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Driving in Attika Part 1

Leaving Kea

suzuki grand vitara"Hello. Hotel Attalos. Can I help you?"
"Hi Sakis, its Matt"
"Oh, hello darling. How are you?"
"I am great. We are on Kea but we are coming tonight"
"Yes, I know. You have a reservation".
"Can you do one small favor for me?"
"Anything darling."
"I have a new car. Can you take the Attalos: No Parking Sign and put it in the street in front of the hotel and save me a parking space?"
"Mmmmmmmm... this is difficult but I will try."

For those who don't know I had a great plan for how to make a living in Greece. I would buy a really nice car and when I was not using it, (like all but the three months of the year when I am in Greece), I would give it to my friend Elias at Swift Car Rentals and he would rent it for big bucks. The trouble is once I got the car I liked it so much I did not trust anyone to drive it, especially strangers, no matter how much they wanted to pay. So I kept the car and drove it around Lesvos and Kea. But now it was late August and my daughter Amarandi was due back at school and we slowly began to prepare ourselves for the trip back to the states which meant leaving the island and going back to Athens.

suzuki grand vitara on kea ferrySo now it is my last few days in Athens, which are like any of my last days in Athens of previous trips only now I have a new Suzuki Grande Vitara that I don't want destroyed and I certainly don't want to spend hours looking for a parking spot after the terror of driving into the city, having only driven it on dirt roads and narrow streets on Lesvos and Kea for the entire summer. There is also the terrifying procedure of driving the car on and off the ferry, something I am not entirely comfortable with yet. It takes me several hours of pep talking to myself to get the courage to drive on the ferry with all the ship workers trying to guide me into a narrow spot yelling, "dexia, dexia, erristera, efthia, dexia, ochi! ochi!, dexia gamoto! piso, piso, endaxi, telos." (rough translation: "right, right, left ,straight, right, no, no, right, right %&*$#!, back, back, OK, finished ",only this entire ordeal is done driving backwards and they cram the cars in so tight you are lucky if you can get out or in again).

But I have driven on and off the boat with no damage (actual photos above) and a minumum of frustration and barely a yell from the seamen. (Look at the top photo and see how they are admiring my driving skills!) The highway from Lavrion into Athens is almost empty with most of the Athenians still on the islands for their August holidays. Its the first time I have driven the car in fifth gear and we are cruising. This is Fun!

Entering Athens

driving in GreeceI pass the airport and take the Hymetos Ring Road exit and drive through several tunnels on the new highway that takes you to the center of Athens by going above it along the side of Mount Hymetos. Below the lights of Athens are coming on and I can see the remains of the sunset on the port of Pireaus to the west as well as the shape of the Acropolis and Mont Lycavettos. Usually I am doing this in a taxi but now I feel almost like a real Athenian or at least a guy from Kea coming to Athens for a big night on the town. We get off at Kessariani Monastery exit, cut through Pangratti and around the National Gardens to Syntagma Square, left past the Grand Bretagne and down Karagiozis Servias Street, turn right on Athinas Street and U-turn into a beautiful parking spot right in front of the Attalos Hotel just as Andonis, the evening concierge removes the no-parking sign that had saved my spot from parking-space-hungry Athenians.
Perfect!

That night all our friends meet us at the Attalos before going out to dinner in Psiri.
"You like my new car?"
"It's beautiful", they all agree. "Me gia".(with health or use it in good health, or don't get killed in it.)
I feel like a kid with a new car, which is kind of what I am give or take thirty or more years.

The next morning I feel like a guy who has to go to work with a hangover. People who gripe about parking in their neighborhoods in New York really don't have that much to complain about. They come home from work and park their car on the side of the street where there is a sign that says its OK to park after 5:30pm. They wake up the next morning and move their car since the sign also said that you can't park there between 7:30am and 5:30 on Mon-Weds-Fri. If they work at home or don't work they just find a spot vacated by someone going to work where there is a sign that says you can't park Tues and Thurs. Probably having to do with the day the garbage trucks pick up trash on that side of the street or the street cleaner comes. But whatever the reason the result is that they have awakened early to move their car, have successfully found another spot, and can now go have a coffee or even return to bed if they like.

