Athens, for all its attractions, is also one of the biggest travel fulcrums in the world.
From here tourists head off in a dozen directions. The famous islands seem to be the most popular destination and many visitors roll off the airplane, spend a day gawping at the Acropolis, then head straight for the ferries. From Piraeus you can reach the Dodecanese, the Sporades, Rhodes, Crete and even Israel and Egypt. Every traveller in the world does the Greek ferries at one point. They are part of world mythology. For many people the sunshine and sand of the myriad of islands is a lure as strong as the 'song of Circe'. And most pass through the memorable port of Piraeus.
And this is a port of the old school. Greece is all about experiences and in this age of the modern airplane it is one of the few places in the world where you can partake of a "voyage" such those which went on before the age of jet travel. You can experience the mooring rope being thrown off, the last passengers making a dash for the gangplank and that feeling of excitement in the pit of your stomach that an adventure has just started.Of course it is not all about the glamour of travelling by ship. Piraeus is a big grimy port handling millions of passengers. The peak rush hour happens very early in the morning (when the ships leave) and late in the afternoon (when the ships come in). In between it's a bustling suburb which still gets its living from the sea.
So you want to get to the islands?
There are ticket agents galore around the METRO station and along the quayside. But the last thing you want is to be stuck in the queue for a ticket while your ship gets ready to raise anchor. I recommend buying a ticket the day before. There are numerous travel agencies in central Athens especially around Omonia Square. But be careful - I bought one to Mykonos the day I arrived, and when I doublechecked the Polish ticket agent sold me a ship departing from Patras over 40 miles from Athens - so I had to go back and change it. Ticket prices start at about 20 euros to the Cyclades and up to 60 euros for as far away as Crete and Rhodes. Also, if you can, try and book a seat. The advantages of this will become obvious later in this journal.
OK, you are clutching your little ticket. How do I get to the boats from Central Athens. Athens' new spiffy METRO, polished in time for the 2004 Olympics, will whisk you there from Omonia, Akropolis or Syntagma. The journey takes about half an hour and the ticket is about 6 euros. There are two "rush hours" from Piraeus, early morning and late evening, and both create quite a crush in the METRO carriages. Taxis to Piraeus from Omonia/Syntagma only cost about 8 euros.
When you get there most of the crowds will be heading in the same direction as you. Head out the side entrance and to the south of here the great ships, hundreds of feet high, loom out of the darkness. Whatever you do - go by the ferry company name. If you are lucky you may have "Blue Star" or "Minoan" lit up in neon letters making things easier. The ships to the Cyclades are directly across from the METRO station. But the Argo-Saronic ships are further along the port and the direct ships to Crete are a five minute walk away. Separating the METRO station from the water is a busy road called Akti Kalimasioti - part of the refurbishment of Piraeus means there is an escalator/footbridge connecting with the other side.
So you have found your ship and patiently queue to be let on. Firstly, they make you stow your luggage in the hold. No one is allowed their luggage up on deck with them. Therefore your luggage will be put in a pile with hundreds of others, make sure you remember exactly where you stowed it so as to avoid any embarrassing panics when you disembark. I didn't - and I am still under the psychotherapist.
Up on deck there is no doubt the ferries have improved from the creaking rust buckets of yesteryear but these cash-cows still try to cram in as many people as possible. Every conceivable space will be full of people - families will grab tables, backgammon sets will be brought out and people set up camp in the passageways. That is why it is important to prebook seats. The reserved area has aircraft style seats with good views outside the windows. There are restaurants and coffee bars aboard the ferries but most serve snack food, not a sit down meal. Many passengers bring their own provisions.
But if you can spend as much time as you can on the upper deck. The views can be stupendous - we had the great white bulk of the 'Oriana' cruiseliner pass us by as we left Piraeus. And Piraeus itself looks impressive at night with all the buildings lit up in the darkness.. But best of all are the islands as you pass by. Before you reach your destination you are likely to stop at a minimum of two. And as amusing as the mad scramble of motorbikes and tourists up the gangplank is - nothing quite beats the sight of the islands themselves with their starkly barren brown cliffs, Mediterranean architecture, wheeling gulls, and medieval fishing villages -all washed in golden Aegean sunlight.
Truly a special part of the world.