WIth old charm and icons, Athens still captivates
TRAVEL: The grandeur that is Greece
By RICHARD FIANDER, Travel Writer
Greece has been a very popular travel destination for many decades and its popularity continues, growing to record numbers of visitors in 2013. The country offers a plethora of reasons to visit, including Athens and its antiquities, where Western civilization got its start, and the gods still dwell.
Inhabited for 7,000 years, Athens has been a city for half that time, and is considered one of the world’s oldest.
Its Golden Age was during the fifth -century when the Athenians controlled much of the eastern Mediterranean. The heritage of the Golden Age is evident throughout Athens, represented by ancient monuments and works of art, including the Acropolis and the Parthenon. Today, Athens is a sprawling, busy, cosmopolitan city of a little more than 4 million people.
In a quiet neighborhood, the mid-range priced Herodion Hotel (www.herodion.gr) is contemporary, has lovely common areas and simple but tidy rooms. There is an attractive atrium restaurant and friendly bar. With two open-air Jacuzzis and comfortable lounges, the roof terrace is a great place to end a long day nursing a glass of retsina, while enjoying a dramatic view of the nearby Acropolis
To a person, the staff members at the hotel are polite, friendly, and go the extra mile. The primary plus for staying here, however, is its location. It is minutes away from the Acropolis metro station (looking more like a museum than a transport hub) where fast, reliable trains arrive and depart every five minutes for destinations throughout Athens and the metropolitan area.
The Herodion is also an easy few-minutes’ stroll to a pedestrian walkway that, along its almost two-mile route, that leads to Athens’ most famous ancient sites and places of interest.
The sort of itinerary a visitor to Athens might follow depends on the amount of time available, personal interest, desired pace, and sense of adventure. A person could spend an intense morning savoring the wonders of the Acropolis, followed by a casual afternoon in Athens’ loveliest and quirkiest neighborhood, Anafiotika, and in the Plaka, the historic heart of Athens, where travernas, cafes and antique shops beckon.
The New Acropolis Museum
A top attraction is the New Acropolis Museum. The Old Acropolis Museum, situated next to the Parthenon, was always thought to be too small and worn to do justice to the sculpture and architectural pieces it housed. But the new museum, a multi-story, all glass architectural showpiece, is a spectacular setting for the stunning treasures of the Acropolis.
The guide who was assigned to my group the day we visited had to cancel at the last minute and a replacement was pressed into service. But what a replacement! He was a full-time staff member, a veteran professional archeologist, and a wonderful story-teller. The museum houses 4,000 priceless pieces, and I’ll bet he is familiar with each piece. He mesmerized his audience with history, tales of gods, goddesses, monsters, heroes, triumphs and tragedies. A great experience.
A short distance from the museum on the pedestrian walkway is the Acropolis plateau and the greatest temple of Periclean Greece, the Parthenon.
Now one of the world’s most famous buildings, the temple was built to be completely symmetrical. The many columns that framed it were ingeniously curved to effectively create the optical illusion of harmonious, perfect form.
Yes, it’s impressive, but also make sure to explore the reconstructed Temple of Athena Nike and the elegant Erechtheion temple, bounded on its south side by the famous Porch of the Caryatids. Understand, though, that these maiden statue pillars are reproductions. The originals now reside in the New Acropolis Museum.
While here, pause and enjoy the stunning views of Athens.
Lying just below the Acropolis, the Agora was the heart of ancient Athens. The Times Square of the ancient city, it was here where news was exchanged, merchants squabbled, tradesmen haggled with customers, deals were struck. It was here where democracy was born and practiced in council sessions and open meetings.
Here Socrates and Plato discoursed and, centuries later, St. Paul preached. There were theaters, schools, houses, shops and stoas, or covered walkways or porticos open to the public where merchants could sell their goods, artists could display their artwork and religious gatherings could take place.
The grassy Agora is a great place to wander. The Stoa of Attalos was destroyed by fire in A.D. 267 but, helped along by a large donation from John D. Rockefeller, it was reconstructed between 1953 and 1957 through the use of the original foundation and ancient materials. , was reconstructed between The stoa now contains an impressive museum whose exhibits reveal the great diversity and sophistication of life in the ancient Athenian world.
The highlight of the Ancient Agora is the Hephaestus, the best preserved Doric temple in all of Greece.. It never quite makes the same impact as the younger Parthenon, mainly because it lacks a noble site and cannot be seen from below, but it is magnificent.
Sunday in Athens
Planned right, Sunday in Athens can be a great day.
Syntagma Square, the center of modern Athens, is a prime spot for shopping and people-watching. It is also home to the Greek parliament. The building’s forecourt is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument to the country’s fallen, guarded by presidential honor guards, or Evzones, complete with red fez, pleated kilt and pom-pom clogs. The Evzones are changed every hour on the hour to the delight of gathered spectators, and it makes for a great Kodak-moment. They are best seen on Sundays and major holidays at 10:45 a.m. when they engage in an extended ceremony that includes a military band.
