30 Sep – back in Thessaloniki

We’ve enjoyed our R&R down in Toroni. By the second day – after our little swim – we realized lazing around a beach is not really our style. On the third day we were getting a bit stir crazy. We walked up into the hills again but the trails run out pretty quickly. We felt no need to risk being seen by the crazy El Capitan up on the main road so we were sort of confined to our section of the beach! Not really a hardship we had trip planning work to do.

We had a studio which meant  fridge, hot plate, dishes, pots etc. We took advantage and shopped in the local grocery shop – with mostly empty shelves because it is closing after the weekend. We managed to cobble together a couple of pretty great lunches and dinners as well as our breakfasts. I won’t tell you how many empty bottles of local wine we left outside our door!

The bus ride back up here was quite crowded with fruit pickers. We saw many olive orchards in various states of harvest. Looks like there is work for some, but we all know that kind of labour is hard and pays poorly. It seemed to us that many of the labourers on the bus might not be Greek, but foreign workers. We’ve heard that many pickers come from Turkey.

We spent our afternoons down in Toroni planning the next week of travel. Today we tidied up a few loose ends. The manager at the hotel here helped us find a hotel in a place we’d been unable to locate any. We’ll be taking the bus out of here to get into an area where we’ll be able to find accommodation at the end of each walking day. Our journey has taken such a divergent path but we both feel we’ve learned more about the situation here, particularly as it pertains to tourists.

A small example. Yesterday we watched some hotel/restaurant/bar employees tearing down a section of the out-door patio while guests were sunbathing, eating and drinking immediately beside this activity in the same establishment. As a paying guest,  I’d not be too pleased to have this going on around me. “Hurry up and go home.” No regard at all for the fact that tourists are paying more than average European prices for less than average European service. It seems really tacky and quite rude. So many places that cater to tourists are closed! Hotels, restaurants, cafes, bars – some just for the season others more permanently. It gives a sort of ghost town feel to some places.

Additionally we’ve seen crops rotting in fields and on trees. No one to pick? No money to hire pickers? Farmers are working hard but seem to have no one to help them.

The other disturbing sign of these times is the large number of closed, derelict factories, warehouses, industrial buildings we’ve seen. Some that are still perhaps semi operational, have huge parking lots all weed covered and cracked with two or three cars parked. Skeleton staff?

I’ve already told you about the feral dog problem. The hotel manager here talked to us about it when we told him our upcoming walking route. It seems to be a major concern particularly around cities.

As we walked through Albania there were some challenges. Macedonia was easier and we figured when we got to Greece things would become far more straight forward. We’d just get on with the walking. We have been so wrong. Our time in Torino enabled us to gather our resources, look at the challenges rationally, and come up with a sensible plan. But Greece has been a nightmare in respect to the logistics of this walk.

We’ve had a busy afternoon getting our last ducks in a row. Please stay with us as this adventure continues. We hope you enjoy what comes next. We’re pretty sure we will.

Meantime a couple of pictures from today. The boat is a novel idea. Free cruise around the harbour on what is essentially a floating bar. Prices weren’t bad. Too bad they didn’t serve food too. We cruised by a really cool looking restaurant and afterwards went there for dinner. We’re lucky we didn’t have to stay and wash dishes. And the meal was just barley OK.

An interlude with El Capitan 

I forgot to tell you about this peculiar interlude from yesterday. How I managed to forget? Perhaps just needed to block the experience.

We were walking back from our exploration to points south. While passing this closed taverna and shop a voice from within a gate called out to us. Who were we? Where were we from? The usual banter. We decided it would be nice to buy a bit of this fellow’s home made wine – in the barrels at the front of his shop. He was keen but a female voice from deeper within the chaos of the shop said they were closed. This guy was not to be deterred so he opened the iron grill and invited us in for a drink. Well why not? It had been a longish hotish walk. Very soon we were seated in the otherwise empty restaurant and wine was poured. It was quite good. 

