I had to think hard and go back to my college days at University of Washington when I was taking differential equations and physics classes to be able make out, letter by letter, signs posted in Greek without the Roman alphabet equivalent. For the most part, I was able to convert the Greek word to its Roman alphabet equivalent. There were a few Greek letters that I was not to remember easily. It was always a fun, if not challenging, exercise to convert the signs.
Many of the travel guides I had read recommend that two full days is sufficient to see the sights of Athens. It also mentions the pollution, noise, and filth of the city, but it also states that the conditions have improved as a result of the efforts made during the run-up to the 2004 Olympics, which Athens hosted. From what I saw, Athens was a tourist friendly, pedestrian friendly, and fairly clean. It has a good transportation system. We were able to get from the airport to the city center, and vice versa, by train without any problem. The Metro trains do get crowded because there are only three main lines. But the system is augmented by street level trams. We managed to use the Metro transportation system during the whole trip with relative ease. The metro trains and stations were fairly clean – not much graffiti or signs of vandalism in these areas. Two days may be enough to see the major sights if you start early in the morning and do your souvenir shopping at night. Although we hit the highlights, there were a few we did not get to see. Because we saw the antiquities and ruins first hand, we did not feel it was necessary to visit the museums. The new Acropolis Museum and the National Archaeological Museum would have been great to visit because they house many sculptures, relics, and artifacts that they want to protect from the elements. Many of these items are from the sites that we visited. If we had another day, it would probably have been to see the museums.
In general, the food was okay, not great. The seafood lunches at a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant at the market in Piraeus and in the island of Hydra were magnificent – fresh and tasty. The beer and wine were not to the standards I had been accustomed to in Germany. The rest of our meals were hit and miss. As it was, we were able to spend a good 2 days in the city.
After we checked in to our hotel, we immediately took the subway to the heart of the city. It was about 6:00 PM, already dark. We were walking around the pedestrian and shopping area of the city, just below the Acropolis, from Syntagma Square to the Plaka District. It was during this walk that we saw our first glimpse of Acropolis, well lit on hillside not too far. Our first night, we got to see some of the shopping areas, the restaurant row, and on the way back to our hotel we saw the evzones (traditionally dressed military personnel) guarding the Tomb of Unknown Warrior in front of the Parliament Building. We were able to witness the changing of the guards the following night.
On our first full day, we started early with a visit of the Acropolis starting from the bottom of the hill, seeing ruins as the Theatre of Dionysus and Odeon of Herodus Atticus, and culminating at the top of the hill where the Parthenon and other equally impressive structures are located. The top of Acropolis affords a stunning panoramic view of the city and the sprawl beyond it. Parthenon proudly sits atop Acropolis serving as a beacon to the city down below. Parthenon was the finest temple in the ancient world. It was built 2500 years ago and what remains is still impressive to see. We proceeded to walk down Acropolis and continued walking to other sites such as the Hadrian Arch, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Roman Agora, the ancient Agora, Keramikos, and Hadrian’s Library.
Equally impressive as the sights we visited and commendable are the efforts by the Greek government to restore many of the ancient ruins site after many years of neglect. The preservation of these sites serves as a reminder and lasting legacy that Greece and specifically, Athens, was the center of arts, learning, and philosophy --- the cradle of western civilization.
We also had time to stop by Athens’ central market. It was later in the afternoon, so the meat market was in the process of closing down; most of the produce vendors were also gone for the day. Near the end of the first day, we were able to see the changing of the guards in front of the Parliament building. We found a restaurant, recommended by Rick Steves, for a tapas-like selection of food. Except for the fried sardines, the remaining dishes we had were bland. The highlight of the dinner was the ouzo we had at the end.
The next day we had the opportunity to scope out Piraeus, a port town outside of Athens, for half a day to see which of the island(s) near Athens would be most ideal to visit. After a short time of wandering around, we found the central market of Piraeus. We also found a restaurant at the market than from the outside, seemed like a dive. Fortunately, it was a place worth going to for a good, cheap and fresh seafood meal. After Piraeus, we continued on to the main site of the 2004 Summer Olympics. We went from the southwest outskirt of Athens to the eastern outskirts, using Athens’ Metro transport. The Olympic complex was great to look at – great architecture all done in white, nice modern looking structures, and a host of minor supporting structures such as covered entrance, walkways, open areas than complement the major structures. The area must have been impressive during the 2004 Olympics. I have seen pictures during the Olympics of tree-lined pedestrian thoroughfare and grassy open areas. Currently, there are not too many trees or grass growing around the compound. The area is currently lifeless – a few tourist here and there, security guards patrolling the whole compound, and some maintenance workers. I am not sure how often these sports venues are now used, but I doubt if these facilities are used more than a couple of times a year for their intended use.
Later that day, we visited the Ancient Agora, a big park like setting with lots of remarkable “ruins” sights. They closed fairly early at about 4:30PM. The rest of the second day was spent walking the pedestrian zone just outside and circling the Ancient Agora area. This area is not too far from the shopping areas and restaurant row. New housing and apartment buildings are nearby, and a host of restaurants and bars line the area overlooking the Ancient Agora and the Acropolis. This seemed like a good neighborhood, near the city center, to live in. This is also the area where we ate dinner. The restaurant was supposedly the place to eat good meat dishes. We waited until 7:30 PM for the restaurant to open. The food was much better than what we had the previous night.
The third day, we got up early to go back to Piraeus and board a ferry to the island of Hydra. The boat ride took about 2 ½ hours with a stop on the island of Poros to drop off and pick up passengers. This route probably is packed with people regularly during the summer sailings, but during the off season the boat is not as full. We had the island to ourselves – not too many tourist and most of the shops have closed for the season. For the most part, this was a good thing. We spent most of the morning walking all over the island. It was a good weather day, so there were lots of opportunities to take good photos of the sea, the marina, the narrow roads and alleys, whitewashed houses with brightly painted doors and windows, and other island sceneries. By chance, we were in Hydra when the island was honoring their patron saint. We saw a parade thru the main part of the island. The event seemed subdued; there was really not much of a celebration as compared to certain towns in Spain or Italy would do to honor their Catholic patron saint. In Hydra, we had an enjoyable lunch of seafood fare at one of the few restaurants still open this time of the year. We got back to Athens early in the evening, in time to do last minute souvenir shopping and find a restaurant for dinner.
All in all, the trip was successful. It was lower in the priority of places to visit. Because of the warmer climes, we opted for this trip. Higher on my list were London and Stockholm. It has been 11 years since I first visited London. I have never been to Stockholm. But I have no regrets with the Athens trip. It was definitely a worthwhile visit. Given the opportunity, I would probably visit Athens again.
The following are pictures from the Athens trip. More photos can be viewed from my flickr site.
Holding a giant-sized Greek flag at the Olympic Center:
In front of the Parthenon:
A view of the Athens sprawl from the top of Acropolis:
The Porch of the Caryatids:
The Temple of Olympian Zeus:
The Temple of Hephaestus:
At the Ancient Agora with a view of the Acropolis in the background:
Fish at the market in Piraeus:
The Agora at the Olympic Center:
The Velodrome at the Olympic Center:
The Olympic Stadium:
On the island of Hydra:
Isle of Hydra scenes: