Leaving behind us the white beach of Sarandë, on Albanian territory, we have more than one options to continue south to the Mediterranean Sea, through Greece.
By boat to Corfu, the second largest of the Ionian Islands, with a colourful Old Town (an UNESCO World Heritage Site), having grown within fortifications, where every meter of ground was precious, a real labyrinth of narrow and tortuous streets paved with cobblestones, known as kantoúnia and an esplanade between the city and the Old Citadel known as Spianada with the Liston arcade to its west side and many restaurants & bistros. In 1889, Empress Elizabeth of Austria built a summer palace in the region of Gastouri to the south of the city, naming it Achílleion after the Homeric hero Achilles.
The structure is filled with paintings and statues of Achilles, while the Imperial gardens on the hill look over the surrounding green hills and valleys and the Ionian sea. Paleokastritsa (at 25 km from Corfu town) is worth a visit, for its fresh and clear blue/green waters, as well as Pelekas for its romantic sunset. For the food lovers and not only, try the typical Corfiot dishes, famous around the world and so inextricably tied in with the island’s history.
Cycling on the mainland, from Sarandë, through the historical city of Gjirokastër (its old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town and part of the Byzantine Empire or through Buthrotum (Albanian: Butrint) an ancient Greek and later Roman city, an archeological site located on a hill overlooking the Vivari Channel some 14 kilometres south of Sarandë and close to the Greek border. The first city on Greek territory, is Igoumenitsa in Epirus.
Igoumenitsa, twinned with Sarandë, will offer many reasons for a stopover: green forests, blue crystal waters, and a city that provides possibilities for rides, walks, jogging by the coastal park. Igoumenitsa port provides access to the beautiful Ionian islands, home to Odysseus, the legendary Greek king of Ithaca and hero of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, as well as one of the most fervent travellers of all times. Cycling down south along the northwestern coast of Greece, between the cities of Igoumenitsa and Preveza, lies
Parga, a resort town with its 11th century castle, its colourful sea waters and olive groves, worth to pay a visit for a refreshing swim and a delicious traditional meal. While the Ionian Sea washes the shore under the Mediterranean sun on our right, the Pindus Mountain range, a vast complex of mountains, peaks, plateaus, valleys and gorges, stretches on our left, from near the Greek-Albanian borders in Northern Epirus, down to the north of the Peloponnese. Geologically it constitutes an extension of the Dinaric Alps, which dominate the western region of the Balkan Peninsula, and it traverses the Greek mainland from the Northwest to the Southeast. Although the imposing mountainous terrain of Pindus doesn’t really favor cycling, there are many mountain settlements with long history and unique architecture located throughout the range, inviting randonneurs from all over the world. Pindus offers a great combination for those seeking a holiday combining cycling and walking.
And finally, we arrive in Preveza, the town that has banned cars from parking in its center! By its picturesque port located at the mouth of the Ambracian Gulf, where rivers Louros and Arachthos empty their waters, one can enjoy fresh fish and seafood. If by any chance you are in Preveza in August, you might be lucky to experience a luminous phenomenon in which seawaters appear to glow brightly at night, most probably due to plankton that has evolved to glow in order to startle or distract fish. How romantically powerful can Nature be.
The ruins of the ancient city of Nicopolis, dating from 1st century BC, lie 5 kilometers north of the city of Preveza, located on a narrow isthmus of less than 3 km wide, with the Ionian Sea on one side and a shallow part of the Ambracian Gulf on the other. Protected by large sections of the original walls, besides the Acropolis, the most conspicuous features of the ancient city are the Actium monument of Augustus, a theatre (with 77 rows of seats), an Odeon, an aqueduct which brought water to the town from the Louros river over a distance of about 50 km, the nympheum or great fountain, the baths (thermae), the Roman villa of Antoninus with beautiful mosaic, the stadium with the nearby gymnasium, theatre and hippodrome, amidst a nature growing free and wild. The nearby Archaeological Museum of Nikopolis contains many exhibits. In the present, the road connecting Preveza with the city of Arta, in Epirus, crosses the archaeological site of Nicopolis. However, this section of the road will close down in the future, and in its place a vast archaeological park will be created. We do hope that cyclists will be mostly welcome!
And now, Lefkada or Vonitsa? Or maybe both? The choice is yours! I will not make any effort to convince you … to do them BOTH! By bike, crossing the sea to an island? In this case, yes! Lefkada is an island in the Ionian Sea on the west coast of Greece, one of the two Greek islands to be linked to the mainland by a long causeway and a 20m long floating bridge over the historical strait of Drepanon. Evia island is the other one on the Eurovelo 11 route. Why visit Lefkada, one could eventually ask? For the long history of the island expanding from the Paleolithic period to the 19th century, the many museums and religious monuments, the castle of Santa Maura, an outstanding example of Venetian fortification, “the Poets” Garden, the Bridge of Sighs or lovers’ Bridge as the locals call the wooden bridge built above the canal in the early nineties in Venetian architecture style.
