Week 226

14th April, 2013

The car was packed. We got up without haste. Orange juice and tea. Downloaded the paper. Defrosted the freezer. Put out the rubbish. Set the burglar alarm and closed the front door. We walked down to the underground car park, where even the sat.nav. had been pre-programmed, and set off in warm 16C but light drizzle. As we drove around the M25 and on to the M20, the temperature registered 18C and the sky brightened. A short stop in Eurotunnel car park for a cup of coffee and a glance at The Sunday Times and we were off at 1.30 pm (UK Time) precisely. After half an hour’s travelling under the sea and putting our watches forward an hour to French time, we drove off the train at 3.00 pm. The temperature had risen again to 21C and the sky was blue with strong sunshine. We had to close the shades on our sunroof. They probably won’t open again until October.

We drove ten minutes to the Holiday Inn, Coquelles. We have stayed there many times before when it was part of the Copthorne-Millenium Hotels Group. New owners have not spoilt it. Our large room was newly refurbished. We had free wi-fi for our laptops and iPads. It has a fantastic quality restaurant with a huge and expensive wine list but we had intended to control our intake on our first night. Pauline had brought a picnic of cold chicken, cold sausages, little tomatoes and radishes. It was wonderful. I watched City beat Chelsea (without Lampard & Terry). We have a long journey ahead tomorrow. Need a good night.

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15th April, 2013

The journey starts with the alarm on my iPad honking at 6.00 am. Pauline showers and makes a cup of tea. I just drink the tea, download my newspaper and get dressed – after cleaning my teeth. Dressed and packed we are handing the room key back at 6.45 am and out at the car by 7.00 am.. We have 457 miles to do today. The sat.nav. says 6.5 hours but we will have a couple of petrol stops and coffee so I say 7 hours. We should get to Alsace around 2.00 pm. French motorways are unbelievably good at the worst of times. Today, the weather was wonderful. The temperature around 22C and the sun gently muted – just right for driving. Where was the traffic? We couldn’t find any try as we might. The motorways are empty. This is our 14th return journey to Greece. I am driving the 27th leg of the route – the return being 28. Every spot is familiar for some stop off at some time.

Reims, Metz, Strasbourg, Selestat, Colmar, Mulhouse (the start of the Alsace wine trail). We were there by 2.30 pm and driving in to the underground car park of the Holiday Inn. From our second floor room, we could see the arc of snow covered Alps in the distance. We unpacked and went down to the pool for a swim. We were the only ones and we spent a wonderful hour swimming and basking in the Jacuzzi. Back to our room for a cup of tea and to watch the BBC news and then an early Dinner in the restaurant. We both had Duck with vegetables and a bottle of sparkling water. I threw caution to the wind and had a bottle of Alsatian beer.

 16th April, 2013

Up a little later this morning – 6.30 am. Tea and showers and then off around 8.00 am. I have deliberately structured it as a slightly shorter journey today – 310 miles / 5 hours. This is partly because I expect to feel a bit more tired but also because we have to go through Switzerland which, from experience, is a nightmare of a place to negotiate. As we approach the Swiss Border, we meet the familiar lines of cars and lorries.  Every one has to squeeze through a concrete canopied rat run policed by gun toting border guards and highly efficient ‘ladies’ checking the windscreen of every vehicle for signs of this year’s motorway vignette. Of course, we have to buy one – about €40.00 – and she leans into our car and sticks it inside our windscreen. If only Swiss roads were worth £35.00. They’re not. The main road through Basel has been under construction since we first drove it in 2000. Today, they are working on it. The lanes are reduced and the available ones are narrowed by flimsy barriers. Huge lorries fill a lane and dare one to pass them. £35.00 per year for 14 years. I could have tarmacked over Switzerland at that price.

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Past Sursee, Lake Lucerne, Seedorf and Altdorf and Schattdorf. Eventually, after a stop for petrol at our favourite watering hole – Gotthard Rastatte – surrounded by unseasonally low lying snow, we drove through the 17 Km Gotthard tunnel.  I just set the cruise control to 50 mph and wait for daylight to reappear.

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Past Chiasso and Lake Como, round the Milano ring road and on to the Holiday Inn Parma. It is a beautiful place set on the outskirts in farming land. Out of our second floor room we watch pheasants wandering the field – the male in its gaudy colours and the female the colour of straw blending into the straw-strewn ground. From the river, two otters venture into the long, lush grass for a few minutes and bask in the sun. It is quite delightful.

