EUROPEAN ADVENTURE 1999
Vienna, AS to Githio, GR
September 16 to October, 12, 1999
27,716 miles (44,704 km) cumulative
Anticipation mounts as the cold fronts stay away.
There is nothing more universally commended than a fine day; the reason is, that people can commend it without envy.
Having ridden bicycles back and forth across the North American continent no less than 3 times, having been at the northern end of a north/south tour 2 additional times we've learned from hard experience that always, never fail, within 2 weeks after that first September weekend, Labor Day holiday, the first fall cold front will come. Within a mere 24 hour period temperatures will descend from a nice toasty 80 to 90 degrees F to somewhere around 50. From that point on through December the temperatures will just continue their plummet. After a few years continual bike touring it become a fact of life, the second week in September you had better be well on your way south or else you'll get mighty chilly. As we rode west along the Danube, going well past the mid September point, we anxiously looked to each dawn with anticipation. When would that first cold front come? Could it be conceivable that the weather along the Danube is different than North America. It would seem hard to believe as the latitude is nearly equivalent to the most northern of the United States. Yet day after day the weather held. We'd have fog and overcast in the morning gradually clearing to a warm and very muggy afternoon. Only light jackets were needed for the evenings. Could this be an "unusually good" fall? Should we dare to think we'd be so lucky? It had to break someday, but while it lasted we really enjoyed the biking.
Europe as described in all those European travel brochures is found in all its excellence along the Danube west of Vienna. The river snakes through mountains, cliffs reach to the water's edge. Small villages with houses of white stucco walls and red tile roofs scale the hill sides along the river. Terraced vineyards extend further up breaking with a jagged edge into hill tops crowned with dense forests. Churches with green onion shaped steeples sit perched on hill sides or sit surrounded by those red tiled houses. The biggest treat, however, are the castles and fortified abbeys and monasteries. Being the major transportation corridor between east and west before the age of the railroad, the Danube was a hotly contested territory. Consequently there are hundreds of castles, watch towers, monasteries, and abbeys perched on virtually every point of military advantage that exists. Most have now either been renovated to be very expensive to visit tourist attractions or have been left to crumble making for extremely picturesque sights of old castle ruins. Virtually every bend has some amazing structure to behold.
The bike path with it's most unique bike culture follows the Danube on not one, but both sides for most of the distance to Passau. It's paved, usually a separate path having the same width as a single lane road. Often it sits on top of the dikes designed to try to keep the Danube within its banks. However, not unlike the Mississippi, the Danube is not a river to be easily tamed. Just a mere 8 years ago, 1991, it jumped its banks and flooded the surrounding villages up to a couple of meters in height. The highest recorded flood was way back in 1501 and seemed to have been as high as 4 meters. There are park benches, picnic tables, campgrounds, restaurants all set up to cater to the bike tourist. In fact at one point there's a small snack bar straddling both sides of the path that cannot even be reached by car. It's purely and simply a biker's rest stop. There's even an entire information building complete with brochures, maps, and other tourist information specifically for the bike. But I suppose with the tens of thousands of bike tourists that ply these paved routes each year it's easy to see how such bike oriented businesses can actually thrive.
We never seemed to run out of towns to visit along the Donau (Danube). Stopping for a Sunday in the town of Linz, we took a grand tour of their churches. It seems each one tries to outdo the next with their spectacular marble alters, huge religious paintings, carved stone ceilings, and stained glass windows. Each is in nearly perfect condition and those that aren't are in the middle of some restoration project. Linz boasted a good 6 or 7 of these wonderful churches. We also had the opportunity to enjoy watching Austrians at their Sunday play. The weather was phenomenal. Glorious sunshine, unbelievably warm temperatures for a day just edging up to the eve of fall, and everyone was out and about doing stuff. There were countless bikers, rollerbladers, and walkers passing by our grassy tents only campground next to the bike path. The park adjacent to our campsite was packed with shorts and swimsuit clad sun bathers all getting their fill of rays before fall really does set in. Some enterprising person had set up one of those inflatable bouncing rooms for kids to play in, for a few shillings. The smells of barbecue wafted across the field making our mouths water. Under one of the bridges a large group played an unusual game. They'd toss some sort of round weight across an asphalt area. Back and forth these weights slid with the referees making notes of how close it came to a target or whether it hit a weight already in position. It seemed to be a heavy competition of a game we've never seen the likes of before. It was a great day for just plain not doing much of anything.
The city of Passau just over the border in Germany 100 km further up the road proved to be a great place to spend a rainy day. It's located at the confluence of three major rivers; the Inn, Ils, and the Donau. So imagine back in pre highway times just how important control of this particular junction was. It was the gateway to the north, west, and east. Of course there's a large strategically placed highly defensible castle located on the overlooking hill and multiple defensive walls tracing down from the hill to the shores of the rivers. Perhaps the highlight of the town is the cathedral with its amazing organ. With 17,733 pipes, 233 stops, and 4 carillons it is the world's largest church organ. Half hour concerts that are a delight to the ear are given at noon during the summer and fall months. Naturally the organist selects pieces that demonstrate every one of the 5 different parts of the organ.
Upstream from Passau we turned to the south and followed along the Inn river to the 'minor' city of Salzburg. With bike paths that aren't so well marked, a few hills, and even unpaved sections the Inn bike path is not nearly as frequented by the mobs of pseudo bike tourists we found along the Donau. These bikers were more serious, carrying full gear and camping along the way. In the two days we traveled the Inn we passed perhaps only a dozen bag laden riders. This is opposed to the hundreds we'd been passing along the Donau. Brian was delighted with the reduction in bike traffic.
