You can float your boat in Venice on a gondola for a groat. (Or for a couple of Euros, if you’re a tourist or for about 70 cents, if you’re a local.) You can do this on the Canale Grande. You can even do it without the embarrassment of being poled around on the real thing below bridges that are packed with sneering onlookers, who stare down at you with malice because they cannot afford the full cappuccino plus O sole Mio.
The Venetian budget boats, i traghetti, cross the Canale Grande at several points. Hop aboard and by the time you’ve fished the fare from your pocket, it’s hop off time. The trip is just long enough to impart a sense of localism. Look casual and, for authentic Venetian élan, stand up like the gondoliers but face the direction of travel; and keep an eye open for the wash from passing vaporetti. The up-down-sideways motion of a cross-channel traghetto can be lethal for those without sea legs. If you fall into the Canale Grande’s mulligatawny soup there’s a risk you may die – and not necessarily from drowning.
The Canale Grande traghetto crossing is one of the shortest voyages in the world. One of the most accessible crossings is between the eponymous Campo del Traghetto in San Marco and Calle Lanza in Dorsoduro. On the Dorsoduro side, lies the Church of Santa Maria della Salute, the great Baroque beauty that was built by the Republic as a thanksgiving for Venice being delivered from the Black Death in 1630 (people were falling off the traghetti into the canals like dead flies…) Do not stare unguardedly at the fabulous facade of the Salute from the traghetto’s bobbing-cork deck…or into the soup you may go.
I am a boatspotter. Boats float my boat in a big way; ferries especially, both large and small. I’ve spent a fair bit of my working life on ferries and even more time on working boats. But ferries are my default; Greek ferries especially. They take me to places I love and know well. Guidebook writers deal with ferries as part of their job. They spend much time tussling with often confusing and contradictory timetables amidst the heady whiff of spent diesel, the oily soily odour of greased chains and cables, the smoky smell of hawser-laid ropes, the salty sniff of the sea-saucy sea, the chatter of passengers jostling up and down the ferry ramps, the ferrymen, gnarled and knobbly as old oak, tarry lung-busters dangling from their lips, their eyes distant with dreams of far waters, – or possibly boredom as yet another island quay looms into view and the klaxons sound, the anchors rattle and crash from the bows, the monkeys’ fists fly ashore, their heft lines attached to mooring ropes as thick as boa constrictors, the ramp slowly lowers and clangs and grinds onto the quay to a blaze of light, and the manic two-way rush begins.
I talk of traditional ferries of course. The vast wedding cake hydrofoils and fast flappers of modern ferry travel leave me cold. If you want to see where you’re going, if you want at least a hazy glimpse of Odysseus’s islands, then stick to the so-called ‘slow’ ferries, the best of which are not exactly slow these days. The big Aegean Blue Star ferries will take just a little longer in getting from island to island than do the wedding cake hydrofoils, but the views are far more rewarding. Just don’t refer to the Blue Stars as being slow. Traditional is OK. But, it’s not very wise when in a ferry booking office to malign fast modern ferries like the Blue Stars.
There’s nothing wrong with modern ‘fast’ ferries, of course, especially if you simply want to get from one island hopping-shopping experience to another; or if you don’t mind being ordered to your numbered seat by a faux airline steward in a facsimile of a jumbo jet skidding around on ice; to a seat from where you can see nothing but the seat back in front of you and the mindless migraine of huge television sets fixed to the forrard bulkhead.
Stick with the trad ferries if you want to see a favourite island slipping into the distance or looming ahead out of the Aegean haze. Fast ferries are fine, if you don’t mind not being able to get out into the fresh air, or not being able to see the fabulous snow-white cornices of Oia and Fira on the caldera of Santorini. And… if you suffer from seasickness, the smaller hydrofoils, especially, can be desperately puke-prone in even the slightest swell. Not even the Isles of Scilly ferry or the Fishguard-Rosslare storm roller can replicate the carnage of a locked-in hydrofoil full of tourists who have just gorged on bad souvlaki, stale feta and the throwaway dregs of local wine.
When a Greek ferry is running late you’ll get a happily unhelpful response from a dockside worthy.
‘It’s coming’ is a common response. ”Soon’ is less accurate. ‘Cancelled’ is the end of life, as we know it
On the tiny Cycladic island of Donousa I waited once, and waited, and waited, and waited…for the Romilda, one of the Greek ferry system’s notorious old rust buckets that plied endlessly the length and breadth of the Aegean. These were government subsidised ferries that ensured services to every island between Athens and the Dodecanese. The Romilda was a perverse favourite of mine. It boasted a splendidly truculent crew of beer-bellied, scowling, fag-fuming old hands who lacked every single grace and favour towards the rest of the world and especially towards tourists. Over the years I eventually managed to con them into thinking I was some kind of peculiar, blue-eyed Northern Greek with a Scots accent.
