Sunday, 29 September 2013

spartan sites

It might almost be the perfect start to a cycling day: 25km downhill on good quiet road.  The sun is out and the light is clear and sharp.  We approach a flock of sheep crossing the road and the shepherd waves to us to wait a moment.  He hurries around the sheep and gets his dog to sit at his feet before waving us through.   We’ve already had three sheepdogs barking at us this morning as we prepared breakfast.  A shepherd whistled and called them but they didn’t really take any notice until he strode over and waved his staff at them.  We smiled and gave him a big “Kalimera” and I casually dropped the stones clutched in my hands.  The shepherds have been uniformly friendly and unfazed to see people camped in the middle of nowhere.  They probably all think we’re German though.   Before we arrived in Greece we considered carrying a flag to identify our nationality.  This is hard for me – I’m not a flag-waver and I don’t like the Union Jack – but I was sorely tempted to look for a Brazil flag, just to liven things up.  In the end we haven’t bothered and I’m glad, but we do wonder whether Greeks prefer it when we say we’re English.
After passing through the wonderfully named Meghalopoli, which wasn’t so mega as the name suggests, we take the old road heading southwards to Sparta.  In the valley a brand new highway gleams emptily up at us as we start to climb, once again, upwards.  The climbing is fairly gentle after all the grunting and straining of the previous days, and we stop at a tiny chapel with a fountain for a lunch and laundry session.  (I’ve just realised that I’m doing something that really made us laugh about some other cyclists’ blog about travel in China.  I think it was an American couple and the woman always noted when they washed their clothes.  Okay, you don’t want to know when and where we wash our clothes, so I’ll never mention it again.)   Clean and smelling of Omo, we continue along the valley and end up climbing the western edges covered in scrub to the villages built high above.  At a local’s bar, which looks like it doubles as the village post office, we get ice-cold water refills.  It has just rained before we arrived and thankfully we chase the rainclouds along the valley without ever catching up with them.  Eventually, as we descend through forest towards Sparta, we come across an old restored church hidden unsigned in the trees.  We know it was restored because a large sign with Greek and EU flags proclaimed the sum of 500.270,16 euros has been spent on it.  We don’t know how.  We can only imagine that inside were the most fantastic frescoes lovingly brought back to life.  The doors are locked and there is nothing in English.  It is a lovely leafy spot to camp.  Well worth the money, I'd say.

a comfy bed for the night
Sparta, or Sparti, as all the signs declare, (well, actually, they say: ΣΠΑΡΤΙ) is a modern small town sitting between two mountain ranges and looking somewhere southwards far off to sea.  There are probably old bits of Sparta knocking about somewhere, but we don't see any.  In the parks, teenagers are playing physical games after school and we eat lunch whilst watching two young naked men wrestle in the dirt.  It all seems so macho and, well, passé.  No wonder the economy is up the spout if this is all they learn in school.  Down at the camp site everything is as you'd expect in this neighbourhood - kind of basic facilities, cold water showers, that kind of thing.  Nice friendly bloke runs the place and serves beer and ouzo to the locals in the bar/petrol station out front each evening.  On the TV news one night there's an exposé on the security forces colluding with the thugs and activists from Golden Dawn, Greece's fascist party.  There is footage of the army training these fascists to shoot in the woods.  At some protests, the riot police provide protective cover for them to attack anti-fascist demonstrators.  The party now has MPs voted in last year with 7% of the vote.  Their popularity has been increasing with anti-immigration propaganda and we remember being told in Zitsa how the previous week, the fascists had staged a demo at the border crossing with Albania and closed it down for a day, with the police doing nothing.  Now one of their supporters has murdered an anti-racist rapper.  At last there's a bit of a backlash.  The news is quite depressing and none of the locals are watching it.

We have come to visit the nearby Byzantine ruins of Mystras, which sit on a hillside overlooking the valley.  It was one of the last big centres of the Byzantine Empire when the Turks turned up and scared everyone off.  Some scholars and artists ran off to Italy and got themselves involved in some trendy new way-out movement called the Renaissance.  What is left is a collection of churches and a monastery or two, some palatial ruins being ever-so-slowly restored/rebuilt and all crowned by an old Norman fort (or is it Frankish?) Frank's, Norman's, whoever's it is, it's now a popular starting point for the little tour groups that arrive by the coachload and which then wind their way down the steep paths and stairs to the bottom.  At this point I have to confess that only Gayle visits the ruins.  For some reason I don't fancy it on the day, and at 5 euros a ticket I think you have to want to have a look around.  In hindsight this is a misjudgement.  I've since seen photos of some of the frescoes in the churches and they look quite special and unique. Silly me.
the view over Sparti

