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Travel Destinations

How to do Athens while keeping your cool

Visiting the Acropolis and it’s nearby environs can be the definition of tourist hell—but not if you get there first and manage your expectations. Do Athens right and it will reveal its fascinating self to you. 
Fabian Mangahas | Jul 03 2019

In Henry Miller’s travelogue of Greece, The Colossus of Maroussi, the author recounts a brief episode at the Acropolis that is the definition of tourist hell. He stands among hundreds of people, burning beneath the sun, waiting to storm the grounds of the sacred complex. He describes the hardship one endures while visiting these ruins: your tour guides will charge you more drachmas than reasonable, you will stumble over rock and rubble, and afterwards you will need copious amounts of ice water and ice cream to recover from the exertion.

My experience in Athens couldn’t be more different. We visited Acropolis in the early spring, with my partner-in-crime mother who wanted to see Athens before her knees gave out. At its gates ten minutes before opening time, we were second in line behind a tour guide who exclaimed how smart we were for visiting early in the day, that we would luckily avoid the crowds. She was right for as we explored the thousands-of-years-old paths, theatres and temples, we were practically by ourselves.

Dawn view of Athens and the Acropolis from the vantange of the Areopagus.

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Upon reaching the acropart of the polis, I understood the hype over the Parthenon—its size,  beauty, and grandeur were all the more apparent as we walked freely around the temple and basked in the presence of this marvel without getting in anyone else’s way.

There is nothing quite like an early travel gift—in this case a crowd-less hotspot—to make one a little more adventurous in doing something without plan. Rather than exhaust us, the Acropolis had lifted our spirits. We thus decided on a whim to take the metro to the port of Piraeus, with no firm agenda except to see the water and some boats. Piraeus had come up frequently during our travel research. It is a popular starting point of journeys to the islands of Hydra, Mykonos, and Santorini.

Mostly Greek products in a store on the island of Hydra.

After exiting the station, we did not see water, or anything resembling a boardwalk. There might have been a cruise ship on the horizon, but otherwise no yachts echoing a Riviera lifestyle. I was apprehensive walking very much further out of the station because the last time I insisted on walking further it became a one-hour walk on the shoulder of a highway and resulted in encounters with trailer park locals.

My mother was as usual more intrepid.

“It’s such an old part of the city, there’s bound to be something interesting here,” she said. “And besides I’m hungry.” 

Simple meals are the best Greek Meals - anchovies with lemon, salad with feta, bread, and wine.

On that Sunday afternoon, most of the shops and restaurants were closed. We finally stumbled into a taverna, with a lingering smell of fish on the outside. The place was empty except for two gentlemen with plates of small fried fish that looked like tawilis.  

“I don’t know if this place is open, maybe we should just head back, before we’re yelled at in a language we don’t understand”—was what I wanted to tell my mom who was poking around, looking at old maritime photographs on the wall, and much more optimistic.

A couple more uncertain minutes passed, and a not unfriendly young proprietor emerged from the back, handing over some wrinkled menus. What followed was probably the best meal of our entire trip: a tomato cucumber salad with feta generously dressed with spicy olive oil, delicately fried anchovies similar to what the two gentlemen had been eating, some bread, and crisp cold Greek beer. After our thank yous and ευχαριστώs to the proprietor for the delicious meal, we decided to quit while we were ahead in Piraeus, and return to central Athens.

Cats are everywhere in Greece, including the port on the island of Hydra.

ON A NORMAL TRIP to a normal city under normal circumstances, our family implements an unwritten rule of a maximum of two museums or temples per day, for otherwise we get “templed out”, a condition where our brains turn to mush and all things fresco, and sculpture start to look alike.

This practical rule doesn’t make any sense in Athens though, as the selling point of the city is precisely its comically long history of art and culture, much of which is found in a place like the National Archaeological Museum.

The NAM is an excellent place to get an appreciation of the Hellenic time scale. To illustrate the difference in time perspective, one notes how the museum considers funerary sculpture from the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta dated 431BC as artifacts of recenthistory, which we found bizarre until we had seen other objects dating to as far back as 6000 BC.

At the Hellenic Parliament, a solider straightens out the stance of what seems to be a new performer of the changing of the guard.

Later on, we took in a more bite-sized experience at the privately-run Benaki Museum, a mansion just off Syntagma Square. This contemporary looking museum is a perfect counterpoint to the archaeological one, as here the artifacts of modern history, of Greek subjugation under the Turks and Ottomans, are on full display.

Our pro-tip to those who may be overwhelmed and get templed-out: consider visiting two museums like these, for what we saw in subsequent visits to historical sites and points of interest we could more easily fold within the broad swathe of Greek history, and as a result we could more easily digest all the new information.  

The Parthenon in the Acropolis. 

WE DECIDED to stay in a popular tourist neighborhood of Athens, as we had actually admitted to ourselves that what we wanted to be were tourists.

