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In September 2002 I traveled to Kallithea, in Greece, in order to play with the Cardiff chess team in the European Club Championships. During the week, apart from my game against the Irish club, I had lost every game. I had also washed my motor-cycle goggles, which had acquired more than their fair share of dead flies, and hung them on a tree to dry. Somebody had stolen them so I started the return trip with no goggles, but armed with a list of towns suggested by Microsoft Autoroute. I set off after lunch on the Sunday.
I successfully navigated to Salonica, Veroia, Kozani, and Grevena, only to run out of Road signs. I asked the nearest Greek for the road to Kipourio, the next place on my list. I was told to return to the main street, and cross the river using the next bridge upstream, just before a large parked bus. I found the bus and the bridge with no problem and carried on following the road. The young Greek had pointed me in the right direction so I cannot blame him for what was to follow.
After 20 miles, my "petrol low" lamp came on, and 5 miles later I reached a place called Perivolo. After driving through town, I came out on a forestry road. Convinced that I had gone wrong somewhere, I stopped the bike, took out my computer, and looked up Perivolo. My computer had never heard of the place. So I put the computer back, and returned to town to ask directions, including where the nearest petrol station was. I was told that petrol, going back the way I had come, was 40 miles away. Absolutely no chance of making that! I was also told that the forestry road led to a place called Vovousa, about 15 km away, where there was petrol available.
After following the forestry road (and this is being fairly kind to it) for 15 miles I reached Vovousa. Relieved, I stopped and asked where the petrol station was. It's amazing how much you can communicate when you speak, with no Greek at all, to a Greek who speaks no English, or any other known language. The nearest petrol station was still about 30 miles away. There was no car in the village which ran on petrol. They all ran on diesel for some reason. There was no bus service, and no taxi in the village. Continuing with my sign language I said "I'm dead!" and pointed to myself and went through the motions of slitting my throat. My friend nodded his head and wandered off. It seemed like a good time to stop for a cigarette, and consider my options.
The only road sign that I'd seen which offered hope, in fact the only road sign at all that I'd seen, had pictures of a cup, a knife and fork, and a bed, which suggested a Hotel, 3 miles away.
Plan "A" was to stay a night at the Hotel and, in the morning, to start hitch-hiking to and from the petrol station. There didn't seem to be a Plan "B". After finishing the cigarette, and a few more attempted "conversations" with the locals, all of which told me nothing that I didn't know already, I set off for the Hotel, as it was starting to get dark. About 300 yards from the Hotel, my petrol ran out, and the bike died. I pushed it about 100 yards and gave up. The Honda Firestorm is a heavy bike, especially when loaded with luggage, and more so on a forestry road. I walked the remaining distance to the Hotel, getting there at about a quarter to eight . I knocked the door, rang the bell, and shouted.
There was an outside light at the Hotel and lights on inside, but no sign of any human. There was also a remarkably placid guard dog, which ignored me completely. There was a log fire burning away inside. Surely nobody lights a log fire if they have no intention of coming back? And somebody has to feed the dog. So I waited.
Eight o'clock came and went. As did Nine. Then it started raining. Fortunately there was an overhanging first floor to the building so I could shelter from the rain. The dog joined me. I was contemplating a night outside, sleeping on the patio. I wanted to return to the bike to get my waterproof suit, but, although it was only 200 yards away, I wasn't sure I could find it. It was, by now, totally dark and the nearest streetlamp was probably somewhere near the nearest petrol station.
Vovousa is close to the Pindos National Park, in the middle of a remote and fairly hilly area, the size of Glamorganshire, which has lots of trees, but no real roads, no street lamps, and worst of all, no petrol stations. I was stuck with no bed, no transport, no sleeping bag, and no waterproofs. It was already very dark and it was getting very wet and cold. Vovousa is at about 1000 meters altitude. Have you ever slept rough on the summit of Snowdon in September? No - I thought not. Nor have I.
At 21:45, a car drove up the road, and turned off the road towards the Hotel, and stopped. "Hotel?" I asked, pointing at the building. "Yes" he said "but the man who has the keys is in the village." He speaks English! Amazing! I am saved! I got in his car, and he drove me to the small bar in the village, where it was nice and warm. I ordered a bottle of Amstel. Nikos, the man with the keys, was singing away. When he'd finished his song he offered me some food and started singing again. When he'd finished his second song he told me that it was traditional, local, Greek music.
"Very nice" I said.
"So where are you from?" he asked "England?"
"No" I said "Wales"
"Ah, Wales!" he said "Mark Hughes!"
"Yes! Ryan Giggs, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey!"
"Do you have traditional music in Wales?"
"Oh yes - lots of it."
"OK - sing a song from Wales!"
So I sang Myfanwy, the only song that I knew completely in Welsh. The six people in the room all clapped. I could feel a karaoke evening coming on. Nikos was a Tottenham Hotspur fan, and also a fan of Irish Folk music. So, aided by a CD of some Irish group, we took it in turns to sing Irish and Scottish songs. We left the bar at about midnight. When I tried to pay for my food and beer, he said "don't worry - it's all paid!"
The Hotel was more of an "Outward Bound" centre, and I had a 40 bed bunkhouse to myself. Very comfortable, clean, and modern.
By the morning, I had formed Plan "B". I would telephone a taxi company at Metsovo (where the nearest petrol station was) and get the driver to fill a 5 litre can and bring it to Vovousa, where I would pay for both the taxi and the petrol. It had to be better than hitch-hiking. I asked Nikos to telephone the taxi company for me. "You don't want a taxi from down there!" he said "The people from the towns always charge too much. They think we are stupid up here in the hills. Give me five minutes!" He telephoned a few friends, and soon found a volunteer.
His friend set off at about 10:00, with 60 Euros and an empty petrol can, and was back at 14:00 with ten litres of the finest lead-free petrol.
The "Hotel" cost 10 Euros for the night. As we shook hands when I left, Nikos gave me a cassette of traditional Greek folk music.
I don't send Christmas Cards on principle. I refuse to support what has turned into a traditional Capitalist festival. But, in 2002, Nikos got one.
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