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Tuesday, 01 March 2016

A Certain Time of Day: Cycling and Sailing in Greece

Written by Dale Fehringer
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There is a certain time of day, in Greece, between the afternoon and darkness, when the sun is beginning to set and the light is soft and gentle, that you begin to reflect on and appreciate the day. We are cycling on Poros, in the Peloponnes Islands south of Athens, enjoying mild temperatures, clouds, a few drops of rain, and the scent of a pine forest. Near the end of our ride we stop near some ruins, sip fruit drinks, and listen to stories about this island; myths about people who lived here more than a thousand years ago. Back on our bicycles, we coast downhill as the sun is beginning to set. A slight haze rises from the water and the light begins to soften. Clouds break the remaining sunlight into bands of yellow and gray, and shadows make images on the water. Twilight turns the white houses of Poros into yellow and gold, and reflections from the houses glimmer on the sea.

 

Our time on Poros is mid-way through a sailing and cycling trip in the Cyclades and Peloponnes Islands south of Athens.  Each day the crew of our small boat motors to a different island, where bicycles are unloaded and we follow Catharina and Toni, our tour guides, as we cycle around the island and they relate its history.  The first couple of days are hot, and our cycling is limited to shorter rides with frequent water breaks in the shade.  Then a storm comes up from Africa and our crew finds shelter among sparsely-populated Peloponnes islands.  Here, the people live in small, quaint villages with white and blue houses built into cliffs that rise up from natural harbors.  Some of the islands are barren from clearcutting and erosion during Roman times, and the people are isolated, yet cheerful and welcoming.  

 

The Greek economy is a mess, although we haven’t seen any outward signs of trouble.  The EU recently arranged a loan and the banks are open, but Greek citizens are limited to withdrawing 60 euros per day, so life requires planning and care.  But the Greeks are optimistic people, and while the locals we talk to do not agree on a solution, everyone has one, and they all hope that conditions will improve in the future.

   

A Cycling and Sailing Adventure

Our one-week cycling and sailing adventure trip requires mid-level cycling skills, a willingness to live in close quarters with other travelers, and an interest in history and ancient cultures.  We are traveling with a German tour operator (Islandhopping), which supplied the boat, crew, bicycles, and guides. Four of us (from the U.S.) signed up online (www.islandhopping.com), were picked up at the Athens Airport, and joined a group of travelers from all over the world aboard a small wooden ship.   

 

Life on a small ship means you are very involved – with the crew, the schedule, the weather, and your fellow travelers.  Everyone learns to assume that each member of the group is interesting and no one is perfect, and the best way to get along is to accept each other for what they bring to the whole.     


 

This was the most diverse group we’d traveled with, ranging in age from mid-40’s to mid-70’s, and included a wide variety of occupations, from glassblowers to high-tech engineers.  There were singles, married couples, non-married couples, moms, dads, and grandparents.   People traveled from all over the world:  Argentina, Austria, Australia, Canada, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Scotland, and the U.S.  Everyone speaks at least some English, so our guides use it to address the group.  We are all cyclists, to one extent or another, and the best cyclist in the group is a 72-year-old man from Austria.

 

Our tour is led by two guides:  Catharina and Toni.  Catharina is German, and she is fluent in German, English, and Greek.  She has a deep love for Greece and Greek history, and we benefit by being led by Catharina to interesting places and hearing stories of Greek mythology.  Toni is Croatian, an athlete, and a lot of fun.  He cycles up hills with us and leads us in music at night.  Our crew are young and hard-working, and they run the ship and keep us supplied with good food and cold beer.  

 

There is cycling scheduled for each day -- rides of 12-20 miles -- with options each day for longer and shorter rides.  The tour company supplies hybrid bicycles, and tour members provide their own cycling gear; including shoes, gloves, helmets, shirts and shorts.  Catharina and Toni cycle with us, encourage us, keep us from getting lost, and entertain us with stories about Greek mythology, island life, and local customs. After each day’s cycling, Catharina and Toni save time for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea, next to our boat.  It’s refreshing and a great way to cool off!

 

Our handsome wooden boat is named the Panagiota.  She is a two-masted motor yacht, 19 feet wide and 75 feet long, built in 1990 and restored in 2001. We bunk in small, private air conditioned cabins with en-suite bathrooms.  There are 10 cabins for guests -- small, functional spaces -- some above and others below deck, and 4-5 places to hang out during the passages and when the ship is in dock. Some meals are on board and the food is plentiful and good.  

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Exploring the Islands 

Our first visit is to Seriphos, a small island with quaint villages, great beaches, and a feeling of peace-and-quiet.  From the harbor town of Livadi, we cycle in the heat to the main town of Seriphos, a sea of white and blue houses.  The lone building that doesn’t meet that scheme is the yellow town hall.  We return to the village for dinner, arriving around 7:30, and select a restaurant with outdoor seating.  We sit down at one of the deserted tables and order wine, spinach pies, and pork stew and relax under a clear sky and yellow moon.  As we wait for our food to arrive we began to feel sorry for the rather bored wait staff, but by nine o’clock the place is full and the waiters are hard at it.  Families arrive late, sit together, and visit -- grandparents, parents, and children -- having their evening meal and enjoying each other’s company.  The pace is slower here, and time is for sharing.  