The logical choice was the Plaka, a centrally located compact district filled with cafes, gelaterias,restaurants, and souvenir shops. Mom spent our downtime between monuments happily going through items of great variety and kind: olive oil and olive oil soaps, pistachios, dates, baklava, ouzo, raki, sandals, ceramics, jewelry, sculpture, talismans, bazouki, magnets, post cards, and offensive t-shirts. The centrality of the Plaka meant it was possible to slowly meander through its narrow streets and by chance find ourselves next to a field of wildflowers at the entrance of the Ancient Agora with the perfect Temple of Hephaestus just yonder, or on the white steps of a cafe in the Anafiotika neighborhood.

The Temple of Hephaeustus within the Ancient Agora.

BY DEFAULT, my mother and I have a common expectation: that during a trip there will be times that we will want to do our own thing. This would typically mean my planning for a night out on the town, but since I didn’t know anybody in Athens, I had to “pay” for the company.  I signed up for one of the many harmless sounding bar crawls that are heavily promoted to a certain demo on AirBnB Experiences.

Adam picked me up in his Passat on Syntagma Square on a Friday night, and told me our first stop would be a speakeasy bar in the Thiseo area.

Quiet morning in the Plaka neighborhood.

I cringed inside. I wanted to experience something different from what was trendy back home. Parking was difficult but my host managed to deftly maneuver the car into a small space on one of the side streets.

Inside the bar, the music varied from what sounded like classic rock to Greek rock music. “So what alcohol do Greeks drink when they go to bars? Ouzo?” I asked Adam.

A view from the top of the Panathenaic Stadium, used for the 1896 Olympics Games.

“Actually, we like Masticha,” he replied, “but the bar has run out. If you’d like to try there’s Mavrodaphni.”

I had never tried the dark-colored dessert wine before, but it seemed familiar and friendly, hearkening back to a young and pastoral country. During our conversation, Adam brought up the issue of North Macedonia, on how this new country had a name that was controversial for Greeks who also identified as Macedonians.

“How is your country?” asked Adam.

“Well, it’s doing okay economically, but not so well politically.”

“Ah. Well at least you have one of two. We have neither.”  

BEFORE WE LEFT the bar, Adam’s childhood friend, Grigory joined us and would come along as we next headed to the Gazi district. I was mildly surprised that these two straight men had no issue visiting bars in the gay district. Queer Athenians are exceedingly friendly, and they quickly approached us and asked where I was from, within minutes of our entering the bar, BeQueer. Or maybe the fact that Grigory looked like a young version of Pete Sampras didn’t hurt.

On the north side of the Acropolis is the Erechtheion, a temple dedicated to Athena and Poseidon.

BeQueer confirms what some ethnographers of gay culture have concluded: gay bars globally are pretty much the same. Madonna’s music will play, and people will close their eyes and dance on their own to Robyn. The only time things felt alien was when I couldn’t understand what the drag queens were yelling on stage, but otherwise it was a scene out of O Bar in Ortigas.

“So, do you see anybody that you like?”

“Not really,” I smiled. It wasn’t that I found the Greeks unattractive, but from where I was standing, they started to feel very familiar, like brothers and sisters. 

IT’S A FOOL’S errand to try to get anywhere close to understand a new place after a visit of over just several days. The next best thing to a longer stay is engaging in biblio-retail therapy, i.e. bringing home a stack of books on Greece to distract oneself during future periods of separation anxiety.

Little Tree Books and Coffee at the Koukaki district.

Southwest of the Acropolis metro stop, in technically what is the Koukaki neighborhood, is a bookstore called Little Tree Books and Coffee, which stands on a triangle wedge of pavement, and while sitting with a traditional black Greek coffee and sugar (no milk please, else just order a latte to avoid the frowns of the Athenian barista), one has a vantage point of both sides of the street and everyone else in the small café who mostly look like the sort who have read the Nicomachean Ethics.

A slightly better bookstore in my view, but a short distance away from the usual tourist areas, is the Lexikopoleio bookstore in the Pagrati neighborhood. This is a quiet neighborhood where older Greek ladies walk their terriers in the mornings or late afternoons. The bookstore is on Arktinou St. and is a gathering point of French expatriates. Most of the books are in Greek, a significant number are in French, while a single tall shelf contains a well-curated selection of literature in English. The latter set of books is a collection of translations of Greek authors, as well as works originally composed in English but has as its subject matter Greece.

Lexikopoleio bookstore in the Pagrati district.

It was far too easy to make a pile of books I wanted to bring home, but sensibility prevailed and I triumphantly left with a few titles and said au revoir to the bookstore cat.

“SO HOW DID you find our trip?” I asked my mother on our final day in Athens, over what was now our usual breakfast of bread, tomato, olive oil and feta.

“It was good. You’re a good travel companion.”

“Where are we going next?”

We didn’t settle on any next destination to travel together, but I figure if we’d be so lucky we have to return to Greece again. For what should be a relatively small country on a corner of the Mediterranean, there were still many more layers to uncover, more stories to be told, and I hadn’t finished reading what Miller had to say on the islands of the Aegean.  

 

Photographs by Fabian Mangahas