Earlier this year I was lucky enough to undertake a 4-week tour of Greece to reconnoitre the tour that Magellan are offering in 2019.
For those who don’t know the Magellan system, after all the route planning for a new tour is finally done, Magellan then send scout(s) to ride/drive the entire tour route, check the satnav files work, check out all of the hotels and coffee/lunch stops and to explore the places worth visiting, both en-route and on the scheduled days off the bike, to ensure the new tour is as smooth and enjoyable as possible.
We discovered that Greece is almost ideal motorcycling country, with endless gentle twisty mountain roads, great views, and good road surfaces. Then there are the amazing ancient ruins and cultural sites galore, coupled with warm weather. When we were there in May the lemon trees had already fruited, and the lemons had ripened, and wheat was being harvested.
When you throw in the super friendly Greeks and superb food, what’s not to like ?
So, in early May, we took Eurotunnel to Calais and headed into Northern France, and the Vosges mountains via the beautiful city of Reims. Then on to Flims in Switzerland and crossed into Italy via the iconic Stelvio pass. After a night on the banks of Lake Garda we headed to the Italian port of Ancona for the overnight ferry to Igoumenitsa in mainland Greece.
First impressions as we approached the Greek coast next morning were “wow… I did not expect so many beautiful mountains !” In fact, Greece is the most mountainous country in Europe, with almost 80% of its surface area classed as mountains or mountainous. The landscape of the Greek mainland can best be summed up as an endless vista of rolling tree covered mountains, punctuated by stretches of verdant valleys and plains.
From the ferry port of Igoumenitsa we headed immediately up into the mountains towards the fabled hanging monasteries of Meteora, following a mixture of empty main roads and amazing twisty mountain sections. The monasteries are built on the summits of huge rock outcrops which just rise from a flat plain and which would not look out of place on the planet Pandora where the film Avatar is set. On the tour you will have a full day off the bike to explore this fascinating place. Close by is the Cave of Theopetra, which it is believed is one of the oldest inhabited places on earth, containing evidence of human occupation dating back well over 50,000 years. The cave is also the site of the oldest man-made structure on Earth, a stone wall built to block off part of the entrance, dated to be over 23,000 years old.
Unfortunately, the cave was closed to visitors for safety reasons on the day of our visit.
The mountains around Igoumenitsa Approaching Meteora
Some of the hanging monastery rocks A Meteora monastery
From Meteora we headed to the fabled Mount Olympus, home of the gods in Greek mythology. It was from here that Zeus flung lightning bolts to earth and we understood this myth immediately as the summit of the huge mountain became wreathed in black clouds and thunderstorm hit the peak as we approached, with massive peals of thunder and lightning splitting the sky. After circling the huge mountain and arriving in the port town of Volos, we checked into our hotel and then explored the old town down by the harbour for dinner. We found a great selection of traditional Greek eating places and with local Ouzo at almost give-away prices we rolled into bed very well lubricated.
Leaving Volos we were treated to a great example of just how helpful and friendly the Greeks are when we went the wrong way down a one way street. An oncoming taxi driver stopped, and climbed out of his cab… but far from shouting at us, he politely pointed out our mistake and then offered to escort us out of the town one-way system, no charge!
The Magellan route from Volos to Athens takes in the site of the battle of Thermopolae, where in 480BC king Leonidas of Sparta stood with 300 Spartans against the invading Persian army. Twisty deserted small mountain roads then took us from Thermopolae over the mountain and then down on to the inland plain and to Thiva the birthplace of Hercules. We then followed the ‘old National’ road into Athens, a very scenic and almost deserted route which winds over the mountains that surround the city and the Bay of Athens.
On the way signs warned of deer and bears on the roads. When we asked a taverna owner how common deer were in the forests, we were told that there are no deer in Greece! However, there are lots of goats which wander onto the roads. The EU had no signs for ‘beware of the goats’, which Greece requested when they joined the EU, and so they sent ‘beware of the deer’ signs instead.
Beware of wildlife The descent to the plain of Thiva
Staying in Athens in our hotel near the beach, we used the super convenient tram system to get into the centre for a day’s sight-seeing and visited The Acropolis, and Hadrian’s (the same emperor who built the wall in the UK) library before walking the old town and finding a great restaurant for dinner. Athens is a huge melting pot where modern sits beside ancient and the convenient and cheap tram system is a godsend as the traffic is unbelievable, and definitely not bike friendly!!
The Acropolis in ancient Athens Hadrian’s library in ancient Athens
Leaving the bustle of Athens behind we then headed for the coastal town of Nafpilon, up over the mountains that surround Athens Bay and then down a superb sinuous road into the beautiful Gulf of Corinth. Rounding the headland on a road which clings to the cliffs at sea level we continued to the famous Corinth canal, which separates the two halves of the Greek mainland. Built over 100 years ago to link the Gulf of Corinth to the Sarsonic Gulf, this 6Km long 80m deep slot in the landscape is an engineering marvel in its own right. Then past the ruins of Ancient Corinth and on to Nafpilon via a visit to the superb 2,000 year-old amphitheatre at Epidavrou. Probably the best-preserved amphitheatre in the world, it could seat 12,000 people in its heyday and the acoustics are still so perfect that a spoken voice on the stage can be heard anywhere in the vast seating area of the auditorium.
