Get ’em to the Greeks

Posted on March 9, 2015


We rolled off the ship in Athens with rain stinging our faces, which set us immediately wondering why in the world we’d landed ourselves in Europe in February.

We ran around Athens looking for anything ancient looking that we were supposed to be gawking at and stood around gawking at it.

At the Acropolis we pondered the ideas of the ancient philosophers and at the temple of Zeus we paid homage to the god of sky and thunder.

It was all pretty cool. Via the Roman empire, Greek culture became the seminal culture that provided the foundation for modern Western Culture. The ancient Greek philosophers focused on the role of reason and inquiry, and a clear line of influence can be traced from ideas espoused by characters like Plato and Socrates to the modern science.  And the western literary tradition has its roots in epic poems like The Odyssey and The Illiad.   Great civilizations aside, it was also nice and sunny out, making for a great stroll around the relics they left behind.

Greeks are mad for their motorbikes, and they rule the road in Athens. Everyone seems to ride aggressively and some do so with utter abandon of all caution. I felt like a grandmother driving a Honda c90 through a China shop in comparison to the riders around me. African cities are more chaotic by a fair distance, but the chaos moves a quite a bit slower.

We were in big bike country again and multi-cylinder BMWs, KTMs, Yamahas, Suzukis, and Hondas, were everywhere weaving in and out of traffic lanes at high speed.

I was keen to look around on the other side of Greece along the coast of the Ionian Sea for a wave to ride.   The only problem was that I was again without a wetsuit or surfboard. If you can believe it, there is a surf shop in Athens. I got in touch with the guys at the shop called ‘Surf Salad’, told them about my journey, and they invited me over to the shop for the afternoon. They filled me in on the where and when of surf conditions in Greece, gave me a wetsuit to borrow, and provided a contact info for friends out on the coast who could loan me a board. Waves come and go quickly in the Mediterranean, but these guys have it dialed and are on top of every wave in Greece when it works.

With a wetsuit strapped to the pannier bag, we rode west ascending into the mountains and it wasn’t long before we were right up at the snow line near Tripoli. When the rain started to fall and soaked us through, the wind quickly stripped the heat from our bodies leaving us shivering until we descended to lower altitude on the other side of Greece hours later.   All in all it was a brutal 5-hour ride to the village of Finikounda, and we were happy to find a warm tavern there with a fire going to dry ourselves out a bit. After an hour or so, we were the only ones there and the staff peppered us with questions about where we’d been and where we were going. Just like nearly everyone we met in Greece, these folks had some connection to the United States usually via friends or family living there. They were wonderful people and happy to let us explode all of our wet gear out around the fire.

Via Couchsurfer, we’d gotten in touch with a British couple called Alf and Rose who lived in a tiny village just up from the coast and invited us to come stay for a few nights.

Alf and Rose are wanderers like us and we had a blast swapping travel stories with them over a few pints. For five years Alf and Rose roamed the continent in a Caravan and more recently had done an extended tour in Lada Niva with a roof tent.

The Lada Niva is a fantastic little Russian-made 4×4 that hasn’t changed much in its design for decades – kind of like the Suzuki DR650. Loaded up in the Lada with Alf and Rose, we bounced down a bumpy track to attend the Greek festival that was going on in the village of Methoni that had something to do with Lent and primarily seemed to involve a stage production of a story about someone accidentally marrying their mother-in-law and lots of people dressed up like pirates. Something like that anyway. There was free soup and wine and everyone was in a festive mood and throwing confetti around.

We climbed around Methoni Castle scanning the coastline for surf. I think that the last time that I checked the surf from a castle battlement was in Scotland and I never imagined that I would be doing the same thing in Greece many years later.

The next day the sun busted through the clouds so we set off on the bike to explore further up the coast. The beachbreak waves we saw were more powerful looking that I’d thought we’d find, given the short fetch of storms in the Med, and the pointbreaks were as clean as you could hope for.

We finally followed a track out to the coast where I spied a head high wave dumping onto a sandbar with a few shoulders to ride.

The water was warm by Northern California standards, but I’d gone soft after so long in Africa, and my borrowed suit had a few holes in it. I launched myself into steep faced waves and managed to hold a few seconds of trim on my wonderfully simple surf craft before being embroiled in whitewater. It was a pretty sad display of wave riding, but it was fun all the same. Sure is easy to duck dive a lunch tray.

After a few days out on the coast, we rode back to Athens just barely avoiding the high altitude rain that had made the journey out of Athens so difficult. I’d been wearing the same pair of jeans since I left South Africa. They had been my riding pants, my hiking pants, and my going out pants. They’re my only pair of pants. Lately, they’d developed some unwelcome ventilation in the crotch that the cold weather had made me numbingly aware of.

Likewise, my jacket was coming apart everywhere and the zipper that I’d replaced in Nairobi had broken again. And after losing one of my leather gloves in Khartoum, I’d made do with some cheap work gloves from a Sudanese hardware store all the way across northern Sudan and Egypt. With lots of extra layers on and my bursting jacket pinned together at the front I was starting to feel ridiculous. Jamie assured me that I also looked ridiculous and took a photo to demonstrate.


Needless to say, some upgrades were in order if I was to make it across Europe on a motorbike. After a look around town, I found some Kevlar denim jeans, a Cordura jacket, and some leather riding gloves all on sale for about half what I would have payed back home. It was good deal all around and but still painful on a moto hobo’s wallet.

On an excursion away from Athens alone the next day, I started to feel a nasty shimmy from the back wheel. When I pulled over to check it out I found a disconcerting amount of play in the rear wheel that made me suspect a bearing failure. I had been riding about 70 mph on the motorway and didn’t want to risk that speed in case of a total bearing disintegration, which could cause the rear wheel to lock up and really nothing good to happen after that.   It took me hours to limp back to Athens on the secondary roads, but it was a beautiful ride. Sometimes I can do with a reminder that slowing down can be a good thing.

In Athens I took the rear wheel apart and confirmed play in the wheel bearing, though the sprocket carrier bearing still seemed fine. I found a shop in Athens with a large diameter socket to help me pound in the replacement bearings along the outer race without damaging the casing, put it all back together and she was right as rain once again. I’d carried those bearings all the way from London to Cape Town and back up to Athens, and I finally used them 36,000 miles later at a spot where I could walk down the road and purchase the very same ones!

With the bike sorted again, and prices out of our budget range in Athens, we were ready to get moving again and booked a ferry that would motor through the night across the Aegean Sea to the Greek island of Chios. We were headed back towards Turkey, which we’d bypassed on our ship from Israel but both of us very much wanted to visit. From Chios it would just be a short hop to Turkey aboard a smaller boat. Jamie slept on the floor of the boat crammed into a corner with my new jacket over top of her while I stayed up and listened to the wind whipping across the deck for most of the night. We arrived before dawn feeling like we’d been on an all night bender and had to collapse at the portside pension to recover.

We found the people of Greece incredibly warm and welcoming – usually eager to share bits of their culture and ways with a couple of foreigners who stumbled into their neighborhood. Finding surfers and waves to ride in was an unexpected treat. I could see Turkey across the water from the window of the pension and I couldn’t help wonder if it would fit into the expectation box that we’d created it our imaginations or would be something else entirely.


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