I had always harboured secret, romantic ideas of Greece, ever since reading translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as a child. To sleep in the cradle of civilisation, to marvel at the mighty temples on the Acropolis, to walk in the footsteps of St. Paul where he preached on the Aeropagus – these were my dreams. With the FIM rally being held in the Peleponnese in 2008, I finally had my chance.
After an unhurried trot down the motorway network, we had an uneventful crossing via Eurotunnel and headed through France to Reims for the night. We’d prebooked a night in the French equivalent of a Travelodge at “Reims Nord”. After circumnavigating the northern outskirts of Reims, we eventually found the hotel in the centre of an industrial estate. After settling in, we discovered that it didn’t have a restaurant, just a breakfast café – oh dear. So, we walked through the HGV depots and warehouses, out onto what looked like a main road into town. I could not believe how far we walked until we came to a bar. Was this France? Where do they all go to for a beer? Where do they eat? Apart from a sports bar, all we found was a pizza van! So back we went to the industrial estate and, luckily, the Campanile next door to our hotel had a small restaurant.
After this inauspicious start to what was going to be a long trip, I wondered what else we’d find. I shouldn’t have worried (too much). The next day we headed south towards the Mont Blanc tunnel, a first for me as we’d either used other tunnels or gone over the top on previous outings in this area. The road wound up the valleys, further and further into the Alps, with lush green fields giving way to more rocky and snow-covered scenes. At the tunnel, you are made to leave a sizeable gap between yourself and the vehicle in front and everyone is given the rules and regulations to follow concerning maximum and minimum speed limits and the whys and wherefores of using the tunnel. One of the useful features of my motorcycle is that it has an external temperature gauge, although I did not really appreciate knowing how fast the temperature was dropping as we went further and further into the tunnel. On the other side is a welcome parking area where one can stop and take photographs of the glacier we had just travelled beneath and also the ribbon-like road as it snaked down the mountainside into Italy.
By this time, it was getting on for 4pm so, after the obligatory photographs, we thought we might make it as far as Aoste for the night. As fast as the temperature gauge had dropped going through the tunnel, it rose as we went further and further down the mountain. We headed for the “Hotel Bus”, somewhere we had stayed in the previous year, as we knew it was centrally located and had secure parking. My travelling companion, who has a renowned ability for discovering bars (and hotels), took us straight there without incident. Aoste is a wonderful mixture of French and Italian, set in the depths of the Vallee d’Aoste surrounded by steep, snow-clad peaks, with chalets perched on the crags looking as if they have been nailed there. It has some lovely Roman remains, including a great old gateway leading into the old town. That night, we ate out in the town square, watching a bizarre display of musical pole-vaulting – as only our European cousins can organise – our holiday adventure had really begun.
We woke to a cloudy morning, but very warm with temperatures already in the upper twenties centigrade. Before leaving the “Hotel Bus”, my travelling companion decided it would be a good idea, for the sake of comfort on a hot day with a long ride ahead, to remove the Goretex linings from his wonderful jacket and trousers. We set off along the autostrada that leads through the Vallee d’Aoste, passing through many small tunnels which all seemed to open up onto mediaeval vistas that included one or more castle, ruin or church. Not surprising, as this valley formed part of the pilgrimage route from Rome to Canterbury and had offered a way over the alps from Italy into France since time immemorial. Halfway down the valley, the heavens opened and we were treated to a torrential rainstorm, with visibility down to about 15 yards at times. The water soon built up on the road with the force of the downpour and the risk of aquaplaning was a great worry to me. As I couldn’t see with or without my visor down, I decided to drop my speed back a bit and follow the cars at a safe distance. Needless to say, I lost sight of my travelling companion for the next half an hour as he pushed on at speed, seeming to part the waters gathering in front of his bike. The rain abated as we reached the foothills of Piedmont and the temperature rose up to the thirties. Stopping in a service station, I soon understood why my companion had pushed on through the rain – the jacket and trousers, shorn of their linings, had offered no protection whatsoever against the rain. He was, however, drying out beautifully in the increasing heat of the day even if his T-shirt was going nice and stiff.
