Athens, Sparta, Minas Tirith? Learning to drive like a Greek

One of my favourite time wasters is plugging flight details into various websites and seeing how cheap they can be. I then dream about going to the destination in question, but remember all the other things I have on that I absolutely can’t miss. Last week, on Wednesday night, I found some extremely cheap flights from Munich to Athens, and booked them the next morning, as I had absolutely nothing compulsory to do for the next week. I flew out three days later, on Sunday evening!

Athens

My first stop was Athens, where the first impressions were very good, as I got on a clean fast train into the city. Several of their lines were built just before the Olympics, and total passenger numbers are more than twice those of Melbourne, despite a slightly smaller population. I got off at the main station, and instead of finding poverty everywhere, as might be expected for a country that’s had a financial crisis worse than the Great Depression in the USA (in terms of economic shrinkage), I found people out on the town, and a large number of luxury cars, all black of course. Greece may be struggling economically, but it seems that not everyone is struggling.

These impressions were quickly tempered by the sight of the security booth for the European Parliament embassy/ambassador’s building, which was empty and riddled with bullet holes (I think), plus quite a few people sleeping out, although you see homeless people in rich cities as well.

Please correct me if they're not actually bullet holes

Please correct me if they’re not actually bullet holes. Rocks maybe?

 

I checked into a room in the Athens Backpackers, which has a view of the Parthenon, the massive temple on the famous Acropolis. Thanks to the French guy who’d decided to use the bed under his as a wardrobe, I ended up inadvertently taking someone else’s bed, who arrived back late at night and found me sound asleep. I guess that’s why lots of people prefer to stay in hotels, but it doesn’t really concern me.

Dat view

Dat view

 

I was up early thanks to the mosquito in the room taking a liking to me, and in my excitement I put on my running gear and went for a bit of exploration. I ran past the Panathenaic Stadium, built in 1896 for the first Modern Olympic Games, and used for the finish of the marathon in the 2004 Games. It only has three sides so I had a decent view into the largest marble stadium in the world. I then ran up to Mt Lycabettus, a steep 300m high peak with an amazing looking restaurant at the top, but most importantly with an incredible view to the city of Athens, more than 200m below. Perhaps the most amazing thing was the quiet: it was Greek Easter Monday (Orthodox Easter dates often differ from Western ones), and there were close to no cars on the road. This, combined with the wonderfully clear light and air, apparently another rarity for Athens, gave a magical atmosphere. The contrasts however were stark here: many of the paths were overgrown, some with stinging nettles (owch), and I startled more than a few dogs who had taken up residence in the park, however the surrounding suburbs were filled with luxury boutiques, beautiful houses, and expensive cars.

Panathenaic Stadium

Panathenaic Stadium

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View to the Acropolis

Selfies without a front camera

Selfies without a front camera

Looking over the terraces of the restaurant

Looking over the terraces of the restaurant

 

Anyway, following my little adventure, free breakfast in the hostel of jam and bread and boiled egg, I hit the footpath, ‘doing’ all the big sights in a fairly short time. I won’t write much about the ancient history, except to say that the most enjoyable part was trying to imagine the atmosphere of various locations at different points in history, be it during the Republic (the ancient Athens you learn about in school), under Roman control, or under various occupiers like the Ottomans. The East slope of the Acropolis was a favourite: partly because I didn’t see anyone there, to the point where I thought I must have gone out of bounds. The top was amazing but marred by the new craze of tourism: the selfie stick. I started taking photos of these people; I was sure in the knowledge that they were too self-absorbed to ever notice me.

On the other hand, I did the old-fashioned thing and asked a fellow tourist to take a photo of me

On the other hand, I did the old-fashioned thing and asked a fellow tourist to take a photo of me

 

Other sights included various bits of fortification and spectacular ancient ruins, but enough of that.

Following an expensive lunch, or at least more expensive than you would pay in central Munich, I made my way back to the hostel, intent on a bit of a lie-down. Instead, the guy whose bed I’d stolen the previous night asked me if I wanted to join the group on a beach trip, to which I couldn’t think of a good reason to refuse. Athens beach is about 30 minutes away on the tram, and while it would probably be at the lower end of the beaches I’ve visited, I didn’t want to be the Aussie that never stops talking about how the beaches at home are better. I mean, they are, and despite the pebbles and cold water, it was still worthwhile. We rounded off the day with a giros (kebab) at the beach, then later pub trivia, which we won, of course. It was a good introduction to backpacking: you meet people at breakfast and suddenly you’re making plans together for that evening.

Almost warm enough

Almost warm enough

 

I woke the next morning to another mosquito attack, so made an early start on the Acropolis Museum, which is still waiting for the return of its *stolen* Elgin Marbles, which currently are under ‘protection’ in the British Museum. They may have had good enough reason at one point in history, but not anymore; it is definitely time to hand them back. I then discovered the less-touristy areas of Athens, including an Arabic district, which I think is a part of Psirri or just to the north of it, with abundant cheap food, plenty of life, but also signs of urban decay. It’s my hot tip for buying property in Athens; you can thank me in 10 years.

Amazing bakery

Amazing bakery

 

Only 1.2km away are the picturesque and touristy streets of Plaka

Only 1.2km away are the picturesque and touristy streets of Plaka

 

That afternoon I made my way to the car hire place, where I’d managed to pick up a heavily-discounted Fiat Panda, which I would use to drive down to Kalamata, a city 250km south of Athens, in the Peloponnese. My first-cousin-once-removed, an Australian living in Greece (Gill Bouras) would be showing me around for a few days of car touring down there. Which brings me to…

Sex on wheels

Sex on wheels

 

How to Drive Like a Greek

This car was small, because a small car is good when trying to drive out of Athens. The first rule of driving in Greece is that lanes are flexible. If there is a truck parked in your lane, you don’t actually have to change lanes, you can just shift a metre to the left and overlap the next lane. No indication is required, and the car in the next lane will shift to give you a little more room.

