Mountain biking on Hymettus

Mount Hymettus (pronounced “imi-tos”) is one of the imposing mountains I can see from my rooftop. It runs along the eastern edge of Athens, with the airport on the other side of it. Not long ago I took a scenic road that ran right through it. This week the girls and I decided to ride our bikes on it. Thankfully Nikki scoped it out the weekend before, and she wisely suggested we park one car at the top and one car at the bottom so we could ride down the mountain and drive ourselves back up.

I’m new to this whole mountain biking thing. The roughest trail I’ve been on is the chat-laden Katy Trail that traverses my lovely home state of Missouri. Rose hadn’t, either, so I didn’t feel like a complete newbie. For some reason I didn’t think we’d be getting much exercise on this ride because we’d be going downhill.

Ha. Ha.

Turns out “downhill” is just a relative term. The trail actually undulates along the mountainside for quite awhile before it starts going down. Negotiating around large rocks and rough terrain was definitely challenging. Years ago I’d replaced my mountain bike tires with smoother street tires, so I wasn’t as well-equipped as I could have been. But as with every ride I’ve been on, my friends are a wealth of biking knowledge. Nikki showed me the correct stance for my feet and seat as we went down steep hills. I learned that I need to deflate my tires to a lower PSI for mountain biking vs. road biking. And I have to lower my seat if I’m going downhill. (That one was a bit intuitive, actually.) I had to walk the bike in quite a few places, especially around tree roots and slippery, loose-dirt slopes. I really, really, really didn’t want to fall. But we still had a great time making our way along the trail, stopping to take photos when we came across ruins or beautiful vistas.

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At one point we found ourselves at a cave-like shrine. Inside the walls were completely covered with religious artwork, and in the middle was an alter with lit candles.

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After roughing it on the trail for awhile, we eventually found ourselves on the switch-back road that we had driven up. And doooooowwwwwnnnn we went. Wheeeeeee! We loaded the bikes onto the hitch on Rose’s Jeep, then headed back up to my car. Along the way we stopped at a little coffee and snack shop for some warm drinks and spinach and cheese pies. I’m loving these little post-bike lunches.

Next week the fam and I are off to Pompeii, but I look forward to more biking adventures with these two when I return.

Bike riding in Greece

Since my last bike ride around the coast of Sounio, I’ve really tried to get out there on my bike at least once a week. Riding through Athens is a bit daunting. A year ago I wouldn’t have dreamed of it. My hairdresser called Athenian bike riders “crazy people.” But through trial and error I’ve managed to work out a system.

Last week I took Violet for another spin through Filothei. I left around 11 AM when traffic starts to lighten up. We took our little “secret passage” and after some huffing and puffing up some hills (and walking the bike up an impossible one), we made it to my friend Sue’s house for a play date. At around 2:30 I loaded Violet back in the seat for the return trip. Some Greek movers who were there to load up boxes for Sue’s neighbor helped me out…mostly by saying that this was not such a great idea. Point taken. Traffic definitely picks up again around 2, so much so that I mostly walked Violet on the sidewalk on the busier areas around our “secret passage.” I’m thinking next time we’ll either skip the play date and just ride around for an hour before 2, or I’ll take her out on weekend mornings instead.

Weekends are definitely the best time to bike, but not always the most convenient when you have family outings planned. Plus, mornings are starting to get a bit chilly. For the weekdays when I have a sitter and want to go solo, I always take a partner or two along with me. Rose, who accompanied me and Joanna on our last big bike ride, has been a wonderful bike buddy. She and her husband have been exploring all the nooks and crannies around her neighborhood, which is just a short distance from mine. Last week I biked to her house (through another “secret passage”), and she showed me some areas with bike paths running in middle of the streets. It reminded me a lot of when I used to bike through Brooklyn — there was a Hasidic Jewish part of town that had this fantastic, shady path in the middle of a busy avenue. But the traffic in Brooklyn was a bit less chaotic than in Athens, and even though we were in the more leafy suburbs, crossing the street was quite nerve-wracking. Even in DC cars would give me a wide berth, but here they pass by you with inches to spare.

