Cycling in the lap of the Gods

Cycling in the lap of the Gods


From: Paul Hellander
To: Jonathan Singer

Subject: Cycling in Greece - August 1992

Greece is not the kind of place with which one would normally associate enjoyable cycling in Europe. It has high mountains, it can be very hot in Summer, it has drivers whose road sense can leave much to be desired and there is not very much written about cycling in Greece. Nonetheless, I have just come back from a 7 and a half month stay in that country, accompanied by my two bikes and I am pleased to say that cycling is alive and well in Greece - though not necessarily by the Greeks themselves.

I must point out I didn't actually choose Greece for cycling: family and work reasons took me there in the first place, but I did choose to transport my bikes from Australia to help me maintain some degree of fitness when faced with all that wine and olive oil that is part of the Greek culinary culture. For the record, I took a standard lightweight racing bike with rear racks and panniers and a mountain bike with front and rear racks and panniers the same bike, in fact that I had ridden from Geelong to Mt Gambier in December 1990.[For the uninitiated, along Australia's Great Ocean Road].

First a word about transporting a bike overseas. I took the mountain bike with me to Amsterdam in the first instance, with a view to doing some cycling in Europe. I travelled with QANTAS and Scandinavian Airlines and carefully packed the bike in a large packing carton, marked FRAGILE, BIKE and so on. When I actually reached the Mecca of cycling, I discovered that the rear wheel had been damaged in transit making my first day's ride into Amsterdam central bumpy to say the least. Conversely on the return leg from Athens to Adelaide, I simply handed the bike as it was (with the handlebars turned sideways and pedals removed) and it received only one or two minor scratches. Bubble wrap around the frame would have prevented it. The airline personnel in general had no qualms about transporting the bike and I even had a de facto larger than normal luggage allowance. The second bike was flown out to meet me in Belgium. I transported both bikes on a Dutch made cycle transporter (now on my car here in Adelaide) from Belgium to Greece, while making various forays, by bike, on the way across Europe.

Cycling in Europe and in Holland in particular is a marvellous experience. The weather in the North can be unpredictable even in mid-Summer and the roads can be crowded, but in Holland a superb network of custom built cycle roads cover the entire country, with separate signposting for cyclists. Unfortunately it can also be very windy in Holland: thank God it is flat. In the Alps, climbing the mountains on mountain bikes seems to be the way to go. At the top of Mount Piz Nair in St Moritz, Switzerland, I witnessed two intrepid cyclists who had transported their (mountain) bikes by cable car and were attempting to cycle back down again, starting with a huge snowfield that remained there throughout the year. That's what I call mountain biking.

But it was to Greece that I was ultimately destined to find my way and in mid July I turned up in Corfu, bikes in tow determined to show the Greeks how it was done elsewhere. Greeks who ride bikes belong to one of two categories: elderly gentlemen who trundle around the provincial towns on antiquated, but adequate relics of a bygone age bearing the remnants of a long since defunct bicycle registration system, or youngsters whose only means of transportation, or recreation is on two wheels. The bicycle-commuter or recreational off-roader seem to be unknown entities in Greece. The fact that I wore a helmet and, Heaven forbid, a pair of Oakleys, was the reason for much merriment and stares in the country town that I was residing in. Whole schools would interrupt their recess activities to witness this strange phenomenon and people would quiz me on the street about the various gadgets that I had installed on my bike. To be fair, no one batted an eyelid when I mentioned that I intended to cycle around Corfu or to Athens, a distance of some 450 kms from the North where I was living. Indeed, despite the fact that the terrain of much of Northern Greece is decidedly cyclist unfriendly, there was nonetheless a constant procession of foreign cyclists touring the country, mountains and all. I mainly cycled in and around the town of Ioannina and on Corfu, and managed to include some serious off road mountain 'climbing' for which Greece is adequately equipped. Allow me, though, to describe a trip that I undertook from Ioannina in the North to Patra on the NorthWest corner of the Peloponese, as well as my impressions of cycling in Athens.

I had planned to cycle to Athens from Ioannina, but it was mid- Winter, snow and high winds were a constant threat (yes, even in Greece!) and I didn't know how the vehicle drivers would take to a solo cyclist loaded down with gear sharing the road with them. I left Ioannina on January 24 this year carrying mainly clothes and sleeping gear. I did not intend to camp. Ioannina is a good place to start from: it is quite high up in the mountains and to get to the sea there is only one direction-down! Apart from a short climb out of the basin in which Ioannina lies, the run to the plains is a long, fast downhill run, following the valley through which the wild river Louros flows. The road is smooth and there is relatively little traffic. Though not designated as a cycle track, there is a wide band at the side of the road on which cyclists can comfortably ride. This accompanied me for 90% of the way. At an average speed of 23 kph, I soon reached the orange groves in the prefecture of Arta and my meeting with the Ambracian Gulf followed a welcome lunch at the little village of Menidi: 97 kms in 4.75 hours! A short 27 km run after an extended lunch brought me to my first night's stop at Amfilochia in the bottom corner of the Ambracian Gulf. Cycling had been excellent, the drivers as respectful as I could have wanted and the weather just superb.

