Greece 2008

 

I HAVE RETURNED!  Leaving a motorcycle tends to create a bit of an anchor in a country that inevitably brings you back.  After a couple days in Brussels looking for a job and seeing my European family (the Drapers) I got on a plane and flew out to Athens, arriving on the 19th of September.

 

I had spent a good bit of time in Athens last time I was here, and though I hadnÕt actually gone up to the Acropolis or to the Historical Museum (which I probably ought to have) I wasnÕt in a site-seeing mood.  I called up my friend Orestis and arranged to meet him later that night in outside of Monistaraki.  I arrived about an hour early so I sat down on the steps and pulled out my good olÕ trusty journal. 

 

A kid, who was sitting next to me, leaned over and asked me if I was a tourist.  Funny question to ask me, as that is the one thing  I think I try more than any else to NOT be.  So I replied – No.  I am a traveler.  ItÕs a distinction I think is very important.  The problem is that Tourists and Travelers often find themselves in similar places.  Both travel to new places and try to learn what they can about the history, the culture, and see the sites. 

 

But how they do it is quite different.  Travelers try to find the off beat path, they spend as much time, if not more time trying to meet the people of any given area then see the sites.  And they absolutely abhor organized tours and being herded around like cattle.  Get on the bus, stop for a bathroom break and a quick photo opp, and then get right back on.  UGH!

 

Right – so Athens.  I had a great dinner with Orestis, finally got back to the land of Gyros, Fetta, Olive Oil and Souflaki (at last!) and we talked about motorcycles and traveling. 

 

I left him around 9 that evening and headed over to meet up with Takis.  We reunited at long last with big grins!  He was having some dinner with a friend so I went with them and had my very first steak in Europe!  I didnÕt even know they existed here!

 

The next day was ugly and rainy so I opted to take the buss rather than the back of TakisÕ bike as we went out to get my bike.  At long long last I was reunited with my Ōtwin!Õ  oh how I have missed her!  We arrived a bit too late to do any work on the bike, but we had a great dinner with his parents and a good nights sleep. 

 

Sunday I woke up early, excited to finally be back in the saddle!  I spent at least 2 hours trying to figure out the best way to pack up my bags in the most efficient manner possible.  This, like all things, has a learning curve, and is always the hardest the first few times you try as you figure out new and better ways to stuff things. 

 

It was just about ten when we finally pulled her out of the garage. I was very nervous that she wouldnÕt start up – afterall she had been sitting for almost 10 months!  But my baby didnÕt let me down – she fired right up, horses blazing on the first try.  GOD I love that bike!  I sent the rest of the morning and afternoon doing little maintence things and giving her a good bath.  By about four we were finally all set and ready to rock!

 

The trip down to Zacharo from Karmena Vourla is about 300km, normally Takis says it takes him about 3 or so hours.  WellÉnot me.  IÕm slow.  We finally arrived in Zacharo just after 9!  But man was it a nice drive.  Oh the beauty of the Greek countryside.  And we hit it all – some short plains, a couple of big mountains and canyons, and then down to the sea to follow the coast around and then over the gigantic bridge at Patra. 

The next 5 days were a bit stressful.  I felt like I spent the whole time in front of a computer, banging my head against the monitor trying to figure out how the hell to insure my bike.  Finally, when I found a company who would do it for under 100 euros (actually for only 22 euros!) I had to figure out how the hell to put the money in their account in Luxembourg.  I would have never imagined how difficult that would be!  (I have all the details of the company I used, ARISA, and how to send money to foreign bank accounts in my tips and tricks of the road section).  I donÕt think it would have been so bad if I wasnÕt right at the beginning of my trip and just so eager to START!

 

Actually getting the insurance was a bit of a comedy of errors.  Its really rather difficult to do the first time around, and last year didnÕt count because its so damn easy from Germany!  I knew that god was really going to have fun with me again this trip when I went to the bank on Thursday to send the money to the Luxemburg bank.  I woke early with Takis.  The weather was dark and foreboding.  Rain poured down and the wind whipped through the streets.  I should have known something would be up.

 

When we entered the bank I knew that there would be problems.  None of the lights were on and the tellers were milling around not really working.  Sure enough, the storm had knocked the power out for the whole town.  Great.  Guess I would have to come back later and hope they were able to get it all restored.  I went back to the house and cooked up a nice breakfast, then took the Twin over to the mechanic for an oil change and general inspection.  I generally like to do all the maintance on my vehicles, but Takis said that it would be free – and getting the skid plate and protective bars off arenÕt that easy.  It wasnÕt free – but they did a very professional job which probably wasnÕt a bad idea for the start of my trip. 

 

But it was getting late.  The bank closed at 2:30, and Takis had said he would meet me at 1:30 so we could try again.  By 2 I was getting very antsy.  I figured that even if the transfer happened immediately, it would still take a day for the Insurance company to get everything squared away and actually send me a scan of my policy.  We finally made it to the bank just about 2:15 – just in time!  Well, it would have been had I not been cursed with Tim Brown luck.  The moment, and I mean the VERY MOMENT that I stepped on the marble floor of the bank I heard a click and my heart fell as all the lights in the building suddenly snapped off.  BUT IT WASNÕT EVEN RAINING ANYMORE!  The Teller just shrugged – We can try again tomorrow Takis said trying to cheer me up.  I was just dumbfounded.  We went to another bank to try but found that the blackout was complete for downtown.  I surrendered – I knew there were some powerful forces working against me in Greece. No point in trying to fight themÉthings will work out here – just not on my timetables.  The memory of the general strike came echoing back to me. 

