Gimme Some Greece

And so the morning of seagulls came. We had heard their calls gently piercing the usual choir of car horns, ambulances and EU Parliament campaigners that crowd any city. Ana pulled the bed cover and exposed me to brisk morning air, as I laid on our old mattress. We have been squatting on the floor of this undone room, you see, since we’ve arrived in Bucharest from our 10 months Asian and whatnot adventure. That we’d start cooking our meals in the middle of the living room over open fire had been a worrying thought since we were wondering about Africa’s deep bush. Some years have passed since and no, we are not doing that, but neither are we content to regular furniture, including beds. So rolling out into my day could not have been easier, and this time there were no tent zippers to undo. In the yard there was the vehicle that should take us to the seagulls. With motorbikes still to be rebuilt (mine having suffered a much blogged about breakdown in Siberia), we’d chosen a four wheeler. And this time we’d have friends for company. A good man we do not yet know was lending his camper so we’d fill it with future memories. Giving it a scrub was part of the bargain…

Car squeaky clean done. We scrambled to pack some luggage and pushed and shoved to fit five bikes on the 3-bike rack.

And off we go: me, Ana, Julian and Stefan. The mood is indicative of fun times to come.

“Guys, I wanna join the party,” called Andrea right when we were about to exit Bucharest. “We’ll pick you up in half an hour,” we said, and soon we were chucking a sixth bike on the rack. With guys taking turns to drive, Bulgaria became little more than a refuelling station, and we crossed into Greece with a friendly policeman not even bothering to check if any of our IDs matched the two bodies laying in deep sleep in the back of the camper.

More driving and an underwater tunnel later, we were having our brunch on the shores of Lefkada. There were boats rinsed by ridiculously blue waters and a brilliant sun was up.

Which suddenly irked us to find a beach. When in Greece, that is never a difficult task.

Searching for the deepest blue has its perks: one may stumble upon a lighthouse and a sketchy trail or two. In order to spare any cardiac arrhythmia to the car’s owner, we shall refrain from disclosing the photos.

Unsurprisingly, Lefkada has long been conquered by tourists; yet it still has its decent share of secluded spots. By late evening we claimed one of those for our first bush camp. It was a quiet clearing carpeted in thorny bushes and what we identified for wild thyme and camomile. The girls plucked some for our next week’s salads and teas.

Our friend Özgür was arriving from Turkey the next day at noon. Which would allow us enough time to cycle the eastern coast of the island. We got to pumping the flats and wrapping heads in scarves that should shelter from already blistering sun.

Somebody had to sacrifice themselves and assume the driver’s role. This time it had to be me. The rest of the happy cycling gang proceeded uphill.

While I was hurrying to the other side of the island to meet up with Özgür, the cyclists stopped to stare into the blue. Even if the pic shows some of them turning their back to the waters.

So it happened that right across their stopping spot there was a taverna that was tempting passer byes with yoghurt and honey. The rat pack gave in into the sweet temptation and while indulging they were tipped by the owner about a lucky shortcut across the mountain. “The road isn’t paved, but instead of 24 you’ll have to do only about 6 km to the port!” he said. So Ana, Andrea, Julian and Stefan set out to arrive at our meeting point a lot earlier then originally thought. The ride proved slightly challenging on the slippery gravel, but it awarded spectacular views of the gulf where we were to take the next ferry. Lucky bastards!

Özgür’s arrival changed our foodie karma: suddenly everything that was hauled from the kitchen to our table was positively gourmet: eggplants baked in a tomato and feta sauce, lamb with rosemary and honey and of course the simple, yet the best paring of them all: rustic bread dipped in the famous Greek olive oil. All washed down with beer.

From our table we had a clear view of the trails that has just been ridden by my fellow cyclists. Which further built up the envy.

It takes under an hour to cross from Lefkada to our next island, but we were busy discussing the superb meal and catching up with Özgür. It’s been a year almost to the day since we first met him, arriving with a sweaty but glorious Ana on board her own motorbike in the congested traffic of Istanbul. 12 months later we have collected lots of memories from the Central Asian countries. As if riding to the high passes of the Pamir and in the streets of Samarkand or the swathes of Siberia wasn’t already a lot to digest, by late fall we pushed on into China and down to South East Asia, on bicycles. It was a full year, and we feel grateful for it being so, and what could be best than sharing these memories with the guy who provided our first safe pitstop of the journey. This is one of the secrets and benefits of traveling: it allows meeting people you never knew before, but who are already your soul match. If you want to make a new friend, by all means, do travel. It will expand your geographic and cultural horizons, it will remind you how good is to have someone to miss. It will shake the taken-for-granted out of you and connect you to your people. On our little ferry, that was a proper reunion.

