Travelsonsaddles at the Olympics!

After two weeks of being tourists,  studying archaeological ruins, dodging mad mopeds and twiddling our thumbs we will be attempting to depart Athens in a couple of days. The reason I say ‘attempting’ is because we have around twelve to fifteen kilometres of city to tackle before we get out of Athens. I hate cycling in cities, mainly because it’s so easy to take a wrong turn and get hopelessly lost! So we might still be cycling around Athens in a weeks time…

Coolest Statue in Athens (made of glass) - The Dromeas

We visited the Acropolis site which includes the famous Parthenon. It was, unfortunately, under construction so we didn’t get to see it in all its glory, but it was still very impressive.

Parthenon under construction/restoration and will be until at least 2020!

The Parthenon has endured a very troublesome history and it’s amazing that any of it is still standing. At the end of the 17th century, the Ottomans thought it would be a good place to hide their ammunition. A well aimed attack by the Venetians, ignited the ammunition dump and caused most of the damage that you can see there today.

Part of the original Parthenon not surrounded by scaffolding

Then in the 1800s, the good old British came along, liked what they saw and spent a year removing parts of it for themselves – parts, which to this day, the Greeks are still trying to repatriate from the British Museum.

There are loads of other sites dotted around Athens which you could spend weeks exploring and photographing.

The best preserved ancient temple in Greece - The Temple of Hephaistos

Caryatidas at the Temple of Erechtheion on the Acropolis

Fully Restored - Attalus Colonnade

The Theatre of Herod Atticus. This is still used to this day for productions.

But after a while everything starts to look the same and one old rock starts to look very much like the last old rock. I would, however, recommend a visit to Temple of Zeus at Olympia. It was one of the largest temples in the ancient world and it’s incredible to imagine how it was built without the use of cranes, diggers or trucks. There isn’t much left of it now, but I wonder how many things built these days will still be here in 2,000 years time…

Temple of Olympian Zeus - View from the Acropolis

Temple of Olympian Zeus - 15 columns remain upright, this 16th column fell in a violent storm in 1852.

To take a break from the old stuff, we went to the 2004 Athens Olympic Park to see some slightly not-so-old stuff.

Welcome to the past.

What an eerie experience that was. It’s a massive complex with huge stadiums and sporting arenas, vast open spaces which were doubtlessly filled with thousands of people for three weeks in the summer of 2004. Now… it’s deserted, abandoned, rusting away and overgrown. All I could think while I was walking around it was: what a colossal waste of money (about €10 billion)! Surely these major sporting events should only be given to cities that can show a viable plan to use these venues after the medals have been decided and the athletes have gone home.

The Olympic Stadium of 2004

The Agora Walkway (capacity 500,000 pedestrians) - must have seemed like a good idea at the time. It's just a rusty hulk of ugliness now.

Entrance to the gymnastics venue - the Indoor Hall

Keep off the grass carpark.

One time welcome flag to the Tennis Venue

No one needs these signs anymore.

You can imagine the activity around these bars and restaurants during the games.

Rusty big screen and score board at the Aquatics Centre

Long forgotten long jump

Last person out, please lock the gate. I wonder if someone has all the thousands of padlock keys...!

The old ticket offices at the front gates.

Now just a little note on our plans for the next month or so. Since we started our trip, we knew we would have to deal with the European winter: cold days, colder nights, unpredictable weather but worse of all (especially for camping) short days. Sitting in a tent from 4pm to 8am doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, does it? So we decided to use this opportunity to do some volunteer work. We will be helping a family, in the southern Greece for a few weeks in December and January, in return for food and accommodation. This way it’s mutually beneficial for both parties. We will be doing a variety of different tasks: dog walking, farm and garden work, babysitting and some building work. So that is our next port of call after we leave Athens (if we manage to find our way out!)

Gallery Update…

As I’m sure you have noticed – we were really behind on our gallery – really, really behind! This was due to a number of factors, one of which was our style of gallery on this site. It was slow and rather awkward to use, so we have moved it out of the site completely.

