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It's All Greek to Me

Lynn had to take a trip to Athens. She asked if I wanted to go along and we could then take a long weekend. I was packed before she finished the question.

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. You know the reputation drivers in Boston have? (I love Boston. Go Red Sox. But we don’t talk about the Pats.) Boston is the minor leagues of crazy driving. Greece has the highest car accident rate in Europe, drivers in Athens are totally nuts, traffic congestion is really bad, and, possibly as a result, there are a zillion motorcycles. When traffic is too bad even for the motorcyclists, they will go up on the sidewalk to pass a line of cars before getting back into the street. If a cyclist has the misfortune to be in the left lane, no problem! They just pull out into the lane of oncoming traffic if it’s empty until the oncoming traffic starts coming again. An empty lane is sort of a vacuum and nature hates a vacuum, right?

Drivers don’t respect lanes. I was sitting on a bench on a street where the road came down a hill, bent to the right a little, and then bent back to the left to straighten out. In the ten minutes or so I sat there, not one driver of a car or motorcycle stayed in his lane. Each one tried to follow a straight line which meant crossing at least one and sometimes two lanes. If some dumb foreigner were driving here along with the locals, he’d be wiped out in a second. The books all suggest not driving in central Athens. This is excellent advice.

Many sidewalks are made of some material that gets very slippery when wet. On our third day it rained a little and at one point, I caught myself before falling at the same instant that Lynn actually did fall. She sustained no serious injury but it wasn’t fun.

Athens doesn’t seem to be as well-maintained as other places we’ve been. Sidewalks, in addition to being slippery, are frequently broken and one has to watch his step all the time. There are lots of small green areas formed by the intersection of three streets at odd angles. The greenery is great but it’s frequently untrimmed and overgrown.

There is apparently one parking rule: A vehicle has to be able to pass where you have parked. Otherwise, it’s open season. Double parked? As long as there’s an open lane next to you, go right ahead. Say you’re on a one-way street with three lanes, the two left ones for traffic, the right one along the curb for parking. There are no open parking spaces. What do you do? Well, you can double park, or you can park on the sidewalk on the left side! Bet you didn’t think of that. How about parking along the curb at intersections? No sweat. On the sidewalk blocking the handicapped cutout? Sure. I have pictures of all this. The guidebook says, "Despite appearances to the contrary, parking in front of a no-parking sign … is illegal." Hah!

Finally, the worst of all: Greek men have great hair. I hate that.

Okay, now the good stuff. How much time do I have?

The first thing a visitor to Athens does is visit the Acropolis. Except us. We waited until our fourth and last full day and what a great decision that was for several reasons both pecuniary and meteorological. We learned that "Never on Sunday" applies to the €12 per person fee to enter the Acropolis (or at least it was free on that Sunday – it’s not advertised) but with the day we had, it would have been cheap at twice that price. The sky was blue and the sun shone brightly. The Acropolis is on a high plateau just a few blocks from the center of Athens. It consists of the Parthenon at the top along with The Propylaia, the Temple of Athena Nike, and the Erechtheion (and the Porch of the Caryatids). Along the sides of the hill are two theaters, one in ruins, the Theater of Dionysos (Aeschylus and Sophocles had plays produced here) and one actually used, the Theater of Herodes Atticus (Yanni played here to a seating capacity of 5,000). Most of the Acropolis was built in the 4th century BC. This vantage point is one of the highest in central Athens. From here one can see all of the city in every direction, a large expanse of the Aegean Sea to the south, and on this sunny, clear day, Mt. Olympus to the north, about 150 miles away. Standing on this hill, amid these ancient artifacts and seeing this incredible view in the brilliant sunshine is an overwhelming experience. Look at this and this.

The Acropolis isn’t the only game in town, though. Nearby is the Panathenean Stadium, also known as Kallimármaro Stadium. This place was also built in the 4th century BC, apparently a great time for the building trade unions in Athens. The ancient Olympics were held in this very place. (The first participants were all male and all participated in the nude. I’m trying to picture the long jump, the high jump, and the pole vault. Maybe I should stop picturing.) It was used as the sight of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and was even used in 2004 for archery and as the end point of both the men’s and women’s marathon races originating in Marathon, Greece. The stadium is not in its original form; it’s been extensively refurbished twice in its 2,500 year history. It has lights but no superboxes and it’s still used, yet Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia only made it to 32 and I bet when Linc Finc reaches that age, someone will complain about what a rat hole and a pile of junk that place is, too.