We arrived at Salzburg thoroughly treasuring the amazing bike path that lead us into town, then away from the river, and subsequently right to the campground which was well signed along the way. It's one thing we have to admire about the Austrian bike paths, they sure make getting into and around cities, our biggest nightmare, so incredibly easy. We promptly pitched our tent at the Camping Kasern and proceeded to spend the next 4 days completely surrounded by Aussies. Aussies and Kiwis invaded the campground each night. They were backpacking, in caravans and camper vans, or even more amazing in busloads. Each and every night a tour bus full of Aussies, Kiwis, and English would appear. Often they'd hurry around to set up a large eating tent, a huge gas stove, and a whole field of small tents. We timed it once. About 15 minutes was all it took from the time the first passenger stepped off the bus to the time the eating tent was up and the cook was in doing her thing. Much to our amazement, the tents, stove, bus, and all would miraculously disappear each morning as quickly as it appeared the night before.
Salzburg has much to offer the visitor, Europe's largest remaining fortress, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's birthplace and residence, the Archbishop's palace as well as one for his mistress, narrow streets, beautiful mountain scenery, and even a brewery or two. But these English speakers all seem to be there for one reason, those hills that are alive with "The Sound of Music." Yes, Salzburg was the location used for much of the filming of the classic "The Sound of Music" movie with Julie Andrews. You can actually take a tour that shows you all the familiar sights found in the movie. Mirabella gardens where parts of the Do-Re-Mi song were filmed, the gates to the abbey, the large house, etc. You can even view the movie at the Kasern campground any time you like. It was a good movie with great scenery shots, but to make a big trek out of visiting the movie sites seems a bit too much. We decided to forego that tour and concentrate our efforts on something more meaningful. Mozart's house and the fortress.
Around the time of the American revolution a very young Mozart was becoming the equivalent of today's music sensation throughout Europe. He debuted in front of Empress Maria Teresa at a ripe old age of 6 and was writing full operas before the age of 14. His father was a court violinist for the archbishop in Salzburg and promptly taught both his children the world of music. Mozart and his much older sister, with the strange nickname of Nannerl, were both child prodigies, but the young boy was an absolute genius. There are two houses related to the man to be visited in Salzburg, his birthplace and then the house in which he resided until age 17. We chose to visit the residence as the audio tour includes excerpts from some of his music selections. You wander through the 5 large rooms of the house listening to brief descriptions of the pieces of furniture, musical instruments, and historical documents and then you are treated to some fabulous music to escort you on to the next room. Surprisingly even with all the English speaking tours residing at the campground each night and with the hoards of people visiting the narrow streets of the old town, Mozart's house was quite empty. It seems people come to Salzburg to eat, shop, see Sound of Music sights, and leave. Forget seeing the museums. It's not on the tour.
The fortress was a fabulous piece of architecture. It's mounted high on a hill overlooking the city and looks like a giant monolith. Excavations indicate that there were some edifices on top of of the hill as early as Roman times. But the current fortress got its start some time in the 11th century. As with so many other such fortresses, it started with just a wooden palisade and tower built upon the natural line of the hill. Over the centuries stone replaced wood, escarpments, walls, and bastions were added, and the residence and state rooms grew in both size and opulence. It turned out to be so well fortified that despite sieges lasting several months it was never taken by force. It did surrender to the French during the Napoleanic wars, but was not overcome. Its reputation as an impregnable fortress remains in tact today. On the other hand, one might say it has been overrun in the 20th century. Overrun by tourists that is. Even before 1892 tourists were flocking to the fortress. Austria's oldest funicular, built in 1892, leads from the old town up to the fortress. It was built specifically to service the tourist trade.
One other fantastic treasure to visit was the archbishop's residence. It's located next door to the fabulously decorated cathedral and even has 2 corridors connecting it directly to the cathedral. Inside one finds room after room containing the most sumptuous wall and ceiling decoration possible. The ceilings were all done in stucco. Three dimensional figures of plants, horses, cherubs, men, and women all in brilliant white stucco delight the eye. There are also a series of ceiling paintings representing stages in the life of Alexander the great. The theme of each painting intended to ape the intended use of the room. There was Alexander receiving the crown while sitting on his throne painted on the ceiling of the throne room. Alexander sleeping with dreams of his future empire dancing in his head painted on the ceiling of the bedroom. Alexander the conquering hero highlighting the ceiling of the audience room. Do you suppose the Archbishop imagined himself to be the next Alexander? The Archbishops no longer live in these luxurious quarters. There are rooms open for tourists on the residence tour, rooms housing an art museum, and rooms reserved for the use of the Salzburg University. So the archbishops may have lived in the lap of luxury on the backs of hardworking peasants. Yet today, it's the peasants who now own the palace. Just reward.