 

Actually, speaking of strikes, there was another thing that I had to worry about.  The Customs union had gone on strike which wouldnÕt effect me that muchÉexcept that 100% of GreeceÕs gas is imported. No imports = no gas = no travel!  Last time they went on strike it lasted a week, we were already 2 days into the strike, and all the big cities were running out.  Athens was dry, Kalamata would be by the time I got there.  If its not one thing – its another.  But one thing you can always count on is for the Greeks to go on Strike!

 

But even as difficult and stressful as it was, it was still really great to get to hang out with Takis and Penny!  They are really just such wonderful people, very funy, kind, sweetÉall the nice words you can say about people.  We went out and played Tennis one evening, and then to a movie (Hancock) another night.  We ate amazing meals – they REALLY know how to pick out good food! – and even went bathing in the Springs of Kalifa!  So a big THANK YOU to both of them!  It just blows my mind how good and close of a friend I have made, half the world away.   

 

Finally I decided, just about midnight that I could stay no longer.  I think subconsciously I had made the decision a few days earlier – strangely all my laundry was done, and my bags semi –packed.  I had a rough outline of what I wanted to see and what I could see.  Takis made a call to Kalamata to a friend he had there and arranged a place for me to sleep at 11 pm!  God Bless couch surfing!  I sent the next hour looking at maps and plotting a route – good and confusing, full of back roads which should be fun J

 

So the next day I went down to the bank to send off the payment for the insurance I had been struggling with all week.  I was very disheartened to hear that it would be another 2 days for the bank transfer!  I had read that IBAN (International Bank Account Number) transfers were very fast and cheap – but this was costing me 17 euros and taking 2 days!  I would have been better off just doing it from home!  (Better not in the cheaper sense but the faster sense) or having gone with the original plan of using Knopftours (www.knopftours.com) .  Oh well, live and learn!  So much for trying to save a buck!

 

After the unpleasant business with the bank and Insurance and all that rot was figured out, I drove back to the apartment, said goodbye for one last time and at last headed out!

 

But I didnÕt make it far.  As I was whipping around the back roads – headed up to Figalia to where Takis and Penny teach, I saw a man running at me waving and shouting for me to stop.  I did immediately, and seconds later there was a thundering SNAP and a giant tree fell across the road.  It would be another 30 minutes clearing it away and waiting.  I just had to laugh and hope that this would not be the theme of my journey J  It was clear though, that it would not be a bumpless trip.  But thatÕs good really – It was the struggles in my last trip which are the most memorable, which forced me to grow the most.  Now donÕt take this to be me saying I hope things get rocky and that they are difficult, but rather I know that there will be bumps and pitfalls and my only prayer is that I will have the grace and good humor to learn and grow from it, and not get too hung up.  Besides – I donÕt really have anywhere to be!

 

The rest of the trip up to Figalia was wonderful. The roads wound around the mountains, and though the beauty that it once had is now lost due to the terrible fires last year, you can still tell that this is a special place in the world. 

 

Motorcycle riding, like anything, has a learning curve – and in Greece itÕs a very steep curve indeed!  Pun intended as it seems that it is impossible for a road to be straight, and to say that Greece is mountainous is a HUGE understatement!  And there are more than a few traps that one must be mindful of.  The roads I take, the old national roads, not the new European super-highways, tend to wind around the mountains and then pull into small towns where you will have to make turns which tend to be poorly marked to stay on them.  On more than one occasion I found myself lost in these towns trying to find my way back to the main road.  This wouldnÕt be as big of a problem if the small village streets didnÕt have the tendency of just dead endingÉnormally on steep hills with no room to turn around.  The Twin, for all its awesomeness has some flaws, one of which is its poor turning radius (its HUGE after all), and its incredible weight.  These, combined with the steep narrow hilly dead ends is wellÉa deadly combination!  I defiantly put my bike down trying to get it turned around in Figalia after making a wrong turn.  Thankfully there were some hearty Greek men, happy to lend a hand to the strange man in leather with a tiger helmet.  It took all three of us, pushing and heaving to get the bike pushed around so that I could actually drive up the hill.  Embarrassing to be sure!

 

Now, as I have said – Greece is mountainous, and I love this!  ItÕs a motorcyclistÕs wet dream really.  Unending twists and curves up and down, up and down all day.  And this is how the next 5 hours went.  From Figalia I headed towards the ancient temple of Apollo – way up on the top of the highest peak around.  The roads there were not particularly well marked or well maintained, but fun none the less.  It took almost an hour to drive the 30 km there but that was probably mostly because I had to stop every couple of kilometers to just gaze out and try to drink in the countryside.  I was so happy!  At LAST I was doing what I had been planning for, preparing for, saving for all these months.  AT LAST I was back in the saddle exploring new places, meeting new people, doing what it is that makes me tick!  At times I felt that I was floating on the clouds that were all around me  (I was that high up). 

 

The temple is actually very well preserved, and actually currently undergoing some repairs.  The odd thing about it though, is that to keep it in such good condition, they have put a big circus tent over it which blocks its view of all the mountains and valleys that surround it.  Kind of breaks the illusion what a spectacle it is to have a temple to the Sun God towing above the world below – but I guess its better than having another crumbled pile of rubble at the top of a mountain. 

I just had to think what it must have been like all of those thousands of years ago – climbing way up to the mountaintop to worship the sun.  I imagine it was very similar to the peasants in the middle ages who went into one of the spectacular cathedrals of Europe and just stare wide eyed at more splendor than they had ever seen before, or could imagine.  Hard not to believe in your god when presented with such a spectical.  Actually I felt more close to god at ApolloÕs temple than I generally do in European Cathedrals.   IÕm more amazed at the vastness of his creation – the mountains and fields of the earth, than of the riches that can be amassed by kings and popes and put into a building that today are rarely, if ever filled, and have become mostly a tourist destination than a place of worship.  Not to say that the temple of Apollo is an any way still being used by his cult – they are all dead and gone, but I seem to be able to appreciate God more on a mountaintop than in a building. 

