and get us to learn back in junior school but in rough terms we’ve got a fair idea what has happened. Now we’re in Greece it’s time to think back to my Classics and Latin lessons with Mr Hooper as we’ve started to see some familiar names like Mycenea, Sparta and Argos cropping up on the map that until now only existed in my ancient history books.

Friendly grasshopper
Friendly grasshopper

Back on the mainland after the ferry from Kefalonia and straight away we start to see brown signs on almost every road to indicate an ancient some-thing-other or a very important historical place-you-must-see. The country is full of artefacts, bits of column, statues, carvings, temples at every turn so it would take a while to stop and look at every single one. We’ve decided to pick Olympia to visit as fans of the modern interpretation of the Olympic Games it will be great to see where it all began 2,500 years ago.

On our way we stop at Lidl for supplies in Pyrgos. Make no mistake it’s not Tesco that is taking over Europe it’s the Germans as the big yellow and blue signs have been one of the few constants in almost all the countries we’ve been to so far. They’re also a meeting place for anyone shopping on a budget so it’s no surprise to find another couple of cycle tourists just coming out. Irma and Or have ridden from Spain on bikes and with kit they’ve acquired for free and are travelling with barely any cash and aiming for Or’s home country of Israel.  What’s more remarkable is that they also have another companion in the form of Bemba the dog who rides in an improvised trailer. Apparently the Alps had been particularly difficult for them through Bemba does get out and walk on the hills. Like everyone else they’re heading across the Peloponnese then onto Crete but hope to hitch a lift on a fishing boat to save on the cost of the ferry. This sounds optimistic but if they’ve got this far then they must have confidence in their blagging abilities.

Or, Irma and Bemba
Or, Irma and Bemba

An hour after Pyrgos we pass a sign telling us it’s 2km to Olympia, followed 100m later by another saying it’s now 1km. The distances on Greek road signs seem to be measured with an accuracy of +/- 5km so after 2km it’s no surprise that we’re still riding up a hill with no sign of Olympia. What is surprising is that the bike has started bouncing gently up and down at the back. This could be either a dodgy, undulating road surface or there’s a problem with the wheel. It turns out to be the wheel as the tyre wall has torn and caused a bulge that could burst at any second. It’s the cheap tyre that we bought as a temporary fix way back in Lithuania so to be fair it’s done remarkably well to get this far but now it’s beyond repair and we have to walk the remaining 2km into Olympia. It’s not a big town but when we ask if there’s anywhere to buy bike tyres we’re directed down the road ‘about 500m’. 1km later we’re still walking and ask for directions at a petrol station where we’re told there’s a shop in another 1km. 1km later we flag down a cyclist who might  have a better idea and he tells us the nearest place for bike parts is Pyrgos, now 18km away.

Dead tyre
Dead tyre

It would be a tedious walk with the bike and we wouldn’t get there before the shops shut so I leave Kirsty to hide behind a church and get the tent set up and stick out my thumb for a lift. No joy after half an hour so I ask a nearby hotel to call a cab and in under an hour I’m back at the tent with a brand new tyre ready to fit. Adding in the taxi fare it’s the most expensive cheap tyre I’ve had to buy but with it being a Monday most shops were shut so I had to get whatever was available there and then. Luckily the taxi driver had had a heavy right foot, knew where all the bike shops were and even lent me the cash to pay for the tyre until we passed a cash machine on the way back to Olympia. Another case of what could have been a major disaster in another location was just a bit of an inconvenience here.

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The church has a tap alongside that could well be dispensing holy water so the next morning we fill up our bottles and hope it brings better luck.The site of Ancient Olympia is fascinating and we get the chance to race in the very first Olympic stadium (Kirsty wins). There’s no sign or mention of the velodrome though, or the sponsors enclosures or even the room that would have served as the volunteer’s canteen but I expect these are all yet to be uncovered.

The original Olympic Stadium
The original Olympic Stadium

On your marks!
On your marks!

Ancient Olympia
Ancient Olympia

Ancient Olympia
Ancient Olympia

Ancient Olympia
Ancient Olympia

Museum of Olympia
Museum of Olympia

Still some digging to be done
Still some digging to be done

Museum of Olympia
Museum of Olympia

Museum of Olympia
Museum of Olympia

After lunch we bump into Irma, Or and Bemba who have taken a day to cover the 20km from Pyrgos so have a slightly more sedate travelling pace than us.

