Days 89-97: Greece… The End of the Trip

Transporting through Epirus – Gjirokaster to Ioaninna – Friday 25 June

Very funny last night with Lushi and Violetta over dinner of whole roasted lamb and several side dishes washed down with red wine from ‘my friend’ [who else!] Not sure of the alcohol content of the brew, but it had us laughing at each other’s jokes whether we could understand them or not.

Our goodbye breakfast was far more sober, as again we realised our time was up, and what would be the chance of us meeting again? Violetta had been up since 4am preparing pita breads so she was certainly tired and emotional as she hugged us tightly. There was still a final laugh though as we checked Lushi’s rear car tyre to see if it was still inflated after pumping it up late the previous night. “Is this the first time it has happened Lushi? I inquired. “No, non first time…second, third, very time… I check very day, garage, is good!”

Left at 6am, and the border customs crossing happily quicker than last time we went from Albania to Greece where we queued for 3 hours. Made it Ioaninna by 10am and lugged our bags towards where we thought the centre of town was. Lucky again as we picked it right as we came up against the old castle wall I spotted a basic hotel with a triple room for 40E per night. Dropped gear and headed through wall gate to the brilliant Byzantine Museum, tomb of Ali Pasha [famous leader of the region during Ottoman period], renovated 400 year old mosque, and display of silver-smithed objects for which the town has been renowned for down the centuries . Very impressive displays and restoration of buildings, for just a few euro entry. All feeling quite fatigued from the midday heat, late night and early start – the kids returned to hotel room while I lay on the grass in the shade of a big tree by the nearby lake and slept like a baby!

In the afternoon I walked to try to find the tourist office and bike hire; it was decidedly difficult as I discovered the place is not geared up for ‘foreign’ tourists despite its popularity and population of 120,000 people. It’s a lovely place though with heaps of young people and a positive, friendly ‘vibe’; 10% of the inhabitants are university students.

Happened to talk with the ‘knocking off work’ Council CEO as I stood checking out the bike user stand outside the council office. “Sorry. The bicycles cannot be used now. It is Friday 1pm and the office is closed for the necessary swipe cards. And you cannot use them over the weekend for the same reason’ . He was a nice inquisitive and helpful bloke, but they need a better bikeshare system arrangement than that.

One tourist activity that has good infrastructure is catching a small boat to Ioaninna Island in the middle of the substantial lake. Restaurants and souvenir shop touts await, all sounding a little desperate, but we made it through them and strolled a lap watching fisherman and trying to walk on our toes without appearing like we’d been late for the toilet. [Walking on your ‘toes’ is better for you than landing on your heels all the time.]

Tea of takeaway souvlaki while ‘easy’ listening to a band by the lake doing covers of rock standards of 80s and 90s with a few Greek numbers thrown in. It seemed to be an awareness/fundraising concert for some local organisation?

As I hit the sack I noted that we had bussed, walked and boated through the ancient region of Epirus.

Heavy Metal or ‘Farnsey’? – Ioaninna – Saturday 26 June

Promised the kids a bit of a sleep-in so I walked out early to the bus station to check times for Athens and potential stopovers at swimming locations en route, and discovered we would have to go down the west coast to find an easily accessible beach town. Walking back I dropped into the supermarket for some breakfast muesli – amazing how you can miss muesli so much after a fortnight.

Maggie had risen and was keen for a walk – so it was off through morning shopping foot and vehicle traffic to a car hire place, as an option to get to Athens and see the area around Ioaninna. No cars available, so back to the bus station to buy tickets. Having clocked up some kms we certainly deserved our big late lunch…and siesta following.

Our trio meandered off later to the City Art Gallery but it was closed when according to our understanding of the Greek noticeboard it should have been open? Still it gave Jordy a chance to buy runners from a nearby shop, which he was very happy with.

Time for evening entertainment! It was a choice between the 3rd Annual Antifa grunge/metal Festival where we would be the only people without black t-shirts; or a male and female duo with a guitar we’d seen advertised on a heap of posters about town? The former hadn’t really kicked into gear, but the sound checks we listened to revealed a noise we may not have enjoyed for too long. So it was the alternative, and a steep walk up to the quaint outdoor Hellenic theatre on a hillside overlooking the town and lake. The audience was rolling up in number, from teens to ‘my vintage’. Turns out it wasn’t a ‘husband and wife combo with balailaika’ – it was two blokes , old rocker with a band ensemble… sort of Neil Finn – Paul Kelly types combining for a national tour! Halfway through we decided it was more Neil Finn – John Farnham as ‘Your’re the Voice’ in Greek had the crowd go wild. One of the artists had recorded it in the mid 1990s and had a huge national hit. Sensational , and boy do the Greeks like a clap-along. Sated after an hour and a half, we absconded early for big sleep prior to our early bus trip on the morrow…singing ‘Farnesy’ all the way home.

