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OPWT2 DIARY - DAYS 41 - 47

OPWT2 DIARY - DAYS 41 - 47

DAY 41 – Strofilia to Larissa

The previous evening had been a great chance to catch up with George, his wife Helene and, of course, the Ouzo Twins, Jimmy and Alexis. The evening started with Ouzo all round and gradually got cloudy from there on – George the philosopher held court and it seemed the years fell away from us all and we reminisced long into the evening.

We remembered our first meeting and our visit to George’s original factory when it was in his garage that opened directly off the main street of the village. It was rudimentary but perfectly serviceable if possibly not up to today’s expectations. Yes, there was a cracked window or two; No, not all the staff were wearing hair nets; Yes, there was a stray dog that wandered in at some point; Yes, there was an ashtray with ciggie butts; No, not everyone was wearing aprons. BUT – the product was amazing, the expertise and resourcefulness evident and the desire to improve and put in place whatever was needed to meet future standards shone bright and we vowed to support and help George and his team for the food was, and is to this day, of an exceptional quality and his originality and creativity in bringing some of the foods that can normally only be enjoyed in a Greek kitchen are unparalleled – much copied, never matched and absolutely unparalleled. We immediately dubbed him Gorgeous George (he does bear a resemblance to Gene Hackman) and set about developing products suitable for the UK market.

In the meantime, another UK business, much larger and more established than us, also beat a path to his door. George tells the story of 3 gentlemen in suits arriving in a larger and shiny hire car, fresh from Athens Airport, sweating in the heat under the suits, and, having had the tour and tasting said:

“Well, this is all very quaint and “authentic Greek” with the dog and everything but, can we go and see your real factory now?”

At which point, George, in his best broken English responded,

“Is factory. Is only factory.”

“This is your only production facility? This… garage?”

“Yes. At moment. Only factory. Make everything here.”

They didn’t stop for coffee (or Ouzo) and, without another word, turned on their heels, got back in the car, drove off, supposedly to the airport, and have never been seen since. It really was very short sighted of them as Yes, it was a garage, but the new factory being built up the hill just outside the village was a very different affair. George didn’t tell them because they didn’t ask. Sometimes, it’s best to support more, demand less and relax a little. Getting to know George and Helene, Nikos and Petros is one of the best things I think we’ve done.

Anyhow, we toddled up the hill past the scorched trees and saw just how close the factory had been to succumbing to the fires that raged all around. They fought the flames non stop for almost 48 hours with whatever they could and, thankfully, were either spared by the fire gods or they beat them into submission with everything they had to hand. Either way, it was a close call – clearly.

We spent the morning chatting and tasting new things and going through the five questions. The future is certainly challenging and we left feeling glad to have been able to spend time together but a little sad at leaving, too.

We headed north for the ferry to take us over to Glyfa on the mainland. The journey to the ferry takes around an hour or so. We saw nothing but fire damage for well over 30 miles. Of course, there have always been wild fires but this one was particularly savage and widespread. Climate Change? Who can say. It will take at least two or three generations for it to return to its previously richly wooded and verdant state. If it ever does.

The ferry did the ferry thing and we spew out on the other side and head to Larissa for our next assignation. Taking my shirt off to go to bed I notice it smells not just of me, but of wood smoke, too.

 

DAY 42 – Larissa to Neohori – Apostelos – Christos, Vasili, Nikos, Mr Sterios

This promised to be an interesting day and it didn’t disappoint. We’d met up the previous evening with Yianni, one of our suppliers of olives, and made a plan to go and meet some of the olive farmers out in the groves.

We headed up into the hills and bumped up a track where three or four more vehicles were waiting on the track which went through an olive grove. Olive trees on one side, peach on the other. Greek stuff happened. Invariably, Greek Stuff is interesting to watch and be a vicarious part of as most of Greek Stuff, apparently, concerns you – the obvious outsider.

