The Volkswagen Camper van that I had been travelling in had just left Yugoslavia, and was approaching a road junction, which was in the north of Greece. To the left lay Thessalonica, and to the right, was the road that I intended to take to Athens. Mike, the dark haired driver who hailed from Arizona, turned left and stopped the van. I slid open the side door, picked up my rucksack and as I alighted from the van. Mike said. “Nancy and I will see you in Athens, then you can show us around, Smiler.”
“Thanks very much for the lift through Yugoslavia Mike.” I replied, “Hope you enjoy Thessalonica. See you in Athens.
I then closed the door and watched the VW camper disappear. I waved to them, but I never knew if I would ever see Mike and Nancy again. I picked up my rucksack, swung it upon my back, crossed the road and began to walk slowly towards Athens. I had only taken a few steps when I stopped, removed my rucksack from my back and placed it on the ground ensuring that the Union Jack was facing the oncoming traffic. I then stuck my thumb out and waited for my next lift.
‘Wait a minute,’ I hear you say. ‘How on earth did I mange to hitch through Yugoslavia? Was I mad?’ Quite frankly no, I wasn’t mad as all this was some years ago in the summer of 1972 and this was the second time that I’d hitched through Europe. Each time I went, my pack got smaller. I worked out what to take and reduced my load until I only had the bare essentials.
Whilst waiting for a lift, my mind went back to when I’d been hitching a ride in Southern Austria and felt really fortunate when Mike said that he and Nancy were going to Greece. It was June and I’d left England before a bank holiday and my work mates had said that I was insane, as I’d forgone the bonus, in order to travel. Perhaps I was, but at that moment, I felt great.
The journey through Yugoslavia had taken me three days and had only cost me three German Marks. To me Yugoslavia, especially after the affluence of Germany and Austria, had appeared to be a very poor country. I stood there thinking of the first bar in Ljubljana where Mike and Nancy had stopped for lunch. From the outside looked somewhat shabby, but as we entered, I could see that it was not so drab and it looked slightly more modern albeit dimly lit and apart from the small windows, the only other source of light, was from a few lights suspended from the low ceiling over the food. I headed towards them bought some stew and bread (not much hope of vegetarian food), and then bought a beer to wash it down with. How much it cost I can’t remember, but it was tasty and very cheap. Apart from the women who were serving, Nancy was the only woman in the restaurant/bar. The other customers were workmen who were scattered about the place seated at tables.
As a consequence Nancy attracted quite a bit of attention, this was because she wore a tight sweater with nothing underneath it, but the locals were far less discrete about looking, than I was. Mike suggested that we sat at a table near a window and then said something to Nancy about being inappropriately dressed. Having eaten we travelled on.
Travelling down through Yugoslavia the poverty seemed to increase. In the north the billboards advertised tractors, and yet in the south, the farmers employed oxen to pull their ploughs. The railways had steam locomotives hauling their carriages or goods wagons and whenever a vehicle stopped, boys appeared who washed the windscreen and then demanded some extortionate price for their work. The highway was dotted with crosses and having seen the Yugoslavians drive, I now know why.
My thoughts were interrupted by a car stopping for me and so I picked up my rucksack, and rushed towards the car. The driver said that he wasn’t going far, only to the next town. That was good enough for me, as it kept me moving. We arrived at his stopping point and once again I was on the road hitching.
My early morning start must have stood me in good stead, because it wasn’t long before another car stopped and this one had a couple in it. The lady told me that they were going to Athens. I was overjoyed as this meant I would soon be able to see the mighty Acropolis. I placed my rucksack in the boot and then got into the rear of the car. The couple chatted to one another, and occasionally the lady would turn round and ask me where in England I came from and where I’d been to.
Because of the heat, the car windows were wound down and the fragrance that wafted into the car was of Jasmine, I accredited this to the yellow flowered gorse bushes. Also dotted along the roadside were statues of Greek warriors, well that is how they appeared to me. They wore little, apart from a helmet and their only protection was a shield or a sword, and some carried both. I later discovered that these were the statues of Greek Gods.
