The Narrowest Hotel in the World (maybe)

The Narrowest Hotel in the World (maybe)

We so nearly left our hotel on New Year’s Eve just before midnight to experience Athens celebrating the start of 2015, but it was cold, and we still had mince pies and we had to get up at 6.30am to try and get back to the airport to pick up our hire car for the rest of our trip. So, staying in the warmth(?) of our hotel room was an easy choice. We’ve seen fireworks before, not over the Acropolis, I grant you, but hey, with tea and mince pies on offer, it was a tough call.

For this trip, we managed to remember our travel kettle. Few European hotels have tea and coffee making facilities and the kettle, teabags and milk save us a load of cash on buying hot drinks and mean we can have our own in bed at night. We steal sugar from hotel dining rooms and cafes where we can. Our piece de resistance for this trip – a trick probably known to more worldly travellers already – is that any old plastic card will do to keep the electricity in the room activated. We got fed up with the heater going off when we went out of the room, meaning we were freezing when we returned. Exchanging the hotel key card for a plastic loyalty card meant the the heater remains on and we return to a toasty, warm room.

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So, fully laden, and in the rain we set off to find that the Metro was running as normal on January 1st even though it was a Bank Holiday (hurray), but that it just didn’t go to the airport (boo), so we had a further walk to find the bus (X95, €5) which started its journey empty and pleasant and ended it’s journey so unbelievably full that we had our rucksacks on our laps and I couldn’t look past mine as I’d knew I’d have a panic attack because the bus was so rammed full of people.

Athens seemed to have cured itself of its traffic problems on New Year’s Day, the only people we saw were making their way home, mostly walking, in that particular manner where it looks like the top half of your body is moving faster than your legs, in a constant stumbling fashion whereby every now and again you have to do a little run to get your legs to catch up. 100% alcohol induced.

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We picked up the hire car at 9am from a bloodshot eyed young man who really must have wanted to still be in bed and headed off in the Peloponese for a 150 mile drive to Gythio on the top edge of the Mani Peninsula in Laconia. It was a spectacular drive, mostly full of snow-topped mountains and endless olive groves. We love it. Keith spoke to the cashier in the petrol station who said that he worked 28 16 hour shifts every month and earned €580 (£450) a month. He said he used to work for a Ducati franchise, but lost his job when it closed down; as did 29 of the 30 vehicle franchises in the area. He was 45 years old, the same age as Keith. We felt sad, fortunate and – for me – cross with myself for how much I moan about my working life. Perspective is necessary at times.

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The Narrowest Hotel in the World (maybe) - 04

We have to cross the Corinth Canal which connects the Ionian and Aegean Seas via a 6km long dug trench. It is very narrow and very deep. Quite a feat of engineering, but probably quite claustrophobic in a little yacht sailing along the bottom. Keith is hugely impressed by the canal.

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We arrive in Gythio, picked at random from a map of the Peloponnese, as we had an extra two days to fill before going to our work exchange hosts. Turns out it was a good choice. We are staying in the narrowest hotel in Europe (probably). It is only one room plus a corridor wide, which means every room has a balcony and sea view.

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The Narrowest Hotel in the World (maybe) - 07

The Hotel Aktaion (£29 for double room including breakfast) boasts many facilities, however, we did not see any evidence of music apart from an ancient box on the wall of the room which didn’t work. There was a game of Trivial Pursuit in Reception though (English version, not Greek, for goodness sake).The Narrowest Hotel in the World (maybe) - 08
It does have this view from the balcony, so we’ll forgive them for the music. We saw a kingfisher on this wall and were very excited about that. That’s all it takes. Being a person easily excited by small things makes for a much more interesting life than for the not easily impressed.

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We like our accidental finding of Gythio. It has an amphitheatre not quite of the scale of Athens, but interesting nevertheless. The amphitheatre is next to some kind of military establishment, which are not permitted to be photographed by law. Our solitary presence at the amphitheatre with a camera caused a man with a gun to come and ‘clarify the situation’. They might want to move themselves or the amphitheatre if they’re going to get the willies every time someone comes to look at it. It’s been there for some time and there is a sign directing people towards it. Maybe no one ever comes to look at it. I like to think we made all that training worthwhile.

