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16 September, 2016

The Burning Mountains of Portugal

I first smelled the smoke during the drive to Alcobaça. We were headed inland, taillights to Nazare and its worlds-largest-waves, when that first acrid whiff I find to be so intoxicating snuffed out the lingering scent of sea air. Later, I downshifted to first and piloted the car up the meandering, olive-lined alleys to the castle town of Ourem, pondering the oddity of a world in which fire can overtake water. The smoke intensified. While reading poolside at our pousada, I could feel the ashen clouds floating across the valley, the smoke on the crystalline water, delicately smothering my book and body as it perfumed my hair with wildfire aromatics. Peering over the wall of the hilltop village we saw a ridgeline on fire across the valley. A wall of smoke hung just above the horizon, masking the burning garnet in gray gauze.

Sunset during wildfire.

Sunset amongst the wildfire smoke and ash, viewed from Ourem.

Long Waits and Late Nights in Lisbon

Though a friend tipped me off to the presence of wildfires burning in the Portuguese countryside several weeks before our trip, the only smoke encountered in the capital city was that of the cigarette variety. Despite an abundance of signage announcing the country’s new tougher, anti-smoking ordinances, ashtrays were nearly as common as houseflies. The presence of cigarette smoke was jarring – I often go months without encountering any at home – but the flies were far more annoying. As was the waiting.

We stepped off our overnight flight to Lisbon and joined a crowd the likes I’ve which I’ve seldom seen outside of Seahawks games. A single line of people serpentined back and forth though dozens of hairpins, crossed the terminal from end to end, and eventually (thankfully after we had gotten on it) extended up the stairs and back toward the gates. Well over a thousand people queued to pass through an immigration checkpoint manned by just three agents. Over a thousand tired, anxious travelers stood in orderly fashion wondering what crimes they committed in a prior life to deserve such hell. I may have preferred an encounter with the Langoliers than so much humanity in so little space.

Long lines in Lisbon.

The rental car lines at Lisbon airport at 11am on a Monday.

The clock soon struck nine and another half dozen agents took their positions. Time to get through immigration: 1:45. We encountered a similar crush of people three days later, upon returning to the airport to pick up our rental car. Understaffed? A victim of its own popularity? Yes and yes. But also friendly. I’ll still take it over Newark.

Having not spent enough of our first day in Lisbon waiting in line, we dropped our bags at our hotel and promptly walked downtown to join the throngs in line for the famed Tram #28. The electric trams of route 28 travel through the hilly, graffiti-covered Alfama district of Lisbon, passing the city’s castle and other major sights. That it was over 100 degrees out and there was no shade didn’t matter. That the only people on line were tourists didn’t register.

Our travel skills were as rusty as the trolley tracks we waited alongside and whether it was the heat, the sleep-deprivation, or sheer laziness, we stood in the searing heat for over an hour waiting for the so-called “Tourist Tram.” And when the tram finally banged and clanged its way up and around a few hills in an ugly, littered, battered neighborhood, that layer of rust we’ve accumulated since returning home was knocked free and we alighted at the first stop we could.  What were we thinking?

Lisbon castle steps.

We followed this couple down the stairs, looking for a way back into town, only to discover it was a dead-end. Oops.

If asked to sum up our time in Portugal, I would describe it as a ten-day pub crawl broken up by long drives in the mountains, some nice meals, and a few side-trips to gawk at architectural marvels of centuries past. And in this regard, we were almost thankful for the heat as it made the Sagres and Super Bock – Portugal’s answer to the ubiquitous light lager that plagues every country – somewhat palatable. Our three nights in Lisbon went by quickly.  A trip to Belem to see the glorious Monasteiro dos Jeronimos and the hip LX Factory enclave on day two; a train ride to Sintra (Portugal’s less glitzy answer to Versailles) on day three.

Lisbon fog.

The big bridge in Lisbon with a wonderfully low fog bank. Reminiscent of San Francisco Bay.

The highlight of our time in Lisbon was spent eating and drinking. A late meal of tapas in the Bairro Alto neighborhood preceded a marvelous time spent listening to Fado with three new friends we shared a table with. Kristin had done her homework and learned of a hole-in-the-wall Fado club named A Tasca do Chico where many Fado singers have gotten their start. Singers drop in and perform in the darkened pub that sits no more than thirty while two guitarists – one on a Portuguese twelve-stringer and another on a Spanish six-string – provide accompaniment. Fado is folk music best sang loud and passionately. It’s about heartbreak and loss, and this will be evident to you with or without a friendly Lisboan artist buying you beers. Think of it as Flamenco without the dancing. Two performers this night stole the show. The last of which, a young, petite woman in stiletto heels, tights, and a breezy blouse could not be topped. We saw no reason to stay beyond her 2am performance.

Downtown Lisbon.

Downtown Lisbon. All cities should be so pedestrian-friendly.

One challenge you might have in visiting Portugal is that there are limited dining options available on Sundays. In this country that takes eating late to a level that even Italians would question, most restaurants shutter after lunch on Sundays. This is where talking to a local can really come in handy. We were directed to an admittedly trendy restaurant in the Chiado neighborhood called Sacramento. Wandering in without a reservation, we weren’t sat until nearly 11pm, but the meal was worth the wait. Tourists and locals blend in this swanky establishment for modern takes on Portuguese classics and a rather stellar wine selection.

The night ended with my asking for the bill in such near-perfect Portuguese, complete with accent, that the server did a double-take. Her flattery led to a twenty-minute chat about language which I’ll spare you, except to encourage you to make an effort to go beyond ola and obrigato when you visit.

Pena Palace

Pena Palace from atop the mountain in Sintra.

Walking the High Mountains of Estrella

The Audi A1, a car every bit as virile as the two-buck steak sauce that shares its name, barely fit through the stone archway leading up the cobbled streets to our pousada in Ourem. After three days of touring and imbibing in Lisbon, a brief stop at Buddha Eden (the most WTF thing of all the WTF things) and a lunchtime tour of the magnificent monastery in Alcobaca, I was thrilled to park the car and settle into two nights of eating well and doing nothing.

Portugal’s network of pousadas – historical buildings of significance transformed into inns of varying degrees of luxury – provides travelers with a unique opportunity to pillow up someplace unusual. The pousada in Ourem, where we stayed, was a 15th century hospital located quite literally in the shadow of a medieval castle. And for two nights it was our home, complete with half-board. Though a festival would be taking place the following week, the hilltop village of Ourem was deserted. The cobblestone alleys, the castle ruins, and the cafes were ours and ours alone. And while the other guests of the inn day-tripped to Fatima and other nearby towns of note, we enjoyed the quiet of the smoke-scented village and read by the pool and rested. For I knew we had a long day barreling down on us.

Alcobaca monastery cloister

I’m a sucker for cloister walkways of medieval monasteries.

I also knew better than to ask the hotel clerk in the mountain village of Manteigas about the routes we were planning to hike, but I did anyway. Locals, particularly those who may be inconvenienced by the trouble you get yourself in, will always try to steer to you to the safest option no matter how hard you try to convince them of your credentials. Boring! Thanks to a very helpful GPS-enabled map app and available trail descriptions and maps, I was able to narrow our day of hiking in Serra da Estrella Nature Park down to three options. The clerk confirmed that yes, the route I wanted to do – the only one with the 5-star difficulty rating — was the most scenic, but it was also overgrown, very hard to follow, and just two weeks ago an Italian couple staying at his hotel had to be rescued. He tried his best to steer me onto other shorter routes that held little interest, not realizing he was only increasing my desire with each word of warning. He also made the mistake of doubting Kristin’s abilities.

We'd be following a very overgrown, hard to follow route down into this valley.

We’d be following a very overgrown, hard to follow route down into this valley.

The twisty, cliffside drive to the trailhead – and ensuing race back down six hours later – were the highlights of the day. Those hours in between, spent hiking the Central Massif Route, were a tangle of slow-going searches for rock cairns and barely-visible trail blazes under a hundred-degree sun.

With the car parked at the highest point in mainland Portugal (the Azore Islands boast the country’s highest elevation), we followed the map out onto a rock-litter scrubland some 6,000 feet above sea level. There wasn’t a tree taller than myself as far as I could see. Nor was there any significant evidence of a trail. We followed the GPS track as best we could, stepping around cowpies and scampering down boulders, periodically encountering remnants of a trail here, a rock cairn there. We were making progress and eventually came to a trail sign. The route we wanted descended into a wide glacial valley from once-upon-a-time and down we went.

The scenery wasn’t really all that spectacular (though I admit it’s hard to impress those of us lucky to call the Pacific Northwest our backyard) but the route-finding difficulty lived up to the clerk’s warning. And though the jumble of rocks and bushes may not have been tall enough to provide respite from the searing sun, they were certainly tall enough to hide the cairns and blazes.

Wandering across the valley in scorching heat.

Wandering across the valley in scorching heat. Anybody see a cairn?

The wildfires in this part of Portugal were to the north of us – out of sight and out of smell – but they were on our minds all the same. We weren’t so much hiking as we were swimming across a hillside of knee-high grass as dry as a Hindenburg-era newspaper impaled on a saguaro cactus. Down, down we went, ever so slowly into the valley, trying our best not to slip on the grass. Trying so hard to stay on the rocks for traction, all the while wondering if sneakers-upon-granite could produce a spark. I tumbled once, rolling sideways off the ledge of a rock, fortunately landing on two uninjured feet, straddling a shrub. I heard the camera draped around my neck clink off a rock as I rolled and immediately panicked. One spark would be all it took.

