Saturday, 21 July 2012

briefly from Athens

I left Patra beneath an afternoon drama of rotors and sun-choking smoke, wildfires tearing across its mountain backdrop. Twenty miles East in Agio I stopped at a fire station  and joined the shift for five o'clock jobs frappucinos outside the engine house. They were scheduled for midnight reliefs at the Patra job (45 pumps, 7 helicopters) and were stood down, relaxing until then. It was pleasant whiling some time with them, noting all the samenesses, the occasional difference. Somebody recommended me a beach to sleep on, another produced a packet of apricots, my bicycle was inspected, approved, and I left happy and a little sad. There were two days of easy, sea-level road with headwinds cooling if not quite slowing, before I hit Athens' wall of concrete heat.

It feels like a hot, tatty London with here and there something very ancient. I hiked up a small mountain to St Elias' chapel together with an Indian and his Greek in-laws, enjoyed the sunset city panorama (Athens is huge) and later the dinner invitation. My hosts here, Maria and Polis, run the city's fledgling Salvation Army corps. I had hoped to now regale with heroic vignettes from my charitable efforts at the frontline of Greece's crisis. Alas the Army is still at a reconnaissance stage; targets and resources still being identified, premises not yet comandeered. After three months riding my bike around and meeting people, feeding on their goodwill, I'm feeling a bit spare and unsure of my function. It would be good, if only for me, to find the occasional voluntary situation to ease my balance of give and take. For all their regrettable qualities tourists are at least supposed to contribute to the economy, so it's funny how in certain circles (backpackers, myself) there is a parasitic tendency to equate travelling virtue with spending as little as possible. In Greece I've been trying to counter this, chiefly in restaurants. A peculiar trick to moralise my greed! But we enjoy it, the restauranteurs and I; the food is wonderful and I leave feeling somehow a little more justified after the daily offering, the daily gorging. I hear of a monastery on a peninsula somewhere around Thessaloniki where with the right permit (God is a stickler!) one can do penance in the vegetable gardens. That might be just the ticket after the few days I plan to spend in holiday gin on Paros next week.

But for now I creep around Athens in the shadows, a conspicuous voyeur with my yellow hair and bicycle, looking for signs of crisis like Balkan bulletholes. Actually it looks like many other big cities to me - the familiar contrast between the recklessly rich and wretchedly poor just a little starker than usual; the city ghettos perhaps a little more visible. But compared to where? I didn't see Athens two years ago. Outside St Elias I had a conversation with an urban magazine photographer about the nature of crisis and, if optimism is too strong a word, the inevitability at least of hope. Maria and Polis talk about up to two million foreign illegals clinging desperately on amidst rising xenophobia from the city's six million Greeks many desperate themselves and, interested as I am, the conversation quickly wanes when there is nothing I can say.

more or less defunct  'shipping' channel at Korinth

St Elias over Athens

Monday, 16 July 2012

the scenic route

I am in Greece, near Patra en route Athens. The monotonous heat persists. Grows. To leave Albania I crossed the Llogoria mountain range, breathtaking in both senses. I camped cramped at a panorama just beneath the pass, saving descent for morning glory. And so it was with much steeper down than up, hitting 44mph a thousand metres sheer above the Mediterranean; Corfu a dawn mist mirage. It was a good start to the day, soon perfected with sausage, eggs and flatbreads in Vuno. Three days later in Greece I met Michael from Frankfurt pedalling the other way and whilst I envied him Albania I really didn't those Llogorian switchbacks; my rollercoaster his hot slog.

Michael produced lunch from his panniers, a convincing Greek salad dressed in a large stainless bowl with marmalade and cheese sandwiches to side. As he apologised his tupperware margarine, not butter, and lamented lacking mayonaise I thought of my solitary sardine tin - my emergency supernoodles - and was again reminded of the different approaches available. After so many months of (enjoyable) kit-list fretting before I left it is good now, with almost 50 cycling days behind me, to find peace with my own routines; my own approach. But I enjoyed Michael's and the generous lunch. Imagine carrying salad... balsamic vinegar!

I am not averse to 'unnecessary' mileage (the very idea question-begs my whole trip sans-destination) and in Greece this is evidently a blessing. The cursive contours and macerated, leaky coastline give a daily lesson in the virtue-in-trials of the inexpedient route. The country is so cluttered with mountains, peninsulae, channels, sea-lakes and sounds that the scenic route is the only option. Not yet very Zen I sweat and curse the ups and backtracks, sing the downhills and constantly feel victim to some running joke between conspirational or plain clumsy cartographers and their inexact signwriting colleagues. I'm oft lost. Nevermind that most of the signs are Greek to me, they've all been graffitied to illegibility anyway. The bitter work of idle hands was my first thought.