Socialized medicine, is it good or is it bad? Good question. So far on the two separate occasions we've had to deal with doctors in countries having a socialized form of medical coverage we've had good, amazingly good response. The first was several years ago when we were on a bike tour of France. Early one morning I awoke with a painful, swollen eye. Blinking was torture and to walk into the sunlight, ouch. We were in a town that happened to have a hospital. We walked over as soon as it was reasonably late enough in the morning and entered the emergency room. Within a few minutes I was seen by a doctor who proclaimed that I had an eye infection, I could have told him that, and who gave me a prescription for an antibiotic cream. The bill that showed up in San Diego some 6 months later was for a whopping $12 USD. In the US you can't even walk into an emergency room without spending some $300 or more just to get the paperwork started. In Salzburg we finally decided to see a doctor about Brian's accident injury. He was still having difficulty straightening his arm. After a few unsuccessful attempts trying to locate the correct office window we found our way to the orthopedics admissions office. "I'm having trouble with my arm." Brian told the receptionists as he pointed to it. She did not speak any English. However, within about 15 minutes she located a doctor who could. He heard Brian's story, briefly looked at his arm, and then eliminated Brian's worst fears by stating that he just needed to exercise the arm more. He probably damaged a few ligaments and it would just need some working to get it straight again. He hands Brian a tube of some cream to help with any remaining swelling. The total bill, zero. Absolutely zero. Just try that in the US. But, we've also heard a lot of negative things about socialized medicine. Long waits for surgeries or other procedures that aren't critical, being bumped from a long waiting list because someone with a more critical problem gets priority, the tax burden to the general population, etc. Is it good or is it bad? Sometimes I think it's rather hard to tell. We do know that when biking and something critical happens it sure has been nice being in a place where the expense is so trivial.
How to get from Salzburg to Trieste, Italy in the cheapest possible manner. This was the problem that confronted us. There were 2 possible options, the train and a rental car, or some combination thereof. We headed to the train station to get fairs. To get us plus bikes from Salzburg to Trieste cost well over 2000 ATS per person, or about $180 USD. It also required 4 different train changes. Okay. So now let's try a rental car. We first tried an agency called Sixt. The car price was something like 960 ATS per day, unlimited kilometers and all the insurance included. But, and this is a big but, the drop-off fee was 2000 ATS. Almost as expensive as taking us both on the train. We continued around to check Hertz, Avis, and Europacar. All had similar high drop-off fees. Then we hit upon National. It just so happened they had an Italian car, from Rome, that needed to be delivered back to Italy. That meant no drop-off fee. YES! Jackpot! We picked up the car, a station wagon no less, and headed on our way.
It took ten hours to go a distance of only 250 miles. Driving along the small Austrian mountain roads proved to be a long ordeal. We'd chosen to not pay the $11 US fee for the Austrian highway pass. Town after town after town prevented us from attaining speeds much greater than 60 km/hr. There was also a lot of construction which caused delays of up to 1/2 hour in several locations. But the biggest delay came from the car itself. Sitting at one construction site I smelled something strange. There was smoke coming from the engine, or was it the car in front? I couldn't tell. A few more km down the road the oil light came on. Opening the hood Brian shouts, "Damn, they left the oil cap off." Yup, the cap was missing and the engine was covered with a think film of gooey black oil. We were lucky, though, as we happened to have just passed a VW dealer and this thing was a VW Passat. Turning round we returned to the dealer and showed the blue lab coat clad mechanic the problem. "Is not gut." he grunts in typical German/Austrian seriousness. "Ve must clean engine or will burn up." We certainly didn't want an engine fire. So he puts a new cap on and then spends about 5 minutes washing the engine off with detergent spiced water. Total bill, 394 ATS or about $30 USD. I still recall the work we had done on our VW Westie. The water pump had gone kaput in Mexico. Once again it happened there was a VW dealer nearby. We hobbled over. The Mexican mechanic in his greasy T-shirt and worn out pants spent over 6 hours struggling with a water pump the likes of which he'd never seen before. They don't sell old water cooled VW Vanagons in Mexico. He pulled out the pump, we returned to Texas to get a new one, and he put the new pump back in. The total bill for his 6 hours of labor, something like $30 USD. So what makes an Austrian auto mechanic so much more valuable than a Mexican mechanic?
The last time we were in Trieste was just a mere 2 weeks before Croatia decided to declare independence and the entire Balkans mess began. We'd flown into Munich, rented a car, drove it to Trieste, and began a 2 week bike tour down the Adriatic coast. Ah so there's a war about to start, let's go anyway. We'd only stopped in Trieste just barely long enough to drop off the car, load the bikes and head on. So we didn't get the opportunity to visit anything in town. This time, however, we had an entire day to wait for the next ferry to Patras, Greece. So we wandered. There's not much to see in the way of touristy sights. But it's so interesting to feel and see the difference between Italy and Austria. We have come to the conclusion that the entire country of Austria is one big tourist trap. There wasn't a town we passed that didn't exploit its old town district for the tourist's benefit. Everything is neat, clean, picture perfect. After a while one begins to feel as if the entire country is one big fantasy land. It's so unreal. Getting over to Italy is like finding yourself back in real life. There are crumbling buildings, rusting metal roofs, chaotic streets and drivers all interspersed with some of those picture perfect buildings. It's rather comforting to be back in a place where reality reigns. The people are also much more lively and exciting. So much like Mexico we felt as if we'd returned to south of the border once more. As I recall, Greece is even more so. Our final 2 months of summer bike touring should be a welcomed change.
