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Journey from Ithaca to Athens via Lefkada

Ithaca to Athens - 13 Mar 15

Journey from Ithaca to Athens via Lefkada (13 March 2015)

Although I’ve alluded to our journey, this past Friday, from Ithaca to Athens via Lefkada, I’ve wanted to write a post about the combined car-ferry journey.

We originally booked a ferry to Kyllini (see below map) for the same morning, leaving at 7 a.m. versus the ferry we actually caught to Vasiliki (Lefkada) at 9 a.m. But less than 48 hours before departure, when Mufidah walked into her haircut appointment in Vathy and the conversation inevitably turned to our leaving Ithaca on Friday morning via the ferry to Kyllini, we were thrown one of those travel challenges that seem somewhat par for the course.

Ithaca to Kyllini

Ithaca to Kyllini via Kefalonia

Fortunately, the hairdresser had heard that, because of an operational issue with the ferry company, that particular ferry to Kyllini was not running for three or four weeks. And this would, of course, be the case irrespective of our pre-booked and confirmed passage. Had Mufidah not had this haircut booked with a woman who’s aware of the various ferry situations, we almost certainly would have arrived at Piso Aetos, the Ithaca port we’d be leaving from, at about 6.30 a.m. only to find that there was no ferry there, and no one to explain why.

Instead, Helen told Mufidah to forget about her hair appointment, that she could return in an hour, and to run, now, to the travel agent right down the street to try to get booked on the alternative ferry to Vasiliki, on the island of Lefkada (see first map, above).

We’d done the same ferry journey in reverse as we made our way to Ithaca in early October, driving from Bulgaria into northern Greece, spending one night in Thessaloniki (with a CouchSurfing host), another in Ioannina (in our car), before making what turned out to be perhaps the most remarkable drive south, through the mountains and rustic villages, from Ioannina early the following morning to Lefkada and, specifically, to Vasiliki to catch the ferry to Ithaca via Kefalonia.

Anyway, while Helen’s sense of urgency was hugely appreciated, it turned out there hadn’t been a run on the alternative ferry, and we were able to quickly buy tickets for us and the Punto, and walk down the street to Karamela Café for a cappuccino before Mufidah’s revised haircut appointment.

But you can see if you look at the above two maps that Kyllini is, by far, the more direct route to get from Ithaca to Athens. That said, we enjoyed ferrying back to Lefkada, and ended up sitting with Dionysus, a local Ithacan fisherman whom Mufidah and I had talked with several times while he was mending his nets in Vathy, or about to go to sea with his father. But we’re always amazed at how long this journey is between Ithaca and Lefkada via a stop, too, in Kefalonia. All three islands are within easy view of the others; but it seems to take so long to ferry between them. Far from complaining, we were reveling in the opportunity to just relax and to see the island we’d just spent five and a half months on drift slowly past, and to be able to look at it so much more knowingly than when our ferry had steamed between Ithaca and Kefalonia back in October.

And there’s that wonderful feeling of knowing you’re on the road again, packed and prepared, with all back at the house we’d been caring for in good order, and with a new adventure looming ahead.

Lighthouse, Castle of Santa Maura, Lefkada, Greece

Lighthouse, Castle of Santa Maura, Lefkada, Greece © 2015 Sean M. Madden

That said, we didn’t like to say goodbye to the cat friends we’d made back on Ithaca.

Sara, the dog, had a couple of days earlier gone to stay with a friend that she visits on an ongoing basis, so we’d already said goodbye to her. But we had to put the cats out Friday morning, as asked of us ahead of time, and leave them behind prior to their folk’s return to Ithaca. They’d be cared for in between by a couple of our hosts’ friends, but we felt terrible leaving the cats in the pouring rain and their perhaps thinking we’d abandoned them.

We don’t like this dynamic. Infinitely better that the home/pet owners return prior to our departure, as we’d assumed throughout our stay would be the case, so that the transition is easier on the pet folk. At least a few of the six cats were of the sort who’d spend their days on our laps, or follow us when we’d go outside to eat a meal in the sunshine, or to meander around the property with us. And while they have a place they can go to in the basement to get out of the rain, it was heartbreaking to leave them in the way we were asked to, without their knowing when, or if, we’d ever return. But our hosts wanted various bits of maintenance work to be done to their house between our departure and their arrival back on Ithaca.

Ithaca Cats

Left to right: Freddy, Sylvie and Spassy © 2015 Sean M. Madden, Mufidah Kassalias

While we, of course, miss them all, we particularly miss dear little Sylvie, a simultaneous great love and terror on four feet, and who came of age during the time we cared for her; Spassy, whom we dubbed Special Spass as she was the only one who was to be fed tuna while the others had to eat cat food that they didn’t particularly like; and Freddy, a gorgeous big black and white cat who would talk to us when we’d call his name. Brrrrow, Freddy. And he’d return, Brrrrow, and look at us lovingly, start treading in place, or walk across the room to plop in our lap.

We’d largely packed the car the day before, which was good given the bucketing down rain. And I’d cleaned and otherwise prepared the car for our journey from Ithaca to Athens, but, too, to southern Italy, to the north along the Italian Riviera, to the French Riviera, and then north through France back to England.

And, again, it felt good to be back on the road, with everything in order. There’s something incredibly precious about that feeling of having essentially everything you own with you. It’s like that feeling of going camping or backpacking and having everything you need with you. The start of a new adventure, with things unknown ahead. We both get this feeling when we climb into the Punto, that it’s like coming home and sitting in front of the hearth. It’s carried us so beautifully along from one place to another during our nearly three years of slow travel thus far — about 18,000 miles by the time we return to the UK this time around — all the while affording us so much freedom to explore places in and around wherever we travel to.

