Monks on Mountains and Bread on Sticks

The alarm woke us at eight. We wanted an early start since we were on another sightseeing mission, though we wouldn’t be beating the (other) tourists this time, since we still had around thirty miles of riding to do to get to Meteora.The sun was shining and the road was quiet, taking us through sleepy little farming villages, and the only little niggle in the back of my mind was that we had about sixteen euros between us, two empty fuel tanks, and it was very unlikely that any of the bemused farmers we rode past would produce a card machine. We decided to spend our last bit of cash on petrol for the girls (of course) and stop at Kalampaka; the little town at the base of the looming sandstone formations on the horizon.

Parked on a side road, we grabbed a couple of freddos and wandered into Kalampaka’s central square. For such a small town, surrounded by sleepy farming communities, the centre was inexplicably chaotic. Cars and scooters parked three deep while drivers honked at geriatric pedestrians crossing between cafes; the whole thing was a bit of a jar to the senses after a quiet morning’s ride. We popped into a little bakery at Maria’s insistence that we try ‘traditional easter bread’  (basically her favourite bun, but bigger and with a red egg on top – I’m not falling for that ruse)  and then climbed back on the bikes and started winding our way up through the rocky beginnings of Meteora.

 

We stopped at one of the six functioning monasteries (of, I think twenty four originally) and paid the small entry fee. Female visitors had to wrap cloth ’round their waists to form a skirt over their trousers and since I had bare arms, I got to throw one over my shoulders and rock the granny-chic look. I’m not usually one for tourist traps, but the monastery was quiet and pretty cool, and the views out over the landscape were stunning. Add to that a great ride up and down the mountain and you can’t really go wrong. A few of the original features had been retained or rebuilt, including a huge oak cask that took up the entire room, presumably for storing the monks’ booze, and a winch and net hanging from the highest point of the tower, which was originally the only way of gaining entrance to the monastery. Apparently the monks only replaced the winch ropes “when God let them break”, so they presumably didn’t spare too much thought for the heathen that proved too heavy.

Back at the bikes and religiously de-frocked, we had our lunch of easter bread and coffee, and browsed our map considering where to go. We were heading more or less North-East so we aimed ourselves toward Elassona where we would probably find wifi, and made our way over the mountain. On our way, and just a few miles from the town, we rode over a low bridge crossing a slowly meandering stream, the bank dotted with small trees and grassy plains, and a little investigation turned up a nice spot to put up the tent once we were finished in town. That took the pressure off for the evening, so our only other stop was a cafe where we ordered ourselves a couple of cold beers and got stuck in to the mountains of email that had piled up since Athens with the local storks watching over us.

It was drizzling when we woke up, but the sun was occasionally breaking through to provide us with a tiny bit of warmth, so we decided to brave the elements and run down to the stream for a cold but very necessary wash. Shivering in the brisk wind that had picked up, but finally feeling clean again we loaded up and weaved our way through a herd of inquisitive goats and out of Elassona.

We skirted round the south side of Mount Olympus – just for the hell of it – and stopped at the base to fill every nook and cranny of our panniers with fruit and veg sold from the back of a pickup, for the princely sum of €4. An endless series of hairpins taking us over one of the smaller peaks of Olympus and giving us a chance to actually practice our cornering technique (since every turn was identical).

We stopped at lidl to top up our fresh supplies with enough wine and chocolate to get us through a three day easter weekend, and then turned north along the coast.

Happy Easter! :)

As we drew closer to Thessaloniki the road started to straighten out and the landscape got a lot flatter, so we figured it would be best to find camp. A quick foray took us to the side of a huge, muddy river, where the track seemed to be used solely by fishermen, and not for a while. We set up camp, dug some clay rooftiles out of the ground to make a fire pit, and spent the night roasting stickbread for dinner, discussing music, life and riding styles, and working our way through three bottles of wine – our entire supply for the long weekend.

Of course the next day we were both chronically hungover, and the grey skies and constant drizzle did nothing to inspire our adventurous side. Maria wanted some time off from the road anyway, and since we were so well hidden we decided to stay put. I couldn’t spend a whole day in the tent though, so in the afternoon I jumped on the mercifully pannier-free bike and fishtailed my way along the sodden track and into Thessaloniki for a mosey around. I was far too unwell to attempt any sort of communication, so I stayed safely within the confines of my helmet, just riding up and down the streets scoping out the town for a few hours. It was enough to convince me that we should come back tomorrow and park up for a full day’s wandering ’round.

