Travel and travails
Travel has never been my favourite thing. In fact, it is a lot of ‘travail’ (work, or laborious effort, in both French and English). Don’t get me wrong – I love finding myself in new places. It is the process of getting there that I’m not keen on, especially when airports are involved. Let’s face it, in these days of low-cost air travel, ongoing terror threats, and the evolving Covid rules, it’s a lot of work.
But when you are denied something, it takes on a particular allure. With husband up at least three ski vacations on me, during which time I had stayed home and looked after the ménagerie, I decided it was time to get my wings back.
The Greek islands have always been among my favourite places, and I happened to find a yoga retreat taking place on one of its more remote islands, Amorgos. It would be a ‘petit voyage, the kind I like best. A short flight followed by a ferry, with a stopover on another island. Easy peasy, right?
Travel is an acquired skill. And like any muscle, it needs work. Even organizing a weekend away becomes challenging if you haven’t done it in awhile. It was not my intention to bite off more than I could chew for my first solo trip in two years. But I suppose if I had thought too long about the complexity of traveling before the season began and while Covid rules were still in flux, I would have stayed home. Thankfully, I leaped before I looked.
First was the chicken-and-egg question of where to start. A quick google showed that connections were available, if not necessarily direct. The yoga retreat had a spot left, so I decided to start with that. Then I realized just how complex it would be to get to that island on that particular date, especially without going through Athens. I’ve been there before and wasn’t especially enamored of spending time in that huge city again, nor of taking a prop-engine plane to the islands. The 9-hour car ferry ride from Athens didn’t appeal either.
Our go-to airline for travel in the EU is easyJet. It’s a low-cost airline, with all the inconveniences of having to pay for everything à la carte, from bags to seat selection, but it does offer direct flights to secondary airports. So when I found a flight to Santorini, close by if not exactly at my destination, I grabbed it. Unfortunately it took off at an ungodly hour (another joy of EJ) and from Geneva, a 3 hour train journey from us, which meant I’d have to go the day before and book a hotel. No worries – I always love an excuse to go back to my former stomping ground and have dinner with a friend.
Then began the problem-solving part. The regular ferry connections I’d counted on were only just starting up in April after being closed for the winter, and in the end it was impossible to get to Amorgos without going through Naxos, and on different days. So I booked a night in Naxos and the ferry the following day. Slow travel appeals to me, and I liked the idea of doing a bit of island hopping.
It all worked out in the end but there were a few bumps along the way. First, departure at 6:00 a.m. from Geneva. Who would have imagined this many people would be willing to get up this early? I got through the notoriously long easyJet bag-drop line after 45 minutes and was advised not to waste any time getting to my gate. I soon learned why: it was at the furthest end of the airport, a jog at the best of times, not to mention while lugging a computer bag and additional carry-on. (What, me travel light?). I reached the gate just as the plane was boarding, with no time to stop for the toilet never mind a coffee, and made it to my seat. By then all the overhead lockers near me were taken so I had to schlep my carry-on to one near the back of the plane. So much for paying for up-front seating!
We took off on time and the flight was fairly smooth for the first two hours – just as well as I’m a nervous Nelly and it had been two years since I’d last been up in the air. But as we got closer to our destination the turbulence began. The Greek islands are known for high winds in April, so it seemed sort of par for the course. We began our bumpy descent and I saw the reddish toned mountains of Santorini begin to rise by the windows. Then, without warning, the engines went into turbo, we changed direction and began sharply going up again. A few minutes later, the captain stated what was now obvious: he had decided to abort the landing due to wind shear. There was nothing to worry about, it was perfectly normal, they were just going to do a little spin around the island and try the approach with a head wind instead. Unfortunately it was too late to order a drink. But I lost no time on landing (which we managed on the second try) to order a prosecco and toast my arrival in Greece over a late breakfast.
I took a taxi to the port to await my ferry. The high winds were blowing a haze of dust from the Sahara over the island, which gave it a post-apocalyptic air, even though it was fairly sunny.
