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Customer service – Greek style

A cursory check of reviews on Trip Advisor will show that customer service, or the lack thereof, is something that ranks high on every traveller’s list of priorities. Budapest, despite the many things it has going for it as a city, isn’t exactly famous for how it treats its guests. Mind you, given how obnoxious some tourists can be, I wonder where the fault really lies. Suffice to say that good customer service is still something that makes conversational headlines here in the city, testimony in and of itself to its novelty factor.

When in Athens recently I had no clue that to expect or not to expect in the line of customer service. I’m not one easily impressed in that regard so I was open to the best they had to offer. I have been known to covet an entire wait staff, imagining the wonders I might achieve were I let loose on them on them for a couple of days. I have boycotted cafés and bars and restaurants (and badmouthed them, too) if the service has been rude or non-existent. Hell hath no fury like this particular customer scorned.

IMG_3939 (800x581)Here in Budapest, Kompót ranks No. 1 for customer service in my book. And in Athens it was the Taverna on Antinoros Str. From the outset, Eleni, the young woman whose job it is to direct the passing footfall to a table, was pleasant and not at all pushy. She struck the perfect balance with a subdued yet assertive style. Score No. 1. The Taverna is the second in a row of cafés/restaurants/bars near the Divani Caravel hotel and we were intent on checking out them all before committing to one. Both of us liked our food too much to rush the choice. But having done the tour, we ended back where we started and Eleni remembered us. Score No. 2.

As we checked the menu, Maïa came and brought us water, set out the cutlery, and told us someone would be out to take our order shortly. And all with a smile. Score No. 3.

IMG_3940 (800x600)Mr Titus took our drinks order and then he and Xphɛtoɛ (Kristos) kept an eye on us all evening. The food was fantastic, the drinks cold and served to order, the service attentive without being intrusive. It was no wonder that plans to go home at midnight were completely forgotten. When Xphɛtoɛ heard it was my birthday, he planted a birthday candle in my watermelon with the comedic timing of the best that comic talent has to offer. It was a great start to my year. I’m easily pleased. We had a ball. So much so that we went back again, a second time, a couple of days later. Two out of three nights at the same place? Unheard of for me. And interestingly, we recognised some of the other diners, as well.

Some lessons to be learned from the Taverna:

  • Smiling staff who enjoy their work will infect the customers with their good humour. I defy anyone to be in a bad mood for long at the Taverna when these guys are working.
  • Good, uncomplicated food served hot is a perfect complement to local beer and wine served cold. Mix them up and you have a disaster. Get them right and you have it sussed. Simple.
  • Everyone having a watchful eye out for a customer who might just even be thinking about asking for something and then giving the nod to whomever is waiting that particular table makes for seamless service.
  • Take your cue from the customers – If they’re chatty, chat back. If they’re celebrating, pull out all the stops. And if they’re being fussy – remember  – they’re always right. Kill them with kindness and a smile.

Kudos to you all – thanks for a fabulous couple of nights, great food, excellent service, and memories that are worth sharing.

If you’re in Athens, be sure to check it out.

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2014 Grateful 19

‘We learn something new every day, and lots of times it’s that what we learned yesterday was wrong’ – I’m with you there, Bill Vaughan. But there’s some stuff I have learned and there’s other stuff I just know. And I often I don’t know which is which. But when I find out that the stuff I just know is wrong, that tilts my world a little for a nanosecond or three.

IMG_3851 (800x600)The Acropolis is not a building – ruined or otherwise – it’s a hill. I never knew that. And on this hill sits the Parthenon, a temple completed in 438 BC, which has variously served  as  a temple, a church, and a mosque, even a munitions depot during the Turkish Occupation of Greece. An explosion in 1687, in a fight with the Venetians, pretty much ruined it, yet in its way, it’s still rather magnificent.

IMG_3876 (800x600)Another lesser known temple, the Erechteion, with its famous Porch of the Caryatids, is even more interesting. I thought I was looking at the real thing in these six maidens, but they’re replicas. Apparently, back in 1801, a certain Lord Elgin took one home to his mansion in Scotland. It was later sold to the British Museum. Legend has it that at night, the other five could be heard crying for their lost sister. The same Lord Elgin then tried to remove a second one – but ended up smashing it (it was later reconstructed). In the mid-1970s, the temple was somewhat restored and in 1979 the five ladies were moved to the Acropolis Museum, where they’re currently undergoing major cleaning. They were replaced by replicas (and very good ones at that… I wonder how many people notice that they’re not the real thing). While at the museum, one of them – a footless lady – was matched with a sandalled foot found in the rubble – reunited and in one piece again.

