My route from Athens to the UK was scheduled to take ~82 hours, but that includes about 9 bonus hours in Brindisi and 16 bonus hours in Paris. And does mean that I arrive in Portsmouth, which might not be everyone’s idea of the UK.
Leg 1: Coach Athens-Patra (€20.70)
They’ll take bikes underneath. I had to take off my front wheel, but otherwise left the bike intact.
Takes about 3 hours. Has wifi. More or less airconditioned.
Another option is to cycle along the Gulf of Corinth, which I have done before, in the opposite direction. 3 hours versus 3 days.
Leg 2: Ferry Patra-Brindisi (overnight)
It’s a 3-4km ride from the coach station to the ferry port. Ignore the one way signs and take the first ‘exit’ into the port, saving yourself a huge loop. There’s a handy AB supermarket just before you turn into the port.
Do you really need to arrive at least 2 hours before departure for check-in? Probably not. Did I? Yes. Passport control doesn’t open until 60 minutes before departure.
Don’t worry about boarding: the bike just rolls on and gets tied up. Easy.
I got the overnight ferry so that I could make full use of the cabin. Some people will think this is a waste of money when you could just sleep on deck. I think it’s worth every penny. I slept like a log from about 10pm until about 7am.
Plus it’s nice to have somewhere to dump all your crap while you romp about the ship. And I met a lovely chap called John from Poland.
The ferry arrives a short 3km ride from Brindisi town.
Leg 3: Train Brindisi-Milan (overnight)
Again, I booked an overnight train to avoid spending money on a hostel in Milan. That meant two things:
A full day in Brindisi to eat focaccia.
Only 90 minutes to get between station in Milan for my connection to Paris.
There was no problem getting the bike onto the train, but Brindisi train station doesn’t have a lift between platforms so be prepared to lug.
Try to book a lower bunk so that you feel less like a prick when you take up the entire floor space with your bike. You can’t squeeze the bike underneath the bed, so it has to fit into the space between the ladder and the window.
Woe betide you if there are two bikes.
Try to book a cabin near to the train door so you don’t have to carry your stuff so far. Alternatively, I simply moved my stuff up the carriage into an empty cabin about half an hour before Milan. This is only really important if you have a tight change, which I did.
I got a three bunk cabin, by the way. You will not be able to do anything in a triple cabin. The beds are comfortable, but there isn’t much head room. There are stools to perch on in the gangway, but you’ll frequently have to stand up to allow passage.
In spite of there being shampoo in your deluxe complimentary pack, I couldn’t find the shower. There is a sink in your cabin, but you won’t be able to get to it because your bike will be in the way. There are adequate sinks in the toilet.
Leg 4: Train Milan-Paris
I only had 90 minutes to get off the train, put my bike together, cycle to Garibaldi and pack up the bike again. Luckily, it only took me 45 minutes.
The Milan-Paris train left from platform 11 – useful to know, but only if it always does.
I got a hostel and stayed overnight in Paris, where I wandered around and ate crêpes.
Leg 5: Train Paris-Caen
Easy: just wheel the bike onto the train.
Leg 5.5: Cycle to port which is actually 16km away
Ooh – unexpected! Thank god I allowed plenty of panic time.
Leg 6: Ferry Caen to Portsmouth
Easy. The bike wheels on and, some hours later, wheels off.
So that’s it: Athens to the UK in four travelling days. It is possible to do the journey faster, but I was quite pleased with my free time in Brindisi and Paris.
What, if anything, makes you fall in love with a person?
I reckon we can climb that fence. Yes!
Here, try this. She hands me a forkful of mozzarella.
At 2 a.m. we are still sitting out on the rocks overlooking the Bay of Naples.
Kindness where kindness is unexpected. What’s mine is yours. Sharing private moments together, even in public. Saying yes. Eye contact, smiles, easy laughter, a light touch. Conversation that burrows deep. Lingering.
There is magic in play and even more in secrets.
My companion on last week’s Neapolitan food tour was a woman from Texas. For the sake of this email, let’s call her Sylia because, quite frankly, that’s her name and it becomes impossible to conceal later on in the story…
I only knew Sylia for the 64 hours it took us to eat our way around Napoli. After our final espresso breakfast, I was travelling back to England via Milan and Paris, and she was flying to Dubrovnik before flipping over the pond back to California.
She told me that she had a layover in Paris too. In fact, less than a week separated my overnight sojourn in the City of Light and hers. We parted.
I walked down to the Seine to watch the sunset. I’ve been here before. Crowds milled around Notre Dame, taking selfies in the golden hour.
Below the busy streets, nowhere-steps led down to the river’s edge where a few of us enjoyed a private showing of the day’s final rites.
I sat on a polished stone wall and let the sun soothe my travel-tired face.
Then I had a thought.
Sylia felt like more than a fleeting acquaintance. For 64 hours, we behaved as if destiny played our hand and, as ever when destiny gets involved, much had gone unsaid.
For 64 hours, we had sailed that soft shoreline between the moment now and the future then, saying nothing that might come too close to broaching our pleasure.
But now I wanted to feel my feet on solid ground; and I wanted her to see me standing there too.
So what if I wrote a letter and left it for her, here, in Paris?
I had a notebook in my bag, but no pen. I heard an Australian voice a couple of steps down: a middle-aged woman and her Belgian lover sharing a dusky pique-nique of ham and torn bread.
‘Excuse me, do you have a pen I could borrow?
I sit back down and tear a single sheet from my notebook. I promise myself no more than one side of A5. That is surely enough for me to say what I need to say. I’m not a schoolboy any longer.
So I begin, sure that I will find the right words as a rhythm starts to flow.
