Getting there & away
Diverse, mysterious and achingly beautiful, the islands of the northeastern Aegean offer endless rewards for those intrepid enough to seek them out. Hidden sandy coves, lush mountain waterfalls and ancient sites of divine power are only a few of the attractions in this far-flung archipelago – also known for its wild celebration of saints’ feasts, delicious cuisine and good-natured sybaritism.
While exasperating ferry schedules make island-hopping here a challenge, the individual character of each island more than makes up for the effort. Ikaria, with its bizarre rock formations and laid-back, leftist lifestyle is unique, as is Lesvos, with its 11 million olive trees and idyllic mountain villages. Semitropical Samos and pine-scented Thasos boast great beaches, while the almost unvisited Inousses, Fourni and Psara offer total serenity.
These lesser-visited islands also have an importance entirely disproportionate to their size. Over one-third of Greece’s ship-owning dynasties hail from Chios and nearby Inousses; and 70% of the national firewater, ouzo, comes from Lesvos – also famous for its olive oil, rare fossils and the only petrified forest outside the USA. One of Europe’s most important ancient spiritual sites lies on distant Samothraki, and only in the villages of southern Chios is the renowned gum-producing mastic tree cultivated. And Little Thasos contains the world’s second-whitest marble.
The ferries can get very crowded in summer. If you want to take a vehicle across it’s a good idea to make a reservation beforehand. In the UK, reservations can be made on almost all of these ferries through Viamare Travel Ltd (020-7431 4560; firstname.lastname@example.org).
You’ll find all the latest information about ferry routes, schedules and services online. For an overview try www.greekferries.gr. Most of the ferry companies have their own websites:
Agoudimos Lines (www.agoudimos-lines.com)
ANEK Lines (www.anek.gr)
Blue Star Ferries (www.bluestarferries.com)
Hellenic Mediterranean Lines (www.hml.gr)
Italian Ferries (www.italianferries.it)
Minoan Lines (www.minoan.gr)
Superfast Ferries (www.superfast.com)
Ventouris Ferries (www.ventouris.gr)
The following ferry services are for high season (July and August), and prices are for one-way deck class. On these services, deck class means exactly that. If you want a reclining, aircraft-type seat, you’ll be up for another 10% to 15% on top of the listed fares. All companies offer discounts for return travel. Prices are about 30% less in the low season.
This route has become increasingly popular in recent years. There is at least one boat a day year-round, and can be up to three boats daily in summer. All ferry operators in Ancona have booths at the stazione marittima (ferry terminal) off Piazza Candy, where you can pick up timetables and price lists and make bookings.
Blue Star Ferries and Superfast Ferries have two boats daily, taking 19 hours direct to Patra, or 21 hours via Igoumenitsa. Both charge between €60 and €70, and also sell tickets through Morandi & Co (071-20 20 33; Via XXIX Settembre 2/0). Superfast accepts Eurail passes. ANEK Lines (071-207 23 46; Via XXIX Settembre 2/0; per person €74) does the trip daily in 21 hours via Igoumenitsa.
The trip from Brindisi was once the most popular crossing, but it now operates only between April and early October. Hellenic Mediterranean Lines (0831-54 80 01; Costa Morena) offers services to Patra, calling at Igoumenitsa on the way. It also has services that call at Corfu, Kefallonia, Paxi and Zakynthos. All these services cost €50, and Eurail passes are accepted.
Minoan Lines (041-24 07 177; Stazione Marittima 123) has boats to Patra (€74, 29 hours) four times weekly, calling at Corfu and Igoumenitsa. Blue Star Ferries (041-27 70 559; Stazione Marittima 123) sails the route four times weekly for €64.
There are five regular ferry services between Turkey’s Aegean coast and the Greek islands. Tickets for all ferries to Turkey must be bought a day in advance. You will almost certainly be asked to turn in your passport the night before the trip, but don’t worry, you’ll get it back the next day before you board the boat. Port tax for departures to Turkey is €9.
There are two boats weekly from Turkey to Greece on this route in high season. Tickets cost €35 one way, including port taxes.
