The Athens meeting’s finished, the sun is still up and there’s about an hour left to squeeze in some sightseeing. Where to? The Parthenon? No, the harbour, of course.
Harbours and ports hold good memories for me, of sunset walks along the quay in countless Scottish coastal towns. When there is no TV and only one board game in the holiday cottage, going down to watch the ferry come in quickly becomes the highlight of the evening. The steady stream of big ships I’d seen moving across the tiny sliver of sea visible from the city centre convinced me to take a late afternoon trip down to the port of Piraeus, at the edge of the Greek capital.
The metro train clanked and clattered its way out of the centre of Athens, past Olympiakos’ football stadium, and drew under the giant curved roof of Piraeus station. A romantic port at the edge of the Mediterranean this was not. Hoards of commuters pushed and shoved on the narrow pavement, jousting for the few available taxis outside the station. Vendors sold sets of cooking pots on hastily-erected tables. Rows of buses four-deep belched out clouds of soot as they waited for the traffic lights to turn.
I had no map and no idea which way to turn. The edge of the water twisted this way and that, terminals jutting out into the water and high buildings obscuring the view either direction. I elected to go right – the direction in which I could see a clear pathway to some waiting ships – and proceeded across the footbridge that hung over the road.
Inside the grounds of the port, the roadway stretched right the way from the fence to the water. Despite being a good ten metres in width, there were no clear lines to mark out which lanes traffic should stick to, or – perhaps more importantly – where pedestrians ought to walk. I witnessed several instances of cars having to swerve violently to avoid each other, and backpack-bearing ferry goers almost being run into the sea by wayward vehicles. This somewhat reassured me it was not only I who was finding the lack of signage troubling.
The sun knew the wispy clouds were allowing it to make a dramatic exit, so it lingered on the horizon for a good half hour to milk the curtain calls for all they were worth. A slow trickle of trucks, cars and humans disappeared into the gaping dark hole at the rear of the boxy ferry closest to me, three flourescent-waistcoated stevedores lazily waving all comers on to the ship. Overhead, a giant LCD screen explained the reason for relaxed boarding – the ferry wasn’t due to sail for another two and a half hours.
I followed the quay round to the left and was greeted with the sight of four more ferries, all with their ramps down and cargo trundling on. Each boat was slightly different, one with blue and white stripes, one red with a white upper deck, one fully red, operated by companies completely unknown to me. Arek Lines, Nova Ferries, Blue Star Ferries. Still dodging the speeding vehicles – which, in the absence of clear signage inevitably took the shortest and most direct route to their respective destinations – I wandered past the boats and took in the smells familiar to me from my youth. The heavy aroma of diesel, the whiff of heavy-duty paint and more than a hint of fish and seaweed.
A setting sun and chaotic traffic convinced me to head back to the station, for I was wearing dark clothing and did not fancy being mowed down. I looked at the digital departure screens mounted at the entryway to each boat. With the exception of the sailing times, everything on the departure boards was incomprehensible to me on account of the fact it was written in Greek. Just some symbols, spelled out in tiny orange dots, that pertained to some island destination somewhere. I could very easily have picked one of the boats on a whim and wandered in through the giant stern door, heading to destination unknown and never to be seen again.
Resisting the urge to hop aboard a boat, I continued back to the station. Soon I was back in the big echoey hall of Piraeus station, making headway for a grubby metro carriage that would take me back to Athens. But the short walk round the quayside had rekindled all sorts of memories of utilitarian sea travel, where going on the ferry was half the fun (and, let’s face it, seventy five percent of the stress) of the holiday. Next time I go away somewhere, I think I’ll look in to traveling by ship.