Sunday, January 24, 2010

Oh Lordie GREECE

You know how the longer you put something off, the harder it is to do? (See also: job applications, French papers, scary phone calls). However, here I am typing, thanks to Logan's motivation and having run out of stuff to read on the Internet for the moment. Greece was so amazingly epic that I'm a little frightened of writing about it, because I'm worried I won't be able to capture the fun and joy and pure delight that was our winter vacation, but here goes anyway.

On New Year's Eve, Logan and I awoke at an ungodly hour to get to our plane in time, which was of course delayed for de-icing. However, we survived the EasyJet scrum (they don't assign seats, so first on the plane gets their choice of seats, and French people's elbows are sharp) and got seats next to each other for the 3-hour flight to Athens. Close to landing time, I looked out the window, turned to Logan, and said "Toto? We're not in Kansas anymore..." because Greece's topography puts France to shame.

We walked outside, shed 3 layers of clothing (thank you Mediterranean), bought tickets (as soon as the man at the kiosk saw our bewildered expressions and luggage, he wordlessly handed us two tickets for the center of Athens) and hopped on the bus, remembering to validate our tickets like the French-trained people we are. The entire bus ride in, I bored Logan to tears by trying to sound out all the signs we passed, having no luck until "Logan! Logan! That sign! That sign right there says 'orthodontist'! How cool is that?!?!?!" Logan was less than thrilled, preferring to stick his head out the window to enjoy the warm breeze through his hair. We got to our stop, got off, and before I could even look around to get my bearings and find the hotel, I heard a "There they are!" and my parents emerged from the crowd! They had staked out the bus stop to wait for us, which was surpassingly sweet of them. They led us to our hotel, where Logan and I immediately jumped into the shower and changed into more weather-appropriate clothing. Then we got the welcome spiel from Jasmine, one of the hotel workers, who told us where to go and what to see and where not to go. Then Casey and Anna came back from Internet-caféing and there were more hugs all around. Then we went out to dinner, which was okay (much better meals were had, and will be written about in great detail).

It being New Year's Eve, and the Athens party being in Syntagma Square, 10 minutes from our hotel, Logan, my dad, and I stayed out to party. Everybody else went home, exhausted from jet-lag (I guess a 7-hour time difference is harder to adjust to than a 1-hour difference... Score one for Europe!). We got to see the guards at the parliament building, who, similarly to the guards in London, put up with tourists mugging for the cameras next to them all day. We didn't get too close, but I did manage to take a picture of their hilarious leg-stretching routine.

See the pom-poms on their shoes? And their tights? And skirts? Greece 1, London 0 on this count.

Soon after, it was midnight and there were fireworks! Hooray! What a lovely way to spend New Year's.

Then, sleepy and chilly, we went back to the hotel, and bed.

The next morning, we woke up and went downstairs to discover a breakfast of rolls, butter, cherry jam, marmalade, hard-boiled eggs, olives, coffee, tea, and oranges. The oranges were small, seedless, and the sweetest and juiciest I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. Also, since Logan doesn’t like olives, I got double portions of them all week. Yum yum.

After breakfast, Logan and I wanted to wander around a bit to get our bearings. Everyone else had been there for two days already, so they showed us around as we made our way to the fish and meat market we'd heard about. On the way, we discovered to our great delight that orange trees line every single street,

providing passers-by with handy projectiles for throwing at relatives and friends, or for bowling! Here, Casey shows off his form.


When we reached the market, it was closed, it being New Year's Day (the mixed blessing of traveling during the slow season: you get everything to yourself, but places are open sporadically, if at all). We wandered through the flea-market-y part, though, which was crowded but interesting. Then we stopped at a cute little café, which was apparently the thing to do at this time of day because everyone was sitting outside enjoying iced coffees. I managed to order an iced coffee from a more-complicated-than-Starbucks variety of coffee drinks, and perked right up (some might say too much) after that. It was just about then that it hit me that it was January 1st and I was outside in a light shirt and was almost too warm. Right then I started hatching plans to get stuck in Greece for longer. Before leaving, I made a trip to the bathroom and nearly fell down the stairs as I descended:

Yup, those are ruins. Under the foundations of the café. I admit that I tested the glass floor with one toe before stepping on it, not quite believing that I was actually meant to walk on it. Coolest bathroom I've ever had the luck to visit, by far.

After our break, we headed up onto the Areopagus, a hill just to the west of the Acropolis where the ancient court of law used to meet. A brief Athens geography note: the Acropolis is actually the name of a hill with a whole bunch of famous buildings and temples on it, including the Parthenon, a few theaters, a temple to Athena, and much more. So now when you go to Athens, you won't mix up the Acropolis and the Parthenon for the first three days like I did! The More You Know™

There was a beautiful view of Athens from the top, and it was gorgeous and sunny, so we hung out on top philosophizing for a while.

