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.

Conquering Greece – Day 5 : Patra to Karpenissi

  • Weather: Cloudy then rain and fog
  • Departure: 11h30
  • Arrival: 19h30
  • Date: 04/08/15
  • Distance: 180 km

Patra_to_Karpenissi

Bridge from the Pelopponese to the mainlandQuickly I was out a Patras. Near the bridge to cross into the continent, I grabbed coffee, a sandwich and managed to get my brake pedal bent back into place at no charge thanks to the friendly owner of the bike shop nearby.

It’s a good thing I got that pedal fixed as it saw intensive use during what will probably be the most technical day of riding on this trip. I made due on my promise to explore the tertiary roads. For the whole day I was riding in steep mountains, negotiating hairpin turns after hairpin turns, avoiding rocks, working the brakes on extremely steep grades, swerving away from goats and riding on the gravel and earth where asphalt had been washed away, all in extraordinary scenery. Greece is not flat, it is rugged high peaks and deep valleys; sparsely populated save for some small villages hanging on mountain sides. Progress was slow. You cross a pass and enter a valley. One hour later, you’re on the other side at no more than 5 kilometers in birds flight.

Using road signs as target practice is common place in these wild lands

Using road signs as target practice is common place in these wild lands

IMG_1334I had the road to myself but the absence of traffic did not mean I could be careless. There was no room for mistakes, entering a turn at the wrong speed or misjudging the surface would have propelled me into a long free fall. Surprisingly, not once did I get lost. Not all the villages were on my map, but those that I could spot, the name was written in both Greek and Roman alphabet, which was extremely useful in finding my way in this labyrinth. On major roads, there will usually be a Greek direction sign soon followed by a Romanized translation but outside them, it’s just math symbols.

The directions, all in Greek

The directions, all in Greek

The storm is coming

The storm is coming

Around the middle of the afternoon, I could sense the weather was taking a turn for the worst. A storm was brewing and I had to find shelter. Luckily, on the next pass was a pretty café where I stopped five minutes short of the deluge. While enjoying a Greek coffee and a baklava (Greece has excellent honey and produces heaps of it), I watched the rain pour on the mountains and the winds picking up, culminating into into hail the size of marbles. I have ridden into heavy rains, it sucks and it’s dangerous but hail, no thanks. While I was waiting for the storm to go over, I had an intermittent conversation with the family that ran the place, where the youngest girl kept me fed with candy while attempting to communicate and show me things in her language. The Greeks have a surprisingly good level of English, that coupled with them being generally well intentioned and helpful makes them very enjoyable and useful hosts.

Eventually, I saw a break in the clouds and jumped on the bike again. Soon after though, the rain restarted. First a drizzle and then proper pouring with thunder. By that time, I was too far to come back to the café, it was getting late and I had to push on. Unless you have proper equipment, there is no stopping the water from getting everywhere while on a motorcycle. I had had a taste of how wet and cold I could be on another trip in Lithuania and this time it was no different. Soaked, freezing and loosing sensibility in all my extremities, I had to pay extra attention no to slip on the road and make a bad situation even worse.

Dam, lake and rain

Dam, lake and rain

I had no objective that day but it soon became clear I would have to stop in Karpenissi as I was no longer in condition to drive. Once downtown, I parked at café to get some shelter from the elements and ordered a hot beverage while shivering and trying to remove my equipment with no dexterity left in my fingers. The lady at the counter kindly directed me to an affordable hotel and in little time I was naked under a hot shower, feeling the tingling in my fingers as they were gaining their sensitivity back.

After a quick walk around pretty Karpenissi, I went back to my room and started working through the backlog of things I had to write, taking a look at the overcast sky once in while, hoping it would clear up for tomorrow.