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My big, fat Greek getaway: Greece Big Ride

In-depth
7 Jun 2022
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The rugged coastlines, hidden beaches and sprawling mountains of Epirus are the perfect place for a cycling escape

Words James Spender Photography Patrik Lundin

The MarBella Elix hotel stands like a fortress on the edge of a cliff, the kind of fortress that would appear in Architectural Digest and has a telephone next to the toilet.

I’m always confused by the telephone next to the toilet in hotel bathrooms. Is it to receive calls or make them? Am I supposed to use it to report having slipped?

As I mull this over I glance to my left at a vast mirror, in which a familiar figure is doing a poor impression of Rodin’s Thinker. His hair is far too long. So I reach for the phone, dial reception and ask if the hotel has a barber.

It doesn’t, but the chap on the other end is kind enough to suggest a name in the next town, even kinder to book it, and I now know what these phones have been for all along.

Later in reception I’m handed a number on a piece of paper and instructed to ride up to the town square and dial it. So I suit up, clip in and pedal into the late afternoon heat.

Sea, air and hair

I’m pleased to report that in the MarBella Elix, the hotel breakfast buffet is back. Disposable gloves and masks are mandatory, but for the first time in too long I am able to pile baklava on my plate in a way that would be embarrassing if I had to ask a server to do it for me.

I’m met in the hotel reception by Pavlos, who by the size of his legs could be a track demon, but by the size of his shoulders is more into Crossfit. Elias on reception nods conspiratorially at me, indicating he likes my new hair, which after all he is in part responsible for.

As we get ready outside, the lobby doors slide open and shut as new guests arrive, each time delivering waves of conditioned air across my skin that remind me how hot it really is and how much hotter I’m about to become. There is only one road to the hotel, and in this direction it’s a 6km climb straight off the bat.

This is the reason why when Christos the barber eventually found me in Perdika town square (I had to draft in the help of an English-speaking local to talk to Christos on my phone), he had to lend me a towel and give me ten minutes before we could commence chopping.

But this is what I love about riding in Greece – the heat. It is reliable, even in late September, and brings with it the blue skies I crave as Britain begins to pack its garden furniture away for another year.

We climb away from the Ionian Sea, the island of Corfu in the distance, the slopes to our right thicker and greener than I had imagined Greece would be.

My first Greek coffee is a silty baptism stiff enough to stand a spoon in and more bitter than a tabloid comment. We take it in Parga, a town that sprung up beside the natural harbour the land created and still boasts small fishing boats as well as leisure yachts, and which this late in the season is a hush of dozing cats and old men resting their chins and hands on their walking sticks.

Overlooking the harbour is Parga Castle, which is even older still, a Trigger’s Broom construction built in 1401 by the Venetians and destroyed and rebuilt many times over as power in the Mediterranean shifted from Italian to Ottoman to French to British to Ottoman again and then finally back to the Greek state in 1913. No wonder the Greeks consider themselves such hardy folk.

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We gradually climb out away from Parga, the Ionian blue switching to green and then silver as the sun reflects at ever-changing angles. From the road we spy a hidden beach with a tempting set of hairpins, and although not on our route we descend to have a look, just because we have the time.

It winds through olive groves; an elderly gentleman waves from his shaded position on a bleached deck chair; the sea returns to view.

The beach, Lichnos, tiny and beautiful, is deserted, and on another day would warrant a swim. We, however, must return to the main road. Halfway up I can hear Pavlos quietly cursing our decision to cycle down.

Tales from the riverbank

The valley floor lies pan-flat ahead and to our left cattle graze on the banks of a lily pad-covered lake; ahead lie mountains. A dog comes up beside us and I ready my bidon to squirt, just in case, but her lolloping stride is familial and she seems intent only in investigation.

Despite the sun, a band of rain washes over our heads, droplets glinting like showered glass. It soon passes and any floor-spotted evidence evaporates away. It’s hot enough to stop, and here is a good place to do so – the Acheron River, the perfect place to fill bottles with crisp mountain water.

We turn off the dusty road and hunker down like the cows drinking from the lake, only somewhat less gracefully thanks to cleats.

An arid summer has dried the river to a trickle but its mythology is as strong as ever, for this is the river that divided the living from the dead, the Underworld on one side, its bank patrolled by Cerberus the three-headed dog, and reachable only by Charon, the ferryman’s boat. Hence the coins on the eyes of the dead, there to pay the ferryman’s toll lest the dead wander the banks in perpetual limbo.

