Public transportation of all kinds is alive and well in Greece, and while no longer dirt cheap it’s a lot less costly than renting a car or bringing your own. It’s also an excellent way to watch, and meet, Greeks. Promptness, vintage of the conveyance and condition of the roads—or seas—are unpredictable, so be prepared for anything. In general, the farther off the beaten track you venture, the more interesting matters become.
Boats (karavia, vaporia) lend a distinctive romance to travel in Greece; no other Oountry has such an extensive ferry network because no other nation, except Indonesia and the Philippines, has so much territory in insular form. Island steamers notorious for their erratic scheduling, mechanical glitches and general unreliability. With the exception of the Crete-Piraeus services, I have never boarded an inliirlsland craft that was less than 20 minutes late, and delays of 20 hours are not unheard of. If you are planning an “If-this-is-Tuesday-this-must-be-Mykonos” ι fill md-hopping itinerary, you are going to come to grief. Flexibility, a sense of humor nnd a large backlog of reading or letter-writing should be standard equipment in ι .milk boat travel (or any other travel, for that matter).
Never buy your ticket until the vessel you intend to board is confirmed to be on its wtiy. Fares once purchased are nonrefundable and usually nontransferable. Always ■ double-check the name of any craft you board; in busy island harbors up to three tililps may call in the space of an afternoon. Since two or three are bound to be late, it’s Mirny to get on the wrong boat.
Deck, tourist, third, gamma class—whatever the particular company calls it—is Adequate for most tastes. If the weather turns bad, you’re always allowed in the “low-class” bar or lounge. Boat food, with the exception of the Crete ferries, is usually overpriced so consider bringing your own.
I ho most authoritative source of arrival/departure information for a given harbor is ilin Ilmenarheio (port authority). The port police maintain complete, up-to-the-hour ■.< :hedules (dhromoloyia) of all craft docking and sailing within their jurisdiction and I Hive phone numbers of every other port authority in Greece. Thus you can call ahead (rom point A to make sure you won’t get stranded unwillingly for a week at point B. It helps to know Greek since those on duty cannot be depended on to speak •orviceable English; fast-talking travelers may even get port policemen to make pnrtlnent phone calls on their behalf. The next best source of information is a fat imporback publication known as the Greek Travel Pages, revised and updated monthly. These invaluable compendia of trivia usually lie about the lobbies of posh hotels and travel agencies. Not only can you obtain a good idea of the schedules (and fitros) of virtually any ferry in Greece for that month, but you can also see timetables for many trains, buses and planes moving into, out of and around Greece.
Ferry schedules handed out by the Athens tourist office, covering departures from Piraeus, Lavrio and Rafina, are nearly always incomplete or mistaken and should be vlowed with skepticism.
In addition to the big liner services neighboring islands are often connected, eapeciall in summer, by swarms of 10- to 20 meter kaikia (caiques). A kaiki is an Informal, one-family entrepreneurial operation where lack of comfort is compensated for by character. Caiques are ugually not any less expensive than the big boats, but often they’re the only way 9* moving perpendicularly to the main shipping lines.
Hydrofoils connect Piraeus with the Argo-Saronic islands, Monemvassia, Yithion iind Kithera; in recent years service has been instituted between certain of th§ Kykladhes and the Dhodhekanisos. They are twice as fast and twice as costly as conventional steams, but provide a rough ride in heavy seas and are not for the seasick prone.
Trains are cheap (30 percent less than buses, 55 percent on round-trip fares), nearly as fast as road vehicles, depart two to six times daily per route and leave promptly from the initial station of the run. On the minus side, cars are often unheated in winter, food service is scarce and costly and as a rule trains are full and invariably half an hour late by the end of the line. OSE also runs a prompter, supplemental coach service between major stops, in effect doubling departure frequencies. But this will not stop at intermediate points and is almost as costly as buses (see below). Also they have recently been seriously cut back and go hardly anywhere other than the main Athens- Alexandroupoli line.
