I live in DC, which is a great place to live and visit. I try to make the most of it. However, I also love to leave my home and see what the world has to offer. Come and join me!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Thursday, September 13, 2007 Athens & Ouzo

I have set my alarm to wake me, but I kept waking early because I was nervous about missing the boat (9:30 am). The church bells ring very early for service, around 6:45 am. The church is right behind the hotel but I hadn't heard them other mornings. When I left the hotel I wanted to take pictures of it, but the doors were still open and people coming out of it and I felt awkward treating their place of worship like a tourist attraction so alas no pics of St. George church.

I got up and had more yogurt with muesli and honey and reluctantly checked out. My rate was 35E/night. A steal!!!! Hotel Galini accepts credit cards.

I left the hotel around 8:45 and made a leisurely walk to the pier along the sea road, stopping for phictures along the way. I buy some more postcards and a magnet and the boat (Blue Star Ferries this time; 29E) arrives about the same time I do. I am directed up to coach class. There is a small nonsmoking indoor portion with reclining seats so I snag one. Most people are outside on the deck. All is well until Paros when all the children of Greece get on the boat and sit next to me. I put in earplugs and dozed until about 1:30.

We were about an hour from Athens so I decided to spend the rest of the time outside. First order of business was to find a bathroom, which is not easy! There are ship maps everywhere, and they have the bathrooms marked, but there are no signs directing you to the WC. I kept trying to orient myself to the map and then find the bathrooms but I couldn't. I finally located some on the uppermost outdoor deck at the front of the ship.

Now I was hungry and bought a small spanakopita from the Flocafe (the same concession as on the Nel ke) for 1.90E. Despite repeated announcements not to put your stuff on a seat so others may sit, it's hard to find a seat with all the bags piled on them. I ask a Greek family if I can sit at their table and they kindly indicate that's fine. The spanakopita is actually good, if overpriced, and the 7 Day Sesame Bagel chips are delightful! I couldn't stop eating until I finished them all.

I go to the railing to watch our arrival into Piraeas and am again struck by how gigantic and dense Athens is! I really hate to think of what the commute is like. It wasn't as evident in person, but in the picture you can also observe the city's legendary smog.

While we were approaching the port some birds were flying alongside the boat. They were going at a slightly faster speed than we were and it took me a while to figure out what was wrong with this picture. It finally dawned on me--they were gliding. no wings flapping, just riding the wind. It was really cool looking (even if I am totally freaked out by birds), but I couldn't get my camera out fast enough to get a picture. Now that I'm familiar with Piraeas it's a cinch to find the metro when we arrive.

On this trip I decided to do something I had never done before, something that felt very daring and maybe even a little scary...stay at my first youth hostel. At the age of 33. My flight out of Athens was set for 7:35 am. The airport is about an hour drive from the city, so to be there two hours before my flight I was going to have to leave Athens at...4:30 am. Ugh!

I looked into staying at the airport, but the Sofitel, the only hotel on the airport grounds, was 220E/night, way beyond my budget. There is a Holiday Inn "near" the airport that offers a free shuttle, and rooms were only 110E/night, but I had no sense where it was really located and didn't know if the shuttle would be running as early as I needed to.

Given these circumstances, I decided that rather than pay for a hotel for just a few hours I would try a hostel, and use the money I saved to get a cab, which would be about 50E at that time (cab rates double in the off hours, and 4:30 am is an off hour fo sho). I was very happy with my decision When K and I passed the Holiday Inn on our metro ride from the airport when we first arrived in Athens. It's not really that near the airport and is in the middle of cruddy nowhere. I'd rather take a little longer ride to the airport while staying in the heart of Athens.

Athens Backpackers had good reviews online, so I took the plunge. I had to pay a deposit, but it was only $5, which I could afford to lose if I chickened out at the last moment. I had no trouble finding it from the Akropoli metro stop using the directions on the website. It's an additional 22.50E on top of my $5USD pre-payment, plus a 5E cash deposit for the key, to be returned when I check out and give them back the key. The guy at the desk is friendly and cute (if 10 years younger than me), and the cute Aussie girl with him compliments my "sunnies." I love the Australian slang, it's so adorable! Jess kept talking about putting on her "swimmers" to go in the water. Cuteness!