There was a lake in the distance but zero chance of reaching it before a fire would overtake us. I put the camera in my backpack and distracted myself by wondering if the trekking poles we left at home could cause a spark.

The road back down to Manteigas from the highest point in Portugal (mainland).

The road back down to Manteigas from the highest point in Portugal (mainland).

We eventually crossed a broad grazing land at the far end of the valley and though the route was supposed to continue up and over the shoulder of a mountain, we could find no evidence of it doing so. After several back-and-forth searches for cairns and footprints, we had had enough. The highlights were behind us and the trail was far too much hassle with too little reward. So we followed a connector trail down a very steep hillside to one of the most popular routes in the park – the Glacier Route. The 17 km route led from the upper trailhead down to the village of Manteigas where we were staying, roughly paralleling the wonderfully windy road we drove up. And though we were able to hitchhike a little of the way back to the car, we ultimately found ourselves walking several miles along the side of the road to the car.

The thirteen miles we hiked took nearly six hours. The beer and ice cream at the summit restaurant almost made it worth it. The drive back down certainly did.

Back at the church in Manteigas at the completion of the procession through town.

Back at the church in Manteigas at the completion of the procession through town, after the wind had extinguished most of the candles.

We slept soundly that night despite live music echoing off our hotel until 2am for the second night in a row. Though it was a weekday, it was the culmination of a two-week Catholic celebration of the Lady of Grace (Lady of Miracles, some say). The prior night we watched as thousands of devotees marched in a candlelit procession through the streets of Manteigas as four women carried a large statue through town. An orchestra and live rock band played through the night as festival goers enjoyed plentiful meat, wine, and beer for token prices.

Sipping Our Way Along the Douro

Portugal didn’t find its way into our basket of travel dreams because we wanted to see Lisbon or go hiking in the mountains, as fun as those things were. Nor do we have any interest in joining the throngs of sun worshipers in Algarve. No, it landed in the basket because many years ago I viewed a travel show about wine that culminated with a segment on Porto and the famed vineyards of the Douro River Valley. If I was to return to Portugal in the future, I would spend the entire time in the Douro.

The view downriver from our room in Mesao Frio.

The view downriver from our room in Mesao Frio.

The Douro River spills into the Atlantic at Porto, only the second largest city in Portugal, but certainly the most photogenic. And the river that flows past its hilly, multi-colored structures, pours out of a massive network of terraced vineyards where dozens of grape varieties are grown, turned into wine, and shipped throughout the world. To visit the Douro is to be both awed by the scenery and overwhelmed by the options of wine tastings. And though September is harvest time and the busiest tourist season of the year for the vineyards and cellars of the Douro, the crowds were manageable.

Porto skyline.

The beautiful Porto.

And so we spent our final days sipping port, enjoying the view from the villa-turned-guesthouse we booked in Mesao Frio, and watching the river flow by. In Porto, we wandered the alleys and streets, shopped at a street market, attended a free outdoor concert with the Portuguese Philharmonic Orchestra, walked the surfer’s beach and ate grilled sardines, drank more wine and port than we care to admit, and fell in love with a city that was every bit as beautiful as it seemed on the small screen all those years ago. A city I probably won’t return to in this life, but one I’ll remember fondly all the same.

It wouldn't be a European TFG post without a few bikes in the midst.

It wouldn’t be a TFG post from Europe without a few bikes shown.

 

 

2 November, 2015

Cargo Cruising the Indian Ocean

A steaming bowl of brothy, robustly seasoned, homemade chicken soup awaited us in the Officer’s Mess just minutes after we dropped our panniers off in our cabin, the Purser’s Suite. With that first spoonful, we both felt all of the stress and worry we were experiencing leading up to our meeting the freighter melt away. And in its place came the warm, comforting sensation of a welcome home hug. Albeit, aboard a temporary, floating home.

Despite our fears of the bicycles complicating the procedure, the delay of information concerning such non-trivial questions as Where do we go? and When should we be there?, the boarding process ultimately could not have gone any smoother. We received a call the day prior our departure in Piraeus, alerting us that we needed to board the ship a day early, and telling us to meet at the cruise terminal to complete the immigration check at 10:30 the next morning. Kristin and I bicycled a mile to the terminal, met the representative from the shipping agent, and got our passports cleared. From there we followed behind another man on a scooter as we pedaled 6 miles through traffic (yes, in the country we were just checked out of) around the perimeter of the Piraeus harbor to the container terminal. That’s where things got a little dicey as the port was demanding a customs form, stating that the bicycles had to be declared. This was news to us. Our escort told us to remain calm and be patient as numerous phone calls were made on our behalf and, after ten nervous minutes, the security gate finally opened and we were led to a bus. We quickly stripped the panniers, heaved them up the five stairs of the bus, and carefully threaded the bikes one by one up the stairs and between the seats in the narrow aisle. Only one hurdle stood between ourselves and a mighty sigh of relief.

Tense moments as our bikes were hoisted some 20 meters up the side of the ship from the pier.

Tense moments as our bikes were hoisted some 20 meters up the side of the ship from the pier.

The ship is enormous. In fact, up close, one does not see a ship. All you see is a 334-meter-long massive black wall of steel and several indecipherable markings in white paint. And the gangway. Given that the ship had yet to receive much of its cargo, the MV Hatsu Crystal was floating high in the water. We were told during the booking process that the bicycles would be welcome aboard so long as we were able to get them up the gangway. “No problem,” I thought, thinking back to the myriad ferries and cruise ships we’ve been on.

Problem.

The gangway in this instance was an 80-step, very steep staircase whose railing was barely waist high – the metal safety rails replaced with a loose rope in some sections – and had rounded aluminum steps. The gangway shifted a little with each footfall during our initial ascent with the first few bags. Gulp. Making matters worse, Kristin and I had our cycling shoes on, metal cleats and all. Fortunately, several members of the very friendly and helpful Filipino crew met us at the gangway, helped carry our panniers up, and offered to hoist the bikes up the side of the ship with a rope. I returned to the pier and waited for the rope, expecting some sort of net or carabiner of sorts. But when I saw that it was just a simple rope they were lowering, I sheepishly waved for one of the crew to come down to help. My knot-tying skills pretty much start and end with shoelaces; best let the sailors handle this rope business. Particularly when we’re about to dangle several thousand dollars’ worth of sentimental bicycles sixty feet above the water.

The view outside our cabin in Piraeus, Greece.

The view outside our cabin in Piraeus, Greece.

Life On Board

We likely wouldn’t have decided to spend nineteen days at sea if the cabins made available to passengers aboard cargo ships weren’t both spacious and comfortable. It was even better than the website promised. With two couches, three chairs, cabinetry, refrigerator, a television with DVD player, and a very large desk, the main living room was the most space we’ve had to enjoy since our house rental in Bali. The bedroom had an actual queen-size mattress (not two twins masquerading as a queen like in much of Europe), plenty of closet space, and a second desk. The bathroom was larger than that of most hotels.

The main living space of our cabin aboard the Hatsu Crystal.

The main living space of our cabin aboard the Hatsu Crystal.

For those who have wondered how we could spend 24 hours a day together, 7 days a week for over 19 months, I will tell you that Kristin and I agree that our favorite feature of the cabin was a door that could be shut between the two rooms. Ahhh… solitude. Where have you been?

Our bedroom and bathroom in our cabin.

Our bedroom and bathroom in our cabin.

We settled into a routine quickly: I typically woke before 6 a.m. and would get an hour or two of writing done before Kristin tapped me on the shoulder for breakfast. Meals aboard the ship were on a very strict schedule. There was only one Steward on board and he served the four passengers and all the officers their meals, delivered drinks and snacks from the “slopchest” when requested, and was also responsible for cleaning the cabins. He was a very busy man and the Captain made it clear on day one that we were to arrive during the scheduled time, to not be late, and to not linger. Conversation should be taken to the Officer’s Recreation Room or our cabins if we wanted to socialize.

Outside our cabin on F Deck, doing a little reading in the sun.

Outside our cabin on F Deck, doing a little reading in the sun.

Breakfast is from 7:30 to 8:00; lunch from 11:30 to 12:15; and dinner from 5:30 to 6:00. Additional tea/coffee service could be had at 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., though we usually skipped these offerings. Lunch is the largest meal of the day, though in truth, all three meals are far heavier and more fattening than we’d prefer. Potatoes and gravy are practically standard. There are no choice of entrees, a weekly menu is posted on Monday. My only improvisation is telling the steward to hold the vegetables. I tired of eating around a pile of overcooked peas, carrots, and cauliflower; I suspect he tired of scraping my uneaten vegetable medley into the trash. The hearty meals were a nice change at first, particularly after nearly three months spent in two countries with repetitious menus. But we soon grew weary of the heavy sauce-laden food. Lunch always consists of a soup starter, followed by a meal many would consider excessive. The first day: pork cordon bleu and rice with the aforementioned chicken soup. For dinner that night it was pan-fried liver steak, mashed potatoes, and broccoli. It wasn’t long before I began asking if we could maybe have what the Filipino crew was eating instead. This only earned me a confused smile and the nightly question: potato or rice?

The captain gave us a tour of the Bridge.

The captain gave us a tour of the Bridge.

There is an on-board gym, but we both found it to be a bit on the depressing side and avoided it after our initial tour of the ship. Kristin walked ten laps around the deck each afternoon (roughly 600 meters per lap), but my exercise consisted of little more than some push-ups and lunges and the half-dozen trips up and down the stairs each day: 112 stairs round-trip, from our cabin on F-Deck to the Officer’s Mess on Deck B (we ignored the elevator in favor of this small bit of exercise). I didn’t help myself in this regard, as our first order from the stores included a kilo of Gummi Bears and a case of Warsteiner. More Gummi Bears were ordered weekly, along with wine and chocolate-covered marzipan.

