Monday, 30 December 2013

a welcome çay

When we pass through the immigration hall in Avyalık we are greeted by a tall young man with a bike. This is Eray, whom we contacted through Warm Showers.  He has patiently waited for us whilst we were delayed at immigration to wait for the official who carries the postage stamps for our 'visa' for entry.  It's 20 pounds or 30 euros for the two of us.  We hand over an unfeasibly large 20 pound note that has been folded up in a corner since we left home for just this moment.  The money doesn't look real to us.  The immigration official, who looks like he was interrupted mid-backgammon and is in a hurry to get back before his opponent surreptitiously shuffles some of the pieces about, stuffs the note in his pocket without a glance at it, tears off a couple of stamps and gives them to the uniformed man with the rubber date stamp sitting in the glass booth.  He dutifully pastes and dates them into our passports and waves us through.

Eray has his bike with him.  He asks us what we need and what we want to do.  After getting some Turkish lira we take a seat at a waterside cafe for a glass of tea. Ahh, çay - best drink of the day.  The sun shines weakly.  We hope to start cycling up the coast today.  Eray offers to ride with us out of town and takes us on a quiet coastal road before we join up with the main highway.  In the summer he went to eastern Turkey to visit his father's village for the first time.  Then he cycled home.  We intend to go in the opposite direction.  Eray grew up in Istanbul but is happy now to be living in Avyalık, where he can still work as a translator, subtitling American TV shows.  He wants to show us some of the old town before we leave because he knows that it is untypical in Turkey.  

We travelled here for 4 months back in 2007 but this time round we won't be doing any sight-seeing.  Sometime back in the autumn we decided we wanted to spend as long as possible in Greece and this meant sacrificing time in Turkey and the Caucasus.  The problem for all overland travellers is what to do in the winter and when you are cycling the question becomes more significant.  So we intend to take the coastal highway north, visit Istanbul and then continue eastwards along the Black Sea coast, probably taking a bus some of the way.  It's not the most scenic part of Turkey but it might be the warmest.  Eray encourages us to consider visiting some of the villages inland from the coast along the way.  

Avyalık is a small town, by Turkish standards, of about 40,000.  Eray tells us this swells to over 200,000 in the summer.  We pass through deserted estates of summer appartments and holiday homes guarded by the occasional dog.  I ask him about the dogs here, this being my biggest concern when cycling (apart from running out of water).  Eray is a little blase in his response, I think, especially as only minutes later a wild beast of a dog comes hurtling after us, snarling, barking, foaming at the mouth.  Okay, not foaming at the mouth, but looking almost rabid in my eyes.  Eray coolly ignores it, and once we pass its territory the dog eases off.  On this quiet road this scene is repeated about three more times.  Most of the dogs are not tied up.  This is one reason why the Black Sea route appeals to me - sheep farming is done on the Anatolian plains and not by the sea.  

We arrive at the main highway - a smooth stretch of black tarmac sweeps across the farmland, a dual carriageway with a big hard shoulder.  We say our farewells and Eray heads back to town as we go northwards. 

Sunday, 29 December 2013

sanity clause

Christmas is a low-key affair for us in Molyvos.  In the centre the local council has rigged up a tannoy system for announcements.  On a couple of days carols are broadcast - some are jazz versions.  It's a little weird.  On Christmas morning itself the local church broadcasts the morning service - a rambling drone that floats out to us at our beachside residence.  We have been invited to have dinner with Dimitris and Maria and their son Harris.  Sadly Pascale's father has died which has meant that our French cycling neighbours have returned to France for the funeral and to sort things out.  Our dinner is great - we have a lovely afternoon with Dimitris' family and walk home at sunset to call our families.
Maria's Millefeuille - beats Christmas Pudding

On Boxing Day we set off back to Mytilene town.  The ride is a fine up-and-downer along the main road, although the sun is hidden behind clouds.  We pass through a large pine forest, skirt salt pans in a bay before climbing the steep road up to the crest of a hill where we camp in another trusty olive grove.  Mytilene town is down the hill on the other side and we arrive at the post office at 8 am for our last gasp attempt at collecting the long-awaited parcel.  The night before our stove leaked so much we used half a gas bottle to cook the dinner, and I was bobbing around the roof of the tent for an hour afterwards, high on butane.  Being a 'half-empty glass' pessimist I am not too hopeful when I ask at the Poste Restante counter.  The woman rummages in her cupboard.  I look at Gayle forlornly through the plate glass window and consider the thought of cold rations until we reach Istanbul.  Worse: no thermos flask of tea each afternoon. Even worse: no morning coffee. I start to feel sick and nauseous with anxiety. The room tips to one side like a ship in a storm.
'high' camp above Mytilene

"John Beckham?" The post office clerk asks from the cupboard.

"No, John Burnham"
"Yes, John Beckham!" She emerges bearing the small cardboard box that holds more than a replacement fuel hose for our stove.  When she passes over the box I feel a wave of calm pass over me, banishing all my worries, and then a surf of joy lifts me up and out of the Post Office spitting me out onto the pavement.  The parcel is date stamped 25th December.  Hmmm, so there is a Santa Claus after all.  Thanks Mum and Dad.

We roll down to the port and get on the small ferry to Turkey.

Monday, 23 December 2013


We're chatting to Nikos the young owner of the place we're staying whilst his wife, Maria, cleans out one of the appartments.  He wants to know where we're going next.
"We're off to Turkey" - pointing in the direction.  The Turkish coast is only a stone's throw away from Molyvos.  "Have you ever visited?" asks Gayle. Nikos smiles, shrugs and replies "No, never."
"Not even Istanbul?" we are surprised.  Maria asks Nikos something and in his hurried reply we hear the name "Constantinopoli".
"You don't say 'Istanbul' in Greece?"
"No, it's easier for us to say Constantinopoli."


