06 May 2019 – Zante’s hilly north

Although we have only been taking cycling holidays for a few years, they have mostly been to Spain (mainland or islands). Looking for something a little different (but still good value), we set about investigating Jet2’s other European destinations for a trip for four (Colette and me, plus cycling buddies and holiday experts Lynne and Keith). We like Jet2 packages, because not only do they carry your bike for less than most competing companies, they also include ground transport for the bike to your chosen hotel at a small extra cost. To organise that yourself would be a lot of extra hassle and expense.

After a few maybes, Lynne came up with the idea of Zante (aka Zakynthos) – a small Greek island set in the Ionian sea close to mainland Greece. For comparison, Zante is slightly smaller than the island of Arran, off the west coast of Scotland. You can cycle round Arran in a (long) day, where the entirety of the roads can be summed up by the Greek letter theta θ, so you might not think there would be enough to keep you occupied for a week. However, the road network on Zante is MUCH more extensive.

Lynne identified the area around Alykes as an ideal base to access all parts of the island, and we booked Hotel Clio for the first week of the holiday season, which starts at the beginning of May. I have been interested by the idea of cycling in Greece since reading Edward Enfield’s “Greece on my wheels” a few years ago. Indeed, there is a ferry from the island to the mainland port of Killini, allowing the more adventurous cyclist the theoretical possibility of riding to Olympia and back in a day. Feeling less than Heraclean however, we decided to stay put and visit as much of the Zante as possible.

Arriving at the airport, we were greeted by a very enthusiastic Jet2 rep, who was excited to see our bike bags. “This is the first time we’ve had bikes on Zante” he told us. An equally warm welcome awaited us at the hotel, where they had a delicious dinner waiting, despite our very late arrival. That was such a great start and we went to bed full of excitement about exploring Zante.

The major topographical feature of Zante is the mountain range forming a spine running from north to south. To the west of this, the area is rugged and hilly, with high cliffs on the coast. To the east, the ground is mostly flat or gently undulating, with occasional isolated hills that can either be visited or skirted around.

We had several days where we stuck to the low ground, twisting and turning our way through picturesque olive groves and vineyards on mostly very quiet roads. However, on the day in question here, we were taking on the challenge of riding the hilly north.

The route began by riding west from Alykes to pick up the main road north. Within a minute or so, we hit a hill and were down to lowest gear. The gradient was very rude, forcing us to take a breather at the first junction. A woman with a heavy-looking hire bike was there too, doing the same thing. We said hello and discovered that she was heading for Shipwreck Cove. Ah, so are we, but she wanted to take the most direct route.

The five of us then crawled up more steepness till we reached the main road, where we turned north. We wished our friend good luck and went on ahead.

From that point, the road rose steadily, bringing us out alongside the east coast, with lovely views out to sea. We passed a junction with a road leading left over the spinal mountains where there was a sign for the shipwreck, so we felt confident that our friend, who lacked a map, would be able to find her way there… assuming she hadn’t been put off by the hills already.

Soon, the road north started to take on steep undulations with gradients in the high teens, meaning very slow ups and frighteningly fast downs. Luckily the road was wide at this point, so that it could accommodate trucks going to and from the nearby quarry. Having said that, the traffic was fairly light, being early season.

We paused at Makris Gialos, where we were impressed by the rock formations alongside the beach. The rocks had been eroded to form archways and small caves which looked irresistible for swinning and snorkelling. The Blue Caves are a larger version further to the north, to which boats take tourists. They must be amazing. But we were cycling, so onwards and upwards we went…

Keith and Lynne weren’t afraid of toppling back into the sea (I wouldn’t have sat there!!!)

A bit further north, we arrived at Agois Nikolaos, where the horseshoe shaped bay is protected by a small island at its mouth. The beach is a popular tourist location, with plenty of bars and cafes. We were ready for a coffee, so it was time to choose. Colette spotted La Storia, a place right on the beach, with seating precariously close to the water. It was a perfect location for a relaxing coffee in the sun, and it helped that on an island of very variable coffee quality, this was by far the best!

