Saturday, 5 December 2009

Greece 2009 - Day 16, Blue Star to Piraeus

The Hotel Korali put on a good breakfast and we were amongst the first in the dining room because we had an early start and a nine-thirty ferry to catch for the return journey to Piraeus. The hotel owner drove us to the port and with a day of disasters behind us we were optimistic about better prospects for today.

The Blue Star Naxos arrived on time and there were a lot of passengers to get on board before it could leave again. The Blue Star ferries can carry one thousand five hundred passengers and two hundred and fifty vehicles and the line of cars waiting to drive on board stretched all along the port and back to the town square. When the gate was opened we pushed our way on board and made for the top deck where we had plans to find a seat in the sun and we found some at the back of the boat which we estimated would enjoy the sun all the way to the mainland and we settled down and after the boat had loaded up and left the port watched Naxos slipping away behind us.

We had chosen good seats and they would have been perfect except for a group of Swedes next to us who couldn’t seem to settle down and they kept rearranging the furniture, changing seats, which seemed to involve a lot of unnecessary pushing and shoving and talking to each other in very loud voices. Soon we were following the shoreline of Paros and within an hour the ferry was pulling into the harbour for its last stop. The port was heaving and there was the usual chaos associated with a big ferry coming into town. Cars, busses and big trucks were all competing with the foot passengers for a place on the quayside but despite the fact that there appeared to be absolutely no organisation at all everyone finally got on board and there were no fatal accidents and soon the boat was under way again with a four hour journey ahead to Piraeus.

The restless Swedes had a picnic, which meant more furniture reorganisation and then thankfully they settled down for the journey. Other passengers manoeuvred themselves into preferred positions and everyone found their own way of passing the time. We finished off the last few pages of our books and then from my map I tried to follow the route and identify the islands on the way. We slipped between Serifos to the south where we had started our adventure fifteen days ago and then Kythnos to the north and I wondered if this might be worth a visit so I looked it up in the Island Hopping guide and it said not so I removed it from the emerging itinerary for next year that was beginning to take shape in my head.

As the mainland came into view the last hour of the journey began to drag as we started to look forward to being on dry land again. From the sea Athens was laid out before us, nestling beneath the mountains to the north, east and west (Parnitha, Pendeli and Hymettos) and the Saronic Gulf to the south. Out at sea, where we were, the expanse of grey concrete, which formed the outer environs of the city, shimmered brightly in the strong sun and it looked much more attractive than I guessed it would from up close.

Piraeus was hot and noisy, the traffic was as we remembered it when we left, pushy taxi drivers were touting for business, the lucky-lucky men were selling counterfeit goods and there were dusty road works just outside the metro station. The metro at rush hour was not a pleasant experience. It was overcrowded and felt dangerous and without a seat we stood and guarded our possessions for fear of pickpockets. We were glad when after eight stations we arrived in Omonia and changed lines to a less crowded train and travelled the three stops to the Acropolis station where we emerged from the underground tunnels back into the open air and the oppressive heat of an Athens September afternoon.

We knew roughly where the Royal Olympic hotel was and with some helpful directions from a taxi driver found it quickly, crossed the busy main road and presented ourselves at reception. The Royal Olympic is a five star hotel and we don’t usually do five star but I had spotted a good deal and broken the normal rule. It was very smart and plush and I felt a little out of place and conspicuous in dusty sandals, a salt streaked shirt and a battered backpack, which I put down as inconspicuously as I could and well away from the Versace and the Louis Vuittons. The supposed deal was a €650 executive room for €120 and the room was nice and I was happy with the price we had paid but it certainly wasn’t worth €650.

The trouble with five star hotels of course is that they have five star prices and after I had got over the shock of the mini-bar prices (€7.50 for a small beer) and had a good laugh at the restaurant prices I slipped out of the hotel and found a little shop with alcohol at sensible prices, purchased some cans of mythos and a carton of cheap red wine and sneaked it through reception as discreetly as I could and took it back to the room.

After we had had a drink on the balcony and tidied ourselves up we declared ourselves presentable enough to wander around the hotel and we made for the top floor roof garden and restaurant where there were some stunning views over the Temple of Olympian Zeus directly opposite. The restaurant looked nice and it was being fastidiously prepared for later but on account of the prices we knew we wouldn’t be dining there so we left the hotel and walked to the Plaka to identify alternative arrangements.

It was late afternoon and the streets and the shops were busy but the restaurants and tavernas were short of customers and every few metres we were stopped and encouraged to go inside and eat. It must be obvious that five o’clock in the afternoon is not the time most people want to dine and we turned them all down with a smile and a promise to consider going back later. One man fancied himself as a bit of a comedian and was quite entertaining and his menu looked interesting so we thought we might let all of the others down and go there.

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