Christmas With an Old Friend

When considering somewhere to take your Southern European girlfriend between Christmas and New Year, there are a couple of approaches which are possible. As I’ve noted on my other blog, Lisbon is a surprisingly chilly place to be in winter, so I’m increasingly tempted to head south, in search of a bit of warmth. But this year, for better or worse, I thought it might be nice for her to experience the frost and cold of a northern European festive period. It didn’t take long looking at the myriad low cost flights available through skyscanner to settle on a place that is dear to me and one that I felt I knew sufficiently well to be able to show her around. We were off to Hamburg, Germany.

So it was that on Boxing day, we found ourselves at Lisbon’s terminal 2, waiting for a gently scheduled afternoon flight with the masters of all things cheap and nasty and cheerful – Ryanair. Due to a French ban on flights going over its airspace if they weren’t scheduled to land in France, it was a long, three hour flight, but nonetheless pretty much eventless. We landed and, this being Germany’s second largest city, we were quickly and seamlessly onto the metro system. Our hotel was located next door to the  Lohmühlenstraße metro station on the U1 line, so within 15 minutes, we were looking up at the hotel – the Novotel Suites Hamburg City, which I’d managed to get a quite ludicrous 45% off of, by booking direct with accorhotels.com . The walk from the metro stop to the hotel – all of 3 minutes – was enough to remind us that this place was going to be A LOT colder than back home in Lisbon. We ducked inside, checked in, found our room, wrapped up VERY warmly and dashed back out to find some food. We were famished!

I was staying in much the same neighbourhood as I had on previous visits, just beyond the Turkish quarter. This is huge in Hamburg, as a great many Turks moved to Hamburg as part of the rebuilding project, after the destruction of the city towards the end of World War II – more on that later. I’ve always found this quarter to be a lot of fun, with mini markets packed with interesting exotic produce, great Turkish restaurants with excellent value food, and Turkish barbers – something I greatly miss from my time living in Turkey. We walked through all of this, looking for something to eat. Ana was not especially feeling like a Turkish meal, so we ended up arriving at the Hauptbahnhof – the main train station. We ummed and ahhed about this restaurant and that, before realising that many kitchens were already closed. When we found that the pizza restaurant was still cooking, we decided to take a seat. It ended up being a great decision, and I quickly found myself with a top class pizza, covered in anchovies and a mug of Duckstein beer – one of my favourites in the north of Germany.

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After this, it was pretty late and many things were closing up, but we decided to see what was left of the city’s extensive Christmas markets. As it turned out, it was really quite a lot! In front of the ‘new’ town hall, there was a small market area, as well as a few others, only selling food on the way there from the station. At the Alster lake, there was a huge expanse of market, draped in eye catching white tents, which we were pleased to find was to remain open for another week. So we could come back later in our visit.

After the brief look around, the travelling – and the cold – were taking their toll and we strolled back to our hotel for a good night’s sleep. It’s worth mentioning at this stage that the Novotel Suites are really well kitted out. The standard of the rooms is very high, particularly for a chain hotel and the breakfast – while it takes place in a somewhat cramped area for the number of guests – is a really good offering. It sets you up really well for the day, even with the harsh weather of a north German winter. With breakfast done, we again dressed up as Arctic explorers before hitting the road. The first stop on the first day proper of our trip was a harbour tour. Hamburg’s harbour is a huge place and still remains on of the main centres for shipping of goods in Europe. We had decided on a particular tour company to use, from our city guide map. When we arrived at the harbour, however, we were already too late. So, seeing that there were hundreds of boats doing similar tours, we began to walk up and down the harbour front. We eventually settled for one which was just a little more pricey than the original idea and off we went.

If I had to choose 2 adjectives to describe the harbour experience from a boat they would be ‘enormous’ and ‘bloody freezing’. It was an interesting trip, nonetheless and seeing the cargo ships up close can actually feel pretty daunting. You only have to imagine the effect of a container slipping from one of the cranes and crashing into the water to feel pretty unsettled. The tour also involves a good look at some of the architecture, new and old, as well as the beach section at the edge of the harbour, with its luxuriant houses facing the water.

After the trip, we decided to walk back in to the city to find some lunch. We were grateful to be off the water, away from the biting winds it brought with it and sheltered by the huge buildings of the centre. As we walked down Willy-Brandt Strasse, I realised we were close to perhaps the most poignant monument in Hamburg, the St Nikolai church monument. At the end of July of 1943, the Allied forces began the bombing of Hamburg in what was called ‘Operation Gomorrah.’ The St Nikolai church, which sat at the heart of one of the largest residential areas in the city, was caught in the bombings and all but one tower was destroyed. The monument to this horrific event is the tower, standing amidst the ruins of the church. Underneath, in the crypt, there is a small collection of artefacts, such as stained glass windows, which were removed prior to the bombing, as well as a fascinating permanent exhibition explaining the effects of the operation on the city, as well as the enormous rebuilding projects. I sadly don’t have any photos, as cameras are not allowed in the permanent exhibition below, and the tower, which you can go to the top of in a glass elevator, is being renovated and so the spectacular views of the city are currently obscured. Nevertheless, this is something that I feel no visitor to Hamburg should miss. You can find more information here.

Despite this altogether sobering experience, it was time for lunch and so we meandered our way back into the city centre and happened upon, by total coincidence, a local burger joint, with good quality ingredients and a seriously intriguing menu. So we went in and for the price of just about 8 euros each, we got seriously well fed. I had a bacon and cheese burger, smothered in jalapenos and barbecue sauce with a side of thick cut, home made chips. They had Fritz cola too, which made for a great combination. If you’re in town and feel like a bite, check them out.

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From here, the light was rapidly fading, such is winter in the north, so we decided the last thing to do for the day was to go to the town hall. There was an English tour for us to take in the rooms in what is still the active parliament building for the city state of Hamburg. We had an hour to kill before the tour started, so we wandered around, catching a glimpse of this masterpiece in the city’s main department store:

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One tall glass of delightfully warming gluhwein (mulled wine) later and we were back at the town hall where we found out some interesting facts about the construction, the smart plan to cut the lights across the neighbourhood during the aforementioned bombing campaign that preserved the building from destruction during the war and the fact that the UK’s own Queen Elizabeth II has been the only person to date who has been met on the ground floor and shown up the stairs by the city’s president. Everyone has to climb them alone, to find him! Ana wanted to take one of the chandeliers home until she realised that they weigh four and a half tons each.

