Island Biking: A Kefalonia Loop

There was no chance of us sleeping through our 8 a.m. disembarkation in Patras, Greece. We had been awake for hours. With the ferry’s few cabins already reserved by truckers and an absence of chairs, shade, or breeze on the aft deck, we decided to lay claim to a couple of facing chairs inside the lounge. And there we read, played cards, napped, and soaked our clothes in sweat during an un-air-conditioned 18-hour ferry crossing from Italy. It was one of the most uncomfortable nights of the trip, if not our lives.

Despite our exhaustion, we were thrilled to arrive in Greece and quickly secured fresh bottles of cold water, a road map of the Peloponnese region, and a fresh pound of fruit. Forty-four fast miles later, we were slicing through the finger-thick slabs of feta cheese that topped our salads as we waited for a ferry to the island of Kefalonia, off the coast of Greece’s western, Ionian shore. It wasn’t long before we were unpacked in a rented one-bedroom apartment — 35€ for the night — and taking the first of our daily swims in the sea.

Kristin riding along the coast on Kefalonia.
Kristin riding along the coast on Kefalonia.

We were on Kefalonia for four days, spending three of those cycling a 100-mile route around this mountainous island. Our first day out of Poros was spent cycling south along the coast in a clockwise direction, up and over several smaller hills, past the small coastal villages of Skala and Lourdata, before turning inland to work our way over to the Gulf of Argostoli, a finger-like body of water that nearly splits the island in two on its western side. Our route switch-backed for two miles up and over a large hill, periodically tilting as much as 12%, but yielded expansive views all the way to the island of Zakynthos to the south and the Peloponnese to the west. We rounded a narrow spit of land that intrudes on the gulf, to the Theodore Lighthouse.

Our first Greek Salad in Greece was a treat!
Our first Greek Salad in Greece was a treat!

One of the joys of this trip is learning interesting trivia about the flags of the countries we ride through. Our own nation’s “stars and stripes” were a frequently-seen design motif in Italy, where the ubiquitous margherita pizza — consisting of just tomato, mozzarella, and basil — is a nod to the Italian flag of red, white, and green. And it was there at the Theodore Lighthouse that I realized the significance of the colors in Greece’s flag: the royal blue signifies the tranquility of the Ionian and Aegean Seas while the stark white patterns represent the complexion of the British tourists who line this country’s beaches.

And it was a few of those Brits whose drunken Karaoke stylings at 3 a.m. combined with the suffocating humidity, unusually tireless, earsplitting cicadas, and unrelenting heat to deliver a new record in the category of Most Uncomfortable Night of Sleep, Ever.  After a hundred nights in our tent, we seemed to have finally discovered a weakness in our beloved Hilleberg Nallo GT3. The screen fabric on the door doesn’t just keep the bugs out, it also blocks the breeze too. Not that there was any breeze that night in Argostoli, but the inner tent’s mesh is simply too tightly woven to allow any air circulation at all. I took a chance on the mosquitoes having gone to rest and partially unzipped the mesh in the middle of the night, only to have our sweat-soaked bodies attract a dozen of them within minutes. We crushed the survivors come morning; the volume of blood that squirted forth proved they enjoyed their nightcap with us all too well.

The beach at Argostoli was so shallow, you had to walk out over 50 meters to get shoulder deep.
The beach at Argostoli was so shallow, you had to walk out over 50 meters to get waist deep.

Despite our exhaustion, getting an early start on this second day of riding in Kefalonia proved to be a blessing. After a quick roll through the slowly awakening, colorful seaside town of Argostoli, we were again headed north along the eastern side of the gulf. The road climbed gently for over fifteen miles, twisting in and out of barren, rocky canyons as went. The blue of the sea was always to our left; signs warning of rockfall repeating every kilometer on our right. Traffic was light, but started to pick up as we neared the memorable viewpoint overlooking famed Myrtos Beach, a two-kilometer strand of blindingly white pebbles, routinely rated Greece’s best beach. We didn’t opt to descend the steeply-hairpinning road to the beach but did spend some time chatting with some folks who shouted some encouragement to us earlier during the climb to the viewpoint. Nick and Zoe, on vacation with their children from the UK (and boasting dark tans), let us know the road to Assos was closed due to a landslide from a series of earthquakes that shook the island in 2014, but Nick reckoned we’d be able to slip through on bikes.

