When you walk into a near empty restaurant here in Greece, do not make the same mistake we made. A conversation between two Greeks sounds like an argument. They are loud, which is something they will admit. When there are three involved, it will sound as if a fight is just about to break out. If there is a bottle of wine on the table, and it is almost empty, put at least three tables between yourselves and the Greeks if you want to be able to hear yourself think.
What you may also want to do, is ask them a simple question, ” What is your favorite colour? ” The first Greek will answer ” Blue “, and after that, if you have told them they can not pick the same, the other two people will answer light blue and dark blue. Blue is to Greece, as orange is to the Netherlands. On the national flag it denotes the concept of ‘ freedom or death ‘. Now they will have an argument about blue, so walk away.
Early on a Sunday morning and it is already hot. The road to Trikala is flat and we pass a Greek Orthodox church, it’s pa announcing a call to devotional duties. It is rather poor, a 4/10 score at best. It is a depressing ride, with the car parks of industrial units and firmly closed ‘ cash and carry ‘ stores on both sides of the road. There are the constant landscape motif here of the unfinished building project. From loft extension, to new home and up to massive infrastructure project, things stop. Roofs grow green with age and moss, the walls a dream and possibly a generation or change in fortune away.
Meteora can be translated many ways but ‘ suspended in sky ‘, would just about nail it. The town sits on the plain, whilst less than a kilometre behind, a line of rock towers rises. A combination of devotional zeal, paranoia and dumb determination suggested that the very tops of these near vertical lumps of rock would be the perfect place to build a series of monasteries. Monks being monks, they wanted to maximise the solitude. If they had to be dragged up in baskets on the end of fraying rope, then so be it. It is of course, a World Heritage Site.
At 4.10 we ask how long it would take for the walk up to the monasteries. ” About an hour “, and again we turn an easy day hard as they close at 5.00. Dripping with sweat, we get there in 30 minutes and have just enough time to look around. We are so glad we did, the monastery is a marvel of what faith can achieve. There are another five of equal beauty, threaded along the ridge. I pause to take a photograph on an outcrop overlooking the plain. A raptor, a bird of prey so fast that I hear its wings carve the air before I see it.
The road out in the morning runs beside a river. We are biking through a forest for the first time since either of us can remember. Ample water and irrigation have produced a softer landscape, and there are fields cut and spread for hay. It is strange, but in the last day, people are waving and shouting their greetings to us more often. The ride this morning is idyllic, and looks like home more than for a very long while. We take a minor right towards Deskati happy to be pedaling on such a day.
There are Tortoise, some as big as steak plates and one smaller one needs to be rescued. Corn is being cut and te harvest bought in here. It feels fertile and vibrant and the road rolls by the entrance to rough tracks that lead to the smallest of villages. Every village is a downhill roll, except Deskati, our goal for today. It is a steep climb and three false summits. With every town here, we wonder if it is ‘ closed today ‘. There is a baffling system of half days and siesta that operate beyond comprehension.
There is no guarantee about anything, but today we are in luck. Dr Paris, the local doctor and twice town mayor introduces himself. We are his guests, in what is quite definitely, his town We are not far from 900m, and the morning is a cool 23’c as we say our good-byes. We drop down through wooded valleys and again hear a cuckoo. This one is late, but another returns the call across the valley. I count that as our first European bird.
There are flocks of sheep being moved. Big purposeful looking dogs check us out, and are called back in rough tones by the stockman. The morning is cool enough for a winter coat, and the shepherds look even more like part of the flock in dark wool and fur. We are enjoying the delights of a downhill, when we catch a glimpse of Mount Olympus for the first time off to our left. It is unmistakable, bigger, much bigger than anything else. 2917m and still with a cap of snow.
40Km into the day, we arrive at the pretty town of Elassona. It is ringed by churches and monasteries, and would be a delightful place were it not for the constant traffic. There is only one obvious way through the approaching chain of mountains, and this is it. Every truck uses it and makes the right angled bend right in front of us as we sit and eat a Kebab.
