News: Ferry chaos for Athens; European rail network

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Ferry chaos for Athens?

Ferry chaos for Athens?

One of the more bizarre twists to the increasingly frantic saga of Greece's preparations for the Olympics is the impact that the bed shortage in Athens is threatening to have on ferry services. With city centre hotels already block-booked for games officials and the world's media this August, the main Athenian port at Piraeus is gearing up to take some of the tourist overflow. Berths will be set aside for 11 large cruise ships which are to be used as floating hotels. Several of Greece's new high-speed ferries are also likely to be redeployed, running day-trip services for games visitors who will be staying on nearby islands.

This will put considerable pressure on the ability of Piraeus to handle its regular heavy ferry traffic at the peak of the tourist season; in a normal year close on one million passengers pass through the port in August. With quay access restricted, and thousands of extra visitors residing in the harbour itself, there are fears that services - including the metro and bus systems into the city centre - could be overwhelmed by the demand.

The plan is to move some ferry services to the remoter ports of Rafina and Lavrio. These lie well outside the city environs on the eastern Attica coast, and both have had their harbour facilities enlarged in the last two years. Despite being closer to the islands than Piraeus, they have seen relatively little ferry activity in the past, due to poor overland links that resulted in longer journey times. A motorway building programme linking both with the new airport should be complete by the summer, and connecting bus services will also be in place. This should enable some island hoppers to avoid entering Athens altogether, before taking ferries (with significantly shorter journey times) to the Cyclades islands.

Regular travellers are in for something of a shock this August. In a part of the world where accurate printed timetables are a rarity, the primary problem will be in establishing which port your desired ferry will be departing from. Those looking to make connections as part of an island-hopping trip could also find that their next boat operates from a different Athenian port from their place of arrival.

There is a proposal to link all three ports via four fast passenger boats, but like most ferry activity in Greece, advance information is thin on the ground before a service actually appears. The result is a maddening lack of detailed information: with less than 200 days to the Olympics, the extent of this ferry migration isn't yet clear, and is unlikely to become so much before the summer.

Once in the islands, moving around should be as easy as usual but there is a lot to be said for avoiding Athens this August. If you plan to travel to the islands via Athens airport, make a point of visiting the Greek National Tourist Board (EOT) information kiosk for the latest information on ferry departures before catching the next bus to Piraeus.

Frewin Poffley

The writer is the author of 'Greek Island Hopping' (Thomas Cook, £12.99)

Rail ways: how the Continent is moving closer

Fed up with flying? Thanks to acceleration on the rail network of Europe, you can now get surprisingly far in a day. David Gunning, of the specialist agent Trainseurope, has calculated the number of places that can be reached in a reasonable day of travel: starting no earlier than 7.30am from London Waterloo, arriving at the destination no later than 11.30pm.

Any station in Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and France is accessible with a connection in Lille, Paris or Brussels. So too are almost all stations in Switzerland (even high-altitude Zermatt) and Germany. But faster services through the Channel Tunnel also bring more easterly destinations within reach. The Austrian cities of Salzburg and Innsbruck are accessible in a day, as is the Czech capital, Prague - as long as the connections in Brussels go according to plan.

"If only the train operators would improve the connections at Lille and Brussels then a same-day link with Vienna is a distinct possibility," says Mr Gunning.

For travellers prepared to catch the 6.29am from Waterloo (which requires check-in before 6am), the range extends still further. Changing trains in France, you can reach Milan and Turin in Italy, and even the Spanish cities of Barcelona and San Sebastian.

Trainseurope: call 0900 195 0101 between 9.30am and 4.30pm, Mon-Fri; calls cost 60p per minute (the charge is refunded if you book); www.trainseurope.co.uk

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