Saturday, April 19, 2014

Mediterranean Madness Part IX: Athens, Greece


Day 8 /Port 5
We made plans in Athens, Greece with a company called PK Travel.  Their rates were very reasonable and being a small company, it was clearly focused on making us happy.  Our guide/driver was Dimitris, who said we could call him Jim if Dimitris was too hard for us to pronounce.  Dimitris was a charming man with a rugged smile that made him very likable.  I heard some of the women mention that he was the best looking of all our guides, but I don't have a dog in that fight.  I do know this, he spoke perfect English and he knew what he was doing and how to get it done.  And his jokes were funny!  On this day, our group was fairly large.  Sarah and I and the kids, Sarah's parents, Mike and George Anne, Sarah's sister and brother-in-law, Christopher and Micah, Christopher's mom and dad, Chris and Meg, and Meg's father, Bill made our group total to eleven members.  And two of those members had wheelchair issues.  Mike, of course had his scooter, which worked incredibly well almost everywhere.  Bill was able to walk, but he was a little unsteady, so when it was feasible, we pushed him around in a wheelchair.  It was just easier on him if we were going to be mobile for a long time.

Dimitris met us at the port terminal, but we had to travel to the terminal via shuttle, which met us just beyond the gangplank.  When he saw that we were limited with the wheelchair issues, he went out of his way to find the best parking spots, and find the most convenient places to accommodate us. 

Athens is an ancient town, as it dates back many millennia.  I was expecting it to look like Rome, I suppose, with all the antiquity poking up through practically every street corner, and nestled between apartment buildings.  Athens was not like that at all.  There were some very ancient sites, but they were contained to a very small section of town, and there was very little overlap with modern living.  Of course, the highlights of Athens are the Acropolis, which hosts the Parthenon, and the Erechytheon, with the six beautiful women columns holding up the building, and then the rest of the antiquities were confined to the area known as the Ancient Agora.  But there was plenty more to do and see that didn't involve ancient pillars.
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Some of the sites as we walked from the ticket booth to the top of the Acropolis

Our first stop in Athens was the Acropolis, and we were some of the first barbarians to arrive.  Dimitris drove us all the way to the top of the entrance where the elevators were, and then walked to the ticket agents to find out how to get the wheelchairs up the Acropolis.  When he returned he wore the sad look of disappointment.  "The elevators are closed," he announced.  "It's too windy."  Well, that let the air out of our balloons.  But, Mike and Bill both accepted their fate graciously and declared they would remain behind and nap in the van while we spent an hour touring the ruins.  We all felt bad about that decision, but there was no other way to handle the situation.  So, we bought our tickets and proceeded to take our self guided tour.  In Athens, the guide cannot give a tour of the ruins.  If you want a guided tour, you have to hire an independent expert.  We found several certified guides waiting at the entrance who were for hire by the hour, but we declined and decided to explore everything on our own.  They were affordable, it was mainly because we didn't want to spend too much time touring without Mike and Bill, and an expert guide would have extended our stay considerably.  So, we huddled up and agreed to meet back at the exit at a certain time.  Of course, we were tripping all over each other the entire time, as the Acropolis is not a large area.  Before you ascend the stairs into the Acropolis proper, you can explore the remains of the original amphitheater, which can be seen from the path you take as you leave the ticket booths.  By the way, in Greece, handicapped people and youth are exempt entrance fees to most historic sites, and the tickets we bought at the Acropolis worked almost everywhere we went.
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Just before we entered the Acropolis.

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You might say the wind was up a little! And, another shot with one of the hometown newspapers I carried across the world.

I would offer this sage advice to anyone willing to hear me.  Walk carefully.  The marble on the ground is beautiful, but it is slippery, and it had rained the night before.  Wear shoes that afford you the best grip possible.  Tap shoes would be an impressive choice, but equally dangerous.
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The first set of pillars you encounter is the Propylea, and the beautiful ladies make the columns of the Erechtheion.
Sarah and I and the kids walked around the ruins and had a great time embracing the fact that we were standing at the Parthenon!  How awesome is that?  We took several of my newspapers from home shots, and had a great time wandering around the site.  There are bathrooms located between the Parthenon and the defense walls, and they were clean and fairly unused.  Look for the WC sign pointing down a set of stairs. 
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The Parthenon! And a nice family shot with George Anne and the Erechtheion.
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Family shot! And it's time for another newspaper promo...

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There's my bride!            The Acropolis is surprisingly small. It doesn't take long to see it all.

