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Driving in Attika Part 2

Hotel Attalos Wake-up Call

attika, greeceThe phone rings at 7am. Its Adonis at the front desk who has come in to relieve Yannis. I better move the car. The police will be on the streets soon. The Athens Municipal Police station is right across the street from the Hotel Attalos and he has watched them go into the building in street clothes and soon they will be out in their uniforms, pulling plates and handing out tickets. I need to leap into action.Only today I am hung-over and I feel like I just fell asleep. In fact I have. We got in at about 3am and I feel so bad I am willing to accept a 150 euro ticket, have my plates removed, my car towed or whateverthe Athenian police want to do to me. But Andrea pushes me out of bed and I take a cold shower which sort of helps. "You can do it" she says to inspire me from under her blanket, her voice muffled by her comfortable pillow.
"I can do it" I repeat in zombiesque fashion, gathering my cell-phone, glasses, wallet, car keys and am I forgetting something? Oh shit. My pants.

I go downstairs and mumble a greeting to Adonis and get behind the wheel of my car. Why can't I just sleep here until the cops come and then drive away? But what if I don't wake up until I am being towed to Egalion or whever they take abandoned cars? I turn the ignition (keyless!) and start driving, this time to Syngrou Avenue and towards the Gold Coast of Attika. Once I am rolling my adrenaline kicks in and I feel like I can drive forever. I wonder if other people think like me. Normally I need companionship. I won't get on an airplane without Andrea holding my hand. The thought of going out to dinner by myself just seems pitiful. But behind the wheel of my Suzuki Grand Vitara I am the Marlboro Man, the strong and silent type. But I am not alone. My car is my companion, my confidant and yes, my friend. "Hey Pal. Where should we go today?" (Yeah its kinda  silly but it works for me.) My buddy the machine. My soulmate. My friend. My car.

I reach the new clover-leaf at Faliron and take the exit to Posideon avenue that follows the Aegean coast towards Glyfada. I pass the Marina at Alimos, supposedly the world's largest. I pass the old airport and the now deserted Olympic baseball and softball stadiums. I pass the beaches of Kalamaki, Glyfada, and Voula and take a right to Kavouri. I park my car at the first beach I see, take my beach blanket and put it in the shade of a tree and go back to sleep as the old people of the neighborhood pass by on their way for their morning banyo.

Vouliagmeni-Kavouri

divani appolo palace vouliagmeni greeceWhen I wake up I see I am in a shaded coastal neighborhood on a small beach across from the Divani Apollon Palace Luxury Resort and Spa with its convenient and attractive toilets which I happily take advantage of. I also buy today's International Herald Tribune from their equally convenient newstand and though I would love to take a dip in their convenient and luxureous swimming pool since it is obvious that nobody knows or cares whether I am staying here or not, I decide to go to the cafe on the beach and have my morning double espresso with milk on the side, with some of the locals of this affluent suburb. In fact this is the most afluent suburb of Athens. The beach has been filling up quickly. It began with the old people who came for their morning swim while I was still debating whether to even get out of bed. Now it's Greek families and even a few tourists who prefer the beach to the hotel pool. The cafe is like the Greek version of a Long Island 5-Towns beach club and everyone seems to know each other. The beach itself is OK for being so close to Athens but I feel that if I am going to swim today it will be in the most clean Greek-island-like sea I can find and I will probably have to get on the road to Sounion to find it.

vouliagmeni, attika, greeceKavouri and Vouliagmeni have one thing in common with Kypseli in central Athens. The sidewalks are not for walking but for cars to park and for dogs to shit. But this is a small price to pay for living so close to the Aegean Sea and still be within an hour of Athens. In fact I made it here in about half an hour this morning if my calculations are correct. Once you get past the tree-shaded neighborhoods there is a wildness about the Vouliagmeni penisula that is similar to being on a Greek island. There are several well known hotels like the luxurious and expensive Astir Palace Resort. There are also a couple decent pay beaches like Astir Beach and Vouliagmeni Beach which are packed in the summer, as well as some free beaches and spots to swim off the rocks. The very tip of  the peninsula has some spectacular places to swim that really could convince you that you are in some remote part of a Greek island, except for some broken glass and cigarette butts you see on the paths on your way to the sea.