But actually the Greeks look perfectly busy to me, industrious and enterprising in their crisis. Passing appearances of course but the only idlers I see thus far are the elderly gents installed in cafes all afternoon. Happily chattering Greek at me they're all interested in where I'm from (for once not only for football's sake), where I'm going and what do I think about Byron? And Merkel? (Greece's brother and Hitler's sister respectively).  I expect Athens will be more telling and I look forward to a younger perspective; fingers crossed for Couchsurfing.



bridge to Patra

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

country of miracles

That's what the bus conductor in Tirana called it. A tangible goodwill is great understatement; the Albanian people are the most friendly and forthcoming I've yet encountered. I emailed dad that I expect something to be different in Greece, that the Balkan friendliness gradient would somehow level off. I'm not sure where that hunch comes from so it'll be interesting to see what's different, if anything. But the Albanians! Funny that in almost every country I've passed since Austria I've been warned about the place - wild West: they'll rob you - with GUNS etc etc. But of course I find them scrupulously honest - smilingly returning my ignorant over-payments - and I've never felt more comfortable leaving my bike outside shops. If I'd accepted half the proffered cigarettes I'd be a twenty-a-day man, but I take the cold drinks. I only have to ask if I might camp in somebody's garden and I'm guest of honour at a dinner party; spare room and new clothes thrown in. There is something a bit 'state of nature' about the place, too, which I like. Apparently wild camping (sorry to always come back to this) is quite legal here. I'm not sure what's illegal, infact. For instance I've spent three days cycling intermittently on the motorway. When I asked a police officer standing below the restrictions sign just North of the capital if it was OK for me to be cycling there he laughed incredulously, gestured flatulence at the sign and waved me on, saluting. This morning I did 30 miles along virgin highway, still closed to traffic - two smiling workmen helped me lift my bike over the impassable three-lane steamroller. The busier highways have a regulation and aesthetic quite their own: families perched on haystack wagons, high-fiving roadside rabbit-sellers, teenagers gangster-leaning tractors, helmetless superbikers on mobile phones, ever larger mammals somehow melted sadly Daliesque and two dimensional in the asphalt before endless smallholdings cropping corn, watermelons and sunflowers; sharp mountains, salt plains and sea. Of course my digital compact fails to capture, but I've been enjoying it. 

Yesterday I was driven off the road by a too-close artic and from nowhere a police car blue-lighted ahead to tick him off. Passing what looked just a friendly remonstration, sheepish, my main concern was the truck now needing to overtake again..: but when I, savvy, scrambled onto the verge the driver was all wide-berth, smiles and waved apology. Incidentally I've seen police cars with supermarket adverts on them, which rather reminded me of the Tesco Police at home. But it didn't upset me like that, or like the huge banking billboard on a Viennese cathedral front. Why not? - that level of corporate muck should surely be verboten in super-regulated Austria, and same rules at home. But whilst my tourist sympathies are suspect one feels, as ever in poorer countries, that a kind of aspirational innocence vindicates the market here, just a little. So easy to patronise when you're just passing through! Still, the Albanian police are so un-fearsome you don't worry so much about who's paying them. And it is aspirational, in a lazy kind of way. Tirana is famous for its all night cafe-culture (reads the official tourist brochure  evidently lifted straight from wiki-travel) and walking around I've never seen evening streets so busy with all-aged walkers, loungers, cafe bar idlers; it felt strangely more 'continental' than anywhere I've been in France or Spain, Italy... An unfettered optimism; 47 years of communism not so long ago and now the future is al fresco.

chips with Grzegorz

small contingent of the Very-Welcome Committee, Albania (in my gifted shirt)


the Albanian Riviera...

matey helping me switch a cheap Czech tire for an expensive German one

famous and old Ottoman bridge

dead-smart Albanian hair cut

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Tivat towards Tirana

From Tivat I took the scenic route across mountains skirting the Balkans' largest lake, a vast blueness far below, uncooling. There were many turtles crossing (and, a sad sight, crushed), scant shade to stop and no wells to drink until evening; a constant taste of thirst and the hot stench of fennel. Mainly it was beautiful.  A day's toil. A mere 1500m, squandered the next morning in one spectacular fifteen minute downhill splurge to the flat Ulcinj road. There on Montenegro's Southernmost beach I procrastinated two days with my Polish friend Grzegorz who had also been a guest on Jeffery's boat. We cooked egg and chips on the beach (good), raced stoves to boil dehydrated pasta Napolitana (not so good), built increasingly elaborate driftwood sunshades and played on the paddle boards Greg had for rent.

As I head South into summer, and especially since I got caught out a little above that lake, I've taken to riding later into the day, until the almost dark. It means a cooler effort of enjoyment not endurance, and in that spirit I drink a few beers from the roadside kiosks to go faster. It also means, in nightfall, a greater urgency in camping, more brazen pitches or that I'm forced to beg people their plots, their gardens, their courtyards and kindness. The nightly uncertainty and the occasional necessary sociability does me good. I enjoy trying to ignore the twilight looming where-to-sleep anxiety: another beer, another ten miles, another mp3 selection - there'll be somewhere. And there always is. I've not paid to bed down since the cabin to Denmark. Not from any frugality (much) or, insomniac, the sense of futile expense, but for the value I get from the unpredictability, the nightly problem and its resolution, the always different often special sleeping situations,  the curious children, interfering animals, compromises, risk assessments and it always being ok; always still being tomorrow in the morning. A degree of vulnerability seems so often key to valuable experiences.

And riding before one and after six opens the afternoon right up for all kinds of leisure. Reading writing swimming napping eating drinking even making friends; but mostly eating and reading. My Kindle is crumby and grease flecked. I'm in Albania now. There is a tangible good will: thumbs ups, waves, high fives from the kiddies and today two icecreams gratis in the long afternoon.