A collection of stories from 19 American women who have visited or lived in Greece.
Colleen's contribution is on page 175 and is titled "Siga Siga: Cycling in Greece":
I first touched Greek soil in April, 1975, when you could voyage from Haifa to Herakleion by ship (now defunct), camp out in the caves at Matala (now prohibited) and watch drunken Greeks dance and smash plates (now passé). After my flirtation with island life, Greece remained in my memories as a mythic place of sensual pleasure. Years later, one day in New York I fell in love with a Greek god. When he proposed relocation to his homeland, it was an easy decision to return to that pleasure center of my youth. My move to Greece was not official until I brought my bicycle over from the States. I switched gears, as it were, and eventually hauled, one at a time, three of my four bicycles across the Atlantic.
For someone who pledges allegiance to the bicycle, Greece is not the most logical of European destinations to take up residence. Greeks are insanely smitten with motor vehicles. More than a third of Greece’s citizens reside in the capital and all of them seem to covet a car. Continuously inhabited for more than 7,000 years, Athens is a city accustomed to movement. Yet, when Greeks left their rural domains in droves in the latter part of the twentieth century and flooded Athens, paltry provisions were made for mass transport. A bicycle culture never arose in Greece; it is as if the country went straight from the donkey to the car.
I insisted on living in Thissio, a neighborhood at the foot of the Acropolis, in large part because a pedestrian mall now circles the monument’s grounds. In this car-free zone I can move effortlessly on the extended stone walkway while marveling at the surrounding archaic ruins. When I venture outside my provincial precinct, I contend with a city locked in perpetual rush hour mode.
In Manhattan, I gamely wove in and out of traffic, but in Athens cycling is practically a contact sport. Motor vehicles bloat the narrow streets, struggling to occupy alleyways with all the tenacity of a plump matron determined to fit into a size 8 evening gown. Even my svelte Italian-made Colnago often finds no opening to maneuver around the stalled traffic, so tight is the space between car and corridor. Emboldened perhaps by their numbers, Athenian drivers brazenly discount non-motorized traffic, making the concept “right-of-way” a non sequitur.
In such a climate, Athenian cyclists are an uncommon breed, be they commuters, leisure riders or athletes —a strange phenomena, given that Greece is the home of the Olympics. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that in this urban behemoth of some four million residents, my apartment building shares the same block as the meeting space of a group called Friends of the Bicycle. The Friends organize self-contained rides where everyone carries their own gear and we camp out.
Fantasies of Greece usually conjure up beach scenes with blinding blue waters, but four-fifths of Greece is mountainous. I was a committed road cyclist until the Friends introduced me to the poignant treasures awaiting a mountain biker in remote terrain. In the Peloponnese mountains near Kalavrita we came upon a village whose prized feature is a hollow tree so huge that it holds a church inside it. I walked through the carved-out door and sighed when I saw an altar and eight chairs in a circle. Religious icons hung from the inside bark and you could light a candle as you would in any other chapel. I almost genuflected on the spot.
Biking near Mt. Parnassus, we stopped to gorge on wild strawberries clinging to a wall of earth. Sparkling from the morning dew and no bigger than a dime, they had a luscious sweetness out of proportion to their size. In the Greek mountains you’ll never go thirsty owing to bountiful sources of healthy, pure, cold fresh water springs that make store-bought water taste stale. Like Napa Valley connoisseurs hopping amongst wineries, the Friends sampled water from every spigot we passed even if we had just filled our water bottles several kilometers back.
To ride with Friends of the Bicycle is to experience siga siga in full force. Translated as “slowly,” my sense of the phrase is that it even connotes a disdain for all things fast. On a Friends outing, the goal of getting from Point A to the evening’s camp site at Point B is secondary to indulging in ceaseless distractions en route. We linger for twenty minutes to watch a fellow rider chase and catch a fat garter-type snake with his bare hands. Forty-five minutes are spent poking around a deep cave using our detachable bike lights for illumination. A good one to two hour afternoon nap is de rigueur.
