9 Oct -Fare thee well Via Egnatia

The walk is done – for us. We are in Xanthi, our last stop on this route. We can go no further without taking more buses and taxis than walking to reach daily destinations where there is accommodation.

This is bitter sweet. We are disappointed that our walk was not the ideal we’d hoped for. The guidebook was far too optimistic about availability of unofficial accommodations. People here are very largely uninterested in the concept of B&Bs. However our journey has been interesting and we’ve traveled far in our understanding of how crippling this Greek crises is for many people of this region and the tourist trade. We wonder if tourists aren’t coming because the infrastructure is failing and because it is quite expensive here. The infrastructure will most likely continue to fail without the income generated by visitors. 

Our parting thought about the feasibility of this route as a doable enjoyable walk is that Albania and Macedonia hold all sorts of potential and it will probably work there with a bit more effort to route through places with official accommodation. Here in northern Greece – it’s not even reliably viable as a camping route. Maybe cycling? But some very major changes are needed. Additionally a large part of the area we travelled through in this part of Greece is not all that scenic. I feel it is nice to get some joy from one’s surroundings. Abandoned buildings, garbage, feral dogs, motor ways – not much joy in any of that. Even if a person is camping, there needs to be places open for buying supplies, there needs to be water, there needs to be space upon which to put one’s tent. This is all lacking at this time of year – maybe at other times as well. 

That said, our final walk and our stay in Toxotes was everything we wished for.

Our host of yesterday joined us with some of her homemade wine and we three decided the walk from Toxotes to here would just be another dull noisy drag along more main roads. So instead she told us about a beautiful local walk along the river. We did this – and it was very pleasant. We had the company of a cute dog who came as our guide. Later our host met us outside her brother’s shop and drove us here to Xanthi as she was coming herself to the big regional Saturday market. She is the first hotelier we met in Greece who showed any interest in the Via Egnatia as a walking route. Amazingly she’d not heard anything of or from the VE Foundation people when they were in Toxotes marking the route. This too is not a good indication of how well it is being promoted with local people. 

We spent the remainder of yesterday strolling around the busy market, exploring the old town – finally a pretty town, and having a late European lunch. Buying wine and snacks for the evening then spending the evening in our quite nice hotel preparing for the next stages.

On 23 Oct we’ll be meeting Jan in Porto Portugal to walk the northern half of the Portuguese Camino to Santiago. 

On 4 Nov we three will head off to Morocco for some good old touristing around some of the major places of interest. Tangier, Marrakesh, Fez, etc.

As for today and the next week of so. Well friends – that is a surprise. All will be revealed tomorrow. 


7 Oct – It’s all in the family.

Yesterday there was no blog because there was nothing really worth telling you about. We took the bus from Kavala to Nea Karvali and walked from there about 22 k through flat farm land intersected with canals. Our destination was a fairly large town -Chrysoupolis that has even less going for it (as far as we can tell) than most towns of comparable size. Our hotel was a bit of a dump – OK that’s being kind – it was a tip! Stunk of some sort of fuel – like a filthy unvented auto mechanic shop. Our room had a balcony so we were able to air our room out. It was marginally clean. The old lady who met us upon arrival started asking for money before we were even in the door. We refused of course. Later a man was at the desk. He informed us he’d need payment in the evening as he’d not be around in the morning. No one was around all night except the two of us. What’s with these untended hotels? Before I fell asleep last night I sent out a plea to those Greek gods of antiquity – Hermes in particular – for a good day of travel today. Today being an important one.

Today is Pat’s birthday! The gods smiled upon us and provided the best walking day since we crossed into Greece.

The weather  was perfect. Dry, part sun, part cloud not too warm.

The trail was perfect. No main road. None!  No steep hills up or down. No garbage. Best repeat that – NO GARBAGE! None in the water – none by the trail, none in the bushes. Lovely! We spent some time walking by the very pretty Nestos River. We sat on the round stones at its edge for our lunch. A wonderful change from past weeks sitting in dusty dirty prickly road side pullouts. 

The distance was perfect. 20kms. 

Our destination is perfect. By far the nicest place we’ve stayed in Greece. We have a whole two story restored 100 year old mansion to ourselves. Full kitchen, living room. Beautifully decorated…. 

Our meal in the village was perfect. Home made, served with interest and care. Delicious. Best meal in Greece.

Thank you Hermes for a wonderful day!

