The Dedegol Mountains, Isparta, Turkey. This year’s challenge?

29th December 2007 to 5th January 2008
4th Cycling Week Oria in Italy to Piraeus (Athens), Greece

Snow topped mountains and a tiny bit of sea

Day 31 Saturday 29th December Oria to Brindisi

The best made plans can and do go wrong. The management had entered into a truce with the gps. Between them they planned a great ride from Oria to Brindisi all on lanes except through the towns. Some of the lanes were very narrow and one was unmade. Without electronics we never would have risked them.

We came across a remarkable thing completely by surprise. It was a route cicloturistico on the Appian Way, mainly on newly surfaced lanes. Vehicles are restricted to 30kph, a speed with which most Italian cars are not equipped. Below 40kph they are normally stationary. That is unless they are driven by a very scared elderly farmer oblivious to the queue of snarling racing drivers behind him.

We arrived early at the ferry port to be greeted at the terminal door by someone who said “no boats today”. The stoker approached the desk, ticket in hand. The functionary was taken aback. How could a ticket be issued for a non existent boat? To cut a long story short we were assured of a place on tomorrow’s boat.

Back into Brindisi town centre we booked into a hotel. It was a shame not to be on the way to Greece but manana is best on cycle tours.

Day 32 Sunday 30th December Brindisi, Italy to Patra, Greece

The management awoke feeling fragile. It must have been bad because he passed up on paid for breakfast preferring to sleep. We had a nice meal in a little place full with locals last night. There was no real reason for him to be off colour and by mid morning he was ready to walk around Brindisi.

Checking out of the hotel we cycled to the ferry port, about 2km away in an industrial wasteland, arriving two hours before boarding started. Once bitten we were twice shy of relying on Endeavor’s timetable. The stoker continued with her good natured negotiations with the friendly desk clerk. We were given a cabin upgrade and free dinner. And the stoker will no doubt get our hotel paid for by the London ticket agency which issued an incorrect ticket.

In reality it does not matter all that much which day we arrive in Patra. The only down side, or it could even be an up side, is that we will cycle straight out of town.

 Crossing the railway by tandem

Day 33 Monday 31st December 2007 Patra to Diakopto

The ship’s crew did their best to make up for their company’s mistake and were very nice to us. After being a passenger on a cargo ship it felt strange to be on a ferry. The ferry was 25,000 tons compared with 38,000 tons but also we realised how much normal passengers are kept away from the working ship. The ferry also went faster and we think had stabilisers.

After being in the flat lands of Italy, waking to the backdrop of the Peloponnese mountains was exciting. It was also a little scary. Could we cope with mountains, especially these big ones with plenty of snow on the top?

As it turned out we did not have to worry, not yet anyway. The route today was on the coastal strip which is fairly undulating. The mountain foothills do not reach the sea here.

The management made the best of the second to last remaining bit of reliable map to get out of Patra. Garmin is aware of Patra and even knows its way around Athens but anywhere further east is beyond the Americans. Mind you, the locals are not a lot better, treating maps as random places to draw red and yellow lines. Most unBritish.

Cycling out of the docks we went past several breakfast cafés. When we started passing groups of Albanians collecting wood for bonfires to keep warm we realised this may have been a mistake.

It was not until we reached the outskirts of Rio nearly an hour later that we came across a café for breakfast. Almost unbelievably after the cold cafés in Italy this one was warm. Furthermore it had proper sized cups of hot filter coffee, none of which was froth or chocolate. Civilisation had arrived.

Soon after breakfast we passed under the beginning of the impressive new suspension bridge across the mouth of the Corinthian Gulf. We were now committed to the southern side of the Gulf. The route we were cycling was a bit busy for us but a good introduction to a new country. It shares a transport corridor with the railway and the toll road, winding through a number of villages and the large town of Egion, each with lots of local life and colour. We even got a toot when we waved at a train approaching us on the adjacent railway line.

The scenery along the way is lovely. There were snow covered mountains to our right. To our left across the Gulf the mountains in northern Greece appeared to plunge into the sea. We were a bit unlucky with visibility, on a nice day it must be spectacular. Today it was fairly good.

Our dodgy 250,000 map indicated a nice way into Diakopto where we were staying for new year. After wandering through some hamlets and along a deserted beach the road deteriorated into track and then path. It finally stopped at the Patra to Athens railway line.

Railway lines here are not fenced. As in many situations outside the UK, where health and safety dominates, common sense is more important than silly rules. And we learned common sense as we grew up, unlike today’s kids.

Hearing no trains the stoker went to investigate. By walking along the line about 50 metres she came across a river bridge. After this there was a narrow path down to a road. The management crossed the line as quickly as he could with the laden tandem, squeezed it across the narrow linesman’s bridge over the river and descended to the road.

From here it was only about 1km to our hotel, although it was via the local rubbish tip. We can safely say that this is our last adventure in 2007. We discovered later that there is a train about every half hour, but then they are pretty noisy.

Days 34 and 35 Tuesday and Wednesday 1st and 2nd January 2008 at Diakopto

Being very tired from the ferry crossing from Italy and a day’s cycling we did not see in the new year. We were however awakened by a cacophony of huge firework bangs at midnight.

We took new year’s day very easily and after a late breakfast walked around the village and down to the sea. It was very quiet and everyone we saw looked rather hung over.

In the evening we went to the only open restaurant in town. We were shown into the kitchen to choose our meal from the dishes on the stove. This is by far the best way for people with our peculiar eating habits. We returned to the hotel and were disturbed by the locals who, having recovered from last night, were now celebrating again.