After this, still feeling bloated from the burger we decided to call it a night and head back to the hotel to shelter from the cold with a bottle in bed, so as to be ready for our next day.

The next morning, after another hearty breakfast, we were off to find out if there were English language tours of the Chocoversum chocolate factory tour. As luck would have it – indeed there were! But we had to wait for an hour and a half. So we took the opportunity to visit the city’s largest Lutheran church – the Cathedral of St Michael. It had a beautiful whitewashed interior, and some very interesting artistic features.

A steaming cup of coffee and a cake later and it was time to go and learn about chocolate. If it sounds like a highly compelling area of study, it’s because it is. It’s a fabulous museum, set up in such a way that you get to see, touch, smell and, yes, taste every stage of chocolate production from the slightly odd, chewy texture of the cocoa bean scraped fresh from the husk to the rough textured but delicious cocoa solid and sugar paste, right the way through to a freshly pressed bar of high quality plain chocolate. You also learn about just how little chocolate is involved in many high street ‘chocolate’ brands, and of course you have the chance to set your own chocolate bar, decorated – in my case badly – with a wealth of ingredients, such as fruit, coffee beans, nuts and more. What really made the event for us though, was our guide. Her English was superb throughout, she dealt with the kids in the group expertly and she clearly had a passion for her work and communicated it to her audience highly effectively.

We left the factory armed with a heavy bag of spoils to take back to Portugal for family and friends and then headed over to the Christmas market for a light snack. We picked up crepes from a stall and strolled back to our hotel to get ready for dinner.

Dinner was a set menu affair at a rather swanky restaurant called the Nordlicht. It’s located across the river in a dockland area called Harburg. As we arrived on the metro, everything was a little bit deserted and it didn’t look like the nicest neighbourhood. But we had a reservation, thanks to a rather excellent deal with http://www.groupon.de whereby we got a 100 euro fine dining set menu for half the price. I’m not sure I would’ve paid 100 euros for it, but at 50 euros for two people, it was a bargain. There was an amuse bouche of beetroot foam with artisan bread and baby tomatoes, followed by a creamed pumpkin soup with toasted pumpkin seeds on the top and then a main course of seared rare beef, with vegetables and potato dumplings. Dessert was also excellent as was the accompanying wine. Coffee came with petit fours which we just about managed to get through after eating so much delicious rich food. It’s a place I’d definitely recommend looking up, if you’re in the city.

The next morning was a bi more hurried, with breakfast closely followed by checkout. We’d decided to head off to the botanical gardens for our last morning in the city, so we headed on on the metro towards the neighbourhood known as St Georg. We stepped off the train and found ourselves immediately in the shadow of the Orthodox church, with its highly distinctive architecture. Across the other side of the road, in the direction we were going, was the TV broadcasting tower, dominating the skyline.

A few minutes later and we found ourselves in the huge park in the middle of this neighbourhood. Before heading off to the botanical gardens, we had a walk round the Japanese garden and its lake. It was beautifully laid out. We would have stayed much longer, were it not for the bitter cold.

Arriving at the botanical garden meant a glorious blast of heat as the temperatures are elevated to keep the many exotic plants alive. So we managed to take off our coats for the first time (besides bed time and meal times) during the whole trip. The collection was not the most impressive I’d ever seen, but it certainly had its moments.

And just like that, the trip was over and we were on our way back to the airport. There was just time for a quick movenpick ice cream in the terminal before flying back out to Lisbon. By no means is this everything that Hamburg has to offer, as we missed out the famous reeperbahn and it’s crazy, heady mix of drinking, partying and go-go dancers and more, but if you are considering a place to visit for a long weekend, you could do a lot worse than check out Germany’s second city!

An Alternative Look at Berlin

One of the worst things about living in Bydgoszcz, Poland is that the easiest way to leave the country each summer is via Bydgoszcz airport. I’m fairly sure that I had lunchboxes at school larger than this place. Worse still, the only airline running scheduled flights from here to Britain is the god-awful Ryanair. So when I see an opportunity to take a different exit route back to the UK, I generally jump on it. This year, it was via Berlin. This meant a 2 hour journey on the big red Polskibus to Poznan, to start off with. As has been the tradition in recent weeks, it was a gloomy ride. 120 minutes of heavy-looking, grey skies and intermittent rainfall but, arriving in the city centre, the sun peeked out and I found my way to a last karkówka (pork shoulder, Polish style) and all the trimmings and a delicious Polish beer to wash it down. After eating that and saying goodbye to Poland, it was off to the other bus station in the city to the second leg of the Polskibus journey, onward to Berlin.

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I should point out at this stage that the entire journey with Polskibus – booked only 6 weeks in advance – cost me a total of 37 zloty. That’s about £7.50. It’s a ludicrous sum of money for 7 hours on a very comfortable bus, with Wi-Fi for free throughout the Polish leg of the journey. Well worth a look, if you’re travelling within or to Poland from most of the major cities around it.

Anyway, the coach arrived into Berlin via Schonefeld airport. After that it ran in through the main arterial roads in the east of Berlin, across to the ZOB bus station. Climbing out of the bus, a blast of information in oh-so-official German informed me that I had indeed arrived in my destination country/city. Now it was time to find the Kaiserdamm U-bahn and my train across town to Kreuzberg – my home for the next couple of days. How well did I remember my German?

 Not well was, sadly, the answer. But I got myself together and asked a man in a corner shop and he pointed me on my way. So, with all my bags, in the now baking-hot sunshine, I staggered down the road to the underground. After the relatively easy process of buying my metro ticket, I climbed down the stairs to the platform. Despite being the capital, Berlin is by no means the richest of German cities and I was given a stark reminder of this when the ancient-looking rolling stock that was my train came thundering in to the platform. I waddled on and put down my bags. To other passengers, I must have looked like a sweaty tramp, but there we are.

After one change, I was on the U1 line into Kreuzberg, home for the next 2 days or so. The U1 is an elevated metro line, so I could look down over the buildings, seeing an increasingly diverse range of restaurants, convenience stores and so on. Schlesisches Tor, where I needed to hop off, was of course a stairs-only station, but also one full of the aged charm of the area. 

