I woke up to my weekend in Athens with one main aim-to work hard on a way to get out, which seemed a bit counterintuitive.
So how to get my bike home? I needed to source a cardboard bike box of the kind bike shops take delivery of new bikes in. I’d then break my bike down (wheels off, handlebars turned,pedals off, racks and seatpost removed, tyres deflated), and pack it in the box so it could be checked in onto a flight .
The bike box method is a commonly used cycle touring hack, and bike shops are happy to donate the boxes if they have them. The only variable was actually finding a bike shop with a spare box, and I couldn’t book a flight until I’d found a box. Mission accepted .
I’d done some research and had a long list of bike shops to visit. I’d also noticed a small shop, “ 48-17 Cycles” (not on my list 😊) a few minutes from the hotel and thought it was worth a punt.
Jackpot. Not only did the English speaking owner Agi have a spare box, he was the only Dolan dealer in Greece and a cycle tourist himself. We had coffee and pastries and plenty of bike chit chat while he sorted the box and half an hour later I was heading back to the hotel with what I needed to get home .
The bike had been impeccable and I felt a bit sad to be packing it away. But now I knew it was safely boxed up I could get on and book a flight, and by the power of EasyJet I’d be at Stansted tomorrow evening . Time now for a whistle stop tour of Athens, on two feet rather than two wheels 😊
That evening I tried to think back to every individual days riding (some of it was a blur 😊), from rolling off the ferry into wet and hilly Northern Spain, crossing over to Barcelona, Sardinia top to bottom, Sicily, Italy, Greece, Corfu. Ten ferries, five trains and just under 1400 miles pedalled. 49 days ,campsites, hostels, hotels and B&Bs. Superb weather, route planning, getting by with terrible language skills, logistics, washing kit in sinks, missing home, packing and unpacking panniers about 100 times. I think I’d need more time to properly reflect and look back on a brilliant experience. After all the planning and endless map gazing the actual ride seemed to have gone relatively quickly in the end
Sunday was a travelling day, with one of my final Greek memories being a terrifying high speed taxi dash to the airport 😊. We weren’t even running late 😊
And with a final beer (airport pints are the best pints ) that was it. Homeward bound
And what a warm welcome I got at home-certainly warmer than the Autumn weather and very touching, especially after what was essentially a selfish endeavour, and one which needed lots of support.
So that’s it-normal service to be resumed shortly and back to work . I’ve enjoyed writing this blog, if only to document individual days and prevent them turning into a big mass that I’d struggle to remember afterwards, and I hope it’s been an enjoyable read too.
Surely it was only few days ago that I rolled off the Portsmouth ferry at Bilbao and began this trip? So it seemed, but on the other hand it felt like I’d been cycling for ages. About 1400 miles of riding, (plus ferries and trains), through Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, Italy and Greece had all led to this end day , the “A” in the “B to A” of the title.
So it felt like a big day. I’d reflect properly later, no doubt over a beer, but for now it was just another day in the saddle.
I wanted to get to Piraeus,the port of Athens but I’d realised last night that I couldn’t catch a ferry directly there from Selinia, the town I was in.Bit of a pain really, seeing as that was why I was was here in the first place. There was another port, Palouki, about five miles away, but ferries from there only served the port of Perama on the mainland, and that was miles away from where I needed to be.
Hmm. A friendly local told me conspiratorially that I could indeed get over to Piraeus but only on a “little boat, no big boat” No other details were forthcoming but how hard could it be to find a little boat in a small island port ?
Five miles later the words “needle” and “haystack” were spinning through my mind . As I approached the harbour side all I could see were big boats ,massive boats ,and Navy boats . But little boats? Nope
Then I saw these, sandwiched between their bigger cousins .But they had no signs, no ticket office,no people around and nothing to suggest these were the mythical “little boat “ ferries
Anyway, quicker than I could say “chill out,this is Greece” I’d pushed my bike on and we were on the way to Piraeus (I hoped)-the contrast between the first and last ferry of the trip couldn’t have been greater.
Forty minutes later my “little boat” chugged into Piraeus, dodging the tankers and catamarans….
And here I was in Athens. The outskirts maybe, but Athens nonetheless. The end point. Weirdly, the weather had changed and it was chucking it down, it felt like it was hastening the end .