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A view from the ramparts. Athens is a massive city... The well preserved ruin is the Temple of Hephaestus.
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Finally, more cats! Thank you very much.     I think this is supposed to be the first theater built in Athens--perhaps in the world.
It didn't take us long to explore the area.  In fact, an hour was sufficient to walk around and snap a few (thousand) shots.  By the end of our hour, the barbarians were arriving in mass.  We left the Acropolis and Dimitris took us to the Temple of Zeus, which can be seen from the Acropolis.  The sheer grandeur of those columns is hard to express.  Only 15 remain of the original 104 columns.  Impressively, the columns are roughly 55 feet high, and about 6 feet in diameter.  These are truly extraordinary, and they are hard to fathom.  The temple construction began in the 6th century BC and fell into disuse by the 3rd century AD.  It must have been awesome to stand in the center of that temple.  It is truly Herculean. 
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The Temple of Zeus...this bad boy is MASSIVE!

A few other ruins can be seen from the grounds of the temple, the remains of some old Roman baths, and Hadrian's Arch is in the same place.  There are also bathrooms on site.  And this location is fully accessible by wheel chair.

From there, Dimitris drove us to some nearby sites, such as the Olympic stadium built in the 1890s for the Olympic Games.  We stopped at the Panathenaic Stadium and marveled that it was the largest stadium in the world covered entirely in marble.  The stadium sits on the remains of a stadium that was in use as early as 329 BC.  It was used off and on throughout history until it was completely refurbished in 1894.  It is an impressive site.  While we were touring there, a man approached me and asked if I would sign a copy of my book for him.  Of course I was flattered, and I didn't want to embarrass him, so I was honored to accommodate him.  If one didn't know better, you would think it was a set up for a publicity stunt!
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Dimitris then drove us to Lycabettus Hill, which overlooks Athens and which offered the best view anywhere.  Athens is a massive city, boasting around 5 million people in the collective area, and covering a massive 160 square miles.  After a brief stop for a city view and some picture opportunities, Dimitris drove us around town showing us different sites on our way to Syntagma Square where the Greek Parliament is located.  We were here to see the changing of the guard ceremony performed by the Presidential Guard in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  This is an impressive ceremony to behold.  The ceremonial battalion, called the Evzones, stand guard motionless for 15 minutes when they switch position with the other guard.  Then become motionless again.  Once an hour a new set of guards marches in, quite ceremoniously and takes the place of the old guard.  It's worth a stop!
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Athens is unbelievably massive.      The changing of the guards.

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The kids were proud to stand with the guards. The ceremony was impressive.

From there, we decided that it was time to grab a bite to eat, and Dimitris asked if we wanted to sit down in a restaurant, or if we would be happy with a cafe that specialized in gyros and other grilled meats.  It was their version of fast food.  We all wanted the gyros, so Dimitris took us to his favorite cafe, and then pointed to four other spots if the one he recommended didn't suit us.  No, the rule is, trust your guide.  He dropped us off immediately in front of the cafe, and then pointed to the rest of the historical district, where we would proceed after our meal, and then he would meet us and take us to the New Acropolis Museum as our final stop.
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I have no idea what the name on the sign says.... It's all a different, unnamed language to me.

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The kid who just threw up in Turkey was happy today!

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Check out that gyro!  And this is the proper way to cook meat! This Texan wants to learn this method!
The cafe was a perfect choice, even if it didn't have a Wi-fi signal that we could make work. (It did have one, we just couldn't make it work!)  We decided to sit under the awning on the sidewalk, where the wheelchairs would have easy access.  Our waiter was excited to see us, and the place was busy with locals.  We weren't the only barbarians there, but it was definitely not a shop that focused on tourists, even though the menu was in English as well.  The food was exactly what we wanted for our day in Greece.  We were excited to eat here and we ordered way too much food.  But, when would we get to come back?  We were determined to make the best of it.  We ordered some chicken gyros and pork gyros, and chicken sandwiches and pork sandwiches, and grilled chicken on a stick, and grilled sausage on a stick, and fried cheese balls, and saginaki, which is mozzarella sautéed in olive oil.  Several of us ordered beer.  And we ate.  And ate.  And it was great!  And we had way too much food, but what a great time we had!  And then it started raining, which none of us expected, even though we could see a cloud turning blue not too far away.  And when it turned loose, it was an impressive rain storm.  For a moment, I had flashbacks of my cowboy days out riding the pastures and getting caught in an old fashioned gully washer.  Wells sir, this was one of those gully washers.  We decided that we would have another beer and wait it out.  But it kept raining.  Accepting that the rest of our walking tour was now delayed at best, and in reality probably cancelled, we decided that we would go to the museum early.  We called Dimitris (he made sure we had his card and number before dropping us at the restaurant) to see if he could meet us a full hour earlier than we agreed, and he was sitting in front of the cafe within 5 minutes.  He helped us get loaded despite the downpour and then told us that if we skipped the walking part of the tour, we would miss it entirely, as it would close before we could return.  Well, it was too wet to actually do a walking tour, so we opted to skip it and go to the museum.

