Carol arranged the trip. She loves to travel, and to arrange travel. I am more of a curmudgeon when it comes to travel, but it was my 50th birthday, so I was game. My boss, Dan, failed to come up with a last-minute emergency requiring me to cancel the trip, so on September 15, off we went.
Despite my cranky letters to various newspapers, my peace sign tattoo, and my surly attitude, we were allowed to board our flight, which whisked us off to Paris, Charles de Gaulle Airport to be precise. We had a short time to make our connecting flight to Athens, so we made a headlong dash for the Olympic Airlines gate. Except, being new to CdG, and not having taken the time to read a map, it was more like a marathon than a sprint. Yep, we went all the way around the airport, when we could have gone across.
Let me fast forward, so we can move along. Security alarm ... strip ... wait ... thirst ... board ... fly ... land ... Athens! ... passport ... shop ... avoid police ... eat spanikotiropita ...
wait ... board ... squeeze ... scrunch ... Crete!
Crete. Heraklion. Now I was on. For those of you who don't know, I speak Greek. Or at least I did, when I was much younger. It was only natural, since my parents spoke Greek and very little English, so I needed to learn Greek to get fed, get my diaper changed, ask for toys, make excuses, tattle on my brother, &c. But since my parents passed away twenty years ago, I have not spoken the language, and have forgotten most of it. So, in the months leading up to the trip, I subjected my colleague, Konstantinos Boulis, who is a true Greek, to the torture of listening to a grown man speak Greek like a child. But it's all good. He and his wife, Zeffie, just had their first baby, Cristos, so they'll be in good practice.
Where was I? Yes. Heraklion. The pressure was on. It was up to me to converse with the Greeks we met, and to make sure we didn't end up in jail, stranded, dead, or otherwise misdirected. A great deal of the pressure was internally-generated, but Carol helped. But I don't blame her. She tried, she really did. During the flight from Athens to Heraklion, Carol asked me how to say 'I want a water' -- thelo ena nero. However, over the roar of the engines, she must have heard wrong, because when the flight attendant came by, what Carol said instead was thelo ena moro -- 'I want a baby.' I have never seen a woman's eyes get as large as that flight attendant's. After that, Carol was convinced that I misled her, so she never trusted me to help her speak Greek again. However, I had to do all the talking. Which is just fine for a chatterbox like me.
Anyway, Heraklion. Heraklion is one of the two cities on Crete, and it was to be the starting point of our bike tour. Oh, yes, I forgot to say -- we were on Crete for a bike tour. More about that later. We got to our hotel, checked in, slept, and the next day, were ready to go exploring.
You've probably noticed that we have no pictures so far. Well, that's because the very first thing of note we managed to do in Heraklion was to lose our camera! We hated that camera, so we may have subconsciously wanted to lose it. And we were still stunned at having seen a Starbucks in the old town. But we went in to a little mini-mart to buy toiletries, set little Snappy on the counter, and left it there.
We eventually bought disposable cameras, so photos of the trip are coming...Read on. In the meantime, here's a photo to break up the monotony of text. Not related to the Greek trip, and probably scary, but...read on.
Heraklion is the site of an old Venetian fort, dating to the time that Cretans depended on the Venetians to protect them from being swallowed by the Ottoman Empire. Eventually, the Venetians fled, and Crete fell to the Ottomans in the 16th century. Heraklion also has an ancient wall surrounding it. Carol and I walked around half the wall. At one point we came to a little park on top of the wall, with a grave on it. It is the grave of Nikos Kazantakis, author of Zorba the Greek, and one of Crete's most illustrious sons. This was also the site of my first substantive conversation with a Greek; an elderly gentleman explained that Greeks put crosses on their graves. I had wanted to ask him who was buried there. God knows what I actually asked him.
In the afternoon, we met up with our tour group. The tour was run by Classic Adventures, an outfit based in Central New York. Classic Adventures was started by Dale Hart, a history professor, in the 1970's, later joined by his wife Diane Hart. Although Dale and Diane no longer own the company, they still run tours.
