вторник, 27 септември 2016 г.

Crete - Chasing the Minoans - part one - Piraeus

The story I'm going to tell you, dear Reader, takes place in the long past (or not so much) 2009.

The month is September, the destination - Crete. Why Crete? Because I am the person who drags people around to excavations - stones, stones everywhere, walls around 20 centimeters tall and things like that. And no, I'm not an archaeologist. I am a culturologist (but that is subject of another discussion and it has nothing to do with travelogues. Besides, it wasn't in the itinerary in 2009). Back to the point - we're going to Crete.

This travelogue is a translation from the original Bulgarian text I wrote for the site patepis.com. I'm writing it in case you wonder why it differs from my previous works - this is a story that happened BEFORE I became a photographer. I was 17 then. 

The original story (published in Bulgarian) can be found here:


To be honest, at that time Crete seemed to me as exotic as Bora Bora. And generally as far away from home as it, for that matter... So we start wondering how to get there (to Crete, I mean, not to Bora Bora) - 2000 kilometers are 2000 kilometers everywhere.

My father plays the adamant - "I'm not going anywhere without my horse!“
– so things become clear - there will be driving. Which means HE will drive because neither me not my mother has a driver's license… Still, Crete is an island i.e. surrounded by water so we somehow cannot swim our way to it… Hence we're gonna use the most exotic option - namely - the ferry.

No problem in that. We hit the road a day earlier (because none of use is particularly fond of getting up at 4 a.m. so that we make it for the ferry), we sleep in Gotse Delchev (a town near the Greek border) and we cross the border with the crack of dawn and around 9 a.m we're down the road after Exohi (the Greek village that's given the name to the border check point.)

О tax, O toll – how to be mistaken for a Greek without knowing the language…

There are no vignettes in Greece. But each 50 kilometers or so you have to pay a toll tax. Money can vary depending on the distance - somewhere you'll pay 1 euro, at other places tax rises to 2 or 3 euro. The whole journey costs around 30 euro (now it's more because there are toll stations down Egnatia - the highway that connects Thessaloníki and Kavala, while in 2009 the highway was brand new and there were none). What's interesting, however, is not the pricing but the conversations we have with the people at the toll stations…

We stop at the first one. There is a car in front of us - they drive on, we count the money for the tax.

Kalimera! (Good morning/ Good day in Greek) – says the lady from the booth
Kalimera! – I respond from the back seat – I've bought a Greek textbook less than two weeks ago and I'm not afraid to use it.
Evharisto! – she thanks us.
Parakalo! (you're welcome) – I answer again because my father doesn't.
Kalo taksidi! (have a nice trip) – she says, hands us the receipt and we move further.
I'm very pleased with the short conversation and I don't even think out why, actually, she addressed us in Greek while our car is with foreign registration plates. Same thing happens at the other toll stations - around the forth my father learns the words and starts answering the cashiers himself.

Somewhere just before Athens one lady looks absolutely confused and babbles something in Greek from which I make out only the word 'lepta'. While I'm figuring out that she she doesn't have enough money for the change and asks us if we have some cents (lepta means coins in Greek), we have sorted it out in English. Across (in the booth) we hear laughter and the woman hands us the change with a huge smile wishes us a nice trip, in English, this time.

While we drive on, we laugh our heads off, because here (and in the previous toll stations) they obviously took us for natives - for Greeks… While we joke about having some Byzantine descent we enter the outskirts of Athens…

A surprise is waiting for us there - a traffic jam so big that my father starts oozing saliva as if he's rabid. How could he not - a highway with 4 or 5 lanes in each direction and each and every one is jammed with cars as far as the eye could see. My father really wants to get off the highway and drive along the narrower streets of Athens so there is a big battle in keeping him in the middle of the highway (if he gets off it, we'll roam the streets of Athens forever). The time is around 4.30 p.m., the ferry leaves at 9 (if we actually buy tickets for it). So we have plenty of time…

We sit and wait in the traffic jam when the side window of the car next to us opens and a man starts shouting:

Apo pia to Markopulo? – he repeats but he's chosen the wrong car. My mother shrugs to show without words that she doesn't understand him. He for some reason decides that we didn't hear him and repeats the phrase. I start shuffling the pages of the textbook and it dawns on me…
Den xero elinika! (I don't speak Greek) - I yell a few times out of the window to make him hear me. He does on the third time and starts laughing his head off - the driver literally fell of the steering wheel.

