Cycling along the Ionian Sea coasts of Epirus and Arcania

Cycling along the Ionian Sea coasts of Epirus and Arcania

I woke up once again from my improvised camp site on the promenade deck. The neon lamp above my head was still shining bright, but the wind had stopped and the engine sound gone down. The ferry route ran along the steep coastline of the Albanian Riviera and then through the narrow strait with the island of Corfu, and I suddenly remembered that I really wanted to see those places, just to get a feeling of continuity.

Docked in the dark and dulled by dawn

I took a look at my phone. It was three in the morning, and the ship was passing by Sarandë. So I walked to the other side of the decks to see the land, but of course it was dark, and all I could distinguish were a few lights on the shore. I definitely could not recognize the town where I had spent three nights waiting for my Covid test results. Then there was a gust of wind from the west, or perhaps the ship turned to enter the strait, but when I came back to starboard, I had to pack my gear in rush as the deck was suddenly getting soaked in rain. Then I gave up any hope to sleep more and went to sit in the cabin, where I was surprised to see the bar opening half-an-hour early. Except that it was half-an-hour late. After cycling for three months towards the raising sun, I had just entered a new time zone. I was one hour closer to Asia. But I wished I had crossed that invisible line on the bike, not on a ferry boat.

It was still pitch dark when the ship docked at the port of Igoumenitsa, and passengers were called to go down to their vehicles on the lower deck. I got on the bike and cycled out of the ship onto a vast and dark expanse of asphalt and concrete. I had slept neither well nor enough. The sky was starless and I understood from the rain drops hitting my face that it was cloudy. A single man stood in the night and made sign that I come forth, then asked for my “PLF”, my Passenger Locator Form, the on-line form I had been filling over and over again over the last couple of days. He vaguely looked at my phone and then pointed to some direction in the dark: “OK, Covid test”! I followed two motorbikes in front and we suddenly all found ourselves out of the port and at the entrance of the motorway. “Is that it?” I asked myself. Was I in Greece now? Was it so easy after all? Then the motorcyclists apparently spotted something in the dark because they turned back. So I followed on.

Two young persons with minimal protection stood next to a small table by one of the closed exit gates. A black thrash bag had been set-up on a small office chair in the alley, and passengers were queuing for the test, parking their cars wherever there was space. In Igoumenitsa, the random Covid test imposed by the Greek authorities was apparently more voluntary than random, and you really had to look for it. But because it was free, and because there were no more tourists than about a dozen of us, it all worked out well. I never heard of the results afterwards, and thus assumed that they were again negative.

After I made sure that all five banks in town would rip me off a two-and-a-half withdrawal fee, I picked up euros and sat at an early-opened bakery-cafe until day light came revealing heavy grey skies. The regrets I had had in Brindisi were a mere a appetizer for what I was feeling now. I did not feel like cycling at all. Had this been another day and place, I would probably have ordered another coffee and taken out my laptop to write my blog until the rain lessened. But I did not feel like writing either. The double overnight ferry-crossing to Brindisi and back was a serious cut in the continuity of my travels. I felt like I had just given up on the last 3800 km and was starting it all over again. I wanted to give up cycling. I wanted to give up writing my blog. Had I anticipated it would disturb me so much, I would certainly not have boarded the ferry in Vlorë.

I took out my phone to look once more at the maps. The detour through North Macedonia and Bulgaria felt much shorter than it did a few days earlier. What was 800 km and a few mountain passes to stop me? But it was of course too late to go back. So I checked the weather forecast for a change. Three days of rain and headwinds. Then I looked at the maps again. I quickly calculated that if I had cycled eastwards from Albania towards North Macedonia, I would have been in Ohrid by now. So I checked the weather forecast for Ohrid. It was colder there but there were tailwinds and less rain. Besides, the touristic lake town would have made a perfect place for a rainy break of a few days. Then I looked at the maps again. I zoomed in on the little blue dot that showed my current location, and I zoomed out again to see Sarandë, Kakavië and distant Brindisi. Of course I knew where I was: Igoumenitsa, Greece. New country, new alphabet, new time zone. But the issue was, I could not feel where I was. I think the best word to describe my feelings is this: I was disoriented.

