Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Africa in My Heart, Italy and Greece in my Stomach

Leaving the flat in the morning is of course emotional, but I wasn’t expecting the tears, the breakdowns, the false accusations. After all our nights together, and now him heading off to the Pink Palace. Still, Steve and I are Facebooked up, we will trade more insults!

I have a slight mental block on the tube – it’s direct to Larissa, the main station, but I have it in my head that I need to change. Picture the scene, me with pack etc on a hot train, get off, walk up the steps, follow the signs for the right line, and am directed back down on to the same platform. Cue head-scratching before it dawns on me what an idiot I am!

Larissa (Athens) Station itself is not very inspiring. Athens Station has a grand sound to it, but the reality is two uncovered concrete platforms and a small ticket building at the side. Like Whitstable but without the nice red brick! Despite being plenty early I nearly miss the train because the previous announced one never shows up, but they don’t bother explaining this in English or updating the electronic display board that shows the previous train – luckily I grew suspicious and asked just before it left.

We roll through Athens’ suburbs before hitting the countryside and coastline, changing trains at Kiaton, where we end up on a quiet two-carriage train going another three hours to Patras. From this point onwards we’re in oranges and lemons country, they line the train line and stretch off in both directions, except where the railway hugs the coast itself with its beautiful spectrum of beautiful blues in the low sun. We pass typical Mediterranean village life, large families dining at tables outside their house, fallen oranges absolutely everywhere, pink blossom covering plum and cherry trees, and those shallow oceanic blues.

At one station we stop opposite a small café, and from the outside seating four locals stand up, perhaps spurred on by their drinks to start dancing about gently, laughing in the sunshine. I do note though that the sea is a bit choppy – white tops are showing because of what it as least a good sea breeze if not wind. The Japanese chap across from me is going to Bari, on the heel of Italy, a far more sensible crossing at only 16 hours, unlike my 32 or so up to Venice!

Let’s dance

In Patras we catch glimpses of big ferries in port, most of which are Anek Lines. Where is my Minoan? Should be further along. The town is quite big compared with the villages we’ve been passing through – I trek through with my pack looking for a supermarket and a restaurant to eat and kill some hours. And a loo, damn I need a loo! There are an unusual proportion of drunk people wearing silly hats. This plus lots of balloons leads me to suspect I’ve hit some sort of festival. At the supermarket I ask, but they either don’t understand my question or say no, nothing’s happening. At the restaurant I visit shortly afterwards, Nicholas, they tell me it’s the regional carnival which starts today! That would explain silly hats!

So of my two new exciting books I’m reading, the first is Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, which may not make it on to the boat at the rate I’m chewing through it and the amount of time I have to kill before boarding. It’s a beautiful book, but the question I am posing myself is “Would I have enjoyed it before visiting Africa?” Perhaps not, I think I would have found it slightly tedious. Will report again once I’ve finished it. Passages such as: A white man who wanted to say a pretty thing to you would write: “I can never forget you.” The African says “We do not think of you, that you can ever forget us.” really resonate when you’ve travelled the continent. It’s strange but true – Africa touches your soul like no other.

Dinner. A plate of excellent meatballs with a buttery spicy tomato sauce, potatoes, and a Greek salad with a very generous slab of feta on top. I’m a complete convert to Greek food. In London I didn’t really know Greek food – I knew salads of course. I didn’t know you could get away with half a kilo of feta on each bowl, but that’s just education and experience for you! But the other food, it’s so good! Since leaving Asia with a few noteable exceptions in South Africa, especially Gerhard’s crayfish, I’ve been going through a food low. Then again, the first couple of times I ate in Ethiopia and the Middle East were great, it’s just that it paled very quickly. Greek food though, it’s good! And washed down more than adequately by a Kaiser pilsner beer.

Down through town and a lot of happy tipsy people, I reach the dockside and there is an enormous ferry waiting, a Minoan, which turns out not to be mine, which is further round. It looks smaller, but as I approach I realise it’s another giant! I exchange my booking reference for a ticket in the “Passenger Terminal”, then head back and board, first on as they’ve just started boarding. An escalator (!) takes me up two floors to deck 6 where reception is.

The staff tell me I can use the “reclining seats” despite only having a deck ticket (reclining seat was the next price up) as it’s low season, and in fact later I realise that the boat is very empty – I’m not sure about cargo, but there can’t be more than a few of dozen passengers on a boat rated to take 1,500! Seems a bit mean that they don’t give us cabins, but that’s business for you. There are at least four rooms of varying sizes with reclining seats, I pick a smaller one and find floor space with a power point in the corner.

So bed is the floor, the seat is for reading and relaxing, and the bathroom with shower a few rooms away. One of the staff comes through and turns the television on, and sets it to a Greek channel at loud volume. Soon fix that. We depart at midnight, and I’m alone in my room till Corfu, which we reach at about 7am, when someone else dares join me, another chap who sets up camp the other side of the room!

I’ve brought food and drink with me. My mid-morning cappuccino costs 3.50 euros, so I’m glad I did. Might go for some food later though. The Greek bottle of red wine I brought on isn’t at all bad in fact, and I while away the hours between reading, Tom and Jerry on my laptop, wandering round the boat and snoozing.

Disappointingly the visibility isn’t good outside – it’s quite hazy, so as we follow the Aegean up its eastern coast I don’t see much of the mountains.

I also don’t get to use the pool or Jacuzzi:

Perhaps its only in the high season, when a deck ticket might mean just sleeping out on deck, which would be pleasant I suppose in the heat and with something comfy to lie on. The boat has several restaurants, bars all over the place, a disco, casino, internet café, a shopping arcade, you name it!

In the evening after dinner, I sleep again with the gentle vibrations of the boat soothing me to sleep. We arrive in Venice at 8am tomorrow.

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