Our first activity as a group was to sit in a circle and introduce ourselves. It was here that I realized this was going to be a momentous experience. A quarter of the way around the circle, a gentleman named Glyn Walters introduced himself, said he was a bike shop owner, and that his son is a professional. From across the circle, I asked "What's his name?". "Mark Walters." I just about fell out of my chair. In 1999, I was a course marshal in a cyclocross race in Syracuse, a race Mark won by a resounding margin. I noted him, and I have been following his career with Navigators and then Sierra Nevada/KodakGallery ever since. And here were his parents, on the same tour as me! Glyn and his wife Alice were kind enough to get Mark to sign a team cap for me. As we got to know them on the tour, we came to know them as warm, generous people.
We learned that half of the group (including Glyn and Alice) was a group of Canadian friends from Ontario who travel around the world together on self-organized bike tours. This tour was the first one they'd taken with a tour company. I feared that they would act as a clique, shunning the rest of us, but these guys were wonderful. They went out of their way to mesh well with the entire group, and I don't think any of the rest of us ever felt excluded.
Aside from the Canadian-American split, the group was also divided into two tours: the "Land of Zorba" and the "Extreme Crete" tours. The former was oriented toward moderate cyclists, and the latter was oriented toward ... hammerheads! But to the credit of Dale, Diane, and our other guides Mike and Ron, we had the flexibility of switching between Zorba and Extreme according to how we felt, and according to conditions. I'm sure it must have been a pain for them, but it was transparent to us.
Before we left Heraklion, we took a short trip by bus to Knossos, the archaelogical site of the ancient Minoan empire. The Minoans predated Homeric Greece; they were contemporaries of the Mycaeneans, in the second millenium B.C. Their eclipse may have been brought about by the same volcanic eruptions that created the rich soil of the nearby island of Santorini, which is now known for its spectacular wines. Most impressive to me in the Knossos dig were the vivid frescoes depicting bull-jumping, a sport in which athletes literally somersaulted over the top of the bull, lengthwise. This sport was exported to Egypt, and eventually, Wyoming. OK, just kidding about Wyoming.
The next morning, we set out on our bikes. Carol and I rented our bikes from the tour company. Our bikes were steel, and sturdy, with kickstands and racks. This took us some getting used to, as we'd been spoiled by our aluminum - carbon - paired-spoke-wheel dream machines. But there was nothing for it. If I were running a tour company, these are the kinds of bikes I would offer. We had brought our own saddles and pedals, so we were able to set up the bikes to our liking.
On the road, then! Sto dromo! It was not long before our fears of being flattened by crazy southern European drivers abated. To our surprise, Greek drivers have a live-and-let-live attitude with other kinds of users of the road -- the countless scooters, wagons, donkeys, goats, flocks of sheep, ... and bicycles. It didn't take me long to feel safe, even safer than I do riding in Seattle.
The Lessithi Plateau
Crete is mountainous. The altitudes of the roads we traversed were not terribly great(3,800 ft maximum), but we reached those altitudes quickly. In other words, steep. Our first day brought us up a long, 10% grade to the Lessithi Plateau, in central Crete. When we were nearly at the top, we stopped at the Homo Sapiens Museum. I think the name says it all. We didn't go inside, but we did cavort in the parking lot.
Continuing up, we crested a ridge, and then descended slightly into the Lassithi Plateau, the "breadbasket" of Crete, situated about halfway between the north and south shores of the island. Just as we crested the ridge, we passed some old windmills. In the past, thousands of windmills dotted the plateau. They were used to draw water.
On the ride up to the Lessithi Plateau, we got to know Karen and James, from Boston. We were immediately attracted to them because on the back of Karen's bike was a little stuffed donkey, Donkey. Anyone who knows ... I mean really knows ... me and Carol knows that we love that kind of thing, having a large collection of stuffed animals ourselves (pictured). Karen and James are Grade A Goofballs, like us, and we felt a great affinity for them.
