Greece, or Yunistan, as the Turks call it. I have no clue what to expect on a bicycle, so I am glad two young cyclists, we met a day before the border, said how easy it was to find camp spots. Plus how many turtles they’d helped crossed the road. They’d called it TRA, turtle rescue action. I’m more of a sheep person so I’m hoping for some sheep and goat loving action. I look forward to cycle through a country so touristy and overly visited, especially because it is off-season now.
Entering Greece from İpsala, Turkey, is an abrupt absence of cars, that’s a first positive happening. Suddenly there are very few vehicles on the four lane highway. Speaking of, there are no gas stations, no houses to be seen and we don’t see any exits either. Well, we do see exits, but all fenced off with guard rails and netting. But we do need to find food, a place to camp, and just get off the highway.
So we haul our bicycle over the guard rail and over the netting. To continue over old cracked roads with an even lesser number of cars, but way more goat droppings and big stains of sheep pee. That’s a very good sign, a sign of rusticity.
When we arrive at Maestros, a small village, we can’t find a supermarket. A helpful Greek brings us to a little store somewhere in the back of the village, where we are highly confused about the currency used in this country. Someone else is watching confused too; an older man in a small car where the woman all dressed in black watches him condescending. The man is still staring at us profusely while the woman ask in an Australian accent: ‘Where did you cycle from?’ and ‘There’s a real nice beach over there.’
We end up not at the beach as there is an airport right in front of it, but at a little hill where we manage to find a tiny even spot for our giant family tent, which we baptized ‘Talus’ with an ‘F’.
To me Greece is pleasantly relaxed, that delightful trying to please you as in Turkey, is gone. Here the coffee comes with ‘something is wrong with the coffee machine, I hope the coffee taste good?’
Along the Via Egnatia
We cycle on to Thessaloniki, on road number 2. It’s all flat, and easy. Beautiful too. We pass anise seed plants, peach- and fig trees. We cycle alongside forests, and are both delighted to have left the sunflower-fields for good; now it is all about olives. We see deer, we see big old trees crawling up the hillsides on to the mountains. We pass turtles which we help cross the road too, we pass dry scrubs and cycle over bleak faded tarmac where the yellow dividing line is visible only if you squint your eyes. We cycle over hundreds of goat droppings, taking in the natural smell of sheep urine, plants, thyme, basil and dried straw and hay.
Greece is a quiet country, having left the craziness behind in Istanbul. Greece is also more normal, somehow more simple. No crazy big agricultural fields but patches to work by hand. I imagine myself leading a quiet, simple lifestyle in this country. Where I grow olives, have a goat, make cheese and be together with my lover. The atmosphere here is quiet. Friendly. At peace.
We see quite a lot of neglected and abandoned buildings, businesses and houses. Whitewashed walls are exfoliated by the harsh sunlight. Cities we cycle through are so cozy and inviting we could stay in each one of them, was it not we love camping. Cities are outfitted with many small markets and surrounded by small patches of fields, seemingly enough for each family tending them. Sunflower seeds are drying on the road, in the middle of tiny squares, encompassed by women in black, a mosque and a donkey. We asks ourselves whether the sunflower seeds are for own produce or will they be sold to a big company?
We dip in a natural hot spring, a decrepit building which could have been a low key resort, long ago. Now it’s free, and hairy men in underwear join us, just when we leave.
‘Shepherds are not able to do much else, that’s why they tend the sheep’
We meet up with shepherds; most often when we think we found ourselves a stealthy spot to camp. We sleep next to a small field of cotton, in a peach grove, and next to an almond orchard. We meet up with Mehmet, who is a cyclist. When Mehmet tells about his dream to cycle the world like we do, I dream of being a shepherd. I would start out with three goats, or is that really lame?
We sleep at memorable places, right under a sheer wall of granite. Of course we are aware that our family tent might not protect us from falling rocks. We take the risk while we enjoy goat milk and the best olives ever cured.
In between rescuing turtles from a cruel dead by being crushed by car tires, I wonder about where I am, would I not know. It could be Oman, Kurdistan in Iraq, Iran at times. Even Arizona. Colors sometimes moves towards desert. Vague pallets of light earth, dried up ocean. The wideness of it strikes me. At times, the rock formations have me plunged to Rajasthan.
We are not chased by dogs. Not one comes after us. I can be friendly with them, while they may be alarmed by a certain car or person and start racing behind it. The dog on this photo did so, one moment we are cuddling, the other he tries to bite the tires of a passing car. I totally agree.
