Sometime around the beginning of August, 2009, I boarded a bus in Thessaloniki, Greece and woke up early the next morning in the port city of Pireas.
“Where am I?” I thought to myself. “This doesn’t look anything like the ‘Athens’ I imagined.”
For the past seven+ months, I had been traveling through Europe with my bicycle and the city of Athens, Greece was to be my final destination before flying back to the United States and returning to my normal life. But I had a month and a half to spend in the city before I could return home… and the first thing I needed to do was find a place to stay. I had reserved an apartment in downtown Athens, but I was four days early and completely exhausted. The only thing I wanted to do now was find a nearby hotel, take a shower, and go to sleep.
Walking From Pireas To Downtown Athens
Luckily, there were a handful of run-down hotels just minutes from the Pireas bus stop. I walked into the first one I could find, asked for a room (which was incredibly overpriced), and made my way upstairs. I took a shower and then passed out on the hotel bed.
Several hours later, I woke up and sent off a quick email to the woman I was renting the apartment from in Athens, asking her if it might be possible for me to come and check in early. After sending off the email, I walked back out onto the streets of Pireas in search of a supermarket. I hadn’t eaten in over a day and I was absolutely starving.
By this time it was nearly nearly noon and the streets were a buzz with people and cars rushing slowly about in every direction. The city was dirty, unorganized and confusing. Everywhere I looked there were people. The ocean was on my right and a crowded mess of city was on my left.
I finally found a small supermarket and purchased a bag full of over-priced fruit and other such food items. After having spent the last several months in Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro, Greece seemed terribly overpriced.
Back at the hotel, I checked my email and found that I had a response about the apartment in downtown Athens. The woman I was renting the place from didn’t sound happy, but she said that if I wanted to check in that very night at 6 PM, that she would meet me there and give me the key.
That meant it was decision time. I could stay where I was, spend the evening in the hotel I had already paid for, and then spend the following four days rambling around southern Greece with my bike, or I could take off immediately and be in downtown Athens by 6 PM. I decided to ditch my dirt-bag hotel and took off for the Acropolis in downtown Athens – more than 5 kilometers away.
Leaving Pireas, I hooked up my GPS device and started walking in a north-easterly direction.
If you have never been to Pireas or Athens, you would never know it, but the city of Athens is one large, massive collection of almost identical multi-story apartment buildings. Telling one building from the next can be difficult, and finding your way when you are stuck way down in those buildings can be even harder.
To make matters worse, the traffic in and around Athens is absolutely horrendous. There are no bike lanes for cyclists and riding in the street would not only be dangerous, but something that could very easily get you killed. Because I not only did know know where I was going, but also because I could not see the over the tall apartment buildings I was making my way through, I pushed my bike up onto the sidewalk and slowly made my way by foot into the city center.
As I made my way through the city I would occasionally stop and ask someone if I was heading in the right direction. I recall speaking to a young woman (about my age – 25) who was sitting on the doorstep of her apartment building.
“Do you know the fastest way to get to the Acropolis?” I asked the woman?
I pointed in the direction I believed it to be and she smiled, acting as though she had never heard of the Acropolis… and so I rephrased the question.
“Do you know how to get to the city center?” I tried again.
Again, her face went blank and I could tell she was confused. And she wasn’t confused because she didn’t speak English. Her English was superb and I could tell should understood what I was saying. The truth of the matter was, she had no idea what the Acropolis was or where the center of Athens happened to be. I, of course, found this quite odd. She had probably lived in Athens her entire life, just a few miles from the city center and the Acropolis at its core, and yet she seemed to have no clue as to what I was talking about or why I would want to head in that direction.
Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered this sort of thing. All over the world, no matter where I seem to go, I find people who have never been outside their own neighborhood and who never even dream of visiting places just a few miles from their homes.
Anyway, I kept walking and several hours later I made it to the Athens City Center. I found the Acropolis, found the apartment, and a few minutes later met the woman (who was about 8 months pregnant) who would check me in to the basement dungeon that would be my home for the next month and a half.
The Acropolis & The Athens City Center
One of the best parts about the location of my apartment in Athens, Greece was that it was just two blocks from the Acropolis.
