I arrived at the Thessaloniki train station and looked at the board to find my gate for the trip to Athens. By some force of intuition, I still found myself going to the youngish woman behind the International window to confirm the information. “Ahh!” she exclaimed in disgust, “They have up the wrong gate. It is 5, not 3!” What followed was a short burst of Greek that I’m sure was not at all meant to be complimentary to the person who posts the schedule!
I boarded the train and quickly found the compartment that was to be my refuge for the next 6 hours. There are 6 comfortable seats and a window that was actually clean. Unfortunately, the glass was polarized which made photography less than ideal. My only companion was a 16 year-old Greek girl who spoke no English, so she retreated into her world of calling and texting friends when she was not sleeping. I passed the time enjoying the countryside and occasionally reading. The landscape was, as you would expect, hilly to mountainous with quaint little valleys dotted with houses and villages. This is, as usual, a much more interesting way to travel thorough a country than by flying. About half way, we stopped, and the smokers made a mad dash for the exits. They hung out in small groups enveloped in clouds of smoke. I welcomed the stop to stretch my legs a bit.
I was warned about the Athenian taxi drivers. I lined up on the short queue and quickly got a cab. This driver was everything you are warned about. When we got to the hotel, a short 5 minute trip, he took my bag out of the trunk and dragged it along the bumper. He then tried to intimate that the bag had “damaged” his taxi! I couldn’t believe this bold attempt to shake more money out of me! I just laughed. First of all, I was standing there and saw the marks before he even opened the trunk of the cab. Secondly, he was the one who took the bag out in the first place! Lucky for me that I had the exact fare— that’s all he got. He cursed and got in the taxi and speed off complaining bitterly– all in Greek, so whatever.
The Apollo Hotel, located in the Metaxourgio quarter, was a good choice. Luckily, it was also very near the Metro stop, but most of the time I opted to walk wherever I was going. At $35 per night the room was not 5-star, but with a good breakfast included, what more could you want? It was clean, air-conditioned and the bathroom was in the room! I even had an Acropolis-view in the distance— from the balcony looking between two buildings! It was a 20-minute walk to the Acropolis and very much in the heart of all the places I wanted to go. I spent the evening walking around the nearby Omonia area. It is a fairly diverse area of homeless Greeks, a middle class population and undocumented workers (many from south Asia). I loved exploring the small back streets, but was always mindful to be very close to other people. This is a business-by-day area, and the demimonde that comes to life as the night falls. Junkies, prostitutes and drunks move freely among the youths hanging out in the parks and the middle-class tourists making their way to cheap but good restaurants that the district is well-known for. There are also many people waiting to take the night buses to other Balkan countries, such as Albania and Bulgaria.
The next day, I was out early and heading up Agiou Konstantinou then down Athinas past the flower, vegetable and meat stalls of the Athenian Central Market on my way to the Acropolis.
At the very end of the Athinas, you come to Montastiraki Square. This is the starting point for the entire Acropolis area. I made quick visits to the Folklore Art Museum and Hadrian’s Library, not a lot left here save the ruins. But here in the Roman Agora (marketplace), is that magnificent octagonal-shaped Tower of the Winds with its carved representations of the winds and weather. At this point, I decided it was time to make my way to the top of the Acropolis.
You can take the more direct, butmore-demanding, combination of trails and stairs, or pretty much follow a path that winds its way to the top. I took the path as it took me past more interesting little churches, museums and shops. I ended up at the west end of the Acropolis. I bought my ticket for 12 euros (about $16.00) which would give me entrance to most of the landmarks at and around the Acropolis. I chose first to get diverted to Mars Hill, a rocky outcrop that gave a commanding view of the city of Athens. You had to be very careful here as the the rocks are worn down to the point of being very slippery. A few tourists not being mindful of this, landed on their bums while I was there!
Entering the Acropolis through the western gate is an amazing experience. As with Ankor, the Taj Mahal, Notre Dame and Bourabador you have this immediate euphoria that you have at last arrived! It was very dry, warm and extremely windy when I got to the top. The surface is also surprising in that it is quite uneven and rocky. I was also amazed that there were so few people! Not only was it off-season, but I arrived about noon when many had abandoned the Acropolis in search of food and drink. I spent three hours taking in the Parthenon (full of scaffolding due to the reconstruction), and the amazing Erechtheion with the caryatids statues used as columns to support the porch. There is an olive tree here supposedly from the original tree planted by Athena as she battled with Posiedon, god of the Seas, for the favor of the Athenians. Next to the Erechtheion is a huge Greek flag. It is there in honor of the resistance fighters of World War II. As the story goes, when the Germans entered the city, they told a Greek man to lower the flag. He did so, and then wrapped himself in it and threw himself off the edge of the Acropolis. It was a tremendous inspiration to the resistance movement. I could write two entries on the Acropolis, but suffice it to say, I enjoyed having the time to just quietly relax and not have the horde of tourists around. The interesting thing here is that a lot of the original carvings and statuary have been removed to the new Acropolis Museum, and copies have been put in their place. There are also a number of the frieze carvings from around the Parthenon now in the British Museum in London as they were basically stolen by Lord Elgin years ago when the Parthenon was in ruins and Greece was under British influence. As I left at 3:30, two boatloads for tourists arrived from ships docked in Piraeus, the port of Athens . I again made may way down to Montastiraki Square to sit and people-watch as I had a bottle of water and bought some grapes and bananas.
As I knew I would be making more visits to this area during my stay, I did not feel obliged to overdo it this first day. Before I left, I bought tickets for my trip to Santorini on the Sunday morning ferry. I headed back to the hotel after a quick dinner in a restaurant on the square.
