Sunday, 5 October 2008

Greece, Island hopping 2008, Piraeus

In 2006 I went island hopping in the Greek Cyclades islands for fourteen days but even though a year later in 2007 I pushed this to sixteen I still didn’t think this was nearly enough so for 2008 decided that three whole weeks would be just about perfect.

On the day of departure we set off in good time for Luton Airport with a plan to arrive early and get the holiday off to a good start with a relaxing drink or two in the airport departure lounge. It was a good job that we did because as we left Spalding we had no idea that we were desperately going to need that extra hour if we were to make the flight to Athens. After about forty-five minutes and just south of Peterborough the car started to handle badly and just as I was thinking about pulling over to check it out there was a dramatic back tyre blow out and in a cloud of smoke and burning rubber I had to pull over to the side of the motorway.

I was in a total panic and even though the AA assured us that they were on the way and would be with us very quickly I decided to try and change the tyre myself. I had the jack in place and the job in hand when I suddenly started to feel strange with a mouth so dry I thought I had been eating sand, my hands were shaking and I had a heart rate at double what is considered normal. I was convinced that I was going to suffer the indignity of passing away at the side of the A1 and so took a walk along the hard shoulder to try and calm down and then the AA vehicle arrived and the patrolman took over and made a much better job of changing the tyre than I could possibly have done. The bad news of course was that we now only had a temporary tyre on the back, which meant a speed restriction of fifty miles an hour that I just knew was going to piss people off! We had lost about forty minutes of the spare hour that we had allowed and at a reduced speed I knew now that it was going to be tight.

Back on the road I suddenly had a huge burning pain in my right shoulder that was so bad that if it had been the left one I would have abandoned the holiday plan and driven straight to the nearest hospital and I was still desperately thirsty. The priority was getting to the airport so I carried on and after an hour or so the pain wore off. I had no idea at the time but I had been stung nine times by what I assume was a wasp caught inside my shirtsleeve and I had probably been suffering from some form of anaphylactic shock. The pain had gone so I didn’t know this until much later when I finally took my shirt off in Greece and discovered nine vivid vermilion red spots on my shoulder blade that made it look like a nine of hearts playing card!

About an hour late we arrived at Luton Airport and drove to the long stay car park but two eastern European boys at the entrance explained that it was full so as we had pre-booked we were would be upgraded to the mid stay and we had to drive all the way back towards the airport and the alternative car park. We were a bit late but we checked in and then crawled through security checks and listened to other people’s conversations. Behind us was a couple of girls and one announced to the other that ‘I only go on holiday for three things, to get drunk, get stoned and get laid’, I had to see who this person was and when I turned round she turned out to be so unattractive that I was tempted to say ‘Don’t build your hopes up, I should concentrate on the first two!’

When we finally got away the flight lasted just over three hours and landed in Athens at the 2004 International airport of the Year, Eleftherious Veizelos and we quickly retrieved our backpacks from the luggage carousel and walked briskly to the metro station for the thirty-five-kilometre journey to the city centre. A previous time in Athens I had been ripped off by a taxi driver who charged €30 for the journey so I thought €5 each this time represented much better value for money. The metro line was constructed in 2004 for the Olympic Games and it was a real delight, thirteen stops to Syntagma in Athens and then after a change another seven to the port of Piraeus. If they were building the London underground today this is how they would do it.

After stopping over in Athens for the last two years we decided this year to give it a miss and go directly to Piraeus ready for a pre-booked early morning ferry the next day to the island of Paros. I really want to see the new Acropolis Museum that should have been opened in 2004 but Greece being Greece this is now postponed until 2009 so skipping the city really didn’t seem to matter. We arrived at about eleven o’clock at night and it was hot and dirty and noisy but despite that it felt strangely safe. We skipped the taxi ranks and decided instead to walk to the Hotel Ideal which according to the map was only about five hundred metres away to the east of the port. This was fine except for the fact that a stray dog decided to join us and accompanied us most of the way. I’ve mentioned before that I am not a big fan of dogs so this made me feel really uneasy. Athens has a real problem with packs of stray dogs and it is estimated that there are over ten thousand wild and stray dogs and although they are generally well behaved this has created a real image problem. For the Olympic Games the authorities rounded them all up and impounded them for the duration of the event, took the precaution of sterilizing them and afterwards simply let them go again. An opportunity missed there I can’t help thinking! The theory is that this sterilization solution will eventually mean that the dog problem in Athens will solve itself.

The hotel was more difficult to find than it should have been and even though it was in a less than salubrious area it was actually quite nice with a comfortable room and an affable man on reception who made us feel welcome and made some restaurant suggestions. This didn’t take him very long because although nineteen million passengers pass through the port of Piraeus every year the dining options turned out to be very seriously limited indeed. We left the hotel and returned to the port and with very little to choose from agreed on a gyros place with plastic tables and chairs on the dirty pavement and had a meal of chicken leftovers that I would normally give to the cat but we were hungry and we ate what we could and watched the traffic chaos as a ferry arrived in port and disgorged its passengers onto the busy road right in front of where we were eating. Piraeus is an interesting place but not somewhere that I will be spending any more time than I have to ever again. It is loud and busy and totally functional and is somewhere that is never ever going to be beautiful or is going to tempt any sane person to stay more than one night. This is a place that you wouldn’t even send your mother-in-law to!

It was about one o’clock when we returned to the hotel and after setting the alarm for six there wasn’t a lot of time to be finding out any more about the hotel Ideal. If I was rating it I would say that it was one grade up from being a doss-house and in a bad area of the city but it was only €45 for a night and I slept with my wallet and passport just in case. I needn’t have worried of course because like all of Greece I am sure on reflection that it was perfectly safe and when the alarm went off we established very quickly that everything was just as it should have been.

We left the hotel and walked along the busy and turbulent streets to the Blue Star Ferry Agency where we exchanged our voucher for tickets and made our way to the ferry. This was not as easy as it sounds because Piraeus simply has to be one of the most traffic crazy cities in the world. This place makes an Italian city look like a village in Herefordshire on a late Sunday afternoon and there was a crazy confusion of traffic that absolutely defies description. Cars, busses and Lorries were all growling aggressively through the streets with absolutely no regard for traffic lights, lanes, rights of way or pedestrians, especially pedestrians. The madness was being ineffectively choreographed every now and again by traffic police blowing madly on whistles and waving arms in a totally manic way that quite frankly was completely unintelligible to absolutely everyone whether in a car or on the pavement and didn’t seem to help a great deal.

This should not have been surprising because Piraeus is one of the largest ports in Europe and the third largest worldwide in terms of passenger transportation. There were certainly a lot of people about this morning and there was a long queue to get on board the Blue Star Paros and in the usual way foot passengers were competing for space with cars and commercial vehicles. We made our way to the top deck and found a seat on the port side of the boat to catch the sun and we made ourselves comfortable in preparation for the four-hour passage to the island of Paros.

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