Cycling around Argolis but no further than Hydra

Cycling around Argolis but no further than Hydra

While I normally turn my tent over and shake it in the air to ensure nothing is left inside, that obviously would not work with my rental studio in Poros. After spending ten nights indoors, and what’s more, in a multi-room flat, it took me a little longer than usual to collect my gear once more. Yet I was thrilled to get on the bike again.

I want to see the Sparta Fault

And this was a good thing, for I planned to do a little more cycling before settling down somewhere. There was in fact, one more place that I really wanted to see before heading to the Cyclades. That place was the Sparta fault scarp. Over the last few years, I had cycled about the fjords of Norway. I had collected rocks on the ice-scoured intermontane plateaux of the Canadian Cordillera. I had hiked to the glaciers in the Alps and through the deep valleys they left behind. I had been to Greenland for fieldwork on a calving glacier. I had been lucky enough to visit all the places I worked on, except for one. The Sparta fault scarp was the study site of my first ever research project as a student in Paris, and this remaining place.

Yet until my very last lazy day in Poros, it had not occurred to me once that the tourist season was slowly coming to an end, and that with it, and with the changing weather, ferries were becoming scarcer, and that perhaps I should be checking the timetables a little in advance. Had I left Poros a few days earlier, I just noticed, things would have been easy and relaxed. But now I only had three days to cycle 270 km to Gytheio, the port of Sparta, where I wanted to catch the weekly ferry to Crete. This should be doable, I thought, except that I would again have no time for sightseeing, that on the second of these three days I would need to battle headwinds while cycling up the passes to the Arcadian highlands, and that any technical issue meant that I would likely miss the ferry to Crete, and in turn miss what seemed to be the season’s last ferry from Crete to the Cyclades.

The alternative was to cycle around the Saronic Gulf back to Isthmia, on to Athens and to the port of Laurium, and then island hop my way to the Cyclades from there. I was not so much into being ferried island to island though. I really just wanted to find my island and settle there. Yet at the same time, I was neither exited to embark on a long ferry ride from Athens without seeing any of the places where the ship would make halts. I wanted to avoid repeating the Brindisi experience, and feeling again as lost as in Igoumenitsa. I needed to see and feel the places where I would travel through. However, the Aegean Sea ferry system, as I was finding out, is very much centred on Piraeus, the port of Athens. While there exist daily connections from there to about anywhere in the Aegean Sea, ferries between the islands themselves are much scarcer in winter. On top of all that, I was really not exited by the idea of cycling through three and half million souls Athens. While that number was only a third of the population of the largest city I ever cycled through, the Nagoya-Gifu metropolis in Central Japan, I felt that I had seen enough mad traffic in Greece for now.

Regarding mad traffic, I neither wanted to cycle again the dangerous road that I had ridden from Isthmia to Poros. Instead I planned to circle the tip of the Argolid Peninsula and to cycle back west along the southern shore. So for my first day out of Poros, I decided that I would cover the hundred kilometres to Nafplio, the old Greek capital, then see how that felt, and decide where to go from there. And leaving my studio in Poros, I really felt quite energetic. Three pedal turns and I doubted that I could ever stop cycling for more than ten days. A minute later, I wondered if I would ever get back to a sedentary life. After riding the ferry back onto the Argolid mainland, and cycling out of the town of Galatas, I looked back in awe at the building where I had spent most of the last ten days. It looked so tiny from here.

So I was quite surprised by myself when a good hour later, facing backlit Hydra across the sea, I suddenly decided that it would be a pity to drive by so near the island without visiting it. I had just missed the ferry by five minutes, but there was another one in two hours, and after cycling four and a half thousand kilometres, and doing next to nothing for ten days, two hours really felt like seconds. So I gave up on Crete, I gave up on the Sparta fault, and boarded the next ferry. And yes, it would have been a pity to miss Hydra.