Our wonderful route takes us up the Langada Pass - slicing through the mountains westwards to drop over to Kalamata and on to the Mani.  'Slicing' is not the correct verb.  Our guidebook tells us the climb begins 9km from Sparti at a little village called Tripi.  By the time we reach this village we are sweating, gagging for water and gasping for breath.  Leg muscles are distinctly not happy.  And then, miraculously, the road gradient becomes a nice easy incline leading us up a series of switchbacks into forest of beech and other unidentified trees, all looking lovely in the autumnal sunshine. Up and up we go, past small churches, small farms and on into pine trees that finally emerge at a taverna, a road junction and a view down the other side.  All in all, it is a great morning's ride and we're delighted that it felt so easy after our previous mountain climbs.  We are just savouring the moment and thinking about lunch when up comes another cyclist - Cameron from Canada - who seems equally thrilled by the ride.  We share lunch and talk and talk and talk and it's all very sociable  - as it should be.
up to the Langada pass

Sunday, 22 September 2013

on the up

Down by the sea we have a day off before setting off once more into the mountains.  There’s a tourist train that climbs through a dramatic gorge to Kalavryta, but we opt to take the road – a now familiar feeling comes over us as we start to wind our way uphill.  But no worry, there are water fountains along the road and we’ve food in the panniers so we can stop when we want.  So after a shortish climb, when a track appears at a hairpin bend, we check it out – it heads into an olive grove in a quiet empty side valley.  A perfect spot for camping, once we’ve weeded all the spiky prickly plants from the ground. 
view from our pitch
The road goes the hard way to Kalavryta – we climb over the top of a ridge the next day and descend into a valley where the train passes.  These climbs are averaging at around  1000m which is why we like to split them up.  There’s a smattering of weekend tourists in Kalavryta, but we stop only to stock up and try a kebab.  On the way out of the village, up another tear-inducing gradient we come to a moving memorial to the men and boys executed by the Germans in the last war.  This was in retaliation for the killing of German prisoners by some of the local resistance.  511 rounded up and shot.  It’s chilling and desperately sad.  Not since we left Poland have we heard such dreadful stories.  The Greek resistance must have been a true thorn in the Germans’ side because similar atrocities occurred in other parts of the country.  Our guide book sometimes remarks about a modern village because the old village was flattened in reprisals.

We continue our climb with a short break for lunch at a closed down restaurant perched on the side of the road with a view looking over the surrounding mountains and valleys.  We sit on the fancy marble steps and munch our sandwiches.  Once again we are on a quiet road with only local farmers passing in their pick-ups and a few tourists.  There’s a ski centre up here somewhere.  We surprise ourselves when we reach the pass early afternoon and delight in the big downhill before us – a good 30km or more – through a high plateau of farms and then down a steep narrow valley to Greece’s g-spot.  This is the town of Klitoria.  We fly down the road just behind a storm and reach a soggy Klitoria just as a big crowd is breaking up in the main plaza.  The shops are all shut and there’s a lot of milling around the church.  It turns out to be a funeral.  We mooch on more slowly looking for a camping pitch, and find one in the wet valley bottom.  Now and again there’s a shotgun blast across in the nearby fields.  It’s only when the sun has set and the light has faded that Gayle realises that there’s no hunting going on here – the shots are single at regular events – it’s a device to scare off birds and/or wild boar and/or wild campers.

Misty morning and another mountain pass to climb.  We gradually and comfortably climb out of the mist and into the sunshine and a new valley dotted with quiet villages.  An old man steps out of his house and spots a tin can on the road by his garden gate.  He kicks it over the road into the field.  Despite this kind of scene, the villages are clean and there are bins in each one we pass.  There’s also one by each water fountain so the area is kept fairly clean.  But when you’re cycling you see it all – and just down the road is the now familiar sight of the road edge tip: a place locals come and tip building rubbish, furniture, general trash to scour and foul the mountainside.  We stop in one village to look for bread.  In the shop there’s not a lot on the shelves.  Really not a lot.  Barely anything edible.  The shopkeeper offers me toothpaste.  When I indicate I want something to eat he points me out the door to the café.

