"Wheels of Fortune" - riding around Greece on a wooden bike

Published in Primo Life Magazine June 2018

Read the whole magazine online for free at Issu.com

If you aren’t Greek, the names of the islands Chios and Ios can sound very, very similar. So the six of us find ourselves at the Athens Piraeus port at 7am, bleary-eyed from navigating our wooden bikes through the predawn streets of the city, and discover that the ferry we intend to board is going to miss our target island by roughly 125 miles.

“Ok, so when is the next boat to Chios?”

“In 14 hours”.

We are in a pickle. Our bikes are supposed to be continuing on what is ultimately a 100-day tour of Greece, and we, their human riders, are responsible for getting them there.

We hail from the Netherlands, Greece, America and Australia, and none of us are professional riders. As far as cycling teams go, we are an improbable assortment, and have been drawn together by an equally improbable force: 58 year old Paul Efamordis, co-founder of mattress company, boutique hotel chain and homewares empire COCO-MAT. He and I met on a street in Paris in the spring, when I stopped to check out his unusual all-wood ride. We got talking and he told me about his plan for the summer. For 100 days he would lead an ever-changing gang of riders all over his home country of Greece, covering a minimum 40 miles a day. The big, heavy bikes - handmade in Athens from sustainable local oak are more suited to quick city rides than long, hilly treks through the country, and there would be no support team or merchandise or TV appearances. On the other hand I, and anybody I wanted to bring would be his guest, staying for free at a mix of COCO-MAT hotels and hotels owned by friends of Paul and we would all explore Greece together, one mile at a time. It pained him, he said, to see Greece characterized as a country paralyzed by debt, hostile to artisans and small businesses and at the total mercy of global economic forces, and this ride would be his attempt to prove the naysayers wrong.

The whole undertaking sounded so weird, spontaneous and fun that when he asked if I would join him, I didn’t hesitate for a second, even though I would only be able to go for 3 days.

Flash forward to August, the Pireaus port, 7am. Our first challenge is the Greek ferry system itself. Huge vessels traverse the Aegean Sea day and night, swallowing trucks, motorcycles and families whole, slowly making their way between far-flung islands in a complex and mysterious quadrille that changes according to the day, season and possibly the whims of the Gods.

As luck would have it, Paul has been called away to the Netherlands for a few days and as nobody else is really in charge, together we pore over dense timetables and drill the ferry agent with questions, and by 9am have conjured a multi-day island-hopping plan that will ultimately get us to Chios. Of the six riders, three of us only joined the tour the night before- rendezvousing and picking up our bikes in a hotel in Athens where the small team had returned to after a long day of island riding. The tour is easy-come-easy-go in nature, with participants joining up and dropping off at their leisure, yet despite the unstructured feeling, we are already working well as a team, buzzing with excitement and ready this next leg of the trip under way.

The adventure has begun.

A few hours of sailing later, as the ferry slows down and begins its ponderous turn into port, we get a good look at our first stop: the island of Syros.  Low stone walls meander over steep, scrubby hills like snail trails, and buildings cling to precipitous hills high above tiny white beaches that appear to be only accessible from the water. In this part of the world, it's impossible not to think of Homer’s Odyssey, and I feel a bit like one of Ulysses’ fated crewmen, brought to this island by chance and at the mercy of forces beyond my control.  

In contrast to its bare hillsides, the capital of Syros, Ermoupoli,  is busy, with an Opera house, theatre, cinema, restaurants, market and university campus. Old men and women dressed all in black sit on street corners chatting and waving as we ride past yelling “Yassas!” in greeting. Heads turn to follow us as we ride past. We make quite a peculiar sight, after all.

My bike is like none other that I’ve ever ridden. The color of untreated pine, it has a wide, generous saddle, improbably thick crossbar and a delicate, springing mud guard, all made of wood. Its large triangular handlebars remind me of the head and ears of a goat and it has the same awkward elegance of a newborn animal. This is nothing like the sleek, light road bikes I am used to but despite all of its strangeness, it is a comfortable, solid ride.

With the afternoon sun high and hot, we set out to explore. The road that cinches the island like a belt zigzags back and forth up a sharp hill, and when we break after an hour or so of hard climbing we can still see the port clearly. My bike has two gears, but it has a tendency to stick in the highest and, as the angle of the road increases, I stand up, willing the pedals to go around and around. Sweat beads down my back. Motorbikes and cars zoom past us, overtaking dangerously on corners, their drivers craning their necks to watch our slow procession. When my bike and I eventually see a downhill, it wants to fly, and feeling how solid and balanced it is, I am tempted to let it. But I keep one foot pressed firmly on the backpedal brake. This is not the kind of terrain you want to take a spill on.

By late afternoon we’ve seen both shores. A car stops us on our return journey, pulling over onto the shoulder. The driver, a local, is astonished to see us, and cannot believe that we have come all the way from Athens. A second later, an Englishman on a scooter pulls up to chat. A cyclist himself, he spends a while admiring our rides, spinning the wheels, examining the unusual build. We haven’t seen a single other bicycle on the island, and the locals are clearly unused to our presence. I think that it will take more than seven wooden bikes to convert the people of Syros to our mode of transport, but they seem content to let us try.

