Cycling across Arcadian highlands and to Sparta

Cycling across Arcadian highlands and to Sparta

The docks were already bursting with activity when I pushed my loaded bicycle onto the little ferry-boat, and climbed onto the cabin’s roof for a good dose of sun and winds. A strong breeze rose as the boat exited the natural shelter of the harbour, a promise of headwinds on the road. I said goodbye to Hydra, promised I would be back, someday.

Note: sorry for the long absence. I am well and settled on a small island in the Cyclades for the winter. I stopped cycling and slowed down on my writing because of other projects. Please hang on with my Mediterranean pace.

Healing centre in the hills

After a forty-minutes crossing, I was back on the Peloponnese, the European mainland, and the realm of asphalt roads. I was surprised by the cars parked on the land. In the last two days, I had nearly forgotten about them, and now suddenly remembered that I would need to share the road with them. And while I had not paid attention just two days earlier, dozens of cars were parked here along the port driveway, some apparently for a while judging by the flat tires and the eroded paint. But for now, the seaside road pleasantly meandered along the hilly coast, and made for a agreeable ride in spite of the wind. This side of the Argolid Peninsula was quiet, and I was glad to be cycling here rather than on the much busier northern shore.

I felt rested and energized. After an uneasy start in Greece, and the racy ride along the gulfs, I could tell how the ten-night break on Poros, and then the two nights on Hydra, had refilled my batteries. Even my brain seemed unusually active, as if it had been waiting for the euphoria of the road as a permission ticket to wander places future and past. My upcoming itinerary was unusually set. I had four of five days to cover a good three hundred kilometres to the port of Neapoli in the southern Peloponnese. I was glad that new ferries had been added to the timetable, grateful that I had checked it once more. I was excited for the road ahead, eager to see more of Greece, and Crete, before heading to the Cyclades for a real rest. Finally, I felt content that I would eventually get to see the Sparta fault escarpment, a place I had working on as a student, and had not had yet had a change seeing outside a computer screen in the thirteen years that followed.

Sparta, I thought once more, is one of the rare places in Europe where an active geologic fault reaches the surface of the Earth. Together with the Gulf of Corinth, it is also one of the most dangerous fault systems in Greece, whose last major earthquake in 464 BC is infamously linked to the onset of the first Peloponnesian war. Inevitably, these thoughts brought me back two years past, to a morning that has remained one of the most vivid memories from my year living in Japan. I thought I had some kind of nightmare, awoke in great confusion. The bed was violently swinging left and right and kitchen utensils collapsed in the cupboards. It took me several seconds of stunned panic to take the measure of what was happening, and some more seconds yet to wait for it to pass. My first earthquake was unlike anything I had imagined. Then the city lights disappeared and electricity went down, I would later learn, in entire Hokkaido. For five million people in northern Japan, a very unusual two weeks begun.

I remembered how we could see the stars in the streets, as clear as if the city had been turned into an improvised campsite for two million people in remote countryside. I remembered discovering the shocking images of deformed streets and houses buried in landslides much after the rest of the world had seen them. I remembered getting free cheese at a store because the fridges no longer worked. I remembered how I had developed earthquake sickness, feeling aftershocks even when they were not happening. I remembered how I had lost focus from my work and compulsively written a little program to check the frequency and magnitude of aftershocks dozen times a day. I thought that I wanted to write something about this experience. I thought I would be writing about it in the Cyclades.

Two little passes in the peninsula’s interior separated me from Nafplio. I left the coast for an empty road climbing into quiet countryside. It was already mid-October, but the day was getting hot, and once again I could comfortably ride topless, eagerly cycling up and away from the gulf shores through a wind-shed little valley. But after fifteen kilometres of rolling hills and olive trees, the party was over. The last three hundred metres to the pass were again on a major axis, climbing steeply against headwinds, and with multiple blind turns. Soon I became too busy watching for speeding cars in the mirror to think of earthquakes or anything else. I took a break in a vast field of mixed sheep poo and detritus at the top, before engaging in the downhill, which was equally steep but of course much more fun. Eventually most of the car traffic headed north towards Athens and I turned west on a quieter road up the second pass.

