Friday, January 29, 2016

Walking With Bill - Part 3 : The Changing of Guards

Bill told us that if we wanted to catch the changing of guards ceremony, we'd best hurry. He said the ceremony would be at 11am at the Presidential Mansion and at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A bit of walking for us still to get there. I was very exicted and trailed behind Bill as fast as I could.

Guards leaving their barracks for the Presidential Mansion
As the new guards arrive the old ones get ready to leave their post
The ceremony marks the end of the hourly shift of the guards or Evzones as they are called and the beginning of the other. These guards are carefully selected for the honor of participating, and most of them are very tall, averaging over 6'3". We were told that the Evzones are the keepers of the Greek flag.

What was very unique about these guards were their uniforms. They wore kilts and shoes with pom-poms on them representing ancient Minoan times. Bill told us that the uniform has a historical meaning. It also refers to the uniform of the Kleftes and Armatoloi, two groups of Greek warriors during the War of Independence i(1821) against the Ottomans.

Very precise movements

Getting ready to leave
Ceremony done and done with very much precision and synchronization.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Walking with Bill - Part 2

Athens is the capital of Greece and is also largest city in the country. It has a recorded history that goes back 3,400 years. Bill, our guide explained that classical Athens was a center for philosophy, art and learning and considered the cradle of Western civilization and democracy. Today, Athens with its 5 million inhabitants is a modern metropolis that is the financial, political, cultural and economic center for the country.

The name of Athens in Ancient Greek was Athenai (pronounced At-he-na). According to Bill the Greeks believed the city was named for its protectress - the goddess Athena. Before our trip I read a fair bit about Greek mythology and its Olympian Gods and also its heroes and monsters. Zeus (king of all the gods), Aphrodite (goddess of beauty and love), Athena (goddess of wisdom and defense), Poseidon (god of the sea) were my favourite reads. 

From the stadium, we walked towards Herodou Attikou St. According to Bill this is one of the most aristocratic thoroughfares in Athens. The street is home to the Presidential Palace and the Maximos Palace which is the official residence of the Prime Minister. 

Herodou Attikou St is lined with orange trees
Residence of the Prime Minister behind those gates

Police wheels near the PM Residence

Greek Presidential Guards

A very unique kind of march

next...changing of guards ceremony

Walking With Bill - Part 1

When Bill our walking guide shared stories about Athens - its people, the myths, culture and many more I was very thrilled. I am no history buff. Never excelled in history in school. Somehow history lessons to me was all about memorizing dates.

However now late in life, I actually regret my fooling around during those history lessons days. During my travels, I saw how the engagement with history of a certain country or ancient civilization would provide you with a better understanding of the people, culture and politics of the country. 

Before we started our walk with Bill, he explained the routes we were going to take. He said there was quite a bit of walking especially when we get to the Acropolis area. As there were only the 3 of us, Bill had more time to share stories about the places he took us - very much to our delight!

Our first stop was Temple of Olympian Zeus.

Temple of Olympian Zeus, also known as the Olympieion, is a Greco-Roman temple in the center of Athens.

During the years of Greek democracy, the temple was left unfinished.The temple is made of fine marble brought from Mount Pentelus. Originally 104 Corinthian columns, each 17 meters high; 48 of these stood in triple rows under the pediments and 56 in double rows at the sides. Today, only 15 columns remain standing. 

Not far from the Olympian Zeus Temple, close to a Metro station we saw an excavated site that was believed to be the bath area of the ancient Athenians.

This ancient bath complex was uncovered during the building of subway in Athens in preparation for the 2000. This was a Roman bath actually - a well-preserved complex that can be viewed from above.  Clear view of the pillars that would have allowed the floors and rooms to be heated for a luxurious bathing experience.
The bath must have been quite a happening place I imagine. After a hard day at work, folks come here to chat and share latest gossips while they soak and relax. 

We continued with our walk until we arrived at the Zappeion.

The Zappeion - its architecture is in the neoclassical order, with a Corinthian portico. It was an exhibition hall and was the first building in the world to be constructed in order to serve Olympic needs.

The columns in Zappeion

From the exhibition hall the Zappeion, we passed its lush green gardens known as the Parrilissia and headed to the Panathenaic Stadium.

The home of the first modern day Olympic Games. 

Reconstructed from the remains of an ancient Greek stadium, the Panathenaic is the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble from Mount Penteli and is one of the oldest in the world.

For museum souvenirs

to be continued....

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A Walking Tour & A What If.....

We had about 3 days in Athens. When I was doing up the itinerary for our "to dos" in Athens, it was tough, like I said earlier. Athens is a big city there was no way we could visit the many recommended interesting places. On top of that we have our own must do gigs at the must go places - gigs like the jumps, the bums, the selfies, wefies...and others. It's really a pull hair task coming up with this itinerary.