Then we were subjected to four volumes of his guest books. We were to read the entires attesting to his restaurant’s fabulous food. There were numerous positive comments. The wine done but the cover station getting weird (political), Pat brilliantly told the Captain – for indeed it was he who had invited us in – that we had an important meeting back in our village so we had to get a move on. It took some doing but we managed to manoeuvre our way out of there – with the promise – yes, I’m ashamed to say we lied – to come back for the best Mousaka in Greece the next day. Here’s a picture I took – Pat was cursing me – the Captain was absolutely sloshed on his home made ouzo and he was getting a huge kick out of hugging her. 

We escaped from the Captan’s clutches – literally with the realization that there is no way we risk walking in that direction gain!  This limits our walking options somewhat as there are only two ways out of our village!

28 Sep – second day of R&R in Torino – Coffee surprises

After a taxi ride to the bus depot south of town (local busses on strike), we set off on a three hour bus trip south along the Sithonia Peninsula. For those of you who like locating places – there is a large three fingered peninsula south of Thessaloniki the whole thing is referred to as Halkidiki. We are near the southern tip of the middle of the three fingers. Still no “typical” southern Greek blue and white buildings but the countryside has that wild scrubby with olive orchard flavour. Gold sand beaches interspersed with rocky cliffs. Numerous small bays, that perfect post card Mediterranean water. There are a few German and Russian tourists here – but most of the little hotels and guest houses are closed for the season. The grocery store is open for the rest of this week then closes as well.

We are staying in a nice little studio a block back from the beach along a dirt track with a ramble sham property and half finished place across the road. This place is neat and clean and brightly painted – but the surroundings – so decrepit. However the beach is clean and long and scenic.

Yesterday we managed to walk almost all the way around a bluff to the south of us before the tracks all disappeared into prickly dense brush. We returned and went round by the road (novel idea) into the next bay. Another village, here a marina with a lot of expensive yachts – mostly Greek registered by the way and all in pristine condition. There is money in this country for some people. On our way for this little jaunt we stopped for a coffee. It turned out to be one of those mix deals – Nescafé probably. Pat has this thing about Nescafé – she hates it! Instead of hot milk we had cold whipped cream dumped on top. The cups were tiny. The cost – euro 3.50 EACH. The woman who made this overly priced nasty coffee didn’t speak much English but her German was good. My German also good enough to let her know that for 3.50 we should have had decent coffee with hot milk. She was of course unrepentant, but we came away with two 500mls of “free” bottled water.

Pat and I shopped at the little grocery store. We bought breakfast and lunch supplies. Breakfast supplies included, yoghurt and granola, coffee (Nescafé) and milk. We made ourselves coffee this morning. I heated the milk. We poured it onto our coffee and it curdled. Could it have gone bad already? No, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that we had bought drinkable yoghurt! So here we sit sipping Nescafé made with hot yoghurt. Odd flavour. Desperate times!

Our task today (once we recover from our coffee mishap) is to walk north along our beach – it stretches as far as the eye can see. We are trying to keep up with some walking during this hiatus so we don’t loose the hard won leg and foot toughness developed over the past three weeks.

We have also come up with an alternate walking plan for the next stage. We’re sure some of those Romans decided to explore the coast line between Stavros and Kavala – I mean why wouldn’t they? So we are abandoning the impossible VE for this stretch in search of a coastal route. One which has a few accommodations along it. We will take the bus from Thessaloniki to Asprovalta and walk from there. There is one stretch along the coast that is too long for us to accomplish in a day so we will “bus assist” for that bit as well. 

Once again we are feeling positive and determined. This break has given us the time to unwind and get perspective. However it does remind us of our privilege. We can take a break and rest. We can take a bus or a train. We can find alternatives. Not so easy for the thousands of refugees. As you know we’ve dedicated our walk through MSF to a Syrian refugee family. We are humbled by their struggle across this less than easy land. 

We thank the many of you who have donated generously to our fund raising efforts. Our team is doing well. Pat and I better keep on walking to keep up our end of that deal! Anyone wanting to check out MSFs coverage of our walk can google “Walking Without Borders Challenge – team – 2 Women Walking. 

Might now have to go find a real coffee before our beach exploration.

