Who has not learned about Athens and ancient Greece in school? Who has not wanted to see the famous Parthenon in person? I have left writing about Athens for last, no particular reason. I guess if it has been there a couple of millenia without me writing about it, what’s a couple more weeks, right? But I absolutely would write about this most ancient of modern cities, a open textbook waiting to be explored so the lessons of yore come to life!
My Travels into and within Greece
Landing in Athens, I was immediately thrown back to landing in Santiago, Chile from the vantage point of my airplane seat. Seemingly, the same semi-arid look to the hills around the airport and the fact that there were hills in the landing path of the plane…
Upon landing, I was not leaving the airport since I had a flight to Mykonos in 3 hrs. I had carried all my luggage on board as I didn’t want to risk lost luggage in the 3 flights I had to take to get to Mykonos. A small roller bag and a backpack were all I had so that was good. I went through immigration and then went to check in for the flight to Mykonos since I would have to check the roller bag as it was too big for the smaller plane’s cabin compartments. Once that was done, my step was just a bit faster as I was freed from the bag. I went to a café at the airport, ate something and promptly discovered that it offers free wi fi for 60 minutes. I had not brought my laptop but had by nice Android with me so I was able to leave some messages about having gotten there safely, etc. The Athens airport was clean, well organized, with signage in English for everything – much better than some airports in the States, as a matter of fact.
I returned to Athens 4 days later after my visit to Mykonos and headed to the suburb of Athens named Kifissia. I already wrote about the wedding events that led me to stay there, how I and later moved to downtown Athens proper after the wedding events were over.
Downtown Athens, I found, was again well signed for tourists, and there was plenty of info (for example, at the airport or kiosks) about the city. As most cities, it has the Hop On/Hop Off type of buses which is a great way to get your bearings. I used them to go take a peek at the port town of Piraeus and generally move about town as the buses stopped at my hotel. I don’t mind walking, which I did, but it was sometimes more about getting to and from faster than walking.
Downtown Athens has a LOT to see and experience. Experience being a key thing since I imagine most of us visitors jam pack seeing every possible sight (I don’t blame us!) and forget to just feel Athens. I tried to do both and I am pleased with what I got to do on both counts though I certainly did not have enough time to do both well.
Of course, first stop was the Acropolis. If nothing else, that stop has to be made. I had read that it was better to go early to avoid the afternoon sun but I also discovered that the volume of tour buses is greater later in the day. Pictures I took when I arrived and when I left of the entrance to the Acropolis show a marked increase in the number of people coming in. Though there were a lot of people when I got there, it wasn’t too bad. One could manage. The ticket to get into the Acropolis serves to enter other historic sites in that neighborhood so the 12euros was well worth it.
A bit of Athens from the Acropolis
Unfortunately, the scaffolding in parts of the Parthenon detract from it but it still is an impressive structure considering its size, age, and location. I was even more impressed with the great walls around the hill of the Acropolis. The walls on the side of the hill were very high at some points – how did they manage to build those back when?! The views from the Acropolis were very nice. As one walks around, one gets a view of all of Athens. The Temple of Zeus this way, Piraeus that way, etc. The Acropolis has more than the Parthenon, of course. I especially like the Erechtheion and the Porch of the Caryatids – the latter being the object of MANY pictures I took. At the foot of the Acropolis are a couple of ampitheater-like sites that you can view from above and, one of which, you can actually visit when you get back down to street level. It is amazing to think of the key historical figures and events that took place around these sites. A good guide or good reference material will cite examples for these places. Incredible to see firsthand that which we learned in high school (much as I had forgotten a good bit of whatever it was I learned!).
Porch of Caryatids
One key place to see at the feet of the Acropolis is the NEW Acropolis Museum http://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/. Unfortunately, poor planning left it on my to do list as the day I thought of going, my last day in Athens, was the day the museum was closed… It was very highly recommended so I regret my mistake.
Also at the feet of the Acropolis are the areas of Plaka and Monestariki. The former seemed to be more about cafés, local and tourist shopping, and real life. The latter seemed more a nexus of transportation (train station is there), eateries and the flea market. However, I do them a disfavor as there are beautiful and old churches as well as very old sites like the Ancient Agora. So these areas are both for tsightseeing and experiencing Athens. I greatly enjoyed sitting at a side street café on a wide pedestrian street (off Ermou St.) and drinking a Greek frappé (a must have!). I did this in the same café two days in a row – that’s how much I liked observing life and sipping my frappé. These areas also made for great photo opps with all the people walking by.
