John, Nick, Pete and Jake teamed up to cycle through Greece, from Thessaloniki to Athens. Dodging wild dogs, hairy priests and lapping up the Greek Salad every day, we cycled a total of 637km in six days (see statistics).
We stopped overnight in Thessaloniki, Katerini-Paralia, Larisa, Lamia, Delphi and Thiva before meeting up with Xiaoyoun, Leon and John in Athens. This year saw our first ever early "retirement", due to a minor scheduling error, as John had to break off a day early to meet up with Xiaoyoun and Leon.
We Left Gatwick on an early Saturday morning flight, reaching Thessaloniki airport around 2pm. The bikes arrived safely and we soon had them assembled outside the arrivals area and were ready to go. On the way out of the airport, however, Jake stalled with a broken link in his brand-new chain. After phoning his bike shop to rail at their inept fitting of the chain, he set about fixing it, only marginally worried by some Greeks who decided to pull up next to us to watch, maybe even ogle, proceedings. Thessaloniki started to seem a long way off...
It wasn't long before we were on our way, however, and we soon made short work of the 16km into Thessaloniki central. We got a few waves and beeps from local drivers and some even stopped to ask us where we were from; typically, first asking Nick if he was German. We booked ourselves into a quadruple room at Hotel Tourist – a 1930s building notable for an old-skool elevator with "eye-level air" – before venturing out to the waterfront for our first Greek Salad of the trip and a few beers.
An early start the day before and a two-hour time difference meant we got ourselves up slowly on what was a cloudy Sunday morning. We gathered for the usual hotel breakfast of bread rolls, meat, cheese, jam, croissants, eggs, cake, juice (of sorts) and coffee (tea for Pete). After he'd missed the past two tours, the rest of us were overjoyed to have Jake back, especially with his early morning market intelligence explanations of the origin of various butter brands. Banter aside, it wasn't long before we'd grabbed the bikes from the hotel basement and started on our way.
We followed a direct route out of Thessaloniki on fairly quiet main roads. Over a few flyovers on multi-lane roads and we turned off onto a quieter road towards Sindos, albeit through a dusty, dirty industrial estate. We passed quickly through Sindos, onto Halastra, then paused in Kimina for some crisps and coke. From Kimina we cycled along a road next to the motorway taking us across the Axios river to Klidi, then on through Platanos and Prasinada. Here we tried to find an early bridge across the Aliakmonas river, but instead had first to head north towards Niselli and join the main road heading south there.
It was now early afternoon and the morning cloud had burned off to reveal a hot sun. A few small towns passed by before we stopped at a roadside taverna in Eginio. We received a warm welcome, but had to resort to gestures and phrase book searches before getting some much-wanted cokes, chips, bread and kebabs. Not bad! The local men were all very chatty, then the local priest – hairy and gregarious – arrived for some snacks, beer, a smoke and a chat to all who would listen. Not long and he was trying to chat to us too, first about football, but then worryingly, he announced that a certain team member was beautiful. (Flashbacks to the Beast of Teruel...) Some lighter banter later and a firm handshake from the priest to say farewell, and we were back on the bikes and on our way.
We continued on in the warm afternoon, encountering a few uphills and downhills before turning towards the coast at Makrigialos. We headed straight to a very pretty beach road, which quickly hit a sharp climb up the cliff. Beyond that, it was all pretty easy going, save for John almost being jumped by a wild dog. The road flattened out completely for the last 15km to Paralia, which, we soon discovered, was quite a popular beach resort. Before checking in to Hotel Eva, we sampled the local ice cream and Nick bought some replacement sunglasses (the old ones dropped as we arrived). After a celebratory beer on the hotel balcony, we headed to the beach for a quick swim in the Aegean, then freshened up for a brief night out on the town (beer, Greek Salad and Mousaka).
It was a Blue Monday. At least to begin with. Rain greeted us as we awoke, intermittently heavy, with occasional lightning. We put off cycling in the rain by having a leisurely breakfast, this time with an unrequited promise of tales of the origins of tea brands, but the skies remained inclement. We set off in full wet-weather gear en route to the mountains past Mount Olympus. After being chased by more wild dogs out of town, the skies dumped some torrential rain as we headed inland towards Katerini. Thankfully, the rain abated and after getting a little lost, we stopped in Katerini to buy some fruit and ask directions. It was intermittently dry and drizzly for the rest of the morning as we steadily climbed the road towards Elassona. Though misty and cloudy, there were some spectacular views rewarding our efforts on our first proper climbs of the tour.
