Last post I crossed a country, in this one I’ll cross a continent. Hitching a ride from Turkey across the border into Greece is notoriously difficult, so I elected to take the bus straight to Thessaloniki. The bus was on charter from a company called crazy holidays. Call me old fashioned, but crazy is not really something I look for on an intercity coach journey . As it turned out the trip proved to be anything but.
We’d barely got started when the driver pulled into a motorway service station. Clearly someone was getting commission for bringing a load of punters to peruse the typical overpriced tat that you get at every similar establishment around the world with a few local twists. Then there was the border crossing itself. This was the 13th I had entered and on only 2 previous occasions had my luggage been subjected to any kind of examination. On entering Vietnam the customs officer had given my bags a cursory search and then bizarrely when leaving China they were looked through rather more thoroughly. As we were entering the EU I was expecting something a little more rigorous. On the Turkish side only 2 people were dragged off the bus to have their bags searched a young French backpacker and of course me. On the Greek side we all lined up with our bags laid out on the bench in front of us. This time the customs official selected only one bag to be examined, yes you’ve guessed it mine. I clearly must look dodgy because his decision couldn’t have been based on the countries I’d just visited because I’d switched from using my Australian passport which had all my stamps in to my British one to enter the EU. I was forced to empty the entire contents of my pack, dirty boxer shorts scattered across the bench, socks falling onto the floor whilst the other passengers stared through the windows of the coach parked right behind me. Although what exactly he was looking for I’m not entirely sure. He barely glanced at my plastic bag of white powder (the cheese I’d been given in Turkey) despite the large sign on the wall directly behind him advising it was illegal to bring dairy products into the EU. I would imagine the super strength cold and flu tablets I’d purchased in Laos would also have been prohibited, but not a mention was made of them. No it seemed like many other minor bureaucrats he was doing it simply because he could, to make it look like he was doing his job, with the added bonus of being able to humiliate some poor punter in the process. Then came the task of getting all my possessions back into the bag. Conscious of the dozens of eyes burning into my back I tried to hurry, thus making my task that much harder. Suddenly my pile of belongings seemed much larger and my bag smaller. Items which fitted snugly that morning no longer seemed to go. I grabbed the last few recalcitrant items, stuffed them into a plastic bag and retreated into the bus.
It took an age to reach Thessaloniki, it seemed like the bus stopped at every town and village along the way, the driver avoiding the motorway in favour of back roads. We stopped at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, more commission? I had no Euros so they weren’t gaining anything from me. Finally we arrived and I wandered, disoriented through the dark streets trying to find a cash point, a phone card and a phone so I could find my couch surfing host for the next few days.
And what a perfect host she was too. Kind of like staying with your mum, except she could knock back the sambuca. As soon as I arrived a bottle of wine was opened and out came a plate of cheese, her mothers home grown olives and some cured ham. I hadn’t had pork since I left China, 3 months previously, and this was delicious so I pigged out on it. Then my laundry was taken care of and a freshly made bed was ready for me.
Next day my host took me on a tour of the city. Although it couldn’t be described as beautiful Thessaloniki has a certain charm to it. Nestling beside a curved bay the city spreads into the surrounding hills forming a natural amphitheatre. It has been an important port for centuries as the various empires rose and fell in surrounding lands. That history has largely been concealed by modern apartments and roads but here and there it bursts out of the concrete and glass. The sun was bright, turning the waters blue as we walked along the sea front which had been newly gentrified with a parks, cycle path and promenade added. We climbed the white tower which offered great views around the bay and inside had informative displays on the history of the city from Roman times to the independence struggle from the Ottoman Empire. During the Ottoman times the town was a cosmopolitan mix of Slavs, Turks, Greeks and Jews. It was one of the most important Jewish cities in Europe, providing shelter to Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition. This all changed after independence as first population exchanges with Bulgaria and Turkey removed the Slavs and Turks and then the Nazi occupiers removed the Jewish population.
