Scorching sun, jail cells and goat guts, ex-pat Andreas Exarheas is exploring the motherland on a ’95 Transalp-XL600V
This story almost didn’t happen. A couple of weeks before I was scheduled to head out to Greece, I confidently flew over the handlebars of my XT 550 on a dirt trail. Luckily I’m not made out of cheese so I didn’t break anything, but my wrist, knee and left testicle all took a bit of a drumming. Still, things could’ve been a lot worse and now I’m here I actually feel pretty good; lingering bollock and limb pain aside, of course.
Athens is my hometown, so it’s nice to be back. I lived in a suburb called Maroussi for the first few years of my life and I’ve got fond memories of the place. Things have changed a little since then though. I seem to remember fewer people rooting through dustbins to get their food. As I make the trip to see the Honda Transalp I’ve left immobile for the past year, I notice that the number of angry-eyed homeless looks have skyrocketed too. ‘I’ll have to be a bit careful around here,’ I think to myself.
When I get to the Transalp, I’m pleasantly surprised. There’s enough dust and spider poo on it to fill up Wembley Stadium 10 times over and the battery is flat, but apart from that everything seems ok. I’ve got no functioning battery charger though, which means I’ll probably have to bump-start this red beast for the first couple of rides. Good job Greece is hilly.
My initial bump-starting attempt begins promisingly. Huge downhill, clear road, nice momentum; everything required for easy, unorthodox engine-starting. When I release the clutch though, I’m met with a resentful murmur and a locked rear wheel. Fantastic. I roll past an outdoor thermometer, showing 43°C, to another suitable hill and try again. After promising the Honda my undying attention, a new battery, new tyres and a complete fluid change, it fires up. I saddle up and begin my descent, clunking into second, I catapult the clutch and ‘bang!’ Bob’s your uncle. The Transalp explodes into life.
Riding on Greek roads is a little different than riding in England. For a start people indicate with their horns. Everyone is hyper-aggressive and the road surface is so bad, it genuinely feels like I’d have more grip riding on ice. Covered in diesel.
On slicks. The sight of several riot police groups convinces me to keep my first ride short and sweet. Don’t want to get caught up in commotion on day one. Guess it’s best to get an early night tonight anyway; I’ve got to go and see my dad in jail tomorrow.
I should probably clarify. My pop is an innocent man, the only reason he’s behind bars is because of the incomprehensible stupidity of the Greek justice system. A few years ago, some joker thought it would be a good idea to steal my father’s identity and go about scamming people out of large sums of money. When the police cottoned on, they naturally tried to go after my dad. After going to court and unanimously proving he was, in fact, not responsible for the crimes, my pop thought he’d seen the end of it. That is until he visited Greece on holiday this year.
While trying to renew his Greek passport in Athens, more of his fake doppelganger’s crimes came to light. The cases were identical to the ones easily disproven by my father and no logical human being could have linked him to the offences, but he was thrown in jail nevertheless. A gut-punch to the lower intestine of justice. What’s more, the judge at his first court hearing said his innocence was clear, although he’d have to remain in a cell until the bureaucracy of the situation was resolved. I believe her exact words were: “So you’ll be in a cell. It doesn’t matter”. He’s been inside for five weeks at the time of writing this.
After a cool two-hour snooze in 35-degree heat, I prepare myself for the trip to see my dad. The Transalp senses my mind’s preoccupation and gives me a break by starting first time. The ride to his cell is typical. Glass-like roads, drivers hell-bent on ignoring every possible highway law, helmet-less riders squeezed into non-existent gaps with impressive grace and pedestrians trying their best to get hit by the most inappropriate vehicle they can find.
When I arrive at the Athenian constabulary grounds, I decide to take a couple of pictures of the BMW R 1200 and Kawasaki Z1000, decked out in police colours, which are parked up outside the building. This turns out to be somewhat of a mistake. Upon seeing my camera, a nearby officer shakes his head and tightens his grip on the MP-5 he’s holding in a manner which suggests he’s not a fan of my picture taking. Less than 20 seconds later another copper bursts out of the building and demands to know who was taking pictures. With a camera in my hand, I find it difficult to argue my innocence and proceed to let the officer take a look at my photographs.
“Delete all these pictures” says the gruff-voiced policeman.
“They’re not permitted.”
