2005 -- Biking and Exploring Greece

June 19 -- Bicycling Peloponnese -- Greek Greetings

Hooray.  Finally back on the bikes.  We ride out of Athens southwest toward the Peloponnese.  The traffic is surprisingly busy for a Sunday morning, and the first few hours we ride through an industrial district.  But finally we are out of the city and on a smaller side road.  The temperature is 94 degrees but with a light ocean breeze that feels pleasant. 

The big surprise is the huge amount of trash beside the road.  Not just litter, but piles of garbage everywhere, old furniture, mattresses, sinks, toilets and mounds of construction debris.  After seeing so many pictures of idylic, white-washed Greek villages, we assumed the countryside would be spotless, someting like New Zealand.  Instead it is like parts of Mexico, or Egypt.

The other surprise is how reserved many people seem.  In the evening we stop at a little beach campground on the coast south of Corinth.  As we pitch our tent Tass catches the eye of the woman camping next to us.  Tass smiles but the woman keeps staring at Tass, and then looks away.  This happens three times and the woman never returns Tass' smile.  All through the day we have noted similar reactions. 

Tass is reading, The Summer of My Greek Taverna, where the author says many Greeks are suspicious and reserved.  Many believe strongly in the "evil eye" which can be cast by anyone, intentionally or unintentionally, especially by women and people with blue eyes.  The evil eye can be cast maliciously, or inadvertantly through jealousy and envy.  Many Greeks are cautious about boasting, or proclaiming any good news, in fear of attracting the evil eye.  Even gving out compliments, like saying someone has a beautiful baby, can apparently send mothers and grandmothers into furious rounds of spitting to ward off the evil eye.  We have also noted that jewelry shops all sell worry beads marked to avert the evil eye.

Tass buys an inexpensive bottle of wine that is actually very good, and helps her to forget about the continuing pain in her jaw.  We order "small fish" thinking it will be a small portion.  Instead it is a plate heaped with four inch, headless, fried fish.  We squeeze them to pop out the spine and eat everything but the tiny tail in one bite.  Yum!
June 20 -- Ouzo -- Epidavros
Major climbing today.  We ride for two hours in our lowest gears, creeping up a large pass into the mountains.  We finally break through the Greek stoicism when a few drivers honk and wave as they pass.  On a steep switchback corner three people selling fruit wave us down.  They invite us to a table in the shade and pour us each a huge cup of Ouzo, the anise flavoured alcohol that is the national drink of Greece.  As we politely sip I eyeball the label--40 proof.  They also give us bread and olives and we have a great time practicing Greek from our phrase book.  "O filos mu fili mu katerefse" which means "My friend has collapsed."  The temperature is 96 degrees as we resume riding up the hill, trying not to collapse.
In the afternoon we visit Epidavros, the ruins with the best preserved ancient theater in all of Greece, built on a hillside and able to hold 14,000 people, but most famous for its incredible accoustics .  The surrounding area was a healing center with a large hospital and various temples.  It is surprising the theater is in such good condition as little remains of the rest of the city.
In the evening we ride until almost dark and then pull off the road and "wild camp" as they call it  in Greece, off on our own, alone in an orchard.  At first we assume the vibrant, deep reddish-orange fruits are nectarines.  But when we taste a few off the ground we realise they are huge appricots.  The fruit are so abundant they are dripping off the trees all around us.

June 21 -- Nafplio -- Dentist #5

Unbelievably, Tass' tooth has been getting worse, and now hurts as bad as ever. As we ride to Nafplio we discuss the option of catching a bus back to Athens for more dental work.  We arrive mid-morning and by chance meet an American-Greek who owns houses in both countries.  We ask if he can recommend a dentist.  He jumps in his car while we follow on the bikes, leads us to the dentist office, and stays to interpret as dentist #5, his friend, does not speak English.

He tells us the root canal went too deep, and believes if he takes out some of the temporary packing it will relieve the pressure and air out.  Tass has lost all confidence, is wide eyed, and looks ready to have a nervous break down.  I don't see any reason to return to Athens, and encourage Tass to let him give it a try.  Zeno, our interpreter, and I stand next to Tass for moral support as the dentist does his work.  Thankfully it doesn't take long.  Tass leaves with yet another prescription for antibiotics, her third course, and some pain pills.

Both of us have lost all enthusiasm for further riding today.  Besides, Nafplio is known as one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in all of Greece.  We get a great little room in a part of the city built in the 17th century by the Venetians, with narrow, windy streets, many covered with flowering vine awnings.  The buildings all have ornate balconies filled with flowering plants, and elaborate and colorful shutters on all the windows. 