I wondered what their names were, but I couldn’t remember if Hermes, or Mercury, was the Greek messenger of the Gods. Then I wondered where Mount Olympus was, and did it really exist?
We were travelling along the east coast of Greece and pulled up at a village by the sea. The lady turned round to inform me that this is where they were going to eat, but before she left, she pulled out a pie, cut a large slice from it and handed it to me saying. “This is pumpkin pie, please have some? We are just going to have something to eat, and we’ll see you later.”
All three of us got out of the car and I sat on a wall eating the pie. It was quite delicious. To one side of me was the azure sea, and across the road I looked over to a green field that led up to the mountains, it was so peaceful. I smiled as I thought of my workmates sweating in lofts, laying fibreglass and trying to earn a crust. What I was enjoying, could not be bought. Oh yes, I did take some money with me, but not that much. From that moment on, Athens was no longer just a place on the map, for me, later that day it would become reality.
I saw the couple returning from the taverna and I could see why they’d chosen to eat there. The view was exquisite, and they could sit outside, enjoying the food and scenery. We returned to the car and carried on with our journey. The road then headed inland and the scenery was not as picturesque. The lady informed me that there was a campsite, which was only a bus ride out of town and when I was dropped me off in Athens, dusk was falling. The lady hoped that I enjoyed my stay in Greece. I thanked them both for the lift, and began to meander the streets of Athens.
It wasn’t that late when I arrived in Athens, but like all Mediterranean countries, it is situated on a meridian where the sun sets early, no matter what time of year it is. But even though the sun had gone down, it was still warm.
I was trying to ascertain where the road to the campsite was and as I turned a corner a young Greek approached me and said. “Excuse me. Are you English?”
“Yes.” I replied in a quiet voice.
“My name is Christos,” he said “would you care to join my friends and I? We are students and we are studying English.”
“Thank you. My name is Smiler, but I was looking for the campsite.”
“If you stay with my friends and I tonight, tomorrow we will show you where to catch the bus for the campsite. Have you a sleeping bag?”
“Yes.” I nodded.
“Tonight you can sleep on the floor in your sleeping bag.”
We headed off to Christos’s apartment, where we entered a small room that had a wooden table in the middle and seated at it were a young couple. I placed my rucksack on the tiled floor, and Christos introduced me to his friends and announced that I should join them for a meal.
I replied, “I would like to dine with you, but I haven’t changed any money.”
“Oh that’s all right. We’ll pay for you and the place that we’re going to isn’t far from here,” they replied.
The girl asked if I had a camera, and as I had, I was promptly ordered to take some pictures of them and me. Then we exchanged addresses, so that I would be able to send them copies of the photos.
We departed for the restaurant, which was small and rather empty. The meal that we ate was for me, like the Greek version of spaghetti bolognese, and with it we were served bread and wine. They were naturally interested where I came from, although one of them tried to analyse humour, which I thought was rather odd. During the evening I found to my delight that I would be able to visit the Acropolis free on a Sunday. This would help me with my limited budget. As we returned to their lodgings, I was shown where the bus stopped for the campsite and was told which number bus to catch.
I had an enjoyable evening and the next morning as I prepared to leave, I heard voices cry out from the other room, asking me to remember to send them the photos. I then changed some money after which I headed for the tourist information bureau, where I was given a free map of Greece, which had a map of Athens printed on the reverse. I was also informed that the Acropolis was free on Thursdays, as well as Sundays and as the next day was Thursday, I wouldn’t have to wait long, to walk over the Acropolis
I arrived at the campsite, booked in, found a plot, erected my tent and then tackled the mundane job of washing my clothes. I thought they would dry quickly in the heat. I then showered, changed and decided to go back into town to explore it, at all times I kept my passport and money with me.
I arrived at a square, which had no traffic and was edged with trees and sat down outside a cafe. The waiter approached and I ordered an iced coffee and decided while I was drinking this new concoction, that I would contemplate what to do, but there was no rush to do anything.
The coffee arrived and I enjoyed the cold, yet bitter taste on my tongue, which I then let trickle icily down my throat. It was very idyllic sat watching the world go by. I decided that when I’d finished my coffee, I would explore the sights of Athens.
