Saturday, April 30, 2011

Marathopolis to Zaharo

Today our ride took us through a rich agricultural area of Messinia. We saw some very old olive groves. Some of the biggest trees looked like this.

This must be one of the two hundred year old trees that Panagiotis (our olive farmer friend) told us about. There were also fields of maturing melons grown with buried drip tape on mulched beds, greenhouses full of huge tomato plants, and fields of potatoes, zucchini, and lettuce. Here was a crew harvesting some iceberg lettuce.

The soil is a dark red clay and in Messinia the fields are not full of rocks. Drip irrigation is extensively used and the farmers work up the ground to a fine tilth. The early fields were covered in row cover as shown in the background of the following picture. The shrine of the day appears to be made of slate.

Early in the ride, we were surprised by this monument in a small town's park. What connection could Filiatra, Greece have with Paris?

Our route today was flat to gently rolling. We made good time. The Greek drivers saw it as an opportunity to make good time as well, and some passed us going breathtakingly fast! It was also the first time we have seen traffic cops working the road, radar and everything, just like at home.

Tomorrow we hope to make it to Olympia, home of the Olympic torch!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Methoni to Marathopolis

We have continued to see shrines, but not many are different. We see them for sale at home and garden stores, so a really unique one has to be handmade like the following one. It even has a small bell in it's tower.

We explored the famous castle and prison at Methoni this morning before breakfast.

This the prison on a small rocky outcrop separate from the castle.

Here is a shot looking up inside the prison. There were probably wood floors and a wood staircase going up to the different floors.

Similar to the castle in Kalamata, the Venetians built this fort and fought the Turks twice for control of it. We don't know who was imprisoned in the beautiful prison. These old Venetian forts are very spacious inside the walls with plenty of room for cottages, gardens, even small orchards. The fort at Koroni was still occupied, with people in cottages, and a monastery. We think that the forts were situated to protect ports and regulate shipping and trade.

After breakfast, we loaded up and our landlady gave us cookies for the road. Fifteen minutes out of town, Dave got a flat tire, the first flat of the trip. It was a mystery flat with the hole in the tube on the rim side. After changing the tube, we continued on to Pilos and stopped to buy some supplies.

We found our ultimate lunch bread, tortillas, much to Belinda's delight. There was a second sightseeing stop at a Mycenean tomb. It was constructed in the same manner as other Mycenean tombs, but was situated on a promontory with a gorgeous view.

Between the sightseeing and the flat, it began to get late and we were unsure of the best destination to spend the night. We had stopped on the road and a very tall thin German cyclist rode up to us and asked if we needed assistance. He directed us to a hotel in the next town, Marathopolis. After showering, we watched the sunset from our balcony.

A little later we walked to a restaurant, where we got into a long conversation with with the young man serving us. He is a student of biology at The University of Peloponnese. We talked about Greece, human nature, and world economies. Tomorrow we head for Zaharo.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Kalamata to Koroni to Methoni

We left Kalamata riding in a light rain. We put on our rain jackets for a short time, but soon took them off due to the high humidity. Our route was very flat along the famous Messinean plain contested in history. We planned on camping and soon found Camp Koroni about 1 km outside (and above) the town. We set up the tent and had long hot showers.

We continued to rough it with the free Internet next to the pool and then had a wonderful dinner served up by the campground owner.

Of course, on our first night camping it rained. Well, it is Spring, the rain was light, and it stopped before we rose in the morning. This morning we descended into town and then climbed up to the castle. The Venetians built many fortifications on major points on the Peloponnesus peninsula. This castle was really invincible.

The road to Methoni had a major climb and when we reached the top a Greek man came up and was turning off on to a side road. We said hello and the conversation just took off. He was on his way to prune his father's olive trees. His name is Panagiotis Vassilopoulos and he answered all our questions about olive production.

He invited us to cottage on his father's property to further discuss olive production, but we had to push on. However, we're now friends on Facebook. We found out it takes 5 kilos (11 lbs) to make 1 liter of oil and the very old trees we have seen are around 200 + years old.

After we descended to the coast, several beautiful vistas opened up. We soon came into Methoni, which also has a famous castle.

Tomorrow we'll visit the castle before we leave town.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Rest day in Kalamata

After seven days of riding, it was time for a rest day. To our surprise, Kalamata is a very cosmopolitan city. It is cleaner and nicer than Athens with lots of parks and sports venues. It had a population of 57,000 in 2001, but feels like a big city. It has gotten very bike friendly in the last two years (according to a local young man) and has marked bike paths and long avenues of pedestrian and bike ways along the main boulevard from the old town to the port. We saw more bikes in one day in Kalamata than we had seen in the previous 14 days. We had a late breakfast and like most Greek meals, the omelet came with French fries.

