Another week, another city in the travel blitz before summer and high prices arrive. This week’s target was Athens, Greece. More than any other trip, Athens did not match my expectations. That’s not good or bad, just not what I expected.
I expected a city like Paris that is surrounded in history with archeological wonders and important architecture everywhere you looked. I thought the city would be full of tourists and the businesses that cater to them. I expected hummus, baba ghanoush, pita bread, eggplant, and feta cheese on every corner. I expected restaurants to throw dishes on the ground all the time to celebrate and draw attention from people passing by. I expected it to be hot and polluted.
I found nothing as I expected.
History and Architecture.
Athens has more than its share of architectural wonders. You can stumble across a humble excavation between houses or turn around and see the massive Acropolis standing behind you like a sentry. I expected Athens to be like Paris and other cities where the icons are the center of tourism money and efforts are made to get as much of that cash as possible.
However, the museums and archeological sites close at 3 p.m. That is much earlier than I expected. I thought the Acropolis would always be open, at least accessible like the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the 2 dinosaurs outside Palm Springs or the Thing in Arizona.
So, unfortunately, I actually did not get up close to any of the Greek ruins. Nope, none, nada. I could see them through fences, but that’s about it. So you’ll need to plan ahead for this. Fly in the night before so you can get that early start. My flight landed at around 10 a.m.. That didn’t leave me much time when you account for transportation and checking into the hotel.
Athens has lovely transportation. The buses, metros, and trams are very nice. However, the bus from the airport to the city can be crowded and it seems like it takes forever. You need to expect the ride to last 1 hour and probably more during rush hour. However, it is fairly cheap at 3.20Euros.
The metro will be extended to the Airport in 2010. I’ve read the taxi cabs can be expensive, but I didn’t use any.
Modern Greek Ruins
While I didn’t get a close view of the ancient ruins, there were plenty of the modern variety. Athens looks like a city that underwent a tremendous building boom (for the 2004 Olympics?) and then fell into a sudden bust. There are half-built concrete shells all over the city. For every new shell, there is an old, decrepit building falling apart; unused and untouched. It almost looks like a war zone with pockets destroyed by bombs.
I’d like to say I visited Greece for its history. I might even like to say I came for the architecture and island life. The truth is I came for the food. I love Greek and Mediterranean food. I had a checklist of what I wanted to eat. The standards you’d find at any Greek restaurant around the world.
I did find a touristy restaurant when I first got to the city that had great baba ghanoush, hummus, and cheese pie. The hummus was actually on the dry side and not smooth. The baba ghanoush was to die for. The pita breads were puffed, and the cheese pie was a simple dish with feta in a crust.
- Anatolian Cuisine
- 3 Mitropoleos Street
- metro: Syntagma
- Athens, Greece
- 210 894 0170, 210 894 0180
This was my introduction to native Greek food and I was stuffed and happy. But I still found some room to visit the street vendor with odd looking pretzel-like bread. These popular rolls have a slightly sweet flavor with hints of peanut-butter (tahini?). You’ll see the Athenians snacking on this bread throughout the day.
That night I searched for a tiny restaurant far from the tourist crowd. I found a place whose only neighbors were auto shops and a gas station. It’s interior was artistic with hand-made lamps that looked like bad abstract expressionist paintings having sex with Ikea drop lights. This seemed rather promising.
I ordered spanakopita and the chef’s special rice. The spanakopita was a huge serving of baked spinach and cheese in a pie-crust. I was expecting filo dough. This was followed by a huge plate of the chef’s “risotto with vegetables”. Let’s just say it was inspired by the idea of risotto. However, it was very tasty. It had rice, feta, mushrooms, peppers, and carrots. Once again I ate until ready to burst.
There were two more items on my check list that I needed to find the next day: Haloumi, a firm cheese that is grlled and baklava.
American coffee just plain sucks in Greece
I started the next morning with a cup of coffee from the hotel. The hostess presented it with pride and I didn’t have the heart to tell her it looked like it was going to rip my head off and tease me afterward. I could’ve probably stood my spoon up in the cup. Surprisingly, it was drinkable with a hefty portion of creamer and sugar.
