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Because we are Delta disciples our trip began with the customary jaunt to Atlanta where we usually head out to our international destination. But this one had an extra leg since Delta no longer flies from Atlanta to Athens. So, off we went to JFK airport in New York and then crossed the Atlantic to Athens. The date of this particular trip is important. Saturday, September 8, 2001, just days before the attack would occur on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon.
As we approached JFK from Atlanta I remember looking at the famous twin towers and thinking how far they were from midtown Manhattan. Little did I know that it would be the last time we'd ever seen the famous landmark. At least not until and if they rebuild them.
Upon arrival at JFK from Atlanta we decided to have a drink in the Delta Crown Room since it was very near gate 26, our departure gate. The Crown Room is upstairs and after finishing our drinks, we waited for the elevator. As the doors opened two people immediately dashed out. Then came a wheelchair with an elderly woman and attendant. She was immediately followed by an elderly man with an attendant. She was not familiar but he certainly was. It was none other than former CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite. He looked a bit on the thin side but his hair was groomed perfectly and he was wearing a smart blue blazer. I couldn't help but wonder where he might have been traveling that day. I thought about saying hi to him since I'm in the news business myself but I don't believe in bothering celebrities. And I had met him a couple of times in the past when he was still active with CBS. Since our trip the venerable anchorman passed away.
It was the usual overnight flight with arrival in Athens the following Sunday morning around 10:15. From the airport, brand spankin' new, I might add, it was off to the Hilton Hotel in Athens near the U.S. embassy. Very nice hotel! We especially enjoyed the roof top garden restaurant that put on a great grilled seafood spread. Nick, our Athens taxi driver and tour guide was there to meet us at the airport. Much more about Nick is just around the corner.
We caught some shuteye and had dinner on the roof with a splendid view of the Acropolis. Back to bed for a busy day ahead.
Prior to our trip we found a great web site on Greece and I highly recommend that you check it out before you set off for Greece. It's an outstanding site done by Matt Barrett at this cyber address: http://www.greektravel.com. This site is packed with information on what to expect and enjoy on your trip to Greece. Great job, Matt!! Not only did we get a great jump on what to expect in Greece thanks to Matt but we also hooked up with George, "the famous taxi driver of Greece." Well actually George was booked solid with other clients but he lined us up with an associate of his named Nick Plitas. You can see what Nick looks like in the picture section Greece by clicking below. Nick couldn't have been any nicer and helpful. Whenever we asked him for something it was always a cheerful "no problem" or "of course!" Can't speak highly enough about Nick although we're sorry we didn't have a chance to meet George. Nick knew every nook and cranny of Athens and he could squeeze that yellow Mercedes taxi through the most narrow of openings. And if we needed to stop and shop for something, Nick could always find a place to perch waiting for us. If you'd like to contact George (or Nick) just click on this web site:http://www.greecetravel.com/taxi/. George isn't online himself but has an excellent and very friendly webmaster, Christos, who will provide you with George's phone numbers. Christos can be e-mailed here. Christos is most accommodating and helped us with all of our needs in getting in touch with George. In our case, we simply faxed George with our needs including airport pick-up and he e-mailed back with rates and a confirmation.
On our first full day in Athens we arranged to have Nick meet us at the hotel at 8 o'clock in the morning. Nick took us to the Olympic Stadium, past Hadrian's Arch, The Temple of Zeus, through the winding streets of Plaka, and to--what else--the Acropolis. Not only did nick take us there but he had a wonderful woman named Irene all lined up to give us a personal tour of it along with a bewildering amount of historical information on the complex. The Parthenon (the incredible structure that sits high atop the Acropolis overlooking Athens down below) has been around for a few years. People are known to have lived on the Acropolis as early as 5000 BC.
After the Acropolis Nick drove us to a funicular that took us to the top of Mt. Likavitos (Lycabettus). I'm not sure how high this place is but I'd wager it stands at least 1,500 feet over the city--even higher than the Acropolis. The view when the "nefos" (smog) isn't present, is incredible. The port of Piraeus is clearly visible. That's where all the ferries depart for the famous Greek islands.
After a Diet Coke at a restaurant on the mountain we took the funicular back down where Nick was waiting. From there we took a fairly lengthy trip to Cape Sounion for a seafood luncheon. The Cape is famous for the Temple of Poseidon. Nick highly recommended a little Taverna (sadly, I didn't get the name of the place although we did post a picture of it in the picture section) and we enjoyed the freshest of fish dinners. We started with some outstanding fried calamari followed by a whole fish that was grilled. Some people called it silver snapper but it was listed as "sarge" on the menu. Whatever it was, it was great along with the traditional Greek salad found everywhere in Greece. Over there the traditional Greek salad consists of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, feta cheese--of course, and a vinaigrette dressing with the finest of virgin Greek olive oil. Quite tasty!
If you have a chance ask George or Nick (I hope you'll pick George's service for your trip!) to take you to Cape Sounion. The drive alone is worth the trip as you pass along little beach villages, etc.
