Greek Isles and the journey to Vienna

Back to Sept 15-Sept 21: Rome and Athens

Wednesday, September 22nd, 1999

I woke up with a hangover. I took a cold shower. I didn't feel well, but we didn't want to spend another night on Ios, so we checked out, and got a ride to the port to catch the one o'clock ferry to Mykonos, a larger island nearby.

That ferry had been cancelled, so we bought tickets for the next one available: Six p.m. We checked our luggage at the port and had a long, slow breakfast on the water. I still felt terrible. We took a bus back to the city center. We consulted a travel agent on our options for getting to Lesvos or flying from Athens to Vienna. We didn't want to take the long, expensive ferry back to Brindisi just to travel back up the boot of Italy, but no one seemed to be able to answer our questions.

We checked our email, and I made a collect call to the fine folks at Janus Financial Corporation to re-invigorate my checking account. I highly recommend the Janus Financial Corporation for all of your investment needs. I found it amusing that I was cashing in my "Olympus" fund on a Greek island.

Eric wrote and said he was doing well in Prague, and heading next to Munich. He was concerned about finding German housing during Octoberfest.

We stopped for a rest at the town center and made friends with a backpack-lugging English guy named Richard. He was killing time waiting for his friend to start work, and we were waiting for our boat, so we ended up just sitting there for about 3 hours. His friend had two jobs, one of which was as a hotel-sign waiving dockworker known locally as a "Kamaki". He told us about the latest hotmail-security breach, and gave us some options on getting back to London cheaply. He also told us about his miserable experience on board the Sirous Express ferry lines. His friend had vigorously warned against this one ferry-line because of its slow and tiny old ships, but due to a mix-up, he had ended up on one of theirs.

We looked at our own tickets.

Sirous Express

The pride of the Sirous Express was a dinky little bucket. It was so small that we had to leave our luggage in the hold with the cargo. It was slow; scheduled to reach Mykonos at 10:30pm. For the first time I was concerned about being sea-sick, given my weakened constitution. The passengers were in a small cabin, and the non-smoking section was a single couch (full). Tara quickly joined the people curled up on the floor. I tried to keep my eyes on the horizon.

Someone was smoking the nastiest fucking cigarettes in there. I am surprised no one (especially Tara and I) told him/her to go outside. We made derisive comments.

It was a little past one in the morning when we landed at Mykonos, and this time we were happy to see the kamakis waiting for us at the dock. We had heard that Mykonos was the most expensive island, so we weren't shocked when the cheapest double room was 6000 Dr. (US$20) per night. We almost randomly decided on one, and jumped into her car with our stuff.

She confirmed to us that Greek tourism was off significantly since the earthquake...although she didn't know the English word for earthquake.

This place was the finest hotel yet: Marble floors, Hot shower, television, towel, little soaps, ocean view, kitchenette with propane stove and refrigerator. She showed us the price sheet on the door, this room rented for 21,000 Dr. (US$70) in a non-quake summer. I felt a little sorry for her, but just for the few minutes before I fell asleep.

Thursday, September 23rd, 1999

I wanted coffee. We got ready and walked into town after the bus flew by us. The town was clean and bright, with tourists all over the place, on average a bit older than on Ios. We ordered some coffee. The coffees were $3 each. We thought we might be in trouble on Mykonos. We wound through white buildings and narrow passageways. We passed a few neat windmills.

After cruising through town for a bit, we took a bus back to our hotel and got ready for the beach. I didn't bring my wallet or camera to the beach this time. The beach was covered with lounge chairs and big beach umbrellas. There were a few people on the beach, most from the nearby hotels, a few were topless. The Aegean Sea had only the tiniest waves coming to shore, like Lake Tahoe. There was no seaweed. This was a really nice beach, but the sand was a bit pebbly. We sat on the beach and I swam a little.

At around 6 we headed home. I watched TV and Tara took a nap. The three channels broadcasting in English faded in and out. There was an interview with a Greek politician where he described how the poor relationship between Greece and Turkey had been strengthened by their recent consecutive earthquakes. Each country had sent rescue workers and aid to the other in turn.

We had pesto rotelli, got dressed up, and headed out at around 11 to find a club. We found some decent nightlife at the Down Under Bar and the Scandinavian bar, and $5 beers at one oceanside saloon.

I carefully monitored my beer intake.

