wandering amphibia

Athens: the Parthenon, great food, and more history than I know what to do with

I arrived early in the morning to Athens on a 777 from Istanbul. It was an odd way to use long-haul equipment, but I guess this gives Turkish Airlines a chance to do some local flying before the big birds go off to Asia on the midnight flights. The taxi didn’t take credit cards as expected; good thing I had some euros on me.

The ride into town was … for lack of a better word, entertaining. The driver was patient for literally about five minutes before he stared talking. When he heard I was from Canada, he got all excited. As it turns out, after being kicked out of the US for moonlighting as a taxi driver for a month (and being caught for having drunk “one beer” as he put it), he went to moonlight in Canada as a taxi driver in ’83. He was in Toronto for three months when winter came and the first huge snowfall happened. At that point, he had a massive soul revival experience where he asked himself – for what godforsaken reason would he abandon his sunny homeland for this snowy wasteland, so he returned to Athens where he’s been a taxi driver ever since. He was telling me this story while driving 160 in a 80 zone and weaving between cars without so much as a blink. I thought it was interesting that there was such complete disregard for speed limits, so I asked him whether there’s much in the way of enforcement. “Yes,” he said. “The police are crazy! There’s this guy, Panagiotis Kirkopoulos, he’s always on the highway to the airport with his radar. Awful guy!”

He did get me to the hotel pretty quickly, after a short street race with a Maserati while showing me pictures on his phone of an AMG GT that he tailgated a few days prior. All in all, my kind of guy. He almost ran over a taxi driver on the approach to the hotel, explaining that it was his friend. Good thing I have no friends like that – who needs enemies with such friends :p

The hotel turned out to have a strong disconnect between the opulence of the lobby and the averageness of the rooms. I was upgraded to the club room, but I requested a suite and got it… and I swear, this should’ve been a Crowne Plaza. The staff is super nice, but the hotel is incredibly plain. It’s the first hotel I’ve been to that uses smart cards for entry. They don’t work any different from other cards – you still insert them in a slot and all.

Oddly, there was a child’s rollaway in my room.

Things cleared up fairly quickly, though, once I found a welcome letter for a Mr. Ahmed Ahmad, who was apparently important enough to get a bottle of wine which I took the liberty of appropriating. Very odd. I’ll take the wine if it means an extra bed so my suitcase doesn’t have to sleep on the floor.

The amenities were local Greek. I guess I’ll take that over the made-in-China Agraria that most Intercontinentals seem to have.

The minibar is a complete and utter letdown, not even worth emptying.

Oh oh… a Nespresso machine!

… with … ready for this? Fake Nespresso capsules!!!!

I don’t purport to be a coffee expert, but these taste exactly as they look: fake, and cheap.

I decided to spend a few hours enjoying the pretty sights of the cradle of Western civilisation. Through years of neglect and general laziness, much of the greatness fell into disrepair (and the post-civil war years of the second half of the 20th century were not kind to old buildings either, where much was demolished to make way for drab Soviet blocks), but a few rocks remained. The GPS told me I was only a kilometre and change away from Acropolis, so off I went. The concierge attempted to convince me to walk along the main road so as not to “get lost”; I thought that was preposterous and I’d never get lost with a Google Maps, so I piffed at his oddball suggestion and off I went. (I will later show that blindly trusting google maps is not a very smart idea in an unknown city). I judged that around a major touristy area, it would appear to be illogical to have any ghettos or questionable areas, so off I went.

At this particular part in my trip, I was correct. The streets were narrow but well-kept and neat.

Came across a very typical scene from this side of the world. Men sitting around having an important meeting about … life.

People tending their plants, as well.

Some peculiar cars that I came across that you don’t maybe see as often anymore. An old Citroen 2CV…

… and another one, this one with somewhat aftermarket headlights!

… and a Zastava (Yugo) 45, as well! These cars that we used to make fun of, they’re still humming along. Supposedly.

I eventually made my way up a hill to get to Acropolis.

I’d like to point out that this exercise wasn’t exactly the most pleasant one, mostly considering this:

I certainly wasn’t the only one suffering, though. Local wildlife was just as miserable.

I could see Acropolis far out in the distance.

I finally climbed up, found a way in, paid the requisite 20€ fee, and went up. It was a nice set of rocks and a LOT of people to ogle them. It occurred to me that it was fairly curious to see this Babylon of people: being somewhat accustomed to monocultures, I realised that I rarely see this many different nationalities in one place. It’s usually the home culture plus a few visiting ones (and this holds true wherever – USA, Philippines, Japan, etc). But here, there was no home culture (using my very limited auditory skills, I could not identify any Greek speakers), and a whole array of European – but unintelligible – languages. Fascinating.

The view was, obviously, spectacular.

I continued on to the Parthenon itself.

Impressive stone columns abound.

Stone steps showing millenia of tourists passing by.

Guard towers, too.

Once again, some spectacular views of Athens.

Certainly one of the most recognisable structures on Earth.

… and the hordes of tourists prove it.

Beautiful houses close up to the Acropolis hill, as well.

Since I basically only had this day, and I needed to see everything I could within it (health and sanity be damned!), I identified my next visit point: Mount Lycabettus and the Chapel of St-George.

Yeah ……. that chapel up on top.

Started walking back down, came across this thoughful t-shirt. Though frankly, in my experience, most of the time people wearing these shirts tend to display them very proudly while taking said selfies.

The sky was blue, the views were spectacular and it was hot as hell. I tried to find spaces to hide in … but to put things in perspective, there’s a reason “Acropolis” means “highest city” – that’s because it’s on top of a mountain. And since most of it fell apart, there’s not much in the way of shade.