A stopover in car-free paradise

Hydra was advertised as a place to relax, and while I believe it can be one when coming from busy Athens, my personal impression of it was much more than that. As the little passenger boat approached the island’s eponym port, the small village that I had glimpsed from the distance revealed itself as a magnificent city. Great walls of stone pierced by cannon guns, endless slopes of whitewashed houses clinging to the steep mountain sides, and high-perched windmills in Cycladic architecture greeted me from either side of the steep inlet. The port was packed with expensive-looking yachts, and the docks were busy with shops and restaurants. The women were gorgeous and the men appeared relaxed, utmost luxury of our time. Hydra felt like a Greek island with the flair of a Venetian port.

What makes Hydra so special, is that besides the miniature garbage collector truck and a few farmers vehicles, all motorized traffic is banned from the entire island. I was glad the ferry’s captain allowed my fully-loaded bicycle on board, so that I could drag my luggage through town instead of carrying it, but even that felt so completely out of place, that I did not dare stepping onto the pedals. The restaurant facing the ferry dock had gorgeous food, so I instinctively just stopped there for a late lunch. I had barely cycled twenty kilometres from Poros, but what if Hydra was my island after all? In fact I so directly fell in love with it, that before even checking in to my room, I began asking around for a place to rent on a longer term. The first price I obtained though was 50 euros a night, or 1500 euros a month, more than thrice the nightly rate of my serviced apartment in Poros, and well over my budget. Actually restaurant prices themselves were at least a third higher than anything else I had had in Greece.

My host, to whom I rented a semi-basement room for more than twice the price of my spacious studio in Poros, also warned that accommodation here was expensive, and that even Greeks who came for work had it hard to find a place to live for a reasonable price. It was already late afternoon, so I went for a swim by the rocks just outside of town. The sun was getting low but the waters were deep blue, the clearest I had ever seen so far. The seafloor dropped steeply to vertiginous depths, and while it was hard for me to get a sense of the distance, I think I could see the rocky slopes down to at least twenty metres below my feet. There was fish of every size and colour, including some so red and gold it seemed to belong in a Buddhist temple rather than the sea. I wondered for a while whether the name of the island not only stood for its springs but also for its clear seas. But much of the Mediterranean may have been this clear when the island received its name.

Then I took a walk about the maze, and one thing that quickly stunned me was the quality of the streets. The streets of course, are not for cars. They are not for bicycles either, in fact many of them actually are staircases. The streets of Hydra are designed for human’s most fundamental way of movement: walking. And if one enjoys walking, Hydra really is a fantastic place for it, whether walking be strolls about the town or longer hikes in nature. The island is twenty kilometres long and quite mountainous, so that walking from the port to either end would be a rather long hike.

The labyrinth of streets was so dense, that using a map here felt really slow. It was just easier, I soon found out, to keep heading to one of the four directions one could possibly go: up, down, east and west. There were so many streets here, all of them so equally aesthetic, that I thought it would take a lifetime, or at least a good year, to become familiar with them all. While it may seem like a luxury to design such beautiful streets purely for pedestrians, and while Hydra does feel like a luxurious place, the streets are built with durable materials, cobblestones rather than asphalt, and in the absence of heavy traffic, I believe that they require little maintenance. In fact besides the garbage collector truck roaming about the port, the heaviest vehicle one possibly encounters in Hydra is a donkey carrying a six-pack of water bottles and a priest.

Walking about a city without cars, I realised, was really just as enjoyable as walking in nature. And with a city I mean not a pedestrian city centre, filled with shops and bars and squares designed to accommodate the weekend crowds of a million-town, but truly a city, for this is what Hydra felt like, including not only its lively port but also residential neighbourhoods and semi-rural suburbs. Here the so-familiar ambient oil combustion noise of any other urban centre in the world was replaced by a rich soundscape of waves and wind and kitchen sounds and chatter. I could never quite decide if the town’s decision to ban motorized, or in practice wheeled, vehicles was a progressive or a conservative one. What I definitely felt though, is that Hydra was a place with a soul and a high degree of self-governance. The island has a population of two thousands, and a high school. All in all, Hydra was basically very much what I would picture of an earthly paradise. Not much when you think of it, but a place where there is both enough money and silence, that its people do not need to seek any of these resources somewhere else.