It was back to the hotel in Athens and the selection of a place to eat dinner. There was some confusion on that night. We had intended to dine at a restaurant called "Socrates Prison." Everybody highly recommended it as a great, traditional Greek Taverna. When the taxi came (we should have had Nick take us!), the driver (a very nice woman) didn't know where the restaurant was. Our doorman gave her vectors in Greek and off we went. But we were lost a short time later.. She stopped at another taxi stand and was told that the restaurant we had intended to dine at had been torn down as part of a National Museum project. Oy! We asked her associates to recommend a good place and off we went to an unknown restaurant. Turns out it was a great fish place called Taverna Arsenis. We enjoyed a wonderful fish dinner there. If you'd like to go, it's located at 19, Zisimopoulou Street, Amfithea. Highly recommended. Nice outdoor dining in good weather.
One note about Greek restaurants. Many do not take any credit cards. So plan accordingly.
On our final full day in Greece Nick suggested a ferry cruise to Hydra. As with everything else, Nick took care of everything stopping at a travel agent to buy our tickets on the Flying Dolphin boats that operate out of Zea Marina in Piraeus. On the way to Hydra we were on a huge catamaran. On the return trip we were on a smaller and older hydrofoil. The crossing takes about 1:45 with a stop in Poros, which looked very interesting.
Hydra was suggested by Nick because of a number of factors including the fact that it's not far from Piraeus and because there is no vehicular traffic permitted. So it's really a quaint little place. The taxis there are actually donkeys or small horses!
I was curious about which body of water we would be traveling through to Hydra and Nick explained that it was in an area where three bodies of water exist more or less in one package--the Mediterranean, the Aegean, and Saronic Gulf. I'm still a bit puzzled!
We meandered around and had lunch at a great place called Sunset Cafe. To find it, just get off the ferry at the dock and keep winding along the waterfront. You'll pass by several bistros until you reach the water back again on the other side of the harbor. It's kind of a horseshoe walk. Once you reach the water, turn left and hike up the little trail. There you will find the restaurant which specializes in fish. We had had so much fish by now that we went with a traditional Greek dish--moussaka. This particular version was outstanding and had a potato base. That was topped with egg plant and sauced mincemeat (hamburger or lamb) and topped with about an inch thick layer of béchamel sauce. Then the whole thing is baked. Wonderful.
We spent the rest of our short time on the island just meandering around and buying gifts for friends back home. If you go to Greece, you must find time to visit at least one island. It's well worth the effort. However if you're like my wife and are subject to seasickness, be sure to pack some Dramamine or other preventative medication. The boats do some big time rockin' and rollin' out there!
Soon it was time to catch the 2:55pm ferry back to port. Sure enough Nick was waiting and ready to take us to the hotel. Up until this point the day had been perfect. Not a cloud in the sky with temps around 80. But our mood would soon change because the date was September 11, 2001.
Arriving back at the Athens Hilton as we approached the elevator at about 4:20pm Athens time or 9:20am U.S. time a guy approached to wait with us for an elevator. He heard me talking with my wife and asked where we were from. I told him Detroit, he then said he was from Baton Rouge and I quickly chimed in that we used to live in New Orleans, not too far away. He interrupted my small talk with this: "The reason I asked where you were from is that you should know that there has been an attack on New York and Washington. I've gotten news that planes have crashed into buildings in each city and I'm going up to the room now to see if CNN International has anything on it." Cindy and I just looked at each other in amazement. My worst thoughts were that somebody flew a Cessna into a building or something like that. When we got to the room and turned CNN on, we saw the awful scene. We watched--like so many worldwide--as the second World Trade Center Tower collapsed.
We now had a decision to make. It was approaching 5pm, Athens time, and we were due to check out the following morning at 7 and catch a plane to Cyprus. Initially we considered checking out of the Hilton and moving to a Greek hotel and for a couple of reasons. IF terrorists had planned a worldwide campaign, they might very well indeed target American hotel giants like Hilton. And this particular Hilton was just down the street from the American Embassy. We talked it over and decided to stay put.
For dinner that night we didn't feel like venturing out. We just went up on the roof and caught a quick but excellent meal so we could return to the room and continue watching the coverage. I felt awful sitting there enjoying a beautiful view of the illuminated Acropolis, dining on fine food on a perfect starlit evening while so much suffering was going on back home. Like you, we'll never forget that day.
For the rest of the trip in Cyprus and in Switzerland, we did what we usually do while traveling internationally during potentially dangerous times. When people asked us where we were from (other than hotels that need to see passports), we told them we were from Canada. Usually threatening groups don't have a problem with Canada. And we certainly know enough about Canada to field most questions anybody would ask.
We had actually thought about going to Greece a few years ago. But during a Presidential visit by Bill Clinton the locals heaved rocks and bottles at things connected with America and we pulled the plug on those plans figuring that we didn't want to go where we weren't wanted. But I'm certainly glad we went forward with this trip because we found most Greek people to be very kind and decent. As Nick, our taxi driver and guide explained: "We don't have a problem with Americans. We love Americans. Greeks love everybody. What we do have a problem with is American politicians and their views on such places as Kosovo." I only regret that we had only two full days to spend in Greece. But we'll be back!!!!!
The next time we visit, too, we'll be taking a lot more ferries. And this site, Greek Island Ferry Cruises appears to be an excellent resource.
You'll need a passport to drive in Greece. Driving is on the right hand side of the road. Currency is the Euro. It used to be the Drachma.