 

From the temple I continued on towards Megalopoli, the next city waypoint I had scribbled down the night before.  Fun name really – and when I finally got there, after several gravel roads though the mountains that I think are rarely used – I found that it was quite fitting.  From what I could gather, it seems to be a coal town (huge piles of it lying around and gigantic smoke-stacks pumping thick clouds up into the sky).  Once again I found myself lost, as I mistakenly followed the bigger of the roads, thinking that its size indicated the main road.  Well, I guess thatÕs true – its size did indicate its use, and it led me (I followed 3 busses) right into the factory.  The guard knew I was in the wrong place.  I found a man though, who was very helpful and actually led me back out to the road to the next waypoint – Paradisia. 

And once again, a fitting name.  Oh man it was beautiful.  (Please see the pictures).  I found myself climbing back out of the valley that Megalopoli is in and up a steep mountain.  A few turns and I was in a lush gorge – winding my way around between two huge mountains.  At last it was green again, and I thought that this must have been what Zacharo was like before the fires.  I am truly sad that I missed it!  The george was made all the more incredible because it was so steep and narrow!  I felt like I could probably Evil Kenieval a jump to the other side with a proper ramp – though there was no road to catch me.  I think I must have stopped five times over the next few kilometers to just try to drink it all in. 

 

And then I went down, down, down and towards the Sea.  Actually I was quite surprised to find that I was entering Kalamata – the capital city of Peloponnesia.  My goal was to be in Sparta and see the old Byzentine city of Mystras – but I guess I had once again gotten quite lost up in the mountains.  But it was a good time to get there, still light but just past five.  Plenty of time to wander around the city for a few hours while I waited to meet my hosts for the evening.

 

Kalamata is a much nicer city than Athens I think.  It much smaller, manageable, quite clean, and very friendly.  The massive amount of police officers did make me quite nervous though – and actually found myself praying for mercy when two of them pulled behind me.  But they pulled off, leaving me alone, and I quickly parked the bike, and made a mental note to avoid city driving as much as possible.

 

I met with George outside of GoodyÕs around 8.  He was a giant of a man, with a giant heart.  Just a big friendly guy who spoke excellent English and knew how to have a good time.  He has one of the worst jobs I have ever heard of though – he works at the complaint department for the city hall.  And in GreeceÉoh man, I canÕt imagine.  But if anyone can do it, its him !  His patience seems to know no bounds.

 

We dropped my stuff off and listened to some good electronic music – Goa, D&B, and some pretty amazing turn tableism.  Great!  Then we headed out to a nice quite bar to have a few cheaper drinks and meet up with a few more friends.  After we were feeling a bit loose we headed down to the main part of town, where I met Nancy, TakisÕ friend, and we sat outside of the church where the Greek war of Independence from the Turks started.  Now its honored by having the best Gyro shop in town in front of it, and a very popular drinking spot for students.  It was a great night just laughing and hanging out  and making new friends, that though I might never see again, I feel I connected with and will keep in touch with.

 

We stumbled home sometime around 4 or five the next morning to get a few hours of sleep before a long day on the road the next morning.  Morning came much too early, but I woke easily as I was very excited for all I would see.  I was delayed getting out of town as I had to find a map (extremely hard to find actually) and a good bottle of olive oil of which Kalamata is famous for.

 

When I finally did get on the road, I found myself once again climbing higher and higher up away from the sea and back into the clouds.  It was a spectacular road which led me up towards Sparta, and actually Mystras which was my real destination.  The fires had made it here, and I was saddened to see still be seeing black burnt trees, but even so, the countryside was just amazing.  The olive trees that remained painted a beautiful and classical Greek picture. 

 

Most of my rides over the next few days were through these mountains, and they all really took my breath away – but IÕm at a bit of a loss of words to describe them too much, so though riding takes the majority of my time out here, IÕm afraid I do not have the facilities to describe it appropriately so I will skip now a few hours later to when I finally arrived at Mystras.

 

Mystras is an old Byzantine city which has been quite persevered over the years.  Its was constructed in typical Byzantine fashion with a huge focus on natural defenses and fortifications.  As such it is built way up in the mountains, on a very steep cliff with a castle at its peak.  It is actually very impressive and well worth a drive out to see if you are in Greece.  It is full of churches which was the main focal point of Byzantine life.  An intellectual retreat from the logic and reason seeking Greeks and more of a twisted puritanical version of the Roman order.  I guess it was just about this point that religion made a huge shift in what it was all about.  Piety, self sacrifice, individual weakness and original sin seemed to have become dominate ideas and gone were the nature and more humanistic gods of the Romans. 

 

But they certainly did a hell of a job building this city.  Actually I saw that it was at times called Little Constantinople.  Actually it came into being just about the time that the Roman capital was moved to what is now Turkey.   I wandered through the narrow streets – too small even to fit a cart (and too steep!) and made the mistake of not taking off my leathers.  It was a hard climb to get to the top of the castle – literally up the side of a mountain.  I canÕt imagine army being able to take this city, its would be just like trying to storm up cliffs, but I guess Gunpowder would help.

 

As I left I kept looking back over my shoulder at its impressive churches and palaces.  IÕm sure it would have been a fascinating place to have a guide show me around, but it was mostly deserted actually – IÕm already out of the season, and things are beginning to close down.

 

I then made a steep decent down into the plains where Sparta is located.  Its actually called Sparti, which always makes me giggle a bit when I hear it.  Not exactly a name fitting for THE army society of antiquity.  There isnÕt really anything to see – the Spartans were defiantly more interested in war than in architecture, so I didnÕt spend much time there.  I did however find one hell of a Gyro shop and was quite happy to finally be eating something for the first time that day! 

