Cycling into the Gulf of Corinth and to the Aegean Sea

Cycling into the Gulf of Corinth and to the Aegean Sea

I woke up in Tourlida from my best sleep in a while. I felt that I had finally recovered from the ferry night to Igoumenitsa. Both physically, for the lack of sleep, and mentally. I could still feel the gap in my travels, but had accepted where I was here and now, and knew where to go. I was back to the present. The hangover had passed.

Cycling between tectonic plates

I loved the room where I stayed, primarily because it had a large sliding door and windows on two sides, all of them equipped with bug nets. This allowed me to let in the coolness of the night, and there was more air here than inside my tent. Except for the occasional scooter driving through the village’s only street, the lagoon was eerily quiet, its silence only broken by the soft rhythm of the waves, and the monotone song of wetland bugs and birds. After such a night, one wakes up wondering how we otherwise ever accept the everyday annoyance of ubiquitous oil engine sounds.

Twilight already filled the room, so I dressed up, grabbed my camera and walked out into the cool morning air. Then I just had to wait and watch. Eos, Greek goddess of the dawn, rose out from the hills in the distant East, first as an ephemeral spark, then as a dazzling crescent, and a burning orb. The sunrise was an antithesis of the previous evening’s sky show. Except for limbs of distant fog lingering in the hills, the clouds were gone, leaving the sky liquid flat, a continuum of pastel tints. The wind had temporarily stopped, and the surface of the lagoon had opened to a mirror underworld as silky smooth as the one above it.

After a slow breakfast, I cycled back the five kilometres-long causeway that connects Tourlida to the mainland. The wind had risen, and it pushed me sideways. Then I turned right, and had tailwinds for the next two days. Cycling east through the Gulfs of Patras and Corinth was an all different kind of hell. As if summer had changed its mind, the skies were once again clear blue and temperatures on the rise. The wind pushed me right east into the gulfs. The road became less pleasant though. Motorised traffic was both heavy and fast, and opportunities to avoid the main road were few. While that felt uncomfortable in the hills, cycling this stretch with headwinds would have been terribly more stressful.

A little after noon, I reached the straight of Rio, where the Gulf of Patras narrows to a few kilometres in width, then widens again to become the Gulf of Corinth. Together, the gulfs form an inlet so deep that it has received two names. The bridge that runs across the straight not only looks incredible: it is a marvel of technology. The Rio-Antirrio Bridge is windproof, tsunami-proof, earthquake-proof, and, perhaps most impressively, plate tectonics-proof. Buffer sections allows the spans to expand by a few millimetres per year as both sides of the gulf drift further apart. Yet as much of Greece, the only thing that the bridge is not is bicycle-proof.

The Rio-Antirrio Bridge is opened to and free for bicycles, but definitely not prepared for them. I circled around its entrance looking for a ramp but without success. So I moved a kilometre inland to get onto the motorway, and cycled back to the toll gates where I was told with little more explanation that I was at the wrong place. Then I realized that I should cycle out of the motorway concrete guards and a few tens of metres onto the narrow unpaved talus, in order to reach the pedestrian walkway where bikes are supposed to ride. Yet after a hundred metres, a sign advised that this walkway was closed and that I should use the one on the other side. So I cycled back, found an exit ramp but it was gated, and ended up taking the bags off the bike to take it down steep concrete stairs.

Then I cycled under the bridge to the other side, and when I saw someone exiting the toll gate buildings, tried to explain that I was looking for my way. The person was apparently at lost facing such an exotic animal as me, but seemed to suggest that I get back to the entrance of the motorway and cycle it up again against traffic. Since I was not really up for that, I ended up removing again the panniers and carrying up my bike up some pedestrian access staircase. For the next three kilometres, I was cycling fifty metres above the Mediterranean Sea, with the Gulf of Patras to my right, and that of Corinth to my left. Then I had to take off the panniers again, go down another access staircase, and I was in the Peloponnese. To be fair all that struggle could have been avoided by a ferry crossing, but if you are cycling these parts and are ready to carry your bike up and down a four-storey flight of narrow stairs, I still recommend cycling over the bridge, if only for the experience of cycling across a tectonic plate boundary.

