Broken record

June 10, 2013

Distance: 34.8 miles Climbing: 1656.8 ft

Athens apparently did not want us to leave and did everything in her power to stop us. About a block away from the hostel, Chandler dropped into his smallest rear cog ring and his bike produced an awful noise. He stopped to investigate and he noticed that the smallest cog was just spinning around and his cassette had come apart. We immediately pulled up on the curb and Chandler determined no major damage had occurred. The stack of three small cog rings on the cassette had just come loose. We have a tool to re-tighten the cassette and after a few minutes of fiddling his bike was back together and we were back on the road.

Cassette breakdown

Is it supposed to do this?

About two minutes later, I noticed my front tire was a little low. We pulled over at a gas station and sure enough I had run over a staple. We pulled it out with our mini-vice grips (indispensible), patched up the tube and inflated the tire with the air at the gas station. Back on the road and headed out of town.

We made a stop at a little vegetable stand in the center of town to pick up groceries, then a bakery for more spinach pastry. Chandler spotted a bike shop so we stopped to pick up another chain to replace the spare I am currently using on my bike. A discussion between the owner and the employee ensued which is always a bad sign after asking the price of something. Not surprising, the chain was overpriced by about 10 Euro so we continued. Not two seconds after leaving, I heard a crunch and a familiar hissing sound. I had run over a small piece of glass which gouged a hole in my tire and punctured the tube. We couldn’t believe that after having only one flat tire in 5 months of riding in Asia, I got two flats within hours of each other. We quickly did the necessary repair work and continued on our way.

Glass in my tire

Tires and glass don’t mix

We were getting pretty fed up of trying to get out the immense sprawl of Athens and stopped at a McD’s for ice cream. We felt better after our snack and Chandler found a more direct route on the GPS, so we headed off once again. Then the Athens bike gnomes struck again as we were pedaling up a hill, my crank arm fell off. It wasn’t a huge deal (this happens all the time- both of our Shimano Hollow-tech II cranks are garbage and fall apart all the time, Chandler’s is currently held together with a piece of paracord, a tent-stake and electrical tape), but after all that had gone wrong, neither of us were in good moods.

Just like new

Just like new

Finally, after several hours we made it out of the city only to find ourselves funneled onto a huge highway. Consulting the GPS, we found the highway was our only option for a few miles until we could get to a smaller frontage road. The traffic was fast and there was basically no shoulder. It was the only through road for miles, and didn’t seem to be designed so much as just evolved from a donkey path to major expressway, so gas stations and houses sat right on the roads which resulted in cars and trucks constantly merging in and peeling off at freeway speeds.

Blessedly, we found a secondary road that actually appeared to connect to the next town on the GPS which turned out to be a service road for the sprawling oil refinery that dominated the shore in the area. When we finally left the highway, we were both out of breath, completely jacked up on adrenaline and cursing the traffic, the city and the country. It was the worst bit of riding of the entire trip so far, easily twice as bad as the closest contender: our day long stint on Highway 1 in Vietnam.

Our spirits improved immediately once we were on the quieter road. While the traffic wasn’t any friendlier but there was less of it. We had to travel through the oil refinery and the appending industrial slum, which was stinky and boring. We were beginning to doubt our choice of coming to Greece.

Scenic oil refinery

Scenic oil refinery resort area

We finally escaped the industrial maze and headed along the old highway 8 which was much more relaxing, though riding and scenery were pretty dull. We were in the small town of Neraki when my tire went flat again. Seriously, 3 in flats in one day? Luckily we were right in front of a gas station where the attendant was friendly and helpful. He had a small garage where he changed tires and it was immaculately clean, on an OCD level. The wrenches were all lined up perfectly in ascending order above his bench and the concrete floor was so immaculate you could eat off it. The mechanic let Chandler borrow a wrench to really tighten both of our cassettes. Back on the road again, the scenery changed and the riding was lovely. We spotted a small bike shop and picked up a chain for a perfectly reasonable price. The mechanic filled up our water bottles and sent us off with a wave. We were in a good mood now. Do we seem a little manic depressant?

Not the happiest camper

Are we having fun yet?

