Manchester to Athens and on to Antiparos via Paros (We Hope!)

The alarm goes of at 4.00am and we’re up!  We have less than an hour to get ready, close the suitcases and get to the airport.  I’ve been looking forward to this trip for such a long time and the early wake up call doesn’t phase us.  I think ahead to the itinerary and the connections we have to make to get to Antiparos later that night and quickly check that the flight is on time.  Yes – so far so good.  We should land in Athens shortly after lunchtime and we will travel to the port of Piraeus by bus which runs hourly and takes about 50 minutes.  A ferry is scheduled to leave Piraeus at 17.30 arriving in Paros at 22.30.  We then have to catch the bus from the port at Paroikia to the small port of Pounda and from there the last little car ferry over to Antiparos – simple!

Manchester Airport is busy – even Speedy boarding doesn’t seem to moving very fast.  The queues are long but we look forward to checking in with Easyjet using the smartphone app that is being trialled.  It works fine but we still had to print out paper tickets for the flight home.  More long queues but once we are through passport control we have time for a quick mooch and to make the special purchase of a bottle of the new Blackberry and Elderflower Pimms!

The flight over to Athens was fine.  Tiredness was beginning to creep up on us both.  Eventually we are flying over Greece and we catch our first sight of the stunning turquoise sea.

We fly over the coast and inland, past a deeply riven quarry cut out of the hillside and over a busy motorway.  I can see large expanses of olive groves around town settlements and the haze coming from the land indicates the heat of the midday is in full force.

 As we approach Athens Airport the captain announces that there is a little turbulence – nothing too unsettling though.  The plane begins to make its rather wobbly descent towards the runway.  It looks as though we are going to touch down but before we know it the engine volume increases rapidly and we are taking off again.  The captain tells us that he didn’t like the look of the landing so he would attempt it again and hopefully the wind will have dropped by the time we’ve completed the circuit again.

Around we go over a range of mountains and after about 10 or 15 minutes we see the quarry and the motorway again.  This time we land without any wobbles.

After exiting the plane we have rather a long walk through the terminal building.  At least we’ve landed more or less on time and we have plenty of time to get over to Piraeus.

Exit the terminal building at the arrivals level between Exit 4 and Exit 5 (B).  Turn right and 20 yards or so down you will see the bus stop.  Next to the bus stop you will see a cabin selling tickets – you must purchase your tickets beforehand.  It costs 5 Euros each and the X96 to Piraeus runs hourly. (the timetable on the net says every 30 mins but the information at the airport said hourly.  The journey is about 50 minutes.   http://www.athensairporttaxi.com/en/athens_topiraeus_en.htm 

Athens Airport Bus Stop

The bus was very busy and we ended up standing all the way. It wasn’t a particularly comfortable journey as a number of people had left their luggage by the doorway unattended.  Everytime the bus swerved around a corner the luggage slid across the floor towards us and pinned us up against the doors which did open periodically at each bus stop.  An Italian tourist also being swept along by the deluge of luggage told me ” Molto difficile”. Yes, – molto difficile – but not for the two families (the owners of the luggage) who had sprawled themselves across a number of seats to sleep instead of offering them up to others!  Chill Stephanie Chill.  Now is the time to try and unwind from work!

If you have a smart phone or other mobile device, it’s useful to download a GPS app that doesn’t require a wireless connection.  I’m a big fan of Evernote which enabled me to download lots of information such as ferry and bus timetables – a premium membership which is really cheap and can be purchased by the month, enables you to access this information offline.  Also take time to download offline maps for your destination in Google maps.

When you get off the bus, cross the road and bare left a little – look for the statue of General Karaiskakis, hero of the Greek Revolution of 1821.  Behind this you will find a number of ticket offices and cafes and restaurants along with entrances to the ferry terminals

We make our way to Blue Star Ferries office.  There isn’t much of a queue and after 10 minutes we ask for tickets for the 17.30 ferry to Paros.  “Not available”.  I was a bit stunned as the Blue Star Paros is a huge ship and it isn’t yet high season. We tell him that we need to be in Antiparos tonight as we have a room booked – hoping he would show sympathy and summon up a miracle!  “Absolutely full.  I even don’t have cancellation for the 21.00 boat.”  I still couldn’t believe that the ferry was full.  We decide to ask at other ticket offices in the port to see what we can find.