There are daily catamarans to Rhodes from Marmaris from June to September, dropping back to maybe only three or four services a week in winter. Tickets cost €31 one way, plus €19 Turkish departure tax. In addition there is a weekly passenger and car ferry service on Friday. The cost of ferrying a car to/from the Turkish mainland is €95 one way, while passengers pay €49 including taxes. Return rates usually work out cheaper.
There are four crossing points between Greece and Albania. The main one is at Kakavia, 60km northwest of Ioannina. The other crossings are at Sagiada, 28km north of Igoumenitsa; Mertziani, 17km west of Konitsa; and Krystallopigi, 14km west of Kotas on the Florina–Kastoria road.
There are three Bulgarian border crossings: one located at Promahonas, 109km northeast of Thessaloniki and 41km from Serres; one at Ormenio in northeastern Thrace; and a new 448m tunnel border crossing at Exohi, 50km north of Drama.
There are three border crossings between Greece and FYROM. These are at Evzoni, 68km north of Thessaloniki; Niki, 16km north of Florina; and Doïrani, 31km north of Kilkis.
The crossing points are at Kipi, 43km east of Alexandroupoli, and at Kastanies, 139km northeast of Alexandroupoli. Kipi is probably more convenient if you’re heading for İstanbul, but the route through Kastanies goes via the fascinating towns of Soufli and Didymotiho in Greece, and Edirne (ancient Adrianoupolis) in Turkey.
The Greek Railways Organisation (OSE) operates a daily bus between Athens and Tirana (€35.20) via Ioannina and Gjirokastra. The bus departs Athens daily from Sidiridromou 1 near the Larisis train station, arriving in Tirana the following day.
The OSE operates a bus from Athens to Sofia (€45.50, 15 hours) at 7am daily except Monday. It also operates Thessaloniki–Sofia buses (€19, 7½ hours, four daily). There is a private bus service to Plovdiv €29.50, six hours and Sofia €35.50, seven hours from Alexandroupoli on Wednesday and Sunday at 8.30am.
There are two trains daily from Thessaloniki to Skopje (€12, five hours), crossing the border between Idomeni and Gevgelija. They continue from Skopje to the Serbian capital of Belgrade (€30, 13 hours).
There are no trains between Florina and FYROM, although there are one or two trains a day to Skopje from Bitola (€6, 4½ hours) on the FYROM side of the border.
There is one summer-only train service a week from Thessaloniki to Moscow. It departs Thessaloniki at 7.42am on Sunday and arrives in Moscow at 5.26am on Wednesday. It departs Moscow for the return trip at 11.32pm on the same day. The cost is €147.80 for a berth in a three-bed cabin.
The OSE operates a bus from Athens to İstanbul (22 hours) daily except Wednesday, leaving the former Peloponnese train station in Athens in the evening and travelling via Thessaloniki (seven hours) and Alexandroupoli (13 hours). One-way fares are €67.50 from Athens, €44 from Thessaloniki and €15 from Alexandroupoli. Students qualify for a 20% discount and children under 12 travel for half-price.
There are no direct trains between Athens and İstanbul. Travellers must take a train to Thessaloniki and connect with one of two daily services running to the Turkish city. The best option is the Filia–Tostluk Express service, leaving Thessaloniki at 8pm (€48.25, 11½ hours) and arriving in İstanbul at 7.30am. The other service is the indirect Intercity IC90 service to Orestiada leaving Thessaloniki at 7am; passengers for İstanbul change at Pythio on the Greece–Turkey border.
Overland travel between Western Europe and Greece is nowadays usually confined to heading to an Italian port and picking up the most geographically convenient ferry. The route through Croatia, Serbia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, while quite feasible, is outweighed by the convenience of a ‘minicruise’ from an Italian port to one of Greece’s two main entry ports, and the avoidance of fuel and hotel costs on the trip down through the Balkan peninsula.
There are no bus services to Greece from the UK, nor from anywhere else in northern Europe. Bus companies can no longer compete with cheap airfares.
Most intending drivers these days drive to an Italian port and take a ferry to Greece. The most convenient port is Venice, with Ancona coming a close second. The route through Croatia, Serbia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia takes, on average, 2½ days from Venice to Athens, whereas a high-speed ferry from Venice to Patra can be completed in around 26 hours. From Patra to Athens is a further 3½ hours’ driving.
