Two enchanting explorations of Greece by bicycle
Mounted on his trusty steed, Edward Enfield explores the beauty and history of the Pelopponese in a travelogue that combines wit, charm, and scholarship. Returning to Greece to follow in the footsteps of the romantic poet Lord Byron, Edward's second trip sees him pedaling around the great historic sites of Epirus as he completes his own mini-odyssey.
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About the Author
Edward Enfield is a writer and television presenter. He is the author of Dawdling by the Danube and Downhill all the Way. He has written for publications including the Daily Express, the Guardian, and the Sunday Telegraph.
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Greece on My Wheels
By Edward Enfield
Summersdale Publishers LtdCopyright © 2003 Edward Enfield
All rights reserved.
From Sussex to Chlemoutsi
It might be thought that for a man approaching 70 years of age to go bicycling in Greece by himself is a rash act. I would say it is rather like marriage, which the prayer book says is not to be taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly; but discreetly, advisedly and soberly. It further says that matrimony should be entered upon in the fear of God, which is also something you may experience in Greece when squeezing the brakes of your bicycle beside a precipice and hoping not to go over the edge. Well, I wanted to do it so I prepared myself with care. I had ridden across France on a Dawes Tourer with six gears, and in my book about that I poured scorn on the idea that there was any need to have any more gears than six. Then my daughter arrived on a new Peugeot bicycle with eighteen gears, and I found I could not keep up with her. Being unwilling to think that this had anything to do with the difference in our ages, I assumed that bicycle technology must have moved on, so I bought a bicycle that was neither a tourer nor a mountain bike, but was called a hybrid. It was a Raleigh Pioneer Elite, with twenty-one gears, and as far as I am concerned, beyond the Pioneer Elite the law of diminishing returns must set in. It is such a good machine that although you can pay vast amounts more for other bicycles there is very little extra that they can possibly do.
When I cycled round the Peloponnese I took with me a sleeping bag and a body-bag. Actually it was called a bivvy bag, but would have done as a body-bag if I had expired on top of a Greek mountain, which seemed to be a possibility. Its purpose, though, was more to keep me alive than to cope with me dead. It was made of Gore-Tex, and was therefore waterproof. If I wanted to sleep in it I would put my sleeping bag inside, climb in and zip it up, then however much it rained I should be all right. There are two reasons why I might want to do this. The first was that I should be in Greece throughout October when the people who ran hotels or let rooms in their houses might have closed for the winter. The second, and more compelling, reason was that I planned to cycle right round the Peloponnese, which would take me into parts which, from the map at least, looked fairly wild.
The Mani, which is the central of three southern prongs, has a particular reputation for being rugged and formidable. It is a place of treeless and barren mountains where people live in small villages and traditionally have a great liking for blood feuds. Pirates from this area nearly captured Lord Byron, and in the Greek War of Independence the Mani produced one of its greatest generals and two of its better-known assassins. If I was going into places like that it would give me confidence to think that if need be I could compose myself to sleep in my bivvy bag under an olive tree without troubling the natives in any way. When it came to the point I used it twice, more from choice than necessity, but it enhanced the trip as I was much bolder because I had it than I would have been without it.
And so on 2 October I set off. In England a hot summer had come to an end in a downpour that caused a huge crop of mushrooms to spring up, so at 7 a.m. my wife gave me a breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage and mushrooms as if I was a schoolboy going off to boarding school. She also promised to keep a diary of important events while I was away so that if something exciting happened, such as England winning a test match, she would remember to tell me when I rang up. One of her many merits is that she is always entirely cheerful at the prospect of parting with me for long periods, and I could see she was already relishing the prospect of not having to cook supper and having the whole bed to herself.
From Athens airport I came out into agreeable sunshine to tackle the business of getting to the port of Piraeus. I could perhaps have ridden there, but it did not seem to be a good idea to start my holiday by risking my life in the Athens rush hour, so I asked a taxi driver if he would take me, and he wouldn't. At least, he would have taken me but he wouldn't take the bicycle, which he said was too big. However, further back in the line of taxis was a younger and more dashing driver who, seeing my difficulty, began shouting and blowing his horn to signify that he was ready to make the attempt. When he got to the front of the line we managed to get the bicycle half in and half out of the boot, where it hung precariously secured by rubber spiders while he careered like a fiend through the Athens traffic.
