In 2011, the Greek government — as part of its financial austerity programme — cut all train services across the country’s international borders. Rail services to neighbouring Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey were all suspended. And just in case you wonder, there are no rail services anyway across the frontier between Greece and Albania.
This has implications for travellers following Routes 41 and 43 in Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide for Independent Travellers. And of course it affects anyone wanting to travel south through the Balkans to Greece by train. This absurdly isolationist move by the Athens government may save a few drachmas, but it inflicts massive inconvenience on travellers who have long recognised that the train is a very civilised way of reaching Greece.
This development has created some oddities. The long-standing summer services from Russia and Ukraine to Greece still left Moscow and Kiev as usual during summer 2011. But instead of running all the way to Greece, these trains terminated at Skopje in Macedonia. Whether this has led to a sudden upsurge in the number of Russians and Ukrainians holidaying in Macedonia, we do not quite know. Probably not. Our guess is that these trains ran largely empty through the Balkans during 2011.
It is now looking as if what seemed at first sight to be a short-term emergency measure is becoming more permanent. The 2012 edition of Europe by Rail is just going to print, and Routes 41 and 43 remain in the book, albeit with some amendments that reflect the new arrangements. Travellers wanting to follow Route 43 from Belgrade to Thessaloniki will need to take a bus between Skopje and Thessaloniki. And those taking Route 41 from Athens to Sofia and beyond will have to resort to bus services between Thessaloniki and Sofia.
Of course there are other creative ways to reach Greece (without needing to catch a plane). Why not take a train to an Italian port and then continue by ship? There is a very fine range of boat services from Italy to Greece. Our top choice is the Venice to Patras route, which operates year-round with six to eight departures weekly. Two operators compete on the route: Anek Lines and Minoan Lines. The journey takes 29 to 35 hours and is a superb chance to relax as the ship cruises down the Adriatic. You will find the schedules in Table 2875 of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable (ERT).
Holders of InterRail and Eurail passes valid in both Italy and Greece can secure deck passage on the Minoan Ferries sailings upon payment of a very modest fee covering just various port taxes.
Northbound services generally arrive in Venice around 08.00. In good weather, this early morning arrival in Venice is absolutely one of Europe’s great travel moments. The cruise ferry creeps quietly across the lagoon and slides past some of Venice’s great landmarks. The ships used by both Minoan and Anek are huge, so the vessels tower over the Piazza San Marco and its famous basilica.
Other ferry routes to and from Greece, all faster than the services from Venice, are shown in ERT. There are frequent sailings from Ancona, Bari and Brindisi (all on the Adriatic coast of Italy) to both Igoumenitsa and Patras in Greece. Many of these sailings are operated by Superfast Ferries or Minoan Lines. Both these companies offer almost free travel for holders of InterRail and Eurail passes valid in both Italy and Greece.