Tag Archives: island hopping

Travel Memories – Greek Island Hopping

Backpacking Greece Paros

“Somewhere…I once found a list of diseases… and among these occurred the word Islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit.  These are people…who somehow find islands irresistible.  A little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with indescribable intoxication. – Lawrence Durrell – ‘Reflections on a Marine Venus’

Island hopping with a bulging rucksack strapped to my back was an immediately brilliant idea when Sally mentioned it in May and invited me to bring my credit cards along and join her for a week or two in the Greek islands.

Sun drenched beaches, friendly tavernas, Mythos and ouzo, I knew immediately that I would take up the offer but at first I was slightly wary of committing to a holiday with two girls addicted to the internet and who sleep with their mobile phones but I have always wanted to be more imaginative about my holidays and to take control and make my own arrangements rather than rely upon a holiday rep from Thomsons or Airtours and those tedious welcome meetings that seem to go on for ever in a dingy hotel lounge when all you want to do is get outside in the sun.

So the chance to do things my way was a real opportunity and I signed up.

Naxos Back street Cyclades Greece

Preparation involved booking the flights and finding suitable hotels on line. This, I later had to concede, turned out to be a bit of a cheat because proper back-packers, I am told, take their lodgings chances when arriving in port, but I just wanted to be certain of a basic level of accommodation.  I was fifty-two years old and had certain standards to maintain! I wanted Olympic size swimming pools, air conditioning as fresh as the mountain air and at the very least a minimum standard of bathroom facility.  Most people go backpacking in their teens or in their twenties – I had left it all a bit late!

Packing the rucksack was quite a challenge! There wasn’t a lot of room in there and it took a number of clothing/essentials trial runs before I achieved the perfect combination of items. I needed my snorkel and essential bathroom items and some books of course and after that I had room for some clothes. It was like doing the hokey-cokey, in, out, in, out and shake it all about until I got it right.

Blue Star Ferry Athens to Naxos

Like most people I always take too many clothes on holiday, that extra pair of shorts, another shirt just in case, and usually some items just go for the ride there and back and never get worn, this time I was sure I had got it about right but for some unexplained reason I took some socks along for the trip. I didn’t wear them of course because all I had for foot attire was two pairs of sandals including my favourite gladiators.

I had the gladiator sandals since 1999 when I went to Rhodes and they accompanied me abroad on every single beach holiday after that – always the first item in the bag.  They were showing signs of wear and not expected to see through this adventure. I  made it my mission to see how long I could make them last.

Gladiator Sandals Naxos Greece

Footnote (please excuse the pun):

The Gladiators made it through the holiday and lasted another two years when an important part of the shoe infrastructure failed (one of the straps snapped) and they had to be thrown away soon after.  I left them in Greece, I thought that was appropriate – a little bit of me is in a landfill site in Athens!

Have you been to the Greek Islands?  Which is your favourite?

Oia Santorini

Weekly Photo Challenge: Gone But Not Forgotten – Holiday Sandals and a Final Quiz

Gladiator Sandals Naxos Greece

I had what I called my gladiator sandals since 1999 when I went to Rhodes and they  accompanied me abroad on every single subsequent holiday. By 2006 they were showing signs of wear and were not expected to see through a Greek island hopping adventure. I  made it my mission to see how long I could keep make them last.

The Gladiators made it through the island travels and surprisingly lasted another two years when an important part of the shoe infrastructure failed (one of the straps snapped).

After Rhodes, they had been to the Greek islands of Skiathos, Cephalonia (twice), Santorini (twice), Crete, Thassos, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Ios (twice), Sikinos, Amorgos, Milos and Sifnos.  I finally had to accept that they were irreparable whilst on the island of Folegandros so I thought that this was a suitable place to say goodbye and I  left them there to become part of the Greek earth in whatever landfill site they ended up in.

I really loved those sandals!

Quiz Time:

Identify these Greek holiday islands…

Greek Islands

Island Hopping Plans and Greek Ferries 2012

Agios Georgios

Soon it will be time for the annual trip to the Greek islands and this year I will travel to the Dodecanese island of Kos and then plan to visit a handful of small adjacent islands.  Unfortunately, according to Greek newspaper reports, it seems that this may not be quite so straightforward as it was in the past because there are big changes and significant problems with the ferries and last minute cancellations and rerouting is apparently creating difficulties for island-hoppers as well as the local Greek population.

Despite all the on-going problems in Greece the ferry system has remained relatively immune from troubles, except for the odd one day strike, but now the profitability of the ferry companies is being squeezed and the warning is that this will inevitably impact on services.  Partly as a result of the economic crisis operators are faced with a serious drop in business, on some routes as high as 15% for vehicles and 25% in passenger traffic in comparison with the same period last year.  What is creating the problems are fewer visitors from Western Europe and this year hard-pressed Athenians are staying home and not visiting the islands as they traditionally do in August.

The situation is made even worse by the high cost of fuel, which represents more than 50% of ferry operating costs now that the Greek Government has increased fuel duty in attempt to tackle the budget deficit.

