Adventures—voluntary and involuntary—in Athens
Our flight was an uneventful one—always the best kind. Air Canada’s schedule announced that flight 826, leaving Toronto for Athens at 5:55pm, would include breakfast. That was the only meal mentioned, and we figured that we’d better eat something substantial in the way of dinner before getting on. So we went into one of the Lester Pearson Airport restaurants and did exactly that—and of course we hadn't been in the air more than an hour when the flight attendants served us an unannounced dinner. I say of course because the same thing has happened to us more than once on other airlines. I suppose their lawyers warn them against promising meals, lest some misfortune prevent them from doing so and open the door to lawsuits by outraged gourmands.

We didn’t have to eat the meal, of course, but as a boy I was conditioned so well by my mother and resident grandmother to earn praise by cleaning my plate that I still feel the compulsion to finish anything set before me. (Isn’t this pathetic? Well into my 70s, I’m still trying to put the blame for my weak will on a well-meant but misguided upbringing.)

The plane was very full, perhaps because of the strike threat—our presence was certainly an example of that. We had a seat that, because it was right in front of a galley in the middle of the plane, wouldn't recline more than a few inches. Across the aisle sat a couple with a baby only a few months old, and when they took their seats at the last possible moment, our first thought was “uh-oh.” But the infant turned out to be perfect, i.e. silent, barring a brief squawk or two. A noble child altogether. I got no sleep during the flight, but I never do. Efforts to listen to music on my iPad were defeated by the constant roar of the engines. But I did read so much of Anthony Trollope's The Warden that only a few chapters remained at the end of the flight.
Eleftherios Venizelos Airport, Athens
Flight 826 set us down in Athens at the local time of 10:30am, as advertised. (This picture taken on the arrivals level is another found object from the Web.) Exiting from passport control we headed, according to plan, straight for an ATM machine to withdraw some Euros. We were carrying €150 we had bought at our local bank branch before leaving home. Like most US banks, ours converts small amounts at a rate highly unfavorable to the buyer, so we bought only as much as we thought we might need for minor emergencies, intending to withdraw more from Greek ATMs when we got there.
Not the ATM that robbed us, but a dead ringer
I inserted my card (linked to a money market account at a different American bank), entered my PIN, selected English as the language, and requested €300. The machine hummed and displayed a message asking me to take the money (or maybe it was the receipt) before taking my card. And then… nothing. No money, no receipt, and no card. After a pause, the “Welcome! Please insert your card” message, or rather its equivalent in Greek, reappeared.

We began to feel panicky. The ATM was next to a currency exchange window, but this was operated by the National Bank of Greece, while the ATM belonged to Eurobank, no relation. Dorothea asked the young woman behind the window if the machine often did such things. “Sometimes,” she responded. She didn’t know Eurobank’s phone number, but pointed us to an information counter where she thought we might be able get it. We did get the number, but we had no coins and no idea how to operate a Greek pay phone even if we could find one.

However, not far from the larcenous ATM was one of those “business centers” where travelers can enjoy, at extravagant cost, the temporary use of computers and telephones. The lady at the desk was happy to accommodate our needs, and Dorothea was soon talking to an executive at the Eurobank headquarters. Fortunately he spoke English, but since she needed to negotiate a Greek phone menu to get to him, her understanding of the language was very helpful.

This gentleman was sympathetic, but he couldn’t do anything to help. It was the bank’s policy, he said, to destroy all cards confiscated by the machine. Next to getting my card back, which was apparently impossible, that was the best thing we could hope for. Each of us had an ATM card for that account, so Dorothea still had hers. We could go on using it—but only if we were certain that no one else could get possession of the card that had just been impounded. That person would also need to know the PIN, but since the only possible suspect would be the bank employee who opened the machine, it wasn’t beyond the scope of imagination that he or she would have some way to find out what numbers I had typed in after inserting the card.

Or so I reasoned in the rather fevered state I was in by this time. Eurobank’s policy might call for the destruction of the card, but whoever set that policy was unlikely to be the one who came around to collect the ATM’s contents. What if it was a low-paid worker who was feeling the economic pinch (like just about every working person in Greece at the moment) and had a hungry family to support? Might this temptation not be too great to resist? It was not easy to think coolly.

Dorothea next phoned the US bank where we have the money market account, using the international emergency number on the back of her card. The man she talked to was sympathetic and helpful; he agreed that the safest thing to do would be to cancel the card (which of course meant both cards). They would send us new ones as soon as possible—but when she began to describe our itinerary from one end of Crete to the other, he wasn’t sure we’d be able to get the new cards in less than a week. That didn’t sound like a workable solution. Dorothea was able to learn from him that the ATM machine, while forgetting to give us our money, receipt, or card, had not forgotten to charge our account the dollar price of €300, a transaction he was able to cancel for us.

She hung up without making a decision about the card so that we could talk the situation over. It didn’t take us long to decide that canceling it was the only truly safe policy. She called the bank again and got this done. Both of us were also carrying ATM cards linked to our checking account in the local branch bank at home. Withdrawals from that bank were a little more expensive than withdrawals from the money market account, but not enough to horrify us—certainly nowhere near as bad as walking into the bank at home and exchanging dollars for Euros.