 

The weather cools for our visit to the island of Kythnos on our second day, and we cycle up and over steep hills in the middle of the island. This is a stark land, with brown hills that are barren and eroded by winds after the Romans stripped its timber.  It’s now a lonely island with quaint villages and beautiful harbors.  We order coffee at the end of the ride and enjoy the hospitality of the locals, who are kind and helpful and do not seem to be in a hurry.  Dinner at one of the restaurants near the harbor includes two of the island’s specialties:  cheese and honey. Our favorite dish is feta cheese wrapped in filo dough, drizzled with honey, and cooked over a fire.    


 

The wind comes up the next morning as we sail to the island of Kea.  It’s an exciting crossing, with white-capped waves, some serious up-and-downs, and salt water spraying the boat.  It reminds us that we are on a small boat and subject to the elements.  We spend much of our third day exploring the small island of Kea by bicycle and are amazed to learn that it has been populated since 3,300 BC when a settlement formed near the harbor town of Korissia.  Our cycling is gorgeous – up and over mountains to the picturesque town of Ioulis, the capital of Kea, and a haven for artists and the wealthy from Athens.  From there, we coast down the hills and enjoy scenic overviews of the coastline and harbors on the way back to our waiting ship. 

 

The next morning during breakfast our guides announce that a storm is coming up from Africa that includes strong winds, so we spend part of our fourth day diverting from our scheduled tour and heading to calmer waters in the Argo-Sardonic Gulf and the Peloponnes Islands.  Our first harbor is at Poros Island, which the ancient Greeks dedicated to Poseidon, the brother of Zeus and god of the sea.  We cycle to a sanctuary atop the island’s highest hill and listen as Catharina relates the myths of Poseidon.  For dinner, we dine on fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese, and local Retsina wine, made by adding pine resin to white or rosé wine.  The food and wine here is healthy, delicious, and inexpensive, and we relish each meal.        

 

Our guides have a surprise for us on our fifth day; and we take a ferry to Hydra, a tiny, delightful island that appears to be frozen in time.  Life here goes on as it has for centuries; the locals fish, make handicrafts, and entertain tourists. Cars are not allowed and the only source of transportation is a group of temperamental donkeys.  Homes are small, painted white, and built into the hillsides, with blue window frames and gorgeous lace curtains. We clamor up the hills and through the narrow walkways, enjoying fabulous views, a striking coastline, and neat homes. A statue of a boy on a dolphin stands in a prominent position on the west end of the island, commemorating the movie of that name (Boy on a Dolphin) filmed here in 1950, starring Sophia Loren, Alan Ladd, and Clifton Webb.   

 

We spend our sixth day and last bicycle ride on the island of Aegina. Catharina tells us the island was named for the daughter of Asopos, the river god, who eloped with Zeus to this island.  It has been inhabited since 3,500 B.C. and was at one time the economic and social center of Greece.  More recently, it was the first capital of independent Greece, from 1827 – 1829. The weather is mild, the scenery wonderful, and we had a promising goal -- the ruins of one of the best preserved temples in Greece, dedicated to Aphaia, a goddess of fertility and agriculture. The remains of the temple are striking, perched on top of the highest point on the island, with the sea visible in all directions.

 

This island is famous for growing pistachio nuts, and they are ripe and being harvested. We are surprised to learn they grow in a pod, which turns red when ripe. The growers spread a tarp on the ground below the trees, knock the pistachios from the tree onto the tarp, collect them, remove the pod, and soak and roast the nuts.  As we discovered, they are delicious freshly roasted!


 

 

On our ride back to the boat we come upon a gorgeous monastery, dedicated to Agios Nektarios, a saint in the Greek Orthodox religion. His story is a little like that of Mother Theresa, and he spent his life helping the poor in Greece. Agios Nektarios was known as a great miracle worker and a healer of diseases, and today thousands of people come here to visit his tomb, pray to him, and ask for his blessings.

 

Goodbyes

Our last evening is special!  The ladies get dressed up and the guys put on clean shorts for our final meal aboard our small ship.  The crew have knocked themselves out, and we enjoy a fabulous BBQ; join in numerous toasts to our crew, guides, and each other; and are entertained by the guides’ award ceremony, which includes accolades for good sportsmanship, closest resemblance to a Greek goddess, funniest outfit, best use of a GoPro, etc. The crew and guides are presented our thanks and our tips, followed by more toasts and a round of hugs.  Toni gets out his guitar and we sing songs together -- new songs, old songs, it doesn’t matter -- everyone joins in.  Eventually, it gets late and we say our goodbyes and share more hugs. 

 

Traveling with a group of strangers is a bonding and rewarding experience, and I relish my time with this special group of people. I will carry much home from Greece; including new friendships, treasured experiences, and a renewed sense of history.  And, every once in a while, late in the afternoon, I will take a minute, stop what I am doing, look up at the sky, remember Greece, and reflect on that certain time of day.  

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©Dale Fehringer

 

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 March 2016