I think Allison would agree with me that the highlight of our time in Greece was – without a doubt – the motorcycle ride from Athens to ancient Sparta (and a good chunk of the Peloponnese Peninsula). As you can see on the map, this first day of travel would take us from our apartment in Athens along the bay to ancient Corinth, down through Argos and a magnificent mountain range near Achladokampos on the way to Tripoli, then down to Sparta.
It would turn out to be one of the best weekends of my life. I hope you’ll humor me and read along while I describe the events leading up to it.
Or don’t. The pictures are pretty, too. :)
* * *
When we first set out for Italy and Greece in March, I was hoping to rent a motorcycle once in Florence, then again at some point in Athens. I’ve already mentioned that we were on a minimal budget, and – having encountered some unexpected expenses – we had all but accepted the idea that we wouldn’t be able to afford this second Mediterranian motorcycle ride.
We worked hard to create extra projects and new services to offer our Vagabond Original clients. I was glad that we earned some extra play money and made it out to Skiathos. Once we got back from that much-needed island hiatus, we were basically preparing to head home soon. IT wasn’t looking like we’d be able to rent a motorbike after all.
But it was eating at me. There was a naughty little motorcycle demon, gnawing on my black, leather boots and playing in my motorcycle jacket hanging sadly in the closet.
The demon knew. The very first time I started seriously considering a visit to Greece, I knew I wanted to ride a motorcycle to Sparta. And no amount of consoling myself with lists of amazing things we had already done would assuage this demon. There was only one way to exorcise it, and it involved two wheels and gasoline.
By some miracle, I as able to work hard and scrape together some last minute funds. Return tickets had already been purchased well in advance, and we had our other expenses budgeted and covered. This extra cash was just for some last-minute playing before we would leave. I started searching frantically for a motorcycle rental shop, but it was a bit last minute, so most of the places we called didn’t have anything available besides goofy little scooters and tiny 150-250 CC motorcycles (not nearly big enough).
The demon laughed and shook his chains.
But someone on Mount Olympus was looking out for us, even in seemingly insignificant ways. I found a place that had a 650 CC bike available. A Honda. Nothing wrong with that, but I had to dismiss my hopes of riding a BMW this time. Still – while 650 CC is at the small end of the spectrum for two-up riding – this was the best option available to us, and I was just thrilled that we were doing this thing.
The plan (originally) was just to leave on Friday (our last Friday in Greece, in fact), stay the night in Sparta, then ride back the next day in time to drop it off before getting charged out the nose for a 3-day weekend rental. So it would be a quick trip – just an over-nighter. This would be enough to satiate me (and the horned imp, now waltzing around in my leather gloves).
So the motorcycle was booked. Our room in Sparta was booked. The route was planned. Kilometers and liters were factored again and again.
Then, with a distant thunder bolt and a clap of thunder hanging in the air, the guy I had just booked the bike with called back with a deal we couldn’t refuse.
“We were thinking, here, that this is not a long time for you to have the motorbike. If you’d like, we wanted to offer you to still pick up the motorbike on Friday, and then have the motorcycle through the weekend – three days – and drop it off on Monday morning, but we would only charge you for two days. Would you be interested in this?”
That would give us enough time to do some extra riding on Saturday, make it back to our apartment in Athens, and maybe screw around a little on Sunday before dropping it off Monday morning.
This flexibility would pay off in a different way than we imagined. But that’s for later.
Thursday night, we checked the whether report for our trip. It had been raining pretty hard that week. It looked like there would be thunderstorms Friday morning in Athens, blowing through around 11am, with more thunderstorms in Peloponnese (where we would be riding) around noon for a few hours. But if we timed it right, it appeared that the Peloponnese storms would blow through before we got there; meanwhile, the heavy rains would reach Athens again, but not until after we had left.
Like I said, it felt as if someone On High was taking care of the tiniest details. This pattern of happy circumstances would continue throughout the weekend.
Friday morning came, and went about as planned. There was rain first thing in the morning which let up by the time we got to the bike rental shop. Once there, we were looking over the Honda that we were about to rent. While in the garage, I noticed that someone had brought back a BMW F650GS.
“Is the GS available?”
It was. She was. Another bonus.
* * *
The first leg took us out of Athens, along the bay, and straight to Corinth. There was plenty of traffic getting out of Athens, and more lane-splitting than Allison would have liked.
