I was going to start with 'Athens, the city where the car is king', but King is far too gracious a word. A better word is bárbaros AKA Barbarians. The city of Athens is overrun by this horde and the trolleybuses, and metro bravely stand as the last small bastions of civilisation, but the war is lost. The Pedestrian is the mob and can only pray to the gods that their invading rulers treat them fairly and ignore the fear imposed...
Amongst this mob, the anarchists have formed and have covered the city walls head to toe in graffiti, its messages lost by the huge scale of this acrylic sea that sprawls like a spiders web - I mean come on seriously, its ugly OTT and you would probably make a far better point by sneaking out in the middle of the night and actually cleaning a wall.
So that's the bad and ugly out the way, and now onto the review.
Getting to Athens wasn't easy, in the end we had to go down to Birmingham, catch a flight to Frankfurt, wait four hours then catch a flight to Athens. On the way back, we had to go to via Zurich (4 hours again), Birmingham. We could have gone from Manchester, but this would have involved a seven hour wait at Frankfurt and from Heathrow, the flight would of cost the best part of an air fare to Vancouver and in the end, that was cancelled due to the BA Strike action. A plus though, was our carrier on the way out was Lufthansa, which is always a pleasure to fly as they do make you feel like you are being taken care of - plus the big free bottle of beer was most welcome.
Finally arriving in Athens, we took a cab to the area of Pyschiko where we would be staying at Maria's parents house. If you are wondering what a house in Athens is like, its a house of doors. Every other door opens to a room containing more doors. I am not convinced that they all actually lead somewhere and lacking in a ball of string, I decided not to venture too far.
The next day, we got up at midday and after lunch walked down to the Metro station at Panormou and headed over to Syntagma to see the guys in the funny shoes and dress outside Parliament as pictured. The Metro is only one euro for a single and three euros for a day ticket. It is also very clean, modern and most importantly very well air conditioned.
It is very hot in Athens and it is not a nice heat, its a hairdryer heat. In the day we had temperatures up to 35'c. At One am in the morning it was still 27'c and by three am you are still looking at 24'c - and this is May. It was not included in the bad and ugly bit, as other built up Mediterranean cities are exactly the same, such as Rome. As long as you avoid the midday sun, drink plenty of water and are not dressed in a suit of armour you'll be fine.
After Syntagma it was only one stop to the Acropolis and we headed first of all to the New Acropolis Museum. Entry was 5 euros and it was definitely well worth a visit. What was interesting, was the display of statues and seeing the traces of paint on them. In the upstairs gallery they have what they have of the Parthenon Marbles displayed in-situ, and I really think that the Elgin Marbles and the rest scattered across the world should be returned. The gallery they have set up for them, gives great views of the Acropolis and I think seeing them there all united would make it a greater attraction as it would put them in proper context.
Also, worth a mention is the restaurant in the museum that stretches out onto a large terrace in front of the Acropolis. It was very reasonable being 2.50 euros for an ice cold Frappe which was bought with most welcome jugs of ice cold water - perfect before embarking up the Acropolis itself.
Tickets to the Acropolis were 12 euro which, we only found unfortunately later, but not too late also includes entrance to several other archaeological sites around Athens as is valid for an entire week.
The Parthenon and the Acropolis is very impressive, I found it more so than the Coliseum in Rome. It has a sure feeling of grandeur when you climb up the steps to the top and you see the vista. Not just of the Parthenon but the city of Athens itself. Truly worthy of the Gods themselves. We spent a fair amount of time taking in all the ancient buildings and the staff also seemed friendly enough to answer questions about the site.
There is a rock next to the Acropolis, called Aeropagus (or Mars Hill if you are a Roman) is quite interesting in itself. In classical times it served as the 'high court' and it is said, that this is where the Apostle Paul gave his speech, If I was that way inclined, and was looking for a spot to try and convert the pagans, then I would of probably chosen there too.
Annoyingly, I did lose my camera bag (luckily not camera) and memory cards on the acropolis, so I hope Zeus, Poseidon and Aphrodite and the others are enjoying my pictures of Leeds . I know it wasn't taken as entirely my own fault for not securing the clip properly and most likely came off my belt whilst scrambling up steep steps. On the subject of photos, I don't think the ones I took are my best by a long shot. Mainly because I couldn't see Jack because of the sun and if you are one of these people that like exif information. Then feel free to gawp at some of the F8, 1000/s craziness on my fotki site. A thought if you are rich, you could have some serious fun with a tilt shift lens in Athens.