Back in town, we make our way to Arhontiko Ermoupolis, a boutique hotel that was once a stately 15th century mansion. Grimy and weary after a long day, this courtesy feels unutterably luxurious and I fall into my bed, exhausted.

The next day, eight hours of sailing lie between us and Chios. From our temporary camp on the deck, we watch islands come and go, including Ikaria, named after he of the melting wings, and known for its unusually high population of centenarians. Lush and green, the tops of it’s high mountain peaks trap clouds like sheep wool on a  barbed wire fence.

As the sun moves through the sky, the ocean becomes an even deeper blue, and the wind kicks ocean spray in a fine mist over my whole face until it is delicately encrusted in salt. Unrocked by the tiny waves, our great ferry determinedly brings us closer and closer to our destination.

Gradually, the Turkish coastline emerges from the horizon; hazy and purply-brown. Hilly ranges with worn-off edges roll down to the coast and although we are too far away to make out any buildings or cities, my phone buzzes with an automatic text message “Welcome to Turkey”.  

We are between two worlds. On one side of the ferry is Asia, on the other, Europe.

A sense of unease rises from my gut as we approach the island in the growing darkness. All I know about Chios is what I’ve read in news reports— that refugees fleeing Syria and Afghanistan are passing through it in great numbers, and that Greek authorities, already crippled by the national financial crisis, are groaning under the strain. I feel queasy entering as a tourist, being able to come and go so freely from a place that others have risked their lives to reach and cannot freely leave. But despite my active imagination, the Chios port looks just like that of any Greek island. I learn later that we rode almost parallel to the largest refugee camp, but I only catch a glimpse of a few blue tarps flapping in the breeze, makeshift home to the large, ever-changing population of asylum seekers.

We will be guided and hosted during our stay on the island by Agiris Santaris, a local entrepreneur and restaurateur whose passion for his home island and it’s history is totally infectious.

Our itinerary for our first full day on the island takes us away from the coast, to the interior. As the sun rises and the heat increases, the town landscape gives way to quieter roads and long stretches of uncultivated land.  

The hills are plentiful, and we get strung out, each of us lost in our own world, tuning in more and more to our natural rhythm, and that of our bike. On busy roads near villages we keep our gaze forward, wary of veering into the traffic that whizzes past us alarmingly. As I make my way up a steep hill, an Army truck overtakes me. Two rows of young soldiers, barely out of high school, watch me curiously. I catch their gaze and they give me a cheeky salute, their guns loosely resting on their laps, boots dangling out the back of the truck.

Yet for long stretches, there are no people. Just hot tarmac winding through the quiet hills and a dry landscape of gnarly coastal plants painted olive, khaki, and silver-blue. With the sun beating down overhead and Eucaylptus trees dotting the hills, I feel somewhat transported back to the Western Australian landscape I was raised in.

Perhaps due to the feeling of familiarity, it takes me a long time to realize that the stubby trees neatly planted in rows all around me are not olive trees at all, but Pistacia lentiscus. This sturdy evergreen produces the pride of the island: mastic, a  cloudy whitish resin that seeps like little pebbles from cuts in the tree’s bark. According to lore, the mastic are tears cried for the naval officer Saint Isidoros who was tortured on Chios for refusing to worship the Roman gods. Harvested since ancient times, mastic is valued for its unusual flavor and medicinal properties, and is used to make everything from cosmetics to chewing gum.

Southern Chios is the only place in the world where mastic can be successfully harvested, and its production has formed a cornerstone of the island’s economy and social structure of the region,known as the Mastichochoria, for thousands of years.

In the heart of it all lies Pygri, a singularly beautiful village painted in elaborate black and white patterns that brings to mind the works of M. C. Escher. There is a cluster of ancient crones on every corner, and not a young person in sight. We attract every gaze, smile and friendly wave in the village, and shout “Yassas! Yassas!” as we ride by.

I marvel to think that this spectacular village, which likely would be crowded with tourists anywhere else, is empty.

As we ride back, the punishing sun finally retreats and the air becomes soft and tenderized, filled with scents from the vegetation.

We spread out on the road, dark purple shadows inching up the hills one by one and I stockpile great deep breaths of the air, to savor when I’m back in my inner-city home. I can hear nothing of the modern world at all, only my heartbeat and breath, the creak of the bike and the breeze.

When it becomes too dark to see, Agiris mercifully arranges for his brother to pick us and our bikes up in his truck and take us to our hotel for the night.

There are no streetlights, and the moon casts a milky white glow over the still landscape which I am told is covered in a thick carpet of wildflowers in spring.

Over the last three days, I estimate that we’ve covered about 62 miles, never more than a few hundred meters on flat land.

All in all, Paul and his ever-changing team of riders rode approximately 5,500 miles from June to September, from Athens to every corner of the country: Thrace, Macedonia, the Cyclades, the Ionian Islands, the Peloponnese, the Aegean islands and Crete, and countless villages in between. Of all the people invited, less than 50 altogether took part in the ride, but there is already talk of the wooden bike tour of 2017, and I have a feeling that it might be a different story. For today at least, we are done. Sitting in the back of the truck with our bikes securely lashed together we rock and sway like tired rag dolls as the truck rounds corner after corner.