Unless you have a Eurail pass or are aged under 26 and are eligible for a discounted fare, travelling to Greece by train is expensive. Indeed, the chances of anyone wanting to travel from London to Athens by train are considered so remote that it’s no longer possible to buy a single ticket for this journey. The trip involves travelling from London to Paris on the Eurostar, followed by Paris to Brindisi, then a ferry from Brindisi to Patra – and finally a train from Patra to Athens.
Greece is part of the Eurail network. Eurail passes can only be bought by residents of non-European countries and are supposed to be purchased before arriving in Europe. They can, however, be bought in Europe as long as your passport proves that you’ve been here for less than six months. In London, head for the Rail Europe Travel Centre (08705 848 848; 179 Piccadilly). Check the Eurail website (www.eurail.com) for full details of passes and prices.
Grand wars of one-upmanship between Greece’s shipping barons continue to wreak havoc with ferry schedules in the eastern Aegean islands. If you’re planning to hit them all, budget extra time and patience, and don’t do it in low season, when voyages are reduced. In any season mutually unconnected Samothraki and Thasos are particularly difficult to reach, and require a link from the mainland port of Kavala or else transit via Limnos.
There are also international connections with the Turkish Aegean coast. In summer daily boats go between Samos and Kuşadası (for Ephesus), and between Chios and Çeşme. Ferries from Lesvos to Ayvalık run four times weekly.
Visitors to Greece with EU passports are rarely afforded more than a cursory glance. If entering from another EU nation passports are not checked, but customs and police may be interested in what you are carrying. EU citizens may also enter Greece on a national identity card. Some visitors may require a visa to enter the EU so this must be checked with consular authorities before you attempt to enter Greece.
Most visitors to Greece arrive by air, which is the cheapest and quickest way to get here.
Athens (Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport; code ATH; 210 353 0000; www.aia.gr)
Iraklio (Nikos Kazantzakis International Airport; code HER; 28102 28401)
Rhodes (Diagoras Airport; code RHO; 22410 83222)
Thessaloniki (Macedonia International Airport; code SKG; 23104 73700)
Greece’s other international airports are located at Mykonos, Santorini (Thira), Hania (Crete), Iraklio (Crete), Kos, Karpathos, Samos, Skiathos, Hrysoupoli (for Kavala), Aktion (for Lefkada), Kefallonia and Zakynthos. These airports are used exclusively for charter flights, mostly from the UK, Germany and Scandinavia. Charter flights also fly to all of Greece’s other international airports.
Athens handles the vast majority of flights, including all intercontinental traffic. Thessaloniki has direct flights to Amsterdam, Belgrade, Berlin, Brussels, Cyprus, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, İstanbul, London, Milan, Moscow, Munich, Paris, Stuttgart, Tirana, Vienna and Zürich.
Olympic Airlines (OA; 801 114 4444; www.olympicairlines.com) is the country’s national airline, and most flights to Athens and Thessaloniki are with Olympic or the flag carrier of the country of departure. Olympic is not Greece’s only international airline. Aegean Airlines (A3; 801 112 0000; www.aegeanair.com) flies direct from Athens to Rome and Venice, and via Thessaloniki to Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Munich and Stuttgart. Iraklio has direct flights to Cyprus with Olympic, while Aegean Airlines flies direct to Paris, Germany and Italy. The safety record of both airlines is exemplary.
