March 30, 2008 GMT
A final look at Greece
23 Mar –30 Mar 08
Sometimes you can put the mochas on yourself with the simplest things. All it took was a single mention of “spring” and a few photos of warm weather; that, and a natural talent for making silly decisions.
We enjoyed a few days of improving spring weather at Nidri and did some much needed administration which included giving the Elephant a bath.
A local lends a hand with the hose for washing the Elephant.
We would have stayed on for a few more days except for the fact that the apartment complex we were staying at did not have any rooms with a double bed. Now call me old fashioned, but three days of struggling with the bedding on two singles pushed together, and I had had enough.
The view across to the mainland from our room at Nidri. Shame about the beds.
We did our research on the weather and decided that our best bet for dry weather was on the east coast and the quickest way there was straight over the mountains through the town of Karpenissi. The unseasonable chill that was sweeping across Northern Europe was yet to have any significant effect on Greece and we only needed one day to relocate to the other side of the country 340km away.
The morning of Monday 24 Mar, we held off departure until 1030 to check on the weather. It looked good. We paid our bill, said goodbye to our landlord and headed for the hills. By the time we were charging across the causeway to the mainland 40 minutes later the blasting cross winds hit us and we were wondering about the wisdom of our decision. By the time we reached the foothills two hours later we had our rain-suits on, and by the time we reached the mountains three hours later we knew it was going to be a long day.
I have never minded riding in the rain, or riding in gusty cross winds, or riding challenging mountain roads, but this was the trifecta. Rain turned the switchbacks into rivers and covered them in debris. The storm wind ripped down the valleys and hit the Elephant with a hammer-blow each time we were exposed from the lee of a spur. The camera stayed dry inside Jo’s jacket so there is no photographic evidence.
We pushed on with nowhere to stop and nowhere to hide. Occasionally we closed on and passed a car or bus on the torturous road, but mostly we felt alone and exposed on the mountain. The only town of any size on our route was Karpenissi. The 240km to get there had taken 6 hours in the saddle and we were running out of light. The temperature was 6 degrees C and falling quickly.
We decided to stay, found a deliciously warm hotel, changed into dry clothes, found a bottle of very good Shiraz/Grenache, some tolerably good take-away and curled up safe and warm in bed. It had been a hell of a day at the office.
Tuesday 25 March is Greek Independence Day and a public holiday.
Wreaths were laid at a monument in the central park on Independence Day which commemorates the uprising against the Turks starting in 1821. Interestingly it was international pressure led by the British and French that forced the Turks to settle a deal with the Greeks in 1829.
We set the alarm early and opened the window to an amazing sight. It was snowing! Even the Elephant had a light covering.
The view looking up the street from the hotel window in Karpenissi..
Looking down the street was no better!
We waited. It kept snowing. At 10:00 we told the hotel we were staying and settled in to read novels and watch some Greek TV. At 15:00 our town appeared on the afternoon news covered in its blanket of newsworthy unseasonable snow. They showed the main street where our hotel was located and there, in the corner of the screen, parked on the footpath, was the Elephant with a thick pad of snow on its grey cover!
The Elephant with a covering of white stuff.
That night the snow turned to rain and it thundered down without stop until the early morning. We had a fitful night’s sleep waking to look out at the rain each hour or so. In the picaninny dawn, however, the rain stopped and the sky started to clear. By the time we were packed to ride at 0900, the mountains around the town looked magnificent in the clear morning light,
The mountains behind Karpenissi were spectacular.
But we weren’t waiting around to enjoy the view. We tumbled down the mountain. In 20 minutes we were below the snow line and the road was drying. In 40 minutes we were on the coastal plain heading for the town of Lamia.
We turned south and flogged the Elephant down the motorway to Athens. We needed to do some important administration and Athens was the best place to get it sorted. We booked into the same hotel we had stayed at on our last visit, the Pergamos. The hotel itself had nothing much to recommend it above the other tourist class places in the area except that the front desk was manned by Stefanos, who is a former teacher of politics and history.
Mike and Stefanos at the Pergamos in Athens.
