Where can you go for ancient archaeology, mythology, and modernization all in one city? Why ancient Athens, of course! I am a pushover for antiquity and ancient sites, so this trip is going to be a trip through time! I was here about years ago and the things that impressed me most on this trip were the changes in the city. Because of the 2004 Olympics, Athens has been re-born. There’s a new international airport, the hotels have been refurbished, the archaeological sites are clean and well maintained, the roads are new and air pollution controls everywhere. So the traffic and the smog of 10 years ago is almost a thing of the past. Athens is a great place to be in the 21st century.
Athens, a city of history and mythology, home to the ancient Greek Gods, to Socrates and Plato, and where democracy was born. While it may be the ancient civilization that draws the crowds, it’s the Athens of today that’s impressing them now. This is a “with-it” city that’s totally today. Athens may be one of the most historical cities in Europe, but it’s also one of the “newest.” Definitely revitalized. The 2004 Olympic games brought international attention back to Athens, and now, the city is proudly showing off its new look.
Syntagma Square is the center of Athens, totally restored, with a big open air feel and a beautiful new fountain. When you come to Syntagma Square, go to the fountain, bring a coin, make a wish, and throw it in the fountain. They say that if you do that, someday you’ll come back to Athens! Or… was that the Trevi Fountain in Rome?
Facing the square, the Parliament House is where to see the Changing of the Guard every hour…but Sundays are when the real show happens! Also on the Square is one of the most historical buildings in Athens, the Grande Bretagne Hotel, the most luxurious hotel in Athens for over a century, has hosted almost every celebrity and world leader to visit Greece for decades. With its location on Syntagma Square next to the Parliament Building, the last hundred years of Greek history has literally unfolded at the doorstep…and even if you don’t stay here, it’s worth checking out.
Officially a world-class city, the new Athens has something for everyone. From designer duds to new-fangled newsstands, you’ll find something you’ll want to take home. They also have little kiosks everywhere, the Athens’ version of 7-11’s. They stay open all day and late into the night, you get magazines, snacks, papers and cigarettes, souvenirs, whatever, and if they don’t have what you want, they’ll give you directions to go find it, sometimes in English!
Getting around Athens is a lot easier nowadays! Good thing, because you’ll definitely want to see all the sights! The Metro isn’t just the newest most modern and impressive transit system I’ve ever seen, and it’s not just a way to get from here there, it’s also a way to get from now to then… 2500 years ago then, come on, I’ll show you what I mean.
Hop on the brand new Metro for a trip back in time to the most famous site in Greece, the Acropolis. My guide told me the Acropolis is the whole hill—the site itself. The Parthenon is the main building. Kind of like an ancient church, it was built after the Persian Wars of the 5th century B.C. as a way for the Athenians to offer their gratitude to the goddess. It was a way for Pericles, the politician, to solve problems, like soldiers coming back from the war without jobs. It gave them something constructive to do, and it was a way for the Athenians to celebrate their victory, too.
So, in the Parthenon, you see all the culture, all the civilization, all the science of the time. Through cold marble material, we can read the spirit of ancient Athens. Which came first, the Parthenon or the Pyramids? Sorry, Athens, but Egypt wins the oldest structure contest. And speaking of structure, here’s some Greek 101. The Parthenon is considered to have the best example of Doric style columns of the ancient world. We’re talking architecture here. The Erechtheion, the more sacred site, is considered to have the best Ionic ones. I think grade school is all flashing back to me now.
The Doric is the plainer, I learned this in 4th grade, the Ionic is the curly, more decorated one, and the Corinthian is the other one, with Calthus leaves hanging from the capitals of the columns. I got an A in ancient history and architectural style!
Then you see a group of lady statues grouped together. These are the Caryatids, of course, unfortunately all of them are copies, nature and time pretty much wore the originals down and broke them up.
You enter the Acropolis through the Propylaea. It’s a magnificent entrance to the Acropolis, leading the way to the top of the hill. Covering the grounds are what’s left of statues and artifacts the ancient Greeks dedicated to their Goddess Athena. I couldn’t help noticing these valuable artifacts were in a bit of, well, disarray. Wouldn’t you think that someone should sort of pick up now and then? They’re just laying on the ground, they’re not in the museum, nor do they have any protection from the elements. There are too many for the archaeologists to know what to do with, some that they know where to put them back they will, and the rest will just stay on the spot. I noticed there are certain letters or numbers on the pieces, which mean they have been studied and catalogued, but they don’t necessarily know where to replace them. It’s a big puzzle to put them all back together but the details and inscriptions give a description of the ancient world of Greece.
After a fascinating blast of the past, I decided to do a little catching up on what’s been happening lately. Great changes, big changes, mostly due to the Olympics but also because Athens is becoming an important tourist destination for Europe, and it’s changing to the better every day.
