Greece is all mountains, they say. It is easier to name the few non-mountainous places in Greece, like the Plain of Thessaly, than to begin naming all of the ranges and peaks. There are many narrow unpaved roads connecting villages. In recent decades, many Greeks have moved to the cities leaving only a handful of old men to sip coffee in the cafes. Scenic mountains, quiet dirt roads, frequent villages, and plenty of water equal great riding, great camping, and few logistical challenges. Greece is one of the most inviting places to go looking for unpaved roads in Europe.
When looking for routes in a country I start by browsing a map of the entire region. I look for mountains and major highways and cities; climate and weather patterns; recommended routes from other touring cyclists and multi-day MTB race routes, as well as routes described in adventure motorcycle and 4×4 forums. If nothing comes up I look for the largest area with the lowest density of major roads and start connecting the dots. At other times, I might choose to connect the dots along a stretch of mountainous coastline without a major road. Contacting someone in the country can be productive. I e-mailed George, a Greek cyclist and bikepacker from Athens, who recommended an MTB race route called the Bike Odyssey. An 8-day race route is a big discovery. One that begins near the border of Albania and finishes within range of Athens is even better. Thanks George!
The Bike Odyssey is a multi-day stage race held in June, including one prologue stage in Laista and seven transit stages which begin and end in different villages. The total distance of the route is about 400mi (600km) with lots of climbing. The route connects about 80% dirt roads and 20% pavement and is entirely rideable. Greek dirt roads are most commonly is good condition, with little to no traffic. A few sections are modestly technical, typically due to steep grades, loose rocks, and erosion. The mountainous paved roads all feature extremely low traffic. Water is available everywhere on the route, thanks to a well-developed network of public springs. Every town center has a spring, and hundreds are available along the route. A few springs surprise us at the top of an extended climb. Many villages no longer have stores, although it may be possible to purchase some bread or cheese from the cafes that remain. Best to stock up on the essentials in the few larger towns, and augment supplies along the way as needed. Over the eight or nine day period we sourced food in Konitsa, Metsovo, Karpenissi, and Gravia. The version of the route which we followed deviates from the route scheduled for 2015. I suspect our GPS track dates from an earlier version of the race. The first four days are mostly unchanged.
Crossing from Albania, we pedal a short distance to the small Greek city of Konitsa. The Bike Odyssey route begins in the nearby village of Laista. The low valley is full of figs and soon we are both full of figs. This experience will leave us searching for figs all through the Greek mountains. We source maps and supplies, and load the track to our GPS.
We leave town with about two to three days of food dispersed between framebags and seatpacks. This nearly fills my bags unless we choose foods which pack more efficiently. Included are two loaves of bread from the bakery, nearly a kilo of feta, olives, two packs of sausages, orzo, some vegetables, and dried fruits and nuts. I drain a big bottle of wine into the Klean Kanteen. Cooking alcohol is available everywhere in Greece, used to fuel small candles at religious monuments and memorials by the roadside and in homes.
The paved climb out of Konitsa is an indication of what we will find in these mountains, including steep grades and quiet roads.
We camp for the night on a narrow ridge above the road, looking across at a high range.
I nudge Lael awake at sunrise for some Greek coffee, which is just like Turkish coffee, except that it is Greek coffee. Don’t call it Turkish coffee. Don’t tell everyone how much you enjoyed Albania. Don’t talk about Macedonia, only FYROM.
We join the route near Laista and immediately begin climbing towards Vouvousa.
Vouvousa, in the valley below.
Here, warm dry air and well drained soils support pine forests. North facing slopes often support cool beech forests in the same valley.
Vouvousa is our first town along the route and our first lesson that many villages in Greece no longer have shops. Thankfully, we’ve packed enough food for the next few days. We are kindly treated to a round of beers by a man named Dani who is visiting these mountains with his new van, which has been converted for overnight adventures. It is a welcomed change after a lifetime spent on motorcycles. Once an official diplomat, a novelist, and a writer for motorcycle magazines, Dani gives us an informative introduction to Greece.
Climbing into the Pindus National Park.
Beech. Reminds me of Maine.
Pines. Reminds me of Santa Fe.
Three months away from Alaska and we’ve lost all of our table manners. Our clothes haven’t seen a laundry machine since landing in Vienna in July. We manage to stay reasonably clean, at least considering the company we keep (each other, Albanian kids, old Greek men, Ukrainian women).
The Bike Odyssey coincides with both the E6 and E4 walking routes at times.
Aside from this washed-out section of road, not much more than a few hundred meters, almost every inch of the route is rideable. Keep your eyes open for Bike Odyssey placards taped to signposts and trees; these red and white plastic flags; and red spraypaint, usually indicating the “BO” and an arrow. Paired with the GPS track, navigation is easy. The track I downloaded from the official race website may be an early version and led us astray on several occasions. If the track ever leads you straight into the woods or onto an unreadable route, look for signage on the ground or consider the most obvious path (usually the dirt road you are already on).
We detour from the route to Metsovo to buy a few things, which adds an extra climb and descent. Metsovo and Karpenissi are the two largest cities near the route.
