Day 234 – November’s Coastal Waters
The Road to Athens
Foggy mornings are standard as we loosely follow the coastline south. In late November the sun doesn’t come up until 8:30. We can sleep late and still have the tent packed and breakfast in our bellies by just after sunrise. The coastline of central Greece is littered with abandoned home ands vacation villages. Many locals have left the small villages in search of tourism jobs on the islands or have left for the convenience of Athens or have left to look for a new life abroad. The crisis in Greece, which was once a roar, has quieted to the mournful whisper, “have left, have left.”
We meet more families harvesting olives than we do fisherman on the calm beaches where we like to camp. The groves stretch down until the water, with just a dozen meters of beach. The weather is warm enough to swim at night. After, we stand naked under the beach showers, scrubbing away the salt from the ocean and the grime from the day.
Never are we very far from the highway. We ride old county roads that were here before the highway. They are almost empty, the highway having sucked every drop of traffic from the villages into its ominous vacuum of logistic efficiency. We never far from humans, but we feel alone.
In Athens, we search for the bouncing vivacity that must inhabit any capital city. We find a mismatched concrete jungle, with sprawling concrete buildings from the 70s and an old town done up to look ancient yet perfectly preserved. Acropolis is stunning, especially from the outside. Cycling around the city is a dangerous game, a constant competition between buses, motorcycles, taxis, and regular cars.
On a Tuesday night we decide to discover the local nightlife. A local bar with traditional folk singers and tall glasses of tsipouro puts us in the mood to follow up with a DJ set downtown. In a bar reminiscent of Parisian cocktail clubs, a DJ plays familiar tropical tracks. For a few hours we forget we’re on a long term bike journey, while we drink sweet cocktails and yell to each other over the noise.
In the morning reality snaps back – we spent how much last night? Though the crisis was rough on the Greece economy, it didn’t touch the cost of living. Even in the smallest village bars a coffee is €2, and eating out became a luxury weeks ago. A night drinking cocktails hits us right in the wallet. The rest of the month’s budget is spent getting a last minute check up for the bikes and ferry tickets to Lesvos, our last stop in Greece.
“Oh, it’s good you’re going to Lesvos, you can see some of what is happening for yourselves.” For weeks we’ve been warned about the refugee crisis in Lesvos. The island is the most common European entry point of the boats from Turkey. Many asylum seekers spend years in the infamous camp, Moria, which is 10,000 people over capacity. As we cycle off the ferry into Mytilini early one morning, we look for hints of tension between locals and the refugee population. We see welcome signs and co-existence.
We decide to spend a few days cycling around the island before a rest in Mytilini, and we quickly learn that refugees don’t define Lesvos; olives do. The island is home to more than eleven million olive trees, some more than a millennium old. Planted on even the most precarious cliff-sides, the olive trees of Lesvos look more natural than the perfectly manicured groves we’ve seen elsewhere. Each night we have no choice but to camp in an olive grove; they are the natural environment here. In spring and summer we relish sleeping in the groves, but in late autumn, the ripe olives leave oily stains on our tent’s footprint.
We explore villages tucked away between mountains and gorges, built into the hillside. Homemade desserts from local cafes fill our perpetually hungry stomachs. One night a retired British expat recommends a trail we might take the next day. Maybe we are fool hardy but in the morning we take it. We spend the next three hours cursing ourselves for such imprudence as to trust anyone not on a bike with directions. The road is soft dirt, and straight uphill through grove after grove. After much ado, a small ferry service saves us a 50km detour, and before we know it, our loop is finished and we’re back in Mytilini. Here we plan our next moves and await the infrequent ferry that will take us to the next step of our journey. Across the sea we already have Turkey in sight; now we will take the jump from Europe to Asia, with a snowy, Ottoman winter ahead of us.