The film showing the Saturday before Christmas is a Finnish feelgood film for all the family about Father Christmas (dig the alliteration!).  The cinema is the village mosque now used as a court.  Dimitris is setting up the film on his laptop, sorting out sub-titles.  Just as the film begins he comes over to say hello and proffer his apologies.  "We had a problem.  We could either have Greek sub-titles or English sub-titles but not both at the same time."  No problem, we reassure him.  We aren't expecting to struggle with the plot.  He continues happily "There is a lady over there from Finland, so she is pleased!"
The lights dim.  We settle down.  The film has been overdubbed into Russian.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

no Turkey for Christmas

In between wandering around the myriad pathways of Molyvos and relaxing in our luxury suite or socialising (a rare treat - the Pascales invite us for dinner and there's the Saturday night movie at the community centre too) we look at our onward route across Turkey and consider our timing.  We want to be in Baku in February because our friends Pam and Joe have invited us to stay with them.  We're looking forward to seeing them, but not to the ride across Turkey and through Georgia and Azerbaijian.  We know it's the wrong time to visit these countries but we have to be somewhere in winter.  We decide we'll head to Istanbul and then take a bus to one of the towns along the Black Sea coast, to save time.  In the meantime we're still waiting for our parcels to arrive.

Jeff arrives after a few days.  He's on another European winter sojourn.  Last time we met we were in rainy Palermo at the beginning of February.  This year he wants to visit some of the Greek islands and we've arranged to meet here.  He too is very happy exploring the town.  When the cold wind blows from Anatolia the streets are quiet.  "I've seen more cats than people" he jokes.  It is very peaceful and the rhythmn of the days gently draw us in to a hypnotic relaxed state.  We take a walk out to the hot springs just along the coast.  The baths are simple and the water is hot - about 46 degrees and the guardian takes pains to explain we should get in and out slowly. Three minutes and then out.  He thinks it's too cold for a dip in the sea but after twenty minutes soaking we give it a go. It is cold but with the radium levels being as they are we come back glowing.

Evenings are spent cooking and eating and talking.  Days are spent walking or, if the sun comes out, sunbathing.  In December.  Where's the ice-cream? As we walk around with Jeff we see everything again with fresh eyes.  The town has not been spoiled by development.  There are a few new buildings on the edges of town but they are clad in stone to fit the traditional aesthetic.  It's rare to find this in Greece.  The next village down the coast, Petra, seems more typical with a mix of new and old.  In the middle of the village, on a steep-sided rocky perch sits a church lording it over the residents.  Down a lane, one metre below street level, an 11th century church sits dwarfed by a huge plane tree.  Inside are some well-kept frescoes from when? Long ago.  The tourist shops are empty and closed up for winter.  A few old men sit in the sunshine talking bollocks as usual, I bet.  In the fields the sheep are kept close to the fold.  Lambing is in October - but it looks like some have already gone for the chop.  At a small-holding two pigs are lying dead on the ground, freshly slaughtered.  A man is expertly butchering one.  In an olive grove a woman and her daughter are gathering olives into sacks.  A man is stood on a low branch and beating the other branches with a stick to shake the olives off onto the nets spread out on the ground beneath.  As it ever was.  

We say goodbye to Jeff after a week as he heads on to other islands.  Maybe we'll see him on his home turf one day..... One parcel arrives from my mum and dad with bits and pieces we've ordered, thinking that since we needed stove parts we might as well get some other things sent out.  Ironically, everything but the stove parts had arrived so my mum and dad sent the parcel anyway.  Christmas comes early for me - a new saddle.  No more duct tape sticking to my crotch. Tent pegs for hard ground.  No more standing on our old ones and bending them in half. A new water bag.  No more fretting over spilt water.  Cases for our e-readers.  Ah, a bit too late for me - I discover the screen on mine is smashed.  I curse my carelessness and stupidity in not getting a case sooner. If only Santa had known...... Still waiting for the stove parts, we decide to stay here until after Christmas seeing as we're enjoying ourselves so much.  

Thursday, 12 December 2013

safe harbour

Just as we step out of the ticket office with our ferry tickets for Lesbos a taxi pulls up and knocks over my loaded bike.  I give the taxi door a good kick and demonstrate my eloquence with colloquial English through the open window to the driver.  I am shouting.  This is not cool in Greece - you don't see people shouting in the street.  The taxi driver starts to shout back in unintelligible Greek.  I respond in unintelligible English.  The portly taxi driver gets out and continues babbling.  And then I realise he is saying sorry.  I say sorry.  He says sorry.  I pick up my bike - it looks undamaged.  We shake hands.  Gayle looks distinctly unimpressed.  "What if he got out of the taxi and was bigger than you?"
Greeks think they live in the most seismically-active country in Europe, but we know better
The sailing to Lesbos is uneventful.  It's all locals on board and a group of soldiers.  Lesbos, Greece's third largest island, has a big army presence.  We know this because when we ride out of the main town of Mytilene in the late afternoon looking for somewhere quiet to camp we end up in a pine forest on the south west corner of the island just below an army camp.  Clearly they still don't trust the Turks.  In the morning we return to town to e-mail and shop for supplies.  The shopping streets are bustling. Our stove has developed two leaks at either end of the fuel pipe.  Petrol drips out at an alarming rate - not something we want when camping in a pine forest.  Luckily we have some butane gas as well - when we cooked in our hotel room in Athens - but this is not a long-term solution.  So my dad has ordered some spare parts for us and will post them to us here in Mytilene.  Our intention is to meet our friend Jeff here in just over a week's time so this will give us enough days to cycle around the island first.  Or so we think.

It's grey and chilly when we head north up the coast.  Olive groves are in abundance here, but they are all fenced in - a bit unusual for Greece.  Plenty of black netting is laid out beneath the trees ready for harvesting the fruit.  We roll along the coast and through a few small villages before loading up with water and looking for a place to pitch the tent.  After climbing some switchbacks we emerge onto an airy flat headland covered in scrub.  Just beyond a little church we see an army truck pull onto the road.  We wait for it to disappear and then turn onto the track where it pulled out.  In amongst the rocks and bushes we just find enough space to camp.  It seems perfect.  After a torchlit dinner we settle down for the night.  Rain starts and with it some wind.  Our tent is a tunnel but fortunately the lie of the land means that we have pitched into the oncoming wind.  The rain stops but the wind gets stronger.  At around 10pm we are still being buffeted.  We are well pegged down but the noise makes it hard to sleep.  At midnight it's still roaring and the taut tent fabric rumbles like a drum.  After another two hours we are still awake.  Somehow the wind seems worse at 4am.  Surely this can't continue.  We are resigned to fitful dozing, partially on edge lest the tent fabric is torn asunder.  
shelter from the storm
At dawn we decide to pack up quickly, and bug out to the church we passed last night.  It's only 300 metres away.  The problem is how to take the tent down in the wind.  Gayle lies on it as I remove the poles and pegs.  We wobble on our bikes in the gusts and gladly discover that the church, a small chapel, is unlocked.  Inside it's quiet and relatively cozy.  We have breakfast and ponder what to do.  The gusts have got stronger, the bushes and trees bend and dip.  When in doubt, brew up.  Someone arrives in a car and enters to light a candle, kiss an icon, say a prayer, drive off.  This happens almost every hour.  The wind does not let up.  We determine to sit it out.  A couple arrive in the afternoon and tells us it's 9 on the Beaufort scale.  (Greek weather forecasts always refer to this shipping term for windspeed.  Later we look up the scale - 9 is gale force.)  They ask where we are going and we say that tomorrow we will go to Molyvos.  The woman seems to indicate that we should wait here.  It is our second night seeking shelter in a church.

