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Thessaloniki – my temporary ‘home’

Hellas Thessaloniki

Three macedonian tolls later, the quick highway lead me to Thessaloniki. Can’t say there was much to look at on the way to the second largest city in Greece. Lots of dead dogs and hot wind mixed in with a few small brown mountains. Oh and guava’s. Loads of local farming familiess selling boxes of guava’s at the side of the road.

Entering Thessaloniki wasn’t overly thrilling. I spent the afternoon looking for cheap accommodation, and found it in Sykies, a steep hillside suburb in the north of Thessaloniki. After an hour of wiggling through all the ridiculous winding streets, I found my cheap hidden studio. Time to sleep.

Thessaloniki

Welcome to Thessaloniki

Being passportless

The application for a Pakistan visa can only be done in your home country. For me, this meant Australia. So what did I do? I fast couriered my passport and a whole bunch of paperwork back to Sydney to get the application going. I was going to be in Greece for at least three weeks, passportless and with a feeling of being trapped. I’ve never been passportless in a foreign country, so I felt like I was walking around naked for the first few days. Part of the adventure I suppose.

What the passport issue meant for me was that waiting for it to come back was cutting in on my Iran visa application time. My application number had been approved by the travel industry in Iran, and I had to be in Istanbul by the 7th of September to pick it up.

Being passportless due to the pending Pakistani visa application, meant that I wasn’t going to be inside Istanbul until the 4th September or so, which gave me 3 days (2 of which were the weekend – when the Iran consulate was closed) to get a visa stamp before I had to reapply for a new one. 1 day to process a Visa –  Talk about cutting it fine! My fingers were going to be crossed for days…

Servicing Trumpet – Coolant Issues

Trumpet had held up well over the last 9000 km's

Trumpet had held up well over the last 9000 km’s

I forfeited Trumpet to a dealership in Thessaloniki, for her 20,000km service. Her brake pads were worn to the bone and needed replacing too. I wandered back into town, looking for a cool beverage – which I discovered in the form of draught Amstel. The pub was cool, Led Zeppelin rocked out of the speakers and pictures of rock bands from KISS to Pink Floyd were plastered on the rough walls. There was even table service for refills provided, and free bowls of chips (crisps for the english people).

Not entirely alot happened the first few days in Thess, except for eating calamari, gyros and card games with my new acquaintances Kyriakos and Stelios. As you can see, I was having a nice rest from the last few weeks excitement, and it didn’t bother me to have a few lazy days in town. I picked up Trumpet from the dealership a day later and prepared to leave…

Two minutes into leaving Thessaloniki, the engine light switched on, and the coolant levels flashed warnings at me. Stopping as soon as possible, I hopped off, and checked the coolant levels. I examined the lines for leaks, looking for the tiniest hint of what the issue was. Nope, all good there. Maybe it was the electricals… I had a wiggle of all the plugs and wires and gave Trumpet another go. Two minutes later, the same problem again. Bugger me mate… I wasn’t going anywhere.

While I waited for the mechanic who had run the service, I raided forums and manuals, looking for the answer to my problems. Nikos, my friendly greek mechanic arrived and had a fiddle, did everything I did and still couldn’t work it out. Five minutes later a well placed enquiry on a Triumph forum gave me the answer – air bubbles in coolant line. Listing the bike over to get the air out of the coolant line, I waited five mins before turning the engine over again… Tens minutes later I was on my to Meteora, sweaty, but happy my problem was solved.

Approaching Meteora

Approaching Meteora

Meteora

Turning off the tolled highway, I took the sweeping mountain route towards Meteora through Katara pass (one of the higher passes in Epirus). The road had been washed away in places and whatever was left was covered in cow poo. It was as if a painter had rocked up and gone nuts painting the road in the terrifying stinky stuff. The great poo pass I called it.

Looking down on Metsovo from Katara Pass

Looking down on Metsovo from Katara Pass or the Great Poo Pass

The views were great, red roofs of the small town of Metsovo hiding amongst the green valleys of Katara and Zygos mountains. I had the road to myself and a bunch of bell toting cows. The riding was interesting (alot of gravel and dirt patches) through the seemingly unused smaller, cracked roads of the lower farm and alpine region. What surprised me though, was the amount of poo on the road. I’ve never seen another place like it. Even on a motorcycle you’ll have your work cut out skirting around oversized piles of poo on the road.