In the afternoon we caught a taxi up one of the steep hills overlooking the city heading towards the oldest part of the city. Near the top we stopped to engage in Thessaloniki’s most popular rituals – the drinking of frappe – a long, strong and sweet iced coffee. Morning, afternoon and evening the locals will pause what they are doing and head out to one of the hundreds of pavement cafes, order a frappe and put the world to rights. Of course at some stage the conversation invariably flows to the economic woes currently afflicting the country. As we had passed through the city I’d noticed a number of shops boarded up and empty. Earlier we had met some friends of my host who were considering emigrating to Australia a theme I would hear repeated countless times throughout my trip. And everywhere people decrying the corruption ingrained into economic life and the bankers and rich who were largely responsible for creating the mess the country now found itself in.
Much of the city was destroyed by fire in 1917, the only part that was spared was Ano Poli and that was were we headed. We walked through the maze of old streets, skirting a monastery past the old stone houses clinging on to the hillside occasionally pausing to ask directions – it was the first time my host had been here too despite having lived in the city for 7 years. Eventually we located the street of restaurants we were looking for, and following a recommendation from a local chose the oldest of the lot. A sign inside indicated that it had been open since 1885 . My companion ordered and we were soon tucking into some fabulous food. A whole selection of dishes cooked from simple fresh ingredients and washed down with a glass or two of the local fire water. Absolutely delicious.
Next morning my host suggested I check out some of the countryside around Mount Olympus. Following her directions I hopped on a couple of buses and a couple of hours later was walking up a steep mountain road in the warm late morning sunshine. The road was quiet and the air was clear leaving perfect views down onto the azure sea below. I had a spring in my stride and a song in my head and soon made short work of the trek to the village above. It was a lovely old stone hamlet, with narrow cobbled streets and views over the sea and across to the snow covered Mount Olympus towering above. It was obviously a drawcard for tourists with restaurants with tables spilling onto the central plaza surrounding the small church, shops selling trinkets and many of the houses providing accommodation. However today it was practically deserted with only one family eating lunch. I wandered through the streets, and found a bench on which to eat my lunch and then followed a rough track higher into the hills. Birds were singing, new life was bursting forth in the spring warmth and all was well with the world or at least in my particular corner of it. As I climbed higher I came across patches of snow left over from winter falls. Then it was time to descend and catch the bus home. I had only just left the village when an old dude passing in a pick up stopped to offer me a lift. I jumped in gratefully and a few minutes later he deposited me in the village below. I was now seriously early for the bus so after a poking round the ruins of a nearby castle I returned to the main road and stuck out my thumb. A few minutes later a young guy stopped who spoke perfect English and spent the journey lamenting the current economic woes of his country. He didn’t hang about either and in no time at all he was pulling up right outside my couchsurfers place – much more convenient than the bus.
It was my last night in Thessaloniki so my host to took me out to experience the nightlife. First of all we hit some of the bars and started on the whiskey then the sambuka came out and next thing I know we’re in a taxi heading for a Bouzouki spot, a traditional Greek nightclub. Around the stage tables are arranged, the occupied ones are piled with bottles and glasses. The band is belting out traditional Greek tunes, and are surprisingly good. They are surrounded by a sea of flowers that the appreciative crowd have thrown at them. There are flowers cascading down from the drum kit and a great mound around the guitarists. The singer is having to kick a path through the blossoms as yet more pink blooms are flung in his direction. It’s all very mad, and strangely beautiful, until you consider the environmental consequences of all those wasted flowers, the tonnes of fertilisers to help them grow and the gallons of pesticide to keep them looking so perfect, never mind the emissions required to transport them – perhaps they were flown in from Africa that morning. We’d arrived late so all to soon the band finished and we were stumbling out into the night. My host suggested a normal nightclub as a bit of a contrast to the last place. After a bit of a search we piled into a cavernous building. The bass was pumping and beautiful young people were gyrating under the flashing lights. We were just making our way to the bar when the DJ killed the music and so my magical mystery tour of the nightlife of Thessaloniki was over.
Next day I awoke with a killer hangover. A souvlaki and beer for lunch helped but the bus ride to a nearby town wasn’t the best. At the terminus I left the bus and started walking to the edge of town to find a spot to hitch into the mountains along the border with Albania. After a slow start I finally got a lift from a chef heading to work, he drops me in the middle of nowhere on a small road at t-junction, another lift comes, and then another and I arrive at my destination just as night is falling.