In the morning the wind has abated somewhat and we are happy to head off again along the road.  It is very cold in the wind but we soon find the way more sheltered and easier going.  We turn the corner along the north coast and climb and climb up and around the headlands, skirting villages, turning into sheltered valleys and then out again with great views over to Turkey.  Molyvos comes into sight as we drop down from a high point.  The old town sits nestled on the leeside of a hill jutting into the sea.  On the crown of the hill sits an old fort.  It's a stunning setting.  We gleefully descend down to sea-level and find a sunny spot in the doorway of a closed up old stone house overlooking the bay to have our lunch.  A man wanders past and stops.  "You must be the French Australian cyclists?", we're English.  The man explains that his friend has met some cyclists staying here.  We ask where they are staying but he does not know.  His name is Ahmed.  Not a Greek name this.  "No, I'm Turkish, I stay here in the winter and sail my boat in the summer".  We arrange to meet later and Gayle goes in search of a room.  The town is a warren of cobbled lanes and stairs and all is deserted almost.  This place would be packed in the summer and everyone would rent out rooms, but in December there are no signs out.  Finally Gayle finds a place and we push our bikes up the street to it.  It's 20 euros with a kitchenette in the room - kind of cramped/cosy depending on your view. 
We go down to the harbour and find Ahmed who invites us into a cafe for coffee.  His friend Laurie arrives - a Canadian on holiday here, she looks a little uptight and strange to us - Ahmed told us that she had cycled Istanbul to Beijing in four months.  When we start to ask about her bike touring she seems a little vague and uncertain and we wonder if she had been doing a 'supported' ride in a group.  We're not being snobby about this - but we can't understand how someone could not be more specific about the places she went.  A bit mysterious.  She is more certain about the French Australian cyclists and tells us where they are staying.  We haven't met anyone touring on bikes for a long time so we seek them out.  Pascal and Pascale have been living in Australia for about 9 years and set out on their journey about 18 months ago.  Pascal does free-lance translation work while they travel and they are thinking about stopping here for the winter before moving on to Turkey next year - heading to Australia. They are staying in a very nice studio just off the beach - it looks very swish to us, with a kitchen and sofa, big double bed, terrace with a great view to the old town and out to sea.  We are rather envious of the space. 

Wandering around Molyvos is wonderful.  The houses overlap each other, separated by stairs and paths and only a few lanes where traffic can pass.  It looks quite deserted at first - only a few people around.  Later we guess that about half the buildings are only used in the summer.  Only a handful of shops along the cobbled market street are open.  Most of the houses are stone built but some have Ottoman style wooden upper floors.  The setting is marvellous and we enjoy walking around and getting lost.  We don't want to leave and we think Jeff might prefer it here to Mytilene, although it is much quieter here.  The Pascales help us contact the owner of the place where they stay and we move next door to them.  Now we have a little luxury we definitely don't feel the urge to move on.  A cold spell arrives sending the temperatures downward and a biting wind makes it even colder.  Bob the kettle on, will yer?

Monday, 2 December 2013

chewing it over

When daylight dawns Gayle is lying in her sleeping bag on her camping mat in front of the bench .  I am stretched out in my bag on the bench.   A couple of old men arrive at the cafe next to us.  It's just after seven in the morning and the traffic has picked up in Chios town.  The Greeks do like their early start.  Our night ferry from Piraeus arrived at 5am so we crashed here to wait for dawn.  It's fairly balmy.  And that's probably what the old geezers are thinking about us as we pack up and roll off on our bikes.  After a spot of breakfast on another park bench and a bit of shopping we head south out of the town.  Away on our left is the Turkish coastline.  The road takes us through a stretch of grand stone houses with high walls and large green gardens.  Everywhere is green.  Gradually we begin to climb into the hills.  The road dips and bends past several hilltop villages perched above deep valleys that descend to the coast.  It's all rather pretty and the green is soothing to the eye.

The island of Chios is relatively wealthy and not dependent on tourism.  Foremost are the two northern villages that have supplied a large number of ship owners.  Shipping is big business in Greece - Piraeus being the largest port in the Mediterranean. The second source of income is mastic - the resin of a small tree which is collected by cutting the tree and allowing it to fall like teardrops to the ground.  It is then gathered, cleaned and sorted.  The unique soil conditions here give the mastic a special quality which was favoured by the Ottoman Sultan.  Under the Turks the mastichochora, the villages in the south of the island where the trees grow, were given special privileges.  When the Turks came to avenge the independence revolt of 1822 by slaughtering many of the residents, these villages were exempted.

We arrive in Pyrgi, one of the mastichochora, and wonder at the peculiar decoration of the houses - each one covered in monochrome geometric and floral patterns etched out of the whitewashed walls.  The narrow streets and winding alleyways give the town a North African feel.  Behind the decorated church in the main square old women sit in the sun and sift through globules of mastic. It's timeless.

After a peaceful night in a green olive grove we move on to Mesta, another memorable village. Here all the houses are built of stone - a rare treat in Greece these days - and surrounded by walls to from a fortress town.  The cobbled streets weave like a maze and it takes us a couple of turns to find a way into the small central square.  Like many places at this time of year it's very quiet and it's unusual to see anyone under forty.  This gives the village a magical air.

