Almost guaranteed sunshine, beautiful beaches and friendly locals make the Peloponnese one of Europe’s finest motorcycling destinations. Lemy Gresh tells us more about touring in the peaceful Greek peninsular
I have a confession to make. I suspect that my heart is Greek. I love too much swimming in Greek waters: salty, blue and warm, and later sipping a drink while contemplating the sunset, and then eating dinner al fresco. I find the melodramatic warmth of most interactions with the Greeks highly entertaining. I relish the freedom of my nomadic lifestyle in Greece compared to the discipline of my desk job in London. And finally, the geography and weather of the country makes it a Mediterranean motorcycle paradise.
One of these motorcycle paradises is remote in more than one way from the preconceived ideas we have of Greece as we ponder postcards of whitewashed houses and nightclubs in Mykonos and Santorini. This motorcycle paradise is the rugged and un-touristy Peloponnese. We all know the many gifts of ancient Greece to Western civilisation such as democracy and philosophy. The contributions of the Peloponnese to ancient Greece reflect its hardy character, the Olympics with uncompromising winner takes all rules, and Sparta, a militaristic society that was above building city walls.
Consider this: the Peloponnese is easily accessible from Athens (if you arrive by plane) from where you can rent a bike, or Patras (if you arrive with your own bike by ferry from Ancona in Italy).
It is surrounded by the Ionian on the west and the Aegean on the east, both seas of crystal blue waters.
It is mountainous with a highest elevation of 2,400 metres. It is a bit larger than South East England and yet has a population density that is 10% less.
The roads are twisty with hairpins galore; I don’t remember a straight line longer than 300 metres. Courtesy of the EU and clement weather, the quality of the asphalt is generally excellent, food and drinks are very affordable, the sun is generally shining, with any rain torrential but short-lived. In mid-October, we had consistent sun, highs of 24C and swam every other day. The locals are proud and welcoming. I suspect that they give friendship uncompromisingly and expect you to reciprocate.
Greeks love bikes, bikers, and the spirit of freedom we represent. The country must have one of the highest densities of bikers in Europe (more than six times that of the UK but admittedly this includes many scooters). As you would expect, Greek bikers display a macho nonchalance to protective gear often riding in shorts with helmets hanging on forearms if the weather is hot. Speed limits are meant to be interpreted as general guidance, for the other riders. Our group of six foreign bikers got the thumbs up from two policemen motorcyclists as we were riding past them in textbook formation but well over the speed limit. There will always be a Greece.
There are various ways to ride the Peloponnese:
Fly to Athens (BA, Aegean or Easyjet) andrent.
Ride your bike to Ancona in Italy and hopon the ferry to Patras.
Fly to Athens and get your bike delivered. The choice revolves around how much time you have, how much money you are willing to spend and how much you prefer riding your own bike over renting.
Once you and your bike are in Athens or Patras, planning becomes dead easy with a SatNav: decide what your next stop will be and select ‘winding road’. If you prefer a bit more preparation, use www.bestbikingroads.com. There are about 50 suggested itineraries from which you can download the SatNav waypoints. Validate the electronic itinerary against a paper map and start the engine.
Allow yourself to wander away from the SatNav waypoints depending on the weather, the tarmac, your mood, the scenery, or the conversations you will inevitably strike with the locals (and the local riders on weekends). Most people speak passable to very good English, and like everywhere else bikers always attract friendly attention.
Therefore the following route is a suggestion which you should interpret loosely. It is designed to get you around in about seven days with enough time to explore, swim, contemplate the scenery, listen to the cicadas, visit the monuments, stroll by the sea and sit in a café and watch the world go by. This is also what adventure rides are about!
My description sounds a bit dry. So, listen to what one of our touring companions told me: ‘The snaking road down to Prodromou monastery was spectacular with views of the gorge down below.
I had this amazing feeling that we were virtually alone on the roads, a feeling that was with me throughout the trip. I loved the stretch of road towards Monemvasia for its breathtaking views of the contorted land meeting the sea creating bay after bay of virgin beaches.
Riding through olive groves was awesome with a sense that the lower branches could almost sweep the top of our helmets as we glided through the dusty gravel paths. And I liked the contrast of the colours in the mountains with auburn leaves already heralding the autumn against the purples and yellows of the arid mountain flowers in the Mani which reminded us of a long summer and milder climate. My favourite meal was at the taverna at Vouliagmini where we dipped our feet, warm from the motorcycle boots, into the refreshing waters of the lake having left the chaos of Athens behind us just a couple of hours earlier.
I think we barely scratched the surface of what the Peloponnese can offer. I hear of hiking in canyons, bathing in waterfalls, rafting rivers and riding easy dirt roads…’
Things to do, other than riding
■ Olympia: The site of the original Olympic Games which were held every four years for about 1,000 years from about 600 BC. The winner was rewarded with a simple olive wreath (and enormous prestige). There was only one winner; no pussyfooting with silver and bronze! Cheaters were despised and lived the rest of their lives in infamy. Their punishment was to supply a statue on the main thoroughfare so that future generations of spectators could spit on the statue as they walked by. Better to lose fairly than risk being caught cheating. Our modern banking system could learn from this simple and effective reward system.