I strolled off and found to my amazement, that they had trolleybuses, which is a form of transport that has long since vanished from the streets of London. Trolleybuses are powered by electricity, but unlike tramcars, they do not run on rails and draw their power from overhead wires via a pole, which is attached to the top of the trolleybus, plus they have wheels with rubber tyres. I found air-conditioned cinemas, but I never found out where the Greek soldiers were that appeared to wear skirts, and their shoes have bobbles on them.
I did manage to find the fish market and from what I saw of the fish lying on the cold slabs, I would say that whatever swims in the sea, the Greeks would eat. I also noticed lots of scrawny looking cats scattered around Athens. At various places about the town there were shops, which had an open window upon which were placed cakes, some of which were quite sickly and one, even looked like shredded wheat soaked in honey. They also had glasses of water, which were drunk after someone had eaten a cake. On the odd occasion when I was thirsty, I used to sneak a glass of water. It was so refreshing.
Whilst meandering around Athens I stumbled upon a flea market, where for one English Pound I purchased a leather pouch. It only had one pocket, but had loopholes in the back, which enabled me to strap it onto my belt, and thus I had a safe place to keep my passport.
Also, I saw a shop that sold buckets made from old tyres and wondered if Dunlop made better buckets than Pirelli. I wandered on past the shop and up a side street, where I caught my first sight of the lower part of the Acropolis. I walked along and stood by the fence and thought to myself, ‘Tomorrow, I’ll walk through that gate and I’ll walk over that ancient ground.’ I stood for a while trying to absorb it all, but finally I left and returned to the campsite.
That evening I decided to explore the area around the campsite, and also to get something to eat. On the same side of the road as the campsite there were houses, which looked like they were being built.
I realised that the Greeks have a siesta period, although what their expression for that is, I don’t know. The shops closed at about twelve and opened again at around four in the afternoon until the early evening and then it appeared that they either ate out, or ventured to the cinema.
I went into a grocer’s and asked the thickset man behind the counter, for some chocolate milk. He said that he’d spent some time in Australia, but it wasn’t until I pronounced chocolate, with a French accent, that he understood what I meant. He then directed me to the bakers, who odd though it seems, sold milk.
The main form of transport for the builders and shop owners alike, was a three-wheeler. It had a motorcycle front, and instead of a rear wheel, the back was like a cart, with a small wooden surround, which prevented the goods falling off, and two wheels supported this. The builders’ vehicles were easily identifiable, because they were coated with whitewash, which was the standard colour for the exterior of the houses. Also the richer drivers owned a BMW motorcycle, whilst the poorer drivers, either used a Vespa or Lambretta three-wheeler. Oddly enough, the buildings never seemed to get finished, they seemed to be in a perpetual state of being half built.
On the opposite side of the road from the campsite, there were many shops and two cinemas. One of which was most peculiar, as it was housed in a walled room, but had no roof and the chairs were similar to those that used to be available in village halls. They consisted of a metal frame, which had canvas stretched over the seat and back of the chair, or else they had plastic seats, either way they looked very uncomfortable.
Walking past the open-air cinema, I caught glimpses on the wall of the film being shown. There were also some small bars about the place. These were brightly lit inside and perched up high was a television. I was disappointed, as I realised that things were changing in Greece and perhaps, not for the better. I wondered what the men drank. Was it ouzo, or coffee? I returned to my tent and prepared myself for bed.
I awoke the following morning and twiddled with my dice radio to see if I could pick up any decent radio stations and to my surprise, I found the American Forces Network. The heat in my tent became too much and so I got up, showered, and dressed.
I then left the campsite crossed the road and entered a small shop where I purchased a large roll, which I had filled with meat and tomatoes and also purchased a litre of milk. That I thought would be sufficient for the day and having eaten, I caught the bus into Athens.
Once there I headed straight for the Acropolis, and this time I didn’t just pause at the fence and gaze in wonder, I actually went through the gateway.