The mountains draw closer, their faces appearing to wear felted beards of scrubby trees that grow in distant clumps like hair pulled through a fishing net.

Civilisation comes and goes through the town of Glyki, schoolchildren marching up its steep streets in neat white shirts, an old woman crossing the road as slowly as if she were a lost soul trying to find pennies for the ferryman, hands clasped behind her back, eyes glued to the floor.

From narrow streets the road opens out into a long, gently rising stretch that in turn morphs into a snaking climb, whose distance is mirrored only by its height, the thinnest of grey lines just visible in a horizontal strike across the mountain face.

Another 10% gradient warning sign springs up at the side of the road, and I’m reminded of a story told by Cyclist writer Trevor Ward of how all gradient signs on the Greek island of Rhodes say 10% due to a job lot being purchased by its thrifty councillors.

I muse with Pavlos as to whether this could be true here too – certainly my bike computer is disagreeing strongly with the signs. It reads 13%, then 15%.

Rough, ready and arresting

Our climb finally intersects with a newly laid motorway, which looks wonderfully inviting with its clean black tarmac and light scattering of vehicles. But bikes are not technically allowed on it – although Pavlos says in reality it’s fine – so playing by the rules we carry on to a much older road, whose whitened tarmac soon turns to gravel.

The crunch under our tyres demarcates our slow progress but the route is preferable to the motorway, and off-the-beaten-track soon turns back to on as we rejoin the paved surface. Gradually our barren surroundings become less bleak and more arresting, ourselves being the smallest things of all in this landscape.

The first signs of upcoming dwellings take the form of battered industrial recycling bins and spilt binbags at the roadside, a strange facet of Greece it would seem – a country blessed with such incredible beauty that its attendance is often taken for granted.

Pavlos explains younger Greeks are much more with the environmental programme, but the older generation still operates with something of a fly-tipping mentality. Patchworked roads keep our tyres honest and our concentration high; houses set back from the road are rustically charming save for the odd paint-peeled satellite dish and aerial.

It’s all a case of needs must – refuse collection and TV trumps a visitor’s sensibilities of the beautiful, albeit the more major road we have just turned onto somehow manages to blend practical motoring with wilderness views.

It’s arrow-straight, sun-bleached and flanked by fuzzy mountains. Two birds of prey circle overhead, riding the gentle thermals as they scan the ground for mice and lizards. If it were any quieter we would hear the wind tickling their feathers.

Finally we roll up at our late afternoon lunch stop in the town of Plataria, which from what I can tell is essentially one long, thin beach that separates a row of tavernas and houses from a plate glass sea.

A fisherman waste-deep in the water casts back and forth, his shirtless back the colour of hide, puffs of cigarette smoke rising above his head. At the end of the promenade two boats sit propped in dry berth, barnacled keels exposed and halyards gently tapping against their masts.

We pull up at a wooden-clad taverna, tables sat back under fruit trees, a huge inside dining room occupied by two people watching a portable TV over their dinner. Evidently one is the owner, who signals to us to sit. Pavlos explains this is his mother-in-law’s place, and she’ll just bring the best food. It quickly follows, along with beers so cold there is slushy ice on the head.

It’s an incredible feast of sardines, squid, snapper, the crispiest aubergines and village salad (because we’re in Greece, so it is a Greek salad already), and it’s incredibly poorly timed given the riding we still have to do – so too the tsipouro, a spirit not unlike grappa that in this instance could strip a shed.

A curious but delicious dessert follows of Greek yoghurt topped with candied carrot, and by the end of the meal I’m fit only for a sun lounger. Pavlos lets us sit and digest a while longer while I watch the fisherman, still without a fish but that’s possibly because we’ve eaten them all.

Herbal memories

The climb around the headland is mercifully relaxed, the road rising steadily to a plateau above the sea, perfectly positioned to deliver panoramic views of the hazy mounds of Corfu and Lowry-sized boats on the bay beyond Plataria.

We skirt the clifftops, making occasional twists away from the sea and then back again to gain height with savage steepness. As with this morning it’s striking how green the land is, how red the soil. This is hardly an Alpine forest but it’s lush in a waxy leaf kind of way, and the air takes on an appropriately damp feel as the trees close momentarily in without ever being near enough to undermine the dominant colour of blue sky.

