The sky was burning fiery red at the horizon as we descended onto the U-Bahn platform at Hirschgarten, quiet with the faint chugging of trains in the distance. We were on our way to the airport for our flight to Athens, Greece.
‘Greek myth tells us that when God created the world, he distributed all the available soil through a sieve and when He felt that every country had enough he threw the stones that were left over his shoulder creating Greece. The myth is centred around the fact that over two-thirds of the country is classified as hilly and mountainous. However, most would admit that those who devised the legend were a little harsh. They omitted the fact that the country itself is one of the most picturesque in the world. Obviously, they didn’t know at the time that it was also to become a nation with one of the richest histories in the world but this is exactly what was in store for the southern point of the Balkan Peninsula.’
My sister had just shared with me about thebucketlist family aka. — in my opinion — just about one of the coolest families to ever exist — read more here, here, here, and here — and we were watching their vlog on Mykonos and stuck in a state of awe as they showed us their accommodation that was built into a large rock (because a wall was never put up to hide away the part of the house facing the rock, what resulted was an amazing house cleverly and literally fused with nature!) when we were called for boarding.
With much gusto, and σκύλος (pronounced as: skýlos, meaning: dog) and κουνούπι (pronounced as: kounoúpi, meaning mosquito) in our vocabulary (courtesy of Dad who knows a little of practically every language to ever exist), we departed to Greece.
“Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world. Though Greece is still recovering from a well-documented economic crisis, locals in Athens feel like the tide is turning and that neighborhoods both old and new are experiencing a resurgence of vibrancy, excitement and optimism.”
Our Greek adventure began up in the clouds when, mid-flight, after being swallowed by clouds and about 5 minutes of seeing nothing but white, the clouds parted suddenly and Athens came into view. We felt pumped, giddy with excitement, and all the mundane worries of life had been muted… all there was to know about was this moment. No worrying about the past, no anxiety about the future. This was going to be our first trip as sisters! Just us!
(A little boy was busking with an accordion in the train we were on!)
After depositing our carry-ons at a luggage locker office in Monastiraki, where a kind lady taught us that ευχαριστώ (pronounced as: efcharistó) means ‘thank you’, two Jamaican men came up to us and, before we could react, put Jamaican-styled bands around our wrists. One of them held our hands together and prayed for safety, happiness, love kindness in our lives before saying that they’re raising money to buy instruments for their band and that any amount of donation would be appreciated. We didn’t have much small change with us so we could only give them 2 Euros — we felt bad, but they were thankful.
Winding through narrow shopping streets around Monastiraki Square, we discovered ancient, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman monuments as we joined in the buzz of the Monastiraki Flea Market. It is a place where we heard one would find a marriage between what is fake and what is real and which also is one of the best places to buy just about anything from junk to antiques — “… from jewelry to trinkets, from original designs to mass produced T-shirts or your favorite heavy metal band… antiques, vintage vinyl and not so vintage CDs… plastic worry beads and the real thing, bouzoukia that can’t stay in tune or hand-crafted instruments that will be coveted by your musician friends…”
Fun fact: There is a small Byzantine church, Agios Eleftherios, in the shadow of the cathedral on Monastiraki Square. Nearly every stone of this little church was taken from an ancient building or older church including the stones from Galilee where Jesus changed water into wine.
Another fun fact: You know how the announcements usually say, “Please mind the platform gap,” at metro stations? The announcements here say, “Please mind Your personal belongings.” Pick-pocketing is a reality here!
We picked up our tour vouchers for plans in Meteora in the next few days, my sister enjoyed traditional Greek yoghurt at FRESKO, and without a minute to lose, we made our way to Hadrian’s Arch and the ruins of the giant Temple of Olympian Zeus. By this point, we were already really close to the Acropolis but as with any trip, a search for “Unusual things to do in Athens” led us to find out that one would get the best view of the Acropolis and Mount Lycabettus (Likavitos) from the garden rooftop of The Athens Gate Hotel. (Apologies for the bad lighting, it was a terribly cloudy day!) Just be quick while You make Your trip up there because they’re running a cafe up there and one wouldn’t want to be caught up there just taking pictures and not purchasing a drink or two!
Our last stop that evening was The Acropolis of Athens, a building steeped in history and dating back to between 447 and 406 BC, which also happens to be a UNESCO world heritage site. The terms ‘Acropolis’ means ‘upper city’ and many of the city states of ancient Greece are built around an acropolis where the inhabitants can go as a place of refude in times of invasion. It’s for this reason that the most sacred buildings are usually on an acropolis — it’s the safest, most secure place in town! As little as 150 years ago, there were still dwellings on the Acropolis of Athens.
