Up, Then Down, Then Up Again…

After four days, the rain eases enough to finally allow me to escape Pyli, where things have all gone a little bit Groundhog Day. Relocating from my bed to the hotel dining room for a daily breakfast of bread, honey, jam, sliced (plastic) meat and cheese, and a boiled egg, I then hustle across the street through the downpour to the first cafe of the day. This provides a morning coffee and some wifi to work on some photos, but no power. Once the laptop is threatening to shut down due to low battery, a second cafe across the street provides an early afternoon change of scene, more wifi and a plug socket.

Finding decent sustenance is a challenge – there are a multitude of fast food and kebab shops, but few establishments offering up anything real other than grilled meat and potatoes (chips).  Only one taverna seems to be open through the day time, and in fact the other main taverna in town has closed down. Gradually I do locate some places serving more of a varied diet, but I’m not reluctant to leave Pyli when the time comes.

This issue of finding decent and varied food is common throughout my journey across Greece, where shops and supermarkets are in short supply in the smaller villages and towns that I come across. A taverna is fairly common in all but the tiniest villages, but they tend to have a fairly standard offering and finding places serving a more varied selection, or selling general supplies, especially packaged, relatively portable, but not unhealthy food, is proving difficult. The reason for this is not that Greeks eat poorly. Admittedly, they do eat a lot of meat – large chops of pork, lamb and sometimes beef, are common in tavernas, and the kebab is seen more as a staple here rather than the guilty, drunken 2am regret that it often resembles in the UK. On any given evening, Athens is full of mostly sober people sat around eating delicious slices (gyros, resembling döner but of much better quality) or chunks (souvlaki/kalamaki, resembling shish) of pork or lamb with tzatziki, onion, tomato and chips all wrapped up in a thick pita bread. The meat is of good quality and its all pretty delicious, and supports my long held belief that in principle, if made in the right way, kebabs are not inherently unhealthy in the way we seem to consider them in the UK! Greek salads (cucumber, tomato, onion, olives, and feta in olive oil) are ubiquitous. And at the same time, most households use bountiful, fresh vegetables for home cooking, often grown on their own land or bought from weekly markets or delivery vans doing the rounds of the smaller villages. I’ve never seen so many big, beefy tomatoes in markets, supermarkets and homes as I have here.

In principle, this is great, but carrying a few days of fresh vegetables and cooking from scratch on a small camping cookset, or when staying in a hotel room without a kitchen, isn’t all that practical. And, whilst tasty meat and chips is a treat after a day of riding, eventually I find myself just wanting something a bit more varied, and…wholesome.  Trying to get hold of a fresh, hearty soup, either pre-made to re-heat myself or in a taverna, has proved virtually impossible so far…

The first day of riding from Pyli is all uphill, back into the mountains. It feels good to be on the move, but the weather is still overcast, a little chilly with intermittent rain. I pause in a village for a drink and am asked the same questions that most locals ask – Where are you going? Where will you sleep? Are you on your own?  There always seems to be some concern that I’m in the mountains on my own, and I try to reassure whomever I’m speaking with that I’m very careful, and that people do know where I am In some cases, the concern has its benefits, and on this occasion I’m presented with a local dessert for free to help me on my way!

The rain has definitely left its mark, and now some of the trails are slick with sandy mud. At one bend in the route, even though my speed is only moderate, my front wheel suddenly slides away from me to my right. As I lose the bike beneath me, I simply step off to the left hand side, but the speed at which this happens causes my upper body to twist round with the handlebars as they disappear, and I feel a sharp twinge and a loud ‘pop’ coming from the left hand side of my ribcage. I catch my breathe and pause to assess the damage. At the time, the pain isn’t too bad, and I came to the conclusion that despite the definite ‘pop’, I must just have twinged an intercostal muscle. I mean, surely it’s not possible to fracture a rib without any kind of impact? But as the pain develops over the next few days, and then lingers for the following month and a half, I wonder if I somehow managed to re-fracture a hairline crack that I received in an accident a few years ago. Who knows, but simple tasks like sleeping on my left side, getting up and out of my tent, and any manual lifting of the bike, are made pretty uncomfortable over the next couple of weeks.