On the Lassithi Plateau, in the town of Tzermiado, we first reaped the fruits of the extensive relationships that Dale and Diane have developed with Cretan restauranteurs and hoteliers over the years. We stayed two nights on the Plateau, and each night we were served a wonderful feast at the restaurant of one of the Harts' friends. (Can't remember his name, but he was tall, and had a very dry sense of humor). On the second night at dinner we were graced with a visit by a local Greek Orthodox monk, who was actually really fun and funny. This was also our first introduction to raki, a liqueur that is the lubricant of Cretan social life. Raki burns, so you down it in one shot. And anytime folks get together, there are many shots.
On the day after we arrived at the Plateau, we took a loop ride down to the northern coast, to the town of Malia. I don't remember much about this day's ride, except that it was a relief to be down by the water again. These days were very hot, with temps above 90 degrees.
I didn't take notes or keep a diary during the trip, and my memory is fading, so I'm not sure exactly where this episode occurred. But I think it was roughly around this time.
Carol, Karen, James, Mike (one of our guides) and I were riding through some farm fields, on a rough farm backroad. We were spread out. I heard a truck speeding up on my left, and as it passed, I felt a sharp sting on my backside. Apparently, some yahoos in the truck whacked each of us with a 2x4 as they passed us, and then sped off. By the time we got to the next rest stop, we had some very nice welts on our butts and backs. Our guides were quick to say that this is just not the kind of thing that Greeks do, and that it was probably Albanians. So, for the rest of the trip, we referred to this (with pride) as our Albanian Butt-Whacking. However, I regret this ethnic presumption of guilt.
I think it's about time we had our first group photo. This photo was taken just after the ABW incident:
Going clockwise around the table from the left, we have: Diane Hart, one of the tour organizers; Jim, a computer systems guy from the Virginia area; Ron, an attorney, and a superb climber; Tom, a purveyor of agricultural machinery; Glyn (waving) and Alice (see above); André, our videographer; Hamu, the strongest of the Extremes, a force of nature on the climbs; and Howard, a 76-year-old retired physician from Central Pennsylvania, who hung with the Extremes, rode every single mile (and more), and was constantly cracking jokes, keeping us in high spirits.
After two nights on the Lassithi Plateau, we set off for the southern coast of Crete, for Ierapetra. I don't really remember much about this ride, but Ierapetra was a pleasant little seaside town, with a nice boardwalk and beach. I struck up a conversation with a waiter at a cafe, and when he asked me what I thought of his country, I told him, sincerely, that I thought it the best country in the world. By this time, we'd settled into the routine of Greek eating. A meal is not oriented toward a main dish, but toward small, traditional mezedes, well done and hearty. A typical dinner might be olives, feta cheese, eggplant salad (melitsanasalata), giant beans (yigantes), cheese in filo dough (tiropites), marinated octopus (octopod), and greens (chorta agria).
When strolling through the old town in Ierapetra, we came across a sign directing us to a house where Napoleon slept. We never did find the house, but this piqued my curiosity. Juan Cole has a new book out on Napoleon's Egyptian campaign, and I wonder if Napoleon stopped in Crete en route to Northern Africa. Life is for learning!
The next day, we rode from Ierapetra, inland and northwest across a peninsula to Matala, again on the southern coast. It was on this day that our struggle with the heat came to a head. This was a 125 km ride, temperature well into the nineties, and virtually no shade. Even though we did our best to load up on water (I was carrying 3 bottles), we kept running out, and were increasingly looking to our two support vans to bring us refills. (Dale, Diane, Ron, and Mike had an extra stressful day; in addition to keeping us hydrated, they had to track down Howard, who had gone off course). At the bleakest point, Carol and I were almost completely out of water, still 20 km from our destination, with no shade in sight, and the little water that remained in our bottles was hot. Then, up pulls the support van, and Diane hops out to give us water with ice cubes. I swear, it was ambrosia. Water never tasted so good, never felt so good going down, never felt so good in my stomach. I don't know whether the last 20 km were downhill or not, but they certainly felt like it.