At 12:40 PM the E.L. Venezilos blew its horn three times and we were on our journey to the far southern reaches of Europe. The ship was magnificent. At over 9 decks in height and with a passenger capacity of over 2600 people it is the largest ferry operating on the Mediterranean. It's huge, even towers over the large 6 story tall hotel across the street. As the ticket agent said, "You can't miss it." From the time the car deck was opened at 9:30 AM until minutes before it departed it was loading semi trucks. Dozens of long, large semi trucks. The last two were those extra long car transport trucks. When we went inside we found that not only were there semi trucks, but there were 5 of those extra large and luxurious tour buses as well. And despite all this there was still empty space. It was the beginning of off season and not that many car passengers were traveling. Inside the 5 decks one could wander we found hundreds of 2, 3, and 4 person cabins, a restaurant seating perhaps 300, another self serve restaurant seating an equal number, 3 bars, a play and game room for the kids, a room full of a hundred or so airline style seats, a duty free shop, a 2 story disco, a swimming pool with deck bar, and even a hairdresser that didn't open this time of year. This was certainly the largest ferry we've ever traveled, even larger than the Alaskan.
It was a long 34 hour trip from Trieste to Patras. Long and boring. We arrived late, 10:30 PM, and wound up having the joy of riding around a reasonably sized city in the dark, without a map, trying to locate a campground that our guide book claimed was only "2 km north of town." Unlike Central Europe where the locals all go inside, close their doors, an call it a night at such an early hour as 9:30, Greece just starts to come alive at that time. Restaurants are just gearing up for the night's patrons, people are out and about walking, driving scooters, driving cars. The whole city is lit up, moving, doing, being. Normally we enjoy this change in cultures. However, when one is trying to find ones way through the streets on a bicycle having to dodge and sidestep all the commotion, it's not a lot of fun. We finally found a campground, not the one supposedly 2 km north of town, another 9 km north. We pitched the tent in a rush, brushed the teeth, and climbed in for a much needed sleep. Perhaps the next day would be better, after we've had some shut eye.
Ah Greece, how much like Mexico is seems. To visit both is almost redundant. The people have similar personalities; excited, vibrant, lively. Towns have the same well cared for plazas, narrow streets with cars haphazardly parked everywhere, cafe tables filling the sidewalks, shops with wares spilling out their doors as well. Everything closes for "siesta" from 2 to 5. Then the town comes alive in the evening. People are out and about visiting restaurants, shopping, going to night clubs, well in the late hours. We never did figure out how they manage to wake up for work the next day. Trees in parks and campgrounds have the the obligatory 1 meter of white paint across the bottoms, the reason for which still escapes us. Drivers are reasonable to bikers but very fast otherwise, although perhaps a bit nicer in Greece than Mexico. Buildings are the same concrete boxy block construction with flat roofs, large verandas, and usually painted white. There are lots of unfinished concrete buildings scattered throughout the hills, their gray slab walls topped with naked rebar. Even the plant life is the same as some of the greener areas of Mexico; palm trees, bouganvillas, bananas, some cactus. Unfortunately as with the Mexicans, the Greeks have the same philosophy about litter disposal, out the window.
There are some differences. Greece seems to be a bit better maintained. Toilets, electrical outlets, plumbing, concrete construction all seem just one level better in quality. There aren't the crummy cardboard shacks so prevalent throughout Mexico and the people seem much wealthier. Food is, of course, different. You'll not find a local taco stand here. There are olive groves everywhere rather than agave. But beyond this, there are so many similarities it's hard to tell you're still in Europe.
Greece has one of the longest and most interesting historical legacies and it has had such an impact upon our western culture. It's hard to imagine what the English language would be like without such words as stadium, taken from the Greek word Stadiun which came from the word Stade which is a distance. The running stadiums used in ancient Greece were one stade in length. The history goes back a gazillion years as evidence of human population in the area dating back some 700,000 years has been found. By 3000 BC people were actually living in towns, complete with streets and squares. Around about that time began what could be called the beginnings of the Greek series of civilizations. First there were the Cycladic and Minoan civilizations which appeared on the Cycades and Crete islands. These existed simultaneously, from 3000 BC to around 1100 BC. Then came the Mycenean civilization on the Greek mainland. It was during this time that the gods Poseidon, Zeus, and Apollo came into being. The Myceneans were then superceded by the very warlike Dorians whose invasion and conquest were so traumatic to the existing settlements that their time of domination is referred to as Greece's 400 years of dark ages.
About 800 BC began the period we associate with the greatest Greek civilization, when all those amazing temples were built and the Olympic games were instituted. It is called the Archaic age. During this time Greek colonies were established in Africa, Italy, Sicily, southern France, and southern Spain. It is marked by the development of a new Greek Alphabet and the famous epic, Homer's The Illiad and Odessy. Government consisted of independent city-states all built around a high spot, called acropolis, that housed temples and treasuries. Monarchs of the city-states were free to rule as they like, although they were often usurped by tyrants who in those days were considered to be on the side of the commoners. Two of the more dominant city-states were Athens and Sparta. Athens, located on the main portion of Greece had an almost democratic form of government. Rule was by elected magistrates. On the other hand, Sparta, located on the Peloponnese, became the ultimate war machine. Almost as soon as weaned, children were taken from their parents to be trained for their future roles as male warriors or the mothers of warriors. It is from Sparta where we obtained the word "spartan".