Soon Kephalonia’s curvy shoulders appeared within grasp. First we passed some fishermen navigating the crystal waters that wash these shores. Then the picturesque Venetian harbour town of Fiscardo opened up in all its splendour. The front of this diminutive horseshoe-shaped bay is lined with beautifully restored villas that reflect the Italian influence over traditional Mediteranean architecture: nude walls in sandstone and travertine, wooden shutters and shabby chic furniture in soft pastels, narrow streets leading up to a steep flight of stairs that provides access to a disturbingly beautiful cemetery. Most houses along the waterfront function today as hotels and swanky cafes. It’s a pleasant place to enjoy a drink and the calm spectacle of yachts and catamarans coming and going. State of the art boats mingle with humble fishing vehicles and even vintage pieces that lend a timeless vibe to this charming corner of Greece.

An info board was met with happy smirks. Having achieved sufficient distance from the mainland, we could already feel our vagabonds’ energy kicking. Spring is a wonderful season to explore Greece. The islands come alive with a technicolor of wild flowers and the bees start buzzing. Everywhere you look there are olive trees adorned in a warm shade of green instead of the golden hues of summer and the beaches are empty.

We ended our day on one of those beaches that provided both camping spot and shower.

Kephalonia is a chunky piece of rock. Outside villages it has been left wild, so it boast diverse ecosystems and landscapes. We based ourselves on a hill on the eastern shores. Our spot had a view of Ithaka, the island that is said to have been the final destination of Ulysses’ odyssey. We had our own planning to do: should we cycle up north or head south?

North won. We rambled the rocky trails for hours, every switchback revealing a more seductive panorama. More than payback for our newly injured cyclist: Julian has hit a rock as he was performing one of his quirky stunts.

Nevertheless, Julian remained ‘king’ (if you haven’t watched the movie Madagascar yet, you’ll miss this point). The olive wrath and the boy band pic stand proof.

As we moved up, the shores became less tame and the Ionian sea more brutal. Waves exploded in electric shades of turquoise into the underwater reefs. We soaked in the salty breeze, and toyed for a while with the idea of bringing our camper over there; in the end we decided the steep climbs would be too much to handle for our two-wheel drive, and turned back.

Cyclists are always hungry and Greece offers an excellent fare: for lunch we returned to the quaint town of Poros, where a couple of ridiculously giant squids and a handful of fresh sardines died for our pleasure. On the subsequent plates feature the famous Greek moussaka and a slice of Kephalonia meat pie (veal and lamb pilaff baked between two sheets of homemade crust).

While stuffing our faces with the amazing food we couldn’t help but talk more food. Food was also required for our next meals, so while some chose a siesta on the waterfront, others hit the shops for fresh produce and local delicacies.

While in Greece, great cheese is always the best companion for hearty bread and fragrant olive oil. Kephalonia’s fertile lands ensure a superb range: white, crumbly, and very pungent Feta cheese, made from goat’s milk and two harder varieties that are aged for 3 months and up and are similar to Gruyere: Kefalotyri and Kefalograviera. They became our undisputed favourites. For desert we picked a box of the island’s characteristic mandoles (sugared almonds with red colouring).

Further south the roads are paved and winding, and the beaches covered in marble pebbles.

A great bush camp has to be fought for. On the southernmost tip of the island we took a sandy trail that ended only with the abysmal cliffs. It was a harsh, windy spot, waves pounding the shores and gusts thrusting into what suddenly felt like the edge of the world. It felt so right. It felt like we were truly where we needed to be.

From up, the eroded limestone looked like beached whales. That required further investigation.

We left our camper and bikes behind and descended on foot. It was a pleasant hike across the fields and down to the beach. There was evidence of wildlife everywhere: snake imprints, armies of ants, empty crab carcasses and rotting jellyfish, and lovely circles described by  windswept plants.

You can spot our camper car perched on the cliff in the the far left of the image.

By sunset all six of us were back in our mobile home. A wide full moon miraculously silenced the rattling wind, and we soon fell into the deep traveler’s sleep.

It’s hard to venture off the beaten track in a country as popular with travellers as Greece. But being the largest of the Ionian islands, Kefalonia has its fair share of hidden magic, like the western Paliki peninsula. It is eerily beautiful, with a mountainous interior harbouring caves and some say even orchids. As enticing as they may be, some of the secluded beaches proved impossible to reach by our  beefy camper.

