Greece

Facts

Greece (Hellenic Republic) is a country of 11 million people.  It’s capital and largest city is Athens with a population of over 3 million. The currency is the euro. Greece, and specifically Athens, is referred to as the birthplace of Western civilization and the cradle of democracy.

Route

We entered Greece by ferry from the Turkish town of Cesme to the island of Hios. The crossing is about an hour but is quite expensive at 20 euro. From Hios we took a separate ferry to Athens, a crossing that takes 8 hours and costs about 37 euro. Overnight ferries are good because they are the most comfortable form of transport for sleeping. Just unroll your sleeping bag in an open space and fall asleep.

From Athens we took a bus to Litochoro. This journey was 4 hours and 30 euro each, about 10 euro cheaper than the train. The bus drops you off about 5 km from town but we easily hitchhiked (for the first time). From Litochoro we climbed Olympus.

To reach Thessaloniki from Litochoro (only about 100 km) we also hitchhiked, picking up a ride in a few minutes right to the heart of the city.

Leaving Thessaloniki, we took a bus to Sofia. This trip is 6 hours and costs 20 euro. The cheapest bus seems to be run by the train company from the train station once daily in the morning (currently 8:00). Across the street a Bulgarian company (Arda Tur) runs two buses daily (including a night bus leaving at 00:30) and a third bus in the morning on Mondays and Wednesdays. Calling ahead to reserve a seat is probably wise. The train company charges 20 euro if you are under 26. Arda Tur charges 20 euro for students and 23 euro otherwise. Currently there are no international trains from Greece.

Advertisements

Fancy an olive or two or 1600kg?

Many events had to align to bring us to Fourka where we spent 2.5 days trying to learn the ways of the Greeks by picking olives. Greek people consume on average  24 L of olive oil a year so to understand the process of how it is made means we are one step closer to understanding the country and its people.
Rigas, our host, grew up in Thessaloniki but currently lives in Amsterdam from where he makes a trip (for olive picking purposes) every two years back home and usually brings a few friends along for the ride. For the past two rounds of picking, he has created a couch surfing event and invited strangers to join in the fun. The price: some manual labour for a few days, the reward: knowledge of how olives are harvested and processed, accommodation and food, take away olive oil at the end, and some great company throughout.

All in all there were 10 of us.
Rigas, Adri, Marko and Ronald from Amsterdam; Villy (Rigas’s sister), Talia (Rigas’s mother), Dimitri (Rigas’s brother – currently lives in Munich), Lassaros (a friend from school/near Thessaloniki, and Greg and I. We were quite the eclectic bunch.

Arriving on Friday morning we were whisked off directly to one of their two fields – apparently the less productive one- where we were put to work.

A short summary of the steps of olive picking:
1. Clear all bushes, weeds and general grub from under the olive tree;
2. Lay down large plastic tarps to cover the ground beneath and around the tree;

3. Using long sticks, start hitting the lower lying branches of the trees – this will cause the olives to fall to the ground;
4. Cut down the higher branches using a saw or chainsaw (this was done by an Albanian worker who was probably more efficient than the rest of us combined..);
5. Comb the olives off of the branches that have been cut. This essentially feels like you are a tree hairdresser and someone with really knotted hair has come in. You can also complete this step by hitting the branches with sticks which is faster but produces more twigs and branches in the olive mix and makes step 7 less fun;

6. Collect by dragging each tarp onto one central tarp and combining the olives into one large pile;

7. Quality Control – here is where the large sticks, any rocks or unwanted matter is removed from the piles. Depending on how much time you want to waste this step could go on forever. In the end most of the leaves and small branches get taken out in the processing plant so the focus is on removing only the large objects;
8. Bag the olives in large potato sack bags and tie them with string (or in our case improvise with vines if you happen to run out); and

9. Collect the bags on the tractor that comes from the factory and ship them off for processing. Greg and I got to ride on the tractor with our 42 bags of olives which was a highlight at the end of our last day picking.

Another memorable part of the whole experience was actually getting to see our olives being processed. In Canada I am not sure it would have been possible as I assume the inside of the factory would be closed to all non workers. In Fourka however it is a different matter. At the factory there seem to be people milling about everywhere, unloading olives, carrying full barrels of oil, watching as the olives get dispensed via hopper onto the loading belt etc. We were able to watch the whole process and wander through the factory looking at the different cleaning machines, separators and distillers until our oil came pouring out.

The whole process took about 1.5 hrs.
In total we picked 42 bags: 1600 kg of olives which produced 175 kg of oil.

The whole experience was accented by the unbelievably delicious food we ate the whole time (thanks to Rigas’s mother!), laughter filled games such as telephone dictionary and Palermo (a.k.a mafia) and the enjoyment of meeting a new group of people all from such different walks of life.

I don’t think I would drop everything and become a professional olive picker .. it’s a lot of work, but I will definitely remember this experience as something completely unique and thanks Rigas and his family for allowing us the opportunity to tag along!

