There’s nothing like an expectant, familiar and warmly welcoming face to greet you when you walk through the Arrivals doors of an airport. And, unlike me, Paul got that after landing in Athens at 1:30am after his journey from London. OK, so that face just happened to be me as I had arrived about 40 minutes before him, but that’s beside the point.
The last time I saw Paul was when I was staying with him in his ‘palatial dog-kennel in the heart of W1’ in London in March. We scratched our heads to find an easily accessible major city in Europe for a weekend that neither of us had been to, before his UK visa expired and he started winding his way back to Sydney. After much deliberation our final decision was Athens, so now here we were, ready to tread our first steps in Greece and armed with only a generation of instilled Australian wog humour – mostly our best ‘Theo the cabbie’ accents from the 12th Man albums. The only real Greek we knew were swear words which, much to our continuous amusement, we heard used on the streets of Athens constantly over the weekend.
We hit a slight hurdle pretty quickly, having just missed the last Metro of the night. So we then took a €50 cab ride into Larissis Station before navigating on foot to our hotel in Vathis Square. But, being too busy getting stuck into the debrief on what was happening in our lives since we last caught up, we had no real need to use our non-extensive Greek vocabulary at blowing more than a night’s accommodation in a private room between us before we’d even got to the hotel.
Once there we found a locked front door, an old bloke sound asleep behind the reception desk and a girl using the pay phone just inside the entrance. Once the receptionist had been roused and gave us our room key he proceeded to give us very detailed instructions on how to get to the Acropolis and the National Archeological Museum the next morning, but advised us to get there early because of untimely closing times due to Orthodox Easter. I just wished he hadn’t been quite so loud because the American girl on the phone was having a really interesting conversation and we could hardly hear a word of it. He also warned us in no uncertain terms that all the restaurants, bars and tavernas would be closed, so it looked like an evening kicking back with a dodgy souvlaki and an ouzo was going to be off the cards. There was a ‘toast’ place open opposite the hotel and we continued our debrief there sitting out on the street until 4am enjoying some truly awful mini-pizzas. The idea of eating a cheese pie seemed even less palatable, so it could have been much, much worse.
For a place that was supposed to be shut down the middle of Athens sure was lively, the streets were busy and the meat and fish market was a heaving mass of people. We were ambling unhurriedly in the general direction of the Acropolis, but its hilltop site was so large we didn’t find the main entrance straight away. We had been walking alongside the lower slope for some time and had arrived in Anafiotiká, a quiet residential area tucked away from the hurly burly of the city that climbed the rocky terrain towards the city’s central attraction. We were in a little Greek village right in the city and everything was whitewashed – the exterior walls of the conjoined cottages, their attached garden terraces, the narrow concrete path we were walking along and even the bottom six feet of the tree trunks. If the dogs asleep along the path were as lazy on painting day as they were now I reckon even they stood a fair chance of coming out like snow huskies.
It must be a pretty common thing for tourists to end up poking around here looking for their way to the Acropolis as there were numerous small, hand-painted signs in peoples’ terraced gardens pointing us in the right direction along the tight and twisting passageways, and after getting onto a wider road and following a perimeter fence we found the front entrance.
The bad news was the bloke on night duty at our hotel was right, it was closing early. The good news was that admission for the day was free and we had more than enough time before closing to check it out. We found the Parthenon and the other buildings under long term renovation, with reconstructed marble added since the 19th century, original sculptures long since carted off to museums, and all this surrounded by metal scaffolding and some demountable offices only partially hidden by the primary construction work. It was hard to tell if there was anything at all original remaining from the ancient structures. So, at least to me, the Acropolis looked at its best when Paul and I viewed it from other lookouts across the city, starting from just behind it at the Monument of Philopappos, and ending up further afield having walked to the top of the steep hill at Likavitós.
In between we had paid a visit to the slightly disappointing remains of the Temple of Zeus and the original modern Olympic stadium from 1896, the finish line in the present day for a pack of dogs competing hard in a sleeping marathon, before we both called it quits for the day on the sightseeing front.