All that because I had made a stubborn promise to myself to reach the Aegean sea side by the end of the month. I swore to myself that I would never again listen to my mind over my feelings, that this would be the last mistake. Or had I listen to my feelings after all? I was not even sure. I complained a bit about my situation to two German tourists I had met the previous day in Brindisi and approached for the only reason that their were the first people I met wearing the show-your-warming-stripes face mask design by Ed Hawkins. They had taken the daytime ferry and woken up early this morning to catch a bus to the mountains. They had their own little story of 2020 travels to Greece, which they had first attempted overland, before being turned back at a border in eastern Europe (I think it was Hungary) and driving back more a thousand kilometres to Berlin to make a passport for their infant child. In any case, I eventually did the only thing I could possibly do. I got on my bike and began cycling in the rain.

Ruminating regrets on rainy roads

I left Igoumenitsa to the south, meaning to cycle the coastal road, but was immediately greeted there by a blast of headwinds a new curtain of rain. So I backed up towards town and headed inland along the preliminary course of Eurovelo 8, the European cycling route from Andalusia to Athens that I had been roughly following since Rijeka. I had to dig deep into my bags to fetch my rain pants. It was the first time I used it since, I think, cycling out of the Alps and down into Bled, two months earlier. The rain followed along as the road began climbing up into the hills. I did not have a clear plan of what I would do once I reached the Aegean Sea. All I knew was that I wanted to settle on one of its islands for some time, which could be anything between two weeks and three months, and do some writing. Preferably somewhere where summer was still on the program for this year.

The road ran parallel to the motorway, only with a few more ups and downs and wiggles. It was not particularly beautiful, but extraordinarily quiet for being so close to a major port. I made it up a to a little pass, where I could see the island of Corfu in the distance, though it of course looked different from that angle than the island of Corfu I had seen from Sarandë. The landscape was greener here than in Albania, which suggested that the rain was not entirely coincidental. At the same time though, strong fragrances of sage and mint conveyed memories of sunnier days. A local later told me that if you would come to Epirus for two weeks, you would probably experience one week of sun, and one week of rain. I realized to my dismay that the sky had begun to clear seawards. I felt like one of these bad-mood comic book characters condemned to carry a stormy cloud of dark thoughts over their heads wherever they go.

My mood on the bike is always inline with the weather, but I always wonder which of both is the chicken, and which is the egg. Does the weather control my mood, or is my mood changing my perception of the weather? In any case today’s weather was very bad, my mood was very low, and it did not matter much to me which was the cause. I was stuck somewhere between the future and the past, torn apart between dread and regrets, unable to get back to where I was here and now. So I tried to picture my situation as some kind of really bad hangover, because hangovers eventually fix themselves like magic. Maybe I had had an overdose of coronavirus-related border crossing forms and regulations, got into a fight with a corrupt policeman who insisted that I should try Bulgarian booze, then passed out, and somehow woke up here on the shores of Greece. And as we all know, the morning after is too late for regrets, I should just be getting on with the task at hand and life would eventually become bearable again. But still, what if I had just cycled to North Macedonia… No hangover then.

Home of Hades or the Hellenic hell

I tried focusing on the new card in my map holder instead. I had decided to put a little bit more effort into Greek that I had done with Serbo-Croatian and Albanian. During the last hour of the ferry transit I had begun listing a few practical words on paper, so that I could have them at hand while cycling. I also thought learning some Greek was fun, because Greek uses a different alphabet, yet somewhat similar to the Latin one and arguably familiar to anyone who studied maths. But even more interestingly, Greek is the oldest living language of the western world and it bears ramifications into many European tongues.

For instance, I discovered that the word νύχτα (níkta) in καλινύχτα (kaliníkta, good night) looks a lot like the English night, while σιγγνώμη (signómi, excuse-me) sounds a lot to me like “hey, I am signalling myself!” My pedalling machine is called a ποδήλατο (podílato), I embarked on a long ταξιδί (taxídi) across Europe and sleep under a σκηνή (skiní). So when I passed by a sign which said καλό ταξίδι (kaló taxídi), I knew it did not mean “let’s call a taxi” but “have a good trip”. Especially since the English translation was written just below. Many road signs here are translated to English, which almost seems to have been adopted like a second language.