Roadside, clumps of wild thyme spring with little purple and blue flowers – not the kind of thyme you see in English supermarkets, because this is much more spiny and pungent. The smell intermingles with something I can’t quite put my finger on.

We stop and grab at the many different leaves in the scrub, rubbing them vigorously between our fingers to release the oils. We go through rosemary, oregano and wild basil this way. It’s none of them. Then Pavlos spies a tree.

‘They’re laurel leaves,’ he says. I don’t recognise the name but I do the shape, and for the first time I make the connection that a laurel wreath is in fact made out of bay leaves.

A few hundred metres on we have reached the tops of cliffs and can see down to the distant dots of parasols spread across the MarBella Elix’s beach. If we manage the descent fast enough there just might be time for a swim.

The rider’s ride


Merida Scultura V Team, £7,750, merida-bikes.com

The fifth iteration of the Scultura builds on pro-proven geometry that’s on the longer, lower end of fit but still isn’t going to break your back or, at this price, your wallet.

Comparatively. It’s not cheap, but stacked against the competition this is a lot of bike for your buck: 45mm deep tubeless Vision Metron SL wheels weighing a claimed 1,372g; Shimano’s new Dura-Ace 9200 Di2 groupset; integrated everything.

The bike feels tight and responsive, from pedal stomps and bar-wrenching sprints to the crisp Shimano shifting, which sweeps through its now 12-speed cassette a claimed 58% faster.

The Scultura V has upped its aero game, Merida claiming it saves up to 10 watts of drag at 45kmh over the previous model, and the bike certainly possessed a wicked lick of speed, accelerating rapidly on descents and feeling like it was cutting into headwinds on my behalf.

Handling was similarly reactive, but the standout feature on this bike is rear-end compliance. Merida claims it boosted flex by 38% (which from what I can see comes in large part from the flat-backed seatpost) and over some deeply scarred Greek roads the Scultura really felt like it was doing me and my backside a huge favour.

Tour of the tastebuds


Eat out to help yourself out

If there’s any reason to cycle it’s to eat, and if there’s any reason to travel to Greece it’s to eat well (and cycle) – which is where Pavlos came in. He runs Explore the Outside (exploretheoutside.com), which operates a host of cycling, hiking and sailing trips. But more than an expert tour guide, Pavlos also knows his way around a local menu.

‘You call it Greek, we call it village salad, and it’s best made from vine-ripened tomatoes, wild oregano and sweet, salty slabs of feta. All juices should be mopped up with fresh bread.

‘The fish here is amazing, but seek out atherina, which are similar to whitebait; bakaliaros, which are battered chunks of salt cod; and whole roasted snapper, served simply with lemon.

‘Dolmades are a family staple – everyone has their own idea – but usually they’re vine leaf parcels of rice or minced meat and plenty of herbs.

‘People think of Greece and think of ouzo, but we drink tsipouro, made only from grapes, not grains like ouzo can be, and not flavoured with anise. It might sound obvious, but try Greek yoghurt and honey. It is nothing like it is overseas, here it is as thick as ice cream and the honey is floral and wild.’ 

How we did it


Travel

It is very possible to get to Greece without flying, taking the Eurostar to France, then training via Paris and Torino to Bari, Italy, where a ferry crosses to Igoumenitsa, which is a 1.5-hour drive from Perdika/the MarBella Elix hotel.

Total time is around 30 hours and costs start from around £330. Rome2rio.com is a great resource for planning such journeys. Alternatively, flights go regularly from London Stansted to Perveza airport, and then it’s a 75-minute drive to MarBella Elix.

Accommodation

We stayed at the MarBella Elix (marbella.gr), which really lived up to its five-star billing, from the private infinity pools to the funicular to take patrons down to the hotel’s beach.

Full board is an option (from £185pn for a standard double, with half board from £100), and the hotel’s three distinct restaurants serve superb seasonal menus. This is the sort of place where you want for nothing, right down to the all-day, gratis ice cream.

Thanks

Prior planning prevents, so our huge thanks to Pavlos Zitakis from Explore the Outside, who meticulously planned our route, including stops at the best local tavernas, and his partner George, who drove our photographer Mike around.

Huge thanks also to Periklis Gompakis, who hosted us at the MarBella Elix, and Isabelle Thomas, from Grifco PR (grifcopr.com), who planned our itinerary right down to the fit-to-fly Covid tests.