Simon Calder: Lazing on a sunny afternoon, Greek style

The man who pays his way
  • @SimonCalder

The worst of times, at least in my hitch-hiking annals, took place last weekend in Greece. I was in the port of Ermioni in the eastern Peloponnese. My target was the isle of Poros. The map showed a connection on the high-speed Hydra hydrofoil. (Try saying that after a glass of ouzo.)

Spending a sunny afternoon cooped up in a gloomy Soviet-built kometa held little appeal. Handily, the map also revealed a big red road curling enticingly around the coast for 43km to the village of Galatas – from which Poros is but a five-minute ferry away.

I had missed the last bus by at least a decade. But Lonely Planet reports: "On country roads it is not unknown for someone to stop and ask if you want a lift, even if you haven't stuck a thumb out". What could possibly go wrong?

A blistering Greek sun stifled the crickets, smothered the rural fragrances of herbs and pine and broiled the brain – which was why I asked a local for directions with a loaded question. In the absence of direction signs, the correct way to identify the right road out of town is to ask: "Which way to X?" If you believe you are already on the correct route, enquire: "Where does this road go?" Never ask, as I did, "Is this the road to Galatas?," for it invites agreement regardless of truth.

Half an hour later, when my walk had decayed to a trudge, a car finally stopped. The driver looked bemused when I said where I was going. "Get in," he sighed, and drove me back whence I had come, through town and out the other side to the junction where the road to Galatas actually began.

Sakis left me with a cheery wave and the opinion that the drachma would replace the euro "in 20 days".

At least I had a chance to ask his name. When the next lift arrived, I was happy to take it for a change of scene even though the driver was turning off in less than 1km. By now, the flow of traffic had had thinned beyond a trickle to an occasional drip. After walking for about an hour, just five cars had passed. The sixth stopped. I clambered in alongside three large adults and one medium-sized dog – a process that took longer than the time spent actually travelling in their car, in a repeat sub-1km ride.

The lift, though, that hinted my hitch-hiking career was at the end of the road, involved a big yellow vehicle that was probably beyond the scope of my travel-insurance policy. The driver of the JCB digger lowered the scoop and invited me to step aboard – destination, ignominy, giving a fresh meaning to the term "journalistic scoop". But at least it carried me 5km.

As the sun sank over the parched hills, a kindly South African named Janet finally came to the rescue. She transported me over the hills and far away, or at least five times further than all the previous lifts put together.

Rescued by the quad squad

Was my dismal day evidence that the Greek tradition of xenia (hospitality) is waning as economic skies darken, or mere incompetence plus bad luck?

To find out, I tried thumbing around the isle of Poros. Not only did the first vehicle stop – but it was a first lift of its kind to for me, in the shape of a quad bike. At the controls, in what sounds like the start of a limerick, there was a young coastguard called Yannis.

Apocalypse? No, try the Acropolis

The best of times: by Sunday evening, I had reached Athens. Fears of a financial apocalypse are dampening tourists' appetite for the Acropolis, making this the ideal summer to visit the Greek capital. The city is as friendly, relaxed and traffic-choked as when I first visited in 1975 (coincidentally, on a trip that involved my previous worst day's hitching: a seven-hour wait outside Salzburg). In the summer of 2012, though, you can escape the traffic and the heat with a beer on the veranda of the dazzling Acropolis Museum – a place where you learn that Athens has survived much more turbulent times than the present.

However dramatic or inconclusive (or both) tomorrow's Greek election proves, you can expect a warm welcome and low prices in Athens and beyond. Just read our upgraded guide ( first.