Cycling through Greece
Description of the cycle guide and route through Greece
The route through Greece runs from Corfu in the north-west, island-hopping along the coast and on to the historical sites on Peloponnese, including Olympia, Mystras, Sparta, Mycenae and Epidaurus. It goes to Athens by ferry, then returns through Corinth to Peloponnese and its beautiful, archaic interior, eventually heading back to the west coast at Patras and then returning to Igoumenitsa via Nafpakhtos, Mytikas and Preveza.
Greece is not for softies. There’s a lot of short as well as lengthy climbs over the entire route that cannot be compared with the gentle, rolling hills found further north in Europe. But what you get in return is truly fantastic. The route slips along turquoise, shimmering, bays, then as if travelling back in time in the Peloponnese hinterland, it carries on through dazzlingly white towns and villages with their enticing tavernas. Greece is not just about Olympia, Mycenae, Epidaurus or Corinth, it’s also about the ancient landscape where goat herders tend their flocks, occasionally crossing your path on this rugged terrain. You might even ask yourself, “Am I still in Europe?” Yes this is still Europe, but a distant relative who also happens to be the very source of our civilisation.
Is cycling in Greece simply going to be a hard time? No, not at all, because there are also days when you can whistle your way through the landscape with one hand on the handlebars. We’ve selected most parts of the route so that you can gradually climb through the countryside with the minimum of traffic. However, there are so few roads in general that sometimes the choice is extremely limited and you simply have to make that steeper climb. But we have been able to avoid the busy roads. The only places where traffic can become a real problem are in and around the port at Piraeus and also the port at Patras. We’ve also used ferries to avoid some busy sections, which provide an excellent and enjoyable alternative.
The route description starts in Corfu. There are lots of flights to Corfu, many which start early in the season. You can also reach Corfu by boat from Italy. Whether you arrive on Corfu by plane of boat, it’s also a good place to find your cycling legs. Apart from that, if something’s not right with your bicycle, Corfu’s the ideal place to have it fixed before starting the trip.
Corfu is actually a lovely, green island and perfect for cycling, but of course this route is not about the island and very soon you’ll be taking the short ferry ride to Igoumenitsa. The route takes you along the coast to Parga, a lovely town lying next to the sea. After Parga the route bears off away from the larger roads and you start cycling over the small roads running behind the beaches stretching into the distance. Just before Preveza you reach Nicopolis, an ancient Roman town built by Octavian in 31 BCE. It’s pretty extensive, and the excavations are continuing to turn up even more interesting artefacts. You are ferried across at Preveza and then go on to Lefkas via the pontoon bridge. On the western side of the island you come to Vasiliki, a lovely village to the south with many terraces along the waterfront and hotels and hostels a little further along opposite the sandy beach. This is where the ferry goes to Fiscardo on Kefalonia. The road rises up along the hillside and the view of the villages and bays below is simply magnificent. Some bays are so beautiful that you’d probably do the climb again just for the view. You only live once. The route then descends back down to sea level at Poros from where you take the ferry to Kyllini on Peloponnese.
Kyllini is also attractive and the terrace running along sea is perfect place to stop. The route to Olympia is virtually flat all the way. It’s worth spending half a day in Olympia with its beautifully preserved temples. The route then goes inland, gradually rising towards Dimitsana. The hills and mountains here no longer look typically Greek. You cycle through pine forests and Dimitsana has none of those familiar Greek white houses, but instead it has robust-looking buildings made of natural stone, providing protection against the snows and low temperatures of winter. Once at the top, the route descends via Megalopolis to Mystras and Sparta in the south. Along the way there is a delightful monastery nestling against the side of the mountain.
Mystras is a Byzantine ghost town that was once home to many monasteries, churches and palaces. It was a large kingdom and it withstood many attacks, but eventually it succumbed to the plundering and pillage carried out by the Albanians. What remains there is still very impressive.
Sparta nearby is much better known, but there isn’t so much to see. Between here and Leonidio lies the fiercest climb of the whole route. Not that it’s any steeper than 8%, but there’s a long climb between the last village and the top. The sea awaits you on the other side where you cycle along the coast to Nafplio.
Nafplio used to be the capital of the new Greece (First Hellenic Republic). It’s really a nice little town, quite imposing and tidy - almost un-Greek in a way. Just under 20 kilometres to the north is Mycenae, perhaps the oldest cultural centre in Greece. It goes without saying that it’s normally busy with bus loads of tourists, but then you might strike lucky.