The port was about seven miles away from the City centre and the route in was a typical mixture of busy roads, back streets and suburbs. At one point I caught sight of the Acropolis high up on a misty hill. It was still raining hard ,which was a shame
After a while the rain stopped ,but then with two miles to go, and for the first time in the whole trip, I got a rear wheel puncture . Try as I might I couldn’t avoid the need to upend the bike and fix it-this was a right pain eased by a kind lady in an adjacent office bringing me a drink and biscuits on a tray, which kind of summed Greece up for me .
And then … I was there. Done, and after a photo by the Roman Agora ruins, it was a short ride through the crowded streets to my accommodation.
I’d booked in for two nights to give me time to sort out a bike box, get packed and book a flight home, but for now I needed to get dry and get a celebratory beer
I felt pretty chuffed with myself actually, and I did indeed spend the evening thinking back on the whole trip. I’d loved it.
I was feeling a bit weird. After all this time away, today was to be my last long day in the saddle as I positioned myself for finishing tomorrow with a ferry and short ride into Athens .
No two cycle tours are the same. Mine had evolved dynamically since I started, with things like daily mileage, accommodation and route planning all being amended from how I originally thought it would be . Being able to make these changes was of course the whole point of touring in this way, but the point is I’d tweaked it and I’d got into a rhythm that suited me, the conditions, the local situation and what I wanted to achieve. I only had myself to consider . I was having a great time but of course I wanted to finish, and get home. I think I wasn’t fully prepared for the ride to end-I’d only been planning one day at at time, focussed only on tomorrows route and place to stay, and it was almost like the end point had crept up on me.
So a forty mile route today saw me heading inland away from Loutraki before riding parallel with the Corinthian Canal . Once I reached the Aegean coastline I needed to turn left and ride along the coast with the sea on my right . At Megara a small ferry (yay!) would take me the short hop across to Salamina, an island popular with holidaying Athenians. I’d be crossing the island to finish at Selinia on the Eastern coast .
First things first. Breakfast was a feta and potato pie,still warm and really delicious and worthy of a photo for sure ….
It was a baking hot day . I left Loutraki along a service road that ran parallel to the main road out of town, and for a while the landscape was quite industrial and busy. A mile or so alongside a number of oil refineries made me realise how loud they were.
After about an hour though I was free of all that and back into open sea views. The road wound around the coastline in a way that I become so familiar with and I enjoyed taking my time
Before long I was diverting off the main road to the grandly and optimistically named ferry terminal .Think more a waters edge car park with some bored looking men waving people up the ramp to a waiting ferry. Once again, no tickets required for this free service .
In fact the journey was so short I imagined it’d be cheaper to build a bridge but for now the ferry was a fun and quick way to get across.
Once on Salamina it was about seven miles round to Selinia on the other side . I was intending to catch my final ferry of the trip from here tomorrow, over to Piraeus, the port of Athens. The “port” that I’d seen on the map was no more than a short slim jetty, and there was no sign of ferry activity.
The man at my hotel told me apologetically that the Piraeus ferry service only ran in the Summer, so I’d need a rethink. I’d sort that later, I needed, in no particular order, a shower, a drink and some calories
I did . The bike that is, but luckily not until I neared the end of todays ride .
Another early start today was no hardship. I was enjoying this section of the coast a lot-not only was it scenic and interesting, there was a road that took me exactly where I wanted to be . It was signposted Old National Road and I assumed this had been the main road to Athens before the nearby parallel motorway had been completed . It made navigation easy and was quiet and well maintained . Happy days .
I needed to cover just under fifty miles today and was heading for the coastal resort town of Loutraki. The Old National Road took me all the way there, and my early start gave me the luxury of a roadside lunch stop with thirty miles done.
I’d got used to seeing how people shopped in rural Greece. Supermarkets were scarce and it was common to see vans and pickups at the side of the road, loaded with fruit and veg, fish, bread. I even saw a van selling clothes, complete with an on board changing room. As I left Akrata I saw the customary queue behind a van which I then realised was full of live turkeys. Weird, and I don’t think they were being bought as turkey pets .
The miles rolled by nice and quickly. I was noticing more and more large ships and tankers in the Gulf of Corinth, a sure sign that I was nearing Athens
I rode through the town of Corinth. The port area was busy and apparently, as well as it’s rich Ancient Greek and Roman history, the town was famous for Corinth raisins (me neither) which it exports all over the world .
