Part 10: The Land of The Gods

A surreal feeling came upon us as we approached the Greek boarder, it could have been a small dose of culture shock or perhaps it was the drop in elevation going to our heads. It was certainly surreal. As we rolled through the baron scrub of no man’s land the customs and excise complex stood looming ahead, a structure of standards far excelling any buildings we had encountered on our passage through the Balkans. The significance of our arrival to Greece, the geographical pinnacle of our journey, added to our bewilderment. I presented my passport to the official, he looked at me and my vehicle. He actually laughed, an unexpected sign of emotion from a boarder rozzer, he waved me through then took a look at Jim “you bicycle from UK?…” Jim nodded. Yes we have!

We didn’t need to go through passport control to realise we were in a different country. Like many overland boarders the transition in surroundings was instantly noticeable. We had been descending all morning. After waking up to the sight of my condensing fog breath in the chill of upland Bulgaria I was now sweltering in the mid day heat. Bars and tavernas zipped by, the relentless potholes of the previous day now seemed a distant memory as we sped along gleefully on pristine Greek asphalt. The pale peaks of the Falakran range looked soft in the evening sun. The texture of their weather beaten southern slopes resembled the patchy fabric of an antique bear. A world apart from the Intimidating darkness of the Balkan mountains and the glacial aggression of the Alps. As we peddled though the valley floor my mind wandered high above through the desolate landscape of the mountain tops. I’m sure I could almost see the ancient gods up there, looking down upon the cradle of civilisation.

After two months spent crossing the continent we were so excited about finally reaching the sea again that we considered cycling the last stretch in the darkness, but we didn’t even really know where we were. None of the surrounding villages had made it onto our basic national map of Greece so we thought better of it in the end and set up camp somewhere in the labyrinth of olive groves to the south of Drama. I felt like a child at Christmas, too excited to sleep! No sooner had the sun popped up we were back on our bikes. Using the rising sun as our compass we simply headed South, towards the Aegean. We wanted to find the coast as soon as possible, however before long we had somehow ended up leisurely drinking Greek coffees with the eccentric local vet in his surgery’s office. He was of course a devoted Manchester United fan and spoke to us in rapid Italian to make it easy for us to understand him, top bloke! We were sent on our merry way with a carrier bag full of apples and directed to the archaeological site of Philipi. A remarkable detour, with an amphitheatre cut from a mountain side and pillars of an acropolis filled with a choir of chirping birds. It was one of those days, a great day, we just went along with it.

Eventually we made to the ridge which fortifies the coast. Our reward lay before us, as we looked beyond the harbour of Kavala a god looked back at us, Poseidon! What a sight, with the towering silhouette of Thassos rising from the Aegean! There was however something missing from this vista, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t until we got down to the port and I enquired about the ferry to the Island that the penny dropped. I looked out to the harbour again. No boats! The brutal westerly winds were too strong for the ferry to cross from Kavala to Thassos. There was ‘good’ news though, another crossing was still operating. All we needed to do was ride forty kilometres further along the coast to a different port, which was of course to the west! What a battle. That head wind was sheer misery, but of course we made it. Thassos grew before us and gulls circled our heads as the blue and white Hellenic ferry pitched it’s way across the water.

In many ways we couldn’t have timed our arrival on the island better. The gale subsided, the temperature settled at mid twenties. With the tourist season over the stunning one hundred kilometre coastal road which surrounds the green mountain isle was pretty much ours. What a way to mark the furthest point of our trip, not a cloud in sight. The road was like a roller coaster, weaving and rolling around the steep sides of the island with sea views all day long. The bar has been risen, coastal cycling surely can’t get much better, but the empty resorts gave me a melancholic feeling. It was too quiet. Back on the main land we stuck to the coast once more and here it was even quieter. The broad national road to the west of Kevala was also dead with virtually all traffic now using the recently completed motorway to the north. It seemed like we were cycling through a post apocalyptic highway, as we passed scores of derelict and unfinished buildings we peacefully wove between the white lines.

It was all good fun but we were ready to see the real Greece again, somewhere with a bit more going on, so we departed from the sea and it’s ghost road to follow the Strymon valley. It was always our intention to follow the harvest across Europe. It’s my favourite time of year to cycle. The temperature is pleasant and you get to eat all the best local produce as soon as it’s lifted! I’m quite nosey too. I love to watch the activities in the fields, trying to suss out the local farming methods. I love it when people working the land wave as we pass. The Syrymon valley was most certainly alive, Demeter and Dionysus had been busy. Drinkers sat out in the Saturday afternoon sunshine, beats pumped out of the bars, dozens of goats chomped down on the remains of corn crops and the cotton picking season was in full swing. There was cotton all over the place. It blew around at the edge of the road, it was stuck in trees and on fences. We passed processing depots where big yellow diggers filled up truck trailers with fluffy white clouds. At the head of the valley the Kirkini mountains marked the boarder to the Republic of Macedonia, we pushed on towards this beautiful range and the lake which shares it’s name. A fantastic spot, the kind of place where you can happily just sit and look around you for hours doing absolutely nothing. It was here that we made our camp on our final night in Greece and it was here that we heard another god call us from across the lake, this time it was Zeus!

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For the route see MAP 9