Not far out of Olympia we set up camp in an orange orchard and gorge on freshly picked fruit. We’re also becoming adicted to fresh sheeps yoghurt and greek honey with the honey inevitably being used on our porridge each morning too. But we must have made the gods angry as the rumble of thunder overnight and heavy rain indicate that Zeus is unhappy. He allows some respite with enough time to pack the tent in the morning before the rain starts again and carries on all day.

Angry gods, angry sea
Angry gods, angry sea

We keep moving to keep warm and head back to the coast and follow it for 40km before turning inland again and into some rolling hills. It would have been very picturesque if it wasn’t masked in grey clouds and yet more rain.

Sheltering at a church for lunch
Sheltering at a church for lunch

Just before we stop to set up camp in an olive grove the rain stops and the sun comes out so we get to see the wonderful evening light on the mountains at last.

Palm avenue
Palm avenue

There’s more of the wet stuff in the night but again it stops just long enough for us to get packed up in the morning and dash to the nearest petrol station with a convenient cafe attached. The sky looks very ominous and as we’re due to climb quite high that day we decide to wait for the impending storm to pass before setting off again.

It proves a sensible decision as there’s plenty of thunder and lightning accompanied by heavy rain for the next 2 hours and it would have been no fun being on the side of a mountain in those conditions. Unfortunately we’ve run out of cash and like a lot of places in Greece the cafe doesn’t take cards so we have to sit in the corner and hope they won’t mind. But the staff eventually feel sorry enough for us to bring us some tea on the house which is just what we need.

The storm passes and blue sky follows so we crack on with the climb. It’s steady for most of the way before we drop down to the town of Megalopolis. Not as impressive as it’s name might suggest but a convenient spot for lunch and we watch some workers busy with a cherry picker hanging Christmas lights. This is the week before Christmas so they clearly don’t like to get into the Christmas spirit quite as early as in the UK round here.

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After the storm
After the storm

There’s more climbing after lunch and then we drop onto a plateau at just over 700m above sea level to find our highest camp spot to date.

In the morning the tent flap swings open like a frozen door. There’s been a heavy frost and as the tent is sopping wet from the previous nights it was very cold inside and out. The condensation that drips from the ceiling, a common problem with Hilleberg tents, did little to help.

Frozen camp site
Frozen camp site

Frosty saddles
Frosty saddles

As any physicist will tell you, for every 100m of height gain the temperature drops by 0.5 – 1 degree so while it was a pleasant temperature lower down, up here it sank below zero overnight. Thankfully as soon as the sun peeps over the mountains things warm up and dry off quickly. We’ve also got another climb to haul ourselves up which gets the blood pumping to all extremities.P1060355

Once over the top we get a great view of dense clouds sat just below us then we zoom down into them on our way to Tripolis, lunch stop then out the other side and inevitably more mountain roads.

Above the clouds
Above the clouds

Riding back into the hills
Riding back into the hills

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This time the huge rock cliff faces are being lit by the setting sun and we get treated to some amazing colours on all sides of the steep valley. P1060370

Sunset in the mountains
Sunset in the mountains

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The road tops out at 800m and we’re keen to lose as much altitude as possible this time before pitching the tent. It’s a lovely swooping road at a shallow gradient with long corners allowing the brakes to stay off and the speed to pick up. At 50kph I often wonder what would happen if we punctured and the answer is that the back of the bike starts to squirm, it’s hard to steer and all the brakes need to be applied to bring us to a controlled stop to avoid disappearing over the edge of the mountain. The brand new but cheap rear tyre has less puncture protection and has just proved it’s not really designed for this sort of hardship. We’re still over 500m above sea level but are conveniently next to a nice flat patch of grass so as the light is fading fast we decide to pitch up there and then fix the tyre in the morning.P1060382

There are a few rocks lying around so it’s entirely possible this is the site of some kind of ancient monument. I pick up what could well be the remains of a valuable artefact and use it to knock in the pegs.