Part way up a series of tarmac switchbacks, I turn off onto a forest track to see if I can find somewhere to camp. The hillside is steep and I’m not hopeful, but I keep going until the next bend…and then the next one, until eventually I come to a patch of flat land just off the track with amazing views over the valley. Although the weather seems to have improved from the downpours of the last few days, there is still rain and thunder about, and I am treated to an amazing cloud show as a storms passes over. The forecast for tomorrow looks good, but as the thunder and intermittent heavy rain wakes me through the night, I wonder whether this can really be true…

Whilst the rain does appear to have passed by morning, it is replaced by an eery fog shrouding the hillsides, hiding the view of the route ahead, removing any perspective. Continuing to push up the tarmac switchbacks, cars whose engines I have heard straining for the last minute or so suddenly appear next to me out of the fog. No one seems to think that it’s worth using lights, even in this weather. A local in a yellow waterproof jacket riding a moped had paused on the track whilst passing by my camp spot last night, and then again in the morning. The second time, he whistled loudly to get my attention from inside the tent, and initiated a conversation in Greek (him) and English (me) that I don’t think either of us fully understood, although by the end I was fairly sure that he was just checking that I was ok and didn’t need anything. As I pedal slowly up one of the switchbacks, during a break in the fog, he passes me in the opposite direction. He breaks into a big smile, whistles and waves, wishing me well.

I eventually turn off the tarmac onto a track that looks, from the map, as if it follows a ridge between two valleys. Still I can see nothing, apart from the steep hillside falling away from the track on one side. The grumbling of a motorbike catches up with me and a shepherd (with a special holster for carrying his crook on the bike!) passes me on his way up the track and then again on the way down. He stops each time to talk, in a mixture of Greek (him), English (me), pointing and sign language, asking those same questions – Where are you going? Where will you sleep? Are you on your own?  He tries to direct me to some water (I’m running a little low), to what I think he says is a mountain refuge somewhere, indicates that the track forks at a church or shrine, and then we part company with a wave…

One of the things that you notice if you spend any time travelling on the back roads of Greece are the huge number of small shrines by the side of the road. Some are elaborate models of churches made of ceramic or marble,whilst others are just functional wood or metal boxes.  Most have tiny doors revealing icons of a saint, oil lamps and often some personal offerings inside. Some are beautifully maintained, others are virtually falling to bits. Some of these are shrines to victims of accidents, others may have been built in thanks by survivors of accidents, and some might simply be to provide a place for people to stop and pray, or rest, whilst going about their daily life. Whatever their state or purpose, the candle inside will often be burning, kept alight by…somebody.

As I start to descend from the ridge, the mist suddenly lifts and the world is once again full of steep hillsides, green foliage, twisting muddy tracks and herds of sheep and goats. The church at which the shepherd indicated there might be a water tap has none and so I take the decision, rather than heading up a slow muddy track on the opposite side of this valley onto another mist shrouded ridge, to ride down a parallel road to find water in one of the villages and then to rejoin the route a little later. The miles on tarmac pass quickly, and soon I find myself at the valley bottom, relieved to find a hidden camp spot next to a stream, nestled below the corner of a tight bend in the road, hidden from view. Despite the friendly locals, it’s been a cold, miserable, and fairly unrewarding day. But as always, the feeling of laying back in my tent in dry clothes, with a belly full of food, pulling my down quilt over me and closing my eyes is one of peace. I hope to see some blue sky tomorrow.

