Visiting a few historical Greek battle sites satisfies the author’s childhood dreams
Marathonas, Thermopylae, Delphi, Mount Olympus . . . these were places that resonated with me and have been on my bucket list for most of my life. Since I was a kid, I’ve read about the wars and the ancient gods of the Romans and the Greeks that made these places famous. At the top of my list was to stand in the pass of Thermopylae.
I’m a bike enthusiast and a Greek history nut. In 1976, as an adventurous, 21-year-old hitchhiker, I arrived in Greece with a backpack and little money. I slept on beaches and in hostels, and I remember that my money lasted a lot longer there than in any other country I’d been through. My goal was to see a place called Knossos in Crete, the ancient palace of King Minos, famous for the Labyrinth and the Minotaur. It wasn’t much of a site then, but it was real history that I could see and touch.
I remember evenings on the roof of the hostel in Iraklion, when the sky was full of swallows, and dogs roamed at will through the streets. The birds were something I’ve never encountered again in Greece, but the stray dogs haven’t changed, no matter where I’ve gone . . . this isn’t a good thing for a biker.
My plan for this trip was to go to Greece and rent a bike for two weeks, and then ride west from Athens to visit some mainland sites that I hadn’t seen on my previous trips.
I picked up my rental bike – a 2010 Suzuki DL650 V-Strom – in Athens on an unseasonably hot Sunday morning in late April. I’d rented a Honda Trans Alp 650 on Santorini Island a few years back, and I liked the feel of it, although it was underpowered. The V-Strom was much the same type of bike.
The seating position on the Suzuki was really comfortable for my six-foot frame. The little 650 cc, liquid-cooled V-twin engine isn’t a powerhouse, but it was very reliable and decent on gas. When regular gas is 1.77 euros per litre, you notice how quickly the kilometres are clicking off between fill-ups.
I’d never encountered asphalt like this anywhere else; it was shiny and slippery. I had good tires, but found it very dicey downshifting or touching the rear brake while cornering. I was lucky to have had sunny, warm weather through the mountains, because these slick roads, combined with rain, would have been a scary proposition.
Riding in Greece was an adventure in many ways. The general population seem to have an issue with the government, and the borderline-anarchy that people feel carries over to the rules of the road. The police are another sore spot for many, from the anecdotes I’d heard, although I had no problems with the authorities. I certainly saw them often in Athens, usually riding together in groups of three motorcycles, two cops per bike. They seemed to ignore helmet-law infractions and must have been very selective in dealing with the local bikers, who seldom wore helmets and would inevitably split lanes to go to the front of traffic at red lights. Regardless of what others did, I was careful and followed the rules.
Athens is a great city, but it is not a great ride. The GPS didn’t work in the myriad of one-way back streets, and to go fast through these streets spells your doom. There are small signs with red arrows at random corners warning you which way traffic is coming, but few stop signs. Your head has to be on a swivel to keep from getting creamed if you’re travelling these little streets. I found it better to stick to the main roads if possible.
Although my GPS was in English, there were several places with the same name. When I put in “Lamia,” as I recall, I was given three Lamias and had to guess which one I wanted. They were spelled in English, but the county or province following the city was another Greek place that I wasn’t familiar with. Since the distance could be hundreds of kilometres, it could be a long ride for nothing.
I first rode to Marathonas, which is about an hour northeast of Athens. The road is in good condition, because this section of it was resurfaced for the 2004 Olympic marathon run.
Marathonas is the site of the most famous battle in Greek history, so I was kind of disappointed at the lack of a bigger national monument here, since it defines what Greece is to me. The site is quite unspectacular in relation to the historical importance; it’s just a grass-covered hill called the Tumulus, and is the burial location of the fallen Greek warriors.
In this battle, the Greek army numbered 10,000, while the Persian army is thought to have been in excess of 25,000. The battle of Marathonas saw 6,000 Persians killed, while only 192 Greeks lost their lives, due to a famous bold military manoeuvre that saw the rout of the much larger army. After the battle was won, Pheidippides made his famous 26-mile run to tell the people of Athens the good news. A small, hard-to-find museum for the battle is located nearby on a nondescript country road.
From Marathonas, I rode northwest up Mount Parnassus to another mystical site on my bucket list . . . Delphi, home of the ancient oracle. I’d ridden some islands and along the coast before, but the mountains were truly fantastic. I had several near misses with snakes, lizards and a tortoise, which discouraged me from night rides, considering that guard rails are at a premium and there are many precipitous drop-offs. I assumed it might get colder in the mountains on the ride, but it was like riding into a furnace much of the time. I brought a heavy sweater for naught, because a windbreaker jacket was all I wore, basically to keep the sun off my arms. I used 100 SPF sunscreen on my legs, as I usually wore shorts; my jeans were just too hot. The wide-open vistas, olive groves and the snow-capped Mount Athos in the far distance made it a dream ride for me. Care must be taken when driving in Greece. In most small towns, there is one lane in each direction, with a small shoulder on each side.