Many of the narrow, pedestrian streets are filled with sidewalk cafes.  We take up residence in a cafe with two-person love seat couches under umbrella awnings, drink cappacinos and eat soft pastry treats while Tass reads and I write.

June 22 -- Sidewalk Cafes -- Greek History

Perhaps it is just the pain pills, but Tass' tooth seems to be doing better.  Still, neither of us has any interest in leaving Nafplio.  We already have a favorite cafe, and after sleeping in, we have a wonderful luxurious all-morning breakfast.

We return to our pension for a romantic siesta.  One wall of our room is giant windows with no screens, opening out to view the Aegean Sea, along with a nearby building completely covered with purple bouganvilla. We have our own bathroom (a luxury for us), a small fridge, and a huge wrought iron bed with crisp, freshly ironed white sheets.  It is incredibly relaxing and restful.

Later we return to a different cafe for happy hour, then yet another cafe for supper.  Tass is reading Dinner with Persephone by Patrica Storace, an informative and enlightening book on Greek culture.  To sum it up, Greek attitudes and beliefs are greatly influenced by history and religion, both of which are extremely complex, not just affecting the past, but dramatically influencing day to day life and actions.

Greece has certainly had a tumultuous history.  Even during the Golden Age of classical Greece there were constant wars, often with Persia, then within Greece itself during the Peloponnesian Wars, among others.  Then the Romans took over.  Next the Goths invaded, followed by the Franks during the crusades.  Then the Venetians ruled for a few hundred years until they were ousted by the Ottoman Turks.  The Venetians rallied a few centuries later and drove the Turks back out, blowing up much of the Parthenon in the process.  Twenty-five years later the Turks were back in power.  Next it was Catherine the Great of Russia who made a power move.  This set off a war for Greek Independece in the 1820s, resulting in numerous Turkish and Greek massacres of entire villages.  A variety of wars ensued when the victorious Greek leaders began fighting each other for control of the country.  Then came WWI.  Next, Greece invaded Turkey, and set off another round of wars, culminating in a population exchange to prevent more war--1.5 million Greeks left Turkey and 400,000 Turks left Greece.  (Don't make the mistake of ordering Turkish coffee in any restaraunts!  Today feelings still run so strong that the name has just recently been changed to Greek coffee!)  Next came WWII.  Then more civil war, this time so severe it triggered a mass exodus with one million Greeks leaving for Australia, Canada and the US.  Since then there have been a number of governments, from far right to the far left.  Is Greece finally stable?  Only time will tell.

June 23 -- Cycling the Peloponnese Coast

The ferry we want to take from southern Peloponnese to Crete only leaves once a week.  To catch next weeks ferry we reluctantly must leave Nafplio today.  Tass' tooth is doing much better.  We forgo an early start (none of the cafes even open until 9 am) to have another wonderful breakfast--chocolate croissants, cheese and tomato omlettes, butter, jam, toast, fresh squeezed orange juice and french-press coffee.  The great thing about cycling here in June is we can start riding at noon and still have almost nine hours of daylight--more than enough time to wear ourselves out on the bikes!

The coastal scenery is fantastic, much more like we had hoped when planning our trip--sparse traffic on twisty, narrow roads along rugged coastline overlooking beautiful bays with sparkling, turquoise water and isolated beaches.  In small villages along the way we buy hot pastry bread and feta cheese pies in little bakeries, tomatoes, peaches, melons and olives at roadside stalls, and make ala-carte lunches under the shade of olive trees.  In the evening we "wild camp" near the town of Leonidio in an olive grove high on a steep hillside with a spectacular view of the Aegean Sea.  As the sun sets we take sponge baths, thrilled to be alone in our own quiet little spot of paradise.

June 24 -- Parnonas Mountains

We load up with water and food and begin riding over the Parnonas Mountains of southeastern Peloponnese.  Ahead of us the road climbs about 4,000 feet in just 28 kilometers, about 17 miles.  The road begins up a narrow gorge with huge orange-colored limestone walls towering high above us.  At mid-morning we stop at a monastery built in a natural cave, high above the valley floor, like an Anasazi cliff dwelling.  The setting is beautiful with a courtyard of flowering plants, but the chapel is small, dark and dreary.  If I was a monk I would build an overlook on the canyon wall, a much better place for introspection and prayer.

