The alarm goes of at 4.00am. We have less than an hour to get ready, close the suitcases and get to the airport. I've been looking forward to this trip for such a long time and the early wake up call doesn't phase us. Louis stayed overnight so that he could drive us to the airport. I think ahead to the itinerary and the connections we have to make to get to Antiparos that night and quickly check that the flight is on time. Yes - so far so good. We should land in Athens shortly after lunchtime and we've decided to travel to the port of Piraeus by bus which runs hourly and takes about 50 minutes. A ferry is scheduled to leave Piraeus at 17.30 arriving in Paros at 22.30. We then have to catch the bus from the port at Paroikia to the small port of Pounda and from there the last little car ferry over to Antiparos - simple!
Manchester Airport is rammed - even Speedy boarding doesn't seem to moving very fast. The queues are long but we look forward to checking in with Easyjet using the smartphone app that is being trialled. It works fine but we still had to print out paper tickets for the flight home. More long queues but once we are through passport control we have time for a quick mooch and to make the special purchase of a bottle of the new Blackberry and Elderflower Pimms!
The flight over to Athens was fine. Tiredness was beginning to creep up on us both - Peter slept a little, but I never can on planes or any other form of public transport. Eventually we are flying over Greece and we catch our first sight of the stunning turquoise sea.
We fly over the coast and inland, past a deeply riven quarry cut out of the hillside and over a busy motorway. I can see large expanses of olive groves around town settlements and the haze coming from the land indicates the heat of the midday is in full force.
As we approach Athens Airport the captain announces that there is a little turbulence - nothing too unsettling though. The plane begins to make its rather wobbly descent towards the runway. It looks as though we are going to touch down but before we know it the engine volume increases rapidly and we are taking off again. The captain tells us that he didn't like the look of the landing so he would attempt it again and hopefully the wind will have dropped by the time we've completed the circuit again.
Around we go over a range of mountains and after about 10 or 15 minutes we see the quarry and the motorway again. This time we land without any wobbles.
After exiting the plane we have rather a long walk through the terminal building - as in most cases with an Easyjet flight. At least we've landed more or less on time and we have plenty of time to get over to Piraeus.
[Exit the terminal building at the arrivals level between Exit 4 and Exit 5 (B). Turn right and 20 yards or so down you will see the bus stop. Next to the bus stop you will see a cabin selling tickets - you must purchase your tickets beforehand. It costs 5 Euros each and the X96 to Piraeus runs hourly. (the timetable on the net says every 30 mins but the information at the airport said hourly. The journey is about 50 minutes. http://www.athensairporttaxi.com/en/athens_topiraeus_en.htm ]
The bus was very busy and we ended up standing all the way. It wasn't a particularly comfortable journey as a number of people had left their luggage by the doorway unattended. Everytime the bus swerved around a corner the luggage slid across the floor towards us and pinned us up against the doors which did open periodically when arriving at a destination. An Italian tourist also being swept along by the deluge of luggage told me " Molto difficile". Yes, - molto difficile - but not for the two families (the owners of the luggage) who had sprawled themselves across a number of seats to sleep instead of offering them up to others!
The standing and the constant battle with other people's luggage hadn't stressed me out but the lack of consideration from others had. I had to remind myself that I was now on holiday and had to make a concerted effort to go with the flow!
[If you have a smart phone or other mobile device, it's useful to download a GPS app that doesn't require a wireless connection. I'm a big fan of Evernote which enabled me to download lots of information such as ferry and bus timetables - a premium membership which is really cheap and can be purchased by the month, enables you to access this information offline. One of the other Evernote apps is a utility called Skitch. With this I could see exactly where we were and knew when we had arrived at Piraeus.
When you get off the bus, cross the road and bare left a little - look for the statue of General Karaiskakis, hero of the Greek Revolution of 1821. Behind this you will find a number of ticket offices and cafes and restaurants along with entrances to the ferry terminals]
We make our way to the first ticket office we can see which is a Blue Star Ferries office. There isn't much of a queue and after 10 minutes we are asking for tickets for the 17.30 ferry to Paros. "Not available". I was a bit stunned as the Blue Star Paros is a huge ship and it isn't yet high season. We tell him that we need to be in Antiparos tonight as we have a room booked - hoping he would show sympathy and summon up a miracle! "Absolutely full. I even don't have cancellation for the 21.00 boat." I still couldn't believe that the ferry was full and tell Peter we will go elsewhere and see what we can find.
I didn't expect this at all. The Blue Star Paros is moored right next to us and I can't quite comprehend how a ship this size is fully booked. I haven't yet acclimatised to the searing midday heat and we decide that I will stay with the luggage under the shade of a tree whilst Peter goes to the other ticket agencies to see if there are any cancellations. After about 20 minutes he returns and tells me that the ferries are all booked as it is a Greek national holiday and every Athenian is escaping to the islands today until Tuesday. This is such an oversight on my part after all the years I've been coming to the Greek Islands! One of the travel agencies has told Peter that they have a couple of cancellations for the 21.00 ferry tonight. This means that we will arrive at Paros at 1.00am and from what I knew the ferry to Antiparos only runs until about midnight. However, even if we had to stay on Paros for the night, it would only be an 8 minute ride across in the morning - best to be in Paros than in Piraeus!
