We parted ways and while Remy hung out with the packs I went to get the train tickets to Athens. The next train was in a little over an hour so we had time to find a store to pick up some lunch supplies for the train, perfect. While I was buying the tickets a woman rushed up and wanted a ticket for the same train. She seemed slightly panicked and after getting her tickets ran off. I finished my transaction and walked back to Remy. He was about to go find some food, but I had this lingering feeling that something wasn’t right. Why was this woman so anxious? And then it hit me, there was a time change and now we had 12 minutes until the train left. So we picked up our packs and went running through the station. We got to the train just a couple minutes before it left. Lesson learned, when entering a new country make sure to know if there is a change in the time.
So we had a 5 ½ hour train ride, much better then the train ride to Macedonia on a much nicer train, but no food. The first thing we did in Athens was get lunch, a beer, and our first taste of ouzo. Ouzo is a licorice tasting, clear liquor. It comes in a little glass and you pour a little of it into a glass of water and it turns a milky color. I’m not a huge licorice fan and the smell of it made me cringe, but a small sip revealed it wasn’t too bad. I definitely couldn’t drink a glass of it, but Remy loved it. He said he was being culturally sensitive by partaking in the local refreshments.
We then wandered through the city streets trying to find a hostel. We found one a friend suggested, City Circus (www.citycircus.gr). After rough couple days of travel this was like an oasis. It is modern, clean, lots of character. It has big showers with hot water and great water pressure, which we desperately needed. There is an awesome rooftop terrace overlooking the Acropolis and to top it off an amazing breakfast is included. It is a little more expensive then we typically spend, but at that time it was totally worth it. We highly recommended it if you will be in Athens.
After checking in and cleaning up we went to explore the city. The area around the Acropolis is beautiful, in a big city sort of way. There were cars whizzing by, tourists bustling along the sidewalks, expensive restaurants next to little shops, locals sitting at cafes, homeless and drug addicts sitting on the curbs and set on the hilltop above is the Acropolis all lit up. In contrast to the city it looked faked. My first thought was that it looked like a movie set. We walked up to the Acropolis and sat on ledge overlooking the city, absorbing it all.
We then meandered back down to the city streets to find some dinner. Remy and I have a very difficult time picking a place to eat. We wander around looking at all the options and then try to settle on a restaurant. We made a lap and there were some tasty looking menus, but a lot of it was touristy. We wandered into a sketchy part of town and decided to head back to the touristy part and pick a restaurant. As we were making our way through the narrow streets I saw a door that was open. I walked by it and then something made me go back and look again. The door opened to a dimly lit alley between some houses. There was little tables set up with people crowded around them talking, laughing, eating, and drinking. It seemed like a place that the locals frequented so we decided to give it a try.
We found a little table tucked in the back against the wall. When we asked for the menu the waiter recited it. We weren’t sure what most of the stuff was so we just picked something and hoped it would turn out good. The waiter asked what we wanted to drink and he listed off a few things they had. I went with a glass of wine and Remy a beer. The waiter asked if wanted raki, another traditional, alcoholic Greek drink. We weren’t sure what it was so he brought us out a sample. Just the smell of it made me shiver, I’m not much of a hard alcohol fan. Remy took a couple sips and thought it wasn’t too bad.
The drinks came out and we sat in silence for a bit, sipping our drinks, and taking in the atmosphere. All the food was being prepared in the alley on a two burner, propane stove that was set up near the entrance. This little restaurant seemed like an impromptu restaurant that the neighbors set up in the alley between their homes, maybe to deal with the tough economy.
Then the food came out. We got a big plate of stuffed grape leaves, fried feta, sausages, fries, lamb kebabs, an egg, veggies and more. There were things that we recognized and things that we didn’t, but all of it was delicious. It was all gobbled up quickly and washed down with some good red wine and beer. We were so happy, content, and glad to be in Greece. We eventually asked for the bill and were a little apprehensive about what the cost would be. When the waiter recited the menu there were no prices included so we had no idea how bad the damage would be. When we got the bill we couldn’t believe it. It was so cheap! If you are ever wandering the streets of Athens looking for a good local place, keep an eye out for this door.
After we set down our bags and settled ourselves we went to join Dimitris on the porch. The great thing about CouchSurfing is that you meet locals who can give you a better idea of the culture, politics, history and much more. Staying in a hostel you don’t get this layer. It does take time to chat with your host(s), but it adds to the value of the experience of visiting a place. Anyway, we chatted with Dimitris for a while. He told us about the difficulties in Greece, a theme we would hear much more as we traveled through the country. A lot of what he talked about centered on the economy, but he also talked about the huge amount of corruption. He also told us about the planes he has stored in the warehouse. He is an ultra light pilot. He got all the certifications and the planes and wanted to start a business flying tourists to the islands instead of having to spend hours on a ferry. Sounds like a great idea, right? Well he was blocked from doing it because just a few families own the ferry businesses and they carry a lot of political weight and wouldn’t allow for someone to compete with them. Dimitris said that sadly this happens often.
