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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!