Not so in Athens. The police have been on a parking ticket rampage on Athinas Street giving parking tickets and Adonis let me know that they come early so I need to move my car by 7:30am. The technique of the police is very simple. They give you a ticket and then they unscrew your license plates. It costs 150 euros to get them back. I saw 2 women one day leave their car on the way to the beach (they had their bathing suits on under their clothes) and run into a store, maybe for suntan lotion. When they returned, the police had removed their plates, left a ticket and moved on. I can just imagine the hassle it is to pay the tickets with the Greek bureaucracy. Chances are the girls did not make it to the beach. (When I started to photograph this drama one of the shop owners shook his head and told me in Greek only to photograph nice things.)

But for me on this August morning in my nearly perfect parking spot in front of the Hotel Attalos there is nowhere to move to because on any weekday morning Athinas Street and the entire downtown is a sea of activity and there are no legal parking spaces available anywhere. So without even a cup of coffee I get in my Grand Vitara and leave my parking space and start driving in whatever direction seems like it will be the easiest. Today I am going up Mesogion Avenue towards the port of Rafina.

Rafina

rafina, attika, greeceThere is something wonderful about Athens in August when everyone is on the islands and the roads are relatively free of traffic. After a summer of driving on narrow winding roads with hair-pin turns it is almost scary to be driving down the highway at 110 kph, going in the opposite direction of people who are not lucky enough to have August off, on their way to work. The road to Rafina has changed since the last time I came this way which I guess was just before the Olympics. It is now a new 4-lane modern road with sidewalks and traffic lights and where before because of the traffic it used to take hours to get here from downtown, I make it in about half an hour. The town has changed. Its not even a town anymore. It's as much a part of Athens as Glyfada is with cement apartment buildings surrounding the small port and overlooking the beach from the hill we used to play on. There used to be an old German bunker with a slot for a machine-gun. I wonder if it is still there among the sea of polikatikeas (apartment buildings). I park my car by the square and as I walk down the hill to the port the Superferry is leaving for Andros, Tinos and Mykonos, while the ferry to Marmaris, on the island of Evia, is loading the last few vehicles before it sails off too. The fish markets are open and there are old men in the cafeneons. A couple of the fish restaurants are open and there is a cafe at the end with espresso, which is where I go. As I drink my first coffee of the day after a 20 kilometer drive, the radio is playing the song 'Darling' by the 70's band Stories, which is obscure enough. But what makes it magical is that my pal Leigh is in Athens with his kids, having arrived yesterday and is out with one of George the Famous Taxi Driver's guys, seeing our old school and showing his girls the places we used to hang out. And Leigh is the one who had the Stories albumthat this song came from, that we played over and over again as we used to do back then.

Now is that a coincidence? Or is it the voice ofGod telling me "Matt. It was a good idea you had to come here for a cup of coffee today".

rafina, athens, greeceI wander around taking photos for awhile and buy a spanakopita from one of the fast food joints in the harbor. Rafina has a big square (platia), the kind that is perfect for the evening volta (promenade) and what makes it better there are lots of fish tavernas, not just in the port but above it as well. The town is a little ratty looking but you can see that someone is trying to get things going here. The Hotel Avra which was a dive is now a fancy 4-star hotel and the ruin of a hotel next to it is being rebuilt. This would be a cool place to live, especially if they had some kind of light-rail system that could get you into Athens in half-an-hour anytime. Get a little apartment with a view of the sea and watch the ferries come and go. Go down to the port and get some fresh fish for dinner or sit in one of the little fish restaurants and eat octopus and drink ouzo, or invite my friendsfrom Athens to come out for a big fish dinner on the sea. We used to drive all the way out here for a plate of squid just because it felt kind of like being on an island.

My parents used to bring us here to rafina as well as the beaches of Avlaki and Loutsa because they were the closest to our house in Agia Paraskevis. In the early seventies we could get here easily in half an hour. There was a taverna on the beach and no apartment buildings. The sea was clean, and it was as if we were out in the country.

Now the public beach does not look so inviting to me but if you drive in either direction along the coast there are small coves(photo) which are full of old people taking their morning banyo. In Greece the old people keep score of their banyo, which are the number of times they swim. "I did 27 banyo this summer" they brag when they return from the holidays. As a potential old person myself I have become somewhat conscious about my banyos too. On Kea there were maybe only 2 days that I was so lazy that I did not go to one of the many beaches and swim for half an hour or so. The rest I religiously walked the one mile to where my car was parked (the closest spot I could find to the village in August since they have a parking lot for about 40 cars and in August there are several hundred, most of them lining the road to and from the town) and drive to one of the beaches around sunset and do my froggy-waddle-dog-paddle which kept me from gaining an extra hundred kilos. I have made up my mind that I will continue to swim every day I am in Athens since I probably won't swim again once I go back to the states.

