Story and Photos by John Sundsmo.
Athens has long been a favorite of my wife and I, especially since it was our first international trip together as a couple. Somehow every time we land in Greece, Athens is only a stopover on our way to somewhere else. But why love Athens? For us, Athens is full of lovely historic sites, wonderful ethnic foods, good local wines and great cultural diversity.
Recent discounted airfares to the Mediterranean sparked planning for a new trip, but this time we decided to spend a long weekend in Athens before rushing off to other destinations. With a long 10+ hour flight from San Francisco, lay-overs, jet lag and time zone hours lost, four nights in Athens sounded like a lot, but in reality translated into less than three days exploration. As a history buff, I wondered if it would be enough time to explore the archeological sites, (the ancient birthplace of democracy); also investigate the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman influences and try to fathom their effects on present day Greek culture. True, that might make a nice start for a doctoral dissertation, but as Henry Miller said “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”
Attica: ATH airport isn’t in Athens
With the airport about a 40 minute taxi ride from the historic center of Athens (longer by bus or rail), combined with our long flights and arrival after 10 PM, we decided to spend the first night on the beach in East Attica about 10 miles from the airport in the small resort town of Artemida. The hamlet is named for the goddess Artemis, and this seemed particularly appropriate since, in Greek mythology, she was the goddess of the hunt, wilderness and wild animals – which is what we felt like at this point in our travel adventure. Collapsing into bed and dozing off to the sound of waves breaking on the beach with warm fresh ocean breezes blowing across the terrace into our room, what a delightful bonus for our first good travel decision!
Morning found us walking an empty beach and small fishing harbor – a delightful diversion before pushing off for the big city and the Plaka in Athens. I was reminded that just off this shore in 480BC, Athens battled for its very survival. After abandoning the city and moving the entire population to the islands, all the able bodied men took to the oars of galleys to battle the much larger Persian fleet. Winning the battle of Salamis set Athens on the path to securing all the grandeur we were here to see in the Plaka.
We decided to stay in a hotel near Syntagma Square in the Plaka since we wanted to be able to walk to explore the cultures in the Plaka and Monastiraki neighborhoods. Our hit list also included: the Greek and Roman Agoras; Hadrian’s library; the Parthenon, Erechtheion, Temple of Athena, Odeon (theater) of Herodes Atticus, where Luciano Pavarotti performed in 1991 and 2004, along with the other sites on the Acropolis. We had stayed at the Hotel Central on our very first trip to Athens more than a decade earlier, and fortunately it was still alive and well, renovated and now with a wonderful rooftop view restaurant.
Our first night wandering the narrow cobblestone streets in the Plaka at twilight, soaking up the ambiance over a good Greek seafood dinner with fresh Kalamarakia (Calamari), olives, tzatziki, hummus, Greek salad, Spanakopita (feta and spinach) and a fine red wine from the Peloponnesian peninsula convinced us that Athens was indeed a good travel decision.
The Plaka and Monastiraki
For our first full day we decided to just wander. Out the front door of our hotel lay the Plaka, the historic district of old Athens. With its narrow cobblestone streets, tourist shops filled with modern day antiquities, galleries featuring the works of talented contemporary artists and side walk cafes, the Plaka is much more than just streets and shops. While much of the neighborhood had to be rebuilt after the devastation of World War II, the atmosphere has the air of a much older more ancient district, greatly reinforced by frequent views of the Parthenon perched atop the towering Acropolis hillside.
Ancient Greece established itself as a sea power in 400-600BC and imports today are at least as numerous as authentic Greek arts – so buyer beware. We found several artists’ cooperatives and galleries with beautiful sculptures, water colors and creative ceramics. Also, crafted leather goods were abundant – some of high quality and good value.
Monastiraki answered one of my historical questions. Yes, the Roman (146 -27 BC), Byzantine (395-1457 AD) and Ottoman (1458-1830 AD) influences are all on display in architectural relics found in just this single neighborhood; and the culture still seems to embrace church services in the ancient Byzantine churches as well as tea served in old Turkish tea rooms. But Monastiraki is also flea markets, galleries, cafes and sites of the ancient Agoras (market gathering places) of Greece (500BC ) and Rome (15BC ), as well as Hadrian’s library (132AD) and Ottoman-era mosques.
Recently Monastiraki has become a very desirable place to live for millennials and the streets and squares are lined with designer shops, upscale cafes, restaurants and watering holes. As we strolled through the neighborhood on a warm Saturday afternoon every inhabitant seemed out and seated in their favorite local establishment with friends. The ambiance was warm and inviting and we began to feel like we were walking past a juxtaposition of backyard gatherings.
