I’m sure Al Humphries doesn’t mind me grabbing the metaphorical title of his global cycle-touring novel, as Greece really has brought me both thunder and sunshine. Cycle touring is always full of highs and lows, but at one stage I was losing hope of ever having Greece release me from her grasp. It was with great relief my ferry reached the shores of Turkey on Boxing Day a few days ago, ending a period of two months in the beautiful country of Greece.
If I was to believe in the godly omens of the Ancient Greeks, I probably would have exited the country on my very first night. When I was searching for a place to camp I stepped onto a snake! It was the first time I had seen a live snake when camping, and luckily it didn’t seem too concerned that a soggy cycling shoe had scrapped its lower back (does a snake have a ‘back’?). Frustratingly, I was too scared to set up the tent, and left the picturesque riverside in a dash!
On my first week in northern Greece I realised I was ahead of schedule, so I created a GPS track over the mountainous centre of mainland Greece. The result was five consecutive days of climbing, with the highest elevation gained in one week of my entire trip. The mountains were superb, with my favourite being the Parnassos Mountain Range near Delphi. Six years ago I travelled up to the ancient site as a bus passenger, and I remember it being much easier from the seat of a bus! In the evening I pitched my tent off one of the switchbacks opposite the two interposing valleys through the mountains to the Gulf of Corinth. The following day I rode along the Gulf of Corinth to Patras, with sublime views over the water to the towering mountains of the Peloponnese. The mountain route also brought a very successful dumbster dive in the town of Karpenisi. In the supermarket bin I rescued fresh apples, bananas, onions, tomatoes, eggplant, lemons, oranges, sugar and coffee. The downside to such glorious food was managing the extra few kilograms on the bike up those hills!
I soon got used to the bizarre weather patterns of Greece. On most weeks the weather either produced cloudless blue skies, or torrential rain and storms. On one evening I was camping in an olive grove with thunder and lightning all around me; through the night the lightening was only about 500 metres from my tent, and I became very conscious of sleeping next to my metal two wheeled steed!
It was on the slopes of Thermopylae that my bike hit disaster; breaking at a point where it could not be welded. So I soon found myself in Patras with a broken bike frame, together with shabby components that would hardly be fit for city commuting. In response AICR launched a fundraising appeal, and I called in early Christmas and birthday gifts to raise the funds. Incredibly, over a period of a few days we raised over 1200 euro. Wow! So massive thanks to everyone for supporting the adventure and making it possible for me to get back on the road again. I’ve always said that my trip will be self-financed, so with that in mind I plan to pay back this amount raised to AICR once I have a proper job.
With the extra time in Patras while I awaited my bicycle to arrive in the mail, I did my best to make the best of the time off the saddle. I had an extremely rewarding visit to the AICR granted science lab at Patras University (please click here for a professional video of my lab visit), as well as the university’s primary school. I cannot thank enough the science team at Patras for all their ongoing help while I was grounded in Patras for the month – they must have been relieved when they finally got rid of me! I was also able to visit about ten English language classes at my couchsurfing hosts school, sharing my journey with students and giving them a chance to improve their language skills. It was strange having to sit and sign autographs for the children; my protests that I’m just a normal bloke on a bike didn’t stop the onslaught of requests!
It was during this time I was able to secure sponsorship from GoOutdoors, the UK’s largest adventure clothing and equipment company. This has proved a massive boost to my preparation for winter, and by the time I leave Istanbul I will be equipped with all the necessary gear to take on any extreme conditions! My clothes have continued to fail in the rain, and twice I’ve experienced severe weather conditions up in the mountains. On one descent it was just one degree, with a headwind and hail pelting me face… my eyes were so sore from the cold that I could only see one foot ahead of the front wheel.
Greece is experiencing a plethora of political and economical hardships at the moment, and it was fascinating to stay with locals and compare Greece to the last time I was there six years ago. With mass unemployment and discontent Athens now resembles pre-revolutionary Cairo more than when I was last there in the city. The international media rarely focus on the human effect of the crisis here; suicide rates are soaring; university degrees no longer bring work, causing many to go overseas (one example is the government announcement that they will not be employing teachers for the next five years – yikes!); many people I met had not been paid in months, and; pensions have been reduced by nearly 50%. On one evening in Patras I found myself between riot police and anarchists, with the flame of petrol bombs mixing with the suffocating tear gas. I had never smelt tear gas before, and was able to pick up the teargas bomb – it would have made a nice addition to the new bike!
When my bike was delayed for an additional week, I quickly took up my German friends offer to stay in his holiday house in the village of Elea in Laconia. I spent a week working in the fields picking olives, and it was so much fun to climb trees and do some labour for a change. After so many months riding it was a bit of a shock to use my upper body muscles again when using the heavy vibrating machine to tackle the out of reach olive branches. The experience opened my eyes to woofing and HelpX, and it was truly a dream to be paid with delicious food, making up for my dismal cooking skills!