After Nafplio the route rises up again via a narrow road towards Epidaurus. The open air theatre at Epidaurus is within its ancient, historical context, quite enormous. Thanks to the fabulous acoustics it remains one of the wonders of the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite our modernity this amazing feat of acoustic perfection dating back to ancient times still evokes a sense of insignificance.
Following on from Epidaurus the route continues to climb a little up to the ridge from where it descends again down to the coast. Just a couple of kilometres from the coast, along a very small road, there is the little known excavation of a temple at Troezen. Standing completely alone between some ancient pillars in the middle of a field of poppies gently swaying in the late spring breeze. This is surely much more evocative of ancient Greece than queuing up to see the Acropolis in Athens.
At Galatas you take the little ferry boat over to the island of Poros. This is a favourite destination, also for Athenians, thanks to the excellent ferry service. This ferry connection also takes the route to Piraeus, and with the help of local cyclists we have managed to plot out the only quiet route from here to the Acropolis. Everything is relative of course, because you still have to haul your bike up a couple of short stairways. If you don’t want to cycle, you can also take the metro, as long as it’s not the rush hour. The metro also goes to Athens airport.
Leaving Athens in a westerly direction we take the ferry from Piraeus to Salamina on the island of Salamis. You leave all the hustle and bustle behind you once you’ve reached halfway over the island and with the little ferry crossing you end up on the mainland again at Megara. Via little winding roads the route heads towards the Gulf of Corinth and onwards to the town of the same name with its historical excavations. It then goes inland again through a valley to the Temple of Nemean Zeus and the surrounding vineyards. Each year the Greeks make an annual cycling trip going from winery to winery to taste the wines. Sounds like a great idea, and the landscape you cycle through on the route makes it even better. Take plenty of water with you - leave the wine till later. The route rises up into the most ancient landscape on Peloponnese and goes around the top of dried out Lake Stymphalia. The landscape here is incomparable, in spring the colours are simply stunning.
There’s quite a few steep climbs and descents here, but fortunately you come across a number of tavernas along the way. The route goes via Klitoria to Kalavryta, which is a delightful mountain township where at over 750 metres the summer temperatures are delightfully cooler. Snow lies here over the winter. Two famous monasteries are located near Kalavryta. Agia Lavra was where the uprising against the Ottomans started in 1821, and a couple of kilometres further to the north is the Mega Spileo. There is an unwelcome piece of history attached to Kalavryta. During WWII the German occupiers carried out reprisals following partisan actions and resulted in the murder of all the men and boys and the village was razed to the ground. The people here have not forgotten.
From Kalavryta the route heads west over some hills and valleys to Patras. The route is longer than going directly northwards via the Gulf of Corinth, but the descent is very steep and the road along the coast is not cycle-friendly.
From Patras the sea straits are now spanned by the Rio-Antirrio Bridge, although very few people use it because of the high toll charges. The ferry still runs to and fro and is actually more convenient. Once on the other side the route heads towards Nafpaktos, the ancient Lepanto, where the famous sea battle took place against the Ottomans. Nafpaktos is a decent little town where you can stop and regain your breath before heading uphill again to Lake Trichonida. Taking the route via Thermo, you descend through the Evinos valley, a beautifully rugged place, although there is also quite a bit of climbing. There’s also a shorter and easier way to the lake. After the Agrinio plain where rice is grown, the route rises again steeply but briefly over narrow lanes to the Bampini valley. This eventually leads to a lovely descent to Mytikas on the edge of the sea. Very nice and not too touristic. The route continues along the coast, remaining quite flat all the way to Preveza. We have figured out an alternative way back to Igoumenitsa, but for those prefer it, you can either take a flight from Preveza back home, or jump on the bus to Igoumenitsa.
This guide is published in both English and Dutch. It includes a detailed list of camp sites, hotels and B&Bs.
Edition/Year of publication: 3rd edition, 2019
Language: Dutch and English
Distance: 1800 km
Detailed Maps: 65, scale 1:250.000
City Maps: 5, scale varies
Difficulty rating: Sometimes very challenging, but also easy sections
Route direction: Anticlockwise
GPS available: Download GPS-tracks
Sample pages with detailed maps and height profiles.