Greek Life

We have an idealised picture of cycling in Greece, and even though in the end the reality didn’t quite match, we still have that picture. The potential for Greece to be a near perfect country to cycle in is there, but it depends so much on when you go. It was August when we were there. Greeks holiday in Greece, not surprisingly, and like much of Europe many take the entire month off to do so. Other Europeans also holiday in Greece, mostly in August. Serbs and Germans drive to this part in droves. This is compounded by a major Bank Holiday Monday in the middle of the month, so those who don’t take the whole month will at least take that week. We knew it would be busy, but didn’t expect that every inch of the coast, including all the small villages, would be packed. Campsites were often full, and finding somewhere to sleep was a daily anxiety, whereas we’d been pretty relaxed about it up until this point.

It’s not unusual for temperatures in Greece to get above 40 degrees regularly, and it’s miserable to cycle in. We’d like to come back here, but in the Spring when it would be much more enjoyable. We look at the weather further south with envy; it’s wild that Turkey is cooler than Europe right now. As it was, the back roads of Greece and the coastal views were amazing. Parts of riding here are idyllic. There are lots of quiet roads and they are in really good condition. We had a couple of unpaved sections, but nothing too terrible, or too long. But there’s no getting round it, Greece is mountainous, and it’s unrelenting. It’s beautiful, but tough going. The hills are usually the sharp and steep lung and leg busting kind, but there is always cheap and plentiful gyros to refuel with.

In contrast to the great backroads, there are often no small routes into or around large towns and cities; usually it’s just the option of a busy main road. Thessaloniki, Athens and Larissa were particularly bad. We had a headwind and a multi lane dual carriageway into Larissa at the end of a long day, but there was no other choice. Richard blasted along, trying to get the road out of the way as fast as possible, so I had to put in a time trial to keep up with him, because I knew if I lost his slipstream it would be ten times worse for me. Even two weeks ago I wouldn’t have been able to do it, so the tough riding is starting to pay off.

Athens was oddly quiet. We visited many of the ancient sites in relative peace. Our Autumn goal has always been Turkey, but (maybe with beer involved) we started to muse about what else we might do before that. We hashed out the idea of cycling the North Peloponnese and up the coast to Albania and maybe even beyond, then taking a series of ferries back. In the cold light of day though it would have been excruciatingly expensive, and involve backtracking from Patras to Athens. So we stuck to our original plan to go straight to Turkey via a couple of ferries.

We thought we’d have a quick, easy ride from the northern outskirts of Athens to Pireaus port just to the south, but no. It was a sweltering couple of hours navigating the inner city and the industrial outskirts. I was on the verge of a heat meltdown, so took myself into a nearby IKEA to pretend to look at furniture and cool down in the air conditioning.

We had an 11 hour ferry crossing to Chios, and then a short hop the following morning to Turkey. Plenty of time to think about the last couple of months, and the future. I was torn about what we were doing; I felt we had sold ourselves a bit short on Greece, and had been high on the idea of getting to the Balkan coast. But practically speaking, we are doing the right thing, and we can always go back at a better time for us. I also had plenty of trepidation about our next destination. Greece had been monumentally hard, and Turkey is going to be worse. We did a long tour over ten years ago, and it was tough. It’s even tougher now; I feel slower, my back aches all the time, my knees are sore, and there are countless other twinges. People much older than us do long bike tours, but it’s been a sober reminder that I’m not young anymore and won’t be again.

A playlist for the ride through Greece:

The Heat Is On

The ride into Serbia was fast and smooth, plus we found a car wash to give our bikes a scrub. We found a studio apartment for less than many campsites, and it was a relief to be in a cool room and out of the sun. We were lucky enough to be there for the annual town festival, with food stalls and traditional music and dancing. I had some kind of pork patty the size of a side plate in some folded flatbread. It goes without saying that I spilt paprika sauce down the front of my white top.

We had a climb out of town, and it was already over 30 degrees. I had finished half my water bottles and was a complete mess by the top. The views and the downhill were spectacular though, and it felt like a great day to be alive. Even better, I got a tow from a tractor on the flat and would pay to see the look on Richard’s face again as I flew past him. Halfway through the day’s ride, another big climb came into view on the road ahead, but before it a sign for a turnoff onto another EuroVelo bike route. The lesson we’ve learned is that the main roads in this part of the world are never as busy as we would think from a map, and the cycle routes are so often dogshit. But I’d already noped out of the climb in the heat.

At first the road was lovely. The views of the vast Danube with its fishing villages and beaches was almost like being by the sea. Then the road started to deteriorate a bit, but it was flat and nothing too bad. Then the surface become made up of large loose rocks which were incredibly difficult to cycle on and took chunks out of our tyres. The foliage on both sides had mostly encroached onto the tracks, so one way or another it will be impassable soon. The good news is that it was free of cars and mostly in the shade. We got to the end of the section and passed a Czech cyclist going the other way, who stopped to swap notes. He told us that parts of the road in Serbia where we were heading were terrible, the Bulgarian road was good but smelly (!)