By early afternoon we were all running a low on energy. So, as the road topped out after another climb, we stopped to find a very warm welcome at a taverna in Agios Dimitrios. The landlady treated us to homemade sausages, locally-grown potatoes and "Mount Olympus" tomatoes (in the Greek Salad). The mist and drizzle drifted back briefly after lunch, but the weather began to break, just in time for a sharp and speedy descent down the mountain: both Jake and Nick hitting this tour's top speed of 73.2 Kmh. At the foot of the hills we were finally afforded our first proper views of Mt Olympus, although the peak remained shrouded.
At Elassona, Nick chose the "Larisa Old Road" (he stresses that this was with the others' consent), rather than the "Larisa New Road". Only much later did we all find out that it would mean an extra 22km on the day's ride! It was (all agreed) worth the extra effort in the end, however, as the old road was quiet with wonderful views, and the new road, once rejoined later, turned out to be busy with trucks. We had toiled on the last 20km or so of the old road as, despite being downhill, we were heading into a stern headwind. At Tirnavos we thankfully turned south (onto the new road) and the winds dropped. A speedy 15km of organised Peloton riding later and we were in downtown Larisa, quickly finding Hotel Dionissos, tucking into the mini-bar beers to celebrate completing what would be our longest day of the tour!
Overnight and morning rain dulled our spirits as we awoke, but it dissipated and remained dry for the rest of the day, an overcast morning turning to afternoon sun. Typical Greek weather, it seems. We bought some fruit close to the hotel, and Nick spied in vain for shops selling sunglasses, having broken his second pair of the trip, sitting on them at breakfast. A quick scoot through Larisa's one-way roads and we were heading out of town on the main road towards Karditsa. After 8km or so, we turned south onto minor roads, passing through Menohorri, Agios Georgios, Kiparissos, Krini and Mega Efidri. The roads were mostly straight, passing over flat terrain with occasional bumps and rises. At Mega Efidri we paused to check the route, when John noticed that one of his brand-new puncture-proof tyres was a little flat: our first puncture of the tour!
We grabbed some more coke and crisps as we waited for John to fix his puncture, then continued on minor roads towards Katahori and a possible shortcut. Finding a risk an off-road moment (past experience teaching us that these can be rather harrowing experiences), we headed instead to the main road south of Farsala. Here we hit our first climb of the day, but soon found ourselves on a col below a stunning ridge. The road descended to a plain before reaching Neon Monasterion, where we stopped for lunch for a Greek Salad accompanied by sausages and bread. After another flat stretch we were climbing again, this time more steeply for around 8km, cornering numerous hairpins in mid-afternoon heat. The road twisted up to the town of Domokos, where we paused for some ice creams to cool off.
On the way out of Domokos, Nick was surprised and hounded by several wild dogs: a quick burst of speed being needed to shake them off. Domokos was followed by another descent, another plain, then another climb to the high point of the day, the Stena Fourkas pass at 790m. After the climb came 15km or so of downhills, affording spectacular views of the plain below (with our destination, Lamia), huge mountains to the south (the next day's ride) and massive mountains to the south west (thankfully not on our route!). We soon found Lamia and, after first cycling straight past, were soon ensconsed at Hotel America. Jake was quickly off visiting a local cobbler to fix a broken shoe, then off for a haircut, before we all headed out for some Greek Salad, beer and Gyros.
We rose before the sun hit the Lamia streets in order to make an early start, hoping for an early arrival in Delphi so that we could visit the sights there. Well, that was the plan. After our first proper coffee of the trip in the cafe over the road from the hotel, we grabbed the bikes for a quick getaway. However, Jake immediately realised he had a puncture, needing a fresh inner tube. Nick used the moment to get some more sunglasses and buy some much-needed fruit for the day's ride. After checking the local bike shops for extra inner tubes, we were soon coasting down a dead straight road, heading south for around 12km towards the hills.
Our first test of the day arrived quickly, the road wiggling up the hill towards the east, then back towards the west, before turning south once more and rising steadily up to a col high above the valley below. A testing climb that stretched us out, but once back together and rested we were soon descending, now on much less well-maintained roads down to Kato Bralos, then further onto a plain that sped us across to Gravia at the foot of the next climb of the day.