The road continues to switchback up one hillside and then another, and yet another.  By early afternoon we go from weary enthusiasm to catatonic exhaustion.  Every single muscle aches.  And still we climb upward.  At 4 pm we stop to eat in a little village that our guidebooks claims is 6 km downhill over the pass, yet we can see the road still goes up above us.

Our pace slows to a crawl, and still we go up.  At last we cross the pass and immediately plunge downhill, high speed, as fast as our bikes will go.  In less than an hour we drop over 3,000 feet--Yahooo!!  When the road enters a wide, rolling valley we ride for another two hours, dallying whenever there is the slightest uphill, making photos of gnarled olive trees, goats, anything possible to put off more climbing.  At last it is late enough to wild camp in an olive grove near a hairpin corner where no one can see us.

June 25 --Taygetos Mountains

Great to awake looking up at an orange-colored sky through the branches of an olive tree.  We ride 25 km to Sparta, eat breakfast, and head for an internet cafe.  Amazed by the number of people who emailed with root canal advice and horror stories.  Thanks for all your thoughts and concerns.  Tass' tooth is doing much better.  She still eats very carefully and plans to have everything fixed, again, when we get home.  We finally leave town at noon.  Ahead of us lies the Taygetos Mountains with an even higher pass than yesterday. 

We are starting out in the hottest part of the day. We hope for shade as we enter the canyon but find none.  The road switchbacks so steeply that huge rock walls have been built to hold each hairpin corner to the side of the mountain.  In other areas the limestone has been carved out to make giant overhanging roofs to allow room for the highway.  The scenery is even more spectacular than yesterday, and keeps us motivated. Our guidebok describes it as "the most beautiful road in all of Greece."

We stop repeatedly to stretch our neck and lower back muscles.  Yesterday Tass had a hard time staying with my pace, and assumed she was still weak from all the antibiotics.  Now she wonders if something is wrong with her brake.  I check it out and find a small stone lodged in the brake lever.  We realise her brake has been rubbing, probably since her bike fell over yesterday morning.  As we resume riding Tass asks "How do you say lactic acid  in Greek?"  Resuming riding after a rest is always painful until the muscles warm back up.  Still, Tass takes off like a rocket, and now I struggle to keep up with her pace.

As we climb, clouds move in and the temperature drops.  We stop for water at a spring-fed roadside fountain.  A man working a nearby garden finds we are Americans and says "Bush, boom, boom!" shakes his head sadly, then gives us some cherries.

Another hour in our lowest gears.  In Nafplio someone stole our bike computers when we foolishly left our bikes locked in a hotel hallway accessible to an alley.  (They also stole a small wooden cross off my handlebars I had purchased at a monastery--now that is low!  Thankfully they didn't take our mirrors or tool kits.)  Now we make jokes about our speed, asking each other how fast we are going, replying "I feel really strong, my computer says 20 km an hour" when we are actually creeping along at probably 4-5 km per hour.

By 6 pm we are on top.  The clouds and mist are so thick we have to put on warm clothes and our rain coats for the descent down a lush, rainforest-like valley of ferns, flowering plants and trees.  At the bottom of the canyon we camp in a secluded spot next to a little creek and a pile of abandoned tires.  We take a refreshing dip before crawling, utterly exhausted, into bed.

June 26 -- Euphoria and Exhaustion

As we continue riding down the canyon I feel an incredible euphoria.  The air in the early morning shade of the mountains is crisp and cool.  On the steep hillsides the trees are a luxuriant carpet of healthy, new-growth green.  I am reminded of New Zealand temperate rainforest.  I think with amazement of all the different countries through which we have bicycled!  Equally amazing is that traveling under our own power on bicycles continues to fascinate us.  I yell out a loud, exuberant whoop of joy, and ring my bell three times.  Behind me Tass rings her bell twice in reply.

Everyone told us that after the pass it was downhill all the way to Kalamata.  We ride less than an hour, come around a corner, and find the road switchbacking up a steep hillside.  "Remind me again.  How do you say downhill in Greek?" Tass quips as we drop into our lowest gears.  But half an hour later we are over the smaller pass, and this time it really is downhill to Kalamata, famous for its delicious olives. 

It is Sunday morning and the city beaches are already filled with people.  We turn southeast and ride along the coast through a string of small beach communities.  Suddenly we are ready for a little beach inaction ourselves.  We get plenty of sun on the bikes, so laying in the sun on the beach hasn't seemed that appealing.  But the chaise lounges under the umbrellas are looking extremely inviting.  We plan to stop at a beach just 20 km further down the coast.  But first we have to get there.  The highway leaves the ocean and climbs into the mountains to cross a penensula.  We are on a secondary road that is so steep, 15% grade and more, we have to zig-zag up using both lanes to keep our momentum going. 