Christos – the main man – indeterminate age but his face had lived a life and his stomach had seen more than its fair share of spanakopita, tyropitata, kolokothakia and chips – lots of chips. This was evident from the fact it was straining at the shirt to be released so it could run off to the Island of Fodor and audition to be the Fat Controller’s understudy belly. Much testiculation took place at this point which fun to observe (if you don’t know what “testiculate” means, it’s when men stand around waving their arms about and talking bollocks).

Eventually, after the required time to allow the formalities and niceties around the etiquette of allowing Greek Stuff to happen, we piled back into the cars, went 10 metres and got out again. Apparently, the ‘discussion’ had all been around whether to take the cars or not and were the outsiders capable of leg action. We were now in an olive grove (just 10m up from the olive grove we were in before), the air was freshly damp with a recent soft rainfall that had left the leaves wet to the touch and dripping onto our clothes as we brushed past them. Most still with the last vestiges of blossom, fading now and giving way to budding olives – bright green, tiny and only just there. Still vulnerable to any shift in the weather – too much heat and they will scorch off, too much wind and they will be bashed off, any heavy rain or, worse still, hail and they will certainly be stripped from the branches.

We had with us two farmers Christos (of the belly), Vasilli (slow eye blink) along with Nikos, Quality Controller and Mr Sterios, Agronomist from the supplier; Yianni and the Ouzo Twins. The grove was busy. And loud.

There is a disease affecting olive trees – its official name is Xylella Fastidiosa but it also goes by the name Xofillera in Greece or sometimes as Olive Quick Decline Syndrome (OQDS). It is sometimes confused with Verticillium. Alas, the groves we were in were showing signs of disease and the farmers told us that most of the trees appeared to be affected by some sort of wilting disease on some branches, not necessarily all the tree.

Currently, there is no known cure, and we spent some time discussing this and how it might affect future production. The discussion turned to weather and climate shifts and they were curious to hear of what we had heard from other farmers, in other regions and countries. They had heard rumours of drought in Spain and we were able to tell them what we knew and what we had discovered in other places along the way.

This was the first time that what we are doing actually seems to have been of relevance and of some real use to farmers on the ground. Christos and Vasilli rarely leave the farm and their horizon is limited to the treetops around them in the groves or, when back in their farmhouse in amongst the groves, the mountains that surround them. News is scarce and knowledge of other farmers and their experiences even scarcer. Let alone other countries. We leave them, resisting the urge for a swift Tsipouro and Beer, which we are entreated to (oh – that’s why the slow eye blink) as a day can rapidly unravel and run away from you after a Tsipouro or two, three and, finally, floor.

In case you haven’t tried it and, even if you have, you might have forgotten due to its after effects, Tsipouro is a very strong distilled spirit containing 40–45% alcohol and is produced from grape skins after the juice has been removed. Its lovely in a lethal kind of a way if you haven’t any engagements in the near future that require most of your faculties. Definitely to be avoided if you need to operate machinery of any size or description.

We feel a little vindicated in what we are endeavouring to do and, in the car as we drive away, the Ouzo Twins tell us how much the language and attitude to us changed as the time in the groves went on – no longer outsiders but olive people, like them. Just without the language to talk in actual words but with the language of the trees to communicate perfectly well about what matters most. The olives.

DAY 43 – Neohori to Meganisi

The night before we’d gone into the groves, we’d planned our next stop for where we need to go after leaving them and parting with our hosts, Jimmy and Alexis.  We knew we wanted to head towards the west coast in readiness for leaving Greece and departing for Italy and, looking at the map, had spotted a pleasant looking spot near a lovely looking lake. It was Lake Plastiras. What we hadn’t spotted was that it sits 2,600 feet up. Neochori, the village we had found somewhere to stay, sits above the Lake at 3,300 feet up. The forecast said rain.

