I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

That Was The Greek That Was

Well Friday night was a washout. Stayed in my room for a few hours, couldn't be bothered trekking down hills in the rain to anywhere for a Friday night by myself in central Athens so figured I'd just eat in the hotel. Went to the bar and they told me they didn't do food. Had the place to myself for 2 beers worth of time before heading to bed, foodless, and to watch WWE NXT Takeover REvolution which was fucking fantastic.

Slept pretty badly. Probably as a result of dehydration and general lack of calories throughout Friday, but it wasn't helped by being woken up by the shagging couple upstairs at 0430. Tried to drown them out with some BBC R4 which didn't work very well, eventually nodded off for some shitty quality sleep and managed to crawl out of bed to get breakfast at 0915. So much for my plan of a long night's uninterrupted kip followed by an early checkout for lots of Athens viewing but, ah, whatever.

The weather and breakfast were both much better than on Friday. The olives didn't smell so bad and there was more of everything, presumably because I hadn't turned up with only 5 minutes to go. Hadn't taken my bag and wasn't in a hurry, I figured I would have a shower and pack and then go for the 1111 bus. But y'know what? Fuck that bus. I've walked around Venice without a map so I'm pretty sure I can navigate Athens. Bag on my back, up to the Acropolis and down the pedestrianised bit past the man walking his dog while riding a segway (what?) and hey presto, I come out exactly where I want to be, at the Temple of Olympian Zeus. €2 off a surly ticket guy and I'm in, for a wander around some pretty pretty ruined ruins. The sky is blue, it's warm, and the ruins look excellent. I bring out the Hipstamatic filters to see if I can pretend I know how to compose a photo, and get annoyed by photobombers.

Back out via a photo of the arch, I walk through the natural gardens, which is nice enough. There are lots and lots of dogs. I go past some yellow building which looks fairly interesting, but I have no idea what it is and am not of a mind to particularly find out. My spidey sense tells me I'm heading in the right direction for the Panatheniac stadium and after some statue of a bloke on a horse, there it is. It looks magnificent.

Surly ticket seller gives way to surly ticket checker and surly audio guide distributor and I am standing in the world's only stadium made of marble, a place 2400+ years old which holds 60k+ people and was home to quite a lot of the first modern Olympics in 1896. It's amazing. I slowly peel around the side of the track listening to the audio guide, stopping to look at the original royal box, climbing up a bunch of rows but refusing to go up the way way way too steep second tier. It's so much better than the Samaranch egotism of the Barcelona stadium and museum.

The views from every angle are fantastic and you're allowed on the track, but I don't go in just yet, choosing instead to follow the audio tour guide. Past the half way point there is a large door and there isn't just a story, but you go in, through this cave-like tunnel, up to an area where naked women used to dance around flames to try and make sure they'd snag decent fellas, and then up into the changing rooms where there is an exhibition of actual Olympic flame torches from masses of games - Summer and Winter - plus official posters. It is a bit jarring to see the 1936 (Nazi Berlin) and 1948 (London) posters next to each other. I am in awe of the sporting history and getting goosebumps.

Back down through the tunnel I really can imagine what it must have been like - well, of course I can't, but you know what I mean - to have been an athlete stepping out in front of a ravenous crowd of so many people ready to watch the pinnacle of human sporting achievement. There are stories from 1896, where 70,000 people packed in from a city which at the time only had a population of 128,000. Holy shit!

Everything is marble. Some of the architectural members are originals from 2400 years ago. The drainage system is 1800 years old and has never had any work done to it. You can see all of Athens's other major landmarks from the seats - the Acropolis and Parthenon, St George's cathedral, the mountains, etc. I learn that the length of one side of the track is 185 yards, a distance which used to be called a 'stade', and that's why places where sports take place are called stadiums. I learn that the 1900 and 1904 Olympics were both shit so there was a bonus 1906 "intermediate" games, in Athens, to show Paris and St Louis how to do it - followed by the 1908 where we Brits changed the length of the marathon because reasons.

I am totally overwhelmed by how much I enjoy the whole place, and finish the tour by walking a full circuit of the track in lane 4, and wishing there was someone around who could take a photo of me standing on the podium.

