The first time I was in Athens, I wanted to see and do everything. I was coming from Korfu, which I had reached via Bari. I have told many times before on this blog the story of how it was Henry Miller´s THE COLOSSUS OF MAROUSI, in a German edition, read under the delicious Ibiza sunshine, in my aunt´s dream of a library room, that brought me to Greece, via Bari, on a train from delectable, but somewhat cold and touristy, Paris. Back then, a flight to Athens was much pricier than a combination of train and ferries, which is no longer the case today, but I got to spend a night in Bari and a week in Korfu, so, no complaints there.
The story I probably never told was of this Romanian man I met, who recommended this cheap hotel, which
sounded good because I was on a budget. The cheap hotel was hidden inside the heart of a building somewhere downtown. Though it hasn´t improved that much over the years, downtown Athens looked like a wasteland in 1997, especially after the perfectly tended Paris. I remember the main square was under construction, which is something city architects should avoid at all costs, and I also seem to recall that on some of my visits between then and now, which have fortunately been many, the scaffolds that hid all the buildings around were still there; although I know this is not the case now, after seeing the footage of the recent fires and demonstrations, following some very harsh economic measures adopted by the country, in an attempt to remain inside the European Union, or so they say.
Going through nondescript alleys, during this first visit, as I started realizing there was something odd about my Romanian friend and some decrepit, heavily-made up Russian girls living in my hallway, I began to discover Athens. One of the first things I did was buying a book to learn some basic Greek. I am just built that way: it drives me crazy to be in a place where I don´t speak the language, and the Greek language specially was music to my ears.
So, with my basic Greek, I soon headed up to the Acropolis, as any Athens visitors will do. My most vivid memory of Athens, besides finding out that the Russians were prostitutes and the skinny, sweet Romanian man was small-time pimp (and getting the hell out of that hotel), is of playing with a kid somewhere on the slopes on the way up to the Acropolis. The kid was playing with some little car or toy, and we communicated in Greek. I only remember using the word orea (beautiful) a lot and telling him he had a beautiful name (orea onoma), but somehow, we really connected and it was amazing to me that we could, in spite of the language barrier. I also saw a movie at a delicious outdoor theater, not a drive-in or such, just a regular movie theater, only it had no roof, and it was surrounded by beautiful greenery. It was a Woody Allen movie. I realized then, being out in Athens at night, what a cool nightlife the city must have. I saw it on the faces of the people: this people enjoyed their nightlife, and I was sad that I didn´t get a chance to experience that.
VISITING ATHENS TODAY
What everybody does
The Accropolis is beautiful. I have been there 4-5 times, and I probably wouldn´t do it again. The only thing I have to recommend for summertime visitors is that they bring their own water. I have already mentioned here the sketchy characters who will sell you water on the way up. Also a tip, though Greeks will learn English to sell you anything, the Greek word for water is NERO.
The view from the top is breathtaking, the buildings are impressive, and this is something you have to see, but be warned that you will be up to the nose with tourists, which is not exactly my cup of tea (or glass of ouzo).
PLAKA is a pedestrian area at the foot of the Acropolis where you can do two things I love: buy great Greek clothes, souvenirs and jewelry and eat delicious Greek food. There is a square full of outdoor restaurants where a true Greek salad ( a simple thing no restaurateur seems to have been able to emulate outside of Greece) and a glass of retsina wine will be all the Greek bliss anyone could possibly want.
What not many do, and you should
If you think your heart can take seeing the best sunset on Earth, you should definitely take the panoramic seaside drive to the Temple of Poseidon. Set on an imposing cliff overlooking the blue seas, this is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.
While you´re there, you should definitely have the best mousaka in the world at the neighboring Aegean hotel, which also has its own beach.
Not many people who visit Athens go to the beach there, as it is usually just a stopover on their way to the islands. It usually goes Acropolis-Plaka-ferry-go, but if you do go out to Poseidon´s temple, you will find that Athens has many beautiful beaches, and that many wealthy Athenians have their beautiful summer houses on those shores, towards the East, if I recall properly, but you´d do better to trust a map!
In 2006 and 2008, I docked in Piraeus many times, and I learnt to know this port´s area too. I used to run all along the boardwalk, from the cruise ship dock to the East (actually South-East, the map seems to tell me). There was a beautiful marina maybe a mile away, and the scenery seemed to increase in beauty as I advanced. Now, looking at the map, I realize this is also on the way from Athens to Sounio.
But I was really trying to talk about Piraeus. I have gone shopping in this area, and I always took the train there to downtown Athens. On these occasions, I started discovering that Piraeus had a lot to offer in itself, though it was only a gateway to Athens for most. One of the best-rated attractions in Piraeus is the Archaeological Museum, which has been described by savvy travelers as a “hidden gem.”
Though I haven´t returned there since 1997, I have the fondest memories of the Botanical Gardens in Athens. I remember them as this wild forest you could really lose yourself in. Raw natural beauty, a time for contemplation in the blissful shade of tall trees on a hot Athens afternoon, in the company of many, MANY rather friendly kitties. When I was there, I played with this baby kitty that reminded me my own cat for the longest time; so long the poor baby actually wanted me to follow me when I left. So, yeah, if you happen to have a cat and you miss them (which I did after two months away from home), this is definitely the place to go. Apart from that, I just read that the garden, which is actually called Diomidous Botanical Garden and charges no entrance fees, is home to 2,500 species of plants and 25 lakes. (I guess I was to busy playing with cats to see those, so I will probably have to go back…)
LIVE GREEK MUSIC
Greeks have music running through their veins, as much as they have poetry and tragedy and comedy, all mixed together to build a set of rather melancholy people with a wonderful sense of humor and a tremendous capacity for enjoying the pleasures of life.
Whatever you do, if you spend the night in Athens, you should try to find some small place in Psiri, Plaka or elsewhere, where you can hear some authentic live Greek music. Being Armenian, the beat of Greek music goes straight to my heart, but judging from its popularity all over the world, this doesn´t only happen to me. Below is just a sample of this not-to-be-missed beauty.
In case you were wondering, the answer is No, you can never go wrong with Athens. Between its wonderful people, natural beauty, a fascinating culture and delicious food and music, like all of Greece, it is a land of pleasure, even when things are far from perfect, like at present. The Greeks have risen from the ashes many times, and I trust they will again, in spite of the country´s current ordeal.