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I had been playing chess, with the Cardiff team, in the European Club Championships in Rethymnon, Crete, and I had six days to get to Plovdiv, in Bulgaria, where I was playing again, with the Welsh team, in the European Team Championships.
The first leg of the trip, from Rethymnon to Iraklion, went smoothly enough. I had most of Sunday to kill so I took the more scenic "old road" to Iraklion, arriving there at around 15:30, so I had 5 hours to kill (lying in the sun, reading a book) before my ferry left for Piraeus at 20:30
The ferry dumped me in Piraeus at 05:30, which was a bit of a shock to the system. Being half asleep I accidentally headed Northeast. Greece is badly signposted at the best of times, and roadworks, diversions, city centres, and darkness do not help. When I finally got out of Athens, I was on the E75 toll-motorway which is not what I intended, so I turned off at Kapandriti (about 20 miles out of Athens) and headed west. I was on holiday and I wanted the scenic route. By now the sun was up and I could navigate using its position in the sky which was just as well as road-signs had totally disappeared. The problem was that every time I found a junction, I turned west and the road always went around a bend and took me back south again. Some time later I ended up back on the E75, going the other way this time, on the outskirts of Athens. I decided that the easiest way out of this mess was to stay on the E75 and go back, past Piraeus, on to the road that I should have taken originally. So, I went back through the same road works (the Motorway was temporarily closed) and I found myself back at the port of Piraeus. 100 miles and 4 hours wasted!
So I started again from Piraeus, through Thiva to Lamia where there was a very unusual thunderstorm. In spite of lots of thunder and lightning, there was no sign of rain. There was a lightning strike, judging from the time between the flash and the bang, not more than a few hundred yards away. The ignition system on the bike packed up for a few seconds and I got an electric shock on my knee: not a big one, the sort of thing you get when you're wearing the wrong shoes and every car that you touch gives you a small zap. So I watched the rest of the storm from the safety of a cafe. Later, following the signs to Larisa, I ended up back on the toll-motorway again. I tried a few times to use normal roads, but following road-signs always led me back on the toll-motorway, so eventually I gave up and just followed the toll-motorway. Shortly before Larisa I ran out of petrol. Fortunately there was a fuel station about half a mile away. I could just see the 'Texaco' sign from where I was. Out with the spare can! The rest of the day went fairly smoothly. I camped on a beach near Katerini, about 50 miles short of Thessaloniki.
Up in the morning and on the road to Thessaloniki, where I needed a Honda dealer to adjust my chain, which was starting to get seriously slack. After asking directions in Thessaloniki at a petrol station, a Volvo (truck) dealer, an Alfa-Romeo dealer, and a car-park attendant, I finally found it. Davanopoulos's garage is hidden is some serious back-streets. A girl who worked there acted as interpreter as I explained my problem. After talking to one of the fitters, who had inspected the chain, she said to me ...
"Your chain is ..." and after some more consultation for the right word "Your chain is fucked"
"OK" I said, not batting an eyelid "Can you fit a new one?"
"Yes" she said "no problem. It will take about an hour."
An hour and a half (and 200 Euros) later, I was back on the road. I stopped and camped on another beach, near Nea Peramos, 15 miles short of Kavala. There's no point in carrying a tent if you're not going to use it, is there?
Up in the morning and back on the road. If only life were that simple! Had I known what was coming I would have manhandled the bike backwards a few meters, then loaded it, and then continued. I chose instead a shortcut across the sand. Large, heavily laden, bikes and soft sand do not go well together. I got seriously stuck. After removing all of the luggage, the only way to make progress was to (1) lay the bike on its side (2) put some stones under the back wheel (3) lift the bike back up (4) drive about 2 yards, during which the back wheels sinks into the sand again, and (5) repeat the whole process. After an hour and a half I was almost back on the gravel, and I was just putting some more rocks under the back wheel when I heard "Psssssssssssssssss". Not good news, and neither was my brand new chain getting covered in sand! Another half an hour and I was back on the gravel. With a flat rear tyre the bike does not handle well but, once moving, I just kept going up to the main road, parked the bike and, after a few trips on foot to carry the luggage up to the bike, I considered my options. There weren't many. And most of them involved a sign saying "Cardphone - 500 meters up the road". And I have a couple of phone cards! Isn't it wonderful when things go well? So I started walking, hoping that the operator would speak English. The Cardphone was inside a transport cafe, so I decided to ask for help. No one spoke any English. So in my best sign language: "I have a motor cycle. I have a puncture. I need to telephone the Honda dealer in Kavala. I do not know the number". A ten year old girl stepped in as interpreter, and said it was dangerous to leave the bike where it was: there are a lot of thieves around. So I walked back to the bike and rode it, very slowly, back to the cafe. By this time they had found a company with a breakdown truck. They handed the phone to me and ...
