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Cycling the Mountains of Messinia PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

IN THE GREEK PELOPONNESE

CYCLING THE MOUNTAIN ROADS OF MESSINIA

Finikounda to Andritsena & Return

Cycling 200 miles (320 km), climbing 16,300 ft (4,939 m) in 5 days

Margaret and Barry Williamson

March 2008

Here is the diary we kept when we cycled a 5-day circular route in the south-west Peloponnese in the spring of 2008. Starting from our motorhome base in Finikounda at the tip of the Messinian Peninsula, we rode north into the mountainous interior as far as Andritsena, returning down the coast from Kyparisia.

Our route followed mostly back roads across the grain of the land. We used the best map available of Messinia, in the Road series (www.road.gr) 1:140,000, purchased in Finikounda newsagents for 6. We kept a daily record of our cycling on a Magellan Meridian Color GPS and some of the resulting computer-generated data is recorded below. Bought from Ian Shires' outdoor shop in Budapest and now many years old (it was an early model), the Meridian still gives excellent service.

Given the lack of accommodation that is open in the low season, we phoned ahead to book rooms for the 4 nights. Information for this we got from the too-little available in the Lonely Planet and the too-much available from Google: the main problem was discovering whether a given place was open at the time of year. We carried a small gas stove and supplies for brewGreece1_07_(61).JPGing up and snacks, but not our full camping gear.

Our excellent touring bicycles were specially built for us last summer by Paul Hewitt in his workshop in Leyland, Lancashire. In a lifetime of cycling, crossing continents and circling the globe, these are the best bicycles we have ever ridden and approach a kind of perfection for machines of their kind. Smooth and easy uphill, fast and stable downhill, they are undeterred by rain, wind or a load of several bags (which is more than can be said for us).

For a full specification of our bicycles, click:
Hewitt Tourers Specification.

For more images of our bicycles, click: Hewitt Tourers Images.

For the full set of images of the ride, click: Cycling the Mountains of Messinia.

Map of the Whole Route:

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3 March 2008   FINIKOUNDA to HORA (Nr Nestor's Palace)   Hotel Melivoia   Tel 27630-31162   Height 1,090 ft

Distance: 58 km (36 miles). Riding time: 4 hrs 55 min. Max speed: 43 kph (27 mph).

Max height: 1,542 ft (470 m). Total height climbed: 3,382 ft (1025 m).

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We set off on a warm sunny morning to climb familiar lanes inland from our motorhome's winter base near Finikounda: northwest to Kaplani then northwards through Zizani, Exochiko, Militsa and the high point above Ambelokipi tiny hamlets all. A few miles of gravel road led to Platanovrissi, where we rested by the eponymous spring (vrissi) under the plane trees (platanos) for a picnic lunch with a brew of tea.

Onward MR_1f_Down_to_Platanovrisi.JPGand upward to meet the road from Pylos at Handrinos, where we turned right for 2 km along the main road to Soulinari. We rode north from here, finding our way on a maze of lanes round the smallest of agricultural villages Kremydia, Glyfada, Papoulia looking out for a very sharp right turn to Myrsinochori, just as we reached the village of Platanos. A swift descent and yet more climbing across two gorges before we finally gained the main road from the ancient site of Nestor's Palace (best preserved of the Mycenaean palaces and well worth the admission fee).

Here we turned right for 1.4 km on the main road (another climb) to MR_1d_Ambelokipi.JPGthe little town of Hora, which houses the Palace finds in a splendid museum. These include wonderful frescoes from the throne room, stunning pottery and some of the hundreds of Linear B script tablets but this has deserved a separate visit. Our goal now was the Melivoia, a good new hotel built next to a large restaurant a couple of miles NE of Hora on the road to Metamorfosi (follow the signs for 'Kalamata'). We've used the hotel before and knoChora_Hotel.JPGw it guarantees an excellent room, a pot of tea, good food and safe garaging for the bicycles. Once again, we were the only overnight guests.

Previously we've dined alone in the adjacent Taverna but tonight they were catering for a group of about 70. We took a table by the fireplace and asked if it was a wedding feast 'no', our host said, 'someone dead'! It didn't stop the party or us - enjoying a good meal. Though offered fish, presumably the dish of the funereal day, we negotiated excellent 'chicken on the fire'.

