Over the Mountains to Athens – a Cycle Tour 4 The Cradle of Civilisation

In Cycling, Greece, Travel
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A dash into central Athens at rush hour ended the main tour. Three days of rest was followed by transfer to Patras, via a train and 70-mile coastal ride, for the long ferry trip back to Ancona.


After the virtually sleepless night, which included watching my partner’s plane landing at 2a.m., the chill in the air during the descent to the edge of the 3,400-year-old metropolis freshened me up. The white sprawl of the modern settlement could be glimpsed periodically as the road snaked around beautiful gorges. I was still largely alone despite the ever-growing proximity of nearly half the country’s population.

As Alice and I trundled into the suburb of Ano Liosia, café owners were sweeping pavements and rearranging chairs. Commuters were already waiting at bus stops. The first traffic lights since Thiva, around 50 miles behind, beckoned me on downhill and the ex-mountain road was suddenly replaced by full-on conurbation, with roundabouts, multiple lanes, tunnels and queuing traffic. I wheeled the bike through the most terrifying intersections and along a dual carriageway underpass that seemed to invite suicide on a fully-laden, slow moving cycle. However, with her mountain-thrashing low gearing yielding decent acceleration and her stable handling inspiring low-speed manoeuvres, Alice was nailing commuting surprisingly well. I decided a faux-confident approach was best, holding the line of the motorcycles and keeping up with the traffic speed as aggressively as possible, using her off-road capabilities to weave around drain covers and pedestrians.

The arrival — at around 10.00a.m. we rolled to a halt within view of the Acropolis and chose one of the many eateries lining the pedestrianised Apostolou Pavlou for celebratory breakfasting (on a well-known ice cream brand’s triple chocolate variety with chocolate sauce and chocolate sprinkles atop waffles, and a chocolate milkshake with more sprinkles of predictable identity). Since the apartment wasn’t available until 11.00, I was a little self conscious of my feral appearance and made quick checks of my face using my phone as a mirror, hiding my fingernails from the waiter.

View from the city’s highest point, Mount Lycabettus.

Monastiraki flea market

Exoneon Street, central Athens

Athens Central Market

The amazing Acropolis Museum

Busker on Dionysiou Areopagitou Street

Lower Patras and the Gulf — mountains are never far away in Greece

The rail service from Patras to Athens currently terminates at Kiato. The original line is blocked by landslides in several places and is being comprehensively refashioned. This meant that the final coastal stretch to Patras had to be ridden. It’s a fairly uninspiring route, lined along most of its length by tired-looking resort villages, bisected by rail and motorway building works and populated by the badly and impatiently driven aggregate lorries that supply the construction. After a few hours of good, flat progress, an onshore headwind grew and, by the time I reached the outskirts of Patras, had developed into a howling dust storm with a brown-grey sky that reminded me of the sand-laden harmattan in northern Ghana. Still, after an extended rest and chocolate binge in Athens and with hundreds of high altitude mountain miles in my legs, I gritted my teeth and pressed on, arriving in the mid-afternoon ready to replenish my fat and sugar streams.

Like most sizeable towns in Greece, Patras, the country’s third largest, was sited in one of the small mountain-free gaps. In this case, the town nestles between Mount Panachaikon and the Gulf of Patras and, like Italian towns, it is divided into older upper and newer lower sections. The former is dominated by the impressive fortress, which is the summer playground for hundreds of common swifts. The birds streak around the ruins (one “race” was five circuits long) inches above visitors’ heads and even nearer to the ancient walls, seemingly daring one another into ever faster and closer passes — one of the finest demonstrations of their aerial prowess I’ve ever witnessed. Scientists still struggle to offer a convincing explanation for their “screaming parties”, but my view is that they’re trying too hard — if I could achieve 50mph+ in level flight and had their skill, I’d be joining the fun.

The lower town comprises the old port (more of a yacht marina) and new (ferry) port, reached by walking past the lighthouse through a fairly pleasant waterside park. It is also home to an unfeasible density of coffee shops of every imaginable guise, all packed and bustling. It’s a student city and venue of one of Europe’s largest annual carnivals.

Alice spent the return voyage secured in what I regarded to be her rightful place, behind the stores on the main car deck and behaving like a bicycle, rather than a powered vehicle as on the outward leg. A little later than scheduled, the ropes slackened and the MV Olympic Champion began a lost-count-of-how-many-points-turn to steam beyond the harbour walls and into the Ionian Sea to begin the 24-hour cruise to Ancona.

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