It’s a long journey from Athens to Kalambaka. I’d arrived at the Greek capital in the early hours of the morning, after catching an evening flight from London. After a few hours’ sleep in a dingy hostel I caught the train heading north and had 6 hours to watch the Greek countryside roll past. Large swathes of forest had been charred by recent wildfires. It was almost eerie; completely blackened leafless trees lining the tracks in places. You could see exactly where the fires had taken out huge chunks of the landscape, and the green lines where they had suddenly stopped. Without much else to do, I thought about the ride I was about to go on. It was significant for a couple of reasons: The first was that I was heading to the cliff-top monasteries of Meteora which is where I first became aware of bike-travel as ‘a thing’. The second was that this was the first trip abroad with my Dawes, ever since I arrived home and finished my cycle around the world.
There were no signs of forest fires further north and the recent heat wave seemed to have abated, but it was still bloody hot. The heat stepping out from the air-conditioned train was like a brick wall, a shock to the system after an underwhelming summer in England.
I checked into a cheap hotel, stripped a couple of bags off my bike and rode straight up to the hills of Meteora, hoping to catch the monasteries with the last light of the day.
8 years ago, having finished my second year of university and saved up a little extra money at the start of summer, I spent a few weeks travelling around Europe. I’d gone to Turkey to hike the Lycian way, but after a few days I accepted defeat from the heat, hitched a ride to Marmaris and took a boat to Greece. Once I’d reached Athens I hopped on a bus heading north, to see Meteora on my way to Albania. The rock formations at Meteora in central Greece host one of the largest and most precipitously built complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries in the world. I’ve told this story before on the blog, but it was while hiking around the monasteries that I met Heike – a german woman cycling on her way to Australia by bike. I’d never heard of anyone travelling by bicycle before and it blew my mind. Heike’s story made such a great impression on me that 18 months later I was leaving home on my bike, also dreaming of reaching Australia.
I’ve wanted to go back to Meteora by bike for some time. It felt fitting to do it on this bike too – the very one that carried me around the world. I wasn’t sure if I’d remember the spot where I met Heike, but that didn’t matter too much.
As I rode up between the cliffs I came up to a spot marked on my map as ‘sunset viewpoint’. As I reached it, I immediately knew that was the spot. I rolled up, expecting to walk out and experience a profound moment in the spot that put my life on a two-wheeled trajectory. Instead, when I got there the place was heaving. A Greek bunch were filming a rap video, slightly harshing the moment of peace. Watching them was far more entertaining than admiring the view. For all the world’s differences, at least mankind seems to be united on the priorities for rap videos – sun glasses on in daylight and low profile sports cars.
I left town the following morning and headed straight up into the mountains. It was a long climb, much of it off-road and sections I had to push on. The heat was relentless and progress was slow.
Eventually I popped up above the tree line and the landscape started looking very different. I pitched my tent up at the top of the mountains and settled in for the night. The views were amazing and the night-time temperature was quite pleasant for sleeping. Trying to pitch at higher altitude became a daily theme for my campsite searches.
In the morning I rode past a ski resort, an outdoor pursuit I can’t say I think of when I picture Greek holidays. Then again, I was up at around 2,000m above sea level. Ski resorts always seem quite bizarre when they are deserted in the middle of summer.
I resupplied at Metesova, a town built into such a steep mountain-side that I had to walk up the roads to reach the centre. After a quick spanapotika lunch I headed north into the Pindus National Park.
The route I was riding was partly devised myself, slightly inspired by the Bike Odyssey route, but mostly copied from Chrissa’s ‘Pindus Traverse’. As much as I enjoy route-plotting, it’s also nice to let others do the hard part while you simply turn up to ride. It’s also handy when they enjoy the same type of riding as you, and I knew this route would suit my interest in off-road riding across remote places. My only requirement for the route in Greece was that I would reach Lefkada after a week, where I was joining my girlfriend and her family on holiday. I’d asked Chrissa which regions she most recommended, and she’d highlighted the Pindus National Park – hence why I started up north and worked my way back down through the range.