The first part that I stood on had been completely reconstructed to its former glory in the times of Ancient Greece. As I walked on those paving stones, knowing that I was walking where thousands of years ago, the Ancient Greeks had trod. The thrill of it sent a shiver through my whole body.
With this feeling of exultation permeating through my whole body, I climbed the broad stone steps up to the Parthenon, the mighty temple, which until that day, I’d only seen pictures of. As I walked slowly around the Parthenon I tried to absorb everything about it. I read on a plaque about the Elgin Marbles and it stated that which was once part of Ancient Greece, is now on show at the British Museum in London. I enjoyed my moment of splendour and considered what would be the best way to celebrate to the best of my ability this, my inaugural visit to the Acropolis. Then an idea came to me and I approached a fellow tourist and said.
“Excuse me, do you speak English?”
“Yes,” he replied in an American accent.
“Oh, you’re American. I wonder if you could take a picture of me please?”
“Of course. Where would you like me to take it?”
I was stood at the rear of the Parthenon and I handed him my instamatic camera and said, “What I’d like is, if I jump in the air, can you catch me in mid-flight please? We’ll do a dummy run first.”
The American nodded and I jumped up in the air displaying the star jump. It was then that I realised that those PE lessons hadn’t been in vain after all. The American grasped the idea of what I wanted and the second time I jumped, he took a picture of me. I just felt so good.
The American handed back the camera and said, “That was a good idea, I hope it comes out all right. It looked all right through the viewfinder.”
“Thanks again,” I replied and we both went our separate ways. Wandering back to the entrance, I looked down upon a well-preserved theatre, and pondered for a moment on how well the Ancient Greeks had lived. I descended into the town and at the foot of a hill a man dressed in a dark suit approached me and said,
“Come here a moment.” He gesticulated to a path that ascended between trees, and so curiosity got the better of me and I followed him. He pointed to a hole in the wall saying, “That was where Socrates was imprisoned.”
“But,” I replied, “wasn’t he a great philosopher?”
“That is so, but the Ancients said that he was mad and duly imprisoned him.”
I thought how sad it was that a hero, or a man of great talent who was renowned throughout the world, but yet in his own time and country, was mocked and imprisoned.
We reached the pinnacle of our climb and were faced by an obelisk and the man said, “This is a tomb. The man wanted to be buried here, so that for evermore he would be able to enjoy the view.”
“Wow!” I exclaimed, “This is some view.”
To the south of us lay Piraeus harbour and to the east lay the Parthenon and right up in the distance, many miles away on a hill, there was a white building which appeared to glow in the sunlight.
“What’s that?” I asked whilst pointing to the white building.
“Ah, that’s a temple.” The man replied.
“I can now understand why the man is buried here, it truly is a spectacular view point, with both the old and new, being seen from here.”
“Actually you’re quite fortunate, because in a few days time there is a full moon and then you may view the Acropolis at night. It’s the only time that the Acropolis is open for visits at night and I would add that it’s quite spectacular, and worth every Drachma.”
I stood in awe of the view, where we lingered for a while and then descended into the town. At the foot of the path, I thanked the man and we went our separate ways. After that, whenever I was in town, I visited that spot as often as I could. What a day it had turned out to be, it was beyond my wildest dreams. I decided to stay in Athens for a week, before heading north again. Most of the time I spent my days idly by the sea, which was but a short walk away from the campsite.
Mike and Nancy did eventually arrive at the campsite and recognising their VW, I once again made their acquaintance. Mike asked me to guide them around Athens and in return he offered to buy me a meal. We caught the bus into town and went to the reconstructed part of the Acropolis, I urged them to go up to the Parthenon, but it was to no avail. Nancy told Mike that it was too hot to climb up to the Parthenon and as a consequence, they never went near it.
I was disgruntled, they’d come all the way from the USA and yet they never walked up to the Parthenon. I thought that they were crazy.
We then went to Omonia Square, which is the square that I’d sat in on my first visit to Athens. Mike bought me a meal, after which he and Nancy left me alone. A few days later, they left the campsite, but to this very day, for me, the smell of Jasmine, is forever Greece.