For those who don’t know, the Acropolis is a large, flat-topped rock that lies about 490 feet (150 meters) above the sea level in the city of Athens. On top of the Acropolis is the Parthenon and a number of other ancient historic structures and monuments. In addition to the flat-topped rock itself, there are several ancient ruins and artifacts that lie in the surrounding area.
In this single looping region in the center of Athens, there are hundreds of different things to see, learn about and explore. In fact, there is so much to see in this one area that I have decided to write about my favorite spots in a future post. For now, however, I simply feel the need to point out this area is one of the major highlights in all of Greece.
When you see pictures of Athens, it is the Acropolis and its surrounding ruins that you are most likely seeing photos of. The rest of Athens, however, looks nothing like this area… and I know that for me and countless other tourists who come to Greece to see the ancient ruins, this may come as a bit of a surprise. Most of Athens is quite modern and somewhat boring. The Acropolis, however, is quite fantastic… and is something I would recommend to anyone planning a visit to Greece.
Traffic, Motorcycles & Public Transportation
When I first arrived in Athens, I was completely shocked by how modern the city really was. I was expecting ancient ruins throughout and architecture that reflected the city’s ancient history. But the truth is, Athens is nothing like what I expected. When my friend Leslie Parr came to visit me in Athens during my stay there, her first comment about the city was that “It looks a lot like Los Angeles”… and I happened to agree.
Athens, for the most part, has a tiny speck of ancient ruins, surrounded by tall, white, uninspiring apartment buildings for as far as the eye can see. The city is busy, hot and (as I’ve heard others describe it) somewhat smelly. The traffic in Athens, Greece is as bad as Los Angeles, California… if not worse! The streets are crowded, hectic, and fast. Cars park on the sidewalks and there are motorcycles absolutely everywhere.
At a typical red light, you might expect to see a dozen or more motorcycles lined up at the front of the signal… with several more making their way through the pack of cars behind them. When the light turns green, the motorcycles and mopeds zip off and race down the street, doing their best to beat the cars around them and not collide with the motorcyclists at their side. In a city like Athens, where the traffic is so incredibly bad and getting from one side of the city to the other might take several hours, a motorcycle seems like it might be a great way to get around the city. That said, you’d have to be some kind of motorcycle madman to ride in the streets of Athens. It’s one crazy city and its traffic is absolutely horrendous.
That said, Athens has done one thing Los Angeles has not – and that is… they’ve built themselves a superb public transport system.
There are several subway lines that make their way to various destinations throughout the city… and a one-way ticket will cost you only 1.50 Euros. Based on my experience in the city, the trains seem to run on time, they are fairly well-kept and clean, and understanding the basic route maps is incredibly simple.
In addition to the city’s public train system, there are also a ton of different buses that shuttle people from one location to the next. I took the bus several times while I was there and found the system as a whole to be both affordable and timely. I took the bus five separate times to and from the airport alone – once to pick up my friend Leslie when she first flew in; another time when I rode with Leslie back to the airport on her departure from the country; and once again when I flew back home myself. Each trip took about an hour, but the experience as a whole was hassle-free and somewhat enjoyable. In regards to Athens and their public transportation, they have to be commended for what they have done. If only Los Angeles and it’s neighboring areas could do something similar!
Graffiti & Street Art
One of my favorite things about Athens is just how much graffiti there is in the city. Now, I understand that many people view graffiti as nothing more than vandalism, but in a city like Athens, the graffiti and other such street art is so much more than that.
I wrote previously about the graffiti in Athens and posted a ton of different pictures from my time there, so I won’t talk about it too much now, but I think it is interesting to note how the artwork painted on the walls and buildings around the city of Athens so closely reflect what is going on there at this point in time.
Police & Street Riots
I happened to be in Athens during a very interesting time. Just months before my arrival there were a series of purposely set fires that destroyed small sections of the city and caused millions of dollars worth of damage. By the time I arrived in Athens, however, the devastation had been largely cleaned up, but the aftereffects of the fires were still lingering.
Not only were signs of the fires and street riots visible in the graffiti that surrounded the city, but on the streets, there were small, bullet-proof booths set up at various locations, inside of which armed police officers sat with shoulder mounted assult rifles and what looked to be AK-47s. (Note: I’m not a gun person, so I could be way off here in regards to what kind of guns they were actually carrying. But I do know that the guns they had were large and certainly more powerful than the little pistols you are used to seeing on most armed police officers.).
