Tour of the Peloponnese I

Day 32 – Monday 29th August – From Athens to Finikounta (610km)

The previous day I had programmed a route on the GPS taking into account the roads that my map marked as panoramic ones and information I found from a bike tour company. I wanted to get away from big cities again and enjoy small coast roads at my own pace. The end destination was Finikounta, a small beach village at the southwest tip of the peninsula and the only place where I had found accommodation within my dwindling budget. I finished marking all the waypoints, the GPS calculated the route and it told me that it would take… ten hours.

Well, I was leaving early, if the bike was not out of the car park by 7:00 I would have to pay for another full day, so I thought I would take it easy, stop often and I could always pick a more direct route if I got tired.

The guy in the car park did not speak any English, but when I moved the bike he pointed at the sticker from Albania in the panniers and gave me a thumbs up, so I understood he must have been from there.

img_1340The day was breaking as I rode through the streets, and traffic was not as bad as I feared (the guy from the B&B had told me that they witnessed an accident in the junction in front of the building every day). I was determined to avoid the motorway, and as I was riding around the gulf of Elefsina on the old 8 road, just past a rather depressing area full of oil tanks, the sun came out behind Athens.

img_1337From there on, the journey got much, much better. There was no one on the road, and what a good road it was. It wound its way along the coast, offering superb views first of the gulf of Elefsina and then of the much bigger Megara gulf, until the village of Isthmia, at the mouth of the Corinth canal.

img_1341I thought that the Peloponnese peninsula was attached to the rest of the country on this side, but it turned out it is not. There is a manmade canal that connects the Megara gulf with the gulf of Corinth to allow ships to pass through, but it is very narrow, just over 20m wide, which limits the kinds of boats that can actually use it, most cargo boats need to sail around the peninsula. The motorway crosses it via a bridge that is high enough for boats to pass under it, but the road I was on was much nearer its mouth, and therefore lower, so the bridge must allow for the passage of ships. Instead of some variation of a bascule or lift bridge, the Isthmia bridge is a sinking one – it disappears below the surface of the water and rises again once the ship has passed. The road surface is formed by steel beams to allow the water to flow out of it quickly, and this combination of steel, water and big gaps between beams makes it extremely slippery and dangerous on a motorbike. I crossed very carefully, but when I was only two meters from the other side the bike started to slip sideways for no apparent reason. Luckily, I was able to maintain control and climb onto the bank safely.

Here is a video (not mine) that shows how it works:

Past the village the road became narrower and the towns smaller and further apart. The hills rolling down onto the sea were rather high and its slopes steep, making for really beautiful scenery.

img_1343When I reached the outskirts of Nafplion I was once more reminded of the stark contrast between towns and the countryside in Greece. This was the only really ugly spot I had found all day, and I left it behind as fast as I could. After having lunch near Leonidio, I started heading inland for a while to save some time (at this pace the journey was going to take way more than ten hours) and chose to avoid Sparta altogether (no more towns!).

img_1344For the next couple of hours, the coast road gave way to a mountain road that took me through a canyon, over a 1000m near mount Parnon and down the other side of the mountain range. It was a marvellous stretch of road, and only the fear of running out of fuel spoilt the fun.

img_1355I had not filled up in Leonidio, thinking that I would find a petrol station at the next village, but they were all very small mountain villages without a trace of a petrol station. It was not until I had reached the foot of the other side of the mountain that I saw a sign pointing to one in a village only one kilometre in the opposite way I was going.

img_1356I took a small detour stopped at an old, tiny petrol station. A shady looking young guy who did not speak any English filled up my bike, and while he was at it a friend of his arrived and started walking around the bike. When he saw the Albania sticker he pointed at it and said ‘fuck Albania’, without a trace of a joke in his voice. He was well over two metres tall and did not look particularly intelligent but I was sure he could rip my head off my shoulders with one of his huge hands. I replied ‘yeah man, whatever’, paid and got the hell out of there. At least I had my tank full and I had seen a rare contraption – a Yamaha scooter with shaft drive.

img_1359Instead of going straight to Kalamata, I headed down to find the coast again in the village of Githio, and then rode the coast road up to Kalamata. This detour and the mountain road were probably the best bits of road in the whole day.

img_1362At Velika, west of Kalamata, I left the main road, still following the coast, for the last bit of road before Finikounta, and then I cut across the hills on a road that was little more than a paved track, crossed two hamlets and ended up right at Finikounta.

