Tuesday, September 02, 2008

My Holiday in Greece - Part 1

Sorry for being away and not thinking of writing a small explanative post. I went to Greece for my holidays, to visit my wife's brother and sister who moved there some years ago. This is going to be a long post, so grab your popcorn.

Bulgaria (1)

When you have never been to Bulgaria on your own and you plan to go there with your personal car or at least transit the country, you hear the following things:
  • it is an ugly country
  • it is overrun by car thieves, corrupt cops and enterprising murderers
  • it has no, little or bad roads
  • it is poor like a third world country
. Well, I can tell you it is all pretty much bullshit.

I only transited the country, so I can't tell you I did a lot of sight seeing, and all I knew about Bulgaria is from a few years ago when I went to Balchik and I found it charming and full of lovely people. This time we went with our own car (Maria driving, as I am not really into cars) and I found it a beautiful country at least from the road towards Greece. People always helped me out (to an extent that I would have never expected, but that is for later to discuss) and a lot of them knew English to a reasonable degree (which put me to shame, since I all but forgotten the perfect Bulgarian I spoke when at 8 years of age). The roads are better than those in Romania by a long shot, almost highway material, only not with so many lanes.

Bulgarian road and scenery

My only problem lies with the way towards Greece, where the road was peppered with 40 km/h and 60 km/h speed signs accompanied by hidden police cars waiting for you to snap and go over the legal limit. Unfortunately the Bulgarian cops are crooked and even if I find placing a 5 euro banknote in the passport when they stop me - making both the bill and the speed violation disappear as by magic - a lot easier than all that dancing one normally has to do in Romania ("please officer, my grandmother is dying and I have to get to her before my granddad finishes strangling her"), I still found it annoying, especially since almost all local vehicles were passing by us like we were standing still.

Well, only one encounter like this actually took place, the cops pulled us over and then we did the 5 euro magic trick and, as we were preparing to leave, a moron with his trailer door unlocked passes by us and cracks the left rear-view mirror with the aforementioned door. I am grateful that the mirror did not break, that the metal door only hit the mirror and not the car door or (I might add) a child's head or something like that.

Anyway, we traveled all day through Bulgaria in order not to stop (we still gave credit to the third world country hypothesis above) and I took some pictures of what I think was beautiful: green forests on small mountains, long tunnels and bridges, nice straight perfectly asphalted roads (with 40 km/h speed limits on them!). I am not the world's greatest photographer and I have to sift through all the stupid pictures, but I promise I will update this post with media in a few days.

road and tunnel entry in Bulgaria

The other incident on our way to Greece was in Sofia. Apparently the ring road around the city was under (re)construction and we had to take a detour. The detour was not clearly marked in any way and the only thing the Bulgarian cop that directed the traffic had to say was "follow that car", showing towards one that was just leaving and which had a more enlightened driver in the way of the Bulgarian language. It all went nicely until the said driver decided to pull over for some reason. We followed the small serpentine road, took some guesses on which direction to take later on and quickly got lost. The GPS we had with us had only the most basic maps loaded so when we left the road it knew, we were pretty much in the Wild West.

At this time my wife decided to go through a PM moment and started shouting at me, at the GPS and blame everything on me. In this kind of emotional state trying to use logical reasoning only works to enforce the idea that I am not empathetic to her feelings and only opaque to the obvious truth that everything that ever went wrong is my fault. The GPS was of no use, the map showed very clearly that we were dangling on the vertical line of the letter F in Sofia and we were going nowhere. Since getting angry would not help, making her more angry would make her more expressive by use of car throttle and breaks and since I didn't want to die I agreed that it was all my fault, lack of preparedness, a lot of laziness and that I was very sorry for it. Then I tried directing the conversation towards a solution.