The road wound up for around 10km or so, through a gorge and up the side of a mountain studded with quarries and busy with heavy trucks, to a col around 850m in the heart of bauxite mining country. After a brief pause, we started to desend, levelling out briefly before dropping more sharply round many hairpins down towards Amfissa, where we stopped for a much-needed lunch.
After Amfissa we descended yet further, but gently, then started a very hot ascent to our destination, Delphi at 573m. It was quite a climb in the heat, but after practice on numerous hills in the past few days, the 12km of uphill seemed less taxing than it should have. Not long and we were booking ourselves into Hotel Fedriades then making a trip out (by foot) to some of the local archeaological sites, before sampling the usual beer, Greek Salad and meat dish for dinner.
Another early start, this time both so we could stop off at some more antiquities on the way out of town, but also because John was on a mission today: to catch a train to Athens. (To cut a long story short: a scheduling error meant the early arrival in Athens of Xiaoyoun and Leon, and John was on a three-line whip to get there to greet them.) Still, we stopped off at Delphi's Archaeological site out of town, paying the full money, despite the fact that most of the sites (the Temple of Apollo and the Theatre) were out of bounds due to rockfalls the previous day. Refund? Don't make me laugh...
After a quick photoshoot by the ruins, we were on our way again in beautiful sunshine, climbing at first towards the town of Arahova, where we stopped for fruit and views back along the gorge for our last glimpses of Delphi and the sea beyond. Next came a very quick descent with a few flats and bumps for around 20km, a stretch that set the town for the rest of the day's ride: hard and fast. We soon sped past the outskirts of Livadia and picked up the main road to Thebes, sometimes hitting as much as 40kmh on the flat in our little Peloton.
At Aliartos we diverted from the main road in search of the train station, John hoping he could catch an early train. No such luck. The train station, once found, had only a hand-written timetable and was unattended. We headed back to the main road and stopped for a brief lunch before hot-footing it along the remaining plain towards our destination: Thiva.
Once in Thiva, first stop was once more the train station. John bought his ticket to Athens, but was told in no uncertain terms that he couldn't take his bike ߝ at least unpacked. We all headed to Hotel Niobh for a quick shower, picking up various cardboard on the way, then headed back to the train station and quickly helped to dismantle and pack John's bike ready for the train. It was a shame to let him go, this being the first early retirement of any of our tours, but the remaining three of us were soon back in town, drinking a beer to his successful arrival in Athens, before tucking into a Greek Salad and a pizza for dinner.
The final day; for three of us at least! A quick breakfast, another early start, and we were soon heading south out of town on the old main road, before turning off east towards Neohoraki. At Neohoraki we turned south again, heading for Dafnoula; a route that turned out to be around 10km of puddle-strewn dirt tracks: our first real off-road experience of this year's tour. Despite a few slips, bumps and slides, it was reasonable progress. At Dafnoula we encountered an unexpected climb, just as the sun began to bake down upon us. At the top of the climb we took directions from a local tractor driver before speeding along a short downhill stretch towards Pili, where stopped for a quick coke and fruit, this being the last town on the map for the next 30km or so.
After Pili, the first 7km was dead straight and flat, leading us into a steady climb through fire-scorched hillsides and dry heat taking us up our last real climb of the tour in the hills NW of Athens. Once at the top, we descended gently for a while, pausing to say hello to a Tortoise crossing the road, before taking in some spectacular views of Athens and Fili to the south-east, and the coast to the south, as we dropped sharply, twisting and turning down the mountains towards Fili.
At Fili, we stopped for a brief lunch, served by a hospitable non-English-speaking 1980's Man at C&A and his friends. From Fili we pretty much followed the same road all the way to the centre of Athens, descending gently almost all of the way. The road was at first fast, dusty and busy, with plenty of traffic jams helping us to weave our way mostly unchallenged. However, grey skies and a heavy thunderstorm shrouded downtown Athens as we arrived, leaving many roads under a foot or so of flash flooding and us sopping wet from rain, spray and muddy puddles. Despite this, we found Hotel Parnon with little difficulty and soon showered to meet up with John for a beer. Job done!
||Thessaloniki airport - Thessaloniki
||Thessaloniki - Katerini-Paralia
||Katerini-Paralia - Larisa
||Larisa - Lamia
||Lamia - Delphi
||Delphi - Thiva
||Thiva - Athens