Now if you have a week or ten days, here’s what I would recommend for a great trip. A three-day stay in Athens to see the sights, the very important sights of the city like the Acropolis. Then a four day classical tour visiting the very unique mainland of Greece, and then a seven day cruise, definitely.
Did I say cruise? That should get anyone’s attention! Greece is one of the most fantastic spots in the word for yachting and cruising and the Port of Piraeus in Athens is the launching pad to any one of 4,000 beautiful islands. Here is where to find the cruise ships, boats and yachts, as well as incredible seafood restaurants with amazing views. If you’d like to pretend to be Onassis or maybe see someone like Onassis, take a look at some of the yachts that are anchored here.
Oh what the heck, let’s blow this fantasy full out and charter one of these amazing private mega yachts! Just imagine, sailing away from crowded cities, crowded hotels and airports and into a world of privacy and luxury with your own blue sky, your own crystal clear water, and 300 days of sun a year. Go ahead, pick an island on a whim. Noisy or quiet? Nightclubs or secluded beaches? Or choose as I did, no island at all. Just pick a secluded cove and drop anchor… time to bring out the toys and make some waves of our own! You can play in the water all afternoon and still get back by sundown.
Back in Athens in time for dinner, how about checking out one of the new restaurants? You can dine indoors or out, and your choice of cuisine is endless. If you thought Greek food was souvlaki and spanokopita, get over it and start thinking a little more international. Moorings Restaurant is located next to one of the most prestigious and expensive marinas in Greece. Serving top notch Continental-Fusion cuisine, Moorings has an amazing outdoor terrace over-looking Vouliagmeni Bay and a celebrity in the kitchen!
Want to know how to make Nouvelle Greek cuisine? Well, Chef Lefteris, is probably the most famous chef in Greece and has the distinction of having one Michelin Star, no one else here has that. He’s also a television star, he’s known everywhere, like the Julia Child of Athens! He’s making a Greek dish for us that he’s famous for, Calamari Pesto.
Athens is full of surprises. It’s not only fascinating and beautiful, it is also one of the safest cities in Europe. No really… any trepidation or worries I had about safety issues are “no more!” I came here with my family and I think it’s a great place for other families to come and enjoy as well!Calamari sliced very thin, obviously very fresh. His background–his father was a fisherman, his grandfather was a fisherman and his grandfather used to bring home the fish and that’s how he learned. You sauté the calamari in olive oil for 10 to 15 seconds, then add the secret ingredient, ouzo, it’s the Greek liquor. Drain it, add pesto sauce, heat through, dash another drop of ouzo and you are done. Only takes about a minute to make. And man, is that tasty!
For me, the true test of any great city, has to be the shopping! Well did you really expect me to say the infrastructure? Anyway, Greece is on the Euro now, in fact they were the first country to hop on board, so now, figuring out the exchange rate is just plain simple! And the prices! Just look at the bargains here! Shopping is great in Athens. From the old world open-air markets to the world famous Plaka Shopping District, Athens ranks high on my list! This is the place for great bargains on gold jewelry and other Greek treasures. Here you’ll find the “evil eye,” the eye that protects you from bad luck. The Greek people don’t really believe in it, they just want to be on the safe side, just in case!
The Plaka is an area where you can find almost everything. It has lots of shops, it has houses where people still live, it has Ancient Greek ruins, Roman Ruins and fabulous shopping. You’ll see a lot of gold jewelry. The designs are interesting; a lot of the shops specialize in what they call the Greek designs, you know, an imitation of the ancient river called the Meander River and this river symbolizes life. So the design symbolizes eternal life. You flow with the river. You go with the flow.
Then we see the gold ropes which are interesting. Ropes because the Greeks always used to make ropes and export ropes all over the world. They used them to build the Acropolis, the cranes that they used to pull up the stones, the marble for the Acropolis and for their boats as well.
Coins are also very popular for jewelry. Coins because the Greeks we’re the first ancient people to make their own coins. So you’ll find these are a copy of the ancient Greek Coins. It is safe to buy here, the shopkeepers are honest and they’ll ship you purchase home to you. Now for the fun part, you can bargain with them, just like in ancient times! Plus, they take credit cards in most places!
The word Plaka means flat, because it’s a kind of flat area below the Acropolis. It also can mean a slab of marble was found here. But don’t be fooled, you are walking up-hill, nonetheless. You have the Roman ruins on the right, the Turkish Mosque, the Tower of the Winds, the Turkish School, and the residential area which right in front of you as you climb the hill. People still live there because history in Greece is still alive. The families sit out in front and watch passers-by, gossip about the latest events and neighbors, just down home sort of stuff only in Greek.
Well, there’s one thing the Greek’s like to do more than gossip, and that’s EATING! All this walking has makes you hungry, too. There are so many choices here in Athens. For a quick inexpensive bite, try a souvlaki. Grilled lamb on pita bread with a spicy yogurt dressing – it’s Greek for fast food! It’s the perfect meal on the go, and we have a lot more to see, believe me!