It's a shame to leave, but leave I do. I decide it's kinda time to try and get a Guinness, since all this proper tourism is making me quite emotional. Back through the natural gardens I wander up to Syntagma square oppoosite the parliament, figuring a photo of the legislature of the home of democracy is probably the done thing. The guard is being changed by the tomb of the unknown soldier but I cannot be arsed to watch it, especially because it's so much worse than the Moscow version. Sorry, Athens, but it is.

Past the square and all the groups of protestors and hordes of other folk I'm in winging it mode. I stroll through lots of pedestrianised streets, where "pedestrianised" means "also two way for motorbikes", and nearly trip over numerous stray dogs. I'm totally guessing my way towards Monastiraki where I believe the James Joyce Irish pub is. After a while on lots of side streets which appear to constitute the ancient hardware store quarter of Athens I decide to give up and check a map. I am about 10 minutes walk from the pub but have indeed gone slightly wrong.

The walk from where I am to where I want to be takes me past yet more bona fide tourism - the super-bustling fruit, veg and fish markets. They smell incredible. The streets are really fucking busy and I'm really quite enjoying myself. This has to stop, and sure enough does when on one of those streets where its pretty impossible to figure out how traffic ever gets anywhere, I get stuck behind two locals who seem unable to cross the fucking road. Jesus Christ, the cars are going to slowly it would be impossible to get hurt. Just step out! Someone else arrives and does just that, kinda barging the girls out of the way, and I cross in their wake.

All along the walk I'd been prepared to go in the first Guinness vendor I saw, but actually I saw barely any pubs. Maybe bad luck, but I think more likely that drinking is done in districts (unlike England with its "pubs everywhere" philosophy). Just before I reach my destination, another Guinness-pimping boozer looms but since I'm only a couple of doors away I hold firm.

I grab a seat at the bar and order a pint of Guinness and a plate of fish and chips. The drink is divine, and both the fish and the chips are giant hefting great examples of their ilk. I nom the lot down like a bastard and then ask the barman how long it'll take to get to the airport. I suggest it's about an hour, he says 'noo, nothing like it', asks me what time I'm flying, skirts around the point, and convinces me to buy a second pint. It was not difficult.

In my pad I write ATHENS in big letters, with a box next to it, which I tick. I take my metaphors very seriously. I am inordinately happy with all kinds of things, and tell Mike by text - who was kind enough to tell me that this weekend I have won the Internet - that there is yet another decent blog post title on its way. I hope he's satisfied with this one.

My flight is delayed. So is the previous one. Mine is showing anything between 30 and 45 minutes, while the 1430 is now not leaving until 1735. Since I was aiming for the airport at about 1615 anyway, I hatch a plan. The airport does, of course, take about an hour to get to, because I'm right and I know my stuff and that barman shouldn't have doubted me. The tube journey is spent standing because it's busy, and I am wondering why the busking kids choose to use accordions. Second only to fucking bagpipes, the only way they're getting euros out of me is if they promise to fucking stop playing their cunting instruments.

Airports are easy to navigate and before I know it I am in the BA lounge, asking if they can fit me on the delayed flight. Probably not, unless I have a flexible ticket, is the answer. I say I presume the delays are a knock-on from yesterday's London airspace issue and she looks at me like I'm some kind of fucking idiot while telling me that no, it's totally unrelated. Sitting down, I see her print out a boarding pass and wonder if she has managed to get me on the early flight but alas no, she's just telling me the plane has changed and so has my seat. Damn it. For this flight I've had seat 6A, 18A, 21A, 10E, and now 12J. I feel dizzy :-(

And, uh, that's it. I fly in some indeterminate amount of time to Heathrow and that's country 50 done. I need to buy some ouzo, and then bask in my own narcissistic glory. Here, almost certainly, endeth my blog for 2014 and right now I have no travel planned for 2015 until July. It surely can't stay that way for long...

Friday, December 12, 2014

Whoops Acropolis

Blogging is so much easier now I have a keyboard for my iPad. However, it beomes harder again when I lean back on the headboard of this bed only to discover it's not a headboard, but the wall, and as I lean the bed rolls forward away from it. Gah.

Yeah, in - well, on - bed at just gone 3pm Friday. But I have, like, done stuff.

