Arrived 26 June, 2000

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Ancient Cradle of Western Civilization and Modern Smog-Choked Mess

June 26-28

We arrived in Athens at the extremely inconvenient hour of 3:00am. This was due to the long four- hour layover we had in Malta on our way from Zurich. We took advantage of the time we had in Malta and took a taxi to one of the waterfront areas for dinner. Malta is an extremely small island right in the middle of the Mediterranean, just south of Sicily. The people speak a language that sounds something like Italian, but is still very unique. Lucky for us, English is also an official language. Our impression of the island nation during our brief stay there: tiny, dry, lots of rock walls, interesting cemeteries and churches everywhere. The waterfront area of St. Julius was much more upscale than we thought it would be, with lots of European yachties and jet-setters present. We ate our meal (Maltese, of course!), then hopped a cab back to the airport for the flight to Athens.

Before we begin our brief tour of Athens, let's get this out of the way: the taxi drivers in Athens are a bunch of bastards. Anybody who's been there will tell you the very same thing. They do their best to rip off tourists, especially those who, like us, arrive in the wee hours of the morning when there is virtually no public transportation available. The driver that picked us up at the airport turned on his meter, sure enough, but then tried to demand double the metered fare when we arrived at our hotel because "night time double rates" applied. We had heard of the Athens cabbie tricks before, so we didn't fall for this one; the rate on the meter already included the extra evening fare. We paid him what was on the meter and then got away as fast as we could.

Acropolis View

View from our hotel's roof (Acropolis in back)

We stayed in the Plaka area of Athens, which is one of the only truly authentic old Greek neighborhoods left in the sprawling city. With a population of 3.5 million (one third of the entire population of Greece!), Athens is an urban nightmare, busting at the seams from overpopulation and poor city planning. Much of this is because of the population exchange with Turkey that took place in 1923 after the Treaty of Lausanne was signed. The population nearly doubled in the following year, and to accommodate all those extra people, huge neighborhoods of quickly-built concrete apartment houses were erected. Only little Plaka, the old Turkish neighborhood, seems to retain much of the flavor of Old Athens. Plaka as a result is very touristy, but hey, it beats staying in the concrete jungle around the rest of the city. Plus, its location is superb, at the foot of the Acropolis and within striking distance of many of the city's ancient attractions. Our room's window even had a perfect view of the Acropolis, which is quite a sight at any time of the day, but even nicer at night, when the whole thing is lit up by floodlights.

As you've probably guessed by now, Athens is not one of our favorite cities. It's very smoggy (the pollution is slowly eating away at the ancient buildings on the Acropolis!), it's too big, and it's hot, hot, hot in the summer time. But, as the cradle of Western Civilization, it has some outstanding sights. For most people (including us), this means seeing two places before getting out of town as quickly as possible: the ancient Acropolis and the National Archeological Museum.

In front of Parthenon

In front of the Parthenon

The Erechtheion

The Graceful Caryaids, part of the Erechteion

The Acropolis is a large rocky hill around whose feet the urban sprawl of Athens creeps. Occupied since Neolithic times, it was declared the province of the gods in 510 BC, at which time huge, glorious temples were built to honor these gods. It was also used as a place for the population to retreat to when the city was under seige (and Athens has been under seige many times over the centuries). Most of the ancient buildings of the Acropolis have long since been destroyed, but four survive after many restorations. The Parthenon is, of course, the grandest and best-known. Built of fine white marble, it was originally dedicated as a temple to the Goddess Athena (after whom the city is named). No matter how many times you look up from the city to see the Acropolis and its crowning building, the Parthenon, it's still an awe-inspiring site. Certainly a must-see for any visitor to Athens.

Mask of Agamemnon

What's this? The golden mask of Sean Connery? Nope, it's the ancient Mask of Agamemnon!

The National Archeological Museum is the other "must-see" sight in the city. It contains the finest collection of ancient Myceneaen, Minoan, and Greek antiquities in the world. Many of the original pieces of Greek artwork we've all seen replicas of in various museums, including the marvelous bronze statue of Poseidon hauled out of the Mediterranean in 1928 and the golden "Mask of Agamemnon", are all here. Live and in person. It was incredible to see these ancient pieces of art, many of them four, five, even six thousand years old!

On our final night in the city, we had the pleasure of meeting up with Brian Placourakis, a cousin of one of our friends back in the States, Dino "the Greek" Nickolas. Brian is actually from the U.S. (his parents were born in Greece), but he came to Athens to play basketball for Greece twelve years ago and never went back home. He now owns a nice, upscale bar called Anno 1930 in one of Athens' very local neighborhoods, far away from the tourist crowds. We took a taxi there and talked with him for a couple of hours at his bar. Brian was a great host, giving us lots of tips on traveling in Greece. He told us we should go to Koufonisia, a tiny little island in the Cyclades, for a genuine Greek experience away from all the tour groups. We took his advice and we're very glad we did! You can read more about our fun in the sun on Koufonisia later. We hope to hook up with Brian again on our return to Athens in mid-July.

We found our two full days in Athens to be just right. The city has its better points (most of the people, cabbies excluded, are quite nice), but we had greener (or should we say bluer?) pastures to move on to...the beautiful island of Santorini!

Back to Switzerland! On to Greece pg 2!

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