Sunday, March 22, 2009

12:45 PM: Greece/Italy '09... the first few days.

Okay, I left off with us making it to our hostel in the sketch, red-light district of Athens. Cool. No, really, it wasn't that bad. We were told to keep our bags/purses in front of us at all times to discourage pick-pockets, and to tell anyone who asked that we were Canadian or Australian, for safety's sake. I gotta admit, that made my skin prickle a little. Why could I not just say I was American? Are we that despised all over the world? Makes you think.

The next day we hit the big stuff, almost by accident. We headed off early to see the Acropolis, but we ended up wandering around (as usual, because, though we like maps, we tend to like our own instincts better, and they usually lead us into adventures) and stumbled upon Hadrian's Gate and the Temple of Olympian Zeus, where supposedly the first Olympic games were held. The weather was a tad chilly, but any degree warmer was better than London! The grounds of the temple were so rustic and deserted, covered with lush green and these tiny daisy-like flowers that seemed to give their blessing upon the site. In a strange way, the vastness and the quiet, open air made it very spiritual. I circled the temple with its towering, crumbling columns and felt so peaceful.

We moved in the general direction of the Acropolis, stopping into random shops along the way. We finally found it, and, on that day, it was free admission! We saw the Theatre of Dionysus, the Parthenon, and the other temples whose names escape me that also are on the Acropolis hill. The view was beautiful, but the wind was brutal. There was a Greek flag waving on the topmost part of the hill—I got some good pictures of it as the wind held it straight out. Eventually, our stomachs growled, and we hurried down the hill to search for a place to eat that wasn't too expensive. In the process, we learned something very interesting about Greece (and Italy, for that matter). Restaurant waiters/managers will stand outside their establishments and will vocally try to entice you inside for "just a cup of coffee and dessert, special price just for you!" So when they spot you glancing at their menu to get an idea of prices, they pounce. Our little group got snagged into eating at a pricey sit-down restaurant, but Emily and I blatantly got up from the table (after scouring the menu for anything cheap, and finding nothing) and declared that we were walking down the road to a little creperie I saw earler. It tasted better and was cheaper. We had to wait for the other group to finish eating, so we wandered into a little jewelry shop next door to the creperie. And that's when we met George.

George owned the jewelry shop, and he claimed to have made by hand all the jewelry. I was skeptical, and later I saw some of the same pieces in other shops. His prices were better, though. Emily and I, still green to the tactics of shop owners, fell into conversation with them. He spoke very good English and was very genial. He asked us where we were from. Before I even thought, I spouted off, "Canada." Where in Canada? I don't answer. Emily blurts, "Montreal," the first thing she thought of.

George starts speaking French.

Crap. We should have done our Canada homework.

We laugh it off, and Emily says she's from the part of Montreal that doesn't speak French. I don't think he really believed we were from Canada. Pretty much everyone in Canada speaks or understands French. I could feel my neck getting hot, but the conversation moved on quickly, as we talked of studying in London, being on holiday in Greece, blah, blah, blah. George talked of how great Canada was, and how bad the U.S. was (it was just a sales tactic), and he constantly pulled out piece after piece of jewelry for us to examine. I wasn't really going to buy anything, though he had some nice stuff, but then he asks us if we want something to drink. ??? Another sales tactic I've never had pulled on me. We say no, he moves on, comes back to it. "No," we say. "We're totally fine."

He waves his hands at us and furrows his brow. "I don't like this 'no'," he says. That was it. No room for argument. I said Coke, and Emily said Sprite. Get this--he leaves the shop, goes next door to the creperie we were just in, and buys us both drinks. And that sealed it. We both felt so bad that he bought us drinks that we felt compelled to buy something. Never again will I fall for that.

We talked a bit more (it was actually a really long conversation), and Emily and I both bought inexpensive pieces out of courtesy (but I really did like mine, and it was truly a good price). We tore ourselves away with the excuse that our friends were waiting for us and we had to get going. We practically ran from the shop and died laughing. We'd learned a lesson. No more Georges.