My route also took me across the Corinthian Canal. About 120 years old, it shortened a 250 mile passage to about 5 miles, connecting the Ionian Sea (Gulf of Corinth ) with the Aegean Sea.
At its peak 100 000 ships a year used it, but it’s narrowness (23 metres ) makes it impassable by most modern ships and its main trade these days is small leisure craft.
At the Patras end there’s a really cool bridge known as the Sinking Bridge of Poseidinia. Unsurprisingly this bridge allows ships to access the canal by being submerged completely and allowing the craft to pass over it.
The not so cool thing about this bridge are the bike wheel sized gaps between the planks-I noticed them as I rode on and quicker than I could say “don’t get your front wheel trapped” I was off. I hit the deck in front of the single file queue of cars behind me, all of whom waited patiently as I unravelled myself and pushed the bike off the bridge. The bridge keeper asked me if I was OK before telling me off “is dangerous to ride bikes “. Hmm ,bit late for that! Most importantly the bike was unscathed and my only injury was national pride
My base in Loutraki for the next couple of days was Hotel Excelsior. Backing onto the sea front it was a classic example of an old, but spotless, family run hotel. Good value too and once again, my bike was accommodated in the basement with no fuss. Lovely .
I’d got a shorter day planned today, about 20 miles along the coast to Akrata where I’d spotted some availability at the only hotel in town.
I slept to the sound of the sea and a later start suited me today . My good sleep just may have also been related to the size of the glass of wine that appeared when I went for some food last night-mental note, when in Greece stick to beer!
I soon reached Aigio which was a lot bigger, and busier than I expected it to be. I approached the town from a height and looked down on the port area to see a couple of massive cruise liners docked, alongside a number of small fishing boats . As I dropped down I saw that the all the shops were the same. You know Birmingham has the Jewellery Quarter, London Savile Row and Manchester the Curry Mile? Well Aigio seemed to be the unglamorous Greek capital of car spares shops. There were literally hundreds of them, side by side, all selling the same thing, some with tyres, batteries, bumpers and lights stacked up outside, some no more than breakers yards. And they were all busy, with cars double and triple parked outside. Clearly the place to be.
I stopped for a hair cut. Well a head shave to be more accurate, not only functional but a lot easier to describe to a foreign barber 😊
I was the only customer. Michael the friendly barber told me his brother was also a barber and lived in Derby, which being within 100 miles of Leicester pretty much rendered me a family member too. Or so it seemed with the hugely friendly, grinning staff members in the shop.
All three of the staff came out of the shop to see me off. Lined up side by side, they waved me off and I felt a bit bashful as they clapped me and wished me luck. I rode quickly and purposefully away just to impress them, before dropping back to my usual snails pace once I was out of sight 😊
About two miles along the main road, the route took me off into minor roads. This rang alarm bells because this was putting me in classic wild dog jeopardy. I’d avoided any dog action for a few days now by sticking to main roads and not interfering with their territory, but now there seemed to be no other option.
By now as well, I was armed with a squeezy bottle of lemon juice, some earlier research suggesting a direct jet into the eyes of any murderous canine would floor them long enough for me to flee. Of course the aim was still to not be close enough to deploy the lemon juice in the first place but it was nice to be locked and loaded 😂
I turned off the main road and tentatively entered Wild Dog Alley. Past a house and some allotments and all was quiet . Bumping slowly along a dusty track behind a factory I was all eyes. When I stopped at a junction of three or four tracks, I spent more time looking over my shoulder than the route on my phone . I was halfway through this section and beginning to relax when -well you’ve guessed . Out of nowhere they came, full of malice and territorial slobbering adrenaline. My choice of lemon juice fight, or fast pedalling flight, was no choice at all, and I was out of there faster than you can say “rabies jab”
Back to square one-having swallowed an eight mile diversion as a price well worth paying, I found myself an hour later going past the barber shop in the opposite direction, silently praying Michael and his mates weren’t still out front watching. I don’t think they’d be clapping second time around !
The remainder of the day was relaxing though . Without a cloud in the sky, it was the perfect riding temperature
The mountains to the right of me were as constant as the sea to the left, and the gently undulating route delivered me into Akrata at about 4pm, the ideal time.
This gave me time to get my kit washed and admin done in good time . I think I was pretty much the only guest at the hotel, I certainly got a cheap rate .
