Istanbul, Turkey

The Great Agia Sophia

The Great Agia Sophia

With my flight to Azerbaijan leaving from Istanbul, I had to spend a day there. Something I was definetly looking forward to. In 2012, I had had the chance to travel in Turkey and had a blast being in this world-renowned city,. Hence, I knew what I was going into and had a laundry list of things I wanted to do with my short time there:

  1. Visit something I had not had the chance to check last time.
  2. Eat kokoreç
  3. Get a gift at the bazar
  4. Stroll around
  5. Eat baklavas

My bus ride from Thessaloniki having not been the most restful one (long custom stops and coolant replenishment sessions on the side of the highway), I took a nap and proceeded with my day’s objectives with the intention of taking the metro to my departure point and walking back to my hostel. First stop was the cistern in Sultanhamet, the district where the Blue mosque and Agia Sofia are located. Once that had been checked out, I walked to the Bazaar, found a nice set of worry beads to give as a gift. Then outside, a few minutes walk and I spotted a kokoreç restaurant (minced sheep intestines with tomatoes and spices in a bread). Afterwards, around Istikal street, I encountered a baklava shop and had some with tea.

At the end if the day, content with my performance, I enjoyed some beers with the staff and the travelers back at the hostel. The day after, I was up early for my flight, made my way to the airport, and took off at the planned time for Baku, Azerbaijan, where I would begin the second part of my travels and meet my girlfriend.

Greece, the end

In retrospect, Athens was seriously so-so, riding around was obviously awesome, and Thessaloniki, which I only got to spend a full day in, had some serious potential for a good time. A lot cheaper, a lot more relax, a lot more walkable (most of its seafront is a park), it’s worth checking out. Athens is obviously a must see since it’s packed with history, but if you’d like a glimpse of actual Greece, don’t linger there.

 

Thessaloniki's seafront park

Thessaloniki’s seafront park

With the exception of the Meteoras (monasteries), the further I was from the popular routes, the better it was. Not only was it more authentic, but it had a quality that was lacking elsewhere: it was made for the Greeks by the Greeks. Sadly, it feels like most of  coastline has become one large resort catered to eastern Europe and Italy, with the loss of culture, architecture and pollution that comes with it. Greece has much to offer, which explains its popularity with the rest of the world, but it’s tough to enjoy it to the fullest when it’s such a hassle all the time.Tourism is great, but only up to a given concentration, otherwise it becomes a destructive force.

Hot dogs and café, a popular combination

Hot dogs and coffee, a popular combination

The Greeks are great. Their economy is in shambles (which the common person does not have much to do with) but they are friendly, joyful and helpful. Still those abandoned buildings, closed stores and stray dogs (everywhere, some still with collars) were generally a sad sight, but did provide me with a few urban exploring and « feels like a movie » experiences. Food, to my surprise, was a huge disappointment; I was expecting a lot more from a Mediterranean country with the ability to grow such a variety of crops. My diet revolved for the most part around gyros, sandwiches and a salad here and there. Granted, I stayed away from the actual restaurants that could have had a better selection of dishes for me to try, but I maintain that generally what’s available on at a cheap price is a good indication of a culture’s culinary diversity. In Greece, it was mostly gyros and your standard burger and fries.

Otherwise, I’ll keep fond memories of the country. I saw only a handful of ruins and only went to the beach once and for 30 minutes, but man did I see some excellent scenery and rode on the most enjoyable roads of my life. However, I’ve missed the hiking, I’ve missed the food, I’ve missed the diving, I’ve missed the islands, I’ve missed the wine (but not the Ouzo) I’ve missed so many things so Greece, we will see each other again.

Conquering Greece – Outro

ScratchThe next day, I returned the bike at the planned time. I was hoping my little accident of day 1 would go unnoticed, but they found out. I’m an honest person, but the bike was already scratched all over, and I did not really know what their policy was on cosmetic damage. After a phone call to the Honda dealership, they decided to charge me the price of a paint job: 110 Euros. I’m sure they are going to buff the fairing and pocket the money but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. For the safety of the next customer, I did give them a list of all the other (more serious) issue the motorcycle had.

When dealing with the paperwork, the girl paused for a moment, got up and checked the bike, phones someone and had a conversation where the word « kilometros » came up quite often. Lucky for me, they had made a mistake on the contract (and the website) and had given me unlimited distance where normally there would have been a cap. I explained to her that this had been a major selling point for me to which she replied that even if there was an advertised limit, things could always be arranged. What they wanted to avoid, beside extra maintenance, was Germans (and she specified Germans) renting cheap scooters and driving them all over sort of like I did. Cheers to you Germans, abusing scooters all over the world.