Pictures of our current accommodation – Fotino’s Studios

28 Sep – Lazing around in Torino

Nothing too much happening with us right now. The biggest excitement  was the yoghurt we put in our coffee this morning  thinking it was milk – not being too good with the Greek alphabet.

Our walk today wasn’t quite as we’d envisioned due to rocky headlands which interrupted the seemingly endless flow of sand. Also the sand was very soft and sinky. Really sloped steeply into the sea as well so quite difficult to walk on. We are pretty sure this is imported sand. Probably a good way to cover up the annual accumulation of cigaret butts?  Europeans seem to smoke like chimneys and they toss their butts everywhere.

Anyway, all was not lost in respect to today’s outing as we found a secluded corner of a mostly isolated beach. The water was blissfully warm. The picture of the clothes on the beach should give you an ample clue as to how we enjoyed – not walking – but a wee dip instead.

 

Via Egnatia – Accommodation recap and a few trail notes – Greece

Once again this post will really only be of interest to those interested in walking the Via Egnatia.
All comments are prefaced by the fact that we aren’t carrying a tent or sleeping mat. We seek a roof over our heads and a bed under our bodies each night. We have no intension or desire to camp on this trip. We are two fit well travelled women in our 60s. 

Arrival in Greece from Bitola

Niki is the first village over the border into Greece. There is no place to stay there so we walked on to Neo Kavkasos. This made for a long day and a good portion is along road.

Neos Kavkasos 

The VE guide book suggests asking for private rooms. Wild camping is not recommended. The surrounding area is all farmers fields. Even if we did have a tent I have no idea where we might have put it. This was a very unfriendly village. We spoke to eight people asking about accommodation. Absolutely not. No taxies. No buses. We were also lied to and practically thrown out of the town. This was a low point of our walk. It was a poor welcome to Greece. We walked on (total 34 kms for the day) and were picked up by a man driving a delivery van.  We would have been walking into the night had it not been for his kindness. He drove us to Florina. (Note one of the authors of the guide book – Holger – is following up on what happened to us in this town with the local authorities).

Florina (instead of Niki or Neos Kavkasos)

This town has three hotels (we think). The first one we went to was fully booked. We got a room in another – Hotel Filareti. The staff were very welcoming. Nearby restaurants offered simple, delicious reasonably priced meals. Twin room B&B was euro 40.00.

Were we to do this again, we’d get a taxi from the border or Niki direct to Florina.

As Florina is off the VE we decided to regroup by taking the train to Agios Panteleimon as there is no official accommodation at Meliti or Kella either. The hotel listed in Kella is now permanently closed. It was disappointing to miss some of the walk but we felt this was a “clean” solution which would avoid needless frustration trying to take taxies here and there at the start and end of the next few days. The train ticket cost euros 3.00 each.

Agios Panteleimon

A very sleepy village when we were there. There seem to be at least four hotels but only the one we stayed in appeared to be open. We stayed at Hotel Panorama and while it was open – it seemed only barely functioning. Hardly any staff. Despite a dining room, no meals or coffee. There is a pool there. Twin bed room – euros 40.00 and a free beer thrown in.

Arnissa

We had a dull walk by the lake along a road which had a fair bit of fast moving traffic. Maybe we should have followed the VE route but it was raining….Arnissa is a dingy little village. The grocery store doubles as a betting place in the evenings. Shop before the locals gather to gamble – they don’t appear to like interruptions. Dining a bit limited but as long as you don’t mind sharing with starving stray dogs it’s OK.

The big hotel on the main street here is closed and has been for some time – broken windows, shuttered up, very derilict. We stayed at Karipidis Hotel. Just outside the main part of the village. There was no one there but we found a phone number and called someone to let us in. We were told to leave the front door key under the mat when we left the next day. The place seemed closed but they welcomed us. It was a very nice place. Fire place in the room, living room to sit in. We negotiated euro 35.00 for a twin room. 

Edessa

To get to Edessa we did two days in one because there is no official accommodation in Nisi. We’d been in contact with Holger  and he recommended sticking to places with official accommodation. The crisis in Greece has undermined much in this country and hospitality is suffering as well. Many people here are really struggling and just don’t seem to have the interest, energy, time, desire – to host strangers walking through their lives.

