Athens – a few changes in 47 years, but in some ways, not so much
I first arrived in Athens via a bus in the middle of the night in 1972. We were dropped in Syntagma Square (Constitution Square) in the middle of the city and hustled off to a hostel where it took hours to find beds for everyone. That was okay as they parked us in a taverna where we had our first taste of cheap Retsina, a variation on wine made from pine tree resin. OMG!
OK, things have changed.
This time we arrived in Athens via Scoot Airlines from Singapore in Business Class. A Mercedes whisked us to New Hotel, an old hotel re-made new, just a block from Syntagma. Nice place, small rooms but blessed with a gorgeous roof top terrace bar with stunning views of the Acropolis. Change is good.
However, Athens was going through a one-day taxi strike and that Mercedes charged us four times the usual rate. Seems a few people make money at the expense of the rest, just like the old days. No change.
Often in a new city (this time, new to Ellen) we take the open top bus tour to get our bearings and do a little ‘hop on, hop off'. For all its centuries of history it isn’t a big town. Greece has shrunk to under 11 million people and Athens has almost half of them. The shrinkage is due to the woeful economy and the crippling debt they accumulated before the EU pulled them up short. They will be paying interest (if they can) until 2060. The economy was in the ditch in 1972. It still is. Little Greece is losing 200-250 thousand people a year. Do the math. While the reforms are tough and well intended there may not be enough working age people left to keep the country afloat.
Back then a backpacker could get his mail forwarded by American Express if he could just show one AMEX Travellers Cheque. Anybody remember those things? My mail had been chasing me from Zurich to Amsterdam to Rome and finally caught up to me in Athens. My parents sent me some much needed cash which allowed me to sit in the café at the bottom of Syntagma and watch the ladies in black climb into their limousines 100 yards away at the Hotel Grande Bretagne. Today, we lunched on their lovely roof top terrace (GB Roof Garden) and watched a protest going on in the square below our lofty perch. I watched a violent protest against the government in the square in 1972 and here we were again. Déjà vu and more to come.
After lunch and a nap, dinner was at hotel recommended, Stroffi in the Plaka, the old residential area at the base of the Acropolis. View stunning, food not so much. Back to the ‘New Hotel' for our first ouzo (with ice and water) on the roof terrace to stare at the Acropolis.
And, you can’t help but stare at it day or night. It is one of the most impressive sights in the world and it seemed the whole world knew it when we went the next day. Athens may be suffering in many ways but not from lack of tourism. A tip - go early. We entered from the backside, opposite side to the Plaka, via the little hamlet of Anafiotika. Gorgeous, steep, unsigned but for the occasional arrow. That got us to the main gate where we picked up a guide; valuable if only to avoid the long ticket line. Then, we climbed; up and up with a few thousand other people. The Acropolis was being restored in 1972 and it is still being restored. This time in part to correct the damage done by the first restoration. They are now using the same marble, from the same quarry that the place was built from 2,464 years ago. Every piece is hand cut to fit to a tolerance of 1/10 of a millimetre.
There is too much history to relate here. Suffice to say it endured countless invasions, burning, bombing, earthquakes and still stands. A proud symbol of Greek democracy. One story - in May of 1941, during the Nazi occupation, the Germans flew a giant Swastika from the Belvedere, an ancient tower overlooking the city and visible from everywhere. Two Greek university students studied ancient history books and found an unknown passage to the top that avoided the guards. They tore down the Swastika leaving the pole bare for the whole city to see in the morning. That was thought to be one of the first acts of Greek resistance to the occupation.
All that climbing called for lunch. New Hotel recommended Cherchez La Femme on Mitropoleos Street in the Plaka. More a French bistro with a Greek twist the food was excellent and the best Greek salad we had in Greece (we had 12 of them). More walking, another nap and dinner close by the hotel at 333 Restaurant and Chef’s Workshop on Nicodemou. Pretty good and cute bit with their resident magician. Home for an ouzo on the terrace, again.