An approximation of the total route

An approximation of the total route

So the tally is 2192 kilometers. A big loop around during which I saw a lot of Greece and I tell you, it’s beautiful. This adventure ended up costing me more than expected (what a surprise), but it was worth every euro. I wish I would have brought my camping gear as the landscape was full of opportunities to set up a tent and enjoy the view, but all that extra equipment would have made the remainder of my travels more logistically difficult.

While driving Greece, I learned a few leasons and feel like I improved a lot on my driving skills. The roads were nowhere as difficult as those in Vietnam or Thailand, but I had a much bigger motorcycle and was driving generally much faster because the bike allowed me to (all while keeping a safe margin of error (except that time I crashed (which was almost unavoidable))).

I’ll call this my 4th adventure riding trip and just like the three previous ones, it will be memorable and will be the stuff of stories for years to come. While walking around Thessaloniki that afternoon, I felt a sense of relief not to be riding a motorcycle.

But that’s only going to last a short time before the open road calls again.

Posing

Conquering Greece – Day 7 : Kalabaka to Thessaloniki

  • Weather: Cloudy then thunderstorms
  • Departure: 10h00
  • Arrival: 22h00
  • Date: 06/08/15
  • Distance: 376 km

Kalabaka to Thessaloniki

I woke still tired up but excited as this was the very last day of this adventure. Riding around is immense fun, but it’s exhausting and to be honest, I had been abusing the concept a bit and was at this point starting to get fed up with it. Having not had time to visit at least one of the monasteries, I made this my first goal of day. After breakfast, I joined bussloads of foreigners and toured around one. It was, as I expected, not that interesting : a church, a small museum of religions artifacts and very limited access to anything else.

At Mount Olympus

At Mount Olympus

Back on the road, quickly I rejoined with the eastern coast of Greece, passing around Mount Olympus in the process, Greece’s highest peak (2919m) and a special place in their old mythology. Having arrived there earlier than expected and noticing that there was a road going up, I figured I should explore and see how far it would get me. Not at the top it turns out and only a third of the way. The rest is done on foot and takes about three hours. Too bad. Had I know it was possible to hike to the top, I would have arranged things differently and done it. Another thing I’ll have to leave to my next trip to Greece. I did have a bowl of tradiţional bean soup up there and it was delicious and a very welcome departure from the gyros I’ve been eating every day.

A Greek coastal town

A Greek coastal town

Once more at sea level, I screwed around for hours trying to figure out a way that would get me to Thessaloniki through the small roads, which landed me late in the day facing an oncoming storm. This time, I decided not to ride through it as I was on a regional road with heavy truck trafic and too exposed to the winds. I found sheleter in a long-abandonned garage and waited for the bad weather to improve while enjoying the show of sound and light. It took about an hour an half before I decided to leave again, the rain had dimished to a drizzle but it was dark. With the headlights that I had, the road to my destination was a stressful one. There are not too many potholes in Greece, but there are some and I could not see them. My best chances of not getting one was to drive slow and in the middle of my lane.

Waiting for the storm to pass

Waiting for the storm to pass

Several hours late at the hostel, they had sent me an e-mail still wondering if I would make due on my reservation. I parked the bike, got a bottle of wine and sat in silence for a while, mentally drained from today’s driving.

Road tripping Greece, done!

Conquering Greece – Day 6 : Karpenissi to Kalabaka

  • Weather: Scattered clouds
  • Departure: 10h00
  • Arrival: 19h00
  • Date: 05/08/15
  • Distance: 314 km

Karpenissi to Kalabaka

Kalabaka, the town of Meteors, those famous Orthodox monasteries perched atop rocky peaks. A must see in Greece, so I had to drop by. With that objective in mind, I started my day earlier than the previous as I suspected the road to be long and wanted to be sure to arrive at my destination with sunlight to spare. Thankfully, it was not raining.

I planned a detour instead of the most direct route because on my map, the roads cutting straight through the mountains were marked as being unpaved. Not that I lack skills on loose surfaces (a bit actually, but I’m willing to learn) but entering this territory on the motorcycle that I had was a gamble I was not ready to take. My tires are cracked from sitting under the sun and even if I had a spare, the wheels are tubeless so there is no changing them without specialized tools. However, once at the crossroads between my desired route and the shortcut, I noticed that a brand new road had been paved using funds from the European Union. In all probability, this would have allowed a safe crossing, but what was far from certain was whether the road had been finished all the way or not, which given Greece’s economic woes, is unlikely. Having to be back in Thessaloniki tomorrow, now was not the time to get stranded in the middle of nowhere.

So I kept going. At a steady pace kilometers passed and early in the evening I arrived in Kalabaka and skipped the town to go and have a look at the Meteors. Spectacular, maybe I’ll visit a monastery tomorrow.