In a moment we will make that left turn towards Katerini and begin what may be our biggest climb for a while. The word ‘ epic ‘ is used a lot in cycling. It has a bit of weight to it and adds credentials of history or toil to a story. Today I am happy to use the word. For goodness sake, we are climbing Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, how much history do you want.
300m of climbing done. It has rained on the lower slopes and the road is still wet. Vapour rises holding the smell of damp tarmac and warmth. This is narrow and roughly tarmaced, with a crumbling edge and trucks are queuing up to find the gap between bends to get around us. The grades are not bad, 5,6 and 7%, but it goes on long enough to bring a lactic burn to quads and glutes.
A right towards the ski centre and things quieten. At 530m we get the first full view of the mountain. There are fingers of rain and curtains of low and threatening cloud. Behind us things are much worse. It is solid black, a wall of cloud to the horizon and there is slashes of lightning already. We find a wild camp, with the mountain behind us and have the tent up just in time.
It is sunny in the morning. The storm when it came pulled out tent pegs until we hammered them into the hard soil. It rained just hard enough to make the tent feel cosy, and we slept the perfect sleep of a wild camp.
It is sunny in the morning, and we eat, pack, and begin the climb of the left shoulder of the mountain. Above 900m the roadside has splashes of spiky yellow plants. Alpines, our first Saxifrage a high mountain plant. 400m climbing since we climbed out of the tent and 8.5 Km, we reach the summit at 1015m. It is just 20’c, perfect for us. 5 minutes later and we have dropped over 300m and now there are poppies by the roadside and fertile fields.
The village of Dimitrias, we stop for coffee at a most perfect hotel. A dark clothed elderly lady treats us like family. There are home made treats and big smiles. It would be a peach of a place on an autumn day to sit by the tile woodburner and pass some time.
We continue down, and behind, clouds are coming together. There is a dark mood of dispute on the mountain. What argument are te gods having? – ‘ the merits of Messi or Ronaldo?’
We have dropped over 1,000m by the time we get to the coast. As so often , we have done this the right way by fluke. It would be a sod of a climb the other way around. The run to the coast features a few of the most depressing looking strip joints imaginable and ends in a dual carriageway to the seaside town of Paralia.
There are more fur stores in this small town than in most European countries. The Russian newly rich once came in great numbers and the shops opened. Now the customers have gone and the shops are almost as endangered as the animals they sell. High maintenance women cast bored looks from the checkouts. I think they may have to wait for the Chinese to come.
The morning is cool, cold even, and the Greeks are sitting around in winter coats. We are the only happy people in this seaside town. A cool ride along the coast for E&W. It all starts so promising it all looks so easy. But there is a toll road and it is the only road and has the only bridge across the very wide river. We divert to field tracks. It is wet and because it is wet there is gloopy mud that sticks to everything. Bugger!
An easy day ends in a big detour and that is before I tell you about the headwinds. We are defeated and take a cheap hotel. We had planned to ride into Thessaloniki, the second city of Greece and a major place in the history of here and Macedonia. We have a quiet night and in the morning start what turns out to be one of the most frightening rides of our tour.
There is no quiet alternative to a very busy and narrow dual carriageway. The road surface is appalling and every time we stop to consider things there is the strong wish to be anywhere other than here in this mess. The gps shows a cats cradle of roads, all potentially lethal. We have to string together the least bad route. I flick through the screen options and am amazed – PERSONAL SERVICES are listed. Hookers have a data base in the Greek gps system of Openstreet Maps. Well, there is enterprise.
We get into the centre of Thessaloniki in less than the best of moods. It is busy, hot, and has little time to give touring cyclists that little bit of extra room. It takes a couple of hours to calm down, and then we are off for a walk. Dig a hole anywhere in Greece and there will be priceless archeology, and there is lots of it here. There is a folk dance demonstration. It could be terrible, but it turns out to be just the fun we needed.