High above the town of cats

I woke up the next morning to rain and cloudy skies. As announced by the weather forecast, strong winds from the west blew from the Peloponnese and through the straight between the island and Argolis. A walk to the docks confirmed that the sea was rough and that no ship was leaving the port. The morning’s ferry was cancelled, a good excuse to stay another night on the island. When armed with my down jacket, I left again my semi-basement room an hour later, I quickly felt like a fool. Everyone else wore short sleeves and summer was already back on the docks.

So I sat at one of the classy coffee shops to write, but instead ended up doing something different. Now that I had noticed that prices varied greatly from one island to the next, I began some more thorough research on accommodation in the Cyclades. I cross-checked the islands that I felt attracted to with those with cheaper prices. I also studied ferry timetables to prepare an island-hopping itinerary. While I was at it, I checked again the ferries to and from Crete, and, surprise, new connections had been added.

Ferries between Crete and the Cyclades would run for at least a week longer. So my itinerary was all set. I would cycle to Sparta, then not to Gytheio as I first planned but instead to the port of Neapoli, take the near-daily ferry to Kithira, and on Kithira catch the other weekly ferry to Crete, which departs from Kalamata with a stopover on Kithira. Then I would cycle along Crete to its capital Heraklion, have two or three nights there to enjoy the city and perhaps even settle, or take the season’s new last ship northwards to Santorini.

I felt absolutely content with this plan, for this was the route that I had been wanting to ride, Heraklion was a place that I wanted to see, and I now had plenty of time to enjoy things along the way. So as the previous day, I went for a swim in the clear azure waters, and then for a walk, only this time a little earlier and with better orientation. I decided to take the steep but easy hike to the island’s highest point Mount Eros. The first 150 m in elevation were essentially staircases with many left and right turns guessed among the maze of the city streets. From 200 to 500 m above sea level, I followed the very high quality cobblestone and concrete road that leads to the thousand years-old monastery of Profitis Ilias, the highest of six monasteries on the island. Far above the hype of the port, I now walked alone in the pine forest of the island’s heights to the sounds of wind and cicadas. This, I later recognized, was the last day of autumn when I heard the cicadas sing.

While only the very last part of the six hundred metres hike was on a properly speaking hiking path, I found out before reaching the top that I was pushing my muscles to the limit. I had been taking hikes three times longer in the Alps and feeling much better than that. Yet an issue with bicycle touring is that one easily ends up walking very little. And approaching the summit of Mount Eros, I could definitely feel that the last few months of cycling had caused some of my walking muscles to go missing. On Poros already, the two hundred-metres hike to the Sanctuary of Poseidon had given more calf pain for the next two days than if I had cycled a hundred and fifty kilometres. Now my legs where shaking, and I worried about the way down, because I had not cared to take a headlamp with me, because I had strained my ankle three years earlier and regularly strained it again since, yet did neither bother to bring the compression sock I had fetched for four and a half thousand kilometres in my bags, and finally because I usually hiked in hiking shoes and not in worn-out salt-screwed sandals.

Mount Eros was one of those places where the summit seems to be just there, but it turns out to be just a little further, and yet again a little further, as bits and bits of sky reveal themselves behind the ever-nearer horizon while the mountain slope gradually decreases. Until it suddenly dropped sharply six hundred metres into a blue world of silence. The Oceanus, the immense river that encircles the world and flows back onto itself according to ancient Greeks. The Aegean Sea formed an immense plain of blue extending as far as the eye could see. There was tiny islet at the foot of the mountain, then the view extended southwards to the more distant outcrop of Stavronisi, and the island of Velopoula some fifty kilometres in the distance. To my left, I could see Kea, Kithnos, and perhaps Serifos, the nearest of the Cyclades. To my right, the coastal range of the Parnon Mountains, following the western shore of the Peloponnese, formed a long wall of shadows that seemed to disappear in the distance. Even beyond all these visible lands floated a fuzzy line of cumulus clouds, which I thought must have been topping the mountains of western Crete.

