2 Aussies in Greece
Two Aussies went to Greece to go cycling with a Brit. It sounds a bit like the start of a bad joke, but it isn’t.
Linda had arranged to meet a friend in Switzerland to celebrate a significant birthday. I felt no pressing need to leave an Australian summer for sub-zero temperatures and deep snow. I agreed to go if we could stop somewhere warmer for a week of cycling. The map revealed that Greece was (more or less) on the way and Google revealed Greek Cycling Holidays.
We both cycle regularly (most work days) so cycle fitness was not going to be a problem. Our previous cycling holidays always started in one place and ended in another. The Greek Cycling Holiday format is to stay at GCH HQ in Eretria and do day rides. This format held a lot of appeal. The climbs looked a bit intimidating but we were up for the challenge.
Greek Cycle Holidays headquarters.
We arrived at Athens Airport at about midday on a glorious day of clear blue skies and 17 degrees. Steven was there to collect us and provide a light lunch. It was a fairly short trip to GCH HQ in the GCH van. By the time we settled in it was too late for riding bicycles so we walked to the acropolis for some photos and then relaxed over a beer and some snacks. Dinner started with dips and bread and then moved on to dolmades, moussaka and Greek salad. The food was magnificent, and there was plenty of it.
Dinner on the first night.
Rain, and plenty of it. We don’t mind cycling through a shower but getting on the bikes in pouring rain just isn’t fun. There was a small mechanical problem with one of the bicycles so we took it as an opportunity for a drive into Chalkida for repairs and a look around that included coffee and Ekmek Kataifi at one of Steven’s favorite restaurants. The Greek people are a little reserved but still friendly and welcoming. The coffee was good and the cake superb.
The rain persisted so we grabbed an umbrella and walked into Eretria village for a look around and some lunch. I thought I had ordered a pizza and souvlaki but only the pizza came out. My Greek language skills are not highly developed which is probably a good thing as the pizza was big enough for two. We were the only people in the restaurant so we were able to enjoy the food and the beach views in relative quiet.
The rain stopped early enough for a short orientation ride around Eretria. We ride mountain bikes at home so the transition to these road bikes was a little more of a challenge than we had expected.
We prepared for dinner with a beer and the dips from the previous night. Steven grilled pork chops on an open fire and served them with noodles. It was magnificent and there was plenty of it.
A mountain biker’s perspective of riding road bikes
A road-bike rider once said to me that mountain bikes didn’t appeal as they are too slow. Clearly he had never seen or participated in downhill events.
My definition of a road bike is one that has a rigid fork and a wheel size that is measured in millimeters, but this is a bit like calling a downhill bicycle a mountain bike.
The first thing that I noticed when I got onto my road bike was the posture. I had to bend about 90 degrees at the waist to reach the ‘bars and then at the neck by 90 degrees in the opposite direction to see where I was going. Coincidently, these are the two places in my back that complain the most about bending.
There is enough room on the brake levers on my mountain bike for 2 fingers but I only need 1. This road bike had plenty of room for 4 fingers (and more, if you are so blessed), which is handy because I needed to pull hard to get this bicycle to stop. Mountain bikes abandoned rim brakes about 20 years ago so I am a little surprised that the road-going bikes retain them. It may be a function of the mechanical strength in the wheel but I would prepared to suffer the weight penalty of a few more spokes if the pay-back was better brakes.
These road bikes sure can climb. I would never consider taking a mountain bike up a 500 metre peak and if I did then I would be in no fit state to ride the next day. Steven said that hill-climbs are addictive. While I don’t think I had enough exposure for addiction, the appeal of these bikes is something that I took away from this trip. We even discussed purchasing road bikes while we were travelling home. I would need to do something about that riding position, though.
Blue sky and sunshine. Hooray!
We were on the bikes at 9:00am. The first few kilometers were on a busy road. Despite Greek people driving like they are late for an accident, we never saw an accident and every driver was respectful of other road users, including cyclists. The Australian one-and-a-half metre rule clearly doesn’t apply in Greece, but it doesn’t apply in Australia either.
The road to Pissonas.
It wasn’t long before we left the main road and followed a river upstream. It wasn’t long after that we started to see pastures with a snow-capped mountain back-drop. It was a beautiful landscape. A small village called Pissonas beckoned for a coffee stop. The lady that owned the bakery appeared quite pleased that we wanted to try all of the Christmas treats that she had on display. My favorite was the semolina syrup cake but the little biscuits were delightful.
Coffee and Greek treats at Pissonas.
The climb right after Pissonas was gradual but constant and took us to a 500 metre peak. It got the heart rate up but was still an enjoyable and scenic ride. The downhill section on the other side was fast and chilly. Linda hit the hot tub while I had a nap.
The roast chicken and rice dinner was magnificent and there was plenty of it.
