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.
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|