There was about the summit of the island a low-pitch murmur that I had not previously heard on Hydra. The sound was a bit similar to that produced by a distant motorway, except that it was smoother, less roaring, and more humming. It took me a while to realize that this was the sound of the waves, crashing deep down on the rocky shore. Together with the intermittent gusts of wind in my ears, this was the only sound that I could hear. A few metres from the mountain top, stones had been arranged in a near-perfect circular wall reminding of a bivouac shelter. But it was not a bivouac shelter. On the northern side, where the wall was highest, a large flat stone laid horizontally atop a rounder one to form a low-lying sitting pod. For some reason it was evident to me what the place was for. So I sat there as the stone walls magically shut the wind, closed my eyes and for the first time in many months, or maybe years, effortlessly entered in meditation.

Meditation, I thought, is something that requires context. Most of us would certainly find it hard to meditate in the supermarket, at the train station or on a crashing plane. It may be equally hard to meditate in the kitchen if that is the place where one normally cooks, argues, or works. It is easier to meditate surrounded by a dozen expert monks in a silent hall, for you would certainly not begin checking email when surrounded with twenty expert monks in a silent meditation hall. This is why people go to the temples or visit the meditation centres. Some refer to such context as energy, and Mount Eros was a place hosting such energy, embedded not in the black robes of twenty Greek orthodox monks surrounding me, but in a thoughtfully built wind-shielded meditation stone-cushion facing the sea. I would write about that on my blog, I thought. I should stop being thinking about my blog now, I thought. I will write about this too, I thought.

Behind me was Europe, the familiar places, most of my years and the places where I had lived, my job, friends, family, and my entire cycling route. Ahead laid the Aegean Sea and its great emptiness, and somewhere an island where I would give up even cycling, and begin writing. I did not meditate for long that day, for meditation also requires practice, and eventually new thoughts just came up that I could no longer quietly look at floating by without grabbing them for a more emotional confrontation. So I opened my eyes and walked down the mountain.

Night had fallen when I reached again the steep city streets. It was cat hour. As Poros, Kotor, Dubrovnik, Split, and pretty much every coastal or island town I had visited since Rab, Hydra was full of cats. But somehow it was here in Hydra that it occurred to me with blatant obviousness that Haruki Murakami’s town of cats was a Greek Island. Murakami’s town of cats is an embedded narrative, a short story within the Japanese author’s novel 1Q84, which the main character Tengo reads in a paper while riding a train out of Tokyo. In that story, reportedly written by a German author between the two wars, a young man spends his vacations riding trains and stopping for a few nights wherever he feels. Doing so he ends up in a town that is queerly deserted at day, but during night fills with cats going about a rich life of shopping goods at cat-shops, eating a meal at the cat-restaurant, or sitting at their desk to perform some sort of salary-cat Japanese-admin work. The town’s station only has one train a day, and while the young man is scared by the night scene, his curiosity leads him to constantly push back leaving town to the next day. Until trains no longer stop and he realizes that he has lost himself in the town of cats.

Knowing that Haruki Murakami did much of his writing in Greece, it suddenly hit me that the town of cats must be a Greek isand, the train a ferry-boat, and the young man perhaps Murakami himself. And what if the fictional German writer of the piece was a very real person whom Murakami met in Greece and heard the story from? Hydra, I thought again, was my earthly paradise. If I ever become Greek and rich, I would not hesitate a second and, as Leonard Cohen did a few decades ago, buy a house in Hydra. But for now I was none of that. Hydra, as Poros, was not the remote place that I sought. And then Hydra was expensive. My two-night stay in a tiny and poorly-lit room costed me nearly half the price of my entire stay in Poros. I should not be loosing myself in Hydra, I thought. I would board the ferry back on the next day.

The route (1 day, 24 km)


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