By Jane Wynyard, April 13, 2009
Athens with the BBC
I travelled to Greece with BBC World for a panel discussion with cable operator, Skai Greece, about the future of news. A lot of work went into organising interviews for Jeremy Hillman, News Editor at the time, and making sure that everything ran smoothly.
Arrived in Athens around 6pm and were taken to the King George, the most luxurious hotel I’ve stayed in a long time. It was located in Syntgma Square near the Parliament buildings. My room had a balcony that looked out cross the square and up to the Acropolis which was beautifully lit up and slightly surreal.
It also had a huge comfy bed with huge pillows, a bathroom bigger than my bedroom with fantastic products by Korres – a Greek company. And everyday there was complimentary wine, small cakes, bowls of fruit, hors d’oeuvres such as fresh prawns and salmon in our room…. so much food!
We met the Skai Greece crowd downstairs – lovely Yannis who smokes like a chimney and talks at break-neck speed with passion and enthusiasm about his culture and his channel, Popi who was very sweet and Nikos who also smoked like a chimney and spoke with an American/Greek accent having spent quite some time abroad. Yannis took us to the tudor hall on the seventh floor which had amazing views of the Acropolis and we gorged ourselves on lobsters poached with olives and vegetables, divine lamb and a luscious chocolate trilogy. The Greeks tend to eat very late so we didn’t finish our meal until midnight.
Rain and protests
The next day it rained and the Greeks kept commenting all day about how we, the BBC, must have brought the rain from London as it hadn’t rained for months! Our panel discussion also coincided with a massive debate in Parliament and thousands of protesting students were about to converge on the square outside. Despite the unusual complications, the event was completely packed with about 150 journalists etc turning up to hear Jeremy speak and it went well although two MPs had to leave early to go back to Parliament and the English to Greek translation on the headphones was a bit hard to follow. Skai had done an amazing job with the branding though and there were even paperweights with BBC World and Skai stamped in the top of them.
EVERYONE was smoking and hacking and coughing – in fact I was shocked by all the ads and billboards advertising tobacco that were shown all over the place, including on the side of buses.
Fortunately the protests were fairly calm compared with a week or so earlier when police and protestors clashed and loads of people were arrested. I had a bird’s eye view of all the protestors from my balcony but didn’t take any photographs! Idiot!
After the event, we had a couple of hours at the hotel to get ready for a party at the UK Ambassador’s residence in the upmarket Kolonaki district of Athens. So I decided to treat myself to a swim in the hotel’s pool which was located at the lower floor and was like a spa straight out of Ancient Greece with an L-shaped pool and frescos.
I also watched helicopters, warplanes and fighter jets flying low over the square in practice for Greece’s Independence Day which was day after tomorrow. .. .
The rain was torrential by the time we arrived at the Ambassdor’s resident and creating rivers down the gutters which threatened to knock us over. The Ambassador’s residence was stunning – as you can imagine – with huge ceilings, modern floors, rooms the size of my house in Notting Hill, a huge porch for the smokers and a large garden. The ambassador and his wife were really lovely and friendly and quite relaxed, especially when their overweight and wet Spaniel wandered into the reception and started hoovering up all the crumbs on the floor and, no doubt, the canapes on people’s plates.
After the reception, Malcolm the BBC correspondent in Greece decided to show us the ‘real greece’ and took us to this tavern where they played live music and served authentic greek food including a very strange bubbly greek wine which made us feel quite, well, bubbly. We talked for hours and then we decided to go back to the hotel and have a nightcap on the seventh floor. Crashed at about midnight after a very long day.
Felt like I’d been dragged backwards through a hedge the next morning. Unhappily checked out of my suite and dragged my suitcase across the square and down tiny streets to my new hotel – the Electra Palace. I have no idea why I’m giving it any word space because for a five star hotel, it was crap with really thin walls and you could hear people going to the loo above you. I was thoroughly depressed at leaving my idyllic life to this.
Left my bags and decided to head off to look at the Acropolis and wander around the narrow streets and look at the ruins everywhere. The only thing I couldn’t quite get used to was all the tours and the weird frenzy around the place. All the touts at the Agora (central market) were lolling around magnificent Greek ruins with their coloured beads, fake designer bags and wallets, leather jackets and punk t-shirts – very surreal and kind of sad. It was like someone had transported Camden Market into the middle of a set from Sinbad.
However my disappointment soon changed to complete awe. The towering Acropolis, ever present in the heaving, tightly packed metropolis that is Athens, constantly reminded me that I was in a country with amazing history – the land of the Gods. Of Zeus, Apollo and where famous English travellers like Lord Byron and Lord Elgin once roamed. And finally reaching the Acropolis with the green trees and grass and these huge amazing temples and ruins was mind-boggling. The Pathenon stood dramatically against the blue sky and I expected some giant winged mythological creature to suddenly land on its crumbling roof.
