Saturday, 26 September 2009

Greece 2009 - Day 1, Piraeus

Because of the increasing cost of parking the car in any sort of airport car park this year I arranged for family transport to and from Luton (thanks Alan, thanks Richard) and we arrived with plenty of time to spare before the flight. Luton airport now operates on the Ryanair principle of charging people for services that we used to take for granted as a part of catching a flight. £1 just to drop passengers off at departures, £3 for speedy security checks, £1 for a plastic bag to put liquids in, £9.50 for speedy check-in and boarding and 50p for every breath taken while waiting.

We didn’t pay for any of these rip-off extras and I bet the people who did felt rather silly because there was no delay through security and not much of a queue at the departure gate either. Generally there are two queues at the boarding gate, one is for gullible people who have paid the extra to get on the plane first and there is the queue for sensible people who are savvy enough to know that there is a seat for everyone on the aircraft anyway. I bet they felt even sillier when we boarded because the plane was only about half full and there was plenty of seats for everyone to choose exactly their favourites.

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. It was a shock to find that the metro wasn’t running today and had been closed for sometime. It seems that when they opened it in 2004 ready for the Olympic Games they forgot to build some of the stations along the route and the line was now closed while they finished off.

On a previous arrival at Athens airport I was mugged by a taxi driver and paid a fortune to get to the city so I wasn’t going to make that mistake again so we were obliged to use the only other form of transport available, the X96 express bus to Piraeus. This was the first time on a bus in Athens and it was quite an experience. The roads were busy but the driver seemed totally oblivious to other vehicles as he charged along at high speed, switching lanes and tossing the passengers about like the Saturday night lottery balls. It was like being in a car chase at the movies and at one stage I had to take a look to see if Sandra Bullock was driving. Corners didn’t slow the bus down and the only respite from the madness was a few infrequent stops on the way to the port, which we reached after about forty minutes. A good value roller coaster ride at only €3.20 each.

We arrived at about eleven o’clock at night and it was hot and dirty and noisy but despite that it felt strangely safe. Earlier in the day it had been raining but this hadn’t washed the streets at all because Piraeus is a city where street cleaning is not a priority. We skipped the taxi ranks and decided instead to walk to the Hotel Ideal along cracked and dirty pavements towards the red light area at the east end of the port. We had stayed here before so we knew where the hotel was and even though it is in a less than salubrious area it is actually quite nice with a comfortable room and friendly staff.

We needed to eat and the affable man on reception 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 substantial chicken wrap and a first bottle of Mythos. The meal came with tzatziki, salad, fries and an extra special topping of lead oxide because as we ate we 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, loud and busy and totally focussed on the harbour and the ferries 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 where you wouldn’t even send your mother-in-law!

It was about midnight 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 a hostel and in a scruffy area of the city but it was only €45 for a night and I slept with my wallet and passport just in case.

When we woke at six the next morning Piraeus was already busy and noisy and after leaving the hotel we walked along the busy and turbulent streets to the Aegean Lines Ferry Agency where we exchanged our pre-paid 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 that makes an Italian city look like a sleepy village in Surrey on a late Sunday afternoon and there was a mad confusion of snarling 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 be helping a great deal.

This should not have been surprising because Piraeus is the largest passenger port 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 Aegean Lines Speedrunner IV and in the usual way foot passengers were competing for space with cars and commercial vehicles. We didn’t fancy sitting inside so we made our way to the top deck and found a seat outside at the back of the boat to catch the sun and we made ourselves comfortable in preparation for the two and a half hour passage to the island of Serifos.

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