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Athens, Greece
 

May 9  (continued from Crete, Greece) 

 

The transit system in Athens, like so many European cities is outstanding in its efficiency and ease, yet never have we seen one so clean. Putting in underground services in an ancient city like Athens automatically comes with time delays as archaeologists dust through the layers of time with paint brush sized tools. What to do with the findings is another thing. Athens has chosen to make each metro station a museum specifically for the findings of each stations "dig".

 

We found our way to our hotel of choice but we did not have confirmed reservations. We had not received a response to our email requests. When we arrived they told us they did not have any rooms available. They phoned across the street to the Adonis. They had a room.

The Adonis Hotel had received a number of thumbs down reports on the web site "Trip Advisor". Perhaps such reports were the catalyst for action because we were relieved to find it not so bad ... still not in a category to receive praise ... but we did not have to run in horror. We settled in for a two night stay.

   

May 10

Breakfast in Athens came with a view of the Acropolis - the hill on which stands, among other Greek buildings of antiquity, the Parthenon. We could catch a glimpse of it beyond the large flag of Greece.

 
 

In our room, preparing for a dayís outing (putting on sunblock etc.) we heard a man singing. Stepping out onto the balcony into the warm morning sun and looking down, we could see him. He played an accordion and his rich voice reverberated off the buildings. It was, at least for Sherrie, very enchanting and romantic. She tossed down a coin. Now, anyone knowing Sherrie personally, knows she canít throw anything with any accuracy at all. In fact, even those standing behind her cringe with their heads covered. This morning she did not have to throw ... it was simply a drop.   Simple.

 

The balladeer indicated he was ready and she dropped the coin by simply releasing it from her outstretched hand. It dropped straight until a little gust of wind fluttered a flag on a pole leaning out from below. The flag caught the coin and held it momentarily. Another flutter sent the coin off in another direction, hitting the paved laneway and bouncing back towards the building and a storm drain. It hit the edge of the drain grate which caused it to jump again hitting the top corner of the grate and then rolling like a warm hockey puck it made its way across the lane coming precariously close to a matching drain, hit the other building and with a final turn came to stop behind a flower planter. The singer, behind his accordion, had lost sight of it and Sherrie gave him hand gesture directions from four floors up until he found it. He put it in his pocket, made a nodding bow, gave a wave then resumed his serenading. The lady on the next balcony over also wanted to show her appreciation. Perhaps she was well versed in such matters or she had seen the difficulties of Sherrieís attempt (not aware of her previous record) for she had wrapped her coin in a piece of tissue and it fluttered down like a six year oldís dollar store plastic parachuter.

We walked from our hotel to the base of the Acropolis and part way around, paid our entrance fee and started the climb. There were enough things to see along the way to justify a slower pace in the hot sun. We admired the Theatre of Dionysos.   It is the most important building on the southern slope of the Acropolis.

   

It was the place where famous tragedies and comedies of Aristophanes were first performed in the fifth century BC. In those first days the theatre may have been smaller and simpler than the impressive semi-circle which was rebuilt of stone in the fourth century BC (the ruins of which we see today). Fourteen staircases in a radiating arrangement divide the theatre into thirteen segments. The rows of seats consist largely of finely carved blocks of limestone, quarried at the coast near Piraeus. The seats of the front row are exquisite examples of marble carving, each bearing name(s). One elaborate seat, in the middle, was reserved for the priest of Dionysos, the god to whom the Theatre was dedicated. The Theatre of Dionysos became derelict following the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD and its features gradually disappeared over the following centuries. It was rediscovered by excavation between 1862 and 1895.

At the top of the Acropolis we climbed the stairs through the Propylaia - a towering gateway to the "upper city" built between 437 and 432 BC; one befitting the magnitude of the Parthenon. We walked through the middle gateway (there are five in total) which is really a grand open-ended hallway with extensions on either side. Once through, we came to our first full view of the Parthenon.

There is a certain indescribable sensation, a sort of surreal feeling, when one first sees a landmark such as the Eiffel Tower or the Parthenon. Itís like becoming part of a painting. Reality slowly sets in and the sheer beauty of the landmark justifies its place in history ... and all the paintings, photographs and postcards.

 
 
 
 
   
 

Visitors, at present, may not walk among the ancient columns as ongoing restoration is being done in order to fight the effects of acid rain and keep this spectacle for future generations. Even some previous restoration work is being redone; as in the exchanging of rustable iron clamps and supports for ones made of titanium.

Our photos will be like so many others of this Greek delight, so we can only hope you have seen or one day will see it with your own eyes. The Parthenon was built to "wow" those who saw it. Its architects and builders were successful, for it did, and much to their credit, still does.

As the Parthenon held the "awe" position on the Acropolis, it is the beautiful Erechtheion which held the most sacred site. This Ionic temple was built in 426-421 BC and itís many levels adapt to the uneven ground. It was dedicated to Athena, Poseidon, Erechtheus and other chthonic deities of Attica.

