Changing of the guard in Athens

: Outside the Greek Parliament where the Evzones perform their changing of the guard ceremony. Picture: Anita McInnes

It’s past midnight and the lights of Perth are no longer visible.

I’m trying to sleep during the 11-hour flight to Doha but I’m far too excited as I have waited so long for an overseas holiday especially after having a trip to Egypt cancelled last year due to all the civil unrest there.

When our tour group made up of friends and acquaintances from Perth’s bellydance community arrive in Doha at 5.45am it is already 32C.

Expecting to encounter a crisp clear desert air, the hovering sand or smog I’m not sure which it is, surprises me.

The land beside the runway is just sand with not a blade of grass to be seen.

Once out of the plane the smell of diesel assaults my nostrils.

We pack into a shuttle bus, which delivers us to the terminal where we wait for the rest of our group to arrive.

As we wait bus after bus pulls in and people of Middle Eastern and Asian descent alight and start queuing to go through customs.

Eventually we join them.

Despite the big numbers of people the process happens smoothly and quickly.

Soon we are waiting to board the bus again to deliver us to a smaller plane taking us to Greece (on our way back to Perth later in the month we land in Doha on the first day of the opening of the new airport terminal).

I have hardly slept since we left Perth but I just don’t want to miss anything (even though there is nothing to see or do really as most people are sleeping, watching movies or listening to music).

Due to a gluten intolerance I have pre-ordered gluten-free options and am disappointed with the fare dished up but making up for it somewhat are the friendly and efficient staff.

About four and a half hours later the approach to the airport in Athens is not as green and more rugged than I expected.

From the air the city seems to have little vegetation – though I soon discover during our stay that every little nook or cranny not taken up with a building, path or road has a bush or a vine and there are pot plants everywhere.

When we land in Athens it is about 24C ­- similar to what we left behind in Perth.

Getting through customs in Athens is much slower but it is also a great opportunity to watch how Greek communication in action.

On the trip from the airport I notice lots of yellow-flowering plants, a lack of rubbish but an abundance of graffiti.

Eventually we stop on the side of a busy street and our bags are unloaded so we can cart them down to our hotel.

Due to the narrow streets it is difficult for our bus to get any closer to the Astor Hotel, which is right in the heart of the city.

Shopping is usually not my priority but I soon find a new hat and handbag, which I just have to buy as part of my plan to step out in style at Ascot when the spring racing carnival starts.

Later for dinner we visit the Plaka (for jewellery, souvenir, leather and fur shops, tavernas, restaurants and coffee shops and picturesque squares) where the restaurant managers are competing with each other to secure our patronage – it is early in the tourist season and also the economy is still recovering.

Next morning when we have breakfast in the restaurant on the ninth floor, it is obvious why our tour organiser Eva Cass chose the hotel.

The restaurant overlooks the city and has a breathtaking view of the Acropolis.

Next morning we catch a bus to the accent of the Acropolis where we hire a guide.

Her name is Athina and soon after she starts leading us up towards the Acropolis I notice one of the stray dogs, of which we’d already noticed quite a few, waiting at certain spots for us to arrive and once or twice this dog brushes against her as though reassuring himself she is still there.

Towards the end of our guided walk she says she has adopted him.

Athina said according to legend the Acropolis was built to honour the goddess of wisdom, Athena, after a dispute with the god Poseidon over patronage.

Apparently the gods decided they would give patronage to whoever produced the most useful gift with Athena’s olive tree symbolising peace and prosperity being declared the winner over Poseidon’s splendid steed – a symbol of manly qualities.

We walk through the Propylaea, which was the city’s entrance in ancient times after looking down at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus.

After more climbing we stand beside the Parthenon with it columns wider at the base and narrower at the top while we gaze at its sculptured facades.

According to signs on the site the main building material used in the monuments is pen telic marble.

The signs say the first works to restore the monuments were carried out in 1835-1854.

Restorations were also made from the end of the 19th century to the start of WWII but the use of ordinary iron for joining created some serious problems.

The Caryatides – the statues, which support the roof of the south porch, were shifted for their protection to the Acropolis Museum and replaced on the Erechtheion monument by copies made from artificial stone.

The signs say since 2010 restoration work on the Parthenon has continued with programs funded by the Greek government and the European Union.

After leaving the Acropolis Alanah Asfield and I decide to take an open top double decker bus tour to the port of Piraeus before tackling the task of getting to the top of Mount Lycabettus – the tallest point in the city and top of my bucket list to do while in Athens.

I listen to an audio guide while also taking lots of photographs as we travel through the central business district, the red light area, the busy port before returning via a coastal route.

There is plenty of graffiti on display but the things that impress me most are the architecture, the marinas and a costal bay with a white beach, aqua-coloured water and a little blob of an island with a range of hills in the background and above it all a sky, which looks as though someone has taken a blue page and almost covered it with swirls and blocs of white paint.

After asking for directions on how to get to Mount Lycabettus and hearing with some relief that there is a cable car we can take we get off the bus and start walking up and up and up.

Soon with all the buildings around us we can no longer see the hill so we keep walking hoping we are heading in the right direction.

Eventually we find a sign for the cable car and even though we are proud of our effort to get that far there is no discussion about walking the rest of the way as we scramble onto the cable car.

When we reach our destination we find an almost 360 degree view of the city, which takes in the Acropolis – certainly worth the walk.

According to my Greece in Colour guide book by G Gouvoussis legend says the hill was “thrown down by Athena when she learnt of the disobediance of the daughters of Kecrops’’.

Later that evening I consult my Lonely Planet Mediterranean Europe edition, which spells it Lykavittos Hill (suddenly it makes sense why my pronunciation of Lycabettus before I found out the b is a v sound so startled the handsome young bus driver when I first asked for directions).

After lunch we head back down what I now know is called Ploutarhou Street to Vas Sofias.

On the way we watch in amazement as a young woman in shoes with heels that must be about 12cm high makes her way down the slippery pavement.

Once on Vas Sofias we pass the War Museum and the Byzantine and Christian Museum on our way to watch two men in skirts wearing pom poms on their shoes.

No we are not at the Women’s Toys establishment in the re-light district, which we’d seen earlier advertising male strippers.

We are at the Greek Parliament, which was built between 1834 and 1838, to visit the Monument of the Unknown Soldier, where the presidential guards called Evzones are about to perform their changing of the guard ceremony.

Dressed in national costume the two guards carry out their high-stepping performance prompting Alanah to comment that perhaps this is where John Cleese of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fame got the idea for his walk.

The guards start at opposite sentry boxes before meeting in the middle and crossing to opposing sides then turning and meeting again to complete a duo performance then parting again to head back to one of the sentry boxes.

Another guard then walks out to each of them in turn wiping the sweat from their brows and checking their uniforms are in place.

It is a very spectacular and funny display especially when you have visions of Basil Fawlty in your head.

Later we visit a taverna and watch some traditional dances in which the men wear similar costumes and during the tour as I learn more about the history of Greek music and dance the ceremony kind of makes sense (if I ignore thoughts of Mr Fawlty and my friend’s running commentary while the changing of the guard was underway).