miles, 11 mph average2
Epirus & The Pindos Mountains
From Corfu airport I rode down to the old town, past the famous
cricket pitch and through the Roman
arch, towards the harbour
and past a group of lads
from Hannover on their way to a tour of Albania (www.bikeboys.eu).
They were very sociable and we helped each other sort out tickets
to the mainland before setting off on our respective journeys. I
dallied around until about 10 minutes before my ferry was due to
disembark and then joined what I had presumed to be a line of pedestrians
waiting to board. A stream of coaches and lorries rolled off the
ferry but there was no sign of any boarding, so I made a few enquiries
in a cobbled together sign language. It soon became apparent that
this was not my ferry and that I needed to make haste to the other
end of the docks, but I got stuck behind a dithering Dutchman in
a campervan and made the dockside only to see the gantry being raised
and hopes of reaching the mainland that night dashed. News back
at the ferry office was that there would be another ferry but arrival
in Igoumenitsa was scheduled for 01:30 in the morning.
I tried to get a few hours sleep on the beach but worries of accommodation
at the other end and the need for a proper rest before a mammoth climb
kept me awake. To my relief the ferry was on time and amazingly a
hotel was still open in Igoumenitsa so I grabbed a four hour power
nap before I set out on what I knew would be one of the toughest climbs
I had ever encountered, rising 1690m from sea level to the Katara
Pass at Metsovo.
The first miles took me through a paradise of lush valleys and climbed
at a steady rate on a largely empty
road. I was following the old Via Egnatia, laid by the Romans
in the second century BC. The same road along which Julius Caesar
and Pompey had marched along in the civil war. A new motorway is under
construction and when finished it will have 62 miles of tunnels
and 1,650 bridges, but in the mean time the completed sections were
taking the bulk of the traffic away from the old road so I rode in
peaceful solitude through the arcadian landscape. From time to time,
old trucks with Bulgarian or Iranian number plates trundled by. Often
the drivers would be sitting 'side saddle' with their doors open to
keep fresh air in the cabs. They were using the old road, as their
employers could not afford the tolls on the new. To a man they were
the most courteous of road users - always giving a wave, a friendly
toot and a wide berth. At one pass
a convoy had stopped to take in the view and gave a huge cheer to
salute my efforts as I struggled by.
By lunchtime I was by the lake at Ioannina
- the capital of Epirus. Once ruled by the Ali Pasha, who was a notorious
murderer but an excellent businessman and administrator. The city
prospered and held a degree of autonomy within the Ottoman empire,
resulting in a curious blend of Greek and Turkish architecture within
the old town. In the late 1700's the Ali Pasha got a bit too big for
his boots and having made the city one of the wealthiest in Greece,
he aimed for independence. The sultan dispatched troops who lay siege
to the city for several months and eventually hunted him down to an
island in the lake.
The climb in the midday heat out of Ioannina was a killer, rising
for the second time to over 1000m, before plunging back down to
a river valley. By the time I reached the Katara Pass
after the winter ski resport of Metsovo - Greece's highest
road at 1690m - I had been riding for 12 hours and had climbed
two further colls, such that the total climbing was far greater
than crossing the Alps. Although I was shattered, the amazing views
kept my spirits high and I donned a few layers in readiness
for the 30-mile descent.
mountain range extends to an area covering most of North West Greece
and is home to the last few surviving brown bear and silver wolves
in Europe. But the road was devoid of wildlife save for the occasional
squashed snake and herds of goats with their bells clonking out a
peaceful melody that echoed through the valleys.
I came across a country house offering rooms for the night, and they
made me very welcome offering a set dinner to be taken with the family
and the only two other guests. Stephan and Gerald were a recently
married Dutch couple that rewrote the rules on being camp. With their
matching dyed auburn hair, crimson trousers and exuberant shirts they
made a poor job of hiding their sexuality, even though to avoid offending
conservative Orthodox Greeks they were travelling as 'friends' rather
than as a couple. Their English was perfect (their Greek was also
not far off the mark) and they made excellent dinner companions, joking
and sharing their wide experience of travels in Greece. They had been
brushing up their English by watching repeats of 1970's British sit-coms
like Are You Being Served? and Dad's Army, but their favourite, probably
because the whole cast (apart from Windsor Davies) were portrayed
as being gay, they called It Is Not Very Hot Mum!