Stefanos is a walking encyclopaedia on matters of Greek culture, history and politics, and is worth the tariff and the simple breakfast just to be there and answer our questions. We didn’t even mind staying an extra day when the weather closed in with heavy rain in this notoriously dry city.
On the morning of 29 March we left Athens and pushed 450km north to the east coast area that the weather forecasts assured us would be sunny. We stopped at the town of Platamonas. It was not much different to a dozen other settlements along this part of the coast except that we had stayed here 18 years ago with Sarah and Nick.
We walked up to the same castle we had walked to all those years ago and took some photos. The castle hadn’t changed but it now cost 2 Euro to get in. Last time the goat herd didn’t care if we wandered over the old rocks.
The castle at Platamonas was still there, but much else had changed.
We remembered a sleepy village with a couple of tavernas where fresh fish was always on the grill. We found a walking street (mall) and a dozen glitzy bars, coffee shops and restaurants. While we walked along the waterfront a private helicopter landed in front of one of the restaurants and the occupants disappeared inside.
The new Platamonas was probably a good end point for our visit to Greece. Much of what we loved about Greece is still there and it is still a country where we feel completely at home. But the new Greece is also a modern country on the move with plenty of swagger and self confidence.
We will be back. And we may even stay at the Pergamos again if Stefanos is still on the desk.
Posted by Mike Hannan at 03:39 PM
March 23, 2008 GMT
Lost on an Island in Greece
16 to 23 Mar 08
Happy Easter everyone, we hope you caught up with the Easter Bunny like we did!
Having survived big-city Greece in Athens, we were pleased to settle into the gentle routine of travelling the Peloponnese and southern coast. Our days have developed a rhythm of late starts, careful rides over treacherous mountain roads and lazy evenings wandering picturesque villages. Interspersed with this is the constant round of hunting and gathering that keeps us accommodated, fed and healthy on the road.
Rooms for rent are cheaper and often more comfortable than hotels. Many, like this one in Githio, …
…have wonderful outlooks. Many also have communal kitchen facilities that allow us to make a cuppa for breakfast.
Our route takes us down the west coast through Methana and Nafplio, across through the series of thin peninsulas and the towns of Monemvassia, Githio and Koroni. We then pushed north through Olympia and Kalavrita before crossing to the mainland at Patra and ending our week on the island of Lefkada in the Ionian Sea.
It has been the sort of relaxed week you would expect in a country where we know the way things work and how to make ourselves at home. We found many of the roads here to be both challenging and exhilarating. With rugged mountains plunging straight into the sea, you can ride the Great Ocean Road every day without rounding the same corner twice.
The mountain road west of Sparta clambers up through dozens of impossible switchbacks. The Elephant’s hairpin technique is close to faultless now.
In these mountains, we have spent hours in first, second and third gear. (There are 6 gears.). We use the classic technique of going in wide and deep and turning late and hard once we can see the exit. This gets us coming out of these corners on our side of the road which is the first trick to survival.
The country itself is rugged and beautiful without the breathtaking drama of the mountains in Morocco. The upside is the perfect scenes that greet us at every stop along the coast.
One great feature of Greece is that we can usually find a place by the road to boil the billy and eat our cheese, bread and olives. We carry a small mountaineering stove and food for breakfast and lunch.
The view from our room in Koroni. All this and the hot water and heating worked as well!
We visited Olympia 18 years ago with Sarah and Nick and we had no desire to see the archaeological site again. We did, however, have two pressing reasons to go there. Firstly, we needed to buy a postcard from Olympia for our friends Bob and Jenny Cook, whose daughter Sarah has just been selected for the Australian Olympic Rowing Team, and it didn’t seem right to buy one anywhere else but Olympia. The second reason was to see the new Museum of the Modern Olympics.
The post card was no problem. The Museum turned into a Greek joke. We had noted that there was industrial trouble in the air during our time in Athens (the riot police gathering near our hotel was a dead give-away) and we knew the garbage collectors were out because of the mountains of uncollected rubbish in every village. We then found out that the postal workers were on strike when we tried to buy a stamp for the Cook’s card. The penny finally dropped and we realised that the whole of the public service was up in arms when the museum was closed because of the strike action.