We saved the Acropolis Museum for morning. Opened in 2009, it houses all the artefacts found on the ancient site. Well, not all. One reason for its construction was the proposed return of the Elgin Marbles, taken from the Acropolis in the 1800’s by Lord Elgin and on display in the British Museum. The Brits insisted there was no suitable place for the Marbles to be returned to. Now there is and they still have not been returned nearly 10 years later. The museum is situated on top of ancient ruins that are being excavated right below you under glass. That will be open to the public on completion in 2019. It is a stunning place and the works on display are breathtakingly beautiful. In particular, the original Caryatids from the Erechtheum Temple on the north side of the Acropolis. These six columns held up the porch but were carved as lovely maidens; their hair braided and robes flowing around them. Never seen a prettier column. The marbles that aren’t in Britain are on the top floor, installed just as they were on the Parthenon. The Elgin piece is a reproduction save for one original carved hand and one foot they missed.
From the Museum we walked through the National Gardens to the upscale shopping and eating neighbourhood of Kolonaki. As we walked by the Presidential Palace we happened upon the changing of the guard. The guardsmen are called Evzones and put on an elaborate display of slow motion marching. Their uniforms are unique; cream colour in summer, navy in winter with huge pom pom's on the toes of their boots. They wear white leggings and white skirts called Fustanellas with 400 pleats, one for each year of the Ottoman (Turkish) occupation. The soles of their boots are studded with 90 nails each that they scape and stomp to imitate the sound of gunfire. Always accompanied by an officer they never speak and answer to him by one blink (yes), two blinks (no) or three blinks (I don’t know). They put on a completely unique display and should not be missed in Athens.
In Kolonaki, we waited out a rare thunderstorm in a bar on pedestrian street of Tsakalof and then moved on to a lovely restaurant called Oikeio. More walking, more napping and then dinner at the highly touted and very popular Taverna Tou Psaras in the Plaka. Another spot at the base of the Acropolis and another great view with disappointing food. Ah, well.
Back to our lovely terrace on the roof of New Hotel and the sounds of another protest down the road in Syntagma Square. This time 5,000 people were protesting the name change of Macedonia to The Republic of Macedonia. Seriously?!
We heard the flash bang grenades but weren’t prepared for the little cloud of tear gas that swept over our terrace. Eyes and nose burning, throat closing we were all rushed inside until, in minutes, the little cloud moved on. I asked the server if this happened often. He just shrugged: “it’s Athens“, he said.
And yes, it’s Athens. A lot of good, a little bad but a good town overall with a lot going on. Some people hate it (yes you Neil) some have a bit of a love/hate thing (yes you Gigi). Sadly, if the economy can’t get going and the population continues to shrink the future isn’t all that bright. So, go now. We thought it was great and we got tear gassed!!!
Athens What & Where
New Hotel - an old hotel re-made new, just a block from Syntagma. Nice place, small rooms but blessed with a gorgeous roof top terrace bar with stunning views of the Acropolis.
Grand Bretagne Roof Garden - perfect lunch spot at this iconic 5 star hotel. The lovely roof top terrace has breathtaking views of the Acropolis, Syntagma Square and the Parliament and Lycabettus Hill.
Strofi - in the Plaka's old residential area at the base of the Acropolis with stunning view and traditional Greek, Mediterranean food.
Cherchez la Femme - on Mitropoleos Street in the Plaka. More a French bistro with a Greek twist. The food was excellent and the bill very reasonable.
333 Restaurant and Chef’s Workshop - on Nicodemou. Pretty good and cute bit with their resident magician on the weekends.
Warehouse CO2 - a short walk from New Hotel, this bar is known for its bubbly but its flat white is the best we've had anywhere and homemade lemonade is perfect after long, hot walk.
Paradosiako Taverna Grill - very reasonable in the Plaka for meat lovers. The grilled meats are good but they ran out of spit roast and casseroles so we didn't get a taste.
Oikeio - a modern taverna lives up to its name (meaning ‘homey’). It’s decorated like a cosy bistro, and tables on the footpath allow people-watching without the usual Kolonaki bill. Dolmades and orange salad are excellent.
Matsoukas - off of Ermou Street. The perfect place to stock up on sweets, nuts and spices before heading home. You can sample before you buy.
Why Athens - great website for all things visitors need to know.