It was extremely hard to depart with Wilson, who has taken me about 20, 000 kilometres on several cycling trips in Europe. Somehow the new bike came without a seatpost, so luckily I still hadn’t donated the old Wilson to the Patras migrant charity group, and I was able to salvage such crucial parts from the old bike. When the bike arrived I didn’t realise I would have to build the thing, IKEA style… it was entirely guesswork as I attached the various parts together, resorting to sticky tape until I could get it to a mechanic on Saturday morning. Anastasio, the mechanic at a local Patras bikeshop, kindly gave hours of his time building (and rebuilding much of what I had failed to do properly) the bike and charged next to nothing for his efforts!
It was strange to ride a different bike, especially with the low riding front panniers and unused saddle (making the ride much more uncomfortable). It was with jubilation I began my ride eastwards after nearly four weeks off. My fitness had dropped dramatically, making all those hills a struggle. I quickly took to drinking Greek tahini straight from the jar to give me those much needed energy boosts! It was a pleasure to once again explore the roadside from a bike instead of through the glass of a bus window. The sights, sounds and smells of the roadside reminded me straight away why I enjoy cycle-touring over any other form of travel! The mountain riding was particularly beautiful due to the changing colours of the trees. The orange golden leaves made for some picturesque riding to Kalavryta; a town which was sadly destroyed and its people massacred by the Germans in The Second World War.
The scenery only improved after the first snowfall of the season. Luckily a kind local housed me for the cold evening, cooking me up some steak on his woodfire oven. It was a strange day that followed, beginning in the snow capped mountains and finishing on Nafplio Beach where I slept overnight! The riding also had me pass many ancient citystates; in just one day I cycled past ancient Nemea, Mycenae, Tyrins, and Argos. As well as these sites, I experienced two dream historical camping spots; on one evening I was perched over the Corinthian Canal with ships passing by; and after my ferry to Crete I spent my first night camped on the slopes of Knossos Palace, the centre of the Minoan Civilisation.
In Crete I visited the Department of Biology in Heraklion, and was able to explore two AICR funded research projects. It was a wonderful experience to tour the two laboratories of Christos Tsatsanis and George Zachos. One specific aspect of the research was exploring the process of cell mitosis, and how cancerous cell division can be stopped. It was the last opportunity to visit a laboratory in Europe, and it was an invaluable experience to take me onwards through Asia.
After a fun visit to Heraklion’s School of European Education, I unfortunately experienced my first injury of the trip. My right knee was experiencing so much pain with each turn of the wheel, that ascending even minor slopes became impossible. I think it was due to overriding in the mountains of mainland Greece, and not having my new bike positioned correctly with the saddle too low. By the time I reached Chania I had to walk up the final hill, and I soon accepted that I wasn’t going to move again until after I saw a physiotherapist. Thankfully a friend housed me in her holiday home, where I was able to spend the week strolling around the historic harbour and read the captivating The Count of Monte Cristo. I met some great people during these long days in Chania, and had a cracking time getting on the local radio for an interview. When I finally saw a physio the news wasn’t good, with ligament damage due to overuse. The days of jumping on the bike without warming up and stretching, and chasing each and every mountain range, are clearly over. I’m now testing my knee as I ride north to Istanbul, and have accepted that I may be forced to stop there and return to England for treatment.
I finally got riding again between Heraklion and Sitia, avoiding the worst of the Cretan hills. Along the way I met Charles on the road, who had me visit his language school and stay with his lovely family overnight. It was warm experiences like these that really made Greece so special, and I’ll really miss all the people I met while breaking in Patras, Elea, Heraklion and Chania. Once I reached Sitia port the following evening I was sick for the first time, with chills all night whilst leaning out of my tent in the rain to spew up my spaghetti dinner – not nice!
Arriving at 1am on the boat from Crete to Rhodes, I cheekily set up my tent in a garden against the Knights medieval walls. For the following three nights I was able to stay at the Nautical Club, enjoying a peaceful Christmas meandering through the medieval alleyways (click here for a Christmas article where I’m featured: ‘A Christmas Thought for the Wandering Souls’). The catamaran to Kos was spectacular, and after a few hours exploring Kos I jumped onto the Turkish ferry to Bodrum. The bay glistened in the rays of the sunset as we pulled up to Turkish customs, where I gladly saved thirty euro by pulling out my second passport, James Bond style! Wedged between a mosque and Bodrum’s knight’s fortress, it was the best of wakeup calls from the call to prayer in the early hours of the morning to begin my ride through Turkey to Iran.