Our consolation for the trip to Olympia was to meet an American couple Oliver and Marjorie Fezler. Now in their 80s, Oliver and Marjorie had only sold their Honda Goldwing Aspencade last year. They had travelled all over North and South America on their bike. They gave us lots of encouragement and renewed our ambition to take the bike to Copper Canyon in Mexico before we die.
Oliver and Marjorie loved the Ulysses sticker on the bike and the motto: “Grow Old Disgracefully”.
It took us more than an hour to find the right road out of Olympia and into the mountains to the north east. Some days can be like that. As it turned out, it was an hour we would have appreciated later in the day. The 250km run to Kalavrita took us all day on the tortured mountain roads. Apart from our usual meal and travel breaks, we also took an hour out of the trip to visit the limestone caves at Limnon.
Jo was very keen to see these as they are reputed to be some of the best in the world, made special by a series of cascading lakes within the caves. Unfortunately, the guy who turns on the water for the lakes was also on strike and the caves were mostly dry. The guide claimed that the lake-less condition of the caves was due to poor snow during the winter, but we know industrial action when we see it.
Now, where is the bloke who turns on the water?
The village of Kalavrita is a ski resort. This makes it high, cold and expensive, all good reasons not to take a bike there. To add to the stupidity, we spent an hour freezing on a park bench next to an expensive hotel to use some free WiFi and get some emails done.
At Kalavrita our spring weather deserted us.
The ride over the mountains to Patra was wet and slow. But by the time we were on the mainland and heading up the Ionian Coast, the skies were clear and we were stripping off excess gear.
Ionian Coast near Mitikas
We first heard of the island of Lefkada from Steve and Sandy on our trip over from Brindisi. They were looking for a permanent mooring for Steve’s yacht that is warmer and cheaper than their UK base. We arrived at Lefkada to find that many others had the same idea.
Hundreds of yachts are laid up for winter near the town of Lefkada, while…
…many others fill up the marinas.
The island of Lefkada had a number of small natural harbours like this one at Sivota. It was easy to see why the yachties love the place.
We finished our week having a few days at the town of Nidri where we had another room with a view. This gave us a chance to catch up on some make and mend and wash our riding suits. Since we had been wearing them for more than six months, they were at a point where even the owners could not stand to be around them. Imagine that!
A room with a view at Nidri.
Time for a scrub for the riding suits.
Our stop over has also been a chance to do some bike cleaning and repairs, and to carry out a few of the maintenance tasks that keep us running. Tomorrow we head north along the west coast before turning east and heading for the border with Bulgaria and another escape from the financial tyranny of the Euro-zone.
Posted by Mike Hannan at 06:15 PM
March 16, 2008 GMT
Spring at Last
8 to 15 Mar 08
A lot had changed in the 18 years since our last visit to Greece. The country we remembered was a bit of a backwater, friendly, quaint and a little clunky. The country we found has been transformed by its membership of the EU and monetary union. The place looks and feels prosperous, it has the beginning of a cosmopolitan culture (albeit one with central European bent), and all of the usual problems of a modern western market economy.
One excellent effect of Greece’s booming economy is that folks have real jobs. We are never bothered by touts in the tourist areas.
The great news is that all of the things we loved then are still here, even if the prices are now in Euros. The food is great, the people straight-up and the country still rugged and beautiful. In short, everything we like about a place.
Athens lacks the beautiful architecture of other cities, but in the prosperous area the town looks smart and clean.
Not that the Greeks themselves are fully used to the new face of their country. In one coffee shop, a fellow explained that the newcomers bring discrimination on themselves because they dress and act differently. We bit our tongues and didn’t say anything. We’re visitors here and, besides, we have heard enough talk-back jocks at home blaming the victim not to take the high ground.
Don’t know about these fellows, but there were six of them sleeping around the same bank!