On Ya Bike– Ioaninna to Messolonghi – Sunday 28 June

After a picturesque 3 hour bus ride from the interior of north-western Greece, we disembarked by the side of the highway with the driver’s pointed hand indicating the way to Messolonghi. [The only disruption to Jordy’s sleep en route was at one pick-up stop when a young woman complained he was in her seat – she can’t’ have been on the bus before as all seat allocation had been ignored from outset.]

It was a lovely warm morning so a dead-flat 2km walk down the main road into town wasn’t onerous. Just inside the old castle wall we found a hotel, but they wouldn’t budge from their 60E room price, so Maggie and I decided to scout around. An hour later we had passed up another option and settled on a 35E, seen-better-days ‘Hotel Agapi’, spacious triple room with an obliging host. It had the requisite internet, hot shower and comfortable bed. After settling in, we even got walked to his mate’s [nothing- to- write- homepage- internet-entry- about] souvlaki joint! While we munched away, the old hotelier rounded up two bikes for us, lent us his own beaten-up treddlie, and we were off out the 5km causeway to Tourlida beach and healing mud baths en route. It was great to be back on the bike after a month. [And there were plenty of others of all ages doing the same – it is the common mode of transport around the flat roads and town.] We napped like cats on the beach ‘boardwalk’ and had a solid swim in the flat Ionian Sea along with a hundred or so sun-worshippers and schoolkids. The black mud baths on the way back were a laugh – fortunately several middle-aged aficionados were there to show us ‘the go’…step out through the thigh deep estuarine water with ankles sinking into not totally foul-smelling black mud, then smear some all over and…wait. I had read the very salty water and mud was good for something, but certainly not for those with thyroid/iodine issues [?]. Not being able to recall the specific health benefits, Maggie and I decided it must have been a weight-loss or anti-ageing treatment based on those around us!

Set for a decent meal, we dined at a fish restaurant, where Maggie and I went for the local eel specialty. Ok, but if it got number one spot on trip advisor…? As we walked home the crowds of people at the ATMs had grown, so thought we’d better get cash out. Alas the funds I’d transferred over the internet had not come through, so I suggested Jordy and Maggie get some out…

No luck. Nothing. The ATMs were dry! Nobody was getting money from any bank in town! And they weren’t happy. But if you’ve been withdrawing your lives’ savings at one billion a day for a week, it is unsurprising the supply had dried up. At the hotel I checked out the internet news; the government had declared banks to close for a week, with ATM withdrawals limited to 60E, except maybe for tourists? It’s a worry, and I emailed the Australian Consul in Athens to say if anyone was looking for us, we were stranded in a nondescript little town without cash to pay our accommodation debts or leave!

“We are good people” – Messolonghi – Monday 29 June

Maggie completed her Melbourne Uni, Semester 2 enrolment procedures online in the middle of the night. Between that, mosquitos, money and mugginess it wasn’t a good night’s sleep for any of us. My mind was working overtime on the ATM fiasco; supposedly tourists will not be capped with ATM withdrawals, but what if we are?

Fortunately the government was true to its guarantee, and immediately after breakfast Maggie was able to withdraw cash to pay for our hotel and ticket to Athens. Bit of a relief as our host would not have taken a credit card! [Ssssh – this was black market accommodation; no ID needed, no receipt given. Say no more.]

The free entry, small, Municipal Musuem of Messolonghi has been attended to by the same man for 26 years! [I wanted to go, just to say ‘well done mate’!] Checked out the specific gallery room dedicated to Lord Byron and his involvement in the 1823 battle for independence from the Ottomans. Byron ended up dying in the town after contracting malaria [hardly reassuring given our night with the mossies!], though he probably would have died in battle anyway – a poet in charge of artillery! It’s a great story to read up on, even if you are only vaguely interested. We didn’t get a guided tour, as it would have been handy to translate the Greek captions – but the curator was busy with 2 busloads of native tourists rocked up while we were there. Maggie and I were struck by one painting that depicted a woman about to stab herself rather than be captured by the Ottomans, having already killed the child on her knee. Gruesome and poignant…and topical given one of the EuroCreditor Heads, when commenting on the likelihood of payment default tomorrow and the proposed referendum this weekend, said… ‘Greeks should not commit suicide while waiting to die’!

