Monday, 10 May 2010

Ash clouds and strikes

(The market of Dikili)

Travelling used to be an adventure: when you wanted to go to Greece, you journeyed by train through Yougoslavia to Athens, or through Italy where you took the ferry boat to Greece. In the sixties and seventies only a few tourists went by plane. But the years are long gone when island hopping by boat was so popular.
When you come to Schiphol, the airport of Amsterdam, you will see charter flights to the Greek islands are too many to count on two hands. Most tourists do not know much more about the route they take than that a plane brings them directly to the spot where they want to spend their holiday.

So when something goes wrong, it is hell. The volcano on Iceland was proof of how dependent we now are on airplanes. When they cannot fly not only does the tourist business lose enormous sums of money, but the general economy too. We even forget to use our imagination, as proved by the Dutch fashion designer who panicked because when the ash clouds appeared over Europe and he couldn’t get his collection out of Milano by plane he forgot that the North of Italy is quite easily reached by car or train. The same for a Dutch journalist working in Istanbul who claimed he was ‘stuck’ in Holland. Had he never heard about the Orient Express? Even though the famous luxury train that used to go all the way from Paris to Istanbul no longer exists as such trains still pass overland to Turkey.

I got stuck too, in my own house here in Greece. I had to go to Amsterdam to attend to some business but the sky was dark with the cloud of ash from Iceland’s volcano. I was glad that the business could wait, otherwise I would have taken the car and boat route, still a way of getting off the island and quite normal for people who don’t like flying. It took a week for the planes to resume flights to Amsterdam so I could get to my business.

Coming back was not so easy either. The days I wanted to travel were the same that lots of Dutch people decided to take a spring holiday and all flights to Lesvos and Athens were booked out. A few days later I found an inexpensive flight by charter which reckoned would get me home in three and a half hours.

It didn’t quite happen that way, not because the volcano’s clouds obscured the route. No, it was angry Greeks that interfered with my homecoming. Although the government is doing everything it can to save the country, the population itself prefers to believe it’s a conspiracy by America and certain parts of Europe to take over Greece. So they are on strike.
When on Tuesday morning I arrived at the airport very very early I was not happy at all to be told that our flight to Mytilini would not happen because of a strike by air traffic controllers, so instead we would be flown to Izmir in Turkey. We landed at a spacious and beautiful airport where our travel agent directed us to buses, that would bring us to Dikili, a small port town opposite Lesvos.

It was quite startling to be driven over the highways around Izmir, the third largest Turkish city, which used to be known as Smyrna, and where so many Greeks used to live. These days the surrounding hills are stacked with huge apartment blocks, a typical phenomenon of modern Turkey. Only after Izmir does the landscape become more ‘natural’, so I could see the country described by the great Turkish writer Yasar Kemal (Memed, my Hawk, Anatolian tales). The closer we got to Dikili the greener the hills, mountains and plains became.

There we had several hours to spend at the local market and to taste a little Turkish life. Then two whole plane loads of people going to Lesvos were crammed on to a small ferry chartered to take us across to Mytilini. The sea was smooth, taking on the colours of the sunset, there were dolphins wishing us a good journey and we reached our destination as evening fell.
If I would have known the kind of journey that awaited me I would have taken more lightweight clothes and probably wouldn’t have been so tired, because it was in fact a beautiful trip. I already knew that smart Greeks (especially from Thessalokini), travel by car trough Turkey in order to take the ferry from Ayvalik or Dikili. It’s a far less expensive way to go than by the big Greek ferries from Piraeus or Thessaloniki. And plane tickets from Holland to Izmir are also far less expensive than to Lesvos. You just have to organize your travel from Izmir to Dikili or Ayvalik — but be sure you pick a day the ferry is running (in winter they are less regular than in summer).

Real travel takes time, but when you are prepared, even the beginning of the journey is part of the vacation. I was a bit worn out but I really enjoyed this unexpected diversion along the coast of Turkey. So I recommend it as a more adventurous mode of travel; so when a volcano decides to spew up its guts it may not be such a disaster. If I were a businesswoman I would certainly think of resurrecting the Orient Express. Believe me, in these uncertain times ‘old fashioned’ travel by train, bus or boat is going to be big business, mark my words.

(with thanks to Tony Barrell)

@ Smitaki 2010

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