I'm on the third floor (fourth floor to Americans) and I was vastly relieved when the desk guy told me I could use the lift to get my suitcase up there. I had really not been looking forward to hauling my suitcase up the obligatory marble spiral stair. I don't carry anything nonsensical with me, like a blowdryer, and I had half as many clothes as days, but everything still adds up and the suitcase was around 35 pounds by then. I'm assigned to Dorm 7, which was nice and clean with three sets of bunkbeds and an en-suite bathroom. There are a few other suitcases in there but no people, so I refreshed myself and headed out. Linens are included on the beds, though towels are not, and can be rented for 2E according to the website. I wasn't carrying shower flip flops with me and had planned to just be gross and not shower.

My first mission was to walk to Syntagma Square. My Plan A had been hard core: stay at Athens Backpackers and take the bus to the airport. Then I looked at the map and realized it was about 400 meters between the hostel and Syntagma Square, where the airport bus picks up and I thought I'd go with Plan B, take a cab. But I wanted to make sure Plan B was necessary. Really, not even so much for the money. A 50E cab ride to the airport was not going to break me financially, but it would wound my pride in being a self-sufficient traveler a little. In Italy I took a cab only from the train station to the hotel in Rome when I first arrived. For everything else I used buses or trains. In Scandinavia I didn't take any cabs at all. I had already ruined my no-cab record in Naxos, but still. So far no cabs on the mainland.

I arrive in Syntagma and decide the walk is far, but doable. I buy my bus ticket in advance for 3.20E (versus 50E for a cab!), again thinking it's so little that if I chicken out and do a cab I won't have lost much (except my pride). I should have researched it more, though; I could have saved myself .80E at Piraeas! The 3.20E gives you unlimited rides on metro and buses plus one-way fare on the airport express bus for the 24 hours after it is validated, so if I'd bought it Piraeas I could have started using it then for my metro ride instead of buying a .80E single ride ticket. Again, not the money, just a blow to my "savvy traveler" ego.

That taken care of, it was time for my last sight-seeing in Greece. Across from Syntagma Square is, well, the Syntagma (parliament), with its ceremonial guards. To get to them I had to walk through a giant field of pigeons. I am very creeped out by birds, but they were not in the least disturbed by me.

The guards' patrol is a very elabroate routine performed by two officers in perfect unison, involving high knees and kicks and pauses and making the most of the taps on their shoes. They are in traditional costume, which is warm and they are sweating on this hot day, but it's their lack of sunglasses that gives me the most sympathy. Ouch on the eyes! After they finish and go stand near at the guardhouses (where their heads are shaded, at least) a woman goes and stands next to one of them for a picture and he doesn't flicker an eye.

After that spectacle I was off to the Benaki Museum. I knew they had free admission and late opening hours on Thursdays, and was glad this day just happened to be a Thursday. Although it's free ou still have to get a ticket at the admission desk, and also turn in your camera at bag check. It is a really wonderful world-class museum focusing mostly on Greek history from pre-history to the mid-19th century. It was the private collection of the scion of a wealthy shipping family so there is some mishmash going on, with several Egyptian artifacts mixed into the collection. There is a lot of jewelry and clothing, as well as elaborate Byzantine carved wood.

It's a really big collection and you could spend all day here, but (again with the nice chronological arrangement) you can breeze through in about an hour or two, stopping at the pieces that interest you. At this point in my trip breezing was all I was up to! Also, it was hard to stay in because the smell of smoke just permeated the museum. I think it's that the museum cafe, on the third floor, had the doors open to its balcony where people were smoking and the wind just carried it through the whole building. Priceless treasures, people! Can we not refrain from smoking for a couple of hours??? The museum shop has some lovely pieces in it...none of them with prices. They just have numbers and I suppose you're meant to ask the cashier how much things are. I figured it was an "if you have to ask, you can't afford it" situation so I retrieved my camera and crossed the street to the National Gardens.

I sit on a bench in the National Gardens, enjoying (for the first time that day) some fresh smoke-free air and the greenery. I see some attractive men jogging in tank tops and little shorts and stumble upon the obligatory unmarked ruins, picturesquely overgrown. I enjoyed wandering all the little paths, knowing there was no way to get lost because I could just head toward the noise of traffic and find myself on a busy street. I wound my way trhough and emerged near Olympian Zeus and headed up into plaka. I bought a baklava (1E) because I hadn't had one all trip, I realized. It was rich and delicious.

It was my final shopping excursion, so I bought some evil-eye pendants to make into necklaces for gifts. The teenage girl who was working the shop pointed out some bronze figurines made by her father; they were cute but I just don't do figurines, unfortunately.