The business center cheerfully charged us €40 for the use of their facilities. We were lucky to have the €150 we had brought from home: taxi service to Athens was set at a fixed rate of €35—not unfair, as the city’s new airport, open since 2004, is a good half-hour drive from the center—and we would also have to buy lunch and dinner before we could visit a bank the next morning. I was now feeling extremely gun-shy about ATM machines, and I wanted to use my remaining card to get cash directly from a human teller rather than take a chance on suffering another mishap like the first. Had that happened, we’d have been in the soup for sure, because once again both cards belonged to a single account, so the loss of one and the necessary cancellation of the other would have left us with no way of getting cash from that point on.

In spite of this brief crisis and our lingering anxieties, however, our spirits lightened when we walked out of the airport building into the warm Attic sunshine and found a taxi. The driver, a young man who spoke good English, was himself a Cretan from Iráklio, and as we followed the new expressway around the mountains north of the city (where Pentelic marble is still quarried, as it was in Classical times) we spent most of the drive talking about Crete and what we might see there. Once we got off the expressway and onto the city streets, he pointed out various points of interest. We passed through a neighborhood near the University of Athens named Kaisarianí, where he told us that, during World War II, the occupying German army had executed hundreds of Greeks for target practice. This may be a slightly mythologized version of an event mentioned in the Wikipedia article on Kaisarianí, which says that, on May 1, 1944, 200 Greek political activists were shot there in reprisal for the ambush and killing of a German general by resistance fighters. The execution took place on a rifle range, which may account for the reference to target practice.

Our driver also gave us the somewhat unsettling news that a major demonstration and transport strike were scheduled for the next day, and that taxis as well as public transport would be unavailable. When we checked into the Plaka Hotel, we asked the desk clerk what we should do. He told us that moonlighting drivers could be found to carry passengers in their private cars, and that the hotel could get us one of these without any difficulty. So we requested a taxi for 11:00 the next morning. Our flight wasn’t scheduled until 2:30, but—not knowing how long it might take to maneuver around the big demonstration through Athens’ narrow streets—we chose to play it safe.
Up Kapnikaréa steet toward the Acropolis
Although our comfortable room in the Plaka hotel was far from huge, it was on the highest floor, and we could look at the Acropolis through our window. A flight of stairs next to the elevator led up to a rooftop terrace with a few potted plants, a small and discreet bar, plenty of places to sit, and a 360° view of Athens. The nearby Acropolis was the dominant feature, but the sea of mostly white buildings, spread over a rolling landscape and lapping at the feet of a couple of miniature wooded mountains, was lovely as well. Seen in this way, Athens didn’t seem to have changed a lot since our visit in 1988.

We didn’t go up to the terrace right away. First Dorothea used the WiFi connection at the hotel to communicate by email with the bank where we had the money market account. The cash we’d put there for use on our trip was now inaccessible, so we had to move it into the checking account in our local bank where we could get at it with our “backup” ATM cards. After this was done, we went out in search of something that might serve as lunch. It was now midafternoon, and our airborne breakfast was a distant memory. We had a destination in mind: I had learned from Matt Barrett’s indispensible “Guide to Athens” website that the hotel was not far from a café where on most afternoons one could hear musicians playing rebétiko music.
Kapnikaréa church, 11th century
The Plaka Hotel stands on the corner of Kapnikaréa and Mitropóleos streets. On the other side of Mitropóleos (a narrow but busy one-way street) Kapnikaréa terminates, after only a few yards, in a small square surrounding the church that gives the street its name. Officially, the church is Ekklisía tis Panayías Kapnikaréas or “Kapnikaréa Church of the Blessed Virgin.” The meaning of Kapnikaréa is uncertain; most accounts say that it was the name of a tax imposed by the Byzantine Empire on cloth merchants, whose stores and stalls once clustered around the square. This is possible, as the church was most likely built during the 11th century, but an alternative suggestion is that Kapnikaréa may be the surname of whatever church dignitary or local plutocrat sponsored the construction. If the square is small, the church is tiny, an effect enhanced not only by the taller buildings that now surround it, but by its standing on somewhat lower ground (belonging, no doubt, to a more ancient stage of Athens’ history) than the rest of the square.
Rebétiko musicians
Matt Barrett had had described the café we were looking for as located on a small alley off Kapnikaréa street, but we had to look around a bit before we found it. The alley, also named Kapnikaréa, didn’t connect directly with the street, but was parallel to it, running from a corner of the square back to Mitropóleos. As soon as we came to that corner, we could hear the sounds of a bouzouki and guitar. They weren’t amplified, but the café was open to the street, and we found a table and settled down to nosh and listen. The customers seemed to be a mix, some deep-dyed rebétiko fans and others more casual listeners who were glad to enjoy the music while concentrating on drinks or snacks. One of the aficionados was a handsome older gentleman who sat near the musicians, drinking ouzo and water (accompanied by snacks, a sensible Greek custom). His intent focus on the music never wavered, and his face showed how much he appreciated it.

