Saturday. I’m sitting in a reasonably comfortable compartment on a southbound train, nearly four hours in to a five hour trip that originated in Thessaloniki and terminates in Athens. L is tapping and swiping the battery life from his iPad and J and the girls have gone to get light snacks from the dining car to tide us over until we get a large meal in Athens. All is calm now, though the morning was not without its bumps.
We woke at about 4:45, and since the car was packed the night before, grabbed just a few more things and proceeded cautiously through the smoggy fog of predawn Pristina. I’m pretty sure we left the garage door open. We gave ourselves five hours to get to Thessalonki, even though Google told us it should be a four hour journey. The two lane “highway” can be dodgy and often slow. The fog cleared up by the time we reached the border, and with no one in front of us, we cleared it and descended into Macedonia. Soon after, we circumnavigated Skopje via the Ring Road, finally achieving some speed on the well made four lane Alexander of Macedonia expressway.
We made excellent time despite the occasional toll, and passed the turnoff for Stobi Winery a good forty minutes faster than I’d just done this week. The border crossing into Greece took longer, with some ten other cars ahead of us, but it was still relatively quick. Our blue dot avatar approached Thessalonki at speed, and we turned off the main road. My phone had picked up a mobile network some time after crossing the border and I suddenly realized it was an hour later than in Kosovo! Crap. Our comfortable margin of an hour had suddenly evaporated. We would just barely make it, our train would depart in 25 minutes! We followed the Google directions down a side street, up a ramp, and suddenly found ourselves ON THE PLATFORM, would be passengers staring at our family sedan. We quickly reversed and drove around, searching for the parking that a 2011 news article had told us would be expanding soon. 20 minutes. We found the terminal and tried to park, but the electrically powered boom wasn’t opening, and didn’t appear to even have a sensor. A few taxi drivers idling and smoking outside the station assured us we could just park on the curb, though this seemed like a bad idea. When we said “three days,” in answer to their “For how many hours?” question, they laughed and told us to park outside the station, motioning to a lot near a certain hotel. We exited the terminal to find parking. 15 minutes. We spotted a “P” blue sign in English and drove down into a garage. The ticket dispenser was broken and the garage attendant said something in Greek. He opened the gate and motioned to where we should park. He was adamant that we return before 3 o’clock (this in English) because he closes then. We grabbed our bags and using a mix of Albanian, Spanish, Italian and English, Jean tried to pantomime that we would be back Monday. I pulled out my phone and pointed to Monday. He got it. It would be 20€. 10 minutes. We ran. Pedestrians stared as our family of five laden with backpacks jogged along the sidewalk and then past the taxi drivers into the station. 5 minutes. J asked a fellow traveler from where our train would be departing, and as I saw the platform number on an overhead screen, the woman realized our departure time and said, “Oh! Go, go, you don’t have time!” We ran up the escalator and onto the platform. We showed our tickets to the conductor and he motioned us to the train. We jumped aboard, and as we settled into our compartment, the train lurched to a start. Made it.
The dining car afforded us a better view than the half-tone shaded, graffitied windows of our compartment, so we breakfasted there, getting some packaged croissants aux chocolates, a warm toasty panini, some water, hot chocolate and cappuccinos. We passed Mt. Olympus at some point, though which peak it was we knew not. At other times, the blue Aegean Sea was visible directly to our left. The kids variously read and played on their iPads, and we referred to Edith Hamilton’s “The Greek Way” on occasion. The bathroom was a dilapidated affair of modern technology; a wide door slid open like something from the deck of the Enterprise, and yet the toilet seat was missing and the hand dryer didn’t work. I wondered when the door mechanism would cease to function, and hoped I wouldn’t be inside when it happened.
We arrived in Athens by 3:45, quietly sliding into the station, and disembarked. Our hotel was supposed to be across the street from the train, and indeed we glimpsed the big letters O S C A R H O T E L attached like vertical moon landing flags to the edge of the hotel building, partially hidden by some sparse trees in the foreground, bearing autumn foliage. “Green man” helped us cross the road, and we checked in. At first we pressed the call button for the tiny European elevator and then quickly decided our American countenance couldn’t be bothered to wait for it, so we climbed the spiral staircase to the third floor.
We set up in our tiny room, and made a plan to see the antykithera mechanism in the National Archeological Museum, a dozen or so blocks away. Boy had already set up shop, kicking off his shoes and cracking open a book, but we pulled him and the girls out and began navigating our way to the museum. The afternoon sun filtered through the tall buildings downtown, making the narrow, dodgy sidewalks darker. We found a cafeteria-style fast food place to have an early dinner, stopping to dine, as the museum was open until 8. The chilled red wine was days or even weeks past, but despite that, the hummus was amazing, and the rest of the meal very satisfying. The number of locals coming and going gave us confidence that we had chosen the right spot, and our appetites were quite sated as we left.
