The terrain that dipped and rose dramatically a multitude number of times each day revealed a land of contrasts. Riding from Glifada to Sounio, I was overpowered by the pungent scent of eucalyptus trees one moment. The next, a warm salt breeze brushed against my face. Narrow mountain roads zigzagging through the olive tree-coated valleys then wandered through scented dense pine forests. Riding through a lush valley towards the coastal town of Nafplio, I took a high road that was very reminiscent to many a road I biked in the Colorado Rockies, complete with jagged, snow dappled peaks.
The generosity of the locals set the tone for the trip right from the beginning. As I took a breather on the side of the road, a man selling fresh figs, sensing my parched state, gave me a handful. The plump, moist fruits were better than any snack I would've carried.
Grapevine-lined roads to Epidauros sliced through fertile plains that were crowded with pomegranate, orange, fig and walnut trees. Riding through this cornucopia, I often encountered farmers who'd offer me a bunch of grapes they were loading into a small open bed truck.
Even when the usually bright weather turned grim with a blustery downpour on my ride to Livadia, my spirits soared when I pulled into a garage for shelter and a young man, seeing my muddy gear, ran out to hose down my bike. Then, a shopkeeper brought me a chair to sit on as I dried off outside his shop once the rain stopped. A woman next door even offered to dry my soggy clothes.
Later in the trip, on the long road to
Every day provided a wealth of surprises, as long as you were ever mindful of your surroundings. Outside the town of Arahova, luckily I was very attentive and spied a clutch of brightly painted houses perched high on stone outcrops. Zipping down a steep section after Kalavrita, I kept my eyes on the sheep in the middle of the road and almost missed an ancient monastery hugging the side of a windswept mountain.
Near many mountain villages, I shared the road with a menagerie. Sheep, mules and even chickens forced me to slow down as they crowded the road ahead. On other narrow winding roads, it wasn't unusual to see a black clad old woman ambling down the road aside a mule.
A three-mile side trip from Sparta led to one of the most striking sites: Mystra, a deserted Byzantine city set amongst the mountains. Numerous footpaths weave through this stone city whose fortress dominates the 2,000-foot summit. Meandering through this monumental town, I explored the octagonal domed church of St. Theodori, numerous other churches and fresco-laden chapels and lingered at the summit for the views of the snow-capped peaks and pine forests.
Every morning, in even the smallest villages, I followed the aroma of fresh baked bread, almonds and cinnamon to a zaharoplastio or pastry shop. And it certainly was not all about baklava, though honey, nuts and phyllo dough were major players. Among the dozens of sweet treats, I found small chocolate or vanilla iced cakes stuffed with rich custard, shredded pastries with nuts, and honey puffs and honey biscuits.
In the seaside communities like Nafpaktos, fresh squid was a real treat. I passed fishermen who were slamming them on the coastal rocks as a tenderizing technique. In the nearby tavernas, these freshly-caught squid were served fried and drizzled with lemon juice. No need for fancy dipping sauces.
It was easy to spend two hours at lunch where I never tired of Greek salads with red ripe tomatoes and cucumbers picked in the gardens behind the tavernas, and chunks of firm tangy feta cheese; as well as warm crusty bread and thick creamy sheep's milk yogurt topped with rich honey.
My next trip to Greece will surely be to check out the dozens of islands that pepper the Aegean Sea. But there's something to be said for getting away from it all by cycling through Greece's many mountain villages.