4 March 2008   HORA to MAVROMATI (Ancient Messini )   Taverna Ithomi's Rooms   Tel 27240-51297/8   Height 1,290 ft

Distance: 46 km (29 miles). Riding time: 3 hrs 45 min. Max speed: 46 kph (29 mph).

Max height: 1,506 ft (456 m). Total height climbed: 2,712 ft (822 m).

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We started the day with a good breakfast in the bar of the Melivoia: coffee & juice, ham & cheese, toast & jam, yogurt & honey but no eggs. Had the hens stopped laying, or was it because we ate the chicken last night?

The morning's ride began with a long climb to Metamorfosi (named after its church), then continued NE to Aristomeni, a village large enough to have 2 cafes. The choice was simplified when the owner of the first objected to us leaning our cycles against his tree (complaining they were blocking the wide roadway, which was signed as pedestrians only!) Good coffees were had at the second Kafenion next to the church. Later, the first Kafenion owner cooled down and came over to tell us he had worked in Lewisham for 2 years (what had that got to do with anything?) and we shook hands before riding off.

We turned MR_2a_Lunch_in_Trikorfo.JPGSE for 2.5 km to Diodia, then north via Sterna to Trikorfo. Here, sitting by a spring next to a grounded fighter jet of the Greek Air Force (why?), we made lunch with a brew of tea before heading north, climbing through wild open country until we glimpsed the substantial city walls which surrounded Ancient Messini (original capital of Messinia, on the slopes of Mount Ithomi). We had stayed at over 1,000 ft high all day.

After taking photos at the massive Arcadia Gate, we continued for 1.5MR_2j_Ancient_Messini.JPG km to Mavromati (meaning 'Black Eye': a hole in the rock from which a spring still gushes). This undeveloped hamlet overlooks the remains of Ancient Messini, which lie scattered across the valley floor below - the best kept archaeological secret in the Peloponnese.

Mavromati has benefited little from historical tourists, as most visitors come up from Kalamata on the coast for a day trip. The hamlet comprises a small free museum (which had just closed at 3 pm), a gift shop, a jeweller's (with rooms to let above), a simple Kafenion, a phone box which didn't work, and the modern Taverna Ithomi, whose owners also have rooms to let. We soon found a member of the family (Victoria), who led us up a steep narrow alley to a block of 8 modern rooms with a good view of the site below.

Cycles lockedMR_3d_Breakfast_Kafenion.JPG safely on the balcony, our next priority was a meal. The Taverna looked good, with log fire and picture windows, but was not cooking until 8.30 pm. The Kafenion owner kindly rustled up omelettes, piping hot chips and a Greek salad with feta cheese, which was more than adequate. We were abed by 8.30!

It had turned cold as soon as the sun set, wMR_3c_Ancient_Site.JPGith a mist hanging eerily over the ruins below. They are openly accessible by two steep paths leading down from the village and are a delight to explore on foot for a couple of hours (as we have done on previous visits, by motorhome or motorbike). Excavations continue, recently uncovering more of the stadium, gymnasium, temple, assembly hall and theatre the heart of an ancient city, founded in 371 BC when the Thebans, at the Battle of Leuctra, freed the Messinians from 350 years of Spartan rule. During that time, Messinian exiles had founded the city of Messinia in Sicily, but now the people were free to develop their own kingdom in this remote part of the Peloponnese, stretching south and west from the Taigetos mountains our favourite corner of Greece.

5 March 2008   MAVROMATI to ANDRITSENA   Hotel Apollonion   Tel 26260-23170   Height 2,415 ft

Distance: 72 km (45 miles). Riding time: 6 hrs 5 min. Max speed: 52 kph (32 mph).

Max height: 3,727 ft (1,130 m). Total height climbed: 4,937 ft (1,500 m).

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We were at Mavromati's friendly Kafenion by 8.30 am (it opened at 7 am) for a quick breakfast of coffee and off-the-shelf chocolate croissants (too early for the bread delivery). We then rode back up to the Arcadia Gate, an unusual circular gate in the impressive upper section of the stone walls (originally 5 miles long and studded with small square forts) which encircled the city.

This gate onceMR_3e_Leaving_Anc_Messini.JPG guarded the ancient route to Megalopoli (= Big City) and surprisingly a little-used road still leads north-east from it. This was the route we took, descending swiftly for 9 km to the busy industrial town of Meligalas. Dropping over one thousand feet (not a good way to start), we were almost back at sea level, with the hardest day's climbing ahead. At least there was a good supermarket to buy the essentials of life: bread, sardines, corned beef, biscuits and water though 'management' took some persuading to sell us a single litre bottle from a pack of 6.