We picked up the green, undulating countryside of the upper Po valley. Past Alessandria and onto Piacenza before dropping down into the wide, relentless plains of Emilia Romagna, speeding past Parma, Modena and on towards Bologna. The central reservations and verges of Italy’s motorway network contain a great variety of signage: how far to the next three services, how far to the next town, where to turn for a particular hotel, how much the petrol will be at the next service station etc. If it weren’t for these signs and the mental arithmetic that just begs to be done converting kilometres into miles, Euros into Pounds and litres into gallons, or working out the average speed per hour based on distances between towns, the A14 would be quite tedious. Upon reaching the Bologna area, the Tuscan Hills could be seen to the south and the promise of more magical scenery urges me on. Just as well I have kept my mental faculties alert today, as we are almost involved in an accident on the Bologna outer ring road: a car, two in front in the middle lane, suddenly turns into the barrier, rears up on its back axle, seemingly lifts off the ground and deposits itself upside down. A great deal of braking and swearing later, we see that other vehicles have stopped to assist the unlucky occupants. Don’t misunderstand me: I have a humanitarian outlook, but being in another country with knowledge of the local lingo covering food, beer and accommodation only, I thought it best to leave the mopping up to the Bolognesi.
We soon turn off south into the hills towards Castrocaro Terme, a small spa town in the Forli area, where we have arranged to stop for the night and meet up with two friends who were also on their way to the FIM Rally. On arriving in the town, we discover there is a reunion festival of the “League of the North” – whose members appear to be of mature years. So we imagined that we would be in for a quiet night. That evening, the place was alive with music and dancing, beer, wine and food. What appeared to be an outing of the Turin and District Age Concern in the shade of the afternoon, by nighttime had turned into an orgy of dancing and (mostly) drinking.
We left Castrocaro Terme and headed for the Adriatic coast, spotting the high peaks of San Marino rising from the morning mists. I had always contended that the reason that San Marino has been unconquered for nigh-on 800 years is that no-one could be bothered to climb up the not inconsiderable heights of Monte Titano and fight for a few crags. Still, it makes for a realistic Ruritania with its enthusiastic flag-waving, fondness for processions and the routine exchange of ruling Captains Regent. But all that was the subject of earlier FIMs and Motocamps. Onward to Ancona!
We arrived in Ancona in the heat of the day, having been warned in advance that the signage to the ferryport left a lot to be desired; so much so, that one missed junction would mean instant entry to the city centre rather than the port, with nowhere to turn and retrace the route. Armed with that information, we entered the spaghetti of roads leading to the port with some trepidation. It seemed, at first, that our advisors had been kidding: surely, one would just take this nice, elevated route all the way to the ships docked in the distance. We had reckoned without the finest of Italian planning – up and down from the overhead routes, around roundabouts, through underpasses, over railway tracks, up ramps, down ramps, round yet more roundabouts and all with immediate signage.
By immediate, I mean the sort that only appears actually on the junction, without prior warning. Emerging from this maze, we entered the port to try and find the correct queue and were immediately directed to stop next to some lorries, by two people frantically waving their arms in the air, squawking like demented parrots with whistles permanently welded to their mouths.
After the obligatory wandering around, trying to find out what was going on, we found the check-in desk and passport control and collected the necessary documentation. Several bottles of water later, we returned to the bikes in time to witness the debacle that is embarkation. To the accompaniment of more manic arm-waving and furious whistleblowing, this completely disorganised mess of vehicles was, one-by-one, slowly allowed to drive onto the ferry.
When it got to our turn, by now very hot and bothered, we were motioned on to the main vehicle deck. Oh good, I thought, they’re going to put us down at the sharp end. Wrong. I was motioned to drive down a ramp. OK, I thought, that wasn’t too bad, but I don’t want to do that again. Oh dear, I was then gesticulated to ride down a further ramp. I sat there, looking into the void below – there was nowhere for me to stop, as the deck was full to the ramp with other motorcycles. More whistles. I said, politely, that I wasn’t moving until there was somewhere for me to “land” at the other end. More whistles and yelling; this time, I yelled back – something about an alternative place to stick the whistle. In the end, there was enough room below to venture down the ramp, so off I went.