We careen down through a gorge and emerge on the west coast before climbing over a headland and stopping at a pebble beach for lunch.  The roads are all but deserted.  It's chilly but sunny and we head back into the hills in search of a monastery marked on our map in the centre of the island.  The ups and downs make for slow cycling but we've become accustomed to this in Greece.  There are signs all around of the fire that ravaged this part of the island in the summer of 2012.  Pine trees stand black against the skyline.  After passing a deserted army camp we pull off the road into an empty field for the night.  The sun is setting just after 5 so our days are not too long now.
ho hum - just another pretty village on Chios

We arrive at the monastery the next afternoon after climbing a high pass and crossing back over to the eastern side of the central mountains.  The monastery closes between 1 and 4 in the afternoon and we get there just at 1.  There are some Greek tourists who pull up in their car just after us and realise their mistake.  We chat a little and then they drive off.  We have nothing to do but sit it out - trying to find a little sunshine to stay warm.  Up on the hill behind the monastery is a small chapel used as an ossuary for the victims of one the Turkish massacres.  About three and a half thousand women and children had sought sanctuary here with the monks.  All were killed and the monastery torched.   The skulls and bones are stacked up against the walls - a grim reminder of the events.  I wonder about the nationalism that we have witnessed both here and in Turkey on a previous visit and about the profusion of national flags flying - something rarely seen in northern Europe.  What is taught in the history lessons in Greece?  Despite the long and bitter struggle with the Ottomans for independence and the catastrophic invasion of Turkey at Smyrna in 1922, the worst casualties in modern Greece resulted from the Civil War in the 1940s. No wonder so many emigrated after that war.

The monastery was built in the 11th century and the mosaics inside are desribed in our guidebook as some of the best examples of Byzantine art in Greece.  It's a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Unfortunately the dome of the monastery collapsed in the 1800s and although the main building has been expertly rebuilt, the remaining mosaics are do not enthrall us.   From the grounds we can look down the valley to Chios town, and beyond the sea to the Turkish coast.  It is incredibly peaceful here.  While we pitch our tent that evening above the monastery we mull over our route.  In the dark we can see the lights of Turkey.  It seems so close now.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

a city for all ages

The ferry to Chios leaves at night so we say farewell to Stavros and roll down into the city centre.  After talking a lot the previous evening we have been considering staying until Monday, but the cheap hotels here sound lousy.  We are unsure what to do, but as we cycle along Gayle realises that neither her front derailleur or rear derailleur are working.  Fire the mechanic, I say.  I know what the problem is - all our brake and gear cables and housings need replacing.  I was hoping to do this job in Istanbul, but Gayle's gears have become more and more unreliable.  With not cycling so much recently the cables have got worse.  So we check out a hotel near to the central market.  It turns out to be perfect for us - at a price we can afford.  The neighbourhood is a bit funky and run-down but fine. And now we have a few more days to enjoy the big city excitement and some time to sort out the bikes.

The largest green spaces in the city are around the Acropolis, which gives the ancient city and the tourists a bit of a breather from the city traffic.  Stavros had told us that traffic has reduced a bit since the crisis hit and that cycling has become more popular, not just for economic reasons.  We spot a couple of 'fixies' outside shops.  Not everyone is broke here.
the anti-fascist movement continues

We wander up the pedestrianised road that curls around the Acropolis and climb a small hill beside it.  It's hard to imagine when you gaze across the urban sprawl that this city was little more than a village when the Greeks won independence from those pesky furniture salesmen, the Ottomans. 

looking over the ancient agora and across the central district
The Bike Bit: Technophobes look away now. We come across a bike shop by chance and I ask the man about cables and housings.  He tries to sell me pre-cut housing "standard length" and talks to me like I'm a Bike Idiot.  I am a Bike Idiot, but I don't want to be talked to like one.  I instantly dislike the man and remember my old friend's salesman's spiel "People Buy People".  I walk off offended.  The next bike shop I try is selling fixies.  Great.  I know I'm in the wrong shop, but can they recommend one to me?  They can.  The mechanic in the third shop is friendly and normal and I like him.  I had initiallty thought of installing the cables myself, and the mechanic suggests I bring the bikes so that he can cut the housings for me to fit, but Gayle likes the idea of the mechanic doing it.  Come to think of it, so do I.  So Alex, the mechanic at Podilato, gets to work.  He soon identifies a problem with Gayle's bike that I had suspected but was unsure about - a bent hanger on the rear derailleur. It snaps when he tries to straighten it with his special hanger-straightening tool.  I'm glad I'm not doing this.  Finally we depart with bikes that feel brand-new, so thanks Alex.

The rains return to the city.  When it rains here it doesn't drizzle like England, it's a deluge of biblical dimensions.  It's Sunday morning and we are checking out the flea market.  We wander out past the ancient city cemetery and find ourselves at the perfect destination for a wet Sunday morning - the city Industrial Gas Museum.  We enjoy it.  The place produced gas from coal to supply the city until 1984 in a site that looks distinctly Dickensian.  It's now a museum and hosts events.  As the rain hammers down and thunder rumbles all around we seek shelter in a charity sale.....and emerge half an hour later with five books.  We must be bonkers - we have e-readers now. But these were bargains, honest.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

a city of all ages

Stavros had suggested we take the metro line 3 from Piraeus port into the city, but as the ferry pulls in to port and we stagger off bleary-eyed at just after 5 in the morning we reckon we'll have no problem reaching his appartment before he leaves for work at 10.  Stavros is our Couch-Surfing host in Athens and he's kindly replied to our request at fairly short notice.  We are heading to the island of Chios but from Naxos that would either involve a bit of island hopping on ill-timed ferries or a journey via Piraeus.  When the possibility of visiting Athens cropped up, we both got excited. And here we are in Piraeus port, all bleary-eyed and excited. It's not cold but there's almost two hours before sunrise so we park ourselves outside the port police station and doze on a bench.  Around 6 it starts to rain, but there's shelter outside a ticket office so we brew up and have breakfast before deciding that we really ought to get going.  So off into the rain we ride.  

The streets of Piraeus aren't how I imagined it in my head when I had plotted a route to Athens.  We are immediately heading uphill when I thought we'd have a nice ride along the coast.  The rain is belting down and it's a bit hard to start consulting our various maps, but an old man we ask confirms that we're going the right way.   Now when we stop at lights the water runs over our feet.  At the bottom of another hill there's the smell of raw sewage as the drains can no longer cope with the downpour.  It's 7.30am and rush-hour.  Traffic is clogging the roads which have parked cars on both sides.  Fortunately every driver treats us kindly and gives us room to squeeze past, or waits patiently if we slow them down.  Perhaps it would be different in the madness of a summer heatwave, but right now on a dark and wet November morning everyone seems pretty chilled.  We get out of Piraeus and eventually find the right road into Athens.  The clock is ticking.  It stops raining.  We get lost.  We find the right road.  It starts raining.  The road is closed.  We are hurtling along with all the taxis and buses when Gayle screams out to me: "Look!!!"  Oh, hey, it's the Parthenon on our left. It's 9.45 when we get into the residential quarter we want and the road suddenly veers upwards.  It's at this point that Gayle's gears fail.  She has to push.  We are hot and sweaty and soggy and late when we reach Stavros's but he has patiently waited in for us.  Relief.