I looked around some more and decided it was high time to bail and go do something else. Time Magazine, whose opinion I blindly trust after being introduced to Mido Cafe and the yingyang drink in Hong Kong (so I have some confidence in their recommendations), recommended a restaurant called The Butcher Shop, so I decided to walk there. It was another 30 minute walk, so I set off. After all, there was much to see just in the way of life … and some odd characters along the way.  Looking at this guy made me feel hotter than I already was.

It’s +37C. I have no explanation for this.

Eventually and after some semi shady graffiti filled areas (or anyway, what I thought was shady) I made it to the restaurant. It was 12:30 and it was completely dead.

I ordered a Greek salad and some meat to go with it. I should confidently state that although I hate vegetables with a passion, this does not carry to places where the vegetables actually have distinctive tastes – this is typically places that grow them locally.

I was so happy I didn’t order fries. The salad was precisely as good as it looked, and I had no words to describe just how good it was.

After sitting around for an hour and a half, I decided to move on. Amusingly, the place was beginning to fill up – I guess my definition of lunch at 12:30 does not coincide with the Greek definition of lunch at 14:00. Also, I found myself panicking at one point – I finished my food, and had nothing to do, because in Japan, when you’re done eating, you return to work – without wasting any time people watching or doing anything of the sort. Here, I was sitting on a terrace, on a nice sunny afternoon, and all I could think about was getting out of there. I need help.

Anyway, the next stop on my walking tour of Athens was a mountain called Lycabetus. It’s a steep hill in the middle of the city on top of which sits a small church devoted to St-Georges. It seemed like a neat thing to see, so I set it on Google Maps and started walking. Google decided to route me north of Monastiraki via Sophocleus street; I didn’t think twice of it because well, there can’t be a ghetto so close to the major tourist attractions, right? Right. All started off rather nicely, with quaint green streets…

… scooters parked here and there…

… and more lush greenery.

So things started getting a little bit sketchy as I passed the Keramikos area. The frequency of graffiti and closed shops increased (and I must say, it got fairly elaborate). This was my cue, but obviously I was still delusionally hopeful I’d run into some Chanel shops or something. I turned right on Sophocles … and when I saw cell phone shops by the dozens, Arabic writing everywhere and a general feeling of decay and disrepair, I realised this wasn’t a good place to be after dark. Thanks, Google. At least it was somewhat entertaining during the day to see a totally different side of Athens.

First up were the touristy stores, of course (ignoring the fact that this is the wrong city, I guess the tourists that come don’t particularly care).

A Yugo was parked next to some graffiti. Appropriate place, I suppose, especially considering the Red Star.

Some semi-abandoned buildings, with lots of graffiti. Nice Seat with a huge spoiler. Wonder if they use that for snow clearing? Cause it certainly doesn’t go fast enough to need one.

The graffiti complexity intensified as I went deeper.

… as did the frequency of abandoned houses …

The graffiti got multicultural, too – Chinese import/export stores with Greek writing and English (supposedly) graffiti.

That’s a nice, though really banged up, second facelift Alfa Romeo 156 (circa 2003) – an incredibly beautiful car for its time designed to save Alfa from imminent despair – too bad they ended up assembling them in an Italian shed somewhere amongst three guys, and the cars were complete and utter disasters, with problems ranging from the somewhat less common, like timing belts slipping off and valves getting eaten by pistons, to things like misaligned suspension (from the factory) resulting in tire wear so bad that one would think this was a race car. Anyway, I digress. As Clarkson said, any petrolhead should own an Alfa in his life, and I’m still not at that level of recklessness. But oh, how I’d love a GTA.

Back to a larger mix of abandoned housing and extensive graffiti.

Even came across an abandoned hotel! Or maybe it only operates by night, who knows.

More graffiti, and awesome parking skills of a Honda Civic, a car supposedly designed to alleviate exactly this kind of problems!

To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d walk away with my camera in one piece, but then again, it was broad daylight, and people looked reasonably occupied with their own affairs, so I suppose all was well in the end. Having passed some cell phone shops, I was on my way to Lycabetus.

A couple of streets of pure Greek driving (cars U-turning in the middle of a major road while pedetrians jaywalk)…

… and a protest by the local Pakistani community against … who knows what, around Syntagma square…

… and after admiring an old telephone booth (who uses these things anymore?!)…

…. I soon got to the foot of the Lycabetus hill. I knew it was steep, so I was prepared for a climb.. or I thought I was. First, there were some stairs.

Then stairs that went into the bushes.

Then some more bushes and then something between stairs and a bushpath.

And this only took me to the base of the freaking hill. I couldn’t give up at this point, quite obviously. I just braved the Muslim ghetto – I’m not going to have some forest baffle me.

More stairs.

More stairs…

Paved road / stairs.

I can see the destination in the distance!

More road and stairs …

View was getting to be quite nice. I passed by a bunch of graffiti’d plants, where tourists seemed adamant to scribble their names on. I don’t really get the point of this, maybe they felt more hydrated when they scribbled on these plants? Complete mystery to me. This is why tourists are bad for us.

The view was very nice indeed, though.

I found the graffiti on the ground very a propos. I sure as hell was ok the verge of that, considering I brought no water.

Finally, the entrance!!!

Water for sale!!!!!!!!

The trek down was uneventful, though the most comical part about the whole adventure was that I later found out that on the other side of the hill, there is a cable car that takes you right to the top, so I completely didn’t need to do any of this. Hah. Next thing I’ll learn is that the Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan has scheduled bus service… the things you learn when you read the Internet.

After passing some profoundly thoughtful graffiti on the way back…

… I got to the hotel, had dinner and went to sleep.