Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Greece 2010 - Part 1

I opened my eyes and was greeted with a stunning view of the Acropolis. From atop its steep rock platform several hundred feet high, this masterpiece of Greek architecture, the iconic symbol of ancient glories, was all mine to behold. From the comfort of my bed on the morning of our first full day in Athens the sight was awesome. I thought: It just doesn’t get any better than this.

I’d chosen the Magna Grecia, a small boutique hotel in the Plaka area of central Athens, because it promised a room with a view. The Magna Grecia delivered – big time. A very smart decision.

It had been a long trip. We left San Francisco early afternoon on Wed. Sept 15, arrived in Frankfurt mid-morning the next day, waited a few hours and then flew to Athens, where we arrived early in the evening. My definition of a good flight is one in which you take off and land safely. We did that – twice – with an added bonus of some good sleep en route to Frankfurt.

We unpacked and were ready for dinner. Sandra’s restaurant research had unearthed a place not far from the hotel called Taverna Platanos. Dating back to 1932, Platanos is an off-the-beaten-track eatery that offers traditional Greek food both indoors and in a quiet pedestrian square under a huge plane tree (platanos means plane tree). The weather was perfect, so a table under the platanos was an easy choice.

Finding the restaurant proved to be more difficult than it should have been. We had good maps. Sandra knew where we were going. So off we walked. But – we missed a turn and ended up zigzagging from one small lane to another until we finally located Diogenous Street. This was the first of many battles with street signs. They are small, hard to see, and in Greek, which is appropriate for Greece and not a problem if you know the language, which we didn’t.

Once seated – outdoors in the middle of an old residential neighborhood, with a bottle of white Macedonian wine to drink and black olives to savor – I was a very happy boy. I was even happier when our food arrived. We had stuffed grape leaves, eggplant and delicious grilled squid. An absolutely marvelous meal. Not fancy, unpretentious, down-to-earth. Perfect.

We were going to be in Athens for two full days. We don’t like to spend our time rushing from one tourist attraction to another. Rather, half a day of sightseeing is enough for us. The rest of the time we like to hang out, read or wander the streets to get a sense what it’s like to just be in the place. We decided to focus on the Acropolis the first day and the Archaeological Museum the second.

Breakfast at the Magna Grecia was on a rooftop terrace one floor above our room, with the same view of the Acropolis that we had. We were in no hurry, so it was late morning by the time we headed out. I’d been battling a sore right foot for months (a combination of plantar faschiitis and peroneal tendonitis) but I didn’t want to not walk, which is one of the real pleasures of a trip like this, so we chose to go to the Acropolis on foot rather than by taxi.

It was a lovely walk – past the old Roman Forum, through several neighborhoods and up the hill to the Acropolis. Then it got not so lovely. I’ve looked at pictures I took in 1965 when I first visited the Acropolis. There were a few people around, but it wasn’t crowded. I didn’t expect this would be the case now, 45 years later. I figured there’d be a few busloads of tourists (groupos I call them) but I wasn’t prepared for a horde. Or maybe I should say hordes. A Princess Line cruise ship, docked I assume in nearby Pireaeus, had disgorged its thousands into the bowels of Athens. They were shuffling sheeplike up the hill to the Acropolis. The lines of people were endless. And we were in the middle of it – unable to escape. They were divided into groups, badges stuck to their chests, dutifully following their leader who was holding up a sign to help keep them from getting lost. It was awful.

Those of you who have read these accounts in the past know that Sandra has a love affair with old stones. And the Acropolis certainly qualifies as a world-class group of old stones. Under the best of circumstances I don’t have the same emotional response to old stones. This was not the best of circumstances. So I endured. Trying to find a clear spot to just see what there was to see. I was marginally successful. Even Sandra, whose tolerance level is much higher than mine, had to admit that this was not wonderful. So endeth our visit to the Acropolis.

We revived our spirits with a lunch of kebabs, cooked cheese, and of course some Greek wine. We devoted the rest of the day to reading and relaxing.

Our room had a small balcony that overlooked the Athens Cathedral and the Plateia Mitropoleos (a large plaza) so if we wanted to look down rather than up at the Acropolis we could people watch. There was a lot of action down in the plaza: local families with lots of kids, tourists with lots of cameras, teenagers doing the ubiquitous, always noisy teenager things, and love-stricken couples who were paying absolutely no attention to their surroundings. Loud chimes from the cathedral alerted us to the time 24/7. Actually it was 48/7, since they chimed every half hour and offered a special medley of tunes at 7:30 in the morning. We kept the windows open at night, so earplugs helped.

The next day we thought it would be fun to take the Metro to the Archaeological Museum. We weren’t far from the Monastiraki station and the museum wasn’t far from the Victoria stop. Despite not really knowing what we were doing we figured out how to buy day tickets at an automatic machine and, congratulating ourselves on this major accomplishment, headed proudly to the stairs leading to our train.

Whoops! Not so fast. The stairs were blocked. The entrance was closed. Construction was underway and there was no service from Monastiraki to Victoria. We could bag the Metro idea and get a taxi or figure out a workaround. At this point we were committed (and a little stubborn about it) so we went for the workaround. We figured out that if we went east to Syntagma we could transfer to another line and then go north to Omonia, which was within walking distance of the museum. Our solution worked brilliantly – except for the fact that my foot was hurting and this involved more walking than I wanted to do. We partially made up for it later by taking a taxi back to the hotel rather than the Metro, which was our original plan.

The National Archaeological Museum is extraordinary. It is huge, so it is smart to be selective. We focused on the Prehistoric Collection and were well rewarded. We saw objects from the Neolithic era (6800-3000 BC), Early and Mid-Bronze Age (3000-1700 BC), and Cycladic and Mycenaean art.