Didn't go to the bar last night after all. Watched a bit of BBC World and then kipped in pitch darkness for fucking ages. Hell(enic) yeah recreational sleep. Woke up about 8am and laid around listening to iPlayer 'til finally getting up just in time to make it down for breakfast. I hadn't remembered ordering a room which came with breakfast but am very glad I did.

Mind you, it was pretty ropey. The room in which it's served is next to the pool - one of the least attractive propositions ever, given the continued grim, bleak, rainy weather. The whole city was covered in fog and cloud. The scrambled eggs were nice, as were the meats and orange juice but Jesus Christ the olives smelt DISGUSTING. Also had a bowl of fruit and yoghurt, which I believe counts as legit tourism.

Having seen the city sightseeing bus leaflet at reception yesterday I figured I'd ask them where the stop was. As it goes they sold me a ticket for the dual tour (there are two routes) and the stop is just up the road, with the bus due to leave in just under 10 minutes. Whoa! Thankfully I'd brought all my stuff with me to breakfast so set off out in the pissing awful rain, trying to keep my feet on the slippery pavements - where there were pavements, that is. They disappear every few yards and occasionally reappear on the other side of the road. Meh.

Got to the stop at the exact same time as the bus. Took a seat downstairs, even though they'd put the covers on upstairs I figured it would still be quite wet up there. Plugged the headphones in and settled back for a tour of Athens.

The tour has mutltiple themes running through it. Athens is full of old shit; they invented democracy and drama; they love sport; every single stop is a fantastic place to get off and do stuff on hot summer days. That last one was rammed home so much I almost stopped enjoying the bleak, off season misery painted on everyone's faces.

There's a funicular railway up a hill, which I might seek out tomorrow. Some excavations during the building of the metro led them to find even more ancient stuff, as if they haven't got enough, and that's pretty cool. Like Crossrail and that. Went past the big hitters - Syntagma square, parliament (complete with protestors opposite), the national gardens, this incredible old panathenaic(?) stadium, tomb of the unknown soldiers - of which I got precisely no photos. Most of the windows downstairs on the tour bus are impossible to see through, and anyway the weather was bleak and etc. I made notes both of what I was learning and where I might want to get off on a subsequent circuit, if the weather gets better.

At one point they mentioned a site where Paul - biblical Paul, that is - proselytized to a tough crowd of philosophers, stoics, and epicureans. Pick your audience, man. And in one part of town they made an explicit "yeah, looks shady, but try not to be scared" point. There was an Irish bar near there. Hmm.

During one long gap between stops they do a bit of spiel about how City Sightseeing is all over the world, you can get a 10% discount on future tours with today's ticket, and then list off some of the exciting amazing places you can do these tours. Their very first example is Blackpool. Later on, Norwich. Um. Really.

At Syntagma Square, second time, we were shunted from one bus onto another so I took the opportunity to sit upstairs in the wet and cold. We went past Hadrian's Arch and they said, um, something in the vicinity took 637 years to build. Bloody hell. And then, after that, we reached the stop where I'd got on, at the Acropolis. The weather hadn't got any better so, fuck it, I'm clearly not going to do any of those other places so I might as well do the one nearest my hotel.

Turns out the whole Acropolis/Parthenon thing is fucking fantastic. €12 to get in and it's this vast site full of ruins and aceness. I had it mostly to myself, only a handful of other hardy resolute fools braving the rain which was coupled with quite an annoying wind, what with being up top of a hoofing great hill. Most people fought with umbrellas, because they're idiots.

As I left the Parthenon to explore the rest of the complex, about 200 people arrived on some tour. I think I photobombed nearly everyone's first two pics. I had to stand and just chill for a bit as they just got to the top of some steps and crowded there so no-one could get past. It wasn't even the place with the best view, nor most room. GET OUT OF MY WAY.

Eventually got past them and then headed down to the Dionysus Theatre. Having now seen it I think Dionysus is Greek for "Dave the Precarious", what with it being totally bonkers steep, flanked by slippery paving and landslips. Took a bunch more photos of old stuff. The rain had actually largely disappeared, but it was still very dark and ominously cloudy. Some statues were made in the 4th C BC. That's pretty fucking old!