Street scenes – 1. Friendly table game on a sidewalk. 2. Tourist movement through Plaka – lots and fast
Other Places in Athens
I cannot do Athens justice, nor will I try. Of the many other places in Athens, some of the ones that may be worth seeing are:
- Lycabettus Hill: the tallest hill in Athens (abt 900 ft) best reached by funicular though you can walk it up or taxi part of the way. The best view of all of Athens especially as you get to look DOWN on the Acropolis! I highly recommend seeing it. The neighborhood around it is nice to walk in as well so an enjoyable little trip. It is not far from Parliament so walking to the funicular is easy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lycabettus_Hill
- Parliament and Syntagma Square: typically something tourists go see in any capital but with all the recent economic woes and protests in Athens, more of us know the name of this square than before. It is not that it is an impressive square (like Krakow’s) or Parliament (like England’s) but it is the center of political activity these days.
- Olympic Stadium: where the first Games of the Modern Olympics took place in 1886.
- Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch: almost side by side and just about across from Melina Mercouri Square, these are also visible from the Acropolis (I guess everything is…). The former is about 2500 yrs old give or take and the latter a youthful 1900 yrs old… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_of_Olympian_Zeus,_Athens http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arch_of_Hadrian
The Acropolis from Lycabettus Hill
Athens impressed me as did the overall visit to this ancient land. I am eager to go back and keep exploring all that was left to be seen AND experienced by me in Athens, the Isles and the rest of the country!
I got to Athens early on a sunny day’s morning. (Is it ever not a sunny day in Greece, I wonder??) Because that evening I was attending a wedding reception in Kapandriti, way outside of Athens to the north (I think), I did not go to Athens proper but instead to the town/suburb of Kifissia, a very nice/upscale district to my eyes. It was a lot closer to Kapandriti (though not super close) so it made sense to spend the night there especially considering that the wedding party could go quite late so it would help shorten the ride back.
I checked in at my hotel a few blocks away from the main street at Kifissia, which is loaded with shops and restaurants, near a square whose name escapes me but that sounds Greek to me… The hotel I stayed at was the Theoxenia House, related to the Theoxenia Palace. I chose it based on Trip Advisor reviews which is quickly becoming a good way for me to determine things like this. (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g1026500-d617814-Reviews-Theoxenia_House_Hotel-Kifissia_Attica.html) It was functional for the 24 hrs I was going to be there. I went off to explore and have lunch. It was a very windy day. As I sat in the cafe, they served me potato chips on a small plate when they brought me my glass of wine while I waited for my meal. The chips mostly flew away due to the wind! It was incredible. As was my food. A great way to start this leg of the trip and to set me up for a nap as I knew I was going to face a very long night of wedding partying.
I met up with a friend of the couple to taxi over to the wedding, a nice $42 cab ride to a winery in Kapandriti. As we waited for the groom and bride, besides mingling, we went on a tour of the new museum the winery was about to open. Though the tour was in Greek, a lot of the stuff they had was pretty neat (old grape presses, old machines used to make corks, old ways of bottling and corking the wine, etc.).
The winery’s grounds around the reception area
The wedding couple finally made their entrance (the actual wedding had taken place in Atlanta and there had been a very private blessing right before the reception with only the closest family) and the party began. A very nice meal with lamb, pork, and many of the things I associated with Greek food. Of course, there was wine galore and I had to work at managing my intake despite the pressure and the many toasts! The family had prepared a great slideshow of pix from the Atlanta wedding so the Greece family members could see what had taken place in Atlanta since most or all could not make the trip over. It was a great touch and for me great to see what has just transpired a week before though it felt like months before since I had in the meantime been exploring other parts of Greece.
Finally, there was the dancing. Everyone was in the mood for a good time and a good time was had. Especially neat for a foreigner like me was to see them do some of the typical Greek dances which I inevitably had to join and which I performed quite poorly. Nevertheless, the crowd was so much fun, it didn’t matter.
Around 230AM or so, we rolled away as someone from the family offered us a ride back which was greatly appreciated. I conked out as soon as my head hit the pillow. Gladly, I had behaved well enough so the next morning was not a pain. After getting ready, I decided not to hang around in Kifissia until the late afternoon family BBQ I was invited to go to, but instead to head into Athens proper and check in at the hotel where I would spend the next 2 nights. I figured I didn’t want to lug around my luggage, much as it is made to lug around I suppose, to the BBQ, etc. and check in late that night. I took a cab to make it easier and got to the Ledras Marriott where immediately, I felt like almost home with the standard Marriott approach, design and amenities (like the executive lounge). It was a smart move as I could then just relax until the BBQ. I had lunch and ended up at the rooftop pool, and later a nap.
