I recently had the opportunity to test the Greek national train operating company Trainose. My sons and I were traveling from the capital Athens to Thessaloniki overnight, then changing trains for getting to Serres in the north-east where my parents live.
I booked my tickets online through the Trainose website’s route finder which is in Greek but can be translated into English by clicking an icon (top left). The tickets were pretty cheap, around Â£25 each. We were able to pay online and then print out tickets at home. We had booked well in advance as I had a pretty nasty experience in the past, when I saw several people standing during the overnight journey, possibly due to double-booked seats.
When we got to the main train station Larissa in Central Athens, which was accessible via the excellent Athens Metro, we received our first nasty surprise: our tickets did not match the list at the platform’s entry point, where a regular member of staff was checking them while being overseen by a private security guard (which seemed pretty incongruous). However, our tickets were checked at the office and pronounced valid – although both the train number (500) and seat numbers did not officially exist.
We got on the train with some trepidation and 30 min post-departure I had to tell the same story to the ticket inspector – just as well I spoke Greek – who took the veracity of my words for granted saying ‘well, if they said so at the station I guess it’s OK, but I cannot guarantee your overnight seats’.
So, I was concerned that history would repat itself, we’d find ouselves standing and did not sleep a wink. I did see people standing as well as sleeping on the floor between carriages, but we were left unmolested. The train stopped at many stations and the lights were on/off all the time during the night.
When we got to Thessaloniki (on time) the train was split in half and we were told that the rear half would depart for Serres in an hour. It was unclear which new carriage was which, there were no rail workers in uniform to ask and someone apparently acting officially informed me that the train supervisor would turn up 5 min before the train departed to re-verify our tickets. The lights then went out and people were boarding in the dark.
Five minutes before departure said person did arrive, was in uniform and sent us to a carriage at the front of the train saying we could take any seat we wanted. However, once the train got going, a group of about 20 scouts came over and demanded that we quit our seats, showing us their tickets which they’d purchased just prior to departure.
At that stage I was not prepared to move, my sons were asleep after the awful overnight journey, and I nearly had a punch-up with the scout master. Fortunately the train supervisor appeared at the nick of time and somehow persuaded the scouts to leave us in peace. We arrived at our destination on time, feeling rather knackered. The two trains had taken a combined time of 10 hours to travel about 360 miles.
None the wiser by my experience, a couple of days later I booked a return train ticket from Serres to Alexandroupolis to visit my cousin near the North-East border with Turkey.
Train ticket and the Greek countryside en route to Alexandroupolis
The return journey cost about Â£13 and were both during the day. There is a lovely scenic stretch of about 50 miles between Drama and Komotini, sometimes running parallel to the river Nestos (which rises in the Bulgarian Rila Mountains and flows into the Greek Aegean Sea), which can only be appeciated via train travel. These journeys were uneventful and the trains half-empty, however there were smokers onboard that clearly defied the smoking ban and the guard did nothing to deter them. As an aside, the smoking ban cannot be very effective in Greece, as at a restaurant we visited in Alexandroupolis there were quite a few customers, as well as one of the owners, smoking indoors.
Smoker on train to Alexandroupolis
The Greek railway system’s pretty run down, probably due to the country’s economic situation, and currently in the process of being privatised. In the future we can probably expect slightly higher standards for much higher prices.