Our time in Greece was the shortest we had spent in any country. Except of course for Turkmenistan but that was only 5 days so that doesn’t count. It may have been short but it was certainly memorable.
It was hard to tell the difference as we crossed the border from Turkey but then the Greek side had been part of the Ottoman empire for years and many Turks still live there.
Although we did notice one difference. About 25 km after the border we spotted a young guy with a backpack. We pulled over for a chat. Turns out he was hitchhiking. He’d crossed the border the day before and had to pitch his tent at the border because no one would give him a lift. He’d started walking and hitching and still hadn’t got a lift when we met him mid-afternoon. In Turkey he would have got a lift easily. In turkey, indeed all the way from when we left China there is a culture of standing at the side of the road holding out your hand and getting a lift. You usually have to pay something so people never seem to wait long and they even do it in big cities. Of course it’s a very environmentally friendly way of getting around. No additional emissions involved at all. But Greece is notoriously bad for hitchhiking. He ended up having to catch a bus.
Earlier we’d crossed the border without too many hitches. The white European as usual cruised through no problem. And the only problem Kim had was leaving Turkey. She’d been stamped out no problem and we were just getting ready to set off when the guy came out of his booth took her passport again and showed her into another office. Uh oh. But 5 minutes later she was back. Getting into Greece was a breeze a quick glance at the passport for me and a stamp and a fingerprint for Kim and were into country number 8.
After five days of cloud, some rain and that chill north wind the sun was out and it actually felt warm. It was very pleasant riding through the quiet roads into Alexandroupoli. Wild camping is illegal in Greece and the rules tend to be enforced in areas with a lot of tourists. Which is a bummer if you’re on a tight budget and rather restrictive especially after the joys of turkey and Iran where you can camp almost anywhere. So we made our way to the campsite by the beach on the way calling at the supermarket to stock up on pork and wine. Something which had been distinctly lacking as we passed through the Muslim lands. And for the first time were hit with European prices. The food wasn’t too bad but the €14 for the campsite was more than we’d been paying for hotel rooms for much of the trip. Time to tighten our belts.
After a heavenly breakfast of bacon and eggs and a quick dip in the sea we set off along the coast. The route had been suggested by Angie who we stayed with in Bishkek and it was lovely. We started on quiet little country roads following the coast through quiet little villages and past ruined castles and archaeological sites . By late afternoon the road had given way to a rough track. There was no sign of human habitation and we only saw four cars until we returned to a surfaced road and two of those were the farmer coming to check his animals in the evening and again in the morning.
We camped in an ancient olive Grove, the only sound the peaceful tinkling of the bells on the sheep. Next morning we resumed our journey along the bumpy track. The morning light dappling through the olive trees and sparkling of the sea down below. It was glorious. The whole route was punctuated by ancient ruins. Most just lines of rocks among the trees but there was a magnificent amphitheatre on one hillside. The semi-circular rows of stone benches and stage were still intact. By midmorning we reached a beach and re-joined the surface droad.
This was cotton country and the roads where scattered with powder puffs which had spilled from the trailers taking the crop from the harvesters plying up and down the fields to the huge piles of cotton waiting to be loaded onto the trucks which rolled past intermittently. By early afternoon we’d reached the campsite that we’d planned on staying at but it was closed. We found that this late in the season it was the same in many of the places along our route. A friendly shop keeper suggested we camped next to the marshland next to the village but it was still only mid-afternoon so we decided to push on and find another campsite further round the coast.
We peddled around the estuary of the Nestos river and visited some lovely churches on a pair of islands. The priests were the friendliest of any of the religious leaders we had encountered. Welcoming us and asking where we came from. We watched the huge pelicans clambering ungainly around on the posts in the water and then continued on our way.
We found a small campsite that was open and were later joined by another cyclist from the Czech Republic. The second cyclist we’d met that day. The first one was a crazy Dutchman who was going on a similar route to the one we’d just come from except he’d be crossing into China in midwinter. absolute madness. It was cold enough at the end of June when we went across. The deep gouges cut into the tarmac by snow chains testament to how bad the conditions are in winter. It was good to see so many touring cyclists after only spotting a couple in the whole of Turkey. And we would meet another four over the next few days. Including super cycling man who’s going around the world promoting the joys of cycling.
