The Greek islands are some major tourist spots, and everyone has seen a few pictures of Santorini before. Coming from southern Turkey, we had the chance to see them.
Text by Stephan, all photos by Yuily
The ferry left quite early from Marmaris in southwestern Turkey. There wasn’t really much of a choice, as in winter season there were only two crossings per week. We met four cyclists on the dock: Andy and Clare, as well as a French couple we encountered near Antalya. They handed us a section from a newspaper with our picture on it! An interview we had with a journalist on the road made it into print, and we were very happy to see it.
The small boat took us right into the old town of Rhodes. Our original plan was to stay only two days on the island and catch the next ferry to Santorini, but a visit to the information center made Yuily reconsider. She convinced me to make a tour of the island, to which I agreed.
A few days in I started to regret it. Greece was of course much more expensive than Turkey, so we piled food from Lidl, the cheapest supermarket, onto our bicycles. The southern side then was not inspiring at all for me. Tourist resort after tourist resort, all empty. A few towns reminded us of zombie movies. I didn’t see the point of cycling here, but on the upside, we could just choose any restaurant and camp under their veranda – with luck they left the WiFi on.
Bad weather didn’t help and people were not hospitable, yapping about “private property”. Requests for a good campspot were not understood. As I tried to Skype with my mom for christmas, it didn’t work. I was feeling a bit negative and unfortunately annoyed Yuily with it, who enjoyed everything more than me, especially the town of Lindos.
I cheered up significantly on the north part of the island. The big resorts were gone and there was actually life on the towns, with people being nice and ramdomly giving us fruits. The nature and scenery around the castle of Monolithos was absolutely spectacular.
Back in Rhodes town we treated ourselves to a guesthouse for EUR14, getting ready for departure to Santorini. Just after we checked out, the heavens opened with torrential rain and we couldn’t get anywhere without getting soaked. As the port had almost no shelter, we spent hours in the “Chinese Burger” in the city. We spoke a long time to the staff about our trip, who at the end decided not to charge us for the food. A great gesture, as eating out is not very cheap in Greece!
Leaving didn’t work out. The ferry trip got canceled because of the weather and the next trip was 4 days later. Stubbornly, we put our tent under a roof in the port and waited it out. Luckily, a nice guy from the port authority permitted us to stay and the lady from a cafe next door regularly brought us free coffee and leftover snacks. We could use their WiFi and power, while the nights were quite mild. Not the worst place to camp!
Departure day and we finally went on the ship. I fell asleep as it left the port and when I woke up again I saw that we were back in Rhodes port. Engine problems, we were told. 30 hours later we finally departed for good and it took another 24 hours to Santorini. The whole time, explanations from the staff were hard to come by. They fed us and gave us cabins for free, but only at our request. This shit would not fly in Taiwan or Germany, people would get insanely angry…
This island was a focus. Yuily has a puzzle poster of it in her bedroom, so we kind of had to go since we were so close, right?
Right in the port already another cyclist filmed us unloading. The Frenchman David was just about to leave to Athens and going to stay with the same host we also had pre-arranged there, so that was a nice surprise.
We climbed the switchbacks to the top of the caldera and started to get the views of this unique place. A huge crater split the island into three, with the largest ones having some traditional white houses built right on the cliff. This is why we were here.
First of all, we visited the local Lidl supermarket, pretty much the only cheap way to get food on the island, and on to Fira, the capital. Tourism here was still in swing, unlike Rhodes, so we didn’t feel totally out of place. We didn’t have much time before dark however, so had to get on to find a place to camp. In the end we didn’t have to worry much as the financial crisis of Greece hit here as well and we had multiple abandoned buildings to choose from.
Strong winds of around 50 km/h were very normal at this time of the year. Rain fell overnight and showers continued to fall on the island while we cycled to Oia. This is the village all the famous photos of Santorini were shot at, so we indulged as well. Luckily, sun and clouds evened each other out and we got in some great shots.
