Greek Highs and Lows

The sight of the Acropolis of Athens can re-ignite the wanderlust in even the most jaded of travellers. The ancient citadel dates back to the 5th Century BC and was Pericles that coordinated the construction. Perched high above the city, it exudes a powerful presence that has carried through the ages.  The sheer size of the columns of the Parthenon and the remarkable detail are a wonder to behold. Unfortunately much of it is now covered in scaffolding for restoration purposes.

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My favourite was the temple of Athena Nike – a beautiful and ornate building to honour the Greek Goddess.

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The Temple of Athena Nike

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Coliseum

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View of Athens from the Acropolis 

While in Athens, I also visited the Archaeological Museum which had some incredible sculptures. My favourite was a depiction of the Goddess Aphrodite trying to ward off some annoying advances from Pan. A late night bar scene in Greek mythology.

After I finished being a tourist in Athens, the next destination was the island of Crete, where I had planned to cycle for a few weeks.

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The classic Greek salad

I arrived in Athens by air from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to escape the winter. It was a strange feeling entering such a developed society when I had spent so much time riding the wild lands of Mongolia, the Himalaya and Central Asia. While I enjoyed the beauty of Greece, the delicious yogurt and fresh produce I somehow felt disconnected a lot of my time in the country. While the people were friendly, they lacked the openness and outgoing nature of those in the countries I had previously cycled. While I was invited daily into yurts in Mongolia, had countless offers of chai in China and Central Asia and was given enthusiastic waves and smiles I was seldom acknowledged as I rolled through the villages of Crete. I am not trying to paint a negative image of the people of Greece – it was just different. 

I was in a new world and it wasn’t something that I adapted to easily. I experienced periods of loneliness on Crete that I hadn’t felt before. My moods rose and fell with the hills that seemed to cover every inch of that island.

After nine hours, I rolled off the ferry from Piraeus and into the town of Xania, famous for it’s old Venetian style harbour.

The one advantage of cycling Crete in November is the complete lack of tourists. Areas that would normally be bursting with crowds, suddenly turned into ghost towns. One of the highlights of Xania was trying some bougatsa, a delicious phyllo pastry stuffed with soft cheese and coated in icing sugar. It was divine.

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The incredibly delicious bougatsa!

Leaving Xania, I headed inland for the mountains. I had met some travellers in Xania that told me about the Balos Lagoon on the very Northwest of the Island accessed via a dirt road. I arrived late in the day and hiked down to the lookout point. It was a gorgeous sight with its shifting palette of dark blue and turquoise.

 

As the sun started to set, I descended the bumpy dirt road in search of somewhere to camp. I would soon to discover how easy it was to wild camp on the island. My campsite that night was one of my favourites on the island. I dragged my bike off of the dirt road and pitched my tent beneath a tiny church near the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean.

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Curious neighbours

While I am not a beach person, I wanted to check out the remote Elafonissi on the Southwest of the Island, famous for its pinkish sand and stunning scenery. I basically crossed a small mountain range to get there before once again descending to the coast. Tiny churches are a common sight on Crete acting as shelter or convenient lunch stops.

 

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Elanfonissi was deserted with only a few camper vans parked near the beach. Though I didn’t particularly notice the pinkish colour, the sand was pure and compact, covered in footprints and wavering trails. With no one in sight on the beach, these seemed like the marks of ghosts. With its remote feel and colourful surroundings this place held an aura of magic.

Climbing away from the coast once again into the heavy, humid air I headed toward the mountain village of Omalos. I passed through many small villages and it felt like almost every inch that I was riding was uphill. The villages felt deserted, with only a few restaurants open to tourists.

The main life in the towns were locals sitting outside at cafes drinking coffee, staring out into an eternal afternoon. Little old ladies dressed in black from head to toe crept out from pure white doorways. I even saw a few old men riding donkeys into town. Sometimes it felt like a step back in time. But the silence and lack of acknowledgment between myself and the locals sometimes made for a lonely ride. It was just me and the hills that consumed my empty thoughts. As I gained elevation towards Omalos the air turned from heavy and humid to cool and crisp.

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I passed towering windmills and coniferous forest that reminded me a bit of home in Canada. Omalos is situated on a plateau and is the jump off point for a hike through the famous Samaria Gorge. At 18km it is one of the longest in Europe. Unfortunately the trail was closed for the season, but I cycled to the trailhead to get a glimpse.

 

And afterwards found an interesting campsite…

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I decided to get my hiking fix in the Imbros Gorge, near to the beach town of Hora Sfakion. It is about half the length of the Samaria Gorge at 8km long.

My route descended along small, quiet roads lined with orange groves. I helped myself generously along the way. Little discoveries like this are heaven for a cyclist on a hot day.

Then, once again, unsurprisingly I was going uphill. Relentlessly. This is life cycling around Crete. I crossed over the White Mountains, where the weather had started to turn foul.

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It’s not a flat island…

After spending the night in touristy Hora Sfakion, I took a bus to the trailhead of the Imbros Gorge. Like everywhere else on the island in the low season, the trail was deserted. I enjoyed a silent walk through the gorge with its vertical walls soaring up to 300m high. The Gorge is a mere 2m at its narrowest point. My only company were a couple of curious goats that stared down at me from the walls above.

After leaving Imbros, my enthusiasm on the road started to wither. The constant climbing felt like a monotonous, unwelcome challenge and one village seemed to blend into another. There was one day when I hit a particularly low point. It was hard to conceive of being in such a state of mind at the time. I found a beautiful, isolated little beach at the base of stunning cliffs in the background.