Just being outside in the sun with a t-shirt on was such a novelty for all of us that we indulged for a while. But we had plans to be up on yet another hill, Lykabettos, for the sunset, so we had to get moving. We took a neat little path that wound around the side of the Acropolis, between houses and up over rooftops, offering different views of Athens from every turn. Then we hopped onto the subway (very well-designed, and all the stations are made of marble, because the Greeks have to do something with all the marble just lying around, so why not make all the streets, sidewalks, squares, and stations out of it?) and took it a few stops over to Lykabettos. After getting our bearings, we started walking up part of the hill to get to the funicular that would take us the rest of the way, pausing now and again for more orange bowling. Eventually, the roads turned into paths, and we started to suspect that we'd missed the funicular, which was confirmed by a helpful man. So we decided to walk the rest of the way up the lovely (marble of course) path.


At the top, there were gorgeous views,

and a little church with lovely mosaics and a golden plaque with inlaid precious stones (again, I forget just how shiny real jewels are until I see them for real), and (eventually) a sunset that was worth waiting for.

Right after the sunset we headed down, because it was cold and windy. Part of the group took the funicular down to rest their old bones, while Logan and I scampered down the path. Having arrived at the funicular (which was absolutely not at all where it was indicated on our map), Logan and I decided to plot a little ambush. We gathered our ammunition and waited behind a car for our unsuspecting prey. The instant they poked their noses out of the station, they were met with a punishing barrage of oranges. And by "punishing barrage" I mean "four oranges slowly rolled along the ground over to their feet". They were at least mildly surprised, though. Then we discovered drains along the sides of the stairs leading down, and had to find out where they led, for science!

video

Then there was late-night orange bowling, which got much more exciting since there were no pedestrians.

video

The next morning, we were up bright and early to catch a 7:00 bus to Delphi, because everyone likes a good oracular consultation. However, the 7:00 bus was full, despite the best efforts of some impressively fiesty Greek ladies to convince the company to get another bus. So we bought tickets for the 10:00 bus and the four young'uns set out to explore the area and forage for food. We found a lovely little sandwich place that was playing really good music and bought coffee and snacks (and found out where Greek policemen go for their coffee!). Venturing further afield, we found a bakery that was open and walked inside, whereupon everybody's eyes widened, and I'm pretty sure my jaw dropped. There were stacks of delicious things piled upon stacks of luscious things; there were cakes, cookies, honey-oozing pastries, chocolates, even little tiny chocolate-covered ice cream bars! We spent at least five minutes looking around and calling everybody else over every time we found another scrumptious-looking delicacy. Finally, we calmed down a bit and made a few selections, then took them over to the woman, who'd been watching us with a smile on her face the whole time. When we asked how much, she just shook her head, and despite our protests she wouldn't take any money for anything. We brought our spoils back to the station, where my father decided that he needed more food, so we went back to the bakery and bought enough food to keep a classroom of 5-year-olds hyper for a month, easily. Thus fortified, we enjoyed our three-hour bus ride to Delphi, at least until it started to pour.

Because oh yes, it was pouring in Delphi. And guess who hadn't brought her umbrella? Or practical shoes? Or a decent coat? That's right, faithful readers, your blog girl was woefully underdressed for the occasion. However, after the initial shock of getting drenched, then the secondary shock of learning that the actual Delphi site was 3 kilometers away, I decided to put on a happy face and make the best of it. It also didn't hurt that our entire walk had views like this:


We entered the site at 2, knowing full well that it closed at 3 (as does almost every historical site in Greece, for reasons unknown and unfathomable) and that the yelling ladies would start their rounds soon. Determined to enjoy ourselves anyway, we set off up the hill. There were ruins of temples, treasury buildings (for holding the treasures brought to the oracle), a theater, various altars, and something called “The Rock of the Sybil”, which is supposedly where the oracle sat, breathed the mysterious vapors, and delivered her prophecies. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to go to the museum, which would have given a bit more context to our visit; as it was, we just read the labels (often carved out of marble, because what else are you going to do with the stuff?) and tried to guess at what everything was for. Then the yelling ladies started to yell, and we walked slowly back down to the gates, pausing where they couldn’t see us to take more pictures. (A note about the yelling ladies: Greece employs numerous loud-voiced women and men to protect its national heritage. They seem to prefer this technique of monument protection to, say, putting signs on things that tell you where you can and can’t go. The main problem I have with them is that they have no uniform, nametag, or anything that would denote them as official, so you never know whether it’s just some crazy person yelling at you for no reason or whether you should actually pay attention. And they’re everywhere.)