Northern Greece is beautiful in March. Snow still covers the higher mountains, but the valleys are filled with almond and stone fruit trees all in blossom. It’s thinly populated with small villages and farms. Next day I head deeper into the mountains. I get a series of short lifts from village to village until a young guy drops me at the top of a hillside overlooking a village and there I stay. All afternoon the thin trickle of passing traffic ignores my outstretched thumb. Finally dusk falls and I give up and head back down the hill to the village below to find a spot for the night. As I walk I spot the lights of one last car making it’s way up the twisty mountain road. As it gets nearer I stick out my thumb, without any real hope the occupants would offer a lift to some nutter wandering down a hillside in the dark. To my surprise they stop and they’re going right to my destination. The lovely couple inside are film makers from Athens on a short holiday who speak perfect English. They drop me off in the centre of town and suggest a couple of places where I can stay.
Kastoria is a lovely place beside a lake surrounded my mountains. Unfortunately I can’t stay long as time is pressing so after a brief wander around in the morning its back on the road again. I get a lift quickly to the new motorway to Albania, traffic at the junction is very light so I end up hitching on the motorway itself, something that would get you arrested instantly elsewhere in Europe but here nobody seemed to mind and I got a lift straight away from a soldier on leave who was going to visit his family. By chance he was going exactly to Ioannina too and even dropped me right at my couchsurfing hosts front door after phoning him and confirming directions.
My host a recent graduate was one of the many young victims of the Greek crisis. He had been trying to find work for a year and a half. With the unemployment rate at 52% for young people there are many others in a similar circumstances . It is a situation that’s repeated throughout Europe. In the UK it’s 22% and among black males it rises to 50% . Little wonder that without a coherent political alternative capable of channelling the anger and disaffection that this inevitably creates into something more positive that large parts of England erupted into rioting last year. My host had largely stopped looking for work on a systematic basis. The rejection and hopelessness of it all must be soul destroying. Instead almost daily he would wander into town to a park by the lake where other young people in a similar situation would gather to juggle, and talk and drink beer, all cheap ways of having fun on a low income.
I had an enjoyable couple of days in Ioannina, my host had plenty of time to show me around. So we visited the old city surrounded by the city walls with a maze of narrow cobbled streets and old stone houses. We continued on into the old fortress and clambered over its crumbling walls. We walked around the lakeside with its collection of cafes and restaurants. It was obviously a slow day as many had no customers at all, although I guess nowadays most days will be slow. The further we walked from the town more closed down businesses we saw, each one someone’s dream crushed by the crisis. We passed one large complex that had only been half constructed and then abandoned. The roof had been completed but none of the finishing’s, doors or windows added. On our return a couple of police cars were parked outside and a group of illegal immigrants were being arrested. They were in handcuffs whilst the police gathered their pathetic looking collection of belongings in plastic bags. I pondered the injustices of the world where I was free to wander pretty much as I pleased purely due to the fortunate circumstances of my birth while they were forced to sneak across borders and sleep in half built buildings with no windows just to try and get a job to support their families.
Next day I took a boat to a small Island in the lake. There is a cute old stone village, with narrow cobbled streets and no cars. I walked up to the monastery with its ancient wooden door and wandered through the forest in the centre taking shelter from a passing thunderstorm in the doorway of the graveyard caretakers hut. That evening my host took me to visit a squat which had an open evening every Tuesday. It was in a disused university building and had been running for years and was now the operating centre for some social movements. They shared some food with us and we sampled some of their home made moonshine.
Then it was nearly time to leave Greece. I had planned to hitch through the mountains along the old road to the port of Igoumenitsa a fruitless couple of hours waiting for a lift put paid to that. So I headed back to the motorway assisted by a very kind man who took me miles out of his way around the ring road and delivered me to the exact spot I needed to be. He was planning on emigrating to Australia and wanted to practice his English. The old fella that took me most of the way to my destination was planning on emigrating too, and in broken English told me about his mates who now drove taxis in Melbourne and Adelaide. He dropped me in the middle of nowhere at the side of the motorway. I was slightly worried that this might not be the best location to get a ride but it seems that Greeks have no compunction to pulling up on the hard shoulder. A few minutes later I was cramming my bags into a tiny car filled with fishing rods and equipment and within half an hour I was being dropped at the ferry terminal. I bought my ticket for that night’s sailing to Bari, dumped my bags and went to explore the town.
