Croatia, I hardly knew you!

To say that I’ve only scratched the surface of what Croatia has to offer would be a vast understatement. From the moment I stepped off of that ferry I knew that a week was no where near long enough to take in what this country has to offer. Dubrovnik alone could easily fill a week. I packed it into what felt like one of the longest days of my life.

Immediately upon entering old town we stumbled upon a farmer’s market just setting up for the day. I bought fresh figs, a round of nicely funky cheese and local olive oil in a plastic water bottle.
A typical lunch with some of the items I found above.
After a stop at this picturesque port we climbed the walls for 100 kuna (about $15) and completed the circuit in a couple hours. The walls are said to be the finest in the world and they certainly thr most impressive I’ve ever seen.
Several scenes from the show, Game of Thrones, were filmed right here. I geeked out just a bit.
Just playing it cool. It’s alright, I guess……
The same unbelievable alley from below and above.
With a recommendation from some Canadians we spent several hours at Buza, a cliff side bar with a gated tunnel entrance through the city wall. The rest of our day was spent seeking out some amazing food, like black risotto, a seafood risotto dish turned black from squid ink. We followed this with an evening of socializing in our bomb shelter hostel with fellow wanderer a from New Zealand, Germany, Saudi Arabia and I’m sure others that I’m not recalling. It was a long night.
From a cycling perspective, trying to get from point A to point B was challenging in Dalmatia. Heading north /south, the geography forces a cyclist to use some very harrowing roads: tight switchbacks, no shoulders, buses and trucks barreling down steep descents. This would have been easily avoided if the ferries had been operating. I quickly learned that the ferry network is vastly reduced in the off-season, October through April. Of the ferries running from island to island, they are primarily catamarans. I learned the hard way that the catamarans are for foot passengers only and they mean it, no bikes.
Despite the challenges, including some relentless rain and closed campsites, I spent several more days wandering around Dalmatia.
Nice little lunch spot here in Brsecine.
These last few are in Korcula, a nicely preserved medieval town. Apparently, they have the best claim to Marco Polo’s birth place. I spent an unexpected night here and discovered sobes, generally a spare room in someone’s house that they let to tourists. I’m about 95% certain that the balcony from mine had a view Marco Polo’s home.
And the last couple are from Split, my departing point for Istria. There was much more there that I wanted to check out, but my mantra for this trip seems to be becoming, “Can’t see it all so enjoy what you can.”

 

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More Boat than Bike

With some regret, I decided that in order to make my date in Venice, April 25th, I'd have to bypass Albania and Montenegro. Plus, with the fairly constant rain and unusually chilly tempertures, the warm and dry overnight ferry to Bari, Italy was too tempting to pass up. From there, I would catch the ferry to Dubrovnik.
I was tossed around a bit more by the sea, but actually managed some sleep, then had a day to wander Bari. This part of the world is so full of preserved history that even visiting a non-tourist destination like Bari, I was able to see so much.

Finally contact with another tourer! Boarding the ferry from Bari to Dubronik Ed Hanna, of Portland, OR https://andiamopedal.wordpress.com, and I spotted each other and headed straight for the bar to share stories and information. Unlike the previous ferry, this was one was a well preserved relic of the 80s. We managed to sit among what appeared to be a huge Italian family's Easter vacation and were fed some kind of quiche with ham, a chocolate iced yellow cake and Neaopolitan apples. What luck!

It was so great to connect with Ed! He's been on the road for a month, beginning in Silicy, and wandering up through southern Italy. We parted ways after a fun filled 24 hours in Dubrovnik, but it sounds like our paths may cross again in Hungary.

 

Kalamata to Zankynthos

I've begun this post while ferrying from Zankynthos back to Killini. This is the first time I've experienced a boat this large getting tossed around this much by the sea. Feeling a bit queezy. It's amazing the difference a day can make. Yesterday, it was gorgeous, perfect for my birthday day-off, and today chilly and stormy.

Since I wrote last I've made my way to the western coast from Kalamata, camping in Navarino Bay. This is an upscale all-inclusive area, pricey restaurants and the first golf course I've seen. It's clearer than ever that I'm exploring this area a bit prior to the actual tourist season. I found a campsite that wasn't officially open, but the manager allowed me to stay anyway. And for a reduced price!