Later I worked out a cunning way to remember which room I was in 😂
An early Sunday morning start today for a forty mile spin to the small seaside village of Selianitika. After yesterdays ride I was looking forward to todays route for a few exciting reasons-a couple of long climbs meant a couple of long descents, with views to match. A good section of the route was next to the Gulf of Patras, and also today was the end of my journey South, as I now turned left and headed East towards Athens. Journeys end was in sight.
The most exciting thing though was the prospect of another ferry ride-childish I know but even though this was to be the eighth ferry of my trip, I was full of beans for it.This particular trip was across the Gulf of Corinth, linking the town of Antirrio on mainland Greece with the town of Rio on the Peloponnese peninsula.
The place where I’d stayed didn’t do breakfast, but did provide these pre packed croissant things …..they deserve a special mention
These were everywhere, basically a long life croissant thing full of Nutella, or jam. Full of calories, preservatives and sugar, they were a pannier friendly common breakfast substitute and every supermarket sold them. Cheap and nasty and oh so good!! Like a gateway drug to Sunny Delight and Haribos probably, but I always had an emergency fix in my bags.😊
About five miles in I hit a diversion sign,telling me the bridge three miles ahead was closed , and directing me onto the motorway. Problem. There was no other way round, and in any case, I wasn’t actually expecting a bridge. The road had an empty feel to it, making me think it was a genuine closure rather than one a cyclist could wriggle through. I was reluctant to commit to what could be a waste of time forcing me into a U turn worthy of Downing Street, but I had no alternative . Just then four road cyclists approached me, obviously thinking my questioning “bridge bridge?” comment was some kind of foreign greeting as they all cheerily replied “bridge bridge” to me as they pelotoned on by.
I pressed on. The bridge was an impassable disaster zone, looking like it had collapsed as a result of flooding or earthquake or something.
Luckily the enterprising locals had built a workaround, exploiting the dried up river bed, and I was actually able get through pretty easily, pausing only long enough to wonder what I had been whittling about .
The next twenty miles glided by. The weather was superb and the descent into the crossing point at Antirrio was amazing-fast, smooth and quiet, with amazing views of the bridge that dominated the skyline.
This is an amazing bridge . Completed in 2004, the story was that the locals, who’d campaigned for years to have it built, were so dismayed by the toll charges (13 euros each way for a car) that they then campaigned to retain the ferries which until then were the only way across-and not only retain them but subsidise their running costs from bridge toll revenue making them free to the user. A pleasing victory for people power I’d say and it was interesting to see how busy the ferries remained today .
I rolled straight on to the waiting ship, no tickets required,
and the twenty minute crossing gave me a unique view of the bridge
The last fifteen miles today were by the sea, through small villages with a busy late Sunday trade in the beachside bars and restaurants that were still open.
When I’d researched Greece I realised there were no trains at all on this side of the country, so I was surprised to see sections of railway track alongside the road . I realised though that these lines went nowhere and were obviously a relic of the Greek version of Dr Beeching.
My end town Selianitika was tiny-just a small road with a few bars and a hotel, which had the undoubted pleasure of hosting me for the night.
In an encounter I was learning to be typical of Greece, I was being welcomed, questioned and advised in the warmest, gentlest and most genuinely enthusiastic of ways . The fact I was at a cashpoint and trying to concentrate was irrelevant, and the chap behind me was so keen to engage in his role as Greek Ambassador (specialist subject Tourism) he even forgot to withdraw his own money 😊
His pride in Greece and welcoming nature was so genuine and his enthusiasm was infectious. I wondered later if there was a link between this kind of pride and “ national ownership” and the problem of litter. Previously in Sicily and Italy I’d speculated about the reasons for all the litter and wondered if lack of pride was a factor. Greece was spotless in comparison and noticeably “cleaner”. I don’t know the answer but I just can’t imagine people having such obvious and outward pride in their place and then dumping litter all over it. Maybe a simplistic view but it just seems there can’t not be a link.
I left Astakos fairly early. Although most of todays 35 miles was reasonably flat, the first hour was steadily uphill and I wanted to do that before it got too hot. After skirting around the bay the climb kicked in and I was soon looking back at where I’d come from..