Sylia – Did you know that your name means ‘If there is…’ in French? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I met you…
I fill one side of A5, but it’s half baked, scatter-brained. I promise myself the second side and turn over.
There are so many things I haven’t said here – and the ones I have, so poorly expressed…
It doesn’t quite happen on this side either. I say some things, I fill the space, but it’s not right. Oh well. My promised time is up.
I origami myself an envelope, write her name on the outside, and fold the whole into a dart of paper. Then I feel the stone walls for a crack that might hide my letter until she arrives.
I look around. Everyone is either on their phone or with their back to me. I slip the letter into the wall and smile.
I return the pen and share a few words of thanks before sitting back down on my wall.
It’s not right. A writer and I never found the words.
‘Sorry, I don’t suppose I could borrow your pen again, could I?’ Mild surprise, mid-mouthful. ‘I’m writing to a friend, and you know when you realise that you haven’t said a word of what you meant to…?’
I unfold the origami envelope. The inside of the envelope is blank: enough room for a dozen lines, no more. The mind is focussed and I write.
I fold the envelope back over the letter and squeeze it back into the letter box, certain now that someone has seen me and is only waiting for me to leave before tearing open the letter for a laugh. I hope they return it instead of chucking the feeble paper into the softly infinite river.
But I have said almost exactly what I wanted to say to Sylia and the rest is now in the hands of fate.
I brush my hand over the wall where the secret is hidden, casting a spell. We can turn the city into a place of magic so easily. A place of games and play, of secrets and love, that stretch across time and space.
I walk back up the steps and into the gloaming night. The streets are still busy, but now everyone’s clutching at home.
As I walked, Sylia, the person at the heart of the story, became almost irrelevant. I sent her a few photos that I hoped might lead her to the location. Notre Dame in the background. A distinctive piece of graffiti. The crack in the wall. Enough that, if she wanted to find the letter, she could.
I returned to London, and then Wales for a week of writing with friends.
In among the laughter, the work and the dog walks, of course, I didn’t entirely forget about the letter, or the woman; but as time passed, the immediate sensation that we were close enough to touch faded.
I sent her a message on Saturday: Are you in Paris?
The other day, I did something described as ‘so silly’.
I was passing through Paris, arriving in the afternoon, and leaving the next morning on an early Eurostar.
The train was due to leave Paris around about the time boulangeries open, and get into London around the time people have breakfast at their office desk.
So I messaged a friend I knew would be working in central London: ‘Fancy croissants for breakfast tomorrow?’
‘You’re so silly for doing this.’
The world can be a very prosaic place. It is full of offices and commutes and the tiresome effort of staying alive: breathing, eating, sleeping.
There is very little magic, it seems, in day-to-day life. We don’t expect it, so it never comes.
What do I mean by ‘magic’? I mean those moments when the world seems bigger and more connected than it ordinarily does.
Magic imbues the world with meaning where before there was none. And who doesn’t want to live in a world suffused with magic and meaning?
When you notice the size of the moon, when you write someone a letter, when you hand-deliver croissants from Paris.
This is magic.
It’s different for everyone, but you know magic when you feel it. There are other words we could use: ‘romantic’ is another good one, but that gets confused in our heads with sexual objectives.
Young children rarely see much that is unmagical, but for us adults, the world is often stripped bare like the lighting in our most ghastly supermarkets.
The world has been unmagicked. And by whom? All by ourselves.
It’s a shame because magic costs so little. As any child will tell you, the only obstacle to magic and the only limitation on your spell-casting is in the vigour of your imagination.
We get out of the habit of casting spells, so our imagination dullens, and we miss the opportunities for magic that are all around us.
What did it cost me to cast the spell of croissants for breakfast? Almost nothing; only the exercise of a little imagination.
The boulangerie was on my way to the train station. I was second in line after it opened. Not knowing how many people my friend worked with, I bought five croissants and paid an extra ten centimes for a sturdier paper bag to protect them on the journey.
Then I caught the Eurostar and fell asleep. I woke up two hours later in London. I picked up my bags and took the Underground two stops.
As I walked the eight minutes to my friend’s office, the rain fell in a drizzle. It was refreshing after a month of continental baking. I arrived at 8.50, ten minutes before my friend was due. I read the last pages of my book.
Life never gives us what we want at the moment that we consider appropriate. Adventures do occur, but not punctually.
― E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
She arrived. I handed over the croissants. She smiled. I walked to catch another train, to catch another few hours’ sleep.
The world desperately needs remagicking, but we forget that we are the magi.
Ingredients for spell-casting:
It takes practice and a little imagination to spot opportunities for magic, but they are all around, all the time.
We need audacity and courage to step outside of the limitations of self-imposed adulthood.
Magic is founded on delighted surprise and the joyful unexpected. Or silliness.
You’ll need empathy and thoughtfulness so your spell makes the kind of magical connection you want.
Travelling by bike is a dream, travelling with a bike is goddam nightmare – if (like me a week ago) you don’t know what you’re doing.
This is a recollection of my ‘with bike’ journey from London to Patras in Greece, via Paris, Milan and Brindisi. The trip took 5 hot days in July 2018, encompassing 3 trains through France and Italy, and 1 ferry across the Adriatic. Along the way, I got to see plenty of Paris, a little of Milan, and probably too much of Brindisi’s gelaterias!
Before I left, I searched everywhere for information about travelling across Europe with a bike and, although I found plenty of Official Rules, I couldn’t find anything like this – a straight-forward guide written by a cyclist who’d actually been there and done it.
I was pretty stressed on this journey simply because I didn’t know how much to trust the Official Rules – will Eurostar mistakenly send my bike to Brussels? will there be enough space on the TGV in among justifiably irate commuters? will my bike bag be 12cm too long? and will I be sent directly to jail without passing go by an over-officious guard?