Conquering Greece – Day 4 : Igoumenitsa to Patra

  • Weather: Blistering hot sun
  • Departure: 11h00
  • Arrival: 19h30
  • Date: 03/08/15
  • Distance: 340km

Igoumenitsa to Patra

I woke up late, having gone to sleep late trying to work through the backlog of things I had to write. No issues, today was an easy day of riding along the coast. Igoumenitsa being a port city, loads of Italians where disembarking from the ferries to go on they vacations here in Greece so the roads were packed and being at sea level, hot. Not that great. I was passing resort towns after resort towns and growing steadily uncomfortable from the sweating under my coat and the rash between my legs.

Coastal road in Greece

My private beachEventually, I got away from the craze and entered a nice stretch of coastal tarmac with barely any vehicle in sight. I had passed several rocky beaches before it dawned on me that I should really stop for a swim. Not even 50 Kms north of me were forests of umbrellas and folding beach chairs and there I could have my own private slice of the coast. So I did, and for an hour I was alone basking in the water. A generous soul even had installed straw umbrellas and a garbage can, which I took 5 minutes to fill with all the thrash that had washed up on this nice little section of the Greek coastline. Its odd that no one seem to knew about this place but nevermind. While I was changing myself back in my riding equipment, a Greek truck driver showed up to refresh himself just like I had done. So he was in on the secret…  We exchanged a couple of words and I left.

The journey to Patra was uneventful: nothing worth mentioning. There was only one hostel in the city, which took me a while to find. My fears of it being full were completely unfounded, it was as vacant as a Greek business. Located in a villa that had served in the second world war as a German headquarters, the place had charm, but looked like it had not been renovated since so much so that I think it has earned the title of the most disgusting hostel I have ever slept in. At that price though, I could not complain. On my way out for a gyros, I met two French that were heading in opposite direction. Fearful that they were looking for that place and that they would end up in my down (in which all my stuff was spread), I tracked back to clean up a bit. Turns out the guy was just helping his friend get to the hostel. She had suffered from an overexposure to the sun while on the ferry from Italy and wanted a bed for the night. Afterwards, he was to rejoin with his group of friends to get drunk and then nap somewhere before catching an early train to Athens. He kindly offered me to meet up with them for drinks after my quest for food, which I did. We had very interesting conversations and I stayed longer than I originally wanted to and had to sacrifice some sleep.

Conquering Greece – Day 3 : Florina to Igoumenitsa

  • Weather: Sunny and then rain
  • Departure: 11h00
  • Arrival: 22h00
  • Date: 02/08/15
  • Distance: 381km

Florina to Igoumenitsa

Alban on the bikeMe and Alban had planned to have coffee the next day but I waited for a while in the lobby of the hotel for he was nowhere to be seen. I went out and grabbed my caffeine fix and something to eat and when I came back, there he was. The night before, he had pitched the idea of him riding with me to Patra as a passenger  and again he did that morning. Not that I did not want to have him with me. Circumstances permitting, it would have been a thrill but given the road ahead and the state of my bike (crooked steering, sketchy brakes, underpowered) and the limited room, it was not possible so we parted ways there.

Road in northern Greece

It took me an hour to find gas but otherwise, everything about this day was perfect. The roads (save some unrepaired stretches), the amount of trafic, the views. Canyons, peaks and no cars to be seen. So I drove along at a steady pace enjoying my time very much in wild northern Greece all the way until Konitsa, where I stopped for some much needed food.

Downtown Konitsa
Downtown Konitsa
The old stone bridge in Konitsa
The old stone bridge in Konitsa

Konitsa was entirely build on a mountain side, with pretty alleyways and charming ambience. It had an old arch bridge of the likes I had never seen and was gateway to the national park of the Aoös gorge. The setting was beautiful and for minutes I was torn between making a stop there or continuing to my planned destination.

I picked the latter. In Ioannina, a large regional town, I stopped for a picturesque break near the old city walls on the side of the lake, still pondering if I should stop or not. Again, I kept going. At a gas station, I asked for direction to Igoumenitsa (a city on the western coast and my objective for the day) and was correctly directed towards the shortest route, a highway, which I took thinking I was somewhere else on the map. Not wanting to skip on the nicer roads nearby, I promptly exited the highway and proceeded on a local road.

Once I hit the first village, the rain started and given the state of the road, I took the decision to stop. I was in Polygyros, a townlet of about 60 inhabitants perched high up in the mountains, It had a pretty church and town square with trees where I had found shelter under. On seeing me there, a couple sitting under their porch waved at me to come and sit with them so I approached.

