Patras, Pirgos, Ancient Olympia, Kiparissia, Finikounda, Kalamata, Aeropoli, Sparta. Total Kms 3480.
My time on kephalonia had finally come to an end. I had met some wonderful people who I could regard as new friends and who had not only made me feel welcome on the island, they had made me feel as if I belonged there and that they had known me all their lives. Xmas day had been wonderful with everyone gathered in the Adonis restaurant for excellent food and entertainment and although I had been invited to stay for New Years Eve I knew that it was time to leave and continue my journey. I left with a promise that when the ride was over I would find my way back to the island that had been my home for three weeks.
The ferries back to Patras were incredibly busy and with only two days to go before the end of the year people were heading back to the mainland. I had a choice of taking the ferry from Poros and going back to Killini the way I had come or going back to Patras from Sami. I opted for the Patras route thinking it would probably be better to be in a large city on New year’s eve than a small town with very little in the way of accommodation. I managed to get a room in the same hotel that I had stayed in nearly a month earlier. Patras was very busy but much quieter than I remembered now that the rioting was at an end. New Years Eve is a time for friends and family in Greece and they tend to stay at home rather than going out. So I had a quiet night in the hotel with a bottle of champagne and Greek TV and although my eyes were closing I managed to stay awake for the midnight fireworks.
Leaving Patras on the morning of the first of January was very quiet and no different from anywhere in the world after New Year’s Eve. People nursing large hangovers stayed at home and the roads were free of traffic. My decision to ride straight to Athens from Patras had been made the day before when I had met a guy from the southern part of Greece who had said that because of the forest fires in the summer of 2008 all the surrounding countryside had been burnt and was not worth visiting. My intention had been to visit Ancient Olympia and ride to the very southernmost tip of mainland Greece before heading up to Athens, keeping south meant better weather and would also put me on perfect timing for arriving in Iran in the spring, the best time to visit. He had changed my mind with that bit of news and as I was leaving Patras the next morning I had very little time to consider my route.
The toll booths ahead meant it was a fast road and one that I couldn’t use, my map had shown this as the main road into Athens, 220Kms of what looked like a fairly flat road following the coast, the guy at the toll booth shouted “no bikes turn around go over the bridge and follow the road on the other side’’ it was my fault because I should have looked at the map rather than take his word for it but I did just as he said. The bridge was the main route between the Northern part of Greece and the Southern Peloponnese and I found myself on a route that if I followed would have taken me Kms out of my way. I didn’t check my map until I had gone about 30Kms and realised that the road was leaving the coast and climbing into the mountains. You know what I shouted and I don’t need to repeat it here but all the goats, sheep and cows for miles around heard me; I expect the guy in the toll booth probably heard something. It’s painful following the same road back, all that wasted energy and the people who have been amazed at the crazy guy on a bike get a second chance to stare, I just pulled my baseball cap down over my eyes and kept going.
Are we meant to meet the people we meet or is it just coincidence? George owns a mountain bike and his dream is to one day ride from Greece to China, he also owns a hotel and that’s where I stayed that evening after a long ride back towards Patras. We talked bikes and routes late into the night and he advised me to go back over the bridge, retrace my route through Patras and head south, the damage done by the fire was not that bad, yes you will see burnt trees but you will miss a whole lot more if you don’t go was his advice. In the same hotel I met a young honeymoon couple and along with George we had lunch together, the couple lived in Sweden but the young lady was from Iran and over lunch told me so much about the country, the best time to visit, where to go, what the people are like and a wealth of information, so was I meant to meet them or just coincidence, the guy at the toll might not have sent me over the bridge but let me go through to Athens on that main road, I now know after meeting those three lovely people and seeing Ancient Olympia and the Peloponnese that it would have been a real mistake on my part.