The route today took me inland, the first time I’d lost sight of the sea for any length of time,with todays end point being Messolonghi
This area was a National Park due to its freshwater lagoons and marine life (pelicans and flamingos allegedly) but actually there wasn’t much evidence of either as I cycled through,mostly with a warm and welcome tailwind
I cycled past some massive piles of white powder . Seeing as I wasn’t in the middle of an episode of Breaking Bad, I assumed it was salt or some other mineral maybe . In any case, it was impressive to see
I was back to Greek towns with no obvious tourism presence. Apparently Messolonghi was popular with holidaying Greeks but there was no other visitor group of any significance or number .
I liked this, it felt authentic and genuine and secretly , I enjoyed the novelty of being the only foreigner in town.
This was also reflected in the paucity of available accommodation, with Pinpoint Rooms having a distinct bail hostel feel . But actually, thinking of what was required of it (cheap/comfy bed/hot shower/Wi-Fi/power/air con/breakfast ) it only fell short on the last one so in reality, mustn’t grumble.
So far the routine of 30 (ish) mile days ,hugging the coast down to the next little fishing village was working well, so why change it now?
South I went,leaving Palairos behind and enjoying the rolling terrain as I once again marvelled at the sea on my right . I was making the most of these coastal days as before long I’d be turning left and heading inland towards Athens.
Apart from a nervous episode where I saw three big black dogs in the middle of the road up ahead, before realising they were in fact goats, the day was uneventful.
I passed a weird kind of yard with eccentric figures and sculptures every few yards-a sort of cross between Heath Robinson, Salvador Dali and Stig of the Dump-I cut my photo stop short when I noticed several goat skins drying in the sun on the barbed wire fence but it was an unusual set up for sure .
I dropped down down into Astakos at the sleepiest time of day . Boats bobbed languidly in the harbour, a lingering lunch party were chatting quietly at the only restaurant that was still open, the faint buzz of a moped cut through the hot, still air. A dog barked half heartedly. Piccadilly Circus it was not.
I sat and watched as a Norwegian couple parked (berthed?) their yacht, stern first into the harbour. This seemingly simple operation brought the quayside to life ,with much animated shouting, gesturing, throwing of ropes and general hubbub involved in guiding the couple in, in a manoeuvre they could clearly do with their eyes closed
This was a contented day of cycling and seeing, seeing and cycling and I enjoyed it a lot, mainly for it’s simplicity .
Tonight’s accommodation was the four star Giannis Village Resort, but at two star out of season prices, the only downside being that it was “up there”, a massive climb out of the village . It was so high up that the holiday bungalows had no air conditioning, relying instead on cool mountain air. Suited me fine.
I’d had a nice evening in Preveza. It was an unexpected treat with an old town meeting the harbour, a lively jumble of tavernas and bars,with the air of serious yachting money sprinkled everywhere. The harbour was full of lovely boats from all over the place, I saw the flags of Australia, South Africa , Norway and Italy. There was even a swanky yacht from Skibbereen in Ireland which made me smile.
Todays planned route was about 30 miles to a town called Arta. This was actually part of a 85 mile detour,around a freshwater lagoon, all to avoid a one mile tunnel connecting Preveza to the next bit of mainland,and through which bikes were not allowed . What a pain.
Here’s the tunnel…
…and here was the diversion around it…..
So in acceptance of my tunnel fate ,my diversionary route was planned. But when I went to book my accommodation in Arta, the room I’d seen previously had disappeared (I blamed Toby Lerone) and there were no other options in this small provincial town. Time for a rethink .
I wondered whether bikes really were banned from the tunnel. Maybe I could blag it, or play the stupid foreigner card and just wing my way through, and be gone before anyone noticed 🤷🏻♂️. Was worth a try at least, and seeing I was on scene, as it were, I decided to ride up and have a look.
Hmm. Seemed pretty unequivocal to me . As I pondered, I was joined by another cycle tourist who told me glumly he’d tried the very same trick but had been greeted by flashing lights and a booming loudspeaker direction of NO BIKES NO BIKES STAND STILL before being escorted out by a tunnel person, who put his bike in the back of a yellow pick up truck and deposited him back at the start (why couldn’t he have just driven him through to the other side I wondered? )
Apparently pre COVID it was possible to ride through, waving at the cameras so the staff knew you were alive and could track you through. Like so many things though, it was a practice that hadn’t resumed and so off you go for an extra 85 miles you pesky cyclists.