Then it was off to buy my glass! I stopped into a shop that had some pieces that caught my eye (really, all the shops in Plaka are the same and I don't remember the name or location). The owner is friendly, very slightly pushy but not too much with the hard sell. Good for him because I would have walked out if he was. For some reason he thinks it is important to me that he has sold to many other Americans, and he pulls out his shipping receipt notebook and starts reading off destinations--New Jersey, Oregon, Texas. I dithered between red and blue and finally decided on red. The marked price was 69E, but he gave me a "discount" (I assume everyone gets the discount, and I might have gotten more of one if I was at all adept at or comfortable with bargaining) to 62E and wrapped it well in bubble wrap and packing tape.

I was hungry, but it was about 5:00, too late for lunch so I got an ice cream cone, vanilla and pistachio for 3.50E. Not worth it, not great ice cream. I wandered back to the hostel looking for postboxes for my last postcards, but there were only express postboxes. Curses!

In the dorm room, three girls were sitting around chatting and I totally inserted myself into the conversation. They were Anna and Justine, two Polish girls with absolutely perfect English. They were beyond fluent and into native speaker level. It was just phenomenal. If I'd had to guess I'd have thought Anna was Scottish (where she's studying) and Justine Australian. There was also a Canadian girl, Christina, who was having a little trouble adjusting to travel ("Athens sucks" was her conclusion).

We talked about our travels and our lives and they were suitably shocked by my advanced age (they ranged from 23-25). We decided to head to the hostel's rooftop bar, which is one of the features mentioned by all the reviews. It really has a stunning view of the Acropolis! This was not like Art Gallery's lean-over-the-railing-and-crane-your-neck balcony, it's got an unobstructed lovely view. Of course I hadn't brought my camera.

Shots of ouzo were .50E so we took turns treating. I hadn't had ouzo yet (despite the gift from our Galaxidi Poseidon Hotel host) and I *never* do shots, but it was actually quite nice. The anise taste isn't overwhelming and it warms, rather than burns, its way down. The bar appears to own only six shot glasses. We had to wait for our first round until the shotglasses were available, at which point the bartender rinsed them in a little running water and filled them up. We reasoned that the alcohol surely killed any germs that might linger. We met some other travelers and the atmosphere was very convivial.

It was getting chilly so we went back to the room for wraps. There were rumors of a pub crawl starting at 11, but then it was pushed back to 11:30 and we decided to go off on our own (for which I was much grateful; three shots of ouzo was quite enough for me, especially on an empty stomach). I had the most cartographic knowledge of the area, which wasn't saying much, so I was in charge of navigation. I went to Plaka the only way I knew how, by finding Olympian Zeus and walking up. It was a very quiet night. I hadn't realized Plaka was ever that dead.

I managed to find Ksenios Zeus but the owner told us he was closed! Sob! We wandered back down and saw a restaurant with a rooftop dining area, called Elaias (Eλαιας), Olives. There were only one or two tables filled, but the waiter said they were still open so we headed up. It looks fancy but the prices are only one or two Euro above the norm and the view is quite nice. I had the grilled mushrooms and the fried potatoes, and both were delish. The potatoes were rounds about 1/4 inch thick rather than fries, and the mushrooms were the fantastic Oysters. Justine and Christina had moussaka, and Anna had the stuffed tomato. The bread is warm rolls...that have clearly been warmed all night and are quite hard by the time they get to us. There are also some little crackers with sunflower seeds on them with olive oil for dipping and some really nice, not-too-salty olives.

We all enjoyed our food and conversation, but it was getting cold and the waiters were clearly ready to close up. The girls were amazed when I asked for the bill in Greek, which really amused me. Here Anna and Justine are telling me IN ENGLISH how impressive that I can say one sentence in Greek! Actually, it's not even a sentence because it doesn't have a verb. It's just a phrase, "The bill please." {To loghariazMO parakaLO.) While they speak English as though native speakers! I don't think one phrase is particularly impressive. I had 35E remaining in cash, so I threw it down. I wished I had more so I could pay the whole bill, but they each only had to pay 5E, so the total (with tip) for the four of us was 50E. I remember how much that sort of thing meant to me when I was that age and broke, someone unexpectedly paying for a nice meal, relieving me of the little pit in the stomach at the cost.

We got back to the hostel around 1:10 am and make our farewells. We were all a little sad I would be leaving so early and wouldn't be able to hang out with them the next day.

You can see all my photos from Athens, and all the pictures from this trip to Greece if you'd like.

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