So back through Patras following the same route that I had taken a month or so earlier. As I passed the turn off for Killini I realised that I had made a 100Kms one month journey to get back here, it was raining I was soaking wet and thinking how great it would be to have a cup of tea when a British registered camper van went passed, I waved and he stopped, I think Brenda was already putting the kettle on as Keith opened the door. They lived in France and had come to Greece for the first time to get some winter sun; Keith had been a keen cyclist and had taken early retirement to travel on his bike. As we drank our tea it was pouring with rain and Keith offered to give me a lift to Olympia, I was going to say no thanks but then I thought about the 100Kms round trip I had made and thought you have earned a 20Kms lift to Olympia in the pouring rain, so the bike, bags and me where loaded into the van and off we went. I’m now happy that I took the lift, an hour later when I was warm and dry in the hotel a real storm came out of nowhere, thunder, lightning the lot, thank you Keith and Brenda that last bit of the ride into Olympia would have been awful.
This area of Greece has three fingers which stretch out into the Mediterranean, most of the important archaeological sites in Greece are here and there are hardly any big towns and very few people living in this mountainous countryside. It’s the season for Oranges that have just been picked and they are sold at the roadside for just a few Euros a bag, if only I had the room on the bike. Every garden I pass has trees covered in lemons, limes and grapefruit. Most of the days have been perfect for riding, breathtaking sea views and snow capped mountains make the days just magical. I’ve lived with the sea for weeks on this trip and most nights sleep with the door open so I can hear the waves, there is a natural beauty here that you just can’t beat. I found a small village called Stavropigio with lanes so narrow there was just enough room for me and the bike had a traditional stone mill olive press.I could have stayed there all day dipping chunks of freshly made bread into freshly ground olive oil.
There have been wet days and windy days but like the rest of the trip so far the good weather has far outweighed the bad. I stopped on a camp site on the southern coast of the first finger (no tent yet, they had apartments) and met Barry and Margaret who had given up their life back in Britain to travel, either in their camper van or on bicycles and they have travelled around the world three times, they also happened to be good friends of Keith and Brenda. I had two nights of good company, conversation and lots of excellent advice. I’m enjoying this long holiday and not working lark and long may it last.
Patras, Killini, Poros, Sami, Total Kms3104
It was on the overnight ferry to Greece that I first saw the news reports of that night’s violence and rioting in Athens. A policeman had shot dead a 15 year old boy and that had sparked the riots. I wasn’t too concerned; I wouldn’t get to Athens for at least another month or so. I want to spend some time on a couple of the Greek islands, as a fair weather rider the weather in Athens is too cold for me at the moment and I have the time to wait around for the weather to change.
Arriving in the port of Patras at 6am was not fun as I had had very little sleep on the ferry. The only hotel open at that time in the morning was mentioned in my guide book as being ‘’cheap, clean and central’’ so I checked in and went to straight to bed exhausted and slept till about 11am. The first thing I did later that morning was to make my way back to the port, I could see the ferry from the hostel windows and I wanted to take a couple of photos as I hadn’t had time when I was boarding in Italy. I met a very helpful local man and we talked for about an hour about my ride and his life in Patras. His dream had been to retire early and travel and at the age of 45 he had left his job and had lived on a small income ever since, he was now 65 and had travelled all over the world. He told me that you can’t see Greece without seeing the islands and he mentioned two that he thought were a must. Kefalonia which was now famous as it was here that the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was filmed and the island of Ithaka, both were very close to each other. I planned to stay in Patras for a couple of nights and then ride south to the port of Killini from where I could take a ferry to Kefalonia.
I explored the old town which overlooks the modern heart of the city in the afternoon and had wonderful views out over the bay. The old town has all the main sites, Agios Andreas the largest Orthodox Cathedral in Greece, Patras Fortress and The Roman Forum. The new town has all the shops, banks and restaurants. It was that night from the hotel balcony that I saw the riots taking place, hundreds of police with riot shields fighting rioters armed with bricks and any other weapon they could find, it was total madness with the usual burning and looting taking place. My hotel was on a street full of banks and these were the main target for the rioters. Two banks opposite the hotel were on fire and because of the madness the fire trucks couldn’t get up the street. Mobile phone shops were also target as were jeweller’s shops, I suppose even anarchists want to look trendy with the latest Nokia phones and Tag watches. The rioters all seemed to be young kids, wearing Che Guevara shirts and those Palestinian head scarves and I had seen them during the day as they had marched around the city chanting slogans and carrying banners proclaiming Anarchism, communism and every other kind of isms.
