Thursday, 18 August 2011

Stage Nine: Patras to Athens

Skirting around Prygos before heading up into Arcadia towards Olympia.

Then back to more deserted beaches.

A few more small towns and some lovely churches.

In the first village I came to, Varda, there was a wonderful fix-anything-with-anything kind of general-repair-mongery where I found and fitted a replacement gripshit, albeit having to work backwards as he only had right hand grips available. Briliant, much better thumb strain ;)

There is a very tranquil feeling here, nothing much going on or getting done. Everything on go slow for the winter till the migrating humans return in the summer to bask in the sun.

By sunset I'd made it to the most north-westerly part of the Peloponnese and camped under some small pine trees on the dunes just behind a remote beach.

Thankfully the New National Highway wasn't a motorway as I'd feared, but a dual carriageway wit a nice 1m wide sidetrack to cycle in. But pretty soon I'd found the remnant of the old road and was cycling right along the coast just feet from the sea.

Leaving Patras was a bit of a wrench, I was getting far to comfortable just strolling around enjoying the atmosphere and back on the road things did not go well. Quite a shock to the system after 3 days of dossing about and the bike was now showing signs of wear and tear. Within minutes my handlebars came loose in traffic, the ratchet on chain-wheel shifter broke and I had to hold it in gear by gripping hard with my thumb and the thigh muscles on my right leg when into cramp - which was pretty painful for half an hour until I'd pushed through it.

Although I'm no great fan of the urban environment, cities do have their advantages, and the coolest cafe I've been in on this entire trip is TAG here in Patras. The music ranges from cool mellow jazz to electro-swing, Chris Rea and Donna Summer re-mixes. With the best lattes in town and really friendly staff it's a great place to write and relax. In the evening the place is packed with students who are actually working and not getting pissed! With this kind of dedication this country has a future - as long as their politicians don't sell the people short.

Patras and the Greeks are great, really warm and friendly and the town is still packed with 'proper' shops which have yet to succumb to the out of town 'outlet' parks that characterised many of the French and Italian cities I visited.

Arriving at 1pm local time after a few hours of broken sleep on the ferry I was shattered and travel weary, having never spent more then 48hrs in one place for two months. I cycled out of the docks and straight to the nearest cafe where the locals gave me great directions to Nicos Pension where I'm staying for 3 nights to catch up with writing this blog and my journal - and sleeping in the same bed three times!

Dawn breaking over the Greek coast was awe inspiring and gave me a tremendous sense of freedom and space. It was one of those sights that it was worth losing sleep over. Shame about the pollution haze though.

I'm going to try and stick as close to the 1984 route as possible, but it could be tricky as half of it now appears to be motorway with no alternative cycle permitted route! Last time the journey ended in Naphlion after I got sick from inhaling the copper-sulphate dusk they spray on the oranges when working as a picker and consequently took the train to Athens.

Let's see what happens this time around!

Stage Eight: Benevento to Bari

It was already dark when I arrived in Bari and the only way in and onto the docks is a busy dual carriageway, so it was on with the high viz jacket, lights and helmet and once more into the urban Italian traffic, a game of nerves and assertiveness. I've discovered if you ride straight at the driver as they try to pull out in front of you they brake and let you pass, but if you lose your nerve and try and steer round them theykeep pulling out and push you into the oncoming lane.

Safely through that lot I got to the ticket office with an hour to spare and boarded the boat to Patras, phew!

From Lavello onwards the road was pancake flat as it passed through olive groves, walnut groves, huge fields of cabbages and vineyards to Rapello on the Adriatic coast. What a huge contrast from the misty mountains of Melfi just 24 hrs before! Time for a quick swim and a doze on the wide and deserted beach before caning down the coast through a series of little coastal towns to Bari.

And then, almost suddenly, the mountains were over. The landscape changed dramatically as I dropped down onto the coastal plain through Lavello for one last night in Italy in one of the half finished buildingsthat litter the landscape.

With the strenuous climb up to, and freewheel down from, Melfi completed, and with the last range of hills before the Adriatic coast in sight, exhaustion got the better of me and it all went a little bit swimmy, so I had to sit under a tree for an hour or so and just breath. Not exactly a Bodhi tree but it helped, even if my meditation was punctuated with a steady stream of bikers out for their Sunday thrash.