As early as you can on a Sunday, head to Monastiraki Plaza and its radiating streets, where a sprawling flea market takes place. You’ll love the color and chaos. Amidst the usual shops, restaurants, cafes and food carts, traders display their goods in stalls, on temporary tables, the backs of trucks, the trunks of cars, along the sidewalks and curbs. The variety of what’s available for sale appears limitless, often of good quality and at low-prices. Good-natured haggling is expected.
Plaza Avissynias is a small, lively part of the flea market. Thousands of items for sale are crammed into the shops and spill out into the square, including fantastic kitsch. After the purchase of some goodies for folks back home, my attention was attracted to a nearby café by some lively music, a soaring mesa—soprano voice, enthusiastic clapping and shouts of pleasure and encouragement.
Curious, plus interested in a late lunch, I entered the Café Avissinias (www.avissinia.gr). The place was packed. The small dance floor was crowded with smiling couples dancing together and clusters of men and women dancing separately. The café offers live music and entertainment weekly, starting Thursday night and over the weekend through Sunday afternoon until 7 p.m. Locals come to sing, dance and have a rousing good time.
The Café Avissynias was opened 29 years ago by Ketty Koufonikola. She works most days but wasn’t there the day I visited, at home instead finalizing her second cookbook. Her replacement was her able, very friendly son, Mihail.
The food served in the restaurant is mostly the cuisine of Ketty’s native Macedonia, granny-style traditional -- and excellent. The first floor includes a large bar, an elegant wood and glass ambience, and seats 60 people. The second floor dining room has picture windows and jaw-dropping views of the Acropolis and the Temple of Hephaestus.
The room is also, well, different, with quirky colors, unmatched furniture, antiques and curbside-found curios. There is plenty of eclectic art work in the form of oils and watercolors that range from special, valuable, to numerous pieces picked up at the flea market. There’s also a lovely pen and ink sketch proudly displayed, created by a talented customer-artist between courses.
Upstairs, the romantic roof terrace is available for dining most of the year. The view, a visual treat, will make the heart skip a beat or two.
When dining at Café Avissynias, for a special, extremely flavorful treat, try the lamb with bulgur wheat.
National Archaeological Museum
While there are many top attractions to enjoy in Athens, the one certainly not to be missed is the National Archaeological Museum, founded at the end of the 19th century to house antiquities from all over Greece.
The priceless collection was dispersed and buried underground during World War II to protect it from possible damage. Today, this superb museum showcases a most formidable collection of ancient Greek artifacts, making it without doubt one of the world’s finest museums.
There are many unique exhibits to amaze, including the stunning gold treasures of the Mycenaean collection. Impressive, but I was wowed by the sculpture collection, especially several of the bronzes, including the bareback Jockey of Artemision, a Second- Century BC bronze salvaged from the sea and from the same excavation, the bronze Artemision Poseidon (some say Zeus), poised and ready to fling a trident (or thunderbolt), thought to have been created in 460 B.C., amazingly, about 2,500 years ago.
There are many wonderful, inexpensive, easily arranged day trips from Athens worth considering. One is a half-day scenic drive along the coast to Cape Sounion and the showstopper Temple of Poseidon, perched 197 feet above the sea.
Also, there is a memorable one-day excursion to Delphi, home of the most venerated and consulted Greek oracle of old. The site is breathtaking and the artwork unforgettable.
There are a staggering 227 inhabited islands scattered throughout the Aegean and Ionian Seas. The vast majority have played an important part in Greece’s history and its contemporary culture, including Crete, Corfu, Santorini, Mykonos and Rhodes, to name a few. I look forward some time in the future to an idyllic, slow-paced visit to a number of them.
Meanwhile, there is a very satisfying one day, three-island cruise offered by several companies. The one I selected was Athens One Day Cruise (www.onedaycruise.gr) and included visits to Hydra, Poros, and Aegina, islands in the Saronic Gulf.
Hydra is a favorite of the chic and artsy crowd partly because it is in a time-warp. By decree, the town must be preserved as it was 50 to 60 years ago. Little has changed since Sophia Loren filmed the movie “Boy on a Dolphin” there in 1957. Cars are prohibited. Transport and muscle are provided by donkeys.
The port is lovely, no doubt, but Hydra’s special charm is in the lanes and alleys that run up the gray sides of the steep hills from portside, where a very traditional Greek way of life can be glimpsed , and multitudes of magnificent bougainvillea.
Poros is the smallest of the islands, with a pretty harborside. The largest of the islands visited is Aegina, so close to the port of Piraeus and, therefore, Athens, that many people take the 25 to 30-minute one-way commute daily. The harbor is very interesting and there was a worthwhile visit to the Temple of Aphaia, which proudly bears 25 of its original 32 columns, dating back to the early 5th century B.C.
During the cruise, an excellent buffet was provided for lunch. There was a spirited Greek show with singers and dancers and much cheerful, energetic audience participation. Great fun!
The adult cost for the three island cruise was a bargain, $99 EU.