SORRY, BUT IT’S A SECRET
The way that Greek ferry timetabling works, drives someone like me immoderately crazy. At its very worst, it is like some exclusive, even Masonic, even sadistically Kafkaesque set up, that will not impart its precious secrets until the very last minute. For example, at the moment Saturday 30th May 2015, you cannot get accurate timings for the start of June i.e. next week, or no, I mean for all of 48 hours hence. Though you can, God help us, get them for August and September, meaning high season, when most folk, especially Greeks, plan their summer holidays on the islands. May, and even June, are not only treated as low season with its risible tourist income, but even in some Greek minds contemptibly as ‘winter’. I am not exaggerating here. You regularly meet Greeks who refuse to put a toe in the sea until July, and are amazed when you the foreigner venture into the Aegean on a boiling hot day in April, and are seriously anxious that you will get a disabling chill. The corollary of that is that outside of peak seasons, the ferry firms will not commit themselves to comprehensive timings, until a few days before the new month starts. So if you are some poor sod of a foreign backpacker, and want to do your travelling in April or May or June, and wish to plan ahead using the ferry websites, you simply cannot do so. What you see online is some amazing and nightmarishly skeletal service, that is the ferry companies playing safe and allowing themselves to abolish an unprofitable timing, at will, and at the very last minute. There are of course some that even they dare not abolish, no matter what, but they still hang on sadistically to the 11th hour to confirm their continuation.
For example there is always a Monday teatime boat at 5 o’clock from Lavrio to Kythnos, but in low season they will not confirm it officially, until a day or two before the new schedules. The first folk to know for definite are the Kythnos and Athens travel agents, and they pin up the new timetables and sure enough there is the Monday 5pm. But if you go the very same day to the official website gtp.gr, it is not up there, and perhaps won’t be for another few days. Dickens could have written a whole novel about this, and we would have been gripped by it from start to finish, as it is everyone’s worst nightmare, a travel system that is truly unfathomable and impulsive, and to which is there is no satisfying and objectively verifiable key. Given that any foreign tourists who are independent travellers can only plan ahead by online timetabling, those doing so in low season simply cannot get at the truth of things, and cannot effectively plan ahead. Ludicrously, they might well book a pricey overnight stay on the mainland, assuming there is no handy ferry, when indeed there is, but only as announced at the 11th hour. As part of the impressively surreal scenario, Lavrio, one of Greece’s principal mainland ports, has no overnight accommodation whatever, and you have to stay at the nearby posh resort of Sounio, where there is exactly one bargain hotel and the rest might charge you 120 euros plus. And all of this because you cannot trust the timetables of what is supposed to be the shipping companies’ official website.
The Albanian public transport system is another first rate model of impulsiveness, but the only reliable website they have is for their antique rail system, which is so underfunded and so much on its last legs, they are probably closing yet another branch of it as I write this. There are a few trains a day reliably between Tirana the capital and industrial Elbasan, and Durres the major port, and beyond that to Shkoder the capital of the north. In May 2013 the wondrously simple website, which looked as if it had been designed either by me or by Homer Simpson, gave times that connected Elbasan to the lakeside resort of Pogradeci, via the ebullient and incredible two-horse town of Prrenjasi. As it happened, my daughter Ione and I were making the same journey by minibus, so were able to observe by our parallel route as we approached Pogradeci, that the line was derelict and the trains no longer operating, and the weeds were already starting to sprout. It was in our up to date Bradt Guide to Albania described as the country’s most scenic rail route, yet sadly it was no more, and typically its Homer Simpson website had forgotten to note as much.
