139 miles, 11 mph average2 June 08Day 1
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.

The Pindos 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!



Greece
132 miles, 13 mph average3 June 08Day 2
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 wide area.



Greece
139 miles, 14 mph average4 June 08Day 3
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 of course.

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.



Greece
142 miles, 14 mph average5 June 08Day 4
Thrace


I had a lovely run along the coast in the early morning, passing deserted beaches 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.



Greece
121 miles, 13 mph average6 June 08Day 5
European Turkey & Gallipoli


I set out at dawn through rolling hills towards Alexandroupolis, enjoying views to distant Samothraki 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 shoulder!




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.



Greece
77 miles, 14 mph average7 June 08Day 6
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 miles.

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 better known.

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 national basketball 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!



Greece
8 June 08Day 7
Istanbul


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 museum.

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 own.

The Haghia 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 quiet back 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.




© 2008 site by mjrcreative
Back to top