The officer waits until he sees every police-related picture condemned to the digital bin before turning to me and saying “if you do this kind of stuff, things will get messy for you”.
Despite my best efforts to get arrested, I eventually find myself being waved through to see my dad. As I approach the visitors’ cell, one of the gargantuan guards bellows out my father’s last name at a tinnitus-inducing level. When I walk into the horrific, dilapidated room, my dad is already on the other side of the plexiglass holding up the telephone. He’s smiling, but he looks exhausted. His clothes are dirty and the usual clean-shaven look he sports for his job at Devon and Cornwall Police has made way for a bushy salt-and-pepper beard. Somehow, though, he still manages to exude a level of of dignity.
My dad is one of the strongest people I know but I can see this experience has drained him. He tells me that his two-man cell is regularly crammed with at least 10 people, sometimes even 15. He’s sharing with a murderer serving a double life sentence, a drug-dealer and a paedophile. There’s no room to sleep, the food tastes like regurgitated animal waste and a single toilet is shared between 150 people. Not exactly the holiday he had in mind.
On my way out of the building, I can’t help but feel that my dad is trapped in a decaying city. Even the Mayor of Athens, Giorgos Kaminis, admits that this place is “suffering a systematic decline”. I can’t walk the streets without sirens puncturing my eardrums every couple of minutes, people are starving all around me and the majority of locals I know can’t find work. One man was so financially strained he shot himself in the head, outside parliament, in Syntagma Square in April 2012, just a few months prior to my trip. He was a 77-year-old Greek pensioner. As I walk up to my bike, I see another riot-police van park up a few streets away. I think it’s time to leave this city.
Country road, take me home
Before I stock-up the Transalp with all my unnecessary items, I telephone my dad’s lawyer. The call reveals some great news: my dad’s expected to be released in the next couple of days. Relieved, I finish packing the bike. It’s a four-hour trip south to get to the Peloponnese village I’m aiming for. My great-granddad built a house around a century ago in a place called Lefktro and I reckon this is the perfect opportunity to pay it a little visit.
I used to travel to Lefktro every summer when I was a kid. Me and my brother would stay there for six weeks at a time surrounded by dozens of family members. We’d head to the Cbzeeacchh, eat huge Mediterranean meals outdoors and siesta like there was no tomorrow. It was like being in an Olivio advert. Lefktro was even the first place I ever learnt to ride a motorbike. I remember my dad would sit me on the front of my cousin’s MZ250 and let me steer it. I haven’t been back there since Greece fell into deep recession though. Hopefully the area hasn’t fallen apart.
The 180-mile ride to my family home passes by in a hot, hazy flash. A dynamite wheelie from a bike cop and a particularly delicious service station donut make the journey feel far shorter than it really is. Athens’ Gotham-style, rundown city blocks have made way for the village’s sleepy, picturesque, mountain dwellings and the capital’s long, cluttered, monotonous roads have been replaced with twisty, vacant, roller-coaster sections of tarmac. Within 10 minutes of arriving, several waves of locals shuffle up through the darkness of the night and welcome me back. When the crowds finally disperse, my Albanian neighbour, Spyros, strides over holding a home-grown Greek salad and a bottle of Raki. I’ve missed this place.
Following a 14-hour alcohol-induced power nap, I drag myself out of bed and head downstairs to prepare the Transalp for a little exploratory trip. A couple of minor modifications later, I’m on the road. Dried, yellow hay zips by my peripheral vision as incredible landscapes gently sway on the horizon. I turn off onto an inviting one-track lane, which curves and coils until it transforms into a secluded, daunting, off-road trail, it’s a little much for the Transalp, but I try it anyway.
The bike’s road tyres skip and slide unpredictably, inches away from a 70m drop to certain death, I skate through plate-sized rocks and undergrowth, chinning a bug big enough to exchange insurance details with in the process. Luckily I manage to keep the bike upright though and somehow slither down to a more sedate part of the dirt track in one piece. I thank the biking gods for not making me a statistic then continue along a nearby beach. It’s virtually empty. I park the bike outside a solitary bakery nestles ear the boiling shoreline and the owner of the shop greets me with a smile and a free bottle of water. I should come here more often.
Gets your goat
After a while, I turn my back on the glistening sea and point the bike homewards. Taking an easier return route, I arrive back at the house in no time to see Spyros wielding a butter-knife and kick-starting his 50cc scrambler.
