Day 22: Thessaloniki to Oficina Beach, 10km East of Amfipolis

Total to date:  4123km:  Today – 112km: 400m of ascent

Today started with a massive thunderstorm – observed from our hotel room in Thessaloniki. We adopt the “no camping in major cities, when ill or when it is raining” rule. Here we hit all 3 with the same overnight stay!

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But by the time we got going at about 7.45am it was not actually raining, but the roads were very damp. It was, however, a Saturday morning which did not mean a great deal to us (because one loses track of days on a long cycle trip) but was great for light traffic. WE got rain the morning for the first time on this trip but then dodged the showers until just before arriving at our overnight accommodation, so count ourselves lucky.

We plodded out of the damp city, following a road adjacent to the motorway because that took us through the hills that surround the East of the city at the lowest point. I was not still sick but felt a bit queasy, and certainly not 100%. However I was well enough to cycle and improved gradually through a day of relatively easy cycling.

We took a route south of the Kornica and Volvi lakes – beautiful reed lakes to the East of Thessaloniki. Although it was a fairly main road, traffic was quiet, there was little if any wind and it was gently undulating (slopes not hills). So we whizzed along as far as Aghios Vasiliosi where we stopped for an early coffee at what turned out to be one of the best bakeries we have seen, including a fantastic collection of cream cakes.

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The cream cakes on display led to me think about the obesity problem in Greece which – sad to report – seems to be just as bad as in England if not worse. The wonders of the internet suggest that OECD figures suggest that 44% of Greek boys and 38% of Greek girls are clinically overweight – the highest percentages in the world by some degree. Obesity is not confined to the young and is a leading cause of preventable deaths on, it seems, an epidemic scale. The problems are confounded when one adds the very high level of smoking amongst Greeks, which at over 40% (more than double the rate in the UK) is the highest in the EU. There are laws that prevent smoking in all restaurants and bars, but our experience is that they are not enforced at all.

The combination of obesity and high levels of smoking (combined in many cases) must be producing rocketing levels of diabetes and other preventable diseases and must be storing up serious health problems for the country in the coming decades. I suppose it is understandable that, in the middle of a serious financial crisis where the country has been on the verge of running out of money for the past 5 years, public health measures are not at the top of the government’s list of priorities. But it is a striking and depressing feature of the country that it is a walking public health emergency. The cynic in us thinks that “at least it will cut the cost of pensions” but that is probably unfair.

That thought occurred to me because I tried to think about what occupies my mind during the hours in the saddle. Those who know me (and I cannot imagine that many who do not know us will find this blog the least bit interesting) may be aware that my my mind is rarely on “pause”. But cycling is never boring and all manner of things flit through my brain as I pedal along.

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First there is the route and the scenery. Going at 20+kph means the scenery is constantly changing, and there is time on a bike to examine the minute by minute changes in the scenery as we go along. This is particularly true when climbing because, as every walker knows, the perspective subtly changes as one ascends.

Bernie and I don’t chat too much as we go along because it is quite difficult to communicate with passing traffic, the wind and the gap between the bikes on the road. If the one of us who is cycling behind gets too close there is a good draft, but its hard to avoid the numerous potholes and other obstacles in the road. So we tend to ride a bit apart which makes conversation difficult beyond “look at that” and “good place to stop for a photo?”

At other times I think about the things we have seen and the people we have met, including Alex Thomson, a 27 year old from East Sussex, who we met today. Alex is on the first part of a round the world cycle which he has been planning and saving for several years. He is doing it the hard way, rough camping and spending as little as possible as he goes along. It did make Bernie and me feel as if we were more on the “cycling for softies” end of the scale, but then we were over 25 years older than him and only dip into this malarky for a month a time. For the rest of the year we pretend we are committed to normal jobs! Good luck to you Alex if you are reading this – and I hope you make it to Hanoi and beyond.

Other than that, numerous thoughts occupy my unspoken thoughts as I amble along through unfamiliar territory. “What did that sign mean?” has become a favourite in Greece since not only can we not speak the language, we now can’t even read the roadsigns easily because most are in Greek script.

I think about the latest news from the children and family (who we miss and its great to be in touch with to hear your news – and well done to Becky on her language exam result, to Ant for settling into work so well and Pippa on squeezing the sponge of life during her trip to Indonesia), friends (greetings to you all and we miss you also and please accept my constant apologies for not being a good enough friend) and occasionally work (but then try to remove it from my brain because there are better things to hum about as I go along). We are also reading a reasonable amount – in my case Misha Glennie’s excellent history of the Balkans) and cycling gives me time to unravel the words and put them into some perspective.

Back to the route. We reached the coast, went through the sea side towns of Nea Vrasna and Asprovalta, which appear to be “Blackpool” for Bulgarians and Romanians. However with Greece remaining stubbornly within the Euro, it is not as inexpensive as some places. Cheap holidays on the Adriatic may be a thing of the past.

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We then saw a stunning Lion statute dating from the C4th BC in honour of a Greek Trimarine Commander, whose name has escaped both our minds. It did occur to us that the Lion as a symbol of courage is very long standing but slightly mysterious because, if you are Lion, you have no known predators and thus have more firepower than the people you attack (unless they are bigger lions I suppose).

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Finally, as the rain started (see the rule above) we found an apartment via the wonderful http://www.booking.com. By then I was feeling fairly washed out but, after a day in bed with a stomach bug, I suppose a ride of 112km indicates I may be on the road to recovery.

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