9th DECEMBER 2018
I wake around 7.00am to the dull murmur of the German father reading a story to his kids. Amazingly, this means that his kids (and consequently me) have slept right through the night. The heavy rain has stopped too, so things are looking a lot more promising than they were yesterday. I say Goodbye to Anna and Kostas, and thank them both sincerely for hosting me. They really are the most open, helpful couple and I’m so glad I made a slight detour into the mountains to meet them. As I leave, Kostas gives me more left-over bread and another pizza slice to send me on my way.
Kostas had already shown me the best route by which to leave Zitsa, involving only 100 metres of climbing then mostly downhills as far as the large city of Ioannina. I follow his instructions on what is a quiet, still Sunday morning with dew on the ground and a shrouding grey mist hanging over the countryside. The peace is shattered by the sound of someone out shooting, so I glide off down the hillside in case the gun owner mistakes me for a wild pig or suchlike.
Once I reach flat ground, I find I’m cycling through farmland and hearing the constant sound of barking dogs. On one straight section I see a dog walking out from a field and into the road up ahead. It’s soon joined by a second dog, and then a third. I get the Dog Stones out my back pocket and continue slowly. I’m hoping they might disperse before I get there, but they don’t. By the time I reach them, there are eight stray dogs milling around in the middle of the road. Some of the pack are barking and snarling aggressively at me and are clearly not happy with my presence. I raise one arm above my head, ready to throw the Dog Stones if I have to, and move steadily through them. As I’m passing I stop rotating my pedals because movement seems to be a trigger for them, sending them into a frenzy. I freewheel slowly past, trying to affect an air of calm but in reality I’m just about shitting myself. There’s a few more barks and growls, but none of them actually tries to bite me, which is an enormous relief let me tell you. If eight dogs decided to have a go at me I’d be in a spot of bother. This is far from the pleasant Sunday morning cycle I was expecting.
I have to stay on these minor roads, running the gauntlet of further dog encounters, until I reach the main road to Ioannina. By the time I reach the city my shredded nerves and stress levels have just about returned to normal. Once I’m through Ioannina I keep waiting for the big downhill that will take me back down to (nearly) sea-level at my destination of Arta. However, after a few tantalising kilometres of climbing I start to wonder when this promised descent will arrive. I’m actually getting pissed off at the absence of a downhill, so stop for lunch and a breather, little realising the summit is literally round the next corner.
When I do reach the top there’s a poor bloke cycling in the opposite direction who looks exhausted after all his climbing. I wave cheerily, as I know I’m just about to enjoy a long downhill, but he barely even responds. Fuck him. The eventual freewheel is absolutely joyous, through steep, towering cliffs and past layers of brown roadside leaf litter. Even when the road seems to level out, I know that I’m still descending because I’m following a river downstream. Darkness begins to fall as I get closer to Arta, so I stay in a high gear and pedal strongly until I reach the glow of streetlights about 5km from town.
Arta seems to be built on a hill on the inside edge of a tight riverbend, and I’m staying at a hotel near the town centre. A receptionist takes me down to their basement in a transport lift designed for cars, and I leave my bike safely underground. I have a nice, chilled evening and am drifting off to sleep when I hear a noisy couple returning to the room next door. They’ve come back drunk and laughing and I hope they’ll just pass out quietly. However, ten minutes later I hear noises that suggest they’re not too interested in sleeping yet. Oh, that’s just great. It’s weird to hear other people shagging, and these two are particularly strange as they are making an awful lot of squeaking noises. I even start to wonder if they might have one of those squeaky dog toys in the room. It sounds like a whole colony of mice have taken up residence next door. I’m guessing the squeaks are coming from her, but it could just as easily be him. Who knows ? I wouldn’t even be trying to work it out if it didn’t sound so bloody strange. Thankfully, the mouse chorus doesn’t last too long and a few short grunts signal the end of their activity. I really hope their performance is a one-off.
The night passes without any more squeaky sex noises, so I head downstairs for breakfast feeling rested. There’s an All You Can Eat buffet in the corner of a conference room which I get stuck into wholeheartedly, culminating with me devouring five pan au chocolats. Goodness knows how I always manage to lose weight on cycle trips with the amount of calories I consume. I retrieve my bike from the downstairs car park and head out of Arta round the big riverside hill that the town stands on.
My road zig-zags alongside the motorway for around 20km until it hits the coast, in the shape of the enormous Gulf of Arta. There’s a narrow opening where the huge inlet joins the Mediterranean some 40km away, but from where I stand this body of water looks vast enough to be the sea itself. Today it is the flattest light blue, with an almost cloudless sky above to match. I follow this tranquil coastline for around 15km, winding and twisting round a series of wooded headlands. The only thing that spoils the peacefulness is the noise coming from my bottom bracket with each turn of the pedals. It’s making an awful squeaking sound, but it’s still quieter than the woman in the hotel room next to me last night.
The road then leads me back inland for a few bumpy kilometres, before depositing me back on the coast once again. A steady downhill takes me into Amfilochia, a quiet little town with about 4,000 inhabitants which sits on a horseshoe shaped bay surrounded by hills. It’s a beautiful spot, with the only drawback being that the town is North-facing. This means in winter the morning sun takes ages to rise above the hills behind town. Then, by mid-afternoon, it has already begun to dip behind the mountains on the opposite side of the bay. So, even on bright winter days the town doesn’t receive much sunshine. Nonetheless, I spend two relaxing days here.
On the morning I leave Amfilochia, my phone tells me that the temperature outside is zero degrees. It’s one of those crisp winter mornings, cold with a brilliantly clear blue sky. I ride along the seafront, past locals who are going about their day rugged up in scarves, jeans and bulky winter coats. Most of them look at me in either astonishment or pity as I cycle past in shorts and t-shirt. A hill takes me out of town and away from sea-level, but the extra pedalling also does a grand job of warming me up.
I’m aiming for a town called Missolonghi today, which is only about 60km away via the motorway. For me, this figure will increase to an 80km cycle with all my motorway-avoiding detours. The extra kilometres are pleasant enough though, with wall-to-wall winter sunshine and no breeze to speak of. I ride past lakes, mountains and farms, then turn inland and through the large town of Agrinio. A four hundred metre hill takes me up to a pass through the mountains, before a speedy downhill drops me back down to the coast for a flat run all the way to Missolonghi.
I’m passing a roadside farm when I see an old Greek Mama, all dressed in black, who’s out picking oranges from her orchard. I smile and wave as I pass and she calls me over. She doesn’t speak a word of English but makes it clear she wants to give me a couple of oranges for the journey. I really don’t have much extra space, but I open a pannier bag and try to fit them both inside. She then keeps giving me more and gets me to cram as many oranges as I can possibly fit into the top of my pannier. To share her own food with a passing stranger is a lovely gesture on her part, and this brief little kindness has made my afternoon. I eat one at my next stop, and I swear they are the freshest, juiciest, tastiest oranges I’ve ever had.
I get to Missolonghi to find a port town with a bustling centre of grid pattern streets. I’m staying in an old hotel that sits right on one corner of the town square. The whole area is looking very festive, under the bright lights of a Christmas tree, fun fair and Christmas markets. I finish what remains of my road food and check the weather forecast, which for a few days has been predicting heavy rain for tomorrow. This grim forecast hasn’t changed so I decide that I’m going to stay dry and remain in Missolonghi tomorrow. I figure I’m allowed one more Rest Day before the final push into Athens.