Return to Athens, return to reality

After returning from Mykonos, I spent a further 2 full days in Athens before returning to South Africa. Paul’s work put us up in a hotel closer to the offices he was visiting, which meant we were outside the “tourist” zone in the southern part of the city. Instead, we got to experience Athens life more “authentically”.

The hotel was in Nea Kifissia, a presumably upmarket suburb which you get to by catching a bus from the Metro station at the furthest north stop. We came to the conclusion very quickly that our hotel must be a “quickie hotel”. In our small room there was a giant mirror suspended alongside the bed, the vending machines down the corridor dispensed the all important combo of cigarettes and condoms, and the satellite TV selection included 2 channels of hardcore porn.

Meanwhile, in the surrounding area all we could find foodwise was a crepes kiosk, while otherwise there was a bank, 2 giant pet stores (Greeks love cats and dogs!), furniture emporiums and a sparkling car dealership full of Ferraris and Porsches.

Out of interest, here’s a middle-class Greek apartment block, followed by some typical Athenian graffiti.

Our stay at the hotel also proved to be the prime example of our Greek communication problems. That’s the one thing about Greece. It’s not so much a culture shock (the lifestyle isn’t really different from ours) as it is a language shock – realising that your mother tongue is not the dominant mode of communication, and growing frustrated when you can’t understand what people are saying around you, or announcing over intercoms. That made for fun morning when a stretch of suburban rail was under maintenance and we didn’t know that the trains weren’t on their usual lines.

We discovered during the course of our trip that we actually know more French and Spanish even than Greek. And while the younger generation of Greeks speak very good English, it’s very often a struggle to communicate with older people… who run hotels. The curmudgeonly old fellow who was always lurking about the hotel lobby with his dozy bulldog even took away Paul’s passport to ensure we weren’t going to leave without paying. It took a call from Paul’s office, in Greek, to clear up the confusion.

On Wednesday, Paul’s last day of holiday, we made our way to the National Archeological Museum, which houses many of the most important archeological finds in Greece. We were there for most of the day (6 hours+), and by the end of it had sore feet, glazed eyes and foggy minds. I repeat again: how elderly people cope, I don’t know! We had a few breaks at the surprisingly cheap Museum cafeteria just to ease the information overload.

Museum highlights included the Myceanean collection of gold bits and pieces that you’ve already seen in a post below. Here’s a forbidden semi-posed photo of me with the famous bronze of Zeus (or Poseidon) – it’s unsure if the statue once held a thunderbolt or a trident.

I really liked this frieze depicting a centaur putting a human in a headlock.

There was this mosaic down by the cafeteria. It was unlabelled, but I’m thinking the figure is either a god or Alexander the Great.

And here are 2 other famous pieces: an exceptionally detailed bronze of a horse and jockey, and a marble statue of Aphrodite slapping Pan with her slipper while Eros looks on.

After the museum, we wandered down to the National Gardens to eat a late lunch. Yes, you can actually wander around a public park without being attacked! There were women jogging alone, couples sitting in quiet corners and little kids riding their bicycles while their mothers pushed babies in prams behind them.

On the way to the Gardens we stopped in at a one of those entertainment lifestyle stores, where we found some cool life-size figures to pose with, including Master Chief (we were in Europe for the ridiculously overhyped Halo 3 launch).


Some interesting European gaming-related observations:

Games are NOT cheaper in Europe. They’re either the same price as here or even slightly more. The whole reduced price “Platinum” classic concept is very underutilised.

However, the range of available titles is way way better than here. And special edition box sets are everywhere.

I touched a Wii box! You can get a Wii for round about €230-€250 (R2300-R2500) so we’re not being THAT ripped off with our R2700 launch price.

Adventure games rule in Europe! The shelf was packed with interesting titles, including the already available Ankh sequel. My jaw-dropped at the popularity of the genre here, given how often the American gaming media dismissal it as hopelessly niche.


Emerging on the other side of the National Gardens, we found ourselves before the Presidential Mansion, where the pom-pom shoe guards (in traditional outfits) were doing some kind of post change, or something. The guards have a very weird goose-step style march, where, when their leg is stretched out straight before them, they suddenly bend their knee and swing their foot back and forth a few times before planting it on the ground and taking the next step.

From the Presidential Mansion we walked down to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which was once the biggest temple in Greece. Not much remains, but the size of the few still-standing pillars gives a pretty good impression of how impressive the structure must once have been. It’s massive.

Out of interest, being a nation that doesn’t have a self-imposed, lock-yourself-in-your-house curfew of 6pm, many of the archeological sites in Athens are open till 7 or 8pm, and are lit up after that. We left the site as the sun was setting but before that we took some pictures at the bottom of the Temple grounds, where you can look up at the nearby Acropolis through Hadrian’s Arch.

Nearby was a statue dedicated to Grecophile English poet Lord Byron, who participated in the War of Independence from the Turks back in the early 1800s.

This photo, taken at rush hour gives a good idea of the Ancient meeting the urban contemporary. Though all the tram lines you can see Lykavittos Hill far in the background, which you can reach with a cable car.