Then for some reason it came to my mind that the old name of Greece, Hellas, sounds a lot like the English word “hell”. This, as I later found out, is entirely fortuitous, as “hell” is a Germanic word more closely related to cellar and hole than Hellenic. But of course, every good adventurer goes to hell at some point in their adventure. This is typically achieved by paying and trusting a somewhat obscure character to get you on a boat across a dark expanse of water. Which is actually a pretty good description of how I had travelled into Greece. So here I must have arrived in my Hellenic hell.

I was actually approaching the Acheron River, which is, in Greek mythology, the river over which Hades carries the souls of the dead into his kingdom. And in fact it was raining like hell, there were more muddy swamps than beaches on the road side, and cars drove here devilishly fast. Small frogs adventured onto the wet road and jumped out of my way by the hundreds as I came close. The less lucky ones had already been turned to pancakes by faster vehicles, their tiny fingered legs quartered into flimsy starfishes onto the asphalt, their silky white bellies forever facing the cloudy sky. These chewy carcasses made disgusting squishy sounds when I failed to burst their tiny skulls with my wheels. Anyway, Hellenic hell.

There were more dogs here than in Albania. I had had a talk with Simon about angry dogs in Sarandë, and gave a try to the technique he suggested to fend them off, which was to slow down or even entirely stop cycling. It is quite scary to put a foot to the ground when one or several dogs are barking and showing teeth within biting distance from your calves, so I was really hesitant to do so in the beginning. But after I managed to tame my fears, this has worked surprisingly well. In a few instances, stopping the bike and putting a foot to the ground was actually enough to calm the dogs who would just happily troll back home. More often, the dogs have instantly backed off at least a couple of metres and stopped in hesitation, as if suddenly wondering whether this was a friend or a foe. Then I would try to speak to them, sometimes in French, and more often in Japanese, because I really miss speaking Japanese, and my ability to speak it has waned a lot since leaving Japan, but I feel that the dogs don’t mind. So I would say things like “犬さん、こんいちは。人です、大丈夫です。大丈ー夫。。。大丈夫だよーー!” And of course the dog would systematically reply “ごごご!” Go, go, go!

Poseidon’s pique in Preveza

After 60 km of inland cycling and a second minor pass, I was faced once again the Ionian Sea. The seaside was full of beach bars, restaurants, hotels and rental apartments, of which about one place in ten was open. It was the end of the season. I must have read the forecast wrongly, because there were very strong wind from the west, hitting the coast and then turning south, pushing me along with great force. The Ionian Sea was roaring, producing waves unlike anything I had seen on the Adriatic Coast. The weather was changing all the time. I would pack my sunglasses, and five minutes later the sun would be back, and it would begin to rain at the same time. I soon reached the campsite where I had promised on my entry form to stay. I was not sure whether the place was opened but it was only mid-afternoon, and with such winds it would be a pity to stop cycling. Besides, the coast was rather wild and it looked like I would easily find a quiet camping spot. The instruction was to reduce social contact for the first twenty-four hours in Greece so I thought that I could not really go wrong with wild camping.

So I let the wind push me down and sped my way south to Preveza, where I could do some shopping. This is where I realized that the 30-km wide lagoon to my left was not a lagoon but a gulf, and the land bridge that I was planning to cycle on was not a land bridge and in fact not even a road bridge but an undersea tunnel. I don’t like undersea tunnels, but I have cycled some in Norway, so that would be fine, I thought. Except that this was not Norway but Greece, and the tunnel was forbidden to bicycles. At this point, I could almost see the face of Poseidon, Greek god of the seas, storms, earthquakes, horses, and car-only undersea tunnels, rising out of the stormy waters and laughing hard at me, its trident jiggling in wiggles in the wind. Suddenly I understood why the Eurovelo 8 made this funny loop around the bay. The mouth of the Ambracian Gulf is only 600 m wide at the narrowest, and I could sea the sun set on the mountains opposite where I was planning to set up camp. But the way around by bike is a 150-km long loop. A two-days ride. And the only way out of town for now was north, backwards, and upwind. Oh well, Hellenic hell.

There was a campsite outside of town but it was soon October and like most campsites in I saw it was closed. It took me great effort to cycle the first 10 km north, after which I finally found a water fountain, and long band of pine trees by the shore which made, except for the wind, a very beautiful camping spot. I was exhausted from my long day’s ride and from the lack of sleep following the ferry night, too lazy to cook something, and made do with cold foods.