This wish is granted, albeit interspersed with periods of cloud rolling across the sky. The trail climbs gently away from the bottom of the valley to a pass where three roads meet. I come across a priest and his friend, trying to decide which is the road they need to take. They end up heading the same way down as I do, and as they pass, they stop and hand some biscuits to me through the window of their car. From their village, they tell me. The rest of the afternoon is spent gently descending a river valley, the dirt road contouring around the fingers of smaller valleys and ridges that jut out into the path of the river. The ridges and mountains in this country just continue to the horizon. Layer after layer, each one a shade lighter than the previous, stretching off into the distance.  Eventually the downward motion must stop, as I reach the outskirts of the remote village of Agrafa, perched a few hundred metres above the valley floor. The push up is very steep and slow but is rewarded by a taverna with food, a shower and a proper bed for the night.

The climb out from Agrafa the following day is a 20 km slog on dirt roads winding their way up steep sided valleys, one series of switchbacks followed by another series of switchbacks, and then by another. There is a lot of walking. There are also two passes – it takes two hours to get to the first, at which point I prematurely celebrate, thinking the second is within close reach. It takes another two hours to get to the second. There’s no doubting that the scenery is spectacular, but I’m beginning to wish that I had some days where there wasn’t a big hill punctuating the middle of the afternoon. Herds of goats roaming the hillsides are initially fearful as I approach, moving a little like a flock of starlings in flight might… all turning one way together, then turning back and shuffling to the edge of the track together. If I pause for a few moments, to rest or dig out a snack, they lose some nervousness and come to investigate. I don’t think they’re too impressed with what they see.

As soon as I start to descend from the second pass, the weather warms noticeably, the trails become dustier, and the following 20 km takes less than an hour. Thats the difference between the ups and the downs; between the hard earned miles and the free ones. It’s why travelling by bike seems so much more balanced than by foot. Within moments of a climb flattening out and gravity then taking over, the slog of the uphill is forgotten and the fun of freewheeling is all that matters, accompanied by the satisfaction of the miles finally passing by. I cross a river and find a recreation space of sorts in the forest along the banks. I’d planned to continue a little further today but here is an ideal camp spot – flat, relatively hidden from view, with readily available water – and so I take it. The day ends with a refreshing wash in the river – what a nice feeling to crawl into my tent feeling clean!

Leaving my riverside camp spot after a night disturbed only by the wind whipping up sand and throwing it through the mesh of my tent, I slowly climb up and out of the valley along first tarmac, and then a dirt road. I join another tarmac road contouring along the valley, sometimes up a little, sometimes down, until I reach the village of Agia Triada. The aim today is to reach Karpenisi, off the main route, to meet a friend for a few days, and all that stands in the way is a 10 km climb from the village at 800 m up to the ski centre of Velouchi at 1850 m – probably the highest point of the whole route.

The Dragonslayer attracts the attention of a group of men sat outside a taverna where I stop for some food to fuel the climb. I think that they think that I’m a little mad, hauling this bike across their country, their mountains, on my own. One speaks reasonable English and helps with some translation with the owner, and asks questions about my trip. This is interspersed with conversation between the group of guys in Greek, and plenty of laughter. With me, or at me, I’m not sure, but they wish me well as I accept that the hill between myself and my destination isn’t going anywhere, and I eventually take my leave and pedal off.

The 1000 m climb is on tarmac and not too steep so that it is mostly rideable – just a slow continuous grind up switchback after switchback. For the first time on this trip, I dig out my tiny iPod, pop my headphones in my ears, and plod away to a random mix of tunes. I alternate between being too hot and covered in sweat in the sun, to suddenly chilly when a cloud gets in the way. As I get closer to the pass, I watch the altitude on my GPS slowly increasing, reeling in the target… 300 m away… 200 m… 100 m… The last half a kilometre is through a tunnel, still heading gently uphill. The light at the end slowly grows brighter but refuses to reveal anything but the sky until I crest the lip of tarmac as the tunnel disappears behind me and the view opens up ahead. Alpine pasture bathed in golden light, mountain switchbacks, row upon row of ridges disappearing into the distance, and the town of Karpenisi nestled in the valley below. I sit for a few minutes to take it in and have a snack, before getting cold, putting some more clothes on and pushing off, letting the bike start to freewheel downhill, all the way to the valley bottom 800 m below.

