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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

GREECE AT LAST: Arriving in Athens

How lovely it was to be back! To celebrate we had an excellent room at the Philippos Hotel, and this was the view we had from the 5th floor balcony. I'm back in familiar turf again, close to my old haunts, and it felt so good.
And this time I'll be showing my sister and niece around the city that I love so much.

ACROPOLIS, from the hotel

We arrived late afternoon, went for a walk around Plaka to get orientated, then back to the hotel for a glass of wine and sat on the balcony enjoying the view of the Parthenon lit up at night. Tomorrow we'll go sightseeing around the Plaka and up to Syntagma Square.

(note: It's a bit hard writing these blogs so many weeks after I was actually there. But there was unfortunately little time for me to blog when I was away, not even time to jot many notes down in my journal. This was strange to me as I am usually blogging daily while I'm in Athens. So a great many details have been lost. )

We went out for a day of sightseeing. First over to view the Temple of Olympian Zeus. This is the largest temple in Greece, built in 700 BC but later abandoned and finally completed by Hadrian in AD 131. Only 15 of the original 104 Corinthian columns remain (the others were blown down in a gale in 1852) Hadrian placed a collosal statue of Zeus in the centre and an equally collosal one of himself next to it. Neither remain.


We walked up Amalias Blvd past the Zappeion where they hold exhibitions, and we were proceeding up this rather wide avenue toward the National Gardens and Parliament Bldgs when something unexpected happened. The street is always busy, but the sidewalk wasn't particularly crowded. Debra and Jean were walking just behind me. I felt something tap my back and just then four young women came up, two on each side of me. I immediately took off my backpack and noticed it was unzipped. I looked inside quickly and saw my gold cosmetics bag was gone. The girls were ahead of us but I didn't chase after them as, at that point, I wasn't sure if i'd left the bag at the hotel. (It turned out, I hadn't. They had taken it) Fortunately my wallet was tucked way down at the bottom because if they'd taken that, it would have meant a disaster for me. (I don't usually carry my valuables in the backpack but that day I'd been at the bank and had used my VISA to get some money. This was an example of how this very 'safe' city has become unsafe and travellers need to be aware of this. I'm pretty street smart and wary and this is the first time it's happened to me, especially in Greece. But these days pickpockets are around, especially in crowded metro stations, Omonia Square area and other places where there are crowds of people. These were not Greek girls. I suspect they were gypsy girls but can't say for sure. But just a few blocks and about 15 minutes later another incident happened to make me realize that these thieves travel in teams. So beware!

We headed along to the National Palace (Parliament Buildings) to watch the changing of the guards. This is an interesting routine to watch, with the evzones (guards) dressed in their traditional costumes, performing an intricate ritual of marching and dance-like steps. Just as the crowd gathered to the front to watch, I went to take my backpack off. I felt someone bump against me and next to me was a woman. I caught eye contact with her and she scooted away. Yes! My backpack was unzipped again.


Unbelievable! Needless to say, after that day it was always pinned shut and I didn't dare carry my wallet or anything else I valued inside it.

I didn't fret too much over the lost cosmetics (other than that nice gold case) because most of them were used and ready to be replaced. However, the next day when I went to Hondos Centre to buy new cosmetics I realized that the loss was far more expensive than I'd calculated. Cosmetics in Greece are very expensive. I couldn't afford the eye makeup or blush. It cost me the equivalent of $26 Cdn for a tube of Revlon lipstick that I usually pay under $10 for at home! So I went without makeup for the rest of the trip.

Lesson learned! Athens used to be a very safe city but like all big cities where there is an influx of foreigners and a great many poor people, the crime rate has suddnely soared. Pickpockets are a major problem and there are other scams to watch out for at bars, and some taxi drivers who will overcharge. (Find out the expected rates). Interesting though, this time I didn't see the usual gypsy women beggars sitting along the streets with their comatose children in their laps. And one thing you won't find are the droves of spare-changers in every block like there is at home. Sure, there's parts of Athens that are scruffy where bums and druggies hang out, but they are not in your face like they are here in Vancouver. And they don't have gangs running around shooting each other either. I always have culture shock when I come back here and see exactly how bad it is in this country where we are supposed to be so well-off and privileged.

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