I am not a cyclist

I have been known to potter about on a bike, most recently on my beautiful new Cannondale e-Bike, bought in anticipation of this trip.  And (many years ago), proudly conquering 500km of “Big Sky” in central Otago on a real bike…  but that was then.

Now, in Athens, is now – a few days after the end of a week-long tour through Peloponese, a relatively unknown and somewhat untouched part of Greece, steeped in millennia of history going back some 4,000 years.  Combining archaeology with cycling seemed somehow apt – but lack of local knowledge dictated that a supported tour was the way to go as opposed to our more usual Peter-planned European excursions.

This is an annual excursion.  However the cycling boys (previously dubbed Grubbs – generally retired or unemployed biking buddies) who usually muster at least 8 to 10 enthusiasts to climb high mountains in the Pyrenees, Alps or Dolomites, were less enthused by Peloponese (or maybe by Greece in general).

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Only 5 intrepid Grubbs signed up for the Cycle Greece tour – plus me!  The “solution” for non-cyclists being an e-Bike.

Day 0 – going nowhere

Briefing!  And meet our fellow travellers.  Six Kiwis plus 3 Californians (“don’t call us Americans”).  It started badly – the venue, a hotel rooftop bar, decided it was unacceptable for us to gather in the shade because they had “set us up” (no visible evidence) in the blazing sun.  Unhappy, hot and sticky, jetlagged…  not a great basis for a first meeting.

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Introductions revealed little – apart from Gary who talked about the last time he’d been in Greece, supporting his daughter to win Gold in cycling at the 2004 Olympics.  Immediate awe from the non-Kiwis amongst us (of course, we’re already in awe of Gary who is still the strongest cyclist of this bunch and about to turn 80!).  Much googling of the women’s individual pursuit in 2004 ensued!

Joining Peter and I (retired – not!), Gary, Don (almost Gary’s age – also awesome!), John and Stefan (the youngest of the crew), we had Ted (a mortgage broker), George (to be dubbed “the late”) and the lovely Emily (treating herself to her first holiday away from her law firm without her ex).  Definitely a motley crew – and as I might have mentioned, a challenge for the rest to keep up with our sense of humour.

Colleen, our guide – a US convert to all things Greek (philhellene), living in Athens for more than 10 years – and Pete our driver and great bike mechanic, rounded out the group.

Most important question not asked:  “if I give you written instructions, will you read them?”  Would have solved a lot of angst during the trip to know that the answer was, in the main, a resounding NO!  In fact, turns out the thing this group most had in common was that they DID NOT LISTEN to anything at all, making for an interesting week to come!

Day 1 – Boy, is it HOT!
By car to Sofikos, then cycle 68km to Napflio

An early morning coffee before pickup at DIVE – definitely the best coffee in Athens!

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Logistics!  Packing 10 cyclists, 10 bikes and a large assortment of luggage into a van and a car in the narrow parked-up streets of old Athens is a mission, even at 8am.  Unsurprising really that something went wrong – poor Gary arriving in Napflio to discover all his worldly goods (ie. his clothes!) had gone with his cycle bag to the warehouse in Athens for storage.  The first instance of NOT LISTENING!  Everyone else was pretty clear that he was meant to REMOVE his gear from the bike bag before we parted ways with it.  A happy ending – back in Athens the clothes (in two New World cloth bags) were put on the last bus to Napflio, arriving at 8.30pm, thanks to the resourcefulness of the Cycle Greece team!

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A brief pit stop in our 2 hour car journey at the Corinth Canal – a masterpiece of engineering turning the Peloponese “peninsula” into an island!

Onwards to Sofikos, where we all hopped on our bikes, by now in 34C heat!  What should have been a short 34 km ride to Epidavros Theatre turned into a heatstroke nightmare for Peter, who collapsed on arrival and didn’t get to see the amazing ancient theatre, complete with an amateur theatrics group visiting from the UK, reading Shakespeare in the centre to demonstrate the incredible acoustics.

And so to lunch – anything cold! –

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…with another 30km to ride afterwards, into the prettiest town in the Peloponese, so they say.  Napflio did indeed live up to its promise, with a lovely hotel overlooking the seaside.

A brief stop along the way at a 3,000+ year old stone keystone bridge… or if one is to believe our tour guide (who has an MA in history after all), probably built more than 10,000 years ago by a very advanced civilization with supernatural powers to make rocks momentarily light enough for one man to lift into place!  Seriously, I kid you not… back at the bikes, other girl on tour turned to me and said “no, I think you’re right – they used levers”.  One of those “I’m an engineer” moments!

