Phaistos Disk – one of the most enigmatic objects ever found, a true hero of modern science and, to a greater extent, even popular culture. An object that evokes great …
Let’s say the section starts in the Agios Nikolaos Archaeological Park almost at the very south of the peninsula. I even started earlier, more to the east and south, from the ruins of the Agios Georgios church, which is located on Cape Maleas, from which the whole peninsula takes its name. This initial section cannot be traveled by bicycle (I mean, everything is possible, but this time with panniers, I didn’t even try). So I start with a 3.5-kilometer hike along a narrow path hanging high on a cliff. In a Mediterranean custom, somewhere below the amazing blue of the sea, over my head countless levels of mountains. It was early morning, just after sunrise, at the very beginning of April, which is probably why the colors are sharper. On the way there is a small monastery of Agia Irini where you can even spend the night. On the left, there is a church over the abyss and one tree, on the right, some micro-farm buildings, and the path in the middle as if in the monastery yard. There are even chickens that croak like in my grandmother’s house used to be.
After three kilometers of such a path, I reach the place where I had previously left my bike. This is where the road begins, although it is still dirt route for the next three kilometers. From the Archaeological Park of Agios Nikolaos there is asphalt to the very end of the section described.
It seems to me that different “ends” of our continent have some unusual atmosphere. This is the case on the (almost) southernmost Cape Matapan (Tenaro), which I last visited more than a year ago (see here), it is – judging from the photos – on the western tip, Cape Roca in Portugal (planned for next year) and probably the same in the north on Nordcap (I’m not going there – too cold).
It is no different at Cape Maleas. This is the end, obviously, it can’t be any further. The end is also because when we go there we see how everything is slowly coming to an end: agriculture with oranges and olive groves, villages and roads. It’s getting wilder and wilder. And at the very end there is something called a petrified forest, and it actually looks like tree trunks flooded with lava and transformed into stone structures. So, as if life after death, something is on the other side of the “end” Of course, going through this section in the order described here, first we have a petrified forest and slowly we are approaching the civilized world. I was approaching slowly, because even though the uphill ride was not particularly steep, I got a headwind that morning, which is not particularly favorable for cyclists. In general, Cape Maleas is famous for its strong winds, according to Homer it was just passing this place that Odysseus fell into a storm that pushed him completely from the route to Ithaca and made the whole journey back to his homeland take him 10 years! I started to believe in some unusual properties of this place, since it was there that I had the idea of not stopping and going all the way to Gibraltar!
For now, however, I have entered the mountains. It was getting steeper and steeper, I drove serpentine through the village of Agios Nikolaos, all the time overlooking the Laconian Gulf on the left, with the sea at some distance. Generally, this initial stretch is on the west side of the Maleas Peninsula. I was heading to the largest town in the area and not very pretty (such ones are also in Greece), the town of Neapoli. After it, the road turns slowly east, crosses low mountains to pass to the eastern slopes of the peninsula and remains there until the very end. It was after Neapoli that I saw for the first time one of the extraordinary features of the entire route, which also prompted me to make a statement in the title of this text: excellent quality, new, wide asphalt roads, cut into the slopes of the mountains and almost no cars. The traffic on the entire route was minimal at best, often turning into residual and sometimes non-existent at all! When I was in the Peloponnese a year and a half ago, it seemed to me that the minimal car traffic on many roads was due to covid-19 and the total lockdown of Greece. There was no lockdown in April 2022, and the situation was almost the same on many sections of the route.
It was through such excellent quality roads – passing small bays and peninsulas – that I was slowly heading towards Monemvasia – an extraordinary island and city, which is no longer an island or a city. The rock of Monemvasia is about 1 kilometer long and 300 meters wide. It is positioned with a narrow edge towards the land, so from the side of the dyke it is soaring and sharp, all the more so as it is about 300 m high. From a distance however, it looks exactly like the elephant in the belly of the serpent from the Petit Prince novel, especially since the causeway and bridge that now connect the rock with the mainland exaggerate this impression. In the 6th century, a fortress was built on the top, which later grew into a city, and this in turn gained two parts, the upper and the lower – situated on the south side. There is hardly anything left of the upper part, the lower part on the other hand seems to have gained a new life. However, it is difficult to call it a city, since, as the waiter told me bringing morning coffee in one of the cafes, five to six people live here permanently 😉 Monemvasia however, makes an amazing impression. We have very distinct defensive walls with several gates and a sea of ruins in the middle. But not only the ruins. Among these ruins there are many preserved and rebuilt buildings: there are churches, hotels, “houses”, squares, a whole network of streets. Of course, there is nothing to go on, because firstly they are very narrow, and secondly they consist mainly of stairs. So we have an example of architecture that seems to emerge from nothingness, from non-existence. At least that was my impression. Unlike a very large part of Greece – which is plunging into oblivion (ruins are ubiquitous here), Monemvasia seems to be coming back to life. The defensive walls are clearly rebuilt, many ruins are somehow secured, and others are rebuilt and turned into guesthouses. It is therefore mainly a tourist life, but a life nonetheless. And indeed, I met tourists there, maybe not some huge crowds, because most of the hotels were still closed, but preparations for the season could be seen everywhere, which in this case mainly means increased traffic of mule caravans – the basic means of transport.
