Wednesday, 29 August 2012

İstanbul and leaving

İstanbul is a romance of waters: the blackish, dolphinned Marmara, the Golden Horn's natural harbour and the Bosphorus of East meets West cliche. Everywhere are ferry boats, bridges and fish sandwiches. Expressions like I'll meet you for lunch in Asia are de rigueur amongst tourists. I don't want to make too much of the collision of worlds thing but it is intoxicating - think Chanel-drenched burqas, cold beer with mussels full of spiced rice. Shopping malls pausing crap pop for the muzzein. Lemon cologne hand wash and evening picnics on Çamlica gave me pangs of sentimentality for my almost forgotten Üsküdar childhood. Sometimes it is enough to know you've done something before, however long ago. It was a joy to be back and a sadness to leave again. But perhaps I have had rather too many city weeks. I've been off the bike as much as on it. Not that it matters, but I blame the hospitality.

After three quietly reflective days with Margaret talking about grace and migratory birds I swapped continents to stay with Kerem who has turned his flat into a free hotel for cyclists. We were six guests, from France, Germany, America and England. Days were bike talk, ferries and errands of a last-major-city-for-indefinitely kind (new pliers; sagas of spare spokes and replacement keys). Nights were gin and minarets, cobblestone seaties and fish restaurants. I have picked up a riding companion through a mutual friend. Laura from Germany, or Austria I'm still not sure. It is day two, so far so good. There is economy in sharing and last night was my best camp meal since the Belgians' impossible Carbonara. I have resolved to eat better and bought a small bottle of olive oil which already seems indespensible. But it's not only culinary. It's nice to laugh not only to myself, to have an excuse to wait on hills and somebody to watch the bikes while I take too long writing in the internet cafe. And two tents feel a little less vulnerable than one, like I'm one of a party now.

We took a boat from İstanbul to Yalova for a day's training loop around the stout and scenic headland at Armutlu. Enjoying a last bit of sea before heading inland to Bursa and Turkey's central plateau.

should you need it

storks on a thermal

Monday, 20 August 2012


Before the crescent flags and guns of the Turkish border - the welcome smiles and sweets of its officers - I'd more or less managed to follow the original Via Egnatia, tumbling as it does through crumpled patchworks of trim hay and ripe figs; battalions of sunflowers bowed and browning. But the narrow of Eastern Thrace pinches the flow of traffic to and from İstanbul - scenic routes are killed off. On entering Turkey I was pressed into a six-lane hell of speeding cars and the rank radiant heat sickening off too-close lorry engines. The cycled approach to Istanbul is notorious. I tried, failed, to avoid it by sea (should've gone to Gallipoli - my hoped Sarkoy ferry didn't exist) and detoured exhaustingly up steeps and slopes beneath the scarps of Tekir Dag only to wind up committed back to that inevitable, ugly highway.  Ultimately I conceded, happily, to bus the final hundred kilometres.

A novel good of the narrowed traffic is the steady stream of cyclists one meets touring the other way. There is an excitement in spying loaded bicycles approaching, straining eyes to distinguish touring paraphernalia from the more usual shopping bags and child seats.  The ubiquitous stuff sack precarious across panniers; closer the leather tan and scrappy clothes. Notably there was Noel who'd ridden France to Georgia and half way back without spending any money, and Adrien, on his way home to Switzerland having reached Beijing. Awkward verge huddles gleaning and sharing, where have you been and how? Nobody too comfortable, nor wanting to part - encouragement and reassurance in talking roads ahead, affirmation, advice and only the faintest sully of resentment at having to drop pretensions of an especially rare endeavour.

Late in Tekirdag I bought kofte and bread, a bottle of ayran and found a place to sleep beneath a boat standing out round back of the marina. Matey said it was fine; calmed his dogs, made me tea and an hour later chuckling delivered yet another bedraggled cyclist who'd had the same idea. In the morning we caught the bus together. Anthony's bike was pretty shit (as were my pliers which broke on it) - rear rack and spokes collapsing all over the place - but we shared his load and limped into Sultanahmet, all long distance bravado before the tourist hoards who hadn't seen us get off the bus. It wasn't just my pride glad the bus had stopped a few miles outskirt - I had a huge thrill riding into town. Four months and four thousand miles from leaving home: taxis and marigolds, fishmarkets and the call to prayer rising to a crescendo of familiar childhood sensations as we approached the Bosphorus . We ate balik ekmek by the Galata bridge, exchanged congratulations and farewells, obligatory emails and I rode off to stay with Margaret in a flat I last visited twenty-five years ago.

