Leonidio: The Ride With Everything
This ride has it all...history, mythology, elevation (and consequently descents), nice turns, and views of the some of the best waters in the Peloponnese. It's just over a century, and it's almost entirely coastal riding that will bring you though a number of villages, historic sites, and into the Arcadia region of Greece (though Leonidio itself is now part of the Southern Kynouria regional unit).
It's a century ride from Napflio and back, with 99% coastal riding that dynamic elevation that brings you into the 10 degree gradient range. As with any of the rides going West and South, you'll be riding flats around the Argolic Gulf toward Milous, with views of Larissa Castle in Argos as you circle around towards Milous.
From there it's pretty much a straight shot with the sea to your left and groves of fruit bearing trees (primarily citrus) on the right, with mountains in the background. A landmark that always catched my attention is an old stone watchtower that has managed to continue to stand guard over the surrounding valley. I've been told that it's from the Ottoman occupation era, and that it was the Turks who built it, but I haven't verified this myself. And while I've been meaning to go and try and find out more about it, it's one of those things that I don't want to interrupt my ride for, and forget to make a point to go and look at any other time.
The road will split and you'll turn left, eventually starting an incline up above the coastal beach town of Kiveri. I distinctly remember the first time I had my bike out here and some of the local riders recommended this route to me, specifically saying "tha xazepsis," meaning "you'll be stupefied." And indeed, you will be as you gaze out to where the sea and the sky melt into the same horizon.
Since then, the coast has in some ways stayed the same and in others, it's changing. There's more houses than there used to be, but there is relatively little traffic even though some areas that used to be just a few houses have started to become actual neighborhoods and some neighborhoods have become actual viallages. It's really wonderful riding here, with great pavement. And while there is no shoulder, I have never felt like I was in particular danger. That said, I have also never felt like I was particularly smart, despite what those tests and teachers and shrinks told my parents. As I've said many times when it comes to safety...I don't ride like an asshole who owns the road, I've always got daytime running lights on the front and back, and I'm always wearing a helmet on rides. Anything beyond that is outside my control.
About an hour into the ride, you'll be coming around a turn that's followed by a nice descent inland. To the left is the coastal harbor town of "Astros," which means "star." Astros is actually split into two parts (ano and kato, meaning "higher" and "lower" respectively." The coastal one also has a magnificent castle that is worth riding up to, and more notably, the castles of Argos and Astros from a triangle with the castle of Napflio, which also has vantage of the other two.
I can't help but imagine the scene from the Return of the King, when the beacons are lit as a signal that Gondor is requesting aid. Given the strategic positions of these castles, especially the one in Astros, it would make sense that it could use some sort of similar tactic to warn of incoming ships or to request aid.
Past Astros, it's another relatively flat section, as you pass Moustos Lake on the left.
The area is protected, as it provides shelter for a number of migratory birds that winter there, including wild swans, mallards, and herons. There are also various fish (including eels), marginated tortoises, toads, and lizards. The surrounding wetlands are a nesting ground for purple herons, falcons, and black-winged stilts.
The road stays rather flat past the lake as you approach the hillside town of Agios Andreas, before you begin ascending up on a curving road that brings you back towards the sea, ending with about a 90 degree turn to the right. This is where the riding gets really good, as you've got a very long and straight descent, well deserved by this point in the trip. The views are of seemingly endless coastline, little villages, and magnificent beaches, one after another.
At this point, the riding is dynamic..with lots of relatively
small descents followed by relatively equal descents on the other side, and it continues like this with two different landmarks this with two different landmarks. One is a tiny little beach with fisheries off its coast, and a few miles further, is a larger beach with a pretty big transport ship docked slightly off the shore. It seems almost out of place, and I'm not sure what it's used to transport, but both times I've been down this way it's been in the same place.
The next major landmark is the large beach town of Tyros, which you have the option of riding around it, looking down at the town itself and the beach, or actually coming down through the town and riding along the beach. I myself opted for the latter, and stopped on the western part of the beach for breakfast.
Tyros is known for a number of things, but two standout pieces of information are that the town is in a region that still (in increasingly limited numbers) speaks Tsakonian, a language that has descended from Doric Greek, and is divergent from other spoken varieties of modern Greek. Tyros is also known for having one of the most famous Easter traditions, in which an effigy of Judas is burned on Holy Saturday, after which hundreds of small hot air ballons are lit and sent into the sky, signifying the lost souls of sailors and fishermen who perished at sea.
From Tyros, it's another 19 kilometers from Leonidio, and if you're coming up from the beach, you have the option to take an old road that will bring you up and around the coast, just above some ancient "towers" that overlook the coast.
The remaining distance is very similiar to what preceded Tyros in terms of the terrain, road, and dynamics of the elevation. What's nice about this, is that it's the kind of riding I myself always dreamed of. The beaches and clarity of the water continue to cause gasps of disbelief at the greenish seafoam color int he shallows before it fades to a deep blue in the depths. The little villages evoke a sense of serinity.
The finally stretch to Leonidio can only be described as unnecessarily tedious. Maybe that's because by this point, I was pretty tired and I did this ride on July 1st..and the heat was starting to kick in. It's almost how like the last couple of miles before you get home after a ride are the most difficult. In the case of Leonidio, the road doesn't go directly into the beach area, but rather turns inland for a few endless miles before you can take another road that will bring you to the beach. In retrospect though, this stretch is also quite beautiful, with massive red cliffs to the right as well some more "towers" built in top of a section of crags.
(copied from the wiki) "Leonidio is situated near the ancient city of Prasiae, which was an important harbour for Spartauntil its ruin by the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War. The ancient Greek traveller Pausanias describes the area as the "garden of Dionysus", because of the fertility of its plain, and in ancient myth the young Dionysus was found on its beach and later brought up in a cave emerging from it. There is also a second variant of the story, influenced by Christian tradition, recounting the finding of the relics of Saint Leonides atop the beach of Leonidio, where a church was to be built in his honour, remaining to this day; this is a common suggestion for the derivation of the area's name. During the Middle Ages, Leonidio found itself used only as a winter refuge for the inhabitants of Prastos, the former capital of Tsakonia. When Prastos was burned to the ground by Ibrahim Pasha during the Greek Revolution, however, its refugees found shelter in Leonidio, protected by the morphology of the landscape. In ensuing years the town flourished and thrived, counting among its residents wealthy merchants and seamen, closely associated with Constantinople and Odessa; during this period beautiful neo-classical house and tower house structures were built within its limits, including the "Tsikaliotis Tower". On January 21, 1949, a major battle of the Greek civil war took place in the town."
What really struck me about Leonidio was the harbor, which had startlingly clear water that seduced a swim like a siren to a sailor. But at this point I was so hungry and thinking about the rising temperatures that I resisted and opted instead for a small serving of spaghetti sauce from a seaside restaurant called "Margaritas," which is the first restaurant to the right when you enter the harbor.
While the ride back was grueling in the heat, I'm looking forward to making a trip out to Leonidio again, but coming back by turning North and sending into the mountains, coming back through the town of Tripoli and then ultimately descending back towards Nafplio via the the switchbacks of "kolosourti." And while I generally don't like coming back the way I came, the ride itself is not only beautiful enough to begin with, but the perspective and vantage points on the way back are so different that it doesn't actually feel like you're going the way you came. It's like when you watch a really good film that gets even better with each time you watch it again as you pick up on things you missed the first time around.