Leaving Metsovo we cross under and over this highway, which features a series of tunnels through the mountains. Greece is all mountains.
We leave Metsovo 18 minutes before sunset and arrive 3500ft higher only a few minutes after it is finally dark, a little over an hour and a half later. As we approach the top of the road a truck comes quickly from behind, cuts in front, and stop near a pack of dogs. Greek sheep dogs can be extremely aggressive. Caution is required, and a handful of rocks is recommended. When a dog comes running I skid the rear tire to a stop, and pick up a rock. I throw the rock, genuinely trying to hit the dog, and attempt to pass. Usually, I must launch a series of rocks to pass an area, and to fend off the four to six dogs which are common with every flock of sheep. Alternatively, most shepherds will keep the dogs a safe distance, although that doesn’t mean they aren’t baring their teeth and growling from six feet away.
These shepherds tell us that we cannot ride onto the ridge, as there are other dogs that will get us. It is unsafe. It is dark, and they aren’t offering solutions. We’ve seen more than a few dogs in Greece already. We continue onto the ridge. The dogs bark, from a distance. We safely pass two or three shepherd camps, and I can hear dogs barking ahead in the distance. We camp as far as possible between the camps.
This time of year the ridges and east-facing slopes are best for camping to ensure the warm, drying sun meets us in the morning. A few cold nights on the wrong side of the mountain teach us to climb to the ridgetops before the end of every day.
Not many places to buy food on the route, but we fill our bags and our bellies with apples and figs as much as possible.
The northern half of the Bike Odyssey route is characterized by heavily metamorphosed rocks, in constant decay. Further to the south, more solid volcanics are present.
On this night, while searching for a place to camp that will receive sun before noon, we stop into a local cafe. We request permission to camp near the church. All four men inside agree.
By morning, we awake to church bells and sun. A spring gurgles nearby.
In fact, there is another cafe in town selling some preserves. There is one bag of orzo on the shelf and a refrigerator full of cold beers.
From what we have seen of the E4 and the E6, the trails are little used, rocky, and mostly unridable. Often, we look to see the trail disappear into the woods, and we can’t see the trail.
Agrafa is a beautiful town on a mountainside with several cafes. One cafe on the main street has a small store.
I expect to find water somewhere along the route, and have not carried any from town 3500ft below. At the last moment, near the top of the climb at the end of the day, we find some.
We crest the ridge to camp, but high winds and impending weather send us downward looking for shelter. We have the option of an abandoned concrete structure or a newer pavilion aside a large cross. We opt for the pavilion with the water source. Some wet weather is expected to remain in the area for a few days.
Addicted to figs, we slow our bicycles when arriving in each town. Figs do not grow wild in these parts, but when planted near town they can survive and thrive. We reach over a lot of fences. We call ourselves the “Fig Robbers”, saving the figs from a rotten existence on the ground.
During a period of intense rain, we seek an inexpensive hotel in Karpenissi. From here, we make plans for the winter. Rather, we’re hoping for an endless summer.
Each ridge leads us into a new micro-climate, this one abundant with chestnut trees. Actually, chestnut trees are also common along other parts of the route, but a fresh chestnut is nothing compared to a fresh fig.
Some lingering moisture makes a foggy ride away from Karpenissi. Clearing skies are predicted.
Mountain roads in Greece are nicely paved, narrow, and nearly traffic free. However, many roads are damaged or partially blocked due to slumps and rockfall. Many remain that way.
In Artotina, a truck passes loaded with fruits and vegetables. Turkish guys drive around selling produce, announcing themselves from a PA atop the car. At first I thought they were running for office, then I noticed the broccoli.
These Bike Odyssey sigs are abundant along the northern half of the route, while spraypaint and plastic flags are more common in the south.
Again, we crest a ridge at sunset seeking a high camp. The dogs bark and chase. I fight valiantly and we narrowly escape to a nearby ridge. The dogs bark in the night every time I roll over. They’re good at what they do.
The town of Athanasios Diakos, like many others, features a large plaza with a church and four large cafes, but no stores. It is a mystery to us how these towns, quiet as they are, can support so many large cafes. And for the remaining residents, why isn’t there a store?
We camp near a church and a cemetery before our last day on the route. It is very easy to camp in Greece. In town or near town, look for a church. Out of town, camp almost anywhere.
On our last day, nearing Delphi, the climate changes once again. It is hot and dry, and the trees mostly fade to low shrubs.
At last, we can see the Sea of Corinth.
Delphi, 1200ft below. The GPS suggests a small track down the hillside. I am not sure if this is another mistake in the track, but we go looking. Note: The current race route does not end in Delphi, but in Amfikleia.
Oh, my. After over 350 miles of Divide-style dirt roads, we are treated to a chunky footpath down to town.
Delphi is important in Greek history, and features many ruins.
This place is a world away from the rural villages we have come to know. There are actually some tourists here. The trend will continue toward Athens.
Night. We fill our bottles and push out of town on a dirt track. Just below town and above a valley full of olive orchards, in warm dry air, we lay our sleeping bags out under the stars. We enjoy the air and the sky. We talk about the winter. South Africa will be great.