Many of you will know about the Schengen Zone and the limitations it places on travellers from countries like Australia, NZ, Japan and the US – Aussies have a free 90 day Visa for every 180 days, meaning when we are travelling in Europe, we can only be inside the Schengen Zone for three months out if every six.
For Alleykat this meant that our stay in Greece (the last country we were to visit in Europe not including Turkey) was using up the very last 14 days of free Visa we had left.
This 14 day limit and the sheer size of Greece translated into meaning we should move a long way, relatively fast.
Our delight and our difficulty, given we ride touring bikes (and live a highly social, footlose and fancy free Alleykat lifestyle) is that we move slowly and our adventures come with many unanticipated stopovers. Not really conducive to speedy, regulated travel.
So after arriving in Thessaloniki (aka Salonika, second largest city and Culture Capitol of Greece) with mere days to make it to the border 550kms away, we decided to cheat a little: stay out our remaining days in the City of Greek Culture and book tickets on our second last day – from Thessaloniki to Peplos, a Greek town 15kms from the Greek/Turkish border.
This cheeky, cheating train trip ended up being a bit of a total and complete mess: in two part harmony. Open your eyes and ears for a piece of musical theatre with a few Christmas misdemeanours and Christmas Miracles.
The first part, the SOPRANO if you will, is a delightful little melody where we bought tickets for a train to leave Thessaloniki on the 22nd at 7:11am (and arrive at a Greek/Turkish border town at 4pm after a brief interchange at Alexandroupolis). The only atonal part of this otherwise melodious little tune was in the form a clause (not Santa) dictated to us by a nice member of the railway staff: *IN FALSETTO* ‘you’re not supposed to take bikes on this train but DON’T DESPAIR FAIR AUSTRALIANS! It depends on the station master, it’s a 50/50 chance you’ll get on’. Being Alleykat we assumed we’d be lucky and hummed along tunefully – deciding to turn up at the recommended boarding time of 6:30am in order to get our bikes successfully on the train.
The harmonic line to the song, a duet shared between two fine Altos and a kind Tenor, was full of dramatic crescendos and punchy staccato. During our stay in Thessaloniki we made wonderful new friends: Xristos (THE TENOR), Maria (FIRST ALTO) and Vicky (SECOND ALTO). We ended up going out with them the night before we were meant to leave. This “night out” escalated in typically brazen new-age-musical style, as nights have a habit of doing in Greece. It included playful meowing, singing to Santa deliriously about Christmas food, shaking our tail feathers to Greek music and somewhere along this musical byline, Alleykat accidentally only arrived ‘home’ at our hotel at 4am.
This would have been totally fine if it weren’t for the 6:30 check-in for the train (and a 6am wake up call to boot). However (although still drunk from the night before due to copious amounts of wine and potent Greek Tsipouro) we gallantly braved the cold (1 degree centigrade) and arrived at the station with considerable dexterity considering the technical difficulty of this piece of music we were attempting to play whist less-than-sober.
We wheeled our bikes and selves into line at the baggage loading area and proceeded to wait out the sedate tunes of the monotonous early morning cue with a few pushy Greek passengers. After waiting for half an hour and asking a few members of the less-than-musical cue whether we were in the right spot, we were well aware that our train was perilously close to leaving leaving us without music to light up our departure.
I went and inquired at the ticket office as to when the baggage area would be opening for the train to Alexandroupolis only to have a harried staffmember tell me in booming BASS, that it was already loaded and preparing to leave. Nooooo!!!! (Cue Queen backing track).
We pranced with our wheels around the other cue members and then dashed upstairs, which is very difficult with loaded touring bikes, only to be rudely greeted by (in terms of our previously difficult-to-tackle-but-definitely-listenable piece) what sounded a toddler smashing a flimsy wooden piano stool on ivory piano keys. Not good, in fact ear-gratingly bad; the train was stuffed full to Japanese Trainline proportions: we witnessed a man as he was pushing his way onto the carriage only to have another dishevelled early morning passenger pop out the other end.
We were rendered momentarily deaf by this sight and once recovered, were almost soundlessly (Greek-to-English sign language) informed that there was no way (José) we were getting on the train despite having tickets with seat allocations. It wouldn’t have mattered if we’d had bikes or not.
We traipsed back down to the ticket office where suddenly our melody had picked up again, only now it was drudgingly tuneless and frustrating because next thing we knew we couldn’t have our tickets refunded and were going to have to return after 11 to talk to someone more senior at the ticket office. So we left the station in semi-darkness armed with the knowledge that the 4:10pm train was going to get us to our middle-of-nowhere Greek/Turkish border town by 11pm. I may or may not have had a little panic attack and a tanti.
Fear not keen listener and reader! Keep your ears pricked for the ensuing miracles (and further maladies). There was an upside to all this: we returned (still slightly sodden with Greek spirits) to the thankfully nearby hotel we’d hurriedly vacated. The elderly gentleman manning the desk whistled a chirpy little tune and kindly allowed us to use our room we’d vacated only an hour before to sleep for an extra few hours and play the waiting game. (Cue SuperMario Music – this link is awesome by the way!)
We made the 4:10pm train easily and everyone was well practiced and astutely in tune. We arrived in Alexandroupolis at 10:30. We had a few moments wait and we thought of our new New Zealander friends, Sue and Dave who we knew had camped their glorious MotorHome, ‘Homer’ in the town somewhere, and seriously considered trying to find them at the wonderful beach camp site they’d mentioned in an email. But we sadly had no Internet and weren’t at all sure where the camping ground was so we waved to them metaphorically and jumped on the next train.
Now, Christmas Eve, we have made it a few cities down the road and are in a WARM hotel in Gelibolu. The border crossing was delightfully simple in daylight, we managed to not overstay our Schengen Zone welcome!
We caught up on the two nights of sleep we managed to almost completely miss last night in Kasan and will continue to pay back this sleep debt tonight. Tomorrow we are intending to spend Christmas Day 42kms further afield in Gallipoli, learning about the war and eating delicious Turkish cuisine, and of course missing our friends and family. Then three months in the ever ample Turkey await us with ensuing touring adventures and more musical escapades (Tan-Nay-Nay the purple Co-Motion tandem is rumoured to have a heck of a voice!)
Merry Christmas 2012 From Alleykat.