The busses stopped running at one. We left town at 3, stopping to ask some painters how often they painted the grout between the pavers (every fifteen days).

The hike home was long and uphill, but damn we had a great hotel room!

Friday, September 24th, 1999

On Friday we left Mykonos, bound for Athens. I suggest staying more than one or two days on each island, but we were in a rush to squeeze the most out of what remained of our European trip.

We got crepes and baklava for the ferry ride, and booked passage on a big, clean ship in the Agapitos Lines. There was plenty of room in the no smoking section. There was, however, a crying baby, a barking dog, and scores of cell-phone calls. When the ship was in port, food vendors would walk though the isles, yelling in Greek about what kind of sandwiches they had. Everyone was trying to sleep, but they didn't give a damn. I kept waiting for the noisemaker salesman to come through. Tara suggested that we separate, with me selling whistles and her selling earplugs. I thought that was a great idea.

Tara conceded that it was going to take at least three days to get to Lesvos and back, and we crossed it off our itinerary.

When we arrived in Athens, a few people had hotels for us, but we thought we could get our old place back at Aphrodite. When we called, however, the rooms were more expensive ($10 instead of $6), so we gathered some flyers from people around the Port Metro station. We stayed at the Larrazo hostel.

Larrazo was a homey little place, where you get a free "welcome" shot of Ouzo (licorice liqueur) when you arrive. I finally got to use my light-bulb-to-outlet converter (bought in Morocco) to charge my laptop in the room.

We stopped to upload files and check email before heading to dinner. Ever since London, I had been asking cafés if I could FTP from their terminals. I was usually met with a blank stare, but this time the I-Café owner said "yes", smiled, and asked me if I could help him with a problem on one of the computers when I was done. I said "Sure".

I didn't get to test myself however, as he was unable to reproduce his dysfunction. He gave us a discount anyway. He was very friendly.

We got back to the infamous vegetarian place in record time, but they were closing their doors. It was four minutes past midnight. The look on Tara's face told them they she was desperate, so they offered us some food to-go. We ordered moussaka and dolmas and ate them on a nearby streetcorner with some wine.

In the morning we were leaving Greece, one way or the other.

Saturday, September 25th, 1999

We wanted to go to Vienna next. There were a few reasons we didn't want to go back through Italy: The first was that the ferry connections to Brindisi were poorly timed, and we anticipated a lot of sitting around on the trip back. Second, the ferry ride was $40 each. Third, we had already been through Italy, and neither of us cared to return just yet. We were dreading it.

We had been asking people for the last few days if we could travel through Yugoslavia. We asked at the international information window in Athens and found the answer was no, but that it was possible to travel AROUND it, through Eastern Europe. Our Eurail passes wouldn't work in the east, but we were both running out of rail-days, and we figured the tickets would be affordable.

We took a big risk, and headed north to Thessaloniki, Greece. We didn't have a good map of Europe, but we knew we would go through the cities of Sofia, Bucharest and Budapest on the way to Vienna. I wasn't even sure what countries those cities were in.

The north of Greece was very beautiful. There were mountains and streams, and the train passed right by the ocean on a few occasions.

When we got to Thessaloniki six hours later, we asked to buy a ticket to Vienna, or one in that direction. The woman at the international ticket window told us that we should have gone through Italy, it was not possible to go north. She said that we could go to Sofia, but that we would be turned back at the Romanian border.

We pressed the question and she replied with the words that would echo through our minds for the next three days, "All I know is, many Americans come back".

This was a low point on the trip for us. We had already traveled one day in the wrong direction, and we had 2 hours to figure it all out. Unfortunately, it was Saturday night, so the American Embassy was closed. We hiked to an all-night travel agent near the port, and asked there. No info. This was a question that we didn't have the resources to answer in Greece on a Saturday night. We couldn't find Internet access. We bought a fat phone card and called the US. Tara called the International Student Identity Card (ISIC) people, asked them, and they transferred her to an embassy in the States. Unfortunately, it was the English embassy. They didn't have the answer, they transferred her to the Romanian Embassy, but they were closed. We figured we would need a visa, but thought we might be able to buy one at the border. I called my roommate Leif: Answering machine. Tara called the State Department in the U.S., but it was closed. I called my travel agency: Patterson Travel in the states. It was the most interesting call she had ever had, but she seemed to have a database on it; "according to the information I have, that should be no problem". Her info was current as of Sept 13, 1999

Although this was about the weakest phrasing I could conceive of, it was the answer I wanted to hear, so we put our backpacks on and headed north.