A cargo cruise is certainly not for everyone. We’ve been at sea now for twelve days as I write this from the middle of the Indian Ocean and, other than the brief excitement of going through the Suez Canal (where we could see Egypt) and a port-call in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (daily notices leading to our entering Saudi waters reminded us that all alcohol as well as magazines and electronic devices containing pornography must be locked away in the Bonded Store… apparently some Saudi inspectors have run a Jpeg search on personal laptops and fined violators $500 USD for every pornographic image they found) there is nothing to see but the sea itself. We spend our days in the exact same manner each day: reading (I read three books), writing (I totaled over 50,000 words between blog posts and a work-in-progress), and playing a few computer games we installed before boarding the ship: Fairway Solitaire for Kristin and Skyward Collapse and Dwarfs! for me. We watch a movie each night, provided we can find a disc that isn’t too scratched to play and has English audio (we found none with English subtitles). That’s it. If you cannot entertain yourself through similar means, you should not even consider a trip of this type.

Ferries race across the Suez Canal between the never-ending train of cargo ships.

Ferries race across the Suez Canal between the never-ending train of cargo ships.

I have never found it difficult to entertain myself with books, but I will admit that if I did not have a writing project to occupy my hours (more about that in a future post), even I would say 19 days is a long time to spend with such little variation. Kristin secured several career-related reading recommendations before leaving and we both enjoyed Robert D. Kaplan’s very informative book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, among others. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in learning more about this corner of the world.

We were given a tour of the Engine Room, the multi-story home to a colossal 90,000 horsepower, 12-cylinder turbo diesel engine, and visited the Bridge. Human Officers are there to make corrections when the automatic systems need to be overridden, but the Bridge held little interest during general cruising. And you can be sure visitors will not be allowed to the Bridge during those times of stress. We have nearly as good of a view from the balcony outside our room.

Mountains of sand line the banks of the Suez Canal from the recent expansion.

Mountains of sand line the banks of the Suez Canal from the recent expansion.

Our fellow passengers, a seventy-something Swiss woman and a sixty-something German man are both very nice and we occasionally chat with them at meals, but the man speaks very little English (being from the former East Germany, he was forced to learn Russian as a schoolboy). The Swiss lady, Iris, is very friendly and a willing translator, but we naturally fall into our own private conversations in our native tongues. As for the officers, we seldom see them. The Chief Engineer often takes his meals at the same time as we do, and the Captain also, but few others. We haven’t seen anyone in the Officer’s Recreation Room and even the Crew Recreation Room is seldom occupied; we have yet to hear their large drum kit being played. Any thoughts about hanging out with the German officers and throwing back some beers over a game of cards should be put to rest immediately. Any socializing that takes place at all, at least on this ship, clearly happens behind closed doors.

Pirate Concerns Linger

I had two concerns about this trip before leaving: 1) going to sea for nearly three weeks with my beautiful wife… and thirty dudes, and 2) pirates. My first concern was immediately allayed by the friendly, professional manner in which everyone aboard the ship conducts themselves. Evergreen, the company that operates this ship, really runs a tight ship – sorry, I had to say it. Having researched freighter travel periodically over several years, my suggestion would be to definitely stick with one of the major European-flagged companies. Evergreen (German), Maersk-Sealand (Danish), or CMA-CGM (French).  More about this below.

Two plywood "scarecrows" to deter pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

Two plywood “scarecrows” to deter pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

As for pirates, now that we are well past the Gulf of Aden and due into Sri Lanka in two days as I write this, I don’t feel it would be bad form to relay a funny story. The summer before we left on this trip, after ten years of trying to outwit my friends, I had finally won our Fantasy Baseball league. Alas, the coveted “Least Stupid Dummy” trophy was to be mine! But the [Shady] Commish wouldn’t send it to me. Instead I got a message saying, in light of our pending adventure, the trophy was to remain in New Jersey, “Out of concern it will fall into the hands of Somali pirates.”

It was a pretty funny line in 2013, just a few months before our trip, but also a bit irrelevant since our originally planned route went nowhere near eastern Africa.  Which brings us to yesterday.

The captain arrived at lunch and asked if we saw the “suspicious vessel” earlier in the morning. We hadn’t. Apparently a vessel that didn’t show up on the Automatic Ship Identification system appeared behind us with two skiffs being towed by rope. We were already hundreds of miles off the coast of Somalia, into the Arabian Sea, but the pirate threat remains present. Even though there hadn’t been a hijacking in these waters in over two years and never has a ship of this size been taken, it was reason for concern. The Captain said he accelerated from 14 knots to 21 and the vessel didn’t pursue. He said the skiffs were empty, but they may have been manned with teams of pirates, in which case the alarm would have sounded. It was more than a little suspicious and he used the opportunity to drill home why it was so important that we always call the Bridge before going for a walk on the deck.

It's not the joggig track aboard the Queen Mary 2, but we walked plenty of laps around the Upper Deck.

It’s not the joggig track aboard the Queen Mary 2, but we walked plenty of laps around the Upper Deck.

We were provided instruction on the necessary precautions before entering the High Risk Area near Eritrea, Djibouti, Yemen, and Somalia. For starters, all doors were to remain locked at all times, with only one door to the exterior deck open during the day. Cardboard covered all of the portholes in the exterior doors and we were to draw our curtains tight at night so the ship could run dark. The crew had tied firehoses into position throughout the perimeter of the ship so, if under attack, the captain could engage the bilge and blast the would-be pirates with forceful jets of seawater as they tried to scale the massive hull. Two wooden “security guards” in bright orange vests were positioned at the rear of the ship, comical scarecrows that likely wouldn’t confuse anyone in my opinion.

The main defense for the ship was the ship itself. The ship’s hull stretches over 20 meters in height above the waterline, and climbs vertically. Even with a grappling hook or ladders, the pirates would have a hard time scaling it while stationary. We wouldn’t be stationary. Though we only run at 14 knots for fuel-saving concerns dictated by Evergreen, the captain would accelerate to 21 or even 25 knots in the event of a pirate attack. No smaller vessel could get close enough to our ship at that speed to hold ladders or ropes in position. “It would be impossible,” the Captain says.

Kristin in front of the 12-cylinder, 90,000 bhp, turbo diesel engine that powers the ship.

Kristin in front of the 12-cylinder, 90,000 bhp, turbo diesel engine that powers the ship.

Nevertheless, we were shown where to flee in event of the pirate alarm sounding. If that happens we were to hurry down to the Upper Deck (below A-deck) and follow a path through the Main Engine Room to an unmarked utility corridor that spans the width of the ship. The mustard-colored corridor was little more than a meter wide, but completely secure, provided someone barred the massive door behind us. The emergency exits at either end had a locking bolt on the inside. Inside the Citadel were several cases of water, but no food. Enough for everyone on board to survive for a day, we were told. We spent the six days in the High Risk Area with a bag in our room containing flashlights, a change of clothes, and one of our large bags of Gummi Bears. If the pirates were to get us, we wouldn’t go down starving.

Calm Seas, A Typhoon Gives Chase

The rain and wind came two days before we reached Sri Lanka, the night after the suspicious vessel showed up off our stern. The flat seas, humid air, and clear skies we experienced from the Mediterranean through the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden vanished and the sound of driving rain and wind woke us up at 3 in the morning. The next day was spent with the boat under a constant minor sway. Those who read One Lousy Pirate know Kristin doesn’t have the sturdiest pair of sea legs. Neither of us do, to be honest. But we were fine. The gentle sideways rocking was noticeable and sometimes enough to send the doors swinging on their hinges and our clothes on their closet hangers, but neither of us ever felt nauseas. It could have been much worse as we learned the next morning that the storm was the remnants of a typhoon that had formed near Somalia and was chasing us across the Indian Ocean. Had we have left three or four days later, we would have sailed right into 20-meter waves it while we were exiting the Gulf of Aden. Yikes!

An average day at sea, as viewed from outside the bridge, two decks above our cabin.

An average day at sea, as viewed from outside the bridge, two decks above our cabin.

We woke to sunshine the next day, the dwindling bands of wind and rain having finally split from our course. There was a brief rain shower the afternoon we left Sri Lanka, but that was it. It would seem to us that October is a fine time to be cruising the Indian Ocean from west to east.

Delays in Sri Lanka forced a faster cruising speed across the eastern half of the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, en route to the Strait of Malaca. This stretch, which took the better part of four days to cross, was certainly rougher than going through the closed water of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, though not stormy. Though it rained and the wind was more intense, the sensation in our cabin was one of very minor airplane turbulence. In fact, sitting at my computer throughout the day, I often found myself wondering when the plane was going to land, that’s how similar the vibrations and the noise were. And the gentle rocking to and fro of the ship, felt just like a plane banking through a turn.

Port Calls

One of the main reasons we enjoyed the Trans-Atlantic cruise we took last summer was because there were no destinations to be herded through like cattle; no six-hour whirlwind tours of cheap amusements, souvenir shops and sanitized restaurants the cruise companies sell as add-ons. Instead, it was just transit. This is how you should view the cargo cruise.

Ferries crossing behind our ship in Suez.

Ferries crossing behind our ship in Suez.