Now, a funny story about our entry into this small village of Toxotes where we are staying the night at Kokkymelon guest house:

As we walked in we heard a lyre being played and an excellent male voice singing. Someone’s radio? No. A young man singing by his car, his elderly mother coming out to meet him, smiling somewhat toothlessly. He stopped singing, gave the lyre to his mum in exchange for the bag of garbage she handed him. He was walking to the bin while we walked by. About that moment I realized we’d missed our turn into the village. We stopped to consult Gypsy – who flashed her little direction arrow at us in annoyance. The man asked if we needed directions. We told him we were looking for the place to cross the railway tracks – he joined Gypsy in pointing is back to a turn hidden in bushes a few metres back along the track.

Off we went, first complimenting him on his singing.

We quickly arrived into the village centre – on the other side of the rail tracks – and stopped at a small shop for directions to our hotel. The man in there was pleased to hear our destination, “my sister’s hotel,” he explained. He was giving us directions when the singing man showed up. “I’ll drive you,” he offered’ “she’s my sister.” (Aside – the sister is a civil engineer, she has a vineyard, makes her own wine – in a very huge stone tub by stomping on the grapes, she restored this mansion, and running her guest house is just a side interest. Wow!)

What are the chances that the first two people we meet in a village are brothers, and that we are staying at their sister’s hotel?  We are now sitting with our feet up in the comfortable living room, watching some sort of Greek tv show about ancient Greek ruins while sipping some very nice Greek wine. A perfect way to end a very enjoyable day!

I’ve tried several times to upload some pictures with no luck. Will try again tomorrow. Good night from the charming village of Toxotes.

5 Oct – “Hey Pat – would that be a Byzantine tower?”

“Well yes Kim I think it is. The style is too square to be Ottoman. No columns, so not Greek, and the Romans were too busy building their damn road well north of here – definitely Byzantium.”

Despite this area’s current state of disrepair, we are walking through a historically rich region of the planet. Antiquities are everywhere. Remember the Greek civilization? I wish a few more people who currently live here did, but that grand and glorious time is well and truly gone!

Then there were the Romans – indeed, it is a Roman road we’ve been doing our best to follow. Unfortunately the current inhabitants of this land have lost the concept of safe havens within walking distance of each other. In fact after today’s walk, I’d say they’ve lost the concept of walking from point A to B entirely. We spent some time walking along a divided highway. It was awful! Thankfully we found a side road and took it into Kavala. Greek drivers often don’t use lines painted on roads as guides. They just drive randomly where-ever while texting and even changing clothes (yes we witnessed that). We did some quick footed dodging into the road side ditch one several occasions! Unfortunately there was no other place to walk along this particular stretch of coast. Those past Greeks, Romans, Byzantians, and Ottoman’s  would be horrified no doubt!

Tomorrow we will take a bus for the first few kms out of town. This seems to be the best way to avoid a day of further ditch jumping, car and truck dodging!

Anyway I digress – I know that’s a habit of mine! We have seen several historically interesting monuments during the past couple of days. One very large fortress was surprisingly unlabelled. Almost every little ancient wall around here has a label so we were surprised. However Pat and I were not overly concerned – we feel we can now recognize Greek, from Roman, from Byzantine, from Ottoman ruin. The ruin of this particular edifice stood tall, and square upon a head land. What a fortress it must have been. Such power it must have protected. No doubt in our minds – Byzantine! The arches, the squareness, the tallness, the colour, the building materials…….oh ya we are the experts on this!

4 Oct – oh my aching feet!

27 kms today on tarmac. A lot of it along a pretty busy highway. Hard work. My feet are really tired this evening. A throbbing, burning aching feeling – so I’m really glad to be sitting on the beach drinking a cold beer! The scenery was very pleasant. The highway runs along the shore. Sometimes almost beach level, sometimes around head lands – all scenic. Typically Mediterranean, red tiled roves, olive groves, vineyards, the shimmering sea. Sunny. More than a little bit warm! 

Of course we walked past many more closed places. But one open cafe as well where we had a rest and nice visit with the owners. Returned to their homeland from Australia. I’ve discovered frappes – yummy. A farmer harvesting his grapes gave us a bunch as we walked by. Pinot Grigio in the raw – right off the vine, warm, a tiny bit dusty and so delicious and sweet! Moments of joy on an otherwise fairly hard walk. It seemed longer than it was. I was dragging my feet by the time we got here.

A nice long cold beer now puts everything in perspective – after a soothing shower in a nice hotel room. Dinner soon to follow. Take my whine and shelve it. Pat and I know how lucky we are to be walking this walk with the privilege we enjoy.

So are you ready for another “Hey Pat” moment? If you don’t know what I’m talking about – read yesterday’s blog.

“Hey Pat – look at that military chopper!”

Pat scans the horizon and registers loud airborne noise baring down on us  – “Kim that would be five military choppers.”

We both wondered where they might be headed. We’ve read Greece and Turkey squabble a little over this region. Gee.

