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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  

Greek Flag GREECE


November 23.  THESSALONKI - ATHENS  We rolled into Athens around 7am with stiff necks.  It had been a rough five hours of sleep.  I remembered observing the people around too many times during the night to have had much sleep.  We were undecided on where to stay.  Near the airport had seemed like a good idea because our flight left Athens early in the morning but then what would we do with ourselves all day long?  Besides our research into hotels near the Athens airport yielded nothing but expensive options.  We jumped into the subway and headed to Syntagma square, near the historical Plaka area.  Our guidebook showed that some of the more affordable lodging options were around that area.   We were willing spend a bit more than usual, considering we had just spent the night on a train.  The first hotel we tried was just at the edge of Plaka, the Hotel Adonis.  It touted views of the Acropolis for its breakfast room and was within our price range.  The winter rates were far more affordable that Athens in the summer.  When we explained our schedule they let us take our breakfast that morning, since we would be gone by breakfast time the following morning.

Our hotel room was simple but clean and had a bathroom and satellite TV.  The view from the breakfast room on the top floor was excellent and we lingered over a long breakfast of bread, cheese, jam, and Nescafe while we looked at the Parthenon peeking out over the edge of the ancient fortress and scanned our guidebook.  We were feeling a surprising surge in energy and were getting motivated to see something of the city. We also had a few necessary errands like finding a Citibank, check the Internet for our airline receipt, and figuring out the bus schedule for the airport bus.   But, it was still early so we did shower and have a nap before starting in on the day.

There were few tourists in the city which made walking the old streets quiet and pleasant.  Some of the souvenir shops were open but others only opened intermittently or closed entirely, having already given up on the tourist season.  The weather was beautiful, sunny and clear. The Greeks looked like they were dressed for a Moscow winter but it really wasn't very cold.  Taking care of our errands proved to be very easy.  Everything was convenient to the Syntagma/Plaka area.  On Syntagma square we found a Citibank, down one block we found a good Inernet place, and the bus for the airport departed from just across the busy street the cut above the square.  Our flight left just before 6am and the ride to airport could take up to an hour and a half.  We gave ourselves until 2am to catch the airport.

We took lunch near the market in Monastiraki, at the west end of Syntagma, at a well known restaurant called Thanasis.  It was famous for its special souvlaki, made of minced lamb mixed with minced beef and seasonings, and was the most activity we had seen anywhere in the city.  We carefully positioned ourselves for the next available seat and ended up descending on the same table as an older Greek couple.  They shrugged indifferently and let us have the window seat while the waiters separated the two small tables and we all sat down.  They had an English menu but we weren't sure what to order.  The Greek couple had put in their order when they sat down and we watched as a plate of fries descended onto their table with a portion of tzadziki, thick and rich yoghurt mixed with cucumber and pureed garlic, into which they dipped their fries.  Next the received two plates of souvlaki piled with grilled tomatoes on a warm pita bread.  The waiters moved about in a chaotic frenzy and the Greek couple finally helped us flag one down.  We just pointed at their table and said we'll have that!  It was a delicious meal, especially after such pathetic nourishment the night before.  The Greek couple spoke some English and we had a friendly chat while we ate lunch.  We commented on the coming Olympics, the first time they had returned to Greece since their inception and on the anniversary of the 100th set of games.  The seemed indifferent and said that all of the Greeks leave the country for vacation in the summer anyway and the Olympics coming was just one more reason to get out of town.  Not the nostalgic affection for the Olympic games you might expect from a Greek somewhat understandable.  The country gets a deluge of tourists every summer and the country must transform in an almost foreign place for the local people.  I could see how having more tourists come that normal would be discouraging.

After lunch we walked around from the Monastiraki area back towards Plaka, skirting the base of Acropolis mountain.  At a rooftop cafe we paid a whopping three euros to sip a Greek coffee and look at the view.  The stunning monument, glistening in the afternoon sun, was evocative of everything I imagined about romantic Greece, the ancient roots of western civilization steeped in terrific myths and legends of Gods and wars.  The fortress loomed above the city skyline and, indeed, is the reason that Athens exists at all.  The first temples were built on the site in Mycenaean times in homage to the goddess Athena but were destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC.  The city that Pericles built on the ashes became the apex of classical Greece.  The wear and tear of centuries took its toll on the monuments and temples but the Parthenon took the most severe beating of all when the Venetians attacked the Turks in 1687 and opened fire on the Parthenon, where the Turks had been storing their gunpowder, and blew its top off.  But, they say that the acid rain of modern Athens has caused some of the most irreversible damage by actually eroding away the marble!  