Steven had popped a spoke on yesterday’s ride so it was back to Chalkida for a quick repair and true-up and then on to Nea Artaki for the start of the ride. We were a lot more comfortable on the bikes so we set off at a good pace. We shared the road with a bit of traffic for the first section but soon turned onto a road that we had to ourselves. We climbed amongst pine trees and with snow-capped mountains in the distance. Steven directed us into a monastery where the nice folks brought out coffee and monk food (dry bread and Greekish delight). The bread was a bit dry but the Greekish delight was delightful. We weren’t sure how much we were supposed to eat but there was plenty of it so we hooked in. It was like no other of my religious experiences.
Taking a break at the peak.
There was more climbing despite Steven’s assurance that we had peaked but the scenery was lovely and we were growing to like these road bicycles. The downhill section was almost a plunge and complete with Greek men carrying shot-guns. They appeared to be friendly.
We got back to Nea Artaki in perfect time for a lavish and delicious seafood lunch at Teskos. There wasn’t enough room on the table for all of the food (Steven later admitted that he may have over-ordered) but most of the plates went back empty and we went back to GCH HQ quite full. There was just enough time to digest lunch before we started on a magnificent dinner of seafood pasta and salad with a strawberry cheesecake for desert.
Seafood lunch at Nea Artaki
This was the scheduled rest day but we were determined to get a short ride in before Tonia arrived for our drive into the mountains. The ride was cancelled on account of the rain so we decided to walk into Eretria. Then we cancelled the walk and spent the morning resting, as you would expect on a rest day.
We drove up to Steni (towards Mount Dirfis) for a delicious barbecue lunch. The mist cleared enough for magnificent views of snow-covered mountains and misty valleys. The drive continued over a snow covered mountain. At those times the mist thinned out the views were just stunning. We followed the road down the other side to a pretty little seaside village. It was very quiet but the coastline quite scenic.
Terraced farmland in the mountains.
The dinner of grilled fish and salad with a lemon meringue pie for dessert was magnificent and there was plenty of it.
The day started out chilly and misty. The heavier gloves came out and we packed another layer just in case. The ride started with a short drive to the mainland. We followed an undulating country road that took us past a lake and onto a small village for coffee. Café Neo is a bit like a Men’s Shed. The difference is that the work is all verbal and encouraging good health is not high on the list if the volume of coffee and ouzo consumed is anything to go by. In any case, it is a place for men to hang out. Women are certainly not discouraged but is isn’t common for women to patronize the place.
Steven ordered coffee and biscuits for the 4 of us. The lack of biscuits at Café Neo didn’t seem to be a problem, the folks just whipped up a batch. They were light and crisp warm from the oven. They were just delightful with Greek Coffee.
The ride home was reverse of the ride to, except for 2 punctures. Dinner was barbecued lamb, baked feta, rocket salad and a berry cheesecake for desert. It was magnificent and there was plenty of it.
We headed east on a warm but cloudy morning. Steven had some chores to attend to so we were on our own, just the 3 of us (Linda, Ian and Garmin). We had been using the Garmin all week but today I had to pay a lot more attention. Steven has recorded his portfolio of routes so it is a simple and quick operation of loading up the correct route into the Garmin and hitting the GO button. It takes more time to choose the route than it does to load it up.
The Garmin. I have to get one of these.
We followed the coast road for most of the morning so we had rugged coastline on our right and misty mountains on our left. We passed through several villages but pressed on until late in the ride. We stopped at a Taverna for coffee but I could not see any Greek treats so we went without. It wasn’t until we went to leave that I noticed that there was a bakery right next door and the cake cabinets were full of goodies. It certainly pays to look around.
Coffee at the Taverna in Amarynthos
Dinner was magnificent and there was plenty of it.
We rose early for a leisurely breakfast and then finished packing. Steven took us to the airport and then we flew to Zurich to meet friends in Grindelwald for a week of sloth and gluttony.
Looking back, we have only fond memories of our week with GCH on Evia. Steven is an attentive host and an excellent guide. His cooking has to be experienced. We were initially a little nervous about the hill climbs but our fitness and strength was appropriate for this style and level of riding and Steven’s careful selection of routes helped us build confidence through the week.
Evia is not one of the post-card islands of Greece but it is certainly a place where we could experience a traditional part of Greece. The Greek people are a little reserved at first contact but are still warm, welcoming and patient with those that struggle to order a coffee or souvlaki. The food is sensational and there is always plenty of it. The Greek countryside is just beautiful.
December is not the warmest month but we have the gear for cycling in much colder temperatures than we experienced on Evia. We were never cold but we did have arms and legs covered each ride. Riding through rural landscapes with snow-capped peaks in the distance is not something we get to experience in Australia and will be one of our lasting memories of this holiday.
If I was to do anything different it would be to stop more. Once we got onto the bicycles we got the bit between our teeth and just wanted to get to the next peak. There is so much to see in Evia and while a bicycle affords a pace that allows visitors to see, feel and even smell the Greek countryside, stopping to sample he local food and interact with the local people is what makes it special. We will definitely be going back.