Thursday, January 10, 2013

six hours in Athens

Dear Ocean readers, what can I tell you about Athens that you don't already know? What images would bring it alive for you? ...would capture the element of surprise?

Let me think back to what I expected from this day: I expected trouble. Athens, I read, is not as it once was. Athens is chaos, demonstrations, disruptions. Athens is petty thievery. Athens is crying and unraveling at the seams. Athens is a place to be careful -- with your wallet, with your inattentiveness, with your expectations.

That, coupled with Ed's general indifference to cities kept me up at nights. Is it even worth it?

My memories of Athens are kind: I'd been there several times, but the last visit was nearly forty years ago. Forty years ago! A spec in the passages of time. An eternity in the space of one's life. I'd walked the Acropolis when one was still permitted to meander between the pillars and take enchanting photos of a face peeking between the chiseled marble. I ate moussaka at cheap tavernas and looked dreamily at the faces of young Greek men, thinking them to be somewhere between exquisite and forbidding.

So how do I visit Athens now, with Ed? Doesn't he maybe have a touch of the Greek? In his profile? I should have let his hair grow out, because that is so... Athenian cool.

Let's take one thing at a time. First, the departure from Lesvos. A fairly early one, but our hosts are up and serving us breakfast. I had a chat with the owner who is trying to rebuild this business after a bad year of a bad staff providing poor service. It left its mark. Reviews were terrible, business contracts pulled out. He's trying so hard and one thing I'll say for our small little hotel in Mytilene (the Olympias) -- they really put effort into service. Whatever it lacks, it does not lack a willingness to help in any way. So we left with many handshakes and with wishes for good luck in the years ahead.

The small prop plane from Mytilene takes off on time.

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Looking out, I can tell even without the forecast that it will be a brilliant day. Athens, whatever else it does for us, is going to deliver the blue skies.Wonderful blue skies!

We land by 9:15 a.m. and now we have to consider our options. We're traveling with a backpack each and an additionally a computer shoulder bag for me. We also took a collapsible day pack for excursions. So how do we navigate Athens with minimum bulk, given that Ed will be leaving late by ferry and I'll be leaving late by plane? (This is by choice: he wants the overnight sea voyage. I just want to get to Crete with little hassle.) I ask at the airport if I can check a bag early. Yes I can. How many bags for free? One.

Well now, my pack is small and Ed's pack is half empty. We squeeze mine into his and check the now fat double pack as one. I sling my shoulder bag -- stuffed with my computer and a pair of Ed's pants that just did not fit into the double pack. Ed takes the little day pack and loads it with his computer and jacket. We'll be seeing Athens with only these encumbrances. Not bad!

We hop on the metro into town. Well, not entirely: it's not running to the airport today. So, it's the train to the metro, then the metro and finally we emerge on Constitution Square. This is where all the Greek demonstration happen -- I tell Ed.

Are there any today? Of course there are.

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We meander through the Plaka streets (the old village-like section of Athens) -- packed with cafes, tavernas and souvenir shops, but still charming and especially on this quiet day in January, where a man walks his dog bundled in the cutest canine sweater.

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We pause for a coffee (and a pastry for Ed: put us together and we form the perfect midmorning snack).

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But not for long. I'm anxious to get to the Acropolis. The more I look at the sky, the more I understand that we are in for a treat.

And here's the greatest treat of all: as we enter the gates of the Acropolis, we see that the Acropolis is nearly empty.

Nearly empty! It's one thing for Ephesus to be empty -- you have to go out of your way to get there. But the Acropolis?? Where have all the people gone, the hoards, the antlike progression of humankind that I associate with visits here? The sweating, shouting, cheese saying, plugged to headsets, following a leader, following mom and dad, following, leading, sitting, standing, all those people, where are they? Not here, not today, not at the Acropolis.

(Travel in January. I highly recommend it.)

I wont go into detail as to what we saw -- which temple was from which century BC, ruined, demolished, rebuilt for what reason -- it's a fascinating history, but you don't want to hear it no matter how excited I am by it today.

And I am excited. This is a huge difference from when I was here last. I am now, in my older years considering the past in different ways.

Here are favorite photos from the day. Know that we entered from the south side -- it's a nice, slow amble past the Theater of Dionysus...