What greeted me at the bottom was complete mayhem. There was no sense as to how the bikes were being parked up – no tie-down points in the deck or even tie-downs. We got the bikes onto their centre stands and used our own ratchet straps to tie the handlebars to the overhead pipe work, so that they were as fixed as we could make them. I took some photographs in case of any future problems. Then, up seven flights of steep stairs, luggage and crash helmets in hand, to the cabins! We finally arrived at our cabin – hot, sweaty and cross, but happy just to crash out on the beds for ten minutes to regain our composure, have a quick shower and sort out before heading off for some well-deserved, cold beers.
I awoke to watch the ferry reversing into the dock at our first stop. Dawn was breaking over the distant hills as the ship disgorged its vehicles from the hold. An unlikely scrum of lorries had broken out on the quay, as it appeared that as soon as a ferry appeared on the horizon the lorries would vie for pole position ready to embark. Those at the head of the queue were admitted, subject to space, whilst the rest returned to a holding pattern to wait for the next opportunity. It didn’t seem to matter which shipping line was involved –in fact the three or four companies operating the route seemed to sail about 30 minutes apart in any case.
After sailing further down the coast, we finally docked at Patras, with all the drama, gesticulating and general mayhem that had accompanied our earlier embarkation. An hour later, we managed to get ashore – phew! Upon exiting the port, we travelled down the wide, mostly concrete coast road towards Pylos.
This road was made quite interesting by the villages that it passed through. In one such village, we were surprised by a model of the Eiffel (or was in Blackpool?) Tower on a junction. My partner was so surprised by this that he missed the turn, which caused a certain amount of consternation by those following him. At the next junction was a stone sculpture of a globe. We never did find out what all of this was in aid of. The other remarkable thing about the villages en route was the road itself. Now, out in the countryside, the road was a wide, concrete and tarmac affair. In the villages, it turned narrower and was mostly full of potholes and other obstacles – entry and exit to each village seemed to be by steep hairpin bends and I almost lost the bike at one point encountering a manhole cover on a tight hairpin exiting one village.
A welcome stop for a drink in the shade in a road-side café was met with our first taste of Greek hospitality. The barmaid crossed the road with cooling glasses of iced water before taking our order. Lifesaver number1!
Another few hours riding down the coast included a set of roadworks. Unremarkable, you might think, but these were unmarked and one descended into the unknown.- a sand-filled trench where the road should have been if you could have seen it through the clouds of thick dust.
Lifesaver number 2 came in the form of Keith Jackson, who on seeing us arrive at the campsite and realising we were all hot and bothered, handed us cool bottles of water. Just what the Doctor ordered!
Tents up and a few beers later in the beach bar across the road from the campsite – we were well and truly chilled. Welcome to Greece, indeed.
The campsite itself was completely shaded with eucalyptus trees – the sort of things that koala bears like eating – except that these were filled with cicadas which made the most awful noise. I think they make it by rubbing their legs together – but however they do it, they’re noisy little beggars. It’s the only time, apart from the Big End rally, that I’ve ever had to sleep with earplugs in. One of them got into Pongo’s tent – they were enormous beasts.
In order to gain enough room for the Brits to came together, we annexed Hungary, or rather the area pegged out for Hungarian participants. That’s not to say that the campsite was small – it was just that the organisers had pegged out country areas for camping without reference to the number of participants. We also annexed some of Finland, too, but they didn’t seem to mind. The facilities were pretty good, with showers and washing facilities dotted about the level site.
