When last we left our intrepid traveler, I’d just returned, about 9:30pm, to Trieste from Torino. I was supposed to be at the ferry docks by 4:30am to check in for the trip from Trieste to Patras, still not knowing how I was going to get from Patras to Ithaki. I knew that if I tried to sleep, I was going to be miserable, so instead I packed my bags and fretted and caught up with email, and did all those things an anxiety-prone insomniac does before popping off on a new adventure.
My travel kit consisted of one backpack with clothes, notebooks, and such, and one grocery-sized shoulder bag mostly containing food and water for the trip, to help keep expenses down a little. Food on the ferries is somewhat pricey. My reading material consisted of the Robert Fagles translation of The Odyssey. If one is going to the hypothetical home of Odysseus, best to brush up, after all. One must know what (not?) to do if beset by unwanted suitors, or encountering the one-eyed son of Poseidon. My brother hauled me down to the docks on his motorcycle. It took us a little while to find the office where I was supposed to check in. The signs aren’t the clearest in the world and, while we found the correct dock, actually finding the office involved asking one of the workers who was directing vehicles onto the ferry. Once that was settled, I left my brother on the dock and boarded, heading up for check-in, and was told where my seat was.
I’d booked an airline-type seat (nicer than cattle-car class on a plane) in one of the lounges. On these ferries, you can get a basic ticket and sleep wherever you find space on the decks or one of the lounges that doesn’t close, you can buy a seat in a reserved passenger lounge like I did, or you can get one of the various types of cabins. I’d opted for cheap, though I probably should have gone with a low-end cabin. More on that, later.
By 5am, the sky was already lightening over the Carso and by the time we set sail at 6:30-ish, the sky above the hills was golden, laced with silver clouds. I watched for a while from the open deck on the top level (deck 11), then explored the rest of the accessible boat. Lounges and bars, and other amenities, are on deck 10, and passenger cabins on decks 8 and 9, while the reception area and the seats are on deck 7. The rest of the boat is engines, crew space, and lots of garages for cars, trucks, and campers. Many of the passengers were long-distance truckers heading from Italy to Greece.
It had been a long time since I’d really been out on the water. Puget Sound has an extensive ferry system, but most of the trips I’d taken there had been Seattle to Bremerton, Seattle to Bainbridge Island, Edmonds to Kingston, or Mukilteo to Clinton. A few times it was Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth, when I lived in West Seattle. Twice, I’d taken the Victoria Clipper from Seattle up to Victoria, BC, which was far shorter than my Italy to Greece trip, but rather more alike in character. On that, and on the Irish ferry from Ros a’ Mhíl to the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, I had heavy seas and choppy water to deal with, but I’ve never been seasick. In comparison, the trip from Trieste to Patras was smooth as glass. And I still absolutely love being on the water.
Sleep wasn’t going to happen, though I rested for a few hours on the way to our first port in Ancona, Italy, where we offloaded some vehicles, and picked up quite a few more passengers. Prices vary by season on these international ferries, and it was “mid-season” on the way to Greece from Italy. Apparently it’s always “low season” on the trip back from Greece to Italy. Not as many people traveling the return route, apparently. These aren’t cruise ship ports of call, where you can get off and visit the town; ferries are transportation, not generally regarded as pleasure cruises. That said, the boat was comfortable, and they had bars, a cafeteria, a restaurant, and a swimming pool, among other facilities. Their advertised internet access and wifi was nonexistent, however. I spent a fair amount of the journey out of sight of the coast without any phone or internet service.
After Ancona, we set sail for Greece. The trip to Patras from Trieste is about 36 hours, I think. I wasn’t paying close attention, and we gained an hour in the time change from Italy to Greece, passing into a new time zone. I found it really hard to sleep – while I had two seats to myself, not far away was a family with a toddler who wouldn’t settle down for love nor money. Screaming just doesn’t set well with me as peaceful nighttime sound effects. Some of the people who had obviously taken the trip before set up air mattresses and sleeping bags on the floor in the passenger lounge. Wise people, these. Nearly everyone had brought some food and water, or other things to drink. I did a lot of reading and tried to nap on bench seats in a couple of the bars, but televisions were on the entire time, with shows in either Italian or Greek, depending on the screen and the bar.
The second day on the boat, we made port in Igoumenitsa.