If however you are required to change lanes, then be assertive. I mean, really assertive. Very little gap should be expected, and very little will be given in any case. The merge onto the city freeway was even more interesting, but fortunately I managed not to scratch my car, which had € 650 excess on it.

The next thing to know is that you need to have cash on you if you’re planning to drive long distances. Most of the motorways are privately built and tolled, which I did not know when I started, thinking instead that only the first section was tolled. € 16.10 ($22.50) isn’t cheap for 225km, or to put it differently, the toll cost about as much as the petrol did, and having to stop every 20km gets a little demoralising. At least the road was in perfect condition and impressively built, with tunnels and bridges that would make a German proud. Unfortunately few in Greece can afford to pay that sort of toll, so the road was almost empty.

Speed limits are generally optional, unless of course there is a speed camera, which are fortunately highly visible. Driving at the limit of 50km/h in towns or villages will soon see you with a trail of angry drivers behind you, tailgating and waiting for their next moment to…

Overtake. Overtaking is done somewhat differently in Greece. If you are driving on a road with a shoulder, then you are expected to drive with at least half the car on the shoulder. They are generally sealed to the same standard as the rest of the road, which means rough and full of potholes. By only taking half the lane, it allows other vehicles to overtake almost anywhere, especially on double lines. In fact, I’m not even sure if double lines have legal standing in Greece! Drivers are also not required to indicate, especially if pulling over to the side or trying to park. When I say ‘not required’, I am definitely referring to common practice, rather than official rules. Please don’t blame me if you get a traffic fine in Greece!

Lastly, be prepared for anything. I encountered a flock of sheep on one side of the road between Athens and Sparta, a heard of goats led by an elderly peasant farmer, rocks that had fallen onto the road, potholes, cracks, potholes, potholes, bends so tight and steep you need first gear, and extremely large drops without barriers. Fortunately almost all signs are in English writing, and after a few days the lawlessness of the roads actually becomes kind of fun. Oncoming truck? Never mind, you’ll be able to overtake this slow car right here, on a double line.

Goats

Goats

 

Sparta

The Spartans were the ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State/Daesh of the 5th Century BCE. They famously defeated Athens in the Peleponnesian War in 404BCE, but spared the complete destruction of the city, which makes them one better than ISIS. They had a (non-democratic) state very much geared to military objectives, where it is rumoured that babies were bathed in wine as a survival test and killed if they were disabled. They also didn’t build as much nice stuff as the Athenians, since they mostly built things for war. This means that the ruins of Ancient Sparta aren’t overly spectacular, and the modern city of Sparti, established in 1834 at the command of King Otto, who also happened to be a Bavarian, is pretty drab. The setting for the city is however spectacular, with snowcapped peaks towering above the plain, certainly an unexpected sight for Greece in mid-April.

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The Taygetus mountains close up

The Taygetus mountains close up

 

Minas Tirith

I’m sure someone read this post down to here to find out where real-life Minas Tirith is. For those who don’t know, Minas Tirith is the capital of Gondor in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In the movie, it looks like this:

In reality, I’d say Mystras, a Byzantine-era fortified town is a pretty good approximation:

I couldn't really get a good angle or light, sorry about that

I couldn’t really get a good angle or light, sorry about that

Someone else’s photo, stolen from the internet. The town is on that sheer hill

 

The town is no longer inhabited but now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It consists of an outer wall, a lower town, another wall which separates from the upper town (including palace) and then another wall which separates from a castle/fortress on top of the mountain, more than 200 vertical metres above the base wall. The streets were enchanting: steep, narrow and with plenty of views; there was also enough left of the buildings to get a feel of what life might have been like, plus some of the churches still had their murals intact. It is probably a coincidence that Minas Tirith looks over the Pelennor Fields, and Mystras is in Peleponnese? Or that the Athenians might have viewed Sparta as like Mordor? Bit of a stretch perhaps?

Castle at the top

Castle at the top

 

Other towns (Koroni, Methoni, Pilos, Kalamata, Megalopolis, Tripoli, Argos and Corinth)

This post is already far too long, so I will skip over the details. My final days in Greece were spent viewing many castles, many of which changed from Ottoman to Venetian control (no not the footrest, and no not the blinds), swimming on beautiful deserted sandy beaches, eating amazing Greek food, sharing yarns with my travel buddy Gill (as an author her yarns are pretty good), eating ice cream, and dutifully exploring every back alley of every picturesque town we went to.

I drove back to Athens via the old highway. Here I visited interestingly named towns like MEGALOPOLIS (it just needs to be shouted out), which is actually a very moderately sized town; and Tripoli, which although it has seen better days, is no doubt better off than its Libyan counterpart. On the road I encountered spectacular views and plenty of towns that were either on their knees economically, or 90% abandoned. The toll road no doubt had something to do with this, but in any case it was definitely more poverty than you expect to see in Europe, particularly the Eurozone. One can only hope that they manage to get everyone to pay taxes, and that the rest of Europe will see their urgent need for new investment. The European Union is already doing quite a lot, funding 80% of many historical restorations and a significant portion of other infrastructure, but Greece has a tragic amount of unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, which has at least dropped from 60% to 50%, but is still shockingly high.

Luckily, Anton Hofreiter, leader of the German Greens, is here to save the day, and he was on our flight back to Munich, reading the Economist. I snapped this photo of him, but my second attempt wasn’t quite subtle enough…

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With that hair, it’s hard not to recognise him. I think I prefer Adam Bandt

 

Yiassas!

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