I mean, how bad could it be? We were next to the darn capital of the country, where could we get lost? At a moment where the panic was going bubbly bubbly on the seat next to me, I got to read a sign that pretty much placed us on the map of Bulgaria we brought with us and this time not on any of the capital letters on it (capital letters, get it?). So we went on a small road that was parallel to the one we should have been on and (at least in my opinion) were fortunate enough to see raw country, beautiful scenery and not to many cars. Of course, the panic ended only 50-60 km or so after, when we were back on the GPS tracked course, but that was still to come.

The next big hop was when trying to decide what road markers to follow. I looked at the map, noticed that the biggest city after Sofia that we were going towards was Blagoevgrad and decided to look for that name. My wife was nagging me constantly that her sister told her we should always go towards Kulata. I could not find any major city called Kulata on the map, so I was skeptical of the information. But we did find Kulata road signs and we followed them until there were none. Did we pass Kulata? Where the hell was Kulata?? Where the fuck was Blagoevgrad?!?

At one time we noticed a big Sofia sign. My wife said we should take it. I didn't understand, we just came from Sofia, what would be the point? She finally (after some shouting from both our parts) articulated that the road going towards Sofia probably comes from somewhere, and we should go that way, once we reach the road. It made sense, but then why would the road sign say only Sofia? What happened to the damn Blagoevgrad? Or Kulata for that matter.

Turns out she was right. People just didn't put all the markers. Why would they? In Romania that would probably happen very rarely, at least our road markers are top of the line (and I was pretty happy with my country at the time). One marker finally told me Kulata was 82 km on the road, so I looked it on the map approximately 82 km from our location. I found it, written with letters about five times smaller than the letters used to spell Blagoevgrad. It was the border town towards Greece. I found it odd; it was like trying to go to Sibiu but finding only Nadlac signs. (they are Romanian cities, mind you).

Well, we did manage to get out of Bulgaria, pretty much upset by the GPS maps, my own performance, Maria's sensitive nerves and the Bulgarian road markers.

Greece (2)

If Bulgaria started up pretty much like Romania in terms of soil and plants, when getting closer the Greece everything got more and more yellow. The soil turned red or disappeared completely, replaced by sun whited rock or yellow-red sediment compression rock. The plants got more and more Mediterranean until only olive trees remained. Imagine a humid air hot, dry soiled, olive tree infested land and you get Greece. They don't have much in terms of railways, so they have a lot of roads. Good roads, only very sinuous, since they have to go up and down a whole range of mountains.

that red hue is omnipresent in Greece

If Bulgarians forgot some cities on their road markings, the Greeks forget the markings completely. You enter small villages or towns and you have no idea where you are. If you are lucky, you find out when you exit. The curves are rarely secured with metal sheeting and sometimes not marked at all. A person could drive into any number of precipices just by missing a turn. Both me and Maria felt that they used "dangerous curve ahead" markings on easy curves, while on the really dangerous ones they used nothing. And to top it all, their writing is both complex, uselessly complicated and there are hardly any markers written in Roman characters. If there are Roman characters markings, they are 10 meters after the Greek ones. My brother in law explained it by a joke: the Greeks are hard headed and need more fore warning. Anyway, it's not that all Greek roads are this badly directed, it's just that some of them really are. And it is shocking to come from a normal, protected, with proper signs and directions on it, road and getting on portions where the signs are missing or wrong and a problem with the steering would probably send you in a beautiful, albeit short, flight.

I knew a little Greek lettering and tried to understand where we were and where we were heading. The GPS was of real help. But it was not without gain. Just by reading the Greek for Exit (Exodos) ,for example, made me realize that both Exit and Exodus are based on the same word.

Our plan was to get to Thessaloniki, visit the city, sleep somewhere, then continue on our way. We got to the city, left the car on a street, asked the people there for the name of the street and how to get to the "White Tower", a construction Maria had heard about that was worth visiting, we were directed there, and started visiting Tessaloniki. Alas, the directions were idiotic, we turned out walking aimlessly through the city, tired, nervous and hot (there were about 35C in the shade at that time).

