Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Day 6: Last Day in Athens

Today was our last full day in Greece, and unfortunately it was cold and windy -- not colder or windier than Paris, but because we've become so used to sunny and warm weather in the 60s over the past few days, it was kind of hard to handle.

We started out at the Greek Theater museum, which was closed (boo). Then we went to the Jewish Museum, which we had a LOT of trouble finding at first, but which was nice. It was mostly focused on the resistance efforts during the Holocaust (but in the end, I think Greece lost something like 87% of its Jews in Auchwitz and Treblinka). Then we stumbled upon the Museum of Greek Folk Art, which was free, so we went it. Fact: All museums in Greece, no matter what their subject is, will have an extensive selection of traditional 19th Century greek outfits, which all look like a cross between Medieval and hippie garb, with LOTS of nice scarves. I have definitely been inspired to update my wardrobe when I get back.

Personal belonging taken from Greek Jews during the Bulgarian occupation. 

Hospital bed sheets from Bergen-Belsen. 

Then we went to the First Cemetery in Athens, which isn't actually the oldest cemetery in the city, so I don't know why it's called that. It's very extensive, and it seems just like Pere LaChaise, except that almost every single tombstone is white. This looks really really great couple with the blue sky and the green trees that surround them.

Then, we looked for a place to eat lunch because Sarah's dad said lunch was on him today. We didn't want to go to any of the obviously touristy places in the main squares, so out of exhaustion and hunger we stopped at the first restaurant we found elsewhere. It was right behind the Acropolis Museum, and it was delicious. We were the only people in there, except for two older men who came in later and who stared at us when we laughed too much at our own jokes. The food was delicious. We ordered four main dishes, all of which were great (moussaka, spinach crepes, squid with spinach, and a sausage that was DELICIOUS). We also got a whooole place of tzatziki sauce (do they really eat a whole plate of it at once?), and we split some really good Greek beer. Again, the owner spent the whole time talking to us, which was nice. He had been to a few places in the States to visit family, his favorite of which was...drumroll please...ARKANSAS! So maybe being from there wouldn't have been the worst thing after all, contrary to what I guessed in my last post. I have their business card, for the next time I'm in Greece.

Then we came home because we were exhausted, mostly from the cold, but also from being a little disillusioned. Today while walking from site to site, it was evident what bad economic shape Greece is in. Storefront after storefront after storefront was empty. The only well kept-up parts of Athens we came across during  this trip were the touristy areas, and everything else was unfortunately very run down.

If any of my readers are planning a Grecian vacation in the future (besides Aunty Judy & Uncle Rick, who already have their itinerary), I'd like to say that I think a week here unfortunately isn't a good idea. In my opinion, you either need MUCH less (Athens, while it does have many famous sites and museums, could have been accomplished in three days), or MUCH longer (it's not possibly to island hop and see Athens with only a week). Maybe this was just my experience (I will definitely admit that this is a possibility), but Sarah and I seemed to find that the necessary down time couldn't be filled up with enough. There are a LOT of cafes, but not the kind we wanted to sit in, and there were times when we felt especially nervous about getting ripped off. It's too bad, because I think all of these things have the potential to make the area a harder travel destination, and they need all the tourists they can get, apparently. I never thought of Paris as particularly user-friendly, but it is compared to Athens.

My final verdict is that of course I'm happy we came. I've officially seen the Parthenon in person, which was huge and impressive and definitely worth it. And visiting Athens kind of helped put things in perspective for me, because while I complain about Paris often, this trip reminded me how lucky I am to live there right now :)

Paris tomorrow! Must mentally prepare myself for the absence of polite people and inexpensive coffee everywhere I go!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Greece Day 5: Piraeus Again

Not gonna lie, we spent today literally lounging around Piraeus where our apartment is. Not lounging around in the sun (because it's rainy), but rather lounging around drinking lots of coffee and reading our books, because we're exhausted, and because we wanted to save some energy for our last day (eek! tomorrow!). Even though this has been a vacation filled with lots of killing time, it's gone by surprisingly quickly.

Maria is having a party to celebrate the holiday, which we were invited to but opted not to go to. She did, however, save us plates and plates of delicious looking grape leaves and other food, which we plan on devouring as soon as she and her guests leave (who KNOWS when that may be).

Athens tomorrow!!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Greece Day 4: Napflion!

Before I blog about our day, I'd just like to say how nice Greeks are. Maybe I've been living in Paris too long, but every person I've met has seemed to outdo the next in terms of friendliness. Like yesterday, Sarah and I got ice cream, and we had already paid and were about to walk out the door, and the ice cream guy made us give him our cones back so he could add another scoop to them. They're like nicer versions of Americans. Also, I think it helps that Sarah and I have the benefit of being from the trifecta...("We're from New York and Los Angeles....but we live in Paris"). I think people are nicer to us because of this. Like, when the guy at the gyro place we've been eating our dinners at found out that this was where we were from, I'm pretty sure he almost started crying. And on Aegina, some teenage girls helped us translate our gyro order at a little restaurant there, and I'm pretty sure they had never met anyone from LA or New York, based on their reactions. We decided today that it's a good thing for us that we don't come from Arkansas.