Before we commit ourselves we decide to see if there are any cancellations for the Blue Star Paros. Seeing the Blue Star Paros again after so many years is like seeing an old friend. It may sound rather peculiar having such a fond attachment to a ship but it is hard to describe the feeling when you catch sight of a ship that you have travelled on in the past. They come in all shapes and sizes and can be spotted along the same routes year after year. Maybe it's to do with being born in a port myself. There is something really fascinating about sea travel - even observing ships from land fills me with excitement and wonderment - arriving at an island by boat - even more so!
There is a small kiosk right on the ferry terminal by the Blue Star Paros. There is quite a queue and Peter eventually gets the opportunity to ask if there have been any cancellations. None at this moment in time. We go back periodically over the next hour or so and watch lorries, cars and passengers (predominantly Greek) board the boat. I notice a small group of tourists who have been waiting by the entrance to the boat - it becomes clear that they are trying to get seats by speaking to the Blue Star Ferry staff directly - but to no avail.
It's hot and we're tired and hungry and I slowly realise that we don't stand a chance of getting on the Blue Star Paros. We decide to go back to the ticket office and buy the tickets for the Blue Star Ithaki that leaves at 21.00 - this must have been an extra boat as I don't remember seeing this on the timetable. We go back to the office where they had told Peter that they had some cancellations. The same lady now tells us that they only have first class accommodation tickets left - I can't remember the price but they were at least double the cost of the economy tickets. We told her that it was just too expensive for us but we really needed to get to Paros that night. After poking her keyboard a few times she tells us that she had just found a couple of cancellations for economy! I don't blame her for trying!
We buy the tickets at 32.5 Euros each and then contemplate how we are going to spend nearly 5 hours in Piraeus. We are told we can board the ship from 20.00 so that's not as bad. We decide to go and eat in one of the restaurants in the port. We find a table outside and have a meal of stuffed tomatoes for me and chicken souvlaki for Peter. We stretch out the time as long as we can until, over Peter's shoulder I catch sight of the Blue Star Paros moving slowly out of the port. I could have cried!
Peter is keen to explore Piraeus but it is too hot for me - no so for an Egyptian! First of all we find a small office between the ticket agencies where we can leave all of our luggage for the price of 6 euros - well worth the money. We decide to stay around the port, stopping occasionally for a drink in a cafe and use of the free wifi. There are a few teams of young people giving out free samples - we are given samples of Oral B Pro Toothpaste and some odd little snacks called Fonzies. The port is huge. The cafe's and ticket offices are surrounded by a one way system where cars and taxis enter and exit the port. Trying to cross the road when a ferry has just arrived or is about leave is very difficult. Now there is a real lull and the port is very quiet. There is an air conditioned port waiting room where we sit for a while but we are restless and keep moving to different spots around the port hoping the time will pass more quickly. I think we try 3 or 4 different cafes during our wait. It is whilst we are sitting in the last cafe that we see another large Blue Star ferry enter the harbour - without getting out of my seat I can see it is the Blue Star Ithaki. Thank God!
We know there is no rush to get to the ferry but the opportunity to observe some of the frenetic activity that takes place during the loading and unloading of ferries is a greatly appreciated distraction.
As soon as we can we board.
We enter the foot passenger entrance, show our ticket and walk to the side of the car deck where we place our luggage in a storage rack. We take the escalators up to the middle deck and find a table and chairs near the back of the ferry. This gives us excellent views of the action down below.
There appears to be a very intricate system if loading and unloading lorries, cars and boats. As huge juggernauts disembark, a queue of lorries, cars and motorbikes simultaneously enter. Amidst lots of shouting and very animated arm waving, the traffic seems to converge into the same space but at the last minute vehicles glide slowly away - a bit like a juggernaut ballet. I don't know what the capacity is on a ferry this size but the continuous uploading of reversing vehicles seems to continue for over an hour. Peter tells me that one lorry continually enters the ship, offloads its goods, exits the ferry and then returns with another load of cargo several times. All manner of supplies are being distributed out to the islands. Even the foot passengers are carrying ice boxes, goods wrapped up in tight bundles and plastic bags bursting at the seams. The passengers are predominantly Greek - it seems that everyone from Athens is escaping to the islands - a sense of 'school is out'. It really is a fascinating spectacle. I remember when arriving at the port of Symi seeing a family escorting a coffin on board. It gives you a sense of how invaluable the ferry service is to islanders. Someone is towing a large speedboat with a 4 x 4 which seems to have broken down by the harbour wall - a taxi driver seems to be offering assistance along with other passing passengers. We've got our seats and a cup of tea which I seem to savour a lot more knowing that we will be on Paros tonight. We settle down to watch this amazing real life soap opera!
There is a large electronic noticeboard that indicates that around 6 ships will be leaving Piraeus around the same time. Despite the frenetic activity, shouting and frantic arm waving the Blue Star Ithaki leaves at 21.00 exactly. This is a very well rehearsed stage show and I don't for one minute underestimate the skill it takes to manage the logistics of this operation.