Monday, October 19, 2009

Athens and the Argo-Saronic

For the final week of my journey through Athens and two of the Argo-Saronic islands just off the coast I was traveling with my friend Ira. After traveling solo for 7 weeks this took some mental adjustment on my part but all in all worked out very well. Now I had someone to talk to over meals, split appetizers with and cover more ground on the local menus, and upgrade to nicer digs while splitting the cost and saving money in the process. Case in point... for our first dinner we split a Greek salad, some delicious stuffed eggplant, a plate of sardines in olive oil and a half liter of decent white wine, light and crisp, not too sweet, perfect for dinner. Had I been traveling solo a meal like that would have been way over my budget but after splitting the cost was quite mangeable. Ira's also a great conversationalist... (Phd, college professor, has written a textbook on fluid dynamics, avid reader... you get the idea) We had plently of opportunity to talk about history, religion, the economy, conspiracy theories and the like.
Monday morning after seeing the Acropolis and the Agora we got up early with the intention of seeing the magnificent Archeological Museum in Athens and then heading out to the islands. All packed up and checked out, we walked 15 minutes or so to the museum only to find it doesn't open until 1:30 on Mondays! Oh well... quick change of plans... I'll just have to see it on Friday, my last day in Greece, before catching my flight home on Saturday.
So off to the port of Piraeus we go to catch a morning ferry to the island of Egina. The metro system in Athens is great ... convenient and easy to use and understand and we made it to the port in about 30 minutes. This is the second time I had been here so I sort of knew my way around, but I had seen it in my early morning grogginess after an all night ferry from Santorini a few days earlier. It's an enormous port with tons of huge ships, cargo ships, tankers, cruise ships and ferries large and small. Quite a sight and very well laid out.
The weather was gorgeous as usual... I was beginning to take it for granted... sunny in the low 80's with calm seas. Because of it's proximity to Athens, Egina Town can get pretty booked up in summer. Even off season the Athenians swarm the place on weekends, but we were arriving mid-week and had no trouble finding a great little hotel right downtown about a 2 minute walk to the waterfront in the center of the harbor. It was a 200 year old building with lots of character, a nice courtyard and views of the sea from the rooftop terrace. We booked their only suite for 3 nights so we had plently of space and our own rooms. The first day we just wandered around the layrinth cobblestone alleys that passed for streets in the old town. Had a great lunch ... Greek salad, mixed grill, eggplant and a couple 500ml Mythos beers. Dinner was at a place recommended by Raina from our hotel... it was down a little unmarked alley away from the more touristy waterfront places. We sat outside and the owner came out to greet us, apologizing that she didn't have a full menu tonight because of it being off season. Then she continued on to list the ingredients she had and what she could make of them! We settled on marinated pork pieces in a spicy wine sauce, a Greek salad of course, and some delicious spinach pie. All washed down with a half liter of house red...perfect.
Tuesday morning broke a little cloudy but mostly sunny. Raina prepared a wonderful breakfast with bread, homemade jams and marmelades, yogurt, fresh apple pie and a hot from the oven cheese pie. We decided to rent scooters today and see the island... probably couldn't have picked a worse day! Half an hour into the ride with us on the other side of the island the clouds moved in and it began to rain. We headed for home but the roads were very slick... probably the first rain here in a month. Anyway Ira crashed... nothing serious but enough to shake him up and call it quits for the day. We left his bike on the side of the road and made our way back to the rental place. Since it was early and mine was already I paid for I decided to keep it just in case. We had some beetroot salad and grilled octopus for lunch at the fish market and then the weather began to clear. Ira was perfectly content to relax at a waterside cafe and read his book, so I hopped on my scooter and off I went!
The sun came out and it got very windy, drying the roads in no time. Scooters are an awesome way to see the small islands. Made me think again about getting a motorcycle back home. I covered the entire island in a few hours seeing the sights along the way. A 2500 year old intact temple standing on a hill with views of the mediterranean on 3 sides. It was a little smaller than the Parthenon on the Athens Acropolis, but older and in much better condition. Saw the largest church in Greece... pretty from the outside but otherwise unremarkeable. Then I stopped to explore an abandoned village on a hillside in the middle of the island. Once again I was the only person there.... amazing. Walking little stone paths up the mountainside and passing churches and buildings some of which were 800 years old. And they're open to the public! No locks, just walk into an ancient church with 500 year old frescoes and then make your way up to the ruined castle on the top of the hill... it just floors me. In the west we would charge admission, everything would be roped off and, of course, there would be paved paths and safety handrails every step of the way. Not here... watch your step because you snooze, you loose.
Spent the next day lying on the beach and seeing the ruins just outside of town. The food was fabulous again and we even found a place with Guinness on tap and backgammon boards. The clouds began to move in again and we decided to head to the island of Agistri for our last day tomorrow.
Can't have perfect weather all the time! Drizzley, gray and cool for the 15 minute ferry ride over to Agistri. Pretty much rained on and off all day, although in between the rain we toured the little town and I walked up through a small village towards the highest spot on the island. Just beyond the village the road turned into a dirt track that ran up over the mountain and across to the other side of the island. Agistri is a beautiful small island mostly uninhabited and covered in lush pine forests. The fresh pine scent is incredible, especially after the rain. The views from the top are fantastic but it's starting to get dark and I have to turn around. On a nicer day I would have liked to walk all the way across... It's only like 12km across the longest point.
For my last day in Greece I woke to torrential rains, but they cooperated and subsided just in time for me to walk into town and but my ferry ticket before promptly sarting up again. I said my good-byes to Ira as he had a much later flight the next day and didn't really care to see the Museum. We boarded in the pouring rain and made the hour journey back to Athens.
Thankfully the rain had stopped by the time I made it back to the Backpackers Hostel near the Acropolis in the early afternoon and I immediately headed out to the great Athens Archeological Museum. It was everything I had imagined. In the past 8 weeks I've seen a lot of places and pieces from many civilizations... Assyrian, Hittite, Mycenaean, Minoan, Classical Greek, Lycian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman, Alexander's Empire.... and the Athens museum kind of brought it all together for me and put them all into their proper place in history. Very similar to the Anatolian Civilization Museum in Ankara, Turkey. But the statues, sculptures, bronzes, Greek urns and vases and other artwork from the various Greek civilizations are truly beautiful and awe inspiring. The larger than life bronze statue of Posieden is an amazing piece of art, and it boggles my mind that something so beautiful could have been created over 2,500 years ago and it's still around for us to appreciate today. The 3,500 year old solid gold Mask of Agamemnon is another amazing piece of work. We've all seen pictures of these things in school and various books but to see them first hand made them all so much more real for me. It makes you realize how short our time on this earth is and to cherish every moment of it.


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