After a hot shower and a short kip we feel bold enough to venture into the centre.  The afternoon has turned out nice and we walk around the old part of town below the acropolis.  The streets are not so busy, the air is clean after the rain, there's a handful of tourists about.  We join them outside the parliament to watch the changing of the guard by the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The guard are wearing the highland uniform of independence fighters from the 1820's - a short kilt, wool stockings and pom-poms on their shoes.  It is clear that being on duty here is some sort of public punishment.  Those stockings must itch in the summer.  And then, of course, there's the silly walk, made famous by Monty Python.

Turn a corner in Athens and you almost trip over Antiquity, as it lies sprawled in the road before you.  Hadrian's Arch now has a main road right past it.  It's taken our visit to Greece to understand how great an influence Classical Greece had on the Romans.  I'm still amazed at the realisation that the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, used the Greek language, not Roman.  There's a temple in a field, some foundations below the street level, an 11th century church around the corner, a mosque outside the metro station.  The ruins and the buildings tell the story of Athens' topsy-turvy history. 

On our second day we walk through a couple of contrasting neighbourhoods on a route recommended by Stavros.  We begin in the posh neo-classical neck of the woods, with embassy flags waving here and there, designer shops glittering their pearls and flashing their furs and outrageous clothes at us.  The locals are well-heeled and everyone stands to attention when a military band plays the national anthem at a parade.  The road then segues into the bohemian quarter where the buildings are decorated in graffiti and the cafes proliferate.  You can get a takeaway coffee for a euro these days - while our guidebook tells us that here you will find the most expensive coffee in Europe.  As Stavros has already remarked to us, the worse the economy gets, the more cafes open.

Greece has a long pedigree in cured meats.  In 431BC the Greeks famously defeated the Persians in the Battle of Salamis.
The highlight of our trip here is the visit to the Archaeological Museum.  The collection here is understandably large, varied and impressive.  It's also well-displayed.  There are finds from Mycenae, discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876, a German archeologist who, as Stavros puts it "found the truths that appeared in the Greek stories and myths" - he discovered Troy and Mycenae because he believed the stories in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were based on actual events.  At the time this was revelatory. In another room there are beautiful Cycladic finds over 4000 years old.  And then a flurry of bronze and marble sculptures from Ancient Greece.  Minoan frescoes. The finds from a shipwreck carrying Greek art to Rome around 200 BC, when the Romans were buying up everything they could get their hands on from Greece.  This shipwreck contained some geat sculpture, but Stavros' favourite piece is the Antikythera Mechanism.  This is hailed as the 'first computer'.  On the sea bed they found a collection of gears - fragments of metal - that have now been identified as a device that indicates the constellations and movement of the moon on a given date or vice versa.  The design and use of highly-sophisticated gearing is far beyond the known technology of the time and probably would not be matched for centuries. Great stuff.  The unmissable museum leaves us exhausted but sated.

the Cycladic "Thinker" is quite clearly on the phone - another piece of ancient Greek technology lost for centuries
In the evening we chat with Stavros.  He tells us that Athens, which we like immensely, is much better than two years ago.  He seems disappointed how the protests have now died down.  As an Erasmus student he studied in my home town of Manchester for 6 months.  He seems equivocal about his time there.  On his first night, like a true Greek, he went out after 11pm to see what was going on.  After walking a while in the wrong direction, away from the city centre, he was stopped by the police who suggested he might not want to be there and drove him back to the campus.  He travelled a lot around Britain and preferred everywhere else he went to Manchester.  After university and a few years as a computer programmer he found himself teaching at a primary school.  He loved it absolutely, but could never find a full-time permanent job.  He trained and taught supply for a few years, at one point having concurrent jobs teaching at primary, secondary and undergraduate level.  He came to the capital about four years ago when the crisis was taking hold - he could see that his job prospects were dim with the government being forced to cut public spending.  Now he's back computer programming but you can tell he'd rather be teaching children.

Monday, 18 November 2013

nesh in Naxos

Our ferry ride through the southern Cyclades islands takes us to Naxos, the largest of them all. On the boat we meet a couple of young Australians who have been travelling from Morocco, across Europe, and are on their way home via Nepal and Thailand.  They are going to another island for some beach time "because we're Coasties".  They seem to have booked everything in advance, including a 10 day trek in Nepal.  They tell us of a website where they got a good deal in Athens ending up at a 4-star hotel.  Great. Smashing. Super.  I'm thinking about this as we roll out of the town in search of a camping spot.  The day has an autumnal feel about it as the sun hangs low and casts a soft light across the fields.  We pitch our tent on the edge of one, at the end of the airport runway, cook our tea and snuggle up in our sleeping bags.  Who needs a 4-star hotel?

Hora old town
Just before sunrise we are treated to a light show in the tent.  Great flashes light up every few seconds.  The thunder rumbles soon afterwards and the heavens open.  Big fat raindrops splatter the tent.  We try to ignore the lightning and sleep a bit more.  But then the wind gets up.  Our tent is very waterproof, but it's a tunnel.  This means you have to pitch it into the wind.  Well. last night there was no wind to speak of, but this morning, in the storm, we find we are side on to the wind.  And we both need the toilet.  To add to our woes, the field we are pitched in is sandy, and finally the pegs can't hold the tent anymore.  I'm not sure I can hold on much longer either. Three pegs ping out. It is still raining but at least the thunder and lightning has finally passed over.  We quickly repeg the tent and decide to pack up. I go off to dig a hole and refill it. It feels odd to be wearing waterproofs again.  And on it rains.  (A day or two later a friend writes and tells us that he's looking forward to reading about our travels once we leave Europe.  He finds the photos of Mediterranean sea and landscapes all a bit Conde Naste. I know what he means - large parts of Europe are picture-perfect.  But gin and tonics on the yacht at sunset hasn't been our experience of it either.  I'll be thinking of Conde Naste now, everytime I dig my morning hole and hunker down over it.)
Cycladic laundry

