Old Stuff Part II

Trip Start Jun 12, 2006
Trip End Nov 28, 2006

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

He Said:

Before Athens, I've had the oh-my-god-I-can't-believe-I'm-staring-at feeling seven times on this trip: at the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, on our balcony in Barcelona overlooking Las Ramblas, at the Tour de France, at Van Gogh's Night Café in Arles, in the bell tower of Florence's Duomo, in the entire city of Venice, and at the Colosseum in Rome. When I was on top of the Acropolis staring at the Parthenon, I had it again.

Completed in 438 B.C. by architects Ictinus and Callicrates, its massive white columns have withstood wars, sieges, freak lightening strikes, gun powder explosions, earthquakes, religious zealots, plunderers, modern-day pollution, and now, rock slides created by my wife. Most of the Parthenon's durability can be explained by its ingenious design, which takes eight columns at each end and 17 along each side, and tilts them somewhat inward for maximum strength. In fact, if the columns were extended skyward, they would actually join up several kilometers above the ground.

The Parthenon stands next to Erechtheion, another well-preserved temple that was the most religious building in all of Athens. It was built on the site where the goddess Athena fought Poseidon, the god of the sea, for naming rights to the city. Athena won, and to this day there is an olive tree growing where her victory took place. Also near the entrance to the Acropolis, another small temple is currently being rebuilt. The Greeks built it to thank Nike, the god of victory - not the shoes, for their victory over the Persians.

Basically, a trip to Athens, and especially the Acropolis, gives you an introduction to the cast of characters the Greeks called, "The Gods." They all explain something that the ancient Greeks couldn't yet describe scientifically. They had a god for lightning, a god for wine, a god for fire, etc., and the Greek gods were all adopted through name change by the Romans. When standing atop the Acropolis next to the flag the Greeks raised as the Nazis were expelled, the Athens skyline made me think about the things we haven't been able to explain in today's world, and about the ways and means we use to explain them.

Even more so than Rome, Athens is the perfect example of modern meets ancient. It is an enormous, sprawling city with plenty of smog and very few splashes of green on the horizon. It didn't quite live up to the poor reputation that everyone talks about, though, and I think the recent Olympics had a huge role in its renovation. On the way to the city center from the airport, the first thing I noticed is how sleek and efficient the highway and rail systems are. Anyone familiar with Atlanta before and after knows what I mean. A train line runs between some of the major highways in Athens, just like the added MARTA lines between Georgia 400. The metro stops were spotless. And the areas of Plaka, Monastiraki, and Psiri were bustling with outdoor cafes, shops, and hip restaurants, which reminded me of a mix between the Highlands and Little Five Points. Athens is definitely a city that has received an Olympic makeover.

On the day Jamie and Bill arrived, I pulled Alli out of bed, which wasn't too hard in the middle of our hotel's overnight power outage that was still happening in the morning. I told her the National Archaeological Museum would surely have electricity and air conditioning, which, of course, it did. It also had one of the best collections of historical sculpture I have ever seen. We saw many relics from the Cyclades Islands (where we will head with Jamie and Bill after Athens), which included ancient sculptures that resembled Picasso paintings and many of Brancusi's pieces. We saw the Mask of Agamemnon, the centerpiece of the museum. We saw theater masks worn by actors in ancient Greek plays. And we saw numerous depictions of the gods and stories from Greek mythology.

Alli looked about as bored as I have ever seen her. I tried to spark her curiosity by challenging her to see how the forms and shapes of ancient Greece have inspired so many modern artists, to no avail. I urged her to notice the change in how humans depict themselves over time and space, to no avail. And eventually, I pushed and prodded her enough to evoke the response, "This is the most boring place I have ever been."

She basically spent the last hour of our museum visit on a bench three rooms ahead of me. When I caught up, she would move ahead three more. I think the experience also brought one of our running jokes to a head. It seems that I'm going to be a teacher when we get back to the States. Well, I'm not sure if that is going to happen or not, but if it does, at least I now have a little bit of experience with students that don't give a damn about being there. She smacked her gum, and I expelled her from class.

Following the museum, we took the bus to the Panathenean Stadium, which was the site of the first modern Olympics in 1896 and was also the venue for archery and the marathon in 2004. Its white marble was stunning and much more impressive than the massive stadium in Barcelona. Athens being our third Olympic city (along with Rome), we once again discussed the idea of going to Beijing in 2008.

Finally, we met up with Jamie and Bill at their clean-smelling, electricity-powered hotel, and we all headed to Sabbas for some Greek salad and gyros. We walked them through our favorite Athenian neighborhoods, past the Roman Agora, and through some of the bovine sculptures of the Cow Parade. Bill milked. After some time on their hotel balcony photographing the Acropolis, Alli and I headed for the port and our overnight ferry to the island of Ios, where there is absolutely no learning to be done.