The shoulder actually becomes the lane that the slower traffic uses. Greeks are impatient drivers; if possible, they will pass everything in sight. Not knowing the roads, I found myself riding on the shoulder quite often. On one occasion during my ride through the mountains near Delphi, I was passed by one car that was in turn being passed by another, while coming up to a blind corner. There are many shrines beside the highways throughout rural Greece as memorials to those who have perished on these roads. Delphi sits on a steep mountainside. On one side of the highway is a magnificent, deep valley stretching off in the distance.
On the other side, you look upwards at the awesome ruins of what was once the most important shrine in Greece. This shrine was built around a sacred spring with healing powers and was considered to be the centre of the world. Important historical figures, including Alexander the Great, would come here to have their futures told. I found two cold-water springs flowing from cracks in the rock while walking through the ruins. It’s quite a hike up to the top of the ruins, and the water tasted and felt so good in the heat of the day. The ruins consist of the treasury building, the temple of Apollo and a large amphitheatre. Surprisingly, at the top of the site there is actually a large grassy field surrounded by stadium-style seats. This was the site of the Pythian Games – a forerunner to the Olympics– where athletes came to participate in honour of the god Apollo.
The view over the mountaintops from the Delphi site is awe inspiring. The small town of Delphi lies a short distance up the windy road from the ancient site. My little hotel overlooked the wide valley below, which stretched far away to the Gulf of Corinth. For 30 euros a night, I felt like Alexander the Great. Continuing north on twisty mountain roads, I made my way to the site of another famous battle. Thermopylae, I admit, is the reason I came to Greece this time. I wanted to walk on the ground where Leonidas walked. On a large monument beside the road stands a hoplite with a spear, facing the highway. The original battle was fought in a narrow pass, which, to my surprise, no longer exists because the sea has receded, leaving a wide plain.
Thermopylae is where 300 Spartans and a small accompanying force of Greek countrymen held off a Persian army of 250,000 for several days. When told that the Persians would rain down so many arrows that they would block out the sun, King Leonidas is said to have answered, “I prefer to fight in the shade.” These were brave men who knew they would die, and on the last morning of his life, before the day’s battle, he told his men, “Eat well this morning; tonight we shall dine in Hades.” The name Thermopylae means, “hot gates,” and refers to nearby sulphur springs which are a local geological feature. I smelled the rotten-egg odour and located the hot-water spring bubbling up from the bottom of a little pond at the end of the dirt road. Again, there is no admission and sparse signage. I took off my hiking boots and sat by the pond with my feet in the hot water. To think I was treading on the same ground as Leonidas made this whole trip worthwhile. Nearby is a small sign stating I was at the Hill of Kolonos. This is the site where the last Spartan died, and where most are supposedly buried. The hill is covered with blood-red flowers that look like poppies, and there was once a plaque here which read, “Go tell the Spartans, you who passeth by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.” I said a prayer here for them and shed a tear in their memory.
It’s hard not to get emotional in a place like this. From here, I continued northwest on relatively straight, flat roads to a place that is hardly ever heard of, which is one of the reasons it’s so spectacular. Meteora, meaning “suspended in the air,” consists of a series of monasteries that are literally built on the tops of natural sandstone pillars that rise up over 300 metres above the valley below. Hermit monks lived in the surrounding caves since the ninth century, and the establishment of a monastic order began here around the eleventh century. The monasteries on the tops of these rock formations were constructed completely by hauling everything they required up in baskets or nets. These are virtual fortresses made of hewn stone, with stairs and foundations carved into the bare rock. I’m not good with heights, but the views from the Grand Meteora monastery are magical. It is the largest of the monasteries, and the crude tools they used here are on display, as well as cooking utensils, the gardens, the chapel, and a room with neatly piled rows of skulls.
These are working monasteries that require a certain dress code (I was given a pair of sackcloth pants to wear over my shorts), and although women are allowed to visit, they must also wear appropriate clothing. There is no better way to see Meteora than by bike. I went up in the morning to get the golden glow of first light. The newly paved, winding road is best enjoyed on two wheels. The monks who built these places must have taken their inspiration from the mystical quality of this high, secluded place. It’s so silent and peaceful up there. My trip continued down the west coast and through the Peloponnese before I rode the old coastal highway back to Athens. The coastal roads were nice, but the mountains of central Greece were one of the highlights of the trip. I was lucky during my two weeks – the weather was on my side, and I loved every minute of my ride. I’m wondering if my little request of the Delphic oracle (for fair weather) helped. I have a feeling it did.