The main problem when devising some kind of plan from the comfort of home in the UK is that in theory it’s great, you set off with a full itinerary of the whats and hows, along you skip with a smile and a feeling that all will be great. The reality is different, its simply not possible to plan for every eventuality. There are many things which can, and do go wrong. The simplest of things can make a great plan go to pot and then you are left trying to pick up the pieces and regain your smile and swagger.
I have found that the best way to do things is simply to have a skeleton plan, and believe me an awful lot of work still has to go into it, our time in places is dictated more by where we need to be when, as oppose to where we want to be on a particular day. This gives us a route in and out, but also some flexibility as to what happens in between.
This is why I was able to bail Athens when we needed to and was able to head for Turkey earlier than anticipated. The issue comes with the specifics, and I have found that when dealing with Greece and particularly long distance public transport there is simply no information available.
Search google for ‘Greece to Istanbul’ and you will still find information on even Lonely Planet that you simply hop on a train, sleep a while and then jump of refreshed searching for a sheesha in Istanbul. Be more specific and search ‘Thessaloniki/Alexandroupolis to Istanbul on the bus’ and what you find is a number of forum posts from people asking the question, no real answers, and then a complete failure of the original poster coming back and informing others of how to do it. In short finding just how to get from Greece to Turkey on land was a minefield of out of date answers and it left us travelling on a ridiculously expensive train €76 all in for fourteen hours on a whim. A belief that simply there must be a way.
Greek trains are awful. I can’t really think of a better way to describe them. The first train from Athens Larissa left on time and was one of those ancient things where the seats are in compartments of six. Barely any room in between, air conditioning on super cold, smoking allowed, cramped and the quality of your journey hanging in the balance of your fellow occupants. Since we were going the full distance from Larissa to Thessaloniki over 7 hours we hoped we’d get some stunning Greek woman keen to get naked and hand out the beers. It didn’t happen, instead we got a classic elderly Greek couple. They spoke German (as seemingly most Greeks do) I have a decent grasp of Deutsch and so we chatted a while. The old guy gave up his seat so Abi could lay down and he went and sat in the corridor. Yet again we were shown true Greek hospitality.
The night was one of broken sleep and eventually a woman and her two kids joined us. The boy spoke English and as I battled to stay awake he was telling me how they were going to Zante, someone farted and I was out for the count. It was cramped, freezing cold and the woman seriously needed to put her phone on silent, but it was fine. We pulled into Thessaloniki at 6.40am and already the train was waiting for us for the onward journey. A woman who looked about three thousand years old and with less teeth than a goldfish coughed in my face and suddenly it was apparent that the farther away from Athens you get, the poorer the country gets. It’s a lot like Italy in that South of Rome you have got a shit hole of a country all but forgotten in the truly beautiful North.
The Greeks were of a darker skinned, obviously labouring people aged fifty years for every ten due to the harsh nature of the work and torturous unforgiving nature of the sun. Knob head style tattoos are common place, and we’re not talking some chav council estate ‘mam and dad’ and a swift on the hand. These bad boy tattoos are obviously done when high on drink and/or drugs, in darkness and in their left hand whilst jumping around. There were some serious hardcore fail tattoos, on faces, necks, knee caps, its actually not like being in Greece anymore.
New born babies looking about eighteen years old from birth, some of them being born with stubble. This was Greece at it’s harshest, a country poverty stricken and clinging onto bail outs whilst the public suffer inflation of 40% on their already meagre wages. Proof that the Euro has left people behind, proof of the daily struggle by people who, when they joined the EU anticipated a collective of countries all sharing the wealth and raising the standards of the whole economic area. Proof of being dealt a card you didn’t ask for and didn’t want.
I have to admit though, we experienced no hostility and yet still the Greek hospitality and warmth shone through the leathered skin, lack of teeth and snide body art.
The journey from Thessaloniki to Alexandroupolis was memorable though because of just how damn beautiful Greece is. That rail journey was seriously stunning, sprawling fields shadowed by huge mountains on one side, yet the finite beauty dropping off into to turquoise waters on the other. I sat for a long time listening to music and just admiring the beauty outside the window. If trains had have been regular I would have got off the train randomly and just sat in a field with the kids just being, well, just being together. Perhaps it’s age, but the thought of sitting there, just existing amongst such beauty seemed to be the perfect idea.
We arrived into the port town of Alexandroupolis just before 14.00, I asked around and within 20 minutes we were sat at the harbour eating Greece’s main takeaway dish ‘Gyros’ which is basically a chicken or pork kebab, drinking ice cold Coke and waiting for the supposed bus to Istanbul which leaves the road in front of the port at 14.45. I was warned we actually needed tickets and was left with no choice since we had no time to find where to get some. The bus turned up at 15.00 and there were only a handful of seats empty. I paid €34 (no idea how it breaks down) for 3 seats on the executive bus with seat back tv etc run by a Turkish company called Metro Turizm. Before long we were at the border of Greece and after paying a tenner each for the three Turksih visas we were soon queuing for passport control. I left the kids in the queue whilst I went searching for fanta, I couldn’t find any and when I came back they were stood out of the queue.Turns out they had got to the front, handed over the passports and no questions asked the three of us were now stamped into Turkey.
By 18.00 we were on our way headed toward my favourite European city, a place where Islam meets Western ideals, a mixture of beliefs, lives and the gateway to the East. Minarets pierced the horizon and as the kids slept, and I sipped on a black coffee I felt Istanbul was in reaching distance. This years trip was well and truly under way and the was no going back now. Finally I started to feel excited 🙂