“Where are you going?” I ask.
“To catch a goat”, he says with an enormous grin.
Thinking he must be joking, I smile back and walk into my kitchen. But about an hour later Spyros’ 20-year-old two-stroke smokes its way through the village with a cupboard-sized goat strapped to its rear fender. Turns out he wasn’t joking.
I spend the next few minutes holding the recently deceased goat’s throat giblets as Spyros removes its kidneys, liver and lungs to be cooked. That night he shares his kill with me. I’m not usually a subscriber to butchered goat organs but it’s one of the greatest meals I’ve ever had.
People in this part of the world are incredibly generous and infectiously happy. They may not have a lot, but what they do have they’ll go out of their way to give to you. They grow their own vegetables, plant their own olive trees and if things get really tight, they can always scope out the mountainside for a little fresh produce. That’s not possible in Athens.
Greece is going through a hard time right now but it looks like the capital is bearing the brunt of the impact. Safe and beautiful areas that you can comfortably spend a holiday in still exist in this country and I urge you to visit them by bike. You won’t be disappointed; especially if you meet your very own goat-slaying, Albanian villager
Andreas Exarheas grew up in Greece, Germany, and England, and he’s been riding bikes for eight years. He’s raced in the NG street-stock championship and regularly enjoys face-planting the soil of his local motocross track.
The 1995 Transalp-XL600V is a four-stroke motorcycle with a dry weight of 183kg. It contains a 583cc V-twin engine and produces 50bhp. The model used on this trip had over 40,000 miles on the clock and was piloted by a 23-year-old journalist with the mechanical sympathy of a Venezuelan mule-farmer.
Six things you never knew about Greece
The law in Greece states that any citizen over the age of 18 must vote
The Parthenon in Athens was built around 2,500 years ago to honour Athena, the goddess of wisdom, war, the arts, industry, justice and skill, and the patron of Athens
Showing someone the palm of your hand with extended fingers in a ‘hi-five’ gesture is considered extremely rude in Greece. The moutza is one of the most traditional forms of insult and comes from the ancient practice of rubbing cinders or moutza, dirt and faeces into the faces of criminals who were paraded around the streets as a form of humiliation – a bit like being put in the stocks. The gesture effectively means ‘eat shit’. Best just stick to nodding, then
Thousands of English words derive from the Greek language, such as sauro, which means ‘lizard’, as in ‘dinosaur’, and tele, which means ‘from afar’, as in ‘telephone’, ‘television’ and ‘telegram’
Greece’s ancient Spartan soldiers used to carry a 3m javelin into battle, because they could. The Olympic throwing event of the same name originated as a training exercise for these soldiers
Name days are celebrated more than birthdays in Greece. This tradition stems from the Greek Orthodox Church, according to which every day of the year is dedicated to the memory of at least one saint or martyr. If you’re named after a saint, it’s customary to celebrate your saint’s name day with a party. As names often run in families, these can be pretty big gatherings!
Want to do this?
How long does it take? It takes around four hours to cover the 180-mile trip from Athens to Lefktro via the scenic route, so you could probably do this whole trip over a long weekend. To really enjoy Greece, though, give yourself a week to explore the beautiful countryside.
When to go? The weather’s usually great from April-November, but avoid August if you can as things get busy during this peak tourist month.
Get there: Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester airports all fly to Athens for a starting price of around £150 return.
Fly or hire? It’s much easier to hire a bike when you get to Athens if you’re only planning on a short trip. Motorent (www.motorent.gr) offers a variety of different models for pretty reasonable prices.
If you’d prefer to take your own bike, the majority of riders choose to transport by road to Athens. James Cargo Services Ltd can transport a BMW R 1200 GS motorcycle by road to arrival into Athens for £595+VAT. See www.james-cargo.com
Paperwork for you: You don’t need a visa to enter Greece and you can ride in the country on a UK license. Just make sure you bring your driving licence and passport if you decide to hire a bike.
Paperwork for your bike: A carnet isn’t required to take your own bike into Greece and you don’t need to inform your insurance company that you’re taking your vehicle to this country. You also don’t need to take out any new form of bike insurance to ride there.
Is it for you? If you’re a fan of hot weather and great views, this trip is probably for you. You’ll need to be a competent rider to handle the relentless lack of grip on the roads though
Photos: Andreas Exarheas