Road of the Ancients: Motorcyling through Greece
by JOHN MARLOWE
With a roar and a whine, we snake slowly through the Athenian gridlock, a nuisance here ever since the first donkey ran into a chariot’s path 2,000 years ago. Like racing steeds pawing at the starting gate, we crank up our motorcycles, eager to burst onto the open road, which lay not far before us.
In a country known as much for its urban traffic jams as its ancient relics, touring Greece by motorcycle may seem to make as much sense as going on a crash diet in Italy. But once we broke into the countryside, with the purple-blue Aegean Sea before us, we knew we were blessed. As we sped past ships lining up at the Corinth Canal, the warm Mediterranean wind against us, my own pulse threatened to drown out the revving of my Triumph Adventurer.
The Real Thing
Traveling with Nea Makri-based Tritours on a 10-day tour through southern Greece, our adventure was typified by roaring breakaways, historic stops and friendly out-of-the-way villages with neither postcards nor T-shirts to their names. For travelers eager to avoid the Disneyland patina of mainstream tourism (think tavernas named “Zorba’s” and pizza parlors), Tritours delivered the real Greece, a land of ancient beauty and rural charm. And with Greek gasoline at over $5 dollars a gallon, touring by motorcycle was an economical alternative to renting a car.
Country of the Gods
The route took us southwest of Athens to the less traveled roads of the Pelo-ponnese, a 21,440-square-mile peninsula filled with natural and historical gems. Accommodations and meals were scheduled, as were classical stops. While we were free to leave the small group for individual adventures, we seldom left the tour because our scheduled itinerary was so varied, covering both the magnificent (the grand theater at Epidaurus) and the subtly memorable (the isolated beaches near Patras).
In addition, our guide, Michael, kept us at a good clip, and we enjoyed riding together. We were six total, of varying ages, experiences, and backgrounds: me, a 62-year-old writer; a couple from Maine; another from Israel; and a tour director on holiday. Tritours can also arrange customized trips for groups.
In ten days, we could proudly say, “been there, done that” about all of the region’s famous sites. History was in the wind on narrow byways and four-lane national roads. It was in the Peloponnese that Paris and Helen embarked from Gytheion for Troy; that the Spartans and Argonauts were based, and where Heracles’s twelve labors began. Other excursions also impressed us with their legendary grandeur, including the Byzantine, hill-hugging village of Mystra; Olympia, home of the first ancient Olympics; and the wild, unconquered land of the Mani.
While we were impressed by ancient ruins, we also experienced the simple pleasures of rural and cultural life. In Tripoli, we bought traditional sheep bells. We cooled our feet in a small stream emptying into the Mytrou Sea, and sipped coffee with assorted local eccentrics along the way.
Land of Telly
Side trips to the small villages thrilled us. We basked in the authentic atmosphere of Haraka, situated on a narrow inlet (it was the birthplace of actor Telly Savalas). The 45-minute ride to the town was quintessentially Greek, the undulating roads passing orchards and aged stone houses. In town, we ate local mezedes (Greek tapas), such as orange-flavored sausages, calamari, and a shepherd’s bread salad, all made more delicious by the relaxed atmosphere of the village. We tossed chunks of bread to the fish that swam up to the wall by our table. Kids played in the street, and traditional guitar music filled the air.
Riding from one legendary site to another, we also contemplated the achievements of this proud and ages-old people. We considered the hubris it took to dig the 19th-century Corinth Canal, a ditch connecting the Ionian and Aegean Seas. In the 1890s, no one was yet sure of the elevations of the two bodies of water; if one was higher than the other, the land could be flooded. Legend maintains that when Napoleon’s crew first shovelled of dirt in an earlier, aborted canal attempt, blood filled the hole.
Going over the mountains to Sparta, we imagined Spartans in full gear jogging through valleys and over hills that modern tourists wouldn’t attempt without air-conditioning and a comfortable ride. On the roaring Adventurer, I connected with the strength and drive of these fierce warriors as we leaned into the sweeping turns.
Making these turns takes some talent on a motorcycle, and Tritours requires three years’ riding experience for their trips. (They also have options for travelers who want to tour in cars.) For couples, it’s possible to ride in tandem, two to a bike. While Greek drivers are more skillful and polite than stereotypes suggest, several roads, like the one to Olympia, are as narrow and curvy as they are dazzling.
Rules of the Road
The operator rents the motorcycles, books hotels and provides a tour leader and a chase van with tools, equipment and luggage. The van comes in handy when someone flops his or her bike even when it is standing still. Hey, it happens.
Thanks to the unique combination of scheduled stops and freedom to explore, this was one of the best tours of my life. My travel companions and I can’t wait to do it again. At the end of the trip, a fellow rider said, “You start as customers and end as friends.”
You also end as a part of Greece, and that will stay with you forever.
For information about this trip and others throughout Greece and Turkey, contact Tritours:
Tel: 011-30-294-94905; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www. triumphbiketours.com
For information about additional tour operators and programs, see the Geographical Index under “Greece.”