athens, greece, vouliagmeniThe tip of Vouliagmeni does have the feel of being one of those places where gay men go to meet each other, like rest stops in America, but that might be because I see mostly men here and since they are all alone there is no way of knowing if they are gay or not. (There is one hetero-sexual couple but they look at me as if they are trying to figure out if I am gay.) But the broken glass and cigarette butts in the parking area by the small cantina leads me to believe that this place is more for the general population, and the young Athenians since the gay people I know are too conscientious to break beer bottles. I think if it were predominantly gay it would be a lot cleaner. (Am I pidgeon-holing or stereo-typing here? Help me.) Regardless of whether this is a gay hangout or just a bunch of normal hetero-sexuals with girlfriends that work, I fight the allure of the turquoise sea and choose not to swim here either. I am sure the sea is clean, but what if this is a totally gay place and I find myself in a position where I have to confront my own sexuality? Isn't it said that we all carry within us a part of us that is male and a part female and the degrees of each decides which way we go? I don't want to confront my sexuality today! I want to write a travel guide!

vouliagmeni, greeceIf you wanted to live in Athens and be by the sea and not be so far from the city that you dread going in or coming home, Vouliagmeni would be the place to live if you can afford it. Swimming off the rocks every day would make you forget you are anywhere near a city whether you are gay, straight or indifferent.

As you leave the town of Vouliagmeni you pass the Vouliagmeni Lake with its healing waters, as popular with old people as the beaches are with the young. They say that there are tunnels that connect the lake to the sea. 'They' say. I heard it somewhere. I also heard that 'they' sent a diver in and he never returned. 'They' say sometimes on a warm night you can hear the sound of flippers and a snorkle.

The Coves

varkiza, attika, greeceAfter Vouliagmeni the city of Athens stops and suddenly the landscape is just mountains and sea instead of apartment buildings and sea. The land is rugged and the road winds around a series of coves and tiny beaches where in the seventies we used to come to swim. In fact it seemed like we were the only ones who knew about them in those days. But now there are parking lots, cafes and hundreds of cars and people to go with them, sitting on the rocks or swimming in the sea that is the same color that you find on the islands. I remember a story from back in the seventies when the Aegean was full of jelly fish that would sting and cause a painful rash, or worse. It was a very hot day and Dorian and Michali and the gang drove to the coves to get some relief. Michali was so excited to be there he just ran for the nearest cliff and leaped off. As his feet left the earth he saw below him a sea of red. Jelly-fish. Michali's body was one giant welt, at least as the popular mythology goes. Nowdays the jellyfish infestations are rare, if at all, and if you were to run and blindly leap off one of the cliffs you would be more likely to land on a person or a small boat than a jelly-fish. But there are still plenty of spots to get away, especially if you come during the work week, and not in August.

Varkiza

varkiza, attika, greeceThe next town is Varkiza and it is as if Athens has started up again after a break. Varkiza is probably where I would most like to live on the mainland if I was not going to live right in downtown Athens. The town is made up of modern apartment buildings that come down to the highway and the sea. There is a large pay beach and next to it a small free beach and some coves with small stone beaches at the entrance to the town. Most interesting to me is the little fish market in the port and the dozens of commercial fishing boats that give the town an island feel. From Varkiza onward the sea is very clean and you don't have to go far to have the kind of swim you would have if you were on one of the islands. Varkiza has a big park area on the waterfront with palm trees, grass and cafes. If you start at the waterfront and walk up you will come to the town of Vari which is famous for its grill-houses where you can eat roast lamb, suckling pig, kontousouvli, kokoretsi and even lambs heads if you feel so inclined.

Lagonissi


lagonissi grande resort, athens greeceContinuing along the coast I pass a number of small beaches, and one of the giant outdoor nightclubs where some of the biggest names in Greek pop music play in the summer. I would give the name but because these clubs get sold every year or so it would mean future editing for me. There are some fish tavernas along the way at Agia Marina and at Lagonissi is the Lagonissi Grand Resort where you can pay anywhere from 300 to 10,000 euros a night. George from Fantasy Travel has been spending every weekend there. He realized that the house he was renting on the beach in Loutraki was costing him as more per month than he would pay for a weekend at the Lagonissi Grand Resort. Since he was only able to go to Loutraki on Saturday and Sunday even though he was paying for the whole week, why not just stay at the resort, have his own pool, room service, the beach and a maid to clean up after him and just pay for one night?

