Friday, October 08, 2010

Meteora, Greece

My morning tea house.

After my long haul, I only had 40km to get to Meteora in the morning. However, first I needed to warm up. It had been a cold night and I don't think my body had enough food in it to get warm. I stopped in at the only cafe I could find. It seemed like it used to be a house. The kitchen was not any different from a regular one. It was brilliant. Anyway, I don't know what this guy did, but he did it well. His tea was great. Yum, yum. We didn't speak a lick of each other's languages, but that didn't stop him from being helpful and me from being gratious. It set the tone for a great day.

Greek farmland.

The cliffs of Meteora.

Meteora has one of the largest collections of Eastern Orthodox monestaries. Each monestary is built on a sandstone pillar. At one time the monestaries were deliberately difficult to access via long rope ladders and nets. It required a leap of faith to visit the monestary because the ropes were only replaced when they broke. Today, the monestaries are accessed via bridges and steep stair cases cut into the rocks. At one time, there were over 30 monestaries. Now, there are only six, five inhabited by men, one by women.

The old carpenter's workshop in one of the clifftop monestaries.

A monestary.

The ride up the hill to the monestaries was great. My legs were holding up great and the ride was beautiful. It reminded me a little bit of Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs with these crazy rock formations sticking up everywhere, but these were much bigger. As I rode up, I skipped visiting the first two monestaries. I wanted to get my hill riding done for the day and the better ones were supposed to be up top. I locked my bike up and headed into the first monestary. Beautiful. I was more taken with the views than the history, but such is life. At 2 euros it is a steal, whatever you go for. The monestary felt like a maze. I was never quite sure if I knew where I was. We had almost full access to the place because the monestaries have unfortunately become more of a tourist attraction than anything else. A maximum of ten people live in any single monestary.

Varlaam monestary

Roussanou monestary

As I was visiting the first monestary, it got much, much busier. The tour buses had arrived. With the tour buses came a bunch of black SUVs that had ads all over them like Ewan McGregor's SUVs in Long Way Down. The group was driving the old Silk Road. That has to be an incredible journey. The increased population put a damper on my visit to the second monastery. It just wasn't as quiet and I definitely liked having the first monestary to myself and a few other early birds. Oh well. It was still cool, especially since they were replacing the slate roof and throwing the old ones plummeting down the cliff side with a sudden crash when they hit. The one neat thing about this monestary was that they had a net for access.

Agios Nikolaos monestary

Knive scapel cut cliff.

After visiting the second monestary, I biked toward the last two monestaries. On the way, I met a German couple that I chatted with for a while. I was feeling monestaried out, but they suggested I visit the nunnery because it was much different than the rest. This couple travels each year to Greece in their camper van. They were fantastic and nothing I can say about them will do the experience of talking with them justice. They gave me some dried pears from their garden and the old man gave me a push start on my bike when I finally left. I would be lucky to run into them again.

Video panaroma of Meteora, Greece

Farmland on the way to the bus.

Unfortunately, the nunnery was closed for the afternoon meal or praying by the time I arrived. I just had a quick look at the outside of the last two before heading onward to Delfi. I wasn't sure if I would bike it or bus it. I was behind schedule so decided that if I found the bus station, I would take it. As luck would have it, I had to sprint cycle to the station to catch the last bus for the evening. On to central Greece!


Thursday, October 07, 2010

Biking 200km across Northern Greece

Welcome to Greece!

I hate rewriting things. I somehow lost the first two paragraphs of this post. Grr.

Riding through northern Greece is going to stick with me for a long time. Loaded down with all my gear, I rode my first century and then pushed on to complete my first double metric century. That is 200km or 124 miles. The day before I had done 103km/64mi. The two days after I did 85km/53mi and 122km/76mi. While this is an achievement for me, let me put it in perspective. The Ironman triathalon has a 112mi bike ride, but includes a 26.1 mile marathon run and 2.4mi swim ON THE SAME DAY. The Tour de France only averages 115mi a day, but they do it EVERYDAY for 20/22 days. Those guys are machines.

I do believe this woman is carrying a bazooka.

My ride started in Bitola. It was a quiet 20km to the border. At the border, there was a stray dog. I have no idea if a family could not take the dog across or what, but the dog seemed incredibly friendly. I passed it by and went straight to the checkpoint. After the checkpoint, I pulled out my maps to figure out where I was going. When I did that, I also looked a hundred yards back at the dog wondering what its story was. I went back to the map and the next thing I knew, the dog was beside me. It knew I was a sucker. I gave him some bread and a few pets. As I left, it started to follow me. It was so friendly and just looking for a little love. It pulled at all my heart strings to bike away faster so that it would not follow. Ugh.

The precursor to Primantie Brother sandwiches in Pittsburgh?