It was mid-afternoon when I reached the sanctuary of Asclepius, an ancient healing centre niched in the hills in the heart of Argolis. There was a quiet little café at the entrance to the archaeological site, where I ordered a sandwich and a drink, and lazily booked a hotel room in Nafplio. For once, I had done a little bit of research on touristic attractions by the roadside. The ancient theatre of Epidaurus was said to have such excellent acoustics that if a coin was dropped on the orchestra, it could be heard clearly from anywhere in the theatre. I did not believe a word of it, until a little group of French tourists came trying this very experience. Not only could I hear the coin well, but their conversations reached me crystal clear and their steps sharp as drumbeats as I sat in the upper rows of stone.

The theatre of Epidaurus, an acoustic marvel dating from the 4th century BC, could seat as many as forty thousand spectators. The rest of the sanctuary, dedicated to god of medicine Asclepius, is unfortunately not as well preserved. But strolling through the remains, I was surprised to see how physical healthcare and mental healthcare were intertwined into the building design. Pilgrims once came here for healing, which included a number of rituals, such as bathing, drinking clear spring water, but also taking a nap so as to be visited by Asclepius itself in your dreams, and thereby receive clues that would be used for the diagnosis. The theatre itself was integrated into sanctuary, and provided mental healing through the watching of drama plays.

The last twenty kilometres to Nafplio were all downhill. Shadows were growing but I did not feel the usual hurry to get settled before dark. For some reason, this late afternoon felt different. There was something uncomfortable about the light that made the day feel longer than usual. And then I understood. For the first time on the tour, I had spent this entire day cycling west. In four and a half thousand kilometres, the only time I had cycled westwards was on a twenty-kilometres detour I had made through Tarvisio to avoid higher passes between Austria and Slovenia. But the weather was cloudy then, and only now for the first time was I cycling straight into the setting sun.

Leaving the sea shore

On the next morning, I went for an early walk in the city. Nafplio was a stopover I had been looking forward to, and I had thought of staying here for two nights. But now that I was here, I found it unattractive. This, of course, had more to do with my mood than the city itself, for Nafplio is rich in remains from Venetian, Ottoman and modern Greek history. But I felt I would rather be on the bike, or otherwise somewhere quiet at the contact with nature. I climbed the long series of stairs to the Palamidi castle, mostly because I felt it would be outrageous passing by the ancient capital without at least doing that. A man congratulated me as I reached the top of the stairs. I thanked him. I could get a view on the bottom of the Saronic Gulf, and saw the morning light land on the roofs of the old town. The old lady who ran the hotel where I had spent the night spoke a slow-paced but surprisingly fluent French, and she had invited me to stay a second night for a cheaper price because she “really liked the French.” But no, I wanted to cycle on. I passed by the hotel again, carried down the panniers and left the keys on the counter.

For an entire other day, I cycled west into the wind. I finally circled the deep end of the Saronic Gulf, and before heading inland into the centre of the Peloponnese, had a late-morning swim on the pebble beach. But when I picked up the miniature towel from my handlebar bag, I forgot that the urchin skeleton I had found in the waters of Poros was wrapped in it. The only souvenir I had allowed myself to pick up fell to the ground and shattered in pieces. Gone. I apologized to the urchin fragments for failing to carry them for more than a hundred kilometres, and went for lunch.

The road had barely begun to climb when an unmistakable silhouette appeared in the distance: a fellow bicycle tourist. I crossed over to the left side of the road, and was greeted by a Dutch sexagenarian on a week-long tour around the Peloponnese. We chatted, or rather shouted at each other for a while, as other vehicles sped by on the long stretch of straight road. He was impressed when I told I cycled from almost as far as the Netherlands, but then told me about his own source of inspiration, a cyclist from his home town who had been touring the world for fifty years, and now neared half-a-million kilometres on the road. The number seemed astronomical. I quickly calculated that it implied cycling ten thousand kilometres a year. That seemed reasonable. But fifty years, that felt like a very long time. I was warned of uphills and the lack of water ahead. I thought about turning back to buy bottles, but decided the three on my frame would do.