Other airlines with offices in Athens:
Aeroflot (code SU; 210 322 0986; www.aeroflot.org)
Air Berlin (AB; 210 353 5264; www.airberlin.com)
Air Canada (AC; 210 617 5321; www.aircanada.ca)
Air France (AF; 210 353 0380; www.airfrance.com)
Alitalia (AZ; 210 353 4284; www.alitalia.it)
American Airlines (AA; 210 331 1045; www.aa.com)
British Airways (BA; 210 890 6666; www.britishairways.com)
Cyprus Airways (CY; 210 372 2722; www.cyprusair.com.cy)
Delta Airlines (DL; 210 331 1660; www.delta.com)
easyJet (U2; 210 967 0000; www.easyjet.com)
EgyptAir (MS; 210 353 1272; www.egyptair.com.eg)
El Al (LY; 210 353 1003; www.elal.co.il)
Emirates Airlines (EK; 210 933 3400; www.emirates.com)
Gulf Air (GF; 210 322 0851; www.gulfairco.com)
Iberia (IB; 210 323 4523; www.iberia.com)
Japan Airlines (JL; 210 324 8211; www.jal.co.jp)
Lufthansa (LH; 210 617 5200; www.lufthansa.com)
Qatar Airways (QR; 210 950 8700; www.qatarairways.com)
SAS (SK; 210 361 3910; www.sas.se)
Singapore Airlines (SQ; 210 372 8000, 21035 31259; www.singaporeair.com)
Thai Airways (TG; 210 353 1237; www.thaiairways.com)
Turkish Airlines (TK; 210 322 1035; www.turkishairlines.com)
Virgin Express (TV; 210 949 0777; www.virgin-express.com)
Two well-known agencies are STA Travel and Flight Centre. STA Travel (1300 733 035; www.statravel.com.au) has its main office in Melbourne, but also has offices in all major cities and on many university campuses. Call for the location of your nearest branch. Flight Centre (13 16 00; www.flightcentre.com.au) has its central office in Sydney and dozens of offices throughout Australia.
Qantas no longer flies direct to Athens, but you could fly via London with a British Airways connection to Athens. Thai Airways and Singapore Airlines both have convenient connections to Athens as do three of the Persian Gulf airlines – Emirates, Gulf and Qatar Airways. If you’re planning on doing a bit of flying around Europe, it’s worth looking around for special deals from the major European airlines, including KLM and Lufthansa.
Olympic Airlines has flights from Toronto to Athens via Montreal. There are no direct flights from Vancouver, but there are connecting flights via Toronto, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and London on Air Canada, KLM, Lufthansa and British Airways.
France has a network of travel agencies that can supply discount tickets to travellers of all ages. They include OTU Voyages (01 40 29 12 22; www.otu.fr), which has branches across the country. Other recommendations include Voyageurs du Monde (01 40 15 11 15; www.vdm.com) and Nouvelles Frontières (0825 000 747; www.nouvelles-frontieres.fr).
In Germany, STA Travel (01805 456 422; www.statravel.de) has several offices around the country. For online fares, try Just Travel (089 747 3330; www.justtravel.de) and Expedia (0180 500 6025; www.expedia.de).
Olympic Airlines and Cyprus Airways share the Cyprus–Greece routes. Both airlines have three flights daily from Larnaca to Athens, and there are five flights weekly to Thessaloniki. Cyprus Airways also flies from Pafos to Athens once a week in winter and twice a week in summer, while Olympic has two flights weekly between Larnaca and Iraklio.
Discount air travel is big business in London. Advertisements for many travel agencies appear in the travel pages of the weekend broadsheet newspapers, in Time Out, the Evening Standard and the free magazine TNT.
For students or travellers under 26, a popular travel agency in the UK is STA Travel (087 0160 0599; www.statravel.co.uk). Other recommended travel agencies in London include Trailfinders (020 7938 3939; www.trailfinders.co.uk), Travel Bag (0870 814 6614; www.travelbag.co.uk) and ebookers (0800 082 3000; www.ebookers.com).
British Airways and Olympic Airlines operate daily flights between London and Athens. Pricing is very competitive, with all four travel agencies offering return tickets for around UK£200+ in high season, plus tax. At other times, prices fall as low as UK£100, plus tax.
The cheapest scheduled flights are with easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com), the no-frills specialist, which has flights from Luton and Gatwick to Athens. Pricing varies wildly depending on departure days and times. See the website for the current rates.
STA Travel (800 781 4040; www.statravel.com) has offices in Boston, Chicago, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and other major cities. For online bookings try www.cheaptickets.com, www.expedia.com and www.orbitz.com.
New York has the widest range of options to Athens. The route to Europe is very competitive and there are new deals almost every day. Olympic Airlines and Delta Airlines both have direct flights but there are numerous other connecting flights.
There are no direct flights to Athens from the west coast. There are, however, connecting flights to Athens from many US cities, either linking with Olympic Airlines in New York or flying with one of the European national airlines to their home country, and then on to Athens.