From sea level, we then started a steady climb that turned inland and got gradually more intense. I reached the village at the top and stopped by a junction with sweat dripping off me. When the others arrived, they were in two minds about what I had in store next. I had planned for us cycle to the northernmost part of the island, meaning going back down to sea level, turning around and going all the way back up again.

They followed me part of the way down before saying “Nah” and turning around. The road surface here was pretty poor, meaning the descent wasn’t as much fun as it might have been. I came to the Taverna Faros, which looked like it might otherwise have made a nice place for lunch, before carrying on downwards past the lighthouse to the end of the road. I left the bike and walked up to the rocky shoreline to the furthest north point of the island. It was surprisingly un-picturesque, compared to the rest of the island, but at least I’d ticked it off!

Going back up was a bit of a slog, but the gradient wasn’t as hard as we’d done on the other side. However, the state of the road made it just as hard. I got a thumbs up from a driver passing the other direction, which made me smile.

Colette was waiting for me under a tree near the top, after which we continued to the junction where we’d congregated previously. Lynne and Keith weren’t there, and I imagined they might have gone on ahead. Colette called them to find out that they were just round the corner, where they had discovered an interesting place full of arts and crafts.

Looking at the profile of the ride, we still had another 1000 ft to climb before we reached the top of the hill and found a lunch stop, so it was back on the bikes for us. After a while, I gazed down to the left and saw far below us, the island at Agios Nikolaos where we had our coffee stop seemingly hours ago. We weren’t making very fast progress!

The climb was sunny, quiet and peaceful, and I was happy to take it nice and steady in order to enjoy the surroundings. It helped that there were very few cars on the road. However, when I was approacing a blind corner, a van came up behind me. I assumed that he would wait till I’d got round before overtaking, but he just went for it at the same time that I caught sight of a white hire car coming the opposite direction. I held out my left arm, palm facing backwards to tell him the coast wasn’t clear, but he ignored that and carried on. The oncoming car had to brake suddenly and the van nearly hit me as he squeezed back onto the right side of the road. I could have, and maybe should have, banged on the side as he passed.

Look what Lynne found!

After that excitement, we congregated at a wee place called Elies, where there was an olive press. We went in to find out how the olives are processed to produce the olive oil. That small factory is used by all the surrounding producers to process their harvest, and after that we spotted quite a number of other such places across the island.

As the climb continued, it started to cloud over and we felt a cool wind from the west. By the time we reached the top of the climb, we needed to put on all our extra layers. There was a slight descent and some more undulations to come, taking us to Volimes where we were hoping to find somewhere for lunch. During one of the uphill sections, approaching a corner, I had a repeat scare, this time involving a blue jeep-like car instead of a van. The oncoming car had to do an emergency stop, and Colette, who was just behind me, said that the driver looked shocked and needed a minute to compose himself before starting off again. I guess that’s a downside of an island with very few cyclists – the drivers don’t know how to deal with them.

We arrived at Volimes to find it looking a bit run down and deserted. I was sure that I’d seen a few tavernas shown on Google Maps when I looked earlier, so we went in search and after a few closed down establishments, found a small, slightly scruffy, roadside taverna. Although devoid of customers, there was someone serving who brought us handwritten menus. It looked a bit more pricey than elsewhere we had eaten on the island, but not much more than most places back home, so we thought why not, and ordered our food.

We were brought a basket of bread and four forks, but no plates or knives or butter, so it went uneaten. The food when it arrived was ok, but then after asking for the bill, we were brought four strawberry and kiwi tarts. Ah, what a wonderful gesture we thought, and I was just about to devour mine when Lynne said to look closer. The strawberries were covered in mould! The guy should have gone to Specsavers, but that left us with a dilemma about what to do with our toxic freebies. We wrapped them up and chucked them in the bin. Then we paid the bill and got out of there as fast as possible.

I started to feel queasy, wondering what that said about the general hygeine in the place. So off I went, and just round the first corner were some really nice clean looking tavernas, with plenty of people eating there. Damn!