We are incredibly blessed with good weather.  Today it rains almost continuously.  We can only recall New Year's Day being this lousy so far this year.  We cycle back to Hora, the main town where we arrived yesterday, eat breakfast in the shelter of an empty shop, and then head to a cafe on the seafront by the port.  Get on the internet and check the weather forecast: more rain and storms, then check out that booking website the Aussies told us about.  Sure enough, there's a few cheap places in Hora.  We mark them on the map and go and look.  There's only one where we can raise anyone, having no mobile phone.  Vassily tells us he's the "Big Boy".  He organises bookings, makes breakfast, drives the car, manages everything.  We haggle for a room with a kitchenette and get a good price.  It turns out to be a good move - the weather stays foul for a couple more days.  Then it turns cold.  This isn't a 4-star hotel but it feels like luxury.  We are not cycle-touring, we have unspokenly decided. Maybe we are going soft. 

too much football as a young lad weakens the knees

One morning, when the clouds are not so low, we set off on a day-ride up into the hills.  We want to find the kouroi abandoned on the hillside.  Naxos marble was renowned in classical Greek times and quarried in the hills here for years.  Often rough cuts of statues were made out of blocks in situ before then being transported to their destination for finishing off.  Two kouroi, statues of young men over 5 metres in height, didn't get off the hillside before they broke, so we have come to see them where they still lie. Showers come and go, but the ride is fine and the land is green and fertile - a real surprise to us.  The kouroi are located close to each other and happen to lie in the same position.  There's a bit of blurb about them at the site.  Apparently the quarrymen who cut them were much derided and ridiculed.  So they gave up cutting marble and took to writing poetry set to music.  It didn't really work out for them until a wise old man suggested they name their group after one of the local insects.  And lo! overnight they became a popular hit across all of Greek civilisation.  And all went well for them until fame, fortune, drugs and drink led to them falling out and disbanding.  And no more was ever heard from The Caterpillars.

the disappearing hills of marble

We continue uphill and around the hilltops that are still being quarried today for their marble.  The hills appear to be diminishing from the top down.  We loop back around and head back to Hora through some very attractive valleys.  En route we come to a small church that hasn't had a coat of whitewash for some time.  It might be because this one was built in the 4th century, with add-ons in the 7th and 12th centuries.  An odd old lady is looking after things on the door.  Inside there are the usual icons, and some very faded frescoes.  One side chapel is full of old spare furniture, a few teacups, a mop and bucket.  Remarkable.

Hora is quiet but pleasant.  We wander the warren of streets in the old town on the hill.  Across a causeway are the ruins of a small temple to Apollo.  A northerly wind blows across the seafront. We try to make use of the wifi in our room to plan ahead, check ferry routes and timetables, look at the journey across Turkey.  And then we have an "Oh bugger!" moment.  Somewhere we had read that tourists can stay in Greece for 90 days without a visa.  We arrived here at the beginning of September and are planning to meet our travelling American friend Jeff in Lesvos, on the 10th December.  That means we will have overstayed our 90 days.  But we can't remember if our passports were swiped when we arrived in Greece from Albania.  Land borders all seem to merge into one.  Sometimes they take our passport and swipe it, sometimes they take a look and wave us through.  Oh bugger.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

location, location, location

We like Iraklion for the main reason that it does not exist for tourists.  It's Greece's fifth largest city although that's not saying too much, as probably half of Greece's population is in Athens.... The city centre is a maze of narrow streets choc-a-bloc with parked cars and traffic.  There are also quite a few pedestrianised streets to give everyone a breather.  We've come here to visit the ruined Palace of Knossos and then to catch a ferry to Santorini.  We luxuriate in the comfort of a hotel room.  When did we last sleep in a bed? At Peter and Linda's about six weeks ago.  My scabby wounds are smelling.  I check up on the internet for diagnosis and treatment advice.  I pass out.  When I come round I recall reading the words "gas gangrene" and the novels of Pat Barker flashing across my mind.  However, the antibiotics are easy to buy over the counter here, so I am crossing my fingers.

Readers of this blog may have noticed a distinct lack of interest on our part in classical Greek historic sites.  We could  have visited Delphi and Olympos if we had set our mind to it.  Maybe it's because we know too little about Ancient Greece.  Maybe it hasn't captured our imagination sufficiently.  Because imagination is probably what is most required to visit the ruins here.  Not surprisingly, there's not a lot left standing.  However, now here we are at Knossos, the capital of Minoan civilisation.  This is the oldest known European civilisation, existing at the same time to the Egyptians in their prime and long before the classical Greek period.  It consisted primarily of a collection of city states on Crete. Around the late 1800s a German archaeologist found something of interest at Knossos, but an Englishman, Evans, beat him to a deal with the Turks to start excavating here.  Evans uncovered a large palace/temple complex, some of it with well-preserved frescoes.  But most of it was a pile of old stones.  Evans then creatively began to rebuild the site, with a dash of concrete here, a splash of paint there, and went about naming the rooms.  The reconstruction is probably a textbook case for students of archaeology on how not to proceed.  But hey, it gets the punters in.  So here we are, with only a few others, wandering around, looking into The Queen's Bathroom, admiring the recreated Prince of Lillies fresco, and pondering the Throne Room (I was disappointed to find that this was not, as I had hoped, the King's Lavatory.)  The Minoan civilisation ended abruptly, for unknown reasons.  The generally accepted theory is that a nearby volcano erupted spectacularly and the ensuing tsunami and fall-out finished them off.

Minoan olive jars - they grew big olives
That volcano eruption left the remains of a huge caldera poking out of the sea forming a crescent shape chain of small islands.  The largest is Santorini.  Arriving by boat the visitor is rewarded with wonderful views of the caldera and the cliffs on the edge of which sits the main town of Fira.  At least you would if you didn't arrive at nine o'clock at night.  We are instead rewarded with blackness, streetlights floating up above us in the sky and the steep switchbacks that lead up the cliff face.  Happily at the top we find a small church and an empty field next to it.  We pitch immediately and fall asleep.  In the morning we finally get the view, and ultimately this is what Santorini is all about: The View. It is sublime.