Wars between Sparta, Athens, other city-states, and the Persians happened on and off throughout the Archaic age. There was the war in 490 BC, Persians against Athens. Next came the first Peloponnesian war (431-421 BC) a fight between Athens and a combined force of Corinth, and Sparta. Neither side really won this one. Then the second Peloponnesian war in 413 BC which left Sparta as the only dominant city-state. Sparta then decided to try to reclaim the Asia Minor cities that the Persians had snatched earlier. Soon the Persians, Sparta, Thebes, and Athens were all embroiled in one big confusing melee that came to a head in the battle of Leuctra in 371 BC when Thebes defeated Sparta. Athens then allied themselves with Sparta to repel the Thebes and after that started bickering with Sparta again. The whole situation was one big mess of bickering city-states who were oblivious to a new and powerful threat from the north, Macedon.
From a group considered to barbarians, one whose speech did not sound like 'bar-bar' or Greek, came two incredibly powerful leaders. The first was Philip II who came to the throne in 382 BC. In 338 BC he marched his forces into Greece to soundly defeat both the Athenians and Thebans. He then convinced everyone, except the Spartans who stayed away, to form the Corinth league with everyone swearing allegiance to Macedonia. Philip was assassinated in 336 and the job of subduing the Persians fell upon his 20 year old son, Alexander. The very same Alexander the Great who is the subject all those fantastic paintings on the ceilings at the archbishop of Salzburg's residence. Alexander not only beat the Persians he also conquered Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Uzebekistan, Bactria, and northern India. He had plans to continue, wanting to conquer the rest of the world, but his soldiers forced him to take a rest in Babylon where he died suddenly one year later heirless at the ripe old age of 33. It's so amazing to think of how much a legend, both then now, this one man whose entire career lasted a mere 13 years became. He spread Greek culture throughout the European world and ushered in the period of Hellenistic history.
Alexander left no heir and the empire quickly collapsed into a pile of splintered rubble as his leading generals split up the spoils. In moved the Romans and after a several decades they managed to completely subdue all of Greece. From the period of 31 BC through the next 300 years Greece experienced a period of relative peace under Roman rule. The Roman empire began to fall in 250 AD after the Goths invaded. Greece, like all other central European nations, then underwent a series of invasions as it suffered the effects of the Great Migration. There were the Visigoths in 395, Vandals in 465, Ostrogoths in 480, Bulgars in 500, Huns in 540, and Slavs in 600. It was also during this time that Christianity became the new religion, replacing the rich religion of Greek gods and goddesses.
It was also during this time, 324, that Christian Emperor Constantine the Great transferred the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium at the present-day city of Istanbul. Here the Byzantine Empire, originating from an eastern division of the original Roman Empire, survived until the Turks took the city in 1453. It wasn't an easy rule. Crusaders, governed as much by greed as by "divine providence" decided that Istanbul presented much richer and easier pickings than Jerusalem. They sacked the city in 1204, installed Baldwin of Flanders as head of a Latin Empire, and proceeded to split the Byzantine empire into pieces. In the meantime, the Venetians had settled on the mainland. So now there were Byzantines trying to regain lost territory, Latin princes trying to increase territory, and Venetians mopping up the spoils.
Next, in moved the Turks. They started attacking the eastern fringes of the Byzantine region around 1071 AD and continued moving west until they were attacking on all sides in the mid 15th century. The Ottoman empire, named for the followers of Osman ruler from 1289 to 1326, took all of Greece with the exception of the Ionian islands and held tightly until the Greek war for Independence. Thoughts about an independent Greek nation took root in 1770 when Catherine of Russia ousted the Turks from the Black Sea coast and gave land and financial incentives to the Greeks. But it wasn't until 1821 that sufficient support came from a group of aristocratic young men, known as philhellenes. These included such notables as Shelley, Goethe, Schiller, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, and Lord Byron. Greek independence was declared on 13 January 1822 but political infighting prevented them from getting a real independence. It took the intervention of western powers of Russian, French, and British to soundly defeat the Turks and get Greek recognition in 1829.
All was not easy for Greece. The man who was to be leader was unacceptable to the western powers and was assassinated. Britain, France, and Russia decided that Greece should have a monarchy under a non-Greek ruler. Not exactly a highly sought after post, the task fell to 17 year old Prince Otto of Bavaria who moved the capital back to Athens in 1834. He was a snobby, autocrat who treated the local Greeks no better than his predecessor. When patience for his behavior ran out, he was forced to draft a constitution establishing a lower house and senate. His Bavarian cronies were quickly ousted from politics. Another bloodless coup in 1862 and the British managed to install their own Prince William of Denmark as King George I. It was under his 50 year rule that some semblance of stability returned to Greece. A new constitution was adopted, domestic issues became a priority, even the Corinthian canal, begun in 62 BC, was completed.
It was under the Prime Minister Theodoros Deligiannis that war returned. An uprising against the Turks on the island of Crete brought Greece into combat against the Turks once again. Only through the intervention of the great western powers that Turkey was prevented from retaking Athens. The Greeks gained the island of Crete in the fallout. They then turned their attention to the Balkan countries of Serbia and Bulgaria which resulted in battles in both 1912 and 1913. The outcome was the Treaty of Bucharest which expanded Greece's territory adding a good chunk of Macedonia. The Greeks now treat the name, Macedonia, very possessively which is why we now have the temporary country name of the Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia to contend with.