Our fellow passengers boarded in Trieste, Italy and were able to spend the day in Athens when the ship made its 20-hour stop in Piraeus, Greece. That was nice for them, but shouldn’t be expected everywhere. Our stop in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia was only 14 hours or so and nobody, not crew or passenger, was allowed to leave the ship. We were excited about our stop in Sri Lanka and had been electronically approved for a visa over a month prior to our voyage. Unfortunately, a combination of Sri Lankan bureaucracy and tardiness mixed with the shipping company’s overprotective rules governing our coming and going from the ship combined to net us a fewer than four hours ashore in Sri Lanka, more than an hour of which was spent waiting for our drivers. We should have had more time ashore, a half-day’s more to be exact, but our minders were a total no-show the next morning. Tomorrow’s blog post will detail the 25 frustrating, wasted hours we spent in Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka Post here).

Had we have booked this cruise for its port calls, we would have been very disappointed. Fortunately, our focus was transit, pure and simple. And downtime. Yours should be too, if considering this method of travel.

Booking a Cargo Cruise

Freighter-travel isn’t a particularly new method of travel, but you’re unlikely to encounter many people who have done it, given the long days at sea, the limited number of passengers per ship (less than a half dozen), and the relative cost. Expect to pay, on average, 100 Euros per person, per day for room, board, and transit. The Captain recommends each passenger tip the crew a case of beer (an additional 15 Euros). We also gave the Steward and Chef an additional tip of 70 Euros to share. We spent an additional 46 Euros over the course of 19 days on beer, wine, and candy. Provisions from the slopchest were essentially at wholesale prices.

Sunrise in the Strait of Malaca, off the northern tip of Sumatra.

Sunrise in the Strait of Malaca, off the northern tip of Sumatra.

Cargo cruising is harder to be approved for if you’re over a certain age, as there are no doctors on board. Kristin and I had to have our doctor back home in the Seattle area complete a health questionnaire for us; the Swiss passenger on board said, because of her age, she had to get multiple forms and doctor’s permission slips in order for the shipping company to approve her. If something were to happen at sea, the ship’s crew could do little more than try to keep you comfortable until they get to the next scheduled port. Don’t expect a diversion or a helicopter; it’s not happening.

Maris operates a freighter-cruising club you can join for a fee here. Another option, the one we chose thanks to a recommendation from Travelling Two, was to get in touch with Hamish and let him set it all up. He’s a fast respondent and was easy to work with. Just be sure to send your initial inquiry at least three to four months in advance of your planned departure. There are numerous websites (Maris’s is a good one) that will help you get an understanding of the available routes. Note that some ports are not available for arrival/departures. Also, some routes are round-trip only. We were originally investigating a cargo-cruise from Singapore to Auckland with numerous stops in a myriad of exotic locales, but that route was round-trip only.

Special Thanks: We’d like to thank Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc. for their continuing support of our journey as well as Sharon Woodward, our wonderful travel clinic pharmacist, for her generous donation. And, of course, to everyone else who continues to follow along on this journey of ours. Thank you so much!

3 October, 2015

Turkish Overload

Anybody who’s ever gone abroad for any extended period knows that sooner or later you end up doing something while travelling that you wouldn’t ever consider doing while home. Travel is funny like that. It has a way of stripping away your inhibitions, filling you with courage, or even leaving you in such a desperate situation that you have no choice but to take a deep breath, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. For some, it might mean a bungie-jump off a bridge in New Zealand or perhaps a daring stroll on a nude beach in France, or having to risk a night out under the stars without tent or sleeping bag. For us, two hungry cyclists on the outskirts of a small town in Turkey, it meant something far more unlikely. And unseemly. We ate at Domino’s.

I know, I know. How will we ever readjust to American life? Are we even still housebroken?

The adana kebab and jalapeno toppings were on fresh-tossed dough, albeit with too little sauce, but all in all it was a decent pizza. Foreign travel never ceases to expand one’s mind.

Heading west out of Capadocia.

Heading west out of Capadocia.

Our forays outside our comfort zone continued the next morning when, with a head full of mucus, a constant cough and slight fever, I led the way south through a series of mountains with ever-darkening skies giving chase. Wishing nothing more than to lie in bed and embrace my bout of man flu, as is my right duty, I found myself, instead, on my trusty Fargo for six miserable hours, in periodic rainstorms, through a desolate stretch of western Turkey. Kristin offered soft, nurturing words of encouragement throughout the ride while making sure to replace my stash of Gummi Bears with cold medicine from our first aid kit.

Into the mountains of western Turkey. Gorgeous river valley.

Into the mountains of western Turkey. A gorgeous river valley that demanded to be photographed.

That night, in Çanakkale, I rinsed down some Theraflu capsules with a complimentary bottle of water, paying no mind to the broken safety seal. Glass bottles get reused all the time in Greece and Turkey as a way to reduce waste; hotels and restaurants routinely refill the bottles from large jugs of spring water. I spent the next two days, including a visit to Ancient Troy and the eve of my 40th birthday, focused on a task I always thought reserved for a later period in life: getting through the day without soiling myself.

Pro Tip: Petrol Ofisi service stations have the cleanest, most westernized bathrooms of all the petrol chains in Turkey. Memorize that logo at the link; it’ll be there for you when you need it most.

As readers of our newsletter are already aware, we are deviating from our original plan to travel overland across Asia — our reasons include the oncoming winter, likely visa difficulties, desire and lack thereof, and money, among others — and are instead departing Athens sometime around October 15th aboard a cargo ship bound for Singapore. This ship, in fact. In order to catch that cargo ship, we have to be back in Bodrum by October 8th to catch an overnight ferry back across the Aegean Sea. This has left little margin for error in our 1600-mile (2,575 km) loop around western Turkey.

Near the Galata Bridge and spice market in Istanbul.

Near the Galata Bridge and spice market in Istanbul.

We were worried that the aggressive itinerary — from Bodrum to Cappadocia to Istanbul and back to Bodrum — wouldn’t leave enough time for sightseeing, that we’d be so focused on each leg’s destination that we wouldn’t cherish the in-between places as much as we try to do. Nevertheless, we plunged ahead and went for it.

Crowds gather throughout the day except during prayer service.

Crowds gather throughout the day except during prayer service.

Now in Izmir, with our Turkish finish line just a few days of riding away, I can say that we indeed spent most of those days heads down, just trying to get the miles in. Every day was the same: wake up in an unfamiliar bed, eat the same hotel-provided breakfast of cold vegetables, cheese, olives, bread, and hard-boiled eggs, and then ride to the next hotel five or six hours in the distance. Sleep, wake up, repeat. And in looking back I can see that I don’t have many memories of these days or even many photos either. In fact, our most pleasant memory of this time was that of discovering the robust network of ferries that crisscross the Sea of Marmara. Despite our aversion to sailing, we do enjoy ferries and it was with great relief that we chopped two days of cycling off our route by entering and leaving the European side of Istanbul by sea.

Kristin with the headscarf she bought for going into the Blue Mosque.

Kristin with the headscarf she bought for going into the Blue Mosque.

I spent a fair bit of time this past week trying to think of something to write about (hence the delay). And each time I tried to form an opinion of Turkey, I saw two friendly faces pop to the forefront of my mind. One was that of Brad, the first person I befriended upon moving to the Seattle area in 2002. The other is Joe, a frequent co-author and friend of mine whose last email I now realize I am comically and unforgivably late in replying to. Next year, perhaps?

Brad, despite being an expert at long-form critique, has for as long as I’ve known him, been equally skilled at providing simple, one-word opinions. He’s been deploying everyone’s favorite snarky onomatopoeia, meh, with all of the timing and potency of a precision-guided F-bomb for as long as I can remember. Joe, on the other hand, doesn’t say “meh.” At least not with his voice. No, when asked to give an opinion on something neither great nor awful, memorable nor deplorable, Joe provides a squinting, wincing, tortuous, body-twisting, shoulder shrug that says all that needs to be said. As if to show how physically painful offering an opinion on something so… so utterly meh would be.

Blue Mosque at night with colorful fountain.

Blue Mosque at night with colorful fountain.

Which leaves me here, in a place neither suited for one-word analysis nor live-action melodrama. I will try to explain my ambivalence as best as I can.

The nine days we spent cycling from Goreme to Istanbul are a blur of desert, wheat fields, and mountains. Even the tea stops soon began to feel commonplace and forgettable. The landscape, though expansive and seldom scarred by man’s blemishes, lacked majesty. The food we enjoyed so much earlier in our travels soon began to taste as flavorless as our days. Had I not have ceased journaling weeks ago, I would have certainly given it up en route to Istanbul. What would be the point?

Istanbul was no better. That exotic-sounding city whose twice-named history was etched in my memory by the They Might be Giants cover song of the same name, Istanbul is a place that beckons with fantastical mental imagery. Istanbul. Where West meets East and vice-versa. Istanbul. Backgammon boards, hookah parlors, labyrinthine bazaars, carpet dealers, grind-filled itty-bitty cups of coffee and all the pistachios and apricots you can eat. I’d like to point out right here the similarities of the words imagination and imagery. Which begat which? The Istanbul we found was, in reality, no more exotic than most any other European city.

Looking across the Golden Horn to Karakoy and the Galata Tower in Istanbul.

Looking across the Golden Horn to Karakoy and the Galata Tower in Istanbul.

Perhaps it’s because we have been travelling for so long and seen so much that was truly different. Perhaps it is because the people who are awed by Istanbul’s presumed exoticism arrive there straight from the West and haven’t already been in the country for a month like we have. Maybe they’ve never been to a Muslim country before. Or maybe they saw what they expected to see as opposed to what they found. Whatever the reason, Kristin and I found Istanbul to be immediately forgettable. It’s dirty, smelly, and carries nearly as much graffiti as Athens. Tourist attractions, despite low occupancy rates following last month’s attack on the city’s US Consulate, had long lines and were so overtly touristy, it made us lose our interest quickly.