I made Thursday an easy day, as my knee was giving me pain. I think all the climbing in Turkey and now Greece began to take its toll! I started out at Montastiraki Square and headed toward the old Greek Agora. This is a very deceiving area when viewed from the Acropolis! There is actually a lot to see here. The most outstanding is the Stoia of Attalos, a columned hall of two levels that houses a museum with some very impressive statuary and pottery from as far back as the Bronze Age. The stoia was rebuilt in the 1950’s with grants from an American university. It also has many dioramas showing what the Acropolis looked like at various stages in its development.
On the other side of the agora is the Temple of Hephaistos. The columned temple is in surprisingly good shape and is located in a more remote area of the agora, so there are few people there when I arrived. There are many ruins of temples, odeons, stoias and shrines in the old agora– all in a park-like setting with well-positioned benches where you can sit quietly and imagine how life was back then. With my knee acting up that day, this proved to be the perfect activity as it afforded me many opportunities to stop and rest before moving on to the next site. It was also amazingly quiet as it was mid-afternoon and rather warm, but not overly so. I ended the day walking back to the hotel and stopping in Omonia to rest in the park and have dinner in a nearby restaurant I had passed the day before.
On Friday, I made a quick decision to take the Metro to the port of Pireaus as a dry-run when I go to the ferry on Sunday morning. It was a fun trip and I got to see another side of Athens, not to mention become familiar with the way to the ferry. It turned out to be a very easy trip that took about 45 minutes in either direction. When I was there, I stopped at the Blue Star Ferry offices to get some information about the trip. I was approached by this weasely-looking guy named, George, who runs a rent-a-car service on Santorini with his cousin. He lived in New York for years and his English was flawless. He runs his business from a small table located in the ferry offices. At first, he wanted to rent me a room on the island. I told him I already had one. Then he insisted that I rent a car from him when I get to Santorini because I’d need one! “The taxi drivers will rip you off for 60 euros to go up the hill to the town! Believe me! One New Yorker to another. I just want to help you out.” I’ve heard that last line enough in Turkey and Greece to signal that a scam might be working! Besides, I had already researched the transportation on Santorini, and knew that buses ran from the ferries to the town for 2-3 euros. I didn’t bother to tell him that. Just said, “Well one New Yorker to another, I’m not stupid. Besides, I’d walk up that 525-step, donkey crap stained stairway to the top with my bum knee before I’d pay that price!” We had a good “New York” laugh over that image before I left and returned to Athens.
When I got back to Athens, I got off at Montastiraki station and decided to walk around the eastern and southern sides of the Acropolis. I walked up Ermou Street with its trendy, expensive shops and found myself at Syntagma Square, where the Greek Parliament and government offices are located. I then continued on to Hadrian’s Gate and the Temple of Zeus, which is little more now than a stand of columns with a nice view of the Acropolis.
As I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, I crossed to the Plaka area of more shops and restaurants on tree-lined lanes. There are also a lot of side streets you can get lost in, as I quickly did as one interesting thing caught my eye after another. I had a gyro at Taberna Restaurant. I really got to enjoy the al-fresco dining that is such a part of Turkey and Europe.
I continued on to the Acropolis Museum and was happy to see that it was open till 8PM. This is a new museum specifically built to hold the friezes and remains that are found at the Acropolis. It is a wonderful museum filled with all kinds of statues, pottery and every-day objects big and small found around the Acropolis. Most interesting of all is the recent find of an old neighborhood of Athens when constructing the museum. The ruins can be seen through a glass floor that extends up the ramp to the entrance. In the near future, the underground will be completly excavated and opened as a part of the museum in which visitors will be able to roam. The museum was built to protect the marble objects from the Acropolis that are being ruined by the pollution. It is also hoped that the museum will also give some pressure to the British government to return the Elgin Marbles, friezes stolen from the Parthenon. Oddly, unlike many other museums I had visited, they do not allow photography.
I stopped by the remarkably preserved Theatre of Dionysus and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which sit at the base of the southern side of the Acropolis. You cannot gain access to these sites from the Plaka, but you can see all you need through the metal gates. I had already gotten lots of photos from the top of the Acropolis.
The next day I was out and to the National Archeological Museum. This has to be one of the premiere museums of Europe. I entered at 9AM and did not leave until after three. Though it is smaller than many museums, you need go no further to see an incredible array of bronzes, mosaics, gold jewelry, pottery and statues from every era of Greek history. The first room is a collection of early massive statues. Compared to the marble statues of the later eras with their graceful, fluid lines, these appear stiff and formal, but are amazing in their representation of strength and power. The next room contains showcases of impressive and startling gold jewelry from Mycenae, including the so-called “Mask of Agamemnon.” It is actually from a period several hundred years before the time Agamemnon would have lived. And so it goes, one magical room after another representing some of the finest in Greek, Roman, and Egyptian art. I was enthralled going through the exhibition of the shipwreck of the Antikythera. Found in the wreck was the “computer” complete with intricate gears that measured to track the exact location of the sun and the known planets at the time it was made in the second century BC. It left me somewhat disoriented when I left there about 3 PM! In that six hours I managed to take in excess of 200 photos!
I returned to the hotel to rest up and then have dinner. I decided to leave my camera as it was getting dark anyway. As I left the hotel and was walking toward the square, I saw a demonstration of labor organizations marching loudly toward the square.The next thing I knew, there were two columns of police officers in complete riot gear on either side of me heading toward the demonstration! I cursed to myself for leaving the camera behind, and headed back to get it. By the time I got back to the square, the demonstrators were breaking up and police were on stand-down! That camera would never again leave my side! The economy of Greece is in a sad state and the austerity measures from lower wages, higher taxes and fewer services has caused a lot of consternation in the country. There is an atmosphere of agitation nearly everywhere you go in the city.
After a quick dinner, I had to get everything in order to leave for five days to Santorini the next day.