Over the Mountains to Athens – a Cycle Tour 2 The Staggering Pindos Mountains

In Cycling, Greece, Travel
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Heading north from Igoumenitsa port, the land quickly rises up into some of the most striking scenery you’re ever likely to see, with excellent empty roads and an almost unlimited choice of beautiful campsites. Metsovo, the Pindos’ regional hub, is a pleasant place to spend a few days recovering from hard climbs.

Northern Greece is another country — it bears little resemblance to Athens and the Southern coastal resorts. It is wild and sparsely populated; even in spring, hours can pass without human contact. And with the rural economy still strongly subsistence based — livestock farming and food production for families’ own consumption — travellers need to be self-supporting because it is challenging to buy anything but coffee in many places outside the larger settlements.

The original idea was to follow the Greek Bike Odyssey annual mountain bike race route, which begins in the Greece-Albania border area of Epirus, although the actual route varies a little between years. From Igoumenista port, the most northerly greek destination for ferries from Italy, the GPS trailhead in Smixi is around 120miles (190km) via my chosen route.

Igoumenitsa is the country’s second busiest passenger port after Piraeus (metro Athens) and the western terminus of the highway that crosses Northern Greece. However, after gathering essential supplies from supermarkets, the urban sprawl quickly gave way to Mediterranean scrub and the first of the long, steep climbs that was to define the tour. Around 40% of Greece’s 11m population live in Greater Athens and smaller rural towns have very little hinterland.

Climbing away from the coast and heading northeast, the mountains begin to rise.

Roadside shrines are ubiquitous throughout the country and ensure that there is a ready supply of methylated spirits in most grocery outlets.

Looking north toward the Albanian border before dropping down onto the Aoös floodplain on the two-day journey to Konitsa.

Spanning the Aoös gorge on the edge of the town, Konitsa’s bridge was built in 1870.

The Aoös gorge from Konitsa bridge. The river combines with the more famous Vikos gorge in draining the northern Pindos mountains to create the Vikos-Aoös system, after which the surrounding national park is named.

Konitsa lays on the slopes of Mount Tymfi/Tymphe/Timfi/Tymphi. This multiple spelling example underlines the main challenge of navigation in Greece — the English translation of Greek seems fairly arbitrary; the road map nomenclature is different from Google Maps, which is different from the OpenFietsMap cartography that I use on the Garmin GPS.

The town’s modern name was first recorded in 1380 and in the 15th century it was under Turkish rule as Greece formed part of the Ottoman Empire. This continued until the Greek Civil War (1946-49), when the area was a major battleground until finally claimed by the Greek army.

At the summit of the climb between Konitsa and Elefthero on the road to Smixi, I set up camp beneath a mobile phone mast after charging my own equipment using the solar panel in the setting sun. Dawn over the Tymfi (or alternative spelling of your choice) range was stunning.

The road is a series of dramatic switchbacks, rising and falling between tiny villages like a giant rollercoaster. Water is available in each settlement from beautiful stone fountains, flowing straight from the heart of the mountains without a tap in sight; cold and delicious. After a lunchtime in Distrato, finally establishing that no food was available for purchase despite well-meaning locals hinting at the presence of a taverna and supermarket (the the former closed and the latter could not be located), I ate dry bread and chocolate by the roadside before beginning an epic climb to the Vasilitsa ski centre.

Approaching Vasilitsa at around 1,700m above sea level it’s slightly surreal to be in the midst of snow under the burning sun. The ski resorts have an eerie feel out of season, with huge empty car parks and promising-looking tavernas empty and locked up. It was at this point that a slight obsession with food began, partly through the practical necessity of monitoring supplies but also beginning to tire of pasta, soy mince and packet sauces. Indeed, food stocks versus calorie consumption levels were driving the pace; I would have lingered longer in the national park but for somewhat melodramatic concerns over imminent starvation.

I camped on a hillside at the Greek Bike Odyssey trailhead between Smixi and Avdella. These are seasonal villages, with summer populations in the thousands, accompanied by their livestock and the professionally savage dogs that guard them (well) — wolves are still common here. In winter, only a few watchmen remain. The first part of the trail is steep, rocky and required the bike to be pushed uphill. A flatter, smoother section of gravel track gave more cause for optimism.

Here, the track descends to Avdella. Leaving the village, however, the route returned to near-vertical eroded stony tracks, which were heavily rutted and criss-crossed by streams.

In places, the streams formed bogs and pools. Pushing the bike was hard work but, more importantly, it was painfully slow. In order to arrive in Athens in time to meet my partner I would have to average around 37miles (around 59km) per day without rest. On good roads this seems trivial, but progress on the Odyssey route with the fully-(over)loaded touring set-up wasn’t going to cut it. I decided to reroute over the nearest gravel and tarmac alternatives, heading out of the Northern Pindos National Park to the town of Metsovo, with its promise of food sales, some of which would even be cooked by someone else and wouldn’t contain soy products.

That afternoon was spent hammering a beautiful but tough gravel forestry road, three times. After arriving excitedly at a point where the track forded a stream and anticipating a good wash before bed, I discovered a naked end to the charging cable from the solar panel to which my phone used to be attached. Re-riding the track the first time yielded nothing, but I hadn’t seen anyone for hours and thought it very unlikely that it had been picked up. To enormous relief, the second search was successful and contact with the outside world (and navigation — the track was too recent to appear on the GPS map) was restored.

As was the strategy each evening where practical, I climbed as high as possible and sought out an east-facing campsite that would enjoy a good breeze and catch the first morning sun. The result was the site in the image above, my favourite of the tour, overlooking the forest and village of Mikrolivado, and home to hoopoes and vocal tawny owls.

I’d had no idea that no less than three tortoise species are extant in Greece. I think the one above is spur-thighed (the others being Hermann’s and marginated). They were regular and delightful companions on the roads and tracks of the north. The light traffic ensured that I saw them alive rather than as roadkill, which is sadly the opposite of the usual situation for wildlife sightings on European highways.

Leaving the gravel behind, I pushed on to Metsovo, battling the thermal downdrafts that built steadily from the mountains as the temperature increased each day. Above the town is this Alpine plain, across which the wind howled unabated. With its bakeries, wood-fired grills, mini-markets and coffee shops I wondered if the affection I still feel for the place was largely tied to cinnamon cream pies, souvlaki and a rest day. But, while these things may have seemed disproportionately wonderful after the likes of (ahem) packet “carbonara” mix, it is certainly an an enjoyable place to spend a few days, with it’s mountain backdrop and attractive main piazza.

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