She went to the olive field by walking and found out that a kitten was dying from cholera or appendicitis and eventually started crying because none of it made it to achieve levels of sickness worthy of higher meditation however she refused death from grief, amen.
– Olive picking team 2012

Mount Olympus Trip Report

Five years ago Lindsay and I had our first date and we went to Brew Pub in Kingston and watched “Into the Wild”. To celebrate, this year we woke up at 5:00 in the morning, ate some muesli, and headed up to the highest point in Greece.

Mount Olympus has an elevation of 2918 m and has 52 peaks, the tallest of which is Mytikas. Olympus is the mythical home of the 12 Olympian gods, including Zeus.

We had entered Litochoro (elevation 293 m) the previous day in a storm which prevented any view of our goal. This town lies at the bottom of the Enipeas Gorge which leads up to the mountain. Given that there are less than 12 hours of daylight and that the mountain refuge is closed for the year, we wouldn’t be able to hike from our guesthouse to the summit and back (distance of about 45 km and nearly 3000 meters gained). The alternative is to take a taxi to Prionia at the top of the gorge (elevation 1100 m). This “town” seems to consist of a restaurant, a washroom, and six mules.

Lindsay and her new friends.

Taxis are popular for starting the hike so they all have a fixed rate of 25 euro. We shared this with two other hikers and were on the trail by 6:30 when it was still very much night. In two hours we had reached the refuge at 2100 m. This part of the hike is pretty constantly uphill. It begins in the forest but enters a wide, open gulley at about the halfway point. This gulley marked the first gusts of wind which had been forecast to reach 95 km/h.

When we reached the refuge we met the workers packing it up for the year. We glanced inside, the lights were off but it looked spacious and comfortable, but we didn’t have much time to lose. Quickly we were on the trail again heading for the summit. The second half is also a consistent uphill slog. We seemed to be on the lee side of the mountain but we could see clouds pouring over the ridges like a waterfall and it concerned us for the scramble from Skola (elevation 3866 m) to Mytikas.

The trees ended around 2500 m and we came over a ridge to the full force of the wind and the wonderful views you can only get inside of a cloud. I was sceptical of reports that other people felt elevation effects but we both seemed to be breathing harder and stopping to take a big breath wasn’t as satisfying as I thought it should be. Maybe we’ve gone soft after 2 months of cycling at sea level. Still, by 10:45 we were on top of Skola wearing every article of clothing we had brought (including a toque, mitts, and a down jacket) but we were still shivering. It was barely below zero but the wind and the damp cut through our clothes.

In order to reach the true summit from Skola, there is a scramble along the ridge that is well-marked by paint. Being in a cloud, the length of a fall from the ridge couldn’t be ascertained. Lindsay decided the risk wasn’t worth it but I still felt that it was within my comfort zone so we made a plan for Lindsay to hang out in a sheltered area and I would return within an hour. Ten minutes later I could hear clanging and five minutes after that I discovered the clanging to be some tin containers hanging from the summit post! The climbing is not objectively difficult but the exposure and wind did make it a bit adventurous.

Summit selfie. The view was atrocious.

I took a picture and descended back to Lindsay, having been gone a total of 30 minutes. We were both chilly so we didn’t hang around to talk to the other hikers who had just shown up. Instead we started the long descent back to Litochoro and by 1:00 we were at the refuge again. Now there was no sign of the workers or the pack mules. By 2:45 we were in Prionia. With about two and a half hours of daylight left we decided to hike back to our guesthouse through the gorge rather than take a taxi again.

Just below the clouds. Enipeas Gorge is down and to the left.

The hike through the gorge is not monotonic but we could ignore the complaints of our knees by looking up at the huge limestone cliffs in the fading light. This 11 km took us over 8 or so little wooden bridges and by a monastery and some incredible caves. We reached the town at 6:00 under a full moon and eventually found our guesthouse in the maze of streets after first acquiring a bottle of wine. The bottle was destined to go untouched as we crawled our way into bed. In all it had been about 32 km of hiking, none of it flat, with over 2000 m of elevation gained.

UPDATE: The first snowfall of the year was also last night but this morning it dawned bright and clear. Lindsay took a picture up the gorge to the mountain, the peak still shrouded in cloud. The lines of snow across the rock bands are still visible. Apparently at dawn everything above treeline was white.

The mountain in ideal conditions.

Ch ch changes!

Yassas!

Total distance biked: 3226 km

Since our last post we have entered our 9th country of the trip and have sadly said goodbye to Turkey – easily our favorite country so far. We are now nestled in Athens staying at our BeWelcome (a newer/smaller/non-profit version of CS) host Nico’s place.

Ben, Andreas Greg and I enjoying a delicious brunch food circle together at Nico’s (he is taking the picture).

We left Turkey on a high note in regards to both biking and company. Our ride into Izmir turned out to one of the best city entrances we have had!