After Monemvasia, the route runs along the sea for 20 km. It is flat, you can wean yourself off from the view of the abandoned city on the sharp rock from ever different perspectives and distances. Later, the route turns sharply to the left and moves away from the sea. It begins with a long and gentle ascent in a kind of flat, wide valley, even though no river flows underneath. At least 20 km to enjoy the landscape slowly. Gerakas, Agion Ioanis, Belesaika, Lambokambos. In this area, spring flowers were not as colorful as in Mani, and there were almost no oranges, but olives dominated. However, the olive groves here are much wilder than in the Kalamata area. Old trees have huge trunks with holes that open like a sieve (from the point of view of fluid physics a very clever solution) and they grow on irregular terraces separated by stone walls. Many of them are not artificially irrigated, and some of the fruit are probably not even picked by anyone. The eastern Peloponnese is much drier than the western shores of the peninsula, and the humid winds from the Ionian islands do not reach that far. It is here that from time to time I encountered unusual structures on the slopes of the mountains – tanks made of stones for collecting rainwater with a funnel-shaped piece of the slope, so that the water would flow into the tank from the largest possible area. As if someone had scaled a device for collecting resin from trees a hundredfold and spread it on the surface of the earth. A careful observer passing through a few villages will also notice water tanks at almost every house. Rainwater from the roofs flows down the gutters and pipes directly to the underground reservoirs. It used to be the only source of drinking water in many villages.
The mountains are already a bit higher in this area, although they still barely exceed 1000 m, and the maximum point of the road is just over 600 m. There are no sharp, rocky peaks, cavernous gorges or cliffs. The whole thing seems to be completely lost and distant from the world, a land of gentleness and peace. From here it is far away everywhere.
The landscape changes unexpectedly and very radically just outside Harakas village. Here a gentle plateau suddenly collapses with a vertical wall towards the sea. Not directly, because there is still a piece of flat plain on the coast, but the vertical wall is so radical that for a moment I wondered where is the road? Incredible, the road still exists! It is now cut in vertical, and sometimes overhanging rock, it has a lot of cracks and unevenness because the rocks underneath are still unstable and with breakneck bends over the edge of the abyss it leads 10 km down. This is one of the most exciting downhills that I have managed to do. The steep inclination makes the bike accelerate to dizzying speeds, the open space hits your head, and the undercut turns certainly do not forgive mistakes. If the blue of the Mediterranean Sea also depends on the height from which one looks at it, then the Aegean blue is exceptionally intense here. At the end of this amazing descent the village of Kyparissi is located, once famous for the most inaccessible location and the last holidays of Princess Diana, and nowadays more and more often for climbing walls.
Kyparissi itself (115 km from Maleas) disappointed me a bit, both with its size (I expected something smaller) and quite average beauty. On the other hand, maybe I’m a bit picky already, having in mind dozens of amazing towns and villages that I have seen in Greece. And yet the location of Kypirissi is also unique – the village is scattered over the relatively gentle slopes of the valley, which above turns into steep slopes of the mountains, and it is easy to get the impression that it is completely cut off from the world and you can get out of here only from the sea.
If someone looks at Google Maps can only be confirmed in this belief. Google doesn’t show any road north of Kyparissi, and this is perhaps one of the biggest “mistakes” of the omnipotent internet platform. Indeed, there is a road to the north of Kyparissi, and what a road !! This is the best quality local road I have seen in Greece. Smooth, wide, with huge shoulders, perfectly contoured turns and carefully painted lines on the asphalt. In the entire 20-kilometer section to the village of Fokiano, it was brutally cut in the coastal slopes of the mountains. The amount of engineering work that has been done here is absolutely amazing. The slopes of the mountains in this section are very steep, you have to cut a piece of the mountain to fit such a “highway”. Along the entire stretch there is nothing – no villages, not even single houses, no crossroads with other roads, not even dirt roads. There is only the blue of the sea to the right, vertical orange rocks exposed from the inside of the earth under construction, the green slopes of the mountains above and countless bays and peninsulas.
