D+107, 3824 km – From 6 to 28 June
We cycled through the (deserted) roads of Greek Macedonia, far from the Greece of postcards and history books! We are still looking for the naked and well sculpted gentlemen (?!) but on the other hand we found religious knick-knacks EVERYWHERE!
We didn’t think we could find a more religious country than Italy: Greece gloriously proved us wrong! Miniature chapels are legion: on roadsides, behind groves, in front of houses… There are even autels IN the houses. The whole thing is nicely sprinkled with colourful frescoes and mosaics!
Greece by bicycle is also the country so feared for its famous “wild dogs in the mountains”, mentioned many times by cyclists (and even cars!).
Here, we sweat olive oil, but it is a pure delight!
The discovery of this country was under the sign of “vréki vréki” (rain, rain)!
Borders . The peacocks are at the table to welcome us at the customs post. After this warm welcome, we are on deserted roads punctuated by farms and abandoned buildings in post-apocalyptic weather. It’s quiet. Far too quiet.
Florina. We meet two very nice Germans who are heading for Istanbul. Two rockets going at full speed: we will probably never meet them again! A few minutes later Hans, another German, stops and heads in the same direction! Florina is definitely a real crossroads for travellers. As we take the road again, the storm catches us. We decide to pedal anyway, taking breaks when it rains too hard. Our GPS guides us on paths through fields where we can clearly see fresh dog footprints in the mud.
The rain calms down, and the sun even makes an appearance; a (short-lived) miracle.
Sitaria . At the end of the village, we take a dirt road from which we see a large shed with an open gate. A big dog, a bit angry, comes out barking and heads towards us. We stop and get off the bicycles, trying to open negotiations to get through. Soon, the big buddies appear: one, then two, then three, then four, then… It’s hard to tell how many of the first doggie’s companions are staying here. One thing is certain: there are already about ten of them, they are not very polite and are determined to block the way. We try several techniques in vain: from sympathy to threatening and diplomacy: they continue to advance towards us. A little stunned, we slowly back away.
We walk for about a hundred meters (which seems like an eternity) until we reach a man sitting in his red pick-up. Once we reach him, he tells us in Greek that we should avoid this road, and offers us fresh eggs! The rain starts again. Wassily invites us to enter his farm to take shelter.
Communication is more than complicated; we understand absolutely nothing! But our rescuer is extremely patient and tirelessly repeats sentences punctuated by “Katalavèss?” (understood??) – remember that “nè” is “yes” in Greek: that doesn’t simplify the matter! We go round the owner: cows, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens and he hands Anai a stick. She takes it, without really knowing what to do with it. He seems to ask her to come and milk the sheep. And here they are both in the sheepfold for the evening milking!
When the work is done, Wassily makes us understand that with the rain it is better to stop and that we can put our tent here, at the farm. So we set up the house, a bit happy not to have to go back on this delicious road in the rain, at night. He then explains to us (with great mimes, arm movements, unbuttoning of the shirt) that he’s going to change and that he’ll come back to pick us up to have a drink in Florina (“Florina”, we understand!).
Break. Waiting. Questioning. Will he come back?
We got it right! 30 minutes later, Wassily is back, clean as a whistle, with a new car! He takes us to the Kebab and then he seems to say that we’re going to meet some people to go dancing. We still don’t understand much, but his motivation and enthusiasm make us surrender: we continue to follow him, on foot, in the streets of the city, silently trying to put together the bits of interpretations to create a plausible scenario. We get back in the car and don’t head for the farm: none of our scripts fit anymore and it’s getting dark. So here we are in the car on a narrow mountain road and we have no real idea where we are going!
In our heads, secretly, each of us starts to imagine the worst scenarios, are we crazy to leave with a stranger we ABSOLUTELY don’t understand? Where is he taking us? We were just supposed to go to a bar and come home! However, our intuition reminds us that “we can trust him”. After 45 long minutes of meandering and talking where no one understands each other (holding the steering wheel makes it very difficult to picture the words), the LIGHT!