On the next day I woke up, as usual, a little before sunrise, and did not feel in much better shape. The wind and waves had diminished though, and after I had slowly packed my gear, I spent a few hours on a deserted beach bar facing the sea, trying to reinvigorate myself with a swim in the waves and a coffee whose price tag would have easily fitted the streets of Zurich, or perhaps the Albanian countryside if you removed one zero. While Poseidon seemed not very supportive of my travels, as Odysseus I seemed to benefit from the favours of Aeolus, keeper of the winds. The headwinds announced by the weather forecast eventually happened, except that their were not a bad thing after all, since the only direction where I could possibly go for now was north-east and thus downwind. So began the long loop around of the Ambracian Gulf.

After cycling for a while on busy roads in straight lines, where traffic was quite scary at times, the course of the Eurovelo 8 turned onto minor roads through wetlands on the northern shores of the Gulf. While the winds were no longer playing along, the first part of this was actually quite pleasant. I even stumbled into a few flamingos, and I took a break on the road side to look at them walk the sea swamps with the fashion of cross-country skiers, as if floating on the mirror-flat waters of the wetlands. The animals were so gracious that I thought I must have finally cycled out of the Hades’ kingdom. Then came the prickly pears.

Prickly pears pick my paws

There had been nothing to eat on the roadside for days now. The fig season had come to an end, blackberries were all dried-up, and the pomegranates were still green. So I thought I would give a try to the cactus fruits. They looked dangerous, but I knew they were edible. I had contemplated them along the way for a while now, and here by the swamps they were so fleshy red, and they were so many of them… I thought should give it a try. It could not be that complicated to pick a prickly pear. I certainly would figure that out. When I got closer to the cactuses I saw that there were areas of smooth red skin between the spines just large enough for my finger tips to fit in. So I took out my knife, carefully picked one pear and cut it in half. The fruit was full of seeds but the orange flesh in between was sweet and juicy. I was careful not to ingest the glochids, the tiny yellow needles that peopled the thin skin of the fruit, about a millimetre in length yet so thin that they are barely visible to the naked eye, especially when then begin to mix up with the orange flesh.

This worked out well for a few bites. But then I felt some spiky thing on my lip, so I promptly reached up to my mouth to remove it. The feast came to an abrupt end. Suddenly there were glochids everywhere: on my fingers, on my lips, on my tongue, and on my palate. I threw the fruit to the ground, and nearly put my hands to my mouth a second time, before remembering I had done it seconds ago and that this was a really very bad idea. But then I also realised that there was also nothing else that I could do. Everything I touched had been transformed into invisible cactuses. My tongue was a cactus, and my lips were full of tiny thorns. So I bit the bullet as they say, but not too hard, and grabbed the handlebars, also not too hard, and cycled on, hoping this would fix itself like magic.

An hour later though, nothing had fixed itself like magic. Besides, the cycling route, which I followed on my phone, was getting more complicated. The first part of the wetland ride had been smooth albeit partly unpaved, but here it turned into a complicated succession of left and right turns in the maze of the delta. Every other road was unpaved, and most of them were fine until after a kilometre or two there appeared a chaos of fallen bamboos or large ponds of sticky mud on the way. I always had to stop to look at the maps on my phone, and for every new thing my fingers touched I could feel a thousand tiny needles moving under my skin.

Besides, this part of the gulf was exceedingly dirty. Greece is generally very littered but the amount of trash spread around here in wetlands was well beyond obscene. Entire shelves and sofas had already begun sinking in the muds of the swamp and laid half-buried among the bamboo. Damp mattresses, electronics and house appliance, and desolate amounts of plastic were scattered about the delta providing a ready-made decor for a zombie movie. And then there were the dead animals. Dead animals are a common occurrence on European roads but I had never seen so many as in Greece. Birds, hedgehogs, exploded turtles, frogs of course, foxes with their upper jaw biting the asphalt, half-dogs with fix friendly faces and flies feeding on their guts, cats whose popped-out eyes I wish their children owner never see, unidentifiable hairy headless black remains of mammals, more atrocious smells coming from the bushes, suspicious hips below abandoned towels you would never want to know what they hide… Which is maybe a good place to write, that almost every time I see a dead animal on the road, and this happens a lot, I wonder if I will end up the same way. They remove the human bodies though, and in Greece you even get a miniature orthodox-style chapel on the road side. Which is cool. Except that they are way too many of them. And that the motorists drive way to fast to see them. But I see them all.