After awhile the road left the town and went straight along the coast. We had the sea to one side and big hills on the other blocking us from the main highway. The traffic started giving us more room and people started waving and returning our smiles. There were a couple of spectacular sections of road reminiscent of Highway 1 in California near Big Sur.

Much better road

Much better road

Land Ho!

Land Ho!

We realized we were exhausted so we started to scout for campsites, which is always a challenge in steep terrain. Chandler noticed a road leading up to a radio antenna which are sometimes good low key places to find a place to camp. He rode up the hill to investigate. It was even better than he had thought! The antenna was right next to the unused small gauge rail line and the fence along the track was in a pretty bad state so it was easy to follow the tracks a few hundred feet or so down to a small clearing totally hidden away out of sight, perfect for camping and setting up hammocks. We even had a glimpse of the ocean through the trees. After a very trying day, we were more than happy to stop, relax and make dinner.

Riding the rails

Riding the rails

Athens

June 8 – 9, 2013

We jumped up at first light to pack up our sleeping pads and get out of the smoke. The ferry arrived early and we were happy to be off the boat. We rode pretty quickly through the narrow streets of Piraeus, the port area near Athens, stopping to buy some goat cheese at a market and some pastries at a bakery. After devouring spinach and cheese pies, followed by a cinnamon flavored baklava roll, we headed towards the center of town. We did make a quick pit stop at a hardware store to find a nut for part of Jenny’s saddle which had rattled off. The owner gave us the nut and a spare free of charge. We were loving it here so far!

Riding off the ferry

Riding off the ferry

Baklava

Baklava

We made it to the hostel that we had in mind and checked into a room for 35 Euros. I asked for a room with a balcony and they moved us over for no additional fee. The room had a shared bathroom, but it also had a spectacular view of the south side of the Acropolis including some of the Parthenon. We lounged in the room, taking in the view, coming up with a plan for the next day. We had been on the move, not under our own power for a while so we needed to reset, and figure out what the heck we were going to do for the next few months!

Not a bad view from the balcony

Not a bad view from the balcony

The next day we spent a good chunk of the morning up at the Acropolis, which was very busy, but the ruins were really impressive, so we barely noticed the swarms of tour groups. The overall site is called the Acropolis, which is a dramatic site set on a tall plateau with clear views of the whole city. There are several important buildings and other structures such as a large amphitheater that made up the compound, so we spent a while wandering. There were a fair amount of interpretive signs, so we were able to get the basic idea of what we were looking at. The Parthenon, which is the central rectangular pillared building, is an imposing structure up close. There was a bunch of scaffolding up which unfortunately obscured one end. They were apparently in some stage of either disassembling or reassembling the columns, in order to stabilize the structure. We wandered back down the north side of the Acropolis, which was almost completely deserted, and rested for a while in the shade of the cave of Zeus.

Parthenon

Parthenon

Some lovely ladies and just a fraction of the city

Some lovely ladies and just a fraction of the city

The theatre of Dionysos

The Theatre of Dionysos

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Statues

Mosaic

Mosaic

Other than the ruin sites, Athens didn’t really charm us. It is not a very attractive city. From the plateau of the Acropolis, we could see a dense sea of modern buildings in every direction, riding up the sides of the steep hills ringing the town spilling continuously all the way down to the sea. Down in the streets, it was a dingy place with knocked out windows on abandoned storefronts covered in graffiti. I saw the first people of the entire trip taking hard drugs as I walked down a street near the tourist center.

There was a central market area selling produce, meats fish and other things, which was worth a walk through, but without a place to cook, we didn’t buy anything. The rest of the retail in the area was mostly tourist shops, newsstands and everything for 1 Euro type shops hawking chincy stuff like flyswatters and plastic toys.

We were in the “flea market” area so we wandered around there some. A few people were selling some genuinely interesting things like records, religious icons, sewing machines, antique surgical instruments, etc. On the main drag there were more desperate people selling old worn out clothes, broken sun glasses, battered film cameras and computer keyboards. There was a surprising amount of pornography available, with people leafing through their options out on the street. Even though we were properly in the tourist area of Athens, it felt dirty, desperate, a little dangerous and more than anything, dull. There was a lot of colorful graffiti and art around but the shops and restaurants were mostly swank touristy things that were really expensive and generic. The whole place felt really built up for tourism, but there wasn’t much actually going on and that resulted in an empty feeling.