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Ed, bottom right, as usual

...before plunging through the (empty) gate...

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... to the sight of all sights -- the Parthenon.

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...which is currently in some form of restoration. Still, those beautiful columns, always more pronounced, majestic in the sunlight, standing tall before us and as we sit back and gaze up, thoughts of how much can happen in 2500 years...

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And of course, there is the stunning Erechtheion...

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(Forgive me for posting the next photo -- I found someone to take our pic and it is what it is -- Ed and Nina, in front of... but notable for our computer bags which we carried all day long.)

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And let me not overwhelm you with names and stones and temples and such. Pause with me to look out at Athens. It's spills toward the mountains capped with last week's snow, toward the sea and the port of Piraeus, from the orange Plaka roofs to the white everything else...

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Okay, just a little more from the Acropolis. Bear with me -- it's all so beautiful. I tear up more than once and Ed grins and says something inconsequential like -- it's alright, just to get my goat. So consider the freshly restored Temple of Athena Nike..

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And one more look at the Parthenon (dedicated to Athena Parthenos, patron goddess of Athens).

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Alright, alright, alright, I'll stop with the photos. But let me say again -- it was a sublime set of hours for us, for me. Never to be forgotten.

Not that it ended right then and there. We used our multi-ticket pass well. We spent time at the Agora, and the museum of Athenian history at the Stoa of Attalos... Oh! skip the words. Just look at a handful of photos:

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...and I have to include Ed's favorite -- the Temple of Hephaistos. (Because he is contrary and I had told him that many think of it as the lesser temple, because it's so squat and ungraceful compared to the columns of the Parthenon -- so of course, he found reason to admire it over and beyond all else. That's him -- standing and admiring.)

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As the afternoon wears on, we are done and yet we are not done. We stroll in the neighborhoods around the Acropolis and stumble upon another site and we plunge into that as well. Weaving in and out of antiquity. Until we can weave no more.

By late afternoon we really are done. Our attention turns to food. Ed would like something neighborhoody and local. That's hard in Athens. I wouldn't even know where to start my search. I suggest a walk through the Plaka, even though that's nobody's neighborhood -- it's a place of restuarants and taverans and cafes alright, but I don't know that many people actually live in the Plaka. Still, I remind Ed that people go to the Village in New york to eat, even though they don't live in the Village. So consider the Plaka the Village of Athens (please, Greek people, do not wince at that).

We look for smaller places that are crowded enough to indicate popularity but not so crowded as to be overwhelming (and smoky). We stumbled upon Alain Parodi's Eat at Milton.

Now, I do not know who Alain Parodi is, but when I ask the guy at the door if their food is good he looks rather aghast that I should raise any doubts. The food is certainly not cheap. But we were in big city: we were harshly reminded of that when we ordered, in the morning, one espresso, one soda and ate one pastry and wound up with a 10 Euro tab (our entire dinner, with wine yesterday was 19 Euro). So we look carefully at the prices now and conclude that if we stay with the appetizers and pasta dishes and avoid main courses, we're okay.

And we are, and the food is superb. Sardines over peppers, salmon over beets and then, for me, risotto with squid and calamari and mussels.

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We linger a long long time after the meal. The people watching is good (consider this set from France. Their group identifier is the red scarf.)

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But also we don't really want to explore the city anymore. It's as if someone turned on the faucet too quickly and now things have to settle down within.

Evening. We had only one more thing to do: find a bakery so I'd have cookies in Crete and Ed has cookies on the boat.

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And after, I get on the plane and after a 35 minute flight, land in Crete and Ed gets on the boat and...well, he's still into his 9 hour boat ride.

Me, I'm in our tiny four room b&b: the Mama Nena. I'll just say this about the Mama Nena (named after the owners' grandma): it may well be the loveliest little hotel we've ever stayed in (at incredible prices in the off season and for longer stays: at 6 nights, ours will be a longer stay). For one thing, when you throw back the windows of the bedroom, you see this:

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(just before sunrise)

Inside, the space is lovely, very warm, orange warm.

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Soothing, quiet, except for the faint sound of laughter from a taverna by the water's edge. It's a nice sound to fall asleep to. So, good night, readers, good night, Ed, out there on the waters of the Aegean! May your dreams be simple and sweet.