Mythology says it was here Poseidonís trident stuck the ground like a pitchfork into a haystack and Athena grew the first olive tree.

On the southern portico six larger-than-life marble maidens stand (each with one bent knee exposed between the folds of their robes) on the porticoís railing and hold upon their flat-topped crowns its ceiling.

 

The rock foundation of the Acropolis has been polished with the feet of millions of visitors. Itís uneven terrain can be as slippery as .... well, as slippery as polished granite. We made our way over to the large Greek flag we viewed earlier from our hotel and in a reverse-hunt, found our hotel.

We meandered around the Acropolis for sometime drinking in its potency before making our way down on the other side to the Agora ... the commercial, political, administrative centre and market place of ancient Athena.

   

 A very social space. It was here in 49 AD St. Paul preached a new gospel to any who would listen (the little Church of the Holy Apostles commemorates his time in Agora). It was also in this flurry of noise and activity that Socrates expressed his philosophy.

 
 

We stopped in at the Agora Museum. Spacious, well laid out and signed in English, it is an inviting place to view local artefacts. A couple of items especially caught our eye. One was a childís potty. The clay design looks like an upside-down terra cotta flower pot with a bowl glued to the top. The bowl has a large hole in the side. The child is placed into the bowl with its legs dangling out of the hole, while the results of the activity go through the hole in the bottom (now facing up) of the "flower pot".

 

Since Athens is considered the "seat of modern democracy" it was most interesting (to us at least) to see the ancient method of jury selection. The kleroteria "machine" were slabs of wood or stone. The one we viewed was stone. On the face of each slab were columns of narrow slots aligned in horizontal rows. Into the slots were inserted bronze identification tickets called "pinakia"; carried by citizens who were eligible for jury duty. On the left side of the face there was a metal tube the top of which terminated in a funnel shaped mouth. Into the tube were poured a number of black and white bronze balls in random order. By means of a crank, the balls could be released one by one. Depending on whether a white or black ball emerged, all the citizens represented on the horizontal row of pinakia were accepted or rejected for jury duty that day. Kleroteria stood at the entrance to every court.

 

We continued over to the Temple of Hephaestus Ė the god of the forge. A suitable place to build such a temple for it was this section of the Agora which held foundries and metal works. Built by one of the Parthenonís architects, it is reminiscent of the larger in style and grace.

 

We left the Agora and walked to a restaurant which occupies two sides of a "T" intersection. Even though the street is a public one, the wait staff seemed to treat it as part of the restaurant. It was a popular place, people (many young students) lined up for their gyros while we selected an umbrella shaded table to order dinner, drinks and to people watch.

We window shopped our way back to the hotel where we rested, freshened and went up to the roof top terrace for sunset and then it was out again to experience a little of Athens after dark.

 

 

     
 
 
 

May 11

It was a travel day. One of those days which is usually straight forward ... but not this one.

Plan A: We had tried to book a couchette (sleeping compartment) on the train from Athens to Sofia, Bulgaria. There were none available.

Plan B: We would take a train from Athens to Thessaloniki (a city between Athens and Sofia), stay overnight in a hotel and carry on in the morning to Sofia.

Plan C: Ride the train to Thessaloniki and during the hour long stop Terry would dash into town to see if he could secure a room. If not we would carry on to Sofia sitting up.

Plan D: If we had a train compartment (usually 6 seats) to ourselves, we would try to make ourselves as comfortable as possible and carry on to Sofia.

What is the saying? The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray?

However, in the meantime ...

The metro station, Syntagma (means constitution), is just across the street from the parliament buildings which were once the royal palace. Hourly there is a changing of the guards. A simple ceremony (except on Sundays) with the replacement of two guards.

   
 

The Greek guards are known as evzones and their famous uniforms and exaggerated steps are the things of photographs. Donít be disrespectful, these men also carry guns. Their march too is unusual to the eye. One knee is brought up high, and then the leg is kicked straight out. When the foot lands with a slap upon the ground, the other knee bends and dips with the toe remaining on the ground. The exercise is then repeated with the other leg, all in exaggerated slow motion which must be challenging to muscles and balance. We watched in fascination.

 

The long train trip from Athens to Thessaloniki was made more pleasurable by the company we had, though with six in the full compartment (three facing three) it is a little difficult to stretch out ones legs. There was a young lawyer from Athens who was getting away for the weekend, staying in a small town close to Thessaloniki; and a couple who spoke only Greek but who had a sense of humour and were prepared to do a little charades when the lawyer wasnít around to translate. The sixth spot was being treated like a relay station by some younger folks. The hallway was crowded with second class ticket holders who preferred the floor in the air-conditioned first class car to the second class car. Any empty seats in first class were being filled by second class (ticket wise) passengers. Early in the journey, the hallway crowd was pushing beyond the hallways and standing within the compartment; much to the sensitivities of the lawyer ("if they want this space let them pay as much as I did.") and his leg room (his seat was next to the door). He finally succeeded in getting them out of the compartment and closing the door. The compartments are smoke free, but smoking in the hallway is permitted. The hallway was jammed with people smoking, when the door opened for a trade in the sixth seat, a blue-gray haze penetrated the compartment.

