The journey to Kalabaka to see Meteora by train was a rather unique experience. Even though I’d consider myself an experienced train traveller, I’m a daily South Eastern London commuter and with a few trips across Europe and the US under my belt, I naively thought how hard can this be? Buyng the tickets online was easy enough. Yet all that experience didn’t bear relevance whatsoever when it comes to train travel in Greece. Arriving at Larissa Station in Athens isn’t really how you’d expect the national train station to be. It only has 4 platforms, no working departure or arrival boards, no newsagents or snack bar, no announcements and passengers just take it upon themselves to wander over the tracks to get across. Despite it being very chaotic, there was a strange order at play – a calm very Greek statement of fact about it all. The Station Guards wear stab vests with the word SECURITY emblazoned across. This was both unnerving (who attacks a train man?) and reassuring (obviously a man who’s acting as bouncer knows everything). When such one man sent us across to Platform 4 he clearly wasn’t in the know. This platform did look a little underused with weeds littering cracks in the concrete, another guard shouted us back and said ‘NO, the train to Kalabaka goes from here..maybe’. All the locals were as bemused as the tourists, all united in trepidation as we waited for the same cross-country train. London Kings Cross at rush hour this most certainly wasn’t – but maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much.
Passengers were asking each other and I have a feeling that the most informed man among us was the humble Koulari seller, who seemed to know the timetable from memory and advantageously I I grabbed two Koulari’s (seasame seeded bread rings which are a traditional breakfast snack) for a bargain 1 euro. Once the train arrived looking every bit like a state ran 1980s engine as I’d imagined, the chaos really kicked up a notch. Everyone seemed to pivot towards cramming onto two sets of the 5 carriages – it make no sense we all had mandatory reservation, why was everyone rushing? We had seats in carriage 5, we boarded where we could but there was no signs indicating which carriage this was! Old ladies, bustled through with boxes and bags, every man, woman, child for themselves, shoving elbows to place bags in the shelves and shouting ‘signomi’ ‘parakelo’ through the carriage. Tourists stood aside in a mix of awe and fear clutching tickets. I asked a young teenager which carriage we were stuck in the middle of; he simply smiled, shrugged ‘then xero / not sure, maybe next 2 along?’. We gave up and submitted to this style of travel decorum as the train started to shunt out of Athens, we just sat down where we could and hoped for the best. It wasn’t long until the guard came along and checked everyone’s tickets, this is a very organised aspect, as he holds a manifest of every named passenger on the train- he kindly said our seats were a couple of carriages back but we were fine to stay where we were as they weren’t reserved. Phew!
The journey was beguiling once out of the city of Athens and sailing through the suburbs, a gentler pace sets in as the train trundled through real Greece. A country so different than a sum of it’s cities and tourist resorts, past high mountains and snow covered peaks, flat farmland and grazing plains, places where more tractors graced the roads than cars. All under clear blue springtime skies and golden sunlight, the trees blossoming with pinks and whites as we shunted past – stopping at one horse towns and tiny stations connecting lines through to Thessaloniki and Lamia.
The diversity in the landscape is most surprising; seen as a microcosm of the nation, from high rise new apartments to gypsy encampments under bridges and huge expanses of concrete mixers sidling on half-built highways and infrastructure projects, rows of abandoned factories, old trains and wagons lie rusting in their faded glory next to the tracks. The reality of a post recession Greece and the impact of economic boom and bust, sits side by side the postcard pretty olive groves and sheep farms.
Arriving for a few days hiking in Kalambaka was beautiful – it deserves more pictures than words. Its beauty instilled a peace in my restless mind that I hope will have a long-lasting effect.