I thought it worth one last try and rode back into the town to find a taxi rank . A queue of taxis were waiting for business and once I’d explained what I was after, it became a matter of national pride to fit my large bike into the smallest of taxis. My cheery cabbie was happy to help, I think doing his bit for the resistance and railing against the “is stupid, crazy stupid Greek Government” that had banned bikes from the tunnel in the first place .
It was an absurdly short drive through in the end, and in typical Greek fashion, there was a turning space before the exit toll booths so my taxi friend could just spin round and go back without further cost. I unloaded the bike and he refused to take any payment, saying “sorry sorry ,Government bad,Greek people good”. Which they certainly were
This though left me with some pretty radical route amendments to make. By now it was mid afternoon and so I decided to head for Palairos, another coastal village about twenty miles away .
But by the time I got to Vonitsa at halfway, I was feeling pretty rough. Stomach cramps, jelly legs and pouring with cold sweats, I think the late start, lack of fluids and unrelenting heat had given me an old fashioned dose of heat exhaustion. It took me by surprise because I’d been super diligent about drinking but I think the fragmented nature of this day in particular just caught me out .
I tried a restorative Coke and set off from Vonitsa, telling myself I only had ten miles to go. Sadly my mind was writing cheques my body couldn’t cash and after fifteen inglorious minutes where I revisited my breakfast at the roadside, I decided I couldn’t go any further .
A stroke of luck found me a cheap and cheerful hotel (Hotel Pegasus) literally about five minutes away, Vonitsa (or more accurately I suppose, Vomitsa 😊) being a seaside place . The kindly old gent on reception patiently and unhurriedly explained everything to me while I was internally reliving that scene from the film Bridesmaids and willing him to Just. Hurry. Up. If you know, you know .
I crawled into bed at about 4pm and slept for 16 hours solid . In the morning, feeling 100% better, I realised this was a really nice little fishing village, with a small queue at the harbour to a woman selling fish straight from a boat and weighing octopus on scales on the floor. I wish I’d seen more of it.
I didn’t have the energy to change my plans again and so I decided to just finish my route from yesterday, meaning an easy ten miles into Palairos. More yachts, more tavernas, and a surprisingly large British contingent. They either didn’t realise or didn’t care I was English as they held court in the main village bar, loudly monopolising the peace and quiet of this sleepy place -Roger was apparently having some trouble with his anchor and no,that’s not rhyming slang.
Tonight’s accommodation was so weird. An entire three bedroomed apartment that wasn’t furnished as a holiday let but as someone’s actual home . More accurately, the home of an old couple who had recently died. Called Samara House, it had a distinct air of probate around it, with family photos and ornaments still in evidence, and it felt really quite spooky to be there .
Still,as ever it was cheap,if not especially cheerful, and it served a purpose. And I had a delicious lamb kleftiko by the waterfront, confirming my recovery from yesterday was complete.
A question given extra clarity by consisting of just one simple quizzical word.
But before the why came the what. My research had identified todays end point of Preveza as a “yachtie” harbour town about 40 miles down the coast . That meant plentiful accommodation and places to refuel so that was that -planning complete 😊
It was another baking hot, cloudless day as I left Parga, and yesterdays swooping downhill became todays four mile uphill slog. I always remembered my old mate Spillys’ simple advice for hills –“just ride slower” and that’s how it went . This was another great cycling day -the places I was visiting were the dots that the cycling was joining up, and today was one of the good days .
Again I decided to stick to the main road all the way . It was still quiet, well signposted and at one point,even went around a mountain rather than over it as the route app suggested . Happy days .
Nothing much happened though. That’s a good thing by the way. This is a good time to give my bike a small round of applause. It was behaving impeccably and running like a dream, despite getting quite a bit of hammer and being lifted and left all over the place . I’d given it a mini fettle last week, just a clean and some lube, tightened a cable and that was it. Super reliable and comfortable, I was really pleased with it . And I told it so. I didn’t really, I know I’ve had plenty of lonely miles but I wasn’t yet at the stage of talking to my bike . Or was I?😂
The only amenities on this stretch were at the occasional petrol stations along the way -unlike Italy and Spain where petrol stations sold only fuel (I know, how old fashioned 😊), here there were shops attached and in most cases a cafe .
I pulled into one for a drink stop,and moved myself to the shady table and chairs at the back . Here was my view ….