My neighbors at the campsite were a German couple riding across Europe by motorcycle, Sasha and Uli. They took very good care of me; food, alcohol, a possible place to stay in Tubingin, Germany, and some critical information about ferries. Turns out, getting from Greece to Croatia by boat direct is no longer possible. This means riding north through Albania and Montenegro, which I don't really have the time for, or ferrying from Greece to Italy and then to Croatia. After sorting through a lot of misinformation online and from locals the latter turned out to be the better option.

I rode north mainly sticking to the coast, noticing more and more the impact of the recession on Greece. I've talked with a number of Greeks and the general sentiment seems to be that things will get worse before they get better. One told me that there are half a million partially built or empty houses and buildings. This is in a country of nine million! And it shows. I've ridden past countless beautiful nearly complete mountain side condos and vacation homes with beach views that look as though the workmen just up and left one day and never returned. Now they're overgrown with wild flowers and in some cases covered in nationalistic or gang graffiti. It's sad to see things fall apart in this country of such deep and rich culture.
I strayed inland to see Olympia, the original, and arrived just in time to inadvertently cross a finish line for a local cycling event. The participants clapped for me and smiled, partly joking and in part with real respect. They know what it means to cycle through their country and with all the gear on my bike, I got some street cred!
Ancient Olympia, though not as impressive ruins as others in Greece, has a special charm due to it's ongoing significance in our modern world.
I especially enjoyed standing at the starting line of the stadium where athletes would sprint the 120m span in the nude!
I spent my last couple days in Greece, including my birthday, on the Ionian island of Zakynthos. Again I wandered in search of an open campsite and again, not finding one turned out to be fortuitous. I stopped to ask directions at a restaurant and the owner confirmed that none of the campsites had opened for the season. He offered one of the rooms above at a very reduced rate since they weren't really open either. I gladly accepted!
For my birthday day-off I wandered the island and treated myself to a special meal. It was only a sweet elderly woman humming to herself and I in this hidden family owned restaurant, Mesathes, so I chatted at length with the owner and his wife. Turns out that 30 years ago he sang the Greek restaurant/nightclub circuit in the Midwest and lived in Chicago and Detroit. Who knew there was such a thing?!
The Greek salad was amazing, the wine fantastic. The main course, beef in a red sauce, wasn't much to look at, but was damn tasty. When they learned it was my birthday they brought me a chilled, moist dessert with orange rind mixed in and cinnamon sprinkled on top, called halvaz. It served wonderfully as my birthday cake. This place and the family feel really made the day special.
End of another ferry ride and now for a quick stop in Bari, Italy!

 

Athens to Kalamata (roughly 250 km/ 150 m)

After riding through the bicycle hostile cities of Athens and Sparta I am very happy to be taking my breakfast at a bakery directly beside a bike path in Kalamata. AND after the last three grueling and shockingly spectacular days of riding, it looks as though I will be sitting here all morning.

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What to say? There is so much! I can confirm many assumptions about Greece. Everywhere in the countryside one can hear the quintessential clanging of a goat bell. Or that there are citrus and olive groves as far as the eye can see. And that Greek men really do yell a lot. But I did not expect that I’d be riding through such incredible natural beauty and nothing prepared me for sheer amount western culture and history that has its roots in Greece.

Here is a taste of what I’ve been experiencing in a somewhat chronological order:

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Stayed in Athens two nights at the Athens Backpackers, collecting some supplies from the Monastiraki flea market. Turns out that I could have picked up an assault rifle with my camp stove fuel. I passed. I took in some sites with the Acropolis, not surprisingly, at the top of the list. Really is impressive!

