We flew in and out of three different Greek airports (Athens, Iraklion, and Thessaloniki) on my recent trip and they were really no different than any airport in the world. They all had English signs so getting around was not a problem. The international departure lounge inside security at Athens had very few amenities – or else I just didn’t walk far enough to see them – so if you are thinking you need really food and not just chips and cookies, you should look for food outside the secure area. At the Iraklion airport we had to walk outside and down a staircase onto the tarmac in order to board the plane and in Thessaloniki the planes just park out on the pavement by the runway and they shuttle everyone back and forth to the terminal by bus.
We rented a car twice during our trip. Everything that I had read about driving abroad said that it is imperative that Canadians wanting to drive in foreign countries must have an international driver’s license. I had not obtained one of those before I left for Greece, but we found that it wasn’t necessary anyway. All the rental car people needed was our own regular license and everything else about the procedure was exactly like in Canada. Our first rental was on the island of Santorini and it was good that it was the off season and we could ease into the driving with not much traffic. They drive on the right side of the road, but that’s pretty much the only thing that was similar to driving at home. Simply put Greek drivers drive about 30 km/hr faster than I felt was comfortable on the roads and generally consider road signs, like STOP or YIELD, to be suggestions rather than actual rules. (Think of the quote from Pirates of the Caribbean!) The road were often very narrow, only allowing one car through at a time and blind corners in towns and on mountain roads are common – very common. Driving around blind corners that only have one lane for two way traffic at top speed is also common. I was very glad that we had the opportunity to drive on Santorini first, as our second rental car was in Chania, Crete which is much bigger city. The traffic in Santorini in March is very sparse. The main town of Fira was a bit busy, but there were only a few roads and the main ones were mostly wide enough for two cars to pass. In Chania it was a lot busier. We fortunately only had to make it out of the city and doing u-turns in the middle of the road is considered fine as long as you keep out of everyone’s way. The u-turns were a necessary aspect of our trip because we often had trouble finding the right turn off. The map we had was in English so the towns were written in basically a phonetic spelling which is fine if you want to say the word out loud, but this doesn’t help if the road signs in rural Crete are in Greek letters. And even better the roads that we were trying to turn onto were often hidden, looked like driveways or alleys, or were not marked at all. Also, many main roads have a shoulder and this does not serve the same function as in Canada. In Greece the shoulder part of the road is were slower vehicles are expected to drive so that the insanely fast other drivers can pass them.
Ugh, not my favourite mode of transportation. We took the ferry from Athens (the port is at the neighbouring city of Piraeus, although I couldn’t tell where Athens ended and Piraeus started) and we had no trouble at the port. But that was because we had booked our ferry tickets in advance through our travel agency, Majestic, and they also drove us to the port, right up to our ship. The ticket was all in Greek and we weren’t sure whether there were assigned seats, but it seemed like everyone sat where they wanted (as long as you didn’t stray into the expensive lounge which was all screened off). The ride from Athens to Paros was fine. My stomach was happy that there was minimal swaying and rocking. The ferry from Paros to Santorini was a little more rocky and I felt a bit queasy by the time we disembarked. Now, ferries in the winter months in Greece are less frequent and prone to delays because of the rough Mediterranean waters. Our ferry from Santorini to Crete was the only one that month and it was scheduled for 3 am. We were dismayed at the thought of getting up that early, but luck delayed the ferry until 7 am. Or so we thought. We go to the docks at 6 and were ready. The ferry didn’t arrive at 7. Another traveler phoned the port authority and found out that it would not be arriving until 11 am. So we hunkered down in the only cafe and had coffee and breakfast, along with the other passengers waiting. Smoking in Greece is very widespread and the cafe we sat in slowly became more and more hazy as the impatiently waiting people chain smoked their way through packs of cigarettes. I mention this because the smoke when mixed with what turned out to be an eight hour ferry ride produced extreme nausea. So extreme that at hour seven I was sick. I am only thankful that we were in our own cabin (a bit more expensive but we thought the journey would be at night) and that I was spared the embarrassment of being sick in front of all the other travelers. So if you are prone to seasickness, I advice that you don’t spend any time waiting for the ferry in a smoke filled cafe.
Ah trains, my stomach’s favourite mode of transportation. It’s flat, smooth and the starts and stops are not jerky. It is easy to actually take the train, but to figure out where the train goes was more challenging. I had looked up in advance the train routes, but it was mainly in Greek and the map I finally decided to print out didn’t actually have the routes on it that we ended up taking. Our travel agent booked most of our tickets and we just had to get to the station so that was all good. But it is also possible to just show up at the station and tell the ticket people where you want to go. Well, you can do that in March, I assume that in the summer peak season it is better to have the tickets in advance. The tickets have an assigned seat for a specific class and car. The cars are not marked with a number so I’m not sure how everyone figures it out. I just showed random people on the train my ticket and hoped that they knew which car was the right one. We rode once in the type of car above in the picture that has the little compartments because the conductor told us to sit there (probably because it wasn’t very busy) but I think that those are generally the first class cars. The regular cars have two seats on either side of a central aisle and half the seats face forward and half backward. My stomach discovered that although it doesn’t like riding backwards on buses, things are all fine going backwards on trains.
We used both the intercity buses and the regular city buses. There are several buses bus to and from Athens airport to various parts of the city. It costs 5 euro and the one I took went to the centre of town, Syntagma Square by the parliament building, and took about an hour. The other cities all had buses to the airport and were all much cheaper than the one in Athens. City bus schedules are not common, in fact at one hotel were were told that they did not exist and it is better just to find out how often they run and plan accordingly. Generally you are expected to have your ticket before getting on the bus (from an automatic machine, a small bus ticket kiosk, or sometimes from the little snack shop kiosks). Sometimes there is no way of knowing. If you can get a ticket, get one for the return journey as well in case you cannot get one at the other end. That all being said we were able to ride several buses by paying the driver but they generally didn’t like doing that. The tickets have to be validated once you get on the bus by sticking them in a little machine that time stamps them. The machine is usually in the middle of the bus. The intercity buses were pretty easy to use, although the bus stop or station was sometimes hard to find. Usually the word “bus” was printed on a sign, but if not then look for “KTEL” which is the company that runs the main intercity buses. If you get on in a city it is expected you will have a ticket but on some routes (like the one between Iraklion and Chania in Crete), a ticket person also is on the bus for people getting on at small towns. Note: the buses usually have the name of the destination on the front, but in Greek, so if you only know the English translation for where you are going it is helpful to find out what it looks like in Greek letters.