On the climb up to Melfi the roads were jammed with parked cars and hundreds of people were out and about gathering chestnuts. It was a real community event with people everywhere joiing in with the harvest and then partying in the evening. I've never come across anything like it in England. A little further on I came across a whole hillside full of storage caves where olive oil, vegetables preserved in oil, wine and of course chestnuts are stored during the winter. I'm sure many of these caves were once dwellings too.

The climb up to Passo Mirabella and on to Melfi was as memorable and as steep as it was in 1984, although this time my left leg was hardly strong enough to push on the really steep bits let alone pedal. But it was good to see the Italian's continuing investment in renewable energy sources with several fields set aside to shiny new 'solar farms', energy self-sufficient factories and clusters of magnifcent turbines on the hilltops and ridges. You'll note this climb up to a 911 metre pass also had a headwind; you can't win 'em all.

On the first trip I sailed from Brindisi after declining a three day wait for a boat from Bari and making a 100km sprint down the coast to catch the ferry to Patras.

Stage Seven: Rome to Benevento

All the Italians I've encountered have been warm, generous, fun and helpful. It's been emotional. Just don't bother asking teenage boys for directions. They have no idea where they are in relation to anywhere else, think 30km is a long way on a bicycle, that trans-continental cycling means catching the train and they don't stop eating long enough to finish a sentence.

Benevento turned out to realy quite modern and stylish for the most part with some quaint features tucked away, and then it was back to more mountains!

But the weather took a turn for the worse and, as several places in Italy experienced disasterous flooding, I discovered that spending 36 hours stuck in a tent listening to the deafing sound of thunderstorms and torrential rain on the flysheet can make one become just a little psychotic.

The road edged ever closer to the mountains to the East and I could sense more climbs afoot!

Following the ancient Via Catilina out of Rome I headed South-East which was a good road and, thanks to the parallel autostrada, almost devoid of trucks. I even managed to bump into my cousin's business advisor (!) who was re-tracing the steps of St. Paul from Rome to Jerusalem via Albania, Macedonia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon etc. on foot after starting in Limoges in central France. To say he and his companion were staggeringly tired would be an understatement. I'm sure St Paul would have carried his baggage on a donkey and not 17kgs on his back!

I had a fabulous day out at the Chestnut Fair in Segni with the Natalini family, went to my first Latin Mass, got hauled up on stage with a brass band and introduced to the crowd as the cycling here from England, got fed stupid, introduced to Limoncello - a 34% lemon liqueur and shown the right way to open a chestnut. Sadly I stupidly forgot my camera but pics may yet reach me by email.

Here's the original map of this stage, although the route this time was a little different as didn't drop down to the coast at Anzio due to bad weather in the mountains and in order to take a rest day with a contact in Colleferro.

Stage Six: Siena to Rome

Target Rome acquired. Heat seeking velocepede does battle with rush-hour traffic and dives into it down the middle of the road playing chicken with oncoming mopeds. Coffee is the only solution. Shouting OI! works in any language and the warm-hearted sports loving pedestrians cheer you on. Brilliant.

The original plan to skirt the centre to the north was never going to work, the geography and the road network funnel you into the city's fast-beating heart. Rome by night on a loaded bicycle is exhilerating to say the least. The atmosphere is wonderful, even the police are friendly and helpful with directions. The only drawback is the cobbled streets which shake your eyeballs out so I crossed the city in pedestrian style.

Tuscany was as photogenic as ever, miles of undulating hills awash with colour and texture.

The downside of urban Italy is that the roadside is used as one big communal dustbin and whilst watching the traffic on your left you have to dodge half empty bottles of water, smashed wing mirrors, huge Iveco mudflaps and bin bags full of crap in the little bit of road you are left with. Steptoe and Son would have a field day! And "Italian Rules" parking is something to reckon with too.

Starting tomorrow (Tuesday18th) this 230km stage gets me well past the half way point of the trip. But having been to Rome a few years ago with my son Jack, and knowing that it is, for all it's beauty, hectic and expensive, I'm planning to avoid the centre and skirt round the city to the North and East heading for Colleferro, 50km SE of the city, where I plan to take my next rest day.

You'll see on the map to the left the last stage into Rome is marked by a little pick up truck. This is where I was kindly given a lift in 1984 by a couple of blokes who took pity on me getting absolutely drenched in continous thunderstorms, put me up in their lock-up overnight and introduced me to chestnut jam!

It's very cold out of the sun here right now, but I have heard rumours of temperature rises next week:) Let's hope so! And no thunderstorms please!