Bought a very very cheap bottle of water and wandered back to the main complex towards the exit, during which walk I had my ticket checked by a lass at a gate. By doing this, she seemed to make the stray cat next to her very very angry and demand a lot more attention. Back out and to this other marble bit of ruins just outside the ticket area and a set of stray dogs were following one couple who clearly had a very nice smelling bag. Soon after they disappeared a shitload of dog barking echoed around the area. Suspicious.

Back to the bus stop, well timed for the second tour of the day. My ticket is valid for 48 hours on two routes, one around Athens and one out to Piraeus, the main port. So having done the former I figured I'd do the latter. A group of Australian tourists were getting off my bus and asking for help with getting to some address, by asking repeatedly what area they should put in their GPS. "Athens. Put Athens" "But our GPS won't accept Athens". And to think they were trying to find out how to get to where their hire car is waiting...

The Piraeus tour started off in surprisingly intelligent fashion, wielding the words "vicissitudes" and "capricious" in the first couple of minutes. But that was really the most interesting thing about the tour. We drove along a motorway, passed Olympiakos's stadium and a bunch of 2004 summer olympics venues and about 100 massive strip clubs.

In Piraeus there was an English bar and Irish bar near the main cruise terminal but I chose not to get off. Then regretted it, but, no matter. Piraeus is a giant port with 40km of working coastline, plus a couple of nice (in the summer, etc etc) beach and port resorts on the way back. Also branches of Natwest and RBS. What?

Throughout that second tour the rain had started to really come down again. Back at the Acropolis I was thinking how badly situated my hotel is for going out on the sauce, but maybe that's not such a bad thing. What is a bad thing is that I'm fucking starving, and can't decide which of "Whoops Acropolis" and "Acropolis Now" makes for the better blog post title. Having come back to the hotel to write this and therefore solve the latter problem, I guess it's about time I sought some solids.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

In the Greek mid-winter

Anyone who doesn't think that's the fucking jackpot of champagne-swigging first class blog post titles can stop reading right now.

I stayed in the lounge until about 1130, with a flight time of 1220. I don't really know why I haven't learnt my lesson yet but I still give myself way too much time at the gate - big bird to Joburg notwithstanding - when flying cattle class and/or from airports where boarding announcements aren't made from the lounge.

Flight BA632 LHR-ATH was leaving from gate A12, slap bang in the middle of the main T5 terminal. Right now it's hidden behind a load of building works which means all the passengers are cramped in to an area not really big enough for them. I walked to and straight through it since I was way too early, but I did spot that fast track boarding would be in effect. Trying to be sensible, I rearranged all my explosives and other stuff such that everything I wanted for the flight was in my coat pockets or hands.

Fast track boarding was a fucking joke. They announced it very clearly, slowly, obviously, and then various members of staff got angry, shouting at the hordes of people trying to get on board when they weren't yet allowed. And then some passengers got angry too. For fucks sake. I eventually bowled through and took my seat 19A, window, over the wing.

I forgot how little room you get for stuff in an economy seat. I shouldn't have forgotten - for fucks sake, I've almost flown as many economy miles as fat cat this year, and over 25000 since the last time I was up front. But still I got it wrong. It was trick to stow my pad, phone, USB brick, iPad and headphones as well as the coat and I was all kinds of clumsy and uncomfortable. Then I felt better when the clumsy git with the giant laptop and tablet sat next to me and proceeded to have a loud conversation with the row behind - which mostly involved him turning his head half way and shouting in my fucking ear.

Kept dozing off. Don't really know why. At one point I woke up and my headphones were nowhere to be seen, and I still don't have them now. It's a mystery to me how I can have lost them, but I did, so I opened the provided ones which were fucking awful and broken. No podcasts for me. The plane was heaving full and I was actually, finally, a little bit excited to be going to Athens.

We didn't leave. The first officer made an announcement - they'd found a drawing pin stuck into one of the tyres, so had sent for engineers to change it. This does not appear to be as efficient a manoeuvre as in Formula One and they said it would take 20 minutes. 25 minutes later I'd received a helpful alert from kayak telling me my flight was going to leave late, and the first officer said we'd take another 20 minutes. We eventually left an hour and a quarter late, with my seatmate being called out by the staff for still dicking around with his bag in the aisle as we were on the runway. Sigh.