View of Argos from the tent
View of Argos from the tent

It’s a much warmer evening than the previous night and in the morning while fixing the tyre I get to enjoy a glorious sunrise over the bay of Argos below. Annoyingly an important bolt that holds the cable for the drag brake goes missing amongst the stones, gorse bushes and goat droppings and despite a lengthy search it stays hidden.

Sunrise over the bay of Argos
Sunrise over the bay of Argos

Campsite near Argos at dawn
Campsite near Argos at dawn

Puncture repair with a view
Puncture repair with a view

With only the rim brakes to rely on, the descent is taken carefully which is fortunate as we pick up another puncture part way down, this time thanks to a rogue shard of glass. The front tyre has been fine which shows that Schwalbe Marathons are worth the extra cost.

Roadside Shrine
Roadside Shrine

It gets fixed and this time we make it down to the sea and on to Argos to find a bike shop. The bolt we need for the drum brake is not a common bike part so my expectations of finding a replacement are low but 5 minutes after stopping at the very first shop we find the owner has dug out exactly what we need, fitted it and sent us on our way. You really can buy anything in Argos!

Heron in the bay of Argos
Heron in the bay of Argos

Chasing dog
Chasing dog

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After another short climb we’re nearly out of the mountains and have a lovely long descent to stop at an olive grove for the night just outside Corinth. On the way down we call in at a petrol station for more fuel for the stove and the owner is vey concerned that we are filling a bottle with unleaded and not water. Despite trying to explain that it’s for cooking she just doesn’t understand so I make a motorbike noise to add to the confusion while she looks for the engine on the bike.

Acrocorinth Castle
Acrocorinth Castle

Sunset in the olive grove
Sunset in the olive grove

The next day we cross the Corinth Canal which is a very impressive piece of engineering. The 6km passage through 90m of rock was finished in 1893 but what’s even more impressive is that the first 700m were dug in the 1st century with emperor Nero collecting the first basket of dirt.It was not completed though as they thought the sea was higher on one side than the other as the tides were at different times.

Corinthean Canal
Corinth Canal

Corinthean Canal
Corinth Canal

From Corinth we pass a few huge oil refineries and out in the bay there are several tankers waiting to offload their cargo. Our small road sticks to the coast with the main highway higher up the cliff to our left and we get some great views out towards the Saronic Gulf. It’s a Sunday and there are lots of road cyclists out on club rides. Given it’s over 20 degrees we’re in short sleeves but most of the locals are dressed up in full winter gear, clearly feeling the ‘cold’. At one point a small peloton comes past and we manage to latch on to the back for a couple of km but then our road turns right while they carry on straight on so we have to wave goodbye.

Tankers at Corinth
Tankers at Corinth

Catching the Peloton
Catching the Peloton

Our destination is the Port of Piraeus and to avoid the beginnings of the urban sprawl of Athens we decide to hop onto the island of Salamis with a ferry from there taking us stright into Pireaus. We roll down into the first harbour just as the ferry is lifting its ramp but they spot us just in time to lower it and allow us to ride straight on with perfect timing. The tent comes out at lunch time for some much needed drying out in the sunshine then we ride to the other side of the island to catch the next ferry into Piraeus.

Riding towards Pireaus
Riding towards Piraeus

Riding towards Pireaus
Riding towards Piraeus

The final boat trip of the day is the overnight crossing to Crete but we have a couple of hours to kill until the 9pm departure time so we install ourselves in a cafe and dig out the kindles while munching on gyros kebabs and greek salad. While we sit there a man comes in trying to sell us enormous watches, phone chargers and fake Ray Bans which we politely decline. Half an hour later another chap turns up with a similar assortment of tat. By the time the fifth one comes round to bother us we’re losing patience so politeness goes out the window.

Eventually it’s time to board the ferry for the 10 hour crossing and as expected the boat is busy with lots of people either heading home or heading off on holiday for the Christmas break. We’re looking forward to a few easy days on the island too though it’s going to be an odd Christmas compared to usual.

No matter how much they dream about it, I doubt they'll be getting a white Christmas here
No matter how much they dream about it, I doubt they’ll be getting a white Christmas here

 




Merry Christmas!

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Wishing everyone a fantastic Christmas, wherever you may be spending it.