Catching a Taxi back to Pyschiko we got caught up in a demonstration along the way but luckily weren't held up too much. Taxis are very very cheap in Athens but a few things to note:
- Sometimes - well most times it might be quicker to walk
- If you are not on the right side of the road for where you are going, they will tell you to go away
- Don't be surprised if the Taxi driver picks up another fare whilst you are in the cab, thats quite common
- They are above the rules of the roads, a one way sign or no entry offers no sign of defferal for them
After eating back at Maria's parents we set off at just after 10pm to Exarchia Square which is in downtown Athens and near the polytechnic. The area is the stomping ground for the Greek Anarchists. A quick google search on Exarchia makes for interesting reading. Our cab pulled around the corner to the square which was full of banners, people and past a line of Riot police full geared up on the corner. To the untrained eye, the officer with the Tear gas at the ready might be cause for concern. But to the seasoned, there is no way he is going to throw that straight off and if he did, the effect would of been minimal. They were there for display and harmless which was confirmed talking to the waiter who dismissing them as you would likttle children , assured us they rarely cause trouble. It also didn't phase the children in the square who quietly got on with their game of football amidst the potential rioters and police
Beer was around four euros and after having a drink in the square, and being pleased to see that the Riot police were using the scutum style riot shield, a shield I am particular fond of and versed in its use . We headed a short distance to Themistokleous Street where we spent to the early hours drinking in a very nice bar, Ostria. I think they were quite surprised as well, when I ordered in Greek. As much as I berate the American tourist, I can't stand the 'a' typical British tourist who expects everyone to speak English and also, Exarchia aint the area you are likely to find tourists.
Knowing a bit of Greek goes a long way, it can turn an angry kiosk owner into friendly banter and if you want it in measurable terms. Its the difference between your wine jug being filled to the line, or to the top. When I say a bit of greek as well, I mean the ability to be able to say hello, please thank-you etc.
National Archaeology Museum
The Next day we headed over to the National Archaeology Museum which is near to where we were drinking the previous night. The cab driver dropped us off nearby and we had to walk down a street which was sadly is a street that exists in many modern cities which was mainly filled with junkies. That was the only part of Athens where I didn't really want to take my camera out. As said, its a street you'll find in any city and general Athens feels relative safe. The police do an impressive job of chasing away street traders, when I'm sure they would far rather be watching pretty bottoms - which unlike the Italian police who prefer the leer, the Greek police go for the full turn head, straight stare approach. Another thing to note as well, if you are approached by a street trader or begger, They will normally leave you alone if you tell them No from the outset. There does not appear to be much of hassling unlike say Florence.
Onto the museum itself, it was 7 euros for entry and I am saying this in hindsight, might be worth researching what is in there before you go. There is a lot of items in there, some of them very unique. I have a horrible feeling I missed a few things but did catch the Antiykthera mechanism, the Artemision jockey amongst others. The private collections on display were pretty impressive and they also had on display some of the Frescoes from Santorini which condsidering the age of them, 15th Century BC are very stylistic.
We spent a good couple of hours in the museum, and I can imagine to spend three or four hours there would be very easy to do. We skipped the Vases as there is only so much Attica vases one can take in.
Monastiraki & Ancient athens
A fifteen minute walk away from the museum we ended up over at Monastiraki (little Church). There is a flea market in the area, and you are also near the Agora, Hadrian's Library, and several other archelogical sites. This is also where you ticket from the Acropolis comes in handy as mentioned earlier, your ticket for that includes entry for several of these places. There is also a Metro nearby of the same name.
The flea market, what can I say except didn't really see much of it as it was about five pm and the sun was very horizontal in the sky. Walked through it with a constant glare off my sunglasses. What I did see, was a mixture of boutiques and tourist shops. A handy place if you need to do some last minute shopping.
As mentioned I thought the Parthenon was more impressive than the Colosseum, but the Old Forum in Rome is more impressive than the Agora. Not to say, that it isn't worth a visit. On the contary the Temple of Hephaestus is very impressive, especially given its completeness. The reconstruction of the Stoa as well is worth a looktoo. I think the difference between this and the forum is, With the forum and the amount of tourists, you get a feeling of what ancient Rome would of been like. With the Agora in its more peaceful environment you get a "what ever happened here, happened a long time ago" sort of feeling.
After checking out Hadrian's library we headed to a small square for a couple of beers near the Metropolis. Outside the Metropolis was a gathering with a high police presence, which turned out to be Greek Fascists. Worst of all they were playing the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Thankfully the Fascists in Greece are a minority and not taken at all seriously.
