Written from the balcony of a cheap hotel a day before we fly/at the airport just about to leave/the plane/Anna’s parents’ (It’s a long one!)
- Further adventures high and low in the ‘Mani’ area
- A stolen evening on a romantic island
- Greece turns truly mountainous
- We go soft in Nafplio
- More ruins at Mycenae
- Time to go
Mani Mountains and Diros Caves
In retrospect Kardamyli was something of a highlight. Since then there have certainly been high points, but mostly only those we’ve climbed to over grinding hours in our lowest gears!
We tore ourselves away from a waterside café in Karlamyli too late to ever make the ‘easy’ 40km down the coast the doddle it should have been. Despite being overtly a coast road the daft engineers seemed intent on climbing as high into the mountains as possible to achieve their aim, and we had to go with them.
For those of you who don’t cycle, and as a reminder to myself, I think it’s easier to pedal 20km on the flat than 5km on these kind of hills with our panniers on. With the same pedal force you’d be whipping along at 20-30km/h on a smooth, flat road- winding into the mountains you’re suddenly stuck, inching across the flat map at glacial ‘speed’ with tired legs and creaky knees- maybe 8km/h if you’re lucky and fresh, down to 5km/h on the really steep bits. Not having contour lines on our map (just vague topography indicated by shading) made judging journey times something of a lottery. This is one we lost! On the plus side the ride and scenery was truly spectacular- think the Highlands in the sunshine over the sea and you’re not far off. If we had given ourselves all day for it, and could have taken plenty of breaks, it would have been great, as it was we ‘arrived’ (set up emergency camp in an olive grove) just after dark, still about 8kms from our final destination and totally fried.
Our destination, other than just an exploration of the Mani, were the Diros Caves- supposedly world famous and well worth a look. The good news is that it was all downhill to the coastal caves, and that being silently punted through hundreds of metres of stalagmite architecture and inky, smooth water was well worth it. Another surprising highlight was the water outside- a quick swim to cool off and freshen up turned out to be the clearest water experience I’ve ever had- this would put any swimming pool to shame. The bad news is that it was up, up, up back to where we had camped and we still had the whole of the Mani peninsular to cross. And it looked like it was about to piss it down.
I’m not sure who Anna had been praying to, but it paid off. Somehow the east cost of the Mani is at a far lower altitude than the west coast we had come from; this meant that we spent almost the entire crossing not only in a pass between the mountains but going downhill! What are the chances? And the rain even held off! It was barely dark by the time we hit the touristy, campsite-packed east coast of the peninsula and found our way to the largest town- Gythio- for some food.
Generally the standard of cuisine, while not particularly varied, has smashed all expectations. The local feta/tomatoes/olive oil sneer at their western ‘equivalents’ and make the simplest of meals (fried eggs on bread?) a real treat. The local taverna system is a bit strange by our standards, but makes perfect sense- often they won’t have much of what’s on the menu and instead offer you their ‘daily dish’ which isn’t listed anywhere. We’ve probably had about five of these and they’ve all been amazing, and very reasonable- typically long-stewed meat, falling apart with tenderness and flavour, served with chips. In general the two of us have eaten excellently for between €20 and €30 a night, but remember we’re not drinking which keeps it down.
Not in Gythio however. There must have been a dozen touristy waterfront restaurants which made it tough to choose. Being exhausted and starving we plumped for the most premium looking with the most comfy chairs, figuring we may pay over the odds but it will be good. Hmmm. This was without doubt the worst service we’ve ever had- the zoned-out waiter eventually delivered the first starter and only then informed us the other one we had ordered was off. Never mind, we’ll make do. The real surprise came about 10 mins after my enormous (but pretty shabby) pizza turned up, and it became obvious that Anna’s salad just wasn’t coming. Figuring the food looked crap anyway we didn’t chase it up! Next morning when we cycled past someone was getting a good shouting out in the same place- same guy??
Now it was dark, we were knackered and in the middle of a large town and it still looked like it was going to rain- not ideal for wild-camping. Except, right in front of us there was Marathonisi island- quiet, close, attached to the mainland by a spit, romantic (the site of Paris and Helen’s first night together in Homer’s Iliad) but unfortunately barred with no camping signs. Never mind- given the choices, and Anna’s immediate wish upon seeing the place, it had to be investigated. It wasn’t the easiest place to camp subtly- small and criss-crossed with roads and paths- but the long-threatening rain started to come down and that was the decision made. Given the Friday night and the close car park it’s no surprise that there was a bit of coming and going but as usual we were left undisturbed for a good long sleep.
Which is just as well! After the pretty easy (as it turned out) 50k the day before we had a more testing 60ks that day, ending in the middle of what seemed to be a spine of mountains. As far as we could tell from the map there were a few 1600m peaks about, but the road didn’t seem to wind much so we were keeping our fingers crossed for a low pass through them. Having been eating and sleeping well, exercising every day and not drinking we were hoping to be blitzing the cycling by now… but although it was probably getting easier we were also getting consistently more tired- we should have built in more proper rest days in retrospect.
