Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Greek Ferry Tales ~ Not Always a Greek Tragedy

There is nothing like the romance of boarding a Greek ferry and setting off for a new destination. The excitement of the trip becomes as much about ‘the journey’ as ‘the destination’. We think Greek ferry travel has got to rank in the top 10 of life’s best travel experiences.

Ready to set sail - Piraeus, Greece
So, I was stunned at the reaction of a friend in America's Pacific Northwest when I suggested that she consider taking a ferry between Athens and Crete on an upcoming trip. She visibly recoiled, and exclaimed,  “But, they are unsafe. . .they are always sinking!!” 

Our ferry between Piraeus and the island of Poros Greece arrives
While I will admit I obsess about plane crashes (as The Scout will attest), I’ve never fretted about ferries sinking and we’ve been on quite a few in recent years. In fairness to my friend’s response though, I thought maybe I’d missed something so I set out to do a bit of research about Greek ferries.

Ferry disasters, like plane crashes, make headlines for the obvious reasons.  Loss of life, the human error or malfunctioning equipment grab the readers’ attention.  And those disasters – thanks to the internet – can live on for decades with the flick of the wrist and a Google search.

Car/passenger ferry links Poros island with mainland Peloponnese
I had to go back a bit but found two mid-century Greek ferry tragedies. Both took place in 1966; a half century ago (that time span since 1966, in itself, is a startling fact to those of us who are a ‘certain age’).

* The Express Samina, one of the oldest ferries sailing at the time, went down killing 82 of 550 passengers, just two kilometers off the coast of the island of Paros. Reportedly the crew had left the bridge to watch a replay of a goal in an important soccer match on television and the ship hit some rocks.

* The other disaster that year took place near Falkonera island, when the Heraklion sailing between Chania (Crete) to Pireaus (Athen’s port city) capsized in a storm.  Only 46 survived out of 73 crewmembers and 191 passengers.

Minoan and Anek Lines ferries in Chania, Crete
* In 2014 the Norman Atlantic, a ship owned by an Italian ferry company and flagged in that country, sank as it was sailing from Patras, a port town in the northern Peloponnese en route to Ancona, Italy. The ship had been leased by the Greek line, Anek. It was carrying 422 passengers and 56 crew.  Nine died and 19 went missing.

* In 2016 the ferry Pangia Tinou sank while in port in Pireaus.  It wasn’t in service and no one was on board at the time.

Heading to Loutro village (white spot on the coastline) from Hora Sfakia
In addition to reports on those incidents, I also came across some interesting statistics:

* There are 164 passenger ferry sailings daily from Piraeus.  That means more than 50,000 sailings a year from that port alone.  If you go back to 1966, the year of the double disasters, and do the math, you find that there have been more than 250,000 sailings from Piraeus alone in the last five decades. 

* In 2000, the UK’s Guardian reported, “According to the Annual Ferry Review produced by research company IRN Services, 50 million passenger trips are made on Greek ferries each year, and between 1994 and 1999 there were no fatalities - an impressive track record for a country which has the biggest ferry fleet in Europe.”

One of our favorite Greek ferries, Samaria I, southern Crete
We’ve had the opportunity to sail on small ferries like the Samaria I above, which links the communities that dot the southwestern coastline of Crete.  Several times it has transported us between Hora Sfakia and Loutro. Unless you come by private boat this is the only way to reach Loutro – it is not accessible by road.

PicMonkey Collage
The size of cruise ships and nicely appointed - we took the Blue Star above to Piraeus from Crete
We’ve also traveled between Crete and Piraeus as well as Crete and Rhodes on the large cruise-ship sized ferries.  Because the trip to Pireaus, is an overnight sailing we’ve booked cabins and slept comfortably in twin beds, awaking at 6 a.m. in Piraeus.  I wrote comparing the ferry’s interior to that of a cruise ship in this post. Check it for interior photos.

PicMonkey Collage
Arriving Mykonos about the high speed ferry (Cosmote is a telephone company ad) not the ferry name
We’ve also traveled on various types of high speed catamaran-style ferries with interiors that look much like that of an airplane and which significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to go from place to place.
Car/passenger ferry for short haul runs to the Peloponnese
Any ferry. Any size. Any Greek destination. We wouldn’t hesitate to travel on a Greek ferry.

However, there are three things we’d advise you to keep in mind when planning a ferry trip in Greece:  1) Ferry travel – even for walk on passengers – is not inexpensive. Airline tickets might be cheaper than the ferry tickets. 2) a storm at sea can cause major delays or cancellations of ferries so if you are heading to Athens to catch a flight give yourself some wiggle room when planning your ferry trip because if the weather doesn’t impact it, 3) there just might be a strike by ferry or dock workers.

