Something Light for the Weekend: Travel Notes from the Greek Trip.
Posted on 22:00, May 21st, 2010 by Pablo
It is not our custom here at KP to do anything other than somewhat serious socio-political analysis, but from time to time we break from custom and address lighter topics. Since I am undergoing some post-travel downtime and decompression, I thought that I would write up a few notes about some of the travel experience involved in the Greek trip.
Transportation: We flew Qatar Airways from Changi International to Doha to Athens and back. Changi is the best airport I have ever encountered, with an ease of transit and conveniences that put US and European airports to shame. The long-haul flights to and from Doha were on an Airbus 330. The plane is roomy in the Qatar airlines configuration (we flew economy class), the food is decent and the service prompt, efficient and courteous. The flight attendants were mostly female and wore stylised uniforms that were a mix of office professionalism and traditionalist throw-back (that is, not as functionalist as Western uniforms but nowhere close to the eye candy efforts of the so-called Singaporean Girls who are the cabin crews on SIA). Toilets in economy class were relatively spacious, well-equipped and kept clean by the cabin crew (a major plus given the different cultural approaches to toilets on the part of the wide assortment of nationalities that travel on that airline). The seat back entertainment systems was the best I have ever encountered. I listened to classic jazz for most of the 7 hour trip, plus watched a new release movie and some sports and comedy TV.
The flight from Doha to Athens and back on an A320 were more cattle-car like (3 abreast on either side with two toilets in the back). Food and service were OK but there was a distinct downgrade in the overall experience. The in-flight entertainment was limited to a movie on overhead screens and a limited amount of music (although I did take the opportunity to listen to Arab and Indian pop musak as well as sung versions of Koranic verses, which–I kid you not–are available on channel six of the audio on both flights). I think that the diminished service on th Athens-Doha flights might have to do with the fact that the route appears to be a shuttle of sorts for workers going to and from Doha, whereas the long-haul flight to Singapore is used more by leisure travelers and more upscale busness types. In general, though, the Qatar airline experience in the air was a good one, although it is discomfiting to hear the pilot say that Inshallah (“God willing”) we would arrive at our destination on time. I personally would prefer that the machine and the operator, rather than God, handle the schedule.
There was a less than stellar point during the trips and that was Doha airport. If the Qataris want to emulate the UAE and become a major tourist destination and transport hub, they need to think about that airport. Services are limited, no alcohol is served, security is a joke (consisting mainly of people being made to take off belts while computers and assorted other large packages are sent through the xray machines with nary a glance from disinterested monitors), and although modern in appearance the toilets are medieval in fact (no loo paper, irregular cleaning leading to accumulated evidence of people standing on toilet lids, assorted nasty rubbish littering the stall and pools of black water from washing hoses accumulating in and around the stalls, groups of people using the wash basin areas as socialising points). The terminal is one long concourse with limited internet access zones. Passengers are ferried to and from planes by buses (somewhat like the shuttles at Dulles international), but these buses often stop on the tarmac and wait for anywhere up to 20 minutes before disembarking passengers (which, since there are standing crowds on the buses can be a nightmare for people with small kids and/or physical disabilities). Access to planes is via old-fashioned staircases and there is no evidence of regard for disabled passengers (who presumably get hoisted up on the service access platforms). Thus, while the hub and spoke nature of Qatari Airlines operations makes for efficient on-time arrivals and departures (barring a mechanical at one of the spoke destinations), the overall airport experience was so-so.
I will say that as far as people watching experiences go, the Doha airport was quite fascinating. The full gamut of Arab culture is on display, and the fact that Qatar airways has direct flights to places such as Kabul and Kathmandu makes for a variegated passenger demographic to say the least.
By contrast, the Athens airport was a bit like being caught in a 1970s time warp (even though it was opened just before the 2004 Olympics). Flat, spartan, also using buses from the terminal to the plane, it was clean, efficient but somewhat lackluster in comparison to, say, Auckland or Sydney. It was not terrible by any means, but it did not stand out for any reason other than that it has good Metro/train access and a small archeological museum that has a sampling of Greek artifacts dating back to 500BC.