The reason for going to Piraeus was to get a boat to Poros, which, although an island, is only separated from the Peloponnese by a strait of about 500 yards. On the deck of the ferry I had a failure at conversation with a man who thought he could speak English. This idea did not seem to fit the facts. He spoke at length, he waved his hands, he wagged his head, but I had no notion of what he wanted me to understand. He had picked up from somewhere the phrase 'you know what I mean?', which he used as a sort of spoken punctuation mark at pauses in the flow of words. These five words were almost the only ones that I did understand, but luckily he did not want any answer to the question, if indeed he realised it was a question anyway. As he did not seem to want any contribution from me beyond the appearance of listening, I listened for a time and then made some excuse and went inside. I forget what that excuse was, but I think he understood me as little as I him, so I could well have said, 'As the ship is sinking I think I will put on my life jacket' without causing him any alarm.
The boat arrived at Poros in the dark. The waterfront was lit up, and a very handsome waterfront it is, with houses of some age and considerable grandeur rising in a sort of triangle above the harbour. I rode slowly through the warm night, vaguely looking for somewhere to stay and thinking: 'This is superb.'
The accommodation problem was solved by a man who came alongside me riding a scooter.
'You want room?'
'Yes, I do.'
'You follow me.'
He rode off. I rode behind. In a few minutes he turned down a sidestreet, stopped opposite a door, ushered me through it and down a sort of open-air corridor smelling strongly of orange blossom. At the end of it he showed me into a clean, sparse room with a shower and a loo, which, when flushed, at first groaned, gurgled and grumbled like any other noisy lavatory, and then emitted a clarion call like a trumpeter summoning a regiment to arms. The room had character, so I took it.
The landlord, whose name was Nicos, proved to be a most helpful man. By some mysterious means he managed always to be around at moments when he could be useful, and in this respect he resembled that Lord Godolphin of whom Charles II said that he was 'never in the way and never out of the way'. After I had unpacked I came out and Nicos appeared, to point out a place where he thought I should eat. I had swordfish steak and a flask of draught retsina under the stars and overlooking the harbour. The other company was a quartet consisting of two women, a man and a baby. The man had a beard and a foolish smile which he directed at one and all, but most particularly at the baby. One of the women opened her shirt and fed the baby; the second was remarkable for her miniskirt, which was transparent and too tight, and I thought it an unsafe garment for a nubile young woman in Greece. They ordered their meal in broken English, and I think they may have been Italian but I cannot be sure.
When I asked for my bill the elderly waiter smiled sadly, went away and returned instead with an apple, peeled and cut into slices. With great reluctance he finally brought me, on a very small piece of paper, the very small bill.
After that I took a stroll along the waterfront where I could see large, opulent yachts with opulent yachtsmen dining on deck and making the pastime of yachting look almost agreeable. This impression was corrected next morning when I saw them again. They were then preparing for the business of taking the boat to sea, with all the stress and anxiety that always afflicts yachtsmen at such times. One of them was limping along the front with his knee in a bandage and blood seeping through, which is also something that happens to yachtsmen. When my wife and I stayed on the island of Patmos, one of our simple pleasures was to go down to the quayside in the early morning and sit sipping coffee and watch the yachtsmen chain-smoking and shouting at their wives as they prepared for a jolly day's sailing. I am, as you will have gathered, a land-lubber.
The excellent Nicos had tried to persuade me to stay for two nights because Poros, he said, was such a lovely island. At first I brushed the idea aside, thinking I ought to get going, but I later changed my mind. This was not for the reason he said, but because the bicycle was not right as to its back wheel, which was rubbing against the brake, and also the gears began to misbehave, making a noise like a rattlesnake if I tried to engage the lowest sprocket at the back. Nicos told me to take it to a man called Kostas, but Kostas was away; two other bicycle-hire places had no mechanic, and the fourth was shut. Nicos then reappeared to see how I was getting on, and told me to cross on the ferry to Galatas where there was, he said, a good mechanic.