Here are a few pictures to illustrate the past couple of days. Look for the picnic beer. Note in this first picture the road side stand selling honey, wine and ouzo.

3 Oct – “Hey Pat!”

We walked 26 kms today – all of it on pavement. Hard on the legs and feet. But soooo good to be back on the trail again. Not actually “the” trail as we’ve abandoned  the official route in favour of one that takes us through places where we can secure accommodation. This is no easy task! We walked all day along the coast – the beautiful sunny Adriatic. Beaches stretching their golden sand off in both directions. Sea calm and warm and swimmable. Dozens and dozens of hotels in idilic settings – closed. Not just done for the season. These places have been closed for months or years. It was like walking through a post apocalyptic landscape. Desolate. Sad. Creepy.

The creepiness got us to thinking of some other odd moments on this trip so – not in chronological order – is a recap of some of our conversations.

“Hey Pat – Look a a horned viper!”

Pat does this crazy leap and hop across the road – “Stay away from the viper Kim!”

“Hey Pat – Look a band of nice stray dogs!”

Pat takes swift evasive action – “Kim those dogs aren’t playing, they’re chasing us!”

“Hey Pat – Look, I’ve carried a cold beer in my back pack for the past 12 kms!”

Pat’s eyes light up – “You’re not carrying it an other step. We’re drinking the damn thing right now even if it is only 11:30 in the morning.”

“Hey Pat – Look there’s a police man right here with riot gear on.”

Pat frowns – “He looks ridiculous smoking that e-cigarette.”

“Hey Pat – Are those war ships in the harbour?”

Pat looks askance -“What the f@#* Kim!”

Yup – it’s all true! 

When light is shed on invisibility

We were able to watch BBC world news yesterday evening. One of the features was about the continued flow of Syrian and Afghani refugees through northern Greece and the Balkans.  Many more than we supposed, according to this broadcast. We’ve seen none….or have we? It seems people who need to be, can be quite invisible. We listened more to the news and realized we have probably witnessed a disturbing aspect of this refugee crises. The news report told how human smuggling is a booming industry (business) in northern Greece. It discussed various methods used to spirit the refugees from Greece into Macedonia and on to Serbia. 

A whole bunch of light bulbs flashed on!

Some refugees stow away (are stowed away by smugglers) under trains. Same train we rode on. Mind you we were going the other way but we noticed a considerable police presence at the small train station in Florina – walking distance from the Macedonian border. That may explain that. Imagine the hideous journey clinging under a train. And then what? Is this perhaps why the people in that horrid little border town Nea Kaukasos were so unfriendly to Pat and I? True we were going in the opposite direction – but was that clear to the inhabitants of that place? How many refugees have come creeping, exhausted yet hopeful. Frightened and desperate into that miserable inhospitable town?

More interesting though is that an illegal betting activity we thought we’d interrupted in Arnissa was most likely not that at all. Betting is open, legal and widely accepted here. There are betting places all other the place. Why would a bunch of guys laying bets get pretty freaked out by a couple of old ladies looking for yoghurt?  We are very sure that poorly supplied, dingy dirty little grocery store in Arnissa is a front, if you will, for human smuggling. We walked into the middle of arrangements being made. 

As we entered that store, we noticed a large number of skinny, rough, brown skinned men skulking around. They had a hard, wary look about them and we thought “fruit pickers.” We realize, looking back, that there were no fruit pickers around there. We had even commented on the fruit rotting on the ground beneath the trees. While we were in the store there was a sudden very tense silence and we were clearly interrupting something “seriously shady” and they wanted us out of there. We left without any yoghurt. We put the weird atmosphere down to gambling but realize now that that wasn’t a hospitable gaming atmosphere. We are quite certain those rough haggard men were buying their passage over the nearby border. That town is perfectly located for such an endeavour. 

One day when we were walking in a fairly remote area in Macedonia – up in the mountains, several 4×4 Land Rover type vehicles roared by us. They were going at speed, it was very dusty but we saw the interiors were quite packed with people. We never really gave this another thought until now. Some kind of odd Macedonia picnic club? Hunters? Who were those people? Now we wonder – Where were they going, all jammed into those vehicles bouncing furiously on barely discernible tracks over the mountains?

We now realize more fully that the trails we’ve walked, over mountains and skirting villages, are likely some of the same trails followed by the refugees who have chosen this Macedonian route to safety. Does this account in part for the long stretches of “recent” plastic garbage found in unlikely places? Where ever they were, when or if we passed them by – they hid well. We may have witnessed products of their passage, but as humans – they were silent and invisible.

We wish them well on their journey. 