One of the best sites we’ve found for researching Greek ferry travel is http://www.directferries.co.uk

That’s it from us this week.  We wish you happy travels and smooth sailing ~ And as always a big thanks for stopping by TravelnWrite
Linking this week with:
Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday
Travel Photo Thursday
Photo Friday
Weekend Travel Inspiration

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Road to Greek Residency ~ Timing is Everything

As all travelers know, timing is everything.  A missed connection, a traffic jam, a detour, any number of things can impact the timing. And timing can make or break a trip.

Road to Karyovouni village - Greek Mani
One thing we’ve learned in our years of travel is that sometimes – even with the best laid plans and preparation – timing is beyond our control. Such is the case of our Road Trip to Greek residency. . .

Our Journey thus far: 

Highway between Kalamata and The Mani - Greece
For those just joining us: We are part-time U.S. expats from the Seattle, Washington area who own a home in the Greek Peloponnese. Two years ago when we entered this lifestyle it seemed our tourist visa stays (90 days in and 90 days out per the Schengen Treaty) would be just right. But the rigidity of those limits have us wanting a bit more flexibility to travel, or stay longer, or return more frequently and the way to do that is to have a resident visa.

P1030134We set off on our Road Trip to Residency in February  – with bulging application packets of documents proving health, wealth and honorable citizenship. We traveled to San Francisco for an interview and review of those documents by the Greek Consul there who serves the U.S. area in which we live.

Our documents needed to be current, so there was a tight timeline between the California trip and our return to Greece. Timing is everything.

Having obtained a 12-month entry visa as a result of that San Francisco meeting – we then made a quick trip to our state capital Olympia, Washington. There we had those stacks of documents notarized and later apostilled by the Secretary of State’s office so that the Greek government could accept them. Tight squeeze in scheduling, but timing is everything.

On the Road in Greece:

Our mid-March return to Greece where we plan to be until early June – seemed back then more than enough time to make it through the Residency permit process. So optimistic were we about being approved and the process going smoothly that we decided we’d buy a car this spring as well. (A resident permit is required of foreigners registering cars here).

However, the first month came and went as our packets of documents were translated into Greek and the new documents stamped and added to that pile of paperwork we’d brought with us.

The Scout waits in the Immigration office
Last week was – finally -  ‘the’ week. With our Greek attorney in the lead we took those documents to the Greek immigration office in Kalamata. It was a sparsely furnished, stark, sort of place. Only a handful of other hopefuls were ahead of us, and we waited our turn to talk to one of three clerks behind a glassed-in counter.

With luck we’d be issued a temporary visa, the authorities would keep and examine the documents closely and with more luck we’d be issued a permanent visa before we leave. We’d given up hopes of buying the car this trip.

The clerk smiled at us and welcomed us in English – a good start, I thought. But then in Greek he told our attorney why we wouldn’t be getting any permits that day nor would we be leaving our documents for review:

The immigration laws changed April 1st (no joke!).

New forms, new fees - paid them at the post office which is also a bank

We would need to pay another fee to the bank, have photos taken and put on a CD, and we would have to have fingerprints taken by immigration officials. The conversation at the counter went:

“Can we do that today?”  The Scout asked, trying to salvage a bit of the ground we seemed to be losing.
“That is a problem,” explained our attorney. “The equipment is here but the law is so new it isn’t hooked up”
“When will it be hooked up?’ asked The Scout.
“Maybe next week,” she replied. “But they also need a technician to operate it. . .”

We quit asking questions.

The official how-we will-look-as-residents photos
The directions for the photos advised no smiling. We had them taken after leaving the immigration office – it wasn't difficult to not smile.

On Road Trips - Pay attention to the Road Signs

P1030503In early March we’d read a Greek news article about an overhaul of the country’s immigration system for foreign residents.  It sounded really slick as it changed from a sticker pasted into the passport, to a plastic card - a residence card, with computer chip, that doubles as an identity card.

The change was initiated back in 2002 – 15 years ago! – when all European member states agreed to introduce the new cards The aim is to have a uniform residence permit for the European Union. The regulation was updated in 2008. Some countries have completed the process, for instance, Germany rolled them out in the fall of 2011.

Basically it uses electronic photo identification and fingerprints and other data on a chip in the card and sounds much like the U.S. Global Entry card used many thousands of travelers there.

So that explained the need to go get photos taken, pay an additional fee, and await the fingerprint machine and technician. We seemed to have timed our effort to put us right in the middle of the conversion. . .and that is where I intended to end today’s post.

