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World Travel – 100 Days Abroad

Kiwis call it “The Big OE”. That’s short for The Big Overseas Experience – which means: “If I’m gonna fly halfway around the world, I might as well stay awhile…” Normally, we Kiwis do our Big OE before we get married – or at least before we have kids. And usually it’s a low-budget, back-packers style of trip.

Tania and I never got around to it. We’d blow all our vacation money on short (or local) trips and never have enough time or money left for the Big OE. But we love travelling and knew we’d get around to it one day. We realised it’d have to be when the kids were old enough to remember, but young enough not to impact schooling too much – so, 2005 at the earliest, 2009 at the latest. In early 2005 we put some money aside and started planning…In 2006 we – James, Tania, Sam (10) and Blake (7) headed off on The Big Trip.

This first article in a series of articles includes tips and information about the journey from New Zealand to Europe, our time in Greece and the first half of our days in Rome…

Long-haul flight (Auckland – Singapore – Athens in our case)

Be sure you book a flight that has TV screens in the seat in front of you, and use the airline website to find out what the in-flight TV system software is like. You can watch movies or TV programs, listen to music, or play games. Make sure you can pause, rewind, fast forward or stop what you are watching. Very important for when the kids want to talk or during the food service, or during announcements.

All during the flight we took homeopathic anti-jet-lag tablets; we think they made a difference so you could try them out if you find it hard to sleep and/or get comfortable while flying.

The transit lounge in Singapore has a small playground for the kids, with TV and chairs.

Most airlines won’t wake you during the “mid-flight” meal service, so be sure one of you stays awake around that time.

Athens airport arrivals

We landed at 7am. It was 24 degrees (Celsius – about 75 F) already. So, be sure that you have light clothing on before you start the descent into Athens, as it’s a nightmare trying to get a family in and out of the restrooms to change clothes once you land. Trust me, it’s easier onboard!

There were no immigration forms to fill out in Athens at that time (2006). We just went straight to the passport people and they stamped our passports. No questions about how long we were staying or anything. We then just walked out. Very different to other places we’ve been to.

Athens train system

It took us about 15 mins to work out what to do and which platform we wanted, so allow yourself plenty of time. If you are rushed you’ll get horribly flustered. Take it easy! All the signs are in Greek and English and the station announcements are as well.

Got kids? What’s the first thing they spot? A McDonald’s! Get your body in sync with local times as soon as possible: try to eat at the right local times.

Hotels

There are a few traps here:

Many hotel lifts (elevators) will barely fit you and your bags in. We only travelled with one carry-on bag each (seriously) and even that was a mission. Our hotel lift was about the size of a small wardrobe – say 1.5m x 1.5m – so if you have check-in luggage you could be up for 5-6 trips to get everything to your room.

Our room was a family room. It had a bathroom, a little alcove room for the kids and a bedroom for us. Not very big but lots of drawers and a cupboard. We had air conditioning which didn’t seem to cope very well, a small fridge, which also didn’t cope well, but no TV (it seemed to be missing).

Toilets: Athens plumbing is very old, and pre-dates the invention of toilet paper, apparently. So many Athenian bathrooms require that you wipe, then deposit your paper in the handy rubbish bin provided, not in the bowl. If you flush, and block the pipes, you’ll regret it, so don’t be tempted. Take a deep breath and comply with local custom!

The National Historical Museum

The National Historical Museum in Athens, focuses on the last couple of centuries, it has lots of ancient weapons – canons, guns and such like. It was EUR6 each in 2006 and the kids were free. Surprisingly, our kids had a good time, plus the aircon was excellent.

Smoking

The worst thing about Athens, for non-smokers, is all the smoking. They smoke everywhere. If you’re lucky the restaurants have a no smoking area but it’s not separate! The only place we went to where there was no smoking was McDonald’s.

We discovered that a bottle of water was 0.50c and a large 1lt one was EUR1. You’ll be grateful that water is reasonably cheap as you’ll go through it really quick.

National Archaeological Museum

From Victoria station the National Archaeological Museum is about a 10 min walk. Hard going in the heat. It was EUR12 each in 2006 (kids free again) and it was air conditioned. It’s a very interesting place. Lots of really ancient stuff. Pots, art, statues, tools, starting from about 6000BC. Even the kids found it interesting. Take a digital camera, we took about 300 photos.

There is a cafeteria, which doesn’t have much choice and is expensive.

The Mall

There is a mall called, creatively, “The Mall”. It’s by the Olympic stadium. It’s a 5-level shopping mall with a movie theatre (but not in English), lots of expensive shops and a food court, plus (hooray) Starbucks.

The Acropolis

We entered the Acropolis area through the Dionysus Theatre (which is not at the “main entrance”, it’s on the other side). It cost EUR12 each (kids free – this is good) and for that you get entry to the Theatre, the Acropolis and 4 other places. A bargain deal.

The theatre and the ruins around it are only a few metres above the entrance, and then up the big hill you go. It’s a long, long way up. You’ll pass the Herodes Atticus theatre which they still use in the summers.

After a long climb – 20-40 minutes depending on your fitness level, you reach the top. The steps are made of marble, the columns and ruins are as well. This is where the Parthenon is sitting looking very majestic (and big). They are restoring some areas. The views from the top are amazing during the day, and I’m sure would be great at night. We spent about an hour at the top and then went down to the actual Acropolis entrance where there is a snack shop and cool drinks.

Exit from the main entrance of the Acropolis and proceed through the Ancient Agora (where there was a marketplace from 6 century BC for 1200 years). From there it’s a short walk to the Roman Forum and the Tower of Winds. This was the marketplace from 1st century AD until the 19th century.

