From Athens to Kalabaka: a day of ‘firsts’

Yet another early start on Friday. Alarm set for 06.15 in order to finish packing and have breakfast promptly at the 07.00 start to make sure that I got to the station in good time to suss things out.  Again sluggish because the intended ‘early night’ slipped to yet another 01.00 finish. Paid the bill, €60, very good for this quality of hotel in central Athens, and headed off with the Big Bag in rucksack mode.

I bought it in June 2009 because after our May Greek trip that year Enfys was concerned for my well-being given that I was carrying all the luggage for the two of us in one rucksack.  Knowing that we would be visiting islands where dragging wheeled luggage up steps and over rough cobbles would be a nightmare I bought a great, if expensive, piece of kit which has wheels and a retractable dragging handle, chunky carrying handles on the top and side and which converts into a rucksack with good quality straps and waist belt.

It has served me very well over the last two years but given that kitchen sinks tend to be heavy I have tended to use it as a wheely in situations where rucksack-mode would have been more appropriate.  I noticed at Heathrow that this abuse has meant that one of the wheels has lost its tread, a bit like the stripped lorry tyres you see in the central reservation on motorways.  The pavements between the hotel and the station are in any case very bad for wheelies, with broken and missing slabs, and I needed to move quickly so I hefted the Big Bag on my back, carried the camera rucksack on my front and headed off at 07.45 correctly anticipating problems crossing the early morning rush hour traffic.  But I arrived at the station 20 minutes early thanks to some bold walking out in front of traffic and eye-balling motor-bike riders and car drivers seemingly intent on my early demise.  Perhaps they get extra points for mowing down ageing foreigners lumbering along weighed down by luggage.

The platform was incredibly crowded and when the enormous train arrived there was a rush for the doors.  It was like trying to get toothpaste back into the tube.  The elderly and infirm struggled to climb the steep steps into the carriage and in some instances had to be unceremoniously pushed by the backside up the steps as they seemed in danger of overbalancing backwards, weighed down by suitcases heavier than themselves which they were towing.

Athens station: 20 minutes before the train is due to leave the platform is crowded

It was a corridor train with 6-seat compartments and that created another hiatus.  People were converging in the corridor, in some cases each large enough to fill its width themselves, even without their life’s belongings in bags and cases.  With compartment-allocated tickets some scrambled into the closest door onto the train and so had to pass compartment 5 in order to get to 3, and vice versa.  I spilled into compartment 4 and hefted my bags onto the very commodious overhead shelves (very functional as long as you’re strong enough to lift 20 kilos above head height) and sank into my very comfortable window seat, smug in the knowledge that my ticket decreed that it was mine for the next 4½ hours.

The journey was uneventful.  Passing first through run-down areas around the city centre, then into areas of more expensive housing on higher ground, beyond that to swathes of industrial development before passing the market gardens and smallholdings beyond the built-up area and finally into open farmland.  It was all very different to what you see from a train window in Britain with large areas of flat, fenceless farmland but one thing it had in common, today it was very grey.  Bad weather seems to have hit northern Greece at the moment.  This obviously isn’t the norm because everywhere irrigation canons jetted water onto growing crops.

The ‘differentness’ of the view made the journey seem to pass tolerably quickly, helped by the very comfortable seats which could well have graced first class in a plane.  There was even a section of compartments knocked together to make a soft play area for young kids.  Shame that the loos weren’t up to the same standard.  They were frankly disgusting and might have been beamed in from the third world.  The equipment was posh enough but there was clearly inadequate maintenance, possibly a reaction to the fact that it has been highlighted that Greek railways run at a huge loss so savings have to be made and as always it is the people who do the job who get the push not those who ‘manage’ them.

First impressions of Kalabaka were even more impressive than I had been led to believe, partly because the view from a train is limited to what you can see to the sides, not what lies ahead, so when you get off the train and see it for the first time it has a real ‘Wow!!’ factor.  But really it was so impressive because it’s just, well, very impressive.

I was conscious from the getting up this morning that today was going to be a day of ‘firsts’.  First time to enter a Greek railway station : struck by the low platforms and high trains.  First time on a Greek train, or indeed a train anywhere other than in the UK.  First time in northern Greece.  First time in Meteora.  But I little realised how many ‘firsts’ were queuing up.

After being on a train for lots of hours I decided to cut the Gordian Knot and take a taxi to Kastraki, the small village outside Kalabaka and closer to The Rocks, where I decided to stay.  I knew there were buses but the Rough Guide made it clear that they weren’t from the railway station and were at hourly intervals.  Enough of  hanging about.  I took a taxi.  Cost 5 Euros for 5 minutes but it was worth it.

Checked into the hotel I had earmarked.  Checked e-mails.  Then walked back to Kalabaka to find out the lie of the land and get a walking guide recommended in the Rough Guide.  All went well.  Tracked down the book sold in a shop by a woman who had not only heard of Wales but knew a bit about it as her husband had trained in dentistry in Cardiff.  Had an espresso outside a coffee shop in the town square and then set off to walk back to Kastraki.  Just as I reached an open bit of road thunder and lightning started flashing around the huge crags towering above and then suddenly it rained.  I mean really rained.   Last time I was in such heavy rain was in Italy when I was hitch-hiking between Venice and Trieste.  Then we hid underneath our capes, cowering in a ditch.  Today, I was soaked to the skin in seconds.  Lots of firsts in that short walk.  First  time walking in rain in Greece.  First time wet to my pants.  First time to deploy the rain cover built into my photo-rucksack.  Until the few seconds when it started I had forgotten that there was one.  Flash-back of memory from the product description on the internet.

But now I must ‘fess up.  Digression: isn’t it sad how middle-aged parents of teenagers adopt what they think is cool-speak picked up from the TV in order to show their kids that they are ‘with-it’ … and then get stuck in the rut of the same maybe-once-cool terminology for ever after by atrophying brains. Anyway, ‘fessing up’, I must admit that I got lost on the way back to the hotel.  How can a graduate in Geography, specialising in Urban Geography and having done a higher degree in Urban Geography always get lost in built up areas?  But, unfortunately, I do.  A lot.  I’m much happier in mountains.

I eventually got back to the hotel, stripped off my dripping rags and, having put on dry clothes, went out to retrieve my again-shattered self esteem by walking up to one of the monasteries.  I repeat: the area is AMAZING!  It was evening when I went, I only took the small camera and the light wasn’t good so I won’t bore blog readers with lots of pics.  I plan to take a lot more over the coming few days so this is just a flavour of the place.  The one thing I can guarantee is that any photos I take will not do it justice.

Kalabaka is dominated by the Meteora crags

Views like this with a few minutes of the hotel

… and another

…. and in silhoette

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