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.