On my first day of being a traveller, I attempted to walk from my hotel to the centre of Athens. I was prepared – I had looked it up on Google Maps using the hotel wi-fi and taken a screenshot of the map. Google said it would take 30 minutes, and it appeared to be a fairly straight line from A to B. Easy.
I realised about five minutes into my walk that this was certainly not going to be easy. For one thing, none of the streets seemed to have street signs. For another thing, I can’t read maps.
For some reason, even though I know that I’m crap with maps and have no innate sense of direction, in situations like this one, I always seem to decide that I can just follow my instincts. I followed my instincts for about an hour, blindly telling myself that I must be getting there. I walked down desolate, dusty roads where greasy-looking men gave me bemused stares, knowing I was a lost tourist. Passing taxis beeped hopefully at me, offering a ride. But I stubbornly persevered, getting sweatier and more frustrated, until I saw a sign that said ‘City Centre’ pointing back in the direction that I’d come from.
At this point, I decided to give in, turn on my data roaming, and call on trusty Google Maps to give me directions. Eventually, with the help of technology (I will learn to cope without it, I swear!) I trudged into the Monastiraki area of the city. I had never been so happy to see tourists in my life.
This tiring and frustrating start to my day seemed to dictate the rest of it. I walked and walked, never quite knowing where I was or how to get back to where I’d been.
I took in some wonderful sites, starting with the heaving Athens Flea Market, which, being Sunday, actually involved more than the usual tacky souvenir stalls. There was an enormous assortment of items, from furniture to religious paintings to cassette players. There were even large piles of dirty old reading glasses and wrist watches. The items were spread out on tables, the ground – even atop vendors’ cars.
When I escaped the maze that was the Flea Market, I followed a winding, narrow street up the hill, past the ancient Hadrian’s Library and into the shady, cobbled lanes that overlook the city. Everywhere I went, gypsy women and children tried to sell me things – roses or lace bedspreads – and their main tactic was to pinch my cheek and tell me that I looked like Angelina Jolie. Nice to hear, but since I have been told more than once that I look like Wallace (of Wallace & Gromit), I didn’t quite believe them.
Along my travels I encountered the Athens Cathedral or ‘Mitropolis’, although I didn’t know that’s what I was looking at until, sitting peacefully in the shade of the cathedral, I found myself engulfed by a large tour group. They gathered around me and I listened to their guide talk about the history of the building. They seemed to think I was one of their own despite the average age being around 60, and when they broke for some free time the man next to me asked me what time we were supposed to meet.
“3.00pm” I told him confidently, having evidently been paying more attention to his guide than he had.
“Thanks,” he said. “See you in a bit, then.”
By the time I accidentally found the Hellenic Parliament building, just in time to see the changing of the guards, I was getting weary, and this is my excuse for finding the guard-changing ceremony a little lacking in pomp and circumstance. There were only two guards, and with a few hops and kicks it was over. I did, however, think it was nice that there was a soldier on hand to make sure the guards’ skirts were falling properly after getting kicked around.
I was tired, sore and starving, so I decided to go back to a long street of restaurants I had passed earlier, that all had a lovely, traditional Greek look to them and smelled like saganaki and calamari. I was so excited for my impending feast that I strode off purposefully, once again following my instincts.
A couple of hours later, still walking and beginning to whimper, I had passed the same places again and again, but had come no closer to finding the saganaki-scented street. Dejected, I settled for a place called Lulu’s Bakery, which, as the name suggests, didn’t look authentic in the slightest and was clearly a tourist trap for those who can’t read maps.
“Oh, you’re back!” said the waitress at the front, who had twice tried to tempt me in as I passed by during my fruitless search.
The meal turned out to be, as expected, nothing special. I got charged for what I thought was free bread, the chicken souvlaki was dry and salty and the proprietor yelled loudly at one of his servers throughout my meal. On the bright side, I was given a complimentary shot of ouzo, which went down very nicely.
I returned to my hotel to rest my aching feet, and would come back with a (slightly) better idea of Athens geography the next day.