We’d deliberately crossed from Ithaca to Lefkada with half a tank of petrol, knowing it would be significantly cheaper once we were back on the mainland. Although we didn’t plan on stopping for fuel in Lefkada, we spotted a station that was selling gas for about 15 cents cheaper per liter (the Punto has a 47-liter tank) than on Ithaca, and we made the decision to fill up the tank right then and there, and not have to worry about petrol until we left Athens a week later.

Good decision, as it was the cheapest price we’d see all the way to Athens. Of course, we only saved about €3.45, but we like to be frugal and not throw money away.

Just as we were about to leave Lefkada, we noticed this incredible castle on our left. We drove past it, but started wondering whether we should take the time to go check it out. The photograph of the lighthouse, above, was taken there, built into one of the corners of the fortified wall surrounding the Castle of Saint Maura. We turned around, parked the car, and were, as so often is the case, the only folk there, with the exception of two women sharing a small, cold office within the castle grounds, one of the women huddled up to an electric radiator, rubbing her hands to stay warm. We thought it must be a rather strange place to work, amidst lonely ruins, at least off-season.

But we were happy to have decided to stop there, and to spend about 45 minutes exploring the empty buildings, the impossibly thick castle walls surrounded by either the sea or a salt-water moat. In England or the U.S., the place would have been covered with signs, warnings, with fenced or roped off bits, or simply closed off to the public. Here, there was nothing of the sort. Just ruins, including strange, empty buildings and a church, all of which were seriously dilapidated, with the formerly grand ceiling of at least one of the buildings forming stalactites from water dripping overhead for so long.

We walked into the church, lit five beeswax candles as a way to bring some life into the place, looked at old icons, and just wondered about this strange place which had lived through massive regime changes over the course of its seven-plus centuries. But while it apparently is a tourist destination, there’s little sign of this being the case.

Anyway, we climbed back into the Punto and continued on our journey to the mainland we’d not touched for nearly half a year, and drove through yet more beautiful parts of Greece. Snow-covered mountain peaks, huge red-earth plateaus, groves of olive and citrus trees, rustic farmhouses, outbuildings, salt marshes, rivers and streams, and road works that went on for what seemed 90-percent of our journey, where obviously a new motorway is being laid down, running smack through the middle of what were once living, breathing communities, villages and farms.

But we loved the drive, in spite of the road works, and were pleased to have had the opportunity to drive along the older country road before the motorway project is completed, at which point folk will be far more removed from the details of their surroundings and the way of life that had to go to make room for yet another EU-funded scarring of the earth.

We pulled off the road somewhere along the way, I have no idea in what village, and made fresh mozzarella sandwiches with roasted red pepper, and sat in the car eating them, watching an old Greek woman with headscarf slowly make her way back and forth to the petrol station across the street with a plastic container of some sort.

Rio-Antirrio Bridge, Greece

Rio-Antirrio Bridge, Greece © 2015 Mufidah Kassalias

We continued south towards the Rio-Antirrio bridge, which crosses the Gulf of Corinth just northeast of Patras, connecting up mainland Greece with the Peloponnese peninsula. This provides a shortcut to Athens by way of another bridge that spans the Corinth Canal back to mainland Greece. You can see some amazing images of the canal here.

By this point in our nearly twelve-hour door-to-door journey from Ithaca to Athens — including eight hours driving and stops along the way, plus the morning ferry journey from Ithaca to Lefkada via Kefalonia — it was beginning to get dark, and it had been raining quite hard for some time, minimizing visibility along various stretches of road.

Then it got very dark, and began to rain even harder as we drove along the coast and through mountain tunnels towards Athens. Our windshield wipers were at full-speed, and we switched on our rear fog lights, as did some Greek drivers. But we also saw a car driving alongside us with no lights on whatsoever. We tried to let the driver know, but to no avail.

Finally we entered into the outskirts of Athens, about 10 kms from our destination, and traffic eventually slowed to being stop-and-go until we were in Athens proper, and there was the usual jockeying for position to try to get into the right- or left-hand turn lanes all the while masses of other cars, bikes, taxis and buses did the same.

We’ve just a short while ago returned from another day walking around Athens, and at one point I remarked to Mufidah, as we were standing at a crosswalk, that it’s truly amazing how the overwhelming majority of vehicles of various sorts somehow manage to scream through the city and actually reach their destination without an accident.

I quite like a good driving challenge, and have had my share over the course of my life, in cities all over Europe and the U.S. But for the faint of heart, public transport might be the better option. Even a travel guide I was reading the other day advised would-be scooter and moped drivers to forgo renting a bike in Athens. For sure, it’s no place for newbie riders to putt around. Or, before you go for it, spend some time standing at a busy intersection, watch how fast and aggressively the locals whiz by and see what you’re getting yourself into before signing a rental agreement. And keep in mind that there’s a good chance they’ve been soaking up the Athenian rules of the road on various sorts of motorbikes since they were old enough to sit in front of one parent or sandwiched between them both, bombing down the road as 2- or 3-year-olds.

So you can see, from the start, that most of us are at a distinct disadvantage.

In this regard, I suspect Naples and Rome will be a similar story. We’ll find out soon enough. First thing Friday morning we’ll be driving back to Patras to catch that previously mentioned 16.5-hour ferry to Brindisi, and then driving south to Puglia, just at the tip of the heel of the boot of Italy. Four days later we’ll be driving to Castellammare di Stabia, between Naples and the Amalfi Coast, to spend the night on a sailboat. Then Naples for a day, followed by Rome. Or that’s the plan.

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