Surrounded by so much water, one is never too full to ignore an open taverna. Ours was a rustic encampment of wooden tables on a sand-scattered floor, under a makeshift roof streaming with weird and wonderful knick-knacks: a rusty anchor, scraps of painted wood and fishing nets galore. A canary virtuoso and his two unidentified fellow captives provided for a bewildering soundtrack to our meal. As here local fishing boats deliver their catches directly to the kitchen, the enthusiastic owner of the restaurant was more than happy to talk us through the dishes of the day. Which translated into pulling a tray from the fridge containing a couple of dozen of glistening red mullet, sea bream and crab.

After another adrenaline-inducing drive further north-west, we settled on the only stretch of land that had a less than 45 degrees gradient. Further down the road, the stairs leading to the beach had collapsed after the January and February 2014 earthquakes, so we had to contend with the breathtaking views from the top. The resilient Kephalonians have a history of surviving such events; one of the most well documented was the 1953 earthquake which raised the whole island by 60 cm!

The soft gravel roads were too steep and provided zero grip for biking, so we went clambering over rocky escarpments like some freakish super-sized goats. These trails would be superb for our motorbikes and there are many exhilarating intimate spots for camping.

Two of us managed to stray over the mountain, into the sleepy village of Kaminarata, and right on the doorstep of the only family-run establishment, the Anatoli Taverna. Nobody spoke English there, but Juli, the lovely dark-haired owner knew what the dusty hikers were after. Soon a garlicky tzatziki, fat slices of bread and juicy tomatoes, Feta saganaki and rosemary lamb chops and even some baked apples drizzled with wild honey appeared on the table. As our friends indulged, more people arrived: a slender teenager dressed in traditional folk attire and a fair-skinned elderly couple. The girl introduced herself as the owners’ eldest daughter. She was heading to an event and proudly explained her sophisticated costume. The other two strangers proved to be not strangers at all: they were British retirees who had been living in the village for 15 years. That warranted that we were definitely not crazy for gushing unanimously about moving to Greece ever since we had set foot in the country! The Brits helped our friends negotiate what was meant to be a year’s supply of locally produced olive oil. No doubt our friends and families will devour the lot in a couple of weeks. Over the next 48 hours we returned to the taverna twice: to pick up the oil, chat with the lovely owners and to eat more honest, delicious home cooked food.

Life is simple in such places, people wear their hearts out in the open and everybody knows everybody. Soon we were admiring the vistas and debating local politics with the mayor and his wife who encouraged us to consider making a home in Kaminarata village.

To the far west of the peninsula there are even quieter places. Choppy seas carve into untamed cliffs that barely allow enough beach for a couple of sun-worshipers. It is wilder here, and within the roar of the wave it’s easy to hear our soul.

On our last day on the island we drove by its most photogenic beach and arguably Greece’s most famous: Myrthos.

Back in Fiscardo, we ran into a place that wonderfully advertised our own dilemma: should we go for ice-cream or ferry tickets?

Sadly it was time to go. But not before enjoying a farewell cup of coffee while rubbing elbows with the cosmopolitan yachties.

Under a light rain we climbed aboard the ferry that was to haul us back to Lefkada.

Once we entered the harbour the sky cleared, inspiring us to drive up the mountain in search for a yummy bite. Several villagers and steep climbs later, we found our match in the form of a thick Lefkadian fish soup.

As we vagabonded the villages of Lefkada, there were joyful signs of spring everywhere: pots of blossoming flowers and lemon trees heavy with their citrus bounty.

Trouble found us on the last kilometres to Thessaloniki: the rack that supports the spare wheel broke loose and a metal rod pierced through our back right tyre, causing a flat and possibly a mild coronary attack to a fellow driver who happened to lag on our behind. Later that night we were back on the mainland and saying goodbye to Özgür, who was about to hop on his return bus to Istanbul. The rest of us scrambled for a peaceful spot to camp and prepared for our next day’s drive across Bulgaria.

24 hours later we all fell asleep in separate beds in our own separate homes with our own different memories of this Greek micro adventure. But I bet that under each and every one’s lids fluttered the same blue.

Note: this micro adventure lasted from the 10th to the 18th of May 2014. All photos are taken with various phone cameras belonging to the happy gang: Ana, John, Özgür, Julian, Andrea, Stefan. No DSRL on this field trip. Cheers to all who allowed us to use their pics. Last, but not least, we thank M. for borrowing us his camper. Lots of good karma collected on this one.