Athens

We arrived into Piraeous after a few days on the beautiful island of Spetses, slightly apprehensive with the knowledge that the Greek government was attempting to sign up to austerity measures that would allow Greece to remain in the Euro. As a result I felt I was constantly looking around, trying to take everything in, more eager than normal to gain an impression of what this country was like at this turbulent point in its history.

Getting off the ferry, it felt more like a third world country than Europe: hot, dry, sandy roads with the sun beating down from deep blue skies, tram and electricity lines criss-crossing the road, a few beggars hiding from the sun in the shade offered by run-down buildings. The train station at Piraeous gave off an air of faded glamour, ticket machines all marked “out of order” and all metro travel was free that day. As the metro trundled its way towards the centre of Athens, I peered eagerly out of the window and soon cameto the  conclusion that “third world” had been a hasty judgment – the roads were tarmacked, after all. But it was much, much more similar to somewhere like Istanbul than to Rome, or Madrid – other hot, southern European capitals.

Emerging from the hustle and bustle of Monastiriki metro station we stepped, blinking, into the main square. Immediately in front of us was the 10th century Church of the Pantanassa and, turning to the left, we could see the Acropolis on top of the hill. I was already excited. All around us were stalls piled high with fruit, frozen yoghurt shops and kebab bars. Yellow taxis honked their horns and old people slowly shuffled up the street.

We set off to our hotel, Fresh Hotel, about a ten minute walk north of Monastiriki. It is a fantastic hotel (with furniture and design chosen by architects such as Zaha Hadid and Phillipe Starck), clean, bright and colourful. A quick change of clothes and we were exploring the roof-top swimming pool and bar, on the 9th floor with views over the Athens skyline to the Acropolis.

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A quick drink later and we set off into the heat again to climb up towards the Acropolis. Not really sure which direction to go in, we just followed the narrow, paved streets upwards, marvelling at the different set of historical ruins at every turn, from the Stoa of Athens (built between 159BC and 138BC) and the Roman Agora (a gathering / meeting place). The paved streets were slippy in the sun, and trees overhung quiet alley-ways covered with graffiti – it had an air of Bucharest I thought. We climbed up, through ever quieter streets, until we reached the gateway to the Acropolis.

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At this point it was 6.30pm and the Acropolis closed at 8pm and cost €12 each, so we were weighing up whether or not it would be worth it. In the end we decided just to go for it and were really glad we did!

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Once the entry fee was paid, we kept climbing up a deserted path until we met another one that was obviously the more popular entrance, and joined hordes of tourists. We had heard that Athens was quiet at the moment due to the crisis in Greece AND we were visiting late in the day – all I can say is that if this was “quiet” then I would hate to know what it was like when busy! We all traipsed on upwards, past the roman theatre of Dionysious, up the marble steps of the temple of Athena and onto the top, the setting sun casting a beautiful glow over the towering pillars.

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Turning the eye outwards, the visitor is rewarded by incredible, stunning, impossible-to-put-into-words view of Athens. The buildings stretch out for miles and miles, with green hills such as the Lycabettus like islands in the sea of rooftops. The city is fringed by four large mountains and the shimmering blueness of the sea. It is up there with being one of my favourite views in the world, especially with the sun beginning to set over the hills.

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Turning inwards again, the ancient sites were filled with tourists (of which I was one) desperately trying to take pictures that didn’t include other tourists as the sun beat down, still unbearably hot at past 7pm. If I were to go again (and I hope I do), I would go at this time. An hour is more than enough to enjoy looking at the sites and the beautiful views, it was cooler, and quieter than it would be in the middle of the day (we saw queues to buy tickets the next day).

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Once leaving the Acropolis, we walked back down towards Monastiriki and wandered around the Monastiriki and Plaka districts of Athens. Here there are pedestrianised streets selling all kinds of tourist souvenirs…..

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And I mean all kinds – yes, those are all penises! There were also handcrafted leather sandals, beautiful pottery, and classy jewellery shops among the t-shirts claiming “I love Greece!”, postcards and magnets. One street, Adrianou is lined by restaurants with views over the Stoa of Athens and the Temple of Hephaestus- despite the great location these all looked quite touristy so we wandered on.

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We stopped for a cocktail in the bustling Agias Irinis Square at Rock and Balls and then had a wander around to try and find somewhere for dinner. I had read about a restaurant, Mana Kouzina-Kouzina, on numerous posts by Athens-based expat bloggers so we were looking for that. We couldn’t find it anywhere due to the difference between the spelling of words in the English alphabet and in the Greek! Eventually I realised we must be close as I could log onto their wifi and it turned out we were right in front of it!

However … it wasn’t fantastic. Service was really friendly but not great. We ordered three dishes and two of them were wrong… slow-cooked cod instead of slow-cooked goat and a sweet, cheesy pastry thing instead of the meat pita we’d ordered. The third was just feta – very hard to get wrong! So the food was nice but absolutely nothing special and we were a bit disappointed. Having said that, the square was a great place to eat as it was absolutely buzzing, most of the restaurants filled with people sitting outside, enjoying the atmosphere.

After dinner we wandered back to the hotel and enjoyed a few glasses of wine / whiskeys at the hotel roof-top bar, with views of the lit up skyline of Athens. It was stunningly beautiful and a lovely, relaxed atmosphere for a few drinks before bed.

The next day began with a lovely breakfast and fresh orange juice in our hotel, before a slow walk to the Acropolis museum along pedestrianised, paved streets lined with shops.

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The mseum was incredibly interesting and well worth a visit, especially at only €5 (and as James is a phd student it was free for him!). The building is a long, rectangular hall with glass walls throughout, set over four floors. It contains archaeological finds from the slopes of the Acropolis and the sheer wealth of what is there is incredible – hundreds of sculptures, pottery, columns – many with faint traces of their original colours still visible. But it is the top floor that is the most incredible – the Parthenon marbles. It is at a slightly different angle to the rest of the building so it has the same alignment as the actual Parthenon, and is lit entirely by natural light flooding in from the walls of glass. The sculptures are absolutely incredible, as described by Jonathon Jones in the Guardian:

The figures of reclining goddesses from the east pediment, for instance, are daunting yet yielding syntheses of mass and grace that are more like dreams than objects. The veins that throb on the horse-flanks of a centaur; the pathos of animals lowing at the sky as they are led to be sacrificed; such details add up to a consummate beauty that is, I repeat, rivalled only by the greatest art of the Renaissance.

The controversy is, of course, that a large portion of the marbles in the Acropolis museum are merely replicas, their smooth, shiny surfaces paling in comparison to the ancient, weathered stones that are beside them. The originals lie in the British Museum, named the “Elgin marbles” after the man that took/stole them from Greece (depending on your point of view!) The debate rages over whether the British Museum should “give them back” to Greece, and after having seen the display in the Acropolis museum, I am fully on the side of returning them. As Jonathon Jones argues in his article above, they are not displayed to their full potential in London, and the lightness and atmosphere of the Acropolis museum, together with the visual link to the place they came from originally, means that they deserve to be returned.

Historical controversy aside, we returned to our hotel to pick up our bags, had a fantastic kebab lunch at Bairaktaros on Monastiriki square (the meat was incredible), had our first experience of the Greek “crisis” when a strike meant no trains were running to the airport, and jumped in a €35 taxi instead! All in all, a wonderful holiday and I would LOVE to return to Athens and spend more time there. I would definitely stay in the Fresh Hotel again as well.

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