She Said:

Getting to Athens from Italy involved our first plane ride since leaving Dublin, about 65-70 days ago. Thankfully, we found a cheap flight from Italy, because otherwise, our journey would have included a 3-hour train to a 15-hour ferry followed by another 3-4 hour train- no thanks! Surprisingly, we didn't experience the new wave of "security" we were warned about and successfully smuggled shampoo onboard! As for the flight, Aegean airlines rocks. We boarded on-time (all at one time versus by zones or rows, much quicker), were served a full meal with coffee and tea (offered at least twice between take off and landing), and landed early with only 5 minutes to wait for our luggage. We did lose an hour in the time change, so we arrived at 11:30 p.m. Greek time.

Apparently, the airport in Athens is not so close to the main squares of the city. The three options to get there were bus (60-90 minutes), express train (30 minutes), or taxi (30-45 minutes). The arrivals area looked a bit like La Guardia with crowds of people waiting for taxis and buses; therefore, we opted for the train. However, since we arrived so late, there were none running, so we moved to plan B. Unfortunately, my plan B and Chad's plan B were not the same. I wanted to take a taxi; he wanted to take the bus. Momentarily patient and agreeable because of our budget, I agreed to check out the bus. But, after seeing the line for tickets, the crowd packed onto the bus (no seats), and the time (already after midnight), I made an executive decision and insisted on a taxi. Although the taxi line was also long, they are very efficient in Athens (versus La Guardia) and lined the taxis up in three rows, shortening our wait to less than 10 minutes.

We called earlier that morning to reserve a room close to the square where Jamie and Bill would be staying because from what we heard about Athens, hotel searching on foot at midnight is not such a good idea. When we arrived, tired and ready for a shower, the man told us he had the wrong room reserved and didn't have the one we asked for. Chad allowed me to do my thing, and eventually, we were given a bigger room for the same price.

Accommodation sidebar: I realized that I haven't spoken in detail about our accommodations in a while, and I think the reason is because I have adapted well to some less than desirable places, gotten over some of my germ phobias, and even haven't minded walking down the hall for the bathroom from time to time. But, Hotel Metropolis will require me to go back and re-visit this conversation to allow you to share my experience. First of all, the toilet flushes differently. Apparently, this is the case in all of Europe; however, ours had the unique feature of overflowing and splashing everywhere after each flush (even with the seat down). When I expressed my concern to management that this didn't seem normal and to please fix it, he simply said that it wasn't "normal" for all toilets to do this, but our toilet was "special" and it couldn't be fixed. Next, because of the perpetual water on the floor (shower and toilet), we had an ant problem, enough said. Finally, and best of all, we had a blackout all three nights we were there. The first night it lasted from early to late morning, and management said, "We had a little problem, but it's fixed now." The next night, it lasted about 20 minutes and management blamed us for using plugs (even though we were using converters). The final night, I like to call the finale, lasted all night and all morning (and apparently for a few days afterwards as Jamie and Bill noticed when walking past). Why didn't we move? I have no idea...All I can say is thank goodness we had a sense of humor about it and found ways to make it fun!

Athens is a quaint city with lots to see and do, and as Chad mentioned, a recent recipient of a face-lift. Athens is also VERY HOT in August, temperatures reached from 98-101 in the time we were there. The only benefit of such extreme heat is that the tourists and locals headed to the islands instead of Athens, leaving us un-crowded streets and restaurants to enjoy all for ourselves.

Our first day there, we took our traditional introduction to the city walking tour. This took us to many whitewashed churches sitting vacant in the middle of pedestrian squares. They were not as ornate like the Byzantine churches we have seen in other cities, but more simple with tasteful mosaics on the doors and domes. We walked though the main square, Syntagma Square, to see the Parliament and changing of the guard. People took turns taking pictures with the stoic guards with pom-pom shoes, who I imagined were so incredibly hot and cursing these disrespectful tourists inside. We walked through the narrow paths of a town called Anafiotika, void of any tourists, but filled with clotheslines, flowers, vegetation, and stray cats sleeping in the shade of the villas. There were homemade signs pointing towards the Acropolis that seemed unreal compared to the urban city below with official signs in every direction pointing towards the Acropolis. We got our first glimpse of it through this little city nestled beneath it, and I looked forward to the next day when we would go and see it up close. We walked through the Roman Agora at the end of our tour, and picked up our tickets to the Acropolis for the following day. After the three hour orientation walk, we had our first taste of Greek food, Chad drank Ouzo, and we called it a night.

