Cast back to just 18 months ago, and the departure boards at Thessaloniki railway station were rather interesting. The city boasted direct train services to ten different European countries. In those days, one could hop aboard a train in Thessaloniki and travel, without once having to change trains, to distant Prague and even-further-distant Moscow.
No international trains
Even this time last year, there were still direct trains from Greece to five other countries. But then the Greek government stepped in, anxious to limit public-sector debt, and ordered the cessation of all international rail services across the country’s borders. This woeful lack of regard to neighborly relations won Greece few friends. And it probably did not save Greece much money. Most of the carriages used on those long runs from Greece to distant capitals were provided by foreign railway administrations.
The last international services ran in mid-February last year. As a result, travelers lost links from Greece to Istanbul, Sofia, Belgrade and many other cities. Curiously, Bulgaria had just the previous month been added to the Eurail scheme, thus allowing Eurail pass-holders to follow creative new itineraries through the eastern Balkans to Greece.
Greek petulance over the question of international rail links meant that many travelers had to abort their plans and Greece thus lost visitors who would surely have helped boost the country’s ailing economy.
International alternatives by bus
When international rail services to and from Greece were suspended, it looked as though this might be a temporary affair. But now, as it is turning out to be a more permanent fixture, let’s examine the options for those still keen to visit Greece in 2012.
The capitals of Macedonia and Bulgaria are still very well connected with the wider European rail network, and both are just short hops by express coach from the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. You will find timetables for coaches from Skopje to Thessaloniki and for coaches from Sofia to Thessaloniki and Athens in the European Rail News section of the Europe by Rail Web site.
The boat option
For travelers from western Europe, ferries from Italy are a credible option (and some give discounts or even free deck passage to holders of certain rail passes). Our preferred route is the Venice to Patras service which gives a lovely cruise on the run down the Adriatic. Minoan Lines and Anek Lines both operate this route, with journey times varying from 29 to 35 hours.
If such a leisurely approach to Greece is out of the question, look for faster crossings from Ancona, Bari and Brindisi.
Rail options inside Greece
The national rail operator in Greece is OSE. They may have scrapped all international services, but trains within Greece are still running. True there have been some changes since the financial crackdown of early 2011.
Yet there is still a very good service on the main Athens to Thessaloniki axis, and frequency is much the same as it was a year or two ago. But the fastest trains now take an hour longer than they did in 2010. On the main route east from Thessaloniki towards Thrace, until last February used by the international services to Turkey, services have been savagely cut. Where once there were six trains each day from Thessaloniki to Alexandrupoli, now there are just two.
On some branch lines, services have been completely withdrawn and elsewhere frequencies trimmed. And sleeping cars have been removed from the few remaining overnight services. There is, it seems, no place for creature comforts in the Hellenic Republic’s new austerity drive.