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Tired of Thatcher’s funeral on BBC News Channel, I switched to RAI 1 to find the same pictures talked over in Italian. CNN, thankfully, had the Boston Bombing to lighten the mood. When we can take no more, we wander down to the restaurant for dinner. We ate the most wonderful, mixed salad of radicchio, rocket, beef steak tomato, green and black olives and parmesan shavings all dressed with olive oil and Balsamic vinegar. This was accompanied by strips of char grilled fillet steak and washed it down with a bottle of local red wine. Absolute bliss.

17th April, 2013

Today, we get up early and leave the hotel by 7.30 am. We have just 200 miles / 3 hours driving to Ancona. We drive past Modena, Bologna, Imola, Forli, Cesena and Rimini to Ancona.  First, we call at our favourite supermarket. Pauline buys about 5 kilos of Parmigiano Regiano and I buy some lovely bottles of red wine – about 40. I already have about 150 French bottles in the car. We drive on to the newish ticket office on the outskirts. It looks like a 1950s bus depot. Gypsies have set up a market stall in the centre. One chap is sitting on a white plastic chair under a large sunshade trying on a pair of new trainers. We walk up to the Superfast offices with our booking sheet.

We booked and paid for our return journey luxury cabin on January 1st as we have done for years. The only difference is that, now we are retired, we travel at low season both ways. By booking early, we get a 20% reduction. Even so, the cost for two people in a Luxury Cabin plus car is €879.00/£714.00. In spite of our booking so early, I was shocked to check the ferry site the day before we left Surrey only to read that Greek seamen had called a 24hr strike the day before we sailed. We were so lucky that it didn’t affect us. The people from the strike day were just put on our ferry but it was still nearly empty. We board Superfast XI and park our car in the bottom garage. We take the lift to the Purser’s Office and present our tickets. A porter picks up our luggage and takes us to our cabin at the very front of the ship. It really is luxuriously spacious. We have large sweeping windows that give complete visibility of our voyage ahead. A large sofa and armchair to one side, a dining table and chairs to another. The double bed is very comfortable and there is a large dressing table with mirror on one end, flat screen television on the other and a well-stocked fridge underneath. There is a separate bathroom with toilet, sink and shower.

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When we first started sailing down the Adriatic from Italy to Greece and back in July 2000, Superfast was advertising the journey will be done in 19hrs. Today, there is no such boast. Fuel prices have resulted in slower speeds and our ship sails at 13.30 (Italian time) and arriving in Patras on the Peloponnese at 14.30 (Greek time). This is a journey of 24 hrs. It doesn’t matter to us. We are retired. Nothing matters. We walk the ship although we’ve been on it before. It is spotless and well staffed with nice people. There are just few passengers. It is early in the season and too early for Orthodox Easter but the quiet ship is surprising. Just as the ship is pulling out of the dock, we sit down to a meal of a shared Greek salad, a large bowl of Marithes – or whitebait. With this we had the most wonderful, chilled bottle of dry white wine. We are on our way to Greece.

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18th April, 2013

Our Luxury Cabin price entitles us to breakfast in the a la carte restaurant. The waiter brings fresh orange juice, fresh coffee, crusty rolls, bacon and scambled egg, croissants with butter and jam. We couldn’t manage the fruit. The diet had gone for the day. We arrive at Patras an hour late but with so few cars in the garage, we are soon off and on our drive along the coast road to Kaminia, a small townlet on the edge of Ancona where we get to the Poseidon Palace Hotel. We stayed there last September and have one night booked now.

We were delighted as soon as we drove off the Superfast Ferry to find that our sat.nav. picked up the Greek road system. We have been driving to Greece for fourteen years and our satellite navigation system, which has always been DVD-based, never had Greece on its database. We complained to Honda but to no avail. One of the weaknesses of a disc system is that it is only as good as the data input at the time. Roads can alter over the years of the car’s life. Our new system takes all its mapping straight from the satellite. If a new road is built or a roundabout introduced, our system changes accordingly. Our satellite took us straight to our hotel.