 

Leaving, I found the first straight-ish roads that I had come to since I came to Greece.   I raced through the plains with the mountains standing tall on either side.  They were massive, and dark clouds were gathering around them.  I just hoped that they would trap the storms, and keep them from coming to the coastÉI wasnÕt so lucky.

It didnÕt take too long to make it out to the far eastern side of Peloponnesian to another old Byzantine town called Monevasea.  Its actually built out on an island about 100 meters off the mainland.  There are two parts of the city, an ancient upper city, way up on a huge rock mountain which is the majority of the island and absolutely impossible to miss from the entire stretch of the coast as it towers above everything around, and a lower city, still living down in its shadow.  ItÕs a very quaint and nice city.  I happily walked through the small town looking into all the cafes and art shops with the sun still warm on my back.  It was made all the nicer AppleMark
because there was a wedding going on in the old church.  I climbed up to the top of the old city (thank god I remembered to take the leathers off!) and was amazed at how much this town reminded me of Dubronik, nestled next to a mountain by the sea.  Again, a great place to check out!

 

But it was now just past five and I was still unsure about where I would sleep for the night.  There werenÕt any couch surfers out this way and so I would need to find somewhere to camp.  I was tempted to set up my tent in one of the old ruins of the upper city (the old Byzantine city).  I thought it would be pretty incredible to wake up on the top of this island, and IÕm sure would offer a pretty spectacular sunset and sunrise.  But I was fearful that it might be very frowned upon to be caught camping in an archeological siteÉ so I decided instead I would head down to the very tip of the last finger of Peloponnesia and out to this small island called Elofonisos which I had heard had a cool hippy camping beach. Also I really liked the idea of going down to the furthest point south of mainland Europe by road.  Continue the coastal road that I have been following now for so long. 

 

 

 

There was yet another mountain which I had to climb before I could get there, and the whole way again, I kept looking back and seeing the big rock of Monevasea standing tall on the coastline.  The road was very small and most of it a single lane with countless switchbacks so it took a lot longer than I thought it would.  It was just about 27 km , but it took me almost an hour!  I arrived at the ferry which would take me over to the island just about ten minutes too late!  It was just after 6, and the ferries went over two hours.  This meant that it would be after dark before I arrived.  Not a good position to be in when you have to find a place to camp!  To make matters worse the skies finally opened up and poured down on us in thick heavy droplets. 

 

 

 By the time I made it over, it was pitch black and I was very wet.  I guess in all that I made a huge mistake of turning towards the wrong beach.  I didnÕt honestly know which way I should go, but in the light the next day I saw all the signs which clearly said that the main beach was to the left where I went right.  I puttered slowly down the narrow road in the thick inky darkness.  The rain had let up a bit, but the road was still slick and there was water in the air.  I kept stopping and turning my headlights out towards the sea to find a place on the beach I might be able to throw my tent.  I was rushed because I knew at any moment the rain would come back to give me a fresh wet coat. 

 

I found nothing along the road, and started to enter into a small village before I saw evidence of sand again.  I guess the inhabitants knew this, and seemed very against my kind, because they had gone to the extreme lengths to make it known that they wanted no campers on their beaches.  There was a sign ever few meters with ŅNO CAMPINGÓ written in thick red ink in several languages, and images to help those that might not be represented.  To really hammer the point home, they even put up signs which let would be violators the fine amount they would have to pay: 147 euros!  Much more than a few nights at even a decent guesthouse.  I was wet and cold, but still the signs scared me.  I didnÕt have many options by this point, so I pretty much had to camp on the beach, but I wanted to make very sure that I wouldnÕt be caught and fined.  ThatÕs just what I needed, to be woken up in the middle night, a criminal, dragged out to the street by a big hairy Greek and forced to open my pockets and my bank to their greedy fingers – just for trying to enjoy their beach in the only way I could afford.  I guess the MAN had come here and executed the hippy/camping vibe that I had read about in a ruthless fashion.  I half expected to see hippies hung by their dreadlocks along the road just as further warning.

So in the end I parked almost a kilometer from where I ended up sleeping, and despite the rain, I didnÕt put up my tent.  Instead I used my tarp as shelter, just wrapped around me.  It was a pretty sleepless night, with the rain coming down loudly on my thin plastic, and them osmosing through at such a rate that I eventually just gave up and just sat and let the rain soak me directly and waited for dawn. 

 

As it turns out I did not need to go to such extremes.  There were probably only about 100 people on the island in the off season, and none of them really cared about those bold enough to camp in the cold.  When there was light enough to see, I found that I had made another huge mistake in picking my spot.  I camped about 10 feet away from an excellent spot, completely hidden from the road by thick trees which would have helped block the rain, and defiantly afforded me the privacy to set up my tent.  I guess thatÕs what you get when you try to find a site after dark. 

 

I told this story to a friend recently, and he laughed at me.  Often times people I think do not realize how hard life on the road can be, and get swept up in the glamour that they think comes with taking a whole half year to travel. Folks, I live no vacation.  I use the same amount of money, or even less, to do in half a year what most sane people would budget for a nice 2 week trip.  No hotels, no restaurantsÉI canÕt afford the such luxuries. But, and this gets to the point that my friend made, and which I was so happy to hear that someone understood.  Its these hardships which make it all worth it!  The feeling of being able to survive despite some hardships, to be able to overcome sticky situations makes that light at the end of the tunnel so much brighter.  And the feeling of accomplishment so much greater.  Maybe thatÕs ultimately what IÕm addicted to – the rollercoaster of life.  The feeling that IÕm actually living, not just surviving.  A wise person told me once that you make your own luck, and where I like play that there are some impish fates up there playing with the extremes of luck in my life, I think thatÕs probably true.  ItÕs your attitude which I think is the most important in getting around nights like this.  Nights where you just have to sit there, in the dark, in the rain, and wait for dawn.