This left Anna in particular pretty cooked at the end of 30k’s rolling up and down the coast, and then inland through the hot, dusty, empty interior. We only spotted the one ‘big’ town we planned to stop at once we had cycled through it and seen the city limit sign! We rolled back to the only thing open- the petrol station- and tried to recover as best we could with some cold drinks. This worked a bit and we were a bit more up for the fight when we started climbing gently out of town towards the ridge of mountains which had been looming closer all day. It turns out that that roll back into town was the last downhill we would see for 30ks! Almost unbelievably the straight road just kept climbing, climbing, climbing, climbing- fairly gently to start with, but increasingly steeply and entirely relentlessly. It’s not what we had signed up for that afternoon and it took a fair bit of grit to keep grinding away hour after hour as the low pass kept failing to materialise, the air grew colder and colder and the atmosphere took on that deadened silence of cloudy altitude. Eventually it became clear that there was no pass- we seemed to be going pretty much straight over the top. For the final push we had to break out the Mp3s- Anna some trance and for me some epic, sweeping Mogwai fit the bill perfectly. Breaking over the brow at last was total jubilation and a couple of k’s downhill brought us to the entirely charming mountain village of Kosmas, complete with wrapped up locals and open fires. Given the freezing temperatures and steep slopes camping was out, and it was getting dark so we couldn’t push on- we definitely deserved the treat of a room and an endless hot shower or two! Nobody was budging on prices, despite the place seeming empty, so we ended up paying a sleepy receptionist €40 in the end- expensive but well worth it.
Despite the nice atmosphere and pretty buildings Kosmas was another empty, dead Greek town (off season or crippled economy?) Once bitten by tourist-trap restaurant, twice shy- tonight we picked the least touristy we could find- we felt like we were eating with a family in their large dining room, everyone fully dressed against the cold despite the small open fire. This was more like it, another delicious, hearty Greek selection for €19!
A massive sleep, another hot shower for luck and it was payback time! We thought we had done well going up, but heading down the other side from high in the chilly cloud down dozens of switch-back turns into one valley-plateau after another the scale of the climb we had made revealed itself fully. The village was at 1150m altitude and the ‘pass’ we had over must have been 50-100m higher than that- that meant we had made a pretty much continuous 1000m climb weighed down with panniers, on the back of 30ks of climbing and descending along the coast in the morning- pretty good going!
That morning we had the longest free ride you could imagine- 30ks all the way to the coast with barely a pedal-stroke in there! Anna is brilliant climbing, fast on the flats and my respect had reached new heights the day before- but the one place I always have to wait for her is on the downs. While I relish the break and the chance to pretend I’m on a lightweight motorbike she gets cautious and the steeper the drop the slower she goes! This has been improving however and a couple of days ago I was stunned when she clocked over 50kmh- twice what she was happy at at the beginning of the trip.
There was time for a sandwich and patisserie-buffet at the bottom before hurrying on up the east coast. We weren’t sure where we were heading that day but the final destination was ‘easily the prettiest large town in the Peloponnese’- Nafplio. Although it was a snap by comparison to the day before the hilly coastline proved a roller-coaster challenge; a series of 10 minute climbs and 3 minute descents that felt like some special setting at the gym. About 70km in the coast road finally dropped onto a wide plane- the first flat ground we had seen for days. Anna was buzzing along in the lead, nailing it up to 30km/h. I thought she was enjoying getting some distance done on the flat, but when we stopped it turned out she was entirely bored, tired and fed-up and just desperate to get to the last town (that we had accidently skirted) for a break. Uh oh! Time to break out the tea and biscuits or else we were going nowhere.
But what’s this? 20 minutes, two cups of tea and three biscuits later there’s a new girl in her place. We’re reading of Nafplio; it’s restaurants, boutique hotels, castles and café culture at the same time as sitting in a dusty lay-by on an uninspired piece of coastline and both have the same thought- could we make it tonight? It was 6pm, we had an hour and a half of daylight left and 40km to go- but it did look mostly flat and we had lights for after dark. There was only one thing to do- bang on the beats and ride. Somehow I had had a Sander Klienenberg Fabric Live mix (a 2004 vintage) in my Mp3 collection for years without giving it a full listen, now seemed like the time- perfection! Finally on the flat in a rhythm the k’s flew away, despite the exhaustion, in an exhilarating final-flurry. We clocked through 100k’s for the day just as it got dark and sprinted in to town just after 8pm, totally and utterly shattered after 119k in total- heroes.
The deal was if we made it we’d treat ourselves to two nights in a swanky(ish) hotel and do bugger all but drink in cafes, mooch and eat the next day. Over a well earned gyros pite or two (what donnor kebabs should be) in a swish fast-food place by the harbour we jumped onto booking.com and found the perfect room- cute, boutiquey, close and €50pn for a nice room with a balcony overlooking the old town.
See above description for the next day! Excellent hotel breakfast on the roof terrace, lie in, coffee, mooch about the shops, old town, harbour and castle. A proper rest day at long last (apart from the 1000 steps to the castle!) Trip Advisor (which I have a love/hate relationship with- I don’t want my travels to be a catalogue shopping experience, but I do like value and tasty food) yielded a superb Greek restaurant treat in the evening- all the same fair but even better than usual.