To enter the Acropolis we had to wrap back around the base of the mountain from Plaka and hike up the stairs on the western side.  The pathway takes to a point overlooking the ancient agora or market to the north with ruins stretching out to Monastiraki.  The Temple of Hephaestus, the best preserved Doric temple in Greece and one of the first built by Pericles when he revived Athens, watches over the rubble that dominates the rest of the old market center.  Our walk continued around the hill until we are overlooking the Theater of Herodes Atticus (161 AD) where performances still go on today.  Up some more steps we pass the Buele Gate on our left and look up to see the massive pedestal that once held the Monument to Agrippa, a statue of the Roman General riding a chariot.  The stairs zigzag up past the pedestal and enter a graceful propylaia, the main gateway flanked by wings of columns that once offered more entrances to the high city.  We entered through the middle gate and stepped onto the Panathenaic Way.  

The Panathenaic Way cut across the middle of the Acropolis and was the route used by the Panathenaic, the ceremonial procession held during the Panathenaia or festival for the goddess Athena.  We followed the procession pathway to the domineering facade of the Parthenon, the most emblematic monument in Greece.  The temple had been built to house a great statue of Athena and to serve as a treasury.  Upon seeing it your appreciation for everything you had see so far was reduced to nothing.  It was the largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece and was built entirely of Pentelic marble.  The late afternoon sun gave the acid washed marble a warm honey color.  We just sat on the wall in front of temple with the sun warming our backs and stared.  Parts of it were done up in scaffolding, like so much else in Greece at the moment, but it was still impressive.   Small bits were being reconstructed and the fresh new white marble stood out brightly against the older yellow ruins.  It had almost a too new look about it and I had to remind myself that it had once all looked that color and the "antique" yellow was probably a rather recent result of modern pollution.  

The small museum at the corner of the Acropolis occupied about a half hour of our time but couldn't compete with walking around the site itself.  After the Parthenon the most impressive structure to behold in the Acropolis was the Erechtheion, directly to the north of the Parthenon, across the Panathenaic Way.  It was built on site where Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and Athena produced the olive tree.  It was named after the mythical king of Athens, Erichthonius, and housed the cults to him, Poseiden and Athena.  Its most dramatic feature were the columns in the porch of the Caryatids, six larger-than-life women who were modeled after women from Caryai.  It is considered the supreme example of Ionic architecture, as opposed to the Parthenon's Doric architecture.  

As the sun started to reach the horizon we observed a squadron of traditionally clad soldiers come marching down the Panathenaic Way.  Their large white shirts draped over their arms and their densely pleated white skirts flounced with they marched.  An ornate vest covered their chests  extended like wings down the back of their arms.  They wore white tights on their legs with a black strap under the knee wit a large tassel attached to the back.   Their black shoes were adorned with large pompons on each toe and from their bright red hats a long black tassel dangled down the right side of their face.  Over their shoulders rested bayonets.  It was a fantastic costume.  They marched to the far end of the Acropolis and stood in formation to await the sunset when the massive flag of Greece that flew over the city would be ceremoniously taken down.  We didn't wait for the completion of the ceremony so we could return down the mountain in the remaining light.

Up close Athens was not such an attractive city, aside from its dramatically imposing monument, but they maintained a fairly consistent theme of white architecture across the city and nothing tall permeated the skyline, leaving the Acropolis to dominate.  It was only marginally rivaled in height by Lykavittos Hill on the other side of Syntagma.  

We were satisfied with our day of sightseeing in Athens and retired to our hotel room.  We had an early morning to look forward to and rest seemed like a good idea.  That was easier said than done, of course, and we spent a good deal of the evening indulging CNN.  Georgia was having a coup.  After tossing and turning in an attempt to sleep we gave it up.  Rob went and got gyros for dinner before we tried to eek out a few hours before our departure.

SLOVENIA Ljubljana Oct 7-8 Piran Oct 9-12

CROATIA Istra Peninsula Oct 13 Split Oct 14-15 Hvar Oct 16-18 Korcula Oct 19 Dubrovnik Oct 20-29


BOSNIA Sarajevo Oct 30 Oct 30 Nov 1

SERBIA Belgrade Nov 2-3

ROMANIA Bucharest Nov 4 Suceava Nov 5 Nov 6 Cluj Napoca Nov 7 Sighisoara Nov 8-9 Brasov Nov 10 Nov 11

BULGARIA Sofia Nov 12 Nov 13 Nov 14

MACEDONIA Lake Ohrid Nov 15 Nov 16-17

KOSOVO Prishtine Nov 18 Nov 19 Nov 20 Nov 21

GREECE Thessaloniki Nov 22 Athens Nov 23 Nov 24