Greek train travel to Kalambaka: order out of chaos

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.

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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!

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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.

Athens - Kalabaka

Athens - Kalabaka

Athens - Kalabaka

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.

Athens - Kalabaka

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.

7 days in Greece

Well, a week in to this adventure and where do we find ourselves? Back in Athens and ready to roll on to Delfi. I awoke this morning to the buzz and beep of traffic, we are staying in a studio sandwiched between Ormonia Square and Exharia, not the prettiest of places in Athens. But rather interesting, revealing a different side of the city away from the Plaka and tourist shops, here in the belly of the city lies a diverse set of characters, immigrants, travellers, and rough street hustlers jostle for space. On Tuesday night we were kept awake by some sarky street ‘ladies’ plying their trade and shouting at passers by in stuttering Greek until 4am. Many of the areas scruffiest streets are a mix of once beautiful neo-classical mansions, now seemingly abandoned and left to decay, but many have balconies adorned with flowers like an oasis amidst 70s apartment blocks adorned with angry anarchist slogans and families living side by side. All of urban Athens as a melting pot, a diverse side of the city displaying all its grit and complexity. We ate at a great Cretan restaurant last night in Exahria ‘Oxo Nou’ – lively and great food, a pleasant reward after a days work.

Athens - Kalabaka

Since arriving, its been a journey of many parts making the week seem much longer, having hopped from place to place. The first 3 days were spent in the Plaka area of Athens, revisiting some bars and tavernas we enjoyed on our first visit a few winters ago. I took an early morning walk up to Anafiotika, one of my favourite areas of the city – built by the islanders of Anafi. Its whitewashed streets perfectly peaceful in the early sun and nothing but a few cats to greet me as I climbed towards the Acropolis.

Athens - Kalabaka

After a few days in Athens we headed on the ‘most chaotic train trip ever’ to Kalambaka in Thessaly, to visit the monasteries in Meteora. We hiked upwards to the strange rock formations, wandered through spring meadows and forests – gazing upon the most beautiful views across the flat plains of farms and snow peaked mountains to the north. I used the time wisely and tackled a fear of dogs and heights!

Athens - Kalabaka

We leave for Delfi this afternoon a three-hour adventure on the Ktel bus service. I feel alive and my eyes are open.

Holding on to the holiday feeling

It doesn’t matter how long to escape your everyday for, it seems just a matter of hours back and you will soon find yourself feeling as if you’ve never been away. I often wonder how long its possible to retain the holiday feeling. Not just the tanned glow, but both its physical and emotional manifestations in ones mood and outlook.

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Skin is soft and buttery, hair blonder, smoother from kinder water and fresh air. I have to confess to avoiding that first post holiday shower -fearing not just the tan washing away – turns out is just the sandy coloured dust making you glow – but the feeling wasjhing away too. Anything to hold on to that holiday buzz. Not checking work email, just sliding along with sand in between your toes, thinking about a glass of wine at sundown rather than how long the pile of washing will take to sort, hoping the garden has survived a drought spell and wondering what is left in the fridge. Life is fast, it rushes by and sometimes a holiday is exactly we need to remind ourselves what matters.

I do think its something we can all benefit from;  slowing down, taking stock, living in the moment, looking outside ourselves away from screens and cities.  I’m making a promise to myself – the sand has washed away and the freckles fading – I might be standing on a packed commuter train in golden Autumn sunshine but in my heart and mind I’m standing in the sand looking out to the Aegean sea.

 

If anyone knows another secret to keeping the holiday going do let me know, it will certainly help get through the winter months ahead!

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