 

And dawn came, and with it some new hope.  I found that near where I had parked my bike were a few Austrians in their camper who had parked for the night.  They saw me, the wet dog that I was and offered me over for some coffee and lemon cake which I was very grateful for!  And let me tell you – Elofonisos is BEAUTIFUL!  Just dreamy white sand out to the most perfect teal blue water. Even though it was still pretty overcast and a far cry from warm, I still had to jump in, so I stripped my cloths off and ran, buck naked (I donÕt think there was another soul around, and the Austrians had left) right into the ocean.  It felt great.  The water was actually warmer than the air, so I found it quite hard to get out.  Luckily I was able to find a beach shower that still had some water in it, and so I took a very cold and equally quick shower to freshen up.  I moved slowly packing up my bike and hanging my wet cloths on the back, hoping they would dry out with the air.  I then went over to the other side of the island, the one I should have camped on and was blown away by an even more beautiful beach!  Simos, its called – and folks, this is a paradise beach!  Maybe one of the nicest I have ever been to.  Its very wide, with tons of room for everyone to get a good sandy spot, and then like a picture from dream vacation catalogue there is this sandy land bridge which leads out to a peninsula on with more beaches!  This creates two coves and round, one on either side of more of this amazing fine sand and clear water!  Oh man, to be there in the summer, or even just on a sunny day.  If I had had a beautiful girl with me we would have stayed and waited for a nice day – but as it was, I felt I needed to cover some ground and keep working my way up the coast and towards Turkey.  Afterall – that was my real destination!

 

The next stop was to be at Nefplio – the first capital of Greece.  It was quite a ways away and from the map I could see it would be some pretty hard drives.  So, with my spirts mostly restored, I jumped back on Sable, and took the ferry back across.

 

I must admit though, the day really started to wear on me.  In my panic last night trying to set up camp before anyone could see me, I lost my clear goggles which made driving in the rain much easier.  My visor is quite scratched, and unfortunately fogs up easily.  I pressed on, alternating flipping it up and letting the rain sting my face and eyes, sqinting out at the road, and keeping it down and trying to make it as far as I could before it fogged up too much to see through. 

 

After about the second hour, I was beginning to climb again.  The rain had paused briefly, but I could see that I was about to ride right into a big storm.  I pulled over on the side of the road and just marveled at the all the weather I could see.  The road was very straight – and led first down a bit then shot straight up into the mountain.  There was a massive thick black cloud that hung in the valley.  I could see sort of over it at the next mountain peak or at least near its peak, because the peak had another big thick cloud hanging on it.  It was powerful, and impressive, but terrifying to be headed into.  With a deep sigh, and the knowledge that there really werenÕt too many alternatives, I got back on and fired up the engine – racing into it with teeth clenched.  (I tried to take a good picture of it because it really was just powerful, but it, as most of my pictures, just didnÕt come out to give it justice)

  

It was hard, and to be honest, quite disheartening.  I sort of enjoyed going up, feeling I was in a desperate battle of man vs nature as the wind whipped at me and the rain drenched me  to the bone (rain gear only sort of helps with weather like this).  Finally after what seemed like hours I made it to the top and the road just sort of died in a small quaint town.  It was quite picturesque nestled way up in the mountains.  I had to stop for a bit to try to warm myself back up and gather the courage I knew would be necessary for the much more difficult descent.

 

It was in going down that I really began to loose my nerve.  Going up had been mostly long slow curves, back and forth across the whole mountain.  Going down was just tight switch backs stacked on top of each other.  It was just 17 km to the bottom, but I was literally crawling, and it took me just about an hour! It was then that I realized that what I was doing was actually very stupid.  I had stacked the deck completely against myself, and was really just asking for doom.  In my mind I started to count up all the things I had going against me.  One small slip, one simple mistake and I knew my whole house of cards would come crashing down.

 

Let me try to fill you in on why I suddenly became so scared.  I was driving through a storm, down a steep mountain that I had never been before, in a foreign country where the local drives have a reputation for being reckless, on a big heavy bike, that was uninsured, did not have a valid registration, did not have a sticker saying that I had paid the Greek road tax (still not sure if I need one or not), with shoddy breaks, and tires I knew were about 1,000 km past due for a change.  Basically I was bullfighting naked with a red cape tied around my neck.  I just couldnÕt get this off my mind and I started to go slower and slower and dreading each turn more and more.  Where was I going to sleep tonight?  Would this rain ever end?  Oh no, my fuel is low – will there be a gas-staion in the next 30 miles?  Will it actually have gas or is the customÕs strike still on? 

 

Each passing moment I feel deeper and deeper into a funk.  I knew I was just making it worse for myself, but I couldnÕt seem to shake it.  And even once I finally got down to the bottom of the mountain, and out towards the coast it persisted.  My mood lightened slightly with the beauty of the coastline, but it was still dampened by all the bad weather which really hid its true wonder.  I knew I was driving one of the best stretches of road that I had to date – right up there with coming down the coast of Croatia, or some of the wonderful German curvy roads during the fall, but all the clouds hung both in the sky and over my heart.  I donÕt want to paint the picture of absolute depression and desperation, and I was able to appreciate where I was and what was all around me, but I was far from the exuberance that I knew I should have felt coming around such a spectacular road.

 

It was pretty spectacular though – just winding around through all the nooks and crannies and gulches of that marked the jagged coast line.  I was very nervous about how slick the roads were, but at least the rain had diminished to just a heavy misting. 

 

And then, with two simple words sloppily written on a banner my whole mood changed.  FREE CAMPING.  Instantly the sun broke through the clouds in my mind and a huge grin stretched across my face, under my helmet.  There is really something to be said about knowing where you are going to sleep at night!  Food and Shelter, two of our absolute necicities as humans, and I had just found both.  The camping spot was just in the parking lot of a fish restaurant, but it was still right on the beach front with an amazing view. 