Luckily, the weather remained kind with a gentle back wind as MR_3g_Break_in_Diavolitsa.JPGwe cycled due north, following a stretch of railway line for over 8 km to Diavolitsi (where the restoration and widening of the rail track ended we understand that a train ride from Kalamata to Corinth still involves a section by bus). We had a break at a Kafenion, supplementing the coffee & water with warm cheese & spinach pies from a bakery up the street, then turned west for 2.5 km to Agrilovouno.

FMR_3m_Mountain_Road.JPGrom here the road northwards for Andritsena became ever lonelier and ever steeper, with sections of hairpin bends that were just rideable in our lowest gears. Behind the church in tiny Dimandra we stopped to brew up and make sandwiches from our selection of corned beef, sardines or tuna. We use cheese triangles rather than butter/margarine, as they don't melt and are easier to carry. This was not a ride that could be rushed, and a bus shelter in Kakaletri housed our next break.

Progress was slow but steady as the afternoon wore on and at last we MR_3h_Bassae_in_a_Tent.JPGwere rewarded with a view of the distinctive white marquee covering the 'temple in a tent', perched above the road on the opposite side of the wild gorge to our left. This is the isolated temple of Epikourios Apollo at Vassai (at 3,960 ft or 1,200 m), a distinctive landmark which hove in and out of view as we climbed towards our goal. At last we met the road which links the temple (and the coast below) with Andritsena. We had ridden 60 very hard kilometres and climbed almost 5,000 ft (1,500 m).

Turning right,MR_3r_Above_Andritsena.JPG we enjoyed a 9 km (6 miles) descent, taking care on the rock-strewn bends below sparsely wooded cliffs. On the way, we did not notice crossing the border between Messinia and the neighbouring prefecture of Elia.

We'd booked into the only hotel that answered our phone calls: the new Hotel Apollonion, which turned out to be 2 km out of Andritsena on the Pyrgos road. Chilled through by the swift descent, we were disappointed to find that our room (and its shower) were icy cold. The winter caretakers (a pair of seniors and perhaps two of their grandchildren) did put the heating on in our room and lit a log fire in the dining room, where we had some delicious saganaki (toasted cheese), followed by the worst pork chops we've ever been served with in Greece.

Soon after dinner, the country's striking electricity power workers MR_3s_Andritsena_Hotel_Apollo.JPG(the Public Power Corporation, a government-owned monopoly) struck, resulting in a 2-hour blackout. Along with staff of the Greek Post Office, the Bank of Greece, and the container terminals at Pireus and Thessalonika, they are protesting against imminent government reforms concerning privatisation, pension schemes, etc. Thatcherism is late in making its unwelcome appearance in a country that still has an active Communist party. Time to sleep! Again, we were the only guests for the night.

6 March 2008   ANDRITSENA to KYPARISIA   Apollo Resort Hotel   Tel 27610-24411   Height 4 ft

Distance: 69 km (43 miles). Riding time: 5 hrs 32 min. Max speed: 57 kph (36 mph).

Maximum height: 3,005 ft (910 m). Total height climbed: 3,852 ft (1,170 m).

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We awoke to a sudden change in the weather: though still warm and dry, extremely fierce gusts of wind were swirling dust among the mountains. After a light breakfast we rode back into Andritsena against a head wind. The supermarket was open, though its cash machine had run out of money!

Our plan had bMR_4b_Leaving_Andritsena.JPGeen to climb back up the 9 km ascent into Messinia, then take the route past the Temple of Epikourios Apollo (5 km further on) and down to the coast. In this strong wind, however, we knew conditions would be severe up at Vassai. Cycling to the temple from Tholo on the coast below, we were once turned back at Platia by the force of the wind, though we have succeeded in reaching Vassai from there on two other return day-rides (over 90 km/58 miles and 5,700 ft/1,730m of climbing).

Now, considering our options, we checked for alternative rooms in MR_3k_Danger.JPGAndritsena and found a cosy little hotel, tucked away in the village with no recognisable signpost (past the supermarket, then up a steep turn to the right). The 'Avgerinos' would have been a better choice and we checked it was open in case we returned (tel 26260-22314). With this fall-back position, we set off up yesterday's twisting hillside road to take a modified route, which did not go quite as high as Vassai though it involved a greater distance and more actual climbing across sheltered gorges.

