Sunday, June 05, 2011

Greek Odyssey

We went to Greece last year. I recorded a lot of observations during the trip in the hope of writing about it once we got back, but I never got around to it. Now that a year has passed, I've decided to finally follow through.

June 5-6, 2010
We left Boston on a 6 pm flight to Heathrow. The flight was scheduled to land around 6 am London time, but we made it in 45 minutes ahead of schedule due to a slightly early departure and what I can only assume was a massive tailwind. We took off out of Boston heading south and passed over the port and Castle Island before heading out across the pond. We encountered a lot of turbulence at the start of the flight and overall, it was the most turbulent transoceanic flight I've ever been on. It was also my first time flying British Airways and my first time flying across the Atlantic in a 747.

I didn't get any sleep on the flight. 6 pm turned out to be a very strange time to depart on a short transatlantic flight, since we landed in London around when I'd normally be going to bed back home. My body was nice and ready for a good night's sleep right as the day was getting started in London. Our flight was so early that hardly anything was even open in T5 upon our arrival. It did make for a very easy trip through immigration.

I finally got some sleep on the flight to Athens. My initial impression upon arrival was that it was drier and more mountainous than I had imagined. The first signs of Greece's current economic woes were visible before we even deplaned. There was an armada of mothballed Olympic Airways jets parked on the airfield, including four of their flagship Airbus A-343s

Given Olympic's long history of ineptitude, I may have been reading too much into this. On the ride into the city on the Metro, I saw a few settlements along the highway that appeared to be shanty towns. I'm guessing that they were Roma settlements, but I may just be perpetuating a stereotype.

We arrived at our hotel in the mid-afternoon. It was a basic tourist hotel not far from Syndagma Square. In addition to being one of the tourist hubs of Athens, Syndagma Square is also where the Greek Parliament is located and was the site of deadly riots a month before our arrival. When we arrived, it was fortunately playing host to a beach volleyball tournament instead.

We were pretty tired by this point so we took a nap. After about an hour, I was still tired but unable to nap any longer, so I ventured out on my own. It was a very nice day, about 23 degrees C with a nice breeze. My first stop was Kapnikarea, an 11th century Byzantine church located a few blocks from our hotel. I guess I was expecting it to be covered it colorful mosaics, so I was somewhat disappointed that this was the only one visible from the outside.

I also visited Monastiraki Square

and Hadrian's Gate.

I was surprised by how much the Acropolis looms over this part of Athens. Acropolis literally means "high city", so it shouldn't be much of surprise that it towers over ancient Athens. I was also surprised by the chaotic mix of history, splendor, and squalor in this part of Athens. I really enjoyed all of the tiny streets and alleys.

Michelle and I visited the Temple of Olympian Zeus before dinner. It was the largest temple in Ancient Greece and is still an impressive sight.

I watched an episode of Mad Men on the in-flight entertainment system on the way over where Paul Kinsey, in a failed attempt to save Penn Station, noted that most of the great Roman ruins are found outside of Rome. Perhaps the reason that Athens has so many great ancient ruins is because unlike Rome, it languished for millenia as an outpost of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. Had Athens regained its status as the seat of an empire at some point after its brief golden age, surely more of its now famous ruins would have been destroyed in the name of progress.

We sat down for dinner at a touristy taverna in the Plaka around 9pm, which is still early by Greek standards. The restaurant was barely occupied when we arrived though a reasonable crowd was starting to develop by the time we left. The food was good and hearty - moussaka, lamb and potato stew, olives, tomato and cucumber salad, and a delicious dessert of yogurt with honey and figs.