Our ride finally tops out after a little bit of huff and puff and the occasional push.   Well, okay then, a lot of huff and puff.  We have a cup of tea in the shade of pine trees, glad of a flat spot to sit down.  And now it’s a cruise down the other side and onto a main road which helps us get our daily average speed back up.  We enter another valley which twists into a gorge, and climb remorselessly once again up to the scenic village of Dhimitsana.  It’s Saturday and this is our last hope for a food shop before the Sunday closedown.  The reward for our long ride is one of the prettiest villages we have come across since we left Puglia.  Looking over a balcony rail the gorge bottom plunges out of sight.  Somewhere down there in the cliffsides is a monastery.  There’s a good shop, there’s a bakery, there’s a bench to lie down on.  Wonderful.  After chatting with a few bored-looking Belgians in a tour group and an English woman who is “doing classical and Byzantine Greece” with her husband, we nosey on down the road, loaded up with water and looking optimistically for somewhere to camp.  The road is contouring a cliffside and the chances look slim, until we come across a turn-off up to a remote village which provides a nice flat spot off a handy hairpin bend.  It’ll do.

We are eating our breakfast and packing up in the morning sunshine at around 8 o’clock.  Gayle remarks how she’d like some rain – sick of the sun. 
We have decided on a lazy day as a just reward for our journey south through the Peloponnese mountains.  Along the road is another picturesque village called Stemnitsa, perched on steep slopes on the side of the valley.  We stop at a café to use their wi-fi.  I order a coffee and Gayle goes for a wander with the camera.  At around midday the skies darken and a thunder storm arrives.  It continues non-stop until about  5 o’clock. We stay rooted in our café.  The owner doesn’t seem to mind that we’ve only ordered one coffee.  Thunder rumbles above us and lightning strikes get closer and closer.  Finally, the storm seems to have passed and we mount the bikes and rush off in search of a place to camp.  Thankfully the road is heading down to a wider part of the valley and we pitch off the road behind a hedge.  Gayle seems happy with her afternoon of rain. I pray for sunshine tomorrow.

Friday, 20 September 2013

a push over

We are in Karditsa, a fairly big town compared with the small letters on our map.   There’s a one-way system which we try to ignore.  We are looking for road signs out of the town.  It takes a few moments to decipher the Greek lettering.  Every town around here has a sign pointing towards Athens.   This is not the road we want.  We want the road to Kedros.  Kedros is a little village marked on our map on the edge of the plain where our road heads back into the mountains. In the suburbs we ask a man with a van.  Kedros?  He points us back in the direction we have come.  We cycle back and ask a young woman.  Kedros?  Along here, she says, then turn left.   She points east.  We have to go south west on our map.  Is she right?  We ask at a café.  Kedros?  Kedros? A man nearby speaks English, but quickly says “I’m not from here!”   Instead  we ask for another village en route, Kelifornia, this time.  Now we seem to get an answer that makes sense, with clear instructions.  It’s only later that we learn from our dictionary that the word Kedro means centre.

Earlier in the day we had cycled past an old Ottoman mosque in Trikala.  It had been restored and used for an exhibition of local archaeological finds.  The man at the door didn’t seem too disappointed we were not interested in the Greek-only display.  But we could tell he wanted to talk to someone.  He must’ve been bored.  He wittered on in pidgin English about the possible finding of Alexander’s tomb, about the immigrants in Athens, about Manchester United.  We bid him farewell as soon as we could in our pidgin English.

We have our lunch in the little square in Kedros.  The place is dead.  Siesta dead.  At around 4ish two drunks come over to talk and buffoon.  Albanian farmworkers.  They point out another man to us – from Pakistan. The Pakistani obviously doesn’t want to spend any time with the drunks and neither do we, so we hustle off and start our climb up a side valley, stopping on a crest of cleared land next to a fenced-off field, above the road.    Not a house to be seen.  Goat bells tinkling in the distance. When we start cooking a dog barks somewhere.  