Moving on this road makes an amazing impression. I drove there slowly, stopped for breakfast and taking pictures, finally in Fokiano, sat for a long time on the beach and looked at it. All of this took me no less than 6 hours. During that time, three (!) Cars passed me. Two of them at the beginning and at the end, two times in both directions. So the drivers went from one end or the other to some olive grove nearby (nothing else there) and returned. So the entire distance was covered by one car for 6 hours. And my bike, of course 🙂 But I don’t need such a highway, the local, narrow road would be enough for me; it could even be dirt road. Also, one car every six hours does not need such an artery. So what’s the point of it? Of the many madness in Greece, this was the biggest one for me. Spending huge millions of euros to build a line in the mountains, the main advantage is that you can see it from space? Certainly with a large share of European funds. As if there were no other needs. Well, but the EU has long been eager to finance the so-called infrastructure projects, to the detriment of anything else.
And if the routes on Google Maps are created mainly thanks to the gpx traces of platform users, maybe this road does not exist – after all, nobody registers anything there, because nobody is there?
* Interestingly, after switching to the satellite view, we will see (as of April 2022) this part of the road under construction, partly asphalt, partly unpaved, partly completely non-existent. Open Street Map based services (eg Komoot) show all this road as normally existing. According to my data, this highway exists from year 2016.
It is so idyllic that I stayed there for over two hours. The road takes a more standard size, it is again quite narrow and moves away from the sea. Before me an 11-kilometer uphill to the village of Pigadi, located on a plateau a few hundred meters higher. For a moment it is almost flat, I pass two more micro-villages of Amygdalia and Pyrgoudi and had the same situation like after Harakas: a sudden right turn, again towards the sea and a breakneck descent to the beach. Even the difference in levels is similar and in both cases it is approx. 600 m. This time, however, the asphalt surface is a bit more smooth, so I have a (illusory?) feeling of greater safety. On the other hand, the feeling of watching the world from the windows of an airplane is quite the same. In the distance I could see the next stop on my route – Leonidio (165 km).
And Leonidio seems to be ruled by oranges and… climbers. Situated on a large triangular plain sandwiched between the mountains and the sea, the town is surrounded by an enormous amount of orange groves, sometimes only supplemented with mandarins. Oranges that ripen in November are still hanging on the trees in April (an amazing quality of these fruits), even though the same trees already have new flowers. So there is an amazing, fresh and refreshing scent of blossoming oranges (flowers smell different from fruit) and still a lot of orange color in the landscape. There is also an intense red. To the north of Leonidio, but actually still within the town limits, there is a huge red rock with a length of several kilometers – the largest climbing area in Greece after the island of Kalymos. Leonidio has climbing shops, lively and numerous taverns and cafes and climbers that can be seen everywhere, at any time of the day (wonder when they climb? :-)). After all, all this creates a completely unique atmosphere, unlike anything else in Greece.
The road returns to the “coastal terraces” and, like between Kyparissi and Fokiano, it is cut in the steep slopes of the coastal mountains; similarly, it is also wide and even. In this episode, however, it existence seems more justified. Car traffic is greater here (although still very comfortable for a cyclist), there are various settlements and side routes. The road winds with countless bends, descents and climbs, bays and peninsulas. Of course, you can see the sea on the right at all times, in countless shades of blue. For those who, like Christopher Columbus, believe that it brings new hope, a sight that gives relief and peace. The more so because in this section neither the ascents nor descents are particularly steep or long, allowing you to enjoy the views. At kilometer 185, I say goodbye to the sea, the road turns left up the last 150-meter climb. The end is already flat, we reach the town of Astros, where I have set the conventional end of the 200-kilometer section of the “most beautiful bicycle route in Greece” described here. Of course, I went on, all the way to Nafplio, but the last 30-kilometer stretch in front of the former capital of Greece is not so attractive and beautiful anymore. Contrary to the city of Nafplio, which still makes a stunning impression on me, but that’s a topic for another text.
At the beginning of April, when I was crossing this route, the weather was almost perfect for cyclists, especially those who do not like heat. Temperature around 15-17 degrees C, lots of sun every day, no rain. The only nuisance is a stronger wind for two days (out of more than two weeks I spent in the Peloponnese), but there are so many bends on the mountain roads that sometimes it was also wind in the back. As I mentioned above, the quality of asphalt is very good to sensational, you can easily go here by road bike (I rode the mountain Surly Krampus). There are practically no bicycle shops on the described section, the nearest one is in Nafplio. Virtually in every village you pass you can find at least one open tavern, in larger towns also grocery stores. There are no real campsites on the route, you can spend the night in many guesthouses or hotels, or simply in a tent on the beach. People on the entire route (as everywhere in Greece) are very welcoming and accommodating to cyclists. The drivers slowed down many times and greeted me from their vehicles and sometimes even offered me a ride!
A bicycle paradise 🙂
Written at Boho City Hostel, Chania, Crete, during Catholic Easter time
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