We arrived in a village, many cars parked in every corner and people coming from all sides. In fact, Wassily wanted to take us to a village party organised for the Orthodox Pentecost. We sit with him at the table, we fight nicely about who pays for the food and drinks, but Wassily insists on inviting us. We give in! The music starts and the crowd stands up to start a traditional collective dance where women and men hold hands and make rhythmic steps. Here we are in a crowd of a hundred people, with Wassily, trying to reproduce clumsily the dance steps, to the rhythm of this gigantic circle that keeps on growing: it is not only on the Avignon bridge that we all dance in circles! Far from the tourist Greece (very very far), here we are for a first evening bathed in authenticity!
All three of us are tired and decide to go back to bed. We have to find our tent and our bicycles at the farm. Wassily makes us understand that we have to go back to “spiti” (we think that it must be the name of the village or the farm)! Except that when we arrive in Sitaria, Wassily doesn’t go towards our tent but stops in the village, in a farmhouse. He jumps out of the car under the barking of the dog, knocks on one of the doors, an old lady gets out and hands him a duvet under our eyes full of incomprehension. (We understand much later that it is his mother). He invites us to enter the house and guides us to a room. In fact, from the “guinguette”, he explains that afterwards the three of us will go to the “spiti”: the HOUSE! Everything becomes clear, he invites us to his house!
A touch of stress before closing our eyes: we left our bicycles and all our belongings in the farm closed by a wire and guarded by a 3 months old puppy… Quite an exercise to let go! We feel a bit stupid to have had some doubts (sometimes necessary for our survival) dictated by all the conventions of society, the sordid front pages of the newspapers and other creepy police investigations! The contrast is all the more striking when his mother comes to bring us… slippers and pyjamas for the night!
A few hours later, to crown this day full of emotions, Anai, who did not digest the kebab, spent the night in the bathroom! Again, a huge thank you to our friend Wassily! We’ll see you next year (by tracing “2022” then “2023” on the ground and pointing at the bikes and the farm)!
We meet Hans the next day: he had taken a hotel in Florina and like us, he pedals towards Edessa, a small pleasant town known mainly for its impressive waterfalls! We’re on a peaceful road although dotted with signs indicating the presence of bears and wild boars: it doesn’t make you want to sleep here!
Edessa to Thessaloniki. The road is long, straight and particularly monotonous; but, positive point, the traffic is rather calm before entering the city! We meet Hans, AGAIN.
Only 10 km to go but the storm that has been lurking for a while catches up with us! We take shelter under a barnum installed in the industrial zone (probably to carry out the famous covid tests) with all the two wheels passing by – we end up being a big dozen waiting patiently for a lull! We meet 2 Croatians (very very nice) who travel by motorbike. This is the opportunity to check each other’s bikes. Then, before leaving, one of them tells us “you would be my daughters, I would not have let you go”. We laugh and leave happily in the flood waters that soak us up to our knees, in the traffic jams that force us to put our legs in the water.
Thessaloniki. Not a very restful break, we didn’t ride our bicycles but we walked so much to discover the corners of this city! Our knees have difficulty to bend, we feel a bit stuck like Playmobils! This city is full of contrasts: the thousand-year-old vestiges keep on rubbing shoulders happily and without complex with the blocks of flats and the graffiti. Giorgios confesses to us: “Thessaloniki is an ugly person, but it’s only when you’re around it for a long time that you see its beauty and end up loving it with all your being”.
We take advantage of this city to fix the mechanical problems on Anai’s bike: new derailleur, cassette and chain! We also adjust GG’s derailleur. We hope to be back on the road with bicycles like new!
Being in town also means meeting new people. We meet people from Paris who work in finance and who go fast, very fast. The meetings don’t happen by chance: we think that it’s a good reminder of certain realities that seem light years away from our way of life and thinking!
Agios Vasileios: Άγιος Βασίλειος . Short stop to get off to a smooth start. We spot a lake on the map that should be able to offer us a spot for the night. Opposite, we stop in a restaurant, a not very shy pet stork struts around at a reasonable distance from the tables. What a beautiful bird perched on its fine stilts!
We ask the waiter if we can pitch the tent in the area: it’s a yes, without any hesitation. He comes back to us a little later and starts with “I talked to my boss and… “. We already start to think that his boss is not very enthusiastic about us staying around. But no! “There are too many mosquitoes near the lake and the streetlights don’t work! So he suggests we bivouac on the lawn (and terrace) of the restaurant! Wow. What benevolence; once again. We settle down a few meters from the tables.