Marcus & Kirsty




The Ionian Islands

We were told by Doerte way back in Lübeck that after travelling for four weeks you stop counting the number of weeks. She had learnt this while on a 3 month tour round Europe in a camper van. Apparently we’re now into our 4th month on the road but it’s only the number of each day in my diary that gives us any idea how long we’ve been away. It also takes a bit of thinking to work out what day of the week it is. Without the normal structure of five days work and two days rest there’s not a lot to differentiate a Monday from a Sunday (7 days of work for us), apart from when we find the shops shut early on a Sunday when we really needed some food. But coming up in December are some important dates which need some planning to be in a suitable place on the right day. First it’s Kirsty’s birthday, then mine, then of course Christmas day before we hit New Year’s Eve. We’ve decided that for all four we’ll be on a different Greek island.

Sarande
Sarande

From Sarandë we catch a hydrofoil over to Corfu. This is exciting as hydrofoils feel a bit like flying on water but also because the tandem doesn’t fit fully into the cargo bay and half the bike is hanging over one of the ‘wings’. We keep a nervous eye on the view from the window in case a back wheel comes past.

The Flying Dolphin hydrofoil
The Flying Dolphin hydrofoil

Tandem on the Hydrofoil (just)
Tandem on the Hydrofoil (just)

But we all arrive safely at the other end and get deposited onto the dock at Corfu Town (Kerkira) just as a few sprinklings of rain start to fall. Corfu is one of the greenest of the Greek islands and as any Irishman will tell you, you don’t get a green island without a bit of rain.

We stop for a coffee and to work out where to stay that night but there seems to be a mistake with the bill. It’s six times more than we’d been used to paying for the last few weeks. Granted we get at least six times more than the tiny cups of thick black Turkish coffee we’d been getting since Serbia but even so we’re slightly shocked. Isn’t Greece supposed to be recovering from near financial ruin? How can people afford these prices? In a country where they don’t even have a sewerage system that can handle toilet paper it’s surprisingly expensive.

Corfu Town
Corfu Town

But it’s the same in the supermarkets and also when we try to find a hotel, it’s all several times more expensive than anywhere this side of Helsinki. But the next day is Kirsty’s birthday so after some haggling we secure a room, grab some dinner and enjoy avoiding a night under canvas in a thunderstorm as a special birthday treat.

Corfu Town
Corfu Town

The rain continues the next day but we persevere with looking round the narrow streets of the old part of Corfu Town, which is all very nice even when soggy. It’s the kind of day that would be best spent on a sofa with a couple of good films to watch but our Couchsurfing requests were a bit last minute and went unanswered. Instead we hide in McDonalds nursing a coffee and making use of their WiFi for a while.

Corfu Town
Corfu Town

We eventually return to the hotel to collect our kit and ride out north to look for somewhere peaceful to camp. But Corfu is an island that knows how to make money from its assets and so almost every inch of coastline that’s easily accessible seems to be occupied by a hotel, apartments or a bar owned by either Harry or Jimmy. These two seem to have done very well for themselves. Luckily most of these are sat dormant as the island is largely in hibernation at this time of year so we sneak into one of Jimmy’s beach bars that has it’s own waterside lawn and pitch the tent. The first of my gifts to Kirsty is a jar of Nutella and the second is a small ginger kitten that turns up during our dinner and curls up on her lap. We imaginatively christen him Stavros. All planned of course and he makes the birthday girl very happy.

Happy Stavros
Happy Stavros

Happy Kirsty
Happy Kirsty

It’s a mountainous island with the biggest hills sat at the north end which is where we are heading. On the way the rear hub needs a bit of adjustment again and by sheer luck we turn up at Corfu Mountain Bikes at the same time that the owner has called in to feed the cat. The shop should be closed for the winter but he’s happy to let us use a few tools to get it sorted out and even buys us a coffee.

Hub maintenance with help from cat
Hub maintenance with help from cat

Corfu coast road
Corfu coast road

Back on the road we work our way up and round the coast road that hugs the cliffs. Where there aren’t buildings there is dense vegetation and fruit trees are laden with oranges, lemons and mandarins. We’re again reminded why everything grows so well when another thunderstorm hits while we shelter under a small canopy next to an artist’s studio.

