On arrival at Athens airport we avoided the Metro and the Taxis 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 (‘which bus do I need’, what time does it leave?’, how much is a ticket?’) for a dreary job on a minimum wage that was likely going to be cut by 20% sometime soon because of the economic crisis.
A bus ride to Piraeus is a truly unique experience. The roads were busy but the driver of the blue 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. Luggage flew out of the overhead racks and passengers not gripping on tightly were thrown from their seats. Suitcases were scattered along the floor and little children were thrown into the air.
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 and was greeted with a collective sigh of relief from those passengers who had the good fortune to remain conscious or who had not by this time been turned into a gibbering wreck.
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. In June 2007 Greece introduced a new highway code with strict new rules and penalties but visitors here may be forgiven for thinking that there are no driving rules at all. 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 wasps 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 making any sort of helpful contribution to relieve the mayhem.
We located the souvlaki place that we were looking for with its plastic tables and chairs on a grubby pavement and had a substantial chicken wrap and a first bottle of Mythos. Despite a steady drop in the country’s fast-food business since 2009, when the debt crisis started to unfold, the number of souvlaki joints, known among locals as “souvlatzidika,” has actually grown. Greeks reportedly consume an estimated three billion souvlakia and spend an estimated two and a half billion euros on gyros every year. Between 1992 and 2008, the local fast-food industry grew at an average of fifteen percent each year as souvlaki, pizza and snack/sandwich shops proliferated and armies of food delivery bikes roamed city streets.
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 focused 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 longer than necessary. This is a place (in the words of Mike Gatting) where you wouldn’t even send your mother-in-law!
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 premier 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 be 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.