We spent two very happy hours at our little table, listening to the two musicians play and sing. Both were (in my uninformed judgment) masters of rebétiko style: sometimes one or the other sang solo, other times they harmonized, and they knew all the words without needing to look them up. Agile bass runs on the guitar meshed perfectly with the bouzouki’s brilliant lead and ornate embellishments. The picture above is slightly out of focus, but their music never was.
Young musician
While we listened, we ate some saganáki (melted cheese) with tomato, onions and green peppers, and some keftédes (Greek meatballs) with homemade potato chips. I drank a couple of Mythos beers, a brand that hadn’t been around when we visited Greece in 1988. It was good European lager, much like the beers of Slovenia and Croatia on our last trip.

We saw evidence that not all rebétiko fans are nostalgic oldsters—not that you’d really have gotten that impression in the Kapnikaréa café, where I’m pretty sure we were the senior members of the audience— but at one point a lad no more than 11 or 12 years old walked in with a baglamá and joined the house musicians on a couple of tunes. (He sang, too.) A baglamá looks like a miniature bouzouki and is, of course, higher pitched, but it’s a genuine instrument, neither a toy nor a child’s “starter” like a half-size violin, and has been part of typical rebétiko ensembles since the early days.
Restaurant park at the top of Kapnikaréa
When we left the café, it was still late afternoon, and we walked past our hotel and took a circuitous route around the nearby streets of the Plaka (the district, not the hotel). At the top of Kapnikaréa street (the opposite end from the little church square) we found a green park entirely filled with restaurants, or rather with tables sheltered by tents or umbrellas and belonging to neighboring restaurants. These were primarily set up to draw in tourists. At each restaurant a man greeted us cordially, but none seemed greatly perturbed when we politely declined their invitations. Amidst all the furniture and canvas, the park managed to display a good deal of greenery, and we found its aspect more charming than commercial.
Ruins of Hadrian's Library
The temples of the Acropolis were looking down on us from their clifftop above, and at one end of the little park we looked down, through a fence, on the excavated expanse of Hadrian’s Library, built under the auspices of that Roman emperor in the 2nd century of the Common Era. It was more than just a library; it comprised a general cultural center and a public square, and the cleared space below (where only a few columns seemed to be standing) looked correspondingly large. The entrance was nowhere near us, however, so we moved on, and soon returned to the hotel.
Acropolis at sunset, from the hotel terrace
After a short rest, we went up to the rooftop terrace to look at the sunset and take some pictures. We sat for a while, surrounded by about 20 people, all of whom sounded either American or Australian. We discreetly ignored the bar. At one point we heard the chanting voices of people who seemed to be marching in a nearby street, but although we looked around down there we couldn’t see where they were. Perhaps this was a buildup to the next day’s demonstration, or perhaps it was a daily custom; we didn’t know and still don’t.

We were trying hard not to eat dinner too much earlier than the Greeks do, but having pretty much gone without sleep the previous night we weren’t really interested in staying up late. The restaurant we’d decided to try was the Plátanas taverna, not far from the hotel in the Plaka neighborhood we’d recently walked around. It was near the Roman Agora, where we took a few pictures, and we managed to be not quite the first customers when we finally decided we could put off dinner no longer. The light had lasted a fairly long time, but it wasn’t quite gone when we took our seats under an arbor and next to an ancient tree. We wondered if this was the plane tree (Greek plátanas) after which the restaurant was named, but the leaves didn’t seem right, and we verified later that, whatever it was, it wasn’t a plane tree. No doubt that eponymous vegetable disappeared from the vicinity of the taverna a century or more ago.
At ease at the Plátanas taverna
The restaurant filled rapidly after we arrived, and we had a very pleasant meal: I ate lamb with eggplant and Dorothea stuffed grape leaves with egg-lemon sauce, a family favorite when she was growing up. A half-liter of retsina was the perfect companion, and at the end of this meal, the waiter brought us a tiny carafe of rakí and some pieces of delicious watermelon. (Like many foods eaten in Greece, its name comes from Turkish—karpoúzi; drop the last letter (added to conform to the Greek system of noun declensions), and you get karpuz, which, as anyone with a computer can learn in half a minute, is the Turkish word. Ain’t the Internet grand?)

The drinks and dessert were gratis, which also turned out to be customary in most of the places we visited in Crete. We felt relaxed and mellow, and our waiter obligingly snapped a picture of us radiating all this relaxation and mellowness before we left.
The Acropolis through our window
It was dark then, of course. The hour wasn’t late, but we were quite ready to sleep. Looking out our window, I saw that Acropolis was illuminated, and by leaning myself and my camera against the window I managed to get a fairly clear picture through the glass. We were still concerned about our cash situation, and, on balance, I suppose I’d have to say that the long day had been a mixed bag. But no day that ends on a sight like this could be considered a bad one.