Naturally the good mechanic was missing by the time I found his shop, but his wife was there and we engaged in serious Greek conversation on the subject of gears, spokes and wheels. 'Spokes' are easy as the word is almost the same as the Homeric word for rays of the sun; 'gears' are more difficult but I got there eventually, and just as I succeeded in explaining the problem to the mechanic's wife the man himself walked through the door, fixed it, and would not take any money.
By the time I got back I had concluded that everyone in Poros and Galatas was extremely nice – all the shopkeepers, the people from whom you ask the way, and the very large men on very small Vespas who chat to you while you wait for the ferry. The only people with whom I had difficulty were two middle-aged Americans with bicycles. There seemed to be far more people waiting for the ferry than it could possibly hold, so in an unhappy attempt at jocularity I said that with any luck a fight would break out and give us something to watch. This they regarded as the remark of a criminal lunatic, and they sheered off hastily, nor did we speak further, though up to that point they had been quite sociable.
As I came off the ferry the ubiquitous Nicos drew up on his scooter, wishing to make sure that everything was now as it should be. He then kindly directed me to an excellent sandy beach where I swam in the company of a great many Teutonic tourists, who seemed to be cultivating skin cancer at some expense to themselves in the hire of sun beds, sun mats, sun chairs, and other life-threatening devices. Rather like hippopotami at the zoo, on the whole they dozed in the sun, but every now and then one of them would get up and lumber into the sea, stay there for a few minutes, then lumber out again.
The next morning I crossed on the ferry to begin the tour of the Peloponnese. The boring Americans of the previous day, before they decided that I was a criminal lunatic, had told me they were making a day trip to Epidaurus and back on their bicycles. They pointed at a huge white peak in the distance and said, 'You go over that.'
'I don't suppose you cross the absolute peak,' I said comfortingly, but I was wrong. If you are in Poros and mean, as I did, to cycle to Epidaurus you had better face the fact that you are going to pass over a col only some twenty feet or so below the tip of the huge mountain that you see towering in the distance.
The first ten miles are flat, with lemon, olive and orange groves, plantations of carnations and vegetables, and occasionally something odd like a big warehouse set down in a field with fifty or sixty motorcycles outside. After that I began the serious uphill work with the road winding in a way that, if it were in France, would call forth signs saying 'Virages' ('bends') all the way along. I pedalled away, not hurrying but saying to myself 'siga siga', this being the Greek for 'softly softly'. Pretty soon I began to feel immensely pleased when I looked back and saw how far below me the sea now was. Then I rounded a corner, and there was the sea in front; I thought I had cracked the climb but I hadn't – there was a long way to go yet.
After about an hour of climbing I stopped to eat the cheese pie that I had brought with me, and by way of entertainment I carried out an experiment on a double line of ants who were marching along in a purposeful manner, some up and some down the hill. I made them a present of a lump of cheese pie that I put exactly across their path to see if this caused them to call a council of war, detail some of their number to carry this valuable offering home, or even just to stop for lunch, like me. They inspected it closely and decided it was nothing more than an obstacle, so they all walked carefully round it and carried on as before. You would think ants would rather like cheese pie, but perhaps it required some superior ant to come and reprogramme them before they could deviate from their preordained purpose in going up and down the hill.
On I went again, now getting off and pushing whenever it got really tough, which it did increasingly often, especially as it was pretty hot. The pushing increased and the cycling diminished until at last I arrived at Ano Fanari, otherwise Upper Fanari (though there seemed to be no Lower Fanari). It is a handsome village of fine stone houses, looking exceedingly prosperous, though how the inhabitants support themselves is a mystery as there seems to be nothing to be done at such a height.
'This,' I thought, 'must be the top,' but it wasn't quite. A little more pushing though and I was over the crest and viraging down the valley on the other side with the wind threatening to blow my sunhat off. Anyone who does this climb cannot fail to marvel at their own strength and pertinacity in getting so high, as the road seems to go on and on down even more than it had gone on and on up. You simply sit there clutching the brakes and looking about you at the hills and the sea. The boring Americans were younger than I, had no luggage, their bikes were lightweight racing models and they had fancy cycling shoes, but even so, I shouldn't have liked to do anything so strenuous as making the round trip all in one day as they proposed to do.
