A Traveller's Story

April 25, 2004

Can a vacation change your life? That is the question I am stuck asking myself in a sleep deprived delirium as I make my way back from a 6 day mountain bike adventure in Greece with 3 of my friends. Aptly named "Erin'sMountain Bike Adventure" by our fearless leader, an English ex-patriot of 14 years James Brown, our trip was tailor made for us with the goal in mind to bike to every single cool thing in the Mount Parnitha, Athens, and Evia areas of Greece in 6 days.

Having conveniently forgotten to tell James that my friends had never mountain biked before-ever-we set out on the most beautiful single track and awesome downhill roads I have ever been on in my entire life which is saying a lot considering I grew up in Arizona where school and family trips to Colorado and Utah-home of Moab, the world's Mecca of mountain biking-were frequently made.

So first I'm going to tell a little story about how 3 young American women (one of Indian and one of Mexican origin) and one Japanese woman came to Greece as "girls" as James liked to put it, and left "as men". Somehow the idea popped into my head to go biking across a European country for spring break. Any country really. (Does that not occur to everyone?) As the Greek gods would have it, James returned my email inquiries with the right price, dates, and a friendliness and promptness unmatched by any other company I had contacted. All I had to do was talk some friends on my study-abroad in Paris program into going and we would be all set.

After a few run-ins with angry French administrators at my school because of my tad-too-eager poster campaign for the trip, it was done. I had my international troupe and we were ready to conquer ?well?whatever was there?We had an amazing sounding itinerary, but no imagination nor photograph could explain what we were about to experience.

Convinced we could each find the cheapest airfare, we all arrived on separate flights. We were finally greeted by the jovial forty-something mountain-man James who led us to the Land Rover which would become the "rescue vehicle" meaning "endless-chocolate-bar-and-food-and-warm-clothes-providing station" that ever so nicely followed at a polite distance on most of our rides around Mount Parnitha and Evia.

After dinner, we drove the zigzagging road up Mount Parnitha, granting awesome views of Athens and the Olympic Village, to our home of the first two nights-a small hotel perfectly situated at the top for instant access to the trails the next morning.

Our adventure began after a huge breakfast of yogurt, bread, juices, and coffee. Joined by a few of James's Greek buddies and our mainland rescue driver/ Greek salad making God Charlie, we set off on the beautiful downhill ride to a hike we had long been awaiting; the itinerary said it would take us to the cave of Pan where wild orgies took place in ancient times.

After exploring the cave, we biked on the fortress of Fili, built in the fourth century B.C. Perhaps one of the most striking things about everywhere we visited was we were the only people there. The fortress of Fili, for example, is extremely well preserved, has magnificent views of Athens, beautiful wild flowers, and was left for us to enjoy all to ourselves. This solitude would be virtually impossible to find in America, especially around 2,400 year old ruins!

From there we went to the village of Avlona where James brought us to the local bar for a cup of hot chocolate. A local MEN'S bar. It is a testament to the kindness of the men of Avlona that they didn't kick four very dirty biking-clad American women out of their club.

On our second day, we were treated with some beautiful single track down Mount Parnitha. From there, we transferred to the old King's land which is just littered with things to see from an old olive press to the King's lodge itself. His pool still stands, overrun by vines like something out of the "Secret Garden".

After a mad dash for the train into Athens (successful only because the train was late and miraculously overshot the station by a good 75 yards) we found ourselves staring directly at the Acropolis from the balconies of our Athenian hotel.

We biked up to the foot of the Acropolis and surrounding ruins to the delight of evening strollers and a BBC documentary film crew. We watched the sun set on Athens and the Acropolis before a wild night on the town.

On our "rest day", the four of us girls got up and did a whirlwind walking tour of Athens-everything a devoted tourist must see starting with a tour of the Acropolis by the greatest old Greek man we could ever hoped to find. His badge (official or not, does it really matter? We still had a great time!) dated back to the 60s, and sported a picture of a young and handsome tour guide of years past.

At the end of the day, we caught the train our past the new Olympic village to Kifissia where we were escorted to a lovely hotel with a most animated and accommodating Greek hostess. We played a sort of charades all night, wanting to speak to each other, but having no words in common.

