After our Dutch interlude we arrived back in Thessaloniki and met our hosts Vasilios and Ariadni a few hours later when they arrived from a short trip to Belgium. We spent another night at their place, chatting for a while but all of us were tired and went to bed fairly early. The next day we cleaned up our bikes’ drive trains as they were pretty gooey and in need of some new oil, getting everything ready for our departure.
We left on a brilliant, sunny morning cycling north through the mountains towards a secondary highway along the south shore of Volvi Lake. We got as far as Vrasna Beach on the western shore of the Aegean Sea. As in most places, these resort towns are pretty much shut down in winter. We were eyeing some of the unfinished houses in town as possible camping spots but Le Chocolat Hotel was still open and we got a room with a lovely view of the beach across the street.
The days are short and cold as we’re sliding toward the winter solstice. If we get up early enough and get moving quickly enough, we can manage 80-90 KM but that also depends on the terrain. If it’s hilly at all, our daily mileage drops dramatically. The route east along the Aegean Sea is relatively flat and we managed to push on 94 KM to Kavala, a medium-sized city where we found a lovely hotel in the centre of that city.
The nice thing about travelling at this time of the year is that we have pretty well been the only tourists around and hotels can be had for a lot less money and even bargained down. The bikes are usually not a problem. All the hotels we’ve stayed in have been very accommodating, usually letting us store them inside the lobby or some other out of the way corner.
From Kavala, we skirted the northern edge of the East Macedonia and Thrace National Park and headed south to go around Lake Vistonida, a large and shallow tidal lake that is home to many bird species such as pelicans, flamingos, several species of cormorant and a huge colony of herons.
It was a gorgeous day and instead of finding a room in Port Lagos, the only town around, we decided to camp on the beach, probably illegally but nobody was around so…
We stocked up on drinking water in town, bought some snacks to add to our food stock and rode back to the forested area on the edge of town. We found a nice spot on the edge of the forest on the beach just as the sun was slipping toward the horizon. It was a gorgeous evening.
We made camp and cooked dinner in the dark. It was cold and getting colder. By the time is was about 7.30, dinner was done, the dishes cleaned and after a cup of tea and some chocolate we headed for the warmth of the sleeping bag and about 11 hours of sack time.
The morning dawned cold and clear. Very cold. Our drinking water was mostly frozen and we had a hard time getting out of the warm sleeping bags. But nature eventually calls and we braved the cold morning. Everything was covered in frost but the sun was rising as we made coffee and cooked cereal.
We had hoped to cycle to Alexandroupolis along the sea shore but a very nice man pulled over and told us the road we were on was impassable further down because of high water. What followed was a bit of a mish-mash of route finding with only the GPS and a road map of Greece that was far too large a scale to be useful.
By the time we arrived in Alexandroupolis, we had cycled 106 KM that day with almost 1,000 metres of climbing. We were beat. There were two reasons we managed to get there that day: one was the early start because we camped, and the other was that the last 20 KM was mostly a downhill after three brutal climbs over nearly 40 KM.
After four, cold days of cycling, covering 365 KM, we needed a day off. Alexandroupolis has a couple of nice museums but unfortunately, it being Monday, they were closed. So, we didn’t do much of anything other than eating, drinking and resting. I managed to pick up a lovely head cold somewhere on our trip in The Netherlands so the day off was a welcome one.
We cycled into Turkey a day later without much hassle, unlike the hundreds of truck drivers lined up on the highway. We cycled along at least three kilometers of transport trucks sitting on the shoulder waiting to cross into Turkey. They must sit there for at least a day or two.
There were several check points with military presence but after shelling out 45 euros each we had a 90-day multiple entry visa. The guy at the next check point stamped our passports and just like that we were in the final European country of our trip.
The scenery and the weather had unfortunately become quite drab cycling out of Greece and into Turkey. Although there were moments of beauty, the landscape was mostly rolling agricultural land with long distances between towns and possible accommodation. We spent a night in Kesan and cycled on to Gallipoli the next day. There are also few secondary roads that lead anywhere forcing us to ride the highway. Luckily, there was very little traffic and wide shoulders. What little traffic we encountered was amazingly courteous, giving us lots of room, especially the transport trucks.
In Gallipoli, at the ferry terminal, a man came up to us and explained in broken English that he was a cyclotourer as well and he invited us to have coffee. We had some time to wait for our ferry so we took him up on his offer. He’s cycled all over Europe for the last several years and has many other tours planned, especially now that he’s retired from his job as an engineer. It was a quick but nice meeting and typical of the Turkish people’s hospitality.
We crossed the Dardanelles Strait under a spectacular sunset and cycled to our hotel in Lapseki, only a couple of kilometres from the ferry dock. The hotel’s reception was manned by a burly man with perfect English and the name Barbaros, although he said everybody calls him Barbie. A great name for a guy who looks like he could be a heavyweight prize fighter.
The hotel is home to a group of students who attend a small university nearby so the staff offered a set-menu dinner for only 10 Lira, about $5, which we happily accepted. Breakfast was already included in the price of the room which was a bargain at 60 Lira ($30).
The next two days of cycling were rather grim. No choice but to ride the highway from Lapseki to Biga and on to Bandirma. We had planned to cycle to Bursa but the distance of 110 KM was really at the limit of what we can now ride in one day. Since Bursa is a city of over 1 million souls, and we would have to ride along the same monotonous highway, which was getting busier with traffic, we opted not to go there. Instead we cycled to the small resort town of Erdek north of Bandirma.
It was a good choice. We had an easy and fairly scenic ride, found a hotel and spent the afternoon wandering along the sea shore, looking for a place to eat. Most of the hotels and resorts are boarded up for the winter season but this place is wall to wall people in the summer time. Still, it’s home to about 20,000 citizens and the town was alive with people in cafés and restaurants, shopping and strolling on the promenade where fishermen sold their catch.
We rode back the next morning to Bandirma and went straight to the ferry ticket office to make sure we could get the fast ferry sailing at 7.30 the next morning. After I had bought the tickets, the woman informs me that there was a 50-50 chance the sailing would not go. Why, she could not tell me.
After discussing this, Jan and I decided that instead of taking the chance of not being able to go and then having to hang out the entire day until 6.30 in the evening for the car ferry, we would exchange our tickets for the next available fast ferry later that afternoon. We were able to get on a nearly sold-out ferry and arrived in Istanbul at six o’clock that evening. Unfortunately, we arrived in the dark but were happy to be there.
All in all, it was a milestone day for us. Having come from Iceland, and then mainland Europe’s most northern point, we had arrived in our final European city on this tour at the eastern edge of Europe. We also crossed the 10,000 KM mark since starting this journey on June 1. We are looking forward to the break and a visit with friends Lyle and Kathy who are joining us for the holidays here in this melting pot of east meets west.
Merry Christmas every one and we wish you all a prosperous and happy 2014. We have made plans for the new year and it will include more cycling (surprise!) but you’ll have to stay tuned to find out where. Thank you all for reading and following along. Please, let us know if you like what you’re reading. It’s always nice to hear from you, our audience.