So…

This week we elected to drive up to a hiking/biking path on Mount Parnitha, about a 30 minute drive north of Athens. I’d been here before on a picnic with Violet and friends last spring, but I never thought to bring my bike. This time we brought another friend along, Nikki, and the three of us had a lovely time riding through the picturesque mountains. Rose said it reminded her a lot of Colorado. With the pine and floral smells in the air and no traffic in sight, you could almost forget you were so near Athens.

Along the way we saw the ruins of the Tatoi Palace, a 19th century summer palace of the Royal Greek family. Many of the surrounding buildings were also boarded up and fenced in. Amid the overgrown trees and caved in roofs, you could picture its grandeur.

Around the back of one set of buildings we found an old car, perhaps one of the cars designated as a cultural monument and left to rot in a garage. And near the security building we saw this crazy fallen tree that looked like it had sheared another one on its way down.

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Oh, and I met a cow.

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Hello, cow.

The uphill trek just about did me in, but once it leveled off, I could actually enjoy the ride. The way down was a bit thrilling…and bumpy. After loading the bikes back in the car, we stopped at a nearby taverna for lunch and coffee. That’s a thing I’m doing now…drinking coffee. With about four sugars and half a cup of milk. I figured if I’m not going to put any real effort into learning the language, the least I can do is partake in the coffee culture. All they had on the menu was Nescafe and Espresso. (Sidenote: What is the deal with Greeks and Nescafe? They seem to revere the stuff, and as near as I can tell, it’s just instant coffee. Gross.) Espresso comes in an itty-bitty-tiny little cup. It wouldn’t fit four sugars. Believe me, I tried. But it packs quite a punch. We also enjoyed Greek salad with toasted bread and a plate of fried zucchini balls. Oh, and something translated as “walnut pie,” although it was more like a walnut and honey cake. All fantastic.

The girls and I have decided to make this a regular weekly thing, trying a different paved mountain trail or area of town each time, until it gets too cold to bike…around late November, give or take. If anyone else would care to join us, just let me know.

Time to get this girl a bike helmet

Last Sunday I got up early and biked through the “secret” passage to neighboring Filothei…and it was glorious. Hardly a car in sight, and the maze of hilly streets proved both interesting and challenging. Best of all, I came across a lovely little playground that had a structure perfect for a two-year-old.

Until now I never would have considered taking Violet in the baby bike seat that has been gathering dust in our basement. But I had to remind myself that when I bought this seat, way back when Liam was 18 months old, I used to cross six lanes of traffic on Georgia Avenue, then share the road on some back streets to get to the trail head in Silver Spring. And there was that time I got REALLY ambitious and took him on the Metro for a bike ride on The Mall. Compared to that, this was gonna be cake.

First, Violet would need a bike helmet. She’s been begging for a pink Peppa Pig one, but Hello Kitty was the best I could do. She didn’t mind one bit.

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Next, I had to get used to the balance. It’s been a little while since I had a kiddo on the back of my bike…though maybe not as long as you’d think. I was still seating Liam back there to ride the trails in Wichita when he was almost six. One of the advantages to having such small children is they almost never exceed the weight limit no matter their age. Even though it’s been a few years, my body remembered…just like riding a bike, as they say!

And then we were off! There was considerably more traffic at 11:30 AM on a Friday, but nothing I couldn’t handle. There were just a couple of dicey spots where I had to share the road, but drivers always slowed way down, and most of the time I could find a little nook to duck into while they went around. I actually felt a bit better riding against traffic on the one-way roads. I know that’s a big no-no, but it gave me more time to find a nook if I could see the cars coming toward me. And once I got into Filothei, the streets got wider and less busy.

I wish I had a video of Violet’s reaction. She LOOOOOVED it. She had her own little bell to ring, which she did…often. And I had a near constant commentary about the trees and the cars and the people we passed. “I like the bike very much, mom,” she said after a long, “Wheeee!” down the hill.

We met another mom and her son at the park, and they told us there are several other lovely parks in Filothei that we could probably bike to. I’m so tickled we’re finally getting back on the bike. Some of my fondest memories of Liam at this age were our little bike outings and picnics in DC and Orlando. I’m looking forward to many fun fall outings with Violet this year.