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We lost a few cyclists along the way, who failed to read the instructions properly and stopped at the wrong bridge, with an off-road excursion (what about the “beware of thorns – don’t take the bikes off the road” instruction?) resulting in a flurry of punctures!

Nafplio was full of weekend visitors, with a music festival on.  Visiting dancers from Crete giving a concert on the square outside our hotel drew massive crowds while we settled in for our first of many similar dinners – a veritable feast of ‘snacks’ to start, leaving little room for main course, and none at all for dessert.  I fear our hosts were offended by our exhaustion as one by one we snuck off back to the hotel!

 

Day 2 – A ramble along the back roads
There and back by bike to Ancient Mycenae 25km x 2

4,000 years of civilisation on display – a truly amazing site and sight.  Inside the ancient tomb – no artifacts but one could still marvel at the feat of engineering on display.

Then up the hot hot pathway to the lion gate – it always bemuses me that male lions are used to symbolise guards and the gate when frankly in my experience of observing lions in Africa, the male of the species does precious little other than lie about!

What is incredible (for me at least) is the metalwork – in gold, bronze and (eventually) iron – from these ancient times.  No wonder there is a temple in Athens dedicated to the god of metallurgy!

A bit of a wine tasting that evening – including something sweet for Don – hit the spot before another excessively front-loaded dinner!

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Day 3 – SHIT!  This is HARD!
Napflio to Dimistana –
104km of mostly relentless climbing over 1,500m in all in searing heat!

Thank you, but NO thank you!  Peter, still suffering from heat exhaustion took a raincheck, and I ‘loaned’ Colleen my e-Bike, for a peaceful day spent driving the van, watching our fellow cyclists slogging their over-heated bodies up and down high mountains, and up and down again.

In recognition that this was a very long day, we left the hotel before sunrise, heading to Tripoli – a town of no redeeming features, but the only reasonable place for lunch (donuts!).  A rather depressing town, full of Greek men drinking coffee and reading newspapers strung up on washing lines outside the news agents (presumably because they can’t afford to actually buy one); and the occasional Greek woman popping into the elaborate mini-chapel at the base of the Church steps, presumably to pray for better times (or maybe more productive men!)

And so back to the bikes for yet more climbing, higher and higher… to the most fabulous hotel of the tour in Dimistana, a beautiful old stone building with gorgeous rooms overlooking the gorge.

A special occasion – Don’s 79th birthday – demands champagne!  What a palaver to get champagne – are you sure you don’t want Campari & soda instead?  Only a few euros each vs a massive price tag for Moet?  Heavens!  Well done Peter for making sure we had proper champagne to toast Don’s birthday, and a quickly-melting ice cream cake at the end of the meal too!  The locals no-doubt thought we were quite mad!

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Day 4:  Downhill all the way!

Every hill climb has its reward (even for those of us who didn’t actually do the climb) – and so we left Dimistana (in a chilly 15C temperature for which I was perhaps a little under dressed!)

A leisurely ride, more to our taste, with plenty of coffee stops along the way – now that’s more like it!  Even time to buy some honey – there are beehives everywhere!

We lost a few of our number along the way – damn, shoulda read those cue sheets, people!  But most of us made it on the appointed route, along the cycleway into Olympia, the home of the ancient Olympic games.

A family hotel, run by a Greek man and his Australian wife – very welcoming, but the only bad bed of the tour, at least for those of us who don’t warm to “lumpy and soft” in the mattress department.

Susanna welcomed us into her kitchen for a ‘lesson’ – no recipes in sight, just a handful of this and a pinch of that.  We made tzatziki and tiropitakia, stuffed peppers and tomatoes from her garden, and greek meatballs…  and ate it all for dinner!  After a few nights of pretty average wine, Peter took matters in hand and selected a few bottles from the host’s rack – that’s better!

And so to our lumpy bed, looking forward to our tour of Olympia tomorrow!

EPISODE 1 complete.  EPISODE 2 to follow.

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A new day – Athens redeems itself

A perfect addition to any holiday – an amazing specialist coffee store, with its own roaster, just one block away, AND they open at 6am.  Great start to the day (sadly, discovered the following morning that this does not apply on weekends).

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So onwards and upwards to the actual purpose of the trip – time to get on that bike.  My tour-provided e-bike is ALMOST a replica of the one I have back home, just without the Cannondale logo.  A trial run doing a 3 hour ride around Athens – thankfully 90% off road, meaning the only challenge was navigating the pedestrians who pay not one blind bit of attention to my madly dinging bell as I pull up behind them.  A minor spill – no damage done to me or bike – as a pedestrian pushed me into a kerb;  my trusty sweeper guide said “good, you know how to fall”!  I laughed and assured him I’d had plenty of practice.