Nea Makri

attika, mati, greeceAs I continue along the coast heading north I find myself in tree-shaded neighborhoods, each with its own little beach or series of beaches. The next town is called Mati which is on the outskirts of Rafina and the inskirts (if there is such a word) of Nea Makri. Its hard to tell where one begins and the other ends but I suppose 20 years ago when there was nothing in between it was a lot easier. There are a couple nice hotels far from the madness of Athens, one is called the Hotel Aquamarina and the other the Cabo Verde Boutique Hotel. They are both modern buildings right on the sea overlooking a small beach and a yacht marina. Unlike the coast hotels in Glyfada where you feel more like you are in a city than on a beach, these are on a quiet pine shaded street. There are a couple tavernas nearby and a small shopping area and even an outdoor movie theater. I know I should investigate further but I just walk through one, take some photos of the pool, the beach and the building, pick up a brochure and make a note to ask Fantasy Travel about these hotels sometime in the future. In a nother little cove there is a cafe and a boardwalk along the coast. This would definately be a nice place to have a house.

nea makri, greeceContinuing along the coastal road to Nea Makri I come upon a series of camps that look like military bases in the forest. What they are though, are centers for retired military, police , civil servants and their families to spend a couple weeks of the summer on the coast. Of course these were probably at one time military bases, in fact there was a US Navy base here in the sixties. I know because there were kids from my school who lived here. But now its all old people and the only reminder of Greece's militaristic past are the signs that say 'no photos', which of course I obey since for all I know they are not old signs and if I take a picture I will be shot as a spy. Eventually I get through this area which seems to go on forever and find myself in the port of Nea Makri which has a downtown, a number of tavernas and cafes, a small harbor of fishing boats and pleasure boats and a beach full of old people taking their morning banyo. All along the coast I had passed small beaches and coves, all with a group of old people bobbing in the sea as they probably do every day at this time.

Marathon

burial mound in marathon, greeceThe town of Marathon is of course known for the epic battle when the Athenians defeated a Persian invasion in 490 BC and the 26.2 miles (42.1 kilometers) route the Greek messenger Pheidippides supposedly ran to Athens is of course the length of what we call 'the marathon'. Marathon now is a long beach with tavernas and shops and a downtown area, surrounded by houses, apartment buildings and some undeveloped property with kalamia (reeds) and olive groves. The site of the battle has a statue of a Greek soldier and surprisingly the burial mound of the 192 Athenians who died, sits in the middle of a big olive grove. When I arrive there is a bus of tourists and though most are lingering around the small entrance building, some are on top of the hill. There is a path upward and as they come down I go up. It's a great vantage point. The only problem is that you are not supposed to climb it. There is no sign but the girl tells me as I am leaving the site. She also tells me you are supposed to pay 3 euros, which I happily do since it seems like a bargain for standing on the grave of those whose victory may have opened the doorway to western civilization. For had the Athenians lost the Persian wars we might all be speaking Farsi now.

I have a choice to make. I can go see the beautiful lake of Marathon and its impressive marble dam which up until 1956 was Athen's water supply, or I can go to Schinias and take a swim. I choose Schinias to continue my string of banyo days.

Schinias

schinias, attika, greeceSchinias is a long beach, maybe the longest in Attika, relatively undeveloped except for the Schinias rowing center built for the 2004 Olympics which still exists in the middle of a marshy area that was and hopefully still is a sanctuary for wild-life. If you remember back that far, the Olympic Rowing center was one of the controversies of the Olympics. First the environmentalists fought it unsuccessfully because it would destroy the eco-system. The officals said it would make it better. Then when it was completed they discovered that the winds, unimpeded by anything, came off the sea and made rowing on the lake like kayaking on Lake Michigan in December. In the Olympic trials many boats became waterlogged or were capsized by the gale force winds. The beach at Schinias itself is shallow, with fine sand and if you get there early in the day and hopefully not on a weekend in July and August when it is packed with people, it is one of the nicest places within striking distance of Athens. There are several kilometers of pine forests that go right down to the sea so there is plenty of shade not just for you but for your car too. There are also several fish tavernas on the beach. I park my car and take a swim and then call Andrea on my cell phone to announce that my streak of swimming every day in Greece remains unbroken. I would love to have a meal and some wine at one of these tavernas but its only about 11am. If I start drinking now I could be here for days. I am standing in the sea (with my camera) looking at the pines and thinking about Andrea in Athens, taking the trolly to Kypseli. The cars and buses and noise and pollution and activity. Here in Schinias its early and the only people within 200 meters are a little Russian girl and her grandfather playing in the shallow sea.

