Greek Lands

Winter came. The clouds sank. A blanket of white, damp fog thrown across the world. This was the moment Autumn ended. I was with Tasos and Di in their home beyond Kozani for two days. In this time, the sun misted over, became a pulsing haze beyond the hills and the cold rains came. There were mountainsides. There were fields. But not as you’d imagine them back home. The colours were unusual, browns and yellows and greys. The fields were just shrublands, rocky like the mountains that grew out of them. The climbs felt more redundant, unhiked, just vast, brown folds. It rained for the rest of the day and I was grateful to have been dry and warm inside Tasos’ house. My memories of that place are of roaring fires, chestnuts, good food, families, hot tea, and the Honey Tahini I was given by Tasos’ mum – a giant pot of sesame seed paste, a little like peanut butter. I took this, along with my cleaned clothes, a day later, cycling away from Kozani, into the lessening rain. I would miss them all. Day-77-Tasos-Kitchen1 Day-77-Di-Lounge1 It had been a reminder of all things homely. Di would take turns working the family fashion shop in Kozani centre, whilst Tasos helped run his Dad’s fur factory business. They all lived together and I thought of the ten years I had been away from parents. Though Di had plans to study abroad and Tasos had his own bar in the summer, it was almost like they had had no choice right now but to take over these family businesses and it was more apparent, from where I stood, free and cycling away from my own home, that they were restricted. Day-79-Farm1 Day-78-Mist-Shrine-011-1 Day-78-Mist-Shrine-021 Mountains appeared from within the fog and I began riding up a never-ending series of hairpins, further and further into cloud, ascending into a damp, white world. Orthodox shrines could be seen along the roadside. Candles flcikering. Dogs called out through the valleys. I reached an empty street, lined with closed up restaurants. Like some kind of twisted western film. My bike creaking through it, uphill. From the road side, up ahead, the shapes of dog’s rose up and began to move into the center of the street. I got off the bike. One of the dog’s began to bark wildly. The other’s became restless too, until one of them charged me. I turned, jumped on my bike and rolled away for twenty metres. The dog halted and returned to the pack. Again I tried to move up the street, pushing my bike this time. More dogs appeared from the roadsides. For five minutes I stood there, wondering what to do, in a stand off, before a small, old lady swung open a door of one of the houses and screamed at the dogs. She tutted at them as they ran away and then waved me forward No problem. No problem. I needed to get some balls… and a rabies jab. I ended the night beyond a city, away from the highway in a muddy Olive field. Dawn. Outside the tent, beyond the olive rows, the sun was rising. I was making a habit of finding these orchard fields. Secluded and sheltered. I’d crossed the hills out of the city of Thessaloniki but was way beyond reaching a couch surf I’d organised 180kms away. This would be a long day but when the sun broke in the late morning, it was deep and orange and bright and the world was filled with colour. Yellow hills, with green shrubland. Olive fields deep and dark and fruitful. Rocky roadways and dusty tracks leading off from the highway and into the mountainsides. The air cleared and, though cold, was bright and hazy. It was as if I was just a step away from Winter. It had come but, like trying to outrun a raincloud, if I just kept moving east it couldn’t quite grab me. Day-79-Greek-Fields-011 Day-79-Self1 Day-79-Greek-Mountains1 The day had it’s problems. The stupid bolt, basically destroyed by the Albanian, was rattling about all over the place again and the rack was wobbling and sliding from side to side. Eventually I did find a shop, but had to get my hands dirty trying out a few different pieces. As soon as I get to Istanbul, I thought, I’m checking into a proper bike shop! But these things made the day interesting, a near-perfect day full of lots of mini-memories; the fire I managed to light out of some wood scraps with a match, to warm up some tuna, beneath the statue of greek god or the empty beach I found full of strange trees and a chance to wade into the ice cold  sea, amongst other things. Day-79-Shop1 Day-79-Hands1 In one day I passed through lakelands, olive plains, ancient mediterranean harbour towns and long, abandoned cliff-born highways. Fields, seas and mountains. It was beautiful and the day, with all its sun and winter warmth and colour ended in Kavala. My day didn’t end here, but the sun set beyond the sea as I cycled into coastal cliffs. The view from the ascent was breathtaking and I’d wished I’d been able to spend more time in that town. Day-79-Kavala-011 Day-79-Kavala-Self-021 Day-79-Kavala-031 It was seven in the evening. I had cycled beyond a hundred and twenty kilometers already. I was tired and hungry and the night was growing cold. I made a call to Evi in Xanthi and explained the situation, that I’d try for her place. She asked how far away I was. I said I wasn’t sure, knowing full well that it was sixty kilometres! I put the phone of the petrol station office down, looked at the time and the map. Why did this always seem to happen to me? For any other cyclists, this would be a moment where they might say I’m done, I’m camping. It’s impossible. For me, these were, and still are, the moments where I am able to remind myself what I am capable of. Why I had wanted to do the whole world and not part of it. Why I had been able to begin in the first place. I wanted to be in Xanthi. I wanted to be sixty kilometers from here and I wanted to be there within the next hour or two! The old highway was my route. Barely lit. Isolated, now used as a backroad. It was time to see what I really could do. I had no lights. They had died. I had no energy after climbing a few minor mountains to reach Kavala. My hosts were out there, waiting. Somehow forty kilometres disappeared within an hour and then I hit the wall. One minute I’d been riding strong, my legs pumping like pistons, unnaturally, illogically strong. The next I hung drooped over the saddle, eyes rolling, swaying across the road, slower than I could have walked. At a petrol station I bought all the chocolate I could and stuffed it into my mouth in one go, washing it down with bottles of sugary sodas. I sat down and waited until the first twangs of sugar twitched in the muscles of my arms and legs and then got on the bike. I cycled again. Fast. Disturbingly fast. Whether it was phycological or physical, whether it was the idea of energy or the actual sugar within me, I have never cycled like it in my life before. I was riding at such an unnatural rate. My legs, now, had become like lead, my chest was heaving, yet the bike felt weightless. It was money well spent and never have I cared so little about diabetes or tooth decay. I was flying down the old highway and then, out of nowhere, dogs! A group of them, shifting through bins by the roadside, turned their heads, squinted their eyes and leapt into a sprint behind me. I can outrun these I thought, there were only four or five of them. But more came, bigger and faster and hound-like. From the bushes, from the alleyways. Where were they all coming from? Barking erupted through out the highway townships. There must have been two dozen of them. Most dropped away but, as I looked to my right, I saw one, thin and lean and muscular, moving powerfully alongside the bike. It jaw tight, its teeth chopping back and forth. I knew this type. It was crazed. Rabid. My pedometer was clocking forty kilometres an hour and still the thing was catching up with the back wheel. Oh god, I thought for the first time, I’m not going to outrun this! With that realization came thoughts of being bitten. The weight returned to the bike, my legs suddenly felt sluggish again and, genuinely, I was riding out of fear. The road dipped and descended a little and I was able to ride free of the beast and catch my breath. I’d been a screaming madman, cycling down the highway for two minutes, churning out expletives as I’d gone. It was like no one lived in Greece once the sun set, the land taken over by wild dogs. By the time I made it Xanthi, through the town and out to the student dorms in the eastern suburbs, I was a wreck. Come in, sit down, have a drink, the lovely Evi had said. She was beautiful, I’d thought. Her boyfriend waved at me from the corner of the room! I’m sorry I’m late. – No it’s alright, we’re going out, but not until at least midnight! I laughed. It had been a new record, the longest ride yet. 185km, over mountains, round coastal cliffs, chased through the freezing night by a pack of wild dogs and now followed by drinks till three in the morning!

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