I didn’t expect this at all.  The Blue Star Paros is moored right next to us and I can’t quite comprehend how a ship this size is fully booked.  I haven’t yet acclimatised to the searing midday heat and we decide that I will stay with the luggage under the shade of a tree whilst Peter goes to the other ticket agencies to see if there are any cancellations.  After about 20 minutes he returns and tells me that the ferries are all booked as it is a Greek national holiday and every Athenian is escaping to the islands today until Tuesday.  This is such an oversight on my part!  After all the years I’ve been coming to the Greek Islands and I didn’t even consider the local holidays.  One of the travel agencies has told Peter that they have a couple of cancellations for the 21.00 ferry tonight.  This means that we will arrive at Paros at 1.00am and from what I knew the ferry to Antiparos only runs until about midnight.  However, even if we had to stay on Paros for the night, it would only be an 8 minute ride across in the morning – best to be in Paros than in Piraeus!

Before we commit ourselves we decide to see if there are any cancellations for the Blue Star Paros.  Seeing the Blue Star Paros again after so many years is like seeing an old friend.  It may sound rather peculiar having such a fond attachment to a ship but it is hard to describe the feeling when you catch sight of a ship that you have travelled on so many times before.  They come in all shapes and sizes and can be spotted along the same routes year after year.  Maybe it’s to do with being born in a port myself.  There is something really fascinating about sea travel – even observing ships from land fills me with excitement and wonderment – arriving at an island by boat – even more so!

There is a small kiosk right on the ferry terminal by the Blue Star Paros.  There is quite a queue and Peter eventually gets the opportunity to ask if there have been any cancellations.  None at this moment in time.  We go back periodically over the next hour or so and watch lorries, cars and passengers (predominantly Greek) board the boat.  I notice a small group of tourists who have been waiting by the entrance to the boat – it becomes clear that they are trying to get seats by speaking to the Blue Star Ferry staff directly – but to no avail.

It’s hot  and we’re tired and hungry and I slowly realise that we don’t stand a chance of getting on the Blue Star Paros.  We decide to go back to the ticket office and buy the tickets for the Blue Star Ithaki that leaves at 21.00 – this must have been an extra boat as I don’t remember seeing this on the timetable.  We go back to the office where they had told Peter that they had  some cancellations.  The same lady now tells us that they only have first class accommodation tickets left – I can’t remember the price but they were at least double the cost of the economy tickets.  We told her that it was just too expensive for us but we really needed to get to Paros that night.  After poking her keyboard a few times she tells us that she had just found a couple of cancellations for economy!  I don’t blame her for trying!

We buy the tickets at 32.5 Euros each and then contemplate how we are going to spend nearly 5 hours in Piraeus.  We are told we can board the ship from 20.00 so that’s not as bad.  We decide to go and eat in one of the restaurants in the port.  We find a table outside and have a meal of stuffed tomatoes for me and chicken souvlaki for Peter.  We stretch out the time as long as we can until, over Peter’s shoulder I catch sight of the Blue Star Paros moving slowly out of the port.  Farewell my beauty

Peter is keen to explore Piraeus but it is too hot for me – not so for an Egyptian!  First of all we find a small office between the ticket agencies where we can leave all of our luggage for the price of 6 euros – well worth the money.  We decide to stay around the port, stopping occasionally for a drink in a cafe and use of the free wifi.  There are a few teams of young people giving out free samples – we are given samples of Oral B Pro Toothpaste and some odd little snacks called Fonzies.  The port is huge.  The cafe’s and ticket offices are surrounded by a one way system where cars and taxis enter and exit the port.  Trying to cross the road when a ferry has just arrived or is about leave is very difficult.  Now there is a real lull and the port is very quiet.  There is an air conditioned port waiting room where we sit for a while but we are restless and keep moving to different spots around the port hoping the time will pass more quickly. I think we try 3 or 4 different cafes during our wait.  It is whilst we are sitting in the last cafe that we see another large Blue Star ferry enter the harbour – without getting out of my seat I can see it is the Blue Star Ithaki.  Thank God!

We know there is no rush to get to the ferry but the opportunity to observe some of the frenetic activity that takes place during the loading and unloading of ferries is a greatly appreciated distraction. As soon as we can we board.

We enter the foot passenger entrance, show our ticket and walk to the side of the car deck where we place our luggage in a storage rack. We take the escalators up to the middle deck and find a table and chairs near the back of the ferry.  This gives us excellent views of the action down below.