Walking up the beach, we came to a small village with bars and shops, some on the shoreline, some on a small promenade. The quality of the food was excellent and many trips were made by us to sample the beer, wine, food and ice creams in these establishments, set idyllically around a small bay. I had my very own Shirley Valentine moment, walking back from one of the bars, paddling in the Ionian Sea as the sun melted into the horizon. I really didn’t want the holiday to end.
It was a five minute walk down the road to the FIM site – held in a redundant olive oil refinery. This sounds grim, but wasn’t as the stainless steel silos proved an imaginative backdrop to the stage. Local art students had been drafted in to work on the installation and the results were quite amusing and inspirational. One of the more thought-provoking displays was a gallery of photographs taken during the 2007 fires that had raged through the area with devastating effect. Small stalls had been erected around the edge of the eating area, filled with produce from the locality for us to try. The site itself backed on to the sea, and, sitting at the back (near the bar), one could while away the evening sipping wine, in convivial company, with the sound of the sea gently lapping the shoreline.
The arrival control meant riding the short distance into the small fishing port of Pylos, complete with the usual clutch of hairpin bends we had come to expect. The locals seemed to appreciate the invasion and were charming and courteous as we rode in with all flags waving. I later discovered, through reading the inscriptions on various cannons, that Britain had helped liberate the area in the past. The naval Battle of Navarino was fought on 20 October 1827, during the Greek War of Independence (1821–32). A combined Ottoman and Egyptian armada was destroyed by a combined British, French and Russian naval force. It is notable for being the last major naval battle in history to be fought entirely with sailing ships. It was sunny and beautifully warm as we sat in the town square with a cooling glass or two, considering life, the universe, etc., and contemplating our place in the history of the area. We may not have been there to liberate the locals, but we certainly felt a bit heroic in having ridden there by motorcycle.
The FIM Rally usually has some sort of trip as part of the package: this rally had the rather unusual approach of asking people to select where they wanted to go from a list. We plumped for Methoni – not having any knowledge of the area. Methoni turned out to be a small village by the sea with an enormous fort which, due to its age, seemed to grow organically from the surrounding countryside. And what a place for a fort! Carved out of the rocks on an imposing promontory, it is no wonder that many had fought over it down the centuries. The castle of Methoni occupies the whole area of the cape and the south western coast to the small islet that has also been fortified with an octagonal tower and is protected by the sea on three sides. This islet had been used as a dungeon and we could see it must have been pretty grim. The fort has been in almost constant use, and although mostly ruinous now, contains a small Byzantine church in the centre along with great gates, fortifications and a fourteen-arch bridge. We scrambled over the site for the best part of the day before the obligatory tour of the local bars.
Following the rally, we thought we’d ride up through the Peleponnese towards the Corinth canal, with a view to staying on the mainland area of Greece for a few days to do some more exploring. Travelling through the dusty landscape, marred by the remains of the previous years’ conflagrations, we toiled along road-works, new pieces of motorway, old stretches of road and diversions, until we reached the Corinth Canal. This is stunning – the steep sides of rock plunge over 200ft to the canal water level. When we stopped for our photo opportunity, a small flotilla was just about to pass through the canal so we could all capture great shots. It actually made me feel unwell – I think it was the effect of the steep sides.giving me a touch of vertigo.
On we went to locate somewhere to stay for a few days. We rode into a typical greek town coast, a bit scruffy, some industry, a good range of shops down the main street – and the all-important railway station. All we needed was somewhere to stay. We drove through but did not see any B&B signs at all. At the end of the town was a large, lonely-looking tower block hotel – the sort of thing that would have been in an 80s holiday brochure, but it was like a ghost town – completely empty and locked up. Across the road we spotted a sign for holiday apartments so we drove in there. Emerging from mounds of paperwork and some haphazard furniture, having an irate telephone conversation at the same time as having an argument with another man, was mine host. When we eventually got to speak to him, he turned out to be a very hospitable gentleman who appeared to be in the process of refurbishing some 70s holiday apartments, which he was making available on a B&B basis. The price was right, the accommodation clean and spacious and we could park the bikes by the rooms. Job done. It turned out that this town had quite a promenade beside the sea, with many bars, restaurants and other delights to choose from. We could then relax and plan our visit to Athens over some welcome cold beers.