While in Greece we used taxis, the Metro, a suburban commuter train, a tram (to the near-Athens beaches), a rental car, ferries and Olympic Airways. Although Athenian taxi drivers are notorious for being thieves, we encountered the two honest ones coming from and heading to the airport upon arrival and departure. 35 Euros is a fair price to pay (higher from the airport due to airport taxes and higher if one calls a taxi in advance). Taxi drivers will often refuse fares for a variety of reasons, but will almost always take an airport fare because of the money to be made (the airport is 25 K outside of town and the meter rate is 10 cents per 1/10K, so an operating meter looks like a slot machine on speed). They also have a habit of trying to add passengers to already existing fares, a custom we declined to indulge.
The Metro is pretty efficient and runs from the airport to the port of Pireus (where the ferries are) as well as downtown and the East, West and Northern suburbs. However, while the number 2 and 3 (red and yellow) lines are modern, timely and relatively uncrowded, the number 1 (Green) line, in existence since the 1900s, can be irregular in its service and an absolute sardine can of pushing, shoving, sweating humanity. To that can be added ongoing track works that have closed stations at several points on the route, forcing passengers to use buses between the affected stations. Since our station was one of those so affected, we often opted to walk a kilometer to a number 2 (red) line transfer station rather than waste 20 minutes riding the number 1 (green) line in the other direction in order to catch a downtown train.
The tram was a waste of time. It takes over an hour to reach the end point from downtown Athens, a total of less than 15 kilometers. The tram literally crawls along while still in Athens–heck, we saw people walking faster between stations than we were going! The suburban trains are fast and on schedule albeit graffitied. The best part of the urban mass transit experience is that we could buy a 10 Euro weekly pass that allowed us to travel anywhere on the Metro or tram lines for an unlimited amount of rides–excellent value for money.
Olympic Airways was on-time with good service. We flew over in a 30 seater to Samos and enjoyed the service (we went to and from the airport on that trip by using a combination of the number 1 Metro and suburban train, at a cost for the two of us of 12 Euros each way). On Samos we used a rental car, which was fine except that unannounced road detours into small town side streets quickly saw us trapped in maze of cobblestone alleyways that were too narrow for cars to transit. Let us just say that the rental car was the worst for the wear after that particular trip, but that the all-inclusive insurance we purchased (for a total rental cost of 29 Euros/day) covered the costs of the remedial panel beating. Road signage on Samos was minimal once off the main (two lane) roadways. In Athens street signs on surface streets other than main arteries or highways are small and poorly placed or obscured by vegetation and man-made structures.
The ferries are many, large, fast and slow, and go to every Greek island as well as Italy, Croatia and Turkey. We opted for a fast ferry to Santorini (4.5 hours) with stops in Naxos, Ios (party central, apparently) and Paros. The cost per passenger on the Hellenic Seaways fast ferry was around 75 Euros one-way (we chose business class, which quite frankly at 10 Euros more than regular class was not worth it). Slower ferries cost less but the travel time is much longer–the trip to Santorini would have been 8.5 hours, and a trip to Samos would have been 12.6 hours one-way. We met some Australians who had taken a Blue Star slow ferry to Santorini from Mikonos and it took them 12 hours sitting on an outside deck under a tarp on wooden deck chairs, an experience they chose not to repeat. The ferry we traveled on was comfortable, but we learned not to travel on Sunday afternoons because the entire Athenian middle class apparently ups and leaves for the islands on the weekends, making the return on Sunday evening an experience in maritime mass dynamics. Overall the fast ferry experience was good. We traveled to and from the ferry terminals in Pireus by the number 1 (green) Metro line, which involved one of those Metro-to-bus transfers mentioned earlier. It took about an hour each way with the bus transfer included, and would have only been 30-40 minutes without it.