The car passes by and a few hundred meters we find out what's so funny.  There is a road sign for that Markopulo, which turns out to be a town near Athens where they make the famous Retsina wine. The guy took us for natives and decided to ask - since the cars were side by side in the traffic jam – but he chose the wrong people.

The Greek alphabet - or how to read your road signs…

In case you don't know, my dear Reader, Greeks write in Greek. Which has nothing to do with ANY other language in the world. Their alphabet looks a bit like the Bulgarian one but similarities end here. Most road signs in Greece are... in Greek. So far, so good, but even the signs that should be in English are actually in Greek.

We have to take the ferry so we need Piraeus - the port of  Athens. Actually Piraeus was once an independent city but the megalopolis grew and now they are one whole. So we're looking for a road sign for Piraeus but we see nothing. Absolutely nothing. The roadsigns on Greek highways are huge but the names don't ring any bells…

At some point an alien name appears. It says PEIRAIAS. Great but what's this? It should be in English but it doesn't sound English. I feel as proud as if I've discovered America when I discover the reading rules of Greek (in that sacred textbook of mine). It turns out that the combination of the letters EI is read as I, and AI as Е. After I've broken the code it turns out that what I'm reading as PEIRAIAS, Greeks read as PIREAS. Eurica! So the sign is for Pireaus! We drive that way.

How to board a ferry - a few DON'Ts

After a few minutes' drive - again in that traffic jam, it was rush hour – we arrive at Piraeus. It turns out that it's not that easy to board a ship though - not like going to a Bulgarian port and jumping in the first boat you lay your eyes on. I thought, to be totally honest, that I'd see something resembling the Radezky ship ( very famous ship from the 19th century connected to Bulgarian history - now a tourist attraction), my father - of the ferry that goes from Thassos to Keramoti (or as he says 'bath tub'). My mother smiles but keeps silent.

The port of Piraeus is HUGE - to find your ship you have to find your gate - and they are all coded - each destination has a letter code and depending on where you're going, you can end up at either side of the port. We find our gate - for Crete - and my jaw drops.

Ships, ships everywhere!!!

Another ship waiting for passengers - for Crete too, probably - at the same gate. Shot taken from the top deck of our ship. Around the time I took the image, most ships at this gate are already gone and that's why it looks so empty (and you can see these great reflections). Otherwise ships are jammed like sardines.

They are so  many and so big that it looks a bit scary! Which one is our ship, though? We get in and we stay at the gate - i.e. at the parking across the parked ships. There are no road signs so my father parks as he pleases and my mother gets off to buy tickets. Two minutes later a truck appears from somewhere and starts circling us. The driver is out of the window to see the idiot who plays a parking bollard.

Less than two minutes later another truck appears and goes around from the other side. I notice that drivers hand in some really long sheets of paper to a man ten meters away and point angry in our direction. The man in police uniform notices our foreign registration plate - which means bushmen who are foreign to all kinds of ports - and send out his younger colleague to talk to us, to save face before the foreign tourists. After a few torturous minutes we sort out that we don't speak Greek and she speaks very little English so we use very simplified and accented English garnished with a lot of gestures to understand that we are a traffic problem, where we're standing.

Another ferry - not ours - for Crete. Notice how big these ships are - you can see a few trucks lining in to get inside to add scale to the whole image. I must point out that these ships are small compared to the big cruse 'monsters' which wait for passengers at the other end of Piraeus - they have 30+ decks. For comparison - our ship has only 8 of which 2 or 3 are garage decks. Embarkation of cars and trucks is a complicated and highly responsible task. The guy with the radio has a MAP of the cargo - which means how many vehicles of which type can be put where. This map is strictly used each time the ship stops at a port. During the voyage, the garage is locked and the vehicles are chained to the floor - you can get when the ship arrives by the noise you can hear from below (where the garage decks are) - you can hear clinking of chains - that means they free the cars and disembarkation begins soon. On this picture you can see the entrance for cars and trucks.

