Wednesday, 31 December 2008
My gateway to Greece was via the port of Patra after a fifteen hour overnight boat ride from Brindisi, Italy. I shared my sleeping quarters - the open deck, with Rod and Oscar, two young Aussıe musicians on their way back home after a successful tour of the States. Barracked in our sleeping bags we lay down on wooden deck chairs and let the boat act like a giant cradle gently rocking us to sleep as our lungs lapped up the soothing salty sea breeze. The next morning we were awoken by a steward shaking us motioning that we should move - the boat had already docked whilst we were still lying on ours!
Once ashore we bolted down some breakfast. I couldn't resist a couple cups of strong Greek coffee gulped down between mouthfuls of chocolate and banana crepe. We said our goodbyes, with the boys heading off on the bus to Athens whilst I pedalled around the coast towards Korinthos relieved that the roads were calm and clear after having been bullied all the way to Brindisi by the impatient Italian drivers.
I dallied along the thirty five miles to Diakopto savouring the renewed sense of adventure which a new country brings. I camped on a rough piece of roadside land sharing my food, company and conversation with a German 'spiritualist'. He had been through some tough times and spent the next four hours telling me about them. He was diagnosed as a schizophrenic when forcefully admitted into a psychiatric hospital by his parents ten years ago. However, he put his altered mental state - which included constant commands via voices down to a spiritual experience he had in India many years before. It was fascinating listening to his perspective of events but without enough knowledge on schizophrenia or spiritualism I was not in any position to comment either way. I did detect that he was very lonely but was unable to spend time with people due to his mental condition. He had bought a bike and a few belongings and was just cycling until his money ran out. He now disowned his family, had no friends and did not seem to be in a position to make any new ones. Although he was more withdrawn in the morning we stıll shared a fine breakfast of coffee, biscuits, rice wrapped in vine leaves, bread and the ubiquitous chocolate spread but he spent more time talking to himself than with me, so I packed up my panniers and wished him good luck. He said that luck had nothing to do with it and that it was fated that he should follow his constant flow of words!
After a short cycle I stopped at a quiet beach to recalibrate with caffeine and bumped into a Dutch ballet dancer who ran her own school in Amsterdam. Tina was full of fun and vitality and although she was almost sixty, energy pulsed out of every pore! She invited me back to her house to share some yogurt, nuts and honey whilst we discussed her dilemma. Her husband, who had some health issues, was keen to retire to Greece to their cosy condominium on the coast. Where as, she seemed reluctant to give up her ballet business and big house in the city. As I was leaving, her husband arrived home just in time to wave me off - I wonder who won? The short time with Tina was the perfect antidote for the subtle sadness I had allowed to seep into me after my sojourn with the 'spiritualist' - sometimes I can empathise too much!
After further fuel stops and fifty five miles I eventually came upon an all-night internet cafe in Korinthos. I attended to my emails, familiarised myself with the blog Ale had set up for me and nursed a dram until dawn. I then accelerated off to Athens flying along for another fifty five miles - the last fifteen involving the usual mayhem and madness associated with inner city roads. I actually asked a female driver if there was an alternative route into Athens but she said no. 'But it's a motorway,' I said, whilst pointing to my bike. 'This is Greece,' she growled, in a tone which suggested I should just get on with it. So I did!
I cycled to the centre and sat people watching whilst devouring a giant dough ring. Trying to track down the local Tourist Information Office I collared a copper for help. He said that Athens did not have one - this was highly unlikely! I then asked where the nearest Youth Hostel was. According to him Athens did not have Youth Hostels either, as there were plenty of cheap hotels - I knew this was complete nonsense! Third time lucky! Now a little exasperated I asked him to direct me to the nearest internet cafe - at least he knew this! Within ten minutes of Googlıng 'Youth Hostel Athens,' I was booked into a dorm only five minutes from his beat. People are always making up stories rather than just simply admitting that they do not know!
I was sharing the clean, mixed en suite dorm with five other folk for twelve and a half euros per night. As there was no where to dry my clothes I had to pay an additional six euros to have them laundered. Normally I am quite content hand washing my clothes finding the chore cathartic and also preferring to spend the money drınking a beer whilst sitting in a bar reading a book. I bought two veggie wraps at the corner cafe before crashing into bed at eleven for a twelve hour stint in the land of nod, not even hearing the rowdies roll into the room at three thirty.
When I met Tijs from Belgium he was well stoned! He had spent three days roving around Athens ancient relics and said he could not face any more piles of boulders. As I am always on the move with the bike I am not so bothered about sightseeing within cities Besides, usually by the time I reach them I am shattered and quite happy to sit about. However, when Tijs suggested a little stroll up Lycabettus Hill to the Agious Gorgiouskapel Church where you get a perfect panoramic view of the city, I readily agreed. He was a lovely sensitive, open guy and we had a nice natter as we sauntered up the steep slope arriving just in time to see the sun set, then watch Athens come alive with lights. It was well worth the effort and the expense of the profiteering priced bottle of beer that we sipped during the show.
