And so begin our 3 months in Greece! First stop Athens. On the flight from Dublin we sat next to an Irish lady who has been living in Athens for 40 years – what a way to learn the best places to visit! She was also free with her advice about the dangers of Athens and fed us story after story of the swindlers and thieves operating in the city’s streets, trains and cafes. She drilled us on the need to keep hold of our bags at all times, and stressed that despite knowing that the “friendly” group next to them on the train were scammers, and consequently keeping their bags tightly pressed to themselves, herself and her mother had been robbed. She went so far as to give us the name of the contact in the Irish embassy who would help us should we too be robbed. With all this weighing on us, we took the hour long metro to the centre of Athens and began our 7 minute walk to the hotel. It was 10.30pm and the city’s nighttime streets were dimly lit. After 1 or 2 minutes we passed from a lively area near the metro to empty streets, graffitied, with windows boarded up. Many had grills instead of doors and in the dim light we could see piles of garbage and people sleeping rough with others standing around in the shadows.
Most of the buildings seemed abandoned and we hurried up the centre of the road, keeping a keen eye out. Not long before our hotel, Clara skidded on some sheet metal, unseen in the blackness, the noise shattering the nighttime quiet. The poor man walking ahead of us nearly leapt out of his skin and we realised we were not the only ones feeling a bit jumpy.
The morning brought a brighter perspective and we enjoyed exploring the city centre. Our walks around the whole of central Athens in the following days revealed many nice streets, with bars and restaurants, and beautiful houses, and neighbouring these, many abandoned and run-down buildings, some empty, others home to squatters. It is clear that many many businesses shut down in the last few years, and the only takers to reoccupy are the squatters. Orderly piles of blankets and cardboard attest to large numbers of rough sleepers. Walking through a city park, there were several tents pitched and laundry strung between trees to dry. The city seems to be a melting pot of immigrants from Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle East, not surprising given 1,000 migrants a day arrived in Greece during 2015. While many transferred within Europe, many remain, and have joined the legions of the 24% of Greeks that are unemployed (50% for those that are under 25 years of age). Everywhere we went we saw feral cats and dogs, sometimes as many as half a dozen animals sunning themselves in a patch of sunlight. It felt like a third world country at times and we had to remind ourselves that we were in a European capital. We probably got off to a bad start with Athens, walking some dodgy streets at night, but once we got our bearings, we felt very safe, and as we discover its grungy charm, we find the city is growing on us.
Like everyone else we hiked up to the Acropolis on our first morning here, and enjoyed the amazing views over the sprawling Athens below.
The site is fantastic, a marvel, with the semi preserved marble and stone buildings of the Parthenon, Erechtheion, the temple of Athena Nike and others.
There is major restoration work underway, and numbered stones lie waiting to be slotted back in their original position.
When this will happen is anybody’s guess as some of the work seems to have started before yours truly was born. The published entry price is 20Euro per person, but for a reason we didn’t question, we were only charged 10 each. Either way, we didn’t begrudge the money to the impoverished Greek government. Many of the visitors were Greeks, and of the rest, most were Chinese. Or at least that’s how it sounded. (ouch!)
We spent the rest of our 2 days wandering the city
… visiting other ancient remains dotted through out
… sampling the amazing coffee culture
… ogling the food in the central market
… and tasting the famous spinach and feta pies (no pictures of these as they were so delicious hot that we scoffed them immediately!).
On our second morning as Clara was practising being patient while Daniel took yet another picture of the Acropolis, a lady emerged from a church and, without explanation, handed her a piece of home-made cake. Few people value cake like Clara does, and she took it as a sign from the Greek Gods that she should continue to remain patient while Daniel fiddles with his camera …
Tomorrow we have a 5.30am start to catch our train to the port of Piraeus. From there we are heading to the Cyclades islands for 4 weeks, with Syros being our first port of call. We are looking forward to the slow life on the islands, but first we have to run the gauntlet of Athens’ pre-dawn streets …