Posts Tagged ‘athens’

Greece

December 24th, 2017

Mount Lycabettus, Athens
 

After checking out of my Airbnb in Rome, I caught the “Leonardo Express” train to the airport, then hopped on a flight to Athens. My friend was gracious enough to pick me up at the airport and let me stay with him and his father at their home in Glifada, Athens.

I was a little nervous about returning to Greece — the last time I was there, we experienced a gas shortage due to a strike that almost left us stranded a few times. It turns out my fears were almost warranted; shortly before I left Rome, Athens resolved a garbage worker’s strike that had gone on for ten days. If that doesn’t sound so bad to you, remember that Greek summers are very hot, and this is a country where toilet paper goes in the garbage, not the toilet.

As luck would have it, everything went better this time around. It was also a less hectic trip, and I spent most days exploring Athens on my own. Having already seen the major sites last time, I opted to look for small, unusual tours and to somewhat off the beaten path destinations.

Street art, Athens Street art, Athens Street art, Athens Street art, Athens

My first full day in Athens was packed. My friend drove me to the nearest Metro station, where I was shocked to discover the price hadn’t increased in the seven years since I’d been on the Metro last time. Although I was running a little late, I arrived more or less on time for the street art tour I signed up for. The group was surprisingly large and diverse.

The tour explores the street art in the Thiseio neighborhood, ending near Monastiraki. The tour guide treated it almost like a museum tour as he knew the names of the artists, how and where they learned their craft, and which murals were commissioned and which were informally painted on abandoned buildings. The art ranged from silly and abstract to overtly political, and in size from small murals on doors to sides of large buildings.

Mount Lycabettus, Athens
 

Having some time to kill before my next tour and feeling guilty for eating so much pizza back in Rome, I decided I should work out a little. So I climbed to the top of Mount Lycabettus.

This turned out to be much harder than I’d anticipated. Not only were the directions on Google Maps confusing about how to get to the starting point of the trail, but even once I got on the trail it wasn’t clear which direction I should go. So there was a lot of fumbling around and asking locals for directions.

Eventually I got to the peak, which has a patio outside a small chapel. The view is incredible (see also the panorama at the top of this post.) But at this point my heart was pounding and I was drenched in sweat, so I wasn’t prepared to appreciate it. Luckily there’s an enormous restaurant near the peak that has great air conditioning. You can also take a funicular up and down the hill from this building, but that’s cheating. Anyway, after a beer and a huge bottle of water I was ready to go back outside, take some photos, and apply another layer of sunscreen.

Acropolis, Athens Roman water clock, Athens
 

As the evening approached I took one last tour — the Athens Free Walking Tour. This was a pretty big group, but the guide was very knowledgeable about the era spanning from Ancient Greece to the Roman days, and explained many artifacts, ruins, and religious monuments near the base of the Acropolis hill.

In the above photo on the right there’s a funny looking octagonal tower. In English it’s called the Tower of the Winds and is believed in Roman times to have housed a device known as a water clock. Unlike a sundial which can only be used during the day, a water clock runs as long as water is able to flow through it. Though the building’s exterior is in good shape the clock mechanism is no longer intact.

After the tour I wandered back to the Metro, grabbing a much needed bite to eat at a local market. I also stopped by Pittaki Street to see the unusual light installation. Despite being dark it was not illuminated — I found out later that some locals had rallied against it for some reason I never clearly understood, and as such it had been shut off. Sigh.

Athens Athens Athens
 

The next morning I woke up exhausted. After another trip on the Metro system I found my way to the starting point of the aptly titled “Get lost in Athens with an Insider” tour. This low key tour involved only me and the guide, as apparently nobody else had registered. The tour really lived up to its name, as I learned all kinds of odd trivia that even my local friend wasn’t aware of. Here are the highlights illustrated in the photos above.

  • One of the first stops was a sculpture representing the Star of David all ripped apart (big photo above.) This represents how the Jewish population of Athens had been torn apart in the Holocaust. Today the Jewish population in Athens is a small fraction of its pre-World War 2 days.
  • Anafiotika is a small neighborhood built in the same architectural style as the old towns on many Greek islands. Think small blue and white stucco buildings, narrow winding streets, all built into the hillside landscape in such a way that patios and rooftops all blend in together. On the way there, we walked by a restaurant where the cook was throwing pieces of meat and fish out the door, which had attracted a crowd of cats.
  • Some local Irish crank named Tom squats in an abandoned building just down the hill. He’s allegedly a local drunk who makes his living selling wire sculptures, and is particularly well known for his pro-Irish and anti-EU views. Though I wandered by later in the trip as well, I never saw Tom or got to speak with him but his presence spanned a small intersection. From what I gathered based on his painted walls he’s very much pro-Brexit despite now living in central Europe. (Talk about a mixed message.)
  • What’s missing in Athens? My guide’s unexpected pop quiz led to an answer I wouldn’t have ever guessed if I hadn’t been told. The historic architecture of Athens intentionally excludes the entire period in which they were ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Ancient and classic Greek architecture stands alongside a handful of Roman buildings, but Greeks resented Turkish rule so much they demolished hundreds of years of historic architecture, plazas, and statues once they regained their independence in order to forget an entire era.

