I finally landed in Athens, after 19 hours of flying. That is actual FLYING time, people! Luckily, I am surprisingly good at doing nothing which is why I really don’t mind air travel all that much (and secretly, I DO like airplane food!). The older couple next to me kept asking if I wanted to go to the bathroom during the 12 hour Hong Kong to London leg and at the end, commented on my “stamina”… Nevertheless, first backtracking through Hong Kong and then overshooting my destination by flying to London then back to Greece, I was happy to be on the ground. I’m a road warrior, but even I was tired after this one. But my answer to jetlag has always been to try and be as active as possible, as soon as possible. Here’s my recommendation for a jam-packed 12 hour Athens experience with a splash of culture, a bit of shopping and of course, lots of eating!
8:00am: Get up early and arrive at the Acropolis, just as the doors open. You’ll have the place almost to yourself, because by 9:15am, the tour groups arrive en masse, changing the whole complexion of the site. Situated on a craggy ridge 150m above sea level and overlooking the entire city, the Acropolis can be seen from almost anywhere in Athens. Its name, in fact, translates to “The highest point of the town”. Seeing it for the first time is a genuine “wow” moment, just like seeing the Eiffel Tower or The Great Wall or any of those other iconic edifices. The Acropolis is actually a combo ticket, allowing you to visit a few different sites within 4 days, including the colossal Temple of Olympian Zeus, the ancient agora (marketplace) and the Temple of Hephaestus, regarded as the best-preserved ancient Greek temple. But the highlight is, of course, the Parthenon. Even though it isn’t much to see nowadays, after centuries of being ravaged by time (built during Greece’s Golden Age, approximately 2,500 years ago), the elements (until about the 1980’s, Athens was the most polluted city in Europe, turning the once white marble into a shade of creamy latte) and human activity (because of its height, the Acropolis made a natural fortress, and was therefore bombarded by the Venetians in the 17th century, partially destroying the Parthenon which was then used to store gunpowder), it only takes a bit of imagination to picture the marble as gleaming white and cool under the feet as when it was first constructed, a towering statue of Athena, patron goddess of Athens, looking down on the faithful. I was happy to just sit and lose myself in the moment. I just love everything about ancient civilizations, especially how they devoted so much time and expense to the pursuit of beauty. If you’re interested in Bible history, don’t forget to check out the Areopagus (also known as Mars Hill) where the apostle Paul preached in the first century (tip: take the metal steps to the side as opposed to the super slippery natural steps). It’s surprisingly smaller than I would have pictured. Nearby is also the open air theater known as the Odeon of Herodes Atticus where Yanni once famously played, much to the chagrin of actual Athenians… But that did trigger a Eureka moment for me – that’s why so many movie cineplexes are called Odeon! Random observation: WHY do people feel the need to strike weird poses in front of ancient monuments?!?
11:00am: Because Athens is so walkable (the touristy sites, at least), wind your way through the village-like Plaka area, long pedestrian-only streets lined with shops selling everything from kitschy olive oil soap (with free magnet attached!) to high end Greek-inspired jewelry. I was really looking forward to visiting the Konstantino flagship store, a designer who creates museum-copy jewelry. I’m not telling how much I spent in there… (shaking my head… Travel budget? What budget?) Working your way through the Plaka, you’ll end up in Monastiriki Square, the delightful smell of grilled meat in the air with so many chic eateries vying for your dollar. Instead of sitting down for a trendy but overpriced lunch, why not grab a gyro-to-go (how DO you pronounce that? yee-ro? jai-ro? gee-ro?) at one of those same restaurants, the ultimate sandwich of succulently moist roasted pork, tomatoes and onions, wrapped in a freshly baked pita and topped with garlicky tzatziki sauce and enjoy it in a shady spot in the square? A delicious meal for only €2.
2:00pm: Ranked among the top museums in the world, the National Archaeology Museum is a gorgeous space, well worth a few hours of meandering time. (Check out the courtyard just south of the museum, strangely packed with dozens of zombied, gaunt-faced druggies openly getting high smack during the day.) My favorites were the replica statue of the Athena statue originally in the Parthenon but now missing, an ancient potty training chair, the Greek use of swastikas (simply a good luck symbol to depict the rays of the sun, much later appropriated by the Nazis) and seeing how Greek sculpture evolved through the ages. Sculptures started out being very stiff, arms straight to the side, Egyptian style, with very stylized, geometric bodies, but then slowly evolving into more lifelike poses, limbs angled to create the illusion of movement, lips even formed into a demure smile.
5:00pm: By now, you’re probably getting hungry! Earlier in the day, we visited rows of columns in the ancient agoras (marketplaces, think “outdoor mall”). Now it’s time to head to the modern Athens Central Market, where everything including rows of fresh fish, meat, vegetables, olives piled high, nuts, herbs and spices are on display. But the best part of the market, for visitors at least, is the small working class restaurants. No pretension here as you sit side-by-side with locals looking for a quick bite after shopping. The waiter throws a piece of butcher paper down on the table and you pick from the dishes on offer for the day. A dish of falling-off-the-bone lamb stew with caramelized baby onions, a side of spinach rice, all mopped up with crusty bread will set you back about €14.
By now, it’s almost time to head back to the hotel for an early night. Remember, you just spent 19 hours on a plane…
Athens has been in the news for its financial woes and the general unrest was manifested in the form of strikes against austerity measures taken by the government, including massive layoffs, pension cuts and tax increases. On Monday, when I arrived, the bus drivers were on strike, forcing me to change my plans and schlep my luggage through the metro system (the plus side was seeing some of the museum pieces displayed in various metro stations). On Wednesday, air traffic controllers were on strike forcing all flights to be re-scheduled. And on another day, rail workers were on strike, shutting down one of the three metro lines. On the plus side, the dollar has been gaining against the euro, meaning more purchasing power for US tourists.
Travel tip: I found Rick Steve’s audioguides for Athens a terrific resource. They covered everything I wanted to see: The Acropolis, the National Museum and a city walk. Free to download, they were cheesily funny, informative (but not overly so) and it was nice to be able to look around and not have your face buried in a guidebook…