My father moves the car and we park next to the altar of Agios Nikolaos (St. Nicolas) - after all, we are at a port, it's normal to have a temple of the guardian of sailors and fishermen so I shoot a quick wordless prayer at the saint, you never know what the vessel would be embarking… My mother gets back with the tickets - three for us, one for the car - and we start wondering which one is our ship. A piece of cake for me. The name of one of the ships nearby is KRITI so I decide that it should be going to Crete. How many ships can be leaving at the same time for that island??? My mother goes there.

The guy with the radio looks at the tickets and then tells her that she has to board another ship, not this one. It turns out that apart from our names, the name of the ship is also on the ticket. But who would bother to read that…

A bit of information about the ship

After we board the ship and we're given a cabin - after all the drive from Gotse Delchev is a long one and we'll have to get up very early the next morning to drive again, we have to sleep somewhere.

Most Bulgarians imagine a ship like a платноходка or in my case - as the Radezky ship I told you about earlier. Ferries, however (here I mean the big ones for long distances not those small for Thassos) are much bigger and way different.

Our ship boasts with 8 decks - 2 or 3 are for the garage (cars and trucks are parked down there like a puzzle and ordered around by that guy with the radio - each ship has one like him), the rest are filled with cabins. Each deck has a MAP on which you can see where you are and which cabin numbers are around - like in a hotel.

To us (my father and me, because my mother knows where she's going) its' a jaw-dropper from the moment we get off the car. For the record, they give us parking advice (cars should be parked less than 20 centimeters away from one another so that they don't move around while we're sailing) in Bulgarian. I guess someone in the garage has worked on the Keramoti-Thassos ferry (where most of the tourists come from Bulgaria) before he came to Piraeus.

From the garage we take an ELEVATOR which takes us to reception deck - deck 7. There we meet a  who escorts us to our cabin (after we got the card that opens it at reception) and shows us how to put down the beds and how to operate the air conditioner.

Have you ever watched the TV series 'Das Traumschiff, dear Reader?

Well, this ship (the ferry) is bigger (more decks) and newer (way newer)! On reception deck you can find shops, even a параклис and a few restaurants. They open half an hour before departure and close around 11 p.m. (when you arrive at 5 a.m., that's normal).

The top deck is for those who decided that they don't need a cabin - there are a lot of benches and the Giros (Greek style )and drink booth works 24/7. On board you can find a bit for each taste.

The top deck is crowded, mostly with Greeks who don't share in our nostalgia towards the continent - for most of them, taking the ferry is like taking the bus. They surf the net on their laptops (that was in the ancient times where smart phones were not yet invented), talk on the phone or just sleep and wait for the ship to go. The funniest thing of all is that they are not in the least impressed of the fact that they are moving on water instead of land. But as my father says, Greeks are born on their ships…

Our cabin is equipped as a hotel room - we have towels, glasses and all other things that a tired traveler might need. The fact that we are no a ship shows in two things - the narrow space (we took a windowless cabin, we'll be traveling at night) and the life jackets in the wardrobe. The air conditioner works non-stop and maintains a relatively low temperature - you need some kind of ventilation - but the people are kind and they've left us some blankets.

Inside the cabin, apart from the 4 beds, a TV and a bathroom you can find a wardrobe. Full of life jackets. The stairs are used to get on the upper beds. 

We get a drink - after all that adventure, who would say 'no' to a drink - and then we get out to say 'Goodbye' to the continent and to set off for the far away Cretan land.
Piraeus at departure - the ship has already started and I take a picture of the land. The ship is led by a small boat of the coast guard. They are the boss of the port in some way - they say which ship leaves when and without them, no one can move around the port.
In the next post you'll find out why people (the Dutch in particular) invented Booking.com. 

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