We left Athens late and hungover, as is our modus operandi by now. We’d planned to be packed up and ready to go before midday, but ended up on skype chatting and sharing drinks with friends of ours in Costa Rica and we were still throwing back the sambucas at 3am. A couple of Freddo Cappuchino and a cold beer helped us to finish packing, cleaning the house, and zip-tieing the tools back to the bikes, then we left the keys with a note and a thank-you bottle of booze and climbed into unfamiliar saddles. An elderly lady wished us well (I assume; it’s just as likely she was telling us to get our scruffy arses out of her neighbourhood) then we were off weaving our way north through the afternoon traffic.
Maria’s bike was about to turn 33,000 so we stopped to buy some mastika to celebrate it’s birthday (and appropriately for the season, it’s resurrection), then pushed on to get out from under the blackening clouds and towards the blue skies ahead. My map reading had been interrupted by the skyping session, meaning I didn’t have much of a clue where we were going and none of the road signs were legible, so it was really inevitable that I got us lost, and didn’t really realise it until we came to a bit of coastline that shouldn’t be there. Not a problem though, since we were heading for Chalkida which is the only point at which you can cross from one peninsula to another, so we were treated to a scenic ride through resort villages as we hugged the shore and kept the sun at our backs.
There was some sort of football game on that had all the residents of Chalkida milling in the streets drinking and chatting in high spirits, and making for interesting obstacles to swerve around, and my navigational skills had us zipping back and forth through every street in town, before eventually finding a through-route out and turning north again. Within a few miles, the low rise industrial buildings gave way to rolling hills of olive groves studded with red poppies.
The smell of pine resin filled the air and I thought if we can’t find a good spot to camp around here then there’s no hope for us. Sure enough we quickly found a gravel track leading over a hill and into an olive grove where we toasted our return to ‘the lifestyle’ with mastika and a dinner made up of everything we had left over from our stay in Athens.
Me and Pip making dinner
Our night’s sleep wasn’t as restful as it could have been; I guess we’d gotten used to the luxury of a mattress over the past weeks, and we were both a bit fuzzy headed in the morning. As it turns out we’d made camp at the foot of a mountain, so the fuzz was soon cleared as we thrashed our bikes round tight rising bends, trying not to fly off the sheer cliff edge, and scattering the herds of goats and cows that had gathered to graze by the roadside. The mountain peaked over a stunning view, with the ribbon of tarmac yet to be ridden unravelling below us and the thin veil of clouds lifting over our heads to give us a peek at the sea in the distance.
After a good hour’s riding the road abruptly ended next to an abandoned seaside bar. Hmm. A quick check of the navi revealed that I’d taken us in completely the wrong direction, to a little village called Limni, and there was no road that would take us from there to where we wanted to go. The thing is, that was good news…
Since we’d now had two breakdowns, and were at least three weeks behind where we thought we’d be, we’d been considering revising our plan. In order to make it round the ‘stans and into Iran in time to fly back to France for our mates’ wedding we’d already been pushing ourselves and now we were faced with the prospect of skipping a few countries to save our schedule. That was unacceptable, since every element of our plan thus far had been built around removing any time restrictions, so there was no way a bike repair was going to change that. Instead we decided that we’d wait until after the wedding to head to Kazakhstan and, to minimise the blow to our budget, we signed up to the workaway scheme and got ourselves some work in Turkey for a month. Free room and board, a break from the saddle, and the chance to do a bit of construction and gardening in the sun…. problem solved.
So we’d managed to get rid of our only deadline, and the fact that I’d taken us two hours in the wrong direction and we had to retrace our steps meant only one thing to us – we get to ride that amazing road twice!
Soon enough we were back on track and after a quick stop at a roadside stall for some homemade wine, tomato sauce and almond-stuffed olives, we found ourselves pulling in to the ferry port in Agiokambos. “Port” is a fairly grandiose term for what was essentially a bar and a portakabin selling tickets, but they’d used one of Greece’s rarest commodities; a signpost, to label it as such, so who am I to argue? I’d checked out ferry prices online, so I was pleasantly surprised when I was charged half price since we were riding bikes. The day just keeps getting better.
A thirty minute trip took us to Glyfos, where we road off the ferry, through the little village, and down the first track we found to set up camp in the usual olive grove and tuck in to our homemade (fizzy, as it turns out) red wine.
