Athens in late March – early spring flowers, cool northerly breezes, mild sunny days, ancient ruins around every corner and local culinary delights to be savoured at every turn… Yes, this is a city for the senses, a destination that will leave you craving