Daniel Groves

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Eurovelo: Diesel and Dust

Published: 20 February 2017 · Tags: expedition, bike, eurovelo

From the dust and fumes of Thessaloniki to the remote plains of northern Greece.

This post is part of the nine part series Eurovelo. To see more from this series check the series index.

Despite starting the day with a cold shower I could already feel the sweat running down my back as I stepped out the hotel door. We both carefully loaded our bikes for the first real days riding, making sure each pannier was properly seated on our racks, and that everything was strapped down tightly. As we rolled down the road we were both understandably nervous, not about the journey — that was just a bike ride after all — but about battling with a major cities traffic on badly rutted roads while riding on the wrong-side of the road.

As soon as we pushed away we realised how right we were to be worried about the traffic. We’ve spent our entire lives riding on the left-side of the road, so our natural inclination was to ride to the left, not the right. Mix in the cars which were often parked two–or–three abreast and the experience wasn’t a tranquil one of cruising alongside a road in a segregated cycle lane; it was an experience of battle with vehicles as cars, lorries and vans moved all around us driving us back towards the very edge of the road where the ruts were at their worst. Eventually we passed a motorway junction, and the traffic died off; finally we had some room to breath.

Stopping for a break we got a chance to take in our surroundings. We were next to a scrap yard with dogs wondering around inside, where we hoped they’d remain, we could’t afford for any issues this early in the trip. Dust hung in the air from the last car to pass, slowly settling on the road we’d soon be riding along. This place felt alien — riding on the right-hand side of the road still felt unnatural, as Max regularly demonstrated as he’d pull out of a junction aiming for the wrong side of the road until I shouted after him.

 alt: Stopping for a nibble just outside Thessaloniki. You've got to keep the food going in so the wheel keep on turning.
Stopping for a nibble just outside Thessaloniki. You’ve got to keep the food going in so the wheel keep on turning.

After scoffing a few snacks we both wobbled our way back to the edge of the road — still getting used to the unusual feeling of a loaded bike — and cautiously joined the main carriageway, reminding ourselves over and over ‘ride on the right, ride on the right’. Slowly we got used to this feeling and started to enjoy ourselves as we cranked the bikes up to speed and then onwards towards the days destination.

Neither of us really knew how far we’d make it over these first few days. We knew it would be hard while our bodies conditioned themselves to the abuse of cycling for nine to ten hours a day with a 30kg load, and the heat was still making us suffer even out of the reflective and breathless enclosure of the city buildings.

During the first few days I was looking forward to heading inland towards the higher ground where their would be more altitude to reduce the heat, and a breeze to help further reduce the temperature that was in the high twenties throughout our time in Greece.

Around midday during our first day we diverted off course into a nearby town to get our first meal away from any tourist hotspots. We passed up and down the bustling hughstreet several times before settling on a fast-food type place which was clearly popular and provided plenty of shelter outside. With a stream of grunting and pointing from both sides we managed to order two portions of Souvlaki, two cokes, and two large bottles of water to refill the bottles on our bikes with.

We were going through a lot of water while our bodies adapted to the heat. On my bike alone I was carrying two insulated 750ml bottles, and a 650ml bottle, and my trusty old 1l Sig bottle I’ve had for almost as long as I can remember. This totals just over 3kg in water at the start of the day, and all my bottles were now down to dregs. After lunch we pushed on with our aim of reaching Edessa by the end of the day.

 alt: Both of the bikes on the Edessa bypass.
 alt: Both of the bikes in Giannitsa while we stop for lunch.  alt: Max filing up on water at a roadside water fountain.
Both of the bikes on the Edessa bypass; Both of the bikes in Giannitsa while we stop for lunch; Max filing up on water at a roadside water fountain.

Towards mid-afternoon we were in for our first soaking of the trip. As we pulled over to the side of the road to make use of a public water fountain to refill our bottles again the rain started to fall around us. This wasn’t like a normal bit of British drizzle, out was proper rain with large drops that would bounce as they hit the ground. We made the call to sit out the worst of it in the shelter over the water fountain.

Once we got going again we were heading into our first real climbing. Given the time of the day we decided to avoid the busy town of Edessa and make use of the new bypass that took a gentler route up the hill. This dual-carriageway road was completely deserted aside from a single maintenance vehicle precariously balancing on two wheels near the top of the long climb.

As we approached Agras we didn’t have enough time to cover any more significant ground, but it was still a little early to pitch the tents above a lake we’d spotted on the map. We decided to stop for an ice cream before pushing on, and as we stood in the small village eating our ice creams we could both feel the eyes of everybody on us. We were the two outsiders in this village that was rarely a stopping point for anyone passing this way. As we stood there a person walked up to us as introduced himself as Tony, from Albania.

Tony explained to us both that he was here picking cherries for work, as he couldn’t find any at home. He told us how in Albania there’s only enough work for 1/4 of it’s population. We chatted to him about what we were doing, and then he tried to ask us about the football (neither Max nor I follow football at all, so this didn’t go so well). After a short while he told us to wait there for a moment, he had something for us. He ran off and came back a couple of minutes later with a pair of Nectarines, giving us one each.

 alt: Riding an abandoned road through a Cherry plantation
Riding an abandoned road through a Cherry plantation, just behind our campsite during the first night.

At this point we had to move on before it got dark. We pushed on heading out of town on a new road until we couldn’t see any building around us anymore. We dived off down a small farmers access track and found a sheltered field out of sight from the road where we’d be able to pitch our tents. We were low on water yet again, so we consulted the map and found the nearest water was in the reservoir at the bottom of a significant hill. Without any real choice in the matter we decided to start descending to get the water we needed to cook and eat for the night.