It takes us a couple of days to climb through the mountains, past several villages, most of which are below the road, and into a pine tree-filled valley before cresting a ridge that leads us to a big peak above the town of Karpenissi.  We skirt below the mountain at a decent height – wonderful views eastwards and northwards back the way we have come.  The road has been quiet and slow going.  We have taken to listening to music on long climbs to ease the monotony of pedalling in our lowest gears.  The music makes a big difference.  We enjoy the views much more.  We learn that slow music is fine for this kind of cycling.  I had started out listening to Northern Soul, but suddenly found myself cycling harder than I could or should, heart pumping, muscles straining, trying to keep up with the beat, going all Tommy Simpson.  I imagined myself collapsed on the side of the road, hands still gripping the handlebars, to the strains of Kim Weston warbling You Hit Me Where It Hurt Me.  No, a nice bit of Bill Evans can do the job a lot better.
time remembered
Sitting in Karpenissi after lunch a man from a nearby house comes to greet us.  A retired teacher, he brings us apples, chocolates and some inedible pastry things which I struggle gainfully to chew through while Gayle gets the small-talk chores.   We continue southwards and alarmingly downwards into a narrow pretty valley that soon becomes a desert rocky gorge.  The descent is alarming because we should be going up to a high pass.  We drift downhill knowing the climb will be even greater.   But nothing prepares us for the gradient.  The minute we cross a bridge we know we’ve reached our low point, altitude-wise.  The valley is still gorge-like and unpromising for camping until we find an overgrown track leading up to a landslide area above the road.  Not a promising pitch for the tent, but the landslide looks old, and we are absolutely knackered.   The tent just fits.   In the night the moon rises early, still waxing, but bright enough to cast magical shadows. 

Sunday morning we awake to pilgrims walking along the road below.  They are on the way to the monastery at Proussos.  Something’s up, because the traffic is heavier with local tourists.  It must be a festival at the monastery.  The road continues to be steep.  It’s a hard thing starting the day in your lowest gear and knowing there’s still a long way to the top.  We slowly reach the village, and pass the monastery tucked away below the road in the cliffside.  Around the village fountain are a string of busy cafes.  Cars line the narrow village streets.  We continue slogging our way uphill, around impossibly-cambered bends that brings Laos to mind and tears to my eyes.   There is a steady stream of nervous looking drivers passing in both directions, also struggling with the steep gradients, the blind hairpins, the sharp drop-offs.   We eek our way beyond all the houses and into a forest of pine trees.  For some stretches we get off and push.  It comes as a relief to tired muscles.  I can push almost as fast as cycling, but then my arms tire even quicker.  Finally, an almost imperceptible change in the gradient, and a rush of adrenaline sees us up the gears and zoom the final stretch to the pass.  There’s an archway of flowers, a fanfare, crowds applaud our arrival and we are showered in champagne.  No, this is just a nitrogen narcotic-induced hallucination.  There’s a tiny shrine, with a few iconostases, and two bottles of unopened water.  We drink one – we’re gasping – and float euphorically down the other side, finally coming to a stop at a scruffy village health centre where we have lunch, wash our clothes and take a stand-up wash by a sink that is open to the world but not overlooked.  All quite daring stuff.   On reviewing our guide book which describes the route we have just taken the words “spectacular if tortuous” leap out.  And this was written by someone who was certainly in a car.

The descent to the coast is not really a descent at all.  The next day we find ourselves going down, up, down, up, up, up, and up then down.  At some point we get caught in a heavy shower that soaks us.  An hour later we’re sweating again and almost dried out.  Once we have fresh food supplies, we don’t worry about where we get to, and we stop short in some olive groves far from the next village.  The next day we finally arrive at the Gulf of Corinth, and look over the water to the Peloponnese.  There’s a huge suspension bridge crossing the gap, but we opt for the free ferry instead and head eastwards along the northern shore of the Peloponnese.  There’s a new highway parallel to the old road, which dips and climbs and is quite narrow.  We find ourselves racing along because there are too many trucks on the old road, avoiding the tolls on the new one.  It’s madness.  We barrel through village after village, cringing each time a tanker cruises past us in the face of oncoming traffic.  The only interlude we have is when we spot a cyclist in a bus shelter reading a book.  We stop to say hello to this old Austrian man who tells us he sold his house nine years ago and has been cycling ever since.   The coastal road is built up, so when we see a campsite we stop.  Here we meet another cyclist, Stefan, camped on a low terrace by the seashore. We join him.  Although the road is busy with trucks, down here by the sea all we can hear are the waves lapping the pebble beach.  We can look across at the big mountains we’ve just crossed and feel happily worn out.