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As I made my way down Gorlitzer strasse and so on, towards my hostel, I walked past fragrant and, seemingly, authentic restaurants with origins as diverse as Iraq, Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico, Goa, various African nations and much more besides. It was a delight to be there and there was a real buzz about the street, as people milled from place to place. I turned the corner at the end of the street, next to Gorlitzer park, which has been beautifully renovated lately, and along to the Jetpak alternative hostel. I checked in with a very helpful chap and was shown to my dorm, so that I could get a much needed shower. Once showering was done, I was left to have a look at the various “alternative” tours they do in the city. I settled on the street art and graffiti tour – done in collaboration with real artists. But that was for the following day – more on that later.

The Jetpak Alternative, which I mentioned previously was in a great location, was also a really pleasant, friendly place. At the point of booking, they make it very clear that the location is not the cleanest and, certainly, there are a lot of people who would be very happy to sell you any amount of any mood-enhancing substances you may care for in the vicinity, but if – like me – you’re not really into all that, it’s a fascinating place to be and the residents of the hostel, certainly when I was there, seem to be a really open minded bunch. So after fixing up my locker and choosing which bed I would sleep in collapse on later, I barely had a moment before one of the lads asked if I wanted to come into the lounge and watch the evening’s world cup game. I dashed out to fetch some noodles from a Vietnamese place – divine and 3 Euros for a bowl big enough to fill even me – I made use of the hostel’s excellent honesty policy, whereby you help yourself to locally brewed Berliner beer and put a single euro coin in the pot for the privilege. After the game and a lot more chat with the guys, I turned in, ready for the next morning’s tour.

Before any talk of the tour itself, I have to mention the breakfast, in the morning. This is the first hostel I’ve been to in my life where the list of spreads is near endless. So when you get your toast, you can layer it up with the usual, but also a choice of smooth or crunchy peanut butter, marmite or vegimite, and the list goes on. Add to this that, when I started looking around like a sheep who can hear a wolf approaching, failing to see coffee, the duty staff person informed me that they were all barista trained and that he’d be happy to make me a pro-standard cappucino. I could have cried tears of happiness.

Anyway, by the time I’d finished being happy about all that, it was off to Alexanderplatz and the tour. One look outside and it was clear to see that it was going to be a very British kind of day. It was raining cats, dogs, and possibly llamas, or something else much bigger than a dog, too. But as this was my only full day, I was not to be deterred! And arriving at the meeting point for the tour, it became abundantly clear that I was not alone in my spirit of adventure. About 8 or 9 others had showed up, from as far and wide as England, the Czech Republic, Australia and Spain. They all seemed remarkably jolly, despite their washed-outness. The tour guide – herself a street artist, as well as a conventional, fine artist, was a walking, talking bundle of energy, hailing from San Francisco, California and had lived in Berlin for some time. She had bundles of character, charm and knowledge about her subject – she also had a penchant for asking “you dig it?!” after she finished each explanation, which I didn’t think any real people ever actually said, but this just made me like her even more. So, after some fumbling around with ticket machines, we were off!

First we walked to some railway arches , just around the corner, in the heart of the area known as “mitte” – the centre. We were quickly told that this was the heart of the eastern part of Berlin, during the cold war. Here, we saw just how much graffiti and street art there can be in any one place in Berlin. We were given the definitions of what is graffiti and what is street art, the difference being that graffiti is anything which is primarily text whereas street art is… anything else! Here are a few examples:

Anywhere you see the executed cat...
Anywhere you see the executed cat…
... Little Lucy, the cat's nemesis, will never be far behind.
… Little Lucy, the cat’s nemesis, will never be far behind.

So first for a bit of history. As it turns out, perhaps a reason that graffiti pervades so strongly in Berlin, is that this was the first place it landed in Europe, after it had emerged in New York City in the 1970s, after the invention of the spray paint can. The west Berliners, despite having a better time of it than their kin folk in the east, took to the wall to protest against the harsh treatment of people in the east. In what might be the most spectacular error of judgement in human history, the East German government began to show graffiti, punk rock and smoking in public service videos, to deter young people from the “horrors” of the west. Of course, this likely speeded up the downfall of the system! Once the wall did start to come down and reunification began to happen, the graffiti and street art movement really took hold, as a way to make the wall – the symbol of something so terrible, for so long, would be made beautiful by the, now free, populace.

Of course, with the likes of Banksy, the lines between street art and fine art are becoming ever more blurred. But here are a few memorable pieces from the tour:

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A curious street art sculpture
A curious street art sculpture

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Lil Lucy with a surprise for the kitty
Lil Lucy with a surprise for the kitty
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Once we arrived at Warschauer Strasse and were really out into the east, we began to see huge pieces like this, where the artist has obviously got permission for the work.
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This was a piece commissioned for a building which is being totally rebuilt. The artist is a Spanish guy, Rallitox. This piece, featuring one of his Freudian “id monsters” represents the bankers, excreting euros, with the cheerful phrase “Greetings from Spain and Greece, Portugal, Italy”. A bold piece in Germany, and the irony of it being in a place that is becoming increasingly gentrified in Berlin is lost on no-one.
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This one focuses on the city type, with the man in the suit. But notice, the only gold items are the watches. A commentary on time, perhaps?
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Finally – as one we are all the monster. the monster only exists, only works if everyone works together in the system that makes it. The real power here comes from the question it begs. Will the little guy survive?

   It was an enthralling walk and, as someone who knew less than nothing about street art beforehand, I’ve genuinely found myself looking up and around me wherever I’ve been since, trying to make sense of the art that may be lurking. I’d recommend it to anyone in Berlin, whether you’re a fan of the street art movement, or not.

After an hour’s break to drop off my umbrella and to dry myself through in the hostel, it was back out. The first port of call, just along on Oranien Strasse, was Santa Maria – allegedly the most authentic Mexican restaurant in Berlin, with a friendly price tag to boot. I arrived to find 2 bar stools available in the 80 or so seater restaurant. On a Wednesday evening. It’s that kind of place. I ordered my food and was swiftly served these rather excellent tacos and a cold pint of Berliner beer.

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As if the beef and chorizo filling wasn’t enough, someone needs to tell me how they make those pink pickled onions!