These two factors are bad enough for the operators but many are also struggling due to outstanding subsidy payments owed by the Greek government to the companies in return for running services to otherwise unprofitable remote islands. Some of these payments are reported to be eight months outstanding and this is increasing ferry operators’ liquidity problems and they occasionally have difficulty paying for and obtaining fuel.  The Greek Government has a subsidy budget of 90 million euros for the period from October 2011 to November 2012 but there is pressure from shipping companies to increase this by up to 30% which given the state of the economy is unlikely to be approved but without the subsidies or private sector companies to step in some routes will be vulnerable.

Even before the crisis the ferry system was changing and from an island-hopper’s perspective not always for the best.  In the last couple of years there have been unfamiliar boats and these are all high speed and modern and they are not nearly as much fun.  They are more expensive, have inside allocated airline style seats, in some cases no access to the outside deck and generally lack character or individuality.

I understand that these changes are welcomed by the Government who have privatised the main routes and for the islanders who now have faster and more convenient transport options, but it is a sad day for back packers and island hoppers because I for one prefer the uncertainty of missed schedules, the battle with the elements and the confusion and commotion associated with getting on and getting off in preference to the reliability, the smooth ride and the orderly airline style of boarding and departure.

In 2006 I travelled from Naxos to Ios on an old rust bucket called the Panagia Hozoviotisa and there was a real sense of adventure. It was two hours late and there was a force seven gale and the boat struggled through the heaving seas but it was an honest hard working boat and the journey was wonderful.  I used it again in 2007 but now it is laid up out of service in Piraeus.  So too the G&A ferries the Romilda and the Milena that used to run the western Cyclades but have now been replaced with charmless monsters called Speedrunner or Seajet, boats named without thought or imagination and completely lacking any sense of romance.

Using the traditional old ferries was even more of an adventure because the island hopping guide advises that most of them should be avoided if possible.  By 2009 only the Ventouris Sea Lines Agios Georgios was left and I used it twice, once between Serifos and Sifnos, and then from Sifnos to Milos and I really took pleasure from sitting on the open deck with a Mythos, enjoying the sun and watching the islands slowly slipping by.

On the old boats it is possible to move freely from deck to deck, get close and see inside the bridge and see the captain at work and then at the other end watch the crew at work at the back of the boat and a mad rush of activity when they came in to a port and then left again shortly afterwards.  It was noisy and fun with creaking ropes and rattling chains and the men looked like real sailors.  On the new boats there is only a monotonous hum from the efficient engines and the crew, dressed in smart corporate uniforms, don’t really like you leaving your seat and wandering about unless you are going to the overpriced bar.

This year I will still make plans to visit some islands but it seems that I will need a bigger budget to pay the higher fares on the unsubsidised routes and I will need a good back-up plan if the ferries fail to run on the minor routes between the smaller islands.  It seems that sadly the days of cheap island hopping adventures may soon be a thing of the past.

The Express Skopelitis and Greek Ferries

Weekly Photo Challenge: Merge

Merging colours of the Sea

Walking north from the village there was an almost continuous string of beaches like a rope of sand holding the island in place, a golden halo of wide open shore line punctuated with rocky coves and private sheltered spots and we walked along them from one to another until we found one that suited us and where the water looked perfect for swimming.

The sea was clear  and the sunlight on the surface created leopard skin patterns in the wave wrinkled sand as we waded out into the vivid water with merging colours, turquoise at first turning to violet and then almost mauve the further out into the distance and quite unlike any sea colour that I can recall elsewhere.

Read the full story…

Aegean Odyssey

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Greece 2011, Koufonisia and Beaches and Silent Relationships

Koufonisia Greece Cyclades

Each time we travel to Greece for the island hopping holiday we have to make room in the itinerary for a day or two of beaches and by the second day in Koufonisia it was clear that this year this was it.

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Greece 2011, Koufonisia and The Meaning of Life

Koufonisia Greek Islands

It must have been a rough night, weather wise, because the ferry quay was awash as waves slapped against the harbour side and we had to negotiate deep puddles of sea water to get to the car park to meet the owner of the Villa Maria Vekri for the transport to our apartment and as we drove past the beach we could see that it had had a bit of an overnight battering as well!

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Greece 2011, Katapola and the Chora (Amorgos)

Amorgos Windmills Chora Greece

Katapola was tranquil, peaceful and perfect and at this precise time might possibly have been the most wonderful place on earth and we looked forward to our three days of perfection because apart from concrete, mobile phones and air conditioning this place probably hasn’t changed a great deal in a thousand years.

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Greece 2011, Amorgos and Egiali

Egiali Amorgos Cylcades Greece

In the middle of the village we came across a curious shop and when I peaked inside the gloomy interior an old man invited us in.  It was a sort of workshop and he explained to us that he was the village carpenter, the village hardware store, liquor supplier and barber!  He obligingly showed us around and explained the family pictures hanging on the walls and invited me to have a haircut but I respectfully declined when I saw the age and condition of the clippers!

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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.

Island Hopping Greece

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.

Gyros Pavement Restaurant Piraeus

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.

Leaving Piraeus

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.