Today was a good example of the vicissitude-esque quality of our Grecian vacation. It started out kind of rough.

Maria had given us directions to get to a place called Napflion, which involved a city bus ride followed by a 2-hour private bus ride. First, the city bus almost didn't show up, and when it finally did, it drove us through the ugliest part of town ever to the private bus terminal. Then it turned out that the next private bus wasn't leaving for an hour, so we hung out in a bus terminal in a gross part of town for an hour. Then we rode the private bus for 2 hours, never being exactly sure of where we were supposed to get off, and being bitter the whole way (we had already drafted our negative review of Maria and her apartment whilst waiting for our second bus). Plus, we decided that maybe the dogs we had seen earlier weren't sleeping because they were tired. Maybe it was because there just wasn't enough to do in Greece to keep them awake?

We finally made it to where we were going, and I had read that the old fort on the hill closed early in the winter months (i.e. only 45 minutes after we arrived thanks to our multiple bus delays), and we didn't want to waste all the money we had spent on bus tickets, so we raced up to the top of the hill, which was awful because it was really high up and there weren't any hand railings and I was really sweaty. We were kind of incredulous that Maria would send us so far out of the way to somewhere so relatively unimpressive (but again, we were bitter).
The view from the fort. 

 We climbed around the fort for a while, and when it was time to walk down, we decided that we would take the exit to the parking lot instead rather than backtracking the miserable way we had climbed up. We were hoping that the parking lot exit was a foot path leading to a parking lot, but it turned out that it was actually a looong road that was going to take FOREVER to walk down (if we didn't get hit by cars on the way) and that would also put us on the opposite side of the mountain, errrrgh. But it was too late to turn back, so we kept on walking. We hadn't been walking for too long, when we saw a car that had driven past us stop and then back up to us. It was the young couple we had seen getting into their car a few minutes earlier, and they offered to drive us down the mountain, which was really realllly nice of them, because it turned out that it would have been a really bad idea to keep on walking. They were really nice too, and after we chatted for a while down the mountain (everyone here speaks perfect English), they dropped us off at a cupcake place they had been to earlier in the day and which they highly recommended called Liz's Cupcakes.

This is another example of a people-in-Greece-really-like-to-talk-and-are-very-friendly situation. We decided to get sit in and have cupcakes, and the guy at the counter gave us a run-through of all of our different coffee options, including what he usually drinks and what he recommended we stay away from, etc. We finally decided on (delicious) freddo cappucinos, which our first cab driver had recommended (it's an iced cappucino). After talking with him for a while and enjoying our (delicious) cupcakes, a woman showed up behind the counter who was the Liz of the title, and the guy working there introduced us to her as "Sarah-from-New-York!" and "Amelia-from-Los-Angeles!". Then a woman named Rhonda came in, who was English but who lived in Napflion, and she and Sarah chatted about New York for a while. Then the guy working there (I wish I remembered his name) took a bunch of pictures of us all together to be added to the Facebook wall for the store. Sarah and I told Liz that while cupcakes are gaining popularity in Paris, it's rare to find cupcake places. She disappeared and came back a few minutes later with a piece of paper where she had written not just the names of some Parisian cupcake places she recommended, but also their phone numbers and addresses. So helpful! We ended up being at Liz's Cupcakes for a while just talking with everyone, but on our way out we asked Liz for her lunch recommendations (apparently since it's Carnival, right before Lent, seafood is particularly expensive right now), but she recommended a new place a few blocks over called Popeye's (not the fast food chain!), run by an Englishwoman and her Greek husband.

We ended up at Popeye's, and even though I usually prefer to eat traditional food when traveling, this burger place was really great because the burgers were DELICIOUS, and because we had to sit at the bar (it was en extremely crowded day in town because of the holiday), but this was nice because as busy as it was, the owner managed to keep up a conversation with us literally the whole time we were there. She was so great, and asked us lots of questions in addition to telling us her entire life story (part of it involved drinking too much with her Greek now-husband, which led to them having a bilingual baby and opening a restaurant). It was just a little inexpensive burger place, but it was great for the company.

After eating, we walked around Napflion, and it was the first truly charming area we'd seen since arriving a few days ago. There had obviously been a BIG Carnival celebration earlier, based on the amount of confetti on the ground everywhere we went, and everyone was in costume and there was even a parade that we caught the beginning of before we had to get back on our bus. Napflion in general was just a cute little part of Greece that I wish we had more time in, and that I would definitely recommend a visit to! Apparently Maria wasn't so wrong when we sent us here for the day after all.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Greece Day 3: More Athens!