Through the Friends I met Giorgos Altyparmakis, an iconoclastic cyclist and consummate bike mechanic whose family has operated a bicycle repair shop for over forty years. Giorgos is in his sixties, looks forty-five, and has the biking energy of a twenty-year-old. He has a peculiar fondness for cycling maniacal hours, starting early in the morning and pedaling until eleven or midnight with one or two twenty minute breaks. Few Friends cycle with him when he sets the itinerary, but I regularly ride with Giorgos. As if hypnotized, I somehow keep pace with him.
On my first outing with Giorgos before I knew his style, I grew concerned when we continued to cycle in the lykofos (translated as dusk, lykofos literally means “wolf light”). I became alarmed when darkness arrived. Soon enough, however, I recognized that with a full moon and no cars for miles on a navigable dirt road, this outrageous activity was not only do-able but wildly fun. Giorgos and most Friends are committed night riders and I readily joined their ranks. We take note when the moon is full and plan our rides around the panselinos (Greek for “full moon¨). What better place for lunar gazing than in the land where this practice was cultivated as a science millennia ago by our pagan ancestors?
About six months before the 17th annual Spartakiada in October, 2005, Giorgos described this bike event to me and I gasped, “You mean you guys cycle from Athens to Sparta in one day?”
“Yep,” he replied in his typical laconic manner.
“That’s about 200 kilometers!”
Gulp. I did a quick math conversion in my head and concluded that to bicycle 150 miles in one day across a succession of mountains, you’d have to be super fit or slightly foolhardy. I felt I didn’t fall into either category. Nonetheless, Giorgos commenced his campaign for me to register for the ride. “You’re out of your mind,” were my exact words to him. It sounded preposterous, but I secretly contemplated his suggestion. Giorgos had ample opportunity to assess my cycling abilities, and if he declared me Spartakiada material, how could I doubt the master? I let the thought simmer for several months.
Although I cherish excursions with Giorgos and my Greek friends, I also get itchy to cycle solo. Among a smorgasbord of more than 250 inhabited islands, each one an exceptional honeymoon choice, I have visited some thirty-five Greek islands, more than half by bicycle. In Lesvos, Greece’s third largest island, I paid homage to the oldest known female poet in history, Sappho, born in 628 BC in Erassos. There is no official plaque to honor her that I know of, but her legacy survives through the tidal influx to nearby Skala Erassos of female tourists, often lesbian, from all parts of the world. Skala Eressos has a sensibility unlike any place in Greece. Here you can find white tourists with dread locks, vegan food, women-only hotels, and aromatherapy reflexologists. Underneath the hip façade, however, a traditional Greek community thrives.
I became intimate with many other islands, too, some of them so tiny—like Pserimos with only forty inhabitants—they are unknown even to mainland Greeks. One of my early favorites was Kos, the Dodecanese homeland of Hippocrates, where I biked to thermal waters in the sea, assuredly frequented by the Father of Medicine. On Paros, after a half-hour climb from the sea I reached the Valley of the Butterflies, an enchanting little forest where hundreds of tiger moths the shape of arrowheads lie fairly camouflaged in the trees, forcing you to play “Where’s Waldo?”
Suddenly, they fluttered their wings and a splash of neon orange pinpointed their presence and put a silly smile on my face. Nearby is a monastery with peacocks perched on tree limbs. On Naxos, I was biking along and came upon a thirty-foot, 7th century B.C. male statue, known as kouros, lying not far from the road; it had been left unfinished in its marble quarry. I had admired many kouros at the National Archaeology Museum in Athens, but to see one in its “raw” state was startling. On Corfu, Kefalonia and Zakynthos in the Ionia Sea, I cycled to their highest paved points.
In August when the figs are ripe, an incomparable delight on any island is to set your bike by the side of the road and gorge on fresh figs right off the trees. You peel off the pastel green skin to get at the pastel pink meat which is juicy and delicious and tastes nothing like dried figs.
