GL009: Ελλάς

(Sorry for the long radio silence, folks. We’ve spent 28 days in Iran without doing anything about the blog. The reason is that there have been cases of travelers on tourist visa that were accused of journalism by the Iranian authorities just because they had a small website about their trip. We’re doing fine and will try to keep up with posting.)

June 19th, 2016 — Green Land

When loading the bikes to leave Ohrid, we talk with the inquisitive hotel owner a bit. He says that there are problems everywhere on the eastward route that we are going to take. We tell him that the reality is rosier than the reports about global events in the news. Ironically, he now starts complaining about the decline of the number of tourists from western Europe “only because there were reports about a few protests in Macedonia”.

Macedonia is a bit different from Albania: the street that we follow out of town is lined with supposed pensioners offering cherries (instead of melons) from their land or gardens. As we pass by, we get waved at by many friendly grandmothers.

We practice a bit off-road riding again through several road constructions on our way to Bitola, the last town before the Greek border. The customs official waves us through after we guess the right password (“Switzerland”). We’ve lost an hour, though, only because we ran out of ‘Central European time zone’.

Flórina, the first larger town in Greece, is almost deserted. On top of that, the beekeeper apparel shop is also closed… We finally notice that we’ve lost an hour and are therefore not going to make it to Ioannina today without arriving later than we want. We choose a winding road through the mountains to Kastoria, another town with a lake. This part of Greece looks so different from the drier Greek islands that we know. It is much greener here and you could almost call it cool at the mountain pass of more than 1500m (5000ft), almost as cool as the warnings for bear crossings.

Restaurant tip for Kastoria: Palia Poli.

June 20th, 2016 — Hot!!

The hotel owner prefers to speak French, but we don’t so we agree on a mix of English and German over breakfast. The whole family running the hotel appears to ride motorcycles and the owner is very interested in the tires that we use. The Heidenau tire company has existed since 1946 and will apparently come to Greece soon.

We load the bikes but stay at the hotel for a bit to do some research on visa for Pakistan. A few months ago we have discarded the plan to ride from China to Pakistan in favor of crossing China to Nepal, but the Nepalese border hasn’t opened yet as promised and we need a contingency plan. We use the hotel’s WiFi until the sun chases us away from the terrace. It is much hotter now than it was in the preceding weeks. The heat is nearly unbearable as I wait for Petra to finish grocery shopping. We need to ride to cool down before we can have lunch.

The motorway to Ioannina has a higher tunnel density than the western bypass of Zurich, which is quite an achievement. Almost none of the toll booths on this motorway are occupied. Nature here is pretty: green and mountainous. After Ioannina there are a few gorges that remind of the gorges in the French Alps (although not as deep).

We’re staying in Preveza tonight, a nice and quite touristic town. So far, all places we’ve stayed at either had a lake or access to the sea. Preveza has both.

June 21st, 2016 — Contingency Sweat

It promises to become another really hot day today. It was over 38C (100F) yesterday. We load the bikes by passing the bags through the hotel room’s window, saving us a lot of sweating. The local sleepy dog is also in energy conservation mode and doesn’t move a paw as I move the bikes around it.

Before leaving Preveza we have another contingency planning session for the China transit. We send a mail to the embassy of Pakistan in Berne (Switzerland) to see if we may also apply for visa outside of Switzerland and, if not, to inquire whether it is possible that a third person applies on our behalf. I really wish we had applied for visa in April when preparing all the other stuff at home, but we didn’t because we’d already discarded the Pakistan plan. On top of that the Letter of Invitation is quite costly as well as the visa (for Dutch citizens).

We’re riding to Nafpaktos today because that enables us to reach Athens (another 200km, 125mi) with relative ease tomorrow. We could have left earlier of course, but then the planning would have had to wait. We can’t have it all and we’re paying for it in streams of sweat now.

Close to Nafpaktos there is a nice view of the bridge to the Peloponnese. Unfortunately there is no safe place to make photos because of the busy rush hour traffic. Our hotel has a pool that we use gratefully.

June 22nd, 2016 — Customer Service

The hotel’s guarded parking lot is too far from the hotel to walk to with the luggage in this heat. Therefore we park right in front of the hotel again to load the bikes. The locals seem to be amused or at least interested in what these silly western Europeans are doing there in the blazing sunshine, wearing these thick pants and dressing up completely when they’re done! They even wear helmets!

We’re staying on the north side of the Gulf of Corinth as we move eastward today. We need a longer break in Galaxidi to recover from the heat, a pretty town that we select purely based on the way it looks from the highway above. While having lunch and looking at the bikes baking in the sun I wonder what the maximum storage temperature for laptop batteries is and whether the topcase will explode with it. We’re impressed and relieved that the lithium-ion contents remain where they are.

We suddenly remember that there is a bar of Swiss Lindt chocolate in Petra’s luggage, at 50C (120F) in the sunshine. It will be the inverse shape of our camping hammer when it cools down again. We should write an e-mail to their customer service because this is clearly unacceptable.

After lunch I get the first scare from Greek asphalt: it is so worn down in places that it is not grippy at all anymore. I barely manage to keep the bike upright after hard breaking for a unexpected car. We continue unscathed towards Athens. We don’t think it’s possible, but it’s getting even hotter now. We can smell how the still-green bushes are evaporating on the northern hillsides. On top of that, we are greeted by a hot headwind. I am informed that Petra’s head is cooking now because she starts whistling through her helmet’s vents. We make almost no photos today because it is simply too unpleasant to stop. That’s a shame because this road along the Gulf deserves more.

Unsurprisingly, the traffic thickens as we close in on Athens over the motorway. Soon we’re in the middle of rush hour. Scooters whiz by left and right and at crazy speeds too. None of the cars have bloody stains on them, which is a miracle considering that none of the scooter riders is wearing a helmet. Drivers are using every square meter which includes the emergency lane. When the emergency lane suddenly disappears they leave us with the choice: moving out of the way or getting shoved aside and having an accident.

We have booked an apartment through Airbnb for our stay in Athens, which may be a bit longer than originally planned, depending on how well our visa applications will go. We are a bit early so we decide to visit our friend Giorgos first. This is quite a challenge because the traffic is dense and chaotic and Petra and I can barely communicate. The last thing we want is to lose each other in Athens. All goes well though and we’re greeted by Giorgos with soda and plums.

After a second ‘relaxing’ ride through Athens we arrive at our Airbnb apartment. Hostess Tatiana is very friendly and helpful. We have a parking spot under the building, but not out of the way of swarms of crapping city pigeons. We use our invisibility cloaks to cover the bikes. Ironically, Greek stray cats love German-made custom motorcycle seats. We find out later that they’ve spent every night there: our bikes are full of catpaw prints and the seats covered with cat hair. Much to our annoyance, they also use our motorcycle covers as a toilet.

Thankfully our apartment has airconditioning in both rooms. Because we probably won’t need the the electrically heated blanket in the Athenian summer heat, we remove it from our mattress to prevent any heat-related incidents.