Leaving Sarajevo just ahead of the snow.....yes, the forecast for the next two days was SNOW, which, apparently is quite normal for October........ we flew to Athens to end our trip with a few nice warm days before returning to the real world! Well, that was the plan anyway!
The few days were shortened by Air Serbia cancelling our flight - they gave us two weeks notice, and we re-booked with Turkish Airlines, flying via Istanbul! What a bonus, we thought! By losing a day in Athens, (where we plan to go back anyway some day) we gained a day in Sarajevo and a 7-hour layover in Istanbul!
We are very happy we had an extra day in Sarajevo - despite my rather gloomy analysis, it is a fascinating place to visit and the people are extraordinarily good natured and humorous considering their plight. We can certainly recommend it as a destination, it's a beautiful city with lots to see and do.
As for Istanbul, well, here it is! This is the best view we got!
Because it wasn't in our original plan, we did not have visas! When we found out the cost (£20 for me and €70 for John) we didn't feel it was worth dashing around, with no plan or real clue about how to maximize our time; along with the stress of having to get back to the airport at rush hour.......... well, I think we made the right decision - it's already on our list for another time.
Seven hours sounds like a long time to waste in an airport but look at this........
Turns out Istanbul Airport is shopping central! I didn't even get close to browsing all the shops there! John had a lovely long read and snooze and I ............. shopped!! It was heaven!!
Arriving in Athens at close to 11pm, and finding our lodgings had its challenges, but when we got to our tiny apartment our host, Chris, was waiting for us with Greek sandwiches wrapped in hot pita bread! What a nice guy! This 23 year-old might have been surprised to welcome travellers older than his parents, but if so he disguised it well! We sat outside in the warm night air on his patio chatting and eating and then he left us to settle in and went off to stay at his parents' for a couple of nights. Here's our patio at breakfast time the next day.
We found this accommodation, and our lodgings in Sarajevo, Mostar and Plitvice through AirB&B and it worked out very well. Most of the other places we stayed were through Booking.com and we had great success with them too. We also stayed in 4 hostels, 3 of which were in England and were definitely the lowlights of our accommodation (quite unlike those we've stayed in in Germany, Finland and Denmark, which were top notch!). We only had 2 nights in hotels, one in Wales which was expensive but ok, and one at Sarajevo airport (because of our very early flight) which was the lowest of the low!
But I digress! Back to our "few nice warm days in Athens"........... well, our day-and-a-half was............interesting! On the first day we woke up to deluging rain! Really, it wasn't worth stepping out the door! But Chris's computer helped us make a plan at least! The keyboard was curious as it had Greek as well as regular letters on the keys! Greek writing is so beautiful, but it makes navigating a bit of a challenge! Happily, the street signs are bilingual - "no problem!" we thought........ until we looked at the map.........
ALL the maps are like this!! And many of the signs are like this...
But at last the rain stopped, and off we went, hoping we were heading in the general direction of the Acropolis, which Chris had assured us was really, really close! Our neighbourhood was, well, a bit seedy! Here's the apartment building we stayed in
and some of the more salubrious neighbours, Classical Greek for this one ....
and I think neoclassical for this, perhaps?
But really, there are lovely houses there too, like this
and shabbiness pervades even some of the poshest shopping streets....
Thanks to the 2004 Olympic Games, Athens has very spiffy buses, super-duper trams and a gleaming, spotless, efficient subway system to go with its shabby, unkempt streets!
Sadly, many Greeks feel the estimated 9 billion euros the Olympics cost could have been better used elsewhere, and when you see this article about the Olympic venues 10 years on, you might agree with them!
Anyway, it turns out Chris was spot on.........about 7 minutes walk from our place, we rounded a corner and BAM! There it was! John was over the moon! He says he's been waiting to see the Acropolis since he was about 9! I saw it in 1976, and remember well how excited I was then!
Were we ever lucky?! Although there is lots and lots of scaffolding up there, the sun came out for our visit to the Parthenon and the other great Acropolis sights and it all looked spectacular!
