Retired journalist IAN GRETTON and his wife Barbara have travelled extensively in Greece and the Greek Islands, largely using public transport. He describes their experiences in a new book All Roams Lead to Rhodes.
Exploring another country can be much more rewarding when you do it on your own, without a guide or tour manager, planning your own itineraries, finding and booking your own accommodation, choosing where you eat and drink. And while car hire in Greece can be relatively inexpensive – €25-30 a day can secure you a decent car – why drive when someone else can take the strain, allowing you to get the most out of your surroundings.
The Greek national bus company KTEL operates services to all corners of the mainland and on most of the inhabited islands. The buses rarely run on time. Occasionally, very occasionally, they may be early. Generally, however, they turn up late, often as much as 20 or 30 minutes after the scheduled time, so be patient.
But they are reliable, because they have to be. In a largely rural, often poor country buses are a lifeline for many. Where car ownership is way below the average for wealthier countries, they are often the only link between scattered villages and between those villages and the shops and markets of larger towns and cities.
And if the word “bus” conjures up images of Routemasters or bendy buses, think again. KTEL has a huge fleet of 50-plus-seat luxury coaches, operated by skilled drivers capable of comfortably negotiating the hairpin bends that typify the roads in rural areas of the mainland and on the islands. Coaches generally have a large luggage compartment, used for carrying passengers’ suitcases as well as transporting packages and other goods between communities.
Preparation for our travels around Greece has often started on the KTEL website, scrutinising timetables and routes and planning itineraries accordingly. Equally, when we have island-hopped – as we have in the Cyclades, the Dodecanese and the Ionians – we have searched www.ferries.gr to find out what crossings are available and when. The ferries are comfortable, often fairly new, even if embarking and disembarking can sometimes be chaotic. But that’s all part of the fun of independent travel.
If you are island-hopping it’s a good idea to book your accommodation in advance. When you arrive at a port you will be greeted by a cluster of hotel- and apartment-owners holding up boards offering accommodation at reasonable prices. But if you’re tempted by them you won’t know what you’re getting until you’re inside the building – at which point it may be too late to change your mind.
Sites such as www.booking.com allow you to search for hotels, apartments and studios all over the country, from central Athens to tiny islands like Iraklia (pop.152) in the Cyclades, where we once spent several nights in a room at a wonderful taverna that was the centre of the island’s social life. We have a checklist that includes location, size, facilities, price and so on, against which we check candidate accommodation until we find the ideal place.
It all begins, of course, with deciding which part of Greece you want to visit. These days you can fly from many UK airports to various Greek locations, although Gatwick-based easyJet (www.easyjet.com) probably offers the most options. The airline has regular flights to Athens and Thessaloniki on the mainland, as well as Heraklion and Chania on Crete and other islands such as Rhodes, Mykonos and Kefalonia.
And when you’re there, don’t be afraid to ask the locals. The Greeks are one of the friendliest, most welcoming and generous nations on earth – in ancient Greek the words for “stranger” and “guest” were the same. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, it won’t be long before you do.
All Roams Lead to Rhodes is the memoir of Ian Gretton and his wife Barbara Gretton. Proving that age is no barrier to adventure, the two pensioners head ‘off the beaten track’ to explore all that Greece has to offer.
It’s available to buy from www.bookguild.co.uk, Amazon and all good bookshops.
Publisher: The Book Guild