Nissa & her "signature" bum how to go on group tours like this?
And this was also one of the reasons why we don't do group tours anymore. The photography that we do could get us really carried away and in group tours the time allocated may not permit us doing things we like most when we are on holiday. However, we also enjoy listening to the stories given by the tour guide when we go on a tour. So much of information and there was no way we could get such valuable information from any readings about the city.

 So how??

In the past we'd go on the City Sight Seeing Tour Bus and the bus would take us to most of the recommended sight seeing places. There's always an audio guide we would listen to. Not comprehensive but it suffice in giving us a brief introduction to the city. When I googled city tours for Athens, other search categories came about ie. the "Walking Tour" and "Free Walking Tour". I clicked on a few of these websites and found very interesting information about these walking tours. I did comparisons on their walk routes and the reviews others gave about their service and I finally decided on the Athens Free Tour Team. Sent them an email on the date we chosed and they were fast at responding. 

This was our first time doing a free walking tour. I wanted to try it when we were in Ghent last year, but some conditions given on the website somewhat put me off. 

The email from Athens Free Tour Team provided a meeting place and time for the tour. We were earlier, took the metro from our apartment and stopped at the Akropolis station as instructed in the email. The meeting place was near the Hadrians Arch. 

Our first try at taking the Athens Metro. This was Metro Line 2 and we were to take the train that goes to ELLINIKO.

Platform was not crowded as it was still early

Clean and spacious

Our Metro stop - Akropoli...only 2 stops from where we boarded
Archaeological finds at Akropoli Metro Station. The frescoes on the wall are well preserved her element
In the email it said that the tour was to start at 9.45am. We didn't see anyone there except just the 3 of us. Not long after that came this really tall guy and he asked if we were joining the walking tour. I hesitated at saying yes in the beginning as somehow, suddenly, this thought "what if this guy was....." hit me. Yikess I hate that feeling, really! 

At the Hadrian Arch - where we met our tour guide Bill. The arch was erected by the Athenians in honour of the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a token of their gratitude for the works he had done for their city.

The one facade of the Arch of Hadrian demarcated the borders of the historic centre of ancient Athens and the other one of the modern part of the city, where Hadrian had built great public buildings. On the one side of the arch, there is the inscription: “This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus”, and on the other one, the inscription reads: “This is the city of Hadrian and not of Theseus”.

Anyway, after exchanging greetings and he showed us his ID ( could have been a fake one) I decided to give him  benefit of the doubt. Later we got talking and he told us that he was an Irish who is married to a local girl from Athens. 

Bill (that was his name) later explained the routes and the time we would take to complete the tour. He started explaining the history of Athens and as he started telling his stories about the places we visited, my "what if..." thoughts just flew into the winds :) 

And off we went with Bill.....

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Crib in Athens

Back to my Greece story. We are still on day 2. Didn't I say that this story telling is gonna take forever?

We got on the correct bus and then took the right tram to get to our apartment. I had found an apartment on the Airbnb website when I was making accommodation arrangements for the trip. In fact I booked 4 out of the 7 accommodations on Airbnb. I first discovered Airbnb during our trip to Italy. We liked the concept of staying in real homes where there are cooking and other facilities that would add more comfort to the trip. What we really liked was we also got to meet with our local host and most of them were very helpful when assistance is needed.

Someone asked me if Airbnb is legit. There have been reports about scams and money lost in bookings. Their question was how can you double ensure that this doesn't happen to you.

My reply to that is yes, Airbnb is very legit. Maybe when it first started there had been loopholes in the system. But now, I'd say it had put in security measures for both the guests and hosts. When I wanted to make my bookings for the apartment in Athens, I was required to submit a photo ID (1st page of the my passport) as verification, something which was not required when I made my bookings for Milan and Rome in Dec 2014.  I believe the same goes for the hosts. So, it's pretty secured, no worries.

But having said that, you know, crooks are every where. They get ultimate kicks by hacking systems and once they were able to do so, there is no limit to the type of vice they could do. Exercise full caution at all times before you submit your payments.

One of the features in Airbnb is that you are able to communicate with your host prior to locking your deal with them. you can ask as many questions you like about the apartment, its location, facilities that come with it - everything! Most hosts would respond to your enquiries in a few hours (depending on the time difference between you and them). And another advice I'd normally give is to choose accomodations that many people have written reviews on. If there are 100 ++ reviews, go thru them one by one. This is a form of feedback for you in order to decide if that particular place was going to be your final choice. It's a laborious task, yes I admit. Like I said earlier, research is very important when one wants to do this type of free and independent travels.