We hadn’t met a roadblock we couldn’t carry, push, or ride through or around yet, and this would not be our first. We pedaled up to a large metal gate across the road, behind which stood an empty work zone. There was a scalable boulder to the right, a life-threatening drop-off to the left. But, upon closer inspection, I realized the padlock on the gate was unlocked. I looked around, neither heard nor saw any workers, and sneakily unlatched the gate and led the way into the road closure area. A minute later, after taking more photos of Myrtos Beach down below, I realized there were two workers watching us in the massive backhoe just fifty yards past the gate. They were laughing as I pedaled towards them and, caught red handed, what choice did I have but to laugh and wave and point into the distance? The two continued laughing and waved us onward, saving us from having to decide whether or not to continue with a 30 kilometer detour. We did have to push through some remnants of the landslide and carry our bikes over some strategically-placed boulders at the other end of the road closure, but it saved us over an hour.

Gorgeous seaside cliffs heading north from Argostoli towards Assos.
Gorgeous seaside cliffs heading north from Argostoli towards Assos.

From there we descended nearly a thousand feet down to the picturesque village of Assos, nestled alongside a horseshoe-shaped bay and lined with multi-colored houses and cafes on one side and a castle-topped hill on the other. The descent was as thrilling as it was scenic, but it was also hot. Ducking my head into a slipstream position for speed, the air ramping off my handlebar bag and into my face felt as if a hairdryer was being held at point-blank range. Speed be damned, I had to sit up. With the hardest part of the day still ahead, we stayed in Assos only long enough to enjoy a couple Greek salads and to load up on water while watching sunbathing tourists relax on the beach beside the cafe. Assos would be a lovely place to return to and I’m sure the hike up to the castle would be worth it, if only for the views of the harbor below, but we had a three mile rocky hike-a-bike that needed our attention.

The gorgeous village of Assos.
The gorgeous village of Assos.

A local hiker tried, in Greek, to warn us off the loose, rocky, track but we weren’t having it. And when I say “we” I really mean “I”. Kristin, within a third of a mile, was already contemplating turning back. The route I chose back out of Assos led up and over an uninhabited, rocky, mountain dotted with olive trees and home to a number of free-roaming, bell-clanging goats. Climbing a thousand feet in less than than three miles, and only rideable in small doses, it was immediately clear that this was going to take some doing. We weren’t pushing for long before I saw the temperature readout on my Garmin climb to 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 Celsius) and I knew we needed a pep talk. Kristin hates pushing her bike and, in fairness, given the weight of our bikes and our respective amounts of upper body strength, pushing the bike is a lot harder for her than me. Not to mention, as a mountain biker, hiking with my bike is something I just accept.

“Listen,” I said, “I know this isn’t fun. Nobody looks forward to pushing their bike up a mountain. And I know it’s hot and you’re tired, and the bike is heavy, but the only way we can get through this is if you keep positive. Focus on how beautiful this mountain is, how great the olive trees smell, and the sight of the blue water down below. Think about how much better this is than being stuck in an office somewhere! Think about how few people even know this trail exists. You saw the hiker down at the bottom; he didn’t think we could get the bikes up this path. But we can! You just got to not allow yourself to dwell on how much this sucks. I know it sucks. But you can’t think about that. Think about that later, when we’re sitting on the beach with a cold beer. Right now all you have to do is think about going hiking. And you’re taking your bike with you.”

Me on a ridable portion of the rocky trail.
Doug on a rideable portion of the rocky trail.

Kristin returned a look I couldn’t quite decipher. I could sense her about to cry; I could tell she wanted to punch me for selecting this route; and I could even sense a small part of her wanting to throw the bike off a cliff and be done with it. But this look only lasted a moment. Then she began to nod in agreement (resigned acceptance?) and pushed past me. The climb took far longer than I anticipated, and we were nearly out of water when we we finally reached the top, but no tears were shed, no voices raised, and no bikes tossed into the Ionian. All things considered, it went as well as I could have asked.

The problem with this hike-a-bike was that we had another thousand-plus foot climb lurking just three miles later and, this time, I wasn’t entirely clear if it was paved or not. I knew the first climb was going to be off-road. But despite having only ridden 30 miles so far, we were already completely spent. If it proved to be another hike-a-bike? I didn’t want to ask…

The view from the top of northern Kefalonia, looking out to the island of Ithaca.
The view from the top of northern Kefalonia, looking out to the island of Ithaca.

