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.

From Canadian lakes to Spanish badlands

Day 28 – Thursday 25th August – From lake Batak to Vergina (389km)

My days on the motorbike kept getting longer now that I was travelling on my own, and by now I was pretty much into the long distance mind-set. This was going to be the longest riding day so far, but I did not intend to do too much at once – the AT is less comfortable as a long distance tourer than both the V-Strom and the Super Ténéré, so I had promised myself that I would take breaks after no more than 100km.

It had been raining all night and I don’t like folding the tent when it is wet, but there was no sun in the morning, so it was useless to wait for it to dry. I wiped as much water off as I could, took it down and left with all the layers on the suit on, as it was rather cold.
In true Frost style, I took a road less travelled south to a small border crossing, at one more time Bulgaria offered its best landscape – thick forests and mirror-like lakes that would not have looked out of place in Canada.

20160825032650_1When I reached the border there were only a few cars and two lorries in front of me, but as I had already experienced on my way into the country, Bulgarian border policemen seem to be the slowest in Europe. Once everything was sorted, I rode a short distance to the Greek border, was quickly waved in with the usual Barça comments and rode into what seemed another world.

20160825062942_1If you had told me that I had teleported to the hills in central Spain I would not have doubt it. What had been lakes and green forests just an hour ago were now golden brown hills, with very few trees, a dry smell in the air and the temperature rising fast.

Despite the contrast, it was still very beautiful, particularly through the route I had chosen, avoiding large towns and main roads. I went near a place called Drama, but turned south before reaching it, and it was not until near Serres that I started to find bigger roads.

My first good impressions of Greece quickly changed. The landscape was now mostly flat and scorched by the sun, everything had an abandoned air about it, and the roads were no better than what I had found in the previous countries. The ring road around Serres looked like a Russian ring road – with catastrophically bad tarmac, junctions with traffic lights every few hundred metres that made fast progress all but impossible and the worst drivers I had found so far on this journey. Greek drivers seem to be very bitter about being overtaken – I would pass a 15-year old car and I could see it accelerating in my mirrors, trying to catch up again. I would stop first at a red light and the car next to me would be in gear, slipping the clutch and ready not to let me get ahead once the lights turned green. For God’s sake, even middle-aged women in crumbling little hatchbacks did it… how on earth did they expect to outrun a motorbike?

I took the motorway from there on to try and save some time, seeing there was no landscape to appreciate and the main roads were turning quite nasty, and was surprised to find a row of toll booths after riding a few kilometres on it. There was absolutely no sign anywhere before entering the motorway that announced that it was a toll road. First time I saw it. It was not a lot of money, but I paid it gingerly seeing how bad the tarmac was even on the motorway forming foot-tall folds under the heat and the weight of trucks, not to mention the hordes of nasty drivers. Oh, and they would not take credit cards to pay the toll.

A good while later I was glad to get off the motorway and head into the small town of Vergina, where I had found a cheap room in a small pension. At least this was a good ending to the day – the place was quiet, the room good, the girl in reception very nice, and they let me put the bike in the garden, where I could see it from my balcony. The only negative note was that they would not take credit card either, and all the money I had left were a few Bulgarian Lev, so I ad to go find the only ATM in the village.

20160825103754_1It took me a good while, as the town seemed to consist of detached houses and no centre, but in the end I managed to find the ATM and a small supermarket where I got some food and the end-of-the-day beer.