I ordered another coffee on the ship to some islands. The “barista” spun around threw something in a cup and whooshed it with steam. This he handed to me for 3 euros. I looked at it like someone just farted on my toast and said, “did you just serve me powdered coffee?” Keep in mind he used a perfectly good espresso machine to blast the powder with steam.
“It’s American coffee” he replied. Ugggh, I said give me some espresso I didn’t want “American coffee”. Don’t get me wrong, I like American coffee. I love “jus de chaussettes”, as the French call it. Sometimes I really crave a big cup of Starbucks instead of the cute little coffees in Europe. But powdered coffee like that is just bad.
This reminds me of an adventure I had with the ever fabulous Durward. We had a goal of drinking coffee at a different cafe every sunday for a year in San Diego. Our worst was a donut shop near the trolley line in National City. They gave us a white Styrofoam cup with hot water and asked us how many spoonfuls of coffee crystals we’d like. Then, she held the powdered non-dairy creamer like it was gold and watched to make sure we didn’t take more than our allotted amount. Don’t even ask about the sugar!
Let’s just say that Greece left me a little decaffeinated.
At our first island, Hydra, the majority of the boat rushed on shore to attack the tourist shops and dockside cafes. I mosied over to a closed museum (it wasn’t even 3), photographed some cats and a memorial, then climbed up the steep streets to see the town. I shouldn’t say climbed, as that would imply I was a healthy mountain climber. My ankle has been sore, so I limped up the hillside.
After clomping my way through the town I stopped at a tiny cafe next to some children playing. They asked me into the kitchen to point to what I wanted. I saw some stewed artichokes and potatoes in a lemon sauce. That’s what I want. A Greek salad was also suggested. The resulting meal was great, especially the salad! The tomatoes and vegetables tasted like they were picked from the garden that morning.
I also had some dinner guests. Two wild cats shared my feta with me. The younger one was the first to say hello. I gave him chunks of cheese that he would quickly scamper away with to eat in peace. The older guy, with gooky eyes that just begged to be cleaned, was more relaxed. He sat by the table and purred as the cheese was served.
This was the Greek food I was hoping for. I wanted some authentic food that I couldn’t find in the typical Greek restaurant but didn’t know existed.
The ship to myself
The ship announced lunch was being served as soon as we got back on board. I was stuffed, but went down for curiousity sake. I saw what looked like bingo-aholics excitedly downing big lamb meatballs and rice. No thanks.
I went upstairs and had the ship to myself for about 30 minutes. it was great to be away from all of those damn Americans! I haven’t been around so many Americans in a very long time. They are exhausting. They can’t go five minutes without complaining about something. blah blah blah blah, but it was cold, blah blah blah blah, she was late, blah blah blah blah it was too expensive… Is that how you enjoy your vacation? How about staying home and complaining about each other.
It was also exhausting because I couldn’t ignore the conversations. It’s easy to tune out other languages; but American English, especially southerners, breaks right through the filters and makes its way straight into my brain. It felt like my mother was sitting at every table and I was waiting for her to say “taaayyyyyyyyeeeeeeeeddddddddd??????!!!!” Who knew three letters could take so long to be pronounced.
But all good things must come to an end and the lunch-fortified fellow travelers found their way back up to my little eden. Luckily we were just about to pull into the next port, Poros, with 30 minutes to explore the tiny town. It was just enough to take some photos and purchase some postcards.
One more to go
Time was running out and I still had some eating to do. Luckily we had a longer stop at the next island, Aegina. I rented a bike and rode back and forth for an hour. It was surprising to see a Yahoo! yodel button at the bike shop:
- Pipinis Travel
- 2, Kanari street, Aegina Greece
- +30 22970 28780
The bike was fairly cheap at 5 euros for an hour and it let me rationalize an extra meal. I wanted some of that grilled cheese. I went into a restaurant around the corner from the bike rental and asked if they were open. A guy pointed to a door at the back of an empty patio. I walked in and found myself in what appeared to be someone’s family kitchen. There were two birds, a television, mom, dad, grandma, and the daughter. There were also two tables. I asked if they had the cheese and some mint tea.