And at night, if you found yourself in the wrong part of the city, you would run into pairs of police men standing at street corners in full-blown riot gear.
Several times during my stay in Athens, incidents did occur where citizens and police hit heads and duked it out on street corners in the middle of the night. I never saw such incidents myself, but I heard about the confrontations in the days following and certainly saw the police presence grow during my time in the city.
On a more humorous note, I found the police is Athens to be quite non-threatening. Expect for the few officers carrying riot gear and AK-47s, many of the city’s police zipped around on tiny mopeds in large groups with other moped-mounted officers. What was most humorous of all was that there were often times two males officers riding on a single moped, which meant that one officer (the one riding in the back) would be forced to wrap his arms around the officer in front of him and hang on for dear life as they slowly zipped their way around the city. I found this to be quite funny, because I so often times associate the police with big, threatening, and scary men dressed in dark blue… but here in the city of Athens, the police seemed to put little thought into just how threatening (or non-threatening) they happened to appear to the general public.
My Basement Apartment
The apartment I rented in downtown Athens was affordable, but it was not the kind of place I would ever want to live in for an extended period of time.
My basement apartment was located in a normal, white, multi-story apartment building in downtown Athens – just two blocks from the Acropolis and three blocks from the nearest grocery store. While the location was superb, the apartment itself was a bit off a train-wreck. The tiny room, which I believe was converted from a storage closet into a one-bedroom apartment, was hot (it did not have air conditioning or even a fan, despite it being 100+ degrees F outside), infested with cockroaches, super tiny, and the water heater needed to be treated with extreme caution (because if you left it on for more than just a couple minutes, the pipes inside the apartment would become piping hot… and possibly explore!). But I made do with my tiny, temporary, bug-infested hole… and as long as I kept my food inside the kitchen refrigerator and cleaned up the cockroach bodies each morning , the place suited me just fine.
One of the highlights of my apartment was that, because it was in a basement, there was no window out to the street. Instead, there was simply a small drain hole that I could see out of from my bed that looked up into the street above. If you were walking by and happened to look down that exact drain hole, you might see me there, laying in bed and staring back at you. Hundreds of times each day people would walk past, in the middle of a conversation, and I’d get to listen in for just a few seconds and get a small glimmer of the conversation they happened to be having. I recall one woman walking past and the only part of the conversation that I heard was her saying to another, “I don’t know, but they weren’t my underwear.”
I loved my little drain-hole window… and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
Meeting Nick Parker
During my first day or two in Athens, I got an email from a guy named Nick Parker. Nick said he had just stumbled across my website here at BicycleTouringPro.com and at the same time had just discovered that I was in Athens – his hometown. What a coincidence!?
Nick and I emailed back and forth a couple times and then decided to meet up for food and drinks.
During out first meeting, Nick brought along some of his artwork and showed it to me. I very quickly realized that he was a talented illustrator, with a sort of comic-book/street-style edge to his work. It was all very impressive!
During my time in Athens, Nick and I met up a handful of times and had long conversations while sitting outside tiny, crowded cafes in various parts of the city. I enjoyed talking to Nick for several reasons… and when I think back on my time in Athens I will in many ways think of Nick and the conversations that we had while I was there.
Leslie Parr & Our Cruise Of The Greek Isles
After a couple weeks in Athens by myself, I was joined by my high school friend, Leslie Parr, who flew in from the United States and stayed with me for about ten days. During her stay in the city, we did all of the tourist things. We went to the museums, walked all over the Acropolis, and we even went on a 3-day cruise to Turkey and several of the Greek isles. I’ve written much about Leslie’s stay and our time on the cruise boat already, so if you are interested in learning more, you can read about it here:
- Mykonos Island – Cruise Stories
- Tales From Turkey – The Ancient City & The Carpet Dealer
- Impressions Of Patmos, Greece
- Santorini, Greece – The Volcanic Island
- Clips From The Ship – A Greek Cruise
Tourism In Athens
Athens was an interesting place when it came to its tourism, tourists, and tourist shops.
Almost all of the tourist stuff in the city was located in a small area directly surrounding the Acropolis. I guess, because the Acropolis is really the main thing to see and do in the city of Athens, this is where all of the shops were located. And for the most part, I found the tourist shops surrounding the Acropolis to be quite nice and overall, quite non-threatening.
