FOR decades Naples has copped a truck load of flack. It’s suffered several rubbish crises (the last was just a couple of years ago), gang warfare, high crime rates and just general neglect. But as we hurtled from Rome to the notorious southern hub via train (in a bid to beat our visa deadline) we were willing to overlook all of the stereotypes for two big reasons: pizza and pasta. It was Naples (Napoli to the locals) where the trend of delicious, cheesy pizzas on olive oil crisped bases first emerged and if that gong isn’t enough we were also willing to bet that the poor old city couldn’t be that bad – I mean after all, it was Italian!
Then we reached the train station.
It took just thirty seconds for me to clutch my valuables and all but jump into Scott’s arms once we’d left the station and it took just another thirty seconds for the first of many, many, street hustlers to hone in.
Forget the home of pizza, this place looked like the home of the black market where you could just as easily sell a kidney as buy a slice of pepperoni and just minutes after we’d jumped on the bicycles to head to a slightly out of town hostel things got worse.
Neapolitan drivers, we were told, were some of the worst in Italy and as we braved the bone shattering, cobbled streets I silently wondered if we’d make the 10km commute in one piece.
Nearly every car had a panel missing or some kind of dent and as they swerved around each other like drunken toddlers while blasting their horns every 20 seconds and as for us? Well we were easily the lowest common denominators on these hell bound roads and surviving meant hurling ourselves into the rubbish covered gutters in a bid to narrowly miss being hit.
After surviving the ride, followed by a solid night’s sleep, our nerves had recovered enough to tackle the city and armed with a list of “must see attractions” we boarded the seriously derelict train back into the CBD. I was honestly willing to give this ugly duckling city a go but after an hour of “sight seeing” I was calling it: Naples was officially Gotham City pre Batman. I mean parts of it honestly looked like scenes from those post apocalyptic movies with rubbish piled up high in the streets, graffiti on absolutely EVERY building and more dodgy characters than a state penitentiary.
The only saving grace was the pizza (found in the informally known “pizza street”) which was everything we’d come to hope Italian slices would be.
The next day we ditched the city and whizzed out to Pompeii where we soaked up 2000-year-old ruins in the foot of Mt Vesuvius while bitterly wishing it was a little more organised.
All of a sudden Greece couldn’t come soon enough and while I’d loved our first two weeks in Italy poor old Naples had left us wanting.
With a slight feeling of guilt at the fact that our bikes had become temporary baggage holders we bordered yet another train to Italy’s Brindisi port town near the heal of the boot. We had just three weeks left of our precious Schengen visa which meant we were left with far too short of time to sink our teeth into myth and history loaded Greece before heading east.
For decades Greek mythology has riveted me but after another hellish ferry ride it wasn’t the history that bowled me over the minute we hit land, it was the modernity. Before even arriving we’d written off Patras, Peloponnesus’s biggest city, as just another seedy port town but while signs of the economic crisis reared its ugly head in the guise of dozens of families living out of cars near the port, the city told an entirely different tale. Seriously hipster cafes and quirky tavernas flooded immaculate, flower strewn streets and contrary to the tales of woe, they were packed with locals.
With all thoughts of the budget forgotten at the first art-decked cafe we sucked down the best coffee we’d had in almost a year and followed it up with delicious souvlaki coated in perfectly zingy tzatzaki.
Dessert was a decadent cheese pie and baklava from one of the many local run bakeries and cost just two euros.
Add that to the fact that everyone smiled and attempted to speak English (while enthusiastically waving their hands about to make up for a lack of vocabulary) and it seemed this town ticked every box.
Out of sheer love for this underrated port town we stayed another day (and ate more baked goods than I’m willing to admit) before packing up and leaving the following morning.
Where Italy felt fast, frenzied and passionate, Greece was already beginning to feel relaxed, friendly and positive as we peddled along the coast towards Diakofto. Cars politely gave way, drivers waved and grinned and the sun beat down brightly on colourful and easy going villages.
Just before lunch we pulled into a tiny hamlet for a cold drink were a friendly waitress proceeded to bring us out a traditional plate of meat wrapped in pasta because it was her father’s name day and she wanted us to celebrate too.
A few hours before sunset we hit equally laid-back Diakofto where a man immediately yelled out “free camping” and then lead us to a secluded patch of beach were he said we were more than welcome to pitch our tent for the night.
It had been just two days but I was willing to call it: Greece was becoming one of my favourite countries.
From this sunny beach town the plan was to roll the dice with the mountainous inland and head first along a scenic gorge to Kalavyrta (only accessible by an old train) and then south again to Tripoli.
It was the following day that we regretfully left charming Kalavyrta and that regret tripled when the road rose ruthlessly up.
Before we’d even left the outskirts the tiny village roads had risen so steeply we were not only forced to get off and push, but do one bike at a time.
Our reward was switch back after switch back into the heart of some seriously epic mountains and a new record for slowest time clocked for five kilometres (one hour).
With the searing sun hammering down we were soon close to breaking point and three hours later (when we’d finally reached the summit) our shirts were soaked in sweet and strewn with salt lines.
A late lunch was followed by a short cave visit (and some underground lakes) and with just 30km under our belts we peddled on in the hope of finding a spot to wild camp.
Twenty kilometres later the house covered farmlands had yielded bugger all in the way of hidden spots and after failing to communicate our need to a handful of village locals we peddled on with the sun slowly sinking.
Half an hour later at the point of desperation and exhaustion, we found a tiny village and in it, a couple of bemused nonnas.
They spoke about 10 words of English as well as some German and after one of our most frustrating and fruitless conversations yet (right on the point of sunset) we had success.
Word had spread throughout the village and a teenage boy came running up the street to offer us his family’s flat for free.
We must have looked pretty pitiful.
Sleep came easily and fast in the immaculate room of our new Greek family and after not nearly enough of it (by my lazy standards any way) we were packing up to cycle on (but not before being treated to breakfast and Greek coffee).
Hermes must have heard my loud and incessant swearing the day before because he doled out a nice gentle tail wind that helped push us up only a couple of nasty slopes to Tripoli.
Just halfway, after a couple of the addictive Greek coffees, I copped a nice big bee sting on the backside and treated the gods to another loud string of my creative cursing.
To do historic Peloponnesos justice you’d need about a year but we had just a week and we so in a bid to see the main sites we decided to beeline straight from Tripoli to Nafplio (on the coast). This one time capital of Greece had been raved about by the locals ever since we’d hit the country’s shore and with its beachy location I was looking to mix cultural sight seeing with tanning in a bid to finally even out my epic cyclist’s tan.
With deep pink flowers cascading down the rustic walls of the many beach shacks Nafplio couldn’t have been more picturesque and we spent a couple of days wandering around the old town and along the water front, stuffing ourselves on Greek salad (and spanakopita).
A surprisingly long and hot bus ride out of the city lead us to the ancient Mycenae ruins (home of King Agamemnon himself) where we pondered life 2000 years ago and from there we packed up for the next leg: a short cycle to the other side of the peninsula and a ferry to the island of Aegina.
From there Crete is a painful 11 hour ferry ride where we’ll be treated to beaches, ruins and some of the best food and wine in Greece!