To view it all you have to do is go to the ‘Our Gallery’ tab and click on one of the pictures:

  • Parrot for pictures of previous travels, or
  • Monika’s Bike for photos of TravelsonSaddles’ Big Trip!

Enjoy and let us know what you think!

Getting Dusty in Athens

So the 90km cycle to Thessaloniki was to be the day of destiny. It was the easiest 90km you could ever wish to cycle. It was super flat and very fast. We did the distance in just over four hours and by the time I got there, I knew that I was going to have to rest my leg properly. I could feel my thigh muscle start to stab with pain at certain intervals during the day, meaning that if I was to go out the next day and try and tackle some of Greece’s mountains, there would be no way I would be able to cycle for any more than a day. Unfortunately, there was nothing else for it, other than to rest my leg properly.

We arranged to stay in Thessaloniki for a couple of days to give us time to figure out what we were going to do for my recovery time. At first we were not really taken with Thessaloniki. It is a typical large city – the second largest city in Greece with a population of around 1.5 million. Cycling into town was a shock to the system after weeks of quiet roads and villages.

Koulouri - Greek Speciality For Sale

All of a sudden we were surrounded by swarms of buzzing mopeds and the honking horns of impatient drivers, in a rush to get to their next red light. The main street is ten kilometres long, arrow straight, eight lanes wide with ten story high buildings lining both sides of the road, giving you a feeling of claustrophobia.

Thessaloniki is in the middle of getting a subway system built right in the heart of the city. It’s a massive project as you can imagine. It started in 2007, after twenty years of planning, and is due to finish in 2020, costing a mind blowing €1.1billion – money which the government no longer has. When you look at the construction timetable, for each station area and tunnel section there is a whole period side aside for the inevitable ‘archaeological excavation’.

Archelogical Excavation in the Subway Construction

This is the case for all construction projects in Greece. If an archaeological site is discovered and can’t be moved, then the planners have to work round it, figure out a way to incorporate their project around the site AND make it visible to the public. So you could spend years planning and designing your project only to have to change everything halfway through the build because someone found an old loo!

As I said, we weren’t terribly impressed with Thessaloniki to begin with. It’s very grey, noisy with not much to entertain a tourist.  But we aren’t tourists, we only had a day or two to kill and we can entertain ourselves quite easily. We did find a nice little area of the town by the sea front which was quiet enough to read a book and watch the sun go down.

Seafront and White Tower

Silhouette at Dusk

Dying Sun

Sun Setting Into The City Smog

By night, the place really comes alive. The coffee shops – there isn’t much of a restaurant culture in Greece – are packed with people drinking frappes and chatting noisily over the traffic sounds. After a while, the town kind of grew on me. For the first time in a long time – we were anonymous, we could blend in and didn’t have to answer questions about our bicycles or our trip.

There was one place in the city that took my interest more than most – a sweet shop. Blé makes its own chocolates, cakes, sweets, buns and bread in house. Everything looked so delicious and it was so hard not to buy anything – as it wasn’t really within our budget. Since I didn’t try anything myself I have no idea what it actually tastes like, but it sure looks good!

The following day we booked our train tickets to Athens. There were seven daily trains from Thessaloniki to Athens, but bicycles were only allowed on the last two of the day. We chose the last one because it was half the price. The red eye train was due to arrive in Athens at five the next morning, which meant we had an entire day to hang around Thessaloniki before getting our train at eleven o’clock at night. We spent some of the day by walking up to the old city walls where there was a view of the city.

Thessaloniki Castle - Heptapyrgion

Arch of Galerius - Built To Celebrate Galerius' Victory Over The Persians

Finally after hours and hours of waiting it was time to get to the station. The darkness, rain and busy roads all combined to make the two kilometre cycle to the train very fun indeed.