The next day, we headed straight for the Acropolis. It was 100 degrees, so needless to say, there were no lines. We spent the next few hours marveling in the size and historic importance of the place. I am a very hands-on learner, so places like Pomeii and the Acropolis are where I do my best learning (as opposed to museums). I was truly amazed at all four monuments atop the ancient city, but obviously, most impressed with the Parthenon. I tried to imagine what it was like for people living up there back in the 5th Century as we read the history and learned the details of each monument and statue. But since I couldn't drink the water fast enough as we were frying on the "high city", I welcomed the mini-museum tour which incidentally housed much of the Acropolis collection in an effort to preserve it.

After the Acropolis and some well-needed hydration, we headed to the Greek Agora. A bit like the Roman Agora, but this seemed to resemble more of the city (with some imagination). There were restored columns (of which Chad knows all the different kinds at this point), a gymnasium, a preserved aqueduct, and remnants of what were once administrative buildings. From there, we walked around the Monastiraki area, with small shops and a flea market with an emphasis on household items. We enjoyed a beer, went home to shower, and indulged in a five Euro dinner of gyros and a drink. We walked to an area described as a more of a lively nighttime spot, and had some local Greek wine (not my favorite) before calling it a night.

The next day, we were happy to check out from our powerless hotel, but left our bags with them while heading to an A/C museum. At least I was happy to be going there until we actually arrived. This was, hands-down, the absolute most boring museum I have ever been to in my entire life. There were more clay pots and random artifacts than I knew existed in the entire world. I was so bored; I walked ahead of Chad (who studied each pot and tweezer as if he knew the difference in centuries) and found the next comfortable bench to wait for him. Sure, he tried to engage me, but I just couldn't do it. Greek mythology just isn't my thing and I regressed five years for each hour we were there. Finally, we left and headed for the old Olympic stadium. Unfortunately, they wouldn't let us in, but it was cool to see it either way.

We awaited Jamie and Bill's arrival at a local McDonald's where we had our first taste of American fast food since we left Spain- we realized we didn't miss it at all! When they arrived, we walked into the lobby (feeling a bit like Pretty Woman with our backpacks on), and asked for their room number. We walked around the city, had some Greek food, and enjoyed some of their hotels amenities before heading to our overnight ferry to the islands to jump into the Aegean Sea and get some relief from the heat!

Backpacking sidebar: Just because you carry a backpack and stay in non-resort-like hotels, doesn't make you dirty or smelly. I would like to make it known for all those who make jokes (you know who you are), that we not only shower everyday, but brush our teeth twice a day!

Jamie and Bill Said:

After a long plane ride taking us from one national seat of government to another (and confirmation that they mean it when they say you shouldn't mix Ambien with wine), we were very excited to arrive in Greece. We weren't that psyched for Athens as we heard it was a big, dirty, smoggy, and disgusting city (we are definitely more beach-vacation people), but we were pleasantly surprised. We had a great cab driver who gave us a guided tour before he took too much of our money. As he drove us to our hotel we got a quick glimpse of the Olympic stadium, some ruins and some more ruins...and then we got to our HOTEL - which astoundingly had a view of ruins.

We decided to splurge on the first night, and were not disappointed when we arrived at the Grand Bretagne - it was directly in the center of Syntagma Square, across from the Parliament and walking distance to the Acropolis (and everything else we wanted to see - from the balcony). We quickly put down our stuff and showered, exhausted but so excited that our vacation had finally begun. Soon Alli and Chad (yes he was wearing his Guinness shirt) called from the McDonald's across the street, making sure we were there in case security wouldn't let them in the hotel  (which they did), and we all watched the changing of the guard at the Parliament from our balcony - similar to London, but funnier uniforms with pom-poms on their shoes. They dropped off their backpacks and we all went out for a walk around the city and our first Gyro, tsziziki, and Mythos (local beer) in the Square.

Chad and Alli showed us around the city, and pointed out some of the ruins they had seen, then we went back to the room and they used our shower before heading out on the overnight ferry to Ios while we went swimming on the roof of our hotel. They left, and we, determined to stay awake and get acclimated to the time zone, went for another walk and had dinner under the Acropolis. We then sat on our balcony admiring the view before making an early night. The next morning we did some more wandering, still not actually making it into the Acropolis (on the way back maybe?), and then flew to Santorini and our boat to Ios - in awe at the beauty of the islands and the Aegean the whole way there...
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hemmingway on

We'd recommend a visit to Rodos while you're in the neighborhood. We enjoyed a week there...kinda the Hawaii of Britain, it seemed.

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