Bulgaria Bound Despite the Tug of Athens and Greece—Onward To Thessaloniki

Leaving most anywhere always tugs at my heart and mind; it makes me sad. I know I must move and get on with this adventure, but especially here in Athens, I feel a connection, a sense of belonging. I recognize this, but I must temper my mindset and shrug off the feelings. Last night I joined Michael for a farewell Athens dinner after I watched the changing of the guard at the Greek Parliament, and wandered around the Temple of Zeus. When I get home, I pour a glass of Assyrtiko from the bottle I opened a few nights ago. I sit on the balcony and gaze out over the marina. The dark sky is a deep, indigo blue. Just below I look at Doc, covered and parked on the sidewalk. We’ll share many miles and border crossings over the next few months. I toast the evening and pass out.

With everything organized and packed, this morning I had a few tasks to tackle with the bike before heading north. Last October when I was in Croatia some hooligans in Split stole my tank bag and tank panniers. So I moved my bike into the shade on the sidewalk and set up fitting the new replacements to the bike.

Traffic is light this Saturday morning as I wind my way out of the city. Today I will ride over 500 kilometers (300 miles) to Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece near to the Bulgarian border and my next destination country.

It will take about six hours to get to Thessaloniki by taking the toll road—a straight and boring ride. I stop for fuel just outside of Athens. Back on the highway, I roll the throttle on motor on. It doesn’t take much more than an hour for the boredom to set in, and then fatigue. I yawn every few minutes. And while I’m comfortable, thanks to a new seat cushion made by Wild Ass and based on the original technology developed by ROHO and AirHawk. However, my old AirHawk also showed signs of fatigue. Sadly, Steve Peyton and his family sold off the AirHawk business, and the new owners cut corners and quality to increase margins. So I made the change. The new cushion is more ergonomic with its more full and rounded shape.

One thing bothers me. My right wrist, the throttle twist wrist, cramps, and pains me. A few weeks before leaving California I flexed and mildly sprained it while trying to wedge my little classic Honda CB 175 through a narrow gate—taking my own shortcut caused me to get my hand caught between the bike and the gate. Now I’m paying for it.

The rest stops on the Greek highways are well developed and have clean bathrooms, free WIFI, and good coffee. I stop at one to get out of the heat, power down a double espresso, and go through a series of exercises to loosen the wrist, and then get back on the road. For the next three hours, I lean forward and crank the throttle. Soon I’m flanked by massive mountains in the west including the shadows of Mount Olympus, Greece’s tallest and home of the mythical Greek Gods—some of whom I wonder are looking over me today.

I admire the late afternoon sun as it seeps through gaps in the clouds, and where shafts of shapely shining beams of dappled light dance on the mountains. Clouds hang heavy and seem pregnant as they hug the mountain peaks. The light show is the most visual treat I’ve had all day and gives me something else to focus on other than the hypnotic road.

Every thirty to fifty kilometers, I must stop to pay a toll. €2.70 here, €2.30 there, by the time I tally up the total in Thessaloniki, I figure it cost me about €25 to drive the road. Not cheap—and a motorcycle is the least expensive toll fare.

I’m in luck when I wind my way around the enclave of wine, cocktail, craft beer and espresso bars between the streets of Siggrou and Valaoritou, and I come across Oinovate, the wine bar founded by Konstantinos who I met in Athens last October as my 2018 journey ended. I catch him by surprise when I find him sipping a glass of wine in the backyard terrace of his wine bar.

“Do you remember me,” I ask.

“No, I was probably a little drunk,” he admits. When I remind him that we connected in Athens, it hit him like a bolt of lightning.

“Oh my god that 1996 California Cabernet Sauvignon,” he drifts back in time and reminisces, “unbelievable!”

He opened Oinovate about a year and a half ago just as the city began to develop this neighborhood. He shows me photographs of how it looked before they narrowed the street to one lane, lining the edge of the street with red bricks and installing large concrete planters so cars could not park. It opened the street up and gave more space for pedestrians. Above us I noticed a half dozen large fans whirring and moving air around. An engineer used the street as a real-life testing laboratory showing that by moving the air around drops the temperature some six-degrees celsius. I wonder if they’ll do this in other parts of the city where summer temperatures soar, sometimes above forty degrees (104°F). He’s not sure, but hopes.

For the next few hours, we run through a fantastic flight of Greek wines, with each new glasses, he quizzes me about what I think it is and the age. He’s impressed when I guess about 70 percent correctly. We enjoy an incredible 2013 Creten Asyrtico from Oikonomoy, a 1997 Xinomavro from Naoussa, and a local Thessaloniki winemaker from Moschopolis who blended Asyrtico with Xinomavro.

Before long, we realize it’s 1:30 AM. We say our goodbyes, and sadly I won’t be back another day as tomorrow I’m off to Bulgaria. I wander the neighborhood that is now teeming with young people criss-cross crossing the streets and popping in and out of clubs where excessively loud music echoes off the streets and the graffiti-laden retractable doors of retail merchants and boutiques. I’m wielding my Canon DSLR, but not worried about the dark alleys and bristling energy.

Suddenly someone in a raised voice tries to catch my attention. I ignore him, figuring it’s a drunk teen. He’s persistent, and his voice is practically a yell. I turn around.

“What’s up?” I ask.

He tells me this is his neighborhood. “I won this place, everybody knows me,” he boasts. “Aren’t you going to take my picture?”

He wants attention, so I pull him under a street lamp and snap a few shots. Later while I’m sitting at a pub having my last Greek beer, I see him walk by and address a few locals—women. The more I observe, the more I realize he’s cheerful and harmless.

I get back to my hotel after 2 AM. I must sleep and get ready for the journey to Bulgaria tomorrow.

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