There appears to be a very intricate system if loading and unloading lorries, cars and boats. As huge juggernauts disembark, a queue of lorries, cars and motorbikes simultaneously enter.  Amidst lots of shouting and very animated arm waving, the traffic seems to converge into the same space but at the last minute vehicles glide slowly away – a bit like a juggernaut ballet.  I don’t know what the capacity is on a ferry this size but the continuous uploading of reversing vehicles seems to continue for over an hour.  We see one lorry continually enter the ship, offload its goods, exit the ferry and then return with another load of cargo several times.  All manner of supplies are being distributed out to the islands.  Even the foot passengers are carrying ice boxes, goods wrapped up in tight bundles and plastic bags bursting at the seams. The passengers are predominantly Greek – it seems that everyone from Athens is escaping to the islands – a sense of ‘school is out’. It really is a fascinating spectacle.  I remember when arriving at the port of Symi seeing a family escorting a coffin on board.  It gives you a sense of how invaluable the ferry service is to islanders.  Someone is towing a large speedboat with a 4 x 4 which seems to have broken down by the harbour wall – a taxi driver seems to be offering assistance along with other passing passengers.  We’ve got our seats and a cup of tea which I seem to enjoy a lot more knowing that we will be on Paros tonight.  We settle down to watch this amazing real life soap opera!

There is a large electronic noticeboard that indicates that around 6 ships will be leaving Piraeus around the same time.  Despite the frenetic activity, shouting and frantic arm waving the Blue Star Ithaki leaves at 21.00 exactly.  This is a very well rehearsed stage show and I don’t for one minute underestimate the skill it takes to manage the logistics of this operation.

We sail slowly out of the harbour as the sun sets which slowly transcends into dusk.  We can see the lights of Piraeus for a long time and also the outline of the other 5 ships that also departed from the port, now diverging off onto their own separate routes. I love travelling on the deck – I’d much rather be outside than in the enclosed salon.

Also sitting out on the deck are two groups of young men – one who has a loud, shrill laugh like a hyena.  We are joined by a couple of middle aged men who occasionally exchange sentences with each other but mostly just look out to sea whilst swinging their komboloi. Worry beads seems an inappropriate description – I think contemplation beads works better.  I wonder what they are thinking and whether I could relate to whatever it is that’s in their mind.

Children walk to the safety rail tentatively. It reminds me of a recurring dream I used to have as a child. We used to make the journey from Dover to Calais quite frequently to visit friends of my parents in Italy.  Although my sister would only have been a babe-in-arms when we made these journey’s, I had a recurring dream for many years that as we were standing on the deck of the ferry I saw her slip between the bars of the railings.  Despite trying to grab her I couldn’t – and that’s where the dream ended.  I don’t think we ever stood on the deck of the ferry as children so not sure where that image came from!

The group of young men are now playing cards so there are periods of concentrated silence broken by shrieks from the hyena which breaks the peace. Peter is sitting next to the older men, silent and pensive. I think about how every time we come to Greece, Peter always finds examples of how the Greeks and the Egyptians are similar including the language, the food (Mousakka is an Egyptian dish not Greek!  Baklava/Baklawa etc).

Seagulls swoop and follow in the wake of the ship. I close my eyes and notice that the sound of the water being churned over by the ship sounds like a waterfall.  All that remains of Piraeus is a row of twinkling orange and white lights. The rumble of the engine vibrates throughout the ship – reassuring, strong, solid and stable.  The smell of the diesel fuel is familiar and comforting.  I think back to a time many years ago when I was on an overnight ferry back to Athens – another large ferry like the Blue Star Paros.  I was tired and there was nowhere to sit – it was too cold outside so I spread out my towel on the floor in a corridor and managed to rest my eyes for a little while –  that probably wouldn’t be allowed nowadays.  I could hear and feel the rumbling of the engine through my face but in some odd way I liked it – safe in the arms of the gentle giant.

I can just about make out the silhouette of the mountains of western Greece that are now tinged with a lilac pink and red halo.  The air is balmy with a gentle welcome breeze.  We’ve been out at sea for an hour now and before long it is pitch black.  I feel what I first think is spots of rain, but later realise when I lick my face, that it is just spots of salty sea spray.  We can still see land either side of us which makes me feel safe.  Again – I don’t know if this goes back to my childhood but being out in the deep sea at night is another strange feeling – not a fear but at times it can be unnerving.

Occasionally we pass another ferry like familiar friends. Throughout the journey a series of passengers come to the rail to smoke.  Ash blows back over the table and us – by the end of the journey my black trousers are covered in light grey ash.  The moon is not quite full but bright and highlights the waves which are becoming bigger.  The gentle undulating swells are hypnotic and highlight how tired I am.  The ferry journey is longer than the flight and the journey isn’t over yet.  The wind is picking up a little and the sea spray quickly dries on my trousers leaving them a little crispy!