I could no longer bear with it. I stopped on the road side, took out the tweezers I was suddenly very glad my Swiss knife included, and begun removing the glochids from my hands one by one. All those I could see, which was not all of them, but already a good many of them. Then I booked a hotel room in the first village beyond the delta, so that I could have a mirror, and do the same thing with my tongue and lips in the evening. The sun was setting on the wetlands, and bugs were coming out in the stinky air. The night was forecasted to be rainy, and the place felt like a great cemetery of things and beings for kilometres on end. I definitely did not want to sleep here. By the way, the French name for prickly pears is barbaric figs. How accurate. Alright, Hellenic hell.

Additional adventures around Arcania

I woke up from my hotel room in Menidi feeling very much better. I could still feel a handful of invisible glochids anchored in my fingers and tongue, but this was next to nothing in comparison to what I had to deal with on the previous day. There was a tiny scar on my tongue where I had bled after removing a glochid yesterday, but besides that I could see or feel no signs of infections. There was more rain and wind in the morning, but I ended up spending much of it in the cafe underneath my hotel, where I finally begun writing my blog again, and talked for a while with one of the villagers in German.

The rain was perhaps not so bad after all. There were new blackberries coming up, and some were already ripe. Soon after I began cycling, I was 4000 km from Lille, on a road bordered with litter on the one side and prickly pears aka barbarian figs on the other, under the rain, deep into the Ambracian Gulf. I ate lunch in Amfilochia and while I could head south and inland from there, I decided to continue cycling along the Eurovelo 8, which mostly followed the tortuous Ionian Sea coast and circled the Acarnanian Mountains to the west.

The southern shore of the gulf was nothing like the northern one. The coast was both steeper and more jagged, and the road that followed it kept turning north and south and going up and down little coastal passes. In late afternoon I finally reached the last of these hills overlooking the beautiful coastal town of Vonitsa. From there, I could once again see the other side of the bay, as well as the several islands that dot the outer part of the gulf. I waited to see the face of Poseidon coming up out from the seas for a new joke, but nothing happened. I had finally circled the Ambracian Gulf. I could have set up camp around Vonitsa, and probably should have done so, but I wanted to cycle a few more kilometres for the day, and I had spotted a little bay to the south were I wanted to sleep, so I cycled on.

The road passed by another wetland, where I could see a beautiful sunset. After the little town of Palairos, where the road was busy with scooters, the coast became both steeper and more remote. And the road went up and up above the sea. That night I cycled well after dark, but the moon was nearly full and the road almost empty of cars. After a long downhill I finally reached the bay that I had spotted, but both roads leading to it were barred with private property signs. A little later though there was another bay though, where miniature olive terraces provided almost perfectly flat ground for camping. It was eight thirty when I stopped cycling and that made me feel like a night owl. The remains of a small campfire were surrounded by a little wall of carefully piled rocks arranged into a semicircular wind shield, which would be a perfect place for cooking.

I was preparing for strong winds and perhaps more rain overnight and was particularly careful when setting up the camp. It is only after I was done that I realized that the foul smell of piss and dung that filled the air, and that I had attributed the general sheep excrements coating of the Balkan peninsula, seemed to come exactly from that little fireplace that was now half-a-metre from my tent. Having a closer look at it, I realized that the pit was habited by at least two different species of many-legged wormy creatures and a little collection of flies and spiders. It was not clear to me if this little ecosystem fed on remains of food or excrements, or if perhaps both formed part of a more advanced food chain. But I was too tired to move the tent. Whatever, Hellenic hell.

For a long while I could hear the constant barking of two dogs in the hills. I was really surprised that they could spot me from such a distance given the smells that surrounded me, but they probably did, because the barking stopped some time after I went into the tent. Or maybe they were just barking at the moon. Or maybe it was Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Hades. It had always worked very well so far. That night I slept facing the narrow side of my tent, which I always find a little claustrophobic, but allowed me to put a bit more distance between the stinky firepit and my nose. In addition and as I do every night, I hung my Japanese lucky charm to the roof of my tent and asked it once again to take a good care of me while I sleep. “まよけちゃん、よろしくお願いします。” It has always worked very well so far.