At the next intersection, I left the highway and, for the next twenty kilometres, I was virtually alone. The road went up into a little vale filled with olive trees. It followed the railway from Argos to Tripoli, which had recently been disused and unfortunately seemed to be falling apart quickly. A car overtook me at leisurely pace, and I felt like I had just entered a parallel universe. Parts of Greece feel surprisingly remote. If there exists anything here between major highways that feel like racetracks, and deserted country roads like this one, I was yet to find it. On such minor roads, I thought, I could climb hills forever. The mental strain of cycling busy uphills is so strong, that hills like this one feel like a piece of cake in comparison.

The road went through a quiet village in a topographic saddle, and plunged back steeply into a valley already filled with afternoon shadows. I pulled on the breaks and was grateful not to cycle in opposite direction. The old railroad was taking extensive loops in the hills to avoid steep gradients. I was surprised by the chill air, and for the first time felt the coolness of autumn. For some reason, which perhaps had to do with the temperature, or perhaps with the evening light and the topography of the gorge, the downhill brought back a memory of a few months old, as I cycled down from the Black Forest before crossing the Rhine into Switzerland. I wondered if that was the last time I felt cold in a downhill.

At the bottom of the slope, I was faced with the choice to continue cycling south into the Parnon Mountains, on promisingly gorgeous roads through a pass twice higher, or west onto the Tripoli Plain and then south on the highway to Sparta, saving five hundred metres of elevation by using busier roads. Laziness took over and I turned west towards Tripoli. Besides, I needed water. I had counted on filtering it from the mountain creeks, but the rivers were still desperately dry and the water filter I had bought in Zurich remained as useless as always.

Another good hour of uphills later, I reached another little pass just in time to see the sun disappear in the hills, and a few seconds to late to capture it on the camera. To the other side begun the Tripoli Plain, a perched karstic plateau similar to those I cycled through in Slovenia. Limestone and litter was poking from the ground everywhere. After escaping onto a dirt road and then literally walking my bike over the continuous line of abandoned clothes, plastic bags and house appliance packaging that bordered it, I finally found a piece of flat ground large enough to fit my tiny tent.

Road anxiety overdose

I woke up early the next day truly feeling cold for the first time. The night had been clear, so I had not bother setting up the rain fly. But my tent and quilt were covered in morning dew, and I did not dare moving out of the covers yet. I prepared a coffee, and resolved not to do anything more until the sun would come up. It was nine degrees Celsius. I had definitely camped in colder weather. One quickly gets used to the Mediterranean climate.

Two hours later, I was already sweating my way along dirt roads on the sun-drenched Tripoli Plain. A water fountain very timely presented itself at a crossroads, and I could refill my bottles before the long empty stretch to Sparta. Before even reaching the highway, I reckoned from the noise it made that this would be no fun. I had checked that the road had large shoulders before engaging in this direction, but the traffic was heavier than I thought. As soon I engaged on the highway, I quickly understood this would be one of my most unpleasant days on the bike. Only a few hundred metres in, I could not help but notice a little roadside shrine, commemorating a life lost on the road. As the highway begun climbing, a dire scene soon boosted my fears. A mobile crane, a fire truck, several police cars and an army of staff had gathered in a road turn. An ambulance left the site as I came near. Some five or ten metres below the road laid a car hung to the crane, apparently landed here on its roof.

For a few kilometres traffic slowed down. But soon it seemed like everyone else forgot about the car accident scene and sped up again. A peculiar thing about road safety in Greece is that accident statistics, or at least the deadly accidents, and there are enough to make statistics, are actually written just by the road. Commemorative shrines multiplied by the roadside. I had never seen so many of them before. Car drivers and motor bikers probably drive too fast to notice, but with my slower pace, I had plenty of time to consider the numbers. I first estimated that there was about a shrine every kilometre, but soon realized there were probably even more. Often only a few hundred metres separated them. Sometimes there were several shrines in the same place. Some of them were simple metal cases, some highly elaborated miniature stone houses. I tried to imagine how the accidents happened, wondered how many years had the road been built, how many drunk drivers were passing me now, and if this road was the deadliest in Greece or if an even deadlier one existed somewhere else.

I stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant, which turned out to be the only business on the entire highway. As usual I took a seat outside, but soon I had to put on my down jacket again. The sun was high but the air windy and chill. The fire truck I had passed a few hours earlier came parking on the lot. Two men picked up take-away that had been ordered for apparently more of them, and promptly left again. It seemed their work was not finished yet. I cycled on.

For a good thirty kilometres, the highway was fairly remote, yet I was shocked by the amount of garbage that continuously aligned on the roadside. Along the entire stretch from leaving the Tripoli Plateau to Sparta, I think there is literally not a single metre of roadside without an item of thrash on it. On average, there is probably about ten garbage items on either side per metre of road, with much higher density in places due to wind patterns. Much of it is plastic. The road did not pass a single village or business besides the restaurant where I ate, but that apparently did not prevent some to carry their coffee cups and water bottles for tens of kilometres before throwing them out of the car window. At that point I think, Greece moved to the top position in my personal ranking of countries with the dirtiest roads, ahead of the USA, where at least there exist programs to clean roads.

Thinking of it, the road too often is a disgusting place. The road is the place where all visit yet no one lives, and all appear anxious to get somewhere else quickly. The road is a dirty place, a convenient giant garbage dump soon left behind the wheels. The road is a place of death, animal death and human death. The road is a place of anxiety, how could it be called home then? As a bicycle tourist though, you spend a lot of time on the road.

Eventually, I reached the intersection that I had been looking forward for hours. I lifted my left arm, feeling like a turtle among the motorized traffic. I changed to the middle lane, for what seemed like an eternity, and eventually turned left and exited the highway. I breathed out loudly, released my grip on the handlebars, raised my head to look at the landscape, stretched my arms and my back. I parked onto an olive tree and sat down on the talus. Time to relax. The land sloped gently to the south-west. And then across the valley, the mountains rose again sharply, jutting from the plain along a perfect line extending far to the south, disappearing into a ceiling of grey clouds. I was facing the Sparta fault scarp.

It was here, or rather in a computer model of here, that thirteen years earlier, I had taken my first steps into academia. For a full month, I had shared office with geologists from the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in the heart of Paris. I worked on a computer program and tried to reproduce the shape of mountains formed by erosion and sedimentation by a normal fault much like the one in front of my eyes. Rivers cut into the scarp, forming steep V-shape valleys, and a triangle of steep land between each. The slope of the triangle is controlled by rain, rain from the glacial periods, when Greece was a wetter place. The project was successful and became part of a scientific paper by my advisor. A paper like those we read and presented in class, not without great effort, fear and aversion, primarily for the fact these papers were written in English, and English was very foreign then. But research was new and fun. Geomorphology, the study of landforms, was fascinating. I wanted more of it.

I had been looking forward to this sight for a while. The fault scarp looked very much like it did in the computer model, with the steep valleys and the triangles of land in-between. I expected I would feel something, maybe say a last goodbye to academia and close that chapter of my life, which had not been working so well after all. It would have made a nice story. But none of that happened. I was angry and restless. I still felt tensed from the thirty kilometres of anxious cycling on the deadly highway. The new enthusiasm I had felt while leaving Poros and then Hydra had been short-lived. Cycling had been fun, but on days like today, it was only stressful and mentally exhausting. I was making an overdose of road anxiety. Our children and grandchildren, I hoped, would enjoy a quieter and friendlier road. But meanwhile in the era of oil and speed, we cyclists are marginal animals, getting condescension in the best of cases.

My body and my mind were exhausted. I did not feel like camping. I just wanted to book a room for the night, and get there before the rain. The fault scarp was cloudy and backlit, its lower part barely visible in the shadow of the clouds. It was not even good for photos. Downhill.

The road (3 days, 200 km)


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