 After feeding myself and supping my beer, I decided to check out some rock bars. First, it was across the road to the Franken Bar. This is a classic, dingy German rock bar. Everything a rock bar should be. I don’t know why they haven’t quite figured it out in the UK yet, but there we go. I met some friendly folk here too, who told me if I’d been there the night before, I could’ve seen a fun band, the members of which were all 50+ and still crazy. Sounds like it would’ve been a laugh.

This kind of dirt is built up over years!
This kind of dirt is built up over years!
Obligatory outrageous toilet graffiti - special love for "Sunshine and Lollipops" in the black metal style! :)
Obligatory outrageous toilet graffiti – special love for “Sunshine and Lollipops” in the black metal style! 🙂
Grimy.
Grimy.

From here, it was across the road to the SO36 bar and the “alternative night market”. This actually made me a bit sad, as the whole set up reminded me of better times in the English alternative scene, where there was a similar market, open on Kensington High Street, daily. Once again though, a host of friendly people stopped to chat to me and I spent the rest of the time people watching with a pint of Berliner.

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Finally, with midnight rolling around and a lunchtime flight from Tegel the next day, I sauntered off to my hostel, in full knowledge that I would simply have to come back. I think Berlin is one of those places. In the morning, right on cue, we were back to glorious summer sun ready for me to carry my huge bags to the airport. I arrived on a very efficient U-bahn/bus link and had time for a nice ice coffee after check in, before British Airways sent me on my way. So after my second visit to Berlin, looking at a completely different side of the city to my first, more straightforwardly touristy trip, I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the place. If you haven’t been – go. If you’ve been – go again! It’s really that simple.

2 Capitals, 4 Days – Part 2 – Lisbon

Waking up to grey skies in London is something that feels kind of different to everywhere else, particularly where we were staying, in the heart of the city. It was a Monday morning, so at least everything had come to life, with suits walking hither and thither, trying to look important (or just awake – it was 7am!) I was not short of sympathy as, at 7:05, with our train tickets to the airport bought, we trudged to the Sainsbury’s Local and grabbed a couple of cinnamon danishes and coffees. Then it was back to City Thameslink, under the ground and onto the platform to wait for the train to Luton. The 10 minute wait gave us time to ingest breakfast and generally wake up/stop feeling sorry for ourselves.

The train rumbled in, and we boarded, still toting the dregs of our coffees. Sitting down at the table, I realised I had managed to cut my hand open on something and was dripping blood on our table. This was not a stupendous start to the next stage of our journey. As luck would have it, the ticket inspector of all people showed up fully armed with plasters and, with a cheerful bit of chit chat, I was patched up and feeling so much the better for a bit of customer service – and on a British railway service, too! Exiting the tunnel under the city, speeding north towards Luton, it immediately started raining. That classic, British spitting, which looks like nothing, but renders everything soaking in a matter of minutes. Lisbon could not come soon enough.

The train journey was swift and eventless and, before long, we were on the bus chugging up the hill to Luton Airport, with all of its hideous orange livery, as the home of Easyjet. Of course, the orange livery is the only thing not to like about Easyjet, especially when you are as unfortunate as myself to be more accustomed to flying Ryanair these days. With a couple hours to wait, on arrival, we opted to head to the observation deck and watch the planes defying the drizzle, trying to second guess where the bronzed passengers, clinging to their coats for dear life might have been a couple of hours ago. After that, it was time for a sandwich and then time to fly. The flight was smooth and short and before long we landed in Lisbon. Clambering down from the plane onto the Lisbon tarmac, my Polish winter coat felt immediately superfluous. Damn.

Lisbon is one of those airports where you have to wait for a bus to take you to the terminal building. Nothing annoys me more than when the bus journey takes 3 minutes, when a walk would have taken… 3 minutes… so it was nice when we realised that the landing area for low cost airlines is actually about 3km from the terminal. The driver sped around the roadway on the bendy bus, with all the passengers standing in varying states of calm and alarm. But everyone made it in one piece and the passport control process was mercifully swift. From here, there was a surprisingly common sense connection to the metro, ticket machines which spoke English and, in half a jiff, we were speeding down the metro track to the centre.

Like most things in Lisbon, the metro is a beautiful set up. The lines have colours and names, just as they do in London, Paris, or anywhere else, but they also have beautiful symbols associated with each:

The interior of the metro stations is also often quite ornate, as well as modern and practical. After a quick change from red to green, we arrived at our destination in Baixa-Chiado, right in the heart of the Lisboa district. We jumped out and found ourselves in a bustling street, full of people and the temperature at a happy 14 degrees. A welcome change from blustery 5s and 6s in London and Bydgoszcz’s minus 10!

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From here it was a remarkably short walk to our hotel: Duas Nacoes (2 nations) themed around the partnership of Brazil and Portugal. It was a simple place, but in a truly excellent location and they did a mean breakfast, too. We had a small juilet balcony, looking out to the street.

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Putting our bags down reminded us that we’d barely eaten at all so far that day, so it was time to find something to eat. The sandwich place opposite seemed pretty easy to negotiate and so, to get something fast, we walked in. I managed to ask the lady behind the counter in Portuguese if she spoke English. The response was laughter from her and her colleague and a flat “no”. I ordered a chicken sandwich (chicken is ‘frango’ in Portuguese – where the hell does  that come from?!) and a drink and sat and waited. Food showed up promptly, was cheap and really tasty, so we evidently made the right choice. Then it was time to explore! Turning left at the end of our street, we could see an enormous arch at the end of the road, so we decided to investigate. We were really unprepared for the grandeur that awaited us there.

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After this quite spectacular triumphal arch, you find yourself in a truly enormous square, facing out to the river Tejo, in front of you. And of course, Lisbon is the gaping mouth of this huge river, flowing out into the Atlantic, beyond. It’s quite a sight. I was also impressed by the signs for “The world’s sexiest toilet” – but I didn’t have go. Sorry.

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In spite of the menacing-looking grey skies in these images, it was a warm day, with a gentle breeze coming in off the river. It felt most un-February-like for a pair of northern Europeans. After marvelling at the square, the monuments and the water for a while, we decided to head back inland and to explore the city a bit.