Living Conditions: Athens is a large sprawling city with 4+ million people in it. We lived in a decaying lower middle class neighborhood with many immigrants (mostly illegal). Although the tourist and downtown areas are kept clean, the near-suburbs such as our (Agios Nikolas) are very dirty and crammed with vehicles parked haphazardly anywhere space can be found (including street corners and footpaths). Due to the dryness of the climate and the Athenian lack of concern with vehicle aesthetics, dust-covered cars are parked everywhere, often in damaged condition. No one seems to mind and their is no enforcement of parking codes (should they exist). The same goes for the illegal street fairs every Saturday. Gypsies (Roma) and assorted other street level entrepeneurs appropriated the streets adjacent to a legal street market in order to sell their (literally) rag-picking wares. One of them was ours (as mentioned in a previous post). Although neighbours complain and the cops periodically roust them the street fairs continue because they serve a market function. The proof of this is that crowds throng to them.
Large rubbish skiffs outside of buildings serve as collection points (rather than individual rubbish collection bins), which normally are collected 2 times a week. However, during times of strikes the collection schedule is disrupted, which meant that on a couple of weeks they were filled to overflowing and beyond. That, coupled with the fact that people disregard the specially designated recycling bins and throw anything into both types of container, led to a couple of weeks where garbage literally filled the streets. On top of that people walk dogs without picking up after them and many males have a penchant for urinating in the streets, so the street atmosphere can get a bit dodgy from an aesthetic, if not hygienic standpoint (to the point that my partner used to wash her shoes or leave them outside of the living area of our apartment). Traffic is chaotic, with few if any rules of the road applying, so crossing streets can be a life or death issue for the unawares or uninitiated.
We had two small supermarkets within 100 meters of the apartment building and a Metro stop 60 meters way. Food and wine was relatively cheap and we splurged on olives, cheese, yogurt and red wine, which are very affordable and of good quality. Most apartment buildings are four to ten story walkups, with most of the pre-1980 buildings having no elevators (ours was built in the 1950s). Tall buildings are either downtown or in suburbs further outside the city centre, and what homes we saw in the near suburbs tended to be semi-detached rather than free-standing. City blocks such as ours are full of small businesses–a locksmith, electronics vendor, fish mongerer, a dairy, a small medical clinic, plus a flower, veggie and bottle shop as well as a small restaurant were located on our block alone (and this may not be the full list).
The climate is wonderful in spring, warm and very dry (that means infernally hot in summer and unusually cold in winter). Temps in late April-mid May ran from 15-30C and we saw just two spatterings of rain while there (4 weeks). Because there is relatively little industry in Athens, air pollution was surprisingly low and confined to vehicle emissions from what we could tell. We had a nice balcony outside our apartment (which itself was a nice small one bedroom that we found on-line), so we enjoyed al fresco breakfast and dinners while watching either blue or starry skies. Much as in Latin America, middle and working class people like to hang caged songbirds on their balconies or windows, so I, as a Latin American-raised bird fancier, found that continued tradition to be both quaint and enjoyable (especially since the songs of canaries and finches helped mitigate the street noise). People on the street were a bit cold but most service staff were quite friendly in spite of our limited Greek communication skills (mine were limited to saying “excuse me” (used mostly on the Metro), ”hi,” “good morning,” “good afternoon,” and “thank you very much”). Many people speak English so we never had a real problem communicating. Although perfectly safe by day, we did see a deterioration of the street scene at night, to the point that we saw few females on the street after 10PM (which was proportionate to the number of drunks or shifty-looking males we saw). Greeks tend to be very loud, and we were consequently treated to a variety of arguments and domestic disputes wafting up the and down the apartment blocks. No one seemed to mind and no one intervened.
All in all, although the neighbourhood had clearly seen better days, the overall living experience was quite bearable, if at times a bit gritty.
