Athens, the mother of Western Civilization, patron of the arts and eloquence is the ultimate weekend destination regardless of season (and the seemingly endless woes of the Greek economy).
It had been a childhood dream to visit Athens and to see the city I had heard so much about in history and literature class. I was fortunate enough to have had literature teachers who extensively discussed Greek mythology and painted vivid images in my mind. But these days, people don’t just come to Athens for the ancient ruins. Contemporary Athens has a lot more to offer as I’ve found out.
Day 1, Friday
Considering I arrived in Athens at midnight, I opted for a late start, soaked as much sunshine over breakfast from my hostel’s rooftop terrace, and proceeded to hunt for a disposable camera. My first day in Athens greeted me with the news that the metro was closed for the day as the union was striking for their right to strike. I decided to make it a walking day and wandered around Athens’ oldest neighbourhood, Plaka, which extends from the slopes of the Acropolis to very touristy bazaars and restaurants. Despite this, it is perhaps the most picturesque neighbourhood in Athens.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Athens were the orange trees. They are unmissable. I would go so far as to say that every street in Athens is lined with orange trees. I learned that they are very hardy trees, need little water, survive in very cold and very hot temperatures, and don’t shed their leaves. The bright oranges contrasted on the green leaves is a welcome sight in winter and in the summer, their citrus scent waft in the air.
One of Athens’ charms are the small Byzantine-era churches all over the city. The Church of Panaghia Kapnikarea stands in one of the many squares, completely out of place from its surrounding buildings, and is particularly beautiful. Churches are still places of worship so there is no entrance fee, however, do respect that most of them prohibit the use of cameras.
EU students have free access to virtually all museums and archeaological sites in Athens and I took advantage of that. I stumbled upon Hadrian’s Library and the Roman Agora. Very little remains of these sites and you only need a few minutes to wander around, leaving you with plenty of time to see the Ancient Agora. It was the bustling economic and public heart of the ancient city. Noteworthy sites are the (reconstructed) Stoa and the Temple of Hephaestus, the best-preserved temple in Athens.
I managed to have enough time to see the National Archaeological Museum, which is considered one of the greatest museums in the world. Dedicate at least an hour to browse through the exhibition in winter (part of the collection is closed off). Among the most notable displays are the golden death mask of Agamemnon, the Mycenaean king in Homer’s Iliad, and a sculpture of Apollo Omphalos whose perfect buttocks deserve a minute or two of silent admiration.
Afterwards, I headed down to trendy Psiri for coffee and people watching. When I pointed at something and asked the waitress what it was, I didn’t fully comprehend her answer. ‘It’s the same pastry as baklava inside.’ Lo and behold, I found myself with a bowl-shaped puff pastry with exactly a baklava inside of it, but with an additional scoop of white chocolate on top and a chocolate drizzle all around. I couldn’t even eat half of it, nor will I be able to eat a baklava for the rest of this year.
With renewed energy, I walked uphill to my new Airbnb in Kolonaki to rest before and wait for my friend’s arrival. Greeks typically dine around 10pm and many restaurants stay open well past midnight on any given day. Of course, this was a struggle for me as I usually eat dinner early. I somehow made it and we headed out for dinner only to have the heavens poor down on us after just a few steps outside. Yet we strode on, armed with umbrellas, and picked a random restaurant where I feasted on a sumptuous seafood platter. I was a bit hyped after dinner and decided to go to Drunk Sinatra, one of the city’s many bars. By the time we left, it was raining so hard and there was no sign of it stopping. As much as I love cities with uneven terrain, I must say it was a very big disadvantage to have to walk uphill when all the rainwater is flowing downhill. Needless to say, I had to put my boots above the heater.
Day 2, Saturday
Kolonaki (lit. Little Column) is an upmarket neighbourhood on the slopes of Lycabettus Hill named after the 2-meter column that stood in the square before any of the buildings were built. Chic cafes and restaurants dot the area, as well trendy boutiques and pedestrian streets lined with luxury brands.
We started the day with a healthy and hearty breakfast at IT to prepare for an informative free walking tour of Athens. The food was excellent quality and I can definitely get used to having Greek coffee. Greek coffee (Turks would argue it’s Turkish coffee) is unfiltered and even though it is served like an espresso, it is not meant to be drunk standing up. Drinking coffee is, for the Greeks, meant to be a relaxing experience – so sit back and relax while you wait for the coffee grounds to settle in your cup. You can only drink up to a certain point though or you’ll be choking on the coffee grounds at the bottom.