It was a typical port town, not very pretty and rather transitory in feel. I had a coffee and relaxed in the sun. Then went for dinner and stocked up on provision for the next stage of the journey and returned to the terminal to await my boat. It was late. It was scheduled for 9 but didn’t arrive until around midnight. There were hardly any passengers so even though I had only bought a deck ticket there was still plenty of room to find somewhere comfy to spend the night. Rolling out my fleece sleeping bag liner on one of the long sofas in the bar I shoved in my ear plugs and settled down to sleep. Next morning I awoke to the gentle rolling of the boat and was eager to get on the road, but of course our late departure had delayed our arrival so I had to content myself with reading and writing to pass the time. Eventually we did arrive and I hurried off the boat to try my luck at hitching a lift from the lines of cars and trucks that were being disgorged from the hold. All to no avail. Hitching out of a major city is always the hardest part. Most people aren’t going far and it’s often difficult to find a spot where cars can safely spot. Whilst checking the map I’d noticed a motorway services not so far away. These are usually great hitching spots, most vehicles will be going relatively far, the drivers are refreshed and there’s plenty of space for them to pull over. This was were I was headed, I managed to ask directions to the bus stop and was on my way when a dude on a bicycle pulled up for a chat. He was a Kiwi and was following a similar route to me but going the opposite way. He was the second bike riding Kiwi I had met on this trip. The other was in Turkey. He’d ridden across Australia to Darwin taken the plane to Bali and had pretty much ridden the whole way with a couple of ferries thrown in taking about 2 years to get to Turkey. Respect. I would love to do that journey. One day…..
Conscious that time was slipping away from me a bade the cyclist farewell. After a short bus ride I got off in a tangle of roads and motorway junctions and set off to find the back entrance to the service station I’d spotted on the map. After a few false starts I spotted it running down the side of a building site and was striding confidently towards the restaurant building when I spotted the huge fence surrounding it with no obvious way of passing apart from the staff door. I was contemplating my options when 2 huge dogs came bounding out of nowhere and started trotting towards me barking loudly. I beat a hasty retreat, walked back along the road, climbed over a barbed wire fence, through some thick undergrowth, hopped over a ditch and clambered up the steep embankment of the motorway. I quickly followed the motorway to the enterance to the services hoping the police didn’t spot me before I got there.
After a bit of a wait I eventually got a lift to Napoli. The old guy who picks me up next stinks of booze and is driving rather erratically. Fortunately he’s only going to the next services and kindly offers to buy me a coffee. My final lift of the day is going all the way to Firenze. It’s nice being in a country where communication is much easier. Using a combination of the French and Spanish that I’ve learnt, their basic English and the translator on my phone we can have a reasonable conversation. We stop at another services so I can phone the friend I’m staying with in the Sabine hills just outside Rome. They get directions and drop me off at a junction where my friend is waiting to convey me to their cosy retreat.
Refreshed and revitalised after a couple of days hanging out in a beautiful valley surrounded by orchards I’m on the road again. Everybody tells me, including most of the drivers that pick me up that hitch hiking is no good in Italy. However it seems easy enough to me, lifts come thick and fast, I even get picked up by two lone women, both young and beautiful. There is something about Italian women…. The biggest problem I encounter is the police. Despite it being about the safest place to stand to attempt to get a lift it is actually illegal to hitch hike from a service station. Although it is the home of the Mafia, corruption pervades all levels of society and the president procures under age prostitutes its seems like the biggest threat to the safety and security of the nation is a weary traveller trying to get a lift home to see his mum. They pulled up beside me at a services near Bologna and told me to leave, dismissing my protestations. As I walked off in the direction they indicated they followed slowly behind me and watched me walk through the gate in the high fence that marked the boundary, until they were quite certain I had left the premises. I surveyed the thick forest around me, it seemed like I was in the middle of nowhere, and contemplated my options as I sat on my bag. I was just finishing my sandwich when a figure came walking towards me. It was a German lorry driver who was parked near my hitching spot and had witnessed my run in with the cops. He hated the police and offered me a lift up the road. I gratefully accepted.