Our presence intrigues and the inhabitants on their Sunday evening digestive walk come in turn to ask us sympathetically about our trip. The village priest, who speaks French, comes to meet us and says: “I don’t think it’s very… Hm… Safe here.” then leaves without giving us any more information… Theatrical. Creepy. All scenarios are possible. We have a wonderful night though. Looking back, we think he imagined we had pitched the tent in the restaurant without asking the owner’s permission!
Asprovalta . We found the sea again! Big change of scenery and luxury bivouac at the edge of the beach, with abandoned but functional shower and toilets. We set up the tent next to the motor home of a Polish couple who have been here for a week already! We meet a dog (we’ll call him Tommy for an evening) who takes pleasure in frightening the ladies walking along the beach. The scene is quite funny. They wave a stick to scare him. Incomprehension.
Tommy runs at them happily to catch him: they wave at us in fear thinking that this dog is ours!
Kavala. Our Polish friends told us “it’s great Kavala, it’s beautiful and there is the house of Mohamed Ali, but not the boxer”! In fact we understood later that there is the house of Mehemet Ali, Ottoman officer and viceroy of Egypt considered as the founder of modern Egypt! We take a break in a restaurant, the waiter is very happy to see bicycles and even offers us a bottle of Ouzo!
Back on the road, we find an abandoned thermal complex. The hot spring water baths (40°C!) are still accessible, free of charge. The locals still come to enjoy this incredible natural place and we are not unhappy to have braved the unwelcoming front door.
Muddy bivouac at Nea Kessani Νέα Κεσσάνη – East Macedonia and Thrace National Park.
Once again, we are caught by a storm, a real deluge! We take refuge in a service station, the lady welcomes us warmly with stools! We take advantage of a moment of respite to take the road again. In the next village, a nice man offers us a good kilo of unripe mirabelle plums and a cucumber. On the way out of the same village, a dog tells us straight out that he is not very happy to see us. We feel stuck again but a boy of about 10 years old comes to save us with his water gun: very very very effective!
We leave the road to find a place to pitch the tent near a lake. Here we come face to face with a particularly muddy crossing, but we go anyway because the next part looks passable! We carry the bicycles with two of us, our feet and the wheels sinking in a slippery and sandy mud. We think we’re out of trouble, but the path we think we can take is in fact a real quicksand!
We stop -literally- every 10 meters to remove handfuls of sandy and rocky mud stuck in the brakes, the luggage racks and all the sensitive parts (We are happy that Gérard and Renaud didn’t see that!). It took us about 1h15 to ride 800 meters in this mud; good point: it’s said to be good for the skin!
We finally arrive near the lake, greeted by a swarm of mosquitoes (“la CAMARGUE?!”) which dissuades us from pitching the tent. We set up a little further back, near a chapel. We find a hose to clean the bikes covered in mud! The timing is perfect, just enough time to set up and wash the bikes before the rain (and this time, the storm) regales us again.
We leave the next morning, the road is obviously in the same state, even if we tried another way. We come across a sheepfold guarded by dogs (yes, AGAIN!), a man comes out to escort us. The dogs didn’t look so bad, they just watch over their flock! GG, who didn’t want to wear his wet shoes from the day before, finds himself in flip-flops on a path that is sticky with greenish mud: a sweet mixture of manure, sheep urine and other sweet things from the sheepfold!
The sun finally comes out and we ride along the wild coastline and sparsely populated farmland! We had the opportunity to clean the tyres by crossing a flooded road – not surprising given the weather of the last few days! (it’s refreshing)
Anai has been dragging his feet for several days, a little injury? A break is necessary at the Kryoneri campsite. After a discussion with the manager, we decide to make a detour to Istanbul for GG’s birthday; we’re no longer 300 km away!
It goes up to Alexandroupolis where we realize that we follow the Via Egnatia, the old Roman trade route! There is really little traffic, we wonder where all the cars are!
This part of Greece is particularly pleasant: roads just for us!
We cross peaceful villages where all the inhabitants stop us to show us the direction of Turkey by bicycle while we are just looking for a place to pitch the tent!
There was obviously no way to avoid this country!