We had time to spare after breakfast and decided to explore the neighbourhood, peeking inside the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Dionysius with its intricate mosaics and woodwork. We continued towards the National Library of Greece, where we soaked in the periodic sunshine and warmth while waiting for our tour to begin. The forecast has been extremely unreliable so far, and we walked around with umbrellas since most of our sources proclaimed there would be showers the whole day. (It drizzled, alright. In the evening!)
So we waited a few minutes until our tour guide George arrived. Gradually, the other tourists started to show up. We were gathered there, on a marble sidewalk at the foot of the steps of the marvellous National Library building when one of the ladies, who had just arrived and was approaching George to introduce herself, stepped on the dead rat nobody but me seemed to have noticed beforehand. It was already decomposing and the lady almost puked. The next arrival also stepped on it, and another one, before George finally took note of this miserable creature and moved away.
Tour guide George gave us a crash course on the history of Athens before officially starting the tour. Athens is a paradoxically young city – thousands of years of history did not stop its inhabitants from leaving, and by the time newly-established Greek Kingdom officially named it the capital, it was only a town of modest size built around the foot of the Acropolis.
Yes, Athens was a city of less than 10,000 people when its first king, Otto (from Bavaria) made it his capital. Most of the buildings in Athens today date back no earlier than the 20th century. Ironically, Athens missed the Greek-inspired European Renaissance and it was only in the period between 1830-1910 that some of the greatest buildings in the city were built, most of which were privately-funded. The immediate need for housing from the 1950s-1970s saw the destruction of many of those neoclassical buildings and the construction of large cement apartment blocks, which explains why Athens today is hodgepodge of concrete blocks littered with satellite dishes, antennas, and air conditioning systems. On the ground, it is an endless maze of broken narrow sidewalks with slabs of marble inserted randomly. Sturdy footwear is a must here, and there will be a lot of walking since most sights in Athens are within walking distance of each other.
Further on is Syntagma Square, the central square of Athens. The Old Royal Palace (now the Parliament of Athens) perches over it and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A ceremonial division of the Presidential Guard, the Evzones, bid watch to the tomb and every strike of the hour means the Changing of the Guards. The Evzones have retained their traditional uniform – including their pompomed shoes which weigh 3kg each and the ceremonial movements which will certainly make you laugh. A grander affair, the official Changing of the Guards, happens on Sundays at 11am.
A few steps away is the National Garden. A stroll through the garden reveals the ruins of an old aqueduct from the Roman period, destroyed by one of the barbaric invasions that plagued Greece after the Roman Empire started to dissolve.
In our open-air classroom, we received an intensive lesson on the Battle of Marathon and its significance on the West. Had the Athenians not defeated the Persians at Marathon, Europe would have taken a very different course. We run marathons today to commemorate the courageous Athenians and how one man ran the forty or so kilometres back to turbulent Athens to announce to his fellow citizens the news of ‘Nike’ (Victory).
“The Battle of Marathon, even as an event in British history, is more important than the Battle of Hastings.”
A few meters away is the Panathenaic Stadium, built in marble by an Athenian Roman senator. It could hold 50,000 people but was abandoned and forgotten after the rise of Christianity in the 4th century. It was excavated in 1869, and refurbished for the first modern Olympics in 1896. It remains the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble. A few steps away is the Zappeion, a beautiful yellow building for events. The trees around are home to parakeets, descendants of escaped imported birds from the 1800s. You might not see them, but they sure know how to make themselves heard.
Just across the street from the Zappeion is the Temple of Olympian Zeus, framed by Hadrian’s Arch. It was Hadrian who completed the colossal temple which took more than 6 centuries to build. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by a Barbarian invasion a mere 100 years after its completion and the building materials were used to supply other construction in the city and only 16 of the original 104 columns remain.
Greece has had a turbulent history, and a building across the street still bears fresh scars from the Greek Civil War. For those of you who, like me, were not taught the details in school, the Cold War started in Greece, and it was because of the United Kingdom who supported Nazi-sympathisers, let them retain power, and aided them in overthrowing the Greek Resistance, all because Churchill feared the resistance was too communist. History is full of dirty secrets, and the UK certainly has a lot it would want to bury.
The tour ended at the Southeastern Gate of the Acropolis Archaeological Site. One of the perks of off-season travel is that there are not so much tourists around. Of course this has a downside in that most places have shorter operating hours. Since we had more than two hours before closing, we decided to check out the Acropolis which we were planning to see on Sunday.
