Faithful readers: we're now in Athens, Greece, and we just experienced an unexpectedly fabulous night courtesy of the Greeks and their hospitality. But to learn about that, you must first read about our adventures in obtaining our package (and therefore our digital camera), which we have compared to "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle." If you haven't seen that movie, you're depriving yourself of a real treat, so stop reading, watch the film, and then continue:
Real quick, we did see a bunch of great museums in Madrid: the free secondary exhibit of the Thyssen Museum (featuring works by two Spanish painters); the simply massive Prado Museum - it features art, mostly painting, from 1100 - 1900, and has what must have been thousands of priceless works of art, as well as an incredible exhibit detailing new infrared painting-scanning techniques that enable the artist's initial drawings (underneath the paint) to be seen - which is simply amazing, not only for showing off their attention to detail and skill even in the preliminary stages of the painting, but also for the fact that one can see the various changes that are made - items not painted, or adjusted, or viewpoints that are changed; and lastly the Reina Sophia Museum, which features mostly modern art, though of all types from paintings to structures to things that we were quite sure are simply not art (white canvasses with solitary black lines, and monchrome canvasses lined up, for example), though tragically the majority of their Dali and Picasso paintings were closed for the day due to the temperature or something equally weak like that - which wouldn't have been too big a deal, accept those were the two artists we mainly went to see, and we weren't notified of that fact until after we'd already paid and tried to go the Picasso and Dali rooms - thoughtful...
We last left you late, late on our final night in Madrid, so after only about 4 hours (that's generous) of sleep, we awoke around 9 a.m. on Thursday, packed up all of our belongings, checked our email (which is more fun than you'd think when you're travelling), and tried, quickly, one last time to get our package from the local DHL drop-off point. Obviously it was not there, but after a call to DHL (fortunately the owner/main employee was very kind, he frequently called DHL on our behalf for free), we learned that our package was en route, but that information was of no good to us, since we had a 1 p.m. flight to London (& then on to Athens), and thus we headed to the nearest metro stop, which was fortunately right across the street. However, fate was on our side, since when we arrived at the British Airways counter, they informed us that our flight was going to be several hours late, and since we had a connecting flight (which we would therefore miss), we were actually going to be placed on their parter airline Iberia's direct flight to Athens. So that fact alone was great, since London was numerous hours of flight time out of our way, but the even better news was that our new flight was not until 6 p.m., which gave us several hours to attempt to hunt down our package. After a surpisingly good airport lunch (the baguette sandwiches are prime everywhere in Europe), we headed to the bus stop that we needed to be at in order to catch a bus to the cargo area of the airport, where the main Madrid DHL office is located. Once again, fate was on our side, since we had just missed the bus (meaning we had to wait about an hour), but right away an American guy from California arrived, and explained that he also had to go to the cargo area, and it was only a short walk and he could take us there in about 10 minutes. So after the walk, which was then followed by a visit to the wrong DHL office (business and personal packages are seperate, though apparently one is just supposed to know that), we got where we needed to be, only to discover that all the employees not only solely spoke Spanish, but they also spoke Spanish muy rapido. But we lucked out again (sensing a trend here?) and the only other customer there spoke fluent English, and was able to serve as a translator. After much discussion, and a few phone calls to the driver, DHL nicely arranged for our package to be dropped off at an actual DHL location, in downtown Madrid. We were going to have to take a bus, in order to get on the metro, but our kindly translator volunteered to give us a ride back to the airport metro stop, which was simply wonderful and saved us a lot of walking and hassle. And after our metro ride... we finally got our freaking package!
We'd like to note that the majority of the headache was not due to DHL, but rather the painfully redundant Spanish infrastructure, which somehow required a multiple-day customs approval-process; this was well verified by numerous people, including our translator who often sends packages for his work. Though, the mystery as to why they couldn't deliver the package on Wednesday, and also why they never ever called us, will never be answered, but all's well that ends well, right?
So if you're ever sending or receiving packages internationally, heed this advice: be patient, and don't box yourself in with a tight time schedule!
After much rejoicing we returned to the Barajas airport, wandered around for a bit before eating another round of sandwiches, and then caught our flight to Madrid. Our Iberia flight was quite nice, and we had a great dinner, though unfortunately despite our extreme exhaustion we weren't really able to sleep at all on the flight, but that's how it goes when the excitement of travel keeps you awake!
We arrived in Athens, then, right around 11:30 at night, grabbed our bags, and hopped on a waiting bus bound for downtown (since the Suburban Train, which would have been much faster and more direct, had already stopped service for the evening). The main station, Syndagma, is relatively near our hostel, but when it's past midnight in a foreign city, walking around looking like the tourists we are is simply not smart travelling, so after a brief search for our connecting bus (which was nowhere to be found), we simply grabbed a taxi. Of course our drive spoke no English, and we absolutely no Greek (Anderson's one Greek class in college was not only over 4 years ago, but was also in ancient Greek, which is just a bit different than what is spoken today), but fortunately that must be a common situation, since the driver called someone on his cell phone who acted as a translating go-between, and after a brief GPS-system search for the small street that our hostel is on, we were quickly on our way. The hostel wasn't far, and was exactly where it was supposed to be (thankfully), and after a nice sigh of contentment we paid what was due (though we backed down from our initial 7-night commitment, we're currently staying for 4 nights - through Monday morning, because we may want to head to Mt. Olympus for a 3,000 meter hike of "fun" :-), and headed to the European first floor to our room.