The Romilda’s Donousa stop was scheduled for 8.30am. You do not dare be a minute late, even if experience argues that the boat is always at least half an hour overdue. Running late is inevitable for a ferry that is trundling round the Aegean stopping at every island that gets in the way. Sometimes, the Romilda did make it on schedule.
OFF FOR OUZO
On Donousa, post 9am, post 10am, the morning baked gently towards midday. The handful of fishermen finished clearing their nets and ambled off for ouzo. The gentle Aegean sucked at the quay and hissed gently past the rock barrage. The water was joyously aquamarine. The sky was deepening blue by the minute. The sun sizzled. A solitary angler flexed his line gently across the swaying water.
I asked if he knew when the ferry would come. Had it been cancelled perhaps?
His English was fluent, as ever with islanders.
‘It will come; Bebeos, of course. Where are you from?’
This was Manolis. He was an architect from Athens, visiting his home island, which he did often. As with most people who learn that I live in beautiful Cornwall, he asked if that was near Portsmouth.
‘Very far, actually. About 500 kilometres from London.’
I began my usual gambit.
‘Britain; you know how it’s shaped? A funny shape. In the west; it looks like the head of a pig. This is Wales. Below Wales is the shape of a pig’s leg. This is Cornwall, Cornwalli…’
Always, the response is bewilderment. Your native country is clearly delineated in your native head. Others do not necessarily have a clear image of it.
‘Far from London, then?’ said Manolis. ‘I have been in London often.’
‘Cornwall is very, very different to London,’ I said. ‘As Donousa is different to Athens.’
‘Is it an island then?
Ah…’I said, It is an almost island. It really is. Where I live in the far west of Cornwall it feels like being on an island. The Atlantic Ocean is the next step.
‘I think’ I’d like that,’ said Manolis. Plenty of fish!’
We laughed about this and then I returned to the ferry’s ‘imminent’ arrival.
‘You think it will come today?’
He smiled; ‘You will hear it before you see it.’
And then, in that helpful spontaneous way of most Greeks, Manolis took out his mobile phone and contacted his cousin, who was, of course, the local ferry agent.
A few snatched words; it sounded promising…
‘She is very late,’ said Manolis. An hour…or maybe two…’
He had to go. We parted with feeling.
‘I think I’d really like Cornwall,’ Manolis said once more.
I heard the Romilda half an hour later. She was coming round Donousa as she comes… From the north. The thud of her engines, the knocking of worn piston heads, were unmistakeable. Five further minutes passed and then, from behind the high rocky foreshore, with triumphant blasts of her bronchitic horn, the Romilda trudged into view, an off-white, dirt-streaked, paint-encrusted old rust bucket belching black smoke from its tatty old funnel.
Sadly, but essentially, the Romilda made its final voyage in 2011, on tow to the Aliaga scrap yard in Turkey, after several years of legal wrangling between its owner, the decommissioning authorities and the Port of Piraeus. Other similar vessels took the last tow about the same time, when the Greek ferry system upgraded substantially.
There were earlier ferries of choice from Donousa that morning. One was the mighty Blue Star Naxos on its regular Athens-Amorgos-and-islands-in-between circuit. The other was my all time favourite ferry, the fabulous Express Scopelitis, the idiosyncratic local ferry that runs between Naxos and Amorgos serving the beautiful Mikres Kyklades, the Little Cyclades, the tiny islands of Iraklio, Schinousa, Koufinissi and Donousa.
The Scopelitis is an acquired taste. It is a seaworthy little boat, but it can rock ‘n roll with the worst of them. Big time. You may run south from Naxos quite comfortably on a hard following wind and sea to Ikaria, Schinousa and Koufinissi. Then, turning northeast towards Donousa puts the Scopelitis broadside to wind and sea. This plunges most passengers into instant heave, especially in the smoke-filled below-decks’ saloon where the crew happily spread fishing nets across the floor and mend them. The ‘steward’ on the Scopelitis was a lugubrious, rangy character with a lop-sided grin, When the Scopelitis went into really heavy rock and roll mode, he would unwind from behind his tiny bar and amble round the saloon handing out transparent sick bags – pour encourager les autres frankly, in the literal sense.
HOW EXACTLY DO YOU CANCEL A BOAT?
Draw a line through it? Dismantle it? Sink it?