Another assassination, this time King George in 1913, and his son King Constantine took over. Despite being married to the sister of the German Emperor, he insisted the country of Greece remain neutral during W.W.I. Pressure to join the Allies forced George to leave the country in 1917. His son, Alexander, took over and Greece came to war on the Ally side. However, the Allies had made promises for land in Asia Minor, western Turkey, that they couldn't keep. As soon as the war was over, the Greek Prime Minister Venizelos, took his troops, the Allies looking the other way, and attacked the present day city of Izmir. The Turks rallied under a young Mustafa Kemal and routed the Greeks before they could take the capital city of Ankara. Kemal was reveled as a Turkish hero, the sultanate was abolished, and Turkey became a republic. The final land distribution after the Greeks failure gave eastern Thrace and islands of Imvros and Tenedos to Turkey, the Italians kept the Dodecanese, and Greece got zilch.
Between the two wars was marked by more ruler instability. King Alexander died from a monkey bite, his father King Constantine returned but was too closely associated with the debacle in Turkey. He abdicated and his son George II came in but was quickly ousted by a group of army officers. There were coups and counter-coups pitting one general against another, but somehow eventually a republic was proclaimed in March 1924. Venizelos returned for a while, but was exiled to Paris in 1935. King George II also returned in 1935, installing the right-wing General Ioannis Metaxas as prime minister. Metaxas assumed dictatorial powers, under the king's consent, and he promptly created the Greek version of the Third Reich. He did try to maintain Greece's neutral state during W.W.II by telling Mussolini where to shove it when he wanted to cross through Greece and then backing it up with force when the Italians decided to attack. He gave the same reply to the Britains who wished to land troops, but his sudden death in 1941 and replacement with a less strong Alexandros Koryzis changed all that. Britain troops landed in what was to become a suicide mission as German forces had already marched through Yugoslavia to invade Greece on April 6, 1941.
Several resistance groups developed during the war, some on the side of the monarchy and others on the side of communism. So when in 1944 the Germans were sent packing, the two groups turned on one another. In 1947 the US became Greece's keeper and staying true to the Truman Doctrine, sent in gobs of money and military hardware to shore up the anticommunist side. Communism was declared illegal and the government produced a Certificate of Political Reliability which the bearer had to have in order to work or vote. The communists took the Peloponnese, then lost it again and the entire country was left in a state of political fallout. Almost a million Greeks left for greener pastures elsewhere, including the US.
Things finally started to improve in the 1950s, at least politically. The country adopted a majority system of voting which finally produced a workable system of coalition rule. They joined NATO in 1951 and the US was permitted to establish NATO bases on Greek soil. This meant lots of US aid and living standards started to improve. In 1964 a political party called the Centre Union (EK) came to power. Its leader, Papandreou freed political prisoners, reduced income tax and the defense budget, increased spending on social services. His days coincided with the accession of Constantine II to the throne and more violence between the Greeks and Turks residing on Cyprus. Papandreou resigned after a disagreement with the king and a coup lead by Papadoupoulous and Patakos ousted the king in 1967 who essentially returned the country to a state of martial law. Papadoupoulos was deposed in 1973 by another thug, Brigadier Ioannidis. The president, Makarios left and Nikos Sampson, a former member of a party that wanted to return Cyprus to Greece, took his place. So now the Turks went on the march in Cyprus, which is why Cyprus is now part Greek and part Turk and relations between the two countries are tense at best.
Since 1974 there've been a variety of parties winning the election all promising one thing or another, removal of US military bases, getting out of NATO, increased wages, etc. Basically even today the political atmosphere of Greece continues to swing back and forth with the winds. Now, things don't seem quite as violent as before, but who knows how long that will last. In any event, Greece's history has lasted for a gazillion years and I would expect it to go on for another gazillion or so.
Four years, it's taken us four years to finally have one year where we manage to time our travels just about perfectly. In Tallinn nights were getting chilly and rainy days were beginning just days before we caught the bus to Krakow. Our week in Krakow was mostly sunny with some rain, but leaves on the trees were dropping fast and the nights were getting chilly. We arrived in Budapest just in time to spend 3 nearly perfect weeks riding to Salzburg along the Danube. But, within one day after arriving at Salzburg the weather once again turned bad. Rain came, cold fronts passed overhead, nights got to be Polarfleece jacket temperatures again. So we headed up and over the mountains to Italy, on to the ferry to Patras and once again found summer. It was hot when we arrived, too hot. Temperatures out on the pavement soared into the 90s F. Then again another cold front came through and temperatures dropped to something far more comfortable. It was still shirtsleeve temperatures at night, but sleeping was comfortable and days nice and warm. Looking back at where we'd been just a week earlier, Salzburg, we saw temperatures of 40s high, 30s low. There's no way we could have timed our movements southward any more perfectly.
We've seen bike tourists come and go throughout the world. Yet it took coming to Greece, just outside the town of Kastro at the Mellissa Campground for us to see the most heavily loaded tourists we've ever encountered. Now we do like to have our comforts, Thermarest chair kits, 10 inch fry pan, large tent. But these folks took comfort to the extreme. Rolling in at around 9 PM, swaying headlights revealed their mode of transportation, they passed by our campsite. They had the usual large front panniers and two large rear panniers. But upon their rear and front racks was piled a most amazing mound of stuff. They rolled down to the seashore and began the long process of unpacking. First came a propane lantern and a huge propane cylinder. Not one of those little Gaz canisters, no one of those 12 inch diameter things. It lit up the whole area as they set up their tent. And what a tent is was. An enormous 4 man, 4 pole, canvas wedge style tent. We've seen this style tent throughout eastern Europe, but normally an entire family of 4 or 5 will sleep in it. Not just 2. Here's the most incredible part. Not only did they have this huge tent, but they also carried 2 folding chairs, 2 folding stools, and a folding table. Not to mention a gigantic aluminum tea pot plus several books and a newspaper. Want to take bets on what their bike and gear weighed? We don't know as they didn't speak English. We thought we were heavy. It was interesting to contrast them with the tandem couple staying in the same campground who shared a single set of front and rear panniers as well as a small tent and sleeping bags mounted on their rear rack.