When I read other travel blogs about cyclists taking a train – that’s all they mention – the fact that they took a train, but the nasty little details of moving big, heavy, unwieldy bikes are never mentioned. Firstly, there are always steps in train stations and steps to a touring cyclist might as well be a brick wall. Escalators and lifts are just as useless. In order to get to the platform, we had to take our bikes through areas where only staff is allowed to go and cross the tracks where only maintenance vehicles are supposed to go. When you finally get to the luggage section of the train, at the platform, the fact that the entrance to the train being three foot off the ground, is not talked about! Trying to get 45kg of bike and luggage into a train without destroying your stuff is no easy feat. Non-cyclists do not know how to handle a heavy touring bike. Everybody always tries to lift the bike wheel off the ground by lifting it by the back of the saddle, so you generally have to push them out of the way and try and take control of the situation yourself, before something gets broken.

Then there is the luggage itself. Both of us have six bags on our bikes and it’s totally impractical for you to take all of this off and bring it with you into your passenger compartment (the other four of five passengers may not like having to sit with a couple of panniers on their laps for six hours!). So the bikes have to be left in the luggage compartment, fully loaded on the bikes, for the trip. You just have to hope that nothing gets interfered with or stolen.

Getting the bikes off the train at the other end is even worse, as gravity will do more damage to a bike, when the train employee decides to shove your bike out the door. None of it is a pleasurable or a relaxing experience. I would much rather have cycled the 600km to Athens than go through that experience again, but in this case that wasn’t an option.

I often read on travel blogs about touring cyclists taking a bus – how they handle those logistics is beyond me!

Six hours later, we arrived in Athens and had to cycle seven kilometres in the dark in a strange city to the apartment we arranged to rent. We had no map, no real idea of how to get there. The previous night I had taken photographs of our route on Google Maps from the computer. We had to go nice and slow and keep checking the camera every couple of hundred meters, because if we got lost then there was no way we were ever going to find our way to the apartment by 7am – when we had to meet the landlord.

We must have looked like a couple of strange people, cycling around the city in the dark with panniers and head torches, but we found our way there and were very relieved to get in, have a shower and a quick nap.

One Euro a Kilo!

So here we are in Athens, a city so big that it makes Thessaloniki look like a country village. So far we have only seen a huge fruit and vegetable market as well as graffiti on virtually every stationary object.

How Many Varities of Olives Are There

Hmmm...Not On My Shopping List

We will be here for two weeks and so will have plenty of time to explore all the ancient sites that we have seen on tv and read about in books. Let’s hope it lives up to the hype and expectation.

If You Leave It Sitting There Long Enough...

We also plan to catch up on some sections of the blog – mainly the gallery, which we have fallen very behind on.

Apart from that though, it will be strange to have so much free time. We already feel a bit odd not to be getting on our bikes and moving on to the next destination. I feel responsible for this enforced stoppage, as Monika is ready to move on. My mind is ready to move on to our next adventure but unfortunately my leg was saying “no way, Mr”.  I suspect that I will be feeling a bit dusty after sitting here for two weeks and very anxious to get going to feel the wind on my face once again!

When Injury Strikes…

Between the two of us, it was a rather miserable couple of days since leaving Struga and Macedonia.

We left in the morning, in the drizzle. Within a few minutes we had our full waterproofs on preparing for a day of rain. About twenty minutes after we put our waterproofs on, it stopped raining.

The rest of the morning until early afternoon was spent putting on or taking off various items of clothing (rain jackets wind jackets, fleeces, gloves and waterproof trousers) in a multitude of combinations. We did manage to get some cycling in as well. Around lunch time we ascended into the clouds and the rain was there to stay for the remainder of the day, all the way to Bitola.

Monika was miserable, while I was rather enjoying the rain and cold. It certainly made a change to the weather we had experienced for the last six weeks. About halfway up the final seven kilometre hill, I felt my left thigh muscle start to pull. I didn’t think too much of it at the time, except that it was maybe just sore from the days climbing.

