The Final Push

16th DECEMBER 2018

Breakfast in my Victorian hotel is served in a big dining area on the ground floor, surrounded by a handful of Greek families who are all travelling together in a mini bus. I stuff myself with cereal, bread, ham, cheese, yoghurt, peaches, cake and coffee. Naughtily, I think about pinching some extra fruit to take with me for the road, but there’s so many people milling around that I don’t. Then, when I go to check out the guy at reception asks ‘You like to take some froo-it with you for cycling ?’ Two apples and two bananas duly make their way into my panniers.

After last night’s storm has passed, I’m pleased to find the wind direction has moved round 180 degrees. What was a strong, persistent headwind yesterday has turned into a benign, helpful tailwind today. Sun is beating down gloriously too, with the Gulf of Corinth flat and blue, conditions that make cycling an absolute joy. I’m blown along quiet, coastal roads and through small, out-of-season tourist towns as I make my way towards the end of the Gulf. Soon I’ll be leaving the Pelopponese peninsula and returning to mainland Greece. To do this I have to cross the Corinth Canal.

The town of Corinth itself proves surprisingly awkward to negotiate, and I make a couple of wrong turns before I find my way through. My final obstacle when leaving town is a slow, steady hill, which I’m plodding up quite happily. I pass a roadside cafe when yet another barking dog comes flying out from between parked cars. It takes me completely by surprise, and I just bellow ‘FUCK OFF !’ at the top of my voice. Some diners sitting outside the cafe look suitably shocked, as that particular phrase is universal and doesn’t need any translation. The dog seems to understand too, and looks just about as shocked as the cafe-goers.

The canal itself is quite a sight. Completed in the 1890’s, it is four miles long, ninety metres deep and eighty metres wide. From one road bridge high above the waterway, I can see the all the way through to the Gulf of Corinth at the north end of the canal. Then, if I turn and look behind me I can see right through to the Mediterranean Sea in the opposite direction. However, the canal is not wide enough now to cope with huge, modern shipping and functions more as a tourist attraction. Nowadays people are more likely to bungy jump from a canal bridge rather than sail through it’s passage. The canal is still a marvel though, and I’m glad I got to see it.

In the afternoon I’m approaching a petrol station and see two cyclists standing outside with their bikes. At first I think it might be two-thirds of the Swiss / Belgian trio, but as I get closer I realise that this is a new pair altogether. As I slow down to say Hello the girl says ‘Hi, are you from Scotland ?’ Whoah ! How the Hell did she know that ? It turns out they know the Swiss girls as they have been constantly meeting on the road since Croatia. The Swiss had told them they met a Scottish cyclist, but found him difficult to understand ! The bloke says not to be offended as they couldn’t understand his accent either.

Jess and Jamie, it turns out, are from Buxton in Derbyshire and are also heading to Athens. Although they are a couple and are cycling together they began their trips separately – he started in Buxton and she joined him at Strasbourg in France. Jamie’s on his first big cycle trip so wanted to break himself in and get a bit of practice on his own before cycling with Jess. Plus she didn’t fancy cycling through England. We chat for a while, compare our trips and arrange to meet up in Athens for a beer when we all get there, before they carry on.

After crossing the canal at Corinth, I’ve moved on to a south-facing coast, which means that sunset tonight will be over the sea instead of behind mountains. The wind continues to push me onwards nicely until I get to my accommodation on the coast at Hotel Cokkinis. I’ve gone a bit upmarket tonight (by my standards) as it’s my final accommodation before Athens and there weren’t many other options without leaving a huge ride tomorrow. When I check in the owner asks if I’m alone, and I immediately suspect that I’m not the only cyclist to be staying here tonight. My thoughts are confirmed when I put my bike in the outside store and see Jess and Jamie’s bikes, festooned with tinsel, already standing there.

My room is on the second floor with a bakcony and a view over the sea. I step outside to take in the panorama and find that Jess and Jamie are in the room next door. We both make lame excuses for staying in such plush accommodation, as it’s not really the done thing for cycle tourers. I find you get much more street cred for roughing it in a tent. Still, it’s a beautiful view and it’s nice to have a bit of luxury on occasion. We resume our chat and look out over the sea, with me deciding that I’d like to go for a swim in the Mediterranean before the sun sets. I’ve not had a sea swim since early September, and I doubt I’ll get another chance any time soon. In fact, it’s such a good idea that I’m joined by the other two.