Always buy train tickets in advance and request a seat reservation. Sleepers are no longer available. Reservations are free of charge; the car and seat numbers appear on the back of your brown ticket. You must often pay a supplement for express service (your receipt is an extra gray stub), but many express trains do not stop at stations nearest trailheads. (See warnings in individual hike write-ups). There is, as noted above, a substantial discount for booking domestic round-trip fares. Rail-pass holders must secure reservations like everyone else, must pay express supplements and will probably find their passes invalid for the OSE coach service.
Buses (leioforeia) serve almost any village, though in some cases you may have to wait awhile. In towns, buy your ticket in advance at the station; on rural lines you pay your fare after boarding. In contrast to boats, buses run on time so be there when they tell you to be. The bus company is universally referred to by the acronym KTEL, which when translated stands for “Joint Administration of Greek Buses” or something to that effect, so if you can’t find the stop or the station, ask where the ktel is. KTEL is organized by province (i.e., “KTEL Evritanias,” with the main station in the provincial capital and substations in the capitals of eparhies (counties) if a concentration of villages warrants it (e.g. KTEL in loannina province has two terminals in loannina and a substation in Konitsa). All villages are served by the KTEL of the province in which they happen to be; if the village you’re trying to reach lies in the neighboring province, you’ll generally have to use that province’s KTEL, even though the hamlet may be just over the border and easier to reach from your side! Hence there are large 10- to 30-kilometer gaps between service in the vicinity of provincial borders, which you have to bridge by walking, taxiing or hitching. As a general rule, buses from province or county capitals tend to follow the school and market day: from the village to the regional center in the early morning, and back to the hamlet after secondary school and morning shopping finish at about 2 p.m. There are, though, numerous exceptions to this; the bus may make only one trip daily or only several weekly, at odd hours. In the more traditional rural areas, Sunday and holiday bus service is severely limited or nonexistent, and some extremely depopulated or isolated villages have no service at all.
In such cases you’ll be looking for someone with whom to share a taxi, which may be too expensive otherwise. Country taxis have no meters—you bargain. A reasonable, per vehicle (not per person) charge for a 16-kilometer transfer on a dirt surface would be approximately $7 (U.S.). Occasionally a taxi returning empty from a drop-off will offer you a ride for the equivalent of the bus fare, just to defray gas expenses. Count your blessings.
Hitchhiking (“autostop”) is very good if you’re only toting a daypack, but I’ve waited a couple of hours for 70-kilometer rides with a full pack. Although Greek traffic is sparse, much of it is trucks and vans which are good for thumbing. Rides are easiest to come by in remote areas where everyone knows that the bus may not be a viable alternative. Hitching on commercial vehicles is technically illegal, so you may find that, if offered a ride in a large van or semi, especially in the payload space, you’ll be loft on the outskirts of the upcoming town so as not to be seen at police checkpoints. Don’t be offended if set down in this manner, and realize that both you and the driver risk running afoul of the authorities.
If you’re in a hurry, you can fly to most corners of the country with Olympic Airways. Flights cost roughly double the ferry passage and more than triple the train Inro to the same points. For some reason flights from Athens to Skiathos, loannina nnd Samos—all points of interest to hikers—are less than double the fare of alternate means of conveyance, so you’d do well to consider flying at least one way to these spots if yourtime is limited. Most of the islands served have flights at least once a day, and in tourist season this may increase as much as fourfold. There are also some off-the-main-line routes between the Dhodhekanisos and Crete and other touristed Islands that operate only in summer. If stormy weather keeps ferries in port, and you have a deadline for returning to Athens, you’ll make Olympic’s acquaintance. Seats are at a premium from May to October and at all holiday seasons, so you’ll always need to book two days to two weeks in advance. Other than that, I’ve heard few substantial complaints about Olympic’s service, except that their chaotic Athens domestic-lines terminal merits strict observance of half-hour-prior-to-flight-time check-in rules.