Now that we weren’t hurrying ourselves, we were sleeping-in more often, and lying in the tent listening to bees comb the heather, it was hard to drag ourselves out of bed. Eventually Maria went to give her bike a once-over, and I sat in the sun browsing a survival book some friends had given me – obviously not convinced of my ability to survive in the wild – and having a go at carving some snares. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be able to catch us dinner. A little after midday we pushed our bikes off the terraced grove and back onto the road.
The trip on a ferry had tricked my brain into thinking we were in a new country, and the changing landscape was reinforcing that delusion. The twisty mountain roads flattened out and the olive groves were replaced by bright green deciduous trees. The flat roads gave me some respite from the concentration needed on the mountain and provided some much needed thinking time, but soon enough we found ourselves negotiating bends again and, consulting the map, we decided we’d head to Meteora – a popular tourist destination – by way of a nice looking lake circumscribed by monasteries. Limni Plastira turned out to be picturesque; with a snow-capped mountain in the distance and a chilly wind whipping the indigo lake edge into frothy waves.
The wind chill was starting to get to us so we turned north again. With the lake on our left, I looked to my right and was surprised to see the landscape plummet below me. It turns out that lake Plastira is actually a water filled crater with a leafy gorge stretching down and away from it. In the distance were hills carpeted with thick green jungle and with a thin mist rolling over the peaks to descend into the valleys, I could have sworn we’d ridden into a scene from Jurrasic Park. What better place to hole up for the night?
First chance we got, we dropped off the main road and found ourselves skipping over loose gravel as we slipped and skidded down the steep dirt track leading us into the valley. We stopped briefly to flip over a turtle that was wriggling round on his back and, to add insult to injury, had his undercarraige shat on by some inconsiderate bird, and karma rewarded us with the perfect spot to put up our tent. The track led to a little vineyard with a plateau about three meters square shaded by a pale yellow tree and held up by a collapsing dry stone wall. We parked up and set out our tent, then with plenty of daylight left Maria followed the sound of a trickling stream to do some laundry. There were little piles of branch cuttings dotted about so while she was gone, I pulled some flat stones from the wall to make a little pit and piled the discarded branches on top.
Campfire building for dummies
I didn’t have too much faith in my ability to make fire so I cooked dinner on the camp stove first, but our little bundle of twigs roared into life with a little encouragement from our butane burner. (I call it that because it sounds outdoorsey, but it’s actually a miniature creme brulee torch). We spent the rest of the night finishing the booze and losing ourselves in the pyrotechnics.
We woke up the next morning to the sound of rain. Everything, including our laundry and the road out of the valley was soaked through. Maria had been less than enthused about the idea of riding her laden bike up the steep track, and now that it had turned into a slippery sandy deathtrap she was of the opinion that we should sit tight for a day and wait for things to dry out a bit. After a few hours in the tent reading and listening to the rain patter above our heads I started to get a bit stir crazy, so I grabbed the umbrella and the empty water bottles and went for a walk to check out the state of the road. No doubt about it – it was slippery as hell, but I was up for a bit of an adventure and the chance to practice riding on some difficult roads so as the sun finally peaked out on us we packed up the bikes and discussed our plan of attack. I was going to ride ahead and stop whenever I got to a flat bit of road giving Maria time to catch up. That way we were never separated too much if one of the bikes needed picking up.
With that decided I jumped on my bike and rode up out of the terrace on to the slippery track and waited. And waited. No sign of Maria. I walked back down to find her standing next to her upturned bike, which had slipped as she was pulling away! Maybe this was going to be even more difficult than we thought… She was determined to have another go though and slowly and tortuously we made our way up the hill. Occasionally the sand had been washed away to reveal a gravel surface and we could relax a bit but this was offset by patches of deep mud that had us fishtailing wildly and huge puddles that brought our adventures in Italy to mind. Eventually though, pouring with sweat from the concentration and the strengthening sun we felt our front wheels hit tarmac. We promised ourselves a congratulatory beer that night and pointed ourselves north again, to look for a more elevated spot to camp.
The village of Mouzaki, nestled between plateaux
A quick food stop in the little village of Mouzaki, and the owner of the shop threw in a couple of free bottles of wine to help us on our way. No better way to end the day.