Our hotel in Matala was about 1/2 mile from the water, so it had a pool. As we straggled in, we ordered beers, and sat around the pool, not even bothering to change out of our cycling clothes. John, a trader and business-owner from New York, came in near the end. He rode his bike right up to the edge of the pool, propped it up, then took a running jump into the pool. SPLASH! Several of us urged him to ride his bike into the pool. I'm sorry, Dale and Diane, that's a horrible thing, but under the circumstances, it would have been really funny!
Matala is a tiny beach town, best know for the caves in the limestone cliffs rising from the beach. These caves were used by Romans for burials, and more recently, were used as residences by bohemians in the 60's. In fact, James and Karen pointed out to us, Joni Mitchell's song Carey is about her time in Matala:
Maybe I'll go to Amsterdam
Or maybe I'll go to Rome
And rent me a grand piano
And put some flowers around my room
But let's not talk about fare thee wells now
The night is a starry dome
And they're playing that scratchy rock 'n roll
Beneath the Matala moon
The day after our arrival at Matala, the schedule called for a loop ride, returning to Matala. Since Carol and I were so tired from the previous day, and the beach was lovely, we decided to spend the whole day lying on the beach instead.
We occasionally stirred to visit the local shops (where I bought the book The Cretan Runner, an autobiographical account of a young man who was a messenger for the Cretan resistance against the German occupation of 1941-4, recommended to us by Dale). But mostly, we soaked up the sun and the cool breeze.
I am thinking now about the guy who collected our fee for the beach chairs. I listened to him as he circulated around the various parties on the beach, engaging each in repartee. I think that Cretans thrive on wit, as much as food, water, and air. Companionship, wit, and raki.
Our time in Matala was among the best on the tour. Our hotel room, although it didn't look onto the water, offered us a cool breeze, so we were very comfortable.
We left Matala to wind inward through the craggy, mountainous interior of Crete to Spili. En route, not too far from Matala, we stopped at a small church (Agios Pavlos) dating back to the Byzantine period, from the 5th century. It is hard not to be awed by the antiquity, even wandering among the graves, which were more recent, dating back to the 18th century. In this picture, I am peering into a crypt where one can see human bones.
On this day, the weather had turned. A storm had blown in from the northwest, and instead of the blazing heat of the previous days, we now encountered high winds and rain. Being risk averse, and knowing that the roads become very slick in the rain, I decided to cut off the last 40 km of this day's ride, which was a loop through a valley adjacent to Spili. This is a photo of the Amari Valley, taken from the brand-spanking new monastery/Greek Orthodox convention center in Spili.
The artifacts of human life in inland Crete are very different from those of coastal Crete. Modernity has not touched these villages so thoroughly as to erase the vestiges of eras past. The cafes and stores are dotted with relics of the past -- yellowed newspaper clippings, rusted rifles -- and you just get the feeling that these have not been placed there for "atmosphere", but that they are a crucial part of the inhabitants' connection to their past.
The day after our arrival at Spili, the Extreme group rode around the Amari valley, a craggy, steep area to the north of Spili that was so inaccessible that it became a stronghold against the Germans during the occupation. There are paved roads through it now, but they require care, as they are quite steep, with wicked sharp hairpin turns.
After our second night at Spili, we set out for the southern coast again, this time for the seaside village of Chora Sfakion. Now this worried me. According to my recollection of Greek, sfakso is the verb for "slaughter," and chora is the noun for "land." You know how when you're cycling you loop through thoughts? Well, all day, every few minutes I found myself thinking I was riding into the land of slaughter.
The southern coast of Crete is steeper than the northern coast, a fact we would contend with over the next few days. On this day, we actually rode past Hora Sfakion, and took a road switchbacking up the cliff, heading towards Agios Ioannis. The road was unpaved, loose gravel, all the way up to the top. Wow! I actually didn't make it all the way to Agios Ioannis; I stopped just short. I can't remember why for sure, but knowing me, I was probably anxious about the descent, and wanted to make sure I didn't tire myself out. I can be such a stick in the mud!