The beach is made up of round, dark stones, about the size of golf balls, which are quite uncomfortable on the soles of your feet when getting into the sea. Predictably, the water itself is slightly cool to begin with, but becomes bearable after a couple of minutes. I find myself floating on my back and watching the sun set behind hills on the horizon. I’m swimming in the Mediterranean on the 16th of December ! Jess is sporting the most ridiculous cycling tan, with her legs white near the top and brown from mid-thigh downwards. Jamie, on the other hand, has possibly the skinniest legs I’ve ever seen on a human. This is deceptive though, as he’s one of those wiry, sinewy guys who can run for mile after mile like a Duracell Bunny.

We arrange to meet later for dinner, where I have seafood linguine and a beer while we chat. I discover that they’ve had more dramas on this trip than I’ve had on almost all my trips put together. I hear stories of pannier racks shearing off, root canal surgery and trekking to Tirana by bus to replace a broken derailleur. On the day they arrived in Albania, the wind was blowing so strongly that they had to get off their bikes and push. It also seems like they’ve had an awful lot of soakings compared to me. Listening to these tales just reinforces how lucky I’ve been on this trip. They are good company though, and we sit and chat for a while before calling it a night.

The next morning I’m awake fairly early for my final day’s cycling and the last 50km into Athens. Although it’s not a huge distance, I’m not particularly looking forward to negotiating my way into the massive, sprawling metropolis by bike. Jess and Jamie still haven’t surfaced by the time I’m downstairs filling myself with enough breakfast to hopefully last me till tea-time. The food on offer is almost a carbon copy of yesterday’s fare, only today isn’t All You Can Eat, much to my displeasure. I look out over the Mediterranean as I’m eating, and I realise the two most important factors when I choose accommodation are location and breakfast. I really am a very simple creature.

By the time I finish breakfast and get packed, Jess and Jamie are only just making their way downstairs. We wish each other Good Luck and arrange to meet for a beer later. At check out the hotel owner hears that I’m cycling into Athens, draws his breath in sharply and urges me to be careful. As a contrast to Athens, the first section of today’s cycle is on a quiet road that rises, falls and zig-zags its way along the coast. I crawl slowly up the small hills, with my pedals squeaking and grinding noisily for the duration. To compound matters, my chain now pops off every time I freewheel on a downhill slope. After a while I realise that if I take my feet off the pedals they will rotate freely on their own, which then reattaches the chain. This is fine in the short term, but there’s no getting away from it – my bike is dying.

At the top of one headland I stop for some munchies, finishing off the last of yesterday’s fruit, and cast a gaze at what lies ahead of me. Looking over some ugly refineries in the foreground, I can now see Athens looming in the distance. The majority of buildings look to be light coloured and low-rise, but the area that they cover is immense. As I’m standing there contemplating the task ahead, Jess and Jamie pass me and wave.

When I carry on, a long descent from the headland takes me on to wider, busier roads. Before long there are four lanes of traffic, although Greek drivers all seem to favour the fast lane, meaning I get the slow lane almost to myself. Just as I’m crossing a bridge I see Jess and Jamie pushing their bikes along a side road and about to join the main carriageway. I reach them and Jess says she was hoping I would catch up so we can all cycle in together. Employing a ‘safety in numbers’ theory, we get into a convoy of three and move steadily along the noisy, traffic-laden road. After a few kilometres the road leaves the coast, turning inland and uphill. It’s one of those climbs where I would have quite happily stopped for a breather halfway up, but we all seem to egg each other on subconsciously, no-one wanting to be the person to give up first. By the time we reach the top I am sweating.

We pull off the main road and are guided onto a quieter route towards the city by Jamie’s GPS app. This is handy for me as, left to my own devices, I’d have blindly carried on following the busier road. The next few kilometres are a glorious downhill through traffic, with my chain coming off and popping back on with regularity. Closer to the city the road begins to level out, and it does get slightly busier, but not too much. I’d been building myself up for such an awful, stressful cycle into Athens, that the resulting easy ride is almost a disappointing anticlimax.

The Buxton pair want to mark their arrival in Athens by going straight to The Acropolis and, as it’s close to my accommodation, I decide to join them. Jamie’s GPS leads us through a market, up little cobbled side streets and closer to the top of The Acropolis hill. We get to the entrance gates but they won’t let us take our bikes in, although this is probably a blessing with the number of steps inside. In the end we simply take some photographs with The Acropolis as a backdrop and toast our arrival. Even though getting into Athens proved to be much easier than anticipated, I’m still glad I got to cycle in with them and celebrate together.

We stay there for an hour or so chatting before we go back down the hill and go our separate ways. My accommodation is about ten minutes away, with a balcony view that looks up to The Parthenon and the Acropolis hill I’ve just descended from. This iconic spot, some 2,500 years old, seems a fitting destination to bring my European cycle to an end. When I reached the Mediterranean in Albania, I didn’t feel like I’d cycled right across Europe. But, now, having made it to Athens, I feel justified in saying that I truly have cycled across the continent !

 

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