We left the Middle East earlier than originally planned in order to meet Cameron's mother Paulah in Greece. After Greece we would fly to Munich, Germany to meet Nicole's parents and then travel with them by car through northern Italy and the coast of Croatia. We then fly back to Cairo to continue our original itinerary through the Middle East.
Our unforgettable experience with Egypt Air was had us in good spirits. We were refreshed and recharged after a great sleep in a comfortable bed, followed by a huge breakfast buffet. Our flight was short, so upon arrival in Athens we decided to take the local metro instead of an expensive taxi. Athens had recently hosted the summer Olympics in 2004 so their transit system is quite efficient and simple.
Paulah found a great modern hotel (Fresh Hotel) in Monastiraki very close to the popular Plaka and Syntagma areas. She had arrived two days earlier and was anticipating our arrival. It was a great reunion after eight months of traveling! You don't realize how much you miss family until you finally see them again.
We decided to head straight upstairs to the outdoor rooftop bar and pool for a drink and a swim. We walked outside and there it was… the world famous Acropolis!
The hotel lounge has a spectacular view of the Acropolis, being one of the taller buildings in the ancient city. It was incredible. You've heard about it, you've seen the pictures and watched the documentaries, but you really do have to see it firsthand to fully appreciate its grandeur. It towers over the city with such dominance and presence, especially at night when the whole mountain is lit up.
It was obviously very different being in Greece, particularly because we had just spent the past three months traveling through Asia. Nicole had already spent a summer backpacking through Europe about 10 years ago and Cameron had traveled through Germany around the same time.
We hadn't had much alcohol in the past six weeks because we had been traveling through the religious countries of India, Nepal and the UAE (during Ramadan). So when we arrived in Europe and the frosty draft beers were served… we indulged. That night we headed to the old neighbourhood of the Plaka for wine and traditional Greek food.
We found a great outdoor restaurant that had tables set up on a stone sidewalk, conveniently located beside an archeological site… only in Athens! Seriously, you can't walk for more than a few blocks before you confront a piece of history that is thousands of years old. If that weren't enough, we had an amazing view of the illuminated Acropolis, a fantastic setting for an evening out!
It was a great opportunity to share our travel stories of the past eight months and catch up on news from back home. It was comforting seeing a familiar face and had us realizing how long we've actually been away for.
The irony is that 20 years ago my mother and grandmother traveled to Greece together, I was only a small kid at the time. Now the times have changed and I was traveling with my mother in Greece. The roles had been changed… we couldn't help but reflect on how much time has flown by.
The first thing we noticed was the historical buildings and variety of different architectural styles. The second thing we noticed was how expensive the Euro was going to be on our budget. The third was that everyone smokes in Greece, and they smoke whenever and wherever they want. And the fourth thing we noticed was that most of Athens is the victim of really bad graffiti. It is unbelievable how bad the graffiti problem is; even ancient archeological sites have been abused.
And it's not the artistic, bohemian kind of graffiti. It's the really bad amateur scribbles that look terrible, and this is AFTER Athens had a facelift for the 2004 Olympics. It was so an unexpected and disappointing. Although, to give the city credit, it really wasn't that dirty anymore but it does have some very unique city planning with luxurious retail stores wedged between army surplus stores and pawn shops.
It must also be noted that the breakfast at Fresh hotel was undoubtedly the best hotel breakfast we've had. Anything you could imagine they had! Creamy tortellini with prosciutto bacon, roasted tomatoes and baked potato wedges, fresh omelet's, baked beans, sautéed mushrooms, various cheeses and lunch meats, freshly baked bread and freshly squeezed orange juice, fruit salads and cereal, and a favorite for the ladies was the Greek yogurt with peaches and honey. Okay, I've given the breakfast its accolades… I'll move on now.
The next afternoon we went on an organized walking tour of Athens. It would be a shame to be in such an historical place and not understand what we were looking at. We were pleased to see that when our guide showed up at the hotel it was going to be a private tour (we weren't too keen on an impersonal, oversized tour group, but wasn't too sure what type of tour was purchased).
Our first stop… the Acropolis and Parthenon.
The Acropolis is arguably one of the world's most important and iconic monuments. Our hike up the steep hill to the Beule Gate had us passing through old Greek neighbourhoods that appeared unchanged for decades, many only connected by thin, white paths (no roads). We entered the historical grounds and explored the majestic Parthenon. It is mind-blowing to think that this ancient structure was completed in 438 BC. It's almost 2,500 years old!
This just in - the Acropolis is a major tourist attraction! We arrived before sunset and were told that there weren't too many tourists to contend with at this time of year. We can't imagine how it must be during peak season… there were so many people! More than Angkor Wat, more than Machu Pichhu, more than the Taj Mahal. It's a very busy place, a true testament to its magnificence.
Check out the Athens photo album, it tells the story far better than words can.
After an hour of dodging the swarms of pre-packaged tourists at the Acropolis we then headed into the labyrinthine streets, zigzagging our way to the National Gardens. The Gardens, located in the middle of the city, are very popular with locals and tourists alike because the temperature can be 2 or 3 degrees cooler in the summer.
We spent the remainder of our walking tour exploring the surrounding areas of Syntagma and the Plaka, finishing at Syntagma square. The Parliament Building has the 'changing of the guard' ceremony every hour, a must see for foreigners. It was a good day with lots of walking and interesting archeological sites.
Interesting story - we noticed that many of the stray dogs in the city were well groomed with shiny coats and very little sign of malnutrition. We asked our guide what the deal was. He pointed out that every stray dog has a collar with an electronic chip in it. This allows the city to track them. Aside from spay and neutering the dogs, the city gives them appropriate immunization shots and provides food locations scattered throughout the city.
The result - non aggressive, healthy dogs roaming the streets rather than vicious, desperate, starved dogs looking for trouble. We found that to be a very interesting approach to animal control!
The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn and on our way to Piraeus, Greece's main port and gateway to the celebrated Greek Islands. Our next destination was the famed Greek island of Mykonos!
September 23rd, 2009
We spent another two days in Athens upon our return from a week in the Greek Islands. We did much of the same; explored the city streets, shopped in the pedestrian alleyways, ate Greek Salads, Mousaka and Gyros, drank Mythos beer and Ouzo, and soaked up rich Greek culture.
Athens is a very cool city, a melting pot of the ancient and modern worlds. It's a magical place that has an indescribable charm about it.
September 30th, 2009