132 miles, 13 mph average3
Meteora & Thessaly
An early start let me have my first
sight of Meteora before the town had woken up. The natural sandstone
towers have been used as a religious retreat since AD 985 and
the first monastery perched high on the summit was built in 1382.
Its still unknown how the first monks scaled the vertical rock
faces, but one theory shows how kites could have been used to
drop rope ladders and its only since 1920 that stairs have been
cut to permit access to the main monasteries.
I turned north away from the Via Egnatia but back into the mountains.
This time there were no gently elevating Roman roads to help - just
straight up and straight down and judging by the contour lines it
was going to be like that all day. The road was empty and every
village I passed through was deserted. At Deskati I found the only
place open to be a bar with four drunks sat outside, sipping Ouzo.
The man sat closest to me rolled off his chair, collapsed into the
gutter, vomited, pulled himself to his knees and staggered back
to his seat in the shade to continue drinking. It was ten o'clock
in the morning. There was water, beer and ouzo on offer but no food.
I had planned to visit Vergina the ancient capital of Macedonia and
final resting place of King Phillip II (he was assassinated and buried
there), the first ruler to unite Greece and father of Alexander the
Great, who was born in Pella just some 15 miles to the north. However
the riding was just looking too tough and with no reliable sources
of food and water, I decided to skirt around the mountains even though
the detour added another 100 miles to the trip. In the higher mountains
I had used the frequent roadside
springs to top up my bottles and rinse the sweat from my face
and arms, but these back lanes had nothing to help the weary traveller.
Along one track, I spotted a rock in the road that appeared to be
moving. As I drew closer, I pulled over to have a look. It was a tortoise.
I had never in my wildest dreams imagined tortoises came from Greece!
The valley road was lined with fields of wheat and tobacco, dull after
the mountains and a nagging headwind had picked up, so it just became
a day of plodding along and racking up the miles.
Near the coast the road descended through agorge
known as the Wolf's Jaws. As pretty as it was, it was a
cycling nightmare allowing just one narrow road to pass through, so
that I had to be funnelled through with all of the traffic from a
139 miles, 14 mph average4
Thessalonika & Macedonia
The morning was grey and stormy, but after passing Platamon
Castle I had crossed the mainland and reached the Aegean
in just two days and the cool wind was crossing from the side and
occasionally behind me as I rode up the coast that is such a favourite
with the Greeks being equidistant from Athens and Thessaloniki.
Once more the motorway took up the traffic and I kept to the back
roads, navigating only by keeping the sea to my right and the snow
capped Mount Olympos to my left as Greek road signs were often less
than helpful, but for the last 10 miles into the city there
was no alternative to the main road.
Thessaloniki (AKA Salonica as it is named after Alexander's sister)
is Greece's second city and although it has been the Macedonian
capital since Roman times it was held by the Turks from 1430 to
1912. One Turkish legacy is the White
Tower on the sea front. The Via Egnatia passes through the centre
of town and at its eastern end Emperor Galerius build an arch
with carvings depicting his victory over the Persians in AD297,
but before Turks and Romans (and George Bush) it was of course Alexander
giving the Persians a hard time. He was just 22 and less than 5
foot tall when he first waged war on the Persians and eleven years
later he had conquered and united the known world as far east as
India, but died in Babylon probably of malaria but some scholars
say syphilis. Live fast; die young eh?
The climb out of the city felt pretty much vertical. Narrow cobbled
streets with overhanging balconies, twisted and turned in a labyrinthine
maze. I asked for directions to the castle
at the top of the hill twice and on both occasions was told to get
a bus. Greeks don't do bikes, so the notion of pedalling to the top
was completely lost on them, but once past the summit, it was as though
the whole of Macedonia was laid out in
front of me. Throughout my trip I'd done my best to at least open
a conversation in Greek with a cheerful 'kalimera', 'te
kana te' or suchlike, but once it became apparent that my vocab
was limited to say the least, some well meaning passer-by would address
me in German (which seems to be more widely used than English in these
parts), and even though I could then respond with 'mein Deutscher
ist nicht sehr gut', they would proceed to speak German and add
to my confusion.
Turning east I followed the shores of Lake
Koronia. It is one of several wetland habitats in Greece, with
its marshes rich in flowers, full of songbirds and waders. Storks
were a common sight and I saw a pair of pelicans bobbing about on
the shoreline too. With their backdrop of mountains, the lakes were
not unlike Loch Ness
apart from the olive groves and wildlife
Emerging at the coast once more, accommodation wasn't hard to find
and whilst dinner was being prepared I had a look at my freewheel,
that had been making an unwelcome noise on downhill stretches all
day. There was nothing obvious wrong, and further examination would
require specialist tools to strip it down so I settled for leaving
it be and having to pedal downhill to prevent the chain from getting
caught in the spokes.