I know. Big deal. Just like Leicester Forest East services .
Later I bumped into a Swiss chap riding from Zurich to Athens . Let’s call him Toby Lerone. His right calf heavily bandaged after a dog bite in Albania, I felt slightly (very) inadequate as he told me tales of wild camping in the mountains, washing in streams,navigating by the sun and generally being “off grid, man” He certainly made me glad I’d swerved Albania and we did that cyclist thing of talking about bikes and set ups, his being a sturdy Akoba brand that looked like it had a few stories to tell.
I pressed on and within a couple of hours I was in Preveza . Todays hotel, Dioni Boutique Hotel, was a half price deal of the day. It was lovely but I don’t think I was the target audience for the place, bearing in mind I wasn’t rich. Or clean. Or in possession of any clothes not made of polyester . No matter, the receptionist was a model of charming professional discretion and didn’t even acknowledge something I’d become aware of in the last few hours .
Yesterday I swam in the sea. In my kit, which I rinsed out in the sea and was wearing again today. Except of course, I hadn’t done a proper rinsing job and now I was covered in salt. At home they’d have a competition to name me, like Salty McSaltface or something . Look at the state of this
What an idiot. Neither of us made any mention of it as I checked in, with the usual questions about where I could store my bike. “Have you cycled here today “ she asked politely, “oh yes” I proudly replied, “I’m on the way to Athens “. She looked up and asked politely “from where?” which was my cue to puff my salty chest out and nonchalantly drop “ from England”
Despite that hugely impressive answer she didn’t look up for a few seconds,and then with exquisite timing just quizzically dropped the bomb….”why?”
Why indeed? A startling simple question that I couldn’t really answer . It felt glib to say “why not?” but I couldn’t really articulate anything else. Maybe time will help me.
The question was still ringing in my ears as I went to eat and on my return guess what I saw next to my locked up bike outside the hotel? Only a certain Akoba bike belonging to Toby “off grid” Lerone …. hmmm.
I arrived back into Igoumenitsa at about 0930, having left Corfu on the early morning ferry an hour before. It’s easy to forget that these ferries are more than a tourist amenity -my sailing was full of lorries and cars, mopeds and commuters and everyday Greeks moving around for work and trade and business. Although this ferry charged a fare, it was only five euros each way and so was obviously heavily subsidised. Some of the smaller ferries elsewhere were free and were clearly just a vital part of the infrastructure .
In any case it felt like a pretty cool way to get around, and of course no one batted an eyelid about the bike. I’m not saying it was always easy manoeuvring the bike around but there was no resistance to it, no sharp intakes of breath, no “you’re not coming on mate” and no “designed in” features seemingly existing for the sole purpose of making life difficult. It was refreshing and something I’ll miss when I’m back home .
So my first day of riding in Greece started nicely and the day stayed that way. It was hot hot hot and the first hill dragged on a bit, but I’d taken the decision to stick to a main road all the way to Parga about thirty miles down the coast, rather than dive off into the olive groves and back streets as suggested by the routing app. The main roads were really quiet, wide and smooth and were great to ride on. Greek drivers were seemingly taking part in National Bust A Stereotype Day and were literally without exception patient, courteous and really bike aware. It was a real pleasure.
I’d chosen Parga because it was a rideable distance away and seemed to have lots of available accommodation, ticking the two main boxes of route planning . I knew nothing else about it .There was no through road to the town though,meaning I was going to have to come back up this steep long downhill in the morning .
It was an absolute delight . A small mainland town that looked like one of the Greek islands,with houses tumbling down to a harbour and a prom lined with restaurants and bars. It was the first purely tourist place I’d come across and far from being tacky and overcrowded, it was really lovely.
I even did that cliched thing and took a swim in the sea, fully clothed in cycling kit (giving it a sneaky rinse out at the same time of course 👌) getting out of the water like Daniel Craig in my mind but in reality more like Daniel Lambert (niche Leicester reference there ) and had a cold beer while I dried out .
I later found out that Parga is a TUI package holiday destination which explained the accents I was hearing . It certainly had a holiday feel to the place .
My accommodation was right on the harbour front and was a really charming family owned B&B ( Pansion Nikos Vergos) . A benefit of travelling out of peak season was the ready availability of these places, being able to book on the day or even just turning up, and costing a fraction of what they would charge a few weeks earlier-I was operating firmly in the 35 Euro a night bracket with no problem.
