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May 31 2008

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European Wander ’08

Part 7

Istanbul to Taormina – Turkey, Greece, Italy – about 1400 miles

7th Map

28 June

Istanbul to Drama. Turkey, Greece, 341 miles

This was quite a long ride, with the usual getting lost round Istanbul. We took the wrong right and ended up going back towards Istanbul for miles. They don’t have roundabouts at the top of the exit ramps, Turkish drivers obviously never go wrong! There was a walled tram line between the lanes so we couldn’t even do a U-turn. Somehow or other, and we never did work out how, we managed to turn round by wandering round some back streets which eventually took us over a bridge. Getting lost entering or exiting large towns and cities seems almost as much a theme for this trip as ice cream (the latter being a theme for all of our trips of course!).

We had a nasty moment: I’d been hearing a squealing noise as we had gone over large bumps but we couldn’t see what was wrong and the suspension was as hard as it could go so there was nothing that we could do about it. As we went over this particularly large bump on the motorway the noise happened again but this time it continued with a longer squeal. Kevin was experiencing the back end doing something ‘orrid and was preparing to stop then said “Well, whatever it was it has just cleared” and pulled over to the hard shoulder to investigate. We looked back along the road and there was a piece of something in the middle of the carriageway. Investigation showed this to be the rear mudguard which had somehow got tied up in the wheel and left long strings of plastic attached to the wheel. As it had been run over a few times by then we decided to leave it.

We got to the border with no further problems and this crossing went so smoothly (only about 40 minutes) that we stopped for the obligatory ice cream and sat there sunning ourselves for a while. As usual, it was the Turkish side that took the time but at least this crossing had a large roof to protect us from the sun.

The roads in Greece were a great improvement over the Turkish ones. The last 30 miles or so to the border are obviously  not important to the Turkish people and the road surface progressively got worse as we approached Greece, as did the driving which culminated in a lorry driver driving the wrong way along the dual carriageway towards us – he was looking for somewhere to turn and started doing that just as we reached him.

Truck

Turkish Truck Drivers!

In Greece we headed for Drama which was to be our stop in a hotel called Jennifer. We did a lot of the route along the motorway so we could get some miles done but headed for the mountains for the last bit; it was still really hot. At one point we saw some very heavy clouds and then it rained on us a little. Bliss! We were lucky though as it was obvious that it had been raining very hard and we’d just caught the tail end of it. We started to see signs for the hotel and they lead us in nicely. The hotel was a gem. Definitely the best one we’ve stayed in so far.

Jennifer

The view from Hotel Jennifer

29 June

Drama – Naoussa, 281 miles

Woke up to another glorious day and breakfast on the terrace. Whilst Kevin was in the shower I heard a funny ‘gghkkk gghkkk’ noise and looked out to see a herd of wild pigs eating their way across the garden!

Pigs

Breakfast!!

If we hadn’t already booked our following few nights’ accommodation we would have loved to stay longer at the Jennifer. However, it was not to be and we had a long slog to Naoussa across the mountains. The roads were really good motorcycling roads which skirted the Bulgarian border and the scenery was lovely but Kevin was still suffering from a tummy bug that we’d acquired in Istanbul and eventually started to find it more hard work than pleasure.

The roads were still very rural – we’ve certainly seen parts of Greece that many tourists wouldn’t get to see. We stopped at this point to have a drink and just down the hill was a large trough, presumably for the sheep. There were no sheep around but the trough was teeming with life – there were dozens of frogs, tadpoles in different stages of development, diving beetles, back-swimmers. You name it, they were there.

Rural

Rural Roads

Something I’ve noticed is that there are a lot of little shrines at the side of the road. They’re so popular that they even have ‘shrine shops’ where you can buy them – anything from a small letter box type size to a full grown mini Church. Unfortunately my attempts to photograph them as we zoom past have not been very good so you’ll have to use your imaginations!

The route we had chosen was suggested by a Greek ‘GS forum’ member and it was much more interesting than the more direct route we had originally planned. One of his points of interest was a lake where we could get buffalo steaks. We found the lake, which was as tranquil as it was beautiful, but managed to miss the turning to the village for the steaks.

Kerkinis

Kerkinis Lake

We eventually found our way to Naoussa and then found the hotel with a lot of help from the locals as we only had the English version of the name and it didn’t really resemble the name in Greek. We were pleased to arrive as it had been a very long day, mostly on small mountain roads, and Kevin was finding the combination of his stomach bug and the heat so debilitating that I was having to help him get the bike off the side stand whenever we stopped during the afternoon.