I was so concerned about getting out of Volimes that I didn’t notice I’d taken the wrong turn and that the others weren’t following. I phoned the others to find that they had stopped at a roadside stall selling sweet treats that they had sampled to settle their stomachs. That gave me time to work out a detour to get us back on track.

The detour took us down some really narrow lanes that had single white lines painted down either side and also the middle. That made the individual lanes comically narrow – like maybe about 2 or 3 feet wide! We decided that they were cycle lanes, as there weren’t any cars to be seen. The fact that bushes had grown halway across in some places must mean that cars almost never use these lanes. The upside was a perfect detour through lovely quiet countryside.

All too quickly we came back on course and reached the main west coast road, which after a mile or so, took us to the junction leading down to shipwreck bay. We paused here to contemplate what came next. It was a long way down just to come back up again, but we all decided to go for it.

It certainly didn’t take long to cover the 0.7 miles down to the end of the road, where we found a busy car park. There were steps down to the top of the cliff, where people were queueing to access a metal viewing platform. From there, you get a good view of the small cove, dominated by cliffs towering all around. The sea is a beautiful blue, and there in the centre of the sandy beach is the rusting hull of a ship. You need to hold your phone in your right hand and dangle it at arms length over the drop in order to get the best photo.

I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the sight, but it really did live up to the hype. Without the shipwreck, it would just be another pretty cove. Without the cove, the shipwreck would be an eyesore of scrap metal.

There are pictures of the cove everywhere on the island, with boat trips running there from every port and harbour. On this day it was quite windy, which probably explains why there were no boats in the bay and there were so many visitors at the cliff viewing point.

As we started the cycle back up, a bus rounded the final corner on its way down. Keith was forced off the road, but there was just enough space for me to stay on the tarmac as it squeezed past me. We carried on up the steep but well-surfaced road to the sound of horns blaring as the bus tried to negotiate its way into the car park. I certainly wouldn’t want to drive down that road in high season!

By the time we were close to the top of the climb, I was beginning to overheat in all my extra layers, but just decided to keep going. The top seemed to take a long time to appear and I was well steamed up by the time I arrived.

The road undulated at around the 1000 ft mark as far as Anafonitria, where we were tantalised by more nice looking places that we might have had lunch. My stomach was feeling fine now though, so we’d dodged a bullet with the Volimes lunch. More undulations followed in the coming few miles until we finally started going downhill proper.

It was a nice descent, not too fast and easy to enjoy. In fact, it would have been a lot easier to climb this way rather than the anticlockwise loop we took. The east side of the island was a lot warmer than the west, and as we descended it became quite pleasant. After reaching the main road, we were onto a swooping descent round wide bends decorated with tyre marks left over from a car rally the previous day.

Looking down to Alykes

Pretty soon we were back in Alykes, where we took a detour via a beach bar for some well-earned refreshments before heading back to the hotel. Well yes, we had only done 30-odd miles, but the climbing was challenging in places, and we had seen such wonderful scenery.

Our activity map from Veloviewer shows where we went

To sum up our Zante holiday, I’m certainly very glad we went. We managed to cover the majority of the island, although there were still a few mountain crossings left to explore. There is a great variety of roads: from challenging climbs to flat and gently undulating roads meandering through the countryside. There are even a few dead straight bits of road near the airport, although they are the least interesting to be honest.

There are some negative points, like the occasional overspilling rubbish bins (which I’m informed will be cleared away as holiday season gets into full swing) and quite a number of potholes around to keep a wary eye out for. In Zante, they are in the habit of digging little trenches a couple of inches wide to run services across the road. These are not always filled in, so you either need to perfect the bunny hop or get used to the thump-thump. I wouldn’t get too hung up about the roads though, because although doing about 1000 miles of riding between us, there was only one puncture all holiday. And that was the last day, about 4 miles from the end.

But the main thing that I will take away is the stunning scenery of the island. Pretty much everywhere you go, the views are gorgeous. If the rest of Greece is anything like this, we will be back for more…

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