It start to be more Greece, as the majority of tourists would think of, when we come closer to the ocean. With wide beaches, luxurious apartments, houses crawling up the hill creating an atmospheric city like Kalafa. Our camp of the day ends on top of a hill, overlooking the other side. We are happily surprised to see we didn’t wait any longer with finding a camp.
Roads are quiet to cycle on, there’s not much traffic. Not much cars in general. The only time I feel hunted at is along the cliff roads around Kalafa, a city built gradually on a slope and the road almost dipping into the ocean, is narrow and packed with traffic. Cars have to swerve around me, and they do safely so.
The power of culture
‘Why don’t you have chai in this country?’ I ask Mehmet
‘We have frappe,’ he answers.
Is he serious? Can frappe, cold black coffee be seen as a surrogate? It strikes me that by crossing a border the elegant Turkish tulip glasses filled with the perfect colored chai are gone. Just out of sight. Away. Absent. We still see groups of men playing cards in the park or watching football in a cafe, just like in Turkey, but without the chai.
We often hear: ‘Where do you cycle from?’ followed by ‘Oh, I have no words for it!’ Maybe because many tourists we see are the average picture of a tourist: lounging at the sea front, carrying plastic inflatable objects, exposing belly’s and arriving by car. We are nowhere near a highly touristic beachfront but most people we see are real holidaymakers.
The coast between Kavala and Amfipoli is rocky, not touristy, it feels uninhabited. There are more thermal baths, tucked away in dense forest. Again decrepit buildings, left on its own to decay. It would be a perfect place to hang out or to camp, would we have food and water with us. The coastline is of an unspoiled aquamarine blue. I need to stop and admire.
After circled a bit around Thessaloniki, having troubles to get on the highway, which we also tried to avoid, we are on it. It is road 2 towards Edessa, leading us to a corner of Macedonia. We soon find out the major road has a twin road near to it, where almost no traffic is.
Edessa is a lively town perched on a plateau. Walking through the town is being a beholder of the good life. Greece is in a financial crisis, right? We were warned, the same way a Beninese may warn about Nigeria: ‘Watch out for people in Greece, they will rob you from your money’ and we were told to carry enough euro’s with us as the ATM’s did not provide. It is true that some hotels or apartments want cash money and that shops prefer cash over pin payment, but does that make Greece in a catastrophically situation? We see no evidence that Greek people are suffering, although I can’t see into their wallets. I see chairs filled with people sipping frappe in the early morning. Elderly men gather in the lobby of a hotel we stay in, sitting in dusty surrounding, watching television without really noticing what’s going on. They come together, drink together and be old men together. We walk through town, an atmosphere like a fairy ground fills my senses. Children run and play, mothers watch and shop, fathers play board-games and rush with one hand on their motorbike through town to deliver someone a big cardboard cup of real good coffee.
I see hundreds of chairs in funky colors, couches to lounge in, occupying many outdoor café’s. Greeks are enthusiastic people with grand movements of the hands, and loud sounds of the voice. They flirt, they are touchy, good-hearted. I see men wearing the Derby hat, families eating out together, orthodox priests with a flowing white beard and old women dressed in black. Quite a few of the Greek women wear black pantyhose half way to their calves, which gives a lovely view when they have their skirt shoved up a bit.
We are climbing towards Florina. The nature becomes really interesting now we see mountains. Or, actually, we are right in it. One of our camps is on the edge of a field with very young olive plants. We need to step off the road, cross three huge plantations to hide in a woody part. In the morning we hear gunshots. We hear a few dogs barking. Meanwhile we prepare breakfast. I am not troubled by gunshots, as here are wild bores, deer and God know what else Man like to hunt. I am surprised a bit when such a Man in bright orange vest walks towards us, he’s crossing the field with young saplings in a great hurry. A riffle across his chest, an apparatus in his hand, dog with collar behind him. Man walks past us, he must have seen us preparing Indian chai, sitting on the earth and eating our food with black nailed fingers. Yet no smile appears. He’s deadly serious. No grin, no smile, no expression. The hurry of a hunter. How funny is that?
Well, I can’t refrain from laughing when his dog, a black and tan hound, known for his hunting skills, prefer to stay with us.
I stop laughing when the dog follow us out of camp, 4 kilometer after us on the middle of the road. A few times he’s almost hit by a passing car. His floppy, bobbing ears are still on my retina when a young woman calls out for me. She’s plucking apples in an orchard and speeds towards me from the side of the road where I am passing. She wants to hand me over a bucket of apples, the biggest I have ever seen. She’s young, fairy skinned, and from Albania. ‘Albania is very beautiful, but not much work, here is good’, and with that I accept 4 apples, about two kilo extra on a day filled with climbs. On to Macedonia.
We have cycled through Greece in September 2015, here is more about distances and details.