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Cycling Greece

Posted August 31st, 2008

Greek FlagCapital: Athens
Currency: Euro
Population: 10.7 million
Food: Donairs
Drink: Frappe ice coffee
Warning: Nasty sheepdogs

We covered northern Greece in September 2007, making our way east to the Turkish border.

The country is very hilly and hard work on bicycles but it also offers some great wild camping opportunities and we found the people very hospitable. The north is not touristy overall but the town of Meteora attracts many visitors with its monasteries on the top of stone pillars.

At the top!!Our tour started when we landed from Italy at the port town of Igoumenitsa. From there we made our way across the Katara pass, down to Meteora, around Mount Olympos then up the coast to Thessaloniki and along the water all the way to Kavala and Alexandroupoli before heading northeast to the border with Turkey. The ride along Mount Olympus is a must; beautiful views of the famous peak and a great downhill run to the sea if you are heading towards Thessaloniki. Meteora was also well worth a visit to see the monasteries, even if you do have to jostle with hundreds of other tourists.

route-greece.jpgThe roads were in decent condition for the most part although sometimes the heavy truck traffic and heat had worn grooves into the pavement. Occasionally we also found dirt roads, which were supposed to be hard packed, were actually in very bad shape and not rideable. Our map was a 1:500 000 scale map published by Road Editions. It covered the whole country and was generally pretty good. Distances were accurate. It did not, however, give indications of grading. Some small communities were not listed on the map.

A view with catsOUT THERE IN GREECE
Both our challenges and our pleasures in Greece came from the remote terrain. Wild camping was often necessary but no problem at all and very scenic. You can always pitch a tent on the grounds of the orthodox churches or sleep in the open air on the benches they have on covered outdoor terraces. There will be water in most church grounds. Just be discreet and respectful. On two occasions, we were invited to stay in people’s homes. We found it challenging to locate enough water and because of the mountainous terrain we had to allow more time than we would otherwise to cover a set distance. If wild camping isn’t your thing you may want to head for the more populated southern half of Greece where there are far more campsites and hotels.

13 Xμ/km of twists and turnsWATCH THE DOGS
Sheepdogs were another disagreeable aspect of going through rural Greece. We didn’t see any wild dogs but the sheepdogs can be very aggressive. Give any flocks of sheep a wide berth and if you are approached by dogs stop cycling – unless you are on a great downhill run of at least 30km/hour. Stand your ground and look tough. Don’t show fear. Shout back and motion like you are going to throw something at them. Pick up rocks to use as weapons. Use your bike as a shield and walk slowly past them. If the shepherd is around he can call the dogs off but sometimes he wanders away.

Greece isn’t the budget destination we remembered it as from our trip there a few years back. The campgrounds ran between €14-20 euros a night. We heard that you could get hotel rooms easily from €20-40 a night and this was probably true in more rural areas but in Thessaloniki we paid over the odds for city centre accomodation. A coffee or frappe ran anywhere between €1.20-2.50 each. You can get street food for €10-15 for two people (kebabs or souvlaki and drinks). Internet access was fairly cheap, with plenty of places offering it at €1 an hour.

The early ferry beckons

Posted October 13th, 2007

Colourful boatsTomorrow morning at the crack of dawn we’ll be on our way again, on the 7am ferry across the Marmara Sea to Bandirma. Goodbye Istanbul, a city we’ve slowly come to feel at home in and know pretty well now that we’ve trekked to many of its corners, trying to hunt down those elusive visas for the next part of our journey.

We only had moderate success in our quest. Iran is now certain, thanks to a very pretty piece of paper in our passports. Syria proved to be more complicated as Colourful scarves for saleGermany has stopped issuing the letters the Syrians require to grant a visa, making Friedel’s passport rather useless. Foiled by international politics. We will try our luck at the border instead, where we have a decent chance of getting in according to other travellers.