The wooden bridge is located in the pedestrian area by the port, a place surrounded by coffee houses and tavernas. Moreover, Lefkada is considered as the Caribbean of Greece, with the exotic blue colour of its waters and such beaches as the Porto Katsiki, the Egremni, the Dimosari Waterfalls, near the cosmopolitan Nydri beach, on the eastern coast of the island, in a sheltered location with views across to Skorpios private island, formerly owned by Aristotle Onassis. Some locals still remember Maria Kallas singing on summer nights with full moon for Onassis’ guests…
If you decide to pass by Lefkada, despite its lures, you will have to take the route around the Ambracian gulf “lagoon” heading SE. Near Vonitsa, the hill road goes amphitheatrically around the beautiful beach town dominated by a Venetian fortress on a hill. A bridge for pedestrians and cyclists connects the picturesque island of Koukoumitsa to Vonitsa, in the midst of green blue shallow seawaters.
Next town situated by the Ambracian Gulf, is Amfilochia, on the site of ancient Amfilochia and from there we reach the historical “sacred town of Missolonghi”, known worldwide as the site of a dramatic siege during the Greek War of Independence, and of the death of poet Lord Byron. A town that has inspired poets, writers and painters such as Homer, Dionysios Solomos (considered as Greece’s national poet for having composed the national anthem in 1865), Lord Byron and Eugene Delacroix, among many others. The town, which is located between the Acheloos and the Evinos rivers and has a port on the Gulf of Patras, is almost canalized. Houses are within the gulf and the swamplands.
The National Park of Missolonghi-Etoliko Lagoons complex lies to the west, and it is a unique biotope that includes coastal ecosystems, swamps, salterns and reclaimed areas which are now used for cultivation. Among the lagoon islands, Tourlida is the largest and the only inhabited one. It is a long-narrow earthy land about 5 km south of Missolonghi, with houses on piles, stilt houses built by fishermen, called “Pelades” in Greek.
Before leaving the town, remember to taste the famous caviar of Missolonghi, also called ‘bafa’, a delicious and nutritious snack. You are now at 40 km away from the Rio – Antirrio bridge and at 250 km away from Athens. The bridge, being one of the world’s longest multi-span cable-stayed bridges and the 2nd longest of the fully suspended type, crosses the Gulf of Corinth near Patras, linking the town of Rio on the Peloponnese peninsula to Antirrio on mainland Greece by road and it is free for cyclists.
Depending of your particular schedule and time, you might choose an exit towards the Ionian islands via the small port of Astakos, from where small boats will bring you to Ithaca and Cefalonia, both combining hilly roads at a significant gradient, but also marvelous beaches easily accessible from their ports by bike. The boat trip from Astakos to Ithaca passes through the Echinades group of islands, with their impressively sharp and prickly outlines.
The islands mentioned by some of the greatest ancient historians, such as Homer and Strabo, drew the attention of the Emir of Qatar (g.1995 – 2013) who currently owns six of them. Astakos town and port is at 50 km from Missolonghi, via Aitoliko town (at appr. 12 km from Missolonghi), the old part of which lies quite romantically like a little Venice on an island between two lagoons, the Aitoliko Lagoon and the Missolonghi Lagoon. The island is connected to the mainland on each side by two stone arch bridges, each of 300m long.
The Rio – Antirrio bridge, being one of the world’s longest multi-span cable-stayed bridges and the 2nd longest of the fully suspended type, crosses the Gulf of Corinth near Patras, linking the town of Rio on the Peloponnese peninsula to Antirrio on mainland Greece by road and it is free for cyclists.
Patras city, at 8 km from Rio, is built at the foothills of Mount Panachaikon, overlooking the Gulf of Patras. The core settlement has a history spanning for four millennia; in the Roman period it had become a cosmopolitan center of the eastern Mediterranean. Dubbed as Greece’s Gate to the West, Patras is a commercial hub, while its busy port is a nodal point for trade and communication with Italy and the rest of Western Europe as well as the Ionian islands. Every year, in February, the city hosts one of Europe’s largest carnivals (180 years old): notable features of the Patras Carnival include its mammoth satirical floats and balls and parades, enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of visitors in a Mediterranean climate.
Patras is also famous for supporting an indigenous cultural scene active mainly in the performing arts and modern urban literature. It was European Capital of Culture in 2006. The upper part of town, where lies the Roman Odeon of Patras, erected in 160 BC, earlier than the Athens Odeon, offers magnificent view over the gulf but also to Varassova, the “Sacred Mount” of Aetolia, of 917m of height that hosted hermits in the Byzantine times, on the opposite side of Continental Greece (Sterea Ellada). The climb to the upper town is “bike friendly”! Leaving Patras behind on our way to Athens, the road follows the coastline of the northern part of the Peloponnese peninsula and offers exits to small towns with traditional taverns by crystal seawaters.