Casey and Anna wanted to see the Temple of Athena, further down the road, and at this point it had stopped raining, so Logan and I joined them. This area was free to enter, so it didn’t close at 3 and we had time to wander around and enjoy it. Three of the columns in the main building had been restored, so it was easier to see what it was supposed to look like. Pictures on Facebook, as always.

There were also olive trees growing everywhere, so Casey and Anna decided to find out what a fresh-from-the-branch olive tastes like.


Logan and I acted as the controls for this highly scientific experiment, reasoning that if Casey and Anna got sick, we would know it was the olives. Seriously, though, who tastes an olive and thinks, “Wow, this will taste great once I soak it in water, wash it, drain it, slit it, soak it in salt water, and add oil!”? I mean, I’m glad they thought that, because olives are delicious, but come on.

Later on, we found a different kind of tree and the boys decided to perform another experiment, leaving me as the only control.

video
I cut off the movie there because I suddenly realized I could have been filming the untimely demises of my brother and boyfriend, but they survived so it’s okay. After that adventure, we walked around the temple site some more and saw a small gladiator arena with two boys fighting in it, an ancient gnarly knotty olive tree, and more ruins. Then we hiked back up to the town and called my parents to find out where they’d gotten to (the joys of having two European cell phones in a group), only to spot my dad coming toward us, having seen us through the window of the cozy café they were sitting in. We joined them to have hot chocolate and warm up. Then we went back to the bus stop, where we found a pizza place and got an amazing vegetable pizza that we scarfed down in about 8 seconds. The restaurant’s kitchen was on one side of the street and the dining room on the other, meaning that the waitresses took their lives in their hands every time they needed anything from the kitchen. We cheered them on, then got on our bus back to Athens. I amused myself by sounding out advertisements, (I hated phonics in 1st grade, but I guess I’ve changed since then) then fell asleep, exhausted.

The next day, the three couples decided to do our own thing in the morning, then meet up to see the market area, then go to a restaurant some friends had recommended for lunch. Everybody else went to the Acropolis Museum, but Logan and I slept in, then realized we didn’t really have time to go to the museum, especially given the huge line that stretched out the door and across the porch. However, the museum is built on top of ruins (like everything else in Greece), and they put glass panels in the entry porch so you can look down at the ruins beneath your feet. They also had some areas that were open, with walkways around them. So we amused ourselves for quite some time taking pictures of mosaics, wells, walls, and pipes

and trying to guess what it had all been used for. Then we saw a kitty wandering through the ruins! There are stray cats everywhere, so we shouldn’t have been surprised, but we were a little jealous of the cat for being able to go anywhere she wanted, without risking the yelling ladies.

Then, since the area around the Acropolis was free (it being the first Sunday of the month), we decided to circumnavigate the Acropolis to get to the meeting point. There were some neat statues on display (again, pics on Facebook) and another theater, which was either well-preserved or well-restored.

We sat down and pretended to watch a play for a while, then eavesdropped on a French mother telling her kids about the theater (the main argument for learning a foreign language is that it widens your eavesdropping possibilities), then started around the hill. We discovered oodles of cool caves, each dedicated to a different god, that had been used as offering sites. We even got to go into some of them without incurring the yelling ladies’ wrath! Then we noticed that it was getting late, so we finished our tour and got out onto the real streets and to our meeting place only half an hour late.

Luckily, everybody else had been late too, so there were no hard feelings. Logan and my dad went off to see the Agora, or the ancient market site, while the rest of us set off in search of the elusive fish and meat markets. Which were closed, once again, because apparently they’re only in the morning. Unfazed, we wandered through the flea market section again and Anna and I nearly bought some boots, but remembered at the last minute how stuffed our bags had been on the way there and prudently resisted.

We met back up with Logan and my dad and headed to the restaurant, where we quite literally ordered one of everything they had cooking. We had stuffed tomatoes, moussaka, something moussaka-like but filled with a variety of vegetables, Greek salad with fresh feta, meatballs… Thankfully, Logan Hollow-Leg was there to finish everything up, so we even ordered doughnuts with honey for dessert. A towering plate of doughnut balls arrived, swimming in honey, and before we could even start to eat them the owner brought over a pitcher of honey, just in case our teeth weren’t rotten enough, I guess. The doughnuts were delicious but hard to finish, so we were all the more surprised at a couple who had ordered one plate of doughnuts EACH and managed to finish all of them. Greeks know how to eat.

After that, we all needed a nap, so we went back to the hotel for some relaxation. And to pack, since we were leaving the next morning for Santorini, widely regarded as the nicest of the Greek islands. All I knew about it was that it was an island, it was in the Mediterranean, and there were black and red sand beaches. I needed no convincing.

Installment II: Oh Jesus SANTORINI to come in the next few days, as I get back into the habit of this whole blog thing. Thank you for your patience!