Despite our prior exhaustion, we hit it off wonderfully with our roommates (most hostel rooms are multi-bed, 4 in the current case), a couple from South Africa, Iain & Claire, on a similar around-the-world journey, though they were on their last night in Athens before heading to Turkey, Syria, Jordan, & Israel. Instead of sleeping right away, we ended up chatting about travelling, American politics, and life in America versus South Africa until the wee hours, which was a lot of fun. There is the possibility that we might also meet up in India, since they are eventually headed there after their time in the Middle East. We are rapidly discovering that the true joy of international travel, particularly involving the hostelling lifestyle, is that you must expect the unexpected.
After sleeping late (it's not like we've got work in the morning :-), we started our first day in Athens by heading to a nearby restaurant, recommended by Iain & Claire, which was not only amazingly cheap (5 euros for 2 gyros - which is pronounced like gyrate, for the record - and a bottle of Coke), but also delicious, and with an English-speaking proprietor. Not that we want to be culturally-insensitive, but gesturing and mispronounciation can sometimes only take you so far! After a brief stop back at our hostel, which is quite nice, just like all the others we have stayed at thus far, we started our Athenian experience the right way, by heading to the massive Acropolis, where many ruins of Ancient Greece still lie in surpisingly good condition. Walking through Athens is a little crazy, the traffic is typical European, death-defying jaywalking is inevitable, and tiny shops chock full of unusual wares are seemingly everywhere, but on our way we took care of a few needed errands: getting some stamps, cashing a few traveller's checks, replacing Anderson's sunglasses (two pairs lost already...), grabbing a map of Athens, and getting some much needed water (which is finally affordable - 1.5 liters for only a euro), before walking up the steep hill at the Acropolis' base.
It seems that all of the ancient ruins here, as though suffering from the passing of two millenia and numerous conquering invaders weren't enough, are also suffering from the ravages of modern pollution, so many parts of the white marble are lined (usually underneath) with a fine layer of seemingly permanent black soot. Of course, it's not soot at all, which is rather depressing, but it does the seem that the Greek government is putting out tremendous efforts (perhaps the stimulation of the economy from the 2004 Olympics has helped) to re-restore things. Most ruins have been restored several times over the ages, but the restoration techniques of the present day have a bit of an edge over the 1840s, so much of the general Acropolis is under construction, but that doesn't really infringe on being a tourist, it just means there are stacks of miscellaneous marble all over the place.
Enough about restoration though, the Acropolis itself is incredible, with its view of modern Athens alone being quite impressive, but the major buildings (Parthenon, Temple of Athena Nike, Theater of Dionysus, etc.) were amazing feats of architecture in their day, and even though that was over 2000 years ago, the detail in craftsmanship on such a massive scale is simply stunning. There is also a nice and extensive museum, included in admission (as are 5 other major historical sites, to be seen by us over the weekend), that features many items too precious to be left to the elements (natural and man-made). The whole area is made of fine white marble, so the paths are slick from years of wear, and the hilltop practically shines under the sunlight. Not trying to exaggerate here, but pictures simply do not do justice to this ancient marvel. After wandering around, and happily taking pictures once again (!), we headed down the hill's backside, and wandered about a large park full of walking paths for a while, which also featured a few ancient ruins, including the remnants of one of the world's oldest roads, as well as a monument to a 2nd century A.D. Roman ruler, the Filopapou. We were actually trying to locate Socrates' Prison, which even though it was on our map is apparently invisible or something, but we will probably try to locate it again tomorrow - being Philsophy majors it seems appropriate!
We stopped at a nearby crepe shop, intending to share a crepe merely to tide ourselves over for dinner, but it ended up being so massive that it pretty much filled us up, making that two cheap and tasty meals in Athens thus far. We were then headed back to our hostel, though we decided to take the shorter, and more fun, route, involving cutting through side streets in the correct "general direction," and since we had worked up a bit of a thirst, when a man across the street at a bar gestured at us to come over, we assumed he was a proactive employee and took him up on the offer. After our beers came, it quickly became apparent from talking to him (in English obviously, though his thick Greek accent at times made things just a little difficult to discerne), that he was actually just a customer hanging out there. However, he was an older gentlemen (we seem to attract them, probably Liz's doing), and it's always nice to chat with local people, so that really didn't matter. After finishing our Amstel's he invited us to walk down the street to a different establishment, which we understood as being where he was headed anyway. So now of course a bit of sketchiness enters the picture, but we decided to go with the flow, ready to make haste if necessary. When we arrived at a cafe just down the street, it immediately became apparent that he was actually its owner, and that he had just been relaxing down the street. This is where the Greek hospitality enters the picture, as we were treated like royalty by him (Vasili is his name we discovered) and his fellow 60-something male Greek regulars. Despite our numerous requests to pay for our drinks, and a denied attempt to treat everyone to a round of ouzo, Vasili insisted on giving us all our Amstel's on the house, along with several tapas plates: peanuts, fresh apples, and plums. As though that were not enough, one of his friends, after buying us a round, also ordered a delicious cabbage dish and bread for our dinner. We were simply overwhelmed by everyone's unprovoked kindness and generosity, and we were really not sure how we could reciprocate. But we chatted away, listened to all sorts of traditional Greek music, and thus we got to experience a genuine Greek night out. He had mentioned dancing a bit, so we decided that dancing would be at least some sort of minimum repayment, and so we found ourselves dancing at a Greek cafe to the delight of a bunch of clapping Greek gentlemen. After we had finished, we were treated to some traditional Greek dancing by several of Vasili's friends, which was interesting to watch, and a plate was even broken (a Greek tradition during dancing). It ended up being an amazing experience, and we have already decided that we are definitely going to go back in a few days to actually pay for a proper meal at his cafe.
Now we are back at our hostel, which is called San Remo by the way, but since it is now about 3 a.m., we have got to go to bed, since there is yet another day of adventures awaiting us. Oh, and the next time you're at a Greek restaurant, don't hesitate to order a gyro, but just remember there's no need to pronounce it 'your-o'!