They were slowly restoring the structures while I was there so most of the Pathenon and other temples were covered in scaffolding. But you were still impressed by their enormous size and wonder at how did the Greeks build these monstrosities by hand? In the distance, the azure Aegean sea glistened and it was the first glimpse of the thousands of islands that Greece is famous for – 2000 islands to be precise.
From the Acropolis, however, the city of Athens looked like some sort of architectural insanity – rows of tightly crammed, grey buildings and apartments seemingly thrown together without a care. The mountains, where the Greeks extract their famous white marble, were completely bare and it looked as though all the apartments and buildings had slid down the white slopes to meet in a massive jumble at the bottom.
Cookie dough architecture
On the other side of the Acropolis is the temple of Zeus – or what remains of it. It’s a row of giant pillars, side by side, except one has toppled over as though pushed over by a giant, and the round cylindrical sections of the pillar have broken apart like pre-packaged American cookie dough. Incredible. I couldn’t wait to race down there and see them up close.
Wandering down the other side of the Acropolis I came across the ancient agora where there were ruins of old towns, bath houses, market places and even a couple of homeless men eating sandwiches under the shade of several orange trees. An ‘agora guard’ blew his whistle anytime a tourist tried to touch anything, stepped off the path, took an inappropriate photograph, smiled, sneezed, coughed … well, you get the picture. The tranquil scene was constantly disrupted by a piercing whistle. But the white temples were striking against the green grass and blue sky.
It’s a dog’s life
There were lots of dogs around as well – in fact there seemed to be a dog for every monument. There was a very large shaggy one at the Temple of Zeus which stood on a wall and barked at the passing traffic for about two hours. In the Agora, a tiny yappy dog with short legs and a fat body wandered all over the ruins ignoring the frantic whistling of the Agora Guard. Defying the guard even further, it cocked its leg against a Japanese tourist who was painting the scenery and was promptly given a swift kick by the guard. I got the feeling these dogs ruled the streets and not even a whistling guard or a swift kick would phase them.
The back streets of Plaka beneath the acropolis were quiet and gave me a respite from the barking dogs and tourists. I managed to look at the old/new Olympic stadium which was last used in 1896 and had a closer look at the fallen cookie dough of Zeus’ temple.
It got quite late and dark and I realised I was starving so bought a slab of feta, a bag of olives and some crackers from a nice Greek man in Plaka and wandered back to the hotel. Then slept like a log only to be woken by the ‘lovely’ English men in the room next door watching porn at full volume. They finally left their room at 1am but I had a terrible night sleep and woke up in the morning wishing I was back at the King George.
The next day I woke up early, had quick breakfast, checked out of Crap Palace and walked the streets of Athens for five hours.
I went to the expensive Kolonaki district perched on the edge of a hill, followed the funny looking Turkish guards who were goose-stepping to a monument to the fallen soldier where they go through a huge elaborate changing of guard ceremony – goose-stepping, standing on one leg like a flamingo – all the while dressed in shoes with pompoms and tight tights with knee straps. I will never laugh again at another frozen ceremonial guard in front of Buckingham Palace after seeing these Turkish guards.
Horrible day at the zoo
After watching the guards for a while, I wandered to the National Park. I wish I hadn’t gone. In the zoo section was a flock of white ducks behind bars, pecking another duck to death. There were about 20 ducks jumping on the back of this poor duck and pecking at the back of its neck which now had a huge, horrible hole. Forget about Animal Farm, this was plain murder happening in front of me.
There was blood everywhere and the duck couldn’t escape. I was frantic and tried to climb the 15 foot fence to free the poor thing but couldn’t even get half way up. One man was just standing there, chewing a chocolate bar and watching with a smirk on his face as I shouted and flapped. “Do something!” I shouted. He just looked at me blankly, shrugged his shoulders and then turned back to watch the death of this poor duck. It was horrendous and completely ruined my visit to the national park.
I eventually found a gardener and like a stupid tourist, shouted at him in English and flapped my arms to imitate a duck. I think he actually understood me as he said ‘ I will go look’. But he probably thought I was a complete nutcase at the same time.
End of my trip
Needed to eat again after all the running around and stress so went to a nearby taverna and ate feta, dolmades and fried aubergines all for 21 euros which was amazingly cheap.
The taverna was outside, in the sun and I sat there with the vines hanging above me and bees buzzing around and felt as though I’d stepped into the pages of a greek novel or movie set. It was a lovely way to end my trip to Athens and I returned to London sunburnt but content.