I would never have imagined this to be true, but many of our favorite days involve slowly climbing mountains. As long as we bring copious amounts of food, start the day with a positive attitude, and make sure to take our time, it almost always makes for incredible cycling. It may be hard work but there are rewards aplenty.
There's the thrill of looking down at a ribbon of switchbacks, feeling a sense of pride at how far we've come, a sense of relief and excitement when we make it to the top, a sense of security knowing we could camp ANYWHERE, an exhilirating descent, and above all, there is the scenery.
Early in our climbing this morning, we passed a picturesque monestary tucked into the craggy mountainside. We could hear it well before we saw it, as Sunday Mass was being blasted out over loudspeakers, filling the countryside with peaceful, reverential chanting.
As we approached, we noticed a constant stream of worshipers coming to say a prayer and light a candle before visiting a small chapel.
Tyler wanted to take a recording, so we pushed our bikes into the courtyard and sat on one of the park benches to enjoy the calm while documenting the occurance. Unfortunately there was too much wind and the loudspeakers were breaking up badly so the recording didn't turn out. Before we left, we took the opportunity to fill our water bottles at a nearby fountain for the long climb ahead.
Several hundred meters of climbing later, we reached the town of Neapoli, where our ascent to the Lasithi plateau began in earnest. We stopped for a quick break where we ravenously consumed a bowl of leftover spaghetti, a cup of yogurt, many cookies, and a bar of chocolate before continuing on.
I loved the colors of this doorway and these paint cans we pedaled by on our way through the mountains.
The climb went well, save for a long series of bends where we were blown and buffeted about like leaves in the gusting winds. The region is famous for having thousands of windmills and it's no wonder! Half of the time, I was struggling to stay upright and moving forward, and the other, I was being pushed up the mountain without even pedalling!
During a lull in the wind, we passed through the small village of Exo Potami. A fountain trickled, birds chirped, sheeps' bells jangled, and all across the mountainsides, fruit trees were budding and bursting into pale pink flowers. I was distracted by the lazy hum of bumblebees when I began to hear beautiful Greek music eminating from a small cottage off the side of the road.
As we neared the shack, we noticed several men, ranging in age from thirty to sixty, clapping their hands to the music and downing shots of potent-looking alcohol. When they spotted us slowly pedaling along, they shouted hellos and motioned for us to come join them! Exhausted, we happily agreed to the prospect of a break. As we parked our bikes, we were welcomed by an adorable puppy.
Over the very loud music, in a flurry of excited, drunken back-slapping and hand-shaking, we met everyone: George, Nikos, and many other guys we can't remember the names of. Before we could even sit, we were given shots of homemade "rika", or Cretan whiskey, as they toasted to our health and wished us a good trip.
They apologized several times that most of the food was gone, while at the same time they loaded us up with bread dipped in delicious sauce, grilled sausages, roasted lamb, small local bananas, handfuls of freshly shelled walnuts from a tree just feet away, and finally sweet apples grown on the mountainside!
During a break in the haunting, traditional Cretan music, I asked one of the men, "Are you farmers?" He laughed and replied, "No! We're drinkers!" Tyler inquired, now shouting over the beautiful music which had started up again, "What are you celebrating?" and a man threw his hands in the air and exclaimed "Sunday! And tomorrow, we celebrate Monday!" With an "OOOHPAH!" he slapped one hand on the wooden table and tossed back another shot of rika with the other.
And then they asked us to dance. We were brought inside the home, a single humble room filled by a bed, a gas-powered burner, a stereo, and a wall covered in photographs. In the small space remaining in the center of the room, men danced already, eyes closed, arms raised, feeling the music as they clapped their hands and snapped their fingers.
Feet stamped, thudding a beat on the uneven wooden floorboards. During a faster song, everyone (us included) held one another in side-ways hugs, forming a circle. We learned how to grapevine to the right, kick, step, kick, and repeat, twirling in a circle of laughter, singing, and stomping, accented by many emphatic "OOHPA!"s.
After the dances were through, we thanked them time and time again, leaving them each with one of our postcards. They were touched, but we were even more moved when they put our picture on the wall of the one-room home in a place of honor. They bid us farewell with a final round of rika and more wishes for a good journey. Finally, it was time for us to teeter off drunkenly up the mountainside. What an incredible experience!
As it turns out, liquour is not the best fuel for biking up mountains. A hundred meters down the road, we were completely exhausted and were forced to walk our bikes. We laughed, panting, and shouting to one another (as we often do) "Just around that bend! It's all downhill from there!" Finally we reached the turn in the road, where it was, indeed, downhill into the plateau. Instead of cruising down, Tyler found us the perfect free-camp and we set up to the jangling of sheep heading home for the night.
Having just been generously fed by a band of drunken Cretan men, there was no need for supper. Instead we snacked, looked at photos, reminisced about the incredible day we'd just had, watched a Star Trek, talked to my parents on the phone, and fell asleep to the sound of the wind whipping around our tent.
Tomorrow we'll explore the Lasithi plateau and perhaps visit the cave where king of the Greek pantheon, Zeus, is fabled to have been born!