When I got back to the hotel later, the owners little kids were playing near my bike in the foyer (the usual overnight resting place) and he mistook my concern about the bike falling on top of them with irritation that they were near it . We cleared that up with a smile and then he asked if the kids could have a photo sitting on the “Englishman’s bike” ! They looked tiny, like on those photos of adults on elephants, too little to even reach the handlebars so Dad had to stand next to them, beaming away . The next morning he gave me a Greek flag to stick in my bags and the kids waved me off with a shy and rehearsed “bye bye mister “. I was loving Greece already ….
Igoumenitsa is the main port on this Western Greek coast . From here ferries head North up the Adriatic towards Croatia and Venice,and South down towards the Greek Islands and beyond. It’s also only about an hours hop across to the island of Corfu. After a night in the puzzlingly called (but super comfy and quiet) Thirsty Dog Urban Port Motel in Igoumenitsa I decided to have an unscheduled night in Corfu Old Town. Apart from anything else, it was my birthday, and if you can’t have a cheeky (five Euro) ferry ride and a night in a UNESCO World Heritage site on your birthday then when can you?
It was certainly charming -it reminded me more of an Italian town than anything else. The view of the old town from the ferry was so scenic, and behind the facade, bookended by two Venetian fortesses was a jumble of small streets and squares with fountains .
It made for a civilised evening. My hotel was on the harbour front which made it easier getting the early morning ferry back to the mainland the following day.
Today began with a massive breakfast -I was the only guest at the B&B but I think the owner had just decided to serve up everything she had anyway. Cakes,waffles, fruit, yoghurt, bruschetta, cheese, ham, tomatoes, Nutella, jam-it was like the whole buffet had been put on my table. Obviously I complied with cycle touring law and what I couldn’t eat found it’s way into my panniers for later.
Later. Hmm . I needed to make up a bit of time. My decision to skip Albania meant that I was now heading for Brindisi (rather than Bari) and onward to Greece. Ferry schedules meant now that I needed to be in Brindisi tomorrow lunchtime and unless I was planning to cycle until midnight I wasn’t going to make it in time .
So plan B-bike about 30 miles round to Taranto and then catch the train into Brindisi, overnighting there and reacquainting myself with Grimaldi Lines for the 1pm sailing to Igoumenitsa in Greece .
I don’t want to seem negative about this part of Italy but today was probably best described as “functional” and I didn’t feel I was missing out by getting the train for the last leg . It wasn’t awful by any means but it was quite busy and very industrial. But the sun was shining and a bad day on the bike is better than a good day in the office etc etc . Nevertheless I was glad to arrive at Taranto and onto the train
I’ve spoken before about accessibility on the Italian train network and today, bafflingly, was just the same. No lifts and a big gap between train and platform. The train did have a dedicated bike space (hooray) accessed by three big steps (boo). More an observation than a criticism but it certainly seems to make life (for some people anyway) unnecessarily tricky
Brindisi was lovely. Like every port town it had a cosmopolitan feel and an understated charm. I get the impression that most people just pass through, either from the port or from the nearby (Ryanair served ) airport, dispersing into the villas and hotels in “nicer” parts of Puglia, but doing that meant missing out on a thriving buzzy town, full of maritime history and casual culture. And probably the nicest pizza I’d had in Italy so far….
The next day was another ferry. I’ll never not be excited by cycling onto a ferry, (even a Grimaldi Lines ferry 😊) and today was no exception. Foreign ports have barely any signs. Or directions. Or anything to help you know where to go. The whole operation is designed around the principle of “follow the person in front of you” and it actually works really well 😊
No doubt different in the Summer but todays ferry was mainly full of lorries-bike storage was in a really cramped below decks office, making the previous trip (where the bike was strapped to a random forklift truck) seem luxurious .
Twelve hours later and I was in Greece. My last country, and how bloody exciting. To get here, without flying, made me feel really chuffed,quite intrepid and fairly pleased with myself. But enough of the (covering all audience age ranges here 😊😊) Alan Whicker/Michael Palin/Simon Reeve indulgence ,it was nearly midnight and I needed to find my way out of the port in the dark and locate my accommodation for the night -I decided to just follow the person in front of me (😊) and luckily it paid off .