Thursday, October 2, 2014

Making it to the Big City.

At Athens Central Market doing what he loves to do - buying fruit!

Today, we finally made it to Athens! We'll be here for the next couple of days.

We left Kamena Vourla at 8:30a this morning. We had to return the rental car by 11:30a and even though the drive would only take us about an hour and a half, Bro was keen and eager to get on the road.


We arrived into the outskirts of Athens without issue and immediately got sucked into the morning hour rush hour traffic jam.

Unfortunately, I had also made another mistake.  I plugged in Enterprise car rental into Ms. Google instead of the airport.  We ended up heading into some downtown location.

Of course, Bro had to (lovingly) give me a hard time, telling me that we had left Athens airport via a major highway and it didn't make sense for us to exit off one and be on a small city street.  Okay, he was right. 
Luckily, we realized the mistake as soon as we pulled off the highway so it just a matter of getting back on and readjusting our course.  I plugged in the airport direction and as we neared the airport, saw signs for rental car return.  For a moment, we debated on whether or not to get gas - we were just below a quarter tank which was the level it was at when we got the car. I voted to chance it and so we drove straight to the Enterprise where we had picked up the car just a few days ago.  The attendant came out to quickly look over the car and all was okay.  He didn't even care about the gas.  From the car rental lot, we made our way back inside the arrival terminal.  There, we decided to sit for a few minutes and grab a quick bite. 

Waiting for the train.

Then it was off to finding the metro station.  I kept telling Bro we were taking the metro in to town because that's how the system is referred in all the pre-trip reading that I had done.  For a few minutes, we wandered about trying to find a sign pointing us to a metro station but all we saw were Train Station signs.  So, we decided to go ahead and follow them.  The signs took us from the arrival terminal, across the street and up the escalator to a separate building.  Inside the main room were self service kiosks and maps.  I recognized the maps as the ones for the Metro.  But this being all new to Bro, he was struggling to figure it out.  Instead of struggling, I convinced him to give up the self service route and just head up to the counter and buy our tickets. There, he peppered the attendant with all the questions he needed answered.  Of course, there are options and so we had to decide 8 Euros per person one way, 14 Euros for two people one way or 20 Euros for a 3 day tourist ticket for all forms of transportation.  I figured we would be taking the metro a lot to move about Athens so the 20 Euro ticket per person seemed to make sense for us so we went that.  Bro plunked down the money and we got our tickets.

You would think that we would know HOW to use the tickets but that quickly became our next challenge.  There were no entry gates, per se.  Just a ticket validating machine.  No instructions on how to validate the ticket so I went first.  I just inserted my ticket in and the machine clicked and spewed it out.  Barely discernible on one side was a date and time stamp.   Bro followed, with just the same degree of uncertainty as I did but even though he didn't think he saw a stamp, it was there.  Assured of such, we walked to the train platform.  The trains come about every half hour, at the top and bottom of each hour and although my watch said one would be arriving soon, we must have just missed it.

I had booked us into an Airbnb apartment in Athens and had arranged to meet with the owner at 12:30.  We had missed the 11:30 train and it was at least a 40 minute ride into town so I texted him to tell him we were late.  I didn't get a response back but was hoping he got the message.  A train pulled into the station and it was empty.  Everyone rushed to the edge of the platform to board but the empty train just sat there.  Perhaps, the driver had to wait til close to departure time before opening the doors?? We all waited and when the doors sprung open, we sprung on board!

I took a seat so I could see the route sign above the door.  Bro sat next to me.  It was very clean and modern train.

At first, we had our luggage at our feet but then as more people boarded, we loaded them on to the luggage racks close by.  We got seats so we could keep an eye on our luggage and we settled in for the ride in to town.

It was a pleasant ride at first but as we neared town, just around the time that the train went underground, the train quickly filled up with people. When I was planning our visit to Athens, I read multiple reports of crimes, all petty, taking place aboard the metro from the airport to downtown.  My safety antenna were up and active!  So as the train filled up and it got a bit harder to keep an eye on our luggage, I got concerned about our luggage and decided to get up from my seat and stand close to the rack.  I wasn't the only one.  Two other men, travelling with their families and who also boarded at the airport, joined me.  We all nodded at each other to acknowledge presence.

Monastiraki Square.  Train station is the building on the right.

It wasn't long before I was crammed in like a sardine.  For the most part, no one looked like they were behaving oddly or suspiciously except for one woman who kept trying to make her way through the crowd - she went back and forth a couple of times, squeezing herself between riders.  She was close to me and kept mumbling the whole time.  I kept my eyes on her until she finally got off.

We were getting off at the Monastiraki station.  As we arrived into the Syntagma station which is the station before Monastiraki, Bro got up and joined me.  I was getting worried about how he was going to make his way, through the can of sardines, to get to me but at least half the train emptied out at Syntagma.

We and our luggage arrived into Monastiraki safe and sound.  Whew!  We made our way to ground level and out to the square.  The place was a mob scene!