Back to collect Jordy from his sleep-in, and hire a third bike as one of our freebies from the previous day had reverted to its owner. Just down the road a bike shop offered a secondhand ladies machine for the afternoon, for the grand total of 4E. First stop the ‘Garden of Heroes’ just inside the old city walls. It is a well kept area of statues, busts, memorials and the odd tomb depicting the famous figures of the Independence Wars, prime ministers and poets from the town. [That history has resulted in Messolonghi’s designation as the ‘Sacred Town of Heroes’]. Next, the small port area where ‘flag-meister’ Jordy identified the only ship at berth as registered in Togo Africa! Another sedate cruise out the causeway to Tourlida and we were enjoying our second ocean and bay frolic at the no doubt once grand, but still popular beach venue.

Late afternoon and we were a little weary – but not as much as the bakery lady where we paused for some delicious muesli and nut slice. Without prompting she looked directly at us with her big brown tired eyes and said “we are good people, we are not bad, this…” and trailed off into the despondent and confused thoughts in her head. Returning the bicycle, the colour of the eyes had changed to blue but the tiredness and disillusionment was the same. I handed over 5E, with a weak smile and a slight shrug, and walked away wishing him luck in his business and passion for bicycles.

Supposedly unemployment is 27% and youth unemployment is 60%? Comments and slanging matches on social and mainstream media talk of ‘socialism and capitalism’. ‘If Greeks paid taxes and didn’t want to look flash in the most expensive sunglasses they would be ok’. ‘If bankers had more social responsibility things would be ok’. Who knows? But for the record, I reckon a convoluted question in a referendum hardly gives the most informed or unified result for what the future should hold.

On the Brink – Messolonghi to Athens – Tuesday 30 June

We have certainly relaxed over the last couple of days. Maggie and I had thought of doing an early morning swim before checking out, but soon decided that was too hard and too much to a schedule. Hauling Jordy from bed, we went back down to the Municipal Museum to buy some posters, then moved around to a well-credentialed private art gallery nearby. Alas it was closed when it should have been open, and after ordering an iced coffee at the café opposite, the young university-student barista called the lawyer-owner’s office to discover he was in court and would not open today. So it was more sitting, chatting with the barista, and relaxing until a picnic lunch and bus to Athens.

Arrived about 6.30pm and were in no rush as Ionnis at our airbnb had asked we wait until a 9pm arrival as previous customers wanted to stay until they headed for their flight at 7.30pm. No problem. Suburban bussed into central Omonia Square, had the mandatory coffee-freddo, and then realised bussing out to the suburbs again would be extremely difficult. People were flocking down the city streets towards parliament to stage a protest for a ‘Yes’ vote to stay in Europe, as a counter-show to the ‘No’ crowd who had demonstrated the night before. This was obviously a well-dressed, middle class cohort. In the lightest rain, we hauled our luggage down the centre of police-lined avenues devoid of vehicles and joined the throng, eventually worming our way out the other side. It was a solid, 3-4km walk [me towing a 30kg bag!]…but we all made it at the appointed time to Ionnis’ astonishment.

The best football shirt ever – Athens – Wednesday 1 July

The kids missed visiting the 1896 Olympic Stadium last time, so I pressed them into it; as well as taking a foreground photo of my smelly, worn out ‘Donald-Firth-hand-me-down runners’ which I will abandon in Athens! They obliged, and with the best-ever audio-guide found the experience exceedingly interesting. The tight oval shaped track and theatre is open at one end, built of stunning white marble, and houses in a museum underneath, posters and torches from almost all the modern Olympics. [Anyone got a Melbourne one for them?]

With public transport free we luxuriated in taking a bus for a couple of stops and one stop on the Metro, to the famous, shopping bazaar of Monastriaki where Jordy was on his usual hunt for soccer shirts. He got lucky with a George Samaras Greek jersey, and I bought Billy a wonderful surprise ‘strip’. [I won’t spoil it with further info Billy!]

There are a few street ‘salesmen and women’ around Athens, but not a patch on the numbers here three years ago. Either the authorities have cleaned them out, or local traders have used a bit of muscle? But it’s quite hard to buy an umbrella/selfie-stick/pair of sunglasses/iphone 6 cover, even if you wanted one! And the number of beggars has declined [scaringly?] – I reckon we only saw one, maybe two for the afternoon. Funny how something can be noticeable by its absence.

Back to the apartment for late lunch/early dinner of Maggie’s stir-fried rice, and a rest before heading out to the 9.30pm performance of the Dora Stratou Dance Theatre. But more about that tomorrow, as when we arrived to buy a ticket, we found it had been cancelled because of afternoon rain and a slippery ‘deck’. And it was too late to go to the nearby open-air ‘Cine Paris’ which was showing the English film-comedy ‘Trip to Italy’ starring Rob Bryden and Steve Coonan. All the way back home again – what a bother.

