Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Don't panic: it's the hitch-hiker's guide to humiliation
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The Independent Travel

The greatest ignominy a hitch-hiker can suffer, I had assumed until a week ago, was to give up thumbing and take a taxi. Now I know better. Even in benevolent Greece, hitching to the middle of nowhere in broad daylight is not an easy prospect. Hitching to the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night requires good fortune of epic precautions.

The greatest ignominy a hitch-hiker can suffer, I had assumed until a week ago, was to give up thumbing and take a taxi. Now I know better. Even in benevolent Greece, hitching to the middle of nowhere in broad daylight is not an easy prospect. Hitching to the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night requires good fortune of epic precautions.

My destination was Kalamos, a small village on the eastern shore of the Pagasitic Gulf.

"Pagasitic Gulf" may sound like a nasty stomach bug, probably best treated with a large dose of industrial-strength Kalamos. In fact, it is a body of water on the eastern side of mainland Greece whose shoreline, uncannily, is a close match for the dimensions of the M25. And Kalamos was where I had rented a room for a week.

I had planned to leave the nearby island of Skiathos aboard the good ship Afrika, a tourist tub that waddles over from the Pelion peninsula each day and, word has it, is not averse to taking paying passengers on the return leg. Except last week, when it stayed at home – despite a healthy rumour mill down at the docks asserting its imminent departure.

From bitter experience every traveller knows that a plan that admits of no modification is a poor one, especially in Greece. My Plan B was to hop aboard the final Flying Dolphin hydrofoil to Volos. This city claims its place in mythology as the departure port for Jason and the Argonauts, but that was several earthquakes ago; it now resembles a sunnier version of Watford.

Unfortunately, travelling from Skiathos to Kalamos via Volos is the equivalent of travelling around the M25 from Heathrow to Gatwick by way of Watford, ie a considerable detour.

No matter, I thought, as I boarded the uncomfortable, Soviet-looking hydrofoil in Skiathos – by the time we get to Volos, there will be a good two hours of daylight remaining. That was before the captain, quite correctly, agreed to delay his departure so that a hospital patient, her husband, plus half a dozen paramedics and her saline drip could arrive in a blaze of blue lights to be rushed across to the mainland.

With barely an hour of daylight left by the time the hydro-ambulance reached Volos, I concluded that a bus to as close to Kalamos as possible was the best bet. As luck would have it, a Dutch couple waiting by the bus stop said that they, too, were heading down the coast and a bus was due imminently. The rumour factory was working overtime here, too. After half an hour, when the only thing moving was the sinking sun, I made my excuses and hitched. Soon, though, I found myself in the embarrassing position of unsuccessfully thumbing the same set of vehicles three times in quick succession.

It happened like this: after 10 minutes of fruitless hitching, a pair of employees from what I now firmly believe to be the finest travel agency in Volos – Paradiso Holidays – picked me up and sped me 10 miles down the road. I say "sped" advisedly, because the driver overtook all the cars that had shunned my thumb as he and his colleague raced to a shopping centre. They dropped me off and disappeared into the mall, giving me the chance to give the same cars a second chance of picking me up. None took it.

After just five minutes of shopping at the same frantic pace as the driving, the Paradiso Holidays pair reappeared, and offered me a further 10-mile ride that again passed everything in sight and dropped me off ahead of the now-familiar pack. By now this part of Greece was as dark and cheerless as Hades, so the third time was just as unlucky as the first and second hitch. Kalamos was another 20 miles down the track to nowhere. But even being rejected thrice is not the greatest dishonour a hitch-hiker can suffer.

As night deepened, I started devising the format for a new reality TV show called I'm A Travel Editor – Get Me Out Of Here. Then, out of the gloom, a generous gentleman stopped.

Although he was going only three miles further, he could drop me at a mini-market where his friend would call a taxi for me. And he was right, after a fashion. The mini-market proprietor phoned what I assumed was a local cab firm.

Nearly an hour later, a mint-condition Mercedes with German number plates pulled up. The driver got out. I assumed he was a holidaymaker who had come to stock up on retsina, and so I made polite conversation in fractured German about the beaches, the weather and the atrocious performance of Scotland's footballers versus the Faroe Islands, then peered once more into the highway gloom seeking the sought-after taxi.

"I am a taxi," he announced after a minute. He turned out to be a Greek "Gastarbeiter", working in Germany but back home for the summer. He was also the only pal with a car who Mr Mini-market had been able to summon on the phone. There was, clearly, no meter in the Merc, and we pondered on the appropriate fare, because neither of us had a clue about the pricing structures for Greek cabs. But he readily accepted my offer of €10 – partly because he wasn't going anywhere near Kalamos.

The coast road to Kalamos is an unmade track, littered with traffic hazards of the sort illustrated on the right. Accordingly, it has little appeal to drivers of brand-new Mercedes. So Herr Temporary Taxi dropped me five miles short of Kalamos. There is one humiliation greater than stopping hitching and stepping into a taxi – and that is when the cab driver refuses to take you to your final destination, however much you are prepared to pay.

Five miles, on a rough road and a moonless night, provides a good two hours to reflect at leisure about the advisability of travelling in rural Greece without the benefit of a rental car or a torch. But on this night, Thumbus, the Greek god of hitching, was smiling. Inside two minutes, the night sky was pierced by a blazing pair of headlights belonging to a four-wheel-drive vehicle. It was driven by Andrew, on holiday from north London, who was not heading for Kalamos but had been there earlier in the day and was prepared, in a rare piece of cross-Thames generosity, to retrace his route for the benefit of a south Londoner – and to demonstrate the veracity of the rule that for every bad travel experience, there is an equal and opposite good one.

Just as Pelion is the new Peloponnese, Stansted is the new Heathrow. In seven weeks the Essex airport will boast more links to German destinations than Heathrow, or any airport outside Germany.

A shame, then, that it will no longer be connected by rail to London – at least on Sundays. To coincide with the launch of five of those new flights, the Stansted Express train link is to close every Sunday between 29 September and 2004. (That is two years from now, not 8.04pm.) On a normal Sunday, 50,000 people use the Essex airport, with an average 14,000 taking the train to or from London.

Replacement buses will run to and from Liverpool Street station "every 5-10 minutes" according to the train operator, West Anglia Great Northern, though to no specific timetable. Passengers are being told to allow twice as long as the current 45-minute train time. But the long-running road works on the M11 near the airport will not be finished by the time the rail closure takes effect, so the promised 90-minute journey could take longer.

Even though this is clearly a second-best service, normal Stansted Express fares of £13 one-way or £23 return still apply. It will be much cheaper to take the competing Airbus A6 service to and from London Victoria, which runs every 20 minutes and costs only £12 return.

Any unlucky German tourists who unwittingly arrive at Stansted on a Sunday should have plenty of time to admire our integrated transport network. Or they could try hitching.

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