Bike ride and a bath

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It was a week for meeting new friends and saying goodbye to old ones…at least for a time. My biking and yoga partner in crime Joanna is off to the States for a few months, so we made a point of squeezing in one last bike ride on our favorite route through Sounio. This time we invited my new friend Rose along. Rose graciously loaned me her old road bike…and a bike shirt and some padded shorts. And she drove us down there with three bikes attached to her Jeep. She is seriously My Hero.

Last time we rode this route, I lagged behind because of my bike (Not that I was completely out of shape…ahem.) and we only went about 12 miles round trip before I cried uncle. But this time we went twice as far. I’d love to say I easily kept pace…but, no. Their superior bikes with clip pedals, and let’s face it, superior fitness levels left me struggling to keep up. So we decided it would be better if I set the pace in front.

And just like before, the views were breathtaking.

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On the way back we stopped yet again at what has become our favorite taverna by the sea for greek salad and tzatziki. We wore our swim suits under our biking gear, so after a quick bite we went out for a little swim. The beach was very rocky, hard on my feet, but once we got in the water, it was gorgeous. I wish I’d brought my snorkel. Soon enough it was time to drip dry, put dry socks on wet feet (which was actually easier than putting on the bike shorts again!), and head back. We barely made it in time for the big kids to let out of school. Poor Rose got a lot of practice driving in congested Athens traffic that day!

I’m sad that Joanna will be leaving for the rest of the fall, but glad I found a new friend to bike with. I’ve even gotten inspired to try a new route by my house — apparently there’s a “secret” passageway under frenetic Kiffisias Avenue that opens up to a verdant, quiet, hilly neighborhood next to mine called Filothei. I spent Saturday morning hunting for a new bike helmet (which are a bit difficult to find for adults here…you rarely see anyone under the age of 12 wearing one), and I ordered some fancy padded biker shorts online. I may just have to ask Santa for a fancy new bike this year, as well.

The day after our bike ride I went to my regular Pilates class, which was a little more challenging with the sore muscles. I was delighted to meet another newcomer from the Embassy there, and I’m hoping to entice her to come out and bike with me as well as take Pilates at my favorite yoga place. I am determined to shed all of this weight I’ve put on since I quit nursing!

That evening I had a girl’s spa night unlike any other. Joanna made us a reservation for four at Al Hammam Baths, a traditional Turkish bath down near the Plaka. She told us to bring our swim suits and not eat anything two hours prior. Other than that, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d been to the Intercontinental’s Turkish Bath in Istanbul years and years ago, but all I remembered was sitting in a hot room with James in our swim suits for about half an hour. This experience was way better. The four of us sat in the hammam for about 30 minutes, drenching ourselves with water from the taps if we got too hot, and lying on a stone pillar to relax. They had to shush us a few times — we are a chatty bunch — but soon we were relaxed and content. Then, in groups of two, they led us into another room of the hammam with two stone benches for us to lie on. As we lay first on our backs, then on our tummies, two rather buff and attractive dudes scrubbed us with exfoliating gloves, massaged our backs and limbs with bubbly olive oil soap, and even washed our hair. It. was. stupendous.

We finished the evening in the tea room with some refreshing Hibiscus tea and a bowl of Turkish Delights. A wonderful send off to Joanna, who I won’t see again until January. I will definitely be returning to the hammam, maybe for a date night — I saw they offered a couple’s package. But next time I’ll need to bring a bikini that unhooks in the back. My modest tankini was a bit awkward for the massage.

Note to self: buy a bikini. Second note to self: lose 10 pounds. Although, judging from the body types I’ve seen in bikinis this summer in Greece, that last one is optional. But with all of this biking, Pilates and Aerial Yoga, it’s a goal I hope to attain soon.

A lovely coastal bike ride

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My bike has been languishing in my garage since we moved here almost a year and a half ago, so when my friend Joanna mentioned that she liked to bike along the coastal road in Sounio, I jumped at the chance.

First, though, I had to tune up my bike. Pump some air in the tires, makes sure the brakes worked…as I stood there staring at it, I kept thinking something was off. Until I tried to get on it and realized the pedals were missing!! Thankfully, I noticed the movers had taped this big wad on the back of the bike. I initially thought that was just extra padding, but after unwrapping it I found my pedals inside. Whew!

