Monday, July 13, 2009

Greeced Lightning

Back from our too-short holiday in Skala Potamia, Thassos, Greece. Lots of sun, sea, sand and errrm, well that's it for obvious words beginning with "s", since we were in a small two room apartment with three kids. Salad, I suppose. There was a lot of salad.

You know those brochure style images of couples walking hand-in-hand down a moonlit beach? Sitting in candle-lit restaurants slowly sipping wine and eating delicious food? Frolicking playfully (yet with the obligatory hint of sex) in the foaming waves? None of that stuff happens when you're on holiday with children. Or at least not with our children. Perhaps others have some foolproof sleeping-pills-and-ouzo concoction by which they cleverly create space for themselves, but not us.

Anyway it was a good holiday and I wouldn't like my obvious need to spend a week on holiday just with Mrs Musings to overshadow that fact. The sea was perfect - warm clean clear water, gently sloping beach allowing kids to play without fear of going under, fine white sand. Food was Greek (which means fantastic). The Mythos was cold. We didn't do much besides hang around on the beach, but that was fine.

Driving to Thassos is also easier (and quicker) than driving to Croatia as we've done in the last couple of years. It's just a straight shot down to Giurgiu in Romania, across a ridiculously unkempt border post and run down bridge over the Danube (especially ridiculous given that this is a majorly important border crossing in EU terms, and beyond - the route from Turkey to the west pretty much has to go through here), across Bulgaria, and then into Greece at the the three way Bulgaria/Greece/Turkey border area. From there you hit "developed EU" and the roads are superb all the way to Keramoti, the port for Thassos.

There is a bit more too it than that obviously. For example when I say "just a straight shot down to Giurgiu" I have conveniently left out the need to get past Bucharest. This is no easy task. I asked on a Romanian forum before going for advice, and got lots of helpful answers (which of course all contradicted each other as is the way of these things). Based on that, on the way down we decided to try the "centura" (belt) which is the sort of ring-road thing round Bucharest. My god, what a road. It's more pot hole than road, has incredible traffic and baffling road rules (all the "spokes" going in and out of the city have priority over the centura, so you have to crawl across these mad, churned up junctions every couple of kilometres, dodging cars, being squeezed by trucks, just generally living on a knife edge). On the way back, as it was a Saturday, I decided to instead try out the "driving through the middle of the city" option. Arguably this was better - the roads were in better condition, the traffic was still heavy, and complex, but at least there was slightly more logic to the road junctions. On the other hand, they have obviously banned signs in Bucharest - the only directions point you to the various barrios. This is all very well if you actually want to go to cartier tineretului or wherever, but not much use for the outsider. It wasn't until I had somehow negotiated myself to the road leading out of town from the Arcul de Triumf that I first saw a sign pointing to the airport. I mean surely this is information that might be useful to people? Madness. I think it's some massive scam to try and sell more GPS systems (it's certainly the first place I've ever driven in which I've felt I could have used one. Though such is the disregard shown for out-of-towners that it wouldn't surprise me if the City Hall jammed the signal of Satnavs within the city limits).

Bulgaria, like Romania, is a bit of motorway free zone. But unlike Romania, the other roads are actually pretty good. Even roads marked as minor white ones on the map are in good shape (you'd never venture onto one you weren't familiar with here for fear of spending three hours negotiating a 10 km section of untarmacked hell). It's helped by the fact that almost nobody seems to live in Bulgaria, meaning that you only pass through a village every 20 kms as opposed to every 3 kms here. And when you do it's empty of the horsecarts, dogs, cows, drunk blokes, cyclists, children, and wandering people of all varieties that you get here. (This allows for fast driving but it is slightly disconcerting. It was almost a relief to get back to Romania and it's colourful vibrant chaotic villages on the drive home). The other border, at Svilengrad is the starkest contrast you're ever likely to see within the EU. You cross from organised, fast, clean, well-kept Greece, into shabby poverty-stricken mayhem of what appears to be a major Rroma shanty town in Bulgaria.

Finally, a recommendation. If you're ever driving thorugh Bulgaria (either from N-S or E-W or any combination thereof, and you want a place to stay somewhere in the middle, try the Shipka IT Hotel. Fantastcially helpful and friendly owners, great hotel, good value, in a really nice village at the bottom of the mountains in the Valley of the Roses. Even if you've no plans to drive through Bulgaria, then make some, just so you can stay there. We stayed there both coming and going and felt like we were saying goodbye to friends at the end.

4 comments:

Gadjo Dilo said...

Informative stuff, Andy. We were going to follow your Croatian advice this summer but ended up taking advantage of the new WizzAir Cluj-Mallorca flight instead. Next year we hope to go (with quite a lot of people) to either Croatia or or Greece; hmmm, despite what you say I still fancy Croatia though. Were you aware of any good snorkelling on Thassos?

Anonymous said...

Great post, Andy. Thank you.

Soj said...

First let me say, the GPS works absolutely fantastically in Romania, esp via products sold by Mio. Don't own any myself but have ridden in enough taxis to see yes they really have (almost) all the streets correctly marked (including the 1-way bits, etc).

Other than that, yeah you're right about the weird signage. What makes it worse is that even if you DO want to go to Cartierul Tineretului (or wherever), you will NEVER KNOW when you get there.

Every Romanian city has all these cartiere (neighborhoods) which all the LOCALS "just know" and basically never appear on maps (or signs) and the only way you'll know which one you're in is if you live there long enough.

As Gadjo said though, there's lots of lower-cost flights now (including a lot from T-M which should be close to you) that go a LOT of places - save you some wearisome driving ;)

Andy H said...

Gadjo - thanks. I didn't try snorkelling but where we were would certainly have been limited (as it was just sand as far as the eye could see). there seemed to be more undersea life in the port at Limenas (the capital), but obviously that's the port and not somewhere you'd necessarily want to be snorkelling.

Soj - good to know that GPS is good here. I sort of resent GPS as one of the very few skills I have is navigating and working out my way. And GPS is like other people cheating to get to my levels. It shouldn't be allowed. (This is a joke by the way)

As for cheap flights - when you're talking about a family of four, going to the beach with various beach stuff in tow, driving is not as wearisome as you might think. At least not compared to getting to an airport, parking, lugging luggage and children through the systems, getting on the plane, possibly changing, getting off, renting a car or finding other transportation, and so on, then driving doesn't seem quite so wearying, and also is much much cheaper (even than low cost airlines - to Thassos and back cost exactly €100 in fuel. Obviously there's wear and tear to the car and other small costs, but there's no way you'd get a family of four to a holiday destination for much less than €800 in summer even on Wizzair). And T-M doesn't have as many flights as it might have - it is very well connected to Budapest but that's about it. These days Bacau is starting to become my local airport with actual flights to places. The new Brasov airport to open soon? In theory, though this being Romania I'm not holding my breath.