After a blustMR_4c.JPGery 2.5 km ascent from Andritsena, and before the Messinia border, we turned right on a lane signed to the hamlet of Linistena, a 9 km climb. To our surprise, the small cafe on the square was open for a welcome coffee (though the phone box didn't work no surprise there!) These mountain villages seem agonisingly poor, away from the prosperous coastal strip and too high for much in the way of agriculture, and here an old man was begging from us.

Our map showed 3 km of unsurfaced track ahead, until we met the roadMR_4q_Leaving_Figalia.JPG from the coast to Vassai, but we were pleased to find it had recently been sealed. At the road junction there was a choice of route. We could turn right for the easy way, mostly downhill, through Petralona and Nea Figalia to reach the coast at Tholo or turn left to cross the gorges via Ancient Figalia and Sidirokastro, a harder ride that eventually met the coast road at Kalo Nero, much nearer to our aim of Kyparisia. As the wind had died down a little, that is what we did.

Turning left, weMR_4w_Neda_River_Gorge.JPG crossed the ravine with a view of Petralona opposite behind us. After dropping down for hundreds of feet, it was a climb to Platia, where a new church is being built by the spring. Here the road turns left for the last few miles of its steep ascent to Vassai, but we continued downhill for 3.5 km to Ancient Figalia a few shuttered houses, a live phone box (!) and signs pointing in 2 opposing directions to 'Archaeological Site', of which we could see nothing. MR_4n_Lunch_in_Figalia.JPG

In the lee of the churchyard wall we rested for a brew-up and a bite, wondering why there was so little trace of a settlement once prosperous enough to have erected the mighty temple on its dramatic site high above. Dedicated to Apollo Epikourios (the Helper) in 420 BC, the temple was built in gratitude after the people of Figalia escaped a plague. Believed to be the work of Ictinus (architect of the Parthenon), its splendid columns have been covered by a giant marquee for over a decade to protect them from the elements.

An unsigned track MR_4s_Neda_River_Gorge.JPGcontinued past Figalia church, eventually becoming a newly surfaced road which descended swiftly to cross the bridge over the wild River Neda (which forms the Ilia/Messinia border from here down to the coast at Gianitsochori). Sadly, no route followed the gorge down and we found ourselves climbing steeply again, eveMR_4z_Leaving_Neda_River_Gorge.JPGn resorting to walking a stretch with a head wind, up to the village of Platania. The road continued switch-backing through the Tetrazio Mountains, with far more uphill than down (or so it seemed, since ascents are so much slower).

After a short break in Avlona, we rode on to the small town of Sidirokastro (= Iron Castle though none was to be seen). Still the riding was hard until we reached Agaliani, for our first glimpse of the sea below and the start of a glorious descent. We swept through Ano (= Upper) Kalo Nero and met the New National Road just north of Kalo Nero (= Good Water), 10 km north of Kyparisia (= Cypresses). This coast road was busy but it has a good shoulder most of the way and we cycled gratefully south, pausing only at the Lidl store just before the town for supplies (bananas, chocolate, tea bags, bread, orange juice )

The extensive MR_4x_Neda_River_Gorge.JPGApollo Resort Hotel, where we've stayed before, lies near the beach on the north side of the town. In summer it is likely to be full, or hosting a huge wedding party, but in the low season it is quiet, reasonably priced and very welcoming. The receptionist told us to put our bicycles inside, along a marble-tiled corridor, and she apologised that we'd arrived during another electricity cut! Unable to supply a hot drink, she gave us a litre bottle of water, some boiled sweets and a good room.

With no chance of dining until much later, we survived on cup-a-soup, corned beef sandwiches, bananas, a Lidl chocolate mousse, choc-chip cookies and a brew up.

Yet again, we were the only guests for the night.

7 March 2008   KYPARISIA to FINIKOUNDA   Camping Finikes   Height 10 ft

Distance: 72 km (45 miles). Riding time: 4 hrs. Max speed: 55 kph (35 mph).

Maximum height: 491 ft (150 m). Total height climbed: 1,433 ft (435 m).

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Yesterday's gale had heralded rain and we woke to a steady downpour. We abandoned our plan to head inland and return to Finikounda through the mountains, via Raptopoulo and another night at the Hotel Melivoia in Hora. Rather, we would take the easier route down the coast through Pylos, hoping to make it back in the day.