Dimitris is technically unemployed, but he works odd jobs to earn some money (amazing that he is still hosting people). So after chatting for a bit he was off to do some work. Remy and I decided to walk around to find something to eat. We found a place that sold souvlaki and had a couple with some beers. We wondered what the difference between a souvlaki and a gyro. Upon researching it I found that there is a lot of debate on the subject, but here is what I could narrow it down to. For a souvlaki the meat is cubed and grilled on a skewer. You can get it still on the skewer or served in a small pita with fries, tomatoes, etc. For a gyro the meat is cooked slowly on a vertical rotisserie. The meat is then shaved off and placed in a pita with tomatoes, onions, fries. etc. Anyway, after eating some yummy food we headed back to base camp to do some laundry and get ready for an early morning.
On our third day in Athens we headed to the Acropolis, an ancient fortress containing the remains of several ancient buildings. There are many other acropoleis in Greece, but because of the significance of the Acropolis of Athens it is known as "The Acropolis" without question. Construction on this rocky hill began in the 5th century BC and continued for many years. For example, when the Parthenon and the other buildings were seriously damaged during the 1687 siege by the Venetians because the Parthenon was being used for gunpowder storage and it was hit by a cannonball. Or when the Parthenon was changed into a church in the Byzantine period and then a mosque under the Ottoman rule and then after the Greek War of Independence it was attempted to restore it back to its original form or when the restoration was done wrong and had to be taken apart and done again.
Anyway, back to our visit. Someone recommended that we get there early, i.e. just as it opens and that is what we did. Well, a little after opening because we missed the first train into Athens. We went into the south entrance, which does not seem to be as popular. We walked past the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus and the Herodes Atticus Theatre, the later which still has performances in the summer. Unfortunately these are too expensive for us. But it is a beautiful open-air facility.
The east pediment shows the birth of Athena from the head of her father, Zeus. According to Greek mythology, Zeus gave birth to Athena after a terrible headache prompted him to summon Hephaestus' (the god of fire and the forge) assistance. To alleviate the pain, he ordered Hephaestus to strike him with his forging hammer, and when he did, Zeus's head split open and out popped the goddess Athena in full armour. The sculptural arrangement depicts the moment of Athena's birth.Unfortunately, the centrepieces of the pediment were destroyed even before Jacques Carrey created otherwise useful documentary drawings in 1674, so all reconstructions are subject to conjecture and speculation. The main Olympian gods must have stood around Zeus and Athena watching the wondrous event, with Hephaestus and Hera probably near them.
The west pediment faced the Propylaia and depicted the contest between Athena and Poseidon during their competition for the honor of becoming the city's patron. Athena and Poseidon appear at the center of the composition, diverging from one another in strong diagonal forms, with the goddess holding the olive tree and the god of the sea raising his trident to strike the earth. At their flanks, they are framed by two active groups of horses pulling chariots, while a crowd of legendary personalities from Athenian mythology fills the space out to the acute corners of the pediment.
The next morning we almost missed the train again, but we ran and jumped on just in time. But we missed our stopped and then had to back track to get back into the city. First we walked through the flea market, which was extremely random. It had a little bit of everything, antiques, camping supplies, clothing, food, and much more. The goal of going to the flea market was to find a tent. We were able to bargain with a bunch of vendors, but actually found a better priced one at a shop just outside the flea market. We were able to find a tent for 20 euro, which seemed like a great deal.
We read about some other off the beaten track things to do in Athens. One thing was to visit Athinas Street. Supposedly there is a flower market, but we could not find it. There is also a shop with handcarved wood toys, but it was closed. So we spent time exploring the street, which you can find anything else you could ever want, spice shops, butchers, button shops, hardware stores and so much more. And it seems that similar shops are next to each other: hardware, hardware, hardware, button, button, button…not sure how they make a profit with so much competition. Anyway, we got lunch provisions here, cheese, salami, raki, and bread. The store we bought it at was so proud and excited for us to sample and buy their local goods. We then went to the central market for the rest of our lunch supplies, olives, tomatoes, figs, and peaches. We went to the National Gardens for our picnic. The Gardens are not too nice. It is a nice green space, but there is not too much landscaping to make it gardenish. There is also a pond with way too many turtles in it. But we had a nice picnic to same random ruins.
We headed back to the plastic factory for our last night. In the morning we said goodbye to Dimitris and his dogs, geese, and newly acquired cat.