It didn’t just rain. We started our ascent into the foothills realising we might have made a bit of an error as the wetness descended and the roads took a turn for the very wiggly and decidedly slippery. We ascended past damp squib bee hives and abandoned farms before leaving the plains behind and into the clouds above. Riding in the rain, mist and clouds could be seen as a sort of ‘Gorilla’s In The Mist’ moment but, for the next 2 hours, it didn’t feel that way at all. No view of anything other than the road in front disappearing into yet another hairpin to go round and ever upwards into deepening clouds and damper, thicker mist. Every now and then, the clouds would thin out and we’d be rewarded with a wispy view of what we were riding around which, when we saw the exposure and drops into woody canyons far below, made us glad when the mist descended and we couldn’t see them anymore. I heard Annie humming the theme from Indiana Jones which I know is a sure sign she is having a really, really good time; loves me deeply for bringing her to such a place; isn’t at all nervous in any way shape or form; and absolutely doesn’t want to see me flayed alive for being such an arse in choosing to come here. The humming got louder the more we climbed but I reassured her that we’d soon be out of the clouds as this really couldn’t go on for much longer.

An hour later I was proved wrong. By which time the humming had stopped and had been replaced with a stream of the most inventive expletives I’d ever heard and I learnt a thing or two about some obscure forms of surgery performed ideally without the use of anaesthetic but with a rusty spoon and mallet. Most unladylike but I had to agree, probably no more than I deserved for this really was pigging awful.

Arriving in Neochori was when I think I might have allowed myself to feel a little down. Wet through and now, having glimpsed the village through misted up glasses – even my eyeballs were soaking - without much hope of there actually being somewhere to stay I manfully didn’t let on in any way whatsoever. Instead, I said, forgetting we were still miked up so every utterance is broadcast direct into each other’s ears, quietly and not at all shoutily or at full volume at all,

“Oh for Fucks Sake! Where is this cocking place?”

To which Annie replied, quietly and monotonally,

“It’s here.”  She had spotted the sign, driven down the drive and had already got the bike on the side stand and was standing dripping waiting for me with a very damp look on her face.

“Ah yes. Just where I expected it to be. Well done.”

Withering glance.

At that precise moment I was saved.

“Yassoo. Hallo. Welcome. Come in!” Our host Apostelos appeared as if a wraith delivered from the clouds themselves and ushered us up the slope and opened the door into the second warmest room I have ever been in. It was toasty and dry and I’m sure the moistness in my eyes at that point were nothing more than the last of the mists.

However, he then took us next door to what was definitely the warmest room I have ever been in. A roaring wood burner was blazing in the corner, tables set out for a cozy meal and that was it. I was done. The moistness in my eyes overwhelmed to the degree I forgot my manners and took my shirt off. And my trousers. Pants soon followed. Annie followed suit. Stripping to the skin we colonised the place in seconds – Apostelos didn’t know where to look – two damn near naked dribbling folk laughing hysterically at what a wonderful day it had been. Within a minute the placed had steamed up nicely and all was forgiven and we sat outside of our undies drying out and grinning like cheshire cats. The view outside simply didn’t exist and no matter how much our host described it to us, the beautiful lake with the wooded islands and walking trails, the birds, the wildlife – we simply couldn’t see it. It was a complete whiteout. The world beyond the windows wasn’t there.

We all know that the saying ‘lightning doesn’t strike twice’ really means that, if you are stupid enough to go out again in a thunderstorm after being hit by lightning once before, then you have it coming to you and must have the sort of genes that really shouldn’t reproduce.

A bit like making the same mistake twice. Which means you are a congenital idiot.

Guilty as charged but at least this time I had an accomplice.

Deciding a joint approach to the route for the following day, so as I could share the blame when it went wrong, we BOTH looked at the map and then plugged the route into the software – it looked a bit twisty but nothing more than we had done before. We had decided to head for the Island of Meganisi where Annie’s brother was about to holiday for a week and we thought we’d go and join him for a day or two before setting off for Italy. A nice surprise.

The software said 195km and 4h 26mins. Seemed fine to us. In hindsight, that suggests an average of just over 40km an hour. That’s about 25 mph. What sort of roads could possibly enable you to only have an average speed of 25mph? Over nearly 120 miles? We found out quite rapidly. In yet more rain and clouds.