Athens Athens

After the tour I wound up having an hour or so to kill before dinner, so I decided to spoil my appetite by visiting a nearby vegetarian restaurant called Avocado. I ordered a couple of appetizers — a small gazpacho soup and some guacamole — in addition to a beer and a glass of wine. Not traditional Greek food by any means but it hit the spot.

Shortly before heading back to the Metro I got a brief glimpse of the changing of the guard ceremony outside of the tomb of the unknown soldier; more on that later.

Spetses, Greece Spetses, Greece Spetses, Greece Spetses, Greece Spetses, Greece Spetses, Greece
 

The next day was Saturday, and the three of us got together again for a long weekend on the Greek island of Spetses. The hydrofoil ride there from Athens takes a couple hours. Spetses was once a naval asset, and while most of it doesn’t look like a fortress there are a few rusty cannons still positioned along the shore. To add to the old fashioned ambiance, many couples and families ride along the harbor coastline on horse-drawn carriages.

We were lucky to get an Airbnb not far from the harbor with a friendly and helpful host. We got lost walking to the place, because as it turns out Spetses doesn’t have addresses. As such, Airbnb and Google Maps led us to a random location on the island. After calling our host he gave us a course correction and we soon found our way there. The home turned out to be more spacious than we needed; the opposite of our cramped Airbnb in Rome.

Sunday we figured out how to take a crowded tourist bus to a beach called Agioi Anargiri on the west side of the island. The beach features a natural cave known as Bekiris. The tide was too high to get into the cave while we were there, but I’m told it’s well worth exploring if you can. The trail there is short and well marked. We had lunch at the beach’s only restaurant before heading out. Although the restaurant had a captive audience and an ambiance I can only describe as “nearly deafening cicada chirps,” the food was surprisingly good.

That night we watched Going in Style, the American bank heist comedy at an outdoor theater called Titania. It was reasonably priced, the beer was cheap and they added an intermission which was useful for a bathroom break. The only other movie theater I spotted on the island was also an outdoor theater so if you’re there when it’s raining, I guess you’re out of luck if you want to watch a film on the big screen.

On our last day on Spetses before departing, we took one last trip to a beach near our Airbnb. While Spetses is advertised as not having cars on the island, well… many of the locals have cars and they drive at insane speeds on narrow roads without sidewalks. As I’ve stated numerous times in my blog posts about Greece, Greeks don’t seem to take safety very seriously. That said it wasn’t a long walk to the east side of the island where we found a nice beach with a variety of amenities.

Grocery store, Athens Grocery store, Athens
 

On the way back from the port, my friend mentioned he needed to do some grocery shopping at a supermarket. Normally in Europe a “supermarket” is about the size of an American convenience store, but this one was the size of your average Safeway or Albertsons, if not larger.

All their shopping carts all had a built-in mechanism that required the deposit in the form of a coin that could only be returned if you brought back the cart. Strange idea, but it seemed to work as long as you remembered to carry the required coin with you.

The store carried a dazing array of worldwide foods from kopi luwak coffee to a display of Mexican foods to… Anchor Steam beer! My memories of eating a burrito in Berlin were flooding back. While I wasn’t about to make a burrito, we had to buy a couple overpriced bottles of Anchor Steam just for fun.

We eventually wound up drinking most of the beer while playing the remastered LucasArts classic adventure game Day of the Tentacle. Never though I’d wind up halfway around the world re-playing an old video game but hey, that game still holds up.

Greek/Turkish style coffee, Athens Food tour, Athens Food tour, Athens Food tour, Athens
 

My second to last day in Greece I went on a food tour called Taste of Athens. Once again, I wound up being the only person in the tour group.

  • The first stop was a traditional Greek coffee joint called Mokka. They brewed the finely-ground coffee in a small pot that was partially buried in sand, which I’m told is to help maintain heat consistency. And yes, Turkish and Greek coffee are exactly the same thing — but don’t tell them I said so.
  • At the cafe I also learned a completely unrelated factoid. The Greek version of “jinx” (where two people coincidentally say the same thing at the same time) works a little differently than ours. Both parties are required to touch something red, otherwise according to legend they will start a fight. The more you know!
  • We walked through the meat and fish markets, then through a number of shops that sell dry pasta, spices, etc. Plenty of options if you want something to take home, or are planning to cook for yourself in Athens.
  • Next up was a cafe with a new twist on a classic baked good. A koulouri is the Greek version of a narrow bagel that’s common in that part of the world. At Oven Sesame they have koulouris that aren’t completely hollow in the middle, but contains a pita pocket. You can order these with a variety of fillings.
  • At another nearby cafe we got an enormous plate of appetizers. The sheer quantity of food rapidly became a problem at this point, and I was starting to think I wasn’t so lucky being the only guest on this tour.
  • Finally, and against my better judgement, it was time for dessert. We went to Lukumades, nearby joint that sells, well… loukoumades. What is that, you ask? It’s a bunch of fried dough balls, basically like donut holes but served fresh, and covered with a variety of toppings like chocolate sauce, nuts, etc. Certainly delicious but also very heavy for someone who was already on a gluttony streak. Fortunately I also got a small bottle of tsikoudia, a type of brandy from Crete. This numbed my digestive system to the point where could choke down a few loukoumades.

