Friday, June 13, 2014

The Birthplace of Democracy: Visiting the Capital of the Hellenic Republic

Hello All,

I got the opportunity to visit Athens - the capital of the Hellenic Republic (Greece's official name) - regarded as the birthplace of democracy for a vacation.

The Travel

We flew Etihad Airways from Hyderabad to Athens via Abu Dhabi. The onward journey was uneventful but the return journey was terrible. The flight from Athens to Abu Dhabi had very friendly staff which was great. On landing at Abu Dhabi, we proceeded to board our flight to Hyderabad. We reached the gate before boarding even began. Once boarding began, at the gate check, we were told our names are not on the flight despite having the boarding passes in our hand! The airline rep offered no explanation and quite rudely asked us to proceed to the transfer desk and just kept saying no name. On insisting that we meet the supervisor, the supervisor came and checked and told us we had been re-booked from Abu Dhabi to Bangalore on Etihad and then onwards to Hyderabad on an Air India flight which extended our travel time by close to 15 hours (no idea why the first airline rep failed to inform us of this thereby wasting a good 15-20mins). This made no sense. Staff was extremely unhelpful and this with a travelling party that contained senior citizens, women, children, Jet Privilege Platinum and Silver members. They finally asked us to board the Bangalore bound flight but we were refused boarding when we reached the Bangalore gate. They also tried to play the divide and rule game by stating that they will make some of us board the original flight and sending others to the Bangalore gate then rejecting us at the Bangalore gate and lying to the people at the Hyderabad gate that we can't board you here, the Bangalore flight is waiting for you, go there.

Then at the transfer desk, they put us on a Bangalore flight leaving next day afternoon despite the fact that there were two flights going to Bombay in a few hours and a 10:45 AM flight to Hyderabad next day. The lady rep refused to put us on any of these flights stating there were no seats available though a quick check on my mobile for fares showed that check fares were still being offered for the Hyderabad bound flight which meant the flight was still relatively empty. Thankfully the lady left and finally we came across a friendly agent at the transfer desk who put us onto the 10:45 AM Jet Airways direct flight to Hyderabad next day.

To top it all, when I went to the transfer desk the next morning to ensure our luggage gets loaded on the correct flight, their system showed that we had not even checked-in despite us having boarding passes issued just the night before (apparently boarding pass was issued in terminal 3 and flight was in terminal 1 and there is some system error so the same was not recorded). Really Etihad? The airline rep was however very helpful and got everything sorted out and we were able to successfully get on board.

Update (June 22, 2014): Etihad initially denied any lapse on their part and refused to acknowledge what happened when feedback of our experience was sent to them. We were then compelled to take certain steps to escalate the issue and it was only then that Etihad finally rendered an apology.

It was such a pleasure to back on a Jet Airways flight and the service on the flight was wonderful.

Day 1

Post landing we headed to the hotel. If you think cars in India are a generation older than the rest of the world, wait till you see the cars in Athens. They are from a generation older than India and for some reason most of the cars moving on the road are dusty and unwashed. We landed during the day on a Saturday and even then most of the stores were closed and the whole atmosphere from the airport to the hotel seemed to show signs of a struggling economy. Traffic is like India as I saw lots of vehicles jump red lights, take turns from wrong lanes etc. The city is very clean and systematic.

We stayed at the InterContinental Athenaeum which was a good hotel. All necessary amenities with frills were present in the room. Room was extremely spacious. No free WiFi in the room or lobby for hotel guests which means the hotel gets dinged by one star in their TripAdvisor review.

I then proceeded to visit the Acropolis Museum. I did find it strange that they had chosen to build the museum on an existing archaeological excavation but the ground floor of the building has a glass floor which means you can see the excavations below you as walk through the museum which is pretty cool.

I then proceeded to visit the Acropolis of Athens which is Athens' landmark attraction site. The Acropolis contains several buildings such as the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Erechtheion and the Athena Nike. I also got to see the Theatre of Dionysus where a theatre group was doing a rehearsal when we visited. The theatre is used till date for plays.

Day 2

The day was spent on a full-day cruise to three of Greece's most famous islands. At first I thought the islands were close to the mainland but they turned out to be pretty far and hence the need for the full-day cruise. The weather was lovely and the scenic beauty enchanting. The water is clean and a beautiful dark blue.

