Ipsala to Kakavia via Thessaloniki, Vergina and Meteora
Entering Greece was always going to be epic. Although we had been on continental Europe for about a week, we were still in Turkey. Now, as we pushed our bikes up to the final passport check and were stamped in, we had officially cycled from Australia to Europe. It felt surreal.
I must admit I knew little about Greece, and even less about northern Greece. The news was all about the economic crisis, much of what we had missed because of our limited access to media. We more or less went in blind, without a Guidebook or any idea of what to expect. More and more I am finding this the best way to travel. Even though it is nice to read about a country’s history too. Especially when you visit ancient sites. I guess ultimately it’s good to have an open mind and a balanced approach.
Greece was also where we finally said goodbye to the Muslim world, which we had more or less been in since Western China. I was going to miss the call to prayer, which at its best can send shivers down your spine. Now it was time for church bells and religious shrines on the side of the road. Greek society immediately felt different, somehow more open. More people on the street, more women out and about, more life spilling out from cafes and bars and suddenly alcohol freely available everywhere. Although Western Turkey is not that conservative, it was still a marked difference.
Then there was the beauty of Greece, which utterly astounded us. Barely a day went by when we did not exclaim, “what is wrong with this country?! It’s so bloody beautiful!” This was intensified by the fact that we really had left winter behind, everything was green and the sun shone almost everyday. I felt alive and so happy. Anyone who has spent a large part of the winter living in a tent, cycling through the elements with day after day of rain, will know what I mean. Spring I think brings joy to all of us but for me this year it was even more potent.
Our first few days were spent cycling along the coast. With Brooke’s excellent navigation and use of google maps we found the tiniest dirt roads, with sweeping views out to sea. We camped on beaches and built fires and no one seemed to care. Our route took us through deserted holiday villages (the off season or the crisis?) and along high cliff roads. One day we found hot springs, now deserted due to the economic situation. We luxuriated in the hot water and Brooke even managed to catch a fish. It felt like we were on this endless blissful holiday. There were always plenty of places to swim, the drivers had markedly improved, the roads were good and the tiny villages really rather picturesque. And to us Greece seemed so clean! It is a sad fact that most countries since we left Australia have a trash problem. Here we really noticed the shift in attitude and it was a relief to not see rubbish everywhere. Europeans we met said that they thought Greece had quite a lot of rubbish around compared to their countries, but to us it was a huge improvement.
Greece was also were Lidl begins. Lidl for anyone who is not familiar with the brand is a German supermarket chain, similar to Aldi. It is CHEAP and GOOD. You will often find cycle tourists outside of Lidl stores. This is true! The first time Astrid and I went inside a Lidl we freaked out about the range and price (especially beer!). Normally I actually don’t like supermarkets. At home were there is a dangerous duopoly, where farmers and small business suffer, I make it a point almost never to enter a supermarket. I am lucky because in inner Melbourne I have that choice. Here, on the road in Greece with limited funds, cheap supermarkets are too great a temptation. Maybe some people think I am crazy, but to me (and Astrid) being ethical about food is important. It often takes us 10 mins to choose a peanut butter (does it use palm oil? has it travelled far? Is the company ethical? Price?). Maybe it would be easier not to think about all these things, but I guess it would also be easier to take a plane to Europe rather than cycle too.
Our first real city stop was Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. We explored some of the ruins, including ones from Roman times and stayed with wonderful WarmShowers hosts in their cute apartment right in the city. Thanos and Areti were the first Greek people we really talked to and like usual we were full of questions. They said that the crisis was bad but that in a way life just went on, which is what we observed when we visited a crowded Taverna and tasted the most delightful Greek food. They also said people in cities suffer more than those in the country, who often grow their own food and live in family homes. Makes you think about how important growing your own food is. How if one could be sustainable by growing food and bartering with neighbours, you can just step out of this broken system we have. Perhaps growing our own food is one of the most radical things we can do.
That night, although tired, we went out to experience the Thessaloniki nightlife. Astrid and I were really treated to a unique experience, as there was a party on at one of the Taverna’s. Returned immigrants dancing the night away to Greek music. We were served ice cold beers (and tapas, which comes free with beer!) and then invited to join the dancing. Astrid picked it up quickly and I kind of stumbled around the circle, trying to get my feet to work. It was fun.
From Thessaloniki we headed inland, towards Vergina (yes, lots of jokes were made about this name) an archeological site of significance and World Heritage listing. It was a site of an ancient Macedonian capital and where Alexander the Great’s father’s (Phillip the II) tomb was found in 1977. I found it quite an amazing museum as it has kind of been built into the hill and around the tombs. The objects and artifacts found are in really good condition and the whole experience well worth it. I mean by now we have seen a serious amount of ancient stuff, but I was impressed.
Our route than took us through more Greek countryside, along small roads and into tiny villages. Some looked like they had suffered the blows of the economic times, with boarded up shops and barely a soul in sight. Others appeared empty, only to discover the entire population (it seemed) in a small tavern eating and drinking Raki (a holiday?). We climbed through farmland and dropped into river valleys, always finding lovely places to pitch our tent and enjoy a quiet beer at the end of the day.
We reached the famous monastic site of Meteora from a back valley and were rewarded with sweeping views of these incredible monasteries, perched high on the sandstone rock pillars. Exploring them was amazing, winding our way up the narrow stairs and through the many rooms, often exquisitely decorated. I especially liked that ancient kitchen and the cellar where they kept the beer they brewed.
By this time we were well overdue for a rest day and gratefully collapsed into the rather nice campground (swimming pool, bar, restaurant, wifi, cooking area). Here we not only met Chris and Pete two English cyclists travelling from Greece back to the UK, but also Miriam and Francesca, two Swiss girls on a cycling adventure, and two Spaniards also exploring Greece on bikes. It was quite a merry group that first night, as the wine and stories flowed freely.
We bade Chris and Pete farewell the next day with a prolonged breakfast party involving pancakes and copious amounts of coffee and other food. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and catching up on emails, and shopping as the next day was Sunday (shops are not open on Sundays here). While checking my emails I came across one from Nate. Turns out he was just down the road and we would be seeing him in half an hour! It was lovely to see Nate again and we exchanged stories, drank wine and Astrid cooked a rather gourmet meal for everyone. Another fabulous night with friends new and old(er).
Waking to Church bells as the sun rises with a promise of another lovely spring day was quite charming. Now we were a group of 5 as the Swiss girls were going the same way. We cycled up an easy gradient, chatting and laughing and meeting the occasional cycle tourist going the other way. In the afternoon we took a road which was blocked to cars as there was still snow on the pass. Not only were we surrounded by mountains, forests and cyclists, but there were no cars! My idea of heaven.
We found the most wonderful place to camp, with sweeping views of the valley and mountains. After setting up camp, we noticed to figures, moving slowly on the road below us. Using the zoom lens of Astrid’s camera revealed the Spanish! Now we were 7 cyclists, camping on the side of a mountain, the sun setting and our little campfire burning. Life was good.
The following morning, leaving the Spanish sleeping we headed the rest of the way up the pass and pushed our bikes through the 200m of snow at the top. Then it was down hill to ‘cheese town’. It was a village famous for it’s motsovone cheese. Here copious amounts of cheese were purchased, along with wine and bread. Then we met Nate who had arrived earlier in the morning. He joined us for a picnic cheese marathon in the park.
The 6 of us continued on towards the border with Albania. We had one more communal night of camping in a field where we were visited by a herd of sheep before we parted at Lidl (where else) to go our separate ways.
Thank you Greece, you were amazing.