One doesn't think of Greece for its castles. It is a country usually noted for its ancient Roman and Greek ruins, or "toppled rocks" as one person called them. Yet everywhere you turn there are castles to be explored, kastros as the Greeks call them. The Peloponnese peninsula is dotted with dozens along its coast. There's one over the hills of Patras which we bypassed. There's Hlemoutsi Kastro located in the western flatlands of the Elia region of the Peloponnese on the only large hill for miles around. This is the largest extant fortress from the Frankish period in existence on the Peloponnese. It was built in 1223 by the Villehardouin Franks, somewhat destroyed in 1430 by the Turks, and then rebuilt by the Turks with a few improvements such as an extra wall around the outside. We chose to explore this one as it had the most spectacular views of the surrounding flatlands and the Ionian sea's gorgeous aquamarine waters. Besides, with free admission on Sunday, who could resist.
Further down the west coast we find kastros in the towns of Katakolo, Kiparissia, two guard the bay at Pylos, another at Methoni, Koroni, Kalamata, Kardamili, and finally Eleohori. And this is for just the west coast of the peninsula. There are even more inland, along the east coast, and on several of the surrounding islands. One of the more spectacular seaside castles is the one at Methoni. Little remains of the interior buildings , which look to have been quite extensive. But the surrounding town wall is nearly intact and just outside the castle on a little islet stands a wedding cake tiered Turkish redoubt. The castle in the town of Pylos, although in better condition since it was used as a barracks up to the early 1900s, isn't nearly as spectacular. The shear number of castles and fortresses gives further evidence of Greece's tumultuous past It was clearly a geographical location much desired.
Yet there are still those ancient Greek and Roman ruins to draw our attention. Located on the Peloponnese just south of the large town of Pyrgos is one of the most famous sites of the Greek legacy, Olympia. It was here that the ancient Olympic games were held, it is here that the modern Olympic games committee is managed, and it is here that the modern games torch is lit every 2 years, nowadays at least. I had expected it to be located high on a hill overlooking some olive tree filled valley in a manner similar to Delphi. Instead it is located in a river valley. Getting to it required only riding up and over one somewhat large hill to get into the valley. The modern town of Olympia isn't much to speak of. It's got one main street lined with souvenir shops all selling modern plaster copies of Greek god or goddess statues, jewelry that could be found anywhere in the world listed at outlandishly inflated prices, small urns and pots bearing copies of ancient Greek paintings, and postcards, lots and lots of postcards. There are also hotels and restaurants, all way over priced, and just 3 teeny, tiny markets from which we were able to find enough reasonably priced food to make our meals. It's a town whose facilities we needed to stay at, but which we could just as well do without.
It was the ruins that we'd come to see. History indicates that there may have been informal competitions held in the region back as far as the 11th Century BC. But the first official Olympic Games were declared in 776 BC by King Iphitos of Elis. First opened to only Greek-born males, it was later expanded to include Romans as well. Supposedly women and slaves were not allowed to participate or be spectators, however one statue base housed within the modern museum refutes this by stating that one woman, a princess, won the chariot race and she swears that she is the only woman to ever have done so. So maybe the rules were broken occasionally for political convenience. The games had more of a religious role than today's games. They were held in honor of Zeus, said to be their founder, and took place at the first full moon in August. The events lasted 5 days and included wrestling, chariot and horse racing, the pentathlon with wrestling, discus, javelin throwing, long jump and running, and the pancratium (boxing?). During the 5 days the constantly warring city-states declared a temporary truce, probably the most peaceful 5 days in the entire year. Games continued uninterrupted until 426 AD when Emperor Theodosius I declared them to be a pagan ritual, or at least not Christian. He ordered the complete destruction of all former Greek temples, and one happened to be Olympia. Interestingly, as you wander among the ruins you can see where a rope tied to a horse could have so easily been used to topple the magnificent pillars used to hold up the roof of the temple to Zeus. The individual round, scalloped boulders lie atop one another like toppled dominoes.
The site was not enormous, like Athens, as Olympia never was a major city. A wall and buildings surrounded the central sanctuary where the athletes competed and the priests prayed in the various temples. Within the walls were the temples to Zeus and Hera, a 5th century BC temple to Rea the mother goddess who was later superceded by Zeus, a nymphaeum which actually was a big water fountain providing fresh spring water to the temple, treasury buildings of the different city-states housing all the junk they dedicated to the games, as well as the stadium with its 120 m start and finish line stone blocks still in place, and a hippodrome where the chariot racing took place. There were also statues, hundreds of statues, dedicated to the various athletes and other rich dudes, each stood on a stone base most of which remain. The majority of the statues are long gone. I particularly found it funny that the artist creating the statue would not only include the name of the person the statue was to represent but his own signature. "So and so made it" was often inscribed either on the statue itself or on the base. Buildings outside the sanctuary were used for more secular purposes. There was the gymnasium and palaestra, or wrestling school, where athletes prepared for the games, the theokoleon where the priest lived, the workshop where Pheidias created his gigantic chryselephantine Statue of Zeus, one of the 7 wonders of the world, and the leonidaion, essentially a hotel for the dignitaries. I'm sure there were also hundreds of wooden temporary structures as well housing slaves, less affluent participants, and others needed to support the games just as there are T-shirt shops today. Unfortunately most of the site is just a pile of toppled rocks, rocks that once formed the walls and pillars lie in ditches throughout the site. Without the various artist renditions of it's former appearance, it would be impossible to imagine what it would have looked like in its glory days. As with Delphi I kept wishing someone would put the rocks back up so we could get a better impression.