Climbing up the initial flight of stairs of the compound, aka. the flight of stairs within the Theatre of Dionysus, we found ourselves at the Propylaea. The Theatre of Dionysus was the first stone theater ever built and was home to Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes. It was rebuilt around 342 BC by Lykourgos and then enlarged by the Romans to be used for gladiator fights. To our left was the Pinacotheca and a Hellenistic pedestal and on the right the tiny temple to Nike Athena or the Athena of Victory which commemorates the Athenians victory over the Persians. The small temple stands on a platform that overlooks the islands of Saronic Gulf and used to house a statue of Athena. It was dismantled by the Turks in 1686 so they could use the platform for a large cannon. It was rebuilt between 1836 and 1842 and again taken apart and rebuilt in 1936 when it was discovered that the platform was crumbling!
Just below the Acropolis is the Theatre of Herod Atticus built by the Romans in 161 AD and still used today for classical concerts, ballet, performances of high cultural value.
The Parthenon, a stone mountain evidently not immune to the proliferation of grass and wildflowers bursting out of every crack in Summer, and other main buildings on the Acropolis were built by Pericles in the 5th century BC as a monument to the cultural and policial achievements of the inhabitants of Athens. What’s up with the hype around the Parthenon? It is just about the most perfect building built by the world’s most advanced civilization and even though scientists have been studying it for centuries they are still not sure how they did it… arguably the greatest of all archaeological sites.
Even having seen a thousand photographs, one is still not prepared for the immensity of the Parthenon — I know I wasn’t. The building was designed by the architects Kallikrates and Iktinos as the home of the giant statue of Athena. It took 9 years to build and was completed in 438 BC and is possibly the most recognizable structure in the world next to the golden arches of McDonalds! First a temple, it became a church, a mosque and then finally as a storage facility for Turkish gunpowder.
‘What makes the Parthenon so fascinating is that one would think that it is made up of interchangeable pieces. For example, the columns are stones placed on top of each other and you could replace one piece of a column with any of the others. Not true. Each piece of the Parthenon is unique and fits together like the world’s biggest and heaviest jigsaw puzzle. Lines that look straight are actually not. The ancient Greeks understood the mechanics of site and that to make a line look straight it had to be tapered or curved… The restoration work has been going on for the last 30 years and may go on for another 30. The more we try to put it back together the more respect and awe we have for the ancient Greeks.’
The Erecthion sits on the most sacred site of the Acropolis where Poseidon and Athena had their contest over who would be the Patron of the city. Poseidon thrust his trident into the rock and a spring burst forth, while Athena touched the ground with a spear and an olive tree grew! Athena was declared the victor, and the great city of Athens was named after her while Poseidon was given a small village in Syros after it was discovered he had merely ruptured a water main. The building itself contains the porch of the maidens or Caryatids which are now copies, four of which have been placed in the Acropolis museum, hopefully, to be reunited with a fifth taken from the Acropolis by Lord Elgin and put in the British Museum more than a century ago.
We walked towards the flag of Greece which was up at high mast, located at the northeast corner of the Acropolis where Athens stretches out endlessly below. We saw the ceramic tiled roofs of the houses in the Plaka beneath us, and, turning our vision to Lysikratous Street, we spotted Hadrian’s Arch, the ruins of the giant Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Olympic stadium nestled in a pine covered hill — an island of green in a sea of concrete.To our left, we saw Mount Lycabettos rising from the neighbourhood of Kolonaki and the Athens Tower at Ambelokipi in the distance. I figured that The Acropolis is a great place to get one’s bearings and get an understanding of the layout of the city.
Gruesome fact: Back to the flag… When the Germans occupied Athens in WWII, the Evzone** who guarded the flag was ordered by the Nazis to remove it. He calmly took it down, wrapped himself in it and jumped to his death.
**‘Evzone’ is the name of several historical elite light infantry and mountain units of the Greek Army.
Below the Acropolis was the rock of Areopagos, which my sister and I bravely climbed. The steps were very slippery and I almost fell once or twice, but I wanted to keep going because once I saw a bit of the view from above, I knew I had to see everything else. It was spectacular up there. We had a great view of the Agora, the Plaka, Monastiraki, Omonia and much of Athens.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have sufficient time to also visit the Acropolis Museum, ‘which beautifully combines the ancient with the modern’, for we had to get a quick dinner dinner — I got fresh orange juice and absolutely delicious quinoa salad, which came with cranberries, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, raisins, ginger and balsamic vinaigrette — and be in the neighbourhood of Ambelokipi by 8pm to check in at our airbnb.
Our airbnb host, Elleni, was such a sweet lady and conversations with her were an absolute ease. Oh! Something she shared with us: DO NOT go to Omonia or Metaxourghio at night because these are immigrant neighbourhoods filled with illegal refugees and gypsies fleeing wars in North Africa or the Middle East. It is not worth risking Your safety.
She also said something else which saddened me: “Girls I’m so sorry I couldn’t meet the two of you earlier as promised. I had to cover for my co-worker at work today, and you know with Greece’s economy, we do as we’re told. We don’t rebel because we don’t want to risk losing our jobs.”
By the end of the day — tired, slightly riddled with anxiety (this sometimes comes with unfamiliarity), but thankful — I finally understood why people say that ‘in Athens, you meet the past, the present and the future, all in one day’.