A long time ago in a land far away my world changed by witnessing a film which can only be described as heart wrenching. I refer to For the Love of Benji, a pooch so cute he (or in this case she as its played by one of his relations) is guaranteed to make you well up with tears in no time at his/her/its misfortune and his/her/its luck was having a turn for the worse in… Athens. So much for that European adventure with your family eh Benji. It was along with Olympic Airways my introduction to the city and country I found myself in nearly 40 years later long before I knew the word Philosophy or the names Plato and Aristotle. I’m none the wiser now having read the books then forgot, such is the ebb and flow of knowledge or lack thereof.
A year before Benji (spoiler: he was reunited with his family in the end) a UK TV serial called Who Pays the Ferryman about a guy who relocates to Greece (Crete) from Blighty aired. The co-star was a sultry Greek actress (Betty Arvaniti) whose character he eventually does the dirty with – good effort. He calls his boat The Knot. ‘The Knot that binds you to Crete’ she says with those exotic eyes. Wonderfully the whole thing is available to view on You Tube. Seeing it as an adult – with all its cultural connotations – in Greece while Bouzouki music played from the tavern beneath me was a literal nostalgia trip! Sadly, there’ll be no Crete for me this time round, it’s all about the capital city and you know where this is leading…
In music, the new wave and its offshoot the new romantics were working in unison with the romanticism playing out on the screen (e.g. Ferryman, Brideshead Revisited) and in 1980 Scotland’s Simple Minds were travelling with their third album Empires and Dance. I mention this because it features the Acropolis on its cover which like many bands of that era was a marked step up from their previous efforts both visually and artistically (see also Genesis, Japan and Split Enz). Then came the 90s and there we found PULP’s Common People ‘she came from Greece, she had a zest for knowledge..’ and Portishead’s Sour Times also reminds me of Greece if only in its sound. Finally to Mick Karn whose Cypriot upbringing was bound to be influential to his craft: Gossip’s Cup, Feta Funk, Pitta Pop.
Greece momentarily entered my radar in 2001 on my ill fated voyage to Australia when I switched planes at the then brand spanking new airport (more on Athens former airport soon). Only a month old on my transit. Pity that I didn’t use the 10 hour layover to visit the leading lady herself. Fast forward another decade to 2011 and while teaching in Turkey, Greece was again a possibility until that is, my first teaching role went awry. Bulgaria also went out of the window at this time. So here we are much later down the railroad of nomadic (mis)adventure in 2017.
Well it’s Athens alright, my 98th city and 45th country but the only dance I’m doing is the ‘am I pissing off my air bnb host?’ And on top of that is the ‘where next’ dance with airlines, dates, baggage and visa woes. Outside meanwhile, the Acropolis is, minus many of its original features, still there and while I Travel is certainly relevant enough there wasn’t so much to Celebrate, save the fact I’d made it much earlier – I’d planned to start in Athens in 2018 and work my way north (or later) than planned.
Greece is a land that defies the autumn – it was still a respectable 27 degrees a good three weeks into October though this was beginning to wane over my time there with the grey sky and rain pounding the canapé from under which I worked, rather romantic if a little colder than I’d like. When I venture out for a coffee the marble floors have become slippery and the journey more treacherous which could be a metaphor for any journey really. Almost as scary is having your feet nibbled by fish! I’ve been meaning to do this for years and finally my chance is met. It’s a bizarre evening in more ways than one with total strangers pulling out their camera and asking if they can take a picture of my fish food feet! I follow it by going to dinner on… fish and chips (irony at its finest).
So what about the Acropolis, is it worth it? Well that depends on who you are and your interests. I thought it was a bit steep to enter (€20-30) but if you’ve got the time, the money and are a raving history buff then yes it would most likely be a worthy purchase. Much better for me was the museum at €5. The building itself is amazing however be aware that you’ll go through airport style security to get in. Like many cultural institutes in the east of Europe bags are not really permitted if you don’t like that then you can do what I did and leave it locked at your place of residence. Also be careful where you take photos, much of the museum is ok but some areas are not – no idea why. (Spoiler: They are not very happy with upper class thief Lord Elgin – though I can’t say I blame the Greeks for that). But he isn’t the only one, over time the Parthenon has been occupied, pillaged by many and at one time even had a minaret rising through its roof.
Another cheap and easy pilgrimage is to the Mount Lycabettus, one of the mounds opposite the Acropolis, another fiver on the funicular with great effects and stunning views at the top. My only mistake was going in the afternoon when the sun is shining on the Parthenon though worse things could’ve happened and it was an experience even if it was a tourist trap and the sun burnished my eyes.