Fira is a collection of typical Cycladic white square houses, now overrun with hotels, restaurants and cafes.  In fact Fira seems to have lost any authentic attributes entirely, but what a location.  From here you get the most wonderful view of the caldera, the black and red layers of rock jutting abruptly from the sea, and in the centre a little mound of lava where the volcano has bubbled up again. We find the campsite which is closed, but the owner seems happy to let us stay, and there's plenty of hot water in the shower, so we're happy.  It means we don't have to do our sight-seeing with loaded bikes.  A cruise boat arrived last night and so the town is alive with ageing Americans and British, young Japanese, and assorted other nationalities.  Hmm, maybe 'alive' is the wrong adjective.   We walk along the caldera rim to the next village perched on a high point.  With our backs to the volcano we can see the rest of the island sweeping down to the sea.  It would have been once all fields, but is now peppered liberally with new build - houses and holiday homes and ugly mini-estates of identikit "cycladic" appartments for tourists.  I glance at a cafe menu - 4 euros for a coffee.  Sorry, I mean 4 euros for a Nescafe.  But of course, you're paying for The View.

The next day we take our bikes and cycle up to the north end of the island and the large village of Oia.  There's a different feel to this place.  It feels much more authentic, even though there's still been enormous tourist development here.  Lots of shops, cafes, hotels, but all done much more tastefully.  The buildings all seem quite old and the village has a more organic feel.  Around the twisting back lanes there are still a few old ruins.  And a few old buildings too.  The cruise ship passengers are all pottering about, but we find out from some that the ship only has 2000 passengers, not the full cohort of 5000.  We eat our picnic near to an English woman on her phone home: "and if she goes in one more jewellery shop, I swear I'll kill her......" Cor, we'd hate it here in season. But today we love it.  We want to live here. Except maybe after a week or two we'd get bored.  I wonder what the locals make of The View after all this time living here.

Out of season travel around the islands is a bit awkward.  Ferries run less frequently.  We opt to take a small ferry on to Naxos which leaves at 9 in the morning so that we don't arrive in the dark again on another island.  This boat only goes once a week, so after three nights here, we find ourselves winding our way back around those hairpin bends to the port.  The small ferry turns out to be a big bathtub.  It's mostly Greeks who board and everyone but us heads for the lounge which is curtained and has five televisions on showing the same rubbish.  We sit on the top deck and sunbathe. Naked. It's a lovely spot to enjoy the crossing.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

end of season

The clocks change just before we leave Paleohora.  We have passed the Autumnal Equinox and the days are shorter.  But the clock change is the tricky thing for us - now the sunrises just before seven, which is fine, and it is setting just before six, which is lousy. If we want to camp wild then we have to start looking usually an hour before sun down just to be sure we have enough light to pitch.  It's always been a bit of a game this.  If you don't want to be seen camping, and we don't, then the dark can be good.  But then we need to cook and need light.  So the dark nights will mean longer nights in the tent and using up the torch batteries.  There's a new moon too, which seems to bring a change in weather - or is that an old wives' tale?


We take a new road that climbs out of Paleohora up to a high point and then turn back down towards the sea on a dusty dirt road to take us to Elafonissi beach.  The beach is in the south west corner of Crete and has developed a certain amount of fame.  We know we're on the right track because there's a steady trickle of very slow rental cars coming the other way - this is a shortcut.  We descend down to the beach hoping to find water.  Behind it the land is covered in poly-farms - large structures full of plants and roofed in polythene.  It's a big operation here.  We ask a young man for water and he takes us back to his pre-fab room and gives us a bottle.  He's from Morocco, working on a farm.  Down at the beach there are plenty of rental cars - there must be more tourists here than anywhere else on Crete.  It's the end of October.  We spot a Swiss camper van.  Despite the "no camping" signs they've stayed three nights and not been troubled, so we pitch discreetly along the beach.

The beach is lovely but we are on the move. We're taking the coastal road along the west coast and back to Hania.  The route takes us into a gorge before climbing out and onto a high road that skirts the hills on the western coast.  The views are dramatic, the road is empty, the cycling is great.  Some of the houses in the villages look like they've been left untouched from the war.  It's unusual to see old houses here - most villages seem to have new(ish) houses built with brick or breezeblock, not so pretty but usually bigger.  We camp in an olive grove - a nice spot just below a chapel.  Only in the wee small hours I hear someone walking on the track by the chapel.  Their torch light hits the tent and returns for a full sweep.  They say nothing.  I nudge Gayle awake in case they approach, but we hear nothing.  Weird?  An hour later we hear two gun shots down the hillside - hunters.  

Down at the north coast in Kissamos the campsite has closed and the sea is foaming and crashing on the beach.  A strong wind blows. Here we find a place to camp in an olive grove behind a wall of bamboo - perfect shelter from the wind.  Further along the coast the tourist strip is now deserted.  Shops, bars, tavernas all closed.  There are a few locals around, but these villages that merge into one long development seem empty.  Even Hania looks quiet.  How things change in just a few weeks. The campsite here is still open, just.  Everything is closed up bar the toilet block and the kitchen.  We stop a couple of nights and on the second night are joined by a French couple just arrived in a hire car and Tomas, a young stray from Stockholm, who is trying to hitchhike around Europe.  He is 20, worryingly skinny and not dressed for life on the road but for a night on the town.  We hope he goes home before Christmas but his plans are vague.

Our ride continues along the north coast to Rethymno, with a detour to the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Souda.  The graves are mostly of British, Australians and New Zealanders.  A Polish airman.  An Indian sailor.  About 2000 died defending the island when the Germans invaded by air in 1941. 
We pass through some old villages off the main road. The central mountains loom before us and a thunderstorm crashes through the valley below.  We find another olive grove to camp in down at sea level - everything is soggy and wet after the storm.  In the morning the weather is dry but there are plenty of clouds around.  We have a wander around Rethymno's old town and seek shelter in a cafe when the rain starts.  Lunch is eaten on the promenade in the sunshine.  It's that kind of mixed weather.  Along the sea front is another strip of empty tourist hotels, shops and bars and fur shops. Fur shops? For the Russian tourists? 
anti-fascist stencil

We turn south inland and start climbing sharply into the mountains.  After a tough climb we then drop down to a big reservoir which isn't on our map.  It's getting on, so we camp by a chapel built above the reservoir by the water company.  It's in a grand spot and we pitch in the lee of the church as the winds are coming off the mountains behind.  The ground's a bit soft and it proves our undoing.  In the night the wind gets up and starts gusting, slamming the tent and rattling it from both ends.  Some pegs come out of the ground.  We tie the tent to the bikes but the buffeting is rocking it too much.  Fortunately the church door is unlocked and there's enough floor space for us to lie down and sleep, so we pack up, bring our mats and sleeping bags in and take the tent down.