You definitely get more than you can eat in Greece. In fact, the Greek people seem to be obsessed with making sure you have something to eat. If we only order coffee, we are given some small pastries. If you order ouzo, you get chips or nuts or both! Last night we went to a cafe to have some wine (and use the Internet connection) and we were served cheese and crackers as well.

The Greeks declared independence from the Turks on March 23, 1821 at this small 14th century church in Kalamata.

This old Kalamata castle has exchanged hands many times since 1205 when it's existence was mentioned in a Frankish general's journal. The Turks and the Venetians fought over Kalamata at least twice.

In the central square this monument depicts the Fathers of Independence beneath Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom.

Tomorrow we ride to Koroni.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Road To Kalamata

This morning we had a hard time deciding if we wanted to ride or not. The wind was blowing a gale with really ferocious gusts. We would start out with a big descent and then a big climb, both with exposed switchbacks. The best weather report we could get was for Kalamata, which had mild conditions. Looking at the map and the pattern of whitecaps on the sea below, we determined that the wind was local, caused by the deep canyon we had to descend into and climb out of. We decided to go for it, and the wind did make for a few interesting moments, but we came through all right.

The climb was tough, about 1500 vertical feet in six switchbacks. Once on top of the headland we did a long rolling traverse of the coast. This was perhaps the best riding of the day, especially since the wind was now a tailwind. The road became very narrow with rock walls on either side.

We rode north marveling at the peaks on one side and the ocean on the other. Soon we needed lunch and stopped in a small town called Lefkada. We ate our lunch on a rock wall at the center of town. Lefkada has a famous church called the Church of the Metamorphosis from the 14th century.

After lunch,we climbed a little bit more and than had a big descent.
We both hit over 50 kph, which is our fastest descent rate yet on these narrow twisting roads. During a pit stop at the bottom, we met our first touring German cyclists, Rolf and Monika Ostertag, who gave us some good information about the final climb of the day.

The final climb started at the 47th kilometer of the day. It was around 1300 ft. in 13 km. We were both fatigued and took lots of breaks, however the scenery was breathtaking.

We finally made it to the top, but still had 20 km to go. We had a snack and then were surprised by a long descent of 15 km. Pushing darkness at 7:30, we took a room in the first hotel we came to near the city center and completed our longest day in Greece, 83 km. The town was still alive with nightlife when we finished dinner at 10:30. Absolutely exhausted, we went to sleep knowing that the next day would be our first rest day.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

An Easter Ride To Areopoli

This morning we walked to the ritzier side of the port for breakfast at one of the nicer hotels. The only thing you can get for breakfast on Easter morning is a "European breakfast"; bread, butter, jam, honey, and coffee (such good coffee!). This is because everyone is busy preparing the big Easter Sunday dinner. Primarily this means roasting whole lambs on a spit.

As a side benefit of eating at the fancy hotel, we discovered that we could get free WiFi there. So we sat, posting our blog and doing some e-mailing, much later than we usually spend over breakfast. So we didn't leave town until about 11:30. This was all right though as we were only riding 28 kilometers. Our last view of Githio was this lighthouse.

As we rode a most gentle route through the mountains towards Areopoli, we were amazed by the stunning beauty of the Spring wildflowers. The sheer abundance is mind boggling. Spring has to be the best time to visit Greece. It is impossible to capture the full impact of the splendor with a camera.

A word about Greek drivers. Many people told us that the drivers here were nuts and it would be very dangerous on the roads. This seems to be true if you are driving. Greeks seem to be impatient with each other, crowding, passing, honking with abandon. We have been through a heavy traffic period due to the Easter holiday, however we have not felt imperiled at all. Some drive fast, some drive slow, but all have given us plenty of room. For this we are grateful.

The shrine of the day mirrors the rocky landscape we entered during the gentle climb towards Areopoli. The houses are all made of rock and there are myriads of rock walls defining goat pastures or property boundaries. As we got close to Areopoli, there was one final climb past an impressive coastal peak.

Then it was downhill into an old town with cobbled streets. We finished the day with a traditional Easter Sunday lamb dinner in Greece, a kilogram of lamb for two.

After the lamb is roasted on the spit, they use a huge cleaver to cut it into pieces. The meat was delicious and tender.

Tomorrow we will make a big push for Kalamata. The coastal road looks rough with big climbs and it is 80k. If we poop out before reaching Kalamata, there are plenty of camp grounds on the way.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Kosmas to Githio - down, down, down

It was a cold morning when we awoke in Kosmas. We felt rested but still had muscle fatigue from the previous day's effort. Our new friends, the Verhage family, had shown up in Kosmas around 8:30 pm last night which surprised us. We had expected that they would be over the mountain ahead of us, but they had actually started the climb 30 minutes after us.