After a great big whooshing downhill section which left us in a near frozen state, we found ourselves in Bitola. We stopped our bikes (as we always do in a new town to try and get a perspective on our new surroundings) and immediately a guy on a bike came up and asked us the usual questions – where are we from? Where are we going? And what are you doing here? When we told him we were looking for a place to stay, he then told us to follow him. He ended up giving us a little tour of the hotels in the town. The first one was just about too expensive. We were wet and cold and were looking forward to a hot shower, but we still have a budget to think about and just because you are a little miserable, doesn’t mean you jump at the first place you see and pay more than you want to. The second place our bike friend showed us was a four star hotel, but I went in and asked just to appease him. It was way way out of our budget. The third place was also out of our budget. The guy behind the desk said it was €42 per night. In reply to this I asked him did he know if there were any cheap hostels in town where we could stay. He asked how much I wanted to spend, to which I said “No more than €20”. His reply was “Ok”. I was rather confused, so when I asked him what he meant by ‘ok’, he said “Ok, you can stay here for €20, it’s raining outside, you are a tourist and have come along way on your bikes, you can stay here for €20”. I have to say, I almost hugged the man! Between this guy and our bike tour guide friend, we had ourselves a very well priced hotel and a hot shower within an hour of arriving in the town. It just goes to show, that even if you think you are an independent bicycle tourer – you are always dependent on strangers.

The following day, the pain in my leg had not gone away overnight and within five kilometres, I knew I had a problem. We were 85km away from our destination and I couldn’t use my left leg at all. All day long I struggled. I had to push the bike up every hill and on the flats, only my right leg was doing the pedalling. The day was passing so slowly and I was getting more and more frustrated, as I knew that every time I turned the pedals that I was doing more and more damage to my leg.

After over six hours of excruciating pain, we managed to make it to Edessa in Greece. Incidentally, Monika really enjoyed the day. The scenery was great and made the hills rewarding. But I was just too miserable to see any positives.

Again, however, we had help. We had arranged to stay in Edessa for a night with a couchsurfer, so at least we didn’t have to deal with the accommodation hunt that afternoon. When we got to Chrissi’s home, she made us feel welcome and upon hearing about my leg, she told us we could stay for three or four days if we wished. For someone to help us out like that – just a few minutes after we arrived – was incredible.

So here we still are – in Edessa. Chrissi has been amazing. She has given us free run of the house and made us feel really welcome. We were given a tour of her town, met a few of her friends (who were keen to meet a couple of mad cyclists) and experienced some of the local foods. We even ate some octopus! We were quite fortunate to get ‘stuck’ in Edessa. It’s a lovely little place, with waterfalls, quaint cobbled streets and amazing views of the valley below.

We have spoken to loads of Greek people already and our impressions are very good – everyone is extremely friendly and interested to hear about your life – not just about your bike. I suspect the biggest challenge we will face in Greece will be the alphabet. This is the first country, we have been in, where the letters don’t even make sense, nevermind the words themselves! But as we will be here for a good while, we will have plenty of time to get used to it and lots of practice asking for γάλα or ψωμί.

The plan is for us to try and cycle to Thessaloniki tomorrow. If my leg is fine, then we will continue on towards Athens and if not we will hop on a train to Athens and hang out there until I am fit enough to cycle again. We really hope we don’t have to take the train though!

“Don’t Miss Albania”

The weather cleared up and we were able to leave our prison of Virpazar, finally! As we were cycling out of the little village we stopped and stroked a lovely young dog. Well, the dog seemed to like the attention, as it followed us for around 25km right to the top of the mountain. By this time we had grown quite attached to our friend and had even given him a name – Snowflake.

He was a super friendly dog and he even stopped other dogs from chasing us. We were a bit sad when we got to the top of the pass and started rolling down the other side – Snowflake was running and running, but he couldn’t keep up with us. We hope he wasn’t too sad. It was better for him that he couldn’t keep up with us, because he would have ended up on the main roads and dear knows what would have happened to him. We hope he decided to go back home where at least people would feed him scraps and he would be reasonably safe.

