Wednesday, 2 December 2015

City to Sitia

Yea, I know, corny title again. It's just the way I am I'm afraid. Plus, I suppose you could say that Rhodes Town isn't actually a city, but there are more than a few maps and guides dodgily translated into English for me to rest my case on that score.

Anyway, I like it.

Sitia, for the uninitiated, is on Crete, right at the eastern end. It has had an airport for yonks and, up until the last time I went there, which would have been about 5 or 6 years ago, it was not much more than a runway that stretches out on a headland, dizzily high above the sea, with a terminal building that could easily have doubled for someone's house.

I went there with a bunch of blokes for a seminar and so the better half wasn't with me. I remember the flight well and was always hoping to get the opportunity to do it again. If your whole experience of flying is charter flights between countries, then this one's a distinctly different experience. If, on the other hand, you live somewhere remote, or on an island chain (what's that - an archipelago, or archie-peel-a-gogo or something?) then you'll be very familiar with what I'm about to describe. 

Flying from Rhodes to Sitia is a hop, taking in two other smaller islands en route. The airline is Olympic and basically what was formerly the very grand Greek National airline is now the internal flight division of Aegean. For Internal flights within Greece, you're flying Olympic. Most international flights and also some internal ones? You'll be flying Aegean. The Rhodes-Sitia flight is on a 37-seater the Dash 8-100. It looks like this:

I reckon it's not much different in size to your average executive jet, except that the cabin has had all the mod cons removed and 37 aircraft seats installed instead. Anyone over 15 stone would need a very strong bladder, because they'll never fit into the aircraft's passenger toilet. Photographed from this side you don't see the luggage hold door. On the port side (impressive eh? That's the left for you uneducated types) there's a door at the rear of the fuselage, just behind the past passenger window, that opens to reveal the baggage hold, which is a walk-in affair, so your baggage travels just behind the cabin and not beneath it as it does on larger passenger jets.

The majority of passengers on these flights are Greeks going between islands and using the plane very much as a Brit might go by National Express or an American by Greyhound bus. So, you can endlessly amuse yourself looking at your fellow passengers, always assuming that there are some, and guessing whether they're just dropping by to see some relatives, off to Crete/Rhodes (depending on which way we're taking about here) for some shopping, or on their business trip visiting clients and stuff. Most of them are dressed like they're just either popping into town, or down to the allotment, depending on which gender you're looking at. 

Hardly anyone has a suitcase. 90% of them will only be carrying hand baggage. We took off from Rhodes punctually at 07.30am on Monday November 23rd with precisely five passengers on the plane. We'd previously watched from the terminal as the baggage truck had driven sedately out to the plane in order the for the two-man crew of handlers to load one single suitcase - ours - into the baggage bay. Our suitcase had the truck's trailer (which can probably hold a hundred cases) all to itself. Then we all got into that low bus that they always use at airports and were driven a good ten metres to the aircraft.

Once we were aboard, the stewardess dutifully had to go through all the usual safety procedures, including the bit with the lifejacket and the whistle, just for the five of us. Having done this once before, I told my wife that she'd be witnessing this three times before we finally flew into Sitia, just over an hour and half later.

As it happened, after the twenty minute hop to the first stop, Karpathos, the other three passengers got off, temporarily leaving just the two of us and the stewardess on the plane. Of course, some local official with a clipboard and a day-glow jacket came aboard to tick a few things off, one of the pilots nipped out on to the tarmac for a fag, and then they let the boarding passengers on. Well, actually - passenger, it was one scruffy horiatis, well, that's what he looked like. 

Nice view of Karpathos.
After around fifteen minutes, the props started rotating, the door had been closed and the preparations for takeoff again began in earnest. The stewardess walked back along the aisle to the bloke who'd got on, who was sitting almost at the back, and asked him:

"You familiar with the safety procedures and stuff?"

"Yea, of course." He replied.

"Great, thanks," she answered, "We can forget that this time then," whereupon she walked back to the front and sat down to give us the announcement...

"Welcome aboard this Olympic Airways flight No. blah-de-blah. Our flight time to Kassos will be five minutes..." and so she went on.

I reckon that the flight between Karpathos and Kassos must be one of the shortest scheduled flights on the planet. Where's Norris McWhirter when you need him?

Without gaining more than a couple of thousand feet it height, we were once again making our approach, this time to the tiny airdrome on the tiny island of Kassos, where there's one village and a load of goats. It does have a pretty harbour though, at least it looks nice from the air. If there's one thing that truly makes doing this trip a pleasure though it's staring down at the sea surrounding the islands that you pass over. The turquoise and blues, even in late November, look exactly as they do in high summer and you really want to get down there on to that deserted beach, throw your togs off and go swimming. Probably get hypothermia too, but there's always some drawback or other.

The landing on Kassos completed, the same procedure was followed as at Karpathos. Off jumped out sole fellow passenger, to comments from my wife like "How can they afford to run this service? They surely can't make enough out of this number of passengers!"