I was told two things about Lisbon before going there. The first is that you really should explore without a map, as it’s an excellent place to get lost. This is absolutely true. We stumbled upon countless gardens, artworks, pieces of remarkable architecture, without ever really trying. The other thing I was told about was that when people say Lisbon is built on 7 hills, they are SERIOUS hills. This is also absolutely true. I cannot imagine how slippery some of them would be in the rain. If you come here, prepare for a leg workout!

Walking up Avenida de Liberdade (freedom avenue to you and me) we walked past some fountains, museums and hotels. Lost of which was very grand. Then, over to our left, we spotted a stone stairway, tucked away, leading up to one of these famous hills. We decided it was worth investigating.

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Once at the top of these stairs, the only way to go was up. So, 10 minutes later and we had walked perhaps 200 metres up this oppressively sheer hill. Once at the top though, we were on the edge of one of the nicest neighbourhoods in the city – Principe Real. We walked around the large church there and then up to the very top of the hill and to the Jardim de Principe Real (a public garden). Not only was the garden itself quite beautiful, it also had a spectacular view out across the city to the hill of Alfama, and St George’s castle.

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And a picture without my mug stinking the place up.

From here we walked past the historic hill climbing tram, the undercarriage and support stilts of which may give you some idea of just how steep these hills really are.

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From here, we walked down Avenida de Liberdade, back into the city for cake and then a short rest and freshen up in our hotel. In the evening, we went for a walk to find dinner and happened upon a quite huge seafood specialist restaurant. Tragically I can’t remember its name, but all they seemed to sell was seafood and I ate a quite sublime whole sea bream, washed down with a cold beer. After that, we decided to turn in.

The next morning started with my real reason for being here – a job interview. So, shortly after breakfast, I donned my smart clothes and left Ania to do some additional sleeping – she’s a professional, where this is concerned – and trudged back up Avenida de Liberdade to Cambridge School, where I was hoping to get my next teaching job. Situated next to a huge cinema, it was quite a grand building. The security guard waved me in and I went to reception, where I was to fill in a formal application form and some other papers. Then the interview started. A 4 man panel of interviewers took turns to ask me questions and it seemed to be going ok, if not spectacularly. Then they started talking about contracts, which confused me. Finally, all became clear when they offered me a position for the next school year. I was delighted, accepted the position and left with a huge smile on my face.

When I got back to the hotel, Ania was still asleep, so I crept into the room and changed out of my smart clothes, before waking her up and telling her we were going to see the castle. We left our hotel and turned right, walking up to the ominous hill of Alfama. But all was far less ominous when we realised there was a completely free of charge glass elevator up to near the top of the hill. We shuffled in with an old woman ahead of us, who was sure to speak to us in rambling Portuguese, which we naturally understood none of. We waved her off and began walking in the direction of the castle itself. Walking through the gate, you begin to get some idea of how old this place is!

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The weather was really nice, despite some threatening clouds approaching across the horizon and, with little time to explore the inside of the castle, we simply made our way around the perimeter, taking in the sights of the narrow streets, some of which are about 800 years old.

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After much meandering around the streets, we turned a corner and a great vista opened out in front of us. We were standing above rooftops, as the steep slope led out in front of us to the water. We were at the portas do sol (gates of the sun). This is supposedly the most breathtaking of all the views in this city of landscapes and, even with all the cloud cover, it didn’t disappoint. I can only imagine how glorious this will be with the full glare of the summer sun.

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After stopping to take in the spectacular views – and rest our hill weary legs – we wound our way round the hilly road and began to feel very hungry. We must have walked past 30 coffee shops and closed Angolan restaurants, orange trees, schools, dodgy old electronics shops, but nothing passing for a restaurant. Then, as all hope was fading and we rounded yet another winding cobbled hill street, we saw the Cantinho do Fatima. It really looked just like any other small, inconspicuous restaurant, but we were starving and went in.

Once inside we were presented with the options for the EUR 7.50 per person lunch menu of the day. I ordered something with veal and Ania something with turkey in a cream sauce. I was relieved to speak French, as the lady serving us knew no English at all. We sat and were presented with our starter of soup and bread along with a half litre jug of wine. The soup was a simple garden vegetable affair, but quite tasty; the bread soft and fresh. The wine too was quite palatable and the main course, when it came was enormous, comprising a large portion of meat with sauce, chips and rice. We eventually turned down our dessert and simply had the coffee. But for 15 Euros, we’d eaten more than we could (or probably should) have at an ordinary lunch. The fact that the place was rammed with locals when we arrived, I always like to think, is a sign of a quality place.

From there we descended from the hilltops of Alfama back down to sea level and walked along to one of the main train terminals of the city Santa Apollonia. Also one of the main hubs for metro connections, it was a big, grand old place.

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And that’s when it started raining. And when I say raining, I come qualified to identify serious rain, as a Brit. This was serious rain, the kind of rain where you could barely see about 15 metres in front of you. The only positive we could find was that this was an excellent excuse to dive into a café opposite the station and try our first tarte de natas. It was a custardy masterpiece, with the café owner handing us a cinnamon shaker to sprinkle the spice to our tastes. 

We decided to wait until the rain stopped. Then until the rain simply slowed down. Then we realised we were going to get soaked, and so we went out into it and tried to hug the walls, and canopies of grocers and cafés, all the way back to the hotel. Unfortunately, there are days like this in February, and the rain didn’t let up until we had gone to bed in the evening. It was a shame not to see more of the city, but there would be more opportunities for that. In the morning, after a quick breakfast, we were greeted by sunshine as we headed down to the metro for our return to the airport. The 4 hours of flights and 6 hours of transfer time at Stansted ahead of us was not very appealing, but it had been an excellent trip.

