Time for a quick review of our journey through Greece…
We travelled the majority of distance in Greece by modern, comfortable and quick coaches. I say the majority, since the bus that took us over the border from Xanthi to Istanbul was none of the above. Still, that’ll teach me to book a bus connection with a company called “Crazy Holidays.”
Our two week itinerary from Bari to Xanthi emitted 96 kgCO2. That’s slightly less than our first two weeks through Italy, although to be fair we travelled less distance in Greece, since I’ve included the journey across France in Italy’s total.
Surprisingly, our travel through Greece only emitted 7% more carbon per kilometre traveled than our travel through Italy (and France). I’d expected our buses and ferries in Greece to be much less efficient than Italy’s trains, but according to the UK government data, coaches are actually more carbon-efficient than typical national rail trains. I’m unsure how accurately these UK-based efficiencies extend to Italy and Greece, but it’s certainly good enough to alleviate the guilt of travelling by petrol-powered vehicles.
It wasn’t a problem at all in Greece to stick to our daily budget as we found it excellent value for money. Even though we ate out more regularly than in Italy, we spent less money overall, and Sara is dreaming of a world where she can get a carafe of half-decent wine for €3.50 in every restaurant! Despite including the cost of our travel to Italy (across France) in the Italy column, the proportion of our expenditure across transport, food and accommodation remained similar for both countries. We’re interested to see how this will pan out in other parts of the world.
Towards the end of our journey across Greece, we started to notice these panels and barrels on the roof of almost every building. They turned out to be solar water heaters, and according to wikipedia, they typically work by heating a “working fluid” using the sun’s rays, and circulating this fluid through a tank of water. If only the UK got enough sun to make these worthwhile!
Although we didn’t buy a single plastic bottle of water from any shops in Greece, we did end up with one on our table with pretty much every restaurant meal. Hopefully the restaurants had better access to recycling facilities than we did!
We saw a grand total of 257 cats during our time in Greece, completely blowing Italy’s total of 27 out of the water. Sara’s noticed that just counting cats per country might not be the fairest comparison, given that we’ll spend different amounts of time in different countries. For this reason, we’re going to introduce a new metric of cats per day. Greece still comes out on top, with 19.8 cats per day, compared to Italy’s 1.8 cats per day. Spoiler alert: Turkey is going to be wild.
It would be wrong not to mention how welcome we felt just about everywhere in Greece. Hotels were friendly, Airbnb hosts seemed genuinely glad to have us to stay, and restaurants appeared to open their doors during most waking hours. On top of that, the quality of food and drink (barrel wine, I’m looking at you) that can be purchased for very affordable prices made Greece a highly enjoyable place to spend time.
While we had a lovely time on Thasos, visiting one island was hardly the island-hopping adventure of our travel dreams. Clearly another trip to Greece is on the cards, but we’ll definitely need more time and we’ll also ideally avoid peak season next time.
Our final stop on our northern Greek adventure was Xanthi, a town halfway between Thessaloniki and the Turkish border. We’d read that this was an interesting melting pot of Greek, Turkish and Pomak culture, and indeed we started to notice more eastern elements in the architecture and food, as well as people in Islamic dress and most exciting of all, we could hear the evocative call to prayer from our apartment. It’s been a while!
This trip is really bringing home the fact that international borders are artificial constructs and that communities are normally better understood in terms of the region in which they sit. In this case, the region of Thrace sits across southern Bulgaria, north-eastern Greece and north-western Turkey, and the shift between what we associate with Greek and Turkish culture is happening gradually as we move across the region. We really liked Xanthi for this – and it definitely felt much further from home than anywhere we had visited so far, in the best possible way.
On a smaller (but more personally important) scale, we noticed the transition from Italian stovetop Moka pots to a Greek/Turkish coffee maker in our apartment. Oli surprised me at the beginning of the trip by announcing that he already knew how to make Italian-style coffee (despite not being much of a coffee drinker – perks of his multi-cultural PhD lab), thus immediately earning himself the privilege of making me coffee every morning. I wasn’t about to let this new tradition slip, so he dutifully watched an extremely long YouTube video to learn the Turkish method. Early attempts were not promising – he exploded the first batch all over the kitchen (he even got a bit inside the fridge) and then spilled the second batch all over him, the floor, the bed, the sofa and the balcony doors. Turns out he has an impressive coffee-hurling range.