We started on tarmac. That gave way to gravel, which gave way to rock. Mixed with mud and shale. An hour and half passed. As did 2 Bailey Bridges (with holes in the planking big enough to lose a fat child through), 3 deserted villages, mud, gravel, cows, dogs and at least 2 goat herds, 5 sheep and no shepherd/goatherd or any other living soul or sign of life. Conceding defeat, we decided to check the route.

In our warmth and delirium, I’d missed the setting that said ‘Avoid Unpaved Roads’. Our route was a direct one. Very direct. Straight across the mountain ranges that were between us and Meganisi. All off piste, steep, treacherous and not really the sort of roads to be riding bikes weighing close to 400kg on, if on or in anything at all. If we had come off and injured ourselves or the bikes it would have been some while before a passing herder (or another idiot on a bike) might have come across us. When I say some while, at least a month or two most likely. By which time Annie would have found a rusty spoon and a mallet and wreaked vengeance.

We turned back, replotted and found the route now said 4h 27mins but was 377km or 230miles, which equated to an average speed of 84km/h or 52mph. Given we had wasted 2 hours and had a ferry to catch we had to up the pace somewhat. From what we remember, the scenery was wonderful once we descended from the mist, we spotted the lake (every bit as beautiful as Apostelos told us) and made the ferry with time for a swift beer to spare.

Got to our digs for the night, hot, sweaty, relieved and happy to be in the sun again. Drank wine. Slept.

 

DAY 44,45,46 - Meganisi

Island life. Nuff said. Washed clothes. Drank more wine. Ate fish.

DAY 47 – Meganisi – Igoumenitsa – Italy

Our stay on Meganisi was blissful and brief and we needed to get gone to Igoumenitsa for our ferry to Italy. Making our way first to the ferry to take us from Spillia on Meganisi back to Nydri we were seen off by Annie’s brother and partner, Nicky.  Whilst waiting, we chatted with a couple from the UK, Rick and Gina, and discovered we knew a few of the same people in Neil and Tina on Lefkada who’d been so kind and lent us their place for a few days when we first arrived in Greece.

As the ferry slipped off, we all waved at each other until we’d all judged that the right amount of waving had taken place and been seen to be done. How does that work?  What is it about waving or saying goodbye on the phone that takes soooo long? Who stops first? How do you know who is supposed to stop first?  What is the right amount of bye ba bye ba byes to offer up before the connection can be severed without someone getting miffed? This time, fortunately, both parties had realised that, fairly swiftly after leaving port, we’d both lose sight of each other so we all dutifully waved until that happened. Still seemed unnecessarily long and I considered fainting so I could drop out of sight but thought that might arouse some alarm and we’d all have to start again when I came to.

Arms aching, we began to think of the next stage of the trip. For some godforsaken reason the ferry from Igoumenitsa to Brindisi leaves at 01.00 – that’s a m not p m. One o’clock in the morning is not a time for grown-ups to be up and about and having arrived at the port at around 5pm we had a lot of time to kill.

 

We hung around in a desolate bar being served possibly the worst Greek Gyros I’ve ever eaten watched over by stray dogs, cats and other Greeks – seemingly stray as well. Having munched a couple of mouthfuls of my Chicken Gyros it turned out to be 100% deep fried chicken skin. Under normal circumstances, I’m quite a fan of crispy chicken skin but this was on another, very limp, level.  I fed it to the strays. None of them touched it and when we left there was still a little pile of flabby chicken on the paving stones beneath our table and I noticed various other piles around the place – I guess most folk, with little other option, had also ordered it, tried it and then tried to feed it to the dogs, cats and strays but no one had touched it. It looked like flabby chicken crazy paving – dotted all over the place. My next thought was, at this was a bar/café/stray hangout by the ferry the staff had realised they didn’t need to try too hard as most of the people they served, being ferry passengers, wouldn’t be that regular in passing by. Why try harder when you can serve shite and get away with it? Not a good attitude and whilst I get it, as someone in the hospitality industry who feeds people as part of what we do, it still pisses me off more than I can say that people think it’s an acceptable practice.