We marveled at hundreds of ceramics, marble figurines, bronzes, stone pots, ivory, glass and faience pieces, golden seals, rings and cups, amber tools and jewels, relief stelae, sculpture – and much more. I’m often impatient with museums, but this one captured my attention and held it. I fell in love with many of these objects. They may be thousands of years old but in no way are they passé. They are, quite simply, masterful and beautiful works of art.

At lunch and dinner we continued our sampling Greek food and wine project. Today’s cuisine included chicken souvlaki, fava beans, mussels, moussaka and zucchini. Except for retsina I was unfamiliar with Greek grapes and wine. While we inevitably gravitate toward red wine, on this trip we found ourselves enjoying white too. Maybe it was because the weather was warm or because almost all of our meals were eaten al fresco or maybe it was just our mood. Whatever, we enjoyed them.

We found ourselves focusing on reds from northern Greece – Macedonia and Thessaly. In particular we liked the xinomavro grape. Xinomavro wines are big with rich tannin, often compared to Nebbiolo. Our favorite white grape was assyrtiko, which is similar in character to Riesling. We were told that assyrtiko originally came from the island of Santorini. As we traveled around Greece we made it a point to sample local wines wherever we could. Some were pretty good, but I can’t remember their names or other details.

Sept. 19 was a travel day. We were headed to Nafplio in the Peloponnese southwest of Athens. It was a Sunday morning, so I thought traffic would be light and getting out of town would be relatively easy. Wrong! Really wrong!!

We’d arranged for a taxi to take us from the hotel to a Hertz office where we’d pick up a car. The man at the hotel front desk, who spoke almost no English, seemed particularly focused on our being on time for the taxi. Some problems on the road, he said. That was a clue, but I missed it. Then I missed a second clue. The hotel was on Mitropoleos, a narrow one-way street just wide enough for one lane of traffic and cars parked next to the curb. We’d noticed that parking spaces along the street were almost always at a premium, but not this morning. There were no cars parked on Mitropoleos. Maybe I was right, I thought. Not much traffic on Sunday morning.

As the taxi headed down Mitropoleos we did notice traffic cops at every intersection. They weren’t allowing cars into the area. Aha! That’s what the front desk guy meant when he said there were traffic problems. Well, no matter. We’d get our rental car and head out of town. That was the plan and all seemed to be going smoothly until in the Hertz office Sandra noticed she didn’t have her passport. She looked for it in her purse and a bag she was carrying without success. It must still be in the hotel. We tried calling the hotel but couldn’t get through. Even if we had I knew there was no way we could communicate with the front desk guy. I had checked the room carefully and was sure we left nothing behind, but we couldn’t confirm that without going back to look. And so our well-laid plan for getting out of town easily was in the toilet.

Traffic in Athens is horrific. Often bumper-to-bumper – cars, buses, trucks, scooters and people – all compete for the right of way. Even for a local, it is a challenge. For a stranger even more so. For a stranger who doesn’t speak or read the language, near impossible. Fortunately, we had a secret weapon.

Our secret weapon was Navigon Europe. Dozens of times over the years we’ve used rental cars to travel in Europe. With Sandra navigating we combined maps, guidebooks, patience (sometimes wearing thin), and luck to get us where we wanted to go. Almost never has it been easy. So on this trip, for the first time, we would have an iPhone and a GPS app to tell us where to go. We named the calm, English-accented woman who talked to us and never made us wrong. She is The Oracle. Going in we thought we’d be happy to have her as a traveling companion. We didn’t know how deeply we’d fall in love with The Oracle.

Her first test, her inaugural drive as it were, would be to get us back to the Magna Grecia and then, hopefully with passport in hand, on to Nafplio. We knew where we were and we knew where the hotel was. We didn’t have a clue how to get there. The Oracle got us back to Mitropoleos OK, and then we hit a roadblock – literally. The street was closed to traffic because there was going to be a parade in honor of a saint or a festival – something. Now all those earlier clues made sense. But knowing this didn’t solve our problem.

We figured that if we could get closer to the hotel we’d find a place to stop, I could stay in the car and Sandra could look for her passport. The Oracle was still programmed to drive to the hotel, so even though we made deliberate wrong turns we knew she’d keep trying to get us where we wanted to go. And she did.

Now good fortune took over. We were on a street a block from the hotel but could go no further. A traffic cop, a woman, was controlling the intersection. We explained our problem, she understood, and directed me to a place on a sidewalk (parking not allowed) where I could put the car while Sandra went to the hotel.

I was there for quite a while. Behind me a brass band marched up the street doing its thing as part of the celebration, throngs of people were having a good time, it was a lovely sunny day, and we were supposed to be nearing Naflplio by now. But we weren’t.

Sandra finally returned. If you know Sandra you know that she is nothing if not thorough. She’d searched that hotel room from top to bottom, several times, and no passport was to be found. Without a doubt it wasn’t there. We were both stymied. I thought we must have it someplace and suggested we go on to Nafplio where we could look carefully through all our bags. Sandra agreed – reluctantly. We reprogrammed The Oracle for our new destination, crept slowly through the crowded streets following her instructions, and – voila – were on the highway out of Athens.

This is the end of Part 1. Should I save the end of the passport saga for Part 2 or tell you now? I’ll tell you. When we unpacked in Nafplio I thought there was a possibility I’d taken Sandra’s passport along with other items when I emptied the little safe in our hotel room. I didn’t think so, but still . . . There it was. In the small bag I use for such stuff. I could have looked there when we discovered it missing at the Hertz office. I could have looked there when I was waiting for Sandra on the parade route. I coulda, shoulda, etc. But I didn’t. My bad! Mea culpa!! Not too smart. Geez.

End of Part 1


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