first mention of Istanbul on signage


near Sarkoy

dawn situation at Tekirdag marina

extra baggage at Sultanahmet
view from Camlica

view from Camlica

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

not for the swift

South East of Thessaloniki the Halkidiki landmass spits three dramatic peninsuale into the Aegean. The Easternmost, carved sharply around Mount Athos' 2033m summit, hosts twenty orthodox monasteries and is an independent territory accesible only by male permit-holders. A four day permit costs around 30 Euros (although fees vary according to nationality and stated religious denomination) and takes a month to process through an office of the Executive of the Holy Community of Mount Athos. I've been so blessed on this trip that I've almost exhausted my capacity for surprise at the abundant fortune yielded by simply commiting to hazard; trusting chance, grace, and the goodwill of strangers (or the distantly connected). So it was no great astonishment that a chance dogwalking encounter in Athens led to my permit and monastery invitation being granted (via emails to and from Cairo of all places) in less than 24 hours of my mentioning vague monastic visiting intent to said dog-owner on Gmail chat from Thessaloniki. I arrived in Ouranopolis, a souvenir town at the root of the sacred peninsula, on Friday afternoon still not knowing if the Cairo connection had borne permit fruit, but my inbox said it had and so I happily slept on the beach beneath the acrid sky. It has been Greece's hottest summer for many decades and I've seen lots of wildfires now. This particular spate raged for several days around Mount Athos giving the peninsula's enforced seperateness an extra, epic quality. 

There followed all sorts of little tests and rewards. In the morning I realised I had exactly enough cash for my permit and a one way ferry ticket. Ouranopolis' cash machine was on strike. I had cream crackers, four eggs and of course coffee in my food pannier. Boiling the eggs in front of the dock a monk ambled over with a restaurant plate of Greek salad and bread, grill octopus and fresh mussells. He gave the plate and spoke no English. An accordian picked up nearby, my eggs boiled over and we had a moment; the monk, the morning and I. Minutes before my ferry was to depart (the only road closed by fire) I learnt that in the garden of the Mother of God bicycles were verboten. Panic and stress, futile argument (there were cars loading; it made no sense), no help from the Holy Executive Office... I left it in the car park, grabbed a random pannier and caught the boat by seconds. From the landing dock I had to get to Vato Pedi, the largest monastery on the Holy Mountain, first built seventeen hundred odd years ago (sacked by pirates and rebuilt by monks repeatedly since), which had somehow invited me to stay. Happy pilgrims paid my two bus tickets and so I arrived, expected, already endebted, and already anxious about my worldy treasure - locked as it was in an Ouranopolis carpark with baggage in the attendant's kiosk.

It is difficult to know how to write the monastery and its monks. I struggled with the long services, endless liturgies and vespers; attended only a couple, entered late to sit at the back and leave early. I found myself instinctively sceptical about what I saw as a fine line between veneration and worship of the many icons and ancient relics (including the Virgin Mary's camel-hair girdle and several saintly skulls, one with an ear miraculously preserved). I didn't kiss or prostrate before anything. The frankinsence and chanting made me feel dizzy and I invariably sat when everybody else stood. The meals were wonderful. A huge frescoed refectory, 28 marble slab tables aged a thousand years, great piles of pepper and cucumbers, olive oily vegetable dishes, fresh bread and melon, wine on the marble, honey at breakfast, 200 people eating with chanting throughout. In the monks there was the beautiful realisation of grace as a lived potential. I constantly gaffed calling them brother instead of father. I would have liked to stay longer but found myself not quite consistently but significantly agitated at the thought of my bicycle being stolen (only the cable lock had fitted around it's olive tree post). My devout Romanian cellmate denounced my concerns as the voice of Satan who obviously wanted me to leave. The monks were gentler but nonetheless seemed to frame their reassurances almost in the terms of a test of faith: should I leave early to retrieve the bicycle I'd be demonstrating precisely the absence of faith likely to cause it stolen. Nobody actually said that, but still such a sense prevailed (and actually began to feel feasible). Another layer to the tangle, of course I still had no cash for the 15 Euro combined bus and ferry tickets to escape. I compromised and waited until I felt more or less at peace that my bike would be fine, and then left immediately; begging money from another happy pilgrim in the bus queue.

Of course my bicycle was just where I'd left it. Last night I camped on a beach in company of many Greeks who also like to camp on their beaches and this morning was back to crackers and eggs. Today has been pleasantly sociable at intervals, with all kinds of brief road encounters. First by happy coincidence a car load of monks from Vato Pedi drew up along side honking, Father Gregory at the window: God with you! What chance the one monk I especially took to would be driving past me first thing in the morning? Clad only in cycling shorts my attire was opposite the requisite long sleeves and legs on Mount Athos. Momentarily I was embarrased, then realised that they must have taken the expensive speed boat option to be off the peninsula so early, and the car looked brand new and costly; if they'd caught me unchaste then I'd likewise busted their transport extravagance. Then I met three Polish cyclists but was in too good a riding mood to really stop and talk with them, a load of soldiers flicked me Vs (the good kind) as I rode past their barracks and a Greek-Englishman gave me yet more peaches and backslapping cor-blimey exclamations when I showed him my tatty little progress map.

