The Pindus Traverse: Rock ’n’ Rolling Along the Backbone of Greece

We were chilling in a hostel in Kathmandu, enjoying warm showers and the internet when I realized this Coronavirus situation was getting serious. In a few days, Ryan Wilson and I had packed up, booked tickets to wherever we considered home at the time (aka with the parents, as we were both on an open-ended bike trip), said goodbye, and flew out. It turned out to be a wise decision, as in the next weeks the world would go into hibernation.

And so I found myself swapping the tent for my childhood bedroom. In lockdown. My surroundings had never felt so tight. Mapping out routes was still not boring though. And since I found myself living in Greece again after almost ten years away it became evident that this was the perfect time to plan a multi-day bikepacking tour through the Greek mountains: The Pindus Traverse.

The Pindus Mountain range is also referred to as “the backbone of Greece.” Starting from the border with Albania and expanding over almost 230km to the south it forms a compact mountain terrain with more than ten peaks over 2,000m (the highest one at 2,610m; that’s 8,563ft for the imperial measurement folks). In the south, it then gives place to the mountains of Central Greece (home to still more peaks with heights over 2,000m). In case you haven’t picked up on this yet, Greece is a pretty mountainous country but at nearly no point on the map are you more than 100km away from the sea. Like many other places in the western world, more people used to live in the mountains in the past than they do now. Add in the fact that the Greeks only recently started to have an interest in the outdoors—and the tourist industry has still mostly ignored the mountains—and you’ll find that these ranges are a vast playground to discover!

A vast network consisting of barely-traveled dirt or narrow paved roads connects countless tiny villages with a profound history. This affords you the sense of riding in the wilderness while in reality you are never too far away from the next settlement. Those villages are the cherry on the top: there is always a tiny central square with a huge tree for shade, a spring, a church, a traditional coffee-house (“kafeneio”, which will also serve alcohol and basic eats, “mezes”) and depending on the size of the place most probably a taverna. I cannot count how many times I have missed the simplicity and comfort of this while bike touring in other places in the world. You can only have as many instant coffees brewed lukewarm water, and don’t even get me starting on those hot (or worse, frozen) water bottles, or a resupply shop that only sells candy. As for the Greek food… It requires no introduction. Another thing I love about cycling in Greece though, is how all the maps are so wrong! So many times a dirt road will be pictured as a paved one and vice versa, while there are many more dirt roads you would only find on the satellite view. I just adore this.

When the lockdown was lifted in summer, my partner in crime Tsaki (actual name Christos) and I loaded our bikes and took the train from Athens to Meteora. From there we took off to ride 930km through Pindus and the mountains of Central Greece; a total elevation gain of 27,000m. The terrain is basically a yo-yo situation; the mountains are compact and rise and fall steeply. Trust me when I say you don’t ever stay at a given elevation for too long. As such the surrounding landscape and the views oscillate just as quickly and you are repeatedly leaving pine forests, riding above treeline into the alpine, then descending into the next gorge.

Every once in a while we would cross paths with shepherds who would warn us about wild boars and bears. There is a substantial population of brown bears on the Pindus mountain range, most of them located in the area of Valia Kalda National Park (meaning “warm valley” in the local dialect, definitely one of the highlights of this route). Two people riding on rocky terrain are loud enough to make their presence clear and so we only took one by surprise without really laying our eyes on it (Nelson who rode there a few months later said he saw three. But, he was probably quieter as an Englishman). The growing number of wild boars is more of a real concern to keep in mind, as they tend to roam the springs with their little ones in the evenings. You will also likely encounter packs of Greek shepherd dogs and they are to be taken seriously when the shepherd is not around.

Every day we would ascend a couple of passes, take a break in the company of cattle (which Tsaki would harass for some milk to go with his croissants), pass a few tiny villages, socialize with locals engaging in an unavoidably Greek discussion of politics (global and local), and search for a nice camping spot at night. Summer can be pretty brutal in Greece and we did have some very hot days below 1,500m (you may want to avoid July and August if you do not like the heat). We would then take a long break during midday, maybe indeed at a tavern, where Tsaki would worry we would be fat at the end of the tour and I would be resuscitated by the infamous Greek invention of either Frappé or Freddo coffee (this being espresso, cappuccino or even instant coffee with smashed ice). We had to turn down the invitations to have a tsipouro (high-grade alcoholic distillate, similar to raki) with the locals quite a few times. These well-intentioned invitations would often come during our midday break from the heat but we always declined so as not to derail the rest of the day’s ride. On many days we rode after dark, amidst the glow of the fireflies.

Time goes by slowly in rural Greece and the villages on the mountains are like a journey into the past. The doctor will maybe come here once a week. I one day entered a tavern in search for the toilet to find a skinned lamb hanging upside down in the hallway. On a less bloody occasion, the villagers were gathered on the square, as a pickup truck loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables from the lowlands arrived. We got ourselves a juicy melon and downed it on spot. Another day we were passed by a pickup loaded with children standing on the back and yelling in a frenzy that they were going to the town for ice creams. The owner of a kafeneio had pictures of his father and his bus all over the place, as this had been the only vehicle serving the villages around for many years.

There are places where electricity and a road suitable for commercial vehicles did not arrive until 1970. History is everywhere, too, with many of the village names baring its stories. Like the secluded village of Agrafa (definitely another highlight of the route), which means “not written.” It was one of the very few settlements that was not conquered by the Turks and was therefore never written in their tax books. You understand how this is possible once you have made it to up there.

The Greek mountains are pretty rough and rocky and often steep so tubeless and chunky tires combined with a good gear ratio are the way to go. I was on my Tumbleweed Prospector with a Rohloff hub and 2.6” tires and Tsaki was on his Bombtrack Hook EXT with a 36t chainring and 11-46 cassette on 2.1” tires. He had his bivy and I had my tent. He envied me on the rough terrain and I envied him on the paved roads. We both eventually grew satisfied with our choices, but  Tsaki did have to endure the question “why is the girl carrying the heavy load?” more times than he (or I) could take.

This route is easily accessed to/ from the start /end by train from Athens or Thessaloniki. I will eventually connect it to one traversing the Peloponnese peninsula in the south and another one coming from the north-east for an epic rock ’n’ roll experience one day! Until then, I will just lay back nursing my daughter and follow the first Hellenic Mountain Race taking place in May. I am thrilled that Nelson took a good chunk of the route and did his known sadistic cooking to eventually create a racing event out of it. I am looking forward to seeing people (including my hubby) riding it!