13th DECEMBER 2018
I’ve been incredibly lucky with avoiding rain on this trip as most times it has arrived overnight. Today though, the downpour has lingered on into the morning, and I’m glad of my decision to take a Rain Day. I go downstairs for breakfast to find the hotel owner is a Greek bloke who spent twenty years living ‘Oop North’ in the UK. He takes me next door to a cafe he’s got an arrangement with and talks about how much he enjoyed the UK’s ‘Poobs and Cloobs’. I have a long, lazy breakfast while watching the world go by in the rainy town square outside.
By afternoon the rain has eased, so I go for a wander round town, stocking up on road food and marvelling at the amount of orange trees that are planted along the town’s pavements. I’ve found that the three most common sights in Greece are graffiti, orange trees and stray dogs. When I return I check on my bike downstairs to find it has a flat back tyre. I upend it and take the rear wheel upstairs to replace yet another inner tube. There’s such a tear at the valve join that I’m surprised I managed to make it here yesterday. I patch up the rest of my spare inner tubes, which means that all four have now been punctured and repaired at some point.
The following morning I return to the same cafe on the square for breakfast, before trundling slowly out of Missolonghi. Climbing a small hill not far from town I’m caught in a rainshower and stop to put on my kagoule. I’m trying to cover my sleeping bag and panniers when I notice three figures on bikes plodding up the same hill towards me. It’s strange to see how slowly cyclists move. They wave, and I wait at the roadside to be joined by two Swiss girls and a Belgian guy, all in their late twenties. Like me, they are heading to Athens but are obviously travelling a little more quickly. One of the Swiss girls says that we’ll probably all meet again on the ferry over the Gulf of Corinth. This confuses me. All I can do is frown and ask ‘Ferry ?’ She tells me that cyclists are forbidden from riding over the bridge, which is news to me. Left to my own devices I would just have cycled straight up to the bridge. I let them ride ahead, thinking I’ll catch up with them on the ferry.
I’m cycling through the outskirts of a village, about 15km from the bridge, when a massive, bulky, light coloured dog comes racing out from a driveway on the opposite side of the road. It’s barking, snarling and looks alarmimgly hostile as it chases alongside. And, Shitting Hell ! – there’s a large red patch of what appears to be blood on the left hand side of its neck and shoulder. It looks similar to a nature documentary predator, where the polar bear has just devoured a seal and now has a horrific covering of red blood on its white coat. I don’t think that it’s the dog’s own blood, so there’s a chance it might have killed and eaten one of the Swiss or Belgian cyclists. I’ve got the Dog Stones out by now, arm above my head and shouting at the beast. Bloody Hell, I might actually have to use the stones here ! Just as I think this confrontation will come to a head, another dog charges out from my side of the road and barrels into the hound that’s chasing me. They have a growling face-off and, while they are distracting each other, I ride off and leave them to it.
A hill then takes me up to higher, scrubby terrain and round a coastal headland. On the side I’ve just cycled up I get a good view back down to some beaches and coves below me, while on the other side I get my first glimpse of the the Gulf of Corinth and the two mile bridge that spans its mouth. This vast sea inlet is over eighty miles long and cuts the Pelopponese peninsula off from mainland Greece. The bridge is still 10km away, and luckily it’s mostly downhill as a strong headwind is being funneled between the mountains on either side of the Gulf. When I reach the bridge between Rio and Antirrio I investigate the crossing options half-heartedly, but find only barriers, tolls and no mention of cyclists. I decide just to get the ferry after all.
There’s no sign of the Swiss or Belgian, so they’ve either caught an earlier ferry or fallen victim to the devil hound. I’m delighted to find that the crossing is free for bikes, takes only thirty minutes, and runs parallel to the huge, long bridge. It is a spectacular sight with its four massive pylons and hundreds of supporting cables contrasting brilliantly white against the blue sky. Once I get off the ferry it feels noticeably colder on the other side, probably due to my own inactivity cooling me down during the crossing. The headwind has definitely become stronger though, which slows me down for the last 25km. The Swiss girls and Belgian bloke must have stopped somewhere to eat as they catch up with me in the late afternoon. We cycle together and chat for a while this time, before they eventually pull ahead once again.
My accommodation for tonight is in the coastal village of Selianitika, whose seafront looks a bit sad and deserted in winter. I could well be the only guest at my hotel as the guy on reception goes home once he checks me in. Over dinner I do a bit of research on the massive Rio-Antirrio bridge that crosses the Gulf. It turns out to be quite a feat of engineering as it’s built on a deep, unstable sea bed and between two shorelines that are moving apart by a centimetre every year. I’m also gutted to find that there’s a pedestrian walkway on the bridge that I could easily have cycled across.
The next day I spend cycling into a horrendous headwind and cover 65km to the seaside town of Xylokastro. With avoiding the motorway I’ve had to take a road that hugs the coast for long periods and I’m riding straight into a strong wind blowing off the Gulf. I cycle through some charming, traditional seaside towns that would be lovely in summer or at least without a gale blowing. Today, sadly, they are a struggle.
I catch the Swiss girls and Belgian guy again at a petrol station and stop to chat. One of the girls goes to a roadside fruit stand and returns with oranges, grapefruit and kumquats. She offers them round and I suddenly realise that I have never once eaten a kumquat ! They look like tiny oranges, so I start to peel it’s skin only to be told that you are meant to eat the entire fruit. I pop a whole one into my mouth and am pleasantly surprised by how juicy and sweet it is. I’m a fan within five seconds and a little disappointed that I’ve missed out for so many years.
I cycle along with the poor Swiss girl who has been playing ‘Third Wheel’ while her friend and the Belgian guy cycle off together in front every day. Understandably, she’s getting a bit pissed off with her friend, which makes for an awkward dynamic between the trio. When we catch up with the pair, the Swiss girls weave all over the road like drunkards when they are talking to me. They are also dressed from head to toe in black, and I’m left amazed that they haven’t been hit by a car yet. However, the ultra-sensible Belgian guy wears a luminous yellow top which is probably bright enough for a convoy of twenty. They plan to carry on cycling after Athens, but probably not together. The girls are talking about Crete, while the guy wants to visit Lebanon and Jordan.
Happily, the wind has dropped slightly by the time I reach Xylokastro. I check into an old-style hotel that looks almost Victorian and incongruously out of place on the main street of a Greek seaside town. For the next hour I’m to be found luxuriating in my first bath for a month, while the remainder of the evening is spent indoors due to a thunder and lightning storm outside. Rain teems down relentlessly and at times it feels like the building is physically shaking due to the giant rumbles of thunder. If this storm had arrived a few hours earlier I’d have been soaked without question, and quite possibly fried by lightning. I’m thankful for my uncanny good fortune in managing to dodge the rain yet again. I just need to be lucky for two more days till I get to Athens.