The first ticket was to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. We got a pair of beds on this nice old train. There were the usual "Don't throw bottles out the window" signs, but they were in five languages. Russian, yes, English, no. The conductor looked at our eurail passes with a quizzed look on his face. We were using them to get to the border of Greece and Bulgaria. He didn't mark a day on them. This was good.

I slept poorly. At one a.m., we hit the Greek border, and it took an hour to get the passport exit stamp. Then, on the Bulgarian side, it was another 45 minutes for the entry stamp.

Sunday, September 26th, 1999

In the morning we were travelling through Bulgaria, on the way to Sofia. It looked like 1945 in Bulgaria. There was a man with a bear outside the window. There were a large number of houses and buildings with collapsed roofs and walls. We passed a giant bellowing smokestack, and I got my camera out in time to catch the shorter nuclear cooling towers beside it. There were haystacks like you see in the cartoons, and tied bundles of corn plants like you see in Thanksgiving decorations.

We got to Sofia and walked to the International ticket window. We had two local men anxiously trying to help us. I gave them the Morocco treatment, Tara shoved the skinny one away, saying "No! Go away!"

It was 262 Bulgarian things for both of us to get all the way through Romania and to Budapest, in Hungary. The last train was leaving in 10 minutes. We had no idea how much that was, so we went to a moneychanger and asked. At first he said it was $1,700 US, then recalculated and got $150. We asked for a ticket without beds, it was 219 Bulgarian things. We ran to an ATM and I withdrew 220. We bought the tickets, and ran to the train.

We made it onto the train, bound hopefully for Budapest. We still didn't know if we would be turned back at the Romanian border, and I had just spent some unknown amount of money to get there. At least we had tickets that took us all the way through Romania. We understood that if we were just passing through, the border patrol might forgo a visa requirement.

We met the wilderness quickly, and it was beautiful wilderness. We went through a mountain pass on the first part of the trip, with a little winding river. It had a look like the Grand Canyon, colorful etched rocks and super-high cliffs. I wished we could stop for a day here, but we were on the first hour of a 27-hour trip. We passed the day almost alone in the dining car, not sure if we were going to make it. The dining car was much more plush than our seats, but they weren't serving food. We stayed there for hours, and at around 7pm the moment of truth came.

We passed out of Bulgaria, across a big river, and into the border town of Giurgiu. The passport police boarded the train, and Tara and I put our playing cards down and pulled out the passports. It was a very tense moment: If they refused us entry, we would have to backtrack several thousand miles through Bulgaria, Greece, and Italy to get around to Austria. It would waste four days and more than a hundred dollars each. We had taken a big risk, and it all came down to what this big Romanian guy did when he saw our passports.

Maybe we could hire a hot-air balloon.

He took them both, turned around and sat down at the next table. He asked if we were travelling through, or stopping to visit Romania. We said we were travelling through and he gave us each a little slip with the train number and the date on it. We were to give it to the passport police at the exit. There was no charge. He wiped his forehead with a paper napkin and threw it out our window.

We made it! I was overjoyed at our success. Our risky exodus had paid off. Now we just had to spend the night on the train, and we would wake up in the friendly country of Hungary.

The kitchen at the end of the dining car came alive a bit, and Tara asked what they had. They had plates of meat and omelets. We had some simple omelets to celebrate our Eastern Europe victory: $2 each. They took American cash.

Romania was wooded at first, then we passed through an enormous swamp as night fell. It was pleasantly mysterious. We retired to our cabin, where we laid across the seats. There was no one else in there, and we liked it just fine. After a bit a Romanian conductor came and inspected our tickets. He said that our seat reservations had only been paid for up until the Bulgarian border, and that we now owed him 222 somethings each. We showed him the tickets again, and he pointed out the small orange card on top, showing "Bucharest". He insisted we pay for reservation of the next leg, which he hastily calculated to be $20 American. This didn't seem right to us, but I was determined to stay on this train, so I pulled out my wallet. I had Greek Drachmas, so with my calculation help, I gave him almost $40 worth (half for Tara). He marked some blue cards and left us. Tara and I were both sitting upright now, giving each other that "Did we just get ripped off?" look. The more we went over it, the fishier it seemed. It was late now, and I tried to forget about it and go to bed.

