This trip started with an ominous voucher for our birthdays, with a promise to take us where we had never been before. No hint on what to pack – would it be hot, would it be cold, would it be dry, would it be wet? The only clue we had was: “It’s south of the Alps.” Well, that limits it …
So we packed a little bit of everything. Three girls with one suitcase and a handbag each. Surprisingly, it all fit and we even had some spare clothes. Thus prepared we headed off to the airport one sunny Friday morning in April, still unaware of where the plane would take us. We had some ideas, of course – Lisbon, Milan, Athens…
It’s a wonderful thing, such a surprise trip. I felt like a child again, filled with the same happy excitement as on Christmas Eve when Santa would hand me a lovingly wrapped gift in exchange for a song or a poem. And then I would unwrap it to reveal … our destination:
We would go to Athens! A place so full of history – a dream for every (hobby) archaeologist!
This was the first of many surprises on this weekend. The next one followed promptly when we arrived at Hotel Astor in the city centre, our room more specifically. Room 612 has a tiny little balcony that looks over the red and white roof tops of Athens, with a direct view on the Acropolis. On a clear day you can even glimpse the Mediterranean Sea glistening in the distance.
On our first evening we set out on a scouting expedition through the narrow, busy streets of Plaka. Just below the Acropolis, near the Roman Agora we found a nice restaurant where we had a traditional Greek dinner with several shared platters of delicious veg and meat.
Strolling back to our hotel through the even busier alleyways we discovered a hidden, little bakery when following a wonderful, tempting smell that drifted through the air. We bought what looked like an oversized, skinny doughnut and tasted as good as it smelled.
The next morning, after a very diverse breakfast at the rooftop restaurant of our hotel, we left our accommodation with a map and a (quite ambitious) plan to explore the city’s rich heritage.
Bright sunshine and the promise of a warm day accompanied us on our way to the south side of the Acropolis, via the old, winding alleys of Antifiotika. Munching on more of the strange Athenian doughnuts which are sold by street vendors on every other corner, we queued to be admitted entrance onto the Acropolis.
Another surprise was waiting for us at the ticket office. Apparently, students from all over the EU get free entry to all archaeological sites. A thing unheard of in Germany!
Despite the fact that it was outside high season, the amount of tourists was close to overcrowded. Around the most-frequented sights at least. That didn’t keep us from walking between the Theatre of Dionysus, the Odeon of Herod the Atticus up to the Propylaea to enter the ancient Acropolis, awestruck, turning our heads left and right in an attempt to take it in all at once.
The Parthenon’s warm honey-coloured columns stood out against a sharp blue sky, lit by the brilliant sunlight like a famous singer on a vast stage. (You might have noticed I’m getting a little carried away here…)
The view from the Acropolis gets a bit neglected with all this archaeology going on but is definitely worth a look. So dare to turn your back on the touristy scenes for a moment and enjoy the wide panoramas of Athens.
From the Acropolis we made our way along the Apostolou Pavlou towards Kerameikos in the north-west of Athens. Just opposite the Agia Marina are several nice cafés where you can relish some cool shade with a coffee and ice cream. All in view of the western slope of the Acropolis and the Propylaea.
Watch out for a group of friendly Kenyans who will stop at your table to knot a colourful bracelet for anyone who doesn’t oppose vehemently. It goes without saying that they expect money for their services. They are lovely, just a little overenthusiastic.
Kerameikos’ archaeological museum and park are definitely worth a visit. Being a reasonable distance outside the area frequented by an endless stream of coaches means it’s also less crowded. From there you can either take the direct route along the famous Ermou back into the city centre or take a little detour through the ancient Agora with the largely intact temple of Hephaestus and the long Stoa of Attalus. Spoilers, we did the latter.
As we had to fly back on Sunday afternoon we only had the morning to discover the other side of Plaka. Heading of early, we left our luggage with the friendly staff at the hotel’s reception. Then we made our way to the Syntagma Square where the National Guard changes shifts in front of the Hellenic Parliament every Sunday at 11 in the morning.
Similar spectacle as at the Buckingham Palace, only with much fewer spectators. However, instead of tall, bushy bearskin hats the evzones wear fustanellas, a black-and-white kilt-like uniform, complete with fluffy black pom-poms on their shoes. As with the Queen’s Guard in London, everything they do radiates exact preciseness, even it is just standing utterly still.
Nibbling on some dried strawberries and chocolate coted nuts, we took a stroll through the National Garden just behind the Parliament where the pathways were lined with palm trees and orange trees. Further to the south-east, the Panathenaic stadium is nestled into a dark green pine forest. First built around 330 BC it was refurbished in the 19th century to host the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and is constructed entirely of marble. The audio guide available at the ticket office and the museum offer a good overview of the long history of the stadium.
Rounding the southern tip of the Zappeio we had a quick look at the ruins of the enormous Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch. I would have liked to spend more time there, but we had a plane to catch. So we wove our way through the streets of Plaka full of souvenir shops and restaurants back to the hotel to pick up our luggage. We bought a delicious doughnut for each of us to take home, they didn’t even survive the train journey to the airport.
As the plane turned north towards Berlin we got a last glimpse of the wonderous city of Athens, it’s green parks, chaotic architecture and dark red mountains surrounding it.
Unfortunately, our time in this vibrant city was over much too quickly and we did not get the chance to discover all its secrets. That’s no surprise when history is seeping out of every stone and you are walking the footsteps of people from more than 2,000 years ago. Even if your interest in (ancient) history is only peripheral you cannot help but feel the echo of so many centuries and be amazed by the grand architecture of our ancestors. You don’t believe me? Go and find out for yourself! As a bonus, the Mediterranean lifestyle is sure to draw you in.
You have been to Athens before? What is your favourite memory of your trip? Share in the comments below.