Day 15: Derveni to Vrachati (44km)
In the grocers, I selected three apples and freshly picked grapes. Next door in the newsagents I bought yogurt, and then further down the road bread and cake. It was mid morning and the town gently brimmed as the mainly elderly residents went about their routines. Occasionally a lorry disrupted the quiet, tearing through the main street to avoid the tolls on the newly completed E65.
Walking back the way I had come, I could see the sea beyond the shops and pink apartment buildings. Old men socialised in the cafés and bars, smoking and drinking. In an office, cardboard files lined the shelves, piles of paper work stood on the desks. Near the apartment, I made one last stop to buy coffee. I crossed the road heading towards a shop with an ancient roaster in the window. The man behind the counter measured out my order, tipped the beans into a grinder and then carefully poured the coffee back into the bag before sealing it and handing it over.
Now we were only 145km from Athens. We felt more relaxed, but it made getting back on the bikes harder. The road followed the shore. The air should have been fresh and sweet, but instead we breathed in the exhaust fumes from the lorries and pick up trucks, which relentlessly passed us by, demanding we stayed alert and focussed.
Soon after we left Derveni, I saw a truck pass an old man on a blind corner, with only inches between them. The man did not seem to notice. Instead his body swayed heedlessly. Later, I stopped to photograph one of the many shrines we passed on the roadside, built in remembrance of those who had died there. Inside were sun-bleached pictures of the Virgin Mary, of Jesus and various Saints. In front, stood a glass containing a candle and a few dead insects. The most recent visitor had left a plastic drinks bottle behind.
At Lykoporia the others stopped to swim. I didn’t feel like it. Sitting on the deserted beach I watched them wade into the clear water. The buildings along the front were run down. The town seemed tired.
Once the others were dressed, we continued briefly then stopped at a bar with tables by the water. Inside the room was dark and empty. Four men, drinking Ouzo sat at a table by the door. They welcomed me cheerfully. The owner stood up. Beckoned me behind the bar. He pointed to ask what coffee we would like, Greek, Italian or instant, if we wanted sugar or condensed milk. Afterwards he brought out cushions and our coffees. He told a couple, who had just arrived on a motorbike, to explain the drinks were on the house.
The man took off his helmet and put on a cap. He was wearing aviator sunglasses. He was friendly, talkative, told us he used to live in New York but returned to Greece the year before.
‘We actually live in the north, near Corfu,’ he said, ‘but we come down here when the weather turns bad. Here you have the sea, the mountains and you know nearby one of the best ski resorts.’
I asked him what he knew about the town.
‘It is a little town.’ He said. ‘Around a thousand people live here. It’s not touristic, mainly agricultural. It’s busier in the summer. People from Athens come for the weekend. Many go to the mountains.’
He said the town had once been known as the Wolf’s door.
‘Once, it was a frightening place.’ He said enigmatically. Then refused to tell us more. He changed the subject. Talked about the weather and the gale the night before.
‘The coast here is very exposed.’ He went on. ‘The wind changed direction this morning. Now it is blowing from the southwest, it’s unusual. You know it was cold here two weeks ago. Then suddenly summer returned. Now it is so, so. It’s going to get worse tomorrow.’
I sipped my coffee and asked him what he thought of Europe.
‘Europe has a 2,000 year old history behind it.’ He began. ‘But the world is not only Europe. Now is the slow time. Being Greek, I cannot be very positive about the EU. They have some good ideas, and it started well, but now it seems as though they have lost direction. I see people worrying about where we are going. Where we are headed. The British have a similar problem,’ he said gesturing towards us, ‘and they decided to get out. Personally I think it is not the right thing to do. They ran. You need to be involved to change things. Of course, I understand, the people get affected. The politicians only take things for themselves. They think they are great. You know Greece once was great. Once we had an empire. Now we can’t stand alone.’
The Mayor, red faced and wearing denim dungarees had arrived. We walked towards the bar. The man asked if we wanted to stay and have a drink. Now I wonder if we should have said yes, but by then it was past 12 and we had cycled little. Before we left I asked him about the men there. He told me most of them were farmers. That, they spent the morning working and then met in the bar to drink a little and pass the time before returning to work in the afternoon.
‘What do they grow?’ I asked.
‘Mainly oranges, olives, all types of vegetables.’ He said. ‘They produce olive oil. But it’s small production, not like the big farms in the UK.’
Soon we set off again. The road continued to follow the shore. We passed apartment buildings and houses, white washed churches. Above us the foothills of the mountains, green and craggy, lay on our right. After an hour and a half we arrived in Xylokastro. We quickly cycled around the town, and afterwards pushed the bikes through the Aleppo pines of the Pefkias Forest, which touches the coast there. We unpacked our lunch by a bench, and while we ate watched the sea.
Afterwards we stopped at a café where I interviewed the waitress. Our conversation was brief. She was disappointed and dejected about what had happened to Greece. She told me the people were ‘good and friendly,’ but the country had the possibility to be better.
‘Only the history, the ancient history of Greece is good.’ She said. ‘Now the country is not so good. We have many beautiful places, but a lot of people have left. They have no interest in it. Greece doesn’t feel European. It is a third world country. Other countries like Bulgaria and Romania are better off than we are. They are more careful with their country. We only have a good heart. There is no unification. Here the people are no longer together.’
That afternoon we continued to follow the coast through uniform towns. As we were leaving one, we passed a lorry depot. Three dogs, their bodies lean and brown, barked and chased us as we passed by. Initially I wasn’t worried for they were caged inside. But as they continued to track us, growling and bearing their teeth, it occurred to me there might be a gap in the fence.
I shouted to Matt 1 to cycle faster. Becky was behind me. We turned a corner. The fence ended. Suddenly the dogs spilled out onto the road. As I cycled away I saw them circling, undeterred by the traffic. I did not look again. When Becky caught us, she was shaken and pale. I asked if she was all right, and she nodded bravely, but as we cycled along I worried I could have done more to help.
Not long after we reached Vrachati, near where the Gulf of Corinth ends, and where we planned to stop for the night. From the beach we could see the Perachora Peninsula. Here the ancient sanctuary of the goddess Hera stands. After unpacking and settling into our room, I went into the small garden to pick tangerines. We ate them in bed, while looking up flights home, before settling down early again to sleep.