Mario-karting the rift of Corinth

The Gulf of Corinth, which separates the Peloponnese from the rest of the Greek mainland, is one of the most seismically active and geomorphologically peculiar regions of Europe. Between Patras and Corinth, the pressure of the Anatolian tectonic plate rotating westwards towards Europe has caused the Earth’s crust to crack open and to form an asymmetrical undersea rift valley, pushing the Aegean Sea plate away from the rest of Europe. The gulf’s coastlines, surface expression of the rift, draw an elongated V shape widening eastwards. But interestingly, the gulf opens to the Ionian Sea on its narrow west end, while at the wider east end, newer faults have caused the seafloor to rise again and build a land bridge between geologic Europe and the Peloponnese.

When cycling over the Rio-Antirrio bridge, I somehow expected to enjoy a great view all the way to the bottom of the gulf. But the Gulf of Corinth is actually so long that one can’t see one end from the other. So when cycling east into the gulf, I really felt like cycling out of it. Long after the bridge had disappeared in my back, the landscape kept opening up to wider seas. With the hours passing by and the winds pushing me eastwards, the silhouettes of distant lands, began to appear and grow over the surface of the gulf. Cycling into the Gulf of Corinth felt a bit like playing an old-fashioned video game where new decors constantly pop up from the horizon to give a sense of motion. Only at a much slower pace.

I was lucky to reach the Alyki Wetlands, a small lagoon on the gulf’s shores near Aigio, just about when the sun disappeared behind the steep foothills of the Peloponnese. A small colony of pink flamingos strolled about the wetlands. They were the first actually pink flamingos that I saw on my journey. The few individuals I had seen in the Ambracian Gulf and and in the Karavasta Lagoon were much less colourful. I camped on the beach behind the lagoon, between the pink flamingos and the rising moon, surrounded by the usual beach litter collection, including used cotton sticks, tissues, condom packages, and various plastic items refurbished by the waves. But even here on the relatively urbanised and windy shore of the Gulf of Corinth, it was quite easy to find a flat and, importantly, sheltered camping spot. While wild camping is apparently forbidden in Greece, finding stealth places to tent was always easy, at least as long as one could accept to sleep with the continuous blanket of garbage that covers the country. The moon came out of the dark waters of the gulf. It provided just enough light to see that the sea floor dropped abruptedly into a black abyss, into which I bathed. When I came out of the waves, my hair was full of bamboo leaves.

Then September passed away, and I woke up in the early hours of October by the sound of a scooter pushed on the gravel beach. Apparently my orange tent was so well camouflaged that the fisherman parked right were I had eaten dinner, just five metres from it, without noticing me. I fell back asleep and woke once again before dawn, then walked out of my tent to watch the October sun rise. I thought that I had cycled a good distance on the previous day, but in the axis of the gulf, the eastern horizon remained open. Distant reliefs, probably the highest parts of the land bridge, appeared like floating islands above the sea. I was still a long way from Corinth. I passed by the lagoon again but the pink flamingos were gone.

East of Aigio, the road became again a little more quiet. By mid-morning the western wind was strong again, and it pushed me into town after town. The waters of the gulf came crashing in waves on the road, offering a refreshing spray and sometimes draping the asphalt in sand and gravel. I bought lunch at a bakery in Xylokastro and took there my first October bath. The water was cooled by the winds, but I quickly dried up while eating my feta cheese pie in the sun. I thought that perhaps I should begin to consider replacing the towel that I had lost near Omiš, a little more than a thousand kilometres away now. But that did no longer feel like urgent matter.

A few kilometres down the road, I passed by a colourful wall painting of Super Mario proudly wearing the Greek letter μ on his red cap. I have a lot of admiration for Mario. He is Japanese, but does not speak Italian, so he uses his characteristic twisted Mario-English. “Hey, it’so mee!” I can totally identify with that. But what I like most about Mario, is that when someone hurts him, Mario just says “oh, mamma mia”, and moves on. I want to be like him. I have been practising this technique with trucks and buses speeding by lately but am unfortunately still well below the level Zen mastery of my transcultural hero.

In the late afternoon, I finally reached the eastern part of the gulf, where the sea sediments have been pushed up again to the open air, building marine terraces whose very topography is a binary record of Earth’s sea level history. The distant islands connected to one another and in the last gap of open water eventually appeared the city of Corinth and the shallow land bridge, a brown stripe of land separating the sea from the sky. So I took my last bath in the Ionian Sea, then cycled over the isthmus of Corinth and down to the town of Isthmia. I had reached the shores of Aegean Sea.