We’d been told boarding would commence at 10pm so we duly rocked up just before 10 to find the entire dock a mass of artics with trailers, trailers without artics, containers on trailers, containers on containers, drivers without vehicles, vehicles without drivers and even some drivers without trousers. The one thing that was missing was a ferry. There was a very big hole on the dockside where a ferry should have been and would have been a welcome sight. Instead, just a patch of bare concrete.

We parked up beside an aging camper van and became intrigued by the couple inside. A rather portly fellow had a calor gaz camping stove with a pot of boiling water into which he commenced to place an egg.  His female partner looked on. He added another egg, then another, then another. In all we counted 12 eggs going into the pot.  He then got another box and proceeded to add those too. How many boiled eggs can one couple need?  What must the smell in there have been like.  What was it going to be like in an hour or two? We didn’t wait to find out but shifted ourselves to a different part of concrete.

We moved over to the empty slipway and waited. We were interrupted by a white van with spinny lights that came over, lowered the window releasing a huge cloud of cigar smoke and, with a mix of smoke signals and shouty stuff, barked at us to move somewhere else. So we did. They drove off, came back a minute later, released some more smoke and barked some more, we shrugged and turned around. They stopped barking, turned around and went away. 

We were joined by more bikes.  The first lot were Italians – a similar age to us but on modern versions of our aged enduro bikes. This generated a lot of heated interest in the relative merits of air cooled over water cooled, carburettors over fuel injection, tyre profiles and whatnot – all conducted in heated and gesticulated Italian (not testiculate, you realise. Men never talk bollocks about bikes. Honest.)

 And then they noticed Annie. It was at this point more than one of them crossed themselves and started muttering incantations. The boldest one came over and, ignoring me completely, energetically engaged Annie in broken Engli-alian but as the difference between air and water cooling, the finer points of carburation and tyre sizes leaves her puzzled, he changed tack pretty quickly. Annie is, after all, a twist and go sort of lady for which I am endlessly grateful.  Twist and go is so much simpler than the more advanced types.

After a while they asked us where we were headed and when we mentioned Sicily, they asked where and when we mentioned Chiramonte Gulfi there was stunned silence as most of them were from there or thereabouts which means we think we might have a welcome party waiting when we get there in a few days. One of them produced a photo of his friend who worked at the company we were off to meet up with and we wondered if we’d meet him.

The last time we were in Sicily on these two bikes was 1992 and we spoke in hushed tones about riding into Bandit Country and worried lest something should happen to us. Well it did. Warm, generous, welcoming folk with an enveloping hospitality like a favourite, but forgotten, overcoat, wrapped warm on a chilly evening – a fire in front and the cold a shoulder away. The welcome we received was so… well, suffice it to say it was just so. Something we will never forget, and, every now and again, we raise a glassful of memories to one Guitano Amato of Monterosso Almo who opened his door, gave us his overcoat and taught us so much about the meaning of everything.

Now is not the time to share his story or that of one Don Charles; a houseboat called Bevere, a POW camp in Lincolnshire or a suit made of blankets that forged a friendship of both lost and found, a nightclub in Malta or a torpedoed and shark raided ship out of Durban and many more besides.

We sat with Guitano and Don one night and watched, quietly, as the two old friends talked. They had much to talk about and we felt a little like interlopers. They say that eyes are windows to the soul and if souls are forged from the fires of experience married to the hammering of learning and processing of all that went before, then the pool of the past between Guitano and Don was something that no observer could be untouched by. Just to sit with the pair of them, genes, families and cultures apart, bound by time shared across physical and political boundaries that did not prevent two souls from connecting at the basest of levels. An amazing exemplar of true friendship that had transcended everything that had once stood in its way.

Another couple of bikes pulled up – covered and caked in so much mud that nothing much about them was visible. The two riders climbed off, their clothes equally as muddy and dishevelled as the bikes.

“You’ve had a journey, then?” This in a home counties accent that could have been nothing other than British.

Icky and Dicky, for, I’m sorry to say, we didn’t get their names despite chatting both that evening and the following morning, such is the way fleeting connections are made and then lost as quickly as they were formed, had been riding off piste on the sort of trails that we turned back from.

