Saturday, 17 October 2015

Grim-mouldy Ferries

Friday, 16th October (very early)

There have been some positives about the crossing from Brindisi to Patras. For example, we are more than three-quarters the way through the 15 hour journey, and we have not sunk yet. That's good. The ship is large and very stable, despite the gales and choppy seas. This too is excellent news for someone who has been known to feel distinctly queasy on a cross channel ferry even before departing Dover East Docks. 

Evening embarkation

Almost empty ferry, Maisy - the sole motorhome
However, aside from not dying or becoming violently sick, there is really nothing positive at all you can say about Grimaldi Lines service. 

For a start the boat is old and badly maintained. The soft furnishings in the passenger areas are so stained that they look like a health hazard. The food is the very worst kind of greasy-spoon cafe chicken and chips, the catering staff seem off-hand and surly, and the meals exorbitantly priced. 

This Cretan wine is terrible, Gill intimates....

Best unhappy bunny expression

Gloomy decor, maybe one day, 80s Best Western will become retro...

The ship is almost empty, there are twenty or so Greek, Albanian and Bulgarian trucks. The drivers look like truck drivers the world over - meaty, moustached, middle aged, eating together at tables chatting, being comrades and strangers simultaneously. Apart from the truckers, there are very few other paying passengers, and what an odd bunch we are! A few Albanian families are huddled down on seats or asleep on mattress rolls. 

Aside from fraught Albanian mothers, it's noticeable that there are hardly any female passengers: Gill, an Italian woman - one half of the stylish Italian couple who parked in front of us, and a rather odd hippyish looking character travelling alone. She wanders about, dressed in Ecuadorian peasant cast-offs, skinhead hairdo, plugged into her ipod, pausing at bins to check them out to see if there is anything worth filching. The plastic shopping bags she carried have French strap-lines. Perhaps she is French, maybe she is Greek, with an odd penchant for 'les sacs estranger'. Who knows? Do we care? 

Inevitably there is a lone twentysomething American backpacker staring into his phone in horror as we drift beyond the edge of the civilised world into a the limnal zone of spasmodic 4G. Most entertaining of all are the two elderly Japanese men who came aboard as foot passengers. They are intriguing. They look as if they are auditioning for the role of 'elderly Japanese gentllemen' scurrying about, bowing to fellow passengers, effusively polite. pausing to photograph everything in sight. If it had been an audition, they faced immediate rejection for hamming-up their performance to such an extent that it should be dismissed as re-enforcing hackneyed racial stereotypes. "Man, nobody acts like that these days, get real!" the casting director might observe, eyes raised heavenwards. 

I would love to know what the two oriental gentleman are doing on an almost empty ferry travelling, off-season, from nowhere in particular in Southern Italy to nowheresville in the Peloponnese. Of course they may be thinking exactly the same of us, we probably look to them like typical grey-haired English travellers. Maybe we failed the audition too, maybe the entire ship is a reject from central casting. Perhaps this is the inevitable fate that awaits all incorrigible itinerants. 

The question of how to get a good night's sleep on a Grimaldi ferry presents the traveller with something of a Hobson's choice. Cabins are expensive and only available in the form of single sex dorms. This would involve shelling out wadges of euros for the pleasure of spending a awkward night bunkered with a group of burly Bulgarian truck drivers, or in Gill's case, sole occupancy of the entire women's facilities. 

There are two other possibilities, either bedding down for free on the passenger lounge couches among the Albanian families and their screaming toddlers, or paying a modest sum for a reclining 'airplane style' chair. We opted for the latter. It soon became obvious that though the the chairs did recline, whatever style of aircraft seat their design emulated probably went out of vogue shortly after Alcock and Brown's pioneering transatlantic flight. 

Gill particularly struggled to drop-off. As I woke-up, between brief fugues of dream-shot slumber, I observed my nearest and dearest assume a series of strange positions in her quest to discover one comfortable enough to induce sleep. I have never seen Gill achieve such contortions since a short-lived phase thirty years ago when she flirted with Ayengar yoga. I was particularly impressed by her determined attempt to overcome insomnia by raising both legs in the air while her head lolled over the chair arm like the victim in a Hammer horror B. movie. The disturbing effect of this was considerably enhanced by the use of supposedly sleep inducing subdued lighting. In the strange ultramarine glow the band of reclined insomniacs took on a biro-disaster blue complexion reminiscent of the strange alien beings in Avatar. This alone would be enough to guarantee all of Grimaldi's 'reclinees' a highly disturbed nights sleep. It certainly scared me. 

The zone of extreme insomnia

The hours passed slowly, the rhythmic thrum of the engines and insistent whoosh of the air conditioning made each minute seem interminable. Slowly the blackness of the portholes lightened to a pale bluish grey. The mountains of Kefalonia appeared through the dawn mist, morning at last. The food served at breakfast was even worse than yesterday's 1970s retro chicken and chips. Reusing last nights unused chips as an ingredient in this morning's omelette is never going to produce food that is anything other than gastric G.B.H. 

Grey dawn over Kefalonia
The one positive effect of this shared ordeal was to break the ice and develop gritty solidarity between the abused passengers. We had a really interesting chat with the young American backpacker. He was headed from Rome to Athens, and we swapped anecdotes and travellers tales of our trips to Europe and America. Conversation speeds up time. 

Chatting to the American backpacker, we never asked him his name -  Jim? Tom? definately something pithy...
The mysterious Japanese gentlemen...

Suddenly we were getting our bags together to disembark in Patras. We will be doing the return trip in a months time. We can solve the issue of the terrible food by bringing snacks on board. How we manage to get a good nights sleep is a trickier problem - book cabins? bring pillows and join the Albanians?
A welcome sight, Patras through the porthole
Really Grimaldi Lines need to review their standards, the return fare of £380 is not a paltry sum, and certainly a high price to pay to end up feeling like a zombie with indigestion.

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