The weather finally cleared up the next day as we rode into Thessaloniki. It was Easter Sunday, and the change that had come over the town was eerie. The place was virtually deserted apart from a few tourists, and those cafes that had bothered to stay open were mostly empty.

We decided to just blow the budget and splash out on a proper dinner of suckling pig and shrimp at an outrageously priced portside restaurant – fuck it; our first extravagance of the trip that didn’t involve the bikes – and then ride east out of town to find camp on a secluded mountainside littered with animal skeletons.

As it turns out we’d pitched our tent on top of some hapless insect who’s buzzing kept Maria awake all night, and I had my usual fitful dream-filled sleep, so neither of us were particularly chipper as we packed up, but a strong coffee and a half hour’s winding round a mountainside dirt track will get the synapses firing fairly sharpish. Since we were still rudderless, as far as any type of plan goes, we decided to meander through Halkidiki; a range of peninsulas sticking out into the Aegean sea. Athos in particular got our attention since our map showed sixty-odd miles of coastline covered with monasteries (the oldest surviving monastic community in the world), and no road connecting them. We assumed that there must be a road – albeit a small one that didn’t show up on our map – and headed in that direction. It started off as expected with a road to a cute little town on the beach.

Then the road continued as an unmarked road would: sandy as hell and bumpy as hell, and we bounced our way enjoyably along, when a little car park heralded the end of our ride after only a half-dozen miles. Apparently the virgin Mary came across the island at some point and impressed by its beauty, she decided to declare it her personal garden, and deny any other females the pleasure of viewing it. I could’ve walked in if I got hold of a permit, but even that wouldn’t have been easy, so we turned around and headed east towards more secular horizons. After some lunch with a view that is.

Lunch on the beach :)

After another cold river wash, we found ourselves in Kalava; another seaside town, this time buzzing with midweek activity and people enjoying the 25° sunshine. We spread our drying laundry out on the bikes and settled into a cafe for some beers. Drying clothes in the city centre....I sorted out my Turkish Visa while we were there; a very gentle introduction to the process (you just fill out an online form and pay a tenner, and you’ve got yourself three months in the country) and booked our flights to Marseille for the wedding. Eventually we had to drag ourselves away and after a short ride out of the city we found camp in the middle of a seriously overgrown patch of bullrushes and grass, where we had no chance of being found by anyone but the swarms of mosquitos, bales of turtles (yup, that’s apparently the collective term) and flocks of swallows.Welcome to the Jungle!

Haha :p

The next day’s ride took us through Xanthi, and as we passed signs pointing us towards ‘old town’ (a sure sign that it’ll be a cool place) we decided to park up brazenly next to a fountain in the central square and have another day off. As we performed our usual ritual of wandering round with our faces buried in the netbooks trying to divine wifi signal, a passing scootist(?) stopped us, ran off to his English speaking friend and returned brandishing a piece of paper with directions to a cafe with free internet. Of course our computers had already pointed the place out to us, but we gave him the satisfaction of helping the hapless tourists, and thanked him profusely. We whiled away most of the day in the cafe working our way through cheap freddo, beer and greasy food, and as afternoon started to draw in we had a quick wander around town, confirming that it was an awesome place complete with a fully formed quirky alternative corner, then climbed back on the bikes and headed east again, debating whether we should spend an extra day in Xanthi.

We were within spitting distance of the Turkish border now, and the physical, spiritual and economic landscapes were all starting to change. Minarets had replaced church spires, and the farmers and shepherds were still hard at work as we rode around searching for a quiet camping spot in the shadows of the setting sun. The tiny villages were much poorer, with the glistening dome of the mosque showing where fiscal priorities lay, and as we rode past ramshackle central squares, every head swiveled. Obviously they didn’t get many tourists ’round these parts…

We found another idyllic little spot to hole up; a stream trickling in little waterfalls through a rocky mountainside opened out into a shallow pool running right over the road, and a patch of grass on the bank gave us the perfect spot to put our tent. It was obviously rarely used and after an hour spent clambering around the waterfalls collecting kindling and demolishing a bottle of wine, we made ourselves a fire and feasted on cheesy potatoes and stickbread hotdogs.