During yet MR_4e_On_the_Road.JPGanother electricity cut, we were served an excellent breakfast of fresh orange juice, cornflakes, cheeses & ham, bread & jam, yogurt & honey and hard boiled eggs. Then we reluctantly donned our full waterproofs and set off in the rain, though at least the wind had died away. Through Kyparisia we manoeuvred among the chaos of stationary and moving traffic, using the trucks' bypass and trying to avoid the deepest of the puddles (why are Greek roads so badly drained; don't they have a word for 'camber'?)

We rode south along 15 km of wide easy road and briefly uphill into Filiatra.MR_4f_On_the_Road.JPG Entering the busy little town, there is a model Eiffel Tower in the park. Like the iron globe a little further along, it is the legacy of Harry Fournier a son of Filiatra, who made his fortune in the USA. (He is also responsible for the mock castle on the beach at nearby Agrili, of which the less said the better!) The square in the centre of Filiatra is lined with Kafenions and we parked our bikes outside the shabbiest one the least likely to object to two sodden cyclists sitting by their stove. Indeed, we were welcomed with mugs of hot chocolate. The other customers looked like East European agricultural workers, rained off for the day. We'd noticed a minibus marked 'Greece Romania: People and Luggage' earlier.

It was still pouring MR_4g_On_the_Road.JPGdown as we remounted and found our way out of town, downhill to the minor coast road (the busier main road climbs inland via Gargaliani). We met the sea at the tiny harbour of Ag Kyriaki but didn't stop until the next fishing village, Marathopoli, 12 km from Filiatra. This was a low point rain fell from the leaden sky, we were starting to feel the cold, a trio of pathetic stray dogs followed us round and the only snack bar was closed, due to another electricity cut! At least the bakery was open, for not-so-warm cheese & ham pies, and there was a Kafenion where the usual senior males had gathered to smoke and play cards. We squelched inside, ordered coffees (always made on gas burners), took out our own plates, knives and salt and ate the flaky pies, along with hard boiled eggs smuggled from breakfast. The owner didn't bat an eyelid! (Don't try doing any of this in the UK!)

Fortified, though still wet, we continued riding south, warming up as MR_4j_On_the_Road.JPGwe climbed inland over the hill through the village of Tragana. Descending, we were separated from the coast by the lagoon of the Voidokilia Wetland the best bird-watching site in the Peloponnese, home to thousands of herons, flamingos, ducks and other water birds in the winter months (especially Nov-March). Today, we didn't take the detour via Petrochori village for a closer look but we did see white herons in the trees and the distinctive colour of flamingos' wings flashing low over the lagoon.

Past the new MR_4k_On_the_Road.JPG(though seasonal) Camping Erodios (= Heron), we reached the sea-front at Gialova as the rain finally stopped. Thankfully, we sat on the steps outside a closed restaurant facing the beach, made a brew of tea and ate some biscuits. We knew the way well from here passing the older (but open) Camping Navarino, we rode for 8 km along the shore of Navarino Bay and over the hill to the splendid little port of Pylos. It's a picturesque town, where a 16thC Turkish castle guards the huge natural harbour of the bay scene of the Battle of Navarino in which the combined British, Russian and French fleets sank the Turkish fleet in 1827, ensuring the success of the ongoing Greek War of Independence. A good place to linger, but not today! We skirted the town centre on the upper road (unsigned - just turn left as soon as you enter the town) and climbed over the pine-clad hills, heading due south for 9 km to meet the sea again at Methoni. Homer mentions both these ports, Pylos and Methoni, among the 7 cities that Agamemnon offered to Achilles!

During winter visits to Greece, Methoni is very much 'home territory' to us, with our local post office, shops etc (we were even married there). The medieval town which developed inside the vast fortress, surrounded by sea on 3 sides, was Venice's first and longest-held possession in the Peloponnese: a staging post to the Holy Land. It is still a splendid castle and it's free to explore. There's an excellent municipal campsite on the adjacent beach, though MR_5c_Arrived_Home.JPGclosed in winter.

None of this history delayed us today, as we bypassed the town centre for the last leg of our ride, turning east for 8 km over 3 low hills to our base, Camping Finikes, just 2 km before the fishing village/summer resort of Finikounda. By the time we arrived, our clothes (though not our shoes) were dry! 'Where have you been?' asked Spyros, our host how can one begin to explain in any language!