IMG_3836 (800x600)IMG_3839 (800x600)The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a renovated amphitheatre, is very impressive. The juxtaposing of old and new creates a magic that is mesmerising.  Home to the Athens Festival each year, world greats such as Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Plácido Domingo, the Bolshoi Ballet, Diana Ross, Liza Minelli… have performed on its stage. I’ve added yet another item to my bucket list and am debating about whom I’d like to see at the Odeon. Imelda May – definitely Imelda May.

IMG_3893 (800x600)The Temple of Athena Nike is another one with a story behind it. The first of the temples on the Acropolis, it was completely dismantled in the seventeenth century when its stone was used to build a Turkish wall around the hill.  In or about 1836, an anastylosis (my word for the day – an archaeological term for a reconstruction technique whereby a ruined building or monument is restored using the original architectural elements to the greatest degree possible) helped rebuild the temple from the parts remaining.

IMG_3858 (800x600)Many years ago, when I was visiting the Colosseum in Rome, I was with an architect friend who patiently explained the various pillars and columns to me. Needless to say, with the limited amount of space in my brain, that information has long since been replaced by something far more important, like the price of first class postage in South Africa. But I didn’t need to know what I was looking at to appreciate the majesty of it all. The detail, the hidden men (can you see the chap reclining underneath the roof?), the artistry – and with the tools available back then? It’s almost impossible to comprehend.

IMG_3863 (800x600)IMG_3846 (800x600)The views from the Acropolis are magnificent. To see the entire city of Athens laid out before you is quite impressive. Mind you, it was difficult to find any comfort in it, as thousands of people jostled for a vantage point. The place was teeming. More than 10 000 visit each day, apparently, making for a less than comfortable experience. Although I was one of those tourists, I couldn’t help but wish everyone else had stayed at home. One long moving line passed in through the pillars and another passed out, reminiscent of a human conveyor belt, with staff on site urging everyone to keep moving and not to stop.

IMG_3841 (800x600)Was it worth it? Definitely. Despite the heat, the crowds, and my lack of interest in old temples generally, it was impressive. Very impressive. I’m grateful that someone, somewhere along the way, didn’t decide to bulldoze it to make way for high-priced condominiums or luxury villas. I’ve often wondered what makes people revere some ruins and erase others. To conservationists and the preservationists everywhere, a massive thank you for doing your bit to keep the past intact.

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Athenian attitude

I have a long list of places I’d like to see before I pass from this mortal soil. The order changes occasionally, with new ones being added to the list on a regular basis. That’s only to be expected. The older I get, the more I learn; the more I learn, the more I want to see. For some reason, though, neither Greece nor Athens have ever appeared on that list. The whole Greek island thing passed me by after I had my first (and last) sun holiday in Spain back in 1984. Athens for me has always been epitomised by the Acropolis and the Agora – and I’m not much of a one for seriously old ruins.

But if you decide to check with your astrologist to see where your soul would be best positioned on your birthday so that the next six months would go well, and he says Athens, Greece, then you go. So I went. And I learned.

IMG_3786 (800x600)IMG_3897 (800x283)IMG_3782 (800x600)IMG_3927 (800x600)The juxtaposition of old and new in the city of Athens is both confusing and comforting. Wandering though the city centre was like walking through any main European city centre, with many of the usual international chains firmly ensconced on the high street.  The parliament is positively plain, when compared the Hungarian one. And the changing of the guard wasn’t quite as impressive as Buckingham Palace. But stop! This is where I realised that I was tired and in need of a major attitude adjustment. When I start comparing cities, I stop seeing what’s there for what it is. It’s a bad habit, one that I usually have under control. It only surfaces when I’m overworked and my brain loses what little capacity it has to see things without tagging them comparatively for convenience. So I set out to consciously notice.

IMG_3935 (800x600)First off, in Athens store security guards wear bullet-proof vests. That’s something I’ve not seen before. It has to be out of necessity as wearing steel plates in temperatures that regularly hit the high thirties can’t be fun. In the city, both the centre and the suburbs, police trucks park in squares and at intersections, each of which is a mobile riot unit. There’s a heavy police presence, particularly around major international hotels. I’m still not sure if this provided some degree of comfort or just made me a little more insecure. I had thought that the riots of 2010-2012 were pretty much over, but apparently not. When we counted the ninth truck to pass in as many minutes, we asked a waitress what was going on. She shrugged, smiled, and said ‘It’s Athens’.