 

And to make matters even better, the sun actually DID finally break through the clouds!  I made sure the camping wasnÕt a hoax (it wasnÕt!) and then headed the 5 km into Nefplio to check out the city I had heard was so lovely.  Oh it was suddenly just a perfect day!  I easily found a bank, and a sign that said Korinthos (my destination for the next day).  I walked around very European style city drinking it all in.  It had lots of narrow winding streets with good smelling restaurants and tavernas filled with happy laughing people.  I didnÕt make it up to the old castle over the city, but  did enjoy looking at it, all lit up protecting the city below.  From a distance it looked like lava coming down from the mountain as it was brightly lit, and the rest of the mountain so black. 

The harbor area was just picturesque again littered with full cafes and small boats headed out to the defensive towers and churches on the small rock islands just off the coast.  The sunset that night was just spectacular!  The light danced around the remaining clouds casting a full range of colors on their thick puffy masses.  The mountains, off in the distance faded gradually as the sun fell, painting in ever deepening layers of blue until they finally disappeared. 

I had a great dinner that night at the restaurant – though I had only intended to have some small soup or something to thank the owner for offering his space for camping, but he was so charming, and there was a roaring fire in the fireplace that I just couldnÕt leave.  There were some Germans (always Germans and Austrians it seems!) in a camper who also saw the sign and pulled in for the night.  We had a nice conversation around the fire and some fried fish.  The owner actually had lived in the US for 24 years – longer than me!  It was fun to hear him tell stories on how it has changed.  And also very refreshing to meet someone who actually know how it is back in the US.  I get very annoyed hearing the constant criticism and judgments from all these people who have never been to the US and who only hear about it from their very biased news sources.  America the imperialist giant, Bush the evil mastermind, or the spineless puppet trying to control the whole world.  Right, and we all have cowboy hats, millions of dollars, eat nothing but hamburgers and shoot minorities for fun.  I wonÕt get on this rant, especially now because I have been hanging out with some Anarchists and Communists who love to tell me how my country is and I have grown a bit defensive.  Nothing like travel though to make you more patriotic.  Sure the rest of the world has a lot going for it, but life is pretty damn sweet in the good olÕ US of A. 

 

Well just a few lines on it – because thatÕs where my mind is.  See no one seems to appreciate how BIG the US is.  How much variety and difference we have.  In all things, food, culture, race, music, background.  You name it and we got it in all shapes and sizes.  And that I think is what most people miss when they cast such blanket judgments about the US.  And what IÕm finding is a lot of people donÕt realize that WE are upset about how the last 8 years have gone.  Americans arenÕt happy about how we have fallen in status, in global good will, in reputation.  I canÕt imagine how it must have been traveling years ago when Americans were loved throughout the world.  Now it seems that inevitably I get into a nightly discussion about politics. 

 

And this election coming up – oh boy is it a big one!  But I donÕt like how it seems all of Europe, probably most of the world, has already made up their mind that Obama is the only solution.  I like Obama – always have, but I undertand the power of my vote, and wonÕt walk into it blindly.  I challenge all these guys who want to make sure IÕm voting for Obama if they can tell me why hes a good canidate – why he is a better choice than McCain, and I canÕt get a good answer.  What it seems to be is image, and I canÕt discount that.  Actually its really what IÕm voting on more than anything right now – or what I had planned on until I heard about all these financial crisisÕ erupting.  The next few years will be HARD years for America, and we really need to do a good job or all is lost.  But all might be lost anyway if people continue to see us as the asses that our government has made us these last 8 years.

 

Ok end rant J

 

Right so the sun was shining when I woke up the next morning.  The day was beautiful – perfect!  Warm, but not hot, and not a cloud in the sky.  It was a pitty though, that I only had about 50km to go, and a really easy simple day.  I was headed to Korinthos (Corinth) where Paul sent all his eclestical letters, and where this famous canal is.  I was pretty excited to meet my next couch surfer host as well – from his profile he seemed like quite a cool guy and that we would get along great.  And we did.  I didnÕt spend long in ancient Korinth – just basically looked at the ruins from outside the fence, and wrote a few letters. 

I met with Thanasis just about 2 and we spent the rest of the day talking and cooking one hell of a dinner.  It was nice to be sleeping in a bed again, and to have good internet access!  Thanasis was very friendly, and told me all the good roads that I should take to get up to Meteora, and then to Thessaloniki.  He even gave me a great tip about the hot springs in Thessaloniki that I should stop at on my way up (and they are AWESOME!)

I was completely fresh when I left the next morning.  I had slept well – if briefly, had all my things in order, knew that I would actually be insured  that morning, though I didnÕt get the scan before I left.  Life was good and the sun was shining.  Perfect. 

AppleMark

 

The ride was long but amazing. I stopped by the canal as I headed out of town which was very impressive – just a shear dropoff at least a thousand feet straight down and just wide enough for a ship with beautiful teal water way below.  A true testament to human engineering and our ability to fit our environment to our needs (though many would say thatÕs bad).  Then I took the old road through the towns and villages up the coast towards Athens.  But I turned off before I got there and headed north west knocking off my various small town waypoints that Thanasis had written for me the night before.  The terrain had changed and mostly I was driving along plains and it was more or les flat except for the occasional small mountain.  This lasted until I got to near Thermopoli and Lamia and then began to climb a huge mountain.  This mountain was where Hurcules had his sanctuary.  Though I was tempted to go and see it, I had been driving for over 4 hours and my butt was sore!  I was really looking forward to bathing at the Thermal Springs of Thermopoli where legend had it the Spartan army of 300 men that fought back the legions of persons renewed their strength in. 