The New Acropolis Museum was an impressive place to visit.  First, it covers an active archaeological dig, and all of the floors in the museum are made of glass, so you can walk around and see the ruins underneath the building.  What a great idea!  The building was wheelchair friendly, so we loaded up our crew and went to the third floor, where we decided to watch the video of the Parthenon and begin the tour there.  There are adequate restroom facilities there, and by this point in all of our tours, I hardly noticed the woman who was standing in the corner quietly monitoring the facility in case she needed to clean something in a hurry.  This is actually quite common, but a bit unusual for Americans.
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The glass floors were a bit concerning for me. Especially the ones with cracks in them.

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The view of the Acropolis from the museum. The toilet in the men's room. I was going to take a picture of the attendant, but then I thought it might be creepy to do so.

The video was in English and then ran in Greek, and vice versa.  It was 14 minutes long and was well worth viewing.  The entire third floor was a restoration and reproduction of the Parthenon, which could be seen just above us from the windows of the museum. It is an excellent way for you to see a very close-up view of the intricate details of the sculpturing and statues of the Parthenon.  And you won't believe just how detailed the work on it is. 

This is the first day that I noticed how we were experiencing Culture Fatigue.  We had seen so many overwhelmingly awesome historical sites that we were starting to become numb to them.  We were all impressed, but we were finding a certain lack of enthusiasm for just how awesome the ruins were.  We still valued and appreciated what we were fortunate to see and visit, but we were becoming overwhelmed by what we were being exposed to.  We needed a break!

So, we went down to the cafe/book store, where we sat and ordered Greek coffee and the kids drank cokes, Seth having a Sprite and Caitie a Lipton Tea.  After tasting the Greek coffee, we decided that we wanted something that wouldn't overwhelm us.  So, Sarah ordered a cappuccino and I drank some water, and then perused the book store.  I'm telling you, Greek coffee can be used as a fuel alternative for the space shuttle.  Wow!  It's good, but, like Brill Cream, "a little dab will do you."  Did I just date myself?  Oh, by the way, the museum offers fantastic Wi-fi access for free.  Take advantage of that!

When our time at the museum was complete, we decided to spend just a few minutes and walk down to the Plaka where we could pick up a few souvenirs.  We had missed visiting this shopping district due to the rain earlier. It was only a two or three block walk from our van, so Dimitris budgeted us 15 minutes to rush down there and grab something and come back.  It was plenty of time.  We found what we wanted in the first shop we encountered.  Seth always wants a snow globe, Caitie usually wanted a small wooden box, and we only collect magnets and occasionally a work of art by some unknown local starving artist.  You never know who will turn out to be the next Monet, right?  We also stopped at a gelato place next to the shop and decided that it was good, but not as good as what we ate in St. Paul in France.  So far, Italy, Turkey, and now Greece were falling short on the gelato comparisons.
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Dimitris! A gem of a guy.   A random shot of a local church. I love those blue domes.

Dimitris took us back to the port, where we thanked him profusely for his willingness to be flexible in our tour.  He went out of his way throughout the day to make it easier for our wheelchair issues, and was always agreeable when we wanted to modify his standard tour.  In fact, he was only 5 minutes away when the rain started, so he never even left the area when we were on our own for a two hour stretch.  We absolutely enjoyed Dimitris, and always laughed at his well designed jokes.  His final words to us when we arrived at the port terminal was to ask, "Do you know what is the difference between Turkish coffee and Greek coffee?  When you are in Athens, it's Greek coffee!"  Dimitris received high praises from everyone in our group.  He was a great guide.

Tomorrow: Santorini (And the tragic occurrence that almost ended my 20 years of marriage.)

Part I Getting there

Part II Barcelona

Part III Barcelona Continued

Part IV France

Part V Livorno, Pisa, and Florence, Italy

Part VI Rome

Part VII Sea Day

Part VIII Turkey

Part IX Athens 

Part X Santorini 

Part XI Sea Day 

Part XII Italy: Positano, Sorento, Amalfi Coast, and Pompeii 

Part XIII Sea Day

Part XIV Back to Barcelona

Part XV The Journey Home and Final Thoughts

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