Leaving Athens: the end of the trip

I woke up ahead of my alarm going off on Friday with one  of those crystal-clear wakenings which renders the ‘snooze’ button pointless.

Written large in the early-morning grogginess was the inescapable message “Going home today”.  That stark message meant that there was no dozing back to comforting sleep even though I knew there was no great hurry, I didn’t need to be at the airport until 11.15 and it was now 07.00.  Plenty of time.

As is often the case, at the point of going home emotions are mixed.  There is certainly a looking forward to seeing family and friends, checking how the fruit and veg are doing and to what extent the garden has gone rampant.  There is also sadness that the visiting of new and interesting places and doing new things has come to an end.  Exchanging the  warmth of Greek sunshine for the damp dreariness of  Grey Britain in summertime is never appealing.  Nor is leaving behind the very great pleasure and privilege of swimming in the Aegean every day.

With the exception of when we first came to Greece in 2000, this has been the first time that everywhere I have been has been new to me.  I had decided to try to do the whole trip by public transport and, with minor exceptions had more or less succeeded.

Looking back over the two months, questions inevitably arise:

With the benefit of hindsight, would I undertake the same trip again?

Which of the places I have been would I go back to?

Would I make another trip in Greece relying on buses and trains?

Did the trip come within budget?

Was the language a problem in more remote areas?

What was the effect of the economic and political crisis?

What lessons did I learn and would I do anything differently?

The germ of idea for the trip began with an intention to visit the Mani peninsular in the Peloponnese coupled with a long-time ambition to see Meteora.  I then embellished the trip with all sorts of ‘good ideas’: walking in the Pindus Mountains and checking out a ski resort; stopping over in the Ioannina fortress-home of the infamous Ali Pasha; visiting Parga on the recommendation of a friend and walking the gorge of the River Styx; visiting friends in the Ionian islands;  heading down to the Mani; from there crossing by ferry to Crete …….

Conclusion: the original plan was too optimistic.  It proved impossible to properly explore areas in a short time before needing to move on. Would I undertake a similar trip again?  Probably yes but I would reduce the distance covered in order to more properly explore locally.  For example, I missed out on not taking time to visit the Vikos Gorge in the Pindos Mountains and the legendary River Styx near Parga.

With the sole exception of Patras which I didn’t take to at all, a feeling reinforced by the theft of my camera, there was nowhere that I regretted visiting.  One area which I would certainly hope to go back to is the Mani, the original and primary objective of the trip. .  It is very much my kind of area, wild with a combination of mountains and sea. I walked a good bit of it but by no means all that I would have liked to and much of what I did I would like to revisit.   Other areas which I would probably go back to include Meteora whose pinnacle-top monasteries are mesmerising, Parga with the river Styx to the south and nearby Paxos where I have friends.

Altogether I travelled about 1500 kms by bus and to a limited extent by train.   At times it was frustrating but I would nevertheless travel around Greece by bus and train again.  With certain qualifications.  It is a very cost-effective way of travelling long distances.  The most I paid was about €25 for a 5 or 6 hour trip and there were significant reductions for under 18s and over 65s on the train and Athens Metro.  The total I paid was somewhat less than €150 so a rough average of 10 kms per €1.

The downside is that public transport inevitably takes longer than travelling by car, 5 hours from Areopoli to Athens compared with 3½ hours for example, but is way more relaxing.  Travel is also constrained by the exigencies of the timetables, information about which is not always easy to find.  As rule the more remote the area the less frequent the service and the more difficult to winkle out information.  There is no on-line source of bus route and timetable information comparable with the UKs ‘traveline’.

Despite the frustrations I would do it again because I’m now happy to adjust to the slower pace of travel by public transport as I don’t have to fit everything into a 2 week holiday.

The overall cost of the trip came within budget.  Concerns were being expressed in the media about the rising costs in Greece likely be consequent on political and economic uncertainty but this proved to be unfounded.  I generally stayed in ‘mid-range’ accommodation, clean and comfortable but not opulent.  I ate a good breakfast and my midday meal of choice was always banana and nutbar, not so much because it was cheap, which it was, but because it was easily packed in the rucksack for carrying into the mountains and had very high food value.  In the evenings I ate in restaurants which, as long as I avoided having the fish, worked out in most places at a reasonable price.  For some reason, even at restaurants on the harbourside, the price of fish is unacceptably high.  One evening I decided to have mullet and the meal cost more than double the amount I had spent on any other meal in two months.

One of the problems that we have experienced in Greece over the years is that attempts to speak Greek have not been too successful, largely because most Greeks we met spoke good English and either wanted to practice their skills or didn’t have the time to waste on our floundering.  This trip, more than any other in Greece, I spent time in villages somewhat more remote from the tourist trail.  Not surprisingly there was less English spoken than in the hotels and restaurants of the coastal strip.  This meant more people spoke little or no English. Not only did this not cause me much of a problem with my faltering Greek but got me more into the way of thinking a little more in Greek and ‘tuning-in’ my ear to the language.  Altogether a positive experience linguistically.

Despite dire warnings from concerned friends and doomsayer media pundits the effects of the political and economic uncertainty was negligible.  If anything, rather than being a problem, it had only benefits.  The number of visitors being well down on previous years meant that there was no problem in arranging accommodation and finding a table in restaurants. Prices were definitely competitive and nearly everywhere staff were even more friendly and welcoming than usual.

Lessons learned?  Very many.  First and foremost I guess I learned to be more realistic in drawing up an itinerary.  Looking ahead two months seems a relatively long time and the temptation is to try to cram too many things in.  Travelling time needs to be factored in with a long bus journey and checking in and out of hotels taking up most of a day. However, I now feel relatively competent at finding out options for bus routes, timetables and ticketing systems.

I learned that researching hotel options on the internet before I travel helps overcome the problem of having to lug a Big Bag around looking for somewhere suitable and affordable.  With two of us one could stay with the bags while the other went off on a hotel hunt; being on my own creates a problem in that respect (as well as many others).  An alternative is to use a web site which will show locations of hotels on a map and prices.  This doesn’t cover all options but is s good starting point.

One thing I would definitely build into the plan next time is hiring a car for part of the time.  Guide books and web sites had said that hiring a car would greatly facilitate properly exploring the Mani.  In my determination to do everything by bus I ignored that advice.  I won’t do so again.  Ideally I would travel by plane/bus into the area I wanted to explore and then hire a car for say 4/5 days.  I would probably hire a car in either Kalamata or Kardamili if I go back to the Mani.  Apart from anything else that would make it possible to climb Profitis Ilias, the highest peak in the Taygetos.

That’s it for this Greek rambling.  I will continue posting blogs over the next few weeks until the next stage of Greek rambling 2012 which begins towards the end of August.

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