No military personnel were harmed in the taking of this photograph.

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There are numerous restaurants, bars and rooms to rent for a probably busy summer season. Not today though; we sit alone in a restaurant – an early treat for Keith’s birthday in a couple of day’s time.

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It’s lovely to be out of Athens and to be somewhere with more open countryside and quiet streets. If we hadn’t already decided to move to Portugal, I think we’d be in danger of wanting to live here. Sadly, for my special interest, there are no estate agents in sight, so we’re safe for now. But that one with the roof and windows looks quite nice…

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Love Shop Santa and the Acropolis

Love Shop Santa and the Acropolis

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Today was cold, windy and rainy here and there. It was our last day in the city and so visiting the Acropolis had to be done (€12 ticket lasts 4 days and gets you access to several other ancient sites and museums – keep your ticket once you’ve gone in as you will need it to access different areas. Keith failed to do so and we had to pay for another ticket. He went without food for the remainder of the day in order for us to stick to our budget). We never pay for anything cultural, we just look from the outside, so this was a rare event. Even on a freezing and wet day like today there were plenty of people braving the elements to get in the way of every other person’s photo opportunity. Sometimes, its nice to just enjoy stuff without having to take a photo of yourself stood next to it (although we did that a couple of times too). Some people seem to do nothing else but record their present to look at some time in the future. How about just living it now? Must be hellish up there in the summer. All those selfies vying for space.

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Love Shop Santa and the Acropolis - 03

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Renovation and re-assembling of the buildings has been happening for decades, but more recent technological developments are allowing the buildings to be re-built using identical materials – although they are whiter due to less weathering. We were not sure whether they should be left as they are or turned into perfect replicas, which seems to be the plan. Either way, the sheer skill and scale of the structures in such an imposing setting cannot fail to impress. The views across the city to the port at Piraeus show the size of the place. Shame about all the people though. We should have got up earlier in order to see it on our own. Notice how we skillfully manage to take photographs of buildings which almost always have no other people in them at all, apart from each other.

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It’s mind-blowing to think that these were all carved by hand over 2000 years ago.

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Love Shop Santa and the Acropolis - 08

It was very windy on top of the Acropolis. I almost lost my hat. Such an event could be described as a Greek Tragedy. I only have one hat, unlike one man with Asperger Syndrome I met who would wear three hats at the same time. He would have no such concerns on a windy day; always prepared.

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Our other wanderings were round the most visceral meat market I have ever been to. It was full of more dead meat than I have ever seen, presented in the most gruesome fashion. I felt quite anxious and overwhelmed by the place, which was not helped by the loud, shouting butchers approaching every passer-by to insist that their whole skinned sheep complete with head including eyeballs was the best. It felt like being in a horror film surrounded by carcasses.

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Plenty of other stuff on offer, including a huge range of fish – look at that pile of squid – and vast stacks of smoked sausages of all sizes. I didn’t know that Greek cuisine involved such things, but judging by the multiple stalls and multiple sausages, this is very much the case.

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Why don’t we have markets like this in the UK anymore as a daily event? All we get are poncy over-priced ‘Farmer’s Markets’ rather than the real thing in most towns. This place was busy, noisy and very much a part of everyday life here.

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But we didn’t eat any of this stuff. We went for cooked feta with chillis and oil, which is far better than cold feta in my humble opinion. Easy to cook at home – just wrap a block of feta in foil with dash if olive oil and chillis and cook in oven or under grill for 15 mins or so. Mop up with pita bread. You’re welcome.

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Later, we had spit roast chicken and chips for €4.90 for two. Now, this place had the kind of ambience we love: empty and us sat in a corner all on our tod. Lovely. Keith is actually happy. Honest. He did have two Greek coffees in a row earlier so may have been still away with the caffeine fairies at this point. He was just happy that he was allowed to eat anything after losing his Acropolis ticket.