This isn’t to say that it’s not worth visiting. It is, even if only to know we don’t need to return. And we’re happy to have walked through the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (i.e. Blue Mosque) and wandered the spice market, and had the obligatory fish sandwich down at the Galata Bridge, and saw where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk died in Dolmabache Palace, and scoffed down multiple kokoretsi (sheep intestine) sandwiches near Taksim Square. These were all fine things to do. But that Turkish mystique eluded us. The exoticism escaped us. Ultimately it was just another city filled with traffic and touts and cheaply-made souvenirs and overpriced restaurants.

We caught up to these 5 Iranian Cyclists on our way south along the Aegean Coast. They didn’t hesitate to offer us some Gummi Bears (my kind of people!) and invite us to Iran, insisting that we’d love it. One day, I hope!

The truth is, we’ve soured on Turkey. The petty peculiarities we found endearing several weeks ago are now common irritants and downright annoying. We’ve gotten jaded, but it’s not entirely Turkey’s fault. One of the things we’ve noticed in this trip is that our motivation takes a dip after every three months of steady bicycle touring. That’s part of the reason we’ve booked this cargo ship to Singapore. Nineteen days at sea. No Internet. No email. Nothing. Nineteen days to digest everything we’ve seen and done since leaving Rome in June and to regain the desire to see more. Believe it or not, one does tire of a steady stream of new sights and sounds and major tourist attractions. At least we do.

Turkey stopped being interesting somewhere between Goreme and Istanbul. And part of that was because of everything that came before. All that time in Italy and Greece as well as those first few weeks in Turkey. Too much stimuli. But part of it is Turkey’s fault (and not just the omnipresent flies and cats that occupy every restaurant in the country). Never in my life, aside from a morning-after-9/11-America, have I seen so many flags flying in a country. The crescent moon and star fly on fields of red throughout Asia Minor; on trucks, on houses, on restaurants and gas stations and hotels. The Turkish flag is everywhere. Yet there’s something even more widespread: litter. For as bad as the litter was in southern Italy and Greece (and it’s really bad in both those places), it’s far worse in Turkey. Plastic bags and bottles line every street, broken glass dots the shoulder of every road. Disposable cartons, wrappers, and dirty diapers — yes, DIAPERS! — get tossed out the windows of moving cars as if nothing could be more normal. We’ve seen these things happen multiple times.

We share the roads with vehicles of all sorts in Turkey.

We share the roads with vehicles of all sorts in Turkey. And always get a friendly honk or a wave.

We’ve camped exactly one time in Turkey and the main reason for that is because of the litter. We’ve pedaled right on past countless picnic areas, water springs, and other clearings that would have been perfect for camping if not for the piles and piles of garbage everywhere. For a nation of people who seem to be so patriotic and so proud to be Turkish, they sure do treat their landscape like a wasteland.

Other touring cyclists have warned about the stray dogs and the aggressive rock-throwing children of Turkey. We’ve encountered no such kids and not one of the hundreds of stray dogs (they’re everywhere) has so much as lunged at us. Both animals and people have been nothing but courteous. Most smile and wag their tails, the dogs that is. Our annoyances have been constrained to aggressive drivers around Izmir, the constant buzzing presence of flies, the stench of urine, and the litter. Oh the litter. It’s depressing. It smells. And you can’t avoid it. And I don’t mean to imply that the United States is litter-free. Not at all. Truckers make sure there’s a noticeable amount of litter on America’s highways as well. But I’ve never seen anything like what we’ve seen in Turkey, at least not in a country this wealthy. And this proud.

But I guess, as the song goes, that’s nobody’s business but the Turks.

26 August, 2015

The Aegean by Bike and Boat

“You should probably wipe the donkey poop off your neck before we get on the boat.” Kristin rolled her eyes in disgust, splashed some water on her hand, and proceeded to scrub. And after I helpfully pointed out a few brown specks she had missed, she got the last of it off. I don’t share this moment to embarrass her nor to increase our share of traffic from the routine Googlers of the phrase woman ride donkey (welcome, you sick bastards), but as a segue into telling you how I got some donkey poop in my mouth. And, if you visit the Greek isle of Santorini, you might too.

Gorgeous views of the town of Thira in Santorini.

Gorgeous views of the town of Thira in Santorini. Note the cablecar and switchbacking staircase down to the port.

Santorini, of the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea, is actually a composite of 5 islands, three of which are left over from a massive explosive volcanic eruption 3600 years ago and now form a caldera. The other two, slowly growing in the center of this circular archipelago, are the new volcano rising up out of the lagoon. The most recent eruption was 50 years ago.

Some 900 feet above the sea, on the caldera rim of Santorini’s main island, the whitewashed villas, houses, churches, souvenir shops and restaurants of Thira, Oia, and Imerovigli offer one of the most unique, photogenic townscapes we’ve witnessed. You’ve seen the stark blue and white images. If not here, on this blog, than in magazines, on television, and from postcards of humble-bragging friends who wished you were here (we meant it at the time). Santorini is a special place designed to provide romance-seeking tourists an upscale slice of heaven in the Aegean Sea.

Santorini splendor along the walk through Thira.

Santorini splendor along the walk through Thira.

Though we avoided the inflated prices of the hotels and villas that line the edge of the cliffs by camping on the eastern slope of Thira and by dining almost exclusively at the string of cheap-eats near Thira’s main square — souvlaki, pizza, and gyro pitas were our staple — we did splurge on a sunset boat cruise that included a self-guided hike to the top of the volcano, Nea Kameni.

There are three ways to descend the cliffs to the Old Port of Thira: cable car, donkey ride, or on foot. Santorini’s donkeys are, for reasons I’ll never understand, a major tourist attraction. People flock to this tiny island from all over the world to see the white villages and to ride the donkeys up and down the cliff. The donkey, in turn, has become a mascot of the island. Donkey t-shirts and stickers hang from every souvenir shop, the local craft brewery uses the donkey in its logo and the naming of its ales, and the aroma of sun-baked donkey piss and manure mingles with the scent of grilled lamb chops at the overpriced cliff-side restaurants you dream of eating at.

All those childhood equestrian lessons paid off. Kristin didn't hesitate to push aside any horses and donkeys that blocked the path.

All those childhood equestrian lessons paid off: Kristin didn’t hesitate to push aside any horses and donkeys that blocked the path. Also pictured: finely ground manure, before the wind.

With plenty of time to catch the boat we, being the fit and able-bodied individuals that we are, opted to walk down under our own power. The stairs face due west, the temperature was nearing 100 °F (38 °C), and the wind was gushing off the water. Donkey manure, as you are probably aware, is comprised mostly of hay and other grasses fed to the animals. On natural surfaces, this will break down and mingle with the dirt and sand of the soil and generally become indistinguishable before long. But on the scorched stone stairs of Thira, the manure gets pulverized by the traffic into a not-so-fine dust. A dust easily carried by the wind. Yes, we walked into a veritable mini-blizzard of donkey feces. Total brown-out conditions. It was over quickly, but not before our eyes, face, and — the horror! — mouths were blasted with donkey particles. We opted to pay the 5€ per person fee and ride the cable car back up after sunset. It’s a prudent investment in both health and sanity.

The view from the top of the volcano on Nea Kameni island at Santorini.

The view from the top of the volcano on Nea Kameni island at Santorini looking east to Thira.

The hike to the top of the volcano was fun and it was nice to be out on the water for an evening, but the highlight of our time in Santorini came the following night when we hiked the 10 kilometer trail from Thira to Oia along the edge of the caldera. It was the perfect way to escape the maddening crowds of touristy Thira and enjoy a quiet, rugged side of Santorini. We timed our hike to arrive in upscale Oia, at the island’s northwest tip, just before sunset where we, sweat-stained and dusty from the hike, sheepishly mingled with throngs of honeymooning couples clad in their best white linen as we waited for a rather unremarkable sunset. If only we had worn our “Paris clothes”!

The village of Imerovigli on the way to Oia at the northwest end of the main island. The hiking trail follows the edge of the caldera rim.

The village of Imerovigli on the way to Oia at the northwest end of the main island. The hiking trail follows the edge of the caldera rim and climbs up and down along the ridge. Bring sturdy footwear!

So Santorini isn’t exactly the place to go on a bicycle tour, but it is worth a visit, if only once. We ended up there because even we are suckers for the occasional can’t miss tourist trap and because it was the easiest island from which to continue our journey to Turkey by ferry.

Sunset in Oia on Santorini.

Sunset in Oia on Santorini. Not pictured: thousands of people jostling for the same photo.

In deciding to cycle some of the Greek isles instead of going overland through northern Greece into Turkey, we set out to focus on the bigger islands, places with enough land to make the journey there with it. Crete, the largest, southernmost Greek island, was our first stop after Athens and was every bit worth the 8-hour ferry ride from Piraeus. Though much of the northern coast of Crete is jam-packed with tourists and seemingly devoid of Greek culture (even the tiniest village we stopped in for lunch one day was half populated by British retirees), the interior of the island and its wonderful southern coast remain the forgotten gems of Cretan life. Like the Peloponnese and Kefalonia, Crete is extremely mountainous. We cut our daily mileage down to under 40 miles on account of the heat and still averaged over 2,500 feet of climbing each day.

One of our favorite roads ever, from Prina to Kroustos on the island of Crete.

One of our favorite roads ever, from Prina to Kroustos on the island of Crete.