IMG_3806 (800x600)IMG_3802 (800x600)IMG_3900 (800x600)IMG_3796 (600x800)I was soon distracted though by the many gorgeous churches around the city. It would seem that no expense was spared. All are beautiful; some are jawdroppingly so. And the number of priests and nuns walking purposefully through the streets led me to believe that religion is pretty strong in the city, a religion lived rather than one simply talked about. I will admit to being quite fascinated by the black-robed bearded priests and the look they all have in common, worn almost like a badge of office. I’d quite like to have chat with one of them.  For every grand place of worship, there is a small, simple church that is equally holy. It would be worth walking the city with a man (or woman) of the cloth, just to get their perspective. (Note to self.)

I lit my fair share of candles, said my prayers, and went in search of the old town (or I would have done had I known there was one).

IMG_3904 (800x600)IMG_3908 (800x600)On our way back from the Acropolis, we ended up in a maze of narrow, paved streets which seemed centuries removed from the bland modernity of the city centre. Graffiti takes no prisoners in this town; just about every wall has some sort of acknowledgement that someone saw it in passing and left their mark. The vast majority is urban scrawl, but the occasional gem slips through. Along these narrow streets, cafés and restaurants ply their trade, offering up plates of fish, meat, and rich desserts. The wine was cold, the beer was local, and the service friendly yet unobtrusive. This part of Athens I could grow to like … a lot. Time took on new meaning and three hours passed in a flash.

IMG_3913 (800x600)IMG_3918 (800x600)The layers of walls tell centuries of stories. That no attempt has been made to fix them up only adds to their charm. With few others walking the narrow streets, I quite fancied that I was strolling through a giant book, turning a page as I went around each corner. Yes, there were still some hopeful vendors here and there, but it was nothing like the warren of stalls down at the flea market (which incidentally, is nothing like any other flea market I’ve ever seen – instead of the makeshift stalls and blankets on the ground, this is street after street of shops selling everything a tourist might want). I spent some time in a spice shop and one of these fine days might even try my hand at making souvlaki.

IMG_3921 (800x600)IMG_3920 (600x800)The Agora was on my rather short list of places (3) to see in Athens. The remnants of this ancient market place are quite spectacular. I was slightly amused at the sign at the gate urging me not to take any indecent or defamatory photographs… I spent a good five minutes wondering what exactly had prompted this precaution. The removal of stones I can see. Permission to use a tripod is arguably needed. But indecent photos? The mind boggles. Am sure the spirits of the ancient debaters who used to come to air their views at the Agora are having a field-day trying to figure that one out.

Was it worth a few days? Definitely. Would I recommend it? Yes. Would I go back? I could be tempted.

 

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Speaking from the grave

My idea of a holiday is not having to make decisions. I quite like the idea of tossing a coin and letting fate decide where I go and what I do. Another option is to travel with someone who does know what they want to do and where they want to go; someone hovering on the same frequency. I had no strong opinions as to what we should spend our final hours on Aegina doing. It was too hot to think so I was more than happy to accompany Ms G to the church of Agios Nektarios and the monastery of Agia Triada.

IMG_3695 (800x600)There was a crowd of people milling around the bus station. The bus we wanted should have left ten minutes earlier but was running late. The lady at the ticket desk told us it was full and the next one wouldn’t be for two hours. But that would be too late. Not the end of the world – simply more beach time and a longer, lazier lunch. But then she said she’d check with the driver to see if he’d take us anyway. We got the last two places – standing places – in the stairwell.

IMG_3719 (600x800)The 6km journey up hill and down vale was quite reminiscent of Malta. Little chapels and random grottoes dotted the roadside. Pistachio farms attached themselves to olive groves. Stone farmhouses stood stoically, oases of cool in the  heat of the day. It’s the stuff that spontaneity is made for. I’m sure that many a life-altering fantasy was conjured up along this road as those who had come to Greece to escape a ratraced reality dreamt of stopping the world and simply getting off. Maybe turning their hand to olives or pistachios and converting the farmhouse into a B&B.