We took a taxi a few kms up the road from Arnissa to Nea Xanthogia to shorten our walk. Even so it was a long day. We caught the taxi outside the Arnissa post office at 8:30 when it delivered mail. We’d been told about this the evening before. No one in Arnissa we spoke with seemed to have a phone number for a taxi service.

In Edessa we stayed at beautiful Hagiati Guesthouse. This is an old building, beautifully furnished. It only has Seven rooms. Edessa seemed pretty busy – we booked ahead and are glad we did. We paid euro 45.00 for our twin bed room. Breakfast was extra but they accommodated us picnic breakfasting in their gorgeous sitting area. We stayed here two nights. 

Giannitsa

To get here we rolled three days into one for the same reasons. No official accommodation in Profitis Ilias or Aravissos.

To make this possible we took a taxi to Kali just east of Profitis Ilias. The resulting walk was a bit long but doable. Some of the walk along the canal was more over grown than suggested in the guide book but if you go into the orchards a little there are much better farm tracks. Just before the final stretch into Giannitsa the route crosses a paved road, and past an Alfa beer depot. At this point we were stopped by an agitated man who works at the depot who begged us for our own safety to go around by the main road. In the hill area between here and Giannitsa there are said to be a few packs of numerous feral dogs. This is not one or two stray dogs. These are feral dogs running in packs. Do your own research. Consider the size of your group. The dogs are said to be large and the locals seem quite nervous about them. We walked around by the road – very hard on our tired feet.

In Giannitsa there are lots of hotels but some are closed. We stayed at family owned, friendly and very nice Hotel Pella. Twin room with breakfast was euro 78.00. A bit over our preferred budget. Guess we were tired of going out and finding coffee and breakfast because euro 14.00 of that price was breakfast for two.

Chalkidona

Once again we needed to do two days in one because there is no accommodation in Pella.

We walked to Pella and spent some time visiting the museum (very modern and quite lovely) and the archeological site of Alexander the Great’s home town. Sadly as with many such sites in Greece, it is very weedy and rundown. From here we took a taxi to the Hotel Galla in Gefyra. (As mentioned in our guide book.)

Quite an expensive taxi ride for euro 20.00 – and when we got to the hotel it was closed. It looks like it’s been closed for some time. The taxi driver took us back to Chalkidona. This cost more of course. The annoying bit was that if we’d known the hotel in Gefyra was closed we could have just walked to Chalkidona. The frustrations were sure mounting.

We stayed at a very nice hotel here – Hotel Maison. Has a pool and restaurant. Twin room and breakfast was euro 45.00.

Thessaloniki

Huge disappointment for us because we’d so much wanted to walk into Thessaloniki, but as with many other times on this route accommodation problems put and end to those ideas.

We needed to get to and sleep in Oraiokastro. So our idea was to take a taxi back to Gefyra and follow the route from there. We checked into booking a hotel in Oraiokastra to discover everything either closed of fully booked. Without a guaranteed bed, we are no longer willing to walk anywhere after some of our not so warm and happy end of day experiences.

Should we take taxi all the way to Oraiokastro? Then walk into Thessaloniki. Very expensive. The local busses are currently on strike so that was not an option either.

Our solution: We walked 6 kms south through Partheni to Adendro, where for 2 euro we caught the train to Thessaloniki. Not the joyous arrival we had envisioned. Thessaloniki’s reasonably priced hotels and hostels were fully booked or closed for the season. We paid way too much for two nights at the Olympia. It was OK and the price included breakfast but it was far from our nicest accommodation. Cost including breakfast was  euro 87.00 per night for a twin bed room with the smallest bathroom possible!

We are now taking a break in Torini before returning to Thessaloniki in a few days and continuing east. Will post our findings when our VE journey ends.

Day 25 – Thessaloniki 

What to say about today? Really…. This seems like some sort of strange fiction.

Our included hotel breakfast was very pleasant – lots of variety. Nothing weird about that except that this place is supposedly nearly fully booked and it doesn’t seem so.

