Saturday, 22 October 2011

Greece 2011, Piraeus – Planes, Buses, Taxis and Ferries

In the weeks and days before flying to Athens to start a holiday in the Cyclades I began to wonder if it really was a clever idea to fly into a city in the grip of economic crisis and social disorder with regular demonstrations and disruptive strikes by the transport sector which we would be completely reliant upon to get from the Greek capital to the islands. But we put on our holiday blinkers and ignored the concerns and reluctant to spend more money on an alternative flight to Santorini went through with the original plan.

On a previous arrival at Athens airport I was metaphorically mugged by a taxi driver and paid a fortune to get to the city and the last time we left Athens Kim was literally robbed on the metro so we didn’t want to chance either of those options this time and took the only alternative form of transport available, the X96 express bus to Piraeus. The man in the ticket booth was rather terse and didn’t have his ‘welcome to Athens, nice to see you’ head on this lunch time but I suppose anyone would be grumpy if it is their job to sit in a stuffy wooden box all day answering the same dumb question over and again. The cost was €5 which was an eye watering 56% more expensive than two years previously and I hoped this wasn’t indicative of an average inflation rate over this time or else this would put the holiday budget under extreme pressure.

A bus ride in Athens is a unique experience, it has to be said. The roads were busy but the driver of the Solaris flexibus seemed totally oblivious to other vehicles as he charged along at high speed, switching lanes, clattering over tram lines and tossing the passengers about like the Saturday night lottery balls on hard unyielding plastic seats. It was like being in a car chase at the movies, anyone in the way had better watch out 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 fifty minutes.

The metro would have been preferable but you get mugged on the metro and as this was our first time back in Athens since the robbery we were understandably on edge. We had taken improved precautions to protect our possessions but we still felt nervous and slightly anxious. We continually scanned the bus for potential robbers and pickpockets and held on tight to our wallets, cameras and bags and after every stop we suspiciously scrutinised every new passenger that joined us.

In our experience dining options around the port are seriously limited and after we arrived in Piraeus there was about four hours before the ferry to Paros so we had made plans to visit a taverna/bar that we knew and to have a long lunch to fill the time.

This involved a walk along the busy harbour front and this was not as easy as it sounds because Piraeus simply has to be one of the most traffic crazy places in Europe that makes an Italian city look like Emmerdale on a late Sunday afternoon and there was a mad confusion of snarling traffic that almost defies description. Cars, buses and lorries were all growling aggressively through the streets with absolutely no regard for traffic lights, lanes, rights of way or pedestrians (especially pedestrians). Swarms of yellow and black cabs drove around with complete disregard for anything else and for anyone foolish enough to irritate them it was like poking a stick into an angry wasp’s nest. 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 all in all didn’t seem to be helping a great deal.

It is easy to imagine that Piraeus is simply a suburb of Athens but it is in fact a completely separate city, the third largest in Greece, with an interesting history all of its own. Most of this we fail to appreciate because we just hurry through on the way to somewhere else. In 493 BC, taking advantage of the natural harbour and strategic geographical position, the Athenian politician and soldier Themistocles initiated the construction of fortification works in Piraeus to protect Athens, ten years later the Athenian fleet was transferred there and it was then permanently used as the naval base for the powerful fleet of the ancient city.

Themistocles fortified the three harbours of Piraeus with the Themistoclean Walls turning Piraeus into a great military and commercial harbour. The fortification was farther reinforced later by the construction of the Long Walls under Cimon and Pericles, with which Piraeus was safely connected to Athens. Piraeus was rebuilt to the famous grid plan of the architect Hippodamus of Miletus to a pattern that has been replicated in many cities in the USA and in Milton Keynes in England. The walls were destroyed after the defeat by Athens to the Spartans in the Peloponnesian war and the port of Rhodes assumed predominance in the Aegean. Later the walls were rebuilt but destroyed again by both the Romans and the Goths and during the Byzantine period the port completely lost its trading status.

Today, Piraeus has regained its importance and is a mad world of taxis, trams, back-packers and local people all competing for the same piece of tarmac. This should not have been surprising because it is the largest passenger port in Europe and the third largest worldwide in terms of passenger transportation where nearly twenty million people pass through every year. There were certainly a lot of people about this afternoon 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 didn’t want to sit 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 four and a half hour passage to the island of Paros, one hundred and eighty-five kilometres to the south east.

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