■ Epidavros: This is the site of the largest surviving classical amphitheatre. It is a marvel of acoustics with near-perfect intelligibility for 15,000 spectators. The limestone seats filter out the murmur of the crowd but amplify the high-frequency sound from the stage. The theatre is still used today. The amphitheatre was built to entertain recovering patients and their families from the healing centre nearby. The healing method went as follows: during their first night in Epidavros patients were visited during their dreams by the gods who advised them on what the cure was. I am curious to know what patients consumed in preparation for that first night. The site of Epidavros instils a feeling of meditative calm, of ‘time has stopped’ to all off-season visitors.
■ Nafplio: The original capital of modern independent Greece and is now a UNESCO protected site, this is a terrific mostly Venetian seaport with many fortresses overlooking the harbour. Hike the 1,000 steps to the Venetian citadel (or ride there!) and then repair with a café frappé in the shade of the trees in the Venetian main square, and stroll in the adjoining streets before you select a taverna to dine al fresco.
Go There: The Mani
The Mani is the middle finger (!) of the three fingers of the Southern Peloponnese. It is an arid, rugged terrain and is itself a motorcycle heaven of winding roads and awesome vistas. The Mani was historically a remote region inhabited by fierce and proud clans which the Ottomans were never able to subjugate.
Instead, the Maniots agreed to pay tribute…which they did only once. Even that proved intolerable, so in 1821 they initiated the Greek War of Independence which was eventually won thanks to English support. Kardamili is an awesome bay bang in the middle of the Mani and is also a great hiking centre. This is where Paddy Leigh Fermor eventually retired after a legendary life including being chased by thousands of Wehrmacht troops across Crete having kidnapped the commander of German forces on the island.
Paddy’s group did manage to dispatch General Kreipe by submarine to Cairo. Legend has it that having found that a permanent humanity and love of classics united them while war temporarily separated them, Paddy and Kreipe recited in unison a Latin poem by Horace in front of Mount Ida. Paddy’s retirement choice is enlightened; indeed Kardamili is a little paradise. The Mani is not touristic and we were greeted everywhere like friends.
No Need To Visit: Sparta
Modern Sparta is a smallish town at the crossroads of a couple of busy roads almost in the middle of the Peloponnese. Ancient Sparta was so militarily successful that it did not build city walls, nor are there any significant historical remains or writings by ancient Sparta.
We know however that it was a martial society where males were enrolled in continuous military duties from the age of seven. There is, unfortunately, nothing significant in modern Sparta if you are curious about ancient civilisations. At the end of the day, the chaos of Athenian democracy was substantially more creative than the sterile discipline of the Spartans.
We are a group of about 10 riders and partners who go annually on a one-week mini adventure and exploration ride. Our ride in the Peloponnese included six bikes after two last-minute dropouts due to other commitments. Given the size of the group and the fact that we are all busy with day jobs, we ask a specialised tour operator to organize the trip. But for a smaller and more flexible group this is not necessary in October (see the main text using SatNav, www.bestbikingroads.com and www.tripadvisor.com).
We used www.edelweissbike.com after a very positive experience with them in the Alps. One of the main advantages of Edelweiss is that you can ride your own bike. They will pick up bikes from the UK and redeliver them back in a specially equipped van. The van then follows the riders with your luggage. Alternatively, you can rent a bike from a wide range of Edelweiss’ bikes which are the most recent model.
The average weekly cost for a rider and pillion is about €6,000, much less than many ski holidays. The Edelweiss team is incredibly friendly, eager to please and very safety conscious. To fly to Athens, Martine and I used BA Avios (£35 in tax for the return flights). Other alternatives to BA include EasyJet and Aegean.
I have never rented a motorbike in Greece but a friend does so regularly. If you wish to rent, try www.motorent.blogspot.co.uk. I would do it early to make sure that you have your preferred choice of bike.
When To Go/What To Wear
Go in May and early June, or late September and October. Daytime temperatures should be in the mid-twenties. We wore our well-ventilated summer gear and boots, with just a sweatshirt under the jacket. Take your sunglasses, a hat and, perhaps most importantly, a swimsuit. We also had trainers in the top box for when we stopped for lunch or visits.
Martine and I rode my 2013 Ducati Multistrada GT, but our group also included Harleys and Triumphs. We were on asphalt 99% of the time, 80% of which is of excellent quality, but we did ride through some stony and potholed mountainous lanes. The Peloponnese tends to be arid so the curves and quality of the road can be assessed from a long way away. My bike is standard other than the panniers. I find it very comfortable, even after up to 10 hours in the saddle (I am 59!). Set it on Touring mode and probably only use 30% of the immense power.