I'm finally headed directly East now, into Thrace where Greece meets Turkey and Christianity overlaps Islam. Europe segues into Asia. I'm excited for İstanbul.

bicycle graffiti in Larissa


with Theo after he took me diving

acrid skies in Ouranopolis

Holy Mountain in Brown

tatty little progress map, dead handy.

Monday, 6 August 2012

from Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki. I was collected in the centre. A hand on my shoulder, hello Kaleb, another young man on a bicycle, my description by text - yellow bike and yellow hair - completely redundant; I am obvious amongst Greeks. He was the nephew of a friend of some friends of some friends of my sister. We're all friends now as I pursue one strand of hospitality to the next, digging deep and tenuous. I guess I have been obvious since leaving Austria and with the Asian threshold about a week distant it may be a long time before I don't stand out.

I haven't seen much of Thessaloniki yet, a glimpse of some parks and ruined aquaducting, a flash of suburb as I struggled to keep up with Konstantinos uphill to the flat. The fridge door chucks out ice and there is wifi and every other modern utility. Yet tradition prevails; a lift connects my host's living room to that of his parents above. The nephew, also under his parents, is next door; further family next to them.  I gather this is typical. My old twice-annual visits to mum and dad in Norwich, the almost-never ones to extended family, look paltry and self-absorbed in Hellenic light. Perhaps we'll come to a more Mediterranean arrangement when I crawl back broke and unemployed, former independence traded for a scrawl in the atlas and an unkempt beard. I've been feeling melodramatic all week, the heat or something.

So what stories of the road from Athens? I said about not sleeping and then finally sleeping and all the emotional drama that that lends, already, several times, but there was lots more of that. Melancholy. Euphoria. Melancholy. Euphoria. Melancholy... There was an escort from friendly highways officers with young peaches and fresh almonds, a radio ahead to their colleagues to look out for me. There was me in my pants at 3am chasing a pack of dogs away from my tent with shouts and stones, tripping a little to take a harmless, ridiculous tumble. There were three effective Belgians cycling the other way who amazed me with fresh camp carbonara. There was a dearth of roads above the Volos peninsula with every way becoming either forbidden motorway or whimsical dirt track into swamp and my taking the worst of both until the police put me on a train for twenty miles in absence of any legal route for cyclists. Mostly there was the cruel and charmed Greek landscape; either mountains or sea and story enough in itself were there but words. Terrible litterbugs though, the Greeks, pity.

Not so far to Istanbul now.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

rest and glue

Yesterday morning in motley company of limping strays and sleeping hawkers I watched dawn break over the small port of Rafina. It was tiring through the gummy-eyed, haggard clarity of insomnia to watch the docks come to life with the sun; policemen whistling at squabbling cars and ferries blasting as though I'd been mistaken to find it peaceful when I first took my bench. High night-winds, young lovers, rocks, thorns and finally the inevitable punctured Thermarest had conspired against my sleep since two days back on the road, after a long and lazy ten off it. Both mornings I gave up around four, embracing inexorable wakefulness to fire up coffee, sea-boiled eggs and take twenty or forty miles advantage of the fleeting day-break cool. Beautiful, to ride into dawn. It takes a couple of days; superglue in a leaky mattress; a long, earplugged and blindfold beach sleep, to shake the flickering doubts seeded by such a long break. Today, in blessed rest, healthy breakfast milage and a merciful mercury drop (below body temperature at last!), they're well shaken, fading. But what of the ten days?

The Athenian summer heat baked me to such an imbecilic torpor that I more or less surrendered the first six to guilty snoozing (sweaty, dribbly), e-books and of course Maria's fantastic feeding. Early evenings I roused and rode buses or wandered around Monastiraki and Syntagma beneath a twilit Acropolis, spying graffitied relics. In Athens the graffiti is prolific and indiscriminate, many ancient buildings sport a slogan or few. I suppose it is mostly political: 'screaming now over the ancience' to paraphrase an Englishman I met, or 'mindless desecration' a Greek. Either way the juxtapose is intriguing - if a little shocking, such young paint across such old marble. I had lots of interesting, talkative encounters those evenings with tourists and Greeks, several of which kept me late chasing the city through the night in cars and bars with streetfood, dogs and buskers.

Five hours and a million miles away on Paros I crashed the McWilliams' family holiday. It was an indulgent and perfectly set island escape all painted sunshine white and blues; blessed with good friends and cool breeze. Between balcony bouts of gin and rum and Gin Rummy we made time for beaches, sea-lapped restaurants and nightclubs and really the whole time felt like a holiday bonus-level. Needless to say the long break coupled with the standard institution of English holiday alcoholism has left me both perfectly unfit for, and perfectly deserving of the hot and hilly stage ahead. But in fact, with the pendulum back at abstinence and a few days behind me, I feel fine; increasingly strong again and making good progress up the long scrawl of island that tracks the Eastern coast of Northern Greece up towards Thessaloniki. I think it is called Evia.




Greek 'Crisis'

daybreak situation at Rafina

welcome clouds on Evia