Shortly after we got back on the main road at the coast at Bar, we stopped for a snack and much to our surprise another couple of heavily laden cyclists pulled up. We always get excited when we see other cyclists with panniers. It gives us a chance to compare notes and find out about how other people, who are going through a similar experience to us, are getting on. These two were Chris and Jasmin from Germany. They had left Germany on October 1st and were on their way to Beijing. We chatted for a little while and as they were heading in the same direction as us, we headed off together toward the town of Ulcinj. We found a great campsite right on the beach – amazing sunset included.

After spending a couple of hours with Chris and Jasmin, we realised they are a perfect example of the German efficiency that everyone is always talking about. These two cycle in unison and in time with each other, one goes shopping while one looks after the bikes, they know exactly where they are going and when they get to a campsite the tent immediately comes out and is pitched. They both have their jobs and stuff gets done! Now compare that with us; we don’t cycle in unison. One of us is stopped having a drink, while the other is off in the distance. Then someone is having a pee in the bushes or someone wants to stop and take off or put on an item of clothing. A couple of minutes later we stop again because someone is hungry, a picture needs to be taken, suncream needs to be applied or we are lost and we need to look at the map. When we stop to go to the shop, we stand out in front of it for half an hour discussing what we need or don’t need for today’s and possibly tomorrow’s breakfasts, lunches and dinners. When we get to a campsite, I put my hands in my pockets and wait until the tent is up. We seem to have no rhythm or travel coordination! Apart from being super efficient, Chris and Jasmin are fun people to hang out with. They cooked us dinner and we just chatted for a few hours telling each other how we came to this point, where we wanted to cycle a really long way on our bikes.

The following morning – after they waited for us to take our tent down – we said our goodbyes and promised to meet up again in the future.

Myself and Monika were feeling a little bit anxious about Albania, as we had heard a few negative stories about it. We are in contact with a French couple who are cycling (and climbing) around the world. We had been exchanging experiences and plans about our trips, via email. They had previously gone through Albania and had moved onto Greece and Turkey. At the bottom of one of their emails to us, they wrote “Don’t miss Albania”. This always stuck in my mind. Travelling isn’t about going to the easy, well developed countries. It’s about going outside your comfort zone and seeing places and people that are different to what you are used to.

After a couple of hours of nervous cycling, we crossed the border into Albania with no Albanian Leks (money) and no map. We cycled and cycled but couldn’t find either. Eventually we found an ATM. I walked over ready to get money out and suddenly it lifted off the ground and was put on the back of an orange truck. I don’t know if it was broken, being moved or being stolen – I didn’t hang around to find out. We cycled along the main road into Lezhe, where it was chaos. Cars everywhere. Lots of noise and just general mayhem and of course we were the stars of the show in town. There are no real road rules in Albania, you just drive where you see a space and as long as the other person coming the other way has a space to go, then it’s all good. We stopped at the first hotel in Lezhe and after asking the receptionist to call her manager, we got the price down to an acceptable level and so we stayed, relieved to get out of the madness. The next day, there was another storm so we stayed another day to avoid being washed away.

We wandered around the town a couple of times in the rain. We stuck out like a sore thumb as we walked round, but looking at the madness in the town was too much to resist. It’s not the sort of place that I would like to live, but I’m glad that I was able to experience what daily life is like. It seems to consist of sitting in a car honking a horn…

After tracking down a map we were able to depart the next day toward the town of Burrel. The route through a canyon was fantastic.

Lovely scenery and autumn colours. At some points the road turned into an obstacle course. No tarmac, mud, rocks, massive potholes all made progress painfully slow – even when we were going downhill.

Burrel turned out to be not the sort of place that we wished to stay the night – it was a bit grim. With the help of some policemen we were directed to campsite a few kilometres down the road. The campsite turned out to be ridiculous! It was the same price as a hotel and the facilities, such as shower, kitchen etc. costing extra, so we left. We pedalled on a bit more until we were invited to pitch our tent behind a restaurant by the son of the owner. We pitched our tent, then we were told by the father to take our tent down and come and sleep inside where it was warmer. So there we had it, we spent the night in a room with a freezer full of frozen meat!

