11.05.2012 - 12.05.2012
We were standing at the seaport in Santorini, waiting for our ferry to Athens. Sad of our departure we were embracing our last moments in paradise. We breathed in the sea breeze as if it were our last breath, letting it fill our lungs while at the same time it poured over our skin, the salt crystallising on our sunbaked flesh. If this island had been heaven for us, the next four hours on the ferry would be hell, as it wasn’t the sun, sea and nostalgia that awoken our senses, instead it was the scent of stomach bile, the heaving sounds of hundreds of vomiting strangers, and the iron claw of nausea that gripped our insides.
Luckily for us, we escaped the rocking spew machine without any projectile of our own, thanks to some sound isolating earphones and a few seasons of Big Bang Theory on the laptop. I will say though, that the next 24 hours in Athens, we did so much that it makes my head spin, but in the most awesome of ways.
We met our CouchSurfing hosts Emily and Mitsos late at night as they picked us up from the station. Emily was a well travelled girl from Michigan in America, who herself had Couchsurfed around Europe for ten months, during which time she was hosted by Mitsos, an Athens native, and the two of them fell in love. We shared a beer, and the obligatory get to know you chit chat, during which the two offered their services as personal guides for the next day, which was both extremely generous and kind.
To be honest, these kind of days are great for us. Instead of planning and researching and trying to cram as much as we can in one day, we really just get to sit back and enjoy. But the most rewarding part by far, is the stuff that we could research for years and never discover. Like I said we did so much in one day, I cant describe it all. But I will say that it was the perfect mix of experiencing the culinary culture, the lifestyle, the Ancient historical wonders, both new and old architecture, as well as the day to day customs of the Greek people both past and present. In fact so much we did that a lot of the names escape me in a blur of details, so please excuse the vagueness of the facts.
So off we went. We first met up with another couple who had joined us at the last minute, some friends of friends from Chicago. They were pretty cool. On the way Mitsos showed some of the parliament buildings of past and present, and as beautiful as they were, it was a shame to think of the decline in action that is actually going on inside them.
Anyway, politics aside, we then saw the flamboyant changing of the guard and went for a traditional breakfast.
The breakfast consisted of some Greek coffee and pastries made of cheese, spinach and roasted vegies, along with a very delicious cream custard one. Ah, custard tarts, the cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast.
We were obviously making our way toward the Acropolis, but saw some really cool stuff on the way. The great thing about Athens is, there are ruins everywhere. We would just walk down the street and see something interesting.
We past the columns of the old Temple of Olympian Zeus. I would’ve love to have seen it in its full glory.
Then, rather than take us the normal way to the Acropolis, Emily took us around the side of the mountain to a small town built by the original craftspeople that made the famous hill top. This was really interesting, as at the time of construction, these labourers were brought over from the Greek Islands, so to feel at home, the people built this little mini-town to look exactly like their island homes. It was really cool. Plus it had some great views.
Continuing on we came to a hill at the foot of the mountain, a place where ancient trials were held and important agendas discussed. We just dug the views, as Mitsos explained some of the sites and regaled us with stories of myth and historical fact.
Next up it was the big dude, the Acropolis. Epitomising the glory of ancient Greece, the Parthenon stood majestically, surrounded by other incredible monuments such as the Erechtheion and the Theatre of Dionysos. They were moments once again to drift back in time and fantasise of a life past, wondering hopelessly how a civilisation can create such beauty with the limited resources of its era. Its truly amazing.
Onwards we made our way through some bustling streets, full of market stalls and restaurants, lined either side by parks of lush green trees and olive groves.
We eventually came to the Ancient Agora, the old town centre whos ruins were now accompanied by a reconstruction of its main market building. Again, we were dizzy with awe, or maybe it was sun stroke, it was so hot.
A few more ruins, including the Roman Agora, a few more shops, and a few more back streets, we started to work up an appetite. Mitsos led the way, us trailing him taking in the sights and sounds of the surroundings. He led us through a wild meat market, then a more crazy fish market only to come out and find ourselves weaving in and out of fruit and vegetable stalls, the highlight of which was the incredible smell of fresh olives that was in the air.
Then, we stopped. Standing on a busy footpath in a dirty street with cars and people screaming past chaotically, Mitsos looked at us, then headed down into the basement of an apartment block, through some unmarked doors that looked like an entrance to some dank cellar.
Well, surprise surprise, instead of the rape dungeon I thought he was leading us into, the cellar opened up into this awesome traditional taverna. Filled with a bunch of locals and lined with barrels of home made wine, this place was about as Greek as we could get. The owner came up and greeted Mitsos, telling him he will take care of us. And that he did. After a few wines we started to receive plates and plates of amazing traditional dishes, prepared by the owner the way his father before him did, and his father before him, who started the establishment at the very same place. Among the dishes was a macaroni soup, Fava beans, Greek salads, grilled fish, hommus, and lots of bread to soak it all up in. It was seriously one of the best meals I have ever had in my life. The flavours were spectacular. And sharing such a feast with new friends made it all the more special.
Dizzy with culinary delight we moved on for dessert. And holy crap, I'm salivating thinking about it again. In a small little shop, very humble, we sat and picked a range of desserts from behind the counter. We had some custard pie, some ice cream made from a local plant, some chocolate cake, and a massive profiterole and chocolate sauce to die for.
Then we went for a long stroll through some of the neighbourhoods, passing a cool industrial area turned bohemian sanctuary. We tried to get into some art and design expo that was going on but weren't able to. We did however find a tucked away meet market, which was a cool underground area filled with stalls of vintage and local independent designer wares. The place had a really funky vibe to it, with people chatting and DJ's playing funky soul tunes.
By now all this walking had worked up a thirst, and the American guy was stinging for a beer, so once again, we found ourselves walking through this run down alleyway in some backstreet, through some door that barely hung to its hinges, magically stepping into an oasis of beer and cocktails. Yep, inside some dilapidated house, someone built a really chilled bar. It even had some sort of photography/art display inside the emptied rooms. We sunk a few of the yummy local brew as night fell.
At that stage we said goodbye to the American couple, and went to see some live music. Located, in the square of some apartment blocks, well I say apartments, but it could have been an empty building people were squatting in, was a crazy little percussion concert. Musicians beat out african/cuban rhythms and beats with furious intensity, jamming and entrancing the crowd. At one stage some guy even jumped in for a spontaneous tap dance, which was a bit random.
Still up to party, Mitsos guided us around the popular party hood, which was packed with night-goers ready to hit the town. Restaurants were also packed with people eating dinner at 10:30pm, which was strange to us, but there were enough attention seeking air-heads and wankers driving loud cars that we didn’t feel like we were in a totally strange place.
Well, disenchanted with not finding the music he was looking for, Mitsos called it a night and we all agreed to head home. On the way we passed a train station with more ruins in it, highlighting again that construction cant happen in Athens without something getting dug up. And we stopped for souvlaki, which we ate on Mitsos and Emily's roof top terrace, meeting his brother and sister. With a nice night view of the area, we stayed up chatting for a while, before realising we had to catch a train in a few hours, so we headed for bed. Frankly, I don’t know how I lasted that long.
So that was our whirlwind tour of Athens. It was amazing to see, and we wished we had stayed longer. Its really an experience to be in a city of such ancient grandeur that sadly appears to be crumbling in economic ruin. But where the politics have failed, the countries people have shone through. You can see it in their hospitality, their food, their passion for history and the general passion for which they hold their culture with pride but without the commonly associated arrogance. Luckily for us we got to see so much of it, even if it was just for one day.