Lots of stuff for sale

Lots of stuff for sale

We spent a lot of our time sitting on our balcony munching on olives and drinking cold beer. We found out the hard way that much of Greece shuts down on Sunday. We walked for about 5 miles in a big spiral trying to find somewhere to even buy a loaf of bread, with no luck. We ended up getting the most delicious falafel and kebab sandwiches at a small food shop in a Muslim neighborhood. While we were eating a whole bunch of Athens police were searching a car parked outside the restaurant, then came in and searched everyone for drugs, but they left us alone. The owner was clearly embarrassed, but at this point it takes a little more than that to faze us. We ordered more wraps to go and headed back to our oasis.

We pored over Google maps and a few other cycling blogs before settling on a plan to ride basically due west towards Patras. The route followed the north coast of the Peloponnese and appeared to be one of the most popular cycling routes out of Athens. There was a national highway and a smaller secondary road, the latter is usually a great option for cyclists, since the secondary roads are usually only used by local traffic. With a plan in mind we were excited to get out of the city and see the country.

Island life

June 7, 2013

We woke up with the sun and hurried to pack up camp. There was a lot of traffic on the side road we had camped off of and we were both a little nervous about getting caught. However, once completely packed, we lingered in the ruins graveyard to make breakfast.

Ruins graveyard

Ruins graveyard

After breakfast, we made our way to town looking for wifi. We ended up at a small café and ordered coffee. Our options were Nescafe or “Greek coffee”. We gave the Greek stuff a try and it ended up being a two ounce glass of burnt tasting coffee sludge. While the coffee left much to be desired, we were able to use the internet and do a bit of research about the island. There were some interesting museums on the island, but they were not in the main town so we would have to ride out to see them and probably spend the night out there. We were interested in hanging out for a little while, but since any riding we did on Lesvos wouldn’t translate to any progress along our overall route, we decided to head to the mainland.

We got ferry tickets to Athens at a local travel agency for the same price as online, still pretty expensive, but at least we were headed somewhere. We stopped at the discount grocer “Lidl” and experienced a certain socioeconomic regime within the Greek population. The prices were way better than we saw in town, but the place reminded us of a combination of a Walmart and a local “supermarket”.

The rest of the afternoon we dedicated to the beach. We rolled around in the ocean, practiced floating skills (filling the lungs makes a huge difference), showered and lounged in the hammock. A number of people stopped by to chat, but they were from Bulgaria or Poland on vacation.

View from the beach

View from the beach

Floating

Floating

We boarded the ship around 5pm, and the crew tied our bikes off to the wall of the upper car deck. We were assigned deck seats which meant we could find a place to sleep anywhere. We snagged a nice looking place under an outside stairwell on the fan deck. We hung out for a while as we sailed towards Athens. At each port, the ferry picked up more people even though it was very late at night at this point.

The problem with our spot on the fan deck was that even though it was outside there wasn’t enough air circulation for it to ventilate properly and being the small sliver of the boat that was not enclosed, it became the designated smoking area. An alarming number of people chose to spend the entire night chain smoking. I have never seen so many people smoking so much in my life. The woman next to us went through at least two packs during the 11 hours of the crossing. At 3:00 in the morning there were more than 100 people smoking off the back of the boat. We resorted to moving all the ash trays to tables away from us, but people still came and sat right next to us, ashing on the ground or even accidentally on our inflatable sleeping pad. We considered moving inside, but all the good spots were already occupied so we would have been in the middle of floor next to the café. Without many options we stayed put and dealt with it.

Getting into Greece

June 6, 2013

Riding Distance: 25.5 miles   Climbing: 1607.6 ft

We popped out of the tent, made breakfast and packed up. We did some final internet work and found that if we aligned things perfectly we could take the ferry to Lesvos then hop on the ferry to Athens immediately. We had read a little about cycling Lesvos, and it sounded nice, but riding around in circles seemed a little pointless to us considering we have a long road ahead of us to the Netherlands.