Our route around Crete covered some 230 miles and took us from Rethimno on the north shore, south to the fishing village of Agia Gallini, through the mountains to Ano Villanos and down to the coast of Ierepetra, stopping along the way at minuscule villages along the coast. Our favorite, at the base of a steep olive-covered ravine, was Tertsa. A whole baby lamb was roasting on a spit, doused in olive oil and spices and demanded we stop for lunch. We waited an extra half hour for the lamb to finish roasting over the wooden fire and, as a reward for all the hard days of cycling, we treated ourselves to a kilo of delectable baby sheep. I will always brake for BBQ.

The 2-mile, 800 foot climb out of the port in Santorini.

The 2-mile, 800 foot climb out of the port in Santorini.

We spent three nights in the quaint village of Kritsa, at the end of one of the most beautiful 10 kilometer stretches of road we had ridden on the entire trip. Barely a car wide and weaving in and out of a pine forest with peak-a-boo views of the sea, the road provided the closest impersonation of mountain biking a paved road ever has. Particularly when it narrowed further along the edge of a cliff with a touch of “death-on-the-right” exposure. As wonderful as the road from Prina to Kroustas (and onward to Kritsa) was, the wedding taking place that night in Kritsa was even more special. Completely manufactured as a throwback event to boost community spirit and wrangle some tourist dollars, it was nonetheless a real wedding with real age-old traditions and costumes dusted off for a willing local couple. And it was a really good time, even if the bride and groom looked as if they regretted volunteering for this spectacle.

Sadly, no ferries continue on from Crete eastward to Rhodes or Turkey, so we ended up heading to Santorini to get back along the main tourist trail. We didn’t do any cycling on Santorini, other than the initial ride from the port to the campground, but that was enough. Anyone who has ever walked or bicycled off a ferry onto an island knows that there is always an uphill climb from the port. We’ve bicycled/walked off of ferries on numerous islands in the Pacific Northwest, in the Caribbean, in Japan, and now in Greece and we can say, without question, that Santorini is the worst. The steeply switchbacking road, replete with tour buses, hurried taxi drivers, and tourists on rented scooters and quads, none of whom seem to know where they are going, climbs 800 feet in two miles before finally leveling off after three miles. Going uphill under the midday sun was hell. Coming down it in the middle of the night for our 3am ferry to Rhodes? That was a blast!

The town of Lindos on Rhodes, where we stayed two nights a short walk from the ancient Acropolis atop the town.

The town of Lindos on Rhodes, where we stayed two nights a short walk from the ancient Acropolis atop the town.

And now we’re in Rhodes, another one of Greek’s larger islands. Home to some archaeological monuments from antiquity, the island can be viewed as either a slightly more touristy (in spots) version of Crete or, if you prefer, a poor man’s Santorini. We chose to come here because it was another island large enough to bother cycling around (though only about 110 miles or so) and because, based on preliminary research, it was a short ferry ride to Turkey. Those wishing to do a ferry-based island-hopping trip across the Aegean such as the one we’re on should learn from the mistake I’m about to share. There are far too many maps detailing the supposed ferry routes for too-many ferry companies plying these waters. And, what many of the maps don’t tell you, is that many of these routes are serviced by passenger-only catamarans and high-speed hydrofoils. Those with bicycles, like us, need to stick to the routes serviced by car ferries. The ferry leading from Rhodes to Turkey, it turns out, is passenger only. So, after our short ride around Rhodes, complete with a day off in scenic Lindos, we’ll be taking an evening ferry to the island of Kos where, the next afternoon, we will finally take a short 40 minute ferry to Bodrum, Turkey. Asia, sort of, at last!

Ferry Resource: It took some time, but I finally found a very reliable website for navigating the confusing and often outdated information about Greece’s expansive ferry system. Use Greek Travel Pages when planning a ferry-based trip to Greece’s islands and you won’t go wrong.

Camping Resource: One of the areas that Greece really outshone the other countries we visited was in the area of campground information. The Camp In Greece site offers a free downloadable PDF guide to the entire country’s campgrounds, with a ridiculous amount of information contained for each. I was able to verify the location of each campground we stayed at on Google Maps and plot our route from campsite to campsite using RideWithGPS.com — it couldn’t have been easier!

17 August, 2015

Photos: Traditional Cretan Wedding

In no hurry to complete our lap around Crete too quickly, I turned to AirBNB in search of some cheap digs to rest our tired legs and found a great place in the small village of Kritsa nestled in the mountains of central Crete, not far from our general direction of travel. A small one-bedroom apartment with kitchen for $34 per night was too good to pass up so we turned inland, and upward, for three nights of relaxation. Little did I know that this sudden detour would not only lead us to one of the most beautiful stretches of road we’ve yet ridden, but that we’d arrive on the day of a traditional village wedding.

The village has apparently been wanting to stage a traditional Cretan wedding for some years as a means of enriching tradition amongst the youth (who often leave these tiny villages at first chance) and to promote the village economy, but it wasn’t until this year that a couple agreed to marry in this style. Lucky for us, we just so happened to be there to catch it.

Kritsa assigned unused houses to be the traditional groom’s house, bride’s house, and marriage house and decorated these house in period furnishings prior to the wedding. Meanwhile the local communities assembled all of the traditional clothing needed to take the village back in time.

The groom's company sing for him outside his house in Kritsa.

The groom’s company sing for him outside his house in Kritsa. With the dowry taken to the bridal home, the party returned to the groom’s house for song and dance. The groom’s house was just steps from the house we’re staying in.

This little boy was caught sneaking candy at the groom's house in Kritsa.

This little boy was caught sneaking candy at the groom’s house in Kritsa.

The procession through Kritsa heads for the bride's family house so the bride and groom can continue to the church together.

The procession through Kritsa heads for the bride’s family house so the bride and groom can continue to the church together.

The groom's men heading for the bride's house.

The groom’s men heading for the bride’s house.

Two local girls attending the wedding in Kritsa.

Two local girls attending the wedding in Kritsa.

The party moves to the church courtyard for the nuptial ceremony.

The party moves to the church courtyard for the nuptial ceremony.

The bride and groom knotted in matrimony.

The bride and groom knotted in matrimony.

Flower girl in Kritsa.

Flower girl in Kritsa.

Local family in traditional dress for the wedding in Kritsa.

Local family in traditional dress for the wedding in Kritsa.

The four hours of processions, song, dance, and the actual wedding ceremony were a wonderful sight to witness and we’re so fortunate to finally be in the right place for a village wedding ceremony. Numerous houses and shops set up tables along the walk with free olives, bread, almonds, and raki, a locally-produced brandy made from the mashed grapes left over from wine making that runs about 60% ABV. The local villagers really seemed happy to be reliving their traditions, if only for a day, and graciously posed for photos when not busy singing and dancing.

Click any of the photos to head over to the Flickr album for even more photos from Greece, Crete, and of the wedding in Kritsa.

Best of luck to the new couple!

9 August, 2015

Greece: A Perfect Time to Visit

We were sitting in Ancient Olympia, enjoying the cooling sensation of the misters attached to a street-spanning maple tree, hoping to stop sweating before our daily salads and souvlaki arrived to our sidewalk table. My shirt was soaked. Mistake number one was visiting the ruins during the middle of the day. Mistake number two — mine alone — was deciding to sprint the length of the ancient track. The 192 meter pebble-strewn dirt track dates back to the 5th century B.C. and begged to be ran. Clothed, shoed (barely), and unencumbered by neither shield nor sword nor cuirass, I managed to run the distance in 28 seconds flat. Not bad for a guy about to turn 40 who hasn’t sprinted in a decade; absolutely pedestrian for the 20-year old miler I once was. But yes, I timed myself. I allowed myself this display of mid-life foolishness in part because it was Ancient Olympia and it had to be done, but mostly because there was nobody there to see me embarrass myself.

Was just posing for a photo on the 5th century B.C. stadium track but did end up "sprinting" the 192 meters for the fun of it.

Was just posing for a photo on the 5th century B.C. stadium track but did end up “sprinting” the 192 meters for the fun of it.

We followed the Greek banking crisis very closely during our final weeks in Italy, hoping a deal would be reached before too long, that the banks would reopen, and that life for the common Greek citizen would return to some semblance of normal. Now, writing from Athens, I can report that the shelves are stocked, the banks are open, and the lines for the cash machines are back to normal, that is to say virtually nonexistent. The only thing missing are the tourists.

I was talking with a good friend of mine several years ago about Greece, during the last round of bailout worries. His wife wanted to visit Greece, but he was afraid of a possible run on the banks ruining their travel plans. Buoyed by the alcohol we were enjoying and the happiness I always feel whenever I see my old friends from New Jersey, I replied with a flippant, callow response: something about holding up his MasterCard and ordering another round of drinks.

Now, having been in the country for three weeks and talking with locals and visitors alike, I realize we both missed the mark with our assessments of how the situation might affect visitors. For starters, Greece is primarily a cash economy. You’re not going to get very far trying to rely on a credit card for the bulk of your every day transactions (though I have yet to be refused when trying to pay with a credit card in nicer stores and restaurants in larger towns). It was the same throughout Italy and in Morocco. We knew this before we arrived and brought a month’s worth of Euros from Italy with us into the country, stashed between multiple hiding spots in our panniers — shhh, it’s a secret! That said, like a visitor coming from overseas, we also prepay online for any planned hotel stays, if only to conserve our cash reserves. Tonight is our fourth night at a cheap hotel in Athens; I booked the stay two weeks ago online. As for the chaos a run on the banks may have induced, I suspect it likely would not have extended far beyond the major squares and government centers in Athens and a few larger cities. Part of the reason that 30 billion Euros have been withdrawn from the Greek banking system over the past few years, we’ve been told, is that many people throughout the country have already withdrawn their savings and hide the money at home, particularly those in the islands and the smaller villages in the countryside (much also fled westward in the pockets of emigrants). So, in a way, the run has already taken place. But, like my efforts on the track in Ancient Olympia, it was too slow to notice.

