The Doctor’s Verdict

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog front recently simply because we haven’t been doing any cycling for the past three weeks. We are writing this post a couple of days after Christmas from a hotel room in the centre of Sparta.

Christmas tree in Sparta square

Sunrise over Sparta on Christmas morning

Here is how we got here:

We left Athens on a damp and dull Friday morning at the end of November. We packed up our stuff, returned the key to the landlord – all before the sun came up so we could get on our bikes and away before the traffic could get too busy. As expected, Athens was enormous! It took us about 15-20km before we were properly free of the busy, fast roads. Once we were out of the clutches of Athens, the road we had chosen to cycle on was the old national road – was totally deserted, thanks to the new motorway built alongside it (in some places only about five meters away).

The oil refinery is on the shores of this bay - this boat never made it.

This old national road was fantastic for us. It was a hilly, twisty coastal road that provided some nice views of the bay below. Our destination for this day was a little coastal town called Agioi Theodoroi. This place didn’t have too many obvious cheap places to stay, but after asking a local, who then spent an hour making phone calls and driving us around town, we managed to get a room. The price of the room started at €35, to which I tried to negotiate it to €25 then to €23. At some point though she either got fed up or felt sorry for us and reduced it to €20 without me having to ask for it. It was certainly one of the stranger negotiations I have been involved in!

Monika taking a rest on the shores of Agioi Theodoroi

The next day, we cycled off in the rain, crossed the impressive Corinth Canal, got lost, ended up on a motorway slip road, where we were then pulled over by the highway people who told us it wasn’t safe for us here. He then made us turn around and cycle the wrong way back along the slip road to where we came from – that sounds so much safer – doesn’t it?

Corinth Canal - pictures don't do it's scale justice!

The canal isn't hugely popular anymore as it's too narrow to be of huge commercial benefit.

You may wonder how we ended up on a motorway, but it was rather quite easy. In Greece, a green sign means motorway and blue is a national road. So we were cycling along for a national road for 10km, maybe more, then all of a sudden a fork appeared in the road – both signs were green and both were pointing (in different directions) to the same town that was on our route. The map didn’t help, so we chose the left green sign. Wrong one – it turned out. So we cycled back to the fork and took the right green sign and lo and behold about 500m down the road a blue sign appeared. Knowing how Greece is run, the motorway signing people probably ran out of blue signs that day and fired up a green sign instead.

After staying the night in Argos, we headed off toward Tripolis. Unfortunately for us, there is a big set of mountains plopped between Argos and Tripolis.

The neverending switchbacks toward Tripolis

We climbed and we climbed and we climbed. By 1pm we made it (to what we thought was the top), had lunch and watched the skies darken and listened to the not too far away thunder claps. It turned rather eerie up there. We donned our waterproofs and quickly realised we were not at the top of the mountain – still lots more left.

Windy, wet, cold and miserable

We were fortunate enough to have organised a couchsurfing host for the night in Tripolis, so it was nice after an exhausting day not to have to chase around town looking for accommodation. Maria and Alex were very welcoming hosts and their two children where just adorable. They had loads of interesting food on the table and we managed to get a couple of recipes off them for Greek specialities, which we will try ourselves when we stop the nomad lifestyle.

Our couchsurfing friends in Tripolis. From left to right: Helen (14 months), Alex, Maria, Helen (2 1/2 years) and us of course

The following day we had an arrangement to meet with Phil – our workaway host. As I mentioned before we planned to work at his house for a few weeks over the winter. We have been in Vasara with Phil and his family for three weeks now and are having a great time. More details on this will be included on our workaway experience at a later date.

Meet Meli - one of the family dogs

And here is Lola - mother of Meli

When we arrived in Vasara, I (Geoff) had been suffering from a pain in my right knee for a couple of months. The pain has been slowly getting worse and is now at a point where it’s too painful to cycle. So while we were at Phil’s house he arranged for me to visit a knee specialist in the town of Sparta. The doctor was able to diagnose the problem almost straightaway. The cartilage under my knee cap had been damaged due to repetitive strain or a condition called Chondromalacia Patella for those of you who understand Latin – or knees. The recovery time is between one and three months. One to three months is a long time to be sitting idle and waiting for my knee to fix itself. Even if my knee does heal, I will have to make some major adjustments otherwise the same problem will happen again a few weeks down the road. Between the bike and the load, I am trying to drag around 90% of my body weight, which appears to be putting too much stress on my body. So, we will be trying to reduce the amount of stuff that we are carrying around.

Back in my school days, I was in accident and emergency twice after injuring that knee, so I suspect it has been an underlying weakness since then. The doctor also mentioned that if its not completely healed before I start to cycle again the damage will become permanent.

At least I now know what the issue is and there are exercises that I can do to strengthen the leg muscles (which in turn take the stress off the tendons, ligaments and cartilage in my knee).

While we are hoping for the best, in terms of my recovery, we are now looking into what we do from now, if my knee does not heal properly. Going on and doing further irreparable damage is not an option and we know that we want to continue travelling, so the most likely option is the regular backpackers method of travelling. This is something that we will be thinking about over the next few weeks – while at the same time, I will be doing what I can to help my knee heal.

Anyways, enough of my knee for now.

The family that we are staying with are in a bit of an awkward situation themselves. Charlie is sixteen and is in England doing his A-Levels, so his mother is there most of the time, with him, to help him along, while his father, Phil, and his sister, Annabelle are here in Greece. The whole family are back together in Greece for only ten days over the Christmas period, so myself and Monika thought it would be best to stay in Sparta over the Christmas holidays and let them be together, alone, for the festive season before they have to be separated once again.

Mmm, I wonder what this smells like...

Who would have thought that ice cold frappes would have been required to cool down on Christmas day in Europe!?

Views of the snowy mountains surrounding Sparta

So that’s how we ended up in Sparta for Christmas. Our hotel looks out over the main square, which has been playing the same ten or fifteen Christmas songs on repeat for ten hours a day for the last four days. I may be slowly losing my marbles…


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!