First off the bus at Kondos, we went straight to the church of Agio Nektarios (St Nectarios). He was born in 1846 and died in 1920, so as far as saints go, he’s relatively new,  yet he’s one of the best known of the Greek Orthodox saints. This was my first stumbling block – I didn’t know the first thing about that religion and was confusing it with Greek Catholics. Now I know that Greek Orthodox are members of the Orthodox Church. Greek Catholics are members of communities which were once Orthodox, but entered into communion with the See of Rome and accepted the Pope’s authority — i.e., they are part of the Catholic Church. Greek Orthodox believe that Christ is the head of their church – not the pope. As for Greek Orthodox vs Roman Catholics… that’s a whole other missive.

St Nectarious’s crypt is in the church itself and each month, thousands come to beg favours and seek his blessing. Apparently he was a great miracle worker in his day, a prolific writer, moralist, philosopher, theologist, poet, and mystic. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, he established the monastery next door – the Agia Triada (Holy Trinity) – a monastery for nuns where apparently 14 still live.

IMG_3709 (800x600)I wish that they would take the time to translate something about what they do and what we saw. But that’s selfish of me. I should have read up on it before I went and prepared myself. It was quite a shock to read the sign at the monastery entrance; wondering what constituted half-naked and why they should be so against trouser-clad women diverted my attention for a while.

IMG_3711 (800x600)IMG_3710 (600x800)There were two small chapels – one with the old marble tomb in which the saint was first buried. Those filing inside stopped briefly to put their ear to the tomb and it was only later I realised that the faithful believe that if they listen hard enough, they will hear him blessing them. Were a Martian to pop into mass in any Catholic church, he’d have cause to wonder at the veneration of a man nailed to a cross and perhaps have a hard time getting his head around the transubstantiation of the Eucharist… and I could feel his pain. I was completely lost as to what was going on and what I was supposed to do, or not do. But at least I wasn’t half-naked.

IMG_3726 (800x600)My religion is one of order and routine. We stand, sit, and kneel on cue. The Greek Orthodox seems random – lots of signs of the cross, lots of kissing of icons, lots and lots of candle lighting, not to mention the chanting and the constant movement. It would have been so nice to have it all explained to me but from what I could see, we were the only ones without a clue. Everyone else seemed quite at home. [A complete aside: Did you know that Greek Orthodox is very big in America?]

It was all a little frustrating and so very complicated – it seemed in marked contrast to the simplicity of everything else I’d seen since coming to the island. But then again, I’m not Greek.

I did have have my three wishes though as I have the luxury of believing that there’s only the one God – no matter what we choose to call Him or where we choose to house Him. And that belief works for me.

 

 

 

 

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Too little time

A few years ago, being somewhere and not seeing everything would have made me feel like I was betraying some sort of tourist pact whereby holidays involved getting up at daybreak to be sure that each and every item on my list was ticked off. How could I say I’d been to Paris and not seen the Eiffel Tower? Or been to Venice and not seen St Mark’s? Or been to Berlin and not seen Checkpoint Charlie?There are certain things that are must sees but even those don’t need to been seen the first time round. I mean, it’s not like these places are going anywhere. [I’ve relaxed a little – I didn’t get to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam until my fourth visit.]

IMG_3657 (800x600)We had about 32 hours on the Greek island of Aegina. Buses are infrequent and packed to the gills. One guy has a mafia-like control of the car rentals at the port of Aegina and he was asking more than we were prepared to pay – on principle. So we had to make a choice – stay in the town or pick one place and figure out a way of getting to see it.

IMG_3737 (600x800)There are tours that offer trips captioned .’Three Greek islands in one day’. While we were lying on the beach, one such tour landed – mostly a mix of Asian and Americans. The former walked along the water’s edge carrying open umbrellas and then took their umbrellas for a paddle; the latter got into the water and then took to the sun chairs. Two hours later, it was back on the boat to the next port of call. I can’t imagine a worse way to see the islands. What little I’ve seen of Greek life leads me to believe that it simply doesn’t lend itself to that sort of pressure.

IMG_3662 (600x800) It was hot. Very hot. And such weather isn’t at all conducive to sightseeing yet both of us had this thing about at least making an effort of some sort to see more of the island that the port town itself, even though that, too, had to be explored. After whiling away the afternoon on the beach on Monday, we ventured out to explore the back streets of the harbour’s edge. It was a warren of individual boutique shops, each one offering something unique. After the sameness of shops in cities around Europe, it was refreshing to see some individuality. I am now a fan of the Greek label JOINclothes having spent way too long in that particular shop – and leaving way too much money behind me.