Colleen our guide – an American lawyer who gave up her law practice to move to Athens 14 years ago – is a mine of information;  with a delivery style best described as “enough but not too much”.  We did a loop mainly on the Acropolis walkway, taking in points of interest along the way.

Socrates prison – a cave in the rock with iron bars, where he was incarcerated for corrupting young minds with thinking stuff;  the Pnyx, a completely unassuming ‘field’ where the first democratic assemblies were held – 14,000 people, men only of course.  A side excursion to see a ceiling painted by the man who will be our driver on the tour;  a brief stop of Syntagma Square to view the tail end of the very elaborate changing of the guard (basically men doing what could best be described as dressage).  Most fascinating was the ordinary soldier, who when the two guards had come to a stop at their guard houses, visited each in term to arrange them in exactly the right place, straighten their shoulder pads, hats and particularly tassels, before inviting the crowd up to take photos (but not too close).  As soon as anyone got close enough to be in the picture, the guard would bang the base of his rifle on the stone to summon the soldier to remove said intruder.

Realisation of the day – if you can’t pave your streets in gold, why not just pave them in marble!  Great for maintenance, but bloody hard on the feet.

The obligatory greek salad for lunch – did I say that the tomatoes here are amazing, possibly the best part of Greece so far?  And then “home” for a lazy afternoon (or in Peter’s case, a bit of a catchup on work stuff).  I really do need to get some done myself, but taking a surprisingly Greek attitude to that (“domani” or some such thing).

Useless fact – on the 1st day of the months, Greeks use a special greeting – happy month – when they greet each other.  Sure beats “a pinch and a punch for the first of the month”.  Note for Isabel!

Our week long cycling tour began with a 6pm briefing, and a meet your fellow travellers session at the rooftop bar in the hotel where we were meant to stay before Debra decided to AirBnB it.  The kiwi contingent arrived early, thinking we’d have a beer together before the others got there – but no, sorry, we’re not ready for you (despite other guests having drinks), and no you can’t sit in the shade, we’ve made your space over there (in the blazing sun).  The words “naff off” passed some lips, as we gathered a bunch of bar stools and sat in the middle of the thoroughfare in front of the bar, defiantly ignoring the consternation this was causing.  “Wow”, said Stefan, “if this was a Kiwi bar we’d all have a beer in hand by now.”

Discovery of the afternoon – the Kiwi sense of humour is going to be a challenge for our three Californian fellow-cyclists, and our Greco-American guide for that matter.  Peter’s suggestion that we chuck Don and Gary (the oldest cyclists ever to do this tour) out at the bottom of the hill (we start at the top) so they can warm up before the start was met with bemusement.

More about the cyclists later – next stop dinner with Stefan and Peter, just the three of us attracted to a rather gorgeous restaurant, appropriate named Sense – and boy, was it a treat for the senses!  A balcony table (so long as you leave by 9.30pm) overlooking the Acropolis as the sun set in the background, fine dining service and food to match, and of course, great company.

I’m still salivating over the pigeon (breast and leg, perfectly boned out) with smoked vegetable accoutrements;  the boys had suckling pig – a shared mouthful confirmed this as definitely the next best choice.

And can I say – who knew about olive oil ice-cream, well, semi-freddo (served in a frozen lemon shell, with another filled with a lemon sorbet which would have been the pick of the night, but for its friend on the plate!)  I NEED that RECIPE!

Leaving the wine choices to the waiter – we are, after all, Greek wine virgins – was an excellent decision with two fabulously different bottles of gorgeous red wine, perhaps served in the wrong order, but he wasn’t to know about Kiwi drinking habits, after all.

All in all, a very good day…  and looking forward to hitting the road to Peloponesia and first stop Nafplio for two nights.

 

Welcome to Athens, with a gang of pickpockets on the side

I often think that the only disadvantage we have, living in New Zealand, is that everywhere is just so bloody far away (well, everywhere that counts, anyway) – and some might say this is an advantage!  What it does mean, of course, is that getting to those far flung places still on the bucket list takes time, effort and energy.

Perhaps we’re just getting old – but this year our pilgrimage to Europe started with what I was calling a ‘slow plane’ to Athens, stopping off at Singapore for an extended 14 hours stopover (longer than intended due to airline schedule changes after we’d already booked).  Never mind – we thought having a full day in Singapore, one of our favourite places from past travel, would break up the long journey, and give us time to start re-setting our body clocks.  In fact, what it meant was that we were just doubly tired, in fact completely exhausted by the time we arrived in Athens (via a short stopover in Istanbul to change planes).

