Dave the motorhome’s enjoying some R&R at Camping Athens, the only campsite in Athens. It’s so distinguished it even has its own bus stop named ‘Camping’ just outside! It’s expensive at €30 a night in May (2 people, a motorhome and electricity) but we’ve opted to not have the leccy (down to €26 a night) and have found the facilities old but good (the showers have taps, rather than a press-this-button-a-hundred-times-thing and are raging hot), the folks running the place are really friendly and it’s quite an easy bus ride and underground run into the city. You can get your washing done and dried too. There’s an 8 lane highway running right past the door but it’s quieter than being a few feet from the sea, and we slept like dogs.
Being in a Big City means there’s Big City sights to be seen. They don’t come much bigger than the Parthenon, the ancient Greek columned magnificence standing high above the city on a slab of handy defensive rock. Everyone knows the Parthenon, well almost everyone, it’s a symbol of the birth of Western civilisation, of our preferred mode of political process, of the original thinkers of old – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (each a student of the former) and hence the forge for today’s methods of science, philosophy and mathematics. It’s one of hell of a symbol.
The Parthenon sits within the overall site of the Athens Acropolis, the ancient citadel which has existed, developed and crumbled over the course of five millennia. Modern Athens (Athena as the Greeks call their own city – no idea why we don’t use the same name) creeps up to the base of the rock, but halts in a pedestrian area at the base. The lack of manic mopeds and the mountain-bike mounted tourist police keeping touts and tat floggers at bay leaves it a pretty serene spot.
At the ticket office we weren’t the only ones trying to make sure we got the right tickets. We’d heard a €12 ‘ticket’ was actually a set of generic vouchers which got you into a raft of different sights across the city, so we tried buying just one. No joy, although most of the strip of vouchers are generic (so we could have both gotten into the same place with a single strip), there’s a special one for the Acropolis, so to get both of us in we had to buy two strips of tickets.
We didn’t care much. Big City attractions get us excited. They’re almost like punctuation marks in our travels, an exclamation mark at the end of a stretch of Small Town stop-offs. When we meet people and run through the inevitable list of exchanged questions (where are you from, where are you going, how long are you travelling for, which jobs did you do, can you still go back to your jobs – note that ‘what’s your name’ often gets missed off, oddly), there’s almost always a pause when we tell folks we’re on the road for two years and no, we don’t have jobs to go back to. Ju explains at this point that we wanted to travel while we were still young enough to climb the steps of the Acropolis. Today we did it.
And found about a billion other people had chosen today, or had it chosen for them by their cruise ships and tour companies, to be up there with us! The company was nice, for a while, but I quickly found it wearing. You couldn’t step forwards without being in someone’s photo, or take a photo without someone stepping into yours. On the steps to the entrance of the flat-top rock, the marble columns are in touching distance. Signs in Greek and English ask you not to touch them (millions of hands = messed up and worn marble). People would read them out aloud, in English, then lean over and rub their hands on the column face. The fun police would then shout at them/blow a whistle, everyone jumps and the culprit would look offended. And repeat. At one point a lady fun police woman almost swallowed her whistle blowing it and legging it off after some miscreant. Jesus wept.
In among the throng the magic of the ancient was lost on me. The monument itself, like all such monuments, has suffered the ravages of time, most notably being blown up by a Venetian cannon-ball striking an Ottoman arms dump in 1687, and later having Lord Elgin hacking off the best sculptures and shipping them off to Blighty in 1801, possibly with, more likely without, permission of the Ottoman Empire. This last point is a clear annoyance to the Greeks, with tour guides, signs and a video in the museum making restrained reference to the theft and retention to the present day of these pieces in the British Museum (various other museums are hanging onto pieces too).
The views off around the city were far more of a draw. Yesterday as George and Thomie drove us up Lycabettus Hill it struck me how much Athens from above reminded me of Fez from above, like a vast red and white-tented army encamped between green hills. The views from the Acropolis are breath-taking.
Once we’d had our fill of the Acropolis crowds, we asked a chap handing our tour leaflets where to eat on the cheap. ‘Everest’, round the corner. Sat on a step we munched cheese and ham snacks while the police stood alongside sipping ice cold coffee. Revived, we took off to the Acropolis Museum, just a few steps from the foot of the Acropolis itself.
The design for the Acropolis Museum started with a competition in 1976, and the place finally opened in 2009. One reason for the, erm, massive delay is the fact it’s built on top of an archaeological site. The solution for the latter appears to have been of the glass floor variety – you can look down at the bricks and mosaics as you walk into and around the museum. At some point in the future you’ll be able to walk about under the glass floor too. Another €5 apiece handed over and frustrated grumbling over the ‘no photos’ sign (why – seems we’re not the only ones fed up?) we took off around the museum.
After we’d walked the place I could understand the anger at Elgin and his fellow thieves. All the best stuff is gone, being jealously held onto despite the fact the museum here is most certainly the best place to showcase it. In among the broken pieces, huge sections of plaster cast and models, the huge area created by the museum seems a forlorn place, its heart is missing. The tour guides did their best to hype the remaining pieces, explaining how the beige marble was once painted in vivid colours and how many were offerings to the gods, even the parts invisible to the public were perfectly sculptured to delight the gods. In my (very humble and pretty worthless) opinion, the museums at Delphi and in particular Olympia beat this place hands down, at least until the British and others hand back the ‘stolen’ pieces. Those museums allow photos too, although for some odd reason once we’d gone up a couple of floors the fun police stopped stopping the cameras so everyone snapped away, go figure?
Back in the open, we made a quick side trip to the Roman Hadrian’s Arch (the same fella who built the wall to keep the rampaging Scots out of England) and the mainly-tumbled Greek Temple of Olympian Zeus, then we headed for booze. While I worked in the UK, a chap named Mick Carter made life in the Corporate World more entertaining by refusing to conform. He’s survived cancer and is a huge fan of Greece, as am I, and has sent us a load of suggestions as we’ve been travelled. We’ve finally got to see one of them, appropriately for Mick a pub (!), the Brettos Bar in the Plaka district.
Brettos is a small place, easy to miss, but once you’ve looked in the right door you’ll know you’re there. The back wall of the place is ablaze with coloured bottles of flavoured liquor. Every other surface appears to be made of wood or metal. Paul, the third owner in its history, delighted in making us guess his age. He looks late 50’s but is 71. He swims four times a week in the sea he tells us, never smokes, drinks only wine. He then does a fabulous sales job on us and I ended up with the most expensive triple-distilled ouzo, Ju got some sweet raspberry flavoured stuff. Maybe I won’t make his age. The second and third distils were a bit lost on me I should admit, but the place had a great atmosphere, and was thankfully devoid of punters. I was slipping into miserable git mode by this point, I’m no good in crowds, but the ouzo gave me a kick and lifted my spirits, enough to power us back the the site.
There’s much to see and do in Athens. Big City sights, pleasant districts like Plaka, floating-money-bank marinas, you name it. Tons of stuff, so much we’re thinking we need to come back for a week some time, maybe in low season, and get a good look around. The city has had a very personal face to it too for us, thanks to Thomie and George, and the friendly folks at the little eating and drinking places we used. The decision for this evening or tomorrow morning is whether to nip back in again, or to hit the road and find some new boots for Dave, his front tyres won’t get us home and we reckon this should be a good place to find them.
There’s a video below of our day if you’d like to relive a bit of it with us!