Leaving Olympia we huffed up one steep hill and then descended to a river valley, up and over one more hill, and then we returned to the coast. Plans to ride just 59 km for the day quickly vanished as it became evident that the campgrounds we were hoping to stay in were closed. We tried one on the beach at Kiparissia, closed until April 1, 2000. Another further south was also closed. It was after 111 km riding, nearly twice what we'd been planning, that we finally found an open campground. Free camping would have been possible, but we just weren't in the mood. As it turned out, the stay at Pylos for an extra day was a nice decision.
We have concluded that the Peloponnese is an undiscovered mountain biker's paradise. There are countless paved and unpaved routes snaking their way throughout the mountainous terrain. Each and every intersection offers new opportunities for rides with spectacular views and virtually zero traffic. You can get lost among the hills, but since you're never far from the water nor the national road that rings the peninsula you can easily get found again. The only requirement is that you must like riding hills, steep hills. We took off inland for a 70 km, unloaded exploration of some of these back roads. We got lost and wound up riding down some dirt roads surrounded by mature olive groves seemingly out in the middle of nowhere. Here is where I gave one Greek farmer his thrill for the day, maybe even month. All the shaking on those dirt roads and, of course, my bladder needs to be emptied. We pull to a stop, I drop my bike, and then head into the olive groves to summarily drop my drawers and do my thing. We hadn't seen a soul for over 1/2 hour, so surely it was safe. Brian stands there giving me his usual airy attempt at a wolf whistle and "hubba hubba". Suddenly from nowhere comes, "Eet looks velii nice." Brian says hurriedly, "You'd better hurry up, Caryl, that wasn't me." Of all places I just had to manage to find the one spot where one farmer was doing something to his olive trees. Well what the heck, at least he said I looked "very nice" and besides, I never did figure out where he was.
The southern most regions of the Peloponnese are inhabited by a people called the Maniot and their territory is called the Mani, inner and outer Mani. They dwell among the barren rock covered mountainous lands of the most southern skinny peninsula. They're a hardy people. Legend claims they're the direct descendants of the warrior Spartans. Whether they are or not, they would need to become a tough bunch just to manage to eke out a living from the unforgiving rocky hillsides. Because flat arable lands were so scarce they fought for each and every square meter. They fought each other almost as fiercely as they fought their conquerors. Each family built their own tower shaped mini fortress from which they defended their lands from their neighbors. Their tough reputation was so well known that most conquerors chose to leave them along. The exception were the Turks who in the 17th century built a massive square fortress on the hillside overlooking the tiny harbor of Lemeni in an effort to control the Maniots. They're efforts failed, of course.
We got to experience part of the Mani, both people and lands, as we rode south from the large town of Kalamata and then across the peninsula to the town of Githio on the east side. We quickly learned to respect their tenancy at scraping food out of those hills. Rugged would be an oversimplification of the landscape. Along the west coast of the outer Mani the mountains drop, with shear cliffs, into the sea. The road climbs up and over the cliffs time and time again. Each climb amounts to 800 to 1000 meters at rates that well exceed the easy to climb 6% grade. Through hairpin turns we climbed under the unceasing glare of the noonday sun. Once on top we'd glide back down to the sea only to begin the climb once again. In some regions olive and citrus groves provided some shade. The tower towns were something interesting to draw our attention away from the spectacular coast views. The hills surrounding all show the marks of centuries of farming. Ancient terracing is evident everywhere. It was the people that we found most surprising. Even as odd as we appeared, towing the trailers behind, the maniot seemed to take our presence in stride. Hardly a head turned as we passed. Even two old women, dressed in the black skirt, shirt, and scarf uniform, didn't even pause in their conversation to make note of our passing. They talked simultaneously and I had to wonder if they actually heard what the other had to say. That night we pitched out tent in a goat field. Just after we set up the tent, the owner came putting out on his small motorcycle to let the goats out for the evening. He didn't so much as bat an eye about our makeshift campsite. We almost got the impression he's seen bikers camped in his fields many times before. A night spent sitting on a hillside watching the show of stars overhead and the twinkling lights of another tower town below made us really appreciate all the Mani has to offer.
Appendix A - Route
Sept 16, (73.33 km) Klosterneuberg to Krems along Donau bike path, flat through farms and small villages
Oct 2, (91.37 km) National road 9, Patras to Lehena, Through Kastro and then to beach. Flat along Natinal Road, one big hill to Kastro and then down to beach. Heavy traffic on National road, but huge shoulder. Little traffic off main road.
Appendix B - Campsites or hotels
Sept 15 Donau camping in Krems
Sept 28, 29 Obelisca Camping in Trieste
Sept 30, Oct 1 Rion Beach Camping Patras