I cycled from our house up to the top of Mount Pantokrator on Thursday. The first stretch, the 29 hairpin bend ascent to Sokraki was done in an hour – at the seventh bend is Ag Isadoras where I rested a moment, the step by the verge helping me mount my big bicycle for which I feel affection.
The road to Sokraki
On the twelfth or the fourteenth bend of the ascent I glimpsed a V-shaped patch of grey sea on the other side of the island. I took the gravel bypass round Sokraki, runnelled by rain, passing chickens who were chukkling from their coop above a bank
“The Prussians are on the ridge!” as a French aide said at Waterloo
“No, it was ‘in the woods’”
“Yes but those chickens were definitely on a ridge.”
I passed the petrol station, wound through to where the descent began, free-wheeled down past the small church of Peter and Paul, to the corner where at a corner before the bridge last spring Mark strolled off the road and saw a blackbird’s nest with eggs. We were driving in a convoy of three to have Sunday lunch at Palia Taverna in Strinilas. All about in this small plateau below Zygos are fields of vegetables. In Zygos there’s a tight turn off the road to Episkepsi, that winds up through the village on a gentler hill toward Sgourades. Here resting by an olive tree I could see mount Mikhalakadhes – 852 metres, 2700 feet – its flat top hidden in mist.
Mikhalakadhes over Sgourades
“Am I really going higher than that?"
"Yes you are”
Another kilometre, gently rising to meet the road between Ipsos, via Spartillas to Episkepsi, on the edge of Sgourades. I turned right into the village, passed through it and on even more gently rising to the junction where a small bus waits to transfer passengers from the bus between Corfu town and Acharavi and bring them to Zygos and Sokraki. Here a sign said 12 kilometres more to Pantokrator, 6 to Strinilas. I’d imagined myself turning back here if the weather got too fierce or my strength was giving out after the climbs from Sokraki and Zygos but I was doing fine. Sensible about my pauses, drinks and snacks. This steady climb to Strinilas was the hardest of the journey; goal not in sight to give me encouragement. The free-wheel back via Spartillas with the small climb to Ag Markos almost tempting me. Cars passed with ease, their passengers stopping at a view point above, their passengers dawdling, filming and on their way before I came by. Stopped looking back at where I’d come, Zygos and in the distance Sokraki and the long green Trompetta ridge.
“That’s where I’ve been”
Vanley on digging the plot on the Victoria Jubilee said
“You’ve left a bit of a mess. Dig so you can see where you’ve been. It encourages.”
I sipped water, sucked a chunk of dark chocolate; heard a cuckoo call about twelve times. I’ve not heard one for years. This road to Strinilas goes on to Petalia and Lafki where it divides for Acharavi and New Perithia. It’s the last north-south route before the corniche that circles the jutting north east coast of Corfu. Pantocrator fills the space between.
The next three kilometres I travelled steadily upwards, seeing, far away, the Old Fort’s two prongs, Corfu town, and the airport runway and the island winding south, until I turn a corner round the northern edge of Mikhalakadhes, by radio masts beside the road, and, like crossing a watershed, the island’s north coast fills the horizon, the Diapontian islands north westward, hidden, now and then, in mist.
So to Strinilas by 1045. Just beyond the village where a downward hill begins, I stopped for water and cut a thick slice off my dried sausage. Round the walled corner behind me walked a tall man with a walking stick and umbrella, in a black gown with long white hair and curling beard.
- Hullo. Good food?
He laughed in welcome
- Yes. I’m going to Pantocrator (I think I said this right in Greek)
- I to Episkepsi
- I am 70
- I am 80
- You look good (feenise se kala - φαίνεσαι σε καλά – did I get that right?)
- Wait until I am 120
He bent at the waist, switched his brolly to his stick hand, pressed the other to his back, coughed and mimicked a trudge and smiled
He waved and walked on briskly, soon out of sight round a bend, and I, freewheeling down, thinking I’d catch him up, was surprised to see the road empty ahead. It doesn’t go to Episkepsi either but at 80 he knows the island from long before the motorcar spread. I guess he’d turned off on a clever track that crosses the valleys and ridges separating the divergent roads
“Probably a ghost” said Lin later
“He left me feeling very happy”
I turned sharp right below Strinilas, in sight of Petalia, for the last stretch of my journey. The wind was chillier. Over a hill, the rocky cone shape summit of Pantokrator loomed ahead then disappeared. At the foot of the cone the road turns too steep for me to pedal. I walked the final kilometre of zigs and zags, unworried by the effort now my goal was so close. A friendly couple in a hire car who’d passed me earlier, must have stopped for a meal in a village, saw me again and waved. I grinned back broadly. I had not been sure I could do this ride. I had places in mind for turning back but once started it was a pleasing mix of pain and anticipated pleasure – the thought of arrival and the thought of coming down. Close to the summit I wheeled past parked cars and strolling visitors, and up to the shop to greet Spiro. He reached to my hand. We shook. I felt delightfully proud of myself.
“How long did you take?”
“Three and half hours, but I’m 70. Have a drink?”
I ordered two 5-star measures from the café and brought the brandy back into the warmth of the shop. Spilled them, cursed cheerily and at once bought two more - €16 (“Lin’ll love that”). Spiro pressed a box of Kum-Quat loukoumi from the shop on me refusing payment
“Yes. I insist”
We drank a toast and sucked the sweets.
“You shouldn’t have come in this weather”
“It’s only like this near the top”
The wind was moaning among the girders of the big radio mast in the centre of the monastery; the usual panorama – all the island’s compass points, Albania deep into her mountains and the Adriatic horizon appeared in sun brightened flashes between thick grey cloud carried on a cold gusting wind.
“I’ll light a candle, then head back”
I was under the bad weather as soon as I was below the summit again. On impulse I took a right down a gravel track and freewheeled gingerly on my road tyres down the east side of the mountain until I came to deserted Palea Sinies, burgeoning with brambles and ivy and wild flowers and paused for a picnic. I had the ruins of the old village and half the mountain to myself but for a herd of goat, bells tinkling, and an eagle heading south, and everywhere blackbirds and swallows. The track became smoother then abruptly metalled and I was in Vinglatoura where I changed an inner-tube with a slow puncture; a thorn inside the tyre; no visible point of entry. Back on the mainroad I pedalled through Barbati, Pyrgi and up to Agios Markos, Two glasses of village rosé, fresh bread, olives and oil at the Panorama Bar. Home by 6.