They had the bikes and the gear specifically for this and it was great to hear them talk of the trails and people they’d encountered along the way. We chatted into the night. Still no ferry but at least we weren’t being barked at any more.

At around 11pm some lights appeared on the horizon and the ferry finally hove into view – by jings it was big. As it swivelled round and began to reverse towards the dock, the massive rear door began to descend spilling a mass of light onto the slipway and even before the mooring ropes were bar taut, the first of the lorries began to emerge. Very rapidly the lorries were five abreast and streaming off faster than you could count – so many car transporters full of either brand new expensive marques or absolutely shattered, crashed and mangled write offs – we couldn’t spot the wheeze but I’m sure there had to be one somewhere. The noise level was intense and, from what we could see, the whole thing was being coordinated by a 12 year old in a hi viz vest with a walkie talkie. The van with the spinny lights was nowhere to be seen and nearly all the waiting lorry drivers seemed to have found their trousers – they’d also found their on switches because e very one of them was revving engines and starting to jockey for position to race on board.

As the last of the trucks rumbled off, the 12 year old gave some sort of signal and that was it – five a breast the juggernauts charged on board. This went on for around 2 hours – solid. God knows where they managed to put them all and how they all fitted on board. At one point, we thought they were simply driving off the other end to form a sort of makeshift sunken artic jetty.

Whatever they were doing. Bikes were not a welcome addition and we waited. Every now and again, one of us would mount up, start an engine and inch forward but the 12 year old was having none of it. Bikes were very definitely going to be the last ones to board.  Even the egg bound camper whiffed wheezed it’s way up the ramp along with a few other odds and sods.

The ferry was due to sail at 1am. At 12.55 the docks were more or less clear apart from us bikers and a very mixed group of ladies hanging around under a lamp post – most of them passing the time by chain smoking and making eyes at anyone who drove past. The age range of the group started somewhere around 25 and, from the look of it, went all the way up to around 75. I think most of us thought that they were simply catering to a broad range of tastes and budgets and had done a really good job of segmenting their customer base to provide the right level of service for all occasions.

The 12 year old scampered up the massive ramp, got half way up, and dwarfed by the size of the ship, the ramp and the hole in the back of the ship, turned and, as if it was an afterthought, waved at us to come on and, along with the lady group, we all trundled up the ramp.

By this time, the 12 year old had vanished and there were no other crew to be seen apart from one man waving at us to park them wherever we could find a space. No ropes, no straps and no lashings of any sort. And now – no crew and no markings to say where we were in relation to the rest of the ship. An internal ramp that took the lorries up to the next level was still lowered and a crew member appeared at the foot of it and gestured at us in a, “Move or Die” kind of a way and ushered us frantically up the ramp.

“Stairs?” We asked, thinking there would be some.

“Block. No door. Ramp.”

“The stairs are blocked?”

“Up ramp – move. Quick! Quick!”

Even as we ascended the ramp it started to move and close, the last we saw of our bikes was the shrinking chink of light between ramp and upper deck clanging shut and snuffing them from view. We now found ourselves on a more or less empty level – cathedral like in height and space – a few trucks in the distance but still no sign of stairs or a deck number. We went up another ramp and found ourselves outside on a deck completely filled with lorries and trailers.  A crew man pointed towards some distant light just visible between the lorries and way off in the distance at the other end of the ship. And that was it – we had to squeeze between trucks so closely packed together than anyone of an un-slender build would have got wedged in place. By this time the group of ladies were making some very biker like noises and the bikers were making some very unladylike noises.  This was a complete and utter shit-show.

Dumping our stuff, we found a bar, harumphed a bit and thought it would all be better in the morning when we docked. And, we still had no idea what deck our bikes were on.

Oh, the name of the ferry line? Grimaldi.

Grim, grimy, grubby and with none of the benefits of Aldi.

And the ladies? Turned out they were the trucker’s WAGs. Not quite as we’d assumed.

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