Amazing bike path into Izmir

After a great tailwind and an unexpected bike lane along the entire coast of the city, we arrived at Tugce and Cem’s place where we settled in (after some necessary showers..) and got to know them. We discovered their love of Harry Potter – they are the most devoted fans I think I have met yet, and watched the 6th movie after a hearty dinner together. It felt like a little bit of home away from home. The following day, Tugce guided us around the city at a leisurely pace as we enjoy some Turkish coffee complete with fortune telling, and lunch at a pretty hipster place (the vibe reminded me a bit of the Foundation in Vancouver including slow service). You can order two things 1) pasta or 2) manti which is a turkish type dumpling dish. We made pizza that night – something Greg and I have been missing about our life in Vancouver – and finished off our stay with them with full bellies having shared lots of good conversation and knowledge of each other’s countries. Thus we filled the missing gap Greg and I had felt after not staying with couch surfers in Istanbul.

Tugce and Greg looking over Izmir from the free historical elevator

Our ride to Cesme was easy and particularly scenic as well which made for a great last full day of biking. Confused? Keep reading to hear about our new change of plans for our trip!

At some point over the last few weeks, Greg and I started to feel like maybe our original plan to bike from Vienna and back in 3 months (or until the weather got so bad that we had to stop) was maybe not the best. All other bikers we have met so far on this trip were generally heading east towards Istanbul and beyond to follow the good weather and generally no one had any strict time frames. I started to think, “maybe we are doing this wrong”. Generally our pace over the past two months has slowed due to a concious decision on both of our parts to take more rest days in an attempt to be less tired and enjoy more of our stops. Unfortunately our looming deadline of winter as well as our hopes to make it to at minimum Sarejevo by the end of November by passing through the most mountainous terrain we have seen yet were making our tummies feel a bit nervous and un-excited about the task ahead.

While sitting in the town of Assos having just decended what was one of my favourite stretches of biking I stated – why not take the winter off biking and then come back and finish the trip after? From there we formulated what is now the new plan and have now solidified the last piece of the puzzle by finding a place to store our bikes in Athens for the winter. In summary:

-Leave our bikes with Eleni, a rock star couch surfer, who has amazingly offered to store our bikes for as long as we want in her garage. She doesn’t own a car so she has ensured us it is no problem or inconvinience to her. We will head there tonight and leave the bikes and camping equipment with her.
-Make our way back to Vienna via Thessaloniki where we hope to spend a few days olive picking at a nearby grove and then likely head to Sofia, Bulgaria. There are currently no international trains in or out of Greece so a bus to Sofia followed by either train or flight is looking like the best option.
-In Vienna we will hopefully reunite with Johanna, Paul and our backpacks (yay a few more clothes!)
-From Vienna we will make our way north towards Russia where we will obtain visas
along the way and then carry on with our original plan to take the tran-siberian railroad to Beijing and then explore South East Asia for a while. In this new plan we will have a slightly reduced time frame in this area of the world and will definitely not make it to Nepal. We have agreed this will have to wait until another trip entirely (maybe a Nepal/India adventure).
-With the goal of April 1st in mind, we will fly back to Athens, pick up our bikes and continue on our original route through the balkans, up along the coast of Croatia towards Slovenia and then make our way over to France where we hope to cycle at a casual pace (some train will likely be required). Our end location at this time is to make our way to visit Stuart and Anita in Brighton by mid to end of June! If we are lucky they may even join us for a leg in France.

This means that the minute we start biking again, the weather and mostly the hours of daylight only get better! On the down side our muscles will get a rude awakening after 5 months off when we set off straight into the mountains! On the bright side for me – I can burn off the beer, bread and generally tasty foods I will undoubtedly gain in the next few months…:)

And now back to Greece where we have been for the past 5 days – first on the island of Hios where we did some fun local scrambling and now Athens.

The top of our scrambling route (we came up a different/easier way..)

We hadn’t originally planned on coming here but the boat to Thessaloniki was having engine problems and no one knew when it would be fixed so we hopped on a ferry here. We spent a lovely morning in Piraeus swimming in the clearest water I have ever seen where we met a lady who swims at that spot every day of the year! Yesterday we wandered around the acropolis which was a first for Greg and a second visit for me. It brought back some great memories of my trip 6 years ago with the one and only Lindsay Vine. It’s hard to believe it has really been that long.

View from the Acropolis

We also visited the olympic stadium area which is quite near where we are staying right now. It was one of the most unusual places we have been yet. It is essentially a ghost town of athletic facilities. With the expection of the indoor pool where there seemed to be a swimming lesson going on, the entire complex is completely deserted and run down. It was really sad and Greg and I weren’t sure how to feel about it but it was definitely a surprise to say the least.

The Parthenon – almost an identical picture to one I took 6 years ago.

Our next big adventure involves an attempt at the 2917 m summit of Mt. Olympus (don’t worry it is completely non technical) so stay tuned for what we hope to be a successful trip report on that.

Love and hugs to everyone,
Lindsay