The Polygyros church
The Polygyros church
My hosts in Polygyros
My hosts in Polygyros

They offered me coffee and a chat in very rudimentary English with the man (who was a retired sailor) until their teenage son showed up. He was more proficient that his parents which enabled us to have a more complex conversation about me, them, Greece, Canada and what I had to do with all of this. Having finished my coffee I stood up to leave; they had offered me food several times, which I had had to decline. It was getting late (19h00) and I wanted to make it to Igoumenitsa before nightfall. Then the son told me that his mother wanted very much to cook me something and that it would be rude not to accept. I yielded, sat back down and moments later, had an omelette, a salad and some bread in front of me, all coming (except the bread) from the garden and chicken coop they had in the back. Delicious.

The remainder of the road took time as it was a succession of hairpin turns with patches of gravel here and there. I passed many timeless Greek villages, cows, goats, old women sitting by the side of the road. Beautiful.Once I had reached the principal road I was aiming for, I told myself that this little excursion in the back country was worth it and that I’ll have to try it again. Late on time, part of the way to Igoumenitsa was done in the dark, with shitty headlights and a dirty helmet visor. Dangerous. After a bit of searching, I managed to negotiate myself a room at a decent price and stayed there to write and to rest. Igoumenitsa, a port town, did no seem to have a lot to offer.

Conquering Greece – Day 2 : Nikiti to Florina

  • Weather: Cloudy
  • Departure: 14h00
  • Arrival: 20h30
  • Date: 01/08/15
  • Distance: 360km

Nikiti to Florina

The night had been so hot I had trouble sleeping and would wake up intermittently drenched in sweat and grasping for air. That being said, it was extremely nice of Félix to have given me a place to rest. So when morning finally came, I made my way to the dive shop, signed the paperwork got my equipment and departed again to the dive site: a shore dive in a camping site that is owned by the Bulgarian Orthodox church.

Underwater, it was nothing very different than the other dive I had done in the Mediterranean: weeds, soft corals, sponges and small fishes. Thankfully though, the other guy on my team had a good level so we decided to spice things up with a “free fall” jump from the top of a wall at 12 meters of depth down to the bottom at 30, a huge sand plain. In the course of the dive, we crossed three very apparent thermoclines and went from a top water temperature of nearly 30C to 15C at the bottom.

Packing up after diving
Packing up after diving

Out of the water, I packed my things quickly and jumped on the bike to try and make it as far as possible. Edessa was my objective. Except for the part where I cut through the mountains around Polygyros, the road was uninteresting. Boring roads have an advantage, you go fast on them. Their accessibility and efficiency makes them preferred trade routes, which has the consequence of attracting businesses who congregate on their side. However, Greece’s economical situation being what it is, lots of them have closed shop and left vacant the building they once occupied. Added to that, the government, lacking the funds to properly keep nature at bay, has let the roads become overgrown, hiding road signs and lampposts in dense green foliage. This and the fact that it was Saturday all contributed in making the outskirts of cities look as if they came straight out of a post-apocalyptic future. No one in sight, nature retaking control, old abandoned vehicles and stray dogs. I was a lone ranger traveling the country in search of redemption.

Out on the Greek open road
Out on the Greek open road

Since I was making good on time, I changed plans and pushed my day’s objective 100 km further to Florina, a city at the very north of Greece and some kilometers from the border with Macedonia. As I was going up the mountains, the view got nicer and even with a forced stop due to scattered thunderstorms, I arrived in Florina with a bit of daylight to spare. Exhausted, I settled for the first affordable hotel, dropped my things and grabbed a gyros. That day, I had only eaten two cans of coke, three slices of bread and bag of chips. Amazing how the body behaves differently when kept on adrenaline. Anyway, Florina appeared to be a nice and lively small city, with restaurants and bars full of people. Despite the grim economical outlook, the Greeks keep on living.

While sitting in the square, I got approached by another traveler looking for conversation. I had planned that night to go back to my hotel room and catch up on my writing, but instead spent hours talking with Alban (from Albania). He was studying in Germany and decided to leave for the summer and hitchhike through Europe. Along his journey he had met refugees from all the wars in the middle east going the other way trying to reach Germany. No writing was done that night.

Conquering Greece – Day 1 : Thessaloniki to Nikiti

  • Weather: Sunny Departure: 11h00
  • Arrival: 18h30
  • Date: 31/07/15
  • Distance: 260km

Thessaloniki to Nikiti

Up bright and early, I showed up at the agency and took possession of my new two-wheeled companion on time. I knew the bike was an Honda Varadero 125 and I was pretty excited about it since I had owned one a few years back. I had taken this bike across Europe so I knew very well that despite its small engine, it was capable and comfortable enough for the long journey to come.

My rideShe was not in the greatest of shape though, with 75k on the counter and a roughed up body, I quickly noticed that she was an earlier model than the one I was familiar with. A carburated model and a picky one for that matter. Nevertheless, once the engine got warm, everything was fine so I took off, made a stop at a motorcycle shop to buy gloves and hit the road.