“Couldn’t sell a dollar for a dollar” – Athens – Thursday 2 July

Looked forward to the day, and it did not disappoint. The reasons for staying in Athens for a couple of days were to visit two sights we missed last time – the Benaki Musuem and the Dora Stratou Dance Theatre – and ‘revisit’ a favourite sight, our Greek-Australian friend from university days, Matina.

Chatted about our families and lives over 9am coffee at the Museum, and then drifted through the astounding private collection of paintings and objects from ancient to modern times, with my main interest given our time in Messolonghi, being in the section of 1800’s independence era material. Maggie’s friends Rosie and Mattias caught up with us, and [naughty] Matina purchased some poster gifts from the shop. [We will be forever in debt for the use of her family holiday house on the island of Leros on our last trip.]

Time for a souvlaki lunch, some pre-packing, and last minute essential souvenir shopping [cd’s of our rock legends from Ioaninna!] Then dinner. I did a bit of online research and found two places near the Acropolis and en route to the Dance Theatre which seemed promising – one even advertising ‘happy hour’ so we went there first. “Tell me about Happy Hour” I invited. “Well a bottle of wine is only 10Euro” the tout replies. “Is that a two-litre bottle!” I respond. “No, 750ml”. “What about your house wine?” “That is our house wine sir!”

We moved to the second option where we met Stavros. “How much is your wine?” “Sir, come this way, where are you from, you will try our wine from our own vineyards on the Peloponnese. Only 6Euro for half litre.” “Australia – so that would be 10Euro for one litre?!” “My friend, 12 Euro, or I will be in jail and you will have to come some time and bring me cigarettes.” “Give up smoking and I will visit you in jail every day my friend.”

And that’s how the five of us came to have the most delicious, multi-course ‘last Greek meal’ for 12Euro/head with one litre of wine free! “Because Australians are my favourite customers – they experiment, they know good food and they come back.” Stavros is the Man, and Liondi is the Place. [Even if he complained about his tout not being able ‘to sell a dollar for a dollar’!]

If that was good, the traditional Greek dancing was even better. [Maybe because Jordy enjoyed it greatly and sometimes he can be ‘underwhelmed’ by cultural events!] The dance school has been running for 62 years, retaining and fostering the traditional music, dancing and costumes through nightly summer performances. Apart from the old Greek ladies behind us who distractingly talked and sang along through the 90 minute performance, it was riveting. We all agreed that the Thrace [northern Greece] womens’ costumes were beautiful and the warlike dancing from the Black Sea most distinctive. The concert happened to coincide with an International Conference on Dance Research, and delegates were present. How would you like to spend a day at that gathering?

Though almost midnight we managed to catch a crowded bus home, and then the only disappointment of the day unfolded… though technically it was the next day. In checking emails I noted newly appointed, Adelaide Crows coach Phil Walsh has been murdered by his son in a domestic drama. I spent 5 years of secondary school with Phil who was one year below me [his sister Bernadette in my year] – played footy with and against him, and was on a school welfare committee that helped old folks in Hamilton: visiting them in Hospital, mowed their grass, or just chatted over Sunday morning cups of tea. By coincidence, only the day before, I had mentioned my old Phil Walsh ‘associations’ to Jordy as he went through the AFL matchups for the weekend. And a day later…unbelievable. I can tell you, he was a good kid, and I wish his family and friends well.

Cycled Across Borders – Athens to Melbourne – Friday 3 July

Waved Jordy, and Maggie, off at the departures terminal for their trip to Paris while I wait a few hours for my flight home. Ionnis did a great job getting us to the airport on time; the early morning trip providing the kids in the back with another hour’s sleep, while the men in the front discussed economics and travel. On resolving the former we achieved little, but on the latter Ionnis resolved to visit Australia funded by his successful airbnb rentals, and I resolved, on the basis of his experiences, not to visit Bulgaria in the near future. [He paid a significant amount of euros to police for ‘fines’ that seemed to be randomly imposed!]

So that’s it. The project of taking our three children on a demanding, learning, bicycle-journey as they enter adulthood post-secondary school is completed: Rotterdam to Rome, Ankara to Athens, and Lisbon to Ljubliana. It’s been fascinating and fun; always keeping in mind that relatively few people get the opportunities we have, and the humanitarian work of Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders is for many people the only opportunity they have to survive in life. Consider your fortune and give generously.

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