IMG_3749 (800x588)Pocket money spent, we gravitated back to the water. Some of the yachts tied up at the harbour were impressive, speaking as they did to another way of life. Some were part of flotillas, hired for a couple of weeks of sailing through the islands. Others were privately owned and lived in. Yet again I resolved to play the lotto – as that’s about the only way my life will ever include large chunks of time on the water.

greekWe stopped every now and then to eat or have an ouzo or a glass of local wine, which was cheap and served chilled. I have a whole new respect for Greek salads and have been converted to the simple culinary joy that is souvlaki. Greek food is simple but good; a lot like Greek life.

Walking home later that night, the sun having set over the water, we saw Greek family life at its best. Three generations took to the public benches. The elderly sat on walls and held forth while dads played with kids and mams chatted and all combinations thereof. The soft light of the evening bathed everything in a comforting glow that would have made a great advertisement for simple living. No one was plugged in. Everyone was engaged. It was lovely.

IMG_3682 (800x600)Back at the hotel later that night, we began the process of deciding what to do with the few hours we had on Tuesday…

We could go see the Temple of Aphaia  which dates back to the seventh century BC. We could visit Paleochora, the remains of a Byzantine city. We could check out a traditional pottery workshop in Mesagros.We could get a little bit of religion in by dropping in on the church of Agios Nektarios and the monastery of Agia Triada. And then there were old fishing villages and more archaeological ruins. The whole island is only about 80 square kilometers – but time was an issue and we had to decide. Aegina has been around for thousands of years, we told ourselves; it’s not going anywhere. We could always come back. But in the meantime, we wanted to explore some more …

 

 

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It’s all Greek to me

There is nothing that decompresses as much as physically transitioning from one pace of life to another, slower one. We were up at the crack of dawn this morning to taxi to Piraus to catch the ferry to Aegina – an island about 70 minutes boat time from Athens (and apparently the first capital of modern Greece). As we pulled away from the dock, we left a city settling in under a blanket of smog, created in part by the black smoke coming from the speedboats that were carrying those in too much of a hurry to take the puddle-jumpers to wherever it was they were going. Mammoth cruise ships carrying enough passengers to populate an average Irish town had yet to waken while incoming ferries disgorged hundreds of commuters heading to work.

IMG_3620 (800x600)IMG_3629 (800x600)We landed in Athens last night with enough time to check in to the lovely Palmyra Beach Hotel at Glyfada, drop our bags, and head out to dinner on the beach. As you do. Some decent Greek wine for me and some ouzo for the inimitable Ms G helped wind down what for both of us had been a stressful week. We sat by the shore until they closed the place down around us and then made our way back to the hotel for just a few hours of sleep before heading to the island.

IMG_3613 (800x600)I’ve never been to Greece before. It’s not a country that was high on my list of places to go, if it featured at all. Athens isn’t a city I’ve ever been particularly curious about and yet when he told me to be in Athens at 9.04 pm on Wednesday, 6th August, I immediately booked a flight. My last date with fate on 2 February 2013 marked many changes – good changes – so who knows what this one will bring.

IMG_3640 (800x600)It might well be the effects of the sun, but I think I can see the changes already. I am so calm I don’t know myself. I’ve only logged on once today and haven’t checked my phone at all. I’ve finished one book and have two more in reserve. We docked at Aegina early morning and couldn’t immediately see our hotel. So we did what any self-respecting Irish/Hungarian duo would do – we checked with the first bartender we saw. Nothing like taking advantage of local talent. .. but such information comes at a price.

Pulling wheelies behind us, we wended our way up the hill to our hotel and got to check in early. The Klonos is lovely – really lovely. That makes two in a row. We spent the day at the beach decompressing and feel as if Budapest is somewhere in the distant past. I’m keeping a watchful eye out for Tom Conti look-alikes (there’s a plethora of Shirley Valentines), and half expect to hear Pierce Brosnan singing his heart out in some little ouzeri tonight. But even if both fail me, I won’t be disappointed.

This is the first time in a long time that I’ve felt so relaxed. It’s going to be a good week. And yes, Wayne Brett – I’ll be back in BP by Friday 🙂

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