Our room overlooked the sea, and when I woke up I heard the slow sound of waves, and I could see dawn over the Gulf of Megara. It was a hazy pink, and a thick mist obscured the sea view; but only an hour later, you could even see the pebbles in the shallows of the blue and green waters. It was hard to believe that less than 24 hours ago, we were stuck in a taxi in a traffic jam on the M23, trying to get to Gatwick on yet another day of train strikes.
We had hired the car at Athens Airport from Alamo. Our online booking had requested a manual white Suzuki Celerio; what we got was a Mitsubishi Automatic. The only man from Alamo in the car pickup area was a nice chap called Georgios, who insisted that we had given the wrong information to Mr Panos. I insisted the mistake was not mine.
Mr Panos was the gentleman on the reception desk within the airport who had issued us with the keys. He had seemed rather world weary. Georgios was a charming man who appeared to be dead set on remaining cheerful no matter how trying the circumstances. He was in constant radio contact with Mr Panos.
Georgios was clearly used to customers who did not align with his own views, but he countered any dissent with a cheery: “Not a problem”. They would have another car with us within a few moments. This duly arrived. His radio communication with Mr Panos, however, established that another error had been made: the car was indeed a manual, but it was too big and we would have to settle for a smaller car. We said, “It’s really not a problem,“ and Georgios concurred: “Not a problem, we’ll have another car with you within a few moments”.
He brought round the white Celerio that we had asked for at the start. This had scrapes and scratches from previous drivers, so we made a big show of photographing these, while Georgios insisted the car was in fabulous shape. He held up a piece of card with a circular hole cut in it, and said that only dents that were bigger than this were of concern. Otherwise, “not a problem”. After some discussion he agreed that the petrol tank was not 100% full, marking it down as 7/8 on the illegible document on his tablet. We agreed that we agreed, and he held out the screen, sadly cracked in many places, for my signature.
We set off in the dark, taking a slight detour past a barrier into the paid for parking, back-tracking past the barrier, after waiting impatiently for the parking gate to open, and being beeped by a few impatient drivers. Georgios had told us to follow the signs for Elefsina, and then turn right onto the motorway. In less than half an hour, we were on the A7 that runs all the way down to Kalamata, and a few minutes later arrived at the first toll station.
The Greek system for motorway tolls is different from that in France, which we are used to from our repeated holidays in the south. In France, most of the toll stations are now sadly automated; you pull your ticket from the vending machine, drive hundreds of miles and then pay a large number of Euros at the exit point, almost invariably without pushing the button for a receipt for the 30-50 Euros that has been taken off your credit card.
In Greece, it’s very different. The toll booths still have human beings working in them, you are usually greeted with a friendly, if world weary Yiassas, you pay in cash, and absolutely without fail, they hand you a receipt. This is so much more pleasant than the French system. The downside is the number of toll booths that you pass through; we collected more than a dozen receipts along the journey.
Hotel Cokkinis near Megara turned out to be a bargain. We had a simple clean friendly room with a balcony overlooking the sea for 60 Euros, including breakfast. By the time we arrived, of course, it was already dark, but you could hear the waves down below.
I woke up early in the morning and looked out from the balcony, everything was invisible in a heavy white mist. Half and hour later, I could see the pink light of dawn through the hotel room blinds so I popped out again. Very ambient, the water very still and unruffled, and the waves lapping gently. After enjoying the view, I went back to bed until it was time for breakfast.
The night before, after checking in to the hotel, we had a typical Greek meal and some local house wine. Luckily they served dinner until 11 pm, very friendly, very relaxed, so it was an enjoyable start to our stay in Greece, despite the challenges of the journey out. The house wine was more like a juice than a full strength red, but quite tasty and only 5 euros for 500 ml. I had breast of chicken with Xorta, stringy greens with lemon juice, really delicious; and Jenny had a pork souvlaki, which turned out to be too much to eat.
Breakfast was excellent, and good value given that it was included in the room cost. Fresh fruit with yoghurt, bread with boiled eggs, little Greek filo pastries, and strong coffee but with evaporated milk. Overall, 10/10 for value, maybe 7/10 for quality.
Various bald Americans were having breakfast around us looking rather bored, as if they had had too much time off, showing each other the sports channels on their phones, looking at videos on their electronic screens, brushing away the sparrows and seemingly oblivious to the beautiful blues of the water in the Megaran gulf and the islands and mountains behind.
After breakfast, we went down to the beach for a swim, blue and white recliners under thatched parasols. The recliners and beach umbrellas had that natural, slightly faded look that makes you feel instantly relaxed. It seemed a world apart from the glitzy Duty Free that they have built at Gatwick, which we had been rushing through just 24 hours earlier to get our flight.