We met up with our group (who had long finished eating) and did a bit of shopping before we headed back to the hostel. Emily, Caris, and I found a small grocery store and bought stuff to make spaghetti (of sorts) in the hostel’s kitchen. We thought we were buying ground beef for the sauce, but it was really like ham, or bacon, as the English would say. We chopped it up into small pieces, added tomato sauce and some random spices we found in the kitchen, boiled noodles, topped it with fresh Parmesan (I swear, there is nothing better), and paired it with this really crispy Greek bread. It was surprisingly really good. I was proud of us.

Saturday, we woke up with big plans to see the Olympic Stadium, climb Lycabettus (a big hill in the middle of Athens), and then find the coast and visit Poseidon’s Temple. I was navigating, and we got on the metro in the direction I thought the Olympic Stadium was, and I was right. But on the metro map, the five Olympic rings hovered over another stop waaaay down the line in the opposite direction. We argued for a bit, and I lost. So we went the long way, got a bit lost, jumped on a bus, and finally ended up not at the true Olympic Stadium (where the opening ceremony was held), but at the Olympic grounds, where the swimming pools, basketball courts, etc. were located. It was still pretty cool, though. First thing I noticed—it was completely deserted. Desolate. It looked as if we had fast-forwarded in time and come upon it fifty years later. The grass was dead, small bit of trash floated across the sidewalk. No one was there. For some reason, I expected more people would want to visit, and they’d keep the place up. All the buildings were locked and most of the windows blacked out. The swimming arena was still open and in use for younger swimmers and their coaches. We watched a youth swim meet for a while in the indoor pool. Otherwise, the whole place was quiet, eerie, lonely. It was saddening, really.

Afterward, we found lunch, and then tried to decide what to do. It was already later in the day, and I knew that getting to the coast would take hours at least. Kaytee wanted to see Poseidon’s Temple, and though it sounded interesting, climbing Lycabettus sounded more appealing to me. So we split up—Kevin and Kaytee headed toward the coast, and Emily, Kristen, Caris, and I hiked toward Lycabettus.

We could see it from the main street we were standing on, but we had no idea how to get to it. So, we just kind of walked toward it, through random little Athenian streets and up lots of stairs. We made sure we kept heading upwards, and we knew eventually we’d have to hit it. All of the sudden, we found some woods. A forest, growing in the middle of all these houses and buildings. Random? Yes. But we found it! So… we kept going up. We hiked path-less up through the random woods for a long while—so much fun! And then we stumbled on a path, or more like a worn place that looked like a path. So we followed it. I love being spontaneous and somewhat lost! And we found a paved path, so we followed that. We kept going up. And kept going up. Every time we looked out behind us, the view kept on getting better and better. It was unbelievable. We realized as we got to the top that there were two “peaks,” or top points, of Lycabettus, and we weren’t on the one we thought, but the view was amazing. See my pictures. There was this massive modern amphitheatre (that they still use apparently) built into the side of the hill. We saw the other “peak,” upon which rested this lovely white stone church, and decided to walk towards that. We’re walking down random paths, with fearless Caris leading, me right behind her. We round a bend, and she suddenly does a 180 and speeds back toward me saying quietly and hurriedly, “Turn around. Walk. Just turn around. Go.” Without question, I swing around in the opposite direction, gently prodding Kristen and Emily backwards down the path. I had been afraid of this, with the top of the hill being so quiet and isolated…

Caris had seen four or five young guys sitting on the peak shooting up. Good! Drugs! Just what we need! So we high-tailed it in the opposite direction for a while, found another path, and made a big circle around them. That could’ve been awkward and probably bad. God was really watching out for us—thank goodness for Caris’ alert eyes. Fun times in Greece, right?

We finally made it to the second peak. The hike had been so much fun and provided so many great pictures. By the time we made it, the sun was just starting to descend, and the air was getting cooler. We snapped a few pictures, congratulated ourselves for hiking all that way without any sort of direction, and laughed about our adventures before we headed down. Caris fell on the way down (it definitely hurt, but she was okay) and almost fell a second time. It was hilarious… but I guess you had to be there. HA! :)

I forget what we did the rest of the day. I think we went back to the hostel. That was such an amazing adventure.

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