Five wheels in Greece
Neale Bayly takes another trip though Greece on the Vespa 250 GTV.
More than a decade has passed since I last rode in Greece. Four months into a solo journey around Europe at that time, I remember feeling at my most lonely touring Athens, and particularly the Acropolis, amongst the crowds of people. Months of hard travel alone were starting to take their toll, so I quickly saddled up and blasted into the near deserted countryside to the north as I went looking for a ship to Italy. Out in the wild, unspoiled country, where time seemed to have stood still, a few hours of saddle time restored my inner peace.
Arriving in Athens via airplane with a good friend along for company, and two scooters waiting for us at the local Piaggio dealer, my mood could not have been more different from my last visit. Taking a day to play tourist in this fascinating city, and pouring over our guidebook looking for a good route, I couldn’t wait to hit the road and go exploring. I was going to be riding the new Piaggio MP3, named for its unique three-wheeled arrangement, and my friend Amy would be piloting the classically styled Vespa 250 GTV. With cooler temperatures, and the possibility of rain, we made a decision to tour the Peloponnese as our guidebook told us the large peninsula doesn’t attract too many tourists.
Taking too many photos, and drinking too much coffee in small sidewalk cafes, it was late in the afternoon before we saddled up and left Athens on our first day. This meant we had to fight traffic for well over an hour, and it was with a huge sigh of relief that we picked up the E94 heading west into the sinking sun and rode out along the Gulf of Corinth. Pushing a serious head wind, we rolled along at a steady 65mph, and I have to admit to being very impressed with the way the 250cc engines performed. Liquid smooth around town at any throttle position, they did a super job of holding a decent highway speed. Although at these speeds there is no power left for overtaking.
The Piaggio MP3 caught a lot of stares and questions in Greek that we couldn't answer.
Stopping for gas, we experienced more bewildered looks as the gas station attendant laid eyes on the MP3 for the first time. Just freaking people out with its dual wheel set up at the front, our inability to understand Greek probably saved us many hours of discourse about the pros and cons of the system. I was happy about this, as it was taking a few attempts to get the MP3’s operating system buried into my subconscious, as I struggled to remember the parking brake while flicking the switch on the right handlebar to lock the front wheels together. Once done, this meant the MP3 didn’t need to be put on its stand. For longer-term duties, like leaving it overnight, I used the rear main stand for extra safety though, as there was always a small nagging doubt in the back of my head with the bike just sitting on its three wheels.
Heading further west, we enjoyed the many huge ships lined up in the Gulf of Megara, reminding us what an important part ships have played in Greece’s 2500-year history. Humming along at a steady 70mph, there were a few wild moments when a big Mercedes or BMW would come by at least double our speed, seemingly impervious to the Greek speed laws. Over coffee at a roadside gas station we hypothesized that these crazy drivers must be shipping billionaires, who have the local law enforcement in their pockets. Talking with a Greek local, and learning there is no system for putting points on your license in Greece, our fantasy got reduced to rich people with enough money to pay the ticket. It had been a fun idea while it lasted.
So with thoughts of Aristotle Onassis in our heads we made it to a place called Diakofto for the night. A seaside tourist village, it boasts a small train station where we could hop a ride on rack and pinion train from 1895 up into the surrounding mountains. Sounding really interesting we were both up for a train ride, so found a hotel on the water near the station and tried to get some sleep.
The views from the train ride were amazing as the restored locomotive made its way along the narrow gauge railways though the Vourakios Gorge.
Waking to high winds and cool weather we breakfasted in town, booked our tickets, and headed for our seats on the train. What a fascinating journey it turned out to be. Riding up the front of the beautifully restored train, the narrow gauge railway picked its way up through the dramatic Vouraikos Gorge, over rickety bridges, and through unlit tunnels as it climbs 2100 feet in 14 miles to the town of Kalavryta. Having the dubious history of being the site of a Nazi massacre during WWII, the modern town is thriving, and well set up to the handle tourists who come here to ski in the winter.
Amy suggested a hike, as the train didn’t make the return journey for an hour and a half, so we legged it up the side of the mountain that sits above the town. Affording incredible views across the surrounding mountains, valleys and back down into town, it was a short and sweet hike but definitely worth it. Heading back down to Diakofto our happy driver continually pointed out the most photographic sights as we positively flew back to sea level. Arriving without drama, we loaded up the scooters and eagerly hit the trail, happy to be back on two, or in my case three, wheels.
Taking the rest of the afternoon to meander around the northern coast of the Peloponnese, before cutting south, we set our sights on Olympia for the night. In no hurry, and not out to break any long distance awards, we stopped for photos and coffee, enjoying the relaxed pace of life we were riding through. Hats off to Greek drivers. Calm, courteous, and totally aware of motorcycles and scooters, they gave us room, gave us respect, and this only added to our relaxed mood, as we didn’t feel threatened in any way.
Arriving in Olympia in the warm early evening light, we found a super clean hotel for around 45 Euros, and the small kitschy tourist town fairly devoid of people. Opting for leg power, we walked into town where we found a nice family restaurant for dinner. It had been a cool, windy day, but the trade off for being so early in the season was empty hotels and restaurants and light traffic, so we weren’t about to complain.
There isn't much left of the historic city of Olympia, but it's still worth the trip to see the amazing ruins.