Raining and pouring
Raining and pouring

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The rain has left the ground extremely boggy so a boat would be a better bet rather than a tent that evening. After a bit of searching for somewhere dry we chance upon an old beachside house on the north coast that is at the early stages of being renovated. It’s a great spot and a nice solid shelter so we trudge down the muddy track to the front door (no door) set up the bed on the floor (no flooring) and watch the lightning over the mountains in Albania back on the mainland through the windows (no windows).

Beachside accomodation
Beachside accomodation

Beachside accommodation, Roda
Beachside accommodation, Roda

Clearer in the morning
Storms over Albania

The next couple of days mainly involve climbing sharply up from sea level, getting a great view, then plunging down through ghost-town like beach resorts before winching back up again. The rain and thunder come and go but it’s warm enough not to matter too much. We suspect it’s much more preferable than being here in the summer when the island must be infested with tourists on scooters as there are dozens of hire centres. The 40 degree heat at that time of year would also make the riding much tougher.

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Agios Georgios
Agios Georgios

Earning a view
Earning a view

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Looking down to Palaiokastritsa
Looking down to Palaiokastritsa

In the centre of the island we catch a glimpse of an area that is not devoted to serving tourists with several sheep farms and some orchards, but judging by the state of the houses it looks to be far less profitable than the tourist trade. How these communities afford to buy their groceries is hard to understand.

On our last evening on the island we stop to buy some fruit from a van parked by the side of the road and get our bag of fresh oranges and kiwi fruit bought for us by another friendly punter. We spend the night high on a hill next to Kaisers Throne overlooking the rest of the island with a couple of cats for company.

Sheltering for a soggy sunset
Sheltering for a soggy sunset

Looking towards north Corfu
Looking towards north Corfu

Night time view over Corfu
Night time view over Corfu

In the morning a glove thief pays us a visit. He would have got away with it too if he hadn’t been caught red-mouthed trying to take the second one out of my helmet which was left on the ground. After an extensive search of the area we can’t find the first glove so the thief gets a scolding which of course he won’t understand being a Greek dog. There’s nothing for it but to put up with wearing my winter gloves for the next few days until we can find a bike shop.

Looking towards South Corfu
Looking towards South Corfu

Kaisers Throne
Kaisers Throne

On our way to the ferry port of Lefiniki we call into a local distillery to buy the island’s speciality: kumquat liqueur. It’s not quite a single malt but should be a nice little throat warmer in the evenings.

It’s a 90 minute boat trip back to the mainland and from the deck we can see that the road up ahead doesn’t look much flatter with mountains looming along the coast in all directions. The colours are also browns and reds so we it looks like we may have a drier day or two ahead than on the lush, green, rain soaked Corfu. In the evening we get some puppies for company who are being nursed by an enthusiastic mother under a tree in a layby but have run out of Greek names to give them.

Igoumenitsa
Igoumenitsa

Layby puppies
Layby puppies

Despite the size of the mountains when we start heading south the next morning we find the road is much easier than Corfu with gradients in single figures and our speed (mostly) in double figures. We get some great views along the coast and back inland towards the bigger hills and thankfully it’s warm and dry day so the jackets stay off but my hands get sweaty.

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Our destination that day is Preveza and as we approach the town we spot some perfect camp spots alongside a huge and empty beach but without food and water yet we’re not able to stop. This is often the way and works the same for the best picnic spots as you always pass them at the wrong time of day. In the end it doesn’t matter as a last minute Couch Surfing request has been answered by Tassos and he’s happy to host us for the night right in the middle of the town.

Tassos, our host in Preveza
Tassos, our host in Preveza

Along with a spare room Tassos has a restaurant where he treats us to some very tasty mezze. The only drawback is that we have to put up with having to watch 22 men with extraordinary haircuts chasing a football on the TV (Olympiakos 4 – Malmo 2). A few of Tassos’ friends have also been invited but no-one seems interested in the game and instead they have a heated and high volume discussion about politics. Tassos gives us a brief overview as to what the conversation is about which is to do with the upcoming elections and who is the most suitable out of a selection of mostly unsuitable candidates. Everyone is finding it tough and the higher cost of living of taking its toll. They also have to put up with some over zealous police who have started enforcing laws like having to wear a helmet on a scooter and not smoking in public places which Tassos considers to be ‘ridiculous’ and are also largely ignored by just about everyone.

