Tag Archives: Greece
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.