After getting our kids to school and with the babysitter, we met in the parking lot of the Varkiza Resort in Gylfada, about 40 minutes southwest of my house. We had to ride along the shoulder — not ideal, but it’s pretty much the only way to bike around here. Up a hill (the first of many) and around a corner we came upon a vast expanse of sea cliff and sea. Breathtaking. I’ve driven this road before, but you can enjoy the views better on a bike.

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The water here is this amazing shade of aquamarine, simply astounding. Sheer cliffs had stairways and ramps cut into them to aid beachgoers in getting to the water. Joanna and I wished we’d brought our swimsuits. We briefly entertained just swimming in our underwear, but thought better of it. The weather seemed hot in the sun as we pedaled up hill, but it was still only in the mid-70s.

Up the hills, down the hills, we undulated along, pausing to take some photos along the way.

 

Joanna kept well ahead of me; with my heavy bike frame, plodding fat tires, and — let’s face it — less that stellar physique, I was no match for her streamlined racing bike. I was having serious bike envy. She even had special bike shorts with padding in the crotch. Adding those to my shopping list Right Now.

Along the way we passed a one-legged cyclist. I did an honest-to-God double take. What an inspiration! During one section of downhill coasting, a line of flowering trees wafted their intoxicating fragrance mere feet from my face as I carefully hugged the shoulder. And every kilometer or so, we’d pass a beautiful little shrine. They are all over the place in this country. Read about their meaning and origins here.

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After going about 6 miles, we turned back and stopped at a seaside restaurant we’d seen along the way. Just a few meters from the water, we had a lovely view from our table as we noshed on Greek salad with bread and taziki.

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The way back was a little hotter with more traffic. Joanna says she likes to come here early on Saturday mornings — there are hardly any cars, only lots of cyclists. Last time she came, she made it all the way to the Temple of Poseidon, 50 miles round trip. Yowza! Twenty miles was about my limit today. I can’t fathom going 50…though perhaps if I had a lighter road bike, I could manage it. Maybe I can rent or borrow one and give it a try. Sometime soon, I hope…I didn’t realize how much I missed biking until I got back out there. Such a lovely day! Can’t wait to go back!

Mastering two wheels in Athens

We bought my son Liam a bike for his 8th birthday recently, and it’s been a challenge finding a good place for him to learn to ride it. The rooftop is nice and flat, and safe from the crazy traffic, but it’s not big enough to get enough momentum for balance. Plus it’s pretty boring. We tried taking it to the park down the street, but he had to walk it most of the way, and getting it up and down the square curbs tested his endurance…and my patience. A friend recommended a park where she learned to ride a bike when she was a kid here in Athens. There’s a great little track set up like a road, and it has a tunnel. But it tends to get crowded, and the path leading from the parking lot is made of un-biker-friendly cobblestones. Other parks I’ve visited have way too many hills for a beginning rider, and the paths are full of gravel and cracks. (And stray dogs. Liam still hasn’t recovered from his altercation last summer.) I was really beginning to miss our old Kansas neighborhood with gleaming white sidewalks and nearby High Park with it’s black-top paved trails.

Then another friend suggested this place.

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Of course! In 2004, Athens hosted the summer Olympics, and they built this enormous complex. It really is a sight to behold. I go here every week for my Greek pilates class. And it’s a perfect place to learn to ride a bike. There’s a proper parking lot with ramps leading up to the stadiums. There’s plenty of space to explore. It’s only a 10-minute drive from our house. And Liam was particularly enamored of this feature…

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The Green Line train has a stop here. He’d been riding around in circles, then holler, “Look, I see the train!”

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This was only his third outing on the new bike, and while he’d pretty much mastered the balance bike, we had to go back to training wheels so he could get the hang of pedaling. This was the first time he really got up some speed. I may have to bring my bike next time so I can keep up! We took the training wheels off for a bit and I helped him balance in the grass. Along with his bike he received knee and elbow pads, which I think helped him feel a TINY bit less scared of falling. He’s a very cautious fellow. If wrapping him in Charmin were an option, I’m sure he’d go for it.

He did well, and if the weather holds out, we plan to make as many return trips on the weekends as we can. I suspect as we head into summer, the lack of shade will present a problem. I remember the first time I came here, I thought I was gonna die from the heat. And as I learned in Malta, my son does not handle heat well. But for now, this will do nicely.