Now I’ll give Paul his dues, he had no hesitation in asking people on the street for directions to a supermarket or good part of Athens to head to. From corner kiosks, the girl in a cafe where we stopped for a doughnut or at the reception desks of hotels – the latter in particular because almost without exception their English was good, and they are undoubtedly asked these questions all the time so they’re more likely to have ready answers. And so in the evening we entered into a tiny but very tastefully decorated hotel foyer so Paul could ask where the best place to go out for the night would be. Strangely the girl behind the reception desk spoke no English whatsoever and she had to ask a couple who’d just come down the stairs. They seemed a slightly mismatched pair, the man a 40 year old Greek and his companion a noticeably younger African woman. It was about then that I noticed the glass bowl of breath mints on the desk. And the identically sized bowl of condoms. They were obviously doing a good trade at the Dream Hotel because there was no attempt on their part to solicit our business when Paul asked where we should go for some evening entertainment.
In the end we stayed close to the base of the brilliantly lit Acropolis in the district of Psiri but its lanes of bars and restaurants were dead (most only opening after midnight due to the holiday according to another of Paul’s sources), so we settled for a couple of cheap and nasty pork gyros each and some bottles of Mythos beer nearby. It was the second gyros meal of the day for me and the third for Paul, and as for the beer I think it’s so called because although the label says it’s Greek it’s really a myth – by the generic and uninspiring taste of it we both thought it must have come straight out of some common European brewery like Amstel or Heineken.
At midnight peels of church bells begin to fill the air, and then were soon drowned out by the piercing screams of sky rockets and other fireworks. Processions of people holding candles filtered into the streets from the churches and all of a sudden things were looking livelier. We walked back to Psiri and found an uber-plush bar, with decadent red wall hangings, low lounges and objets d’art from all manner of exotic Eastern lands. As yet there were very few well-heeled beautiful people in there, and on walking up to one of the bars the staff took one look at us and told us they weren’t open yet. So we retreated a few hundred metres away to a much more down-market bar and sat outside at a plastic table, ruing the fact that the empty karaoke bar next door only had Greek songs.
We had another try at the posh bar later, but this time there was a big black bouncer on the door holding a clipboard with a blank piece of paper on it. When he asked if our names were on the list we got the hint that there was no way we were going to get in and headed back to the hotel. This was probably a good thing, as the bouncer on the door of my stomach hadn’t bothered checking for names earlier in the night, and now there was an ugly brawl breaking out between the pork gyros and the Mythos/Amstel/Heineken.
Paul and I decided that the day’s debrief should be set on the coast of southern Athens, so we got the Metro to Faliro. This was the location of numerous 2004 Olympic venues, including the slightly hippie sounding Peace and Friendship Stadium. Our first sighting of the famed Greek coastline was hardly idyllic, less than twelve months after the games the vast car parks were urban wastelands overgrown with weeds and the seawater lapped up against piles of garbage on the rocks. There was clearly no beach within walking distance, so we found the adjacent tram line and rode along it until the outlook improved.
We found a spot on a coarse sandy beach which is undoubtedly packed in July and August as even now the hawkers selling cheap jewellery were doing the rounds. There were a few people paddling around in the calm of the sea but we both concluded it wasn’t quite hot enough for us to take a dip in the Mediterranean, though perhaps it had as much to do with our inhibitions as to the possible pollution of the water as much as the temperature. In any case it was a fairly chilled out day before we returned to Syntagma Square, and closed the weekend debrief with a lament that our time away from Australia wasn’t better synchronised so we could travel together more (Egypt with our mate Hoges six months previously was the only other major collaboration). But with Paul’s UK Working Visa almost expired, he was going back home via Cuba and Central America and we had to call it a day. I accused him of leaving Sydney a year too early, and he of course rebutted by saying I left Sydney a year too late. And at that stalemate we parted, Paul to find another night’s accommodation in Athens to end his UK long weekend, and me head back to the airport to get back to Switzerland for work the next day.
To be honest, I wasn’t all that thrilled with Athens. The time I spent there was definitely sufficient, and it was only being there with a close mate that made it truly memorable. But my stay was to be extended for a further twelve hours than I had planned, a delay to my first flight to Rome meant I was going to miss my connection to Geneva. I was put up at the airport Sofitel for the night at the expense of Alitalia with my flights rescheduled for early the next morning. The room I had was far more comfortable than I was used to and the dinner at the restaurant was amazing, but with Paul’s mobile phone battery flat and no way of guessing where he was or where he was staying there was just no fun in a solitary debrief.