We donít know if the lawyer had anything to do with it, but shortly after his return from the toilet, a conductor cleared the hallway which dispersed some of the second class ticket holders from the first class car, however, we were on a train so they simply were pushed into the bar car and congregated at the ends of the first class car. The lawyer seemed pleased. After a stop even the sixth seat relay person had to move when a first class passenger claimed her seat.

And now back to "the best laid plans ...."

The train was running seriously late and the time allotted for Terryís dash into town was diminishing rapidly. We revisited our plans and scratched Plan C - the run into town. Since we had a Balkan Flexipass, there was some flexibility and a new plan was hatched.

Plan E: We would get off at Thessaloniki Ė which was a requirement anyway. We would get on the next train and have a quick look around. If we liked what we saw we would put Plan D into effect and make ourselves comfortable. If we didnít like it, we would get off and reenact Plan B finding a place to stay in town for the rest of what was left of darkness (since it was already approaching midnight). Sounded like a good plan.

What was that about mice and men?

The only part of Plan E which was actually carried out was the first part about getting off the train at Thessaloniki.

We found our way to Track 6. We saw a train way down on Track 6 with people getting on. A thirty-something man on the platform assured us we would be boarding our train in the centre of the platform. We waited and waited and kept watching people down the track around the train. Terry made a quick run from the platform and came back with bottled water and some edibles.

"Are you sure thatís not our train," we asked again of the thirty-something man dressed in black.

"Yes. Itís the train but it will pull up here."

Sherrie got a little nervous at those words and started walking down towards the train. About half way there she saw a signal from the engineer who was sitting at the throttle in the engine cab. He was waving his hand telling her to go back. She did and sure enough, just like the thirty-something in black said, the train pulled up and stopped.

We got on through the back door of the car just ahead of the sleeping car. It was dark. The only light was that which was making its way through the dirty windows from the railway platform. But that was enough for us to see the filthy condition of the car. A few unbelieving blinks of our eyes and the scene became even clearer and grimier. There sat a partially clothed man; the faint light glistening off his sweating scruffy face and body. We knew it was a man because grizzly bears are not allowed to sit upright on a train. He was big. Stomach roll after stomach roll filled out his dirty grey stained open shirt (or was it the light from the windows). Since somewhere in the distant past, Terry has had a recurring nightmare about being led through the darkened laundry room in the basement of Cell Block 9 to meet, for the first time, his new best friend; Bubba. Here before us sat Bubba, glistening and grinning. Without speaking a word, we both bolted for the door with Sherrie unfortunately being trampled in Terryís desire to be first off the train. The doors between this car and the sleeper car were both open. We could hear a man speaking English from the sleeper car, "You have so much luggage. That is the price."

It was the conductor for the sleeping compartments talking. Hey, wait a minute. We were told there wasnít any room. Now these guys and all their luggage were going to get one. We crossed to the sleeping car and joined the crowd around the conductor. Everyone was speaking at once except Terry who was sobbing quietly to himself. "Back," the conductor yelled, "Everybody back."

We went back to the space between the cars; the space which has the two metal plates that slide against each other as the train moves. We were between the sleeping car conductor talking to the too-much-luggage-guys on one side, Bubba in the dirty dark car on the other and the escape door to the outside on our right.

"Clang," came a sound in the distance. "Clang, clang, clang, clang," each successive one louder ... and closer as the doors of the train closed like the barred doors on Cell Block 9. Our eyes opened wide in fright like baby Stephenís going through a tunnel. Plan E got locked on the wrong side of our escape door and as the train began to move Terryís recurring nightmare was moving quicker from the dream world to the real world. Bubba had a new best friend.

We didnít say anything to each other, not wanting the other to hear the distress in our voice. We were both grappling in our minds for a Plan F. Perhaps they would allow us to sit in the hallway of the sleeping car like the second class ticket holders on the previous train. The conductor showed the four with the too-much-luggage down the hallway and into two sleeping compartments. Two .... as in one, two. If there really had been a fluke and two of the reserved sleeping compartments had miraculously come available there was no way there would be a third.

The conductor returned to where we stood in the lit hallway of the sleeping car, just steps away from the darkened grimy car where Bubba held power - imagined or otherwise.

We asked knowing what the answer would be but asking anyway. "Are there any sleeping compartments?"

"For the two of you?"

"Yes. Husband and wife."

"Thirty euro," he said.

"For the two of us?"

"Yes."

"Thatís fine." We werenít about to quibble over price Ė our upper limit being one of our sons (his choice).

Once in the room we locked the door and after Terry had regained some semblance of composure, we put out one of the clean sheets as a picnic cloth on the lower bunk, spread out Terryís purchases and started to giggle. We giggled with delight over our blessings. We laughed out loud when we wondered what our family and friends would say. We laughed even louder just because it felt good.

Wonder what Bubba was doing?

 

click here to May 12 and Sofia, Bulgaria ...

 

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