Later, when sitting at the corner cafe close to the hostel enjoying the delicious veggie wraps, a fight broke out nearby. It seems that when some Greeks drink they do not say 'Cheers', but 'Chairs', as one man started clouting and clattering a heavy set chair over another guys head. People started running from all corners to ensure that the contest continued, with the louts lashing their limbs at anything and everything. Just as the trouble began to edge closer to our table a convoy of cops arrived in six cars and six motorbikes screeching along the road to break up the brawl. One man was marched past our table with his blood and nose spread all over his face! Once things had settled down a man approached Tijs wanting to shake his hand whilst showing off with a mobile phone. Two nights earlier someone had bumped into Tijs as he was heading for the hostel. When he arrived he realised the person had stolen his phone. He immediately went back out into the street and searched for twenty minutes before finding the thief in a mobile phone shop about to swap sim cards. He retrieved his phone with force then left the man alone - apparently this was the same man now laughing with his latest loot!
After another rest day hovering about the hostel I headed out of Athens on the National Road 1. Sitting on the slip road watching the stream of traffic streak by there was a certain reluctance to move onto the motorway. However, I knew that within five minutes I would be acclimatised to the accelerated speed, so İ puffed out my cheeks, pushed the bike into position and pedalled off. Fifteen miles later I found the old route that ran parallel, so thankfully I moved onto the less congested carriage-way. However, I spent most of the next week and hundreds of miles on the motorway as the old route appeared and disappeared at will. On a couple of occasions I was turfed off at the tolls or moved on by maintenance men but on the whole I left alone to career along in my own carriage-way only veering off to cool down with cold coffees at the roadside vans.
That evening I stopped at Shimatari camping behind some obscure large cement structure in the middle of a field - the place gave me the creeps! Whilst I was lying in the tent it was lit up with intermittent flashing lights. However, each time I crept out to look I was greeted with a sheet of darkness. Later, as I was sitting in the tent there was a deafening din whilst the ground started shaking violently, knocking me over. 'What the bloody hell was that?' I heard myself say. Again I unzipped the tent but nothing - the only thing still shaking was me!
Arriving late at Lamia I landed up at a BP twenty four hour truck stop. It had a restaurant, a shop and a shower so shoddy that I felt inclined to limit my lathering! The car park was crammed with cargo trucks, bustling with buses and overrun with rats, foraging for the scraps of waste food at the rear of the restaurant. However, cowering in the corner was a grubby triangle of grass just large enough to host my hoose. I lifted the litter and toed away the used tissues but could not bring myself to remove the fat rat that lay, 'legs up,' only a few feet from my own. It was a low energy place but once I was cocooned inside my canvass I was convinced I would feel better - I didn't! I didn't get much sleep either as the refrigerated lorry right next to me roared all night, ensuring its contents remained cool whilst I was anything but! The next morning when inhaling a lung full of diesel fumes I realised I felt flatter than road kill. I struggled on for seven miles to Stilida where my legs went on strike and I was seduced by an enormous orange sofa in Cafe Goa. It had recently opened and was fresh, spacious and stylish. In between snacking and snoozing I was joined by Joanne, the young owner, whose ambition was to visit Goa. She was a bonny bundle of nervous energy and could not sit still for more than a few moments. Although the place was spotlessly clean, she was contınually dashing off with a damp cloth to either wipe something, adjust the position of a plant pot, smoke a fag or slice up more salad - even though the cafe had few customers! She persistently presented me with portions of cake and extra drinks which I never ordered. Even her mother got in on the act, arriving with a toasted sandwich. When I refused, she was adamant that I should eat it, insinuating that I was too thin! Although it was difficult, after all I had eaten, I eventually had to make a move. It was late and I was in danger of exploding! As I was hugging Joanne, thanking her and saying goodbye, her face became furrowed with a serious frown. Looking at me she blurted out, 'Please watch out for the men with the knıves'. I assured her that I would! I felt lıke replying wıth, 'Please watch out for the profit margin, or you will never get to Goa'.
Struggling to find my way out of Stalida after taking a wrong turn, I stopped at a petrol station barely a mile from the cafe to check that I was going the right way. It was now dark and the road ahead seemed too narrow to be the main route. Nadia and Agglless immediately offered me a coffee - even before I had opened my mouth! They were in the wrong vocation. Instead of a petrol station they should have owned a pet station. They had three dogs and seven cats camped in the house with another six dogs barking and growling in the garden! They also had a monster sıze metal bowl in the forecourt to feed all the stray animals they could not house! They simply loved animals and could not bare to see any go hungry - it was costing them a fortune on food each week! We spent the evening dıscussing pets, politics, petrol prices, previous partners and parents. This obviously took some time so it was just before two when I snuggled down under the forecourt table to watch the procession of paws pad past the petrol pumps to feast on the free food. As one cat purred past, it almost lost one of its nine lives with the fright it gave itself upon spotting me - such special moments!
Posted by Eric at 10:14 a.m.