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As soon as we get up to our room which turns out to be exactly the same one we had six months ago, I access the free wifi to check our ferry to Sifnos and it is not showing up. We phone the ticket agent on Sifnos to be told that the old ferry is going on Friday night and will arrive in darkness but that the better one from Zante Ferries will go on Saturday morning and arrive in daylight. We go downstairs and book another night in the hotel although we will have to leave at 3.00 am to get down to Piraeus in time. That is confirmed and then we get another phone call from Sifnos. Our friend, the Notary, has been showing prospective buyers around our house in the last few days. That gives cause for sad optimism.

19th April, 2013

After breakfast, we walk into Kaminia. It is a fascinating place with expensive holiday homes and small holdings side by side. Everyone who has a few square metres of land has lemon and orange trees and they are all absolutely weighed down with huge, ripe fruits and blossom in equal manner. It has garden shops and a few food shops but little else. It is surrounded by greenery, by tall, thin conifers and healthy olive trees. The roofs of the houses are pantile because, as the vegetation testifies, it rains quite a bit here. That is a good sign in Greece.

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We paid our bill this evening because we are leaving in the early hours and want to make a quick getaway. After we had paid and gone up to our room, Pauline noticed that we hadn’t been charged for Dinner. She went back down and the woman on the desk – the hotel owner – was astonished that Pauline had voluntarily highlighted the error. No Greek would have done this, she said. She was amazed that we wanted to pay the outstanding €47.00. We certainly felt better having paid it. We went to bed early feeling quite self righteous.

20th April, 2013

Up at 2.00 am and out of the hotel at 3.00 am. We drive to around the northern coast line of the Peloponnese, across the Korinth Canal, past Megara and the centre of Athens to the grubby backstreets of Piraeus. It is a trip of 142 miles. The road we have driven in darkness is the National Road. It has been a death trap for years. It is a motorway with one lane each way and an imaginary one in the middle which traffic from both directions use to overtake. As you can imagine, there are many head-on collisions. Since the Athens Olympics, work has been going on to bring the road up to modern motorway standards. A number of stretches are now wonderful to drive. Unfortunately, as soon as one relaxes, the road reverts to its old style and one is staring death in the face again. Of course, the Greek government has no money so work has been delayed for the past six months. This means that, as we drive, we are negotiating many long stretches of single lane driving with cones and temporary concrete barriers on either side. This is almost more dangerous than the on coming traffic.

Well, we survived the motorway lottery and pulled up outside the only ticket office open in Piraeus harbour. Times must be bad. Usually, there are a number of competing offices open and sellers almost try to drag one in off the street even if one doesn’t want a ticket. Also, there wasn’t a single café open. That is unheard of even at 6.00 am.We bought First Class tickets which were €36.00 per person – only €4.00 more than Tourist/Economy Class. The car cost €56.00. By 6.30 am we are driving on to the F/b Adamas Korais. It is very quiet. Even though there are very few cars, they insist on packing them tightly together. Old habits die hard. There are very few passengers. We buy a couple of filter coffees and sit at the front in empty luxury with our feet up reading the news on our iPads.It leaves at 7.30 am and is a journey of 5½ hours calling at Serifos island before ours.

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It leaves a little late and, although the sea is reasonably calm, it doesn’t dock until 2.00 pm. As we go down to the garage at the bottom of the ferry, we find that a huge, silver Mercedes hearse has been parked next to us and it contains a body returning to Sifnos for burial. Such is life. All I know is that the ship’s garage was very warm for a body on a six hour journey. The driver did twitch his nose a little as he got behind the wheel. We followed the hearse on to the harbour.

As we drove up to the house, two of our real Greek friends were there to greet us with the gate open so we could drive straight in. It was lovely and wonderful to be back. We opened the shutters and the windows, pulling down the insect nets. We turned on the hot water and the underfloor heating fully. Pauline put the sheets into the tumble dryer to air them and turned the electric blanket on over the mattress to do the same. I immediately phoned Nova Satellite television to re-activate our account so that I could watch the evening football match. At 5.30 pm, we drove up to the supermarkets to buy in basic provisions and then on to Germanos to reactivate my internet account. Our friend there said, I knew you were coming. There are huge boxes at the Post Office with your name on. We had posted them in Surrey a week ago. 8o kgs of supplies to oil the wheels of life on a Greek island. Skiathan Man needs tea and so do I. We will have to wait until Monday to collect the boxes.

We drove down to have Dinner with our friends, Panos & Rania. They are always interesting, provocative and amusing. We had salad and grilled chicken with a left wing sermon on Greek Economics. It was wonderful to see them again.