We returned to the main road and turned off onto a side road we could use to access the reservoir. Just as we did this a lorry stopped and asked us what we were doing. Max explained we were going to get water, and the driver simply handed us a large 2l bottle out of his cab before heading on, saving us a significant effort. We returned to our spot and proceeded to pitch our tents on the rock-hard ground and cook to a stunning sunset.

 alt: Watching the sunset while dinner simmers on the cooker after the first days riding.
Watching the sunset while dinner simmers on the cooker after the first days riding.

When you’re on a long trip like this is takes a few days to establish a routine. Routines are good, they make your daily chores more efficient and as a result you can get going quickly each day. Its safe to say that at this stage we didn’t have any routines at all, although I tried to keep things as close to my normal backpacking routines as possible. This meant as soon as I was awake I put some water on to boil while I started packing my gear away. By the time the water was done all of my sleeping stuff was packed in a pannier. At this point I would make the drinks while packing the rest of my gear down. By the time that is done the hot drinks are at a perfectly drinkable temperature, so I’ll sit and eat some food while drinking my tea or coffee and waiting for Max to finish packing his last few bits away.

On this first day this routine took about 90-minutes as neither of us were familiar with where things would sit in out panniers. When they’re piled up on the floor it can be difficult to visualise where each of them sits on the bike which makes it difficult to remember what each is for.

We headed back up to the main road — which was completely deserted at what was now 9am — stopping along the way to pick some cherries from a tree we passed. We didn’t have any real breakfast, only snacks, so we decided to aim for a first stop at a petrol station that was also marked as a Café on the maps with the hope of being able to find more water and something more substantial to eat.

 alt: A small tortoise we removed from the middle of the road.  alt: Max try's figure out how shoes work.
A small tortoise we removed from the middle of the road; Max try’s figure out how shoes work.

Over the next few hours we really just got our heads down and tried to put some decent miles in. We wanted to cross into Macedonia — something which would give us a feeling of starting to make progress on the sixteen–country tour. We put a decent number of miles away thanks to the reasonable roads now that we were in less trafficked areas and found ourselves near the village of Néro around lunch. Max didn’t want to ride past the village and double back a few short kilometres to access the village so we took our panniers off the bikes to carry them over the road-side barrier and down a steep slope, reattaching the panniers at the bottom.

Néro was not what we expected it to be. We rode around aimlessly looking for the village centre where we hoped to find a shop to buy some lunch. When we found the village centre we waited for a man to finish washing under the water fountain before filling our bottles. We quickly discovered the water tasted disgusting, much like that from the Roman Baths spring in Bath, UK. We abandoned this and leant our bikes up on the Café windows before heading in for lunch.

Inside Max said giasou (Greek for ‘Hello’) to which a man replied by shouting ‘English!’ loudly and repeatedly while pointing at a younger woman. We were both amazed to find ourselves sat in a tiny café in rural Greece only to find another person speaking English; we were well off the beaten track at this point, with nothing particularly touristy for over 100km.

The lady sat us down at the table while we tried to ask for food. Our conversations were awkward and slow, with lots of gesturing and both of us finding and pointing to various phrases in our Lonely Planet language guide to fill the gaps in each of ours knowledge. After a while two bottles of Coke each appeared, a jug of water and two plates of kebab and salad.

 alt: Looking over one of the many vast plains of northern Greece.
Looking over one of the many vast plains of northern Greece.

The lady asked if we’d tried the water, and explained that it was unique. It came from a nearby mountain and the flavour was due the minerals within the water. This explained the flavour, and knowing it was safe to drink we knew we could safely refill our bottles from the water fountain before continuing.

Over the afternoon we steadily made progress towards the border over the huge greek plains. They’d often rise or fall slowly, dragging out any climbs but providing just enough assistance on the downs to make them easy going. Many of the plains seemed like they’d never end, but eventually we did find ourselves at the border crossing with the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia – more commonly known as Macedonia, or F.Y.R.O.M.

 alt: Farming fields and groves fill the lower expanses of the Greek plains.
Farming fields and groves fill the lower expanses of the Greek plains.

At the checkpoint our passports were both cleared on the Greek side in just a few minutes, so we proceeded to the no–mans–land shop to pickup a few more snacks for the road ahead (we’d pass through two more countries before I’d open the kilogram of nuts I bought here).

With the food supplies restocked we proceeded to the Macedonian border. The man here once again approved Max’s passport within few seconds, while he sat on his computer studying mine for much longer. Max had proceeded further up the road and sat on the grass while I was stood at the checkpoint waiting to find out if he would let me pass, getting more nervous by the minute.

More from the Eurovelo series

This post is part of the nine part series Eurovelo. This series is not yet complete; the published parts are:

  1. Eurovelo: A charity cycle expedition across Europe.
  2. Eurovelo: Arriving in Thessaloniki: The start of the adventure as we arrive in Thessaloniki, Greece and build the bikes before getting underway
  3. Eurovelo: Diesel and Dust: From the dust and fumes of Thessaloniki to the remote plains of northern Greece.
  4. Eurovelo: Into the Storm: Cycling from Bitola, Macedonia to Skopje, Macedonia though the mountains.
  5. Eurovelo: Kosovo: Cycling through Kosovo
  6. Eurovelo: Bad Roads and Big Diversions: Resuming the story of Eurovelo after crossing the border from Kosovo into Albania.
  7. Eurovelo: Montenegro: The story of a brief traverse across Montenegro from Albania to Croatia.
  8. Eurovelo: Croatia and Bosnia: Cycling the length of Croatia as part of a 4000km expedition.
  9. Eurovelo: Italy: A brief glimpse into the Italian countryside and culture.