After our beers, we headed a short hop to Thissio to eat in the shadow on the Parthenon and the Temple of Hephaeastus which were illuminated and made a very nice setting. We ordered several starters to pick at, which is the way to eat in Greece. This included:
Stuffed vine leaves (dolmades)Giant beans (gigantes)
Which with a half a jug of wine came to forty euros. Normally myself and Maria always get off the beaten track to eat and drink to save money, but in Athens we didn't have to do that. Drinking in the main areas we were paying around four to five euros for a beer and no doubt if you did head off the track, you could probably find beer cheaper. Wine is very reasonable at around four to five euros for a half litre jug and very reasonable to drink - tis fruity.
After eating we headed to a bar near the Metro stop of Thissio and sat outside to the early hours. As mentioned in my Paris review , I much prefer drinking in europe than to the UK. This bar was mainly filled with Greeks of all ages and was a very chilled affair. There was a group of youngsters going through the rites of passages and getting slowly drunk and falling over, but it was a merry affair and full points to the young greek gentlemen who ended up horizontal on the stairs to the Loo.
The next day, up slightly earlier and we headed over to the coach station in Athens to catch a coach to Nafplion which is a hundred and fifty Kilometres from Athens. The coach station was just as grotty and concrete as Victoria coach station in London, but the coaches surprisingly modern, comfortable and of course air conditioned. A ticket to Nafplion cost just over 11 euros.
Nafplion was the first capital of modern Greece before moving to Athens and the town has a long colourful history stretching back to ancient times and the Venetians who occupied the city in the middle ages and later in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. They certainly left their mark on the place. It is a very pretty city to walk around.
We found a hotel in the centre square called Hotel Athena, which was advertised at 90 to 120 euros a night, but ended up only paying 50 euros. Annoyingly its not on tripadvisor, which has perplexed us a bit, as filling in hotel reviews after a trip has become for me, part of the whole going away process. Anyway, its a very modern hotel, and very comfortable. Would recommend.
After dumping our bags, we headed for along for a walk around the coast. The Path was blocked off due to falling rocks, but that didn't seem to stop anyone else. Scribbled on the sign there is 'at your own risk'.
After that we headed back to the square and to the Archaeological museum which was two euros to get in. It was a small museum, but of most note was the Mycenean Armour pictured. For those Homer fans amongst you heres the description of the helmet in the illiad.
Illiad X 260-265:
"They then put on their armour. Brave Thrasymedes provided the son of Tydeus with a sword and a shield (for he had left his own at his ship) and on his head he set a helmet of bull's hide without either peak or crest; it is called a skull-cap and is a common headgear. Meriones found a bow and quiver for Ulysses, and on his head he set a leathern helmet that was lined with a strong plaiting of leathern thongs, while on the outside it was thickly studded with boar's teeth, well and skilfully set into it; next the head there was an inner lining of felt."
The thing that impressed me most was the size which probably doesnt come across in that photo very well at all. But considering the ancient Greeks were a small bunch, this armour was for someone who must have been very tall in their time. I would say about 5ft 10
In the evening we sat at the quay and enjoyed the sun coming down over a beer. The area was mainly filled with Greek tourists and of our entire trip, we scarcely came across any english accents. Tourists seemed to be bit of mixed bag with a lot of accents I didn't recognise. Surprisingly a lot of young American tourists were in Athens also. The Japanese were there too, obviously an advanced scouting party as their was not nearly enough Nikons going off in their group.
We ate in a small taverna in the evening, again ordering several starters which came to only thirty euros.
The next day we were planning to head to Mycenae but unfortunately there were only two coaches aday from Napfolin, (10 am and 2pm) so we took a boat over to the Bourtzi which is a small island fort in the harbour built by the Venetians. The boat trip was only four euros and its worth taking the short trip out to it.
All in all, Nafplion is well worth a visit, it provides a nice contrast to the sprawl and hustle of Athens and is very pretty.
We caught the coach back to Athens and headed back to Marias Parents for our last night. We got caught going in the Taxi from the coach station with a protest outside the Israel embassy due to the flotilla incident. Thankfully our taxi driver ignored the one way signs and no entry and took us on a detour around it.
Then in the early hours we started the slog back, via Zurich and Birmingham. Zurich isn't a too bad airport with posh smoking lounges. Tip do not buy a newspaper. I had very little change from ten euros buying the Times and a bottle of water.
Fifteen hours later and we were back in the pub in Leeds. I think thats the only real negative about Athens, is the time spent travelling there and the cost of getting there. I guess it is probably just that bit to far, that the airlines don't run the weekend breaks flights as they do for other cities.
To sum up, Athens is a very lively city and the Parthenon is certainty the must see. Do not be put off by all the mentions of riot police, fascists, protests (oh and I forgot to mentioned the strikes) . I think Greeks are very passionate about their freedoms and it adds to the atmosphere. As mentioned, learn a little Greek and it will get you that full jug of wine, and if you are of a photo persuasion make sure you back some gradient and ND filters.