Unfortunately leaving Nafplio didn’t go according to plan. As soon as we left our boutique bubble things started going wrong; despite the easy day our legs still weren’t working at all, we cycled 2ks up a hill the wrong way to a beach and the weather went from undecided to dreadful minutes after we set off for the ancient ruins at Mycenae. We just about had time to sprint to the original fast food place on the front before the heavens truly opened and the storm turned biblical- we’re talking rain pouring through the inside of permanent awnings, lightning strikes all about, roads turning to rivers and eventually the awning next to ours collapsing entirely under the weight of accumulated water. The last time we’d seen weather like this was about 4am in our Cobra 3 tent- seeing what it was doing to the buildings gave us even more respect!
Holed up for hours watching the rain over a kebab or two soon got depressing, especially, having turned the problem over each way, knowing that we were going to have to ride in it one way or another. Luckily it was to be the easiest ride of the trip- 20k’s on the flat- and by the time we took the leap the rain had eased to a drizzle. Despite being flat the ride was still tough, our legs clearly hadn’t recovered much in the day off and it seems that they normally take about 10ks to get into the swing of things anyway. As it was we were struggling to do 20kmh on the flat, uninspiring, wet roads- grim.
Mycenae, Korinthos and Home
At least it was over quickly, and the official campsite (Camping…) at the other end had a very warm welcome from the matriarchal manager/farmer who took us right under her wing. Mycenae, the site of somewhat mysterious ruins dating back to 1,600 BC- the time of Homer’s epic poems- was another sleepy, empty town- a row of big empty restaurants which we hoped were at least occasionally filled by the regular visitors and coach parties, but we doubted ever were.
The ruins more than made up for all that- a stunning setting overlooking a fertile plain, mountains both distant and close and the Nafplio coastline we had ridden from combined with ‘ruins’ of staggering engineering feats. I say ‘ruins’ because they seemed polarized between those which weren’t really ruined- incredible fully-formed walls, gates, ancient tombs and a 20m deep water tunnel hewn into solid rock to secure their supply- and those which were ‘destroyed by fire’ at the time and there was very little left of. Personally I don’t understand how a civilization building the largest domed structures on earth and erecting walls of huge rocks hundreds of years before couldn’t even patch up a few fire-damaged buildings later- but I guess this kind of mystery is all part of archaeology’s appeal.
Anyway, with big tick in the Mycenae box it was time to make our final ride- 45km to Korinthos. While our original aim was Athens, to be near the airport, we had sacked that off about a week earlier when we decided the more time in the Mani and Peloponnese the better. We found that the airport train ran just as well from Korinthos (the city that fills the narrow land-link to the rest of the mainland) and that had become our final aim. It was fitting that our legs finally seemed to be working properly for the last evening run into town and it was with genuine sadness that I thought of stepping off my zippy touring bike, laden with all I could need, and going back to the real world of walking, cars and houses.
We still had a day in hand but knew it was likely to be filled with admin- finding a hotel and packing up etc- this felt like the end to me. Shunning restaurants in favour of our trusty stove we cooked up some pasta and sauce on the rocks of the harbour side and watched the moon play with the water for the last time.
We knew we’d need a hotel for the very last night, but we were undecided about this one. None of the hotels looked great (or cheap), but neither did the wild camping. The opportunity to wake up on a beach one more time won out so we cycled a way out of town in search of an unlikely beautiful spot on this industrial coast. All we found was a windswept, rubbish-strewn stretch of pebbles for a campsite- a most inglorious end to our wild camping adventures.
Despite going pretty smoothly the next day wasn’t a happy one for me- and poor Anna had to look at my grumpy face all through it! We packed up and found an adequate hotel easily enough, and it turns out old bike delivery boxes (which we needed for the flight) were ten a penny here despite not seeing one bike shop anywhere else on our trip. The bikes packed down easily and all our gear with them- all that remained was to take an evening run out to see the famous canal, eat our last tasty gyros, our last full-on Greek evening meal (a delicious recommendation from the extremely helpful hotel receptionist), arrange a taxi big enough for the boxes to get us to the train station the next morning and call it a day.
The ‘taxi’ was brilliant! Bless our receptionist; she had warned that no local taxi would be big enough and had arranged us something that could do it for €20. Blow me down if a delivery lorry doesn’t pull up on the street the next morning, lower its loading platform and winch our bikes into its cavernous interior before lumbering out into traffic with us riding shotgun! The punchline is that the chap had come over the night before to check the boxes would fit!!
The rest of the journey back here (Anna’s parents’ place now, early on a jetlagged Saturday morning) was a smooth as we could hope. The final view of Greece from the plane window was a telling one- mountains stretching in to mist- versus that of landing in Manchester- rolling hills, if that! We really had no idea it would be that challenging, but in retrospect I’m pleased it was.
So now we’re back to traffic-jams, chill, drizzle and work; but also to friends and family (I’ve got my first nephew to meet!), washing machines (thank god!) and houses and another full-on adventure tomorrow- Anna’s first half marathon in London. Stayed tuned…