When my husband and I embarked on our trip around the world in 2009, one of our goals for the European leg of our trip was to get from Ireland to Istanbul without taking an airplane. Some countries made achieving this goal easier than others.
Greece was not one of them. Admittedly, we were traveling in the off-season. However, in some respects, traveling via ferry and train around Greece may always constitute an off season, particularly if you’re headed to places slightly off the beaten path. NB: Most places outside of Athens are “off the beaten path” when it comes to Greek public transport.
Getting to Greece from Italy, however, is easy and enjoyable. Superfast Ferries from Italy to Greece are really great. The boat we took from Bari to Igoumenitsa was like a nice cruise ship. (If you have a Eurail pass valid in both Italy and Greece, this passage is free. With our Eurail pass, my husband and I got a discount for booking a private cabin which I strongly recommend if you are over 20 and undertaking this route.)
Our cabin allowed us to sleep peacefully in blissful quiet, versus trying to grab some shut-eye amidst the cacophony made by drunk, card-playing Russian sailors in the ferry’s public area. As a result, we were able to arrive in Greece somewhat rested. Having our wits about us on arrival was important since getting the ferry to Corfu from Igoumenitsa at dawn was none too easy, and involved a long walk to a separate ferry terminal amidst speeding semi-trucks on a ferry loading dock, a short yet intensely scary chase by feral dogs, and a complete lack of signage about which rust bucket local ferry was going where.
With peeling sheets of rust, an inordinate amount of grinding noises, and an unwholesome amount of smoke coming from the motor, many of the smaller ferries operating within Greece appear to be of questionable seaworthiness. Many of the ferries operating between islands or to/from the mainland also smell like over-used bathrooms and the sanitizer used to cover that aroma, particularly boats plying the route to Patra.
The ferries shuttling passengers around the Greek isles and to the Greek mainland claim to operate on strict seasonal schedules, often outlined in colorful glossy brochures or on semi-official looking flyers. Don’t be fooled. These schedules are ignored 50% of the time as the off-season approaches, and 80% of the time during the actual off-season.
In Greece, the best place to find a current schedule for ferries is by going to a ferry company’s portside office and reading the hours that a well-meaning employee has scratched on a napkin taped to the door. If there is no napkin bearing a revised schedule, merely camp out for hours or days at the ferry port until a ship comes. Get on the ship if it’s even remotely going in your desired direction. It may be the last boat visiting the port you’re at for some time. The crew could be stuck on a Greek train, after all.
Greek trains make the British train system look amazingly efficient. (Remember: the UK is a country where trains are frequently delayed due to “leaves on the rail.”) Greek citizens will nervously ask you, the non-Greek speaking tourist, where and when trains are going. I don’t blame them. There are no destination signs in stations or on trains. Clocks in Greek train stations do not tell time. Most Greek trains will make you miss the ferry bathroom smell, as the train cars seem to reek of a dying or long-since-dead-and-now-quite-rotten old goat.
Even if, after my Cassandra-like warnings about Greek transport, you are as obsessed as we were about taking the train to Istanbul from Greece, first take the train from Athens to Thessaloniki. At Athens Central, a station so small that we wondered if our taxi driver took us to the right place, we encountered a kind, hilarious station agent who had once lived in California. When we told him of our plans to take the train to Istanbul, he asked in all seriousness, “Why take the train when you can fly?”
Aside from the phantom stench of long-dead farm animals that wafted into our first class car, the trip from Athens to Thessaloniki was one of the most beautiful train trips we took in Europe. Thessaloniki also merits a few days’ visit. A magnificent cosmopolitan and cultured port city with a lively cafe and nightlife culture, Thessaloniki was our favorite spot on mainland Greece.
Once you get to Thessaloniki, a day or two in advance in the off-season (much longer if it’s summer), be sure to make your reservations for a sleeper on the overnight train to Turkey at the Thessaloniki station. The Thessaloniki station desk is used to booking this route, so you shouldn’t have any difficulty. (If you have a Eurail pass valid in Greece, there’s only a small supplement for the Turkish portion of the trip.)
Before leaving Thessaloniki, buy things to eat and drink. Dining cars are an uncertain feature. A jolly conductor did cook something in a flimsy hot pot-type contraption full of scalding water and charged people for this, but I don’t think this culinary effort was approved by the rail company. The same man also sold ouzo shots to passengers, but this also may have been a one-time-only entrepreneurial initiative. Before boarding the train, be sure to stock up on lots of water to hydrate and beer or wine to knock yourself out. The raucous late-night celebrations emanating from the ouzo-loving conductors can keep you awake if you don’t have your own alcohol.
Our night train from Thessaloniki to Istanbul seemed to be the exact same SNCF train I took overnight in France in 1989. It also appeared that it hadn’t been cleaned since then. All the signs were still in French, which was a blessing, as I can read French but not Greek. Being able to understand the instructions about operating the emergency brake seemed to be a good idea, in the event a drunk conductor or two fell off the train. (On the bright side, since the hard-partying conductors needed a strong start in the morning, the Greek coffee they made and sold as dawn broke was sublime.)
Should you ultimately decide to undertake the voyage over sea and land, crossing Greece to Istanbul, you will see only other travelers like you, peeping out from their bunks to avoid the smell of their own old socks, living the romance of life on the rails.
You will not see any Greeks or Turks. They are smart enough to fly this route instead.