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9 January 2017 No comments

Exploring Greece’s Wilder Side

By Tom Donhou
Exploring Greece’s Wilder Side

Greece landed on my radar in the form of a beautiful, heartfelt young Greek lady about 4 years ago. Before that, I have to admit, I'd passed not much thought to this country. That thought was usually of boozed up Brits kicking scooters over in some dry, scorched up part of the Med'. I've learnt since, on many visits, there is far more to this deep and complex country; the centre of civilisation, its beauty and hospitality cannot be argued against. But I'd never been there with a bike. I wanted to explore and connect with this country in my own way. I wanted to discover it's wilder side, what it had to offer away from the incredible beaches, island sunsets and sticky all night bars, far removed from those thought's I'd had all those years ago.

As I waved goodbye to Phaedra, I rode straight into a steep switch backed climb that would take me up and out of Athens and I very quickly had to peel the layers off. It's December, the air is cold, but the sun is still hot. As I rode out of the Athenian micro climate the skies looked greyer and riding up into the clouded top was a refreshing break from the sun's warmth on my black lycra. Heading North West up towards the Pindonion foot hills, putting miles between me and Athens, a wild pig and her piglets run out and cross the road in front of me, disappearing up a muddy track. I pass bullet holed road signs and a little further on a shepperd on the hill side sings to his flock, its a strange song, something close to the whine of an Islamic Adhan, somewhere between East and West, it sounds strange and beautiful all the same.

With the low winter sun in my eyes, I trace the coast of the Korinthiakos Gulf for a short while before turning inland again and up over another shrub covered foot hill. Stopping to buy water in a small village the shop owner signs to me, I think as to ask where I've come from, I smile and reply "Attika". She looks surprised and rushes out the back of the shop, coming back handing me a gold wrapped gift. Melomakarono, a traditional cake for the festive period. I'm touched and thank her kindly, reminded again of the generosity you experience while out on the road. I head back out into the fading light and on the outskirts of the village I find some scrub land and clear a patch between thistles, resting down my bivvy bag, cooking as the sun sets and the moon rises. The cold night air and gentle breeze on my face. I wake to see the pink sun kissed mountain tops as the sun rises out of the East. I pack up camp and hit the road.

Turning onto the first gravel road of the trip, I'm pinned by a very big, vicious sheep dog against a dry stone wall, while he and two other dogs guide their goats down the track. I'd learnt pretty quickly not to be too concerned about these dogs and to just do as they say. As soon the goats have passed safely, he's on his way again and I carry on, impressed by how clever and dedicated these sheep dogs are.

Zeus was said to have sent two eagles flying from eastern and western extremities to determine the centre of earth. They crossed at the site of what is now Delphi and this marked the centre, or "naval' of the Grandmother Earth. Turning a corner, I see Delphi nestled majestically up on the hill, on the far side of the steep sided valley I'm about to drop into. Over an hour later I've descended the steep rocky track and ridden up through the olive tree groves, past the tourist coaches and stopped in the shady town square for breakfast.

It had taken me two solid days to get to the Vardousia pass. I'd gone up, over and back down to sea level three times before starting the final part of the climb as I crossed the Mornos river. The road was steep, dusk was setting in and between dense forest, steep slopes and settlements, it looked like I may struggle to find a camp spot before dark fell. As I tiredly and slowly punched my way up through the switch back turns, checking every gap in the trees, I spotted a ridge dropping down from the road ahead. Turning off the road and pushing my way through the bushes I found a perfect clearing on a 20ft wide ridge, nestled in the pine trees under the snow capped Vardousia. Laying there in my bivvy bag, watching the satelites pass over and wishing on shooting stars, I stared up at the moonlit peak, excited. That simple and pure excitement, knowing you just have to wake up and turn the pedals, seeing what lays around each corner.

Climbing the gravel track the next day in the cold morning air, as the dirt turned to snow I reached the top of the pass and the Vardousia range opened out in front of me. Snowy peaks standing tall into the azure blue sky, pierced out of a silent snow covered amphitheatre. Towering red rock faces caught the sun on my far right and lush green, snow sprinkled meadows rolled down and out into the valley below them. I stopped and spent the time to take it in.

Riding away from the peak, things got a little more real and dropping down from the high meadows nestled in the Vardousia basin, I swung around the steep, dark craggy face of the Sinani peak and dropped down into its cold dark North side. The track narrowed, icy patches appeared in the dark, deep, tight corners and streams and waterfalls became frozen. Littered with rock fall, the rocky face towered on my left, and on my right a shear drop heading to the valley floor below. Your guard goes up, all of a sudden you feel threatened and feel your vulnerability. Rounding another tight turn I cross a patch of snow and spot some tracks, preferring not to think too much about what I had noticed I carry on, a little more alert when I approach the next snow patch. Bear tracks.

Not wanting any unpleasant surprises as I rounded the many tight, shadowy turns as the track traced the face of the knarled crag, I made noise and sang to myself. I didn't want to come face to face with a bear that hadn't heard me coming. Eventually I turn a corner into the sun, the track widened and started to rise again. I'm warming up again now and the dense, heavy threat I'd felt coming down faded away. Another river crossing and I rode up into Artontina, crossing back onto tarmac roads and a smooth fast decent to the valley floor.

Stopping in a small village as I climb for the last time on this trip, I stop in a 'taverna' to get my bottles filled and again was handed traditional cakes, of course, no charge. Tired from the previous days riding and knowing this is the last pass, I slow and begin to keep myself motivated by the thought of rewarding myself with a warm, greasy, chip filled 'souvlaki' at the end of the trip. I pass the summit and as I ride onto the North side of the mountain, the snow is deep. Tripoding my way down the snowy dirt track, leg out, slip sliding, trying to keep upright and lose enough height before dark to set up camp. The snow stops, then the gravel stops and I'm back on tarmac, as the icey corners from the last few days are left behind, I can let the wheels turn out and continue the long fast decent towards the Aegean sea, into the soft, smoky pink Greek evening sky...

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Distance: 215 miles

Time: 3 days

Elevation gain: 23700ft

Road surface: 60% Tarmac, 30% Gravel, 10% Snow

Tom was aboard one of his own Donhou Bicycles - Signature Steel DSS2's, set up with Cambium saddle and bar tape. Tom would also like to thank as always pannier.cc for their support.

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