Our hotel room in Hora Sfakion was barely bigger than a closet, but do you need anything bigger when you've got this view out in two directions?
We had another spectacular dinner on the waterfront in this town (and there really is nothing more than the waterfront -- it is up against a cliff!) This evening, as with a few other evenings, Dale and Diane (Pavlos and Daphne to their Cretan friends) had arranged for us to visit the kitchen and tell the chef what we wanted, from a wide selection. Fish, lamb, beef, chicken. I, of course, had the eggplant. You can never have too much eggplant.
The next day, our trip from Hora Sfakion to the northern coast town of Almyrida provided us the most challenging terrain of the entire tour. Right from the git-go, it was up. Steep up. On a gravel road switchbacking up a cliff face. Against a wind that was so strong that at times we had to sit down to prevent being blown over.
And that was the easy part.
The grade steepened, til we were riding a 17+% grade. Still against the wind, and now having to contend with the cold from a 3,500 ft elevation gain.
I remember taking refuge with a group of the Canadians at a small restaurant (with an incredible bathroom!), wrapping our hands around warm mugs of tea and coffee, and waiting for our core temperatures to rise again. What a contrast to our struggles against the heat just a week earlier!
Eventually, we made our way down toward the northern coast, shedding layers as we went. The last third of the ride was generally flat, but then, near the end, we had a spikey bit of climbing thrown in. Not much in comparison to what we'd done earlier, but coming at the end of the day, it seemed even harder.
But we rolled into Almyrida eventually, and gathered on the patio outside our hotel, sipping beers, and trading stories from a truly remarkable day of riding.
The next day was the final day of riding. The Zorbas went on a hike down the Samaria Gorge, and we Extremes were transferred to the southern coast, to the town of Sougia, for another go over the central mountainous spine of the island, back to the northern coast. This time, we went via the Omalos Plateau, another agricultural highland. The Omalos Plateau, like the Lessithi Plateau, is more of a crater than a plateau. You go up the outside, over the lip, down to the plateau, then up over the lip again, and down the other side. It was almost as windy as the previous day, and just as cold.
This day, however, I had a bit of bad fortune. Just as I crested the lip the first time, a spoke on my rear wheel broke. Not having the tools to fix it, and not wanting to stand around in the cold waiting for the support van, I opened the quick release and kept riding. Eventually, I stopped for a bathroom break and a cup of coffee, but then kept going. I made it over the other side, and had gotten to the bottom, near the north coast, when the van finally caught up to me. At this point, I was ready to throw in the towel, and accept a ride back to the hotel. But Dale, not knowing what a faint-hearted quitter I am, assumed I wanted to keep riding. So he changed the spoke and re-trued the wheel, there on the roadside, in a matter of a couple of minutes. I was deeply impressed. Of course I had no choice but to get back on the bike and keep riding. But I do believe nothing fazes Dale. He just takes everything in stride.
I also have to give a tip of the hat to my fellow riders that day. Hamu, who caught me and passed me 1/3 of the way through, and is simply unstoppable; Jim, who is steady and strong; John, who throws himself at everything and anything; and most of all Howard. Howard is truly lion-hearted, and I say that with the authority vested in me by my cat, Pumpkin (pictured at right).
I am going to stop now, as this was effectively the end of the bike tour. There was a second part to our trip, which was a visit to northeastern Greece, where my parents came from, to try to learn more about my family. Although the bike tour was wonderful, and I am going to try to repeat it, this second part of the trip was truly remarkable and fulfilling. I am eager to document it, but my fingers need a rest.
Until then, warmest regards to all my tour-mates, and to the staff of Classic Adventures. I've made it no secret that someday, after I retire, I would like to be involved in running bike tours in Greece, and Dale, Diane, Ron, and Mike have set a very high bar.
And most of all, my thanks to Carol, without whom none of this would have been possible.