Next morning we only had 35km to reach our host in Xanthi which meant that we had loads of time to hang out. It’s an attractive little town with a nice old town and lots of young people who attend the university. We had some great chats with our host, a gorgeous lunch and then spent the evening quaffing red wine and continuing our discussions. We talked
about climate change. I asked him if Greeks were worried about it. He said yes, up until 2007 they were. There was a growing environmental movement and people were becoming more aware of the issues. Then the financial crisis happened and the economy was destroyed by the reckless actions of a few greedy bankers. And people lost their jobs, their businesses and savings and understandably their concerns became more immediate rather than something in the far off future. Yet climate change will be here far sooner than most people realise. Deserts will spread through the south of the country, farmers’ fields will turn to dust whilst the north will alternate between fires sweeping through the forest and floods sweeping down the valleys. The Troika who have heaped so much misery upon the country with their demand for austerity at all costs will seem warm and cuddly in comparison.
For the first time in weeks I awoke with a hangover, but riding bicycles is a good way to sort that out. And it was a gorgeous ride along the coast past rocky headlands and every so often we’d dip into a sandy bay, or town with ancient ruins. We camped that night in paradise, at least that’s what the campsite was called. It didn’t exactly live up to its name. It was riddled with mosquitos so we escaped to the beach to cook dinner and watched the sun set across the pretty little bay.
As we completed our meal it began to rain so we retired to our little rather leaky tent. As the rain grew heavier the owner came over and suggested we move the tent under the car port. As the water was forming to pools on the ground and beginning to seep through the ground sheet we thought that was an excellent idea. And hurriedly lifted the tent under the shelter. Where we spent a comfortable night not having to worry about water running down the walls of the tent.
It was grey and spitting with rain as we continued along the coast. The two campsites that were our target that night were both closed. There didn’t seem like many options for weeks camping so we booked ourselves into a guest house for the first time in Greece. It was a bit more expensive than we were used to but like many similar places in Greece it had a kitchen so we could save quite a bit by cooking for ourselves.
Next day we followed a beautiful wooded valley up past two huge lakes and then thinking it would be a bit of a short cut took the steepest road we had encountered to get to Thessaloniki. It was brutal. Only around 5 km but sections of it were so steep that I had to stand up just to keep the peddles turning round. It took an age to reach the top as we had to pause for a breather every few hundred metres. At last we reached the top and then it was downhill all the way to the front door of our host.
We were staying in the house of the who’d hosted me last time I was there. She’d moved to Spain, but her son was still living there. The morning of our day off we went to meet the awesome folks at the Ecological Movement of Thessaloniki
Then in the afternoon we explored the city taking in some of the imprints that thousands of years of history had left behind. Roman, Greek and Ottoman, pagan, Muslim and Christian. Just as we reached the top of the hill to explore the old town it started to rain so we caught a bus down the hill and went home.
After a day of riding on the flat out of Thessaloniki we reached the mountains of Northern Greece. They’re not particularly high, at least not compared to what we experienced in Kyrgyzstan, Iran and Turkey. But they were the biggest we’d come across in nearly a month. It took us most of the day to climb the first climb which was around 15000 m high and 17km long. And then it was down into coal country.
The Kozani valley is home to the majority of Greece’s coal. The plumes of smoke and steam pouring up the valley indicated we were approaching. Greece gets 75% of its electricity from thermal power plants the vast majority of that from coal. And most of the coal burned is lignite, the dirtiest kind. Not only is this bad for climate change but the health costs to Greece are estimated to range from €1.5 to €4 billion a year.
The government is pressing ahead with plans to build even more coal power with the Ptolemaida V power plant being given the final go ahead. At the same time support for renewable energy had been scaled back. An insane position given that Greece is one of the European countries most at risk from climate change.
Earlier we’d passed a wind farm on the crest of a ridge. Greece could easily meet all its energy requirements from renewable energy so it’s perplexing to see a supposedly progressive government so wedded to such a destructive technology. Their mantra as always is jobs but renewable energy usually creates more jobs than fossil fuels. And it doesn’t kill people, or poison the earth or cause it to heat up to disastrous levels. Of course people say you can’t rely on renewable energy because of its intermittency but in a big country with a diverse climate like Greece it is usually windy or sunny somewhere, and if you connect in neighbouring countries too then you can further regulate the troughs in supply. In any case it’s a fallacy that electricity supply needs to be the same throughout the day. Demand is high during daylight hours and after a spike in the early evening falls away markedly into the night. Almost but not quite matching the generation period for solar energy.