We bungee-corded the door shut to keep gypsy kids from getting in our room. There were gypsy kids at every stop, begging for food from inside and outside of the train, throwing rocks and tormenting the people on the platforms.

Around midnight, I woke up and walked through the car. There were not many people on board, but one white guy with a backpack was sitting up, so I barged into his compartment. He was an Aussie guy, also named Rob. We talked about the questionable conductor. He charged Rob $10 American. Rob paid it because he had seen the same conductor beating some gypsy kids on the head. He had spent 3 weeks in Bulgaria, and he highly recommended a return trip.

Rob informed me that we were now in Transylvania, and he was preparing to get off the train. It was midnight. There was a full moon. Rob was certainly going to die, but I wasn't sure if it would be by vampire or by werewolf. I offered to give him the holy bottle-opener from Vatican City, but he refused, saying I had to "protect the girl", and "get the word out about that crooked conductor". Rob was a cool guy.

Monday, September 27th, 1999

We had a hard night's rest on the train. It was cold. When we reached the Hungarian border, a conductor confirmed our fears about the false charges.

A different breed of vampire, I thought.

We got stamped out of Romania by one of the dozens of border officials on the train. Police with ladders removed the ceiling panels and checked inside for stowaways.

Finally we arrived at Budapest, Hungary. It looked like good old Western Europe to me. We were starving. I withdrew US$18 in Hungarian Forints, which turned out to be plenty. We had a few hours before the train to Vienna left, so we used the cheap Internet access and ate pizza. My little pizza was $2, beers were 80 cents, and a liter of apricot nectar was 60 cents. I was in a great mood!

We were going to see my sister's friend Christy in Vienna, and hit her up for a place to stay, but I didn't have an email from her, and I suddenly realized I didn't even have her phone number.

The conductor gave a long look at Tara's railpass. "There are rules", he said, with a menacing look.

Tara and I got into a short argument about how I handled the rip-off conductor.

When we arrived, we stowed our bags and found Internet access. I was waiting for something from Christy.

We found a big circus tent with organ music and disco lights. It was an Internet beirgarten. They allowed 20 minutes free access with every drink you purchased. I could handle that. We checked mail again, and stayed to watch the performing fakir eat fire.

We made it to a hostel as night fell and showered the first time since Athens. The shower was hot, but it had a very annoying feature: The water flow was controlled by a large pushbutton that you had to keep depressed, tying up the use of one hand. I had used sinks with this horrible system, but was surprised to find it had made its way into other appliances.

I went to bed.

Tuesday, September 28th, 1999

There was now some question as to whether I was going to make contact with Christy at all. We had a great early breakfast at the hostel and checked out. Tara and I agreed to wait until 4pm to hear from Christy, and then to find another place to sleep. The hostel had a spot to stow our luggage.

We walked through a little street market and into a thrift store. I bought a shirt. Tara did too. We didn't have a guide-book, and didn't feel like investing in one, so we mostly just walked around on our own. It felt great to walk around after spending the last 2 whole days on the train. I checked email again around 3 and we started calling hostels. We found one and checked in.

Vienna has a rich history of music. Yep. It sure does.

We ate at an ultra-clean vegetarian fast food joint called Bio-K. Tara was very impressed with the taste. We wandered into the town center and found the tourist attractions. Large buildings that I can't identify, but I got great pictures of. One had a fantastic fountain, another had 2 chariots-with-horses statues on top. There was much more gold on these statues and buildings than in the rest of Europe. They were great. They also had a few striking gothic cathedrals, although I don't know what they were called.

We stopped in at the hostel and found a flier for a blues band playing at a nearby place called The Tunnel. We went there. The band hadn't started to play yet, so we ate some more food and got a beer. The only tables left in the place were in the non-smoking section. The non-smoking section was completely enclosed in glass, with a glass door. I felt like I was in the Bio-Dome, but at least there was no smoke. At nine, we paid a small cover charge and went downstairs. The band was actually just one guy. He was actually playing folk music. He wasn't bad, but Tara and I were disappointed because we were expecting something else.

Sept 29-Oct 5: Prague, Berlin and San Francisco. | Index of Weeks

Back to main Cockeyed Eric Tara Last updated March 11, 2000.

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