30 June

Naoussa – Kalambaka, 129 miles

Kevin was still suffering and we were unable to leave the hotel until around 11 so we decided to go to Kalambaka the quickest way which meant going on more major roads than we’d prefer but we still managed one excellent mountain pass and enjoyed the very twisty road down to Kalambaka.

About 15 miles out from Kalambaka the road starts to wend its way uphill again and we came over a small bridge over a really green river with some volcanic looking rocks either side. This was to be our first glimpse of the area’s special geology.

Kalambaka

The shape of things to come!

After a few miles we were approaching Kalambaka and turned a corner and suddenly ‘Bloody hell!’ – there were some HUGE rock formations in front of us. As we approached the town they just got bigger and bigger and it was obvious why the monks in the medieval times decided that this would be a good place to set up shop.

Kalambaka

Our first view of the Meteora mountains

We completed the ride to Kalambaka in a few hours and found our hotel which is situated at one end of the main road. Not too far to go to go to find something to eat, the laundry and an ice cream shop. Kevin was really rough so we decided to extend our stay here to 3 nights and just have the following day as a day off. I got some of the Greek equivalent to Dioralite which we’ve been religiously taking morning and night and both feel a lot better for it.

We had a minor disaster today when the charger for the electronic book readers failed :(, we both read a lot so this was a bit of a blow.

1 July

Kalambaka

Kevin wasn’t any better and had decided on a 24 hour fast. He spent the day mostly in bed dozing and helping me to sort out our Italy leg. I spent the day booking ferries and hotels and that means that our next week is now scheduled so we don’t have to worry about that any more. We usually only book a couple of days in advance but it’s peak holiday season in Italy and we were concerned about the availability of hotels if we left it that late.

Kevin also contacted a web site in Italy who agreed to send a new charger for our readers to the hotel in Sicily; phew! 🙂

2 July

Kalambaka

Today we decided that we would spend the day going round the Monasteries, which is what the area is famous for; it was definitely a ‘Wow!’ day. There used to be over 20 but there are only 6 remaining and they are open to the public. They are all perched very precariously on the tops of the lumps of rock (which we now know are formed from river silt 60 billion years ago) and all had lots of steps to get to them.

Meteora

The monasteries seem to grow out of the rocks

In the old days the monks, cherishing their privacy and also sometimes needing a means of staying safe when opposition occurred, used to have to climb up old wooden or rope ladders that were lowered from above. Some of them had winches that would lower nets down to pick up monks or provisions. I’m glad that they have now installed the steps though a lift would have been nice!

Meteora

My legs are aching just looking at this photo!

The first monastery we visited was the Great Meteoro, Monastery of the Transfiguration. This was the biggest one we saw and had some interesting rooms such as the store room with a huge barrel which was held together with wooden trusses (they must have got through a huge amount of wine!), a kitchen next to a refectory which had enough room for a large number of monks and an infirmary which also had its own kitchen area for preparing special food. Every inch of the church (which we were not allowed to photograph) was impressively painted with religious scenes including the large dome.

Meteora

The wine barrel was empty (I checked!)

Both Kevin and I fell foul of their dress code. Kevin’s knee-length shorts were too short, so he had to wear a pair of loan trousers, and I was provided with a wrap-around skirt to go over my trousers. Interestingly, very short skirts and low-cut tops appeared to be acceptable so it was nothing to do with decency, just their idea of what is ‘right’ to wear. Still, it’s their house and if we want to visit we have to play by their rules.

Meteora

Very fetching clothes (but the view was worth it!)

There was a very interesting museum (well, the bits I could understand anyway!) that had a lot of war pictures. This seemed surprising at first, being a monastery and all that, but we soon saw why – the monks fought and played an active role in most of the wars that Greece has been involved in including providing assistance to Allied troops trying to return home during the second World War.

Bones

Ground space is at a premium here. When monks die they are buried for 3 years then their bones are dug up, cleaned with wine, and placed in the Ossuary.

Meteora

The second monastery we visited (Varlaam) was much smaller but interesting nonetheless.

The monastery was quite small and we got stampeded in the coach-party rush. At one point we were in the church and there were two different groups filling the two outside rooms while we were caught in the middle.