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We’ve very much enjoyed Athens but I’ve had enough now. I’ve realised that about 36 hours in a city is about my capacity and it’s time to leave. It’s nothing personal, Athens; it’s not you, it’s me. It is a more laid-back and easy-going place than I expected; more modern; more friendly. The Acropolis is worth the trip alone, but the rest of the city is certainly an easy place to spend some time with a load of interesting junk shops, art galleries and a billion fridge magnets in the shape of a Greek God. And if you come at the right time of year, you might just be lucky enough to see Santa outside a ‘Love Shop’. So that’s what he does for the rest of the year…Love Shop Santa and the Acropolis - 17

Mince Pies in Athens

Mince Pies in Athens

 

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We’re on a two week work exchange trip to Greece just after Christmas, spending a couple of days in Athens, a couple of days on the coast and then staying with some people we haven’t met yet to do some work at their home in exchange for bed and food. This is our first go at this type of travel and being the odd couple of sods that we are, we have some trepidation, but we’re up for giving it a shot having made the experience as Keith and Sarah friendly as we can – choosing carefully where we go, what is expected of us and having a car to jump in and drive away quickly if it all gets too much. We’ve got our own teabags; we’ll be fine.

We’ve been away loads lately what with Christmas and all – a bit too much if I’m honest. I’m feeling a bit disorientated and overwhelmed most of the time with not enough time for my brain to process all of the differing environments that we are putting ourselves in. Keith manages to take it all in his stride. I don’t know how he does it. I don’t expect sympathy for my plight as it perhaps looks like we lead an easy and idle life. It’s not quite as it seems, although we do get to do some good stuff. I work every day while I’m away keeping on top of admin and course preparation so it’s not ever entirely a holiday. I should explain that this is only possible due to the way I have constructed my business which means it largely fits within the academic year and means that I have no face to face work in school holidays. This is part of a decade’s worth of planning to move towards this point and this ability to manage my work time in this way. Keith’s redundancy and my PKD only quickened our pace; this was a route we were heading towards anyway. Having regular blocks of time off is the only way I can (half) functionally work. When I am at work, I’m usually in some form of physical or mental distress (migraines, backache, anxiety etc), so the free time in some way compensates. It’s a full-on job standing up in front of people for up to 6 hours at a time; like stand-up comedy but for a whole day. It’s not an ideal state of affairs but it’s the best situation I’ve found during a chequered (to say the least) employment history. I’m not very employable for a number of reasons, most associated with the autism I have latterly come to understand.

I think similar set-ups can be achieved by many people if they put their mind to it. I don’t much believe in luck; more in meticulous planning and long-term strategic thinking. It takes patience, time and a willingness to move slowly towards the desired set-up, rather than expect to get what you want instantly. It also requires that you know exactly what the desired set-up for you looks like. If you don’t have a goal, how do you know when you’ve got there (said someone famous at some point)? I have found Paul McKenna’s books fantastically useful for helping define thoughts about these things. Titter ye not, I’m serious, his stuff has genuinely changed my life for the better.

It’s flipping freezing in Athens. Snow on the hills and an icy chill in the air along with some serious downpours of rain. The hotel doesn’t have any heating as such, only a lukewarm air con unit more accustomed to drying up the sweat of the room’s occupants in the blistering summer heat, not drying out the socks of the room’s occupants sodden feet.

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We’re trying to keep to a budget on this trip. Hence, we have carried all of the left-over Christmas food in our hefty rucksacks (steel toe-capped boots included) in order to save money. This may well be an economically viable thing to do, we have created mince pies with 1293 food miles which is surely environmentally questionable. A box of well-travelled (and slightly crushed) Mr Kipling’s in the cold hotel room it is, then. Spot of Leonard Cohen to wash it down and all is well in the world. We arrived late, stepped out of the Metro from the airport (Line 3, €8 each, extremely and unexpectedly simple to work out) to this:

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Mince Pies in Athens - 04

Pretty cool. The Acropolis is the name of the rock and there are various temples on top of it. I’ve wanted to come to Athens for years and could never work out how it all fitted together with that big rock smack in the centre of the city, and now it all makes sense: there’s this big rock smack in the centre of the city. Keith and I have minimal interest in cultural things and I am more likely to be found in a supermarket wanting to know what local people eat rather than the marvels of 2000 year old construction, but even we are somewhat impressed with Athens. I’m sure Athens is delighted.