A wash in the river again started off our morning – our third of the week; we could almost pass for civilised. We were occasionally interrupted by a scooter or van fighting their way over the unused track to fill up a few bottles from the stream. Apparently the spot we’d chosen for our bath was the source of the best drinking water for miles around. So we followed suit and refilled all our bottles before heading back over the flooded road and towards the border.

We stopped at the only petrol station for miles around to top up the bikes and the camping stove, when the owner announced his arrival with a shout of “England! Liverpool F.C.! Arsenal!”, he chatted at us animatedly for a bit while his wife gave Maria encouragement from the upper balcony; congratulating her on riding her own bike and doing what she wanted. Was that a hint of jealousy colouring her admiration? As we were pulling away he gifted us a couple of bottles of water to help us on our way, and deciding not to tell him that we had nine litres of the area’s finest stream in our panniers, we thanked him and left.

Arriving at the border, we were confronted by a huge queue. Probably par for the course, so we cut the engines and stripped off our leathers, prepared for a bit of a wait. We stood around chatting to the Turkish driver of a tinted merc, and his decidedly shady friend, who between regaling us with stories of the hundreds of people they employ and the countless five star restaurants they own, also explained that sometimes the computer system at the border crashes and we have to endure an hour long wait. Otherwise we’d be through in minutes. He was also full of praise for Turkey, insisting there was no country nearly as beautiful, and reassuring us whenever we had a question, that anything could be acquired and everyone could be wrangled in for help. I was of the opinion that it should all be taken with a pinch of salt. Maria disagreed though; she thought he was completely full of shit. Hopefully his favourable view of the country would turn out to be at least a little true though…..

Eventually the queue started moving and we pulled up to the first booth, dodging between truck drivers flitting on foot between the booths waving sheafs of paper. I handed my passport through the window, and the official looked at me like I’d just smilingly thrust a dog turd at him. He spat some Turkish at me, to which I enquired if he would possibly mind explaining further what he wanted, or did he by any chance speak English? I guess not. By all means keep shouting at me though; I’m sure if you get angry enough I’ll eventually understand. That did seem to be the technique he was going for and to his credit it eventually worked. Through the stream of vitriol I eventually caught the word Motardocumard! and I fished out my V5C. He gave the innocent bit of paper a fairly withering look, but handed it back and waved me on.

I rounded a corner and found myself confronting another booth. This time I would try a different tack and come prepared with my only word of Turkish. I pushed up my visor to reveal my friendliest smile and shouted Merhaba! at the unprepared official. “Merhaba?! Passport?” But it worked; he was smiling and I was stamped and waved on. Booth number three, and with the exit in sight we hit a snag. Our passport and V5 were checked again, and we were asked for our certificate of vehicle insurance. The queue piled up behind us as we searched through our panniers and came up with nothing. OK, pull up to one side, climb off the bikes, and go in search of the ubiquitous border insurance booth. With the help of a couple of truckers hanging out in a cafe, we got our final document and were back in the throng. Sheafs of paper in hand, we made like Turkish truckers and ran from window to window, trying to sneak in for a surreptitious stamp. I dove in front of a booth, narrowly missing being pinned down by the approaching car, and thrust my papers through the window. The official gave me a mischievous grin, acknowledging that I’d learned the Turkish ways, and held up a stern finger to the angry driver that’d been interloped upon. She asked me where I was planning to go on my bike, and I said – everywhere! “Well, you’ve got six months *stamp* have fun!” I ran back to the bike and stuffed the visa to the furthest reaches of my pannier before anyone could change their mind and with Maria following behind me we were on our way!

And stopped another booth. This one manned by the surlier flavour of border guard, who checked my papers, motioned for me to roll forward to show the license plate, then back to show my face. Eventually he was satisfied and a full three and a half hours after arriving at the border we finally found ourselves free to explore Turkey.

Exhausted from our endeavours, we followed the first road that took us through a field and behind a hedge to provide some cover from the road, and after a quick meal and a beer we lay down and were asleep before our heads hit the sheepskin.

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