It was already dusk, so I did not have much time to visit the town. It was a tiny place by the beach, quiet and very nice, and the hotel was much better than what I was expecting at that price.

Final departure

Day 31 – Sunday 28th August – Athens (0km)

Today marked the beginning of my way home. My sister and Alex were taking a ferry to Santorini in the afternoon to spend their rest of their holidays in the islands, and I was supposed to start my way back.

I had booked a ferry from Igoumenista to Brindisi on Tuesday, but when I started planning the trip I saw that it would take considerably less than I had thought it would, so I still had two and a half days to visit in Greece instead of just riding to the port.

I decided to spend that night in the city too, as I did not fancy sleeping in the suburbs, and the parking space for the bike was paid until 7:00 the following morning, so I might as well use it.

IMG_1314We visited the neighbourhoods of Plaka and Monastiraki in the morning, had a very good Gyros for lunch and after the long walk back to the B&B, said our goodbyes. I did not fancy going back to the centre until dinner time, so I stayed and planned the next two days. The ferry departed at 22:00, which left me two full days, so after studying the maps I decided that I would ride around the Peloponnese peninsula and see if I could leave the country with a more favourable opinion.

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City of ruins

Day 30 – Saturday 27th August – Athens (0km)

At 7:00 I had already got up, put all my things on the motorbike and ridden the short distance to the B&B where I found my sister and her husband, Alex, who after a sleepless night of travel were all ready and determined to be in the Acropolis by the time the gates opened, ahead of most tourists.

We had some breakfast on the way and little past 8:00 we were at the foot of the hill that contains some of the most famous archaeological remains in the world. There were only a few people queuing ahead of us, and they all looked to be past retirement age, but nevertheless a member of the staff came down the queue asking them whether they were students. They said they weren’t, and so did we when she asked us, but a guy who was behind us, not much younger than ourselves said ‘yes’ and without any further verification, the girl handed him a free ticket. Damn… we could have saved ourselves 30 euros.

IMG_1161There were many things to see at the foot of the hill, long before reaching the Acropolis itself, the Odeon of Pericles, the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthero, the Odeon of Herdes Atticus…  But after having spent a while contemplating all these remains, my sister declared that she wanted to see the Acropolis before the bulk of tourists arrived, and that we would have time to see the rest on the way down.

IMG_1171Unfortunately, there are some parts in the world where, no matter how fast you run, or how early you get up, you can’t escape a cruise party, and when we reached the main entrance we saw the stairs swarmed with people with little stickers on their polos marking them as belonging to this or that ship, taking pictures and listening to their respective guides, who tried to keep a reasonable distance from each other not to create interferences. The explanations were long enough for us to slip through and walk through the entrance without too much company.

IMG_1195I am not given to getting up early, but this was definitely worth it – walking into a nearly empty Acropolis first thing in the morning, as the sun rises and the morning is still cool, is something that has to be experienced. We have all seen pictures, we have all studied it to a certain extent at school or high school, but actually setting foot on gives a feeling that is difficult to describe. It does not matter how many pictures I might post here or in Facebook, come and feel it yourselves.

IMG_1183Our ticket included entrance to many other archaeological sites throughout the city, and we spend all day visiting them despite the high temperature. I make a point of not discussing politics or religion on this blog, but when one sees what an advanced civilization this was, you cannot help but wonder how far mankind could have got if it had not been by huge step backwards that the Middle Ages and Christianity represented and in a way still represent. I do understand the basic human need to feel that there is a purpose to us all or to believe that there is a superior being that knows best what it is doing, or at least someone to blame for all the random tragedies that happen in the world, but I keep coming to the conclusion that religion has done us no favours at all. And it is not just religion, more and more lately I keep thinking of that George Carlin quote: ‘never underestimate the power of stupid people in large numbers’. Walking around the ruins I wondered if thousands of years from now other people, maybe from other planets, would walk around the remains of our world listening to the explanation of their guide: ‘and then in 2016 Trump became President of the United States…’

IMG_1238We also visited the flea market on the other side of the Acropolis and wandered for a while around the narrow streets of the Plaka neighbourhood, but decided to save that for the following morning and headed to the Philopappos Hill for the best view of the Acropolis.

IMG_1273The hill is located to the southwest of the ruins and is the perfect spot to see the sunset with a perfect view of the Acropolis glowing red in the light of the disappearing sun and then contemplate the lights of the whole city turning on little by little, until almost dark, when the Acropolis itself is lit. Amazing.