On Wednesday it was sunny and we decided to explore the funicular railway which runs from here 22km into the mountains. It is currently out of action. The Greek state railway bought the wrong rolling stock for the rack and pinion system. They hope to fix one or the other and say it will be running in April. They don’t however seem to realise that if they were to use the steam locos rusting away in the sidings they would have a world class visitor attraction. They seem to have similar foresight as the burghers of Weymouth and our railway to the quay.

We cycled up beside the line some of the way. It was soon too bumpy and we locked the tandem to a post before walking up the line. The stoker’s paces were perfect for walking on the sleepers. The short assed management preferred to walk beside the track where this was possible.

The railway follows what appears to be an impossible route through a deep gorge, perched on one side of a fast flowing river. It continues via cuttings, embankments and short tunnels, gaining about 200 metres in height in 5km. The sides of the gorge and the mountains tower above. They look as if they are made from sandstone with sculptured towers and caves caused by the swirl of prehistoric torrents. The management reckons it looks a bit like the scenery in a good quality western.

Just after 5km the track changes and in the centre is the rack with which the train engages to haul it up the next 17km and help it down on the way back. We walked on another km or so and as well as becoming steeper the tunnels and overhangs became more spectacular. We also walked past signs saying no trespassing.

For those interested in railways the track is narrow gauge, about 2 feet. It is in very good condition with standard rails on wooden sleepers. There are no proper chairs although a few of the sleepers have a recess for steel plates under the rails. The rails are held down by screw pins about six inches long driven into the sleepers. The track with the rack seems to be factory built. It has folded steel sleepers with rails and track attached laid as units. It was embedded in the track bed with no obvious ballast.

Having had a brief picnic, not very warm even in the sunshine, we returned to the tandem. We had walked just under 12km and the West Dorset Footsloggers should be impressed. After all one of us claims not to be a walker at all and the other has a dubious walking leg.

We returned to the comfort of the very pleasant ChrisPaul Hotel before returning to last night’s eatery for another nice meal.

This notice is on the bridge over the Corinth Canal

Day 36 Thursday 3rd January Diakopto to Arhea Korinthos

With clear blue skies and a good following wind we were soon loaded up and on the coast road. We are now away from big centres of population and there is very little traffic. It is ideal cycling for us if a little cold when we stop. Lunch time loomed and we had done almost a full day’s distance. It being too cold to picnic we rewarded ourselves with lunch at a beach café overlooking the azure sea.

Navigation became a little fraught after lunch as we took to minor roads to avoid the heavier traffic as we neared Corinth. The stoker also felt that she had already done more today than is required in her contract. The management however was keen to make the best of the good cycling weather. The net result was a longer day’s run than we have managed for a couple of years and a higher average speed. The stoker was however disgruntled and rightly so, considering that her damaged leg should get more management consideration.

Day 37 Friday 4th January Arhea Korinthos to Aghii Theodori

We stayed at the Shadow Hotel which is being renovated and is not quite ready for guests. We were the only people there and the owners made up for the facilities by their friendliness. We also had a great meal which included eating a huge plate of roast vegetables sitting in front of a roaring log fire.

We spent the morning exploring the archaeological site of Ancient Corinth. As with Pompeii the sophistication of the buildings and artefacts impressed us most. It is also possible to visit Mediaeval Corinth on the top of a mountain over 500 metres above the ancient site. We declined, it was cold enough lower down, the visibility was not brilliant and we were lazy.

In the afternoon we pressed on, crossing from the shores of the Korinthian Gulf to those of the Saronic Gulf. Following one of the management’s better attempts at navigation without decent maps we arrived at the southern entrance to the Corinth Canal. We crossed on the old national road to Athens and had excellent views of the higher level bridges. We were very amused by a sign beside the bridge which said “Stay away from this bridge when it is submerged”. The management wondered by how much it would need to be submerged to force him to retrace. He did not pass these thoughts on to the stoker although she knew full well what was in his mind, having been in wet situations before.

Hotel finding proved tricky. We did eventually get a room three floors up and only a few yards from the sea. It felt a bit like being back on board the Grande Anversa. Unfortunately the hotel had no food so rather than get the bike out again in the cold and dark we dug into our emergency rations, supplemented by a hunk of good, fresh bread purloined from the bemused night staff. He could send out for more.

Day 38 Saturday 5th January Aghii Theodori to Piraeus (Athens)

It was the start of a somewhat uncertain day. We knew that the last 30km into Athens would be at best uninteresting and at worst busy, dirty and unpleasant. The whole ride was also towards our maximum daily distance. We were also aware that an alternative via the island of Salamina existed. There were two ferries and we did not know whether they ran in mid winter.

The first part of the ride was very nice if slightly hilly. We wound along the coast on the almost deserted old national road. At Megara we came across our first experience of the industrial wasteland slum to the west of Athens. We rode as quickly as we could for the Salamina ferry and swept onto it just as it was about to leave.

Salamina is not a paradise but it is pleasant to cycle across and we enjoyed lunch in a harbourside café. As luck would have it we cycled onto the second ferry to the mainland just as it was about to leave.

The 10km into Piraeus was a culture shock. Athens seethes with life and chaotic traffic. The management was stretched to guide the tandem safely to the port.

The port area was very busy and the stoker made for Hellenic Seaways to enquire about a ship to the island of Chios, our gateway to Turkey. As expected nothing was available until Monday and we checked into a nearby hotel.

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