Blatantly camping in a bus stop shelter this time, visibly annoying a Greek lady by our presence in the morning, paid off as it poured with rain most of the night and morning. Our original plan was to cycle back to Fira and explore it more, but with this hard rain that was not an option. It was supposed to get worse: A cold front was rolling over Europe, going to hit Greece from the next day on, with snow (!) forcasted. Our chances of finding a host on Santorini were minimal, so I suggested to take the afternoon ferry and get our asses to Athens, where we had a host organized. After a miserable downhill cycle in the rain we boarded a comfortable ferry for the 6 hour ride to Piraeus (Athens port).
Athens and the Peloponnese
Our host, Fillipos, was legendary, running what was essentially an open home for cyclists less than two kilometers away from the port. He was away for a few days, but let several of us crash scattered through his flat. Along with David, who we met on Santorini, there was another French couple and a Spanish cyclist. In the end, our decision to come here early was right. On the night we arrived, the temperature already plummeted close to 0 and the following days a light snow blanket covered the city. Apparently we still had it mild, since many other parts of Greece reported temperatures below -10°C.
This cold snap lasted around 5 days, during which we didn’t do much. We managed to go downtown and walk around the Acropolis, but the EUR10 entrance fee was a bit too much. A restaurant called “Ta Kanaria” advertised free food for cyclists on warmshowers.org, which we indulged in – a great opportunity to taste Greek food, which we could otherwise not afford.
Lovely weather returned and we were on our way towards the Peloponnese. It was important that, for the next few months, we stay as close to the Mediterranean Sea as possible. All those mountains of Greece and the Balkans looked fabulous, but in winter it was better to avoid them, especially as we rely on camping. The misery our friend Pierre had over there reinforced that decision.
It took us about four days to cross over to the bridge connecting back to the Balkan mainland. We were hoping to have a host in Patras, but that didn’t work out. The weather turned on us again, with three days of heavy rain forecasted, so we spent a night in a highway rest area. I was having difficulties to find hosts in Greece in general, as most of Couchsurfing was populated with male hosts using it as a dating website. Spontaneous hospitality was also a foreign concept as our requests were met with shrugs and directions to a hotel. But in other ways, Greek people remained kind, as the next morning we were invited for breakfast.
The West Coast
Against all odds, I found us a host 200 km north in Igoumenitsa, so we had to battle through the rain to get there. 30 km further, a cafe let us camp under a roof and just 20 km further the next day we were forced to stop again due to heavy rain, taking shelter under the roof of a farmers house. The Albanian farmer later showed up and had no problems letting us sleep in his very basic concrete shed.
Another half day of rain had to be waited out, when finally the sun showed up again and we were rewarded with some glorious cycling along the west coast of Greece. In the little town of Mikitas then, the unthinkable happened: We were invited in. After finding us camping on their land, the house owner visibly took minutes to convince himself, but finally showed us in to sleep in his garage and have a shower. Their son offered us fruit and some more things to eat later. We were very happy for their hospitality, something we began thinking was only a thing of Asia.
After two more days of cycling, we arrived in Igoumenitsa, our last stop in Greece. Our Couchsurfing host here gave us a wonderful place to crash on our last night in Greece – a country which, similar to Turkey, has redeemed itself in the end regarding hospitality. We now had a new country to look forward to: Albania.
Final impressions on Greece
The name “Greece” has so much history and impressions behind it when you just hear it. Consequently, this is very much tourist country. So many stretches of land were covered in hotels and resorts, many of which were dead for the season. With the tourism comes its curse: many people view you as just another one and don’t see why they should show any kindness to you if you’re not their customer. I do believe that Greeks are kind and hospitable, as our experience on the west coast showed. For the first time in our trip since Hong Kong, this was the country with the best English skills so far. Almost everyone we talked to spoke excellent English, giving us little to no language barrier. I would like to try going further away from the touristy bits along the coast next time.
Which could well be worth it. It’s a beautiful country with rugged mountains, picturesque oceans and medieval castles in stunning locations. We really enjoyed the pure cycling as long as the sun was out. It was also not very stressful as most drivers were very respectful, slowing down behind us and giving us a lot of space when passing.
It’s hard to think of Greece and not to think of the crisis it’s going through. And just like many countries in such a pickle, we could clearly see the previous wealth and current issues. Unfinished construction sites and abandoned buildings were an all to common sight. Prices for groceries were insanely high and only really tolerable ironically in the German Lidl chain. Life as a middle class Greek must be tough…
Blue = cycling, grey = ferry