The local cafes have fans that spray a fine mist of water out. Fantastic in the heat.

Kerameikos

Kerameikos is where the outer city walls used to be. It also was where they buried heroes and important people. It’s in ruins of course but you can just imagine hiking in from nearby villages to visit the city of Athens, passing through the huge gates under the eye of the archers – spine-tingling history.

And nearby…

The Temple of Olympian Zeus only has about 15 pillars left standing out of about 45. It looks great though. Hadrian’s Arch is just outside it.

A day at the beach

Check out the tram system. We got a tram from Syntagma Square, it took about ¾ hour to get to the nearby beach. If you don’t have your own towels you can pay to use loungers (EUR5 each). Renting loungers is quite common on European beaches. It was quite dirty where we were (cigarette butts and rubbish on the sand). But the sea was clean.

Flight from Athens to Rome

Think domestic flight. With the common currency and EU there are none of the usual expectations of “international borders”. Small planes, no passport control, no customs, no stamps in the passport to prove you were there. You just walk through like it’s a domestic airport.

Train stations in Rome

Don’t just grab the first ticket you see to your destination! The prices, and journeys, differ. We got a cheap ticket (EUR5 each, kids free, instead of EUR10 each) but we had to change trains part way to get to the Termini station (the central station). Once at Termini you’ll switch to the metro to get to your hotel station.

Laundry

Beware of the hotel charges for laundry – our hotel wanted about EUR5 to wash one shirt, or pants, which would’ve worked out to be over EUR100 for one wash. I doubt the clothes were actually worth that much, it would have been cheaper to buy new clothes each week! We decided to use a Laundromat: there is one near the Termini.

It took us about an hour to wash and dry a week of clothes for the four of us in the huge commercial machines. Cost EUR12 for the whole lot.

Wandering about Rome – the sights

Trevi Fountain is a spectular sight; I highly recommend it. The custom is to throw in a coin, to ensure you return to Rome one day. So of course it’s packed with other tourists, lobbing in their coins. Take lots of photos and throw in a coin or two (I wonder who cleans out the coins?).

Nearby the Pantheon contains the remains of old rulers. It was a temple, now it’s a church. It has amazing pictures and carvings on the walls and ceiling.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is awesome. It is guarded by 2 staunch immobile guards and another one is wandering around talking to people. There are lots of steps and you’re not allowed to sit on them. Every time someone sits down a security man will blow his whistle and wave them up. There is a lot of whistle blowing going on, because hot-and-bothered tourists don’t read the signs.

Gelato

Like ice cream? You’ll be happy then. There’s gelato everywhere, and it’s great. Lots of flavours to choose from. Each gelateria has some different flavours.

Vaticano

See the Castel Sant’ Angelo and then walk to the Vatican City – starting with St Peter’s Square – where there are lots of people, fountains, statues and St Peter’s Basilica.

To enter the Basilica you first have to go through x-ray machines and then get past the ‘clothes police’. They stop people who have their shoulders and knees uncovered. A lot of people get turned away, directed to buy shawls/scarves from a shop about 500m away – suspiciously convenient!

The Basilica is amazing and enormous. Alcoves everywhere, paintings on the walls and ceilings and gold trimmings on the walls and ceilings. There are tombs of Pope Innocent (I don’t remember which number) and a couple of others. Altars are gold as well. We spent about an hour there taking lots of photos.

Take a camera, and a video camera – the Vatican tourist area is huge and you could spend a whole day in there easily, and take thousands of images, just to remember half of what you saw. In another article I’ll tell you about the Sistine Chapel, the Tombs of the Popes and the Vatican Museum.

Colosseum via Palatine Hill

Head up to the Palatine Hill to get your tickets. You go there first because the queue to get into the Colosseum directly is enormous. The ticket queue at the Palatine hill had about 5 people in front of us when we went there (the ticket gets us into both places and the museum at the Palatino as well). Our kids were free because we come from NZ and I had my driver’s license to prove it.

Walk around the ruins (on Palatine Hill) which was an old marketplace and then head into the museum – it’s much cooler in there.

Getting into the Colosseum: There are 2 sets of x-ray machines. One for those who have to buy tickets and one for those (like you, if you went to Palatine Hill first) who already have them. Walk past the couple of hundred people waiting in line to buy their tickets and you’re in.

The Colosseum is, well, colossal. It used to seat 50 000 people. You can see the area where they kept the lions and the gladiators before they were sent up to the arena to fight. If you’ve heard about Daniel and the Lions, or about Romans throwing people to the lions, this place will make you stop and think about what that might really have been like. The arena is so big and so well built that they used to flood it and stage naval battles!

Final thoughts

Rome is hot, like Athens, and there is not as much smoking there. They seem to have no-smoking rules with fines for those who do and bigger fines if you smoke near children or pregnant ladies. Most places are friendly and have someone who speaks English. Learn to say hello, goodbye, thank you and excuse me in Italian and get the hang of pronouncing your favourite gelato flavours as well.

One of the shop people commented that our Italian pronunciation was very good, so a hot tip if you’re a Kiwi: the vowel sounds are the same as in Maori, so as long as you remember the emphasis is always on the second-to-last syllable, you’ll do very well. In fact, try this: say a few dozen Maori place names with emphasis on the second-to-last syllable and listen to how Italian it sounds: Ha-WER-a, Wan-ga-NU-i, Cap-pu-CI-no… see what i mean?

I’ll submit more articles over the coming weeks, with more tips and ideas from Rome, Venice, Padua, Pisa, France, Disney (including our Caribbean cruise), Florida and Hawaii.

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