George wants me to spend a weekend at the resort with Andrea but last time he gave us a room it was the honeymoon suite at the Athens Cypria and after drinking the complimentary bottle of wine I proposed to her and then walked around in shock for the next 2 weeks. A weekend at the Grande Resort might lead to an even bigger comittment, like actually going through with the wedding. It's a beautiful hotel but the photograph showing the entire area outside the hotel grounds as a wilderness of lush forests and bare mountains, is more commercial art than an actual photo. But whats it matter. If you are going to stay here you probably won't leave the hotel grounds so who cares what's outside it? I know I would definately stay here, if I were not paying for it.

Mavro Lithari

mavro lithari beach attika greeceI choose a small beach just beyond the town of Saronida called Mavro Lithari for my swim of the day. It is pretty crowded and there is a beach bar playing crummy pop music, but the sea is clean and there are a lot of attractive women in bikinis with husbands that have even worse bodies than mine. I am able to spend a good hour froggy-waddling and dog-paddling around, exerting energy, burning calaries while people-watching. Isolated coves and deserted beaches are fine if you are a romantic couple or you want to read Cavafy and do the NY Times Crossword Puzzle. But I would much rather go to a beach with lots of people on it when I am alone. Not that I am under the illusion that I will meet some beautiful woman and sweep her off her feet and go back to her room at the Lagonissi Grande Resort or even a lesser hotel for that matter. The real reason is because.....ummmmm. Well, actually I don't know. I think I would be terrified to pick up a beautiful woman and go back to the Lagonissi Grande Resort or even be picked up by one. There actually is this really beautiful woman in a lepard bikini and she is looking at me but I have not come to Mavro Lithari to prove my masculinity, just as I had not gone to Vouliagmeni to find out if I was gay or not. I have come to write a travel guide and despite the passion that stirs within each of us, it is time for me to write about lunch.

Anavissos

anavissos, attika greeceAs you continue along the coastal road you pass more beaches and coves and eventually come to the town of Anavissos, famous for a row of fish tavernas on the shore. Each has an outdoor seating area and a waiter standing on the street beckoning passing cars just like they do at the grill houses in Vari. I pass by and then make a U-turn and park before the restaurants. George and I had gone to one a couple years ago and it was pretty good. But they all look the same now and since they all advertise the same fish I take a chance on Akroyiali. I find a table overlooking the sea. Its as enjoyable throwing bread to the seagulls as it is watching the waiters who have to weave through traffic with trays of food from the kitchen which is across the street in the actual restaurant. The dining room is just an enormous covered area, like a tent but made of plastic, metal and wood. At the next table is a party of Americans listening in rapt attention to a well-dressed Greek-American gentleman who seems to now more about Greece than I do. He must be an ex-CIA guy who retired and stayed in Greece, I am thinking to myself. Or maybe a wealthy businessman whose relatives have come for the first time. He gets up and talks to the owner and then walks over to get in his car... a taxi cab. Holy Canoli! He's a taxi driver! I get up to get his card. I knock on his window and he just looks at me like I am a Pakistani immigrant asking for money or wanting to wipe his windshield. Finally he lowers the window.
"Do you have a card?" I ask him.
"Of course!" he says, smiling now. "I am Spiro the semi-well-known-taxi-driver"(or something like that).
"Spiro?" I replied. "I'm Matt Barrett."
"I knew it was you!" he said as he turned off the car and climbed out to shake my hand. We had met last winter at the Electra Palace. Spiro was a friend and associate of George the Famous Taxi Driver. "Come. I want to introduce you to the owner" he said as he took me by the hand.