Albanian railways have to be seen to be believed. Tirana station is a barren and cavernous place with no cafes or vending machines, or anything to divert the excited traveller. It has two lines and a single friendly lady dispensing tickets from a bleak little kiosk, but there are weeds on the two rusted sets of Thomas the Tank Engine lines, and it looks like a West Cumbrian pit village station, say Parton or Bullgill, from about 1938. From there to majestic Elbasan with its lovely mosques and beautiful old houses, is 70 km, and it takes a good 4 hours, meaning you could gallop by horse or cycle faster. It reminds me of those trains of 40 years ago that chuffed me and my Canadian pal Bill through the Baluchistan desert en route to Quetta from Lahore. They went so slowly Pakistani kids would blithely jump off and run a few yards to jump back on, just for the fun and to break the monotony. The big plus is that the 4 hour trip between the 2 important Albanian cities, costs the lek equivalent of 1 euro, or 75p. Also in terms of meeting Albanians and having a whale of a time, it cannot be recommended too highly. En route to Shkoder from Durres, we were sat with a beefy and grinning off-duty policeman of late 40s. He was remarkably friendly and very keen to study my English-Albanian phrasebook, and did his best to pronounce some difficult words, such as those in the breakfast section: ‘omelette’, ‘scrambled eggs’ and ‘marmalade’ (you should listen to an Albanian, or a Greek come to that, trying to get their eloquent Balkan mouth round the consonant clusters in ‘scramble’, and it’s even worse if you try to explain the unfathomable relationship between the original verb, and the egg dish designation). Our fellow passenger and English student was, how shall I put it, not the most ethical of Illyrian law guardians. He saw Ione and me dutifully putting all our picnic litter and other rubbish into carrier bags for later disposal, and couldn’t believe such pointless and demeaning fussiness. He stooped and lifted up all three, then flung them joyously through the open window, and I briefly wondered if in Albania they have such a thing as citizen’s arrest, and whether I should decide to put him in charge.
After he’d gone, a couple of sturdy and homely middle-aged women, one dark and one fair, entered the carriage, and were soon extremely captivated by the unusual foreigners. We shared our picnic and enormous plastic bottle of red wine with them, having presciently brought plentiful paper cups for any chance guests. The two Shiptar ladies very much enjoyed numerous cups of our wine, and wanted to know all about my marital situation, and whether Ione aged 23 at the time was married. Bemused at first by the fact I could speak simple Albanian, they looked very grave to hear I was a widower. The blonder and fatter of the two, moved seats and sat close to me, and then like a sister or possibly a mother, though Ione later told me she thought distinctly otherwise, leant against me heavily to give me moral support. She looked approximately like a young and dishevelled grandmother of about 55, who might have toiled at spartan wages in a West Cumbrian chip shop, dressed in the go-ahead fashions of about 1968. Still, a woman’s arm is a woman’s arm, of whatever age and provenance, and I was genuinely disappointed when the pair of them got out at a country stop. The dark haired one at the last minute gave us some extremely unappetising looking apples, and by way of fair exchange, so she claimed, walked off with the litre of wine that was left in the plastic bottle.
Trying to work out the way buses function in Albania, you need a lot of determination, strong legs, and a fair bit of eloquent Albanian, unless you are a genius of a mime artist (hardly anyone speaks English in Albania, and away from Durres there are a lot less Italian speakers than claimed). There is nothing like a national coach service, nor even any significant large firms in the regions, nor in Tirana. It is mostly a system of privately owned minibuses, some of which compete for the same routes, and leave from different parts of the city, and in the case of Tirana might be miles apart. They have a notional departure time, but if there are insufficient customers, they wait until there are a profitable number. In the case of Ione and I leaving Shkoder for Kosovo, via the boat across Lake Komani, the number of obstacles was multiplied unnecessarily. The receptionist at the smart and bargain Shkoder hotel, owned by a kindly German-speaking Shiptar, assured us there was a daily minibus leaving the city only 5 minutes walk away. In the event they were right, but a nosy and insistent elderly man who interrogated us in the cafe opposite, laughed us to scorn when I told him where we were going.
“There is no minibus from Shkoder to Lake Komani. Never has been, and never will be. You have been given some very wrong information!”
He even zealously pursued us, emphasising our obdurate wrong-headedness, as we approached a slim and very handsome man of about 50, who indeed confirmed that his minibus was headed for Lake Komani. Even then, the nosy Shkoderite insisted that the driver was a fool, and didn’t know where he was going. In a modified sense he did not, as he had been told by a young German couple they were coming along this morning, and he assured me, with our fare added, that would be enough for him to break even. But inside the baking minibus, Ione drifted off to sleep, and we sat and sat, but no German couple nor anyone else looked remotely like turning up. The driver with the film star looks became very glum, and it occurred to me he simply might not have enough petrol money to get us to Komani. I made an immediate executive decision for all three of us then, and concluded that I wanted to go to Kosovo very much, and he looked such a kind and genuine man, I didn’t give a damn how much it would cost, and I would treat this as our personal taxi. I fished out 20 euros, the equivalent of 200 euros in Albanian terms, and stuck it in his hand, and he smiled a heartfelt gratitude. He immediately went to the nearest garage, and amazingly the whole 20 euros was gone by the end of the filling. It turned out petrol costs as much in Albania as in England, and given that the wages are about a tenth of ours for the conspicuous minority that is employed, it is amazing there are any cars at all on the roads in Albania.