2 Oct – A notable young man of Thessaloniki 

When Pat an I were here a week ago we found a fascinating flee market. Full of odd things for sale and interesting people watching opportunities. We had a delicious meal at a little place – I told you about the free beer for the “inconvenience” of waiting for him to open. Several times over the past week we recalled that young man. He seemed so enterprising and hard working. It wasn’t just the free beer – it was his industry. And the meal was the best we’ve had to date in Greece.

Yesterday – after a long walk along the sea front which included dodging a large number of other tourists disgorged off a cruise ship! They didn’t go too far from the safety of their vessel mind you so it wasn’t long before the board walk consisted of us, joggers, and numerous Thessalonians enjoying a beautiful Saturday. 

After our 12 k tour of the water front we had a bit of a hunger on. From yesterday we realized eating within two blocks of the water front means poor food at exorbitant prices. Euro 9.00 for two small cups of coffee for instance. Mind you we received three bite sized cookies with these coffees. Now think this through for a moment. If a person ordered one cup of coffee – would they receive one and a half cookies?  Where does three come from? We didn’t leave a tip.

Anyway I digress. Our hunger. We found our way back to the flee market. It was a bit of a mission. We’d stumbled on the place previously -how to find it again? Gypsy of course raised her little antenna and led the way.

We found “our” restaurant. The young man was pleased to see us again. As often happens we got to talking and it turns out he has two jobs. This one being a waiter and another. His other job is being an assistant logistician at one of seven refugee camps surrounding this city. He does this working for the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the NGOs here helping with the refugee crisis. Additionally he is also a political science undergrad at university here. He speaks five languages and is working on his sixth – Russian. Our lunch was equally delicious as on our first visit.  And this time too there was a complementary beer. We left armed with his email – Pat is “recruiting” him for MSF. They’d love this guy! He is pretty humble though and said he needed more experience first. His name – Charilaos Nitsakos.

1 Oct – Travels with Gypsy (our trusty GPS)

Those of you who know me know how extremely technically challenged I am.

A friend of Pat’s – Ross – gave me some valuable pointers and a couple of hands on lessons in GPS use before we left home.

We would still be wandering around in the wilds of Albania if it wasn’t for Gypsy. She guides us with unerring accuracy and determination.

Travelling with Gypsy however has some idiosyncratic moments.

When I plug her in to charge her up at the end of each day, she turns herself back on. I try to remember to turn her off again but sometimes I forget. She often sleeps quietly throughout the night, her sensors easily turned to satellites shifting and orbiting overhead. However sometimes she looses the satellites, be it that they go off orbiting else where, someone forgot to pay the satellite bill, or the hotel has walls too thick for Gypsy to “sense” through. When this happens she wakes up and takes off on amazing solo nighttime journeys. We see her tracks in the morning. Last night for instance she travelled back and forth and around this entire city. Her trip odometer shows she traveled about 150 kms! This wouldn’t be such a bad thing on its own but often when she’s off on one of her “find herself missions” she starts “crying.” Her frantic wee beeps letting us know she’s busy working and seeking while we are trying to sleep. This results in midnight shuffling and rumblings as I try to remember where she is in a particular room. I sometimes don’t remember where I am in a particular room for heavens sakes. And of course sometimes – like last night – I slept through her cries – but during a period when Pat was awake she heard her but didn’t know where she was. She (Gypsy not Pat) was actually in the drawer by my bed somewhat muffled by numerous other items….

Another of Gypsy’s idiosyncrasies is her dislike of train and bus travel. I need to turn her off because otherwise she’d cry frantically for the entire trip. We think she’s trying to tell us we’re going too fast or that we’re off our route or something. But she sure goes wild. 

The last funny this about Gypsy is her random but sometimes adamant appeals for us to follow the route she’s chosen. If we go off the way point marks programmed into her for following the VE she doesn’t utter a word. There’s been many a time when we wish she’d get her knickers in a twist over those mistakes. She lets us sort those snarls out for ourselves. But if we’ve set in a specific destination and asked her to take us there from where we are. Hotels from bus stops or train stops for example. Well she goes squirrelly if we don’t follow her precise directions. Her little squeals loudly issue out of my Gypsy carrying pouch with enough intensity for us to comply with her higher directive.  

Could we do this trip without carrying vast quantities of maps – even if they were available. And there are no detailed print maps for much of this area? No. Pocket Earth has been our other go to navigation aid and it is an excellent resource. With pocket earth and a SIM card in what ever device one had pocket earth downloaded on – navigation without a GPS would be possible. However some of our days have been long. IPad and cellphones batteries might die before day’s end. So Pat and I feel that despite my struggles learning to use Gypsy, she has been our most valuable travel companion. That said – we’ve also used Pats good old fashioned  non-electronic compass several times. There are times when electronics simply don’t work. 

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.