We are taking a bus tomorrow so decided to do a recee. Where is the bus station? We googled it and marked it on Gypsy and set off. We never did find that station. Pat discovered it is the wrong depot for where we want to go. The depot we need is several kilometres south of town. 

We then tried to find the ticket selling office listed by the bus company. No luck there either. The Greeks seem to be a bit random when it comes to numbering buildings. They have even numbers on one side of a street and odd numbers on the other. But if you think #199 is across from, or even in the same block as # 198 or #200, you’d be wrong. The system here doesn’t work that way. We didn’t really figure out what the system might be – but by that time it seemed more than time for a gelato (me) and coffee (Pat). After that we decide to forget about our mission.

We did walk past what looks like a completely abandonded university campus. If not abandoned, then certainly in a dreadful state of disrepair. Finally, several hours later – during which we’d passed by numerous historic and ancient sites – including the great Roman arch over their (our) Via Egnatia – we returned to the hotel. They will order us a taxi tomorrow to take us to the mystery bus depot. We find it a bitter pill to swallow. Our walk is de-evolving into an endless stream of taxis and buses and trains!

Do not despair faithful readers – we have a plan. We will reveal all to you in due time. We have not given up on our quest. But our quest is slightly changed! Plans are made to be changed  – I’m sure someone more famous than the two of us came up with that thought eons ago. So as we climb into bed tonight we are smiling, positive, and slightly intoxicated on some god awful ouzo – or what ever that was.

Good night from room 514 in the Hotel Olympic   – or Olympus – no wait a minute – the Olympia! Yes that is where we are. Pretty sure.

Day 24 – Via Egnatia – bus strike

I know – it’s hilarious really – the litany of calamities we’ve encountered since entering Greece seems too ludicrous to be real.

Today we had planned to take a bus the final 38 kms into Thessaloniki. We had originally been looking forward to walking into the city but lack of accommodation put that idea to bed.

We spent the better part of breakfast tapping away at our IPads trying to find an English bus schedule for busses into the city. Giving up we want to the reception desk and asked the woman there for help. She told us a schedule would be of no help as there is a bus strike. Can you imagine the sinking feeling. “Why don’t you take the train?” She continued.

Why not indeed. She showed us a train stop in a small village about 6 kms south of where were were. Numerous trains – about one an hour! Happily we paid our bill and set off down the road. The train station was quite large and modern given the size of the village. It was in disrepair, facilities and signs covered in graffiti. Most of the benches were broken with seats missing. This country is just falling to ruins. For 2 euro we got the train into the heart of Thessaloniki. The train carriages were also covered with graffiti but clean and comfortable inside. The trip was pretty quick through quite industrial landscape with many abandoned factories and warehouses. The station is central so a few blocks of walking through busy streets and we were at our hotel. 

This is the Olympia Hotel. Not the Olympic. Not the Olympus. There seem to be numerous hotels with similar names – a bit confusing especially in Greek, but we are at the right place. We’re paying way too much because there is some kind of exhibition going on here and the city is almost fully booked. We were expecting fancy slippers and robes and freebies in the fridge. No. This is about our smallest room to date and the bathroom is tiny – couldn’t be smaller and still have standing room. Speaking of small – the TV is the size of a lap top screen! But we have a balcony. And there is an included breakfast. That there is breakfast at all is novel, that it is included is bonus!

We’ve entertained ourselves so far by strolling around a flee market. The junk for sale is varied and so are the ethnicities in the throng. We wonder if we are seeing long time residents or a mix of recent refugees. Either way it is all colourful and diverse. 

We spend tomorrow here then go south for amid trip vacation by the beach for four days. Then back here to re group and plan our continued adventure east towards the border with Turkey. We are without guide book from this point on. We have a GPS route though and have a good idea (we think) of where there is and is not accommodation. We will however be trying to call ahead to ensure no more surprises like the closed hotel last night.

I’m not sure of the cause or the effect here – but I am sure we are experiencing the Greek crises first hand. This is not a fully functional first world nation any longer. Greece appears to be on its knees. Going down or struggling to get back up? We can’t say that we understand what’s happening here but we seem to be experiencing some of the fall out!

