Friday, 25 March 2011

Athens, Greece

We arrived back into European waters again but were determined to make the most of our last 2 ports of call, especially as neither of us had been to Athens (or Rome) before. It seems ungrateful, but many people choose to stay on board the ship when it reaches Europe after a world cruise, they seem to get overlooked a little after the other more exotic destinations. We wanted to see the major sights, and so decided to go it alone. Katie bought a good map and I researched where we needed to go. We walked through the port terminal building and bypassed the waiting taxi drivers on our mission to find the train station in Pireaus where we had docked. It was about a 15 minute walk with the water on one side of us, a busy road and small shops on the other. As we walked, I had momentary feelings of the coming spring and of really feeling like we were closer to home again. It was a strange feeling to describe, but I liken it to the first time, around early October when you walk outside, take a deep breath of chilled air and smell the leaves on the ground. You instantly know that Autumn has arrived. A bit like that.

A ticket to central Athens was only 1.40 Euros and took about 20 minutes. It was easy. It's ironic that as we get closer to home, our confidence in finding our way and doing our own thing increases, and our willingness to rely on organised excursions diminishes.

We really only had one aim today, and that was to experience the Acropolis. Anything else was a bonus. With that in mind we walked out of Monastiraki train station, found our bearings with the help of my phone, and set off on foot towards the high point of the city. It only took 30 minutes to find the entrance, it's mostly uphill because The Acropolis stands on it's own high above the rest of the city. It was a very pleasant day, the sun was out but it was colder than we had experienced for a while. Most of the locals were wearing boots and big coats, I guess it was cold for them, but a jumper and long trousers was sufficient for us northern Europeans!

We climbed up the hill to the entrance and by chance met up with Trevor and Jean who were on a disappointing guided tour. Although it shouldn't have been a surprise to bump into someone you know at a major tourist attraction, it was still nice to see them, and slightly self satisfying to hear that our own train journey into Athens had been quicker, less hassle and cheaper than the alternative! They broke away from their group and joined us instead. I'll admit here that I'm not really one for spending too much time walking around museums and looking at old buildings, but as with the pyramids, the Acropolis was something that had to be seen with ones own eyes to fully appreciate it. It's such an iconic structure that no amount of pictures or TV images can give you the same appreciation as standing at its foot. We soaked up the atmosphere, admired the great views of the city beneath us and got shot blasted by the dust being whipped up by the strong wind. It was the combination of that wind and the crowds of people that put a stop to our photo taking, and after an hour or so we descended down from the plateau to the relative warmth and shelter of the little streets below.

Making our way back to the market square and the train station where we first arrived, we found hoards of people eating delicious looking kebabs out of the paper. We asked a local where he got it and followed his finger to find a small serving hatch/window attached to a restaurant. 2 Euros bought us one of the tastiest lunches we've had. I could have eaten another two, but the prospect of buying bigger trousers deterred me!

We walked up a narrow shopping street, small shops and market stalls sold a few nice locally made clothes and the usual tourist fare. We headed further up the road towards the parliament building and were pleasantly surprised to stumble upon the hourly changing of the guard. The ceremony is much like many others, but the costumes of these particular guards certainly makes them a much photographed sight. The men chosen for this profession are the most highly trained, capable fighting machines that Greece owns, yet they dress them up in skirts, tights and clogs with pompoms on the front. I hope they pay them well. The dance they performed for our videoing pleasure was equally amusing, I don't know how they keep a perfectly straight face.

We found Athens to be very relaxing to wonder around. People we met in the shops were very chatty and friendly, and the whole city seemed to be at ease with itself. We liked it a lot more than we were expecting to, and nothing pleases us more than having our expectations exceeded!

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