142 miles, 14 mph average5
I had a lovely run along the coast in the early morning, passing
and the Lion of Amphipolis that guards the ancient port of
Strymon built on gold mining wealth. I'd been through Kavala
before as it is the departure point for package tourists being ferried
to the holiday island of Thassos. On those trips I hadn't taken
note that it was a place steeped in history. Its where St Paul first
set foot on European soil in AD 50 on his way to spread the Gospel
(although he was sent directly to jail without passing "Go");
the birthplace of the Egyptian Pasha, Mehmet Ali; and being the
port of Philippi, can claim to be the site of the defeat of Brutus
and Cassius at the hands of the fragile partnership forged between
Octavian and Mark Anthony.
For 350 years, Greece more or less lost its national identity under
Ottoman rule and after the war of independence much of the Eastern
influenced architecture was destroyed or disguised. However there
are still a few remains such as the aqueduct
in Kavala, proving that it was not only the Romans that left such
architectural treasures behind.
With the mountains of Bulgaria to my north I crossed the River
Nestos near Xanthi, entered Thrace and headed through fields of
cotton and tobacco into a flat land of marshes and marooned monasteries.
The constant pedalling necessary due to my freewheel ceasing up was
beginning to wear me out and, as the day passed, the verge of the
road began to look appealing as a comfy bed for a few hours.
The minor road to the 10th century amphitheatre at Maroneia
was in a state of disrepair,
so I took an inland diversion and found a sleepy village with a charming
hotel overlooking the hills falling away down to the sea. The owner's
son was less than charming when I wheeled my bike into his precious
lobby, but when the boss came out he soon agreed that the bike wasn't
a problem and that it could be stored in the hallway overnight.
121 miles, 13 mph average6
European Turkey & Gallipoli
I set out at dawn
through rolling hills towards Alexandroupolis, enjoying views to
and through ever thinning traffic. As I was headed for one of a
few border crossings that Greece shares with its neighbour I had
expected the road to become busier, but on the last section it all
but disappeared. I found myself wondering if I was on the right
road at all or if there had been some global disaster that was keeping
everyone at home. A double check on the map showed that there was
indeed just the one road to Turkey, and as the tarmac was smoother
in the fast lane I decided to ride down that instead of the hard
After an easy visit to the visa office I entered Turkey over
the River Evros. The place seemed a world away and the road more potholed.
Farming folk stared or waved from fields of rice, and ramshackle busses
rattled by. From time to time I passed Romany families who would
invariably ask for cigarettes, and after a long hot mountain ridge
I caught sight of the Gallipoli peninsula.
77 miles, 14 mph average7
Asian Turkey & Troy
The Gallipoli peninsula stands as the gateway to the Dardanelles,
the Sea of Marmaris and the Black Sea. It has hence held a prized
strategic position throughout history but is best known as the site
of one of the bloodiest campaigns of World War 1, when over half
a million men were lost. The area is now visited for its cemetaries
and War memorials,
but there is also a very scenic national
park at the end of the peninsula.
The end of the peninsula, for me marked the end of a very significant
road. I had now ridden a route stretching from the far north of
Scotland, the west of Ireland to the south of Portugal and now to
the eastern limits of Europe and could see Asia over the straits.
The journey across Europe had taken 37 days and I had ridden 4,418
The ferry connecting continents took 30 minutes and cost about 30p.
Not much I thought for such a significant step. To my disappointment
there was no tangible difference on the Asian side and not even
a hoarding stating 'Asia Welcomes Careful Drivers' or something
of that ilk. Canakkale was just like most other Turkish towns -
noisy and chaotic but ultimately friendly. There was a travel agent
near the ferry port so I called in to check ferry times from further
up the coast to Istanbul and to ask about hotels. The staff were
very impressed with my bike, but as ever failed to take seriously
any distance I had cycled due to my lack of huge panniers, camping
gear and to not having a beard and a distant look in my eye. Its
been a constant niggle to me that most people cannot accept that
its possible to ride across Europe with a credit card and a toothbrush.
I've even considered buying some larger panniers and stuffing them
with newspaper just to look more like a proper long distance rider.