Eventually I made contact with the group and started headed out of town again, first to Kifissia to meet up with someone else and then to catch a ride to Oropo, a town further away north than Kapandriti by the cost facing the island of Evia.
The marker shows where Oropo is in relation to Athens
The BBQ was at an aunt’s house in an area that would not qualify as rural but was not too urban, making it a very nice place to spend a late Saturday afternoon. The groom and bride opened gifts as a sheep was rotisseried and the other food prepared. The meal was a feast for sure!
As we were eating, the family found out I was single and unattached at which point they all became very interested in my case. My friend told me: “you are in trouble now! they are making it their business to find you someone!” Even Yaya, the elderly grandmother told me I was handsome, a good catch, and that she wished me happiness - all in Greek but at some point I got a sense of what she was saying and asked someone half-jokingly ”is she proposing to me?” and the answer was “pretty much”!
After this feast, a cousin of the bride who was our ride back, told us we were going to another cousin’s BBQ that night. My jaw dropped. I could not comprehend how I would stuff another morsel of anything in me. And here we were headed to another BBQ! We made it over to the house overlooking the town and sea from a distance. We had a few beers, hung out with the very friendly cousins, and eventually helped start the fire to roast the lamb. I was not understanding how after the long night the night before, I was going to make it this night when the fire was just getting started. Much to my relief, our ride announced we were heading out as he needed to go. Though I was definitely enjoying myself, I was a relieved, I must admit. And the trip back to my hotel began.
These experiences have given me a much greater appreciation of Greek culture and Greeks, beyond the Greek union protesters which seem to define what being Greek is these days to those of us too far and too unconnected with Greece or Greeks. Being of Latin background myself, I am quite familiar and comfortable with the friendliness and warmth that I received from my friend’s Greek relatives. I miss those things living in Atlanta/the U.S. My trip was well worth it even if I had not done anything else that be a part of the celebration of my friends’ marriage thanks to the experiences I had with this family. Efjaristo poli, Stelliani and Tom!
Three months ago, I head no idea I would be coming to Greece in September. A friend was getting married to a Greek-American and one night having dinner with them, they told me there would be a second event in Greece itself after the wedding in Atlanta; the key was when they said they would love anyone coming from the U.S. My eyes opened big (at least, I think they did…) and an idea was born.
I had to make sure it would work with work but I planned it as if it would be OK. Sure enough, most things are possible with good planning so on September 11 (yes, I know…), I boarded my plane to JFK where I would connect with my flight to Athens.
But, as is usual with most of my trips, it can’t just be “the one thing”. I had never been to Greece though, clearly, with all the history it has, it was on my bucket list towards the top. However, I said to myself, how could I go to Athens and NOT hit the islands?? That had to be addressed so I began asking around amongst people who have traveled here and the bride herself, which island to go to.
I am not a party-goer (anymore; did plenty of that already) so finding party islands was not the goal. However, since I would be traveling alone, I definitely wanted somewhere that was not just for honeymooners and had something more than beaches since I am also not one to spend 3 days, 8 hrs each at the beach. Santorini and Mykonos were my finalists just because they are so well known and I wanted to hit one of them (no time for two of them given the wedding related events and my schedule). Everything zoomed in on Mykonos as the place to go. Though it is known for the partying, it is also very close to Delos Island with its rich history (in mythology and after). Friends also thought the eating and bar district would be fun for a solo traveler. I will write more about Mykonos but my friends were spot on.
In the end, I would have like 3.5 days in Athens but about 1.5/2 were to be with my friends and the Greek side of the family for various activities including the reception in Kapandriti, north of Athens, and a BBQ at a relative’s in Oropou. So, Athens was not a hard thing to figure out since the short time there would be taken up with the key sights everyone sees the first time (again, more later on this…).
I did split my stay in Athens in 2 as the reception being further north, it made more sense to stay in the stylish neighborhood of Kifissia than in Athens proper. Yet for the sightseeing at the end of the trip, it would make better sense to stay in the Athens city center (that and I could stay for free at the Marriott there with my points!). So, that became the plan and it worked out well.
Hotel Ledras Marriott
As a side note, my connection on the way back was an overnight 11-hr layover in Paris. As soon as I heard my boss was not going to be in this week, I went ahead and made it a 35-hr layover just to walk around Paris (I lived there in 1999 and have been back a few times since so it is like going to a second hometown of sorts). I planned to do a maison du chocolat tour friends did in April and just hang out.
So, out of nothing, it would seem, a great trip shaped up. Stay tuned for my writings on all the exploring!