Day 4. Early rise. Scenic drive to Marathon Lake, past the ancient village of Marathon. Could James have forgotten the bikes attached to the Land Rover? Our butts hoped so. Just as we got comfortable being taxied around, we biked again. This time along the beautiful red dirt track to Rhamnous, a 6th century sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Nemesis. After exploring the ruins in perfect tranquility, we biked straight onto the ferry at Agia Marina to Stira on the island of Evia.

There, we met up with local mountain guide and sweetie Roger before driving to the top of Mount Oxi to begin our screaming descent into Potami. With spectacular ocean and mountain views, our route swept us past old churches, beautiful bridges, small villages, shepards and their flocks until arriving just after sunset at our private beachfront accommodations.

The winds blew so strong across the island the fifth day, we could not bike. We hiked instead. First up to an old cippolino marble quarry in the mountains behind Karystos where ancient finished columns still lie as if tossed onto the mountain side by some testy titan.

We then hiked down a gorge which can only be described as, well, gorgeous-coming across ancient marble paths, enormous hollowed out "Lord of the Rings" like trees and myriad waterfalls. We hiked all the way down to the ocean-to another deserted beach that seemed to be there just for us-to watch the sunset. Later that evening, we had a mini-bonfire on the beach and stayed up discussing what we had seen so far in Greece and on our European adventures.

We awoke early on our last day-a little embarrassed (we had thought my Japanese friend had been eaten by the mountain gods when we couldn't find her the night before. Turns out she had snuck downstairs to take a shower). James had warned us it would be a lot of uphill. Considering every other time he had claimed a downhill route not too far off, the incline just got steeper, we knew we were in for something hard. All physical difficulty was immediately eclipsed by the awesome landscapes of the climb. In the beginning, the trail hugged the coastline. As we moved inland, we were greeted by beautiful villages like Rouklia and a smiling "yassus" from every passer by.

We were rewarded on our ride back down with spectacular views of the medieval "Castello Russo" and a stop in the beautiful, charming town of Myli, whre a local shop-owner treated us with a taste of his special grape juice/ honey mixture- treat for sore lips.

Not wanting to miss a thing, we continued down into Karystos only to ride back in the Land Rover to the top of Mount Oxi and make the hike to the mythical Dragon House in time to catch the sunset.

As we rode back down the mountain in the dark, silence overtook us for the first time. Exhaustion? Sunburn? Definitely. But also the realization that our adventure was coming to an end rendered us speechless.

James had been kind enough to take a bazillion pictures of us throughout our trip to mark our initiation into Greek culture and mountain biking. On our 6:30 am ferry ride back to the mainland, we watched a slide show of ourselves on his laptop in awe at the scenery surrounding our smiling faces and bruised and bloodied legs.

So now as I sit in my French apartment a day later, I'll attempt to answer the question I originally posed. (And I hope you're still reading this.) Can a vacation change your life? I believe a vacation like the one I just described can. When we first arrived in Greece, my Japanese friend whipped out a book on Greek culture. Tourist 101, subject Greece, if you will. In it, it said we would find Greeks very rude, particularly in restaurants, and the Greek men particularly aggressive. While I'll make no arguments on the Greek men point, the unique way in which we explored the parts of Greece we visited made us welcomed by the inhabitants as exactly that. Explorers. Not as nasty tourists. Maybe there's something about walking around with a giant yellow helmet on your head that makes people open up to you. Whatever the reason, we were immediately welcomed with a big smile and delicious home-made feta wherever we went. A bond of mutual interest in each other that far outreached any language barrier was established in many of the little places we stayed and towns we visited.

Perhaps riding into a village dirty and on a bicycle to discover a culture is preferable to pounding down a road in a huge coach bus, marveling at the primitiveness of the towns from a seat 10 feet up in the air.

My friends and I have all returned proud for accomplishing physically what we had never thought we could. Solely from a mountain biking perspective, the trip was unbeatable. But the welcome we got into Greek culture was what made in mythical, as we all hang onto the kindness we were shown in Greece while back in Paris, a city known both in and out of the guide book for its nasty waiters and aggressive men.