Took the train toward Corinth to get clear of the urban sprawl. And I was helped through a tricky changing of trains by Alex, a Greek guy who grew up in London. Thank you! Then slowly meandered around the coast, passing through small mountain side villages and ending with a campsite in an orange grove.
I took a little side treck to stop at the amazingly well preserved theater of Epidavros. I listened to European teens recite classics in languages I couldn’t understand. The acoustics were unbelievable. This town also held the main temple and origin of the god of healing, Asclepius. The symbol we use for medicine, the two snakes criss-crossing around a staff, stems from this god. Turns out that the priests actually used a kind of talk therapy, positive psychology, to treat the pilgrams and believed in the power of the mind to heal the body.
Passing through small mountainside villages. I was hailed in one by someone speaking English. Turns out he had spent some time in Canada and was about to go hunt some special mushrooms. I joined them on their porch for a Greek coffee and saw pictures of what turned out to be Morels! We shared some morel stories, he gave me some advice/ directions for my journey and fully jacked up on coffee I was on my way.
These beautiful fresh water mountain springs are in every village and the water is incredible.
Of course, when in Sparta, you have to take your, “I am Sparta!,” picture.
Exploring the Byzantine medieval village of Mystras outside of Sparta. It was the last Byzantine stronghold before it’s fall to the Turks. And my campsite in an olive tree grove the night before.
Switchbacks are my life! Crossing the mountains from Sparta to Kalamata.
A relaxing night in Kalamata. I’ve seen all of the mountains I need to for awhile.
And finally this little guy helped remind me that slow and steady wins the race. I think I found my totem animal for this tour.

 

Roadside Prayers

So these roadside alters are everywhere and they’re kinda freaking me out. So I’ve decided to think of them more as alters of protection than remembrance. Actually, since I got out of Athens the roads have felt real safe, decent size shoulders the whole way.

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Lessons Learned

So the bike seems to be in good working order after it’s journey in the belly of the plane.  I researched airline policies pretty thoroughly prior to buying the ticket and found Air Canada to be the best. They allow 115 lbs. and 115 linear inches.  So I bought my ticket and thought I was good. On the day of travel the packed bike box w gear weighed in at 68.5 lbs.  Unfortunately, though an Air Canada flight, the first leg of journey was handed off to United, who have one of the most restrictive bike policies.  They charged me their fee of $200 for the  Chicago to Toronto international flight!

So when I complained to Air Canada they agreed that United should have abided by Air Canada’s policy, but that basically United is big so they do whatever they want.

Once checked, I said a prayer and watched the bike get taken away.  I joined the security line and had a vantage point where  I watched TSA security rip into the box I had so carefully just taped the hell out of.  They were actually pretty gentle during the  search, but once they’d taped it up they immediately laid the box on its side.  Didn’t seem to matter how many times I wrote “this side face up” on the box.  When I arrived in Greece the bike came out on the conveyor belt, again on its side, but in one piece.

 

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Beginning with Gratitude

I’ve been in Athens two days and it is just beginning to settle in where I am and what I am about to do. Chillier than expected and WET, getting on the bike with all of my gear is a bit daunting this morning. I’ve ridden around town the last couple days and the streets are crazy! So after I get a couple more supplies and some food I’ll take a train out of Athens and hop off in the suburbs. Then west I go, likely stopping past Corinth. Sometimes it takes stepping out of our lives to appreciate how much we have. I’ve never had such a great experience of saying good-byes. So many send-off meals and drinks, kind and really sweet words, and the way my community has gotten behind this Habitat for Humanity project is astounding! For anyone having doubts about humanity try raising funds for something you believe in. Your inner cynic will run in fear! A couple experiences that have helped prepare me for this trip are on my mind this morning.  First, I keep thinking about my test run from. Indy to Bloomington a couple weeks ago.  I’ve really enjoyed my solo time touring, but there is nothing riding with buddies.  Such a blast! image I’m also really grateful for a volunteer experience I had with one of Indy’s unique non-profits.  For the last couple months  I was lucky enough to volunteer with FreeWheelin Community Bikes.  For those that don’t know, FreeWheelin empowers young people through bike maintenance education.  In return for showing up and participating the kids can earn a bike of their own.  Simple concept and effective.  I got to help out in the store front preparing donated bikes for sale. Certainly got more than I gave. http://freewheelinbikes.wix.com/freewheelinbikesimage Now if this thunderstorm would wrap up, I’d get this tour started.