6 September 2007
WE ARE SITTING aboard our boat bound for Naxos. For the first ninety minutes of our five and a half hour ride we were in relative peace, enjoying the hum of the ferry engine and the slight breeze off the ocean. And then they came. They came in droves and they took over. A few dozen elderly Greeks waltzed in and promptly went about snatching up every free chair and empty piece of real estate. It didn’t matter if the chair was at the table where you were sitting. Without question or even a glance at you they pulled it out from under the table and joined up with their fellow mates. They were loud; they were brash; they had rotting yellow teeth. I went for a walk to find some peace and quiet and when I came back I was surprised to find that almost all had vacated the area.
“Where did they go?” I asked Yvonne. She shrugged her shoulders in response. She then asked me, “Is someone singing over there?” I took a walk to the other side of the ferry to investigate. It seemed the Greeks had spontaneously broken out into song and dance, as if they were part of some musical. An old man sat in a chair playing an accordion while an aged woman danced with her hands in the air amidst the deck tables. It was quite a scene, and in truth partly made up for their apparent rudeness just minutes before. But, although cute and lovely, we’d been up since 5:30 and were in no mood for it. As other sleep-deprived passengers looked at each other with either rolled eyes or a look that said ‘what can you do?’ it was clear we weren’t alone. These are the times when we are glad we have an iPod and earplugs.
We spent two and a half days in Athens, and it was a very busy two and a half days with tremendous amounts of aimless wandering in blistering heat. Not that we necessarily wanted to wander aimlessly that much, but this is the most confusing city we’ve ever been in. Even Yvonne – and I’m sure I’ve touted her exceptional navigational skills before – had a tough time finding her way around. Her usual sharp instincts to know what direction we were going had been dulled by the maze of streets and avenues that shot out in every angle imaginable. As it turned out this was an excellent way to see the city – and what a city!
At first the constant action surrounding you is overwhelming, but you soon acclimatize yourself and then it’s like walking around in a little bubble in which no one can see you, and you just watch the city pulse. Things are all over the map; there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to anything. The buildings are falling apart and much of Athens is quite grungy. There are a million cafes, restaurants, bars, shops, kiosks and stores selling a million different things. In short, the city is alive! In fact, it is one that never sleeps, and we can attest to that since we had to listen to the busy streets at all hours of the night from our hotel room (another situation for our priceless earplugs).
We had some great dining experiences too. During our second day we were looking for a place to eat lunch. We happened to be near the Acropolis and took a seat in an outdoor terrace. We waited for a while for someone to come over, and when he finally did he just tossed a menu from a few feet away and then turned around and left. We only needed to glimpse the prices to walk out of there. Bad service plus high prices equals us leaving! Yes, we were probably asking for it going somewhere so close to a tourist attraction, but that’s how hungry we were.
Anyway, we found a little hole-in-the-wall just a few steps off a main street. The owner was so friendly we had to go in. He was a middle-aged man of what looked to be middle-eastern descent, dressed in black slacks and an un-tucked mint green button-down shirt with rolled-up sleeves. He was so humble, always keeping his head slightly bowed as if he was forever in your service. For watchers of Seinfeld, he reminded me of Babu. He made suggestions to us in his thick accent: “the shrimps, very large – mousaka, very nice piece (as he indicated with his hands the size of the slice)”.
We enjoyed a tasty meal at a very reasonable price. When we went to pay he asked, “Was everything OK? Are you happy?” And when we did pay, he asked us not to leave just yet as he had a little something for us on the house. We sat back down and a few minutes later he appeared with two shot glasses filled to the brim of clear liquid. A digestif he explained. It wasn’t ouzo, but we couldn’t quite decipher what he said it was. For any matter, it was nice and smooth, and a pretty nice gesture!
In our relatively short time in Athens, we came across so many friendly and helpful people. In our hotel, in the ferry ticket office, in the restaurants we dined in. It was not at all what we expected (but to be honest, we really didn’t know what to expect here). The opposite, however, could be said about the couple of touristy things we did do. The staff in the National Archaeological Museum and at the Acropolis were right-out rude, and at the best of times, indifferent.
For some reason, most of the workers at these venues are very young and all are dressed in street clothes (yes, jeans and sneakers too), so it is never immediately obvious who actually works there. They spend their working time talking to each other, and sometimes on their cell phones. They don’t appear to do much else than give visitors a hard time – Yvonne was looking at a display in the museum while unconsciously playing with her flip-flops with her foot. The guy sitting there told her she had to keep her shoes on. At the Acropolis you can hear them constantly blowing their whistles at people. We witnessed ticket controllers actually barking at people to hurry up.
On the topic of the Acropolis, it was THE single most disappointing big draw tourist attraction we’ve ever been to. All but one structure, including the Parthenon, was completely covered in scaffolding. The Acropolis museum, which holds almost everything that was found in the area, was closed. They are in the process of building a new museum, so they decided it would be a good idea to prematurely empty the original one in preparation for the move. It never dawned on them to have some overlap to minimize the inconvenience.
Even if they had no choice but to do it this way, it would surely be a nice gesture to discount the Acropolis combination ticket. But instead, we are supposed to be satisfied with a sign saying “thank you for your understanding”. We made it there almost right at opening time, and already it was teeming with tour groups. Our guide book advised to go very early to avoid the “horrendous” (an accurate term by the way) crowds. We know this as a general rule but it just didn’t apply there. Our suggestion to you if you go: time your visit at the END of the day.
It seemed very odd to us, that such world heritage treasures as the National Archaeological Museum and the Acropolis would be handled in such an amateur manner. But I guess no matter how they treat people they will always get their money. At least, that is the impression we get, that they really don’t care. Anyway, all complaining aside, overall we enjoyed our short time in Athens and are now looking forward to leisurely lounging on the beaches and the slower pace of the islands!