 

It was indeed blissful, and I found it quite hard to leave!  I soaked for easily an hour, letting the stress melt away from my body and mind.  Life was so good!  But eventually I did force myself up and out of the water and back into my riding cloths and towards Lamia.  I still had a long ride ahead of me, and it was absolutely imperitive to get there before dark so I could find a camping spot.  I knew that there were lots of organized camping spots, but they tend to be expensive, and hardly worth it, and I despiratly wanted to avoid the unpleasentries of finding a spot in the dark like on Elofonisos.

 

Lamia is in a valley – one that connects with an inlet in the Mediterranean with huge mountains on either side.  So after I passed through the town (and got slightly lost inside it) I began to climb once more, up up up and over until it peaked and then brought me back down and into the wide plains of central Thessaly.  From there it was actually quite easy and fast to get up to Meteora.  I received a text message from Thanasis that my insurance was in my inbox, and T*** is one of the wireless towns of Greece so I stopped to try to find a public hotspot.  I failed though and spent too much precious time trying before I finally gave up and sped on towards Kalabaka and Meteora, with the sun already very low in the sky.  I drove through the town and saw all the signs for numerous campsites, good to know I had a backup, but braved onwards – up towards these incredible rocks in search of something better.  The sun had pretty much set by this time, and so all I could see were the shadows of the strange geological formations that draw tourists from all oover the world, but even so I could tell they were very impressive! 

 

And luck was actually on my side!  I climbed almost to the very top of the mountain – the second to last monastery and then saw a wide pulloff which led out onto one of the rocks.  It looked good and wide enough for my bike, and so I cautiously drove it onto the rock!  I was again worried about being fined for camping – though I didnÕt see a sign this time, so I took extra risk taking it further than perhaps I should have and nestled it behind a little bush off site from the road.  It was then quite easy actually to find a place to put my tent, there was a small patch of grass of the perfect size to set up, and it was completely protected from all prying eyes.  Just perfect.

 

After I had set up my tent I heard quite a bit of carrying on, laughing and singing over in the parking lot of the monastery.  So I figured, hey – why not introduce myself to my neighbors. 

 

They ended up being two polish families that had driven the whole way down in just 4 days!  They were happy to finally be in Greece and were celebrating in typical polish fashion – drinking lots of Vodka.  They invited me to join, and I could not refuse.  They poured my cup full of this amazing homemade lemon vodka.  Oh man was it good!  And when that was done, we moved on to another homemade cherry vodka, then finally to a honey vodka.  By the end we were all quite drunk!  But man it was just amazing to be sitting under the stars, in the shadow of these really incredible rocks, drinking with new friends. ThatÕs the great thing about travel – you are constantly being surprised by wonderful unexpected adventures and experiences!   The stumble back to my tent was hard, and I defiantly fell pretty hard on the rocks – almost falling off – but god seems to have a special place in his heart for fools and drunks.

I woke up the next morning surprisingly clear headed.  I got out of my tend and was just struck – practically physically – by where I was and all the spectacular beauty surrounding me.  Meteora is just amazing!  I have no idea how it formed, but basically there are scores of finger like rocks, jutting up from below and towering thousands of feet above the ground!  I was just amazed!  And the icing on the cake is that there are all these little monasteries that have been built by the monks right on top of these rocks!  Its just mind boggling to think how they could have gotten up to the tops yet alone built such monasteries there!  All of them were built between the 12th and the 15th centaury, without the use of any real machinery, just pulleys and ropes!  There was no real way to get up to the monasteries except to be pulled up by rope in a net!  Now of course they have built bridges and carved stairs and paths into the rock so tourists can come and see, but these didnÕt exist when they were built!  Really its just spectacular! 

 

I was also quite impressed by how I had gotten my bike out on the rock in the dark the night before.  It was really out there, and I was very nervous at getting it back out to the parking lot.  To make matters worse, I was defiantly still drunk from the vodka the night before.  I took down my tent, hid it in some bushes because I knew I would be there another night, and then slowly, and carfully, to the amazement of the tourists who were beginning to show up, drove it off the rock and into the parking lot. 

 

I met my polish friends for breakfast, and we had a good laugh about the night before.  They were hurting too!  Good to know I can drink with the champs!  Haha thank you Stacy for all the practice this summer J

 

I spent the whole day wondering around the monasteries, being amazed by their splendor and dˇcor, and sitting out on the rocks.  The insides of the monasteries were just as impressive as their outside – They were covered in gilded icons and paintings depicting all of the biblical stories.  They were cozy, but not comfortable IÕm sure.  But talk about a view! 

After I had spent some time inside I headed out and did a bit of rock climbing.  I managed to get way way out on one of the off shoots and stayed there for several hours, catching up on my journal and reading the Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  I was so glad that I had taken this day to stay in one place, relax, catch up and think.  The place I had climbed was actually in full view of one of the balconies of the Monistary, and so I kept hearing tourists shouting over to me to wave at them for their pictures.  I become a bit of a celebrity actually – I guess no one really goes there – it wasnÕt an easy climb! – I just wish I had a copy of some of the pictures. 

That night was nice and easy.  The weather had been beautiful and sunny all day, but turned as the sun set.  This got in the way of the spectacular sunset I was expecting, but  it was still impressive none the less.  I went to sleep that night with the pitter patter sound of rain on my tent.

 

I had set my alarm for 6:30 the next morning so that I could get up in time to catch the sunrise.  It was hard to get out of my warm sleeping bag, but eventually I managed.  I climbed back out onto my rock – much more difficult now that it was wet, and waited for sunrise.  I waited and waited, but it never really came. The cloud cover was thick, and all that came for my waiting was rain.  Ugh.  Not another rainy day!