Many years ago, I was waiting on the island of Santorini for a mid-afternoon ferry to Anafi, the tiny island that lies quietly in the haze about forty kilometres to the east of Greece’s most glamorous tourist honey pot. Anafi merited only a few paragraphs in the Lonely Planet Greek guidebook that I was working on. However, there was no way that I’d miss Anafi. This is an island that plunges you back into an older Greece, a potent pleasure after the glitz and glamour and conspicuous tourism of Santorini.
The Anafi boat was one of the old-fashioned hydrofoils known as Flying Dolphins. This Dolphin was not a routine ferry. It was a tour boat and was carrying a full load from Naxos. The tourists had a few hours ashore before boarding for the return trip to Naxos. In the interim, the Dolphin was scheduled to continue to Anafi and then return to Santorini and the trip back to Naxos. The extra leg to Anafi depended for profit on passenger numbers since the Dolphins carried very little freight. They needed bodies aboard to make the trip worthwhile.
There were seven of us waiting for the Anafi connection. Myself, a young Australian couple, all blond good looks and bouncy certainties, and two surprisingly timid French couples. We were in one of the narrow departure corrals and were a rather forlorn and lonely little group compared with the massed ranks seething around the big Piraeus ferries that were coming and going in a feeding frenzy, disgorging streams of tourists from the great whalish maws of their sterns and then greedily swallowing equal numbers of departees.
WHEEZED AND SMOKED…
The Dolphin from Naxos arrived on time and wheezed and smoked alongside the minor quay near where we waited. Fantastic! On time! Our spirits rose. I watched the passengers disembark to the last drop. And then, my heart sank. The ferry had emptied itself of every passenger! I watched the crew and dockers light up their fags, lounge, linger and look resentfully towards our captive cage.
‘I don’t like this,’ I said to my fellow hopefuls.
The Australian girl had a look that brooked no nonsense.
‘Why not? she said with a degree of waspishness.
‘I think they’ll cancel the Anafi leg.’
‘We’re the only passengers. Those Dolphins burn a lot of fuel. I’ll bet they’ve checked ahead with Anafi and because this is not a regular ferry, there’s probably no one waiting to board at Anafi for the outward trip. That means we’re the only passengers. The crew would rather wait here until their passengers are ready to go back to Naxos. Beer to drink, coffee to gossip over. People to watch. Fuel to save.’
‘That’s outrageous!’ she stamped.
I could see the crew conference round the Dolphin gangway was reaching a conclusion. Baleful glances came our way. The French couples looked increasingly anxious. The two young Aussies were frothing even more.
‘Here we go,’ I said as a large white shirt with epaulettes lumbered over from the Dolphin, a sour look on its face. The shirt peered through the bars at us and grunted,
‘No ferry to Anafi.’
‘And why not?’
‘Cancelled. Next ferry – tomorrow.’
‘Oh yeah. At four in the morning! What’s wrong with the Dolphin? It’s scheduled to go to Anafi. We’ve bought tickets..!’
He looked at me with intense dislike, and then looked out to sea. The Aegean was mirror flat; the sky was cloudless. I knew exactly what would come next.
‘Big storm coming,‘ he grunted and lumbered away without another word.
A mini storm erupted at my elbow as the Aussie girl blew it.
‘Right,’ she said; ‘I’m not standing for this! I’m going to the ferry office to sort them out, They can’t do this!’
‘They’ll laugh at you,’ I said.
‘Just you wait!’ and off she went, handsomely incandescent. Her boyfriend grinned.
‘She’s used to getting her way’ he said; ‘Her dad owns Lonely Planet…’
I was still processing the fact that I was in the middle of a typical Lonely Planet guidebook-writing impasse that was shared with an LP dynasty, when the girl came back. Deeply dejected.
‘They laughed at me,’ she said, with the look of someone still processing the sheer effrontery of it all.
I told her that I worked for Lonely Planet. Her father was not the famous Tony Wheeler, but the more infamous Australian ‘entrepreneur’ and all round ocker larrikin, John ‘Singo’ Singleton. Singo owned a largish minority share in LP at the time. He was effectively my boss. This was his daughter, Sally, (she later became a pop singer). She and her boyfriend were on a European trip and had really really really wanted to visit Anafi. I told them I’d be down at the quay bleary-eyed at 4am the next morning to catch the regular ferry to the island. It did not take them long to drop the idea of Anafi and to grab a ticket back to Athens on the next regular sailing.
‘Difference between hard labour and pleasure,’ I said.
They took that in good part.
‘Tell your dad just how difficult this guidebook work can be,’ I said as we parted company.
Tourists may cancel. Boats may cancel. But guidebook writers never miss the boat…
REALLY, REALLY SAD BOATSPOTTING…