Ancient Messene stadium and mausoleum in the distance. No need to go running here with 20 more miles to go!

Ancient Messene stadium and mausoleum in the distance. No need to go running here with 20 more miles to go!

We spent two nights in Ancient Olympia, camping a few blocks from downtown, and making friends with two separate Dutch travelers we met, Mark and Joost, the latter so generously shared the homemade schnapps he picked up from a roadside vendor somewhere in Montenegro or Albania. Our route carried us into the mountains of the central Peloponnese where the heat didn’t abate and the mountains steepened. Planning one week at a time, and looking for a place to celebrate our anniversary, I routed us south past Ancient Messene to the coastal city of Kalamata. Yes, like the olives. Our ride into Kalamata was turning into another one of the suffer-fests each of our recent blog posts have chronicled. I wasn’t sure the climb to the hilltop town of Ancient Messene was going to be worth the effort. This time I let Kristin make the call: she felt we’d regret passing it up if we straight-lined for Kalamata. And so we added another grueling, sun-baked climb to our collection, only to then wander amongst additional 4th century B.C. ruins. And it was worth it. Sort of. Maybe if we were in a car.

What I didn’t realize when planning our route into Kalamata was that the only way out of Kalamata was up and over a very steep mountain range. We wanted to visit the Byzantine city of Mystras, just a short distance outside of Sparta, but to get there was going to be brutally difficult. I spent an entire afternoon in Kalamata trying to plot a less mountainous route, but none proved tempting.

The mountainous highway 82 leading from Kalamata to Mystras.

The mountainous highway 82 leading from Kalamata to Mystras.

Though Kalamata itself has very little to attract the foreign visitor aside from the beach and cheap restaurants, we are so thrilled we went. For if we hadn’t, we’d never have ended up on the stunning Highway 82 that leads up and over the mountain to Mystras and Sparta. While much of the Peloponnese contains dry, barren mountain sides with periodic olive groves, the descent into Mystras on Highway 82 dives into one of the narrowest gorges we’ve encountered. The road corkscrews and hairpins downward so tightly, the GPS track on my Garmin resembled a bowl of spaghetti. I’d set up by the side of the road to photograph Kristin and see her enter the frame, on the next switchback, directly beneath me. I’d stand on a bend and see the same road twist in and out of the view three and sometimes four times from one position. Further down the mountain the road disappeared completely into a narrow rock tunnel, barely a lane wide and with a sharp turn. More cave than a tunnel.

Further down on the descent into the gorge near Mystras.

Further down on the descent into the gorge leading to Mystras.

We climbed nearly 5,000 feet in a short 37 miles that day, a ride that should have shredded our knees and tore our willpower to pieces, but it didn’t. The days off in Kalamata, after all of those grueling miles since leaving Rome, left us rested and ready to tackle anything. Finally, after a month of being back on the bikes, we were back in the shape we were in last December. Alas, no more tales of woe!

We stopped at a spring halfway up the climb to refill our water bottles and, while eating the leftover dinner we took with us from Kalamata, were approached by a pair of Dutch travelers. Our bicycles continue to draw attention everywhere we go and nobody ever hesitates to strike up a conversation. And nothing surprises them more — not our route, distance pedaled, or our time away from home — than the fact that we are Americans. For such a populated country as the United Sates is, spotting an American away from home continues to be a rarity for most other travelers. The Dutch, on the other hand, are everywhere. And we love encountering them.

Several hours later, grinning from the euphoria of that unforgettable descent into Mystras, we were camped alongside four bicycle tourists — a family with two teenage daughters who had been touring every summer since the girls were out of diapers. Dutch, naturally. We walked into the village square to get groceries a little while later and, while waiting for the store to reopen at 6 pm, we heard a call. The man we met at the mountain spring came running over, gave us great big hugs, and implored us to join he and his wife for a drink. A round of beers turned into a round of Tsipouro then, while dodging the first rainstorm we had seen in over a month, a round of Ouzo. Ans and Harry, well into their 70s and very well-traveled, then generously invited us to join them for dinner where we were drinking. Their treat, our great fortune. We got back to the campground sometime after 11 pm; vowing to never go anywhere without our camera again.

We unfortunately didn’t run into Ans and Harry while touring the Byzantine temples and monasteries of Mystras the next day. Then again, aside from the touring cyclist family and a small French tour group, there weren’t many people there at all. Everywhere we go, we hear the same lament: the tourists are staying away because of the banking crisis. The crisis dominated the news early in the summer when most travelers were making their plans. Italy is reaping the benefits, particularly from the German tourists who are largely boycotting Greece altogether. It’s a tough situation, the effects mostly being felt by those with no control. So it goes, as my favorite author would say.

Gorgeous riding along the coast near Alkiona, northeast of Corinth.

Gorgeous riding along the coast near Alkioni, northeast of Corinth, en route to Athens.

From Mystras we continued northward to Mycenae, the 15th century B.C. archaeological site with mythical ties to Perseus, Cyclops, and King Agamemnon. It is here where Homer supposedly received much of his inspiration for writing The Iliad. And, in turn, where I’ve been inspired to try and read it without the forced supervision of a high school English teacher. My feat too shall become legend, if successful.

Looking south to the Acropolis from the Agora.

Looking south to the Acropolis from the Agora in Athens.

It wasn’t until we reached the Acropolis in Athens where, alas, the tourists have emerged in larger quantities. But even then, we bought our combo tickets at the nearby Temple of Olympian Zeus and didn’t have to wait in a queue to get in. We spent our first full day in Athens with a group of three teachers from New York; the first Americans we’ve encountered in nearly 6 weeks of being back in Europe. The guide for the free tour that brought us all to Syntagma Square was a no-show so, armed with Jeff’s historical knowledge and my map-reading ability, we set off on our own and had a wonderful day together. From Hadrian’s Arch to the Theater of Dionysus to the Parthenon to the Agora, and ultimately to the miraculously preserved Temple of Hephaestus, we walked miles through the text books of our youth. So much of our Western way of life can be traced back to these very buildings we walked amongst! Math! Theater! Democracy! Kristin and I couldn’t help but sit in the Theater of Dionysus — a structure over 2500 years old! — and feel the influence this theater’s design has had on every stage to follow, including our own beloved, modest, Taproot Theater in Seattle. The more we saw, the more amazing our being there in person came to feel.

The Temple of Hephaestus and our new friends in the Agora.

The Temple of Hephaestus and our new friends Jeff, David, and Jessica.

Away from the Acropolis and the other major historical attractions, Athens suffers. A block in any direction away from a major site or upscale hotel lands you on pockmarked, graffiti-covered, alleys. The graffiti covers every surface, litter collects in numerous gutters, bus stops, and abandoned storefronts.  And there are many of these abandoned storefronts in the immigrant neighborhood where our hotel is located. The sidewalks are in shambles. The facades of numerous buildings cracked and crumbling.  It’s not an unsafe city; we remain comfortable even while walking across town at midnight. We’ve passed junkies shoving one another, a multitude of homeless sleeping in the shadows, and squatters clambering through a kicked-out window in abandoned apartment buildings. Outside our hotel, an elderly man smelling of urine and sweat shouts at the moon. But we are ignored, free to ponder the ubiquitous anarchy symbols while forever minding our step lest we step in a puddle that isn’t rainwater. Our presence in this neighborhood is, to use the Greek word, an anachronism but we move about as if largely unseen.

Nevertheless, the conditions of the city does weigh on one’s soul. Who can live amongst such vandalized beauty and not feel the effects? We see it in the hardened, dark eyes of the servers and bartenders; in the looks of the mini-mart clerks; and on the faces of the souvlaki slingers. It drains the soul. This is a city of monumental historic significance, a region of immeasurable natural beauty, but a country with ever-mounting financial and immigration hurdles before it.

Some of the more attractve graffiti in Athens.

Some of the more attractve graffiti in Athens.

August is the busiest time of the year to visit Greece but we find ourselves often seated alone in restaurants, tented amongst an array of empty campsites, and visiting world-renown archaeological attractions with just a smattering of other people. We hear this will change on the Aegean islands, where we head next, but that doesn’t help those here in Athens and across the Peloponnese or on Kefalonia where the hardworking, friendly people reliant on tourism would really like you to come and visit. And, unlike in Italy, you don’t even have to bring your own toilet paper.

Special Thanks: To Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc. for their continued support of our journey and to Ans and Harry for the wonderful meal and drinks in Mystras. We hope the rest of your travels were enjoyable.

28 July, 2015

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.

16 July, 2015

Lapping the Salento Coast

Red-legged grasshoppers bounced, leapt, and ricocheted off the ground, our bikes, and our panniers as we pedaled our way along a rocky road, flanked by endless fields of barren farmland stretching to the horizon. Hundreds, if not thousands of these insects, a swarm unlike any I’d seen before, scattered like ping-pong balls on triggered mousetraps as our wheels crunched over rock and bug alike. Their existence proved, in the course of the mile they inhabited, that a comment I made earlier to Kristin was completely wrong: something could live in this environment. Not much later, on a road actually shown on my map of Puglia, but still in a landscape only barely suited for human existence, we pulled over under the first tree we’d spotted in far too long. I handed the dwindling contents of my three water bottles to Kristin and all-but force-fed her the remaining apricots in my front, non-drive-side pannier. Her pace had slowed and I saw in my mirror that she was beginning to wobble. Heat stroke, in all likelihood, was setting in. A little while later, rejuvenated by the healing powers of ice cream and Fanta, Kristin was smiling brightly for the camera as we marked our ten-thousandth mile pedaled on the highway into Matera.