The Acropolis has two entrances, the main one on the west, and the side entrance on the southeast. In summer and especially when cruise ships dock at Piraeus, the main entrance often gets very crowded as this is where tour groups enter and you may have to wait half an hour to get in. The southeast entrance is actually the better one, as it gives you the opportunity to see more on the way up to the Acropolis. Since it is far from the parking lot, there is usually no line to get a ticket.
On the way up, you will pass by the Theater of Dionysus, considered the birthplace of theater, and one of the few ruins where they allow people to sit (in some parts, anyway). Olive trees line the path on the hike up the hill, and you get beautiful views of Athens and the sea beyond.
I had dreamt of seeing this place for such a long time, and finally, there I was, realising it, almost casually. It always fascinates me how you can see so many pictures of a place and still feel so amazed when you finally see it with your own eyes. The Acropolis might be a ruin, but it is a glorious one.
As the weather started to change, we walked downhill to Plaka, exploring Anafiotika along the way. There are numerous cafes with seating arranged on the steps of the neighbourhood, and on this chilly winter afternoon, they were packed. There was one cafe with a roaring fireplace beckoning me in.
We had a coffee and snack break at Quick Pitta (a pleasant discovery) to refuel before shopping. Plaka was getting more and more crowded and when we reached Monastiraki, we realised the weekend was in full swing. We wandered around aimlessly, enjoyed the views of a lit up Acropolis and the Temple of Hephaestus, and stopped by for some ouzo (traditional Greek anise-flavoured liquor). The server looked at me and asked in disbelief ‘Are you sure?’ and I explained that I had never tried it and wanted to. He shared a look with the bartender and alarm bells started ringing in my head. What was I getting myself into? Fortunately, following his instruction of nuts first and then ouzo, it wasn’t as bad as I expected. I didn’t like it nor dislike it. It was drinkable, and it warmed me up.
I felt hyped at getting my Greek experience and convinced my friend to go up to the hill with the Observatory. Athens is a safe city, and some teenagers were hanging out on the hill. After countless attempts at shooting with very low shutter speed without a tripod, we decided to head off for my fish dinner.
I have read rave reviews of a seafood restaurant called Atlantikos, and when even George recommended it, I just couldn’t pass it up. It might not have been anything special for my vegetarian friend, but I am now in the group of Atlantikos devotees. The restaurant is so unassuming that even with Google maps, we almost missed it. It is located in a small and shabby alley in a quiet part of bustling Monastiraki. We had to ask one of the workers if the place was indeed Atlantikos as the view from the street was not very welcoming: inside looked dark and empty. I cannot even imagine my poor judgement now, but it was admittedly a relief to climb upstairs and see that there were a lot of diners.
I am an island girl and I know my seafood, especially whether it’s fresh or not. In Atlantikos, I had the best fish ever and I don’t know where else in Athens you can get such quality for such price. There was a lovely Greek couple seated on the table next to us and we had a nice conversation while I fought to finish my fish. I tell you, when in Athens and in need of seafood, Atlantikos is a must! I too have rave reviews about this place.
Day 3, Sunday
We started the third day the Greek way – with a small breakfast and Greek coffee to give us energy to climb Mt. Lycabettus, created by Athena herself according to legend when she dropped a limestone mountain she was carrying for the Acropolis.
A funicular runs up the hill (€5 one way, €7 return) but we opted to take the short hike. The hill is a beautiful wooded area with well-maintained trails and is popular with locals and their dogs. There is an open-air amphitheater which has housed names such as Black Sabbath, Bob Dylan, and Radiohead to name a few. There is also a snack bar and a restaurant, both of which have views of Athens.
On the peak of the hill is the stunning whitewashed Church of St. George. The church is over a hundred years old, worn-down, and a serene refuge from the strong winds that batter the hill. The view from the top is beautiful even on a cloudy day, and I can only imagine how sunset would look in the summer, when the temperature is higher and the sea a vivid blue. We had coffee and I absorbed as much heat as I could while listening to the wind batter our glass shack. I have a fascination with gritty cities which may explain how I was quickly enamoured by Athens. I can’t believe I was there only last weekend.
We had some time afterwards to see the Acropolis Museum but I opted not to and instead walked aimlessly around. In cities like Athens, grand public buildings sprout out amongst the dilapidated proof that all is not well. I just had enough time to catch the bus back to the airport for my 17:30 flight.
In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.