IMG_1304As we walked across the centre, however, my impression of the city the day before was confirmed – away from the Acropolis and the streets that surround it, the city seems to be crumbling to pieces. There are a few EU capitals I have not visited yet (Dublin, Bratislava, Luxembourg, Oslo), but I think it is safe to say that Athens was, by a considerable margin, the one in the worst condition.

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Contradictory feelings

Day 29 – Friday 26th August – From Vergina to Athens (485km)

I had a long way to get to Athens today and was determined to avoid the motorway, where most traffic (and manic drivers) would be and see some nice landscape away from industrial states, factories, scrapyards and the general grimness that grows around big towns, so I plotted a route that would first take me as close to mount Olympus as it was possible to get without deviating from my final destination and then south through Larisa, Farsala, Lama, Thiva and, only at the very end, into the motorway for a few kilometres and to Athens.

It did not take long for the bad impressions of the day before to disappear – I filled the tank up in the first petrol station I found after Vergina (the one that the GPS indicated in front of the pension did exist, but was abandoned) and had a short chat, mostly based on hand gestures, with the old lady who owned the place about the country stickers on my bike. For most of the day the roads were really nice, with very little traffic, rising up into the mountains, descending into plains and cutting across the countryside. The only exceptions were, as expected, when I had to cross the few big towns on my route, but even that went better than expected, as they were smaller than I feared and traffic was light enough.

20160826071249_1The weather had also been kind for most of the way, but in the end I could not escape the wind, which appeared about 150km from Athens and got so bad that, combined with the fatigue of a long day’s riding, gave me a headache. I stopped one last time to take an Ibuprofen and headed into Athens, wary of what I might find.

This was by far the biggest city I was riding into, the hotel I had found was near a main train station just north of the centre, and I was likely to encounter the worst of the end of the week rush hour.

The motorway turned into a ring road which I soon left following the directions on the GPS, and then it did not take more than a few traffic lights to reach the hotel. All in all, it had been a fuss free and easy entry into the city, for which I was very glad. I was surprised to see how many big motorbikes there were in the city, mostly Suzuki V-Stroms and Yamaha TDM 900s, the latter one usually a rare sight in Spain, and how very few people wore helmets. Was it not compulsory?

At the hotel they told me to park the bike right in front of the steps in the main door, where the receptionist, who was on duty 24 hours could see it, and insisted that I did not leave anything on it.

I still had some time left in the day after I had settled in my room, so I decided to go out to explore the neighbourhood and get some information for the following day. My sister and her husband were arriving very early in the morning on an overnight flight from Madrid, but we were not staying at the same hotel I was now – when we had booked ours they had no rooms for Friday, so I had had to find myself another one. The one for Saturday was just a few corners away, so I went to see if I could take my stuff there at 7:00 the following morning and whether there was somewhere to park the bike.

20160826123845_1I walked all the way up the street and then down again and I could not find the bed and breakfast… it was not a long street, maybe seven or eight small blocks, and I had not taken the exact address with me, a mistake, I know, but I was expecting to find a sign of some kind in the building easily enough. It turned out to be no more than a small printed and laminated sign stuck on the wall next to a doorway, and I only saw it because there was a guy with a suitcase and a backpack standing in front of it waiting for the door to open. There was a doorbell in the sign, and after pressing the button a few times the owner came, not from inside the building, but walking up the street. It seemed they had two separate flats and the doorbell sounded wirelessly on the other one, the guy who was waiting told me that he had read we were supposed to ring once and wait for a few minutes. The B&B guy said that there was no problem regarding the following morning, and showed me a car park round the corner that would take the bike for 5 euros a day. From what I had seen so far in the street, that was a price I was more than willing to pay to have securely parked.

20160826125047_1What little I had seen trying to find the B&B and what I saw later when I walked to the train station to find some information on bus and metro day passes left me rather shocked. This was not what I was expecting from a neighbourhood just to underground stops away from the centre of a EU capital city – the streets were filthy, the trees had not been pruned in a long time, I had to walk half hunched to avoid the branches, the plants and grass strips by the side of the streets were either dead or wildly overgrown, electrical boxes from street lighting were broken open, a surprisingly high number of storefronts were boarded up or just abandoned, their windows covered in graffiti or broken, there were whole empty derelict buildings, abandoned cars in the street… it was as if they had stopped caring for the city a long time ago.

20160826125727_1With all the info I needed for the following day, I went back to the hotel, wrote for a while and went early to bed – Saturday was going to be a long day with a very early start, and I was excited both to see my sister and her husband and to visit the Acropolis.