We chosed this place called Acropolis - Home4u on Airbnb. The host - Athina (name of the Greek virgin goddess of reason, intelligent activity, arts and literature....i like very much!) had been in constant communication with me via email and Viber about our arrival arrangements. I sent her a screen grab from Google Maps to confirm the place. And she was very quick with her affirmations.

Our tram & metro stop
Main street near the apartment

 We got down at the right tram station. Followed the instructions Athina gave us. It was quite a challenge to read the street names as they were mostly written in Greek!! We stopped and asked folks on the street and they helped us locate the place. I recall asking an elderly guy who was just about to ride off in his Ducati about which street to take and he was really sweet to actually get more help from others who knew. Later he told me, sorry I am not from here. sweet!! (Nissa went like ewwwww.....Mr Daddy, your wife ni kan sure knew how to flirt!! Jet lagged & muka basi et all!!)

Spotted this bike on our way to the apartment

On the main street to the apartment there are many motor bike shops. And this vespa shop was one.

Coffee and pastry place for our frappe fix

Acropolis - Home4U on Zan Moreas 23. Apartment was on 6th floor

Athina's place was on the main street actually. If only we saw the road signs, we could have found the place easy peasy. When we got to the apartment, Athina welcome us and showed us aroud. It was a complete unit and we very extremely happy with the place. It had a kitchen, a small bedroom, washer, sofabed for Nissa and walking distance to the Metro station and other visit sites in Athens. Bliss...what more can we ask for :)

Athina the host was already waiting for us when we arrived.

The bedroom - complete with its own heater. Very warm and comfy in those cold winter nights

Kitchen with most of the utensils needed available. Also a washer to catch up on the laundry

Flat screen with cable service. But we had fun watching Greek MTV too ;)

Other apartments in the Zan Moreas area

Coffee on the balcony? Nahhh too cold for us!

Nissa's convertible sofa bed

Makan time...dua Melayu who were extra famished as we got to the apartment. I made rendang & pulut for bekal during the journey. These two finished everything in just one sitting :P

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Trip Planning - Creating the Itinerary

Over the past few years, I have independently designed our holidays sans the use of tour agents. It is not easy coming up with the itinerary as there's quite a bit of thoughts to put into, the research to be done, the comparing of prices, aspects on safety and many others. At times my research came to a puzzling stop. Information I needed was no where to be found. I felt like giving up many times. So I'd stay low for a while and give myself a break and continue when I am inspirational enough to work on the itinerary again.  

Coming up with the itinerary for our trip to Greece was equally challenging. Information was abundance but to fit our varried interests and to scale it down to the number of days for our trip was mind boggling. There were so many must dos and places to must see. It wasn't easy and most of all to ensure everyone is happy at the end of the trip. 

Alhamdulillah...about two weeks before the departure date, I finally managed to finalize everything. All bookings for accomodation done and paid for. All information needed was captured into my 18 page itinerary. What a relief...and we were all set to go...yess!! 

Our trip took us to big cities like Athens, Thessaloniki and Corinth. We also did Santorini island, Mount Olympus and a few other places that are rich with history and ancient finds. To Santorini we took a flight to safe time and for the rest of the trip, we moved in our rented car. 

Like always we never know how to travel light. Two pieces of medium sized luggage and one large one. Our flight was at 2.20am on 14/12/2015. Imagine how sleepy we were when we boarded. Bye bye KL...see u in 16 days.

7 hours after we boarded Etihad Airlines from KUL - AUH. Arrival at Abu Dhabi Airport just in time for subuh prayers.

New Abu Dhabi futuristic looking

View of the very busy Abu Dhabi we wait for our flight to Athens

Arrival at Athens Airport at almost 1.00pm local time. By then we had traveled for almost 17 hours. Tired & jet lagged. But the adventure is just starting!

Stop for coffee refuel at one of the cafes at the airport

Free wifi...yeahhh!! Happiness!!

One of the ways to downtown Athens is by bas from the airport. The X95 bus goes straight to Syntagma Square and from there we changed to the tram to get to our apartment in Athens. Ticket was 5Euro per person and journey takes about an hour.

Our luggage on the bus. Had to exercise extra care to ensure that they don't slide away. An incident happened in the bus when one of the passengers didn't produce the correct ticket for the journey. I was not sure if he didn't have one or he used an expired ticket. He was fined 73Euro on the spot!! What a lesson learnt. Beli je lah ticket dari dikenakan such hefty fine.

In the tram to get to our apartment in Athens. Tram ticket was separate and could be easily purchased from the ticket booth near the tram station.

Them looking like locals already. Stop for the apartment was Syngrou Fix only 3 stops after Syntagma Square where we boarded the tram.