The next 10km or so were dead flat and on a smooth road, but the heat had well and truly fried me, and I was having trouble concentrating and keeping the bike on the road. The temperature has consistently got into the 40s in the afternoons, and it’s just too much and is really getting to us. It’s still in the high 30s well past 8pm, so there just isn’t any respite from it.

The next day we hit what the Czech guy had been talking about – huge sections of road works. We didn’t find it too bad, it was mostly flat and the roads were very quiet, because most cars had taken a diversion. We’d reached the end of our time in Serbia, and it’s somewhere we’d be happy to return to.

The Bulgarian border guard used to live in the UK and was happy to have a chat at his very quiet border post. The border town itself is half abandoned and very odd, but there were lots of waves and hellos as we passed through. The next 15 miles or so was probably the quietest “proper” road we’d cycled on, with lovely scenery and lots of shade. That disappeared (obviously) for the climbs that afternoon and we limped into Vidin with everything zapped out of us. It’s too hot to even eat much in the evening.

We had thought that we might continue East and stick with the Danube all the way to the coast, but the heatwave continues in that direction, and I in particular am sick of it, so we ruled that out. We considered the Balkan coast, but knew this time of year the roads would be busy, and campsites would be full and expensive. We settled on getting to Sofia and spending a couple of days there to look at the options and make up our minds.  It was definitely cooler heading South, but the first morning in Sofia I slipped a disc in my back. It’s something that happens once or twice a year, and takes at least a few days before I become mobile again. It was frustrating to finally have some respite from the heat, but not be able to go anywhere. When I was back on my feet we had to take cycling easy, so made the decision to get a train South of the mountains surrounding Sofia and continue on from there.

The cycling in the South of Bulgaria has been the most spectacular so far. The road surfaces are perfect and quiet, and the scenery is beyond words. It’s managed to topple Serbia for the cycling top spot so far. As the second day of riding went on, I was getting faster and starting to leave Richard behind on the climbs. My belief that I was just getting super fit and fast was short lived when I looked back and saw him nearly collapsed on the road. It was a long afternoon of riding a few miles then stopping as he recovered. He seemed a bit better the following morning, so we put it down to dehydration and pushed on, but the same thing happened again, and now he was sure there was something wrong with his chest and throat. We decided to go to the West and cross into North Macedonia, as it had the only big town which we could reach in a day’s ride. It turned out that he’d come down with laryngitis, and was bedridden for the next three days.

We’ve both now been struck down physically in quick succession, but what’s been almost worse is how frustrating it’s been to be trapped when we want to be moving. So even though Richard wasn’t completely recovered, we thought we could do a short day through the mountains to at least get going again. We didn’t really have much choice about the difficulty, because even though getting to a town was the right thing to do, we’d boxed ourselves in with mountains. I felt a little bit guilty about how much I loved the day’s cycling, because Richard was still suffering and struggling. Our main climb was very long but with a gentle gradient, exactly the kind I like. The descent was dramatic and honestly a bit hair raising, but the views were jaw dropping and worth every bit of pain to get there.

We found a cheap apartment in a complex with a restaurant and pool on Lake Dojran to stay for a couple of nights, to make sure Richard was completely recovered before we head to our next destination: Greece. On our last night, the owner came over to our table, and through a mix of broken German and gestures told us that he usually sits down to chat with all of his guests, but he doesn’t speak any English so was sorry he couldn’t do that. He offered us some of his home distilled spirits, and I could see Richard shaking his head in the corner of my eye, but thought it would be rude to refuse so I said “yes.” I got given a large pour of mastika, and Richard some kind of whisky. I don’t know how straws are measured when it comes to this kind of thing, but I think I drew the short one, because I could barely see after finishing mine, while Richard was fine. On leaving the place, the guy gave us a bottle of his homemade wine to take with is, which was another very kind gesture, but not an easy one to carry on a bike.

The morning was overcast and blissfully cool. Easily the lowest temperature we’ve had in weeks: An auspicious start to a memorable day. We made fast ground to the border, and though the queue was long, one of the Macedonian guards came out and waved us through to the front. Not to be outdone, on the Greek side the guard asked if we’d ridden from the UK, and then offered us food and drink if we wanted. The distance to our destination was the longest we’d ridden in a while, but the roads were great and the hills easy and undulating. We both are now happy and almost healthy, and as we rolled along the quiet roads to the Greek coast I thought how lucky we are to be doing this. Then when we pulled over for a rest and a drink, Richard remarked “You know, we are so lucky.”

A playlist for the ride: