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Today, we arrived in Piraeus, a major cruise port adjacent to the capital city of Greece. We’ve been to Athens a couple of times before… on our first visit, we travelled into the city by public transport and did the whole ‘visiting the Acropolis’ thing by ourselves. On our second time here, we escorted shore excursions to the Acropolis; tours that took us up the hill and enabled us to, once again, explore the Parthenon at close quarters (not to mention enjoying the impressive, extensive views across the city). Because of those two previous visits, and because passengers are currently being discouraged to use public transport for fear of picking up Covid, we decided on this occasion to go for the simple, soft option of signing up for the ‘Panoramic Athens’ tour. Essentially, this means ‘on the bus, off the bus’… very easy (and free… this was one of many tours laid on as inclusive, for the passengers).

Had we known that there was going to be a shuttle bus laid on to take independent passengers into the centre of Athens, we wouldn’t have booked the tour. Only now are we beginning to realise that free shuttle buses are what Saga do (note to self), and that they seem to be laid on as standard in every port that needs one.

Soon after boarding the tour bus there was a little bit of aggro. We’d barely left the port when one of the passengers got to her feet angrily and, with her husband, moved to the back of the bus, announcing that she was not going to sit next to the woman across the aisle from her, who was ‘coughing and spluttering, and refusing to wear a mask’. She directed her complaint at the poor escort who was sat on the back seat, and who had to go and politely ask the unmasked passenger to ‘mask-up’.

It turns out the woman who moved seats had been sitting next to someone in the craft room who tested positive for covid, and therefore had had to undergo five days of testing herself.

It would seem Covid can make people quite paranoid.

The coach journey into Athens took about thirty minutes, and the guide talked to us the whole way, Unfortunately, she had a strong Greek accent and a decidedly uninteresting voice, which I found myself drifting out from, and not really listening to her.

We all got off the bus at a large parking area situated at the foot of the acropolis (which is the name of the large rock upon which the Parthenon stands). The area was bustling with coaches and cars, and lots of people milling about, most of whom were preparing to climb the steps to the great monument. This is an area where hoards of roadside vendors try to sell you tat, and the occasional busker plays appropriately Greek-sounding music.

It was around this point that I started to get a bit of a grump on. I think we both realised soon after getting on the bus, and during the journey into the city, that we may have made a mistake in choosing this particular tour. We’ve escorted loads and loads of on-the-bus-off-the-bus tours over the years and know exactly what to expect, and to honest, this one wasn’t really any different. There was nothing inherently wrong with the excursion, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was about the tour that was making me so grumpy.

Maybe it was the fact that we were resigned to taking photos of the Acropolis from what is essentially a very poor viewpoint, and that what I subconsciously really wanted to do was to walk up to the top and experience the ancient site in its full glory again. Unfortunately, that wasn’t on the agenda for this particular tour.

Maybe it was the way the guide led the group down the road to a point where she said that we had 15 minutes free time, but what she actually meant was that we were expected to follow her into a tourist gift shop (where it is highly probable that she has ‘an arrangement’ with the proprietor). Tracey and I hadn’t actually noticed that she led the majority of the group into a shop; the first we knew about it was when we turned around, and they were all gone.

Maybe it’s just the concept of being led as a group through the throngs of tourists at a pace that doesn’t really give you the opportunity to really appreciate, and enjoy, the location.

Maybe it was that when the guide told us, as we got off the bus for the second of only two photo stops to see the first Olympic Stadium, that we had 10 minutes to enjoy it – that she didn’t actually mean ’10 minutes’. Instead, folks were off then back on again in the blink of an eye, and we were the last two climbing back on the bus with at least 3 or 4 of our ten minutes still to go. The first Olympic Stadium is quite impressive, by the way… it would just have been nice to have been able to appreciate it for a few minutes longer.

The rest of the trip, for me, turned into a bit of a blur. Despite trying very hard to listen to everything the guide imparted to us in her difficult-to-follow, monotonal voice, I zoned out. She would point to an old, interesting-looking, 1000 year-old church on our right, but then it would be gone in a flash, before being advised to look to the left, to see the changing of the guards at some palace or other; except it was on the wrong side of the bus for us, and all I got when I tried to snap photographs was a blurred image of the back of someone’s head. The last straw (for me) came when we pulled over and was asked if anyone wished to leave the bus to explore Athens on their own, and take the Shuttle Bus back, I was still processing that bolt-from-the-blue when the moment was promptly whipped away from us – no-one had put their hand up, and we continued on our way back towards Piraeus.

Tracey wasn’t too happy with me; she’d looked to me to ascertain if getting off the bus was something we wanted to do, and I completely let her down by just being a grumpy numpty. Of course we should have got off there, and finished our visit doing our own thing, but I’d completely missed the bit of information telling us where the shuttle buses would be, and whereabouts in Athens we actually were, and I couldn’t understand why the guide hadn’t given us a prior heads-up for the option a little more in advance. She probably had, but I missed it…

In the end, it didn’t really matter. We went back to the ship, had a leisurely lunch and then chilled-out on board for the rest of the afternoon.

We were both underwhelmed and slightly frustrated by the tour (me more than Tracey, clearly), which has prompted us to take another look at the excursions we’ve put our names down for. Saga is brilliant at laying on free shuttle buses, and they don’t want tutors working as escorts, all of which suits us just fine. It’s the perfect opportunity to do our own thing. In retrospect, we could have made much better use of our day in Athens… which is something to remember the next time we’re here.

Peter Woolley

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