Stop! Listen to other travelers

Stop sign near our home in Greece
Monday morning we had a conversation with a fellow American who lives down the road from us. He’d also been in the pursuit of a residency permit and obtained it back in mid-March. We congratulated him on his timing, having avoided the new system.

'No,' he said. 'I had my photos on a CD and they fingerprinted me in the Kalamata office. And issued a residency card - not a sticker in the passport.'

(Now it had taken him a half dozen visits to the Immigration office to get it done, but obviously he timed that March visit correctly.)

So as I wrote in the beginning, timing is everything when you travel -  even on Road Trips to Greek Residency.

Thanks for being with us again this week. Next week, I’ve got a Greek ferry tale for you. Should we resume the road trip, you’ll be the first to know! As always, happy travels to you and yours!

Linking this week with:
Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday
Travel Photo Thursday
Photo Friday
Weekend Travel Inspiration

Friday, April 14, 2017

Greek Signs of Spring ~ Awakening from Winter

Those signs of spring began slowly, slowly. Siga, Siga, as we say in Greece. Those sly indicators that means ‘the season’ is nearly here. ‘The season’ is the catchall term for ‘tourist season/spring/summer/the good times’ here.

Like the proverbial bear, the villages are stretching and yawning; awakening from their winter’s hibernation. The pace of life in The Mani is picking up momentum as it welcomes spring and 'the season'.

Wild poppies are in full bloom
The wildflowers may have been the first signs of winter’s passing – the olive groves and road sides have been carpeted with them since we arrived in our Peloponnese paradise in mid-March. (Pssst -- I whisper this secret --  those tourists who come to Greece during its blistering hot summers and see only barren scorched landscapes have no idea of the lush countryside they are missing by not visiting in the spring.)

Our olive grove mid-March
Maybe we were so focused on those wild wonders that we didn’t pay attention to the budding blooms in our tended gardens that also are signs of the new season. All of a sudden it seems the geraniums have burst forth, the lilacs are a purple profusion, roses are budding rainbow colors. Wisteria, the poster child of Mediterranean gardens, drapes fences and buildings throughout the area.

PicMonkey Collage
Wisteria, the Mediterranean poster child
Of course, they all go by Greek names here (which we are trying to learn, siga, siga.)  But as Shakespeare would say, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” and bottom line: they all mean winter has headed into the history books!

Signs of spring aren’t limited to the blooms in this part of Greece, there’s been an accompanying frenzy of activity the last couple of weeks as owners prepare their restaurants, tavernas, retail stores and beaches for what is hoped to be an onslaught of tourists.

Grooming Pantazi Beach
The area’s popular Pantazi Beach, – which we refer to as ‘ours’ because it is just below our hillside home - was getting a grooming this week– removing the accumulation of rocks dumped by winter storms so that beach goers will have even a better time here (pssst, another secret: it isn’t bad even with the rocks as locals will attest!).

Restaurant beach cabana in Kalamata readies for the season
Kalamata, (the big city an hour north of us) was sprucing up its long beachfront as well the last couple weeks. Upscale restaurants and coffee shops which line the beach road were already serving customers when we drove past early in the week. The Scout tap danced with our car’s brake pedal to avoid hitting a few of ‘the season’s’ waitstaff who dash back and forth across the two-lane road to serve the sun-and-sand seeking patrons seated on the beach. 

PicMonkey Collage
With the new freeway bypass you can avoid Kalamata's beach road completely - but why?
The real tip off to ‘the season’ is the crescendo of activity that comes with Easter Week.  This year the full moon puts all Christendom's Easter celebrations on the same Sunday; this coming Sunday.  Greek Easter, as long time readers here know, is one of the most magical time to be in this country.  It is celebrated over the course of several days beginning in earnest Friday morning, Good Friday, and ending Monday evening, Easter Monday.

Window display at the Shell Service Station - Kalamata
P1000539Even non-believers can’t help but be moved by the sound of church bells tolling out the call to worship and the sights of processionals through towns and villages during this holiest of weeks here.

We’ve seen an increase in the commercial side of the holiday this year with Easter baskets, bunnies and candies available to purchase from every type of store imaginable.

Even with bunnies and baskets, the traditional long decorated candles are still prominently displayed – in fact, there were some for sale at the neighboring village’s post office.

Those candles are lit during Saturday’s late night service as the Pappas, the priest announces to the gathered crowd in the squares near churches,“Cristos Anesti!” or Christ is Risen!

For more photos of that celebration, click here for a look at last year’s Easter in the village.