Pakistan was also a no-go as our visa would expire before we get there but with the fighting in the country at the moment, perhaps it is for the best. We may try again for a Pakistan visa in Tehran but we’re also planning an alternative through Central Asia and hoping for an early spring if we need to set a course for the mountain passes of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Beautiful ceilingAll that is far in the future, however. The next few weeks will take us along the coast of Turkey to some of the world’s great archaeological sites and also hopefully to some beautiful deserted beaches. We are also crossing our fingers for good weather along the coast, now that the autumn chill has definitely started to show here in Istanbul. The wooly sweaters and long lycra will be coming out of our bags sooner rather than later!

Before we run onto the boat, here are a couple videos we’ve had hanging around; one of us going up Greece’s Katara Pass and another of the morning traffic coming into Istanbul.

63km Alexandroupoli to Ipsala

Posted October 2nd, 2007

Welcome to Turkey!The best Greek bike shopA few days ago we met Greece’s nicest bar owner and today our paths were lucky enough to cross with what we are sure is the country’s best bike shop. It was pure chance that we happened to stop at a sports store – looking for bike gloves for Andrew – where the owner knew someone who knew someone and a few phone calls later a cheery man called Costas appeared on his motorscooter to lead us to the bike shop. Costas was good friends of the owner of this little shop, tucked a few streets back from the main coastline drag.

We spent a few happy minutes picking out Andrew’s new gloves as well as a few bits and bobs for the journey ahead. When the moment came to pay, we were digging around in our wallet for the money when the owner plucked a 10 euro note out of our hands and declared the bill paid. It was only a fraction of the total and despite our protests he wouldn’t take another cent. Instead, he ran off to get a laptop so we could check our email for free from his shop, then wished us well a few minutes later as we set off for the rest of our journey.

Once again we are humbled by the kindness of others.

After a quick lunch we were soon passing through the farmland that leads from the bustling coastline city of Alexandroupoli to the Turkish border. The headwind that has plagued us for the past two days continued as strongly as ever and we struggled to even get down the hills, let alone up them! It took us over four hours to cover about 40km and the sun was riding low in the sky as we approached the Greek checkpoint. A quick look over the passports and we were on our way, cruising over the bridge between the two countries, smiling at the soldiers and finally reaching the Turkish border post. Our sixteenth country so far! (more…)

101km Mandras Beach to Alexandroupoli

Posted October 1st, 2007

A pretty marshMegalithic gate, apparently....Our last full day in Greece ended up being a bit like our first day in the country. Difficult! Several times we really had to ask ourselves why we were going around the world on bicycles??? It truly seemed crazy as we fought on many different fronts.

The wind blew strongly all day in our faces and from side to side, with gusts so strong it was hard to get anywhere without a real effort. Even when we should have been flying down hills we had to pedal. Not that there were many hills to pedal down. The road turned out to be much hillier than we’d anticipated and this too was a blow to our morale.

We’d worked hard yesterday to try and get into Alexandroupoli early and find a few things before we cross into Turkey but by the time we stopped for lunch at a church, listening to the wind howl across the fields of cotton and corn, we realised that wasn’t going to happen. (more…)

98km Nea Iraklitsa to Mandras Beach

Posted September 30th, 2007

Istanbul here we come!Today was a beach day. We woke up by the water in our campsite and finished there as well with supper on the sand as we watched fisherman wade out into the waves. They had lines and hooks but also a long rod which they plunged through the water and into the sand. Maybe trying to catch some kind of crab or clam?

Our first plan was to sleep under the stars on the quiet beach but the mosquitos came out near dusk and put an end to the idea of snoozing outside in just our sleeping bags. Instead we made a last minute dash to an olive grove just up the road which also made a peaceful home for the night. There can’t be many other things like a mosquito which have the ability to annoy people all over the world. We certainly thought the season might be over by now but no such luck!

Earlier in the day we dawdled over small country roads along the Nestos river delta; an area which seems to live on farming and has more bird life than we’ve seen anywhere else in Greece. Herons were out fishing in the marsh waters near the beach and we saw hawks soaring overhead. Beautiful.