fish taverna anavissos, attika greece"Panayotis! This is the guy who has the website that has been sending you all the American customers we bring".
Apparently by shear luck I had stumbled upon the fish taverna that George and all his taxi drivers have been bringing their clients to on their way to and from Sounion. Panayotis was very pleased to meet me. So pleased that I ate a half kilo of barbouni (red mullett-the most expensive fish) on the house.
Afterwards Panayotis took me to the kitchen which was in the main building across the street. "I want to show you something that I think you will appreciate." First he took me to the rest-rooms which were big, modern and immaculate. "You see... I have designed this myself. Everything is automatic. You don't touch anything. The toilet flushes by itself. The toilet seat comes down when you step on this and look at this... the toilet seat cleans itself."
There were even flowers on each side of the wash basin  and the water, hand-soap and paper towels were movement activated. It was indeed an impressive display of technology and cleanliness. But couldn't he have hired a family of elves to do what these machines were doing? Obviously he had heard the American belief that you can judge the cleanliness of a restaurant's kitchen by looking at the restrooms.

"Come and let me show you the kitchen. You see Mathios, I know Americans and I know that having a clean restaurant is as important as having good fresh food. Look at this," he pulled open a series of refridgerated drawers each filled with a different type of fish, arranged as if on display at Macys. The fish looked like they had just come out of the sea. The kitchen itself would have gotten him manager of the year at McDonalds, with surfaces clean and everything organized. Of course this was a weekday afternoon, not Saturday night, but his point was well taken. Unless he was expecting a visit from the health inspector Panayotis ran a tight ship and I promised to put him in my Athens Restaurant Guide. Especially because his barbouni was so good.

Cape Sounion

sounion, temple to posideon, attika greeceBeyond Anavissos there are more coves and beaches and a few towns before I hit a stretch where the road hugs the side of the mountain above the sea. (I am writing this like I am doing it for the first time but I have been here a hundred times). When I get to Sounion there is a giant Grecotel Cape Sounion Resort built from the ruins of an old Junta period hotel that had been rotting here for the last half a dozen years or so. It's amazing what a few hundred million euros will do. The Temple of Posideon sits on a promontory above a small beach with a couple tavernas. The beach is shared with the Hotel Aegean, though shared may be a generous term. There is a small fence that seperates the 'hotel beach' from the 'public beach' and the latter is a small sliver of sand. However because in Greece you can't technically own a beach, anyone can go into the hotel area and swim and even rent a sun-bed and umbrella. I have stopped here for a swim on my way back from Kea and this beach is pretty close to island-swimming. Of the two tavernas, there is one on the sea but George and his taxi guys claim the upper taverna is the better. You can read more about Cape Sounion at www.athensguide.com/sounion

Lavrion

lavrion, attika, greeceFrom Sounion the road heads north through neighborhoods of summer homes and villas, past small coves and beaches (you really have to look for them by getting off the road) until you come to the town of Lavrion, which I could easily describe as the City of Lavrion. This is where the ancient Athenians found the silver which enabled them to build the fleet that defeated the Persians. The area is still known for its rich mineral content. In fact there is a mining museum and the ruins of factories and mines scattered all over. Like the outskirts of Athens there are lots of apartment building next to one and two story houses and a large community of Kurds. You will see Kurdish flags flying from balconies and families of Kurds in the streets since the town of Lavrion was and maybe still is a refugee center for the Kurdish people escaping opression in Eastern Turkey. In case you don't know the Kurds are the largest ethnic group without their own country.

lavrion, greece, fish marketLavrion has a large central square and some great tavernas and ouzeries and one of the best fish markets outside of Athens. There is a small ouzerie-cafeneon that serves some of the most delicious and authentic ouzo mezedes you will find, though of course if you are driving you need to go easy on the ouzo. The Greek government has put a lot of money into the city and built a new yacht marina and ferry port for the ships that go not only to the Cyclades but to the Northeast Aegean islands like Lemnos, Thassos and the ports of Kavala and Alexandropoulis in Northern Greece. For myself Lavrion isthe port I use most often since the ferry to Kea coems and goes several times a day from here. It is usually the site of my first meal in Greece since I take a taxi from the airport and have my first kalamarakia and ouzo at the Korali Fish Taverna which overlooks the fishing fleet of Lavrion. Across the way is the island of Macronissos which was used as a prison island or island of exile for communists during and after the Greek civil war and later during the Junta. More recently there was a concert held on Macronissos by the composer Mikis Theodorakis who along with the poet Odyseas Elytis was sent here.