Xanthi delivered on food, and we had our first experience of being given menus entirely written in the Greek alphabet. We were delighted – this is normally a good sign that the area is relatively un-touristed and also gave us a good laugh because Google Translate delivered its most hilarious and surely inaccurate translation yet.
On our second afternoon, we were undecided about what to eat when we saw an enormous queue stretching down the street. After checking that it was indeed for a food joint, we joined the queue and were presented with a whole roast chicken, potatoes and rice – it sounds simple but it looked and smelt incredible. We knew that to do it justice we needed the privacy (and cutlery) that our apartment could provide. It didn’t disappoint!
We also tried karioka, a local speciality sweet. This was a flat, round disc of chocolate and walnut fudge, dipped in more chocolate. We had high hopes so bought two to share; we enjoyed the first accompanied by coffee while sitting on our balcony, and the second we inadvertently left in the fridge after checking out of our apartment (most unlike me; quite like Oli). It was so good that we actually ran back to retrieve it when we realised! It made for a great bus snack.
We had hoped to visit Thermes – a tiny village 40km to the north of Xanthi that has thermal springs. Our research suggested that there was almost no infrastructure surrounding the springs so it wouldn’t have been a luxury experience (check this out in the only photo I found online!), but we were intrigued all the same. Unfortunately, the only way to reach it by public transport was by taking advantage of the reverse journey of a school bus that departed Xanthi at 5.15am and would then bring children from these small Pomak communities into Xanthi for school. Unsurprisingly, the bus wasn’t running during the school holidays, but we weren’t too sad to have an excuse to skip the early start. Perhaps we should have hired a car instead, but we’re still trying to find the right balance between cost, carbon and fun.
In any case, we liked Xanthi and were happy to spend some time exploring the old town, which was full of grand Ottoman merchant residences in various states of repair. Some were beautifully restored but others were in need of a little love.
We also wandered along the river, where we felt the first hints of autumn in the air and saw our 250th Greek cat! Seeing as it was so popular last time (ok, ok, we had a couple of texts), here’s another Where’s Wally? style challenge. Can you spot her?
Our time in Xanthi felt like the perfect farewell to Greece and we’re very excited to be travelling further east. Next stop: Istanbul!
We arrived on Thasos in the Northeastern Agean islands on 28 August (my birthday!) and took a bus to our Airbnb in Limenas, a town on the north coast. To celebrate (my birthday, not our arrival), we booked a table at Karnagio Beach Bar, and washed down the sunset views with a cocktail.
Despite the strength of the cocktails, we still managed a sunrise swim the next day. The beach was completely empty, and it was as if the waves hadn’t even woken up yet. Honestly, I’ve never seen a calmer sea in my life.
Being up this early also meant that we got to see some lovely glimpses of local life, like this lady picking figs from a tree on the seafront using an extremely long pole.
I went off to pick up some breakfast after the swim, and spent so long trying to find the coffee in the local supermarket (there was a secret upstairs), that I completely forgot to buy any yoghurt – the one thing Sara had requested for breakfast. I confessed to Sara when I arrived back, while she inspected the milk I’d just bought with a confused look her face. The plot twist was that the milk turned out to be yoghurt after all (it was all in Greek), and I was off the hook. Sara claims that this perfectly sums up what what it’s like to be married to me in a single anecdote.
With the relaxing part of our trip to Thasos over, we embarked on two excursions around the island over the following two days. Crucially, both trips would be completed without a car, which made the whole experience a little trickier than it might otherwise have been.
Excursion 1: Day trip to Alyki
Alyki is a tiny village on the south-east coast of Thasos, about 31 km from Limenas, or 1.5 hours (!) by bus. The bus journey passed without much remark, including sailing past Alyki without even a peep from the driver. It took a panicked shout from Sara to send me to the front of the bus to check with the driver. He let us off straight away, and we began the hot uphill road walk back to Alyki. I’m not sure how it’s possible to walk uphill to a beach, but we seemed to manage it. The atmosphere was tense and no photos were taken.