The following morning found us battling a few early morning tour buses for our visit to ancient city of Olympia. As the original home of the Olympic games it is well worth a visit, although the ruins are just that, with little of the original structures still standing. All of the good artifacts are in the nearby museum, but with time against us we elected to ride.
Leaving the Greek Gods of sport behind, we had a quick, positive run in with the Gods of travel, as our hotel patron told us about an alternative route through the mountains to where we wanted to go. I had a feeling it involved small country roads, and with Amy giving two thumbs up, it was time to go explore.
Leading us up into the mountains above Olympia, the near deserted stretch of black top that climbs up the town of Lalas had me transported to a state of bliss within five hundred yards. Devoid of traffic, and for many miles signs of civilization, it was our first trip back into the older Greece. Shepherds walked their sheep in the road, old ladies in drab clothing and headscarves swept their stoops with old-fashioned brushes, and small farmhouses punctuated the landscape. We saw few grazing animals, and no real agriculture on this leg of the journey, but with snow capped mountains lining the horizon, it wasn’t a problem as the view was magnificent.
The giant Spartan warrior, Leonidas, stands tall guarding the city of Sparta.
Twisting and climbing around for hours, the afternoon sun told us the best of the day was behind so we picked up a larger highway and positively sped down into Tripoli. A large town that resembled Athens with its apartment style buildings and crowded streets, we stayed long enough to inhale a candy bar and check the map. A committee decision had been taken to make the ancient city of Sparta for the night, and exiting onto a deserted two-lane road I knew it was the right decision. Snaking through deep valleys for many miles, and with mountain ranges to our east and west it was a stunning, if not cold, ride to Sparta. Ending with the sun just behind the mountains, and the snow capped Oras range still burning orange from the last rays in the east we found a lively, bustling city. Forty-five Euros saw us in a clean, modern hotel, with dinner less than a hundred feet away.
Awaking to find Sparta bathed golden light, the first real sunny day of the trip, it was time to explore the ruins of ancient Sparta. Finding the area open with no ticket collector in sight we rode the scooters right in, finding a peaceful olive grove carpeted with soft green grass and stunning views through to the snow capped peaks. Most of the buildings were little more than foundations, the majority of the brickwork having disappeared to make houses and walls centuries ago. It was wonderful though, and felt more natural that perhaps this once proud city should be allowed to slowly go back to the earth without ceremony.
Vibrant fields of yellow flowers were truly a sight to see.
The rest of the day was off the charts. Pulling out of Sparta with a cool, fresh breeze blowing through the visor, and the warmth of the sun making it through to my bones, we began to climb to Goritsa and Geraki. Riding through more fertile olive groves, busy farms and fields of the most vibrant yellow flowers, it was a day that is going to make it into my all time best motorcycle ride list. Climbing, climbing and working our way through small villages, as we rode through the center of people’s lives, the smiles in our helmets grew larger and larger. The landscape was as picturesque as anything I have seen in over 35 countries on two wheels, and by lunchtime we were sitting in the town of Kosmas, pinching ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming. An artist town at the top of the world, the journey off the mountain after lunch to Leonidio could not have been any more different to the journey up, and was equally stunning for a whole different set of reasons.
Arid, and devoid of any form of human life except the magnificently engineered road, the road hurtled down the steep sided canyons, flicking left and right with white knuckle switchbacks and hairpins. Demanding 101% concentration Amy rode like a trooper, and for short periods I left her to make her way down while I stopped to snap pictures.
In reality the distance was only some 50 miles, but in stimulation per hundred yards, you could do a couple of days of Interstate riding and not get close. There were few cars, and no room for error as the scooters played mountain goat and delivered us safely to town. A little milk and cookies to celebrate, and we were off to the next jaw dropping experience as we began to head north up along the Mirtoon Sea.
The stunning views along the Mediterranean coast were hard to break free from as we had to begin our journey back to Athens.
I have ridden along the Mediterranean coast a few times, so the vivid colors were not new to me, but the experience was not diluted in anyway. Phenomenal shades of blue played across the sparkling water, with the vegetation on the side of the cliffs blazing its spring color best. The twisty road was as challenging as anything to date, and by now we were encountering a little more traffic.
Unfortunately, we had to resist the call of the many small coves and islands that threatened to draw us in to sit and absorb the beauty around us, as we had to return the scooters to Athens. So, we cut inland around Astros and made for the highway. This gave us one last chance to race the scooters as we pinned the throttle for Athens. Picking up a tail wind we cruised along at 85mph for the majority of the ride, and I was impressed with the speed and stability of both machines.
An odd pair of scooters, but a perfect match for touring Greece.
The journey through Athens was a nightmare, the only positive being we were able to practice riding through gridlocked cars, and along sidewalks as we made our way to our drop off point. Needless to say we got lost, and had a few more adventures before saying goodbye to the Vespa 250GTV and the Piaggio MP3 for the last time. I was sad to see them go, as they had made the perfect platform for traveling around Greece. With our skill levels ranging from Amy as a comparative novice to me being a thirty-year veteran, the scooters were great common ground for us to both enjoy the journey. I did miss changing gears at times, but for the most part came home thoroughly impressed and wondering how I can work another angle to get back to Greece.