There was some confusion over who to pay at the campsite so we ended up having to wait until afternoon when the “trusted staff” showed up. We sat around chatting with the Latvians until then.

It should have been a quick and mindless ride to the ferry, but the highway was being seriously worked on so we ended up in the travel lane with a bunch of trucks which made things unpleasant. We opted to take the small coastal road which seemed to follow the coast, but ended up being a 10%± roller coaster ride of misery (there was crying). Some sweaty miles later, we hooked back up with the smugly moderate grade highway and bought some ice cream to cheer ourselves up. A while later we made it to the port town where we stopped at the Kipa, which is kind of a Turkish Fred Meyers. We finally found 50 SPF sunscreen on sale and proceeded to buy in bulk.

Hiding in the shade

Hiding in the shade

After some halfhearted negotiation at the port (I was able to knock 20 Euros off the price with way less effort than it took to knock 10 rupees off anything in India) we found ourselves bound for Greece. Ferries sound interesting in principle, but it was a pretty boring ride over to Lesvos.

Goodbye Turkey

Goodbye Turkey

Hello Greek Island

Hello Greek Island

Since we had bikes and were non EU types, we ended up at the very back of the line going through customs. There was no chance that we were going to make the ferry to Athens after waiting in customs, so it was time for plan B.

We did some research back in Turkey and found out that lodging in Lesvos was WAY outside our budget. We had about an hour of light after landing to find somewhere to sleep, preferably somewhere out of the way and cheap/free. It didn’t help that Manali(SP) was a densely populated port town. While on the ferry, we saw more open ground to the northeast of town and set that as our target.

We bolted northwest blindly trusting the GPS, which took us on a bizarre and illogical tour of the steepest cobblestone streets in the entire town. I felt my chain tight and straining with the climb while even in the granniest of gears. I heard Jenny shifting up, up, up, and then a terrible crunch and silence. Her chain had blown up from the rough riding. I doubled back and fished in the repair kit for the other power link. I couldn’t find it and came up only with the spare nine speed chain. We looked at her chain and the pin that ripped out of the link. Aggravated and running out of light I salvaged the powerlink from her broken chain and slapped on the replacement. An old guy who owned the back street bakery we were in front of was clearly impressed with our preparedness and showed us the trash bin to throw the poor old chain that pulled Jenny’s bike across Asia with and after we were through, gave us repeated doses of dish soap to wash our grease stained hands off with under his spigot.

At this point the sun was literally setting and we were still in a cobblestone alley, nowhere near anywhere to free camp. We cranked hard out of the port and sped along the semi-industrial outskirts of town. I saw a single paved road on the GPS which lead out to the ocean so we followed it, but it turned out to be some sort of waste water treatment facility which huge barbed wire fences keeping us on the pavement. We turned around and saw a little side road which we followed. It turned out to be the local place to dump old parts of ruins. Tops of Greek columns and carved blocks were all stacked and numbered in the weeds in a clearing. We pushed the bikes along a sketchy path and found ourselves adjacent to an old mini traffic school training course which was all overgrown. We munched on bread and oil then waited until nightfall to pitch the tent, picked the aggressive hitchhikers out of our socks, watched the first two episodes of the new Arrested Development and fell asleep.

Another day off

June 5, 2013

Feeling refreshed, we woke up around 8 am, made our usual breakfast and coffee. We loaded up the bikes and then headed over to the restaurant to check email and double check our route.

The night before, we decided that we were going to go to the Greek Island of Lesvos, which we actually could see off the coast of Turkey for the past couple of days. Our route through Turkey was made up on the fly and was in the opposite direction of where we were generally trying to go which is the Netherlands. We saw there was a quick ferry hop over to Lesvos a few miles south in the city of Ayvalik . We also saw the sailing schedule was such that we would really have to hustle today to make the last boat. Since we were in such a nice spot we decided it wasn’t wise to ride hard to  Ayvalik and potentially miss the boat and then have to find a hotel. We unloaded the bikes and put our tent back up much to the confusion of the campground staff.