It was also interesting to discover that there’s a book market that runs on the path leading to the Acropolis (I’m not sure how often). Think of The Stables, but each stall is its own little white booth. Most of the titles available were in Greek but it was still pretty impressive to see a literate, culture-respecting society in action – and, of course, Frank Miller’s 300 available in Greek! How awesome.

After some shopping (my mother and aunt both wanted traditional cotton embroidered tops, which I’d struggled to find before now), and a rather oily dinner at the Plaka, we caught a train back to Kifissia. Ah, the novelty of seeing middle aged women all decked out in finery for an evening out, and riding public transport.

The next day, Thursday, was my last day in Athens. With Paul working I did the solo touring thing, jumping on and off the Metro at interesting stops. First up, I went for a walk around the imposing grounds of the 2004 Olympic Games. I presume there are some office blocks housed there now because there were some people, other than tourists, striding around as if they had a definite intended destination. Otherwise the place was eerily quiet.

The Ionia Metro station is decorated very nicely though, as is the Acropolis stop, with its frieze on the wall, and information panels. I actually spent most of my day at the Acropolis, properly touring the other important ancient sites we had only seen from a distance during our Contiki stop. I had my Acropolis ticket in hand (€12 gives you entry to the Acropolis and surrounding areas, and remains valid beyond the day of your entry), but for whatever reason entry to everything was free that day.

So I got up close with the Theatre of Dionysos, climbed the very slippery Mars Hill (where St Paul first preached Christianity to the Greeks) and headed down into the Ancient Agora, once the centre of Greek public life. It was another hot, dry day in Athens so I spent some time enjoying the cool shade of the very well-preserved Stoa of Attalos, which houses a small museum of artefacts from the area. Last stop was the Hephaiston, a temple, roof surprisingly still intact, dedicated to the blacksmith god, Hephaistos.

I returned to the Plaka then for my last proper sit-down Greek meal – a nice slab of mousaka, followed by the last of my shopping. I actually made my favourite purchase on this day – an Ancient Mythology chess set, with fully armoured Spartan warriors as pawns, Ionic columns as the rooks, war horses as the knights, Ares as the bishops, Athena as the queen and Poseidon as the king. It’s something just really special and uniquely Greek.

I also bought a double-sided silver pendant with Athena’s profile on one side, and her owl symbol on the other. Apart from its dairy products and leather working, Greece is known for its gold and silver jewellery, and you’ll find plenty of these enticing stores in every tourist area.

Anyway, getting back to Paul’s office was a bit of a mission, with the suburban rail under maintenance. Flustered, when I did finally get to the right stop much later than intended, I walked out of the wrong exit and wandered for a half a kilometre in the wrong direction before I realised my mistake, and had to backtrack – almost getting flattened by the crazy rush hour traffic at one point. When I did finally get to the office, sweaty and trembly, Paul and his colleagues were exceptionally relieved to see me. They were on the point of contacting the Athens police, thinking I was lost somewhere in the city. So not the ideal end to an otherwise very enjoyable day!

We got back to the hotel, ordered some awesome Dominos Pizza and then, fearful of rail delays, I caught a taxi to the airport for my 1am flight. Yes, 1am. It’s a crazy time to fly, but it does mean the airport is very quiet, making checking in, passport control and boarding very easy.

Because of apparently cheaper flight prices, Athens is a common connection point for South Africans going to or returning from Europe. And the departures lounge certainly proved that. I think it’s almost always the case that a plane going to a country will mostly consist of people from that nation. Here were the grumbling Saffers…

The flight back to Johannesburg was better than the one going to Athens – the food was especially good – but I slept for 2 hours, if that. I’m a window seater normally so sitting on the aisle I was continually distracted or knocked by shuffling old men on the way to the bathroom. And the narcoleptic in the seat next to me kept falling over the arm rest into my personal space, so I was way too physically uncomfortable to sleep.

On arrival in Johannesburg I was very anxious about my un-clingwrapped luggage appearing on the baggage carousel, given all the stories I’ve heard about the high rate of theft in O.R. Tambo International Airport. I waited and waited… it was a bit of a relief to see that everyone else on the flight was standing around waiting too. After airport staff screamed down the carousel entry point, and then jumped down there, bags started appearing. Mine too eventually – although its handle had decided to stay in Athens apparently.

It was a bit of a rush to make my tight connecting flight to Durban from there, but with the help of a porter I got to the Domestic Departures terminal in time. And then landing in Durban it was very much a case of back to reality.

I’ve vowed to try and keep my tan for Summer (the Mediterranean sun is a lot more forgiving on unprotected skin than the African sun) but Durban weather isn’t helping – we’ve had just 2 days of sunshine out of the 7 I’ve been back. Otherwise it’s cloudy and stormy. But phew, holiday report-back all done!

Back to the normal update routine from next week, Monday.


Stacey said…
What a fantastic holiday report back! I think I've only day 1 day of my 7 day trip to Thailand! And that was in August!!!!

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