The road down into the gulf of Corinth The Corinth canal
The amphitheatre at Epidavrou Road signs are ‘artistic’ rather than helpful
About 1Km from our hotel in Nafpilon were the ruins of the ancient fortress of Tiryns. Built over 3,000 years ago, and thus ancient even by Greek standards, this complex fortified settlement is constructed from stones which are so huge that legend has it that the builders enlisted the one-eyed giant Cyclops to move the stones for them.
The ruins of Tiryns near Nafpilon
Leaving Nafpilon next morning we then followed the achingly beautiful Aegean coast road, which is arguably the most scenic road in Greece, winding along next to the sea for almost 50 miles. Then on to the city of Sparta, the birthplace of Helen of Troy. The Magellan route to Sparta passed through a spectacular river gorge before climbing into the clouds and to what seemed to be the top of the world before finally levelling out on the Spartan plateau. After visiting the Byzantine citadel of Mistras in the hills above Sparta, we joined the famous route 82 which clings to the mountain side in a series of hairpin bends until it tops out at the Laganda pass, at 5,000 ft the highest pass in Greece, before sweeping down to sea level again. This route really gives the Swiss passes a run for their money! After a night in our beach front hotel and a dip in the surprisingly warm sea, it was off again, this time heading for Olympia, the original home of the Olympic games.
The Aegean coast road Road to Laganda pass… duck!
Mountain roads above Sparta Climb to Laganda pass
Our route to Olympia was once again over spectacular mountains on a little used road with epic views around every bend. Magellan really knows how to pick em!
En-route we stopped to visit the excavations at the temple of Apollo (400BC), one of the best preserved Greek temples due in part to its isolated location in the mountains above the Olympic plain. Over another pass at 4,000ft and then a great sweeping descent to the coastal plain and the town of Olympia.
Staying in Olympia we spent a day roaming the ruins of Ancient Olympia the original ‘Olympic village’, exploring the temple of Zeus, the gymnasium, the original stadium where foot races were held and visiting the free on-site museum which houses many of the superb sculptures recovered from the site. In the small town of Olympia there is also a museum dedicated to Archimedes, which houses working models, some full sized, of many of his invention. This proved well worth spending a couple pf hours marvelling at the ingenuity of this master inventor.
Part of the frieze from the Temple of Zeus
Archimedes’ rapid-fire repeating crossbow Ruins of the temple of Zeus, ancient Olympia
After an amazing day in Olympia we hit the road again the next morning, this time heading for the Ancient city of Delphi, home of the famous Oracle. Mountain roads again, this time heading north towards the isthmus which separates the Peloponnese peninsular (accurately an island since the Corinth Canal was completed) from the rest of Greece. Across the very impressive Rio bridge and on to the coast road which winds to Delphi, which the Greeks believed was the navel of the earth.
Our hotel was at the foot of mount Parnassus about half a mile from the museum and the oracle site, with spectacular views over the valley and out to sea. Delphi is a very large archaeological site which took most of a day to explore, and which involves hiking up the mountain following the sacred way. The site is much larger than Olympia and built on a series of terraces which ascend one side of mount Parnassus. The site consists of many buildings and ruins and includes a stadium for foot races (games were held at Delphi from 600BC, so before the games in Olympia began), a gymnasium, hippodrome, amphitheatre and many temples, scattered across many levels on the mountainside.
Or you could just chill at the hotel by the pool or explore the small well-preserved old towns nearby.
Rio Bridge to the Pelopennese Ruins of Ancient Delphi
Leaving Delphi we retraced our steps and headed back over the Rio bridge to the Peloponnese peninsular and the port of Patras for the afternoon ferry back to Italy, and bade goodbye to Greece.
Once back in Italy, we were back in ‘mainland Europe’ and familiar territory again. We spent the night at Lake Garda again, and then followed a classic Magellan route to Oberammergau and then on to Baden-Baden via the iconic b500. Finally cruising back to Calais for the Eurotunnel back to Folkstone and our Greek adventure was over.
Greece really is a great country to explore on a motorcycle. The roads are well maintained, and the country is so mountainous that epic views are around every corner, every day. The ruins and history of this home of ancient civilisation are nothing short of amazing. The people are friendly, the food is great, and the weather is very kind compared to the UK. Granted it’s a long way away, but that is part of the charm of this tour, you get to see a lot of the best bits of Europe on the way down and back as a bonus.
Personally, I can’t wait to sneak myself onto this tour!