The hassle of getting a plane ticket felt like Today I Died Again, after several months on the road I was looking to settle for a bit having traversed the eastern flank of Europe skirting Russia for the last three months or so. Nonetheless as I was denied Bulgaria back in 2011 and again courtesy of the Serbs (see Belgrade blog) I decided on country 46. Here’s how to do it by bus from Athens (as rail is far too complicated at this time).
ATHENA TO SOFIA:
There are a host of coach operators running routes to Albania and Bulgaria all dotted around the Metaxourgio metro station; mostly to Albania but at least three outfits serve the Sofia route taking 12hrs.
Tourist Service Bulgaria – this one is closest to the metro exit and the most obscure price €53.60! They run twice a day: 8am and 19pm tourist-service.com – the only one with a website in English. No toilet on the bus but water and croissant included in ticket price. Also in seat screens. *I travelled with them on the return journey to Athens.
The next one I came across was the green and purple of Union Ivkoni. This one is the cheapest at €46. No toilet and no frills such as entertainment or water (several stops, two in Thessaloniki) website: union-ivkoni.com (no English) email: email@example.com
*I used this service for the northerly route into Bulgaria, it was ok.
ANH – leave from a make shift shed round the corner only once a day 18:30 at €50
again no toilet on the bus but several stops. Website: anh.gr (no English) *I never traveled with ANH so can’t comment but I imagine they are similar to Ivkoni. They have wifi and there is no extra fee at the time of writing for baggage but these things have a habit of changing – look at full service airlines nowadays.
RETURN TO ATHENA – A PROBLEM WITH THE METRO:
Back in Athens I am met by calls of ‘Taxi!” which are always turned down by me. This time there was something different, one of them says ‘there is a problem with the metro.’ Initially I think this is a scam to get me into his taxi, but soon find he’s correct, in another words there’s a strike! Not exactly what you want to hear at 5.30 in the morning when you’ve alighted a 12hr trek. In this situation first off, never panic. Keep calm and find the nearest cafe, even if it’s a bad one it will enable you to think and rationally plan your next move. I ask for their wifi and look at alternatives; bus or tram or whatever.
In Athens bus is your best bet but there lies another problem; you can’t buy tickets from the driver and need a kiosk. The bus stop is before me and sure enough mine comes in while I am looking for a kiosk – the closest of which is up the hill. So with all my bags I have no choice but to walk. The bus overtakes me. Great! Still these things are a test of character and am fortunate to be fit and able. Most of the kiosks are closed or staffed by glum people. Finally I find one open and purchase a ticket. After an uncomfortable journey (I should’ve walked as it turned out not to be too far) I alight and find my hostel. Luckily the girl on reception is the same one I met before (even when staying in an Air Bnb I make a note of where the hostels are in case of an emergency and sometimes visit them for essential tips and info, this also puts a face to the name if you’ve emailed them).
OUTRO – OUT OF ATHENS:
Getting out of Athens presents another set of complexities now that full service airlines don’t like to take more than one bag in the hold and some of the airlines of interest had closed their city offices. It is easy to book online or rather was once upon a time. Dealing with people is nicer and Egypt Air and Emirates both have pretty good staff. My intention was to fly to Cairo then onto Guangzhou then onto Phnom Penh. I manage the first leg but when I try to book the second on the super cheap Saudia flight I’m denied! This is either down to the bank or the airline worried about a lack of visa – it seems they don’t know of the 72 hour visa free rule at Guangzhou providing you book onward travel to a third country which they say I need to prove but there is nowhere in the booking process to do this. How can we be so far down the track of evolution and still be so stupid! Perhaps some thinking along the lines of Plato and pals is required at least by corporate brats hiding behind bank logos and nonsensical airlines! How can one bag at 23kgs be ok but two equalling 20kgs not be ok? Frustrated it was time for another coffee…
COFFEE IN ATHENS:
Yes there is a Starbucks and as much as I like them, right opposite is the classy Meliartos. Personally I’d stick to their (to die for) desserts and coffee as the mains can be typically lukewarm (I asked them to warm it up but it came back exactly the same). In addition be careful ordering tea as they may just give you Earl Grey which is ok if you like it though I’d rather English Breakfast which is on their menu but, despite them having some lovely people, they obviously didn’t think to ask me first. Sometimes getting their attention at all is hard work as some of them just like to chat among themselves, still it is Greece and made a change from Starbucks. Also worth noting is the Buenos Aires cafe on Nikis street.
Picture credits: All photos by me except for the intro section sourced from Wikipedia and discogs.com