I didn't want to sound too smug, so I kept to myself the thoughts that, just like a country bus service in the deepest UK countryside, there are times when there isn't a soul on board, but others when you can't get a seat. It's the nature of things, eh?

Anyway, as it happened, once the customary procedures had been followed, boarders from Kassos were allowed on to the plane and we were well impressed to be joined by half a dozen people. There was a bloke in army fatigues, probably going back to his National Service base after a weekend during which his mum did all his washing, there were a couple of young women looking like they needed some retail therapy and a couple more older folk clutching shiny plastic bags containing those boxes of Greek cakes that they always take to a friend's house for a special occasion. Evidently Kassos has at least one kafé-zacheroplastion then.

Once again the stewardess was into her routine, this time going through the security and safety procedure with a look of resigned boredom on her face. After we'd been offered a jelly baby for the third time, eaten our mini-choccy croissants and downed a few drinks of water and fruit juice - all free it has to be said - we were making our approach to Sitia airport, a mere fifteen minutes from Kassos.

As I said above, I remember Sitia airport as a house and an airstrip. No more! As we flew in to land I couldn't believe my eyes, a terminal rivalling the more recent one at Rhodes greeted our eyes. Boy, things have moved on. The stewardess registered my surprise as I was leaving the plane and asked me, "Do you like it?"

"It's amazing," I replied. "Last time I was here..."

"I know," she said, "it was very small."

"How long has this been open?" I asked, 

"Only 2 or 3 [here I was expecting her to say 'years', but she actually said...] ...months."

The eight passengers stepped down the short staircase from the plane and were directed across several hundred meters of tarmac to the arrivals door of the new terminal. I couldn't even see the old one, so I assumed that it had been demolished to make way for this one. I was wrong about that, as our experience while our host Tim drove us back to the airport a week later was to confirm (Yes, that tale will be posted eventually).

There are no photos yet available of the completed building, but I found this one of the building under construction...

As we walked into the baggage reclaim area, it was as though we'd walked into the air terminal version of the Marie Celeste. Before you could say "Greeks - showing efficiency?" our case appeared, along with three others...

That's a passenger!! Evidently wanting to beat the scramble...

There was no one else about. We grabbed the case and made our way to the exit doors, which opened automatically to allow us to begin our Cretan adventure. It was to prove a fabulous one too.


  1. "How can they afford to run this service? They surely can't make enough out of this number of passengers!"

    Maybe you should consider writing an article about what "epidotisi" is.

    1. True, such flights may be subsidised, I don't know. I DO know that at times they're very well subscribed though. We just travelled (fortunately for us) when it was a quiet time. Frequent travellers do get a 5-flight package from Olympic at a discounted price too and we know people who do this regularly. I suppose that rural bus routes in the UK too may be subsidised, it IS after all an essential service for many, as these flights are here.

    2. Also, permanent residents of some of these smaller islands like Karpathos and Kasos are entitled to travel fare-free to some destinations (at least on the ferry line).

      These islands are part of the so called "agoni grammi", the non-profit line that connects smaller Greek islands width Pireaus and other bigger islands. Without it many Greek islets would be uninhabited.

      By the way, there's a very beautiful movie about life during winter on the island of Amorgos called "Parvas, agoni grammi" ( Check it out sometime.

    3. Thanks for that, very interesting. It's odd replying to people when one doesn't know who they are though!!

  2. That's a thought provoking post John, brilliant. It reminds me of the time we flew from Corfu to Paxos on a seaplane. Another time landing at Chania airport on Crete on a UK charter we were held for some reasons inside the airport, customs I think. However all the floor to ceiling windows around the locked exit door were missing so we just wandered in and out at will until the actual door was opened whereupon we made our "legal" exit to comply with the "astinomea?" by which time I had sorted the hire car etc. Great times....

  3. Pleased to hear that you have now both "visited" Karpathos!

  4. Have posted once but not sure it came out right! Pleased to hear that you have now "visited" Karpathos: I believe the flight from Karpathos to Kassos was at one time shown to be the shortest in Europe, but have a feeling there MAY be a shorter flight somewhere else now??? Someone has posted about "free flights" or ferry journeys. Sorry, we know nothing about this, maybe many years ago you could travel for nothing. Not now though! The inter-island flights were subsidised when we first moved to Greece but I don't think they are subsidised now. Not 100% sure about that. And, for the record, Kassos is a beautiful island and alledgedly the least visited Greek island.

    1. Check the ANEK lines offers page.

      (It's in Greek)
      "Οι μόνιμοι κάτοικοι α) Κάσου μετακινούμενοι από και προς Κάρπαθο β) Ανάφης μετακινούμενοι από και προς Σαντορίνη* γ) Χάλκης μετακινούμενοι από και προς Ρόδο ταξιδεύουν δωρεάν στην Οικονομική Θέση"

      Unfortunately the only free routes are from Kasos to Karpathos and from Chalki to Rhodes. And yes this route is subsidized.