For the first couple of hours, progress was slow. I was taking back country roads, signage was poor and the riding (at 38C) was far from enjoyable. I was actually starting to wonder if there would be anything to write about this day.

And then I crashed.

I was following the highway on a service road in a bad state of disrepair, but at least there was no trafic to deal with. I went up a steep hill and as soon as I was on the other side, I noticed to my horror that the road about 50 meters down was completely flooded and proceeded to do an emergency braking procedure. I had so little distance that I applied maximum pressure, but due to the gravel on the road and the downhill slope, the bike started to slide. I released and hit the brakes again. More sliding. Soon, I lost control and dropped the bike while both she and I continued sliding for a couple more meters. her on the right side, me on the right knee. We managed to stop ten meters short of the river. I got up, swore profusely, made sure nothing was broken (on me) and got the bike up on its stand. My jeans were torn and exposing a pretty deep gash on the right kneecap, my left calf was scratched all over but otherwise, I was ok. The motorcycle got out with a bent brake pedal and a scratched fairing but was in working order.

Not bad I thought after having calmed down a bit. I took a glance at the river. It appeared deep. Too deep to ford and anyway, I was going too fast. If it was not for my fall, I would have most likely crashed in the water and ruined the bike for real. Going down in this case was the best option.

The damageI normally would have stayed longer to collect my thoughts and maybe take a couple of pictures for posterity, but the sun was pounding on me and the air was barely breathable. I had to get the wind going again. Some kilometers later, I finally found a bit of shade and stopped to have a cigarette, tank my water canteen and treat my wounds. Was a fall really the only course of action I thought? In this situation, yes. But a good driver will simply never get himself into that sort of mess in the first place. This accident was avoidable. My mistake had been to assume that the road was fine on the other side of the hill. Never make assumptions I reminded myself, that’s one of the key principles of defensive driving.

Slightly mad and still shaken, I made it for the highway and in little time reached the dive shop in Nikiti. Everyone was out diving, so I refilled on water, ate some sandwiches. Decided on not letting this incident ruin my day of riding, I jumped on the bike and headed for the peninsula. The road was excellent and the views magnificent, hairpin turns in mountains and slaloming bends along the coast. This 2 hour ride brought back the peace in me.

Awesome motorcycling road
Awesome motorcycling road

Once back in Nikiti, I entered the shop and got annoyed looks from what appeared to be the owners. They knew about my arrival but their welcome was anything but warm. I inquired about a room and got a rude reply that the cheapest option was 30 Euros. Expensive but given the location, I could not hope for anything more affordable. Félix, a French instructor that worked there offered  to take me to the house where the room was, informing me while walking to the car that the owners were Bulgarian which explained their apparent rudeness while in reality they were being friendly.

Once there, I was informed that there had been a misunderstanding and that the room was occupied. This greatly compromised my stay here as I had check on the web and there was nothing below 80 Euros in this resort town (popular with Bulgarians and Serbians). Félix right away understood the situation I was in and kindly offered me a place in his tiny apartment, which I promptly accepted under the condition that the beers would be on me that night. It had been a while since he had had someone to speak French with so I think for that reason alone he would have appreciated my company, but since we shared many common interests, we got along great.

Earlier today, I had seriously considered the idea of driving back to Thessaloniki and return the bike, but I don’t yield to fear, it’s just there to be overcome.

Conquering Greece – Intro

It had been a while since I last went on an adventure riding trip. I was overdue for some motorcycling around. Going to Greece was an excellent opportunity to get my fix. I knew the countryside was full of beauty and there was no better way to check them out than with my own set of wheels and at my own pace. Greece is famous for its islands and apparently they are a must see, but they’ll still be there for the several decades older version of me to enjoy. For that matter, most travellers I encountered were heading there, which further motivated me not to follow them and go my own way.

The plan almost fell through. In a great spur of wisdom, I had decided not to book the bike in advance in spite of now being the high season. The result was that I was left hanging in Athens. There was only one rental agency for motorcycles there and all they were offering me was a large bike at 80 Euros a day with a 250 km daily cap on distance. As experience has shown me, that is not nearly enough, but more importantly, if I’m going to be paying this much money for a bike, I’ll ride it until I can no longer feel my ass.

Luckily, Thessaloniki, the country’s second largest city had an agency and through them I managed to book an Honda Varadero 125. Not a powerful bike by any standard, but roomy and comfortable. Also a machine I was extremely familiar with, since I used to own one.

Greece motorcyle map

A look at Google maps back home had indicated that Greece was very mountainous. On closer inspection of a map I had bought in Athens for the trip, I confirmed that this was indeed the case. Some section of roads that the makers had deemed worth driving through were highlighted on the map and most of them were north and west of the country.

That’s the direction where I decided to head. With a full week of riding ahead of me, I’ll have time to improvise the rest.