I occasionally look at Skitch to get an indication where we are.  We have just skirted around the bottom of Kythnos and the top of Serifos and are now heading on a straight course for Paros.

It suddenly dawns on me that I should let Giorgios – the owner of Villa Harmonia know that we won’t be able to make it over to Antiparos tonight.  Peter and I had already debated whether to get a room for the night on Paros or  to just stay up until the boat comes in the morning – we still hadn’t decided what to do.   I send Giorgios a text message to explain our dilemma.  Within 10 minutes he has sent me another text back to say that an extra boat has been laid on from Pounda that leaves at 1.30am.  All we need to do is get a taxi from Paroikia to Pounda as soon as we get off the ferry.  We will make it to Antiparos after all!  Fantastic!

An announcement is made on the tannoy, in Greek and then in English that we are shortly to arrive at Paros.  We make our way through the salon which looks like a youth club.  There are large groups of young people playing games – some organised some not. Everyone seems oblivious to a screaming child being held by it’s father – I see these are the same two families that had spread themselves out over the bus from the airport to Piraeus.  It’s been a long day for us – I don’t think I’d inflict this kind of journey on young children.

People are queuing on the stairs already and the boat feels like it is beginning to dance –   you are more aware of this in the salon as opposed to out on the deck.   Eventually we get to the bottom of the stairs and make our way to the side of the car deck to retrieve our luggage.  We know that we need to make a mad dash to find a taxi and speed over to Pounda.  We wait on the car deck as the ferry reverses towards the harbour wall.  The door to the ferry deck slowly lowers – this is one of the most exciting parts of ferry travel – as the door lowers your anticipation of what the new island has in store for you increases.  We are like greyhounds waiting to be released from the trap.

Everyone is jostling for position.  I take the opportunity to tell Peter who is such the gentleman when it comes to allowing other people to go first, that we are now in Greece and it’s every man for himself!

We pile off the ferry. The first thing we see is the windmill in the middle of the square.  The road is lined with about 15 taxi’s.  We approach them one by one but it becomes clear quite quickly that all of the taxi’s are already booked up – obviously by those that are in the know!  We try to beg for mercy and appeal to the kind nature of various taxi drivers.  This is just met with a shrug of indiffernce and I an feel my stress levels beginning to rise.  Just as our hopes of getting to Antiparos are raised again, they are quickly dashed knowing that we won’t make the ferry after all – it is now 1.30am and the ferry is due to depart and we need to get over to Pounda to catch it – about a 15 minute journey.

The only thing I can think to do is to send another text message to Giorgios to tell him that it is impossible to get a taxi so it looks like we won’t make the ferry.

Shortly afterwards my phone rings – it’s Giorgios.  He tells me that an extra bus has been laid on from Paroikia to Pounda and that he’s only just been told about it.  He tells us that if we turn right at the windmill and walk for about 100 yards we will see the bus station.  He will tell the ferry captain to wait for us (seems odd but these are the small islands).

We don’t recognise the bus station as a bus station – it really is a small office with a parking space outside but we do see the bus who’s engines are already running and ready to depart.  We buy our tickets – 2 euros each.  As we take our seats I don’t think I have ever breathed such a big sigh of relief!

The bus makes its way down dark roads and after about 15 minutes arrive at the tiny ferry stop at Pounda.  The small car ferry is waiting.  Before I get chance to get my bearings a blonde haired man walks towards me, says my name and shakes my hand – It’s Giorgios who has obviously identified me as the only non Greek here (OK so Peter may sometimes pass for a Greek!)

It takes about 8 minutes to make the short trip over to Antiparos.  I can already see the windmill and the little blue domed church by the village square next to the harbour wall.  At a guess It has been about 12 years since I last visited Antiparos – my third visit in total as it definitely features as one of my top 5 Greek islands.  It doesn’t seem to have changed at all.

We walk up the main street from the harbour.  We get a sense that the small bars have recently closed for the night, a few stragglers are still making their way home.  Giorgios shouts to one of the bar owners and grabs a large bottle of water for us.  We turn off right past pretty whitewashed villas until we come to Villa Harmonia.

It is now nearly 3.00am in the morning and it has been almost 24 hours since we awoke for our journey.

What a day.  We’re so glad that we eventually made it to the beautiful little island of Antiparos!

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