I soon made good progress up almost the entire length of the country. Dusk was falling when I was dropped just outside Torino by an electro band who were off to play a gig in the city. I should have accepted their offer to accompany them if I did a spot of roadying for them, because clearly on a Friday night nobody was heading into France. As it got later and the traffic thinned out even more I gave up for the night, found a secluded tree to shelter under and settled to sleep. Fortunately it was extremely mild for March, as the snow-capped Alps which the sun had so spectacularly set behind a few hours earlier alluded to the potential for cold. I awoke before dawn and assumed my position next to the slip road back on to the motorway. All to no avail. After another few hours of fruitless thumbing the police arrived to put me out of my misery and escorted me off the premises. Clearly a change of tactics was in order and I formulated my options as I trudged up the narrow road towards the tiny village in the distance. I decided to cut my losses and head into Torino and catch the train into France. Using a combination of French and Spanish I established from a mechanic the best way into town and started walking towards the train station he identified.
It seems that paying for a train in Italy is rather optional, there were no ticketing facilities when I reached the station and I wasn’t approached by a guard once I’d boarded the suburban train for the 20 minute journey into the city centre. It also proved very difficult to buy a ticket for France as well. The ticket office at the station I arrived at couldn’t sell me one and directed me to another station. They had an information office where at least English was spoken but informed me that the tickets could only be purchased online, but couldn’t tell me where the nearest internet cafe was. After wandering fruitlessly for an age I eventually located one in a side street only to discover the last train across the border was departing in a few minutes several miles away.
So I was stuck in Torino for the night. Which proved no bad thing. It’s a beautiful city with lots of amazing Renaissance era buildings but without the crowds of tourists which plague other more famous Italian cities. I spent a pleasant afternoon and evening wandering round the broad cobbled streets and through the narrower lanes of the old city. I settled down in one of the numerous pavement cafes for an aperatifo and listen to the chamber orchestra performing across the square. Later as night fell I walked down to the river and strolled into a huge piazza for something to eat. The pavement cafes and restaurants were crowded with people doing the things which Italians are so proficient at. Eating, drinking, talking animatedly and looking cool. I found a place recommended in the Lonely Planet. There was no English menu and the waiter couldn’t be bothered to translate even though his English was pretty good. I couldn’t be arsed trying to decipher it using a dictionary either so just ordered at random and was rewarded with a superbly cooked trout washed down with a lovely wine. Stuffed and a little tipsy I strolled back to my hotel for an early night in preparation for my early start the next day.
The gleaming TGV high speed train arrived punctually and I was soon settling into my comfortable seat. It was easily the most luxurious mode of transport I had taken during my trip. And the most expensive. In a matter of hours we had crossed the whole of France and were soon gliding into Paris. High speed rail is often touted as the sustainable alternative to air travel but as I have discussed previously its huge energy requirements mean that travelling so fast may not be an option in an emissions free world. But what the heck right now I was enjoying the ride. I paused in Paris for a couple of hours and ordered a coffee in my bad school French whilst waiting for my train to Calais.
Although the sun as shining as I wandered along the sea front an icy windy was whipping across the Channel, indicating that England was very near. I was in a contemplative mood as I pondered my last night on foreign soil. After covering over 45000 km in 9 months and passing through 16 countries my journey was nearly over. I’d seen so many beautiful places and met so many beautiful people in what I have to say has been the most amazing year of my life. I feel immensely privileged to have been able to undertake this journey. I’ve learnt so much and feel a totally different person from the one that set out all those months ago, hopefully a better one. I have learnt tolerance and acceptance, been humbled by the dignity with which people come to terms with the hand that life has dealt them. I have laughed, lots. Cried, a little. But most of all I’ve had lots and lots of fun. But the most important thing I’ve learned is that although there are lots of weird and wonderful people in the world when it comes down to it we’re all not really that different after all.
It was with a mixture of excitement and sadness that I boarded the ferry. Feelings which only increased as the white cliffs of Dover hove into sight and I stepped onto British soil for the first time in 5 years. I’d made it!!!