The tallest hill in central Athens is Lykavittos Hill at about 900 feet high. It kind of comes to a point on the top and is visible from everywhere. At the tip are a church and a small tower. I found this hill intriguing and wanted to get up there. You should understand that I don’t subscribe to spousal abuse and so I did this on a day when Lynn was working. There are homes and streets that begin to make the climb up Lykavittos Hill and after a few blocks going up the streets are no longer streets but stairways. On one of the streets parallel to the base, I encountered an outdoor market of the kind which are very common in Europe. There were old women who finished their shopping and then pulled their carts filled with produce up the steps. One assumes that these old folks have the same maladies as old people everywhere but there they were just going about their business. My hat is off to them. These folks are not softies. I climbed the stairs as far as I could because there was supposed to be a funicular there. (Is that a great word, or what? "A cable railway on a steep incline, especially such a railway with simultaneously ascending and descending cars counterbalancing one another." We found a funicular at Montmartre in Paris near the Sacré-Coeur, too. Closer to home, there are two in Pittsburgh on Mt. Washington across from the Golden Triangle, but there it’s called "the Incline.") Somehow I couldn’t find the funicular. I decided it was no longer operational because where I thought it was supposed to be was a path that continued through the woods up the hill.

I started walking. At this point I was about half way up vertically but the pitch of the hill became much steeper which I suppose is why there were no more buildings. I kept walking but soon I had to take a break. I hadn’t been paying attention to what was behind me and when I turned around to sit down, I saw what looked like the whole world in front of me. The view from here is, incredibly, even better than the view from the Acropolis because it’s about twice as high, and one gets to see the Acropolis from here. After about an hour, I got to the top. The church and tower appeared smaller here than when viewed from below. I noticed a very old woman working in the church. How’d she get there? Then I walked behind the church and saw a very large restaurant and a theater. Right away I knew I had done something stupid. People don’t have to walk up this hill to get to a theater and a restaurant. I asked a young couple if they had walked up. The man looked at me like I was nuts. It turns out that the funicular works just fine. I had simply missed it and I still don’t know how. Having walked up, I now had to walk down because it’s an automatic gate and one can’t purchase a ticket at the top. That would be really dumb. But after reaching the bottom, I’m glad I did it. Just like I’m glad that I once walked the steps of the Washington Monument. Of course that was in 1966 when I was 19.

The area to the north and east of the Acropolis is called Plaka. Plaka is called the heart of Historic Athens. It’s a lot newer than the Acropolis. The streets are narrow and winding on the side of the hill, and it’s teeming with people and dogs. This neighborhood is the oldest continuously lived-in area of the city with some homes dating back to the Ottoman time, about the 16th century AD. There are lots of stores and delightful restaurants. During one afternoon, we stopped to look at our map. One does that frequently here. A man standing nearby asked if he could help. I assumed he was selling something but maybe he could answer my question before the pitch came. He did that and then invited us into his restaurant. We weren’t ready for a meal yet so we declined and he said, "Maybe later" and gave us a card. As we took a step away, an American woman asked him for directions to another restaurant. Without any hesitation, he gave it to her. We thought this guy was okay so we went back later which turned out to be another great idea.

In most restaurants, the waiter brings out the menu and the patron chooses from the menu. Not here. The waiter brings out the food, about 20 or so small dishes on a tray. A party of two gets to choose five dishes, gets a half liter of wine or beer made on the premises, gets a 1.5 liter bottle of water, and gets desert, all for €20. It was all superb. Somehow though, I don’t think this would pass Board of Health regulations anywhere in the U.S. Click on "Photo Gallery" to get a better feel for the place.

Living in the Netherlands, we’ve become accustomed to signs we can’t read but we can take a crack at pronouncing what we see for later reference. In Greece, though, there’s a different alphabet. I was in a college fraternity so I’m pretty much an expert on Greek. At least the alphabet. Upper case. Most of the letters, anyway. While still in the airport we saw a sign that said "W>@*@H ." Okay, Nellie! What is that? Fortunately it said "Exit" right underneath. Later on I saw "+=?)?G " next to "EXIT," all upper case. That I could pronounce, something close to "EXODUS" and in context I could guess what it meant because it wasn’t a book title or something from the Bible. As time went by, I became close to functional. I saw a bus with a destination sign that said GK;I!'9!. Unconsciously I started doing letter substitutions and I saw SYNTAGMA. That meant something to me; it’s a big square in the center of Athens where the parliament building sits. I could read! Now I’m quasi-almost-semi-literate in Greek. We saw a sign for a movie called 9?;A=? . At first glance, that looks like Monaco but it’s actually Munich. We could tell because there is no movie called Monaco, and the director was EI3#+; EA379A+C'/, Steven Spielberg. For those who read Greek as well as I do, you may notice a couple extra letters. An actual Greek person said those are "helper" letters to better reflect the English sound in Greek.

Next time we go to Greece, we want to try one of those islands. I have no idea yet if they are all exorbitantly expensive or only most of them are. We’ll soon find out.

See my pictures of Athens.

See a video from Athens


© 2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008