Athens didn’t get off to a good start and nearly ended with four stranded cruise ship passengers. I planned virtually every detail of our 21 day trip, including logistics of the 11 day cruise with Brian and friends Holly + Chas. That’s a few details, I’ll tell you. One I missed though, was how long it would take to get from the port to the city proper. I had managed to identify a good walking tour that would give us a nice look at the Acropolis and surrounds and booked us for a 9:00 a.m. tour. I remembered reading it was about a 10-minute walk to the metro so we left the ship in a leisurely fashion shortly after 8.
Taxis congregated near the port exit. We consulted the price listed posted handily nearby and saw it should cost 8 euros for a ride to Syntagma Square. Not bad, though we had planned to walk to the metro and then ride to the tour meeting point. Evidently the taxi drivers thought the *wealthy tourists* on the ship couldn’t read or were otherwise blithering idiots, for they all demanded 20, 25, even 30 euros to deliver us there. Growing increasingly angry and ugly-American-like at their blatant attempts to bleed us, I drug one driver over to the price list and pointed at the price posted. “That’s per person,” he said, innocent as a newborn, confident these freshly disgorged naive cruisers would a) not know any better and b) not blink at spending quadruple the fair price.
We were all travelling on a budget and had planned to walk anyway so we set out, still seething a bit at the welcome to the city we’d received (thanks for visiting Athens, please empty your wallet). We stopped at a newspaper kiosk to buy vitamin C drops (I wasn’t feeling well) and get directions. “Just follow the water, ten minutes,” we were told. After 30 minutes of following the water and a few more stops for inquiries as to directions we finally arrived at the metro station. Brian was elected chief question-asker and went to check about getting a metro map. He didn’t come out smiling. Syntagma Square was a 20 minute metro ride. After our dillying with the taxis and our long walk, we would now miss the appointed meeting time.
Oh well, plans change. We took the metro anyway, and alighted near the foot of the Acropolis. The sun was firmly in place at this point, and delivered its scorching touch with unseemly glee. We looked at the long walk ahead of us then noticed the cute little tourist train. The Happy Train, as it was emblazoned, sat invitingly empty and canopied. We all looked at each other, then furtively began to check it out. The heat and the distance to the Acropolis decided it handily and we clambered in, giggling and half-embarrassed, half-proud of not being too much the travel snobs to take the Happy Train.
While we waited for the rest of the passengers to figure out that first one boards, then one pays and receives a little slip, we amused ourselves by taking photos of one another on the Happy Train. I provided a musical accompaniment singing an original arrangement that went something like: Who’s on the Happy Train, You’re on the Happy Train!
If we thought it was embarrassing to board, it soon turned downright mortifying when the train chugged to life and puffed up the hill towards the Acropolis. I smiled gamely at the Athenians and cooler tourists sitting in cafes as we passed. Mustn’t let them know I consider being transported in this manner anything less than dignified.
We disembarked up the hill but still many steps from the Parthenon and made note that the train ran every 45 minutes. By this point in the trip I found the Parthenon to be hot, criminally crowded and no different than it looks in pictures. We retained a guide once at the top, but unfortunately were horned in on by a pair of guide-hogs who insisted on claiming the spots on either side of the guide, preventing us from hearing much of what she said. Ms. Guide Hog wasted long minutes of our time with the guide debating that the Parthenon was modeled after the one in Rome. I (politely I promise!) asked her if she might be thinking of the Pantheon. You know, the completely different domed building in Rome meaning “all gods,” the building I had visited the week before (and the year before, and five years before). But no, she insisted on wasting the guide’s time and ours debating about it.
We waited for a long time for the Happy Train but it appeared to be on siesta after our visit, for it never came. We made our way by foot through the city and enjoyed a long lunch at Taverna Platanos in the Plaka. We found ourselves back near the Happy Train stop by the metro afterwards with still a couple of hours to spare. Full from spanakopita, tsatsiki, Greek salad and roasted potatoes, and wilted from the day’s exertions in the Mediterranean sun, it seemed only logical to take a spin around the city in seated comfort.
We discussed briefly our time constraints and vetoed Brian who didn’t think we’d have enough time. I displayed my grubby slip from earlier that day granting us all-day access to the Happy Train and boarded for the second time that day. This time music was included. Blaring psychotic Greek “traditional” music that seemed to play ever more loudly as we chugged up the hills of Athens. We wound our way through the teeming city, past gritty storefronts and through congested intersections. I could do nothing but laugh and bob my head to the silly music. We passed some street musicians with a drummer that I’m still pretty sure was my dad’s cousin Shelby. He seemed pretty pleased to see us, grinning broadly as he drummed.
The train stopped for no discernible reason and we were instructed that we were taking a “break.” I wandered off to see if anything noteworthy presented itself, but short of a McDonalds, some offices and a bottled water and soda vendor, not many diversions were at hand. As the minutes ticked by the four of us traded glances, trying to to appear too anxious. Minutes continued to pass as we consulted our watches every few seconds. We finally broached the topic of deserting the Happy Train and finding our way back to the ship. The trouble was we weren’t quite sure where the train had taken us. Just as we were about to suck it up and hope out to find a taxi, the train lumbered off again, the music cranked to full blast.
No longer was the music fun. The frantic tempo frayed our nerves and we sat not talking for a while. No one wanted to bring up what would happen if we didn’t make the ship. The next day was a sea day — it wasn’t as if we could just make our way to the next port stop. But as the minute hand swept on and we finally found ourselves on the map, we started thinking about abandoning the Happy Train. The trouble now was that the Athens traffic was horrendous and we didn’t know if a taxi would even get us back in time.
Holly’s mom chose this time to call Holly’s international mobile, and they talked while the rest of us tried not to completely lose our cool. The music spun crazily on. I thought I might go do bodily harm to the conductor if he didn’t make it stop. Slowly we crept along streets that at least were starting to look familiar. Over and over I calculated how long the metro ride was and how long the subsequent walk would be, watching our window of chance to make it back in time slip away. And the music played on. Holly hung up and we sat sweating, sticking to the metal seats, not daring to look at our watches but unable not to.
At last I thought we were getting close. I gathered the troops. “As soon as we stop, jump out and run as fast as you can into the metro. Follow me,” I instructed. The train approached our square, then laboriously swung around in a circle, inching towards our destination just fast enough to prevent us from hopping out. Good Lord, would it ever stop? And the music still shrieked.
Then we were stopped and launched ourselves from the train, four sweaty red-faced tourists, sprinting across the square and into the throngs at the metro station. I held a rolled up map over my head to guide our quartet and darted through the more nonchalant strollers down the stairs. Breathless by now, I bayed at my companions, “there’s a traaaaaaain, come ON!” and propelled myself off the platform into the train car.
Our husbands were glowering so Holly and I settled into two seats side-by-side. I was no longer worried. We had more than 45 minutes. It was a 20 minute train ride and another 20 minute walk of we went at a good clip. Brian and Chas weren’t so sanguine, and stood grim-faced near a door. Holly and I giggled and played Samantha Brown, filming our little predicament.
I joined the guys when we drew close to our stop. For no reason we could see the train stopped in a tunnel. And stayed stopped. Chas exhaled so loudly I was surprised he didn’t knock a little Athenian lady over, and drummed his fingers on a rail. The train lurched to a start again, delivered us to our stop and Holly and I lit out.