Greece 3: Athens
Arriving in Athens extremely late from Paros, I had little choice but to hail a cab. Greek taxis are epitomised by drivers with a complete disregard for sanity. He was typically speeding at 120km an hour in an 80 zone, smoking cigarettes inside the cabin plastered with non-smoking signs, whilst talking on the mobile with one hand getting instructions from his friend on Google maps. Then he started making his cigarette by hand whilst driving, taking his eyes off the highway entirely, still at 120km/hr, whilst listening to thumping clubbing music. By the end of the ride characteristically he should have been telling me in the middle of nowhere “this is where I’m dropping you off” – however, this time, since it was 2:30am, he dropped me off at the correct destination but he did throw in the good old there is ten euros of extra fees on arrival – which I reluctantly yet quickly paid thinking to myself “I guess there is an economic crisis Greece” – expecting bribery and extortion to be the norm these days.
Nevertheless I did make it safely home in under twenty minutes. They mean business!!
After only a few hours of sleep, I left the suburbs and on arriving in the centre of Athens, I made my way to the hostel, before a whirlwind tour.
I love random brilliance! An entire afternoon was spent marvelling at ancient Greek ruins, modern day street art, and great conversation with two incredible locals – and, it all started from sitting on a ridiculous red toy tourist train to ride around ancient Athens.
We had drinks in a local bar in Gazi, we watched the sun set behind the hills surrounding Athens from the rocks below the Acropolis and finally had dinner in a local restaurant in Thission as the moon rose into the sky.
Like-minded people are the greatest company, people interested in others and in the wider world.
Next morning an early morning walking tour of Athens, we walked around the sites, the suburbs, taking in the sounds and the locals – passing ancient ruins, modern day statuesque guards and Olympic halls of fame.
We walked up to the hill and down through the winding streets which hugged the lower edge of the acropolis and looked like they were straight out of the Greek Islands.
When it all came to an end, what exciting things could we venture – well I knew where I wanted to go, in search of Greek sweet delicacies. Well, it seems that everyone liked my unusual suggestion and I became the tour guide with the entire group following me into Kolonaki to find the outpost of a famous pastry chef – unfortunately, as is normal in this part of the world, it was closed for much of August.
But after a quick drink, a new plan was hatched to get to the National Archaeological Museum and so we made our way on the bus, the bus driver unable to provide us with tickets, telling us to just get on board – the hilarity and significance of this action will reveal itself later.
The museum was incredible with such treasures from throughout the greatest moments in time, those that have continued to influence culture for the rest of time, we had the four masks, Greek sculpture.
What occurred on the return home was both a surprise and a comedic moment. It seems the lawlessness and crisis within the Greek economy has hit everyone, even the lowly bus inspector.
We once again boarded the bus, and the bus driver waved us on, without tickets, saying it was fine. Then a private citizen with a importance (grandiose/Napoleonic) complex, decided that with his little piece of paper, designating him with the right to both assign infraction notices, and demand bribes, for his turning his head the other way, well he decided this was his opportunity to make an example of us and make a little money as well.
Four innocent looking young students, each with a personality and confidence, is not an easy target. Three American College students on exchange in Europe and a doctor do not make pray that are easy to take down, nor lie down after the first onslaught.
We were convincing, we were honest, we were determined, and we were persistent. He managed to drag us all the way to the police by taking hold of our identity cards, BUT, in the presence of the policeman, who thankfully spoke some English, we argued our case fervently, using the full range of emotion, judicious reason, impassioned words and gestures and heated facial expression.
Needless to say we used the “what the hell is wrong with you, you crazed man”, face, the “this is ridiculous” face and the “pity me I’m pretty” face and all of them worked! The policeman was on our side, and in the end instead of 360 euros in fines, we paid 4 euros for 1 bus ticket and we went on our merry ways triumphant in our victory over the big man, or in this case, the little Greek man that tried to swindle us for a very large amount of money!
And to honour him we tried to spend our money more appropriately on goods in the Greek markets, nobly we made a concerted effort, but we didn’t buy anything…
For sunset I headed up to Mount Lycabettus, the tallest hill in Athens, for an uninterrupted view of the city as the sun descended and the sky burnt bright with orange and then cooled into its purple hues. Up on the hill a small white St George’s Chapel stood proud.
Plaka, with its winding streets, small tavernas, cafes and vine covered trellises was the site for an awesome dinner with some other Australians and then out for a final drink with my incredible Greek host. We headed to the local area of her university, Thission, crowded with bars and students laughing the night away before trying a deadly combination of the warm vapours of and honey.
Moving to another bar we sat talking below the glowing white marbles of the Acropolis, a difficult view to believe was actually commonplace, one which was hard not to enjoy from a comfortable chair at a café.
My last day in glorious Athens was spent in a frenzied attempt to satiate my love of culture, history and sugary delights before a ride to the airport at the early hour of 1:30pm.
First off I climbed to the top and explored the Acropolis, marvelling at the grandeur of this ancient site. I loved the sign, DO NOT TOUCH THE MARBLE, given the hill is literally laden with priceless marble including the ground you walk on! The Pantheon, minus most of the Elgin Marbles, remains under loads of scaffolding but is imposing nevertheless.
Running down the side of the hill, I imagined the Greek tragedies and spectacles that occurred in the amphitheatre, and made my way to the New Acropolis Museum sadly to find that this was the one day of the week it was closed – a major opportunity missed.
An attempt was made at helping my feet to some Grecian leather sandals made by a poet, which have coincidentally graced the feet of the most infamous of people… sadly yet another purchase averted!
But having already been to one traditional Greek Pastry maker, in business since 1908, and eaten chocolate baklava and Galaktoboureko (see photos below), I decided to retrace my steps and make my pilgrimage to Stelios Paliaros, modern superstar and Greek personality, as well as being a talented pastry chef. His temple to haute Greek pastry is a haven for sugar addicts and creative types such as myself who like to think of themselves as pastry chefs, only when compared to these talents we are simple pastry cooks or bakers.
Sweet Alchemy, his boutique, no doubt caught me instantaneously with its name, even more I was suitably impressed by the décor, the product range and of course the desserts – you no longer have to be just a talented chef, you also have to be a business and social genius to create an industry out of your name and products – he has clearly succeeded in this world of modern Pastry, especially in Greece. (Stelios Parliaros Boutique, below)
Carrying my little bag of goodness from his shop I ran past the top boutiques of Kolonikia and towards the hostel before picking up my bags and heading in the train to the Airport…
Athens… as you can see is a capital which embraces both its history and contemporary creativity!
Goodbye Greece – thanks, as always, for being the country that invented everything!