Brave swimmer

Brave swimmer

 

Pink flower

Pink flower

Jenny was working on the blog when I realized it was Wednesday, which is market day in Turkey. I rode into town and meandered around a while before I found a group of farmers selling cheese, eggs and produce. I bought cherries, a melon, peppers, potatoes, beans, garlic, onions, hard stinky cheese, weird shaped eggs (from chickens, confirmed after elaborate dances by both the buyer and seller), bread and some wine. The whole spread set us back less than $10.

Master chef

Master chef

We swam in the ocean and dried off in the sun. A Turkish man who lived in Sweden chatted with us for a while and turned out to be a really nice guy. He was really concerned that we had to identify ourselves as Americans as we traveled around the world. We haven’t had a single awkward or bad experience with this so far (with the exception of a bizarre and harmless South African born woman of Afghan descent in our hostel in Istanbul who railed against Americans in the common area as “despicable imperialists”). We reassured him that in potentially sticky situations we just said we were from Alaska, which worked well enough. If pressed further we would say, “up north near Canada”, which tended to neutralize things.

We chatted with some lovely German campers who had been coming to the site for 30 years. They were really sweet and assured us about the incredible quality of both the local air and the water. Around dark a large RV of American proportions rolled up. We weren’t really stoked by this big rig spoiling our quiet time. The inhabitants of the camper rolled out speaking to the campground owners in what sounded to us like Russian. Suddenly, two of them came over to us and started chatting. It turned out they were a group of young Latvians on vacation for two weeks in Turkey. They spoke great English and were really fun people. We ended up sharing a bottle of wine and talking with them past midnight about Latvia, Turkey, the EU, politics and all kinds of things. They were some of the most interesting and friendly people we have met on the whole trip.

We went to sleep worn out and with a plan to make a leisurely ride to the ferry and then onto a new country! Greece here we come!!

Around the bend

June 4, 3013

Distance: 50.2 miles    Climbing: 2007.9 ft

This morning we woke up with the sun. Being at the top of a hill, it came early and roused us earlier than usual. We cooked up a breakfast and packed away our camp. We have a tent, sleeping bags and inflatable mats that need to be broken down every day. Jenny has taken over those tasks while I boil water for coffee, slice up the potatoes, scramble the eggs and do the dishes. It takes us about an hour from waking up to getting on the road, which is actually not much of a difference than our “normal” life in Anchorage.

We rode down, the hill staring us in the eye, and back up the other side. We ground our way past Assos, which had some pretty interesting ruins, but we were in the mood to put away some miles and rode on. It was hot again, but we ended up riding near the coast, in the shelter of leafy trees. We took a break at a small roadside teahouse and bought some cold drinks. They also had a display of home jarred olives packed with slices of lemon and 1.5 liter bottles of homemade olive oil for sale. We bought some of both for $10 total.

Homemade oil and delicious olives

Homemade oil and delicious olives

At this point we had descended to the coastline. There were tons of dilapidated campgrounds and dubious looking hotels that we cruised past. Soon enough we were in an awful retirement community, with stacks of identical beach homes climbing up the slopes. There was a pair of supermarkets which we sampled while lingering in the shade of their entrances. The produce was dismal, but we stocked up on cheap soft cheese, pasta and local wine. While we sat outside one of the markets waiting for the weather to change from “hot as hell” to “awesome for riding” (which it never did) we saw 3 car accidents in the parking lot, resulting from the oblivious but able geriatric demographic which dominated the town. We decided to book it clear and quickly found ourselves on some side roads.

Goat hut

Goat hut

Scenic town

Scenic town

We put all our hopes and dreams into making it eventually to a campsite listed on our GPS (which had recently proven itself to be wildly unreliable). Luckily, this time, the Altin campground existed, and was more amazing than we could have imagined. For 12 Euros a night we had a nice flat spot to pitch the tent, a warm shower, bathrooms, a kitchen sink area, wifi, a café, a private sand bottomed beach in the Aegean and really nice owners who basically completely ignored us the entire time.