A friend who read a draft of this post constructively suggested that it’s a little flat, perhaps a bit functional, that its not really clear whether I’m enjoying myself. Reading back, and looking back at older posts, I have to agree, although I’m not entirely sure why this is. It could be that I’m writing this a couple of months after the events occurred and, as I always find, a lot of the detail, and most of the emotion has faded from memory. Perhaps the inevitable uncertainty about the future that comes with having packed up your belongings (again) and headed off for a while with no real medium- or long- term plan is unsettling me a little at the moment. Perhaps I don’t really feel that I’m moving forward much, personally, despite the fact that I should feel that I’m living the f♥cking dream. Maybe I need to embrace that uncertainty a little more – I know that whilst I’m good at that in some aspects of my life, I struggle with it in others.

I have definitely been lacking a bit of inspiration, both in terms of finding words and taking photographs. I’ve swapped my Fuji X100S out for a much smaller Sony RX100IV for this trip. Whilst the Sony is amazing for its tiny size, and more flexible than the Fuji, I have felt that I’ve been much less creative using it. It feels that I have a lot more shots of landscapes, and less of any details. Whether this is really true or not I don’t know. But if it is, is this really down to the camera, or just down to me?

The flatness might just be that I was finding part of this ride a bit of a slog, and somewhat lonely. Whilst the scenery is amazing, and the route is technically not difficult, there is a lot of climbing and there has been fairly minimal interaction with other people. Perhaps I’ve just become a little bored of my own company. It is often said that it’s the people that make a journey, whether travel companions, or those you meet along the way.

Language is definitely an issue for me here. Not only are the mountain villages relatively empty, they are mostly populated by older generations who, in general, speak less English than the young. You might think that a journey like this is the ideal time to learn a language, but the truth is that I find it difficult. I did start some self teaching early on in the ride, but I don’t find the nature of interactions particularly conducive to practising. Whilst virtually everyone I have met has been very friendly, most engagements with locals are kind of functional, about what is available to eat, how much a room is, where there is water, where I’m going. At the time, the priority always feels that it is simply to be understood, and understand. In many cases, the person I’m speaking to speaks no English at all, which makes learning any Greek from them difficult, and because the next interaction is usually with a different person, there’s no development of the conversation, no deeper engagement, no chance to practice with someone. Maybe I’m just being lazy, or maybe I just need to learn in a different way, but whatever the reason, it definitely emphasises the sense of loneliness in these mountains.

In the end, the base purpose of this blog was to provide me with some incentive to do something with my photographs, and a growing place to document these trips over the years. If this is sometimes a little flat, then perhaps that’s ok, especially if it reflects how I was feeling at the time. January is going to bring a whole different experience compared to this somewhat solitary ride, so for now I should embrace things. And, after a small break in Karpenisi, there is the rest of Greece to come! Soon…I promise!

 

Posted in Chasing the Greek Sun (2016) and tagged , , , , , , .

8 Comments

  1. Hi Chris,
    I enjoyed this blog. I don’t think you need to spell out your emotions. It comes through in how you’ve written about your experience. For example, your despair at the lack of variety in the food and your longing for hearty comforting soup. And the joy of feeling clean when crawling into your tent and delight at finding a comfortable bed.
    There’s a hint at the loneliness of your solo travels, and an element of anguish caused by the mid-day climbs.

    Hope your rib is okay.

    Meraid

  2. Loved the photographs and your story. I felt there I was with you as I imagined grinding up those hills in less than perfect conditions. Thanks for letting me come on your journey. Looking forward to the next instalment.

    • The network of dirt roads is amazing, despite the constant up and down, especially in this central section around Agrafa!

      Generally speaking, the younger generations have left the villages to find more opportunities elsewhere. It is common though, for people to return to the mountain villages during the height of summer (July and August) to escape the heat of the cities and lower altitudes. I stayed in one village south of Karpenisi, where the population during the winter is just 7 people, despite it looking big enough to accommodate several hundred!

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