Tag Archives: piraeus

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: Urban

We had been sailing for nearly four hours now and the time had begun to drag but then we could see Athens, a gleaming mantle of white urban concrete filling the valley, spilling down to the sea and creeping up the sides of the mountains that surround it and soon we were docked and in contrast to the slow pace of the islands pitched back into the madness of Piraeus.

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My Personal Greek A to Ω – Π (Pi) is for Πειραιάς or Piraeus

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.

Leaving Piraeus

Greece 2011, Antiparos to Athens

Antiparos Cyclades Greece

When I woke in the morning it was a peculiar sensation (it might have been the Mythos of course) but my head was  swaying as though I was still on Captain Ben’s boat and the bed was gently bobbing from side to side but I was happy with this because it was probably good preparation because we were shortly to take another small boat ride.

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Greek Islands, Blue Star Ferry to Paros

Blue Star Athens to Paros

My apologies to residents of Piraeus but it is not the most attractive city in Greece – constructed almost entirely from limestone and clay as a reminder of the Athenians fifty year love affair with concrete and cement.  In the words of Mike Gatting (talking about Pakistan), this is not a place that you would even send your mother-in-law and we were pleased when the ferry slipped its moorings and headed out to sea precisely on time and our personal chill tanks started to fill with credit!

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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.

Island Hopping 2006, Blue Star Ferry to Piraeus

I woke especially early today and I sat with my tea on the balcony to watch the building pantomime. The men arrived early and had their thirty minutes together organising the day’s chaos. Surely it would have made sense to begin work straight away because this was the coolest part of the day but instead they sat around under a tree, a thoroughly disorganised debating society that became steadily louder as more turned up and joined in. One man had most to say so I guessed that he had some sort of seniority but despite expansive arm waving and shoulder heaving the others didn’t appear to acknowledge his authority.

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Island Hopping 2006, Piraeus to Naxos

Blue Star Ferry Athens to Naxos

I was aware that we had to get up very early and consequently I had a restless night and woke prematurely sometime before the alarm because it was on my mind that we had to catch the seven thirty ferry to Naxos.

It was still dark when I got up first at about six o’clock and then used my banging about and switching the lights on technique to wake the girls. Not very sophisticated I have to concede but it worked well enough. Packing a rucksack is quite straightforward and the girls had already perfected the back-packers art of cramming without folding so it didn’t take long to get ready.

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Greece 2009 – Blue Star to Piraeus

Blue Star Paros approaching Athens

The Blue Star Naxos arrived on time and there were a lot of passengers to get on board before it could leave again.  The Blue Star ferries can carry one thousand five hundred passengers and two hundred and fifty vehicles and the line of cars waiting to drive on board stretched all along the port and back to the town square.  When the gate was opened we pushed our way on board and made for the top deck where we had plans to find a seat in the sun and we found some at the back of the boat which we estimated would enjoy the sun all the way to the mainland and we settled down and after the boat had loaded up and left the port watched Naxos slipping away behind us.

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Greece – Serifos, Livadi

Serifos Livadi

It was a windy day and the high winds whipped up the sea into little white meringue peaks on top of the pitching waves.  Although we had an allocated seat on board we preferred to stay outside for the entire journey and watch the islands slipping by as we made our progress towards Serifos.

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