This was probably my favorite meal in Greece. I’ve had Halloumi cheese in San Diego as a fancy entree. Here it was good ol’ comfort food; served on top of french fries, pita, lettuce, tomatoes, and lots of mayonnaise. The tea came in a mug with a three dimensional smile and was sweeter than what’s her name in Misery before she goes psycho. It was a big plate of greasy, salty, stick to your greek ribs loving. To top it off, a commercial came on the tv for CSI: Miami. I don’t know how that show follows me around the world. I hated to leave this place but the boat was getting ready to leave.
How dare you leave on time!
The boat was ready to leave the dock, but first it gave out two big blasts to warn people to get their ass on board. Just as the boat was leaving a woman below deck starts yelling, in her bible belt best voice, that her friends are not on the boat. Sure enough two women, with hair closer to god than most could pull off, start yelling at the ship to come back and get their asses. They greeted their rescuing ship not with an apologetic thank you but arguing they were not late and the boat left early. It’s funny how EVERYONE on the boat was on time but these two belles, yet the boat was at fault. Suck it up ladies, you were late and the boat should’ve dumped you back on the dock for acting like divas.
The last box to check off
I went out that night for the last item on my culinary list. I wanted some sticky sweet baklava. I wanted something that would make my teeth ache for weeks. I wanted something so sweet it made me seem like what’s her face in Misery before she went psycho. I actually found a baklava store at the bottom of the acropolis that was open late at night. Let me tell you, it was good, damn good.
- 11 Odysseos Street | Karaiskaki Square
- Athens 10436, Greece
- phone: +30 210 524 5700
With all my checkboxes for mandatory Greek food filled, I was ready to find a cafe with wifi to make some skype calls. I found a great place right next door to the hotel. Cafe pARTy is a tiny, artsy cafe with very friendly people and a strong wifi signal. I was able to call everyone, including my parents.
“Hi Mom, I’m in a cafe in Athens.”
“Did you find a girlfriend? I want you to bring home a new wife!”
“No Mom, there are no women in Greece. They must’ve left when they heard I was visiting. Maybe next trip…. “
We have this running joke. I doesn’t admatter what destination I’m in. Imagine her surprise when I found one in Rouen. Unfortunately Joan was a little tied up at the time and couldn’t commit. However, she was practically burning with anticipation of meeting mother Drake.
Was there anything other than food?
Here are some random observations of the trip:
- There are lots of wild dogs in Athens. They are much friendlier than the dogs I’ve met in Bangalore, Bucharest, and Tijuana. The Greek islands are filled with wild cats.
- Nothing is free in Greece. I was a bit surprised at the cost of food, I thought it would be cheaper than Paris. Just don’t be surprised by the extras for water and tip. It wasn’t as expensive as London, just more than I expected.
- The public transportation is great. Buy a daylong ticket for 3 euros and get access to all of the metros, trams, and busses. Take those busses to see the city’s neighborhoods. You never know what will be around the corner.
- Don’t forget the museums and such close early.
- Bring a book or something to do on the island tour. There’s a lot of time to catch up on writing postcards and reading.
- Stop to try the different cookies, breads, and pastries. They remind me of the panaderias in Mexico, only not as sweet and more complex flavors.
- Try to find foods that you can’t find in your hometown’s Greek restaurants. There’s a lot more than hummus, tabouli, and pita bread.
- The flea market is boring. It’s the same old crap you’ll find at any commercial swap meet. Save your money and time and visit a different set of markets.
- Smoking is allowed indoors. Don’t be surprised by people smoking in restaurants, hotels, on the sidewalks, etc. The Greeks are heavy smokers.
- The city felt very safe. There are your standard tourist attraction beggars, but I didn’t see locals guarding themselves against pickpockets and the streets felt safe to walk around at night. You might worry more about the dogs than crime.
- Everyone told me Athens was dirty and polluted. I didn’t find that to be the case. There was a lot of graffiti and abandoned buildings. But the weather was fantastic, the streets were well maintained, the metro was spotless, and the air was clear. I can imagine it is worse in summer. I think their new public transportation has probably solved a lot of the pollution issues. There’s not a lot of traffic for such a large city.
- The airport offers 45 minutes of free wifi. However, I couldn’t figure out how to refresh that time period. I didn’t even see an option to purchase access. There are also kiosks with free internet usage scattered around the airport.