Cycling to the end of Europe
Intimations of mortality led Michael Guilfoyle to take the trip of a lifetime, at the age of 66
The next seven sunny days took me across the tough mountainous spine of Italy. The scenery varied from the beautiful sweep of the bay of Salerno to wood-surrounded hill villages full of the sound of evening church bells, the silence of timeless olive groves. A two-day stop in Ostuni, with two good friends, was a wonderfully restful, though surreal, interlude. Then, it was back on the bike for one more day through a land of trullis, olive groves, vivid red earth and honey-coloured drystone walls to Brindisi, and the ferry to Greece.
An eight-hour crossing of a limpid Adriatic under the fullest of moons, with the dark mountainous coast of Albania on one side and exuberantly lit Corfu on the other, allowed time for reading and diary-writing, always with one eye on my panniers and tent.
I needed high-visibility gear and lights at midnight to negotiate the moving canyon walls of trucks exiting the busy port of Iguomenitsa. That night a friendly Greek hotel owner introduced me, for the first time, to an affinity the Greeks feel with us in our mutual distress. It was an oft-repeated experience. I was told Europe was forgetting how Greece had tied down numerous Nazi divisions in the second World War, of antipathy towards Germany and of the outlandish ideas the troika were dreaming up for Greece, such as deregulating the taxi industry and vacating those expensive-to-run Greek islands along the Turkish coast.
Initially Greece was hot, high and hard going. But it gave me the great gift of a traffic-free road, with virtually all of the trans-Greece traffic being pulled onto a new motorway. For days it was just basking lizards, some uncleared stonefall, sheep droppings and the odd tumbleweed.
A break in beautiful Ioannina with its Roman/Byzantine, Ottoman and Norman vestiges introduced me to the complex history of northwest Greece – and set me up for some of the nicest days’ cycling of the trip.
Cooling temperatures, the quiet road, high alpine pastures and some great Pindos Mountains forest camping spots, combined with positive feelings of increasing strength and a sense of making progress, to have a very good effect on the mood. That said, brushes with night time bears, wild dogs and trigger-happy hunters were unwelcome diversions.
Emotionally, Thessaloniki was the highlight of my trip. To arrive, while lost in its suburbs, at my grandfather’s cemetery seemed to be on his guidance. Next day, I let the place tell me how long to linger. In the event I stopped at every tombstone of the 1,800 or so men and women (many of them young Irish men) in that poignantly beautiful war cemetery.
Even though it wasn’t for the first time, I can’t do justice in words to how I felt coming upon my grandfather, after whom I’m named. And every time, over the next two days, that I walked into the hush, peace and beauty of that place I was caught up by the contrast of past long-quieted sadnesses, grief, loneliness and pain and the present-day beauty and calm.
On I went then, out of Thessaloniki, past the mysterious misty Mount Athos, along a dilapidated and semi-deserted Aegean coast. I travelled under my first cloudy skies, camping wild, a bit forlorn and often mosquito-bitten. A two-day treat in returned sunshine had me touring (unencumbered by panniers) the beautiful circular island of Thassos, with its classic Greek island landscape and history, its peaceful sunlit monasteries and turquoise waters.