After 2500 years, the Parthenon and its neighbouring structures are in desperate need of help. This renovation involves taking it apart and putting it back together with replacement parts where necessary. See those bright white sections?
Well, they may look "fake" but they are actually marble quarried from the same place as the original stone! Imagine when it was first built how dazzling it must have been! They lift the marble blocks up there with this crane......
Then put it on carts on rails to take here to cut it so it fits exactly! This restoration has been going on since the early 1980's, and doesn't look like it's nearing completion yet!
And I just want to point out that rope preventing anyone from going closer to the Parthenon...........
that wasn't there in 1976, and, feeling a bit overwhelmed in the August heat, I sat down on those steps behind me........... WOW!! The man blowing his whistle was onto me like a pack of wolves!!! I saw him yesterday, I could swear it's the same guy, blowing his whistle and shouting and waving his arms around at anyone with even one toe out of place!! But at least I wasn't thrown in jail like the student from Frances Kelsey School (who shall be nameless........) I taught her Sunday school in a former life, and obviously didn't do a very good job........I should have WARNED her never to pocket a piece of stone from the Acropolis!!
These poor dears look as if they're waiting for the next Paralympic Games!
There's so much more to explore in Athens, just look down there, that modern building is the new Acropolis Museum. we felt we didn't have time to do it justice. We're already planning a return trip, this was just a taster!
Weren't we lucky? Not a speck of rain fell for the rest of the day! But it got awfully close.........here's our visit to the parliament buildings later on, just look at that sky!
We lucked out even more, being there, by chance, at the changing of the guard!
What a hilarious event, but we had to hold our chuckles - these guys are dead serious! Perhaps they were trained by the man with the whistle! Can you imagine a Canadian soldier wearing an outfit like that and not even cracking a smile!??
Our final day half-day started with terrific thunder and lightning, but after breakfast we ventured out and AGAIN didn't get rained on, and even saw the sun as we completed Rick Steves' audio guide city walk. We couldn't see much of the cathedral, draped in scaffolding as it was, but the tiny Orthodox Church right next door was a treat.
And the road behind was a fascinating browse in the windows of the ecclesiastical supply stores - ever wondered where to go when your insense swinger has swung its last swing? Or where to refresh your collection of icons and crucifixes? Wonder no more, it's all here on Agia Filotheis Street!
And although we didn't make it to the Greek islands this time, we had a taste in Athens'
charming Anafiotika district.
We even met the local kindergarten celebrating I don't know what, but they were certainly cute, and they knew it!
And now, in case you think we have some kind of super powers that keep us in the sun all the time, check this out!
On leaving Athens, our 15 minute walk to the metro was a washout! It was bucketing down so hard that the streets became alligator-infested rivers that we had to wade across........ok, I lied about the alligators, but really, here we are in the warm and breezy metro waving our pack covers in an attempt to get dried off - no, we didn't undress....... but it was tempting! Our shoes and socks were completely soaked and didn't even dry on the 3 hour flight to London! That's when we knew our luck had run out and it was time to call it quits!
Now here we are at the end of our Grand Tour of Britain and the Balkans! We have been SO, SO, SO LUCKY with the weather! Seven weeks without ever having our plans washed out really is astonishing! And I can't leave without giving some credit to Rick Steves! His TV programmes gave us the motivation to explore the Balkan countries, and his book was in our hands daily, and helped me no end with the little details of this blog! We also used his audio tours of the Acropolis and Athens and they pointed out so much we would otherwise have missed. He never steered us wrong, and all his recommendations were spot on! BRAVO RICK!
And what's that red bag? I hear you asking! Well, we became seriously addicted to Cipi Cips (pronounced chippy chips) the paprika flavored ones - we also ate a LOT of pastries, and found no skimmed milk, tofu or even diet pop! Our homecoming will signal the beginning of an austerity campaign, with boot camp, and seriously hard hikes and bike rides in order to get back in shape before our next trip!
You'll be relieved to know it's over and out for the blog - relief for me too! Thanks for sticking with me, and for all the comments which helped me keep going, sometimes I needed just a little more help.......... but I'm glad I persevered!