There were plenty of signs about bears, and plenty of bear-themed posters in the area. I didn’t see any myself, but I was alert in some of the more remote areas and was cautious not to keep any food in my tent at night. I was quite hoping to get a glimpse of one, having only ever seen a wild bear in the US, but it wasn’t to be on this occasion. The wild boars left me in peace too, so the animal problems I had were the dogs.
And boy, are the Greek dogs feisty. They were probably some of the angriest I’d ever encountered. Up in the mountains, on the lonely dirt roads, I’d always be on high alert for them. If I saw livestock in the distance, or heard cowbells, I’d take out my headphones and be ready for the dogs. As soon as I neared the animals, or passed a shepherd’s hut, they’d come charging at me. The Greek sheepdogs are big, too. Like those I remember battling with in Turkey and further east. They’re very good at what they do, and I was glad that I’ve had plenty of experience dealing with them. Knowing how to handle them was useful – the shepherd’s never seemed to care, nor did they seem particularly apologetic. Or even helpful for that matter.
After my northern loop I resupplied in Metesova again. It seemed unlikely that I’d pass any proper shops for the next few days so I stocked up on enough porridge and pasta to keep me going until I started leaving the mountains.
Getting water wasn’t a problem. I forgot to pack my filter, so I didn’t treat any water, but there were loads of springs at the side of the road. They weren’t all running, but there were enough – and I was never carrying more than 3L despite the heat.
There were plenty of villages, all of which were adorable, but they were often quite lifeless. There’d be a few locals knocking about, mostly old men sipping coffee at the village taverna, but all of them were ancient. I suspect all the young people had headed off to the towns.
The tavernas were handy. I’d try to reach a larger village around the middle of the day so I could sit down for a big meal. I managed that most days – the tavernas were always open and you could get a good meal for 5-10 euros.
It was nice to be living a simple life on the bike once again. This was the first time I’ve been abroad on my bike since my RTW, touring rather than racing and riding somewhere with nice weather. Camping was easy and the days were long. I didn’t pay a penny for accommodation and I didn’t shower once. I swam in the rivers and tried to camp near them. One evening I pitched my tent in a gorge beneath a high bridge. I put my pasta on to boil and jumped into the water for a dip. In the morning I did the same while my coffee was brewing. The good life.
The following night I had my highest campsite of the trip, on the very top of the last big pass, at around 1,800m asl. It was a beautiful spot, with views through the mountains to the vast plains further east. The wind was really picking up as I stopped, and I new it was dumb to camp somewhere so exposed, but I couldn’t resist the views. I had a shaky and cold night in the tent – not my best night’s sleep. It didn’t help when some cows wandered up to hang out around me. Their cowbells have quite the ring on them.
You may notice that I have a different tent for this summer trip. I was kindly lent a very fancy one from Samaya which I was testing out. It’s made for winter alpine expeditions, hardly fair-weather bikepacking, but it was fun to try a slightly lighter tent than my usual one.
I also had a new Camera with me, having splashed on a second-hand Canon 5D MKiii. I have the same cheap 50mm prime with me, and a second hand 70-300mm Tamron that I picked up recently. It’s a bulky setup – but I’m quite pleased with the photos. (Hope you are enjoying them!).
After I reached the village Agrafa I turned off from the route I was following and started heading west towards the coast. I slowly lost altitude as the climbs became shorter and more undulating.
I finally started seeing some proper shops again, which was nice – I was getting slightly weary of living off porridge & pasta. Getting supplies in rural Greece had been more fiddly than expected.
I spent my penultimate night on the mainland camped by a reservoir, on a flat patch in an olive tree grove. A big storm rolled through during the night – the second dumping of water I’d had. Other than that, the weather had been glorious (if a little hot).
I cut over to Lefkada, to meet my girlfriend, Bella, and her family. They were renting a villa in the South of the island, where a proper shower and bed awaited me. This is the dream combo – a week of slumming it on the bike and in a tent every night, followed by a week of lazy luxury. Greek island life couldn’t be more different to the rural mountain life, but both have their charm.
The holiday wasn’t over… from Lefkada I flew directly to Italy to ride the Torino-Nice Rally, but I’ll tell you about that next time.