Dinner found us roof-top in our hotel for a front row table at the best sunset show in town. As the sun sank we relived the highlights of our day: an artist’s cooperative with wonderful sculptures; Michael at the Pandora gallery where we acquired two lovely watercolors, (done by a local artist), to remind us of our trip; my two new 4-Euro leather belts; my wife’s new “Athens” bag; the smiles on people’s faces and exuberant laughter as they visited with friends in the Monastiraki; the amazing scale of the stone construction in the Greek and Roman Agoras; the peaceful café square where we stopped for sparkling water at noon and sat under the trees taking in the breeze and watching the locals with children in strollers struggling over the cobblestones, all obviously enjoying their Saturday outing.
Hoping to avoid the crowds we planned to visit the Acropolis early in the morning, but by the time we finished our breakfast at the hotel and walked to the Acropolis entrance, it was 10:30AM. It quickly became apparent that all the tour guides had the same idea, and the crowds were already dense. There appears to be no limit to the number of people allowed entry, so our decision to explore it on a Sunday was perhaps not a good one. Finally reaching the summit and entering the plaza before the Parthenon, Erechtheion and Temple of Athena, (the feature image at the top of this article), opened our eyes to the immensity of the human endeavor involved in constructing the original structures, now only matched by the Herculean efforts being mounted to restore them.
On September 26, 1687 an Ottoman ammunition dump inside the Parthenon was ignited by a Venetian bombardment during the siege of the Acropolis. The explosion destroyed much of the building and its sculptures. In 1801 British Lord Elgin negotiated with the Ottoman occupiers of Greece for the removal of an extensive collection of ancient marble sculptures including the frieze sculptures from the Parthenon – they now reside in the British Museum in London.
Using 3D imaging and computer-driven cutters, the Parthenon is now– (332 years later)– being reconstructed from old damaged marble tightly fitted with new pristine white marble. The result is becoming an amazing opportunity to view a complete grand Greek structure completed by artisans in 438BC. Pericles and Themistocles dedicated the site to the goddess Athena who was believed to protect her city from the Persians and enable the historic defeat of the much larger Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis (September 29, 480BC).
There are no concessions on the Acropolis, no places to acquire water and no shade trees, so on leaving we stopped at a local vendor stall to buy water and then decided to walk across the street and visit a shady bench in the National Gardens.
Syntagma Square and the National Gardens
After World War I the Ottoman Empire was disassembled by the powers at-be. As a follow-up, in 1832 the Greek nation was restored, but as a monarchy complete with a Bavarian prince as the new king Otto of Greece. The forced monarchy did not sit well with democratized Athenians and after an 11 year rule, the military convinced King Otto that he should embrace democracy – he abdicated. His palace in Athens’ Syntagma Square (Constitution Square) has been the seat of the Greek parliament since 1943. The palace gardens are now the Greek National Gardens.
Why do we love Athens? Perhaps it comes down to a modern vibe heavily influenced by living with ancient sites that constantly remind Athenians of their city state’s historical creativity in sculpture, architecture and democracy. For us, it is the ambiance of how that glorious past is presently translated to embrace creativity, art, literature, wisdom and democracy.
IF YOU GO:
(1) In Fall 2019, we found heavily discounted airfares from San Francisco (SFO) to Athens (ATH) on Norwegian Airlines through Copenhagen (CPG). Air Italy also offered discounted fares to Milan (MXP) and other airlines had discounts to London Heathrow (LHR). From Heathrow and Milan, Aegean Airlines offered good – in Europe – airfares (booked direct at their website).
(2) In Artemida we stayed at the new Seasabelle hotel on the beach. If you book here, try to get a room overlooking the ocean, (not the street), to avoid the noise. Beware of taxi drivers increasing the fare at ATH, so booking a transfer through the hotel is advised. Similarly, the hotel helped get us a reasonable fare for a taxi to the Plaka (30Euro).
(3) In the Plaka we stayed at the Euro-modern Hotel Central and really enjoyed the stupendous sunset views from its roof top restaurant and bar.
(4) Historic antiquities in the Plaka and Monastiraki neighborhoods are numerous: the Greek and Roman Agoras; Hadrians library; the Parthenon, Erechtheion, Temple of Athena, Odeon (theater) of Herodes Atticus along with the other sites on the Acropolis. If you visit Pandora gallery in Palea Agora square, near the Roman Agora, please give our regards to Michael, the owner.