Rocks at Meteora

Rocks at Meteora

Meteora was smaller then I thought – although still amazing. I was wondering how anyone could be bothered building these monasteries out of stone all the way up on these solitary rock formations? There was seemingly hundreds of these old monasteries resting on the edges of cliffs and mountains. The only access to most was a small rope bridge, or a steep stairwell carved into the rock. My boots weren’t made for walking…

Monasteries in Meteora

Monasteries in Meteora

The smooth looking rock formations looked out across the green valley of Kalambaka and Kastraki – two small red roofed towns overlooked by the curious looking but huge rocks. A sea of green rested at the feet of these giants, only giving way to the two small towns on the fringes of the monastic area. There was less poo on the road in this part of Greece.

As I gazed out into the beauty of it all I managed to drop my keys on the edge of a cliff. I had to climb down to get them to the curious looks of the other tourists. These keys were my life, and I wasn’t about to leave them behind for some other cheeky bugger to find. Spotting them out, I picked them up, climbed back up and was on my way, the warm greek sun shining on my back.

Ioannina

Riding on towards Ioannina in the west, with the bright sun now slowly falling, I tracked through the sweeping mountain curves next to the highway. As the sun dropped lower, I entered back on the highway and raced for Ioannina – I wanted to set up camp before the sun fell, and get dinner going. Finding a nice spot, on the Pamvitoda Lake, everything was setup in record time. As the sunset fell into place, and the moon began to rise, I relaxed by the lake, mullets leaping out of the water as I read my book about two other motorcycle adventurers.

Breaking camp at Ioannina

Breaking camp at Ioannina

Epirus

Up bright and early and ready to go, it was time to explore Vikos gorge, the deepest gorge in the world. The riding was fun from the beginning – within twenty minutes, the road had gone from asphalt to rocky dirt on the edge of a series of small mountains! I did wonder whether I should about turn, but the lure of the unknown sucked me in. The trail got more interesting, sometimes just lumps of loose rock and sometimes large muddy pools of slop. Somehow my worn road tyres held true, and I was back on Asphalt within a fun hour of offroading.

Dirt roads run on the mountain edges outside Ioannina

Dirt roads run on the mountain edges outside Ioannina

The local farmers and sheperds were really friendly, waving back to me with a grin everytime I greeted them with a raised hand. The locals in the villages were the same – always waving back with a smile and a curious look as to why this dirt covered bloke was even here! It was a great start to the day, and was looking forward to seeing the rest of gorgeous Epirus.

Epirus is known for its gorgeous stone bridges and many monasteries, as well as it’s array of gorges and nostalgic villages. Everything was seemingly built out of stone – walls, roads, houses, churches, seats… it was a step back in time. Reaching the top of the mountain road, I walked up the side of natural walkway and was rewarded with a view of the deepest gorge in the world – Vikos!

Vikos - the deepest gorge in the world

Vikos – the deepest gorge in the world

Everywhere I rode, more and more stone bridges appeared. Small ones, big ones, fat ones and skinny ones. Very picturesque, some bridges hung over clear green rivers, while some hung over rocky riverbeds.  And the monasteries?… Countless. Every signpost I whizzed past had arrows indicating another monastery in some kind of exotic alpine location.

Picking a direction

The following 2 days were just riding days. Just me and the road. Less camera action and more me time. It’s easy to get stuck in the lens of your camera and forget to actually just enjoy what you have around you. So I left the camera in my box, and just rode and rode. Around Pindus, Vikos and the alpine areas. I don’t even know half the places I went, so I couldn’t tell you if I tried. It was a great little breakaway for a few days, doing the old ‘pick a direction and go’. I plan to do more of that as I wander further east.

Exploring all the little roads and trails around Mikos Papinga

Exploring all the little roads and trails around Mikos Papinga

I was aiming for Kastoria to camp that night, which sits on the lake of it’s namesake. Turns out, there’s no camping there. Not one in sight. The closest one was sixty kilometres away. Well, I was buggered after a full day of riding, so I rode up the hills outside Kastoria, found a nice little auberge, and cooked my pasta over my stove while looking out over the Kastoria lake and surrounding mountains. The sky was dancing into some kind of orange storm on the horizon behind the rounded mountains. I soaked it all up while munching down my tabasco penne before bedtime.