The next day, we left the bikes parked up in the safety of the apartment complex and found the new railway station. Greece is in the middle of dumping its narrow gauge railway system for a new-build state of the art system, which seems to have been bought, trains, track and stations, from a german company. So, although it is nice and new, it could be anywhere in the world and definitely doesn’t have the charm of the original system. In fact, the greeks just seem to have abandoned it, which is a shame, as it interconnected all the little settlements with the towns. After negotiating the timetables and the ticket office, we boarded the next train to Athens. Call me a wuss, but driving into Athens is one of those experiences I didn’t want to have – reading a railway timetable in greek, however, proved almost as tortuous. We also had to negotiate the Athens underground system to get to the Acropolis and, by the time we arrived at the foot of the hill, it was over 90°F. But what a sight!
The walk up to the top of Mars Hill was done in temperatures of over 100°F so our water bottles soon became empty. The temples at the top of the Acropolis were magnificent, as was the view. The devastation of the intervening centuries has not removed the essential spirit of the place nor the breathtaking understanding that these enormous structures were built by hundreds of people employing simple technologies. I had now trodden in the footsteps of the ancient Greeks, the Romans, St. Paul the Apostle and millions of others over the years.
A few beers in a welcoming locals’ bar, off of the main tourist route, helped to quench the thirst and cool us down before we went to find the monument to the Unknown Soldier. This monument is set into one of the large squares in Athens, below the main government building and is guarded by soldiers in “period uniform” – that is to say skirts and pom-pom adorned hats and boots. Their take on changing the guard provides an exercise in keeping a straight face for the tourists, as this solemn ceremony appears to have been choreographed by the Ministry of Silly Walks.
After the heat of Athens, it was good to retreat to our seaside apartments for a day’s recuperation or two before embarking on the journey home. Our stay was marred slightly by the owners of a seaside bar encouraging their young children to throw stones at the ubiquitous street cats and kittens.
Our journey home took us back out of Attica and alongside the Gulf of Corinth, a deep inlet with mainland Greece to the north and the Peloponnese to the south. A new bridge has recently been built crossing the Gulf of Corinth near Patras, linking the town of Rio to Antirrio on the mainland. The bridge dramatically improves access to and from the Peloponnese, which could previously be reached only by ferry or via the bridge over the Corinth canal. It is a tremendous sight - a five-span, four-tower feat of engineering that has the world's second longest cable-stayed deck: for those who have seen it, only the deck of the Millau Viaduct is longer.
After our overnight ferry crossing back to Ancona, we travelled up to Piacenza. Do not bother looking for a restaurant in this town – this was the second time we had stopped here in recent years and we couldn’t find anywhere sensible to eat, not even a pizzeria. I’m sure it’s a nice enough town in every other regard –mediaeval houses on Roman foundations, usual renaissance architecture (getting blasé now as we’d had too much culture). The next day was a question of getting the miles done; so up through the north of Italy we went, towards the Mont Blanc tunnel. We got to the outskirts of Geneva when the heavens opened, forcing us to have a longish lunch break. Whilst we had been stopped, the motorway had become awash with the heavy rainfall, so we picked our way through quite carefully. Just as well, as a couple of kilometres further on we encountered a recent accident with various cars having collided with the crash barriers and each other. One car had lost its wheel and another was extremely crumpled.
On we went through France and spent the night in Mâcon, where quite a bit of the local wine was sampled which helped get over the tired muscles and aching bums! Further north the next day, to St. Quentin, where the locals had built a beach in the town centre to get them into a more summery mood. We stayed opposite the vast basilica, leaving the bikes locked together in a public bike park. I was rather concerned as to their security overnight, but did not need to be, fortunately. Home via the Channel Tunnel the next day, to piles of dirty washing and filthy bikes. Another holiday, another FIM, another adventure – good friends, good riding and good beer & wine - here’s looking forward to the next one.