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Adventures in Greece Part 2 – The Acropolis & on to Naxos

Having explored our local area of Piraeus, we decided it was time to go to what was our real reason for coming to Athens – to see the Acropolis. First we had to find the metro. We walked away from the marina area towards what looked like a denser part of the suburb and decided we would walk for a few minutes and then, if we hadn’t seen anything, we’d ask someone for the way to the metro. So we walked past umpteen cafés, purveying wide varieties of cappucino freddos and then, at the end of the road, we saw the metro line. We crossed the city highway via the footbridge to the metro side and had a choice: to turn left or right and to follow the track to the next station. Inevitably turning left was completely the wrong decision and the one that we took. So we walked, and walked… and walked some more and eventually found ourselves in the very heart of Piraeus. We walked past a busy street market and came, finally, to the statue, next to the port. ImageImage We went to one of the many ferry offices, and asked how we might find the metro station. We were directed across a bridge to a huge yellow building. When we arrived, we finally saw the tiny sign for the metro, that was inside. We went in,  bought day tickets and boarded the train that was sitting in the station. The metro was quite modern and comfortable and there were only a small few people onboard. Quickly though, as its departure time approached, more and more people boarded and it became quite cramped. I ended up surrendering my seat to a heavily shopping laden elderly woman. Before coming to Athens, I had read a lot about crimes like robbery, pick-pocketing (and worse) on the metro, even during the day, so I had a fierce determination to keep my wits about me and a strong hand on my camera. But as we set off in the direction of the city, there was seemingly nothing untoward happening. The first stop (agonizingly close to where we had initially started tracing the metro route on foot) was at the impressive stadium of Olympiacos, one of Athens’ 3 top flight football teams. At this stop though, the atmosphere became quite different onboard. 2 young roma children boarded the train, one with a violin-like musical instrument. Immediately an old man (the husband of the woman I had given my seat to) rushed over to him and scolded him through gritted teeth. People were visibly uncomfortable, all around, but no-one seemed to do anything. The situation didn’t escalate further, thankfully, but the atmosphere lasted right until we arrived at the central station: Monastiraki. DSC_0058 DSC_0160 As we walked out of the station, into the bustling market place, with art, jewelry and touristy crap being sold in every available square metre, I began to ask Ania where we might find the Acropolis. She simply pointed over to the right hand side and there, above us, was the mountain platform with the parthenon and other assorted ancient buildings on. It was quite a sight! It was also quite a way up and, as yet, we had only eaten breakfast and a cake. With the time approaching 3pm, we decided to go for lunch. We wandered around the narrow streets on the way up to the summit for a few moments, before finding a quiet place offering gyros in pitta, that had a few tables free. We started off with some fresh bread and tatziki and then were surprised when our “light lunch” arrived. N.B. there is no such thing as a light lunch in Greece. These people REALLY feed you. DSC_0059 So, with our faces royally stuffed, it was time to make the ascent. We wandered first past Hadrian’s library – a long, fenced off area that is still being excavated by the looks of things. No more than 30 metres from the town square, people selling their wares almost completely block your view of it. But I managed to get a couple of shots of it on my way past. DSC_0062 DSC_0060 Next, we happened upon a restaurant with a truly wonderful view up to the mountain, as well as into a nearby historical site which was largely unmarked. DSC_0065 DSC_0066 DSC_0069 DSC_0070 From here, we followed the signs, as the slender road wound its way around the hillside up to the Acropolis plateau itself. We stopped off briefly to buy some water and postcards from a small shop, and to take in the ever more impressive view during the ascent. Then, finally, we had arrived at the gate. We bought our tickets and were instructed to finish our drinks before we went inside the Acropolis complex. So we found our way to a shady bench, not far from a line of sleeping dogs, who must have been roasting in the heat. Once we had finished off our water bottles, we went in. As you enter the Acropolis gate, while your view is dominated by the huge, busy outcrop above you, your attention is soon diverted to the right where a large theatre – still in occasional active use today – sits below you. With the light rigs still mounted for summer performances, it’s easy to imagine yourself sitting in there watching a concert or a play. DSC_0079 After staring down at the detail here for a few moments, we went on up to the main Acropolis area. DSC_0081 DSC_0082 DSC_0084 DSC_0085 DSC_0087

Once on top of the plateau, besides the phenomenal ancient structures all around the place, I was struck by two things: first, just how high above the city you are and secondly that it’s really very windy up there (I realise these issues are connected). As I left the stairs up onto the plateau, to your right you see the really quite enormous structure of the Parthenon. As is to be expected, it’s in an almost constant state of renovation, but in spite of all of the scaffolding, you cannot help but be struck dumb by the enormity of it and to feel the ages that it has borne witness to atop the lookout point over Athens and the Mediterranean beyond.

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From here, your view is drawn left, to the “old” temple of Athena, with its extraordinarily detailed pillars, in the shape of the temple maidens. This is a far smaller structure than the Parthenon but, hugging the cliff edge as it does and with the fine detail of its construction, no less impressive.

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Once you’ve taken in these wonderful sights and the Museum, located behind the Parthenon itself, there is a wonderful lookout point, with a huge Greek flag flying. At any given time a swarming mass of people sits up there, gazing out across the sprawling city below and to the other 2 significant peaks in this mountainous landscape. Even with the wind trying to blow you away, it’s something of a must-do while up here.

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Amazing what you can see through a hole in an ancient wall
Amazing what you can see through a hole in an ancient wall

After wandering, sitting, and staring for a good hour or more, we decided it was time to descend back down to the street. We tread carefully on our way down as the huge, ancient stones – worn down by countless millions of feet – are really quite slippery. We stopped in at the same little store for more water – all this walking is thirsty work – and then continued to Monastiraki square. On arriving back down to ground level, we realised that what our day was crucially missing was ice cream. Imagine our surprise then, when we found it particularly difficult to find anywhere selling the stuff. This was, in fact, a huge blessing in disguise, as central Athens (and seemingly all of the touristic areas of Greece) are currently awash with frozen yogurt bars. We found one such place and I served myself a huge portion of strawberry frozen yogurt and then covered it in fresh, ripe blackberries and flaked almonds. So we sat on a step, outside the station, watching the last art and craft sales of the day, in the marketplace, while we ate our delicious frozen yogurt, hardly speaking as we mulled over the things  we’d seen up on the mountain. After we finished, we realised that we needed to head back to our hotel in Piraeus, as Ania’s friend Dmitris – an Athenian native – was returning from his holiday that night and had offered to take us out.

