Cruising the Mediterranean.
A long Ferry ride around the Med.
Booking ferries is a relatively simple experience these days. A flick of the mouse, type in 16 numbers off a piece of plastic, then confirm 3 figures on the back, wait five minutes then download a pdf to print out and away you go. It’s not that long ago that such bookings were usually done by travel agents, or for the really cosmopolitan by phone to the ferry operator. Move beyond our cosy, web based, want it now, commercial world, however, and things can be very different. In the developing world, ferries depart when they are full and fares are negotiated depending on how wealthy you look .
On a big circumnavigation of the Mediterranean back in 1999 I was driving my Carawagon up through Turkey intent on finding a ferry to take me over to Italy to continue my journey home. I had nothing booked and Izmer, half way up the west coast, seemed a good bet. Izmer is a busy port serving the Greek Islands and eastern Italian ports. I parked up in town and went into a shipping agent to begin enquiries. It was October and the tourist season had finished so the agent was not optimistic about getting a ferry that day. He phoned the most popular company to be told the ferry was stuck in Brindisi awaiting a new propellor. ‘Come back tomorrow... no problem’ was his optimistic advise. Tomorrow came and went with no sign of the propellor in Brindisi. By day three Mehmet, the agent, and I were good buddies and I’d stick my head round the door enquiring of news on the lost prop, but to no avail. He’d invite me in for tea and show me photos of his family.
By the fifth day I was becoming impatient. You can only hang around on false promises for so long and whilst not in a rush I needed to move on. A queue of Italian lorries caught my eye and I asked where they were heading. ‘Trieste’ was the reply. I checked my map and found this was a port in northern Italy. The truck driver gestured to a building from where I might get a ticket. In true Turkish style the building wasn’t finished and to get in I had to climb a ladder and then clamber in through an open window. Inside was one man, sitting at one desk, with one phone in an otherwise totally empty room. Listening to my request he made one phone call, nodding a few times. Hanging up, he told me the cost would be $500 in cash, including all food and the ship sailed that evening. $500 was about all I had in cash and I had a certain reluctance to hand it over, but he wrote out, by hand, a ticket on a company letterhead and I went to join the lorry queue.
Afternoon became evening and evening became night as we all slowly moved forwards. A splendid big white vessel was moored in the port and I assumed this was our ferry, but as I eventually turned the corner the truth was revealed. A rusty old heap that was being hastily botched up for our three day Mediterranean cruise. The delay had been a burst hydraulic pipe on the ramp used to load the lorries. Engineers seemed to be tightly wrapping old tarpaulins around the leak to make it serviceable again. It was 1.00 am by the time I could drive the Land Rover onto the deck where it was lashed down and I went in search of a cabin. I found one with six bunk beds, but so far empty. Fearing the worst from sharing with five truckers I barricaded myself in with the other beds and enjoyed a good nights sleep.
In the morning I took a stroll on deck to find the Land Rover was okay, the sea calm and the sun shining. I looked around for any sign of life and eventually found three Turkish businessmen. One spoke some English and I asked where all the truckers were. ‘They all flew to Trieste’ he replied, reinforced by a good impression of a large plane in flight. There were just us four passengers! The ferry took three days in which time I managed to write up an account of my trip, working on my laptop in the back of the Carawagon.
We ate with the crew who were most friendly and the ships engineer showed me the engine room. Just one of two huge Fiat diesel engines, probably 30 litres each, was running. He was having to repair a burnt out exhaust valve from the other and was able to remove the valve and valve seat housing, weld up the burnt out section, machine the surface back to original and replace it all in the confines of a tiny workshop, while the second engine moved us slowly westward.
What I had expected to be the longest three days of my life turned out to be a very enjoyable extension of a great trip.
Captions: Toby’s Carawagon dwarfed by the Turkish lorries on the deck.
At work on his laptop in the comfort of the back of the Carawagon.