The wind and the rain came in the morning, and I was glad that I had pitched my tent carefully after all. A dog’s nose came sniffing under the rain fly while I had my breakfast, but when the animal realized someone was inside, it ran away promptly, apparently even more scared than I was. I took out my laptop and sipped Turkish coffee, sorry I mean Greek coffee, under the tent, while the rain passed. When the sun came out from the clouds, and I came out from the tent, I suddenly remembered that I was after all camping in a remote little inlet of the Ionian Sea coast, just fifteen metres away from a picturesque gravel beach and turquoise waters that seem to come out straight from a tourist magazine. The waters were fresh but very clear. When I began taking down my camp though, more rain was already on its way. I ended up packing a wet tent and leaving the site in haste as a thick curtain of winds and rain approached from the west.

The coastal road that followed was very beautiful. The weather was ever changing, producing dramatic lights over the sea and the many islands dotting the coast. I ate lunch in Astakos while watching torrents of rain falling onto the docks. Then the road went over a quiet little pass and down onto yet another coastal plain, that of the Achelous River delta. Tailwinds pushed me straight across it, and to the island-town of Aitoliko, where I hit the Gulf of Patras. Over the last three days, I had been riding an inverted S-shape route around first the Ambracian Gulf and then the Arcanian Mountains. But here I was done with the zigzags of the Ionian Coast and my road, still following the Eurovelo 8, was turning east towards Corinth, and the Aegean Sea.

I cycled the last few kilometres to the bigger town of Missolonghi, but did not stop here. I had booked a hotel room in Tourlida, not because I needed one for the night, but because I really wanted to sleep there and feared the place would be a bit small, and perhaps windy, to camp. Tourlida is a village of fifteen souls located on a flat island at the edge of the Missolonghi Lagoon, which is reached by a five kilometre-long driveway stretching straight south into the Gulf of Patras with the sea on both sides. There are churches here that appear to float on the water, and the houses are built on stilts, sometimes a mere twenty centimetres above the water surface.

Tourlida as I expected, was more of a paradise than a hell. Definitely not the place to be in case of a tsunami. Definitely the place where I would bring a girl if I wanted her to fall in love with me. There I saw, without realizing it, my last seaward sunset in a while, for I was now leaving the west coasts for lands of the rising sun. And it was in fact, one of the most gorgeous sunsets I have ever seen, the yellow orb of the sun disappearing into faraway cumulus clouds and then behind the distant mountains and islands that dotted the Gulf of Patras, ephemeral rays poking through the clouds, reflecting onto the waves of the Ionian Sea and colouring around the houses on stilts pinned about the lagoon.

The route (4 days, 383 km)

Photos

6 Comments

  1. Albert SEGUINOT

    Salut Julien, j’ai découvert ton blog cyclingho.me ce week-end grâce à tes parents qui étaient ce week-end dans les Ardennes. Je suivait depuis plusieurs semaines ton voyage sur flickr pensant que c’était ton blog… mais je viens de découvrir avec bonheur ton texte, je suis ravi qu’il soit en anglais, ça me permet de lire en anglais pour me perfectionner… Du coup j’ai beaucoup de texte en retard mais j’ai du temps. Je comprend que tu as accumulé les imprévus et surtout perdu le contrôle sur les conditions de ton voyage par les conditions météo difficiles, le changement du parcours pour l’entrée en Grèce et aussi les formulaires et contraintes administratives lié à la pandémie de la COVID. On sent que le moral est dans les “chaussettes” il en a prit un coup depuis tes mésaventures du passage en “enfer Hellénique”. Je souhaite que ta pause sur l’Ile de Poros te permettre de te reposer et de positiver. Continue à partager ton voyage et à nous informer… Bon courage et profite de la Grèce. Que les Dieux de l’Olympe soit avec toi. A bientôt. Albert

  2. Le Bec Linda

    Bonjour Julien
    J’ai ri aux larmes avec tes histoires de figues barbares,car j’ai fait la même connerie à Mystras
    Bon trip à toi,ton Blog est canon
    Linda
    la vieille blonde de Mystras/Kithira

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