a church, typically in the middle of nowhere

The morning brings rain and wind - not a favourite combination.  Our plan is to cycle around the south side of Crete's biggest mountain and then cut north to Iraklion, but the cloud is down and the way looks grim.  We take our time over breakfast but nothing changes, so eventually we decide to return the way we came to the north coast and take the old road along the north side of the massif.  The route turns out to be lovely - through old villages, climbing slowly and then into a verdant gorge.  One night we camp in an olive grove that has had the ground turned over.  At sunrise there's a thunderstorm and the ground turns to mud.  We spend a bit of time afterwards cleaning up and having breakfast at a nearby chapel.  This one has a cemetery so there's a handy tap.  We see small churches everywhere in Greece, dotted across the landscape.  Some are locked but many are left open.  We always keep an eye out for them at lunchtimes and evenings.  

The road to Iraklion culminates in a climb to a pass through a lovely valley and then a big downhill.  This was the old main road on the island but a new one has been built right on the coast and so the villages we pass through seem all but forgotten.  It's good farmland with plenty of vineyards and lemon groves as well as the ubiquitous olive.  Tall trees stand dramatically out above the land.  The autumn colours are vibrant when the sun is out. The men in these parts all look swarthy and tough, have curly hair and drive pickup trucks.  The old women are uniformly in black.  

I am looking forward to Iraklion as we have decided to look for a room for a couple of nights.  About four weeks ago I clumsily raked my shin down a pedal which left me with two nasty looking scabs.  They seemed to be healing okay but in the past few days an infection has started and my leg has swollen.  I want a bed with clean sheets, I want antibiotics, I want a rest!  Happily, Gayle is in agreement and we find a good cheap room in the old town.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

camp life

We decide to stay a little longer in Paleohora - to take advantage of the good weather, the nearby beaches and the cheap camping.  The campsite here looks like it's hardly changed since it opened.  You can tell this, apart from the old toilet/shower block with 70's tiled walls, because the main part of the site is for tents only.  We haven't seen a site where the tents get the best pitches, in the shade, away from the road.  Most sites these days are really designed for vans.
view from the campsite cafe
It's low season now and the site is quiet.  There are three Austrians camping nearby.  Karl first came here 29 years ago, as a teenager.  He confirms that little has changed.  A little landscaping, some new toilets and hot showers behind the cafe which it took us a few days to discover.  He comes every autumn.  He looks like a Robinson Crusoe to me - tall, bronzed, long hair, vivid blue eyes.  He and his friends are evidently happy here and when we ask when they will leave they all just shrug their shoulders.  On the far side there's another Austrian woman who came in June and has returned for a week's break and near to her a young Greek hippy called Nico, who helps out in the cafe in the evening.  Nico lived in the UK for 9 years, training sniffer dogs.  He doesn't look the type, with his beard and long hair, baggy trousers. He says he loved it in Dorset but after 9 years the weather finally broke him.  The man is Greek though.  He refers to a swim he had a few days back when it was still warm enough to swim.  Now it's too cold. In contrast there's an older German couple in a campervan who have come for the winter.  A few others come and go, but rarely stay long.  We have become residents.
Karl and Irmi, always relaxed, always smiling
The campsite is run by a family, Manolis and his wife.  Manolis has an Asterix-style moustache and a penchant for a dramatic pause when speaking, when there is no need for drama.  There seem to be other extended family who come and go, an old fella who turns up with his fluffy dog to watch the telly and play backgammon, some other locals who drop by for a drink in the evening.  One fella turns up in a camouflage bandana and matching fatigues most nights.  It's the dress of people out hunting in Greece, and it looks a bit odd on him, because he doesn't look like he's been hunting.  He has two of these matching outfits in different shades of camouflage.  He also boasts an Obelix-style moustache. Karl tells us that this man is Manolis' half-brother by the same father.  His name is also Manolis.  They are preparing for revolution, for the army to overthrow the government, for an end to corruption, an end to idiotic politicians.  The owner tells us this and explains why he will vote for Golden Dawn, the fascist party that has risen in popularity.  This is alarming stuff.  Here in Crete you do not feel that the people are really suffering from the economic crisis.  Food prices are high in the shops - maybe higher than UK prices - and if you earn the average of 570 euros a month then that's a problem.  The difference is that if you have land you can grow your own vegetables, keep animals, produce olive oil.  So it seems that if you work in tourism or live in the country you are probably protected from the worst.  However, if you live in the city and have had wages cut, or you're unempolyed, then.......
from Chania - not everyone is a Golden Dawn supporter

So why does Manolis want to vote for fascists?  Didn't his family fight the Germans to stop fascism?  Actually, when you look at the history of Greece, they appear to have already had a fascist government when the last World War broke out.  It just wasn't interested in getting involved.  When Mussolini demanded that his army be allowed to enter Greece, the Greek General Metaxa, who like his namesake brandy was often drunk, famously replied "Ohi!" (No!).  Benito was not chuffed.  The Italians invaded and the Greeks fought them back.  Tough luck, here come the Germans.......(The Greeks still celebrate "No!" Day on 28th October, with military parades and marching schoolchildren, with all the verve of any new nation.  And this is what we realise makes Greece so vulnerable - it is still a relatively new nation.  New and divided.  In the civil war that followed when the Germans left, more Greeks died than during the World War.) Manolis explains his frightening right-wing tendencies: he hates the communists and he hates the corruption in the country, the lying politicians.  Life would be simpler with a military government.  The judiciary would function properly.  Oh, so simple it would be!  In the meantime he is refusing to pay his taxes.  So, no change there, then...

After the night of rain and the day of cloud and high winds the weather settles down again and the temperatures rise once more.  Karl refers to this as the African side of Crete.  The mountains form a barrier with the northern European side.  We stay a while.  On the site there are quite a few cats that wander about.  One of them pisses on our tent.  Not once, but twice.  We take to deterring them from coming close by throwing stones at them.  But you have to hit the cat, otherwise it thinks you're throwing food, and it gets all sociable with us.  After a week we explain to the Austrians why we are not so kind to the cats.  Karl tells us it's the fluffy dog that pisses on the tents - he saw it do it to his own....