Christmas lights, Preveza
Christmas lights, Preveza

Preveza is another town that comes alive in the summer when it becomes a mecca for sailors from around the world. But even in December there is enough going on in the streets outside our window all night to make sure we don’t get much sleep. It seems the Greeks prefer to stay up late and catch up on their sleep during the afternoon siesta when a lot of the smaller shops will be shut.

The lack of sleep along with the ill effects of a mysterious green sludge that has been growing in our water bottles mean that Kirsty needs a bit more rest but we don’t have much to do the next day. I’d suffered on Corfu with a dodgy stomach too, so after a wander round the town we give the bottles a long overdue scrub and saddle up again for a short ride to the island of Lefkada. However to get there we have to negotiate a subsea tunnel that runs underneath the entrance to the huge Ambracian Gulf that sits next to Preveza.

Some research had told us that you can’t cycle through this tunnel even though it’s only 1500m long. We’d also found reports of some cyclists getting charged a fortune to take a taxi through it, while another had simply turned up and played innocent and then been carried through in a pick-up by the tunnel operatives. The latter seemed preferable so we made for the tunnel entrance and nearly began the descent down underground, but suddenly there were red lights in front of us so we pulled up with a queue of traffic behind us. We waited for a short while then a truck arrived with flashing orange lights and a man jumped out waving his finger saying ‘no bikes in the tunnel’. He instructed us to wait for 10 minutes in a layby and someone would come and get us. Low and behold a pickup turned up and after some shaking of heads when they see the size of the tandem it gets loaded and we’re driven through to the other side. This is actually all part of the service that they offer but they don’t like to advertise it as it’s clearly a pain. For us it saves an extra 100km of riding around the bay to get to Lefkada which would be a much bigger pain.

Getting a lift through the sub-sea tunnel
Getting a lift through the sub-sea tunnel

Once on our way again we are joined by a chap from Norfolk who now lives on Lefkada and is going for a spin on a shiny carbon road bike. He pulls alongside for a brief chat and tells us how he once rode back to the UK in 11 days on the same bike with nothing but a credit card in his back pocket. He admits it was a bit stupid and we’d agree as he must have missed a lot on the way.

The causeway to Lefkada
The causeway to Lefkada

Lefkada Marina
Lefkada Marina

There are quite a few ex-pats living round here who have been drawn to the area by the warmer climate and reliable wind conditions and after a night on the top of the island of Lefkada we’re off to stay with a couple more: Joe and Karen who have been living in Vasiliki for 18 years now with Joe working for a sailing holiday company and Karen as a yoga instructor. We were put in touch by a mutual friend who had also worked with boats on Lefkada and also ridden back to the UK several years ago. In fact Quinty and Rona’s epic ride which included climbing over the alps in the middle of winter, has been an inspiration for us. We’ve decided not to follow Quinty’s advice of carrying a crowbar to fend off unfriendly dogs though.

Dockside in Nydri, Lefkada
Dockside in Nydri, Lefkada

The weather is a bit British on our way down to Vasiliki, which sits at the south of this small island and we get a good soaking right at the top of the big hill before dropping back down to the sea. But once we’re there we’re welcomed in to their huge house overlooking the bay. Joe admits that he’s actually house sitting for the owner who only uses it for a few weeks of the year. It’s a chance for us to wash just about everything we own which is unfortunate for Joe, Karen and their son Harry as they have to eat dinner with me in a pair of tights and a t-shirt. Kirsty dresses properly and is resplendent in her ‘going out’ skirt (and a t-shirt).

Cyclist tan. Or maybe she just needs a shower.
Cyclist tan. Or maybe she just needs a shower.

Joe, Karen and Harry, our fantastic hosts in Vasiliki.
Joe, Karen and Harry, our fantastic hosts in Vasiliki.

For anyone with a passing interest in wind-powered water sports Vasiliki is one of the top locations in the world so it almost seems a shame that we have to catch a ferry the next day rather than a yacht. Perhaps once day we’ll return and join one of Joe’s sailing holidays. I don’t think they’ll be leaving anytime soon and who can blame them.