Seasonal Easter kiosks in the pedestrian square of Kalamata sell candles and jewelry
We had a glitch with the internet service in our area this week so I am a bit tardy in getting this seasonal update posted. But Good Friday seems as good a day as any to do so. It has begun with blue sky, sunshine and the promise of a beautiful weekend ahead.

Good Friday, our village church, 2016
Whether you are celebrating Easter, Passover,  the weekend or the arrival of a new season, we hope you are surrounded by the things that make you happy – we certainly are!  Next week I will give you that long promised update on the 'Road to Greek Residency'. I can tell you that our journey has come to a standstill for the most interesting of reasons – and one over which we have no control. We hope it doesn’t bring our journey to an end before we reach our destination. . .but that’s the story for next week. Hope you'll be back then!

The Stone House on the Hill
We thank you for the time you’ve spent with us and wish you and yours happy and safe travels. We are linking this week (internet permitting) with a number of other most interesting bloggers from around the world. Check them out, by clicking on the links below:

Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday
Travel Photo Thursday
Photo Friday
Weekend Travel Inspiration

Thursday, April 6, 2017

In Greece ~ The Solitude of the Sea

“My soul is full of longing for the secret of the sea..
And the heart of the great ocean sends a thrilling pulse through me.
      -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Life is simply about the sea here. 

Sunset in Kardamyli, Greece
We use it to gauge the weather with phrases like ’i thalassa vrazier’ – 'the sea is boiling'. We celebrate festivals spawned from its bounty. It is a constant in everyday life; the comings and goings of fishermen, the wave action, the colors.

Even sunbeams striking the water’s surface or cloud formations dancing across it can cause us to pause our everyday activities for just a moment ~ we take a deep breath as if inhaling a restorative bit of the sea and its solitude.

Sunset on the Messinian Bay

Ships at Sea

We delight in watching freighters off in the distance, traveling to and from Kalamata. We focus on the fishermen in their tiny boats bouncing and bobbing to the wave action as they come and go from nearby harbors. 

Such seafaring has been a focus since, according to Greek mythology, Jason and the Argonauts, (named for their ship the Argo) sailed off in search of the Golden Fleece.  Some say his ship was the first ship to sail these Greek waters.

Kafenion in Agios Nikolaos overlooks the harbor - the fish scale hangs close by
It was the vistas of the sea that drew us to this area of the Greek Peloponnese where small fishing villages dot the coastlines at regular intervals. Now we are discovering its centuries-old rhythms and routines are providing new wonders to our everyday life.

Kitries boat harbor - Peloponnese
When we hear the early morning chug-a-chug of the small boat engine echo from the sea below our home we pause to watch it heading back to the harbor. Over dinner with friends – those also new to the area – our conversations stop as we pause to watch the fishermen coming or going, depending  on the season, the tides, the catch. It is as if each sighting is our first and certainly not one to be missed.

Fisherman returning to Kardamyli harbor
I still grab the camera wanting to capture a moment to relive again when life has taken us far away from this setting of sea and solitude.

Kardamyli Harbor - Peloponnese
We are, over time, learning the words of the sea. Kimas (key-mahs)  waves – not to be confused with kimas (key-MAS) minced meat (or hamburger).  One of our favorites, is Limeni, the harbor; perhaps because the word rolls off our tongues or because each harbor is so distinctly different, yet stunning.

Harbor in Agios Nikolaos village - The Mani

Although we don’t yet know their names, we are recognizing fishermen, by this our third year in the area. The Captain, as we call him, dressed in dark coveralls rides his bike to the harbor about 6 p.m – a routine so regular you can almost set your watch by it. Another, whose name we also don’t know, always makes us pause in the heat of the mid-day sun just to watch him organize his nets – an art, not just a skill, we've concluded.

Preparing the nets - Agios Nikolaos, Peloponnese
We imagine the weight of those nets that must be tossed into the sea and then retrieved by the lone fisherman, in what we speculate must be a very solitary life. On the other hand, perhaps it is the sea and its solitude that has captured his heart as it has ours.

Kitries harbor, Peloponnese
'Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman,’ he thought.
'But that was the thing that I was born for.'
--- Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and The Sea

The solitude of the sea
That’s life at The Stone House on the Hill this week.  We plan to do some sea gazing while we wait to resume our journey on the 'Road to Greek Residency'.  As soon as we do, we'll tell you where the adventure has taken us on this side of the Atlantic. Hope you are having a great week and that you’ll be back with us next week for another look at life in Greece.

Safe travels to you and yours and as always, thanks so much for the time you spend with us!

Linking this week with:
Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday
Travel Photo Thursday
Photo Friday
Weekend Travel Inspiration


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