After the short metro hop, and a mercifully more straightforward route back to our hotel, we quickly showered, changed and rested for a short time. At around 9pm, Dmitris showed up in his compact Citroen car and told us he would take us somewhere “with a view”. We drove across the city’s impressive, efficient central highway and quickly found ourselves back in central Athens. We took some turns into one suburb or another and eventually found ourselves on a near sheer hill street. During the journey, I had quite an interesting conversation with Dmitris – a business owner himself – about the living situation in Greece at this time. Of course, you read about it on the news, but to hear from a local that the minimum wage of the nation has tumbled from around 800 Euros per month to 450 in two years is a stark reminder of just how difficult it is to live in Greece right now. The sparkling lights of the city were a good ten minutes behind us now, and an air of quiet and natural darkness was descending. We parked up in a large car park and jumped out. I looked up at the stars, shimmering brightly in the sky above, such was the lack of artificial light pollution here. As I remarked and gestured towards them, Dmitris assured me that I hadn’t seen anything yet. And boy was he right. As we walked into the quite exclusive looking bar and found a table with an open air view looking out to the city, I just stopped being able to talk and stared for a few moments. The music wasn’t especially to my taste, the bar was perhaps a bit swanky for me, and I was disappointed with the lack of Greek beer, but the view truly made up for all of that. With my camera sadly lacking at taking photos in darkness, I feel the need to direct you here to get some idea of the view from our table. All of Athens is laid out in front of you, with the bulging orange orbs dotted through the middle, signalling the route of the central highway. It’s a place I would recommend to any and everyone. We chatted over a cold bottle of beer and the now typical complimentary mineral water and snacks, about life in Greece, Poland, Britain, and Scandinavia. About Dmitris’ business and his ability to keep afloat in difficult times, but the obvious hard work that he has to put in to achieve this. After a time here, we decided that we really ought to eat something. So we drove down to a spot where, we were reliably informed, restaurants opened at lunch time and stayed open until breakfast (along with accompanying bars, too). Here we managed to get some Greek beer (Alfa – the least good of the 3 main beers of the nation, in my humble opinion) and probably the best souvlaki I ate in the whole of my stay in Greece. And all for about 15 euros, for 3 of us. Quite remarkable. As we finished eating, I looked at my watch and was utterly flabbergasted to see the time was approaching 3am. Always the sign of a fine evening. So, once we had all drained our beers, we got back into the car and made the drive back to Piraeus. We thanked Dmitris sincerely for what had been a great night and promised ourselves two things: a lie-in the following morning and a relaxing day.

So it was that a lazy day was spent, interrupted by lunch at the waterfront, and a lot of time around Piraeus’ fine beach. After hardly stopping still for the past month, it was most welcome. The highlight of the day was watching this cat trying his very best to catch a bird in a tree.

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We wandered back to our hotel at the end of the day, stopping off at the Blue Star Ferries terminal, on the way, to pick up our tickets for our ferry the next morning. After this we headed early to our beds, so that we could be up and ready for breakfast at 6:30 and climbing aboard our ferry for the 7:25 departure.

Arriving at the port on the Tuesday morning, there was no shortage of hustle and bustle as, along with the multitude of foreign tourists, Athenians were setting sail for their summer holidays. With money for foreign expeditions drying up, we were told that the vast majority of city dwellers were also taking advantage of the relaxed and beautiful islands scattered off the coast and down into the Aegean and Ionian seas. The biggest of the ferries travelling every day, in-season, to the Cyclades, the Blue Star Delos is bloody enormous. We climbed aboard and dragged our bags to the topmost decks, set out with scores of (but not enough) seats for the “economy” ticket passengers. After some fruitless wandering, we realised that we were not going to get a seat, so we were staring down the barrel at five and a half hours of standing, or sitting on one of the outside decks. The sun was, predictably, shining brightly though and it didn’t feel like any sort of hardship, as the ship began to pull out of Piraeus’ harbour.

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We stood, we sat, we watched the sea drift by, along with other boats and smaller, often uninhabited islands. We drank water, we listened to music, we laughed at elegant, well behaved dogs and aggressive, irritable little ones. Becoming acclimatised, as we were, to the Greek summer culture, I dashed to the bar at the half way point to pick up Cappucino freddos for us both. The spray from the sea was pleasantly cooling, as we sped across the water in the full glare of the sun. With little more than an hour to go until our arrival time at Naxos, we saw the first larger islands and rocky outcrops and finally, the ship descended on Paros. Significantly smaller than the place we were to call home for the coming days, Paros had a bustling harbour, which was a flurry of activity as our ship landed. Dotted with historic buildings and with a typically cycladian backdrop of brown, earthy mountains, it looked like a nice place.

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Perhaps more crucially than anything though, some of our neighbours on deck disembarked here, freeing up some chairs to us for the remaining hour or so of our journey. So we sat in comfort and shade, as the trajectory had somewhat changed, as we made the final leg of the trip towards Naxos. Feeling the 6:30 wake up call now, I was pleased to remember that the proprietor of our hotel had offered to meet us at the port and take our luggage on to our hotel. After a short while we had arrived.

Adventures in Greece – Part 1 – Athens (Piraeus) via Warsaw

Just hours after arriving back in Poland from a 4 week stint at an international summer school, I was packing my things again and heading off to the cradle of our civilisation – Athens, in Greece. This time with my girlfriend in tow, I was really excited about this, as well as a little apprehensive, after hearing of a few pretty serious horror stories about Greece’s ancient capital in recent times.

Waking up at a leisurely 8:30am, after my first sleep in my new flat, I trudged around like a zombie, preparing myself for the fun of the Polskibus to Warsaw at 11:20. Polskibus is a relatively new venture in Poland and is ran by a Polish fellow, who has spent a fair bit of time working in transport companies in the UK. The result is a fleet of brand new, clean, comfortable buses, with free Wi-Fi(!) toilets and extremely low prices. In a country where some long distance buses are close to my age, it is a very welcome thing. So, after 4 hours of cruising Polish highways, ducking to use the hobbit-sized toilet and consuming a nutritious road diet of lemon ice tea and Cheetos pizzerinis, we arrived into Warsaw’s Młociny bus station.

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The brilliant thing about arriving at Młociny, is that it is right next to the metro station. Getting to Warsaw’s Frederic Chopin airport is (theoretically) easy, as you can travel by bus, train, or SKM (fast urban train). We asked the lady at the information kiosk, and she told us the best way was to go to the central rail station by Metro and then onward by bus No. 175. Ania and I remarked to ourselves about how helpful and easy this had all been (having been hugely frustrated by using public transport in Warsaw before). We boarded the metro and off we went. Then after 4 stops, the wheels came off. Not literally, thankfully. Due to the work on laying the track for the new second line of the Warsaw Metro, the Metro would miss not just our stop, but a stop or two either side, as well. Nice of the info lady NOT to tell us. We followed the signs for diverted passengers and ended up on a tram. After waiting just a couple of minutes the tram sped us to Centrum and we disembarked and headed across the park beneath the majestic Palace of Science and Culture to the main train station.