Ancient Ramnous

ramnous, attika, greeceThe sign that advertises the Ramnous campgrounds reminds me of a story Elias at Swift told me a few years back. A friend of his met an archaeologist who took him to a site that was just being excavated. "It was unbelievable! An entire city of which I was walking down its ancient streets!" he had told Elias and Elias had told us. Now I follow the signs and find myself on a road through an unspoiled valley of olive groves and farms until I reach the turn-off for the Archaeological Site of Ramnous. There is one other car in the parking lot and it is leaving. There is a girl in the ticket both watching soap operas on TV. I buy a ticket and walk up the hill to the ancient Temple of Nemesis, goddess of retribution and mother of Helen of Troy. There is not much left besides the foundation and some broken columns and walls but it is still impressive because of its size and age. But just below is a gate that is slightly ajar and a path that looks like it was an old road, that goes past some ancient buildings. As I reach the crest of the hill I see below the ancient city, the foundational walls and streets still visible. I suppose I should walk down and try to capture some of the enthusiasm Elias friend had when he walked through the ancient streets, but this is mid-August and it is almost 100 degrees and though there is a nice breeze blowing, the thought of having to climb back up this hill I am standing on is enough to have me thinking of alternative plans. Anyway Andrea will probably want to see this place sometime so I think I will save my strength for when I really have to do it.

agia marina, attika, greeceI had noticed there was a sign for the ferry boat at a crossroads a few miles back so I backtrack. I come to a tiny port called Agia Marina. There is a small cove with a beach and lots of families swimming in the turquois sea. Not much of a town really. Just some houses and polikatikeas (apartment buildings-you know this word now right?), probably built illegally but I guessif you had land this close to Athens on the sea in a remote little hole-in-the -wall port you would do whatever it took to build a house, legal or not. There are two ferries, one in the process of loading up and leaving. I wouldn't mind sticking around Agia Marina and taking another swim or finding a nice taverna since it is starting to feel like lunchtime to my stomach which has been propelling me on my one early morning spanakopita. But then I will have to wait around for the next ferry and I am sure there will be something to eat on the other side. The trip is about half an hour and anyway it gives me more practice at driving on and off the ferries and build up my confidence. Even if Evia is an island and is not in Attika I can still justify including it in this guide because... well, why not? I'm not writing for Frommers or Lonely Planet. I can make up my own rules as I go along.

I buy a ticket and bravely drive (backwards) on to the boat which is going to the town of Nea Stira on the island of Evia. They are not as strict about where you park on this boat. They just take your ticket and tell you to back up and park with the other cars and trucks. I can do that.

Evia

nea stira, aegina, greeceNea Stira is a Greek resort down, very busy in August. The beach in town is full of little children, so tan from their summer holidays that it looks like they have airlifted Gypsies from all over the Balkans and they are now running wild, chasing each other, diving off the dock, playing paddle-ball and swimming. The ferry docks right in the center of town. There are beaches on either side and the further out you go the more quiet and cleaner the beaches. Not that the beaches in town are dirty. Nea Stira, being so close to Attika has many of the same characteristics of the coastal towns on the mainland. It is made up of apartment buildings and one and two story houses, shops and tavernas and fast-food restaurants with photos of their food. It is also hot as hell and the nice breeze I felt on the ferry is nowhere to be found here and it is not my kind of swimmin hole as we say in North Carolina. Too many old people. Too many young people. Too many in between. So I take a few photos and then drive to the main road from Karistos to Aliveri looking for the perfect beach with a small unspoiled family run fish taverna. I can always come back to Nea Stira when it is time to do my Guide to Evia. Maybe. Then again maybe I won't need to.

parilea zarakon, evia, greeceThere is a sign for Parilea Zarakon and since parilea means beach I decide to take a chance and drive several kilometers past the main town of Zarakon. I end up in a remote hole-in-the-wall beach village on the Aegean side of the island. At first it seems like I have guessed wrong. I had hoped to find an undiscovered beach with a few (or no) people, and a small unspoiled taverna with fresh fish. But all I see is a small beach, with a wind blowing in from the sea, a tiny port with a few fishing boats, and a cantina being run out of a small trailer. There are a handful of people on the beach which is sort of split in half, once side being open sea and the other a sheltered harbor for a few fishing boats. There has to be a fish taverna here somewhere. This is the most perfect place on earth for one.