The doziness wore off and I played a bit of pinball on the iPad, eventually scoring 2 of my highest ever 6 scores on the table I've played more than any other. Go me! And then service started. First, beer and a bag of bird seed. Some people tried to complain about the food, not realising - by which I mean, not listening to them having said - that the proper food was coming separately. I appreciated the announcement that if anyone wanted a drink, just hit call. For some reason my seatmate hit call just as they were serving 2 rows ahead of us. I was quite distressed by the lack of space and constant mouth and elbows all flight. Meh.

At some point there were some nice mountains outside, but the 767 has entertainment on the drop down screens rather than a moving map so I'm fucked if I know what and where they were. The main food was a full meal - pasta bake with bacon and mushrooms, bread roll, cheese and crackers, and a ginger sponge cake. And another beer. The cabin crew member asked me if he could borrow the milk from my tray since I wasn't going to have coffee. Borrow?

I bought some headphones from Duty Free thus making myself the first person I've ever seen buying electronics from the inflight magazine.

Landing was bumpy. Nigh on 80% of the cabin leaped to their feet and started fighting for their bags before the sign went off and consequently ended up standing up queueing to get out for a good 15 minutes. I just sat still. I know we were late, but, really, enough with the hurrying. I overtook half of them anyway on the way to the exit.

I navigated Athens airport like a champ. Stepped out landside - hello, country #50, box ticked - and went straight to the ATM for €120. Turned away and was already facing the signs to the trains - out the door, across the road, holy shit that is some serious rain. Along the pavement, up one floor in the lift, round the corner to two escalators, across a bridge and here's the ticket office. As usual, most people seem to be ignoring the machines so I just waltzed up to the one labeled Metro (not Suburban Railway) and bought a return to the city, down the stairs and onto the almost deserted, freezing cold, wet station platform. This is proper horror movie opening scene torrential rain, really noisy and the station has a roof but is exposed still and everyone else - there are about 10 peope around - looks fucking miserable. I am happier than a pig in shit and can tell I'm grinning.

The metro arrives after 15 minutes and a guy starts talking to me as we get on. He starts off in Greek which draws a blank look, so asks me if I'm English, which I am. I learn he's staying just round the corner from Acropoli metro which, as far as I know, so am I. I spend the first 15 minutes of conversation totally failing to figure out if his accent is Welsh or not. He is German. I'm not doing very well here. We chat, and a couple of English lads ask me for tube advice/directions too. Clearly I look knowledgable.

The metro to Syntagma takes forever and gets really fucking mad crowded. Me and the German change onto the line to Acropoli at which he consults his phone for directions. Despite wearing glasses and having giant fonts, he still has to hold it about 1cm from his eyes. Wow. His hotel is nearer the station to me and because of cobbles and just general geniality I help him with his bags to his hotel and then set off to my own using Google maps as my guide. It takes me straight into a deserted unlit residential area but I am a slae to the blue dot on the blue line and trust it. At one point I go up a very steep road which ends with a much much steeper set of stairs, which makes me wonder why the fuck I chose a hotel with "Hill" in its name.

But, hey presto, there it is, the Acropolis Hill hotel. It seems very quiet. There was no-one in the streets and there is no-one in the bar (yet). I check in and have things explained to me, starting with how to find room 504. Turns out reception, at street level, is on floor 3. So I'm 2 floors above that, and breakfast, on the 1st floor, is two floors below reception. I mean what the fuck. Didn't this lot invent numbers? How have they got this so wrong?

There's a cracking view of the Acropolis and Athens in general from a roof terrace, and a shit view of a wall with graffiti on it from my room's balcony. I believe they also invented democracy round here somewhere and today, with Russell Brand and Nigel Farage on Question Time back home, I mostly feel like apologising to everyone for what we've done. It was never meant to be this way.

Greece is the word

Oh, hello London Heathrow terminal 5, BA galleries lounge. What an excellent place to be on an excellent day. Though obviously it rarely fails to be an excellent day when I'm on the free scran and sauce about to board a plane. This is a bit different though - I'm not just flying somewhere random, I'm about to hit my half century of countries before 2014 finishes. And I'm quite chuffed about that.