Walking inside the station, we found the usual scene in Warsaw. Scores of people queuing for the woefully insufficient one person in the ticket office and no information points open. Signposts to the airport trains, buses and so on were all lacking, aside for the mention of a slow train, leaving in almost an hour’s time. We asked a few people and finally an old lady from the train company pointed us to the area where we could find the bus. Feeling a little stressed, and with time left to check in ticking away, we hurried into the subway, looking for signs to the airport bus. Naturally, there were none. Finally finding our stop, via the wrong side of the huge road, we then went to the ticket machine. It advised me that it was not accepting change and then proceeded to spit out my pristine 10 Zloty note, like it was a used tissue. Beginning to suffer from serious rage by this point, I jumped onto the bus and pleaded with the driver to sell me some tickets to the airport. Thankfully, he was merciful and 2 child tickets each were issued. We stood, squished into a corner of the bus, for 25 minutes, relieved that another completely haphazard transport experience in Warsaw was all but over!

Arriving at Wawa’s airport, I was struck, right away, by the feeling that a bit of money has been spent here, on modernising. With a towering glass facade at the departures entrance and cloudy daylight pouring in from above, it was a lovely place. We joined a queue crammed with Polish-Greek couples at the Aegean airlines desk. After a short few minutes we were checked in, given window seats near the emergency exits – hello legroom! – and my rucksack, almost always sent to oversized baggage, was allowed straight into the hold on the conveyor belt. I was positively delighted and the endeavour required to survive Warsaw’s information-deprivation scheme was all but forgotten. After a quick sandwich and a last swig of the ice tea, we headed for security. Also mercifully efficient, we were sat looking at the nose of our plane with more than 30 minutes before boarding was due to begin.

Resisting the temptation to go and try on all 100 or so of the designer watches in the boutique opposite our gate, instead I waited patiently for boarding. When the time came, we filed on and took our seats.

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Being, as we were, on a flag carrier for the first time in ages, I was looking forward to free food and beers. My seat was pretty comfy, I could stretch my legs in front of me, and we got settled pretty quickly. We took off into the greying skies. Food was soon served. Now, while I never anticipate gourmet cuisine on an aircraft, the infants’ portion of dried pasta with meatballs the size of ball bearings was not inspired. Luckily the accompanying bread, crackers, chocolate bar and beer were far more palatable. After the rubbish had been cleared away, dusk began to wash over the sky, as we drank our coffee. Later thunderstorms ripped through the night sky below us to the right. It was quite a show.

ImageAt just after 10, local time, we cruised over the Greek peninsula and marvelled at the orange dotted pathway of what we later learned was the Athenian central highway. The plane descended gently and landed with barely a bump. Ania and I were first off the plane and set off to find our baggage. Once we gathered our things, we immediately headed for an ATM – I hadn’t had any time to get currency sorted, post summer school. We drew some cash, picked up a bottle of water and were directed by highly efficient signs to the X96 express bus to Piraeus. With a fair number of others from our flight, we ditched our luggage and watched the dark city streets go by as we sped through night time Athens. It was fairly quiet and the bus barely stopped at all. After around 40 minutes, we realised that we didn’t really know exactly where we were supposed to get off. The people from our hotel had sent a map, but hadn’t been clear about whether it was from the last stop or some other, beforehand. So, when a huge German family (seriously – there were about 10 of them!) decided to get off the bus on one of the many busy streets in Piraeus, we jumped off too. Immediately we began to regret our decision. None of the streets from the map were near us and, with the clock already well past midnight, we were feeling pretty fed up. Then, as we were starting to despair, we saw a small souvlaki place, “Gr… Eat” (see what they did there?), and so I wandered in to find out whether anyone spoke English and whether they knew where our hotel was.

The chef, who was unoccupied, came straight over to me and asked if he could help (in Greek). “Do you speak English?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. By which he meant that someone else in his restaurant did, as he looked blankly at me, while I pointed to places on my map and asked if he knew where they were. Finally his colleague, a very enthusiastic waiter, and a slightly less enthusiastic waitress led me to a huge map mounted on the wall and began arguing with each other about the best way to get to our hotel.

Quite the contrary from this being irritating though, they were all just so keen to help us find our way. I was pretty touched. After we established the best route, they shouted after us “You’re Italian?” I confirmed that I was in fact British, but it’s nice not to be recognised as a British tourist. We made a mental note to return here to eat, later on in our visit, which we did, and enjoyed it immensely. After a few minutes more of walking and a quick check in a different hotel, that we were on the right track, we finally came to the Hotel Phidias/Piraeus Inn which turned out to be a superb & quite bargain-priced place to stay. The receptionist was bright and cheery, in spite of the late hour and told us, quite unexpectedly, that we had breakfast included. I’m a big fan of breakfast. We jumped into the lift and headed to our room for some much needed sleep.

Waking up in the morning and stepping on to our balcony, we couldn’t decide, in the shade, whether it was actually all that warm. Just moments after breakfast though, stepping down to the street and into the full glare of the sun, it quickly became apparent that it was roasting. We decided to take a walk around the marina, which was just a few steps from our hotel, down one of the many steep streets. The place is a hive of activity, with cafes, bars, restaurants, fishing boats and a variety of shops, combined with the considerable traffic ferrying people from the port to the city and airport.

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After following the curve of the marina to it’s limit, passing under numerous cafe parasols, we found ourselves at another steep hill, this time curving around to a recreation area and a crowded, small beach. The water was positively glinting in the morning sun and we decided to head down and dip our feet in the water. It was surprisingly cold and I began to make sounds like a young girl, pretty swiftly. Once we had enjoyed a little paddle, it was time to continue round the path, past some intriguing buildings (and obligatory churches) to find somewhere to get one of these cappucino freddo things that every man and his dog – no really – seemed to be drinking. We happened upon Riva cafe, a delightful place, with comfy sofas, a view of the marina, complimentary water and delicious cake and first class cold coffees.

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So now, refreshed after the gentle pace of the morning and the fabulously brutal nature of Greek coffee, we were feeling ready to move on to the next stage of the adventure – to the Acropolis!