The next morning we spent almost four hours climbing up a seemingly endless hill. There have been very few moments that I have wanted to sit down and give up, but this was one of them. The hill just went on forever and we seemed to be making no progress at all, which is always frustrating.

When we made it to the top, we went into the next town to buy some milk and bread. The whole town seemed to stop what they were doing to stare at us. It’s a very unsettling feeling indeed. I’m not sure what these people do with their day, but standing about seems to take up a large part of it. We didn’t feel threatened at all, but we aren’t used to be stared at by so many people at the same time.

Over all we had a very positive experience of Albania. We said hello to thousands of people. All the cars gave us friendly toots of their horns and waved at us. The people seem genuinely pleased to have foreigners in their country. All the kids are curious, want to shake your hand, say hello and ask where you are from. Even the teenagers and young adults will smile and wave – which would be the demograph you could expect would give you most trouble (or not care at all) in Ireland. Chris and Jasmin had some stones thrown at them by kids, but we didn’t experience anything like this. It is clear, however, that Albania still has a lot of work to do to make the country a tourist destination.

If I had a week off work and wanted to go for a holiday, I wouldn’t choose Albania – because it’s hard work and not at all relaxing, but we are both very glad that we had the chance to cycle through it and see the rawness of society – and beauty – for ourselves.

We moved into Macedonia in the evening and ended up in Debar, just a few kilometres from the border. We knew there was a hotel in town, but finding it took an hour! When we did, the price was so far out of our price range – it was laughable. We knew there was another hotel at a gas station just down the road, so we found that and discovered that it was closed. Mmm, what to do? We were a bit stuck.

Slowly but surely on this trip, we are losing our inhibitions about going up to random people and asking for directions, shops, accommodation or anything else that we are looking for. You might not be successful the first time, the second time or even the third time, but if you ask enough people, you will get what you want. How many of us have gone into a strange town (even in your home country) and driven around for ages looking for something that your map told you was there, because you are too shy or embarrassed to ask a stranger for help? Well if we tried that approach here, travelling would be so much tougher – maybe even impossible. We are learning that most people are friendly and helpful if given the opportunity.

So we asked a guy on a bike if he knew of any other accommodation – he didn’t – but another cyclist stopped and he didn’t either. But two people on bright yellow bikes with lots of bags hanging off the frame (us), tends to draw a crowd and when we are stopped and speaking to a couple of locals, other people tend to get more interested and come over and join the group. A crowd always draws a crowd. In these cases, we enjoy being the center of attention, and are glad that these people come over to find out what this discussion is all about. A teenager in the group knew of another motel above a gas station, not too far from where we were, and so one of the original cyclists told us to follow him to the gas station. See – sorted! We thanked everyone involved and moved off to our home for the night. The place was dirty, stank of cigarettes but it was cheap and we were very glad to have a roof over our heads for the night. We were very glad that we stopped and asked the question and drew in the crowd.

We went back into town to get some dinner and found a pizzeria – which is the best meal to look for when hungry and tired. There were three sizes of pizza on the menu, but when the waiter came, we ordered the flavour and he asked us if we wanted small or medium. We said ‘large please’, to which he said ‘No they are too big, they are family pizzas’. We insisted that we were hungry and wanted two family pizzas. He rolled his eyes and gave a look as if to say we were a bit dim. The pizzas were indeed huge, but they were no match for two tired, hungry cyclists! Maybe our pictures are now on the restaurant wall!

When we were in our gas station motel, we were wondering who on earth stayed in this sort of place. Well it turns out that quite a lot of people stay in these places! People kept coming during the night making loads of noise – including a motorcyclist who was travelling around the world. He arrived just before two in the morning. Who knows what he was up to until that time!

We had an easy 55km cycle to Struga the next day from Lake Debarsko, along the river Crn Drim to Lake Orhid and found a really nice apartment for buttons.

So that’s where we are currently – Struga. Next we will be going a bit further east towards the mountains in Macedonia. I’m pretty sure we will regret that later though…