The sea as we sailed toward Greece was the most incredible dark blue, almost indigo in its intensity. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything bluer, except perhaps the blooms of the Lithodora diffusa, which look kind of like dark blue holes in the fabric of space when you see them in the right light. The coast as we sailed was largely barren. It reminded me a lot of the California hills and the southern California coast, brown and grey and sage green. It was extremely rocky, lots of cliffs, and very few settlements that I could see. But the blue of the water made me think of Homer’s wine-dark sea, and the blue doors in white buildings that I always see in photos by travelers in Greece; they are dark sea-blue and whitecaps. Even the blue decks of the ferry are not so blue.
Late that afternoon, we finally arrived in Patras. The closer we got to port, the more worried I was about not finding a way to Ithaki, so I talked to one of the crew at reception. She wasn’t sure (“You would probably have had an easier time if you were sailing from Igoumenitsa”) but one of the other folks was from Patras, so she asked him. No, there are no direct boats from Patras to Ithaka, or even ones going to Kefalonia first, so I was given instructions about how to get a bus ticket to the port of Kyllini and take the ferry from there to Pisaetos via Poros on the island of Kefalonia.
I grabbed a cab to the KTEL Kefalonia office (€5), where I bought a bus (€7.60) and ferry (€13.60) ticket to Pisaetos. I could not, however, get the guy at the desk to understand that I needed return tickets as well, so that I’d be back in time for my ferry back to Italy a few days later. Finally, giving up, I grabbed some lunch, then walked to another travel office, where I was able to get the ferry part of the return trip taken care of. “We only sell ferry tickets. You’ll have to get the bus ticket somewhere else.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to try my luck with the guy at the KTEL office again, so I went wandering a bit before I had to be back to catch the bus at 8pm.
I had bought a Greek-English phrasebook online some weeks ago, when I knew I was going to Ithaki. It hadn’t arrived by the time I left. I stopped in at a bookshop and did find one. The procedure in there was really different than what I’m used to. I couldn’t take the book down to the counter. The clerk had to print up a receipt for me upstairs where I found it; I paid for the book, and then collected it downstairs near the door. It was rather like my clothes-buying expedition a couple of weeks back before my departure, also really different than what I’m used to. After the book, I got myself a really amazingly delicious “cappuccino” (“what is that, and can I have one?”) which was more iced coffee with immensely thick whipped cream and a bit of sugar. The thing was fantastic. Greek coffee on a more general scale, though, is kind of like sipping mud. It tastes fine, but half the cup is grounds. I drank Greek coffee the entire time I was in Greece, though. For the most part I managed to filter the worst of the silt through my teeth after letting the cup settle, and not ingest too much of it.
Being in Greece gave me a far greater appreciation for even the really crap Italian that I know. I can at least make vague sense of conversations here, and participate to a limited degree. I can do basic errands. I can say please and thank you. I greet people and ask for things in stores. I can order food in restaurants and pay my tab. In Greece, I didn’t know yes and no. In fact, “yes” in Greek (ναί) sounds like “neh” in English and is easy to mistake for a no. I didn’t even have the advantage of being able to read the alphabet very well. I could transliterate most but not all of it into something that was vaguely readable, but not translatable. If I ever traveled to a country that used non-Latinate writing, it would be even worse.
The bus arrived at the KTEL office about half an hour late, but everyone took it in stride. I wasn’t sure what all was happening, so I had a brief, phone-translation aided conversation with the woman in the seat next to me, who was from Ithaki but living in Patras, and pretty much just followed her along like a duckling onto the ferry from the bus, and where to get off the boat.
On the ferry, the tv was playing a Turkish costume drama, I think about Suleiman and the Ottoman empire, dubbed into Greek. I was a bit surprised, considering the political history between the two countries, but people were watching it, and it looked like it was probably pretty interesting. Beautiful costumes and sets, definitely. Later that night, Greek-dubbed “Grey’s Anatomy” came on, but it’s apparently set in Seattle, and I told her that’s where I’m from. At which point two young people (her son and daughter) got into the conversation. Her son speaks English and was able to help me out by answering a couple of questions. They found it an amusing coincidence that I had come from the place they were ostensibly seeing on TV.
With the ferry leaving late, we got to the dock in Pisaetos over half an hour late, arriving around 1:30 in the morning. There were taxis waiting. There wasn’t much else there, just a ticket kiosk, but all I was really interested in was getting out to Stephen and Peter’s place. The ride from the ferry to Kioni took about half an hour and cost €35. I didn’t think it was that bad, considering the distance and the time. Peter greeted me, as Stephen was asleep. Not having slept for close to three days, I collapsed in a heap and slept the sleep of the just (and mosquito-bitten) so I could start the next day with a clearer head.