I wrote about my supposed quest to reach 50 countries last year. I really wasn't sure I'd make it so soon back then, but this has been a bit of a decent year for travel even without the assistance of any GCERC-style lunacy. And in fact, if plans had gone as they were meant to go I would have been finishing 2014 in country number 51, and that country would have been North Korea, and I would have been in a brewery, and I'm not even joking. But then ebola broke out in various west African nations so Kim decided to close his country's borders to everyone - after I'd already booked flights and a tour, dagnabbit - so I had to scrabble around for an alternative. So this post finds me settling in to a couple of cans of London Pride and some thoroughly disappointing elevenses prior to a flight to Athens in that there Greece.

As it goes I'm really quite ambivalent about the North Korea thing. On the one hand I'm really fucked off about it - it's my absolute number one dream destination to visit and they had best not have some form of populace liberating transition to unity and a removal of their pariah status before I get my mollycoddled guided tour. On the other hand, I would have been out of the country when AFC Wimbledon host Liverpool in the 3rd round of the FA Cup and fuck that for a lark. I've missed enough big games and I have not looked forward to a game like this in fucking years. A decent silver lining that.

Aaaaanyway. I haven't been so unprepared for a trip in ages. I left the house at 0840 having started packing at 0825. I washed some clothes at 0030, after I got in from a night out boozing and stuff. I haven't printed out the address of my hotel, any guides on how to use the Athens metro, or in fact anything at all. I have no euros and the only thing I know for certain is that when I get there I shouldn't moon people because the UK government says not to.

I presume that everything will work out just fine because it basically always does. I'm staying in a hotel with Acropolis in its name, near the Acropolis, near Acropolis metro station. If I can't find the Acropolis in Athens then I should have my passport confiscated. Pfft.

So my journey here. Meh. Woke up to an email telling me my flight was an hour late, then another saying it was 45 minutes, then 19 minutes, then on time. I was kinda hoping it would stay an hour late tbh. Left the house way earlier than I do for work and suffered a horrific rush hour bus ride to Kingston followed by a much better one to Hatton Cross. Lots of people confused that the bus was terminating there rather than the central bus station and a bit angry, none of them seemingly aware - or believing the driver - that they will get to their termin much quicker by changing at Hatton Cross for the tube. I spent the whole journey listening to wrestling podcasts (Steve Austin seems to think a JD and coke is a cocktail - really, Steve) and Freakonomics talk lots about fraud in the pet cremation business, which was an odd topic. I also wrote down fucking loads of puns involving the word "Greek" and have come up with what I consider to be the perfect one, which I will unleash on a later post.

At Feltham a lorry went past which had the words LINFORD CHRISTIE emblazoned across the top of the windscreen, as if the driver was called Linford and the passenger Christie. Really?

As usual I was totally well prepared for going through security like a boss. There were virtually no queues but I was hindered by a girl who seemed to have hand luggage WAY too heavy for her to carry or even drag on wheels. Went in a different queue, brief chat with the friendly security guy, through the x-ray, waited for my bag and coat and etc to come out the other side.

Why isn't it coming out the other side? Why is the woman asking whose iPad that is? Why is my bag going down the secondary "this set off alarms" route?

Turns out my bag set off alarms. Oh. I was asked to unzip it and then she delved through the contents, taking stuff out and swabbing it with that magic stick thing and pointing out to me on the monitor that my little carrier bag full of electronics (USB batteries, cables, plugs, etc) was densely packed and looked shifty. But she was fine with it, just had to check the swab and put the bag back through.

BING BING BING BING BING loud noise everyone stares. Me and someone on the next lane simulatenously set off the second stage alarms with the results of that test. Oh. So she pisses off to find a supervisor. He comes along, asks what the deal is, looks happy and genial with a clipboard and then looks at something on the screen and then at me and comes to have a word. The geniality drops from his face a bit. My bag has indeed tested positive for explosives.

This is quite a surprise. I tell them that everything in the bag is mine, tempting as it was to just blame someone else. I tell them I'm flying direct, that I don't work with chemicals, and that I'm travelling for pleasure. And he writes these things down on the form on his clipboard and then says that they'll have to do something else, and away he goes. There is some conflab, after which the first woman comes back with my stuff and says, OK, you're fine to go now. I am somewhat bemused, largely relieved I haven't accidentally brought semtex with me but ever so slightly disappointed I didn't get to experience the full-on "take the guy with the big beard into an interrogation room" experience.