 

Sure enough I had just gotten my back to my tent when the skies opened up.  I sat and read and waited for a lull to break my camp down and pack up.  It  was about an hour, but eventually I got my pause – just long enough to get it all packed up before it started again.  I hate packing wet things in, but I was sure the sun wasnÕt going to make a surprise visit to dry me out. 

 

I drove down to the town and got some pastries for breakfast.  The lady at the store said that I should head back towards Trilaka** because the rain would make the mountain passes that I had planned on going through just treacherous.  It was a hard decision, because I truly loath going back on roads I have already traveled, and this would be more simple plains, but with the condition of my tires, and the knowledge of how bad the roads can be in the rain, I ended up taking her advice. 

It was a pretty easy ride out towards Mt. Olympus, but the rain was defiantly in the sky.  It came in short light bursts, but I could tell that the clouds were not going anywhere. 

 

By the time I made it to Mt. Olympus – the gods were in a pitched fight.  Zeus was throwing lightning bolts at Ares, and Hera was crying hard.  The storm was terrible at the home of the gods, and made for a difficult last stretch.  I again changed my planned route and opted to ovoid going up the mountain, well as far up as I could get, because I figured that it was so dark and cloudy (and rainy!) that I wouldnÕt actually see anything.  So instead I just followed the coast out towards Thessaloniki.

 

I arrived at last in the town that has been my goal since I left Takis last week around 2 under heavy rain.  I parked my bike and started tried to find a coffee shop to dry out.  My host, Michalis told me that he was away, and wouldnÕt be back until later that night (ended up being 9) so I had a lot of time to kill.  I was very wet and cold, so I actually spent almost the whole time moving from coffee shop to gyro shop reading.  It was a pleasnt day, and I donÕt really regret not trying to see more of the city that first day.  Its been 4 days now and I am still here enjoying it!   By 8 I was beginning to get a bit worried that I wouldnÕt ever meet with my host, but then, right before I sent him another message, I got his text telling me where and when to meet him.  At the famous Arch – the universal meeting place – in 50 minutes.  GREAT!  I was dreaming of a nice hot shower!

 

Michalis was great.  Very free and easy going, but strongly opinionated.  I would say he fancies himself a bit of a neo-anarchist, but seems to admire squatters and anti-conformists.  But where we differ perhaps on societal views, we defiantly share the belief that life is to be lived, and with that we seem to get along great!  His room is small, but itÕs the group hangout, and by the time I got back from my blessed shower, it was quite crowded.  Good people, fun people, heavy smokers.

In fact, between hanging out in his room that night, and the reggae bar we went to later that night my eyes had dried up completely and I had to squint.  These Greeks just seem to smoke cigarettes end to end!  There is no stop – easily over a pack a day, probably two! 

 

I held out as long as I could – but eventually had to excuse myself and head home around 4:30.  It took me another half hour to walk back, making it almost a 24 hour day.  Both beds were already occupied by his friends, but there was a little spot I could squeeze in, which I did, and feel immediately asleep. 

 

But sleep didnÕt last long.  Michalis came back about an hour later with some other friends who were going to crash there as well, and to pack up.  He was headed out to Mt. Olympus that morning (yes after a whole night out) to go camping for the weekend.  I was sorry he was going because I wanted to hang out a bit more with him, but it was actually very very nice to have a space of my own for the weekend.  ItÕs a rare thing on the road, and I take advantage of it whenever I can! 

 

The general routine of the days seems to be waking up around noon, going down to the student cafiteria where there is free food (twice a day!) and then doing some errends, then coming back and going out around 10 or 11.  Well no, I canÕt say there is a routine, because each day has been different.  Friday for example that was the case, except that I didnÕt go out at 10 or 11, I left my room at 2:15 AM!  I had had a good day, and at LAST got a new tire for my bike, new break pads, and another inspection (canÕt be too careful).  I also got several little parts and things that I figured I might need, extra break and clutch handles, more chain lube etc. and then went to dinner.  

 

I made it all the way home before I realized I had left my bag at the Cafeteria!  I was in a panic!  I had in it my external hard drive with all my pictures and music on it (not to mention some pretty key documents like scans of my passport etc.) as well as all my chargers (for phone and camera and computer) and the most important, my journal.  I RACED back in a total panic and ran into the dinning hall wide eyed and with a constant prayer Ōplease God, please God, please GodÕ on my breath.  Well I lucked out!  It was still there, being guarded by a nice German girl named Susanna.  I ended up talking with her and her friends (one from Portugal, one from Estonia) for a while, and it was they who invited me out at 2, after I had decided I would take it easy that night and gone to sleep.  I canÕt turn down the call of beautiful girls J

 

The next day I went grocery shopping and got all I would need for at least 10 meals on the road. Lots of good instant noodles, and such.  I made a great feastup on the roof and read for a few hours.  Then I came down here and figured out some pretty key things for my website – of which this will be the first entry!  I

 

I met another couch surfer last night and talked with her for a bit, until she got into a heavy conversation with a junkey Yogie.  Strange man actually – he had only one upper tooth, was completely drunk, and high on some strange pill given to him by his Ōenemy.Õ  What made him truly strange though was that he had tits.  He kept lifting his shirt and telling us to look.  He even had a bra!  The reason he had breasts was that he felt that to be able to understand a women he needed to take estrogen supplements, which he did, and which had produced his memories.  Fun.  But it was clear that he was a bright guy, and had my CS friend deeply engaged in a conversation about metaphysics so I wandered over to another group of students who were happy to speak English with me.  We stayed there for some time, and then went out to a very fun bar in a warehouse market actually where we danced until almost 5 in the morning.  I got a great Nuetella creep on my drunken stumble back to my dorm room.  This place reminds me of my time in Prague in the way that I am living in someone elseÕs space.  And Thessaloniki, like Prague, is a great fun city, with a lot of rain haha.