The plan was to spend 2 days in Athens and then head across Greece making our way to the Greece/Turkey border and then onto Istanbul. We have a flight out of Istanbul Saturday and so whilst our plans are fixed per se, there was always room for manoeuvre.
When a country hosts the olympics often the benefits to the public are overshadowed by high taxes for seemingly nothing other than sport and the medias intent on reporting sensationalist failure. Whether or not the Olympic games in Athens in 2004 have contributed to failure of the Greek economy I do not know. But what I do know is that they contributed to the city is a noticeable and positive way. Athens as a city has a lot of history to offer, rivalled only in Europe by Rome for the sheer enormity of historical sites the city was keen to show off its wares to visitors. Athens proper is a huge and sprawling city, home to some 3.7 million people it extends from the port of Pireaus several miles inland and is flanked by six hills. These hills are home to some of the most important sites in Greek history. Recognising that tourists would have a mission on their hands exploring the historical sites the Ministry of Culture devised and built a route that would connect all the places of historical significance, mostly pedestrianised the ‘archaeological pavement’ makes it extremely simple, quick and efficient to move from one place to another with absolute ease and without the need for a map. Additionally a ‘one ticket for all’ was introduced with the awesome price of €12 for adults and completely free for any student studying within the EU and any EU citizen under the age of 19. Put simply, Athens has a glorious history that it is keen to show off and if you make the effort to get to Athens then you will be rewarded with unbeatable value and a day of absolute ease. Compare that with Rome and you feel like hopping on a flight bound for the Italian capital and slapping someone called Mario.
The day started like just about every other when we’re in Europe – A chocolate croissant and a black coffee. As we walked to the metro I admit I was a little excited at what the day had in store, and Charlie was keen to explain all he knew about Greek mythology. I think I genuinely broke his heart when I explained that mythology meant ‘absolute garbage’ I jest not, he genuinely believed some geezer a year past a shave sat on a cloud flicking lightening bolts out for a laugh whilst some bloke straight out of the little mermaid had a smoke and a lobster every Saturday.
Athens metro is ok, it’s not up to Asian standards but like every other metro on the planet makes the London Underground look like a kids play set. Prices are €1.40 for a ticket which lasts you up to 1.5hrs, be sure to validate it because the fine is 60 times that if you get busted. Kids are 50% and so it’s pretty good value. The two main issues we found with the metro was that firstly to cross from one line to another (there are just three lines) you must travel to one of two stations that are in close proximity to one another which makes things awkward. Secondly, it seems the metro was built in winter and when it was being built the Greeks completely forgot about the increase in temperature which inevitably come with summer. The result was 32 degrees outside in a nice open space, to 32 degrees shared with loads of other people all in one midget sized carriage. It is possible of course that the government are trying to save a bit off the electric bill. In any case, it makes the metro much more of a chore than it really needs to be.
A few thousand years ago when the Greeks decided to bang out a language they opted to ignore latin and sided more toward the Cyrillic side of things. In other words the alphabet is a funky mixture of letters, pictures and smiley faces. Impossible for my mind to decipher, thankfully most things are replicated in English and so navigating becomes straight forward. Even then, if you do manage to get yourself lost it is Greek nature to come and help you out. This was something we very quickly learnt, every Greek we have encountered has been friendly, welcoming and more than willing to assist. This by and large is what we tend to experience all over the world and often when I tell other travellers they say we get such a welcome because of the kids, this may or may not be true. But despite their economy going down the pan the smiles we have been afforded have come with real warmth.
We bailed the Metro at Acropolis which, if you google Athens is the photo that will come up. If someone reading this would read who came first – Romans or Greeks I would really like to know who plagerised who. I am serious, someone well had a sly peek and then caught the first flight home in order to replicate and emulate the others skills. In any case it is made clear that you are entering an archeological site and it certainly feels that way. Restoration is underway everywhere but this does not take from the feel, it adds to the fact that history may not yet be fully uncovered. We mooched right to the top and died about five times on the way up. But once at the summit the wind caught us and it was beautiful. So hot, such a breeze, such an amazing site, it was near perfect. As I usually do in these sort of situations I let the kids lead the way, they have a real instinct for adventure I just love to follow,watch and listen. Every now and again I would hear burst out laughing and Abi complain the the rocks were too slippy as she brushed herself off and regained her feet.
We spent around five hours exploring all the historical places and really we could have spent much longer. The landscaping was immaculate, the restoration amazing and the natural feeling is to compare it to the Roman Forum. I would say that Rome has more grandeur, more pizzaz if you will. I grew up fascinated by the Romans and so the first time I went to Rome it was like a dream for me. I remember taking Charlie when he was very young and Ive never stopped loving it. But Athens is different, it feels much more intimate. In Rome you’re never far from Japanese guy with a four foot long camera lens or a few Americans searching for Taco Bell and proclaiming Bill Clinton discovered Italy in the nineties. In Athens you can completely lose yourself beneath an orange tree with nothing but the whisper of birds and the grass rustling in the breeze. The backdrop is that of some mythical era with the abundance of white marble plinths and palaces interrupted only by a shameless olive branch. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Rome is where you would take your girlfriend whereas Athens is where you would take your wife.
After an amazing morning we sniffed out a Mcdonalds and then spent the afternoon lost in a beautiful park called the National Gardens. A real respite from the unforgiving heat and for me somewhere to relax and watch the kids being kids. We got lost in the maze of pathways but ended up finding a mini zoo and play area. We spent several hours off the tourist trail and almost several hours away from life. Kids have this amazing knack of reminding you that nothing matters, really. Everything is just substance and details, I never completely let go of reality and responsibility, but that afternoon I was as close to it as I have been in a long time.
Then of course reality bites and so toward the end of the day we made our way to the Railway station to get some rail tickets for the following day to Alexandroupolis which is really the last major city in Greece before the Turkish border some 40km away. Since Greece ditched the international railways the only way to get to Istanbul is via a 22hr bus from Athens at a cost of €60 – €70 per seat or a bus from Thessaloniki taking some 14 hours at a cost of €50 per seat. I couldn’t be arsed paying that sort of money and really didn’t fancy either journey in a squashed seat on some throw back Mercedes bus from the 70’s. The kids fancied it less than i did and so I decided that it must be possible to reach Turkey from Alexandrouplois. Not confirmed, and on a whim I decided to book train tickets. Of course it turns out there are just two trains per day, one leaving at midnight and the other at 10.20am – Both taking some 14 hours total. The midnight train costs €38 Euros with kids 50% and the morning train costs €76 and 50% respectively. It was a no brainer and so we were left with little choice but to head back across Athens to Lena’s apartment, then be back at Larissa station (Main Athens Station) for the 23.55 train to Thessaloniki, arriving at 06.30am then connecting with the 07.11am train to Alexandroupolis arriving at 14.00.
On the way back to Lena’s place we called and picked up some fresh ingredients so I could make a bruschetta whilst we sat on the balcony assessing our options and putting into place some kind of contingency. I discussed a plan A and B and it quickly became apparent this would simply be a ‘suck it and see’ situation.
And so we left Athens sooner than planned, and as we sat at Larissa station surrounded by Greeks heading up the coast for their holidays I wondered what next. The only thing I was certain about was that ahead of us we had a long night and even longer day.