I’ve said it a thousand times: the highs are higher and the lows are lower on a bike tour. And you’ll experience both in a matter of minutes.

Home to Paleolithic-era caves carved into a clay cliff face and adorned with 16th century facades and a gauntlet of cobblestone pathways and staircases leading up to the palazzo and churches left behind by the city’s wealthier gentry, the Matera of today is a must-see trip back in time to antiquity. Forty years ago it was a national disgrace, site of a forced evacuation, and home to what may well have been the foulest living conditions in Western civilization.

The sassi lit up at night.

Sasso Barisano lit up at night in Matera, as viewed from Piazza Duomo.

Carlo Levi, in his book “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” recounts a description of Matera as told to him by his sister, a doctor who came to visit him in exile, in the 1930s:

The houses were open on account of the heat, and as I went by I could see into the caves, whose only light came in through the front doors. I saw a few pieces of miserable furniture, beds, and some ragged clothes hanging up to dry. On the floor lays dogs, sheep, goats, and pigs. Most families have just one cave to live in and there they sleep all together; men women, children, and animals…

I have never in all my life seen such a picture of poverty. I saw children sitting on the doorsteps, in the dirt, while the sun heat down on them, with their eyes half-closed and their eyelids red and swollen; flies crawled across the lids, but the children stayed quite still, without raising a hand to brush them away…

In the dark smelly caves where they lived I saw children lying on torn blankets, with their teeth chattering from fever. Others, reduced to skin and bones by dysentery, could hardly drag themselves about. I saw children with waxen faces who seemed to me to have something worse than malaria, perhaps some tropical disease such as Kala Azar or black fever. The thin women, with dirty undernourished babies hanging at their flaccid breasts, spoke to me mildly and with despair. I felt, under the blinding sun, as if I were in a city stricken by the plague.

The book, written about his year in political exile in Salento, the part of Puglia that forms the “heel” of Europe’s boot-shaped appendage, shone a light on this forgotten, beautiful, unique, disease-infested land and the peasants who inhabited it. Decades later, after several failed policies attempted to solve the problem of Matera’s deplorable living conditions, the evictions were complete. Then, in the late 20th century, a cleanup began. People had realized Matera’s cliff-side sassi were a world heritage gold mine. Caves were scrubbed and made inhabitable, inns opened, ristorantes popped up, and even Hollywood movies such as Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” were filmed here. Conservation begat restoration begat profit.

Our two nights in Matera turned into three; it was too special of a place to leave too soon. Our mornings were spent wandering the maze-like collection of alleys and stairs in Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano and by night we dined al fresco with the Matera residents on Via Ridola. Our first night in Matera, by sheer coincidence, we were able to celebrate our mileage milestone with a free classical concert in a church square just a short stroll from our inn. There, amongst hundreds of Matera’s residents, we sat in rapt attention as one of the most gifted pianists I’ve ever seen performed in front of a fifty-piece orchestra. And no more informed or respectful audience was ever assembled! Such a joy to see a performance where no smartphones were held aloft, where nobody watched the event through a camera’s LCD! Premature applause that often, at classical concerts, accompanies the end of a movement mistaken for a symphony’s conclusion was politely hushed by those who knew the tune. If there was any complaint to raise it would be that one particular gentleman sitting near us saw to it to hum along with the music. What a night!

The Trulli houses of Alberobello are worth an hour's visit, but I was most excited about spotting this watermelon popsicle. I hadn't seen one of these since the 1980s! Complete with chocolate "seeds." Who remembers these things?

The Trulli houses of Alberobello are worth an hour’s visit, but I was most excited about spotting this watermelon popsicle. I hadn’t seen one of these since the 1980s! Complete with chocolate “seeds.” Who else remembers these things? And it tasted even better than I remembered!

From Matera we pedaled our way to the collection of squat, conical dwellings known as Trulli houses in the town of Alberobello and then, rather than head straight to the port of Brindisi, we turned south again and decided to trace the coast of Salento in a counter-clockwise loop, keeping the multi-hued waters as close as possible. One more week in Italy!

We pedaled our way along the gently-sloping Ionian coast, around the cape, then north back along the more rugged, cliff-laden coast of the Adriatic Sea. We stretched this short 220-mile loop into five days in part to concede to the sun’s unrelenting pressure and also to allow more time at the beach each day.

Kristin pedaling into the historic city of Gallipoli, once a part of "Greater Greece" and then warred over for, oh, about two millenia.

Kristin pedaling into the historic city of Gallipoli, once a part of “Greater Greece” and then warred over for, oh, about two millenia.

The Salento region of southern Italy is where Italians go for summer vacation. And, whether you’re on a bicycle, in a rental car, or in an RV, you should too! We hit the coast in Torre Castiglione and followed the coastal road as it wended its way through numerous beach towns and farming communities from one campground to another. Roadside brush fires closed the road, smoke billowed in the distance, and the heat from recently-charred landscapes  was close enough to feel, but the air smelled not of char, but of licorice and olives and the sea. Beach traffic was thick at times, particularly around historic Gallipoli on the Ionian side of the peninsula, but the drivers always gave us plenty of room and passed with care.

Sand, coral, and crowds. The Ionian side of Salento, particularly north of Ugento, is packed with people.

Sand, coral, and crowds. The Ionian side of Salento, particularly north of Ugento, is packed with people. And this wasn’t high season yet. The prices jump starting in late July and August is apparently booked full well in advance. Come in early July!

Though a big part of the Italian beach experience involves attending incredibly crowded beach clubs and being shoe-horned into meticulously aligned rows of matching umbrellas and lounge chairs (something we managed to avoid), we found plenty of opportunities to pull off on the side of the road and claim a peace of solitude along the water’s edge. And sometimes, like in the historic city of Gallipoli, Leuca, and Tricase, we just joined in with a smattering of locals down by the harbor and took a quick dive off the breakwater before getting back on our bikes.

Beachfront camping resorts provide another option. The furthest thing from a wilderness experience I can imagine, these sprawling complexes contain hundreds of campsites, a market, restaurant, and even a discotheque. They are also not without their fair share of Italian bureaucracy. Two of the larger campgrounds we stayed in on the Ionian side insisted on the following procedure. First, we had to wait until after 4 p.m. to be allowed into the campground. Quiet hours were 2-4 p.m. and though the deejay would blare its music until well past midnight, we were not allowed to set up our tent until after 4 p.m. for fear of disturbing the slumbering campers. Secondly, once finally registered, we had to wait to be escorted by an attendee who would personally show us the available sites and then radio back to the office which one we chose. He then gave us a plastic ID number which, upon paying, would have to be turned back in in order to retrieve our passports. The whole thing was maddening and, aside from the mosquitoes, offered no commingling with nature. But it was cheaper than a hotel and we were steps from gorgeous turquoise-colored crystalline waters and white sand beaches, not to mention the absolutely stunning bikini-clad scenery on the beach. The water of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas are so salty that floating is a breeze; they’re so clear that I could count individual sand grains while standing in shoulder-deep water. If only there were waves, it would be perfect.

One way to beat the heat is by keeping a constant stock of apricots, plums, and cherries on the bike at all times. Fruit stands and trucks are everywhere and the fruit is seldom more than 1 Euro per kilogram.

One way to beat the heat is by keeping a constant stock of apricots, plums, and cherries on the bike at all times. Fruit stands and trucks are everywhere and the fruit is seldom more than 1-2 Euro per kilogram.

We didn’t sleep well in the campgrounds due to the noise and they’re not particularly cheap or wild, but we believe travel is more than centuries-old cultural sites and museums, but experiencing things the way the locals do. And this is how Italians do the beach.

Enjoying a short section of winding bicycle trail along the Ionian coast.

Enjoying a short section of winding bicycle trail along the Ionian coast.

We rounded the cape at Leuca and climbed steeply up onto the cliffs north of the town. From there, as we pedaled the undulating coast along the Adriatic side of Salento we came across what just might be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. From a bridge some 30 meters above the water, we saw a series of staircases descending to a narrow funnel-shaped canyon with room for two dozen people. The cliffs fanned out into the sparkling sea, people snorkeled along the base of the cliffs as young boys took turns daring one another to leap from higher and higher perches. Kristin and I looked on from atop the bridge and, not wanting to risk leaving our bikes and gear unattended, breathed a hefty sigh and pedaled onward, though with another entry in our ever-lengthening list of places to return to.

If there's a more gorgeous beach than this one, a few miles north of Leuca, than I'd love to see it.

If there’s a more gorgeous beach than this one, a few miles north of Leuca, than I’d love to see it.

It was about 20 feet down to the water from this chunk of coral the boys were leaping from.

It was about 20 feet down to the water from this chunk of coral the boys were leaping from.

We greeted the air conditioned comfort of our B&B in Lecce with a sigh of relief, but were soon longing for our afternoon swims and nightly dips in the sea before dinner. Fortunately, we’re headed to the Ionian Islands and region of Peloponnese in Greece. There will be plenty more beaches in store for us this summer. We just hope we won’t have to cycle through another record heat wave in order to reach them.

Heading north along the Adriatic Coast towards Otranto.

Heading north along the Adriatic Coast towards Otranto. The roads have a lot less traffic down near Leuca.