Monday and Tuesday, September 22 and 23
I’m in love. The first day climb, descent, climb and descent into Ioannina was just foreplay. I have completely fallen in love with the terrain, the villages and the people of Greece. Some of this has to do with being a Colorado boy. Much of the past two days of cycling has reminded me of the Rocky Mountain and their rugged and harsh nature.
It started Monday morning as I made decisions about how to make my way to Meteora, famous for their cliff top dwelling monasteries. I am being careful not to say that I made a mistake, only that my decision presented me with a different set of challenges. There were basically three routes out of Ioannina that eventually lead one over the mountains. The first one immediately takes one to the base of a series of switchbacks and there was no way that I was going to do that unless forced to. The middle option provided a more even grade up the mountain, but also began only four kilometers from my starting point. The last one allowed for about ten kilometers of riding along the edge of the lake before needing to meet the second option after a shorter and steeper grade. I decided to take the option and give my body a chance to warm up.
I paid for it. I hit a series of grades where I alternated between first gear granny riding to making “S patterns” across the road in order to keep moving forward to getting off my bike and pushing my load up the hill. It was the first time ever cycling that I had to push my bike and I felt no shame for it all.
On the way I had a little face off with a steer. As I neared he positioned himself right in the middle of the road as if to say, “I dare you.” We stared at each other for awhile, each hoping that the other would back down. Finally a car came up behind me and waved me over to the left side of his car. There he escorted me by the steer putting his car between me and the steer. The steer never budged or flinched, but I won the contest.
Once I reached the grade that would take me up to the top of Kapala Pass (about 6,000 feet in elevation), I settled into a Dan Fogelberg-like bliss. With each pedal stroke I made my way higher above the valley floor and my perspective became broader and softer. Waves of pure goodness washed through me and left me in tears numerous times. At the base of another section two Greek couples had stopped for refreshment. As I came up on them they waved me over and handed me a hard-boiled egg and a fresh, unpeeled cucumber and cheered me on as if I was a competitor in some famous bike race.
I thought a lot about contours. You see, I didn’t have to go this way. There was Highway 90 that flattened the route out, utilized numerous tunnels to short-circuit the steep and winding ascents and descents, and cut many kilometers off the distance. But, I realized that the highway was built with a destination in my mind. It was meant to get one to Thessaloniki as efficiently and as fast as possible. But, it costs something. On the highway one does not get to experience the contours of that same country.
Not far off the highway I rode through quaint, lovely villages often with only a couple dozen homes and one or two caffe bars where people sit outside drinking cappuccinos and engaging in meaningful or mundane conversations. Had I been on the highway I would not have had my first real challenge with sheepdogs. As I continued to climb I neared a corner where I could hear the barking. One by one a pack of six dogs emerged ready for me to pass through their territory. I knew this was going to be a face-off. I stopped and etreated about twenty yards to let them know that I was going to remain flexible. There I gathered a handful of golf ball and baseball-sized stones. I slowly began moving my way toward them keeping my bike between them and the rock wall behind me. I don’t know if I called their bluff or they knew I had rocks but as I neared them they slunk off down the hillside. I was relieved, but also thankful to have gotten a little practice for what will likely be the first of many encounters (This happened Tuesday too when I outran two dogs only to be greeted by two more in front of me. The young, toothless Albanian shepherd called them all off. I was only sorry that I wasn’t able to fulfill his request for a cigarette. I had smoked my last one the night before. Ha Ha!)
I spent the night in the perfect little town of Metsovo. About two-thirds the way up Kapala Pass hangs this little town on the steep hillsides of the mountain. Once you turn off the road you drop like a boulder from a balcony into the village built around the cobblestoned paths that were never meant for cars, but just horses and people. It’s perfect really! Little hotels that are centuries old, caffes and restaurants, and a bakery that serves up a wonderful sandwich-sized piece of baklava. Seriously, I am in love!
It rained during the night. Hard. I looked out over my second floor veranda and water was running down the streets as if it were creating a new streambed. I woke to still more rain, but it was intermittent and the forecast was for sun later in the day. I decided to put my rain gear on and ride. I still had another 2,000 feet of climbing to reach the pass, but was assured that after that it was all downhill into Meteora.
Again, I was reminded of Colorado and my treks up Trail Ridge Road (the highest paved highway in the world). As Fogelberg would say, “I felt so strong and alive…” as dug deep. Gusty, mean-spirited winds pushed me all over the road and I needed a four foot safety zone to accommodate my zigging and my zigging. I rode by a closed ski area and cycled between the eight-foot poles that lined the road for when the snow began to pile up. It was cold, harsh, and unforgiving and I was loving every second of it.” I feel so strong and alive, I feel so strong and alive!” I repeated over and over again in gratitude.
Somewhere along the way I missed a turn. I was supposed to crest the summit of the pass and go happily cascading down into Meteora over a forty kilometer joy ride. I crested what I thought was the summit and began hurtling down a wonderful descent that again reminded me of Colorado. Pine trees, a cold, sparkling stream and signs warning me to watch out deer crossing the road and bears crossing our paths. But, when I got the bottom I was no closer to Meteora. I had gone down, but I had gone down the wrong side (well, there is no wrong here!) of the mountain and before stood another pass to climb. As corrected my little mistake over the next three hours I was again thankful for the contours of the experience. Twice I saw the big highway off in the distance and was reminded that I was getting to experience Greece not just pass through it.
As the day began to close in on me I knew I needed to refuel. I stopped at a little Greek caffe for a beer and some baked carbohydrate. I spent much of the time talking with Aristotles who told me that he got most of his English from Hollywood movies and music. I have just enough seminary Greek to recognize the symbol of the alphabet and can spell God (theos). As I prepared to leave Yolos, the owner invited me to enjoy an espresso and dessert with them. I first resisted knowing that my stomach had what it needed and my legs were now turning into stiff tree trunks. “Oh come on, enjoy an espresso with us.” I removed my cycling identity and allowed myself to be treated like a guest. There we shared espresso, finished off some dessert that was left over from a friend’s child’s Greek Orthodox baptism from two days before and talked about Greece, hope, religion, and life.
I write this now (Wednesday) from Meteora on a perfectly sunny, summery day. I have spent the morning with Antonio, a cyclist from Spain who appears to be following a similar route to Thessaloniki. Behind me are the monster rock spires that support the ancient monasteries. Before me is the goodness of another unpredictable and full, always full day.
Contours. Love is felt in the contours.