Enter Greece: South of The Border to Camp in A Field. - Lookin For John Fairweather - CycleBlaze

January 18, 2014

Enter Greece: South of The Border to Camp in A Field.

THE BORDER GUARD flicks through the pages of my passport. I could see his eyes narrow and the look on his face that says "What's this?" You see, my passport is close to expiring, and in over nine years of being around, much of the time, stuck in a secure but sweathy pouch underneath my cloths, has become curved against my skin and on one occasion, soaked by rain; and generally with time, battered and dog-eared.

He turns the pages, looking at each stamp from the countries I've been in. But, turning back to the cover and front page, cannot find where is written, the country I'm from as its faded and illegible. He then in bewilderment says "Frances?" "Ireland" I correct him. He tilt his head and raises an eyebrow and opens the first page. He sets it down beside the keyboard and begins to key in the number.

Still in the mountains.
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Its a long descend and a combination of frosty morning and wind chill, means my rain jacket with two warm jerseys underneath, thermal tights, alpaca hat and thick gloves do little to stop me feel its freezing brass monkeys. I pass through the first Greek village; whitewashed walls and orange semicircle tile roofs contrasting with yellow mountain grasses and grey dwarf birch. There's a small river to the left as the road winds down steeply to where there are steep pine and birch forest slopes on both sides and ahead of me. Eventually I come to a halt at a tee-junction where it feels a little warmer, having lost a fair amount of altitude.

FLORINA 49 KM: is on the sign pointing left; which, according to my map for the whole of Europe, is the most direct road from where I'm at to Thessaloniki. It climbs gradually to begin with, up an adjoining valley, inland towards snow covered mountains beyond the tree line. I had thought when I reached Greece, I'd be safe from Winter cold, but of course only near the coast. Inland Greece, is mountainous and subject to the same severe Winter as elsewhere in the Balkans.

Its too cold to hang around though.
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The road turns the final hairpin bend and continues less steeply high along a hillside towards a scattering of orange roofed houses. When the road levells out, I'm at a ski resort. There's a clear gap up the hillside opposite between the trees and partly covered in receding old snow. Low down I see the chairlifts dangling from cables and the wheels of winding machinery. A bit further along the same hill is a second ski run. There are a couple of hotels and at a roadside car-park, a bus has pulled in, the engine still running and middle-age and greying passengers out alongside; from which, a man smoking a cigarette shouts something in an encouraging tone. Turning to look as I ride slowly by, he asks in broken English, where I'm from.

Although I'd warmed up climbing, I cool rapidly on the long descend. I just get colder and colder. I know Florina is close, but cannot see any town yet. Below, off to the right, there's an open plain with snow-capped mountains on the far side. Finally I turn a corner on the slope and the town opens up in the valley floor, spread out to the plain.

I turn off down toward the city-centre and come to a roundabout with blocks and shops round the perimeter. I'm feeling numb. Unsure which, is the way to the centre from here. Though see a sign: THESSALONIKI 160 KM: but, need to find a bank and coffee would be nice. I ride along one narrow one-way street which look like it may lead into the centre, but it just leads into other streets, so return to the roundabout. The next street branches off slightly uphill, narrow and with one-way traffic too, though two blocks on is closed to motorized traffic and continues as a walking street into a square with lots of people and busy cafes along one side.

A hundred euro bank note slides out the hatch and the ATM has given me my card back, so I can get more in days to come at other outlets. I'm Lucky this time too, having in my wallet a five euro note plus a couple of two euro coins from before, so don't have to break the hundred paying two euros for a coffee. And outside in front of the café, there's one free seat next to a gas-heating-lamp radiating warmth.

With overexposure of Greece's economic downturn in the media I assumed there would be poverty, but on this street of cafes, people dressed in expensive Winter cloths occupy every seat and are slapping out on lunch.

I wave the girl over and order a second coffee, as I don't want to leave, not yet; preferring to watch people. The three young guys at the next table, each scrolling and stirring at their phones. The long haired thirty-something guy against the window at the next café along, wearing a warm beany and smoking a rollup while calling out occasionally to people passing. The pretty raven haired waitress in and out. Teenage boys rolling by on skateboards making a harsh drag on the flags. Two young women meeting a third, stop and chat, while a stray dog waddles over and lies down at their feet seeking attention, he rolls round on his back. One of the women begins to tickle his belly with her foot and breaks off the conversation to talk to him. Minutes later when the three friends walk on together, the dog hops to his feet and waddles off after them. The woman is no longer his friend though, she turns and with a stern word and look, wards him off. The poor dog turn away and walks forlornly back to his place.

I have an encounter on this stretch.
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The afternoon rolls on with a stop at a Lidl on the way out of town. Here I break the hundred, spending four euros ninety on bread, salami, bananas and a few other items. I lunch here too. Then there's a long straight road towards a range of hills; leading slowly into an incline; steep at the start, then going on more gradually for over five kilometres with woodland on both sides; rare free camping, as the road up until this point after leaving Florina had all been farmland. But it is still a little early to stop. I want to reach Thessaloniki as early as possible the next day, so need to keep going until nightfall shortly after five. Presently its only four according to the time on my camera, which I've out after cresting the hill, as the view ahead is quite impressive. The hill sweeping a long way down to a wide plain, which folds upwards ahead to a level crest from left to right; with a little right of centre, two stark concrete power station cooling-towers emitting big puffs of white vapour.

At that moment a red Seat Ibiza approaches and pulls to a halt opposite me. The driver's door swings opens and a stunning blond Greek goddess looks me in the eye. She speaks, but I don't understand a word. Her demeanor friendly, smiling and holding my gaze with her dark eyes. What is she saying. Perhaps "you like what you see? You do." Yes, you're very beautiful. She speaks a few words more, before pulling the door shut, waves goodbye and moves off slowly leaving me puzzled.

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I manager to climb and crest the bit of a hill ahead, then descend pass the power station just as the sun sinks below the hills beyond. The land is all cereal farming with huge fields and no farmhouse anywhere in sight. So, I wheel the bike down the embankment that elevates the road, and through a gap into a field where the last crop was maize as there remains corn-cobs shattered in the stubble and part of the field is ploughed in preparation for a Spring sown crop. I continue wheeling the bike to a corner where there's tall grass which will provide a degree of cover for my tent from the highway above. Though by the time I've the tent up and everything I need off the bike and inside, and have eaten a supper of bread and bananas washed down by coke, the light is fading and my cover is complete by darkness.

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Today's ride: 97 km (60 miles)
Total: 9,470 km (5,881 miles)

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