Two points worth noting, one as a curiosity and the other as a warning. First the curiosity. For some reason Greeks do not throw loo paper down the toilet but instead place it in rubbish bins after use. We heard various explanations for this practice, usually either due to culture or narrow plumbing. Now, I have lived in some very primitive places and was raised in Latin America in the 1960s. Nowhere, absolutely nowhere I have lived have I seen anyone use rubbish bins for toilet paper disposal when there was access to working flush toilets. Nor can I imagine that the modern (post 1948) Greek state would permit the construction of antiquated, prone-to-backup sewage systems. Thus I find it hard to believe that the custom has its justification in plumbing. And yet in airports, hotels, restaurants–pretty much everywhere– we saw signs advising against flushing toilet paper down the loo. I shall spare you the details of the hygienic reasons why this is not a good practice, but suffice it to say that it made using public conveyances something of an ordeal and added a whole other dimension to the street rubbish bin experience. We were told that the Turks have the same custom. Could this be the real Mediterranean Ethos?
Secondly, a warning about street crime in Athens. The economic crisis has its impact at this level. Mostly blamed on immigrants (who I do not think are solely to blame), street-level crime has risen markedly in recent years. While there I had someone attempt to pick my front shirt pocket on a crowded number 1 (green) metro train. Using a jacket draped over his arm as cover for his working hand, the thief was working with a partner, who attempted to distract me when I grabbed the pickpocket’s fingers (he obviously was not a skilled pickpocket). They then both dug their elbows into me from either side (the train was packed) as I spoke loudly to my partner that I was having my pockets picked. Concerned about their possible use of knives in very close quarters, I merely elbowed back until the next station, at which point they got off and blended into the crowd. The point to note is that these type of thieves work the tourist traps served by the Monteseraki and Omonia stations, especially on the number 1 (green) line, which tends to be more crowded and has easier on and off access than the more more modern lines. Plus, as our landlady noted, the thieves have expanded their targets outside of tourists, so particular care must be taken when riding crowded trains (they do not like to operate on the less crowded lines because of the lack of concealment opportunities).
In retrospect I remembered how they had jumped onto the train at the last moment and positioned themselves besides and behind me as the crowd crammed in. I also recall a young woman followed us at the preceding stop (Monteseraki) after we got on as we moved down the carriage as the crowd pressed in, and that she was standing on the other side of the pickpocket as he leaned into me. I now think that she was the spotter for the team and had signaled her partners at the next station (Omonia) as to who the target was. In any event, our response was to practice heightened situational awareness while on trains or in tourist areas, dress more like the locals (conservatively) and travel light with limited cash well concealed.
That is not all. On the morning that we took the ferry to Santorini we decided to walk (at 5AM) down to the next Metro transfer station rather than deal with the out-and-back issues produced by our nearest station’s partial closure due to track work (we had a 7:30 ferry). As we walked in the cool stillness of the early morning on a side street along the tracks we saw ahead two individuals who appeared to be breaking into cars. Since we were both carrying backpacks (which hindered escape) we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and opted from a block away to divert back onto a more trafficked and well-lit street. That proved fortuitous, as the individuals we spotted a block away did the same thing upon seeing us, quickly moving to intercept us on the better-lit and traveled street, only to be thwarted by a man who had come out of his apartment and walked alongside us as we made our way down the centre of the street (the street being well-lit but the footpaths not so). As the presumed thugs approached and passed us it was clear that the presence of the other man was an impediment to action. The point being that in a neighbourhood with no tourists we provided a convenient target of opportunity (with our backpacks signaling our vulnerability) to (presumed) street hoods already plying their trade with impunity. Although you had to be there to test the case, for those who might think that I was just paranoid in my reactions, let me just say that I am the type of person who is not shy of walking away from a fight….but I also know when the odds are against me.
All of which is to say that the Athens experience can be very interesting and fulfilling, but that due caution is advised when in the restroom as well as outside of it.
There is more to the story but this sums up the main points in broad strokes. Should readers have other inquiries I am happy to oblige as much as I can.