The good thing about Greece is that there are are mini-markets and cafes everywhere. And they all stock 1.5 liter bottles of mineral water, refrigerated, and sell them for 1€. But despite our ability to quickly replenish our water reserves and the fact that the second climb was on a paved road, it was still almost too much. The heat had won. More pep talks ensued and we ended up having to stop and rest after every 100 feet of elevation, but little by little we eventually topped out over 2,000 feet on the northeast coast of Kefalonia and were rewarded with an incredible view of nearby Ithaca, that mountainous island the mythical hero Oddyseus struggled so mightily to return to. Talk about inspiration!

The descent, like all great things in life, was over too fast. Flying downhill on a coastal, cliff-hugging road at speeds approaching 40 mph was as exhilirating as always — particularly when the road narrowed to one lane to zip through a small mountain-clinging hamlet — but that odd feeling of nausea from too much exertion and too much heat was settling in. We paused briefly for photos as we descended into idyllic Ag Effimia, then loaded up on groceries and water and the ever-present Fanta and nectarines. But those last few miles into our campground in Sami were almost too much. The campground host, a Chicago native, took one look at us and insisted we worry about setting up the tent later and go take a swim first. Whether it was because of our salt-caked clothing or because we smelled bad, I don’t know, but we took her advice and worried about the details later. We estimate we combined to drink nearly twelve liters of water with dinner.

We spent two nights at the wonderful Karavomilos Campground in Sami, the single best campground we have stayed at in all of our travels, and it was on that second day that we had a slight realization. We rented a pair of sun beds and an umbrella on the beach for 5€ and spent the day reading the fantastic Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield between periodic dips in the sea. We were chatting with a couple of Brits on the lounge chairs next to us when we found ourselves using a slightly different phrase than one we’ve repeated so many times before. We didn’t describe ourselves as “cycling around the world” but as “touring the world by bicycle.” It may seem a hairsplitting distinction, but not to us. After all, there we were, on Kefalonia, riding in a circle. And why? Because I saw the island on Google Maps, thought it had a cool name, and saw that a loop was possible. It wasn’t “on our route” (just as Spain and Morocco aren’t exactly on the way east from Denmark!). It was just there, caught my fancy, and Kristin thought it sounded fun. Just as this relaxing day off at the beach in Sami sounded like a good thing to do.

The Karavomilos Campground in Sami is the nicest campground we stayed at anywhere in the world so far. This is their "lounge area."
The Karavomilos Campground in Sami is the nicest campground we stayed at anywhere in the world so far. This is their “lounge area” for those times when you don’t feel like going to the beach or the pool.

We completed our lap of Kefalonia the next day, scaling the 1700′ mountain en route back to Poros where we soon boarded a ferry back to Peloponnese. A day later we were in Ancient Olympia, gawking at the ruined Temple of Zeus, embarrassing myself by sprinting the length of the 5th century B.C. track, and standing at the foot of the Temple of Hera where the Olympic torch continues to be lit before every Olympiad.  The history of Olympia was impressive, as are the mountain views where we are now as I right this, in Andritsaina, but Kefalonia boasted a blend of beach and mountain and small towns that suit us perfectly. It’s no wonder all those pasty Brits keep returning year after year. I can’t help but want to do the same.

Welcome Adventure Cyclist Readers: If you’re just making your way to our blog after reading Doug’s essay in the Aug/Sept issue of Adventure Cyclist and are wondering why we’re only now just making it to Greece, then allow us to explain. We had to detour home to the United States this past January for a family issue. With our bikes safely stored in Rome, and with another family obligation in June, we decided to spend the spring in Japan and Indonesia. But we’re back on our bikes now and continuing on our journey eastward. Thanks for coming to check out the blog and thank you for supporting the Adventure Cycling organization.

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Doug Walsh

Writer, Traveler

Doug Walsh is a writer, traveler, cyclist, and gamer who spent two years traveling from Seattle to Singapore, the long way around, by bicycle and sea. He's the author of the upcoming novel "Tailwinds Past Florence."

2 Comments
  1. Hi Doug and Kristin! Great writing and wonderful photography, as usual. Wow, I had no idea how hot it would be there. You’re pushing your bodies to the limit! Thanks for sharing your adventure with all of your readers. I look forward to the next Post. Stay well!

    1. Thanks Dad! We didn’t ever plan to end up in Greece in the dead of summer, but we’re managing. The other day it was *only* 91 degrees at noon and it felt amazing. Unfortunately, two hours later, it was back up to 100.

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About Us

We're Doug & Kristin Walsh, a couple of Washingtonians who love to travel, both abroad and in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. We set off to travel the world in 2014, primarily by bicycle. We're back home now, but the travel bug continues to be fed every chance we get.

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