"Are you a member of the AA?" said a voice.
"No" I replied "I am a member of the RAC, but only in Britain, I have no insurance here in Greece. I can pay for it myself".
"It's 130 Euros" said the voice.
"That's OK" I said. What choice did I have? Fortyfive minutes later the breakdown truck arrived. My bike was loaded on and we set off for Kavala. After stopping to ask directions twice, the driver of the truck found the Honda dealer, and unloaded me and the bike.
Fitting a new tyre was no problem. The only disturbing news was that my front tyre (fitted in Trondheim) was rated at 80 mph maximum. It hadn't cramped my style so far, but it might have had I known! I suppose it was a bit optimistic to expect a Honda main dealer to accept Visa cards, not that I'm totally convinced that it was a real Honda dealer, as their workshop was on the pavement outside the shop, but they obviously knew about tyres.
I left my luggage there while I drove the bike into town looking for a cash machine. "We are unable to complete the transaction" said the screen. Fortunately my other card worked OK: another minor triumph! So: back at the garage, I paid for the tyre (another 200 Euros), loaded the luggage onto the bike, and was on the road again at 14:30. North through Drama (who names these places and how did they know I was coming?) and Kato Nevrokopi, to Exochi (the last town in Greece before the Bulgarian border). There were no Hotels in town so I went back to Kato Nevrokopi where there was a Hotel. I booked in. I wasn't sure whether the Chess team were arriving in Plovdiv on Thursday or Friday, so I didn't know whether I was staying for one night or two but I booked in anyway. The phone in the room didn't work. The management were unable to meter how much the calls cost. So what's the point of having a phone in the room? I could, however, pick up my e-mail from the office downstairs. Pulse dialling again, but I was rapidly becoming an expert at overcoming obstacles like this!
One useful e-mail from the Wales captain so I knew that there was no point in arriving in Plovdiv until the Friday afternoon, and I even knew which Hotel I should be aiming at when I got there. So I was here another night, and I'd planned to catch up with some work, but since checking into the Hotel I'd found that the border crossing 10 miles up the road was no longer open. So the first thing on Friday morning will be a 100 mile detour to Kulata, where the border is open.
I rode through northern Greece to Kulata, in Bulagaria, along quiet country roads, with no problems and then turned right for a trip through the Bulgarian countryside. I used all of the Bulgarian currency that I had at a petrol station. The first town, Gotse Delchev, looked like most quiet French towns (a bit scruffy and badly in need of a coat of paint) but the second town, Dospat, looked like it had been built the day before - it was immaculate, and wouldn't look out of place in the Swiss or Austrian alps. Out of town Bulgaria looked a bit on the second-hand side: nothing like as bad as Romania but nonetheless a bit worn and scruffy. A flooded road is nothing unusual in either country but I would have thought that with this road, given its location, good drainage shouldn't have been a problem.
Late in the afternoon I rejoined the main road from Sofia to Plovdiv and I passed an upside-down car. About two miles later I was waved into a lay-by by a policeman who spoke, in an animated fashion, to me. I speak no Bulgarian so I replied with the only Russian that I know.
"I no not speak Russian. I do not speak Bulgarian. I speak English."
He checked my rear number plate and decided that my story was credible. He spoke into his radio and, after a couple of minutes, a policewoman arrived and she continued the conversation in English.
"Did you pass a road accident?"
"Why did you not stop to help?"
"There were lots of people there already, with cars. I am on a motor-cycle. I do not speak the language. I know no first-aid. I have no mobile phone. I cannot possibly be of any use.
"It is against the law, in Bulgaria, to drive past a road accident. You must stop to help"
"I'm very sorry. I didn't know that this is the law. If I had known I would have stopped - I just cannot imagine that I might be useful"
She spoke into her radio for a minute or two, and then let me continue my journey. I suspect that if I had been Bulgarian I would have been in more trouble.
The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful. I was getting short of petrol, and short of money to buy any, but I made it to the hotel in Plovdiv without even using the spare can.
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