The road is very quiet, so in the long intervals between traffic you hear either country noises or nothing at all. You do not plunge straight down to sea level again, but for a time the road passes through occasional upland villages which, if you were using any other form of transport, you would rattle through without noticing. As is the case in all such remote places, the language becomes increasingly difficult. I stopped to try to buy an ice cream from a man who had no ice cream, and I think he asked me where I came from, but I only guessed that this was what he wanted to know because it is what everybody wants to know. As to what words he used, I have no idea at all and he might have been speaking Hebrew. (The other questions they ask are 'How old are you?', 'Are you married?' and 'How many children have you got?' To the latter question they seem to find my answer of 'four' to be rather impressive.)
Eventually you come down to join a main road and unfortunately there is more climbing to be done before you reach Epidaurus. I bowled into the area of the famous theatre, which is the reason why one goes to Epidaurus, just at the beginning of dusk. I was looking for the hotel where I had stayed many years before, but the only one I could now see was the expensive government-run Xenia Hotel at which I had no intention whatever of staying. In the Xenia garden I got into conversation with a large Dutchman and his wife, who said the service at the hotel bar was awful. I said it was bound to be awful as governments are no good at running hotels, and thus the whole Xenia chain was probably awful. They spoke excellent English but no Greek, so it was rather gratifying to find that there was one language at which I was better than a Hollander, the usual thing being that they put one to shame by their fluency in several languages other than their own.
The mynheer was friendly and forthcoming. He and his wife were staying at Nauplion, also with bicycles, but they had come to Epidaurus by bus because at his age, which was seventy, he was beginning 'to be frightened of hills'. I later found that there are no hills to speak of between Nauplion and Epidaurus, so I don't know why he was frightened.
It was getting dark and I began to think that I should have to sleep in the body-bag, which was not by any means a bad idea in the beautiful surroundings of Epidaurus. I parted on the most cordial of terms with my Dutch acquaintances and set off for a taverna further down the road. My plan was to eat there and ask if I could sleep in their garden, but it was shut. A young man appeared out of the dark and said I would have to go three kilometres on to Ligourio to eat, so I began to pedal in that direction and in no time at all came upon, as I thought, the very hotel that I had been looking for. It seemed to have gone up in the world since my last visit and lost the ramshackle air which it had before, but I didn't mind that. A friendly lady with the looks and manners of a nice vicar's wife gave me an excellent room for 4,000 drachmas, which was at once better and cheaper than Poros, and extremely kind of her as the official price was 7,700 drachmas plus 10 per cent, according to the notice in the room. I had a shower, washed some clothes and went to ask if I could have anything to eat.
'No, not here. I am sorry, you will have to go to Ligourio – only five minutes on the bicycle.'
'What are all those for?' I asked, pointing to the tables and chairs.
'For breakfast. I only do breakfast.'
So I got my bike but as I was about to start I saw another hotel across the road, which was indeed the one where I had stayed before; the one I was now at was a later construction.
Excerpted from Greece on My Wheels by Edward Enfield. Copyright © 2003 Edward Enfield. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Praise for Edward Enfield,
About the Author,
Foreword by Harry Enfield,
Part I: The Peloponnese,
1 From Sussex to Chlemoutsi,
2 Olympia, Bassae, Pilos, Koroni,
3 Interlude - Greek, Ancient and Modern,
4 Kardamili and the Mani,
5 Monemvasia, Leonidion, Nauplion, Poros, Athens,
Part II: Epirus and Acarnania,
6 Corfu and Parga,
7 Suli and Zalongo,
8 Arta and Ioannina,
9 Dodona, Zitsa, Corfu,
10 The Road to Mesolongi,
Appendix I: Greek Sailors,
Appendix II: A Conversation through a Dragoman,
Appendix III: Byron and Mesolongi,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The author has a subtle sense of humor. I'm enjoying it immensely.