The humidity has soared and for the first time in Greece we worry about heatstroke.  We had expected a 1,000-foot climb, but we go twice that.  The exertion of the last few days has exacted a toll.  I suddenly feel overwhelmed.  Tass senses my weakness and immediately becomes the positive motivator, urging me on.

Hours later we arrive on top, out of water, and grumpy.  The downhill wind cools off our skin but our throats are parched.  Back down on the coast we find the campground is closed, and the area too crowded to wild camp.  The next campground is seven kilometers away.  We sit in stunned disbelief, then eat huge gourmet ice cream bars, trying to rally for more riding.  At last we arrive at the campground in Stoupa.  We dash to the ocean, jump in to cool off, and then lay down on a chaise lounge, under an umbrella, and fall asleep. 

June 27 -- Stoupa -- Greek Drivers

We spend the day at the beach on the chaise lounges, Tass reads while I lay comatose, listening to my iPod.  We get up ocassionally to take a refreshing dip in the crystal clear emerald green water.

A few Greek highway thoughts...  A huge number of people here ride little scooters or motorcycles.  The cars are all very small.  Our favorite vehicle is the Smartcar, a two-door, two-seater, slightly longer than our bikes but wide, tall and surprisingly spacious inside.  The Smartcar is so short people can park them perpendicular to the curb in tiny spots next to other cars that have parked parrallel.  The cars Greeks drive seem so advanced in design and efficency, virtually no SUVs.  No wonder, gas here is about $5 US a gallon.

The highways are lined with roadside shrines, glass enclosed altars built on pedestals.  Inside are large color photographs of the deceased, all killed in auto accidents, along with pictures of Jesus, Mary, and various saints, plus candles, bottles of olive oil, and other momentoes and offerings.  Some of the shrines are small and simple, others shrines are built to look like a church, painted bright colors with fresh flowers and burning oil lamps.

Greece has the highest traffic mortality rate in all of Europe, the evening news always includes a tally of accidents, with numbers of both injuries and fatalities.  But after coming from Egypt, which has the highest traffic mortality rate in the world, we haven't felt the drivers are especially dangerous.  Like anywhere, we see ocasisonal wild drivers.  After one speeds past I remark "His goal is to someday have his own roadside shrine."  Tass picks up on the comment, and soon we are calling bad drivers "shrine wannabes," which evolves into "future shrines" then shortened to "FS."

June 28 -- Ferry to Crete

The weekly ferry to Crete leaves from Gytheio today at 4 pm.  We can't cycle the distance in time, so we head for the bus stop.  The bus driver "helper" takes a look at our bikes and shakes his head.  He won't let us load.  Only when the driver comes out and we pantomine putting the bikes on ourselves does he tell the helper to let us board.  The huge luggage compartment underneath is completely empty, it takes 30 seconds for us to load.  On board, the bus has just five other passengers, who get off at the next town.  We ride alone for the 30 minute ride, stunned that the "helper" would rather have an empty bus then give us a lift.

At Areopolis we change buses.  This time the helper, driver, and another bus employee all refuse to let us board.  As we argue a mob of Greeks, in line behind us, all load up, all with giant boxes that take up an equal amount of room as our luggage.  The driver quickly slams the door shut, jumps on the bus, and drives off.  What is especially irksome is that they had no interest in even trying to fit in our luggage, or even saying sorry, no room.  Instead they scowled and yelled at us, like we had done something wrong. 

We have had similar reactions in stores, where employees are so busy yelling at each other, no one stops to wait on us, and finally we walk out to find a different store.  Of course we have also had great encounters, people giving us ice water, one baker even gave us some bread and sweets.  Greeks certainly come across as either very friendly, or very grumpy.  A Greek novelist writes " Each country has something to keep it from being paradise.  In England it is the rain, in Greece it is the Greeks."

We have no choice but to ride the last 30 km to the ferry.  A man nearby assures us the road is downhill the entire way.  We have heard that before.  If there is even one pass we won't make it.  We take off, stressed and under pressure, if we miss the ferry we will have to take a bus (?!) all the way back to Athens to catch a ferry to Crete.

The road is not downhill all the way, but luckily we don't have any large climbs and we arrive in Gythieo in time.  On the ferry we treat ourselves by upgrade our tickets to get a cheap cabin to insure a good nights sleep.  We arrive in Crete after midnight but don't have to disembark until the next morning.

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