zarakon, fish taverna, evia, greeceThen on the other side I spot a couple cars and sure enough it is a fish taverna and not your typical beach town variety but the kind you would only find on a remote beach in Lesvos or I guess, in Evia. The patio is almost full but there is one table and I watch the waiter and waitress bringing out plates of fresh fish, horta, salads, potatoes, tsatziki, scordalia, carafes of  wine and bottles of beer. I order 2 kolios (mackerel) and their horta with skordalia and a big bottle of water. Inside, the owner and some friends are watching Greece beat Turkey in the World Basketball Games in Japan. Outside it the kind of place you stumble upon and tell just your closest friends, an inexpensive, unspoiled fish taverna on the sea, full of people enjoying themselves on a beautiful summer day. The waiter and waitress are actually brother and sister. He lives in Athens but comes to Zarakon to help his father with the restaurant every summer. The restaurant is called O Kapatanios and as unpretentious a place as you will find in Greece. But you better call to make sure they are open if you are coming anytime but July-August by calling 22230 53463

eretria, evia, greeceAfter lunch I drive back to the main road which dissects the island until the town of Lipura where it runs along the coast, past the town of Amaranthos where we stopped last February during Apokreas and ate at the excellent fish-taverna-ouzerie Thodoros right on the sea, owned by former professional soccer star Thodoros. In February the tavernas had been swathed in plastic to keep the cold wind out but now they are all open to the sea and people are swimming on the small town beach. I drive to Eretria, a town rich in history and archaeology, but there is no time to experience any of it because the ferry to the mainland is getting ready to leave. I drive on and sat in the lounge watching the mainland get closer. Eretria would be a pretty decent place to live, especially if you need to be in Athens for work a few days a week. There are lots of fish tavernas a few open in the winter, and the ferry only takes 20 minutes to the mainland and from there you can drive into the center in about an hour. My friend Katya practically commutes to her apartment in Kolonaki from her house in Eretria. The two western looking ferries (most small Greek ferries look like D-Day landing craft) sail back and forth every half an hour. These ferries are easy to get on and off because they don't have a front or back. Front is whatever direction they happen to be going in so you drive on and then drive off in the same direction, practically stress-free.

See also my Guide to Evia

Oropos

oropos, attika, greeceDirectly across from Eretria is the town of Oropos on the mainland. Oropos is another coastal resort town full of holiday houses, apartments and hotels and of course it has a year round population too. It is popular with Eastern European tourists and unless you are Greek or Greek-American you have probably never heard of it. The town is similar to many of the others on the coast with shops, restaurants, fast-food and has the appearance of an Athenian suburb rather than what people would call a 'resort'. It is also one of the best places for wind-surfing and kite-surfing in Attika and the cape just northwest of the town is full of colorful kites with people zooming along beneath them at breathtaking speed. I can see them in the distance. At first I wondered what the hell those things were flying around like multi-colored gum-machine birds. Once I realized I had stumbled upon the Mecca of kite-surfing I had to figure out how to get to where they were since there was several thousand yards of marshland between us. Of course for a Suzuki Grand Vitara, driving through marshland is not a problem as long as I don't upset the ecological balance, so I followed the ruts of other 4-wheel-drives until I came to a small lake which told me that this was not the way. I finally found the road to the cape by going through a neighborhood northwest of the town.

vitara, hotel attalos, athens, greeceI watched the kite-surfers for awhile and took some photos and then called the Hotel Attalos. It was 6pm and if I left now I could be there by 8pm. Adonis told me he would try to save me a space in front of the hotel as soon as the last car left. The police had been giving out tickets on Athinas Street all day but they had gone home and it was safe to come back. I make my way to the National Road joining the traffic of the few Athenians who were returning to the city from their holidays or going in for a night on the town. I take the exit for the airport, past the new giant mall and then take the Hymettos Ring Road and get off at the Kessariani Monastery exit, cut through Pangratti and around the National Gardens to Syntagma Square, left past the Grand Bretagne and down Karagiozis Servias Street, turn right on Athinas Street and U-turn into a beautiful parking spot right in front of the Attalos as once again Adonis comes out to remove the sign It can't get any easier than this. In Athens anyway.

That night our friends all come to meet us again at the Hotel Attalos before we go out to dinner. Again they admire my car which is sitting in the same spot but now it is covered with mud. "How'd you get so much mud on your car in Athens?" they asked me.

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