Beach

Beach

We made a really nice dinner of roasted red peppers with eggplant and onion over pasta with soft creamy Turkish cheese that had a rough bite reminiscent of Roquefort. Probably technically a culinary disaster, but we loved it! Filled up with carbs and a bottle or two of Turkish wine, we crashed to the soft sound of waves on the Aegean.

Ruins everywhere

June 3, 2013

Distance: 31 miles       Climbing: 2657.5 ft

We slept in the next day. Rest days are important for recovery, but just one day off the bikes makes us feel pretty lazy. We cooked up a breakfast of fried potatoes and eggs, and made some coffee. One thing about Turkey is the coffee situation isn’t great. In my head, Turkish coffee was some sort of legendary nirvana state of coffee. This is based solely on the fact that at Costco, when you grind the coffee in the giant machine near the hotdog stand, the only setting beyond espresso grind is “Turkish” which clearly meant that it was another 10 times or so more powerful than espresso. In reality, it tasted like burnt crap. There, it’s out there, the dream is over. We had settled into drinking instant Nescafe 3 in 1 which is just as awful as it sounds.

We headed over to the restaurant, only to find it closed and totally abandoned. Luckily, the internet was still on, so we uploaded some more stuff, checked out the security situation and did some route research.

Finally, at around noon we got on the bikes and started heading south. Our legs felt leaden, and progress was slow. After just a few miles we came across part of the ruins of Troa Alexandria. The place was fenced off, but there were some interpretive signs inside so I jumped the fence to explore a little while Jenny stood guard. Unfortunately, the archeological team was German, so the signs were just in Turkish and German, and I have no idea what was going on there. I did walk through a pretty cool masonry tunnel structure.

Ancient tunnel

Ancient tunnel

More awesome ruins

More awesome ruins

Another few kilometers down the road I saw a column rising above the trees at least 10 meters high or so. As I rounded the bend I slammed on the brakes as I saw an intact stone arch rising out of the forest off on my left. It felt like a real “Indiana Jones” moment because we were in the middle of nowhere on a little country road and the arch was just off in the woods over there. We got off the bikes and followed a little footpath which meandered past some other overgrown ruins. We finally got to the arch and found that there were actually three separate arches making up the sides of a square courtyard area. One of the arches was buttressed with a timber truss, but the other two were freestanding. It was amazing to see such massive and ancient structures intact, off in the woods, seemingly forgotten. Some internet research after the fact indicated that the arches were part of the ruins of a gymnasium or bath structure.

Arch

One arch

Two arches

Two arches

We cruised along for a while near the sea but unable to see it over some small hills obscuring the view. There wasn’t much traffic and the road was nice but it was hot. After a little while we hit a town called Tuzla and suddenly the landscape changed. We went from stereotypical Mediterranean olive trees and ocean to something that seemed out of Arizona or Nevada. Hard, little shrubs grew on the mountain slopes although there were still well tended fields of hay and wheat. Iron, red water flowed from broken rocky slopes and the sun seemed even more intense for the almost complete lack of shade. We stopped for some ice cream and water before plodding along through some small towns where the only action was a gaggle of old men drinking tea at the café.

Desert terrain

Desert terrain

Halfway up a big hill, my chain started to make a really bad noise, so I stopped to check it out. One of the pins holding the links together had come out so the side of its link was grinding on both derailleurs as it went around. I managed to press it all back together with a chain tool, but the link was damaged and kept binding as it went around the rear derailleur. On the steepest part of the climb it blew apart and my bike sprouted a tail as it shot the tired chain behind it into the gravel. Luckily, I was in some shade and could stop in place. I extracted the offending link and patched the chain together with a spare powerlink we had in our repair kit. With two major chain issues in the past week I was considering how wise it was to only have one spare chain with us.

Chain in working order again

Chain in working order again

We continued along in the broiling sun, not unhappy but a little weary with so much climbing after the relatively easy past few days of riding. When we crested a hill an hour or so before sunset and looked down the long descent and even larger climb after it, I suggested we just stop for the day and regroup in the morning. We were in a rocky highland area used to graze goats, but we happened to be by a small stand of pine trees which didn’t have any poop around, so we rolled our bikes in, set up the hammock and made ourselves a camp for the night.

Another great camping spot

Another great camping spot