Greek ferries are not known for being the most organized mode of travel. Several private companies operate different lines and there is little communication between them. The biggest ones are from Athens; smaller lines operate between the islands. The port in Santorini is not a nice place to wait. A couple of sticky-tabled cafés were open and swamped with tourists. There were no signs indicating anything about departures or arrivals. I went to the nearest office of the ferry company I had booked – now dragging my suitcase along with my two smaller bags – and asked about the departure for Naxos. “You wait there,” said the woman, pointing to an open shelter where a few people were congregating. Off I went. There were no seats but it was only an hour until the scheduled departure.
Thus began a wait that stretched into 2 ½ hours. Europeans don’t tend to talk to each other, unless in an emergency, so I could only wait and watch the others for signs. The crowd grew. Cars began to queue up just in front of the passenger area, some with the courtesy of switching off their engines, others continuing to blast diesel exhaust. As our wait grew longer, I was thankful for a nearby group of American tourists, one of whom seemed to know what was going on. Information was loudly exchanged. The ferry to Naxos was late. In the meantime another one arrived, apparently going to Mykonos, and we stood watching as several enormous trucks were off-loaded. Then began the slow on-boarding of cars.
I felt oddly calm, without my usual impatience. As we settled in for the wait, I began speaking French with the people in front of me. Turned out they were from the Ottawa valley, in Canada. We watched as a short man, mid-twenties and dressed in the same kind of gear as everyone else, arrived and began shouting at people to have their tickets ready. When the ferry was finally in the port, I nearly dislocated my shoulder dragging my bags up the steep ramp. Thankfully there were plenty of seats, and working toilets. It was a large catamaran, and the ride was smooth despite the choppy sea. Two hours later we arrived in Naxos, the sun was beginning to set and a driver waiting to take me to my hotel outside the main town where I settled in and enjoyed an early dinner. There were only a few other guests as the place was only just opening for the season. The next morning I took a short walk down to the beach and felt the peace of my destination infuse me. It already began to feel like the journey was worth it.
Another ferry ride, this time on a pitchy boat that took four hours to cross the choppy Aegean, got me to Amorgos later that day. By the time I checked in with the other retreat members for our opening circle, the sun was setting and the candle-filled room overlooking an inspiring view of the sea and mountainous islands felt like a homecoming.
We enjoyed a week of yoga, walking, sunning (with one dip in the still-chilly pool), relaxing. With lots of good food and drink – it was not THAT much of a retreat! – before the next leg of my trip: back to Naxos for a day, where I discovered the beautiful old town with its Portara, temple or gate of Apollo, while dipping my toes in the beautiful white sand beaches. The next ferry was quick – just an hour to Mykonos, where I spent a final night before heading back to the airport.
But it wasn’t over yet! I had two more EJ flights to Milan and then Manchester, where I would meet with my family for a week in Derby and Wales (more to come in another post). That particular leg of travel through Italy brought new joys, one of which was filling out the EU passenger locator form. That oddly devious document, which may be a reflection of the European Union itself, was an exercise in the absurd. Meaning that it was not made for my reality: French national, living in Switzerland, transiting from one EU country to another to visit family in the UK. ‘Originating country’ was one thing but what did they mean by ‘final destination’? Aside from the philosophical aspects of the question, I literally did not know what to put. Manchester? My return flight to Basel? For some reason, possibly down to Brexit, the UK was not an option. So I put Switzerland, obviously not part of the EU but still within the realm of its imagination. Then, after spending considerable time and effort to fill in and download the bloody document, no one even asked for it when I went through customs. Nobody asked for my Covid certificate either.
However, for some reason it was a requirement that passengers on all flights to and from Italy wear an FFP2 or N-95 mask – a first (and hopefully last) for me as I found it hard to breathe. Arriving in the UK, no masks were required at all, so I binned it with joy.
Now I am home and recovering after so much moving about. But my travel muscles are back in shape and I’m already starting to think about our next trip.
How about you? Still hunkering down, already back in circulation or with travel on your horizon?
BTW, if you like the photos, I post a lot more on Instagram. Feel free to follow!
A few links (none sponsored) in case you are thinking of traveling to the Greek islands:
- Ferryhopper, a service that lets you book any of the different companies, with relative ease.
- Naxos, an island well worth a visit — amazing beaches
- Amorgos, more wild and remote but perfectly doable, especially in season
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