For the gaps you can use hydroelectricity or some kind of storage. Solar thermal already has the potential to store around 6 to 8 hours of generating heat for as long as a week. And pump storage hydroelectric schemes work by pumping water to a high dam when there is excess capacity and using it to generate electricity when required.
Then there is the largely untapped potential of demand management. Every country has a few companies which are very large users of electricity that are always looking for ways to reduce their bills. One way to do this is to pay them to use less energy when demand is high and/or supply is low. Now that short term weather forecasts are getting very accurate so that it’s now possible to know hours and even days in advance when this will be. This can also be done on a smaller scale. With a well-insulated house it’s not necessary to heart or cool them continuously. With a smart grid it is possible to regulate the houses in a community so they take it in turns to heat or cool in short bursts and in this way reduce demand.
It’s frustrating because we already have the technology to introduce a 100 % renewable energy system. The only thing that is lacking is the will to implement it.
With those thoughts in my mind we rolled into the town of Kozani and another lovely host. We were her first Couchsurfers and she welcomed us with a glass of grappa and had a full itinerary of activities planned for us not reckoning with the tiredness of the long distance cyclist. So by the time she returned from her dance class we about done in. Kim hit the sack but I stayed up for a couple beers and some chats.
Next morning we accompanied our host to her work at a school for children with special needs. It was housed in an amazing building. Essentially a log cabin built from Finnish pine. The school was downstairs and upstairs was the home of the owner and creator. It was beautiful. He invited us up for a coffee and Kim couldn’t stop taking photos of the wonderful interior.
It was Kim’s birthday so we didn’t cycle too far that day. Just followed the valley along to the next town and treated ourselves to a bit of luxury in a hotel. I’d wanted to take Kim out for dinner to a mushroom restaurant that our host had recommended. The town is renowned for its mushrooms and people travel from add far as Athens to visit this place. Unfortunately it was a holiday to celebrate the towns liberation from the Nazis so it was closed along with most of the other restaurants in town. We managed to find one place that was open but it was very disappointing. Massive servings of over salted meat. One portion would have been more than enough for the two of us.
Our easy day was followed by a day of almost constant climbing. The first part wasn’t too bad, following a river valley, there was only the occasional steep bit. Then in the late afternoon we began to climb. We finally crested the rise as the sun began to dip towards the horizon. Now to find somewhere to camp but the thick forest of the valley had given way to treeless pasture. A brisk wind was blowing and there was no shelter. At last we spotted a small patch of trees on the other side of a stream. We asked some shepherds who were bringing their flock on for the evening if we could camp. They were a little unsure at first but then said ok. I went across and it looked ok if a little muddy. It was only on closer inspection after unloading the bikes and carting everything over the stream that we realised it wasn’t mud but sheep shit. Much to Kim’s delight. It was nearly dark so there was no chance of finding an alternative site so we just had pitch camp among the shit.
The last few days had been beautiful, but the ride into Ioannina was one of my favourite days of the whole trip. As we set off from our shitty campsite the clouds were pouring down the mountains from the valley we had climbed the day before like dry ice from a 70s prog rock concert. It was almost all downhill. Tackling a series of sharp hairpin bends and switchbacks we descended down the steep valley sides. Every 5 minutes encountering another photo opportunity. There was a climb but it was only 10 kilometres and incredibly rewarding with expansive views over the blue waters of the lake and the city on its far shores. And the descent down to the water was equally fabulous.
As was our stay with the wonderful Christos from the Ioannina environmental association. He put us up in the lovely attic studio of their apartment block and treated us like royalty. Taking us for dinner and then inviting us for lunch with his parents. They also arranged a press conference for us and in the evening held a meeting for us to give a presentation about our journey. Then some other members took us for dinner. They even arranged for one of the few hotels on our route to Igoumenitsa to open especially for us as it had already closed for the winter.
The ride to the coast was gorgeous once again through dense forest and cute little villages on the banks of the river. It was easy to see why this area is refuge to Greece’s few remaining bears. Although not all the wildlife is protected. Shooting is very popular in Greece and the sound of gunfire echoed across the forest as we passed. Almost 250,000 birds are killed illegally in Greece every year. Yet people are worried about a few thousand killed by wind farms.
And then we arrived into the port city just as dusk was falling. We purchased tickets for the midnight sailing to Bari that night and then cooked dinner on the beach as the last light slipped from the sky.