An Athenian Weekend

It took us a while but we eventually got to Greece this year. Our first attempt to go earlier in the year was thwarted by two cancelled flights resulting in the whole holiday being called off. Thankfully we made it to Athens without mishap in the middle of October. It was just after the peak summer season so we were able to experience a slightly less crazy version of the iconic Greek holiday. Athens is one of the world’s oldest cities with around 3400 years of human history in the area.

On arrival, we were thrown into madness. The streets were extremely narrow, allowing single lanes for cars on the road and with room for single file movement on the footpaths. In reality however, vehicles, mopeds and pedestrians simply went where they could and we were caught up in the crazy current of commuters. (It is possible that the close cobbled streets felt particularly manic in comparison to the wide roads of New York we had recently returned from.) At the hotel we were upgraded to a huge room on the top floor – score! And as always, the first item of business was to find lunch. We waited in a long line to buy falafel from a small shop called Falafellas. It was so cheap and the most delicious falafel I have ever had; served in soft flatbread with roasted vegetables (including eggplant!) and a dollop of yoghurt.

 

With full bellies we sought out the Temple of Hephastus; one of the best preserved temples in the Agora of Athens. It has stood the test of time by serving as a Christian church from the 7th century CE until 1834. This structure of unknown/disputed architect has stood for thousands of years and seen its surroundings change so dramatically throughout the centuries – imagine the stories it could tell!

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Utilising some extra time in our afternoon, we wandered through the National Garden. The garden began life as a Royal Garden commissioned by Queen Amalia (hehe!) before being renamed and becoming entirely public in the 1920’s.These grounds cover more than 150,000sqm so we weren’t able to see it all. But what we did explore was filled with neatly trimmed hedges lining twisting paths, and unusual (to us) flora still blooming in late summer.

 

To wrap up the day we climbed to Mars Hill where a whole load of other people had gathered to watch the sunset. It’s a really beautiful spot with the Parthenon on one side and the sun dipping below the hills on the other. Everyone was so relaxed as we perched on rocks and bid the sun adieu.

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It was completely worth waking up early to see the Acropolis because even though it wasn’t peak season, a lot of people go up there every single day of the year. The name ‘acropolis’ comes from a combination of Greek words for highest point and city, so expect to walk uphill to reach it! Once we were there, we wandered through and past some of the most famous ancient structures in Western history. Of course everyone wants to see the Parthenon, and what a sight it was! As a temple to the Goddess Athena, patron of Athens, the sculptures around the temple are considered some of the most important in the history of ancient Greece. They are a testament to the incredible artistic skill and ambition of the Greeks artisans in 400’s BCE. During the 1460’s the temple became a mosque after the Ottoman conquest. We discovered that most surviving buildings from ancient Greece were repurposed at some point following a war or some other political upheaval. It seems inevitable given the length of time the area has been inhabited and these instances were actually what kept the buildings in good enough shape to last this long.

Also on the acropolis was the Temple of Nike (one of Athena’s forms), built around 420 BCE. I’m sure a lot of you know that Nike is the goddess of victory and wisdom. Having this large temple on the main acropolis shows the significance of military gains to Athenian and Greek culture. Originally there was a steep staircase leading to the temple, some of which is now gone. Standing where the staircase once began and looking up at the columns of the temple gives a sense of the enormity of structures on the acropolis, and we can only imagine the effort it took to build.

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After seeing all the sights, we came down the hill and explored the Acropolis museum; a strikingly modern home to an enormous collection. Numerous fragments from the Acropolis and surrounding temples have been well preserved and remain protected within the museum. I found the method of colouring the statues and sculptures particularly fascinating. It still takes me a moment to appreciate that while we think ancient Greek and Roman life was all glittering white stone, it was in fact very colourful at the time. The incredibly sculpted details were really brought to life through the use of colour pigments. And, the other cool thing we saw was a lego model of the Acropolis!

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Following a morning of ancient history, we went to a restaurant called Smile that served hearty portions and was incredibly affordable. We were getting used to the generous and delicious Greek food by that point! For dinner we happily stuffed ourselves with grilled squid, pork loin, mushrooms and chicken souvlaki. Dessert turned out to be on the house as well!

Our last day in Athens was a Monday and unfortunately due to some poor planning, we hadn’t realised that a lot of museums are closed on Mondays in Athens. So we walked fruitlessly to the Benaki Museum and then to the Archeological Museum only to find both were closed. Feeling a little put out, we decided to catch a train out to see what the Olympic Village was like. I distinctly recall waking up at an un-Godly hour in New Zealand to watch the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic games in Athens; it seemed like a big deal that the games were going back to where they began. Now 12 years on, I can tell you it is one of the most desolate and depressing places we have ever visited. It felt like wandering in a post-apocalyptic world; there were no other people, you couldn’t hear sounds of city life around, tiles on the ground were cracked/broken/missing, the huge arches that formed a long walkway from one side of the village to the other were speckled with rust, and grass that had grown up in cracks on the empty water features had shriveled up and died. In the wake of the Olympic games in Rio, I had recently read an article about how hosting the Olympic games doesn’t benefit economies due to the enormous cost of building all the facilities for essentially a one-time use. That message was in the forefront of my mind as we walked through the abandoned Olympic Villiage in an economically fragile Greece.

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The last day was beginning to feel like a total dud but things improved when we returned to civilisation and enjoyed a delightful meat platter for lunch with a giant bowl of salad. The restaurant was called Karamanlidika and sat in a particularly bustling part of town with a lot of Chinese shops – perhaps the local Chinatown? To work off the meats we climbed up to Mount Lycabettus which is the tallest point in Athens (277 meters). It was very windy up there, enough to challenge our balance! From the top you could see just how sprawling the city was, look across to the Parthenon, and see the undulating geography of the area. Things always look remarkably beautiful from above.

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In the fading evening light, we visited the Panathenaic Stadium. It cost €5 to enter and included an audio guide that took us around the edges, up to the highest seats and into the inner changing rooms. It was totally worth it. The audio guide was informative and there was a surprising amount to learn about the culture from decorative choices that have been made in its construction. It was also an example of innovative Greek engineering with a self drainage system under the structure that has never needed repair since it was created!

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The very final meal was one of the most satisfying. We came to a street vendor selling grilled corn on the cob and bought one each with a little salt. Then we returned to the incredible falafel place and greedily had a falafel wrap each. Stuffed beyond measure and for only just over €5 each!

I anticipated that Athens would be a tiring city to visit because of all there is to see and learn, but we were both pleasantly surprised to find that it was a relaxing couple of days despite the crowds and narrow streets. That’s because the people are friendly and generous in every sense, the food is fantastic, and the history is fascinating. The old, oldest and new(er), are all jumbled together in this city that at times, has more of the warmth of a town. There is also an abundance of stray cats that love to lounge all over the ancient ruins and charm visitors. It’s worth taking it slow in Athens to capture the small moments and corners of the city with a snapshot of beauty to offer that feels entirely your own; it’s remarkable to find that in a place so many people visit.

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