Athens Athens Athens
 

When the tour was over I walked back to the Parliament Building just in time to see the changing of the guard. A large crowd was already gathered to watch the soldiers in silly uniforms go through their weird hourly ceremony in which the guards slowly march in front of the tomb of the unknown soldier to change shifts. The slow march looks ridiculous, but makes sense considering the heat.

Next I headed to the National Gardens behind the Parliament Building. It’s a large peaceful park with plenty of shade and a variety of animals including ducks, chickens, and turtles. It’s easy to get lost in there, but it’s also one of the few places in Athens you’ll find free bathrooms.

While relaxing in the garden deciding where to go from here, my friend sent me a text message suggesting I check out a bar on top of a hotel called A For Athens near Monastiraki. I headed over there along Ermou Street, a busy shopping corridor with high end stores and outdoor chandeliers above the street. Finding the entrance to A For Athens proved challenging as it wasn’t well marked, but once I was inside and asked for the bar the front desk staff waved me to an elevator in the back. Soon a glass elevator lit in red took me to the top of the building. From one side, there’s a glass wall with an amazing view of the Acropolis in the distance with Monastiraki Square down below. I sat for a while sipping a cappuccino while taking in the view.

Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece Poros, Greece Aegina, Greece
 

My last day in Greece I embarked on an adventure to three small islands I’d never been to on the One Day Cruise. After a lengthy voyage the first stop was Hydra, an island with a small harborside town where all transportation is either by foot or by donkey. Tired and somewhat hungry, I stopped by The Pirate Bar (also known as The Pirate Cafe) for a salad and a Mythos before exploring the naval fortress. Much like Spetses, a few rusty cannons still sit along the old fortress’ walls.

At this point we were heading back towards Athens so the stops were much closer together. Next up was the tiny island of Poros. Along with many other travelers, I climbed up to the peak of the island where there’s a clock tower and a huge Greek flag. From here the mainland looks so close you could swim there, not that I’d recommend this. I took a long walk along the shore before we had to head back to the ship.

Our last stop before returning to Athens was Aegina. These days this island is mostly known for growing pistachios, but was apparently an important place throughout various eras of Greek history. The port town here isn’t terribly interesting, many of the businesses look to have closed along ago, and the beach is small and uninviting. That said, there’s a small stand near the port that sells bags of pistachios. If you’re a fan (or know someone who is) definitely buy a bag or three, you won’t regret it. You can also find pistachio flavored gelato and such at restaurants and cafes around the island.

 
My last morning in Athens we said our goodbyes and I hopped on a plane back to Barcelona for the last few days of the trip.

To conclude my post on Greece, here’s all the tours I went on.

  • Street Art Tour from Alternative Athens. If you like exploring side streets and looking at street art, you can’t go wrong with this one.
  • Athens Free Walking Tour. This tour mostly covers the historic area around the Acropolis, and ends near the entrance to the Acropolis and the Acropolis museum. Totally free, but bring a cash tip for your guide if you found the tour enjoyable.
  • Urban Athens Collective’s Get lost in Athens with an Insider tour. I paid 32 euros for a group tour, but since I was the only one who registered it wound up being a personalized tour. Not sure if this is the norm for this one, but ten euros an hour for a one-on-one tour of Athens’ best kept secrets is an insane bargain; even a coffee was included. I’d do it again.
  • Taste of Athens from Urban Adventures. Again I lucked out and had this tour to myself. Aside from a glutinous amount of food included in the price, the tour also stops by a few local markets and shops in case you’d like to buy food to take home. The tour ends not far from the Acropolis. I called ahead and they were happy to accommodate my vegetarian diet.
  • One Day Cruise. This three island tour starts early and ends shortly before dinnertime. They have a bus that stops by many nearby hotels to take you to the cruise ship terminal. Grab breakfast before you go as only lunch is served on board. Various tours are offered on each island as an upsell, if you do any of them I’d recommend booking one on Aegina as it’s the last stop and there’s not much else to do there.

 

For more photos from my trip to Greece this year, check out this Flickr album.

This blog post concludes my month long journey over the past summer to Spain, Italy, and Greece. For all blog posts in this series head over here.