The following morning was started with a long climb out of Amfilochia as I skirted Mount Thyamon and lake Ambracia in the direction of the impressive River Acheloos dam project. No serious hills, light traffic, but several incidents with dogs which obviously were not used to the sight of a multicoloured cyclist entering their territory. There were no other cyclists on the road, though the owner of a roadside stall informed me that he regularly saw columns of Italian, Swedish and German cyclists travelling this way during the (hotter!) Summer months. The temperature in Agrinio, through which I soon passed, occasionally exceeds 50 C in the Summer months. Not conducive to pleasant cycling. I passed Agrinio and entered the climb up to the Kleisoura Gap-the only way through to the marshy coastal plain leading to the small town of Messolongi where Lord Byron died of tuberculosis in 1824 after bravely defending the struggles of the Greek patriots in their war of independence against the Turks. A welcome lunch was taken at a roadside restaurant. So far so good: the cycling had been easy and pleasant, though the average speed had dropped to about 18kph. On the slow climb out of Messolongi and onto what I knew would be the difficult part, I got a hint of what was brewing on the Gulf of Corinth over the other side of the mountains. Strong headwinds whirling like dervishes through the gaps in the mountains found their mark: a struggling and tiring cyclist looking forward to completing the last 37 kms of the day and the softness of a welcoming bed.

Have you ever tried cycling down a steep hill and the headwind just won't let you? Not only that, there is a 200 metre drop down to the sea on your right, down which the vicious winds threaten at any moment to deposit you unceremoniously! This was how I ended my second day, very late and almost in darkness; this is how I happened upon the inclement weather that, for days had been whipping up the white caps of the Gulf of Corinth. I was too tired to eat dinner that night. The weather had not abated the following morning and did not look like doing so. I am not a masochist and I knew that after making the half way mark reasonably comfortably I could quite easily have made Athens, if the conditions had been right. This was Winter after all and I did not have finite time on my hands so a quick decision was made to transport me and my bike to Athens from Patra by train.

I was determined to cycle through the centre of a city that from appearances point of view is a decidedly non cyclist-friendly city. No cycle tracks exist, to my knowledge, and only a few hardy souls and foreign cyclists would dare to enter the maelstrom of traffic that surges through the streets of Athens 24 hours a day. I couldn't have been more surprised. Cycling round Omonia Square, up Stadiou Street and into Syntagma Square presented no more problems than riding through King William Street in Adelaide on my way home from work after 5 pm. Yes, you have to be alert and cycle confidently with the flow; you must indicate your intentions clearly and not hesitate; you need to use common sense and cycle with care, but it was rewarding to be able to 'do' Athens and then to visit the old streets of Plaka using a mode of transport that is eminently suited to this form of tourism. Parked up on the Acropolis, perched on my bike and enjoying the view (no smog that day) gave me a sense of achievement. I cycled the National Gardens, smart Kolonaki Square and through the back streets to the Australian Embassy with a view to catching up on the latest news from Oz. The Embassy was closed; it was Australia day. I even cruised passed the American Embassy back to Syntagma down the ever so busy Eleftheriou Venizelou Street by using the trolley lane, one eye over my shoulder to keep ahead of the advancing trolleys. Cycling in central Athens, though not for the nervous amongst us, is quite definitely a goer.

As I now cycle the same bike through Adelaide for breakfast in Victoria Square, or through the gentle Barossa Valley and hopefully later along the Mawson Trail, memories of Greece become faded, but the smile and fond reminiscence lingers on. My own trip was but a drop in the Ocean compared to some of the stories of trips that I have read. I met people who cycled around Greece after first circumnavigating Iceland or 'doing' the Canadian Rockies. I read of people who have cycled to Australia from Europe. What can I say? I too would love to do this and I am sure that there is nothing that physically stops me attempting something as challenging as a global circumnavigation, but we live in a world where the necessity to work and shoulder responsibilities makes it less likely that this can be done. I hope my own brief description of cycling in Greece will give someone the inspiration to perhaps make that trip that they have always planned: I certainly have the intention to make quite a few more.

(c) 1992 Paul Hellander


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