But before I get to Athens, a few observations.

It was great to see that Peter hasn’t lost his touch at staring down officious wait staff who take that “sorry we don’t have a table for you” approach, when the restaurant (in this case the breakfast room at Raffles Hotel in Singapore) is visibly heaving with emptiness, and our man simply thinks that because we’re not staying in the hotel, we might not be able to pay for their generously priced a la carte menu.  “Perhaps you’d like to look at the menu before I prepare a table” he offered weakly in response to Peter’s stare-down.  Harrumph!  Sometimes it’s just so rewarding to flash that Platinum Visa Card (but only at the end of the meal, of course – and he wasn’t to know they’re a dime a dozen in New Zealand!)

A bit of retail therapy confirmed that the store we’re most missing in New Zealand is NOT, as some may think, Ikea, but actually UniQlo.  Please please find yourselves a site in Auckland!

Oh, and a message for Air New Zealand who helpfully prepared all our boarding passes at check-in in Auckland.  Yes, you’re still fabulous compared to other airlines (though the gap is closing, as you join the downward spiral of waning customer service!)

But it’s the little things that count, especially when, like me, you’re a Star Alliance Gold traveller choosing to fly Economy Class.  I know that’s my choice, and I long long ago gave up hoping for an upgrade, BUT seriously:  In what parallel universe is it okay to seat your apparently most valuable customers in Row 41 of a plane that only has 42 rows.  By then – the last leg of our journey – I had completely lost any sense of humour or rationality, and was just deeply pissed off!

And so to Athens…. a city of ruins, of amazing tomatoes, of streets teeming with tourists (still, in September), of unbelievably bad parking in narrow streets which seem almost permanently gridlocked…  and pickpockets.  Having traveled the world, including some pretty crime ridden places like Johannesburg and Rio, having evaded a gang of thieves who targeted us in the old market in Buenos Aires, having that sixth sense from growing up in a highly security conscious environment, I can honestly say we have never encountered such an orchestrated organised gang of petty thieves.

They bundled us, literally, into a carriage on the Metro on a train that we knew was going in the wrong direction.  About 10 men surrounded Peter, apparently “helping” him with his luggage as the doors were closing, having shoved me into the carriage and out of their encirclement…  I knew it wasn’t right, knew we had to get off the carriage at the next stop, but by then the damage was done.  A secure travel wallet had been opened, and the zipped bag of cash extracted – so slickly that Peter was completely unaware it had happened when the train drew to a halt in at the next stop and we both shoved our way out, up onto the street and into a waiting taxi.  We thought we’d had a lucky escape!

I’m pretty sure it was the effects of our long journey – tiredness and inattention – that made up such easy marks.  I asked Peter “what did they get” – nothing, he said, that’s why I have this secure travel wallet…  but lo and behold, when he opened it to pay the taxi, the cash purse was ALL GONE!  Bastards!  Thankfully the cards (and passports!!!) were still there – as a slightly concerned taxi driver, mostly concerned that he might not be paid, drove us through the snail-like traffic to find the nearest ATM.

Oh dear!  It could only improve from here – although I have to say I didn’t think it was improving much when I discovered a spiral staircase of 45 steps up to our apartment, and a cold shower.  The latter was quickly remedied by reading the host’s instructions to turn on the boiler – instructions that our fellow travelers had apparently missed – the stairs, however, remain firmly in place.

As an aside, Greek plumbing is interesting, and probably the topic of whole separate post, with photos, in days to come!

On the plus side, the bed is comfortable, our four fellow cyclists are not complaining – though I suspect they were hoping for something a little more like the gem I found in Girona last year – and there is plenty of food in the surrounding streets.  A HUGE bonus for me and Peter was to find a truly professional coffee roaster, serving the most amazingly crafted coffees from SIX AM in the morning, just one block away!  I was his first customer this morning.  Only one small suggestion for improvement – “Coffee Dive” is probably not the most customer-attracting name (though perhaps it means something else in Greek).

And while we’re on the topic of names,  then there’s the lovely effusively welcoming Harry, at Gods’ Restaurant.

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With a menu running to about 10 pages, he simply asked “what do you feel like eating, are you hungry or not so hungry” and then made beautiful recommendations – and came through with some very drinkable local wines as well.  Not all of our party took to this style of eating – menus are for reading and considering after all – but some of us were just relieved to have someone else telling us what to eat (My Food Bag, anyone?)

So to bed…  some 60 hours after leaving Auckland, we were pretty much asleep before our heads hit the pillow!  Up next, cycling, with a  bit of history on the side.