The city itself was really beautiful. And when I say beautiful, I don't say it lightly. I usually hate sight seeing, I care nothing for buildings and I am interested in the local cuisine more than the local ancient art. But this one was a very balanced mélange of beautiful things. It boasted a great deal of hotels and nice houses and shops, mingled with ruins from the old citadel (which almost no one bothered to mark in any way) having mountains on one side and the sea on the other. Other people that visited Thessaloniki told me they found it crowded with people and didn't enjoy it so much. Maybe it was a good time of the year, but when we visited it, the only people we saw were sitting in outdoor cafés.

A great deal of photos came out of it, but after a while we realized we did not know how to get to the car. I knew where the car was, obviously, and so did Maria. The problem was that our views differed substantially. Tired and in the beginnings of another PM moment, we decided to ask a cabbie where the street where we left the car was. "Do you know English?", the typical Greek answer was "No". On a hunch I asked him if he knew Romanian and turns out he knew more of it than English, since he was married with a Moldavian girl. If you are Romanian, you probably would get a few kicks from seeing a Greek mispronounce Romanian words that he learned with a heavy Moldavian accent anyway. But we got to the car.

a square in Thessaloniki
the White Tower, by the seaside in Thessaloniki
more Thessaloniki, normal homes on both sides, beautiful flowers in the middle and ancient ruin a bit higher
typical Thessaloniki street

The next step was to find somewhere to sleep. We asked in a hotel nearby; they charged 60 euros per night without breakfast. We thought the price might be lower in a motel on the highway. You see, Romania is in the middle of an economic boom. People have and find new business opportunities every day. On the Romanian highways you find a lot of motels, hotels, places to rest, drink or sleep. No, the Greeks had some places to eat and some highway parking places where you could stop the car and fall asleep in it, nothing else. We searched for somewhere to sleep for so long that we got to the point where I was wondering if Maria would fall asleep on the wheel or not.

At one particular bad moment we reached the conclusion to leave the highway and (instead of driving another 40km to Lamia) stop in a place called Sourpi. We immediately found the Greeks gathered around three or more taverns, enjoying their social lives in the relative cool of the night. And just as fast we learned that they have no place for someone to sleep in the whole town! Again, coming with a Romanian mindset I expected some of the Greek people there to offer a place to sleep in exchange for a nominal fee. I was surprised to see that the thought didn’t even cross their tanned little heads. They directed us, though, to a town nearby where they should have had hotels or something like that. The directions sounded like follows: “go 4 km and you will find a biiiig blue sign that says the name of the town (which I immediately forgot, of course)”. After 20 km of pitch black country roads we haven’t found any blue sign. We managed to find a gas station and ask where we could find a place to sleep. They directed us to another town, which boasted two hotels. Enough said, when we found one of the hotels, no one answered the door!

Maria got angry immediately and we went back to Sourpi (in the process finding the biiig blue sign as a little blue tree branch covered tin foil), back to the highway, stopped in a parking and slept there for a few minutes, until we realized that sleeping with the windows closed doesn’t work and keeping the engine running just to have air conditioning wasn’t really cool and also that we care not for mosquitoes. Maria fearlessly drove on. Fortunately her metabolism allows for great surges of energy from just minutes of sleep.

So this is how we got from Bucharest to Sparti in southern Greece in 27 hours, with some visiting, lost and found ways, and some awkward sleeping. (we got some real sleep just before Sparti, fortunately).

See you in the next part, where I explain the horror of driving in small mountain Greek towns, the way they like stony beaches instead of sandy ones and how they live out of tourism, but do nothing to help it out. Also, about the incredible Greek learning system, which pretty much sucks.


cornel said...

welcome back

Anonymous said...

Sourpi was my biggest NIGHTMARE while travelling in Greece by bicycle. Corrupt policemen. I almost got killed. I was set-up by the policemen in charge who said I could stay in this "House" for the night. It turned out to be a flop house for illegal Bulgarians. I escaped by the skin of my teeth!!