I had to suffer one more night of this mayhem. Patras has the only authentic Turkish baths in Western Europe and it’s the only one in Greece. This is no gym sauna but a real Turkish baths house. I had tried one in Istanbul years ago and it was the perfect relaxing experience and having peddled over 3000Kms to get here the one thing my body deserved was a bit of relaxing heat and I wasn’t going to let a bunch of school kids on summer break ruin it for me. One great thing about living in London for so many years is that I’ve seen all this before, Poll Tax riots, this riot, that riot, marches for communism, anarchism, racism, it’s nothing new, these kids are young, they will fight at night when I’m in bed and they sleep during the day when I’m out, so there was no need for me to change my Turkish baths plan.
The baths were fantastic and empty apart from me and a couple of old Greek guys, the attendant had told me that the place was usually full but the riots had kept people at home and off the streets. The baths had been in continuous use for about 500 years, fortunately for me they had been refurbished back in 1987, each room had its walls covered in white Greek marble and the rooms became hotter as you went further into the place and right in the centre a freezing cold plunge pool the perfect way to relax. So while Rome burned I cooked myself silly and studied my map in its rain proof folder working out my route for the next couple of days.
Kefalonia really is a very beautiful Greek island and has everything from massive mountains covered in trees to some of the best beaches in the world. Since the filming of Corelli the island has become a huge summer tourist destination but now in the middle of winter there is not a tourist in sight. I have rented a small studio room for next to nothing as it’s out of season, it has a small kitchen and the photo at the top of the page is a view from the balcony at sunset. With snow falling in Turkey and Iran at the moment and with lovely people, food and wine here I’m in no rush to leave.
My days are spent in total bliss, I have no watch other than the one on the bike computer and it’s turned off so not to rack up Kms while I’m joy riding around the island. This means I have lost all sense of time; I just follow the slow rhythm of island life. I walk, swim, ride my bike or just sit for hours in the sun and that’s it, that’s all I do and its fantastic, the locals say to me, it’s the winter here aren’t you bored or cold and my reply is always the same, it’s my choice to be here, I’m on a very beautiful island waiting for the snow to melt in another country so I can ride my bicycle there, how can I be bored and no I’m not cold, London and Edinburgh are cold at this time of year, this is a summers day in Britain.
Its great having the time to really get to know people and I meet people for coffee in the mornings, wine at lunch time or sit and talk over a beer and dinner in the evenings; the food is healthy with lots of fish, salads, fresh bread and olive oil. I went into a restaurant for lunch one day and was served a piece of fish that had been caught an hour earlier, the fishing boats had just returned to the harbour and as I walked through the restaurant door I had to step over boxes of fresh fish.
It’s a wonderfully slow pace of life here in the winter and the one thing everyone has is time, the summer is a different story, thousands of people from all over Europe come here for the summer holidays, every hotel, restaurant and bar is full, I would hate it, but I’m pleased for the people who live here as its their main source of income but I get the feeling talking to them that they are happy when the last tourist has left and they can relax a little. I will return to main land Greece I’m just not sure when, I’m definitely here for Christmas as I’ve been invited to lunch at one of the local restaurants and I might still be here for the new year.
I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas and all the best for the New Year. I’m not always with people I know, most of the time I’m anonymous in some hotel room and it can be lonely and at those times there is nothing better when the road has been long and hard than to turn on my laptop and see the comments and support from so many of you, it really is fantastic and my thanks go out to you all.