Greece – Part I – Athenian Horizon

We crossed from Albania into Greece at dusk.

The first sign that greeted us was a large No Camping sign.

We ignored it and found a beautiful camp spot on a small secluded pebble beach as the sun set over the water.

The next day we cycled along the coast which already seemed a shade less beautiful than in Albania. By the end of the first day we were missing the friendliness of the Albanian people.

Everything suddenly felt far more European. Inhabitants, expectant of tourists in all parts of the country, were friendly enough but not excited to see us or our bicycles. Smiling and waving was not common practice. We tried to keep it up for a while but soon tired of the non-responsiveness.

Our journey through coastal and mainland Greece was not particularly remarkable or enjoyable. We were both very tired and the Holy Grail was awaiting us in Athens. It was ever present in our minds. It hastened our speed, straightened our route and dulled our interest in our surroundings.

A surprise treat really cheered us up when a woman called Sarah contacted us through Instagram to ask if she could take us out for lunch. She thought what we were doing was that exciting! We were very flattered and arranged to meet her in Preveza. She was also coming to Greece to volunteer for a refugee charity.

We managed to find each other in a restaurant near the harbour and had a wonderful lunch that was a very welcome change from our usual cheese in bread situation. We felt very luckily and like complete imposters to be treated so generously by a complete stranger! She soon didn’t feel like a stranger at all and we left on the promise that we would try to meet again in Georgia, come the following May.

Another real highlight was Kefalonia.

Kefalonia

We cycled to an island, Lefkada, only attached to the mainland by a long road. When we reached the port of Nydri we discovered there was only one ferry still running, once weekly. So we waited two days for the weekly ferry to Kefalonia, as we were so off-season.

We caught the early morning ferry and on it we met two other British cycle tourists, Matt and Katy. They were a really lovely couple and told us we should go to a cafe and patisserie with them once we landed on the island. It had been recommended by a Greek friend of Katy’s who had been since she was a child and raved about their Banoffee pie (Haydn’s favourite).

We arrived at 11am to the beautiful, quiet, tiny harbour of Fiskardo. It looked like a movie set, it was so picturesque. Different pastel coloured, low lying buildings and small boats bobbing on the clearest blue water. We sat talking, bedazzled, munching delicious treats with our new friends. It felt like we had accidentally stumbled into someone else’s holiday and we got to pretend we were normal tourists for an hour.

Remembering the three days we spent cycling on Kefalonia is like a flashback to a beautiful dream. It was a very special place. The air smelt of warmed wild thyme and the light was clear and brilliantly bright. It illuminated everything in a special clarity that seemed other worldly. The sea had a lustrous sparkle like a huge jewel. We headed inland, to cross the island, and there we found ourselves amongst some of the largest and oldest olive trees we had ever seen. Whole groves on the island were hundreds of years old and stood like ancient tribes people, knotted together on the hills and in the valleys. Huge herds of goats wandered freely. Many had bells around their necks so the herd moved together as a harmony of chimes across the landscape.

It was an island from a fairy tale.

We wanted to live on Kefalonia and never leave but the pull of our goal was too much and we took the boat back to the mainland.

Cycling on the mainland towards Athens is a dull blur in my mind. A forgettable, plain expanse, compared to the gemstone that was Kefalonia.

Coming into Athens

We woke at 6am and unzipped the tent to find the sea crashing and the tide much closer in than we had expected. Quickly we packed everything away and onto the decking of the abandoned beach bar that we had camped almost underneath to shelter from the storm the night before.

The deshevelled building seperated us and the large white stoney beach from the small park and busy road behind. We both laughed about how ironic it would have been if we’d been washed away on our last night camping before Athens.

We managed to get on the road early and hoped desperately that the dark skies rolling in were something to do with the toxic smell filling the air not another huge storm coming. The smell became more and more unbearable. We both used our buffs to cover our noses and mouths. It was cloying and chemical and getting more an more intese as we cycled further down the long, busy road. We kept having to pull over to cough, eyes watering and stinging – hating having to breath in hard after each splutter. When we could hardly take it anymore, we realised what was making this awful smell.

We cycled past signs warning that no photography was to be taken in the area and then an enormous factory grew up out of the ground beside the road. It looked like it was falling apart. Ancient. Held together by huge, disintegrating sheets of metal. But the thunderous noises from inside and the thick black smoke pouring from the high chimneys indicated it was still very much in business.

We got to the end of the factory after about fifteen minutes of cycling as fast as we could (and breathing as little as we could) down one, long straight road. At the end was a building with newer looking corrigated iron on the exteriour and a huge sign near the entrance read ‘Hellenic Petroleum’ in bold letters. It was a petroleum refinery. Jheez, do they smell good for the environment. We were very happy to wave goodbye to the refinery and see the beautiful coastline again.

Then the packs of wild dogs in each village became the challenge. We both nearly fell off multiple times, into the road, swerving out of the way as the mad dogs ran across the lanes of fast moving cars to snap at our ankles.

Gradually the clouds rolling in became darker and darker until it almost looked like dusk at 2pm. I checked my phone and was alarmed to see an ‘Orange Weather Warning’ for thunder and lightening storms and flash flooding. It said the warning began from 2pm. Just at that moment I felt the first few raindrops. When was the weather ever this accurate?

Within seconds the downpour was so hard we had to abandon the bikes out in the rain and shelter in a bus stop for an enforced lunch break.

It got harder and harder, until I thought it might tear down the bus shelter. Rain thrashing at my legs and feet while sat on the metal bench. The thunder had such bone rattling might, I nearly dropped my sandwich each time it boomed. Lightning scarred the dark sky in frequent crackles.

The sandwiches were soggy and we were shivering in a matter of seconds.

Once the miserable lunch had been eaten, we sat very hopefully ‘waiting out’ the torrential rain. We soon knew that we were kidding ourselves and that we were going to have to keep going and just accept the idea of getting very, very wet.

We also realised later, completely drenched, that we had no option but to cycle on the motorway into Athens. Luckily, due to the rain, the traffic was nearly at a standstill.

The rain was Biblical.

The road had turned into a river. We moved past trucks and cars at a snails pace with the mud water up to our knees. Water gushing through our shoes. The deep flowing water meant we were blind to the potholes in the road and kept repeatedly crashing down into them. Suddenly the front wheel would lunge down a foot or so and I would fight just to stay upright.

Throughout most of the day, especially the ridiculous motorway part, I somehow managed to maintain my sanity and actually found myself in fits of giggles cycling behind Haydn. It felt so unbelievable that I was really doing this at all. I felt distanced from the discomfort and felt strangely able to see the situation from above in all its hilarity and absurdity.

At one point I got quite hysterical while cycling along the hard shoulder of the motorway, which isn’t very practical I can tell you. Haydn turned around, thinking I was crying. When he saw me, he shouted in surprise, ‘Why are you laughing?!’ All I could wheeze through my cackling was, ‘This is so funny!’

Finally, with the rain still pouring down on us, we arrived into outskirts of Athens.

Hallelujah!

Immediately in front of me I saw an exact replica of my little vintage Nissan Micra from home. I posed for a drenched, triumphant photo in front of it. It was like we hadn’t really cycled anywhere at all.

We made our way into the city and found our blessed Air B&B flat.

It was there that I had the best bath of my life.

I don’t know if it was the endorphins, or the relief, or the pride but that evening I felt like I was floating. I couldn’t stop grinning.

We had made it to Athens by bicycle! My legs had cycled me there!

I went to sleep that night in a bed that felt like clouds, feeling super human and on top of the world.

 

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Post for Athens coming soon …

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