We arrived in Greece on the Friday of a long weekend for the celebration of Shrove Monday, also known as Clean Monday. As we rode into Athens on the Saturday morning a river of traffic moved in the opposite direction out of the city. We had wondered why the huge and almost empty hotel in Messolonghi had no rooms on the Saturday. We saw the reason pouring past us; a river of cars leaving town.
The Sunday of the long weekend is marked by a carnivale with big street parades. While the Brazilians are probably not in danger of losing their crown for the ultimate street party, the Greeks do a great job of parading in the streets dressed up in silly costumes and eating and drinking far too much. All of this in the name of piety mind you.
We spent the weekend in Athens staying in an area inhabited predominately by Romanians (don’t ask us). The unexpected upside of our visit was that the air, having been cleaned with recent snow and the Friday’s rain, remained as clear as crystal. The usual polluters spread their vehicle exhausts further afield in the provinces for three days. We put on our walking shoes (our only shoes) and made the best of the brilliant warm spring weather and the clean air in this traditionally smoggy city.
On a rare clear day in Athens we look from Lycabettus Hill over the Parthenon and all the way to the Peloponnese. It is not often you can get a view like this.
Our reason for coming to Athens was to resolve some problems with our visas for Russia. In the end, we left without having a full solution to our problem, but the folk at the Russian Consulate were most helpful and we are hopeful that we will get our visas in the end. Without going onto excruciating detail, the following facts will allow you to fill out the problem(s) for yourselves:
• We are still 2400 km and seven countries away from our entry point into Russia and it will take us 60 days to get there. Our target entry date is 1 June 08.
• To get a visa, you need an invitation from an organisation inside Russia.
• Because we need a visa for three months (it’s a big place) and for multiple entries (we wanted to go to Mongolia as well) we have to have a business visa as the tourist versions are only for short visits.
• The organisation that is inviting us can’t apply for our invitation from the relevant ministry until 45 days out from our entry date.
• It takes 18 days to process our invitation request.
• Once we have the invitation (the original copy of which needs to be delivered to us somewhere, which will take a week) we have to apply for a visa at a Russian Consulate. These all operate separately and have different rules depending on the host countries. It takes 10 days for the Consulate to process the visas, during which time they have our passports.
• In the end, there is no guarantee that we will be granted the visa we need for the trip we want to do.
The current plan is to process our visas at the Consulate in Budapest in early May. We shall see about that! But, in the meantime, we stave off Alzheimer’s solving these problems on the road.
After Athens we headed south into the Peloponnese, that large southern protrusion joined to the mainland by a thin isthmus at Corinth. This is where you can find Sparta, Olympia, Kalamata and the village of Githio where Paris took some folk dancing lessons from Helen before stealing her away to Troy and starting a war.
While we don’t intend to re-visit sites we visited in 1990, the theatre at Epidaurus was a short and interesting stop that we missed last time. This visit also gave us the chance to…
…get a plumbing shot for Mike Russell!
In the Peloponnese you find those idyllic Mediterranean scenes with crystal clear water and beautiful villages that we associate with the islands. Here, however, we don’t have to travel by ferry.
Your idyllic Greek scene! This one at the town of Nafplio, where we…
…got our “codgercise” climbing 1000 steps up to the old Venetian fort above the city. I took this shot of Jo on the way down, and…
…this one to show where we had been.
We rode through the rugged mountains over some of the most spectacular bike roads and enjoyed the spring weather with the Elephant.
We were so high in the mountains when we stopped to take this shot near Kosmas, that….
…there was still snow on the ground in some places.
The mineral baths at Methana. Jo thought they called it that because if smelled like methane. They pump this foul smelling green stuff into the building and folks actually immerse their bodies in it. Pass!
Our week ended at a small village in the far south. At a taverna full of locals, we had a very traditional Greek meal of salad, grilled fish and octopus. We ate the same meal often during our last visit. This time, however, we walked a few blocks to an ice cream shop and wandered home licking a superb chocolate and chilli gelato. Welcome to the new Greece!
The coast line just north of Githio. Not a tourist in sight.
Posted by Mike Hannan at 09:07 PM