Among them, Diakopto, at 55 km from Patras, situated on the Gulf of Corinth, near the mouth of the Vouraikos river and at the lower end of the Vouraikos Gorge. The gauge Diakofto–Kalavrita Railway built in 1885 leads up to the town of Kalavrita passing the Mega Spilaio Monastery at about halfway. Kalavrita is a highly touristic Greek town, due to its ski center but also its history as it was here that the flag of the Greek War of Independence in 1821 was raised. The 30 km climb from Diakopto to Kalavrita by bike is a demanding one, a real challenge for skilled cyclists, but also hiking in the area can be a unique experience.
At 45 km from Diakopto on the way to Athens there is Xylokastro town and at 58km, Kiato town. The picturesque road passes by village houses with colourful gardens, while alongside with the sea there grow araucaria coniferous trees and majestic ficus trees. On our right, Mount Helmos and Mount Kyllini offer imposing views. Xylokastro or “the green shore of the homeland”, after the famous Greek poet Kostas Kariotakis, hosts a large pine tree forest extended between Xilokastro and Sikia, with 83 plant species growing in it and walking paths for the visitors. Another famous Greek poet Aggelos Sikelianos was also inspired by this area. The small town is an important tourist destination and offers the traveller a variety of hotels and rooms to let as well as cafes and restaurants. Xylokastro hosts many cultural and athletic events.
Kiato, located 4km SW of the ancient city of Sikyon, is the western terminus of the Proastiakos (suburban railway) line to Athens. The town has hosted international meetings of ancient drama at the partly restored ancient theatre of Sikyon. The road to Corinth crosses Lechaio town, one of the two ports of ancient Corinth along with Kechrees, while further down on our right, lies the rock of the ancient acropolis of Corinth, the Acrocorinth. It is one of the most impressive of the acropoleis of mainland Greece, continuously occupied from archaic times to the early 19th century and therefore played a significant role in the history of this area.
The steep hill leading to the remains of the Venetian castle on the Acrocorinth, could be a real training challenge for professional cyclists! Next stop, the city of modern Corinth! A lively city by the sea, with a brand new station on the Proastiakos (suburban railway) line to Athens, a few kilometres away from the town, near Examilia. A cafe is located at the entrance to the station.
There is a large, free car park, a bus stop and a taxi rank. At 8 km northeast of Corinth, lies the town of Loutraki, a seaside resort on the Gulf of Corinth, well known for its vast natural springs and its therapeutic spas. For the cyclists coming from Corinth, Loutraki can be reached via a submersible bridge installed at sea level at the end of the Corinth canal, by the harbour of Poseidonia. The Corinth Canal, an ambitious construction of the 19th century, connects the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea. It cuts through the narrow Isthmus of Corinth and separates the Peloponnese from the Greek mainland. Loutraki town is bordered by the Gulf of Corinth in the west, while the mountain range of Geraneia dominates north and east.
Cycling and/or walking by its long beach, or all the way through to the Heraion of Perachora, a sanctuary of the goddess Hera situated in a small cove of the Corinthian gulf at the end of the Perachora peninsula, passing by the picturesque Vouliagmeni lagoon, are a few short trips worth taking before leaving the town. Visitors to the Heraion of Perachora may enjoy a wonderful refreshing swim as the sea next to the archaeological site is both fresh and clear. The peaceful Vouliagmeni lagoon is also ideal for swimming while the fish restaurants located on the lake will treat you to a feast. Loutraki is also well known for its Casino (Club Hotel Casino Loutraki), one of the biggest in Europe. Leaving Loutraki behind us and heading southeast to Athens, we follow the coastline by beautiful villages and beaches, such as Agioi Theodori with the long Pefkakia beach, and Kineta’s white beach and clear blue waters, ideal for a swim and a refreshment drink at the nearby cafes. Mind that the downhill from the main road to the beach will be an uphill on your way back, but no need to panic, it is a short one!
On the main road again and ahead of us lies the town of Megara, behind the rocky hills of Kakia Skala on our left and the Saronic sea on our right…Eye-catching views of the sun reflecting on the seawaters and the soothing smell of the local herbs easing the climb, while fast train and motor ways through tunnels recently opened at a higher level, complete the picture of a land so welcome and hospitable to travellers.
And then, Megara. The birth town of a hero, the son of Poseidon, Megareas. And Nea Peramos town, inhabited by fishermen back in 1922, Greek refugees coming from Minor Asia after the war. A few more curves at Loutropyrgos, along with a few last views on the gulf, and we enter the urban area of Eleusis (or Elefsis) some 25 km away from Athens.
Eleusis was one of the five sacred cities of Ancient Greece, together with Athens, Olympia, Delfi and Delos, known for the Eleusinian mysteries of goddess Demeter and daughter Persephone, attracting initiates from all over the ancient world. The procession to Eleusis through the Sacred Way (the oldest road in Greece) began at the Sacred Gate in the Kerameikos (the ancient Athenian cemetery), near the Athens Acropolis. Eleusis was named the European Capital of Culture for 2021. The archaeological site is certainly worth a visit before one takes the last part of the Eurovelo 8 route to Athens.