Dave's brake hoods finally gave up the ghost and our super supply (a roll) of duct tape came in very handy. Duct tape, don't leave home without it!

We left Kosmas bundled up for the cold descent. Even though we were braking a lot, we both had top speeds over 50 kph and the view was spectacular on the way down.

We soon dropped out of the fir tree forest and into an agricultural region. The shrine of the day was in front of a home next to a very old and healthy olive grove.

The piles of wood behind the shrine are for tonight's bonfires at midnight welcoming Christ back from the dead on Easter morning. Traffic jams in Greece are numerous, however we never saw this kind of traffic problem in Athens.

Soon we were back on the coast with an ocean breeze in our faces. We got into Githio, and according to our new habit rode the waterfront in search of lodging. Soon lodged we strolled out for dinner. Random firecrackers have been going off all evening, but at mid-night you would think it was a war zone! The heavy barrage went on for about an hour and finally subsided back to random explosions.

We have not yet camped on this trip, partly due to the fact that we have had trouble finding the right gas for our Primus stove. Yesterday that problem was solved when Belinda was in a small market to buy apples when she spied the right canister. So now the way is open to camping, perhaps tomorrow on the way up the coast to Kalamata.

Tiros to Kosmas - The Hill

The day dawned clear and calm. Here's a picture of how we had to rough it for breakfast.

After breakfast we loaded up the bikes and headed south out of town. We had twenty kilometers (about twelve miles) to ride to reach Leonidio. In those 20k we climbed two fairly high headlands. Here is one last look back at Tiros.

Leonidio is a pretty little town set back from the coast a bit. We wished we had time to explore there more but we still had 80 more kilometers to go (we thought). Our goal for the day was Githio, a 100k ride, the most ambitious ride of the trip. We stopped in a bakery to by a loaf of bread, and pushed on. Here we turned inland. We knew there was a big climb ahead, we just didn't know how big, and for the first 12k or so it seemed like it would not be so bad. The road climbed next to a river up into a gorge. It is such a place that in the U.S. it would be made into a national park. It looked a lot like places in Utah, red cliffs and all. We were chugging along when, as we rounded a curve, we heard a bell and then chanting. We looked up and there was a monastery plastered to the cliff ahead.

We could hear the chanting for several kilometers as the sound echoed off the canyon walls. Around the corner was the shrine of the day. It was just past a roadside fountain that had flowing spring water. We filled up the water bottles not knowing how important that water would be near the end of the day.

It was not much farther when the climb turned ugly, switchback city, and steeper. We did all right till the second to last switchback, from there on we were forced to walk the steepest grades.

If you click on the above picture you will see many sections on the road we were climbing. Beyond the switchbacks, we still had 10k or so of climbing to reach the mountain village of Kosmas, and our energy reserves were quite spent. It was getting late and cold. It was the easiest decision to make to find a room for the night half way to our original goal. Kosmas is a pretty little mountain village, quite old, with a small triangular plaza bordered one one side by the church and cafes on the other sides with a few very old trees inbetween. After a couple of tries, we found a inn with a room available. It turned out to be the most comfortable, pleasing room we have had so far (however, in our state it would not have taken much to please us). Here is a picture of our inn, built in 1876.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

New Friends Found On The Road to Tiros

Yesterday evening as we sat at a seaside cafe in Napflio sipping on our favorite Greek beer, Mythos, we watched this dramatic sky develop.

Later we found a taverna for dinner. As we still haven't adapted to the European habit of dining late, we were the first customers of the night. We became witnesses to a drama played out when a woman came out of the kitchen clearly enraged. She was chewing out one of the other employees with all the disdain she could muster. It doesn't appear wise to cross a Greek woman! Later as other customers filed in, it became apparent that this was a locals favorite with most being greeted as old friends. It was great people watching.

This morning we left Napflio into a head wind, but as we circled around the bay the wind came to be at our backs and stayed there for the rest of the day, hurray! The first ten miles was flat, hurray again!

Then we commenced to ride a coastal roller, climbing the headlands and descending into the coves. At the top of one of the headlands we came upon the first other bicycle tourists we have encountered this trip. They are an amazing family touring the world, and some of the warmest folks you could imagine. Michael and Ciska with their two boys, Jesse and Sammy, have been on the road for two and a half years. They have ridden from L.A. through South America and now are riding a similar swing to ours through Europe. They have been joined by a young friend, Eva. We hope to see them often through Greece and Italy, then our paths will diverge.