Bear country, around Pindus

Bear country, around Pindus

The way back to Thessaloniki was all a bit bizarre really. From beautiful landscape to a boring, unemotive flatness that reminded me of Hungary. There really wasn’t much to look at except straight roads and the occasional lump of rock straining to touch the sky. The only let off from the masquerade of straight roads was a 50km stretch of forest road from Lake Prespes. I managed to clip my rims nicely on a deep pothole that appeared from never never land, but upon closer inspection they looked ok. Phew!

You can find gorgeous alpine mountains in the north of Epirus

You can find gorgeous alpine mountain roads in the north of Epirus

From China to Greece – Meeting Sven

A few days after arriving back in Thessaloniki, a new friend came in the shape of Sven, a tall dutchman riding a 250cc yamaha fazer (currently this bike is for china only). He’d left China 3 months ago and ridden through the ‘stans before catching a boat from Kazahkstan to Azerbaijan. From there, Sven had passed through Armenia, Georgia and Turkey before arriving in Greece – he had ridden almost the exact route I was riding, but in the opposite direction!

Sven prepares to leave for Albania

Sven prepares to leave for Albania

We spent the next two days talking about his trip over the odd beer, and any advice he had for a first time newbie heading through on a bike. Sven turned out be an invaluable source of information and good company. I hadn’t been able to talk bike stuff for a while, so it was good to just jam away the time talking about riding and motorcycles. After getting his broken suspension fixed, he was on his way the next day, on his bike that really looked the part.

Thessaloniki – my new temporary home

People have been asking me what I think of Greece so far – it’s a bit tough to say. ‘Just Ok’ comes to mind. Being anywhere that sets limitations on where I can go automatically ranks lowly. It’s not Greece’s fault that I’m stuck in this bloody hot place with no passport, but I feel like I’m in no mans land while I wait for my Pakistan visa to process and my passport to come back. So, I guess I feel like a bird in cage.

Thessaloniki is my ‘home’ city at the moment. It’s an interesting place, and feels like a real city. Not the typical european ‘here’s the famous bridge, here’s the castle, there’s the historic church and blah blah blah’. It’s a little loopy, with old byzantine churches plonked in the strangest of places. Everyone seems to be eating hotdogs or sipping on 80 cent frappes. They love smoking here too. Chain smoking actually. Apparently part of the reason they chain smoke is because it’s really cheap, so why not? Sit at a cafe and you automatically get a clean ashtray before anything else.

Street art everywhere in Thess

Street art everywhere in Thess

Street art is a riot – virtually any blank space in the heart of town is covered in graffiti and murals. Lots of pro refugee slogans have been sprayed all over the city. The bus system seems to be constantly on strike ever since I arrived in Thessaloniki a week ago. I still often forget that everything seems to close at 3pm and re-open at 5pm. Half the city lives on these ridiculous steep hills, littered in winding streets and stairwells. It’s a city full of quirks, but with an overall laid back and social attitude.

City walls for kilometres!

City walls for kilometres!

I can’t finish describing Thessaloniki without mentioning the old city walls – which date back longer then a thousand years. Great arches hang over some roads, remnants from the old city gates gazing down the long main city streets. The higher you make you’re way up the hills, the more walls you’ll find along with rotund watchtowers. As usual adventure took over when I first discovered the old walls and I managed to find several ways of climbing up the old stone network. You are well rewarded with wonderful views of the entire city after your sweaty efforts.

One of the many views from the city walls of Thessaloniki

One of the many views from the city walls of Thessaloniki

Despite all the weird shortcomings of Thessaloniki, I’m really liking it here. Thess’ has quirky attitude. I like attitude. Street food is only a few euros. Although I whine about the weather, it’s nice to take my shirt off and soak up some sun. It’s giving me much time to prepare for the long ride ahead, and contemplate a few possible issues that I might (and probably will) encounter. I can go for the occasional walk on the boardwalk by the Aegean and lick my gelato if I’m bored. And you know what?… It’s nice doing nothing for a change.