Another ferry crossing
Another ferry crossing

Vasiliki
Vasiliki

The ferry takes us onto our next island of Kefalonia after a quick stop at Ithica. For fans of the ancient classics Ithica is where Homer’s Odyssey was set. Kefalonia also has some literary connections as it was the setting for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. On the boat we meet a French couple who are seven months into a year long trip in a camper van. They are heading east after the islands and plan to cross the Peloponnese to get to Crete for Christmas. We also meet Rita and Mario who rolled onto the ferry just before it weighed anchor. They’d ridden from Switzerland and also plan to be on the road for a year but this is one of many big trips they’ve completed. They have been bitten badly by the travel bug and don’t work for more than 5 years before heading off on another big adventure. This is a life-long lifestyle for them.

Kefalonia
Kefalonia

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Arriving at Sami
Arriving at Sami

We decide to join Rita and Mario for the evening and after we’ve all stocked up with food and water in Sami we venture off up the coast to find a camp spot made for two tents. And we find the perfect location just a pebble’s throw from the sea though Rita and Mario are nervous about it as it’s clearly visible from the road. Their preferred camp spots are usually well hidden and at least 50m into ‘the bush’ so we concede by letting them hide their small tent behind our dark green mansion.

Convoy! with Rita and Mario
Convoy! with Rita and Mario

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The sea is invitingly tepid and clear so even Kirsty gets in for a dip. Then it’s time for supper, a few swigs of kumquat liqueur and star gazing to round off a very pleasant evening.

Evening swim on Kefalonia
Evening swim on Kefalonia

I get a solo performance of Happy Birthday in the morning from Kirsty and it looks like I might have a bit more luck with the weather than she did for hers. It’s Mario’s birthday the day after and Rita’s on the 28th so we’re all December babies.

After a leisurely start and a stunning sunrise we discuss our plans and when we suggest that we’re heading north Mario and Rita say they’re going south. Maybe we enjoyed the previous evening more than they did. They plan to ride across the Peloponnese and then onto Crete after Kefalonia but are spending more time off the bikes than us as they like to hike as much as bike.

Birthday beach breakfast
Birthday beach breakfast

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The ride that morning is mostly uphill but the sunshine and views mean that we hardly notice the effort. The road takes us up to the north east of the island so we get views over to Ithica then back to Lefkada before rounding onto the west coast where we get to look down on to the castle at Assos as we drop down a ladder of steep hairpins.

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Looking across to Ithica
Looking across to Ithica

Tandem selfie
Tandem selfie

 

There are goats with their kids on the road on one of these corners and we chase them over the side only to meet them again at the next hairpin further down so they have to scarper all over again.

Assos
Assos

Goats on the road!
Goats on the road!

From Assos we get to enjoy a glorious stretch of road that sits on the cliff side and with a still, calm, bright blue sea to our right. The road is closed as there is work going on to secure the rock face but we get waved through by the workmen and have the tarmac to ourselves. Kirsty has pulled out all the stops to make this a birthday to remember and I feel a bit guilty about the soggy day that she had had on Corfu. Hopefully this will do for both of us.

The coastline at Assos
The coastline at Assos

Riding the coast road from Assos
Riding the coast road from Assos

Securing the rocks. Apparently it was safe for us to ride past.
Securing the rocks. Apparently it was safe for us to ride past.

After a stop for lunch of a meat feast mezze we keep working our way round the coast and onto the west side of the island and eventually to Lixouri in time for a drink. I can only wonder where we’ll be for our birthdays next year.

Riding to the south west of Kefalonia
Riding to the south west of Kefalonia

The next day is a double ferry day as we cross from Lixouri to Argostoli first thing, passing some rowers on the way. A pretty good place to train by our reckoning, certainly compared to the Bristol docks. It’s then a 40km ride round the south of the island which seems a lot more densely populated than the north end. We drop into the port of Poros at lunchtime and it’s not long to wait before we board the boat back to the mainland.

Rowing at Argostoli
Rowing at Argostoli

Valerianos
Valerianos

Gorge before Poros
Gorge before Poros

With the Ionian islands and our birthdays behind us we’re thinking about the next big day in December. We’ve got a bit of time before Father Christmas does his rounds so the plan from here is to cross the mountains of the Peloponnese then catch a boat to Crete from Piraeus. Let’s hope there’s still room on the boat with all the other campers and cyclists heading that way!

Merry Christmas Lixouri
Merry Christmas! Lixouri