As I entered Greece, I learned something new that I was not sure if I really wanted to share on here. It is kind of embarassing, but also pretty funny. I hope that sharing adds a little laughter to your day and maybe saves someone else from making the same mistake. Until I visited Greece, I did not know they still used Greek alphabet. I don't think I have ever seen a full word in Greek that wasn't a pronoun or in the context of being ancient. I barely watched the Athens Olympics. I thought the Greek alphabet died out two thousand years ago. I assumed that since the Romans conquered the Greeks and they gave us the Latin-based alphabet, that the Greeks also used it. I lose. It was really weird to see many Greek letters being used that were not in a crazy formula. The great part is that I still remember enough of my Greek alphabet to figure them out on road signs even if they did not have their Latin counterparts.

Look, the greeks use the Greek alphabet. Who would have thought it?

My first stop in Greece was Florina. It was a tiny bit out of the way, but I needed a map. Near the border, signs indicated a certain hotel was also an information center. As I biked up to the hotel, there was a truck with a megaphone driving through the streets selling potatoes. It was kind of obnoxious, but delivery is a modern convenience that we all want, right? Anyway, when I rolled up to the fancy hotel and information office, the woman did not speak any English. This is not a problem. I just needed a map. She offered me a room. I repeated that I wanted to go to Meteora. She wrote down four town names, gave me a map of the local town, and shooed me out the door. The repeated signs on the highway had said information. I had gone out of my way to get there. I wanted more information. I wanted to at least see a map. I was grumpy, but also realized she might not be able help. I went farther into their lobby and found a hotel guide with a map. I showed her a map that would work for me to make it clear what I was looking for. She said they didn't have any and shooed me out again. I opted to go covert. I stole the map out of the hotel guide book.

Poor form? Yeah. I justified it because they had a bunch of copies and I went out of my way because their sign indicated they were also an information center when they really weren't. An old friend once told me that the people that rules and punishments are made for will never follow them. Also, those who follow the rules, don't need the rules anyway. People do what want they, independent of the rules. When I tried to leave Florina, I could not figure out which way the highway was. A wonderful old man and lady set me straight. It was nice to have a positive experience with a stranger to balance out the negative one.

As I got moving, my road dead ended in an autobahn. This one was clearly labeled no tractors. It said nothing about bikes. I am still a little senstive about taking my bike on after what happend in Slovenia when there were no signs, but this one had a sign and said nothing about bikes. I decided to risk it. It was fine. I think I even had a policeman pass me.

Riding on the Autobahn.

I am having trouble remembering details of the ride since it was over three weeks ago. It was a lot of farmland with mountains in the distance. I approached those mountains, but never had to climb them. The traffic was light. I was able to switch to plenty of side roads as well. As I approached Grevina, the last big town before Meteora, I realized that I had ridden my first century, 100 miles. I decided that was plenty. It was more than I had done on my trip to date and that definitely constituted a long day. Grevina was also adorable and I wanted to spend some time there. They had a central square where families were eating, kids were playing, and it seemed all around fabulous. I found a hotel, asked for a room and was told they were full. I was bummed because biked enough and the town was cute that the 40 euro rate did not even bother me. Unfortunatley, the only other hotel was 5km north of town.

I wasn't willing to go back the way I came so I biked onward. By the time, I found the next hotel I was at 175km with an hour and half of day light left. That hotel wanted to charge me 80 Euros and I couldn't do it. I decided that I would move on to a camp site and try to get the double metric century. After a short climb, I descended into a beautiful gorge. Then, I began to climb. When I got to the other side of the gorge, I started to climb a mountain. When it got to dusk, I was ag 185km and still climbing. When it got dark, I was at 190km and I really struggled with whether to push on. I was passing great campsites left and right and I was just pursuing anarbitrary number. However, there is some pride in those arbitrary numbers, the same with running a marathon or climbing all the 14ers in Colorado. While I have been backing away from these stupid decisions as I get older in life, I decided to push on. To balance out the stupidity of it, I pulled off the road the 10-20 times that a car went by. Part of pushing on was that I expected to be exhausted the next day and wanted to make it easier. At 195km, I finally got to the top of the mountain. I aimed by bike down the hill and coasted. I was worried about hitting a pot hole so I couldn't open up, but I eventually made it. At 200km, I started looking for a campsite. At 200.18km, I found a campsite. It turned out to be a great one. It could have been a ditch and I would have been happy.

The bridge between Grevina and Meteora.

To make up for stopping early in Bitola, I wanted a long day of riding. I was really trying to stick to my schedule. However, I was also having trouble getting my legs underneath me when I started this day of riding. I think it had to do with some head trash about being lonely going on. I had spent a lot of fun days with people (biking with Davida and then with a bunch of people in Albania) and now I was back to solo. That mental crap makes me wonder about being at home instead of traveling. Part of me wonders if I didn't bike so far to make it harder on myself, similar to going last for paragliding. Maybe, I just wanted to get back on schedule. I don't know. I just know that I kept going and eventually found a rhythm.