Corinth is located on the narrow neck of land connecting the Peloponnese Peninsula to mainland Greece. It actually has a narrow canal (think Panama) carved right through it to allow ships to pass from the Gulf of Corinth to the Saronic Gulf and out to the Aegean Sea without having to travel all the way around the peninsula (you can see the canal if you zoom in on the embedded map at the top of this post).
We had limited time, and the timing with the storms had to be monitored, so we bypassed the modern city and went straight for Ancient Corinth, situated just south-southwest at the base of a steep, rocky hill that has to be described as a mini, mound-like mountain. On top of this hill is a large, ancient fort.
It was amazing to see the Temple of Apollo and imagine the apostle Paul walking those same paths and preaching Christ’s gospel to the Corinthians.
We couldn’t help but sigh in disappointment at the junk lying around, typical of so many of the sites we saw in Greece.
One of my favorite things about Corinth was the large fortresses built on the hilltops.
From one fort, you could see another fort on top of some distant hilltop on the horizon (if you look closely, you’ll see it).
Turn around, and you could see another, on yet another hilltop in the other direction.
This is Persephone.
We stopped here and explored the hill a bit before sitting down in the golden grass for a picnic.
Just as we described in our Skiathos posts, our adventure picnic was, again, made up of hard boiled eggs and some fresh oranges. Not much of a meal. Just some proteins and sugars to get us to where we were going. I look back fondly on these meager lunches. Hard-boiled eggs will forever remind me of adventuring.
The beauty of it all was staggering. Still thinking about the apostle Paul, I wondered aloud if he ever wandered on this same hillside, lamenting the sins of the locals in the city below.
We took turns with the camera, trying to capture just a bit more of the feeling of this place before getting back on the road.
The day had grown warm, and the sky was gorgeous. Although we couldn’t see them, the storms between us and Sparta were dissipating as planned. We got back on the road and headed south, toward Argos.
It was great riding. We leaned into curve after curve as the road snaked its way up into the mountains south of Corinth.
The stretch of road through the mountains near Achladokampos (between Argos and Tripoli) was particularly spectacular – both scenery and riding. I wish the camera could have captured even a tenth-part of the depth of those mountains and valleys. The landscape, sky, and lighting added drama to the high-speed curves of those foreign highways. Talk about a natural high.
I got a little emotional a couple times, doing what I love, with the woman I love, feeling watched over by a God that I love.
We were doing it. The stuff we’d been talking about. The motivation behind quitting my desk job after Morocco was the catalyst that led me to Allison, led us both to full-time freelancing, had recently led us through the cities and countryside of Italy, and had now led us here, flying down a mountain road I knew I would never see again, in some of the most dramatic lighting, scenery, and context I could dream up.
I felt an overwhelming sense of exhilaration and peace. We were doing it. And we were going to be okay.
In the noise of the engine and wind, I found myself shouting expletives of joy inside my helmet. If only you could have seen what this sky really looked like.
After stopping to take these photos, we put away the camera and took a moment for ourselves to absorb the stillness, and observe the movement of the shadows and the light.
And with that, the demon was gone.
The sun had just begun to set when we made our way down a twisty canyon that opened up into the valley where we set our eyes on the city of Sparta. With large, rolling hills to the east, and the towering Taygetus Mountains overlooking the city from the west, Sparta was nestled in a valley not that unlike the one we’re used to in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Editor’s note: For the sake of context – here’s a photo that we took on Day 3, as we were leaving Sparta. For those of you familiar with the Wasatch Front in Utah, the peaks of the Taygetus that you see in the photo below are roughly 1000 ft taller (valley floor to tallest peak) than Mount Timpanogos. Impressive.
For probably-very-obvious reasons, Sparta was a special place for me (I’ll gush about that later in the Man Things section). It was my Mecca. And the mountains made it feel a little like home.
Historical significance aside, it was a lovely little city. We got checked into our lovely little hotel room with plenty of time left in the evening to stroll around and find a much-needed meal (the eggs and oranges had worn off by now). Maybe it was to be expected, but Sparta is a town that knows why it’s on the map. We didn’t have to walk far before we came across reminders of Sparta’s heritage.
After eating, sitting, and a bit more wandering, we walked back to our hotel and settled in for the night. It was a lovely day of riding. And Day Two was looking to be even better.
We had no idea.