Day 23 – Via Egnatia – no accommodation – again!

Had a lovely short walk today. We decided to walk from Giannitsa (where we stayed last night) to Pella. Anyone who is an Alexander the Great fan will know that Pella was his home town. It was quite the happening place back in the day. Today however Pella is a small sleepy village that seems to have very little of offer for the traveller other than a nice new museum (funded and built by the EU as far as we can tell) and two weedy ill-kept archeological  sites. The first we almost missed as we walked past –  the palace. Not open to the public, in a sad state. The ancient city excavations are open – there are some mosaics to see and a few columns – but the place is filled with weeds, there are virtually no signs say what’s what. It’s derelict. At least there’s no graffiti! 

We decided the walk to Pella and the historic interlude was enough for today. We took a taxi the last 21 kms to the next place with a hotel because of course Pella has no place to stay!  We arrived at the one and only hotel in Gefira – the illustrious Galla Hotel – to find it closed. Looks like it’s been this way for some time judging from the decrepit look of the grounds. OMG. Seriously. We were so lucky we’d arrived by taxi. The driver drove us back to another town along the highway and deposited is at a very nice place on the outskirts of Chalkidona – just a few kms from Pella. We could easily have walked here had we known the Gefira hotel was closed. The frustrations of finding accommodation seem to be never ending! 

We’ve just spent a few hours finding a place to stay in Thessaliniki for tomorrow because the place we were supposed to walk to tomorrow is fully booked. Go figure. Finally we would have been walking to a town with three hotels to choose from and not one of them has a room. So our newest plan is to take a bus into Thessaloniki  in the morning. So much for our grand arrival on foot. We are now going to be there a whole week earlier than planned due to having to skip so many places in Greece. 

The walking is the easy part! Speaking of which much of our walk today was through cotton fields with “ripe” cotton ready for picking. Really soft balls but held to the plant by thorny “brackets” – must be hellish to pluck by hand!


Pictures – cotton fields and the ancient city of Pella.

Day 22 – Via Egnatia – beware the dogs!

We started our day at 7:30 (after coffee and our picnic breakfast of course) with a taxi ride about 15 km along our 45 k route for the day. We knew there was no way we were going to try to walk 45 km but there was no accommodation between. Essentially we covered three days in one. Fairly tiring. Mostly a nice walk off-road along a canal. At one point over a collapsed bridge. At another point through deep soaking grass. All was well until the last three kms. We had just crossed a main road and were walking up a gravel track when a motor cycle came roaring up to us and the driver stopped. He seemed quite worried. Where were we going he wanted to know. We told him and pointed. This guy spoke no English but he began urgently telling us “no way.” Through mime he showed us there were at least 15 big vicious dogs. We must not go that way. Our option was a longer unpleasant walk along a really busy highway. We followed the man’s advise. It turned out he’d seen us walking  by his place of work and come after us to stop us from getting into difficulty. Act of kindness number 8 in Greece! His warning has been confirmed by two other people that we’ve met at separate times and places. 

Seems that people have let their dogs loose outside the city for various reasons, the economic crisis being one, the dogs have bred and created their own packs of semi wild dogs. There have been a few reports of attacks on humans. Great! Pat and I now wonder if this is a common situation around other cities. No reason to think otherwise I guess.

Pat’s walking poles have been giving her problems. They got stuck and wouldn’t extend properly. She’d asked several people for help pulling them open. Today we stopped at a car repair place – along that busy highway – and a kind man took the poles out back to a vice machine and he fixed them. Much joy and many smiles. Another moment of joy for us! Random act of kindness number nine!

Tonight we are in Giannitsa. (With weary feet – me and legs – Pat) Tomorrow we’ll take a taxi to Pella (Alexander the Great’s home town) then walk to Gefira.

Today we covered over 30 kms. We arrived at out hotel just before 5pm. Pretty long day. Tomorrow should be just over 20 as long as we don’t have to detour around brambles, fierce wild dogs, or God knows what else that might crop up. One thing we know with absolute certainty is that just about anything can happen on this trip!

Good night! Yup we’ve made it to dark we can go to sleep now.