Sandwiched between two beaches, Alyki would have been the perfect place to relax. But we were on a mission, and after a necessary snack break, we set off to explore the peninsula beyond. This peninsular was interesting not just because it contained the ruins of an ancient basilica, but also for its disused marble quarry, which was in use as early as the 7th century BC! We’d shortly learn that Thasos sat on a huge amount of marble, which is why the rock everywhere is so white. The views weren’t bad either.
Finally, some relaxation was on the cards, and we spent the rest of the afternoon on the beach. We set up shop in a quiet spot on the rocks at the end of the beach, and enjoyed swimming in the beautifully clear water, turned turquoise when the sun caught the white marble beneath the surface.
At least, this would have been relaxing had there been more than one bus back to Limenas that afternoon. But you have to play the hand you’re dealt, so we started worrying about missing the bus a good few hours before it was due to depart, and were waiting at the bus stop no less than 30 minutes ahead of schedule. The 30 minutes came and went, and no bus arrived. Sara hassled the drivers of every likely-looking vehicle in a 500m radius, just in case they were the public bus back Limenas. A mere 20 minutes late, and 50 minutes after we took up position in the full afternoon sunshine, the bus arrived and took us back home. To be honest, the bus home was the first time we actually relaxed the whole day.
Excursion 2: Hike to Marble Beach
Buoyed by the previous day’s success, I planned a second excursion to Marble Beach, which just so happens to lie at the bottom of a working quarry. The beach formed as a result of the dust produced from the marble extraction, and is now popular for its white sand and pebble beach.
Our route started with the 7.30am bus to Panagia, the island’s oldest town, set just inland and in the moutains. We enjoyed exploring the whitewashed town in the morning light, just as its residents started to emerge.
Our hike then began with an uphill road walk up to the Church Of St Panteleminos, where we left the main road and followed graffiti signs (scrawled on huge slabs of marble, of course) along an increasingly steep and dusty road down through the working quarry towards the coast.
While most of the passing traffic were happy beach goers, the odd marble truck would trundle past leaving a cloud of dust in its wake. Although the views were absolutely epic, this was a little sketchier than I’d anticipated, and we definitely should have accepted the offer of a lift from a kind passing driver.
The quarry and hairpin turns finally gave way to Porto Vathy, better known as Marble Beach. Here, the majority of the beach was covered with perfectly white pebbles, with a small amount of slightly more golden sand on its fringes. Somehow, we managed to secure a spot in a (briefly) private sandy cove, before cooling off in the sea.
Despite the huge amount of noise generated by the quarry, we couldn’t hear a thing once we’d got to the beach. However, the crane, which I’m guessing was used to load ships in the past, was still a very visual reminder of the quarry.
Without wanting the retrace our steps and the 364m of elevation through the quarry, we’d planned to walk back to Limenas along the coast route. All I knew at this point was that Google hadn’t street viewed it, and our guide book discouraged driving this road to reach Marble Beach. Sadly, many people hadn’t read our guide book, so we had to share the dirt track with the odd vehicle that again kicked up a pile of dust. Still, it was very pleasant (and relatively flat) in the gaps between cars.
We took a short detour from the dust road via an even smaller track, which thankfully wasn’t used at all by pretty much anything. This route took us past an old watch tower whose height was now dwarfed by the trees in front of it, and a colourful line of (what we guessed were) bee hives. Sara rejected my offer of 5 Euros to open the lid of one of them, so we’ll never know for sure.
To give you an idea of quite how dusty the passing cars were (and, by extension, how dusty we were too) – some entrepreneur had opened up a car wash where the track eventually met the tarmac again. We seriously considered using it too.
At length, we arrived back in Limenas after covering a total of 13.5 km on foot, and immediately fell into a convenient Souvlaki joint. We ordered 1 litre of water and 1 litre of beer as soon as we could attract the server’s attention. He didn’t seem particularly surprised at this request, though our appearance might have offered some explanation. We then proceeded to demolish the feast we’d ordered out of pure hunger-greed, and spent the rest of the afternoon sleeping off our full bellies with our quest for adventure satisfied.
In summary, although Thasos is possible to explore without a car, it’s certainly not easy. I’d hoped that staying in the island’s largest town would mean that public transport would make up for our lack of private vehicle, but almost by definition, the buses made it pretty hard to get off the beaten track. We’d considered hiring bicycles until we’d actually laid eyes on the island, and 5 minutes into our first bus ride it became pretty clear that cycling was certainly not for the faint hearted.