At Hisarlik are the thoroughly excavated ruins of ancient
Troy. The ruins have been dated from around 4000BC
and have yielded many relics from the Trojan Wars journalised in
Homer's Iliad. Sadly the information boards at the site make nothing
of the mythology and drone on about the history of the excavations
more than the history of Troy itself. Whilst there is little doubt
that this site was the location of the 11th century BC Trojans Wars,
the whole site could have been brought to life by stories of the
legendary Achilles, Ajax, Paris and Hector for which Troy is far
A replica wooden
horse has now been constructed commemorating the deceptions
of the Greeks used to ultimately defeat the Trojans. There is still
a great deal of animosity between Greeks and Turks but every year
a white dove is released from the horse to celebrate peace.
That night back at my hotel there was a graduation dinner for newly
qualified school teachers from the highly respected Canakkale university.
The young women were all looking fabulous in their splendid ball
gowns, milling about in the balmy evening air by the swimming pool.
A few had gangly youths in tow; clearly uncomfortable in their rented
DJ's, most of which seemed two sizes too big, but most were single.
I was looking on from the first floor restaurant fantasising about
how nice it might be to gate-crash the party later in the evening
(although with only cycling shoes and seven-day-old shorts and t-shirt
to wear it was looking unlikely), when in walked the whole of the
team. Basketball ranks second only to soccer in Turkey, so this
was a major coup for the hotel. I imagined how the evening would
unfold - twenty alcohol fuelled graduate girls; a full team of horny
young sportsmen; an open air swimming pool. Oh dear, it was going
to be carnage.
Sadly, after the best part of 750 miles under my saddle I was too
sleepy to stay up to watch it all unfold. I thought I'd be first
in line for breakfast but the basketball players had beaten me to
it. They had been on a strict no-booze-no-birds regime in preparation
for the Beijing Olympics and had retired not long after me, leaving
the young ladies to party on in peace. Bugger, I could have had
them all to myself!
8 June 08Day
The ferry across the Sea of Marmara took me straight into the Bosphorus
and what is known as the Horn of Istanbul but the notorious city
traffic wasn't as bad as its reputation deserves so I was soon at
my hotel and ready to take in the main sights.
For 400 years the Ottoman sultans housed their harems and ruled
their empire from the vast Topkapi
Palace. It is conceived as a series of courtyards and pavilions
rather than one typical grandiose palace building, and is now a
Deep under the city is the Roman Basilica
Cistern built to supply the palaces with fresh water, it was
buried and forgotten for almost a thousand years only to be rediscovered
after people were found collecting water by lowering buckets through
holes in their basements. You might recognise it from its role in
the Bond movie 'From Russia with Love'.
In my opinion the Blue
Mosque is by far the most impressive building in Istanbul. No
expense was spared by Sultan Ahmet 1, although his order of six
minarets (instead of the usual four) caused great controversy at
the time, as this was seen as an attempt to out-do the architecture
of Mecca and because Ahmet funded the whole project by raiding the
city's coffers as he had none of the usual war spoils to call his
Sophia dates back to AD 537 and has served as Christian cathedral
and then Islamic mosque after Roman Constantinople was conquered
by the Ottomans in 1453. Its been subject to several restorations
over the centuries but perhaps none so complete as that ordered
by the first Turkish president Mustafa Ataturk in 1935.
Away from the tourist attractions and traffic noise there are still
streets within the city's walls
to be found. It was whilst wandering such alleys I came across a
traditional Turkish barber. I was directed to a creaking leather
chair in the dusty, decrepit shop and so began the famous ritual
that lasted a full half hour. First my face was swathed in towels
that had been soaked in boiling water, then began the soaping-up
ceremony. Liberal quantities of foam were dabbed, brushed and worked
into every pore, then a new blade (much to my relief) was clipped
to the menacingly long cut-throat and the delicate precision work
began. I have never managed a wet shave without some bloodshed,
but the master surgeon didn't spill a drop and yet gave a closer
shave than I would have thought possible. A liberal dousing in aftershave
left me wincing but the procedure was not yet complete. I watched
in the mirror as cotton wool was wrapped around a short wooden stick,
soaked in alcohol and ignited! This was then wafted around my ears
to singe off any superfluous hair and although the hot flames licked
about my head there was no burning. I was about to leg it when the
barber's wiry hands came down on the back of my neck and he commenced
a shoulder massage that can only be described as brutal but refreshing.