This is Sparta

Words: Tom Owen / Images: 

The Peloponnese is a peninsular in Greece, the home of the ancient cities of Corinth and Sparta. Connected by the narrowest of strips of land to the rest of mainland Greece, it feels isolated and cut-off without actually being an island. As far as I know, the long thin neck on which the road from Athens is built is the world’s original ‘isthmus’.

The other distinctive thing about the geography of the Peloponnese is its three ‘fingers’, long narrow peninsulas that reach down south into the Mediterranean towards Africa. The middle one, the Mani, reaches furthest south, to the southernmost tip of mainland Greece in fact. In antiquity it was where the Spartans made their home and where the gate to the underworld was said to be.

As well as the ghosts of King Leonidas and his 300 men the Peloponnese is also the stomping ground of Pedal Greece, a tour company trying to draw cyclists away from the usual hotspots of Nice, Mallorca and Girona, in favour of something a little bit more rugged.

According to founder Agi Kolyvas, Pedal Greece chose the Peloponnese over the country’s many other beautiful regions because it harks back to an older and ‘less-regulated’ version of the country. Not many people come here, there aren’t many cars, but you can drive to Sparta on the highway from Greece, or fly into Kalamata, which is already on the peninsula.

I went to check out what Pedal Greece and the Peloponnese have to offer, to see if they really can rival the big winter cycling destinations.

The itinerary is called Spartan Roads, because Pedal Greece are not blind to the tough guy cachet that the name invokes, or the fact that there is some seriously challenging riding on the Mani.

Day 1: Sparta to Karavostasi

A gruelling day in the saddle, this 130 km ride began with a bang. Fifteen kilometres of climbing from the gun to the summit of the Taygetus, followed by undulating coastal roads to the gorgeous seaside hamlet of Karavostasi.

Day 2: Karavostasi to Karavostasi via Cape Matapan

A ride down the Mani peninsula to the southernmost point of the Peloponnese, with an absolute shincracker of a climb from the cape north towards Korogonianika, followed a few minutes later by one of the most spectacular stretches of road you’ll ever experience on a bike.

Day 3: Karavostasi to Sparta

Heading back northward, this is the ‘easy’ day. Rolling roads after a short sharp introduction to the day as we leave sea level. Plenty of scope for through-and-off smashery if that’s your bag.

Day one began at a hotel perched halfway up a mountain in the Taygetus range overlooking modern-day Sparta. At the end of the driveway we turned uphill and didn’t stop climbing for over an hour. At least I didn’t. The local hitters Pedal Greece recruited to pace us managed it in considerably less than an hour, and had enough energy left in the tank to ride halfway back down to me and keep me company. This was to become a recurring theme throughout.

Some riders are more spartan than others, clearly, but it was great fun riding with a crop of local cyclists who effusively explained what they loved so much about their local roads. Tour experiences can sometimes feel like you’re gazing at the place you’re visiting through zoo glass – there, but also decidedly not-there. On the Mani I didn’t get that vibe at all.

If the name of the mountain range, Taygetus, rings a bell, you might know it as the mountain from which the Spartans used to throw their unwanted children and violent criminals, as referenced in the movie 300. In the real, non-Gerard Butlerised world, archaeologists have found plenty of evidence of adults being thrown from the mountain, but not so much of babies that were deemed ‘too weak’.

There is not much flat in this part of Greece, a deceptively mountainous country, and the Taygetus range – despite its grisly history – became a constant companion throughout the three demanding days of riding as it petered out to the south of the Mani.

Mont Ventoasty

Cooked. Crispy. Frazzled. Fried. Flambéed. Roasting. Those are the words passing through my head on day two as I battle the sharp inclines of the road that wraps around Cape Matapan. I’m burning up and it’s not even noon. The Peloponnese is scorching hot, even in the dog days of summer. Cycling here is only for the strong, or those with a team car to regularly dispense chilled bottles of water and tasty snacks. Luckily, I fall into the latter camp.

I’ve been cycling in lots of different bits of Europe, but this is one of very few places I’ve been that’s so isolated that you couldn’t safely ride here without support of some kind. In some places there simply isn’t any water. Or food. Or really any road traffic to hitch a lift home with. Most of the communities that we ride through seem to teeter on the knife-edge between ‘rustic tourist hotspot’ and ‘totally abandoned’. It’s a real wilderness, but deeply affecting because of its wildness. It truly feels like you’ve reached the end of the world.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, the celebrated travel writer, visited this part of the world once, and when he crossed from the Taygetus into the Mani proper, he described it thus:

“A wilderness of barren grey spikes shot precipitously from their winding ravines to heights that equalled or overtopped our own; tilted at insane angles, they fell so sheer that it was impossible to see what lay, a world below, at the bottom of our immediate canyon. Except where their cutting edges were blurred by landslides, the mountains looked as harsh as steel. It was a dead planetary place, a habitat for dragons.”

Admittedly, I didn’t read Fermor’s book until after my visit, but I do remember thinking – rather less eloquently – that the part of the country at the southernmost tip of mainland Greece seemed like somewhere a dragon might hang out, a sort of Mont Ventoux-meets-Game of Thrones.

Seeking rest and some shelter from the sun, we sit in the walled courtyard of a tiny old church under the watchful stare of two large busts. Generals, or partisans, who fought in the second world war. It’s hard to imagine anything so large as a war visiting this part of the world – it all feels so sleepy now.

The final day is one big climb and then rolling roads back to our starting point in the Taygetus. It goes by all too quickly, with the deserted, high roads of the inland peninsula giving way first to shaded squares in sun-lit villages, then larger towns, an arterial road – our first real encounter with fast-moving automobiles in 48 hours – and then finally the sprawl of urban Sparta. We have time for a dip in the hotel pool and to take a snapshot with the giant statue of Leonidas in the town centre before heading up to Athens and the airport. I leave feeling captivated by Greece, a country I never once thought of for road cycling – but which has turned out to be one of the most beautiful I’ve had the privilege to visit.



This feature first appeared in Conquista 24.

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