That was yummy, and now that we’re powered up, we’re ready for more Ancient Ruins 101! Next up, the Agora, in reality, it was the heart of the city. It was a place where politicians and men coming from other city states passed through to get informed of the life. It was like the newspaper of the city of Athens. They didn’t have phone calls to get informed of the life here, so they came to the marketplace. It was not only the commercial center of the city, but it was the civil, the political, and the religious center of the city. Everybody passed through here, Pericles, Socrates. It was a place of men, generally. No women were allowed, except prostitutes and slaves. Man, walking through all this ancient history just gives me chills.
Like any cosmopolitan city, Athens really comes alive after dark. When the sun goes down, the Greeks come out to play and the Plaka is where to find it. Restaurants cover the sidewalks and alleyways, transforming the Plaka area of the city into one big party. As always, my stomach rumbles, reminding me I’m getting hungry, again!
For one of the most beautiful and romantic evenings you’ll have in Athens, it’s the roof garden restaurant on top of the Grand Bretagne Hotel we mentioned before – what a view and what a hotel! If candlelight and open air views of the Acropolis sound like an evening you’d enjoy, then this is the place! If trendy nightclubs are your scene, Athens has that too! And summer is when it all goes outdoors, even to an open-air nightclub on the water! For a more traditional evening of Greek entertainment, check out the Greek Dance Theatre. It’s all “Greek” to me, but it’s fun and a good time for the entire family! Oopa! You’ll be dancing like a native in no time and laughing your head off with your new friends! Do be sure and try the ouzo, it tastes like licorice.
Shopping in Athens can be high style or an adventure! For those looking for a little fun as well as a bargain, the Flea Market is a great place to soak up some local color! You have already checked out the shops, now spend a morning or afternoon in the Monastiraki, where you can spend a morning combing through the alleys, and where haggling is expected so everyone comes out a winner!
Flea Market 101, and I don’t care if you’re in London or Athens, Paris, wherever. This shopping trip, you leave your credit cards and your money in the hotel safe. Bring a few small bills and don’t forget to bargain. Remember, if you’re a tourist coming to the flea market, you’ve got a big old bulls eye right here in the middle of your forehead. Take me, Take me. So sharpen up those bargaining skills and come out swingin’! Trash or Treasure – you decide!
If you are very, very lucky, sometimes you can find a real antiquity in a stall. However, most things are fakes. If you do find one, you are allowed to take antiquities out of the country, provided it has a certificate. To qualify as an antiquity it must be about 500 years old, like before Christ. It is highly doubtful you will find anything, so don’t be conned! Just bargain like crazy and have fun! Don’t worry about how you’ll get it home, you can always buy an extra bag in the market. Hey, all this haggling is making me hungry, and I can smell something really enticing in the air!
You have to experience a Greek Taverna while in Greece. Good food, reasonable prices, oooh, yum yum. Tavernas are more casual than a trattoria or traditional restaurants. And they’re usually outside with a porticulis, vines hanging down to make shade. Taverna menus feature Greek standards like spinach pie, moussaka, stuffed grape leaves, Greek salad and fried cheese. It’s all good…cheap… and quick! Here, they’re the place get a quick bite, meet friends and catch up on the gossip!
Like the Café Neo, which the Greek men have been coming to for generations to socialize, share family news, swap rumors, eat and drink. While beer is gaining popularity with the Greeks, the drink of choice is still ouzo – always served with a glass of water on the side and sometimes with a short cup of strong Greek coffee! Yeow!
Afterwards, how about sampling a few Greek specialties? For that, we go off the beaten path and check out some of that local color. You never know what you’ll find. Handmade sandals, comfy! How about the natural sponges for your bath, a Greek specialty! Spices and other gifts for the chef at home. And, Ah… pastries, my FAVORITE!
Oooh…exotic Persian beads! Not Greek, but beautiful! Hand-sewn religious garments, now that’s not something you see every day! Interesting stuff, but I’m trying to kick the uh…“habit!” Gotcha! Religious items are common in Athens shops. Here faith and craftsmanship run hand in hand in the old world tradition of woodcarving, passed down for generations. These treasures make unusual souvenirs and great gifts.
Don’t forget to explore Athens’ most abundant natural resource – the water! You can easily join the commuting ferry crowd for a day trip to one of Athens nearby islands. But which one? It’s my dream vacation to cruise through the islands on one of those. Hey, how about that private mega yacht? Next time… I promise! For now, I think I’ll just relax by the water. Waiter? Another ouzo please!
Oh yeah! Greece is definitely a great place for a vacation… the ancient ruins… the friendly people… that incredible Mediterranean… wow! You combine antiquity, civilization, culture and class all in one fabulous and unique vacation. And, the kids will be able to share their experience in social studies class to earn high marks on their report cards! A win-win trip all around!