Darkness had fallen in earnest, and many multicolored LED signs marked our way. Oddly, several riot gear clad police and riot buses were parked off the main boulevard. We found ourselves at the museum finally, though it looked quite dark and deserted. J opened the large formidable door, and we walked up the marble steps, but the sole person there, a man in his 50’s or older said that the museum was closed. Disappointed and a bit confused, we exited, and went back down to the 28 October Boulevard to catch a taxi back to the hotel. Our driver, a woman in her 60’s, was very annoyed that we attempted to get a family of five in her car, and turned us out. We tried to find a map for the local bus route, and unsuccessful, we began our walk back. We passed what we discovered to be the front of the museum, and ever hopeful, mounted the massive arcade of steps to the closed doors. The hours were posted there, “temporary,” and we saw that the doors had closed just after we arrived in Athens, at 16:00. Sunday they opened at 9, and closed at the same time, but our plan of staying the entire time at the Acroplis from early on precluded a return to this place, making the chances of seeing the mechanism slim. We left, and following the guidance of the “green man” lights, crossed the streets back to the hotel, grabbing a dessert and bottle of wine on the way back.
Once back at the hotel, J and I summoned the mirrored bread box-sized elevator and dropping the kids briefly at the room, went further up to the bar on the roof, and had a cocktail. Our bartender didn’t know how to make a Cosmopolitan, but the internet quickly helped her. Ever since Aunt Maralyn and Uncle Bob visited us in Nepal, we follow their tradition of assigning a destination name to a version of a Cosmo with local juice. Here we chose orange, as there are a number of orange trees lining some side streets downtown, and there didn’t seem to be any better option for our “Athentini.” We toasted to Athens, enjoyed our cocktail with a view of night-lit Athens beyond the plastic sheathing around the rooftop bar, and asked our bar tender to open our bottle. Returning to our room, we watched Jurassic World on the iPad with the kiddos.
Sunday morning we woke up, and packed few things to explore the Acropolis. Eschewing the crowded dining hall for a streetwise cafe at the Acropolis, we descended the steps of the Metro station beside the hotel and quickly traversed five stations on the clean and modern metro rail system, emerging again into the crisp autumn sun at the foot of the Acropolis. The off season tourists hadn’t yet really arrived, so we had our pick of breakfast establishments. The indoor seating of “Yard: an all day restaurant bar” seemed inviting enough, and we proceeded in. The restauranters seated us and served up choice yogurt with walnuts and honey, macchiatos, eggs and omelettes, bacon and toast. The fresh-squeezed orange juice tasted like a bit of sunshine.
After breakfast, we began walking up the gentle slope of the hill’s base, passing the Theater entrance, guided tours and touts, and a loud Greek Orthodox Church, whose songs from within were not unlike the Muslim calls to prayer we here in Kosovo. Ascending the spiral path up the Acropolis path, we passed several stray dogs basking in the cool sunshine, each with a basic collar and tag, possibly spayed or neutered and vaccinated, “claimed” by the complex itself as residents. We saw more evidence to support this theory later, with water and food bowls sitting outside docent stations.
As always goes, we got hungry for lunch, and ate at a sunny table in view of the Agora and Parthenon hilltop beyond. Jean ordered “small fried fish,” which turned out to be small fish (plural), fried, like very robust sardines. I swapped plates with her, giving up my pork souvlaki, but of course she was nice and gave me several bites anyway. The kids munched on burger patties (no buns), pasta, veal and lamb. We pondered over wine and various soft drinks while considering the robust boisterous marketplace that the Agora must have been. The many stray cats vied for territory near our table, hoping to snag a morsel, but not wanting to appear overly obvious, like baboons with a sense of propriety.At the top, we shared the view of the ancient piers and columns of the Parthenon’s arcades with other off season tourists and guides, trying to comprehend the enormity of how a civilization was able to logistically plan and execute the construction of such an immense structure, using quarried marble. It’s hard to imagine the decline of the Ancient Greeks’ civilization, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and the loss of so much knowledge that precipitated the onset of the dark ages some millennia later.
We explored the ruins, somewhat restored, both there and in surrounding rocky hilltops, the kids clambering up craggy rock faces and jumping from boulders’ heights, and then walked down to the Roman Agora, or marketplace.
We decided, after a bit more wandering, that the Acropolis had enough of our attention, and that we should make a bid to get to the Antikythera Mechanism after all, and we boarded the metro. We managed to see the device at the museum, and pored over the several replica mechanisms that scientists have constructed in a century of study. Essentially it comes down to probably have been a celestial clock of sorts, constructed around 100 BCE, and possibly not the only one, but certainly the most complex and intact of anything found from the era. We wandered the rest of the museum, accompanied by the strains of string and piano from a live classical quartet playing in a hall of statues. Merrill acquired a small notebook and pen from the museum gift shop, as always, and we walked back to the hotel again.
Monday morning we boarded our train, and shared a compartment with a musician (by his luggage) who had a healthy beard, a portion of which was dyed comically pink. He snored for a time, and then spent the rest of the journey in the dining car and on platforms during longer stops for smoke breaks. The kids bounced around, read, drew, and munched on snacks. We slid into Thessanoliki just past 1 o’clock and consented to some fast food before retrieving our car from the garage, and getting to the road. The border crossings back home weren’t bad, and we coasted into the Al Petrol station inside of Kosovo on fumes, getting petrol at a bargain 42 Eurocents/liter courtesy of our dip status in Kosovo. Climbing into the mountains of Kosovo, a smog-fog mixture descended on us and made visibility near zero, making the last part of the drive impossible to over 20mph. It’s thinning now, a few days later, but I still haven’t seen the sun since Macedonia. We’ll get out of town soon enough for skiing
Shihemë me vöne!