Friday, 13 September 2013

mountains of monks

We’re heading to one of Greece’s most popular tourist attractions: Meteora.  The ride down to Ioannina is a gentle start to the day.  It’s Sunday and almost everything is closed.  No food shops open – a curse to anyone self-catering – but amongst our provisions are tasty morsels of Kostas’ making. Heading around the lake we climb on the old road up to a pass overlooking the lake.  Everything is bleached in the bright light reflected off the water.  To the south we can see the new highway - tunnels cutting through the hills, bridges spanning the valleys.  Thanks to the new road our way is very quiet and we coast down a winding road the other side of the pass until we cross the new highway in the valley bottom.   Unlike the gentle gradient of the new highway, our road zig zags up and twists down and around the dry landscape.  After a long lunch in the shade of some trees we set off again up the valley where we meet a happy young Belgian who has just freewheeled downhill most of the day.  He’s heading to Germany, travelling light, carefree.  He warns us of the dearth of camping spots on the next stretch so soon afterwards we climb up off the road, outside a village and pitch our tent on a terrace of long grass.  We are not out of sight, and a couple of locals walking home from their land greet us.  Another local emerges from a gate nearby and we say hello.  He warns us about bears in the woods above us and heads home chuckling to himself.

The climb continues the next day, clinging to the valley side high above the new road which drills through the mountainside beneath us.  The valley opens out at the little touristy town of Metsovo.  Unfortunately our road has climbed above it, so to get food I unload my bike and cycle down about 200 metres in altitude to the shops.  Restocked, we complete the climb, circling the rim of the valley and topping out below a ski station surrounded in pine trees.    We think about camping here, in the refreshing cool air, but opt finally for a more sheltered spot on the descent in the woods.   We like to be hidden when we camp but when I hear cowbells in the woods below us I go and take a look – and in the distance, in a clearing, a cowherd catches sight of me.  I step back, but he is curious enough to scramble through the woods and up the hillside to see who we are.  He’s a young man who speaks some English. Once we have gone through the basic exchanges such as where we are from and where we are going, he seems satisfied and waves us goodbye, before putting his earphones back in and going back to his cows.

The next day’s ride is our reward for the previous two – a nice downhill and gentle run along a new valley which gradually starts to flatten and open out.  We are at the head of the great plains of Thessaly – the largest farming area in Greece.  The air warms up quickly as we drop down and when we stop at a lonely church off on a promontory to take water from the fountain we also take the opportunity to do some laundry.  There’s no real reason to do this in a mid-morning break because we plan to camp at a campsite tonight, but you never know.  Bowling along an hour later we catch our first sight of Meteora – large pinnacles of wind-eroded rock sticking up on the eastern side of the valley.  It’s only when you get closer that you can distinguish buildings on the tops of some of these pinnacles.  Monasteries.

The area was originally the home to hermit monks who lived in caves dotted around these pinnacles of rock.  Around the time the Ottomans appeared, other monks came along and, for want of anything safer, decided to build monasteries on the rocky tops.  A bit tricky to build, and probably even more tricky to live in (where to get water from?), most were accessed by rope ladders that could be pulled up.  But some of these monasteries are high. Majestically high.  Great views, cooling breeze.  These days they carry the air of luxury boutique hotels.  
The day we cycle around them, using the road built to connect them to the town below, the carparks are busy with coaches and cars.   Stone steps now provide access for pilgrims and tourists.    Business looks good – the buildings are well-kept, some look new.  I’ve never ever noticed national flags flying from religious buildings before and it strikes a bum note.  The Orthodox Church is closely connected to the state in Greece.  The government pays the salaries of monks.  It therefore came as an outrage when the IMF suggested the government should sell off the church in a privatisation scheme.  (Word got out that the Vatican was interested.   The media storm was intense, the IMF backed down.)  We see Greeks cross themselves as they pass churches but it’s hard to judge how religious the people are.  It seems that the rituals and traditions are celebrated as part of the Greek culture but not as an act of faith.  Not unlike most countries really. 

The camp site amuses us.  It’s really a shady parking lot, but with very good facilities, including a kitchen area and fridge.  But the amusement is with the tribal nature of the campers.  In one zone, about 20 Dutch vans.  Just in front of us three French Land-Rovers roughing it around Greece.  In our corner a couple of converted vans with young couples with babies.  We get chatting to Malia and Nathaniel from New Caledonia.   Down at the pool, the group mentality continues.  Obligingly we connect with a French couple, Jean-Marie and Fabienne, who are riding a tandem homewards.  There are signs up in most shops telling us in Greek and English that if we do not receive a bill/receipt then we are not obliged to pay for our goods.  The Fiscal Belt is tightening up.  The tax dodging must stop.  Still, we pay for our camping without getting a receipt.  If tourism is Greece’s biggest money-earner and those involved in it are not declaring their income or paying their taxes, then they are robbing their own country.  Suddenly it feels hard to be sympathetic about the country’s economic plight.  When we talk to a Greek man another day he tells us the crisis is not in Greece, only in Athens.  This is a country of 12 million, where Athens has a population of about 4 million. Maybe he’s right.