On Amorgos in the Cyclades, while resting in a village café and being the only patron resplendent in Lycra, a woman began chatting with me, offering that her brother from Athens bikes a lot, too. Yeah, right, I thought skeptically, Greek cyclists are as rare as drachmas after the euro took effect.
I interrogated her: “Where does he bike?”
“What kind of bike does he ride?”
“He made his own bike!”
Hmm. There’s only one person I know in Athens who builds bicycles. “What’s his name?” “Giorgos Altyparmakis!” What a hoot to run into my buddy’s sister who lives on the island of Milos and, like me, just happened to be visiting Amorgos. When she told me her brother has cycled from Athens to Sparta, I said to myself, “Yeah, and that crazy Greek wants me to do it, too!”
I am not and never have been an athlete. What I do possess is a pound of endurance and a dash of discipline. With those minor attributes, I resolved to tackle the Spartakiada.
The Spartakiada is not exactly a race, although those coming in first are recognized with an award and the event is organized under the aegis of the competitively-inclined Hellenic Cycling Federation. Male participants must be at least 30 years old, while females must be at least 25. Riders start at 7:00 a.m. from the Olympic Stadium built in 1896 and must reach the Sparta finish line by 6:30 p.m. or be disqualified.
It was still dark when I biked over to the Stadium starting point, arriving sharply at 6:45 a.m. Of 122 participants, I spotted three other females in the crowd each about twenty years younger than me, several elderly riders (the oldest was 69), and—courageously I’d say—a number of overweight guys. We were all riding thoroughbreds, which is to say, expensive bikes.
As this was Greece, we set off at 7:30 a.m., a respectable half-hour late. The noisy clanging and clacking of 122 riders clicking into their pedals was a cyclist’s version of “Gentlemen, start your engines.” Accompanied by a police escort, we thrillingly rode through downtown Athens without having to battle traffic. This segment of the Spartakiada felt like a fantasy for those of us who commute and cycle daily in “carmegeddon” Athens. Another memorable highlight was pedaling across the majestic Corinth Canal.
For the entire ride there was only one official rest stop: an obligatory ten minutes at the eightieth kilometer in ancient Korinthos where snacks were distributed. For the first 150 kilometers we were required to ride together as a pack and then you could break away and do the remaining 107 kilometers at your own pace. Since the first 150 K were practically all flat, I managed to keep up, but when we reached the mountains the guys left me in the dust. I didn’t mind; my goal was simply to finish.
The route went from sea level to 2,300 feet over a mountain affectionately nicknamed Kolosourtes (“drags your butt”) and then 2,600 more feet past Tripoli. I coasted the final 25 kilometers downhill to Sparta, finishing the ride in ten hours with no pit stops except for the required break in Korinthos. I was among the last to finish, but, cheerfully, not the last.
There was a ceremony that evening in the Sparta town square with awards given to everyone who completed the Spartakiada within the time limits, and I proudly stepped up to the stage to accept mine. A half dozen or so cyclists received a special award for completing ten Spartakiadas. Greeks have a knack for drollery, evident on this occasion by a hilarious award called Most Fertile Cyclist. “How many?” the emcee called out, and one biker yelled, “I have three kids,” while another screamed, “I have four.” I believe a father of five won out. The Fertility Award was presented by Sparta’s head priest, looking quintessentially Byzantine in a long black robe, tall oblong headgear and gray beard stretching to his chest.
Giorgos rode the 17th Spartakiada, too, and when we caught up with each other at the end we exchanged hearty high fives. I felt indebted to him for intuiting my cycling abilities when I myself could not. Some guys questioned my presence at this event, doubting my endurance, but in the end they congratulated me for finishing. I gave all credit to Giorgos, facetiously calling him my trainer. In truth, he trained me mentally more than anything by giving me the confidence to overcome my initial intimidation of the Spartakiada and bike 257 kilometers in one miraculous day across the Peloponnese peninsula.
My cycling adventures provide an unconventional lens through which to view the Greek people and culture. They also dramatize my love affair with this sacred land whose illustrious history and stupendous natural beauty humble me. Were it possible to designate an entire country a World Heritage Site, I hereby nominate Greece.