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Sometimes, this needs to happen…

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It was really such a peaceful setting, but the pangs of loneliness that I felt were blocking any sense of appreciation for the place. Was I simply feeling jaded and needed a break? or was I suddenly struggling with being alone and in need of companionship? It was hard to find the real answer. Then, that night, comfort appeared when I most needed it. I heard “meow meow” outside of my tent and I zipped open my door. In crawled my little orange friend. He made himself comfortable in my sleeping bag and stayed there the entire night. I simply called him “tent kitty.”

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Me and tent kitty – a new and welcome friend

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Tent kitty became so attached that it was even a struggle to get him out of the tent the next morning. I waved goodbye to my attention-seeking little cat – the best friend that I made on Crete.

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Now it was time to cross the mountains again, back towards the North coast of the Island to the most populous city, Heraklion, where I would take a ferry back to Piraeus.

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A brief stint of off roading

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Perfect cumulus clouds near Hora Sfakion

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Once again, heading North into the hills

On my second last day of cycling I barely escaped a rain storm with ferociously high winds. I sought shelter it a small church near the side of the road. These tiny, whitewashed places of worship covered the island and provided a good option for camping.

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Shelter for the night

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As you can see, it gets fairly windy here!

When I got to Heraklion, I was relieved. Crete is truly a beautiful island, but I was mentally and physically burnt out and ready for a rest.

When I got back to Athens, I prepared myself for the next stage of my trip – a bit of a non-cycling interlude. I headed to the tiny island of Paros to trying WWOOFing for the first time. WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) gives travelers the chance to really experience local life. In exchange for room and board you can work on an organic farm doing a variety of tasks. A couple I had met cycling on a tandem from England had worked at this particular place on Paros and raved about their experience. With their connection I decided to try it for myself. Before I left for Paros I stayed with a few Warm Showers hosts – Charlotte, a journalist from France (for the 2nd visit) and Steve, a chef from the UK that is planning on starting his own bicycle touring company in Greece.

I accompanied Steve for a Monday night ride around Athens which usually draws about 80 cyclists. The turn out was less this time because it was too “cold” (about 11 degrees).  I looked around at the sea of light weight and fancy road bikes surrounding me. My bike was a transport truck amongst race cars. It was great to be able to ride an unloaded bike at a fast past pace with a large group. It was something I hadn’t done in a long time and made me miss the long distance club rides I used to do at home in Canada.

The next day I hopped a ferry for the four hour journey to Paros, where I would meet my WWOOFing hosts.

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Sunset on Paros

I soon turned up at the stunning of house of Jim, originally from the UK and Irini from Greece, The place was surrounded by wonderful gardens with a view down to the ocean over the hills. I took on a variety of tasks from fixing a compost to digging holes for planting trees and what I became best at – destroying thorn bush.

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Hard at work on Paros

It was a great experience to work in such a tranquil and beautiful setting and to get a glimpse into the lives of locals along with their 5 cats and 3 dogs.

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Mississippi welcoming me to Paros

I was also in the company of other WWOOFers and was even given the chance to hang with fellow Canadians Jill and Matt, from the remote community of Powell River, British Columbia. It was good to hear a Canadian accent again and tell Canadian jokes and make reference to very Canadian things (like using the word ‘toque’ which is a warm winter hat, like a beanie). On our days off, we visited the beautiful mountain village of Léfkes and walked the 1000-year-old Byzantine trail and a few kilometres later ended up in the traditional village of Pródromos.

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Flowers on the Byzantine trail

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Jill and Matt walking the Byzantine Trail

For me this was the quintessential Greek village. Completely awash in blinding white it was a maze of narrow cobblestone alleys. Colourful, exotic flowers spilled over window sills and were an inviting contrast to the sea of white.

 

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A few days later, I returned to Athens once again to prepare for the next stage of my cycling journey.

In Greece, the most tame of the countries I had visited, I experienced more highs and lows than anywhere else on the trip so far. While a cycle tour is often regarded as a feat of physical endurance, it is important not to underestimate the mental struggles that can accompany it. Greece is a beautiful country, but for me, cycling wise it lacked the adventurous element that has drawn me to the more wild places of Asia. After Greece, my plan was to ride the African continent from Cairo to Cape Town, But security concerns in Egypt left me hesistant. I also hit a bump in the road, encountering sickness and unexpected heartbreak. At this point, it didn’t feel right for me to go, so I have changed my plans. I will ride Cairo to Capetown one day, but in my heart, now doesn’t feel like the right time.

So what is the plan? I am currently in my hometown of Toronto, Canada where I am spending a month to get mentally and physically back on track. Then I am making my way to Myanmar where I will cycle towards Thailand and then possibly a flight to Taiwan. After exploring the island I will reunite with the world’s great tandem couple Marcus and Kirsty in Korea before heading to Japan. Following that, a break in Australia to work and ride. And after? Who knows, but the Andes are calling to me…

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6 thoughts on “Greek Highs and Lows

  1. WELL said My Friend. Thanks for the pic of the Greek Salad; appreciated! Your writing is better than ever Tara. I think the little break in your journey has restored your spirit and very soon, your heart;)

    Hope to see you soon!

    R.

    Ronda Pegnam Creator/Fearless Leader The Walltalk Company Inc Phone 1.800.390.4577 Website-www.walltalksales.ca “The harder you work, the luckier you get”

    Date: Thu, 28 Jan 2016 17:27:32 +0000 To: walltalk@sympatico.ca

    Like

  2. HI Tara, Your perceptions of Crete are very interesting. I’ve been living in Hania for 25 years now, and can relate to your thoughts. You have written an excellent account of what Western Crete is like during the winter when there are no tourists. Fantastic pictures too. I wish you safe travels.

    Like

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    Like

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