Over the Mountains to Athens – a Cycle Tour 3 South to Athina

In Cycling, Greece, Travel
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Leaving Metsovo on a bike the only way is up, back over the high plateau above the town and, potentially, a descent to the plains of Trikala followed by virtually flat progress all the way to Athens. But what fun is that?

My hosts in Metsovo showed me a relatively cycle-friendly route to Lamia — where one picks up the old road to Athens — on the road map and explained how easy things would become after Trikala. But the lack of the green bits that signalled mountains and forest, and the high concentration of roads and settlements didn’t look enjoyable and, although I’d realised following the mountain bike Odyssey route in its entirety wasn’t feasible, I wasn’t ready to give up on attempting to shadow it through the hills on small, mainly tarmac roads.

The morning I left was dull and light rain began to fall, the first of the tour so far. By the time I’d climbed to the plateau, it had become steady and was accompanied by a cold wind. The main downpour arrived during the descent but it was short lived and as I sped down the switchbacks and lost altitude, the sun began to break through to create a balmy, humid atmosphere.

The main road to Trikala follows the beautiful valley of the Malakasiotiko river. To stay with the mountains, I needed to descend to the valley bottom, cross the channel and take the road along a tributary valley and into the Koziakas range toward the seasonal ski resort of Elati.

Asklipios (or Asclepius), the Ancient Greek god of medicine, was said to have used plants and herbs found on the slopes of Koziakas mountain in his cures, and it is locally known as Asklipios’ pharmacy.

I was somewhat shocked at how quickly the mountains had become very different to the Northern Pindos. Villages are numerous and most of the land is used for goat and cattle grazing, and for crops. Finding a campsite was much more challenging, but a track led down into this patch of forest, which I followed to a clearing that was invisible from the road. Although the evening was overcast and more rain threatened, the following day dawned clear and was heralded by a pair of tawny owls, calling and flying around the tree canopy.

The vista at the beginning of a 14-mile descent through Elati to Pyli, which marked the edge of this mountain range and signalled the need to seek more hills.

A wolf print on a short section of the Bike Odyssey route I followed before, once again, I conceded that I was not on a mountain bike.

The heat at this low altitude now seemed phenomenal and the sun was burning as I set off after chocolate and juice resupply and a much-too-big-for-cycling lunch. My new route followed another river valley toward the Plastira reservoir and then crossed bigger hills toward the roads that would eventually take me to Lamia. The road climbed very steeply and when I found a large drinking fountain next to a grassy track I immediately reconnoitred the field above it. With some relief I had discovered “Oak Tree Camp”. That evening I was “busted” by the goatherd who owned the land, but he was only interested in chatting in German (his much better than mine) and admiring my tent, which he declared was as suitable for sleeping in as the stone shed in the next field that he uses during the winter when getting home through the snow is difficult.

Oak Tree Camp was a lucky break. Not wanting to outstay my welcome, I was hoping to move on a little way and locate a day camp at which to rest and do some washing, but finding a suitable site proved impossible, despite much sweaty climbing and bike pushing on hill tracks. Lake Plastira itself proved more amenable, although sleep was interrupted by a deafening frog chorus.

In order to stay in the hills and continue south, I needed to cross another mountain range. The large-scale roadmap suggested that this was possible using tracks. These paths did not exist on Google Maps or the Garmin’s Open Fietsmap, and the reality on the ground looked very different to that on the roadmap. Using the GPS as a compass and to give “as the crow flies” indications of the locations of nearby villages, I dragged the bike across stony river channels and pushed it very slowly over steep tracks. The road in the image above, also not on any map as far as I could tell, led to a small village (more a collection of houses) with water from a hosepipe to replace what seemed like litres of sweat.

The road ultimately led to this gravel track and a tarmac road to one of the many Greek villages called Neraida, which was clearly marked on the GPS, and I was back in business.

Just after I left Neraida, thunder crashed around the valley and the sky darkened. Exhausted and dehydrated after an intense day, I pitched the tent on a ridge between the loops of a switchback road in view of several goatherds going about their evening rituals. If they noticed me they didn’t care and, after a brief rain shower, the sky cleared again and I made my dinner of pasta, vegetable stock and some of the walnuts and almonds I’d picked up in Metsovo.

By now I really was in the mood for a more restful day. After leaving the Neraida camp I followed a forest gravel track into another beautiful valley dotted with tiny villages. Leaving the “main” road and following another track, I found this old bridge and “River Camp” was born. I was delighted for a full bath, despite the freezing snow-melt water, and the opportunity to wash clothes and chill out for the afternoon. The odd flypast by a local honey buzzard was a pleasant bonus.

After a long climb from the valley bottom through the village of Fourna (with the first juice and chocolate resupply for many miles) and over a summit in the Vouzia-Kapnorachi park, the descent to the road for Lamia was to be the last major downhill before the plains — I was running out of mountains, for now.

Dense farmland populated by angry packs of dogs made the search for a campsite interesting but I finally dove off the the highway around 15 miles outside Lamia and disappeared into an olive grove, stopping when I was well hidden. I got back on the road early the following morning to beat the traffic and wheeled into Lamia, surprised to see a train service. This is an undistinguished provincial town, with an elevated castle that is largely ignored, but around the main square is a selection of bakeries and coffee outlets. As usual, the bakery owner imagined she had misheard me when I ordered both a cinnamon cream pie and a filo, feta and spinach slice.

Along the long, straight road south from Lamia, at the foot of a high ridge, which was the only remaining obstacle before joining the old (bikeable) road to Athens, was this tiny church. And Greek churches always mean water. This was the spot to spend the night. A local goatherd was filling his flask from the tap. We discussed the route to Athens in sign language and, with the help of the odd semi-English word, he insisted that I put the bike inside the church for safety overnight. He even returned just before dusk with a handful of eggs for my breakfast.

The view back to Lamia from the top of the ridge above the church, which can just be seen as a tiny orange and white speck above the trees in the right-hand image.

The first glimpse of a coastline since leaving Igoumenitsa port.

The old road to Athens is long, dull and pretty flat. It was made more engaging by incredible hot winds that gained strength as the days went on and, by late afternoon, made cycling impossible. Sidewinds combined with articulated lorries made progress edgy at times. Two more regional towns — Livadia and Thiva (Thebes) — came and went and, once again, were notable only for cream pie and coffee “resupply”.

However, a delightful surprise was that by leaving the main route, which was by now very busy with huge trucks, at Erythres and heading toward Athens via Dafni and (another) Pyli, one can reach the suburbs of Athens on near-empty hill roads.

Around 18 miles from the outskirts of Athens…perfect cycling

Sunrise at the final camp of the tour, just before descending through dramatic gorges to reach the Athenian suburb of Ano Liosia. This came as somewhat of a relief after a restless night caused by a succession of gunshots around the time I was drifting off to sleep. Local poachers perhaps. I usually go to great lengths not to be discovered at camp but my imagination created all kinds of terrifying scenarios. Next stop Athens at morning rush hour.

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