But after spending the past several months in countries like Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia – where tourism from the west is almost non-existent, I found the sudden influx of white, western tourists to be a bit nauseating.
In one area near the entrance to the main line of tourist shops, I would constantly run into this one old man who would approach and pretend as though he knew me. His whole act was devised to make friendly conversation with me (and other tourists) and then invite me back to his bar where I would hopefully spend a lot of money (and where he would probably severely overcharge me). I never fell for his shenanigans, but I’m sure hundreds of other tourists did.
The Anti-American Americans
After more than 7+ months and 15+ European countries, not a single person harassed me about being an American… until I got to Greece!
While I was walking through the park around the Acropolis one day, I was approached my a man carrying what appeared to be a protest poster. I couldn’t read what was written on the sign he was holding, but the first question out of the man’s mouth was “Where are you from?”
After telling him that I was from California and that I had been traveling with my bicycle through Europe for the past several months, he shot off into a rant, explaining that he too was from America, but that he had moved to Greece several years ago and had been living there illegally ever since.
“I would never go back!” I remember him telling me.
He then brought up Ex-President Bush, the war in Iraq, and a number of other such controversial political subjects.
“When was the last time you saw a terrorist?” he asked me at one point?
“Never,” I replied.
And he was right. I had been traveling for the past 10 years and I had never seen a terrorist, let alone anyone who I believed was worthy of being thrown in jail. So I understood the point he was trying to make. And yet, I could not understand why this man, a complete stranger, was harassing me about being an American. While I would likely never go to the extreme of living illegally in a foreign land, I agreed the man on many of the points he was making, and yet I did not agree with the way he went about harassing me for being an American.
“Just become I live there doesn’t mean I believe that everything we are doing is correct,” I told the man as we parted ways. But he wouldn’t let me have the last word and he shouted some ridiculous comment back at me about how I was making a mistake and didn’t know what I was talking about. I smiled and waved as he walked off up the hill.
A couple weeks later, I met another man (about 60 years old), also traveling by bike, who for the past 30 years had been cycling around the world, trying to ride from one location to the next, in an attempt to be in the best location for survival in the event of a nuclear holocaust.
That’s right! This man, for the past 30 years, had been running from nuclear bombs – of which he believed were about to go off at any given moment.
For nearly a half-hour he berated me with war stories, tales from the Bible, and other such revolutions he believed to be 300% true. He too was American.
If there is anything I have learned from my travels over the past few years, it is that most people, no matter where they live in the world, are nice, normal people, just trying to get by. But every once and a while, I meet an individual who reminds me just how messed up this world really is… and that’s exactly how I felt after meeting these two fellows in downtown Athens.
Twilight & The Reading Rock
In the end, I will always remember Athens as the place where each night I would crawl out of my dark, sweaty basement apartment, take a short walk up the hill to the Acropolis, turn left and make my way to “the reading rock” – a concrete and flat-stone platform erected in the hills north of the Parthenon, where each night I would bring my book (“Twilight“) and read while looking over the city as the sun slowly set.
When I was in Macedonia I had had the great pleasure of viewing a bootleg copy of the movie “Twilight,” which I had been hearing about for the past several months on the radio, television and Internet. The movie was okay, but when I got to Thessaloniki, Greece, I picked up a copy of the book (one of the few English books that they had in the bookstore) and started reading. The book, for those who haven’t read it, is much better than the movie… and each night, as the sun was setting in Athens, Greece, I would climb up to my “reading rock” and digest another chapter or two.
I can’t explain exactly why “the reading rock” was one of my favorite things about the city of Athens, but it was. I will always associate the book “Twilight” with the city of Athens and what was happening with me at that time in my life. I will always remember my little platform on the reading rock and the way it felt to have the sun setting behind me, the smell of the earth, and the view of the city far off in the distance.
I am often times asked about my favorite travel locations and I always struggle with the answer to this question because the places I remember are almost never the magnificent, crowded, and popular places you see in the travel magazines and newspaper. Instead, the places I remember are the ones that no one ever told me about before. They are certain bends in the road, or the way the shade from a row of trees falls across a hiking path, or in the case of Greece and the city of Athens – my “reading rock” located just outside the famous Acropolis.