On arrival in Athens last Monday, weary from 24 hours in travel, I was faced with a round of poker and lost. Don’t use EuroChange. I thought I was being careful, and even made calculations on my computer before approaching the counter. But they take advantage of the tired and naive. I bid low, they pushed me up to a higher bid, and I was sold a deal I didn’t need: too much money; too much commission (foolishly absent from my accounts); and a guarantee of the same rate and no charges to exchange up to 30% of it back, when there was no chance I’d spend 70%. So really I was just conned. And as I exited the airport to get a bus ticket, there was Piraeus Bank with a better rate. So said a recently-skimmed finance textbook: banks can always offer better rates; they exchange much larger quantities in one go. Again, don’t use EuroChange.
So I spent the week trying to spend money, but the opportunity didn’t arise. The hotel was pre-paid and fed me each morning. Lunches were provided at the conference (I survived on salads and bread). James shouted me dinner on the first night; the conference had a cocktail dinner on the second (identical to the lunches), and a banquet on the third (different chef, but similar salads); and Itamar, an Israeli student with British sponsorship wouldn’t suffer the indignity of me paying for my own dinner on Thursday night. (Note that the vegetarian situation isn’t as harsh as suggested by My Big Fat Greek Wedding: some Greeks avoid meat a couple of days a week for religious reasons, there are spinach pastries, etc. But there’s still a lack of all-vegetarian venues and even fresh fruit, despite the orange trees standing in public squares.)
Friday night and Saturday lunch with a Chabad couple were free meals, but I hoped to bring a 20 Euro donation to synagogue as shabbat was entering. Close to shabbat, I was ready to hop off the metro at Thission Station when the train drove right past it, seemingly closed off for some time already. I had to change trains and go back. The sun was on the verge of setting as I left Monastiraki Station, so I had to dump the cash according to shabbat rules. I hope it found its way into good hands.
Despite my loss, I enjoyed Shabbat, the Greek traditions, the company and the cooked food that it brought. And stunning weather, in which I walked around all afternoon wherever I could go without a ticket. I saved the ticketed places for Sunday.
And yet when I turned up to buy a ticket when the National Archaeological Museum opened at 8:30 on Sunday morning, they let me in for free, because it was the first Sunday in April. Even the ticket I’d already bought for the Acropolis was useless, as they would let me enter gratis. Not surprisingly, by the time I got back to EuroChange at the airport, I’d only spent 56% of my cash, and that was some effort.
The archaeology of Athens is wonderful, both its larger preserved monuments and ruined capitals, and the huge collections of smaller artefacts spanning thousands of years of art. While its ancient temples and chambers of democracy are something to behold, for tourists they are essentially the city’s beginning and its end, especially as almost everything worth visiting closes by 3pm out of peak season. It was the first city I’ve travelled in where I’ve been tempted to leave for the airport early, for lack of anything better to do.
Like all cities, it does have its secrets, those places just a little off the beaten track that are cheaper and just as rewarding as the traditional traps. In particular, I enjoyed the Philopappos Hill (or Hill of Muses), and the view it gave in all directions, to the sea and to the hills. Starting out before everyone else turns up is also key: the sites close early, but they tend to open at 8 or 8:30, at which time you don’t need to push people out of the way just to get some quiet time with a statute of Hermes for a photo.
So I’m glad I wasn’t hanging around in Athens for much longer than needed to see it, but next time I hit the Agaean Peninsula, I’ll hope to spend more time on islands, at Delphi, Olympia, Thessaloniki, etc. Maybe by then they’ll have caught up with the world in smoking bans, and perhaps by then I’ll be wiser with my finances.