I was surprised to find there an open campsite. I decided to sleep there for the pure luxury of having set up my tent, to be able to walk to the nearby restaurant without wondering where I would camp. I did not even need a shower: I had had one just two days earlier. The place had tightly delimited rectangular pitches and disproportionate lavatories, and probably would have looked quite ugly a few months earlier. Yet this was October and the campsite was eerily empty. I was quickly reminded how such places have street lamps in every corner, and immediately missed my view on the stars. But I did enjoy my restaurant meal.

On the shores of the eastern sea

In the dawn of October 2nd, I sat on a gravel beach of the Saronic Gulf, a 100 km-deep and nearly circular embayment located south of Athens, and began preparing my morning coffee in the twilight. It occurred to me that I did not know where to go from here. A dozen container ships were anchored in the bay, apparently waiting to be trailed into the Canal of Corinth. Without a warning, the sun came out from the open seas, seeding intermittent sparks of red light among the wet pebbles of the beach. To the far side of the sea was Asía (Ἀσία), the land of the rising sun in ancient Greek.

I had aimed for the Aegean Sea for a few weeks now, and knew that I wanted to take a longer break on one of its islands, although that could be anything between two weeks and three months, and pretty much anywhere. I had done a little research on Greek islands during my five-days break in Kotor, but had quickly become tired of it. First of all I had realized that there were really many islands in Greece. Then there were also a plethora of websites advertising the best islands for parties, the best islands for families, the best islands for nightlife, the best islands for honey moons, the best islands to live over a hundred, the best islands to see and be seen, and so on. Of course I just wanted to know which was the best island for me, but the internet did not seem to have an answer to that. I needed a break, and preferably right now. I had been eyeing at Hydra, a non-remote but car-free island located outside the tip of the Argolid peninsula. But Hydra was still more than a hundred kilometres away, and accommodation prices there were high. For nearly a third of the price though, I booked a little studio on the nearby island of Poros, thinking that I could always take a day trip from there to Hydra.

Poros was still another long day of cycling ahead. In the morning I took a little mountain road where there was impressively little traffic. I cycled up shirtless, and really did not feel that it was autumn. I knew that I was near the Aegean Sea for the variety of rocks on the roadside. After 2000 km of Dinaric limestones, here were some metamorphic rocks, impressive in their range of textures and hues, and even basalts, I think. After a good two hours of cycling in deserted hills, within the now-familiar assortment of roadside garbage I spotted a rather unusual item. A damp telephone was lying amid the plastic bottles. Its black foldable cover housed ants and pine needles, and the thing was so wet that it had its own ring of moist asphalt surrounding it. Still I packed it just in case.

After a good 30 km of such craziness, the road became more peaceful again as it reached the more rural landscape around Methana. I was running out of water, when I suddenly realized that the roadside was full of it. Pomegranates. The pomegranates were not yet quite ripe, but certainly they contained water. So I picked one up, and made a stop on the philosophically named beach of the metamorphosis for my first bath in the Aegean Sea. I was too lazy and thirsty to get my knife and opened the pomegranate by hand like a monkey. The fruit exploded like a grenade, and I rushed to eat its watery seeds, probably looking very much like a monkey by now.

In the afternoon, I had little choice but to follow the main coastal road, and this felt like the most dangerous road I have ridden in Greece and on all my travels. The coast was steep, and the road had many climbs and blind turns. But what made it especially dangerous, paradoxically, is that it was wide and of very good quality. And when they see a wide and smooth roads, many Greek drivers it seems, turn to racing mode. While the road had large shoulders delimited by a solid white lines, this was only additional space for cars to cut the turns and overtake each other. Cars drove side-by-side in full speed, sped up to overtake within arm reach while incoming traffic drove past. Motorists who had chosen to drive within speed limits did so with two wheels inside the shoulder in prevention for incoming racers, who then turned to tailgating and harassment. This resulted in strange scenes of vehicle pairs driving at speeds over 70 km/h with only a couple of metres between them, yet not in line but on a shifted pattern so that the rear driver could see some of the road. Needless to say this was very dangerous for me, but I was clearly not a decisive element in this game. I was absolutely stunned to see to which level people took risk with their lives and mine just for the sake of speed. What the f… Hum… Oh, mamma mia!

The route (3 days, 272.9 km)


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