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Our hotel is the Best Western Pythargorion which (apart from the lack of significant heater) is a blooming bargainous treat – £22 for a double room including breakfast. Breakfast is perfectly fine and I would like to reassure the world that the Spam industry is alive and well and living in a hotel dining room in Athens. Best thing about breakfast has been watching Japanese people eating strange combinations of food. This morning saw a woman with an omelette, sausage and a pile of dried muesli all together on the same plate. Is that a thing in Japan? Or anywhere?

It’s so cold here that I sat in a restaurant with my gloves on my feet. They look a bit freaky.

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The thing that has struck us both about Athens, which may be obvious to some, is quite how much historical stuff there is here. It is literally everywhere. You can barely turn a corner without coming across piles of stones, excavations, buildings and museums. The place is absolutely full of history spanning several eras, civilisations and millennia. There is so much of it it is easy to be blase about wandering past yet another astonishingly impressive structure, huge in scale and skill.

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The Lego version of Classical Greek building. There’s so much of this stuff, they don’t know where to put it.

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I think we were expecting more obvious poverty and deprivation in the light of Greece’s economic problems, but did not witness anything much different than any other major European city on the surface at least, although I’m sure people have undoubtedly been hit hard. The main notable feature of modern Athens is the vast amount of graffiti on almost every available surface, even people’s homes and front doors. I don’t recall seeing anywhere else on this scale. This photo shows a train passing the Agora (ancient marketplace).

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Athens is a huge urban sprawl reaching the sea and to the edge of the mountains with distinct districts like any other city. Green parks and hills are doted about, so there are always places to escape to. We didn’t venture beyond the few central areas and the obvious attractions, partly due to the weather and partly due to not knowing if we would ever find our way back: Greece having the additional complication of an alphabet and therefore street names that are utterly indecipherable to us both. If we got a bus into the suburbs, we may never be seen again.

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This is a city with a legendary traffic and parking problem. It didn’t seem any worse than Worthing during the school run.

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Again, as in other countries we have visited, we are shamed by Greek people’s ability and willingness to speak English. They can spot our Englishness a mile off and don’t even attempt to speak Greek to us; a damning indictment on expectations that we will have bothered to learn their language. Proudly, I report that I learned to ask for’ two stamps to Great Britain please’ in Greek from my phrase book (I have a phrase book for every country I have ever visited) and after delivering my phrase both Keith and I were visibly shocked when the cashier at the Post Office neither laughed, said: ‘Eh?’ (or it’s Greek equivalent) or replied in English, but instead replied in Greek and gave us the two stamps. Fluent, I tell you. A natural. We were chuffed for quite some time about that minor success.

My kidney disease means that I am frequently in need of a loo due to the large amounts of water I need to drink to help combat the growth of the cysts. I eat a lot of food from M&S because I spend a lot of time in motorway service stations to and from working across the UK. Many now have an M&S (hurray) which means I can eat something other than a Ginster’s and avoid falling asleep whilst driving from the big carb crash that such food gives me. Sadly, the Athens M&S has a food hall but it only sells digestives and marmalade and none of that nice giant couscous and goat’s cheese salad that I really like. Disappointing, but at least the whole place had adequate heating. And a very pleasant loo.

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In between rain showers, we played a little game of statue imitation, Athens being quite the Mecca for such activities, although many of them are missing limbs and Keith wasn’t willing to go that far for the sake of art.

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The great philosophers, including Needham: ‘I think, therefore it’s time for a cup of tea’. And that, sounds like a marvelous idea.

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