From Jacksonville to Atlanta to New York to Athens is about 13 hours of flying total so
when we arrived in Athens we were intent on getting to our hotel and taking a nap before
even considering much else. We had changed money in New York at an exobritant rate but
we wanted to have a little Greek cash on hand upon arrival. This was a good idea because
that way we had much money for the cab driver to extort from us. Our cab ride was lengthy,
informative (maybe), and about 9 times the going rate. Part of this was because of games
with the meter (which we had been warned about), and part of this was because he was
moderately good at switching a 5000 drachma note for a 500 drachma note without us noticing
(until later). This was pretty much the worst thing that happened to us while we were in
Greece though so at least we got it out of the way early. Plus there's the consolation
that given the way they drive in Athens, that particular cabbie was almost certainly killed
in traffic before we even had these pictures developed.
Our initial opinion of Athens from that cab ride was that it was polluted, dingy, crowded,
and not particularly interesting to look at. After spending more time in the city, we came
to the conclusion that we were right from the beginning. The trees in this picture cover
the slopes of Filopappous hill and this is one of the few green spots in Athens. It's from
this hill that the previous picture was taken. Our hotel, the Hotel Austria, is located at the
base of this hill. The unimaginative architecture seen here is duplicated as far as the eye
can see in all directions. When we arrived at the hotel, we decided to climb up to the
monument on top the hill and take a look around before our nap. It was a pretty uneventful
hike to the top, although the graffiti'd turtles were a bit unusual. Graffiti turns out to
be one of the national pastimes of Greece. More on that later. Behind all the buildings
in this picture would be the lovely blue Aegean Sea, assuming you could see it. Athens is
one of the more polluted cities in the world and the tangible cloud of air pollution that
hangs over it can be seen from some ways off.
Here is a close up of the monument itself. It was erected in 116 AD to commemorate a Roman
official, Julius Filopappous who eventually became an Athenian citizen. This hill merges
into several others including the Hill of the Nymphs. We tried but were unable to find any
nymphs at all. Just more painted turtles and some dogs. Let's discuss dogs for a moment.
Greece as a whole is overrun with street cats and dogs. The cats are a bit more subtle of
course but the dogs tend to just wander about anywhere they please. People who actually own
dogs seem to let them out to wander the streets as well during the day. We met quite a
few on our travels which we found it necessary to give names to. Eating dinner one night
we watched a particularly large dog defending his territory from assorted other creatures.
We named him Megaloskilos (from the Greek words for 'big' and 'dog'). It should be mentioned
that none of the dogs and cats we saw were underfed. In fact it appeared most of them ate
better than we did, especially Megaloskilos.
Of course, there is one part of Athens that is quite a bit more visibly attractive than the
rest and that would be the Acropolis. This is the view of it from the balcony of our hotel.
Just about every hotel in the central part of Athens has a decent view of it, and if you
happen to be in a room facing the wrong direction, most hotels also have a rooftop garden.
Rooftops are in fact integral to Athenian life. We spent part of both evenings on top of
our hotel from which you could see the lights of the city and the various parties and such
happening on top of other buildings. Between that and the windows you can see through,
it's a little bit like a 360 degree version of 'Rear Window'. The Parthenon is brilliantly
lit up at night, and with nightfall much of the air pollution disappears so it is visible
from nearly everywhere.
The archeological sites in Athens really aren't as extensive as they are in other parts of
Greece. They are mostly concentrated near the Acropolis. These are the remnants of the
Temple of Zeus. The 'old town' of Athens near the base of the Acropolis is known as
the Plaka. It is the center of tourist activity but despite that it has some charm left.
It is a relatively small area of winding, narrow streets and nothing in particular to see.
We spent both evenings in Athens here because it is also a convenient restaurant district.
Most dining was at outside tables, even in April. Having the Parthenon visible above you
lends a certain atmosphere, though the incessant stream of people trying to sell you roses
and play the accordion for you while you eat detracts some. The first night we ate in a
busy square and it was rather annoying. The second evening we found a restaurant in a
quiet back alley away from the center of things which was much more pleasant. There is
no particular trick to eating in Greek restaurants, the menus don't vary all that much, and
it's only as expensive as you want it to be. There seems to be suprisingly little distinction
between appetizers and entrees as well so we tended to order a few different things and just
split them. We also tried Retsina which tastes pretty much like what it is. White wine
flavored with wood resin.
On Sunday morning, we visited the Acropolis. It deserves an
entire page and it has one, so we'll leave the details to that page.
After the Acropolis we walked past the ancient Agora (seen here), and through the modern
one. Agora is a form the Greek verb 'Agorazo' which means 'to buy' - hence, marketplace.
The intact temple is the Temple of Hephaesteus. The ruins around it are the rest of the
Agora area. The new version encompasses the streets visible on the top right of this
picture and on Sunday it becomes a flea market of enormous proportions. It took us a while
to wind our way through it and escape to the north on our way to the Archeological Museum.
The National Archeological Museum of Greece is one of the great museums in the world and it
compares to archeology the way the Louvre does to art. It is enormous and it contains
such an incredible number of Greek, Minoan, Mycenean, Doric and other artifacts that you
really can't comprehend it all in a single visit. It covers weapons, statues, jewelry,
furniture, household items and there's even a Roman chariot. Among the well-known objects
here are a gold Mycenean death mask, the statue of Artemis and Pan, the Discus Thrower, and
the bust of Octavius Caeser. It's a long walk from the Acropolis to the museum. Athens
has a subway system but it isn't always that useful as the stops are very far apart. We
successfully took a trolley-bus back to the Plaka for lunch.
That's about it for Athens except to mention jewelry. Neither of us are big jewelry fans
but in Athens the goldwork is of very high quality. We ended up at Byzantino on the main
street in the Plaka, which we recommend for exceptional gold jewelry as well as
conversations on English, French and Greek literature, philosophy, art, history and just
about anything else. Most tourists probably come to Athens, see the Acropolis and then
leave, and for once we have to agree with them. Unless you like noise, pollution and dense
crowds of course. We left Monday morning, hiking to the metro station and taking the train
to Piraeus. Piraeus is the port city for Athens and one of the busiest ports in the world.
Coming out of the train station you are presented with a view of about 50 or so enormous
ferries in all directions and eight lanes of unruly traffic to cross in order to get to
them. Once you do get there, there is an entirely different sort of chaos to master.