Our Airbnb host, Dimitris, had given me a Google map to his place.  We just had to find the starting point, a street named Ermou.  A kind Athenian pointed his finger straight ahead.  Literally, Ermou deadended at Monastiraki.  From there, it was about a 10 minute walk to the apartment.

When we were in Meteora, we were chatting with a fellow tourist who had just come from Athens.  One of her observations about the city was that it was filled with graffiti, more so than she had ever seen in any other city that she had ever traveled to.  As we walked to our apartment, her words rung in my ear.  There was indeed a lot of graffiti - basically ANY surface that could be painted had stuff painted on it!

I also noticed quite a few establishments shuttered up.  I wondered if it was because of the financial crisis that the country has been facing over the past few years.



We found the street the apartment was on and after walking to and fro a bit, found the apartment.  We were in the heart of a local neighborhood - the part of Monastiraki that tourists are not in.  The place looked and felt a bit run down but it was full of life - people were out going about their daily business.

There was not sign of Dimitris so I called him.  He was on his way and so we just waited.  A few minutes later, my phone rang and it was Dimitris.  We were waiting two stores down. Yes, you read that correctly.....stores.  We are definitely not staying in the tourist 'hood!

Just outside our apartment on Agiou Markou.
I was happy to see him and we greeted each other with huge smiles.  We followed him inside the building.  There was a small coffeeshop there.  Bro and I and our luggage squeezed in to the small elevator for the ride to the fourth floor.  Dimitris took the stairs.

I didn't quite know what to expect and so I was pleasantly surprised to be welcomed into a large one bedroom apartment.  It was simply furnished....I thought it was all from Ikea :-)   Dimitris walked us through the place, showed us how to use the washer, and then pointed us to a sheet of paper where he had provided information on markets/restaurants nearby and of course, the passcode for the wifi.  It all looked comfortable enough so after Dimitris left, we got settled in.


Our first order of the day was to go and stock up our pantry and fridge.  We had decided that we would eat breakfast in every day, lunch could be outside and then most likely, dinner in as well.   Before he left, we asked Dimitris how to get to the Athens Central Market and our luck, it was just a few blocks from the apartment.  We decided to make that our first destination.

We had barely walked more than two blocks when we spotted signs of a market.  We entered into a cavernous space filled with meat vendors.  Fresh slabs as well as cuts of lamb, beef, pork, sausages and smoked meats were for sale.  Bro had lamb on his mind.  More specifically, lamb chops.  Hmmm.....grilled lamb chops.  Sounds so good I wanted to drool :-)


An overhead sign pointed to the seafood market.  Oh my God!  If it swims, you can buy it here and as fresh as you can get it.  We went in with fish in mind but I wanted octopus. 


We left without buying anything....for now.  We wanted to buy all the other supplies first and come back and get the meat and seafood last.

So, from the meat market, we crossed the street and found the small fresh produce market.  Unlike what we encountered in Riga's Central Market, where there were dozens of veggie and fruit vendors selling the freshest of produce, there were far fewer vendors here.  The selection of fruits and veggies was far smaller but everything was fresh.  As expected. Bro made a beeline for the fruit vendors.  He bought some grapes and some figs to try out. 



In the meantime, I picked up some tomatoes, cucumbers, and olives.  You can't go wrong with a Greek salad :-)  Then, I hit up a vendor for garlic and some onion.  Staples in my kitchen no matter what country I'm in!

So many different types of olives to choose from!

Next we made our way to a store that sold everything from pasta to pickled veggies to yogurt and cheese.  I really wanted some Greek yogurt.  There was a young girl standing beside a refrigerated compartment, outside the store.  She spoke a little English.  When we told her we wanted to buy yogurt, she asked us which kind - sheep, goat or cow?  I come from a land where there is no choice so we had no idea.  So, she gave us a sample of each to taste and I have to admit, they did taste very different but they were all super creamy.  The cow's milk one was the mildest so that's what we went with.  Here, yogurt is sold by weight.  We had a choice of a kilo or half kilo.  When Bro shops for food, he goes big so a kilo it was.  She also had feta cheese for sale.  We didn't sample any.  We just asked her to pick one that was not too salty.  We got a small slab.

It was then back to get our meat for dinner.  With all the exciting options we could have gone with, we settled for pork chops.  Such foodie losers.  Even I was disappointed with myself but I wasn't sure about the lamb - I didn't recognize any of the cuts.  As for the seafood, so much to choose from, it was overwhelming.  I promised Bro that we would go seafood tomorrow night.

On the way back to the apartment, we stopped by a small store that sold nothing by honey.  Yep, nothing but honey.  We got a small bottle.  I had visions of a bowl of tasty Greek yogurt topped with honey.  Oh yeah.

Back in our apartment, Bro enjoyed a small snack of yogurt and grapes.  I told him add the honey.  So much better.  Of course, I was right :-) 



We were finally settled in to our apartment but we weren't ready to call it a day yet so after our short break, we ventured out to explore a bit of Athens!