vavrona sanctuary to Artemis, attika, greeceAs I leave Lavrion I pass former industrial areas now being cleaned up and beaches that a few years previously I would not set foot on, now with people swimming and windsurfers who have given Lavrion a reputation s one of the best areas for the sport in Attika. The road continues past the ancient theater on the right (maybe the biggest in Greece) and through miles of kalamia (reeds), olive groves, past the towns of Keratea and Kalivia (like Vari known for its grill houses), Markopoulos (known for its vinyards) and finally hooks up with the National Road, just before Eleftherios Venizelos Airport. Along the way there are roads leading to coastal towns and beaches like Kakis Thalassa (Bad Sea), Avlaki, Porto Rafti (Markopoulos port) and Vavrona a mysterious and unorthodox ancient Greek site, the sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Artemis, an almost exclusively female place of worship, the only one of its kind near Athens.

Peania Caves

peania caves, greeceIts getting late in the afternoon and I have to make a decision. Do I want to continue on to Athens and maybe stop at the A Megapanos Winery for a quick tour and a few samples? I decide to go inland but I never find the winery because its in Pikermi and I am searching in Peania. I call the Hotel Attalos to arrange my parking space but there has been a car parked in it all day. "Don't come back yet" Adonis tells me. I have to wait a few more hours until the police go home for the evening. I decide this is the perfect time to visit the Peania Caves up on Mount Hymettos. I follow the signs that lead me through different residential neighborhoods on the outskirts of the industrial looking town of Peania and then follow the road that zig-zags up the mountain. Lonely Planet says the cave is impressive with effectively lit stalagmites and stalactites but when I get there all I see is a parking lot and a big iron door, that I assume means I am not going to see anything but that. It is the entrance, and a sign says Open 9am to 16:30 which by my clock was half an hour ago. But the view is impressive and I can see the airport, the towns of Peania, Koropi, Spata and the Athens Zoological Park, lots of vinyards, factories, gypsy camps and the sea beyond. Peania is also home to the Mediterranean Garden Society and the beautiful gardens are somewhere down there but I don't know where.

Pallini

mentis taverna, pallini, attika, greeceTo the northeast is the town of Pallini famous for the massive kentros which are like nightclub-tavernas for thousands of people that are rented for weddings, baptisms and other celebrations. We went to one called Oikogeneiaki Taverna Mentis for the wedding of Kosta and Maria, who work at the Hotel Attalos. We drove down a small road and were directed by men with flashlights into a football field-sized parking lot. We then entered a building that looked like it was made from the same material they make Walmart shopping centers out of. Inside was an enormous room with hundreds of tables and chairs and a stage with a band playing bouzoukia music. "This way" the host led us past this room and past another room just as big. Our room was the third. There were settings for 500 people, at least. There was a band on the stage in this room too, in fact there were 4 bands for 4 ballrooms and a cast of singers and bouzouki players who would each do their set before moving on to the next room. It was like a conveyer belt variety show. Every act was a little different. One woman was like a sequined nightclub singer, the next was a raspy voice rembetika singer, then a flashy bouzouki player, then a Greek Tom Jones type of singer. Each carried his own microphone and would plug it in and start singing. The food is kind of well..... cooking dinner for 4000 people can't be easy but the wine was Ok and kept on coming and each bottle has a photo of Kosta and Maria on it. In all its pretty impressive but they don't have a non-smoking section and everybody smokes.

Hymettos Ring-Road Monument

hymettos monument, attika greeceI still have to kill some more time so I stop on the Hymettos ring road and photograph the monument to the highway. It's one of those big road-graders, painted white like some kind of ancient Greek sculpture of a machine left behind by Aliens in a Zecharia Sitchin book. I wonder if they really planned this as a monument or was it just a piece of machinery that broke down and painting it white and calling it a monumentwas easier than hauling it away. There is no plaque or anything. Just this big white tractor with the front tires elevated off the ground, I suppose to keep them from rotting or going flat, in which case it would be impossible to convince anyone that this is really a monument and not something left behind by the construction company. A plaque would be a nice idea. It might read "This is dedicated to all the Albanians who worked below minimum wage to build this highway so that construction companies and government officials could put even more money in their pockets."