Today Sarah and I let ourselves lounge around in the morning because we were so exhausted from our island adventure yesterday, and then we headed into Athens again. We started out at the Acropolis Museum. Free again! Something probably different between Greece and France...if I showed my student visa to a museum ticket booth in France where the word "student" was written in a language other than French, the person working there would shake their head and shut the window on me. In Greece, even if they look slightly doubtful (especially since the photocopy of my visa is black and white and not super legible), they still have been letting me in for free. Pretty awesome.

Me and Sarah!  I guess the guy who took our picture didn't get the hint that me motioning to the art behind us meant that I kind of wanted it in the picture. Oh well! 

Then we walked to what's left of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus. Free again! Really cool. 


Then, because it's some holiday weekend or something, there was a little fair set up near by with all of these kids running around in costumes, and Sarah and I split fried dough with chocolate. 

Afterwards we went to the Benaki Museum, were we did have to pay 5 euros to get in, but it was okay because everything else has been free so far. Let me just tell you that I'm kind of tired of ancient Greek art (more on that below), so it was nice to see some things from other eras. 

Baby dragon!

There was also a really interesting exhibit of photos depicting Smyrna, which used to be a thriving port town in The Ottoman Empire, and which was virtually destroyed and abandoned in 1922 (for a lot of reasons) and which now belongs to Turkey. Most photo exhibits don't speak to me, but this one was really emotional. 

So, after a few days of realizing that we had both been feeling the need to constantly tell each other that we were having a good time in Athens, Sarah and I have come to the joint conclusion that while we are both very happy that we're here and that we've been enjoying what we've been seeing, Athens simply doesn't live up to the other European capitals we've each visited. We don't want to sound bitter, but we're just spoiled because we live in Paris, where beautiful things are literally all around us. We also realized that the thing that the cities we've visited recently (Rome, London, Edinburgh, etc and Paris) have in common that while embracing their own cultures, they each also place a strong emphasis on 1. Having important artifacts and art that belong to other cultures (i.e. in the British Musuem, the Louvre and in the National Museum of Scotland), and/or 2. They capitalize on multiple eras of their history. From what we've experienced here so far, Athens seems to have made itself solely a destination for its ancient history. And while that's an important part of it, it keeps Athens from being glamorous and cosmopolitan...unfortunately. And it makes it (ahhh, I hate to say this)....slightly boring sometimes? And it doesn't help that many of the destinations that people come to Athens to see require boat and bus trips that are multiple hours away from the city center. But like I said before, Paris has made us biased. 

Something that Athens does have over Paris is its inexpensive coffee. Sarah and I got HUGE frappes today (cold, thick delicious iced coffee drinks) for 1.50 each. In Paris, you're lucky if you can get a tiny shot of espresso to go for a euro, so that's pretty good. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Greece Day 2: Aegina!

This morning Sarah and I hopped on a large slow boat which took us an hour away to Aegina, one of the islands closeish to Piraeus.

Basically, the weather was beautiful and warm, and we walked around all day, taking advantage of how ridiculously beautiful the water was, and how ridiculously cheap it was to eat.

Me on our boat!

Picturesque little church on the dock. 

The port at Aegina!

The water was ridiculous.


So. Many. Cats. 



The "frappe" that our taxi driver told us to try. They're cold and very strong, mmm. 

We had a lovely day, a lot of which was spent lounging around near the water and reading, simply because we could. Also, the souvlaki I had (like a gyro sandwich) was only 1.80. So cheap! I guess I'm so used to Parisian prices that everything else seems silly in comparison.

Tomorrow we'll be taking a bus to visit Naphlion! 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Greece Day 1: Athens and the Acropolis!

Hello again from Piraeus! So, I should say that even while we aren't 100% satisfied with the apartment, our view can't be beat:

This morning, Sarah and I found the metro (a 20 minute walk away) and took to to the Acropolis! It was pretty cool. What was even cooler was that even though the internet and the ticket booths' signs all indicated that the cheapest we would be paying for a ticket as students was 6 euros, every single historical part of the Agora we entered was completely free with our student visas! So that was already a good start to the day. The first thing we visited was Hadrian's Library. 

(This looks like an oil stain, but it's actually all that remains of an 11th Century fresco on the wall of Hadrian's Library). 

Then we hiked the looong trail up the hill to the Parthenon! Verdict: pretty impressive, even though it's covered with scaffolding.

Observation #1: The dog culture in Athens is incredible. While there are many cats (I took about 10 different photos of Sarah petting different cats), there are a LOT of dogs sleeping everywhere. They have collars (so they aren't strays), and we even saw a bunch of them that apparently climbed alllll the way up to the Acropolis, just to take a nap with a good view. It's so strange!

Observation #2: People in Athens are very nice. Sarah bought some shoes that she was obviously willing to pay full price for because she was really excited about them and she handed the full amount of money over right away, but the people who owned the place instantly gave her some of the money back. And when I found a copy of Othello in Greek and was about to hand over the amount written on the cover, the bookstore owner told me that I could have it for half the price. So that's something I obviously like about this place.

Tomorrow: An island or two!