Our final monastery (Rousanou) was my favourite; it was smaller still, but smelled gorgeous – they were selling sachets of Oregano which was what we could smell. Unlike the other ones, this was a female monastery and everywhere looked polished and ‘loved’. We had the place to ourselves and as we left the inevitable coach party arrived. There was a staircase leading to the rock at the back, an invitation Kevin couldn’t resist, so we went up. I’m glad we did, it was a fantastic view from up there.

Meteora

The views are stunning

It’s impossible to be able to adequately describe Meteora, even with photographs which never seem to do the majestic scenery justice. On a bike trip space is at a premium so we always take our compact cameras and leave the DSLR behind. At Meteora we really wished we’d had it with us. Still, we hope the few photo’s we have here will convey something of this special place.

3 July

Kalambaka – Igoumenitsa then ferry to Brindisi. Greece, Italy. 139 miles.

We had a short day today, travelling about 140 miles to catch our ferry to Italy and nearly all of it was over twisty mountain passes. We could see the tallest Meteora lump for ages before finally turning away from it. The road we travelled is going to be replaced by a motorway very soon by the looks of things and we passed many partially completed bits of road. There are a lot of abandoned farms and businesses so I’m not sure the motorway coming through is always a good thing for the local population. Looking on the bright side though, I guess what it will do is give the nice bendy road over to the people who will enjoy it and enjoy it even more without the buses and lorries which will hopefully take the motorway in future. 🙂

We arrived at the port at about 2.30. Kevin stopped to let me off to get some more cash and promptly dropped bike and me on the floor! We have a procedure for disembarkation – I say “OK?” and Kevin either says “Hang on” or “OK”…well this time, he said “OK” but then promptly forgot that I was about to get off the bike. (I blame it on the heat and crash helmet which acts on the brain like a boil-in-a-bag!). As this procedure involves me putting all my weight onto my left foot peg, the bike is very unstable and needs a strong hand at the front end. Unfortunately in this instance the strong hand was fiddling with the ignition key, or something, so the bike dropped! No harm done to either passenger or bike I’m happy to say. Luckily, no-one we knew saw us!

Ferry

Catching some rays and a ferry

Ferry

And on to Italy

The ferry was practically empty – just one bike (us), a handful of cars and camper vans and a few lorries. Having parked the bike we then got on the escalator to get to the passenger areas; very civilised and better than P&O’s stairs.

4 July

Brindisi – Taormina, 331 miles.

We had a rude awakening this morning. We were expecting to get up at around 6, have showers and breakfast, then disembark at 7.30. At just after 6 an announcement came over the tannoy “We are a few minutes away from Brindisi, please prepare to disembark”…eek! Quick lick and promise, throw the stuff in the bag and get our gear on ready to leave. Except that once we’d left the cabin it was obvious that we were not a few minutes out, more like over an hour. We would have had time to do everything we planned and still had time for a relax in the bar area. Ah well, we’ll know better next time.

We left the ferry and took advice from Mrs. Sat Nav. As soon as we saw the sea on our right we knew something was wrong and pulled over to have a look; it was wrong. The SatNav’s route to Sicily was via Naples, Sardinia and then Palermo – the wrong end of the island, about a thousand miles and a ferry ride! When Kevin checked he found it was set to avoid motorways and the route offered was the only option to satisfy that setting. Luckily we noticed quickly, re-set the Sat Nav and then it was fine. We had over 300 miles to do and decided that we’d take the motorways wherever possible to save time.

As with the last bit of Greece, Southern Italy is undergoing a major road building programme and there are numerous bits of motorway being constructed. In a few years time you’ll be able to go all the way across by motorway. As it was, our route was a mixture of motorway, towns and the odd bit of country. There are a lot of really large abandoned houses in the middle of fields, it’s quite sad to see. The motorway, which was really a small dual carriageway, was very pretty with lots of pink- and white-blossomed bushes along the verges and in the central reservation.

We arrived at the ferry port and I got us a ticket just as the ferry was boarding so good timing! The ferry took 20 minutes and then we were in Sicily where the drivers are just like those in Istanbul but there are fewer of them.

A short 30 miles or so brought us to our hotel which is nestling beneath Mount Etna. The plan for tomorrow is to either ride or find a bus to get us closer to the volcano so we can have a proper look at it.

The reader charger was here (we hadn’t paid for it yet!) so they went on charge.

Etna

That ‘cloud’ in the background of the photo is actually from the volcano which is having one of its periodic eruptions – excellent!

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