Kaissariani

kessariani monastery, athens, greeceThe 11th century Monastery at Kaissariani is a pine-shaded oasis above the city of Athens. Its also always closed, no matter when I go there. This time it was because they were doing construction to keep one of the walls from collapsing. No matter. Even without being able to get into the monastery itself the whole area is such a delightful change from the concrete and asphalt world of Athens that it is worth coming up here. There is a mountain spring above the monastery thatis the source of the river Ilissos. There is a cafe nearby which is literally in the middle of the forest. There are thousands and thousands of Cyprus trees, an entire forest full, all planted in the nineteen-fifties. We found an old book among Andrea's Aunt Popi's things that had photos of these very mountains, bare of trees and thousands of little saplings. They have turned a dry wasteland into a paradise, just a few miles from the center of Athens.

The road continues along Mount Hymettos, through the pines and every so often there is a place to stop where you get a view of Athens. Today is hot and hazy but the city below is still impressive and I can see all the way to Pireaus. The time to come up is one of those clear autumn days when you can see forever, but even an August day like today when Athens is hot and steamy, up here it is at least 10 degrees cooler. (You can take 224 Bus from Akadamias to the last stop and then walk half an hour to get to the monastery but you may be happier taking a taxi here and then walking back to take the bus since it is downhill).

Final Thoughts

kesseriani, athens, greeceAfter cruising around the empty roads through the forests of Hymettos Mountain, through the town of Kaissariani, known for several psistarias (grill-houses) at the top of Ethniki Andistassis and a small square on the same road called Platia Anagenisseos which is surrounded by seafood restaurants. This was an area settled by refugees from Asia Minor who left during the exchange of populations and you can still see some of the houses built by the government in the twenties. I drive into Pangrati on roads that now are very familiar, this being the third time I have done this in three days. I go past the old marble Olympic stadium, the National Gardens, Syntagma Square, down Karagiozis Servias to Athinas and even though my parking spot in front of the Hotel Attalos is still taken there is a spot across the street which will do just fine.

We are leaving for the states in 2 days and tomorrow has been designated a day of saying goodbye to friends and relatives in Athens and the car will be a liability even though its Saturday and the cops probably won't even be giving out tickets. But everyone who is still in Athens will be going to the beach or somewhere out of Athens so even if I did not have family obligations I probably would not go anywhere, anyway. So Elias will take the Vitara to his warehouse and keep it for me until my next visit to Greece. Andrea comes down and helps me clean out the car and in a few minutes Elias arrives to take it away. I watch him drive down Athinas Street and I have tears in my eyes. I love my car. Its sick, I know. Love should be something you feel for your family, and wife and small cute animals. Not for a car.

Its funny. I really thought that if I moved to Greece I would be driving a BMW or an Audi or something fast and snazzy. But Andrea and her father had convinced me that living in Kea and exploring Greece a 4-wheel-drive was the way to go. They were right and had I bought a sporty little sedan and taken it where we had taken the Suzuki it would have been destroyed. Now I am hooked. Never again can I look at someone driving an SUV and call them a jerk because now I am one too. (Well, the people who drive really big ones are jerks.) This is a 4-Cylinder Suzuki Grand Vitara that gets 31mpg and not some Lincoln Navigator, Ford Expedition or Hummer so I don't have to feel too guilty. (They don't even make this car for the US market because they think it is not powerful enough for Americans.) Yes, its a little bigger than most cars in Greece and I do have to have help parking it from the Hotel Attalos, but it's worth it. Look how much fun I have had in the last two days. Anyway, why am I trying to convince you?

suzuki grand vitara, peania, attika greeceWithout the car I would probably spent the morning drinking coffee and reading the paper and the afternoon eating lunch and taking a nap. Now its 8pm and the car is on its way to take a nice long vacation, and I will go and take a shower and see where my friends want to go out to tonight. Athens has always been a great place at night but once you have seen all the archaeological sites, museums, parks and done all the shopping you need to do, escaping the city is a great feeling.Having a nice car to escape with in the morning and a convenient parking place to come back to at night makes Athens almost perfect. For me anyway.

If you want to explore Greece and be able to go anywhere and feel safe rent one of these. That was my original plan when I bought it. But now that would be like renting out my wife. So I guess you are on your own. But if enough people ask for them I think Elias at Swift Rent-a-car will buy one.

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