The first island that we visited was the island of Hydra. The unique part of the island is that they offer donkey rides for tourists. I didn't take one personally as I love donkeys and they are one of my favourite animals. Also, the donkeys here look a lot different from what you see in India. Extremely healthy and well-built and one can almost mistake them for midget horses. There were a lot of restaurants and shops selling knick-knacks on the island such as Greek necklaces with real volcanic stone embedded in it (forget what it signifies in Greek culture), various items symbolising Greek culture such as necklaces that reflect the cycle of life etc. The items were indeed very unique and not something you would find elsewhere in the world which made going through the stores a lot of fun. I got to try some Greek coffee and pizza and the meal was lovely.

Next was the island of Poros. Once again it is just a beautiful island filled with traditional Greek houses and a sight to behold. Wikipedia has some wonderful snaps.

The final island was the island of Aegina which is a historic island and contains many monuments such as the Temple of Aphaea and the ruins of the temple of Apollo. One can also take a speed boat and go to a much smaller island called Moni island beach which has no human habitation. We went there and it was a lovely island where one can just sit back and enjoy the sun and sand or go for a swim. The island has peacocks in abundance and you can walk right up to the peacocks up close and they don't fear humans at all. In one snap alone I was able to capture four peacocks. I was also able so spot Chamois which is a goat-antelope species. The island is also said to have seals around it but I couldn't catch sight of any.

I would definitely recommend visiting this island for a relaxed day.

Also, all the above islands have mini B&Bs' if you wish to stay there and the people are lovely.

Day 3

The day started by going on a hop-on/hop-off toy train near the city centre to visit many monuments. I saw the Hellenic Parliament and the Constitution Square. The Hellenic Parliament is guarded by Evzones outside which are similar to the standing guards at Buckingham Palace. They have a change of guard every hour. You will also find these guards posted at various important government installations such as the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, the Presidential Palace etc. Unlike the standing guards at Buckingham Palace, one is not separated by fences from the guards. You can go and stand right next to the guards which was allowed at Buckingham Palace once upon a time. You could be walking down a street near the Parliament and an Evzone is standing right there guarding an important building.

Next on the list was the Panathenaic Stadium followed by the Temple of Zeus and the Hadrian Arch. I also visited the Ancient Roman Market in Monastiraki which has such buildings as the Hadrian's Library. The next impressive structure I got to visit was the Stoa of Attalos. The Temple of Hephaestus was next.

I then walked down Ermou Street which is Athens' most popular shopping street containing many brand stores. However, the street I liked even more was right next to Ermou called Plaka which is the old historical neighbourhood of Athens. This was simply lovely filled with shops selling everything that is 'Made in Greek' from towels sewn with Greek designs and made of Greek cotton to olives in a variety of flavours such as spiced olives, olives tailored for specific food etc. The street was filled with street cafes and one can just spend the whole day here.

In the evening I headed to Cape Sounion. The journey takes you through the Greek Riveria and the scenery through the ride was breathtaking. At the very end, is the Temple of Poseidon standing tall on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea and the view from there is magnificent.

Day 4

The day started with a visit to the National Archaeological Museum of Athens which houses some of the most important Greek artifacts. I liked the temporary exhibit showcasing the Antikythera wreck. The showcase made use of the NFC technology in which you get an Android-powered (what else?) Samsung Galaxy phone and one can use NFC technology to get more in-depth info of the articles as you view them. It was nice to see NFC technology put to use as you don't generally see much of it in India. Also, I don't think visitors at the museum use this often for the showcase as when I asked for the device, the attendant got all confused on the procedure and four-five museum reps came and went before I got the phone.

I particularly loved the showcase of the Antikythera mechanism which is considered the first known analog computer. It was fascinating to see how researchers recovered the same from the shipwreck and put together all the pieces and fragments and figured out what it was. No mean feat.

I then headed back to the Plaka to enjoy some amazing Greek delicacies. Greek food is very favourable to vegetarians and one must try all the vegetarian Greek food. I recommend visiting the restaurant Estia at the Plaka.

In Summary

Overall it was a great trip and I loved visiting modern and ancient Greece. It is indeed a lovely country with a lot of beauty and charm and there is much more to see such as Delphi etc. It is definitely worth a single visit. However, note that most of the monuments pertaining to ancient Greece have been severely damaged. So one can't go into the temples, see inscriptions etc unlike Egypt where you can go into the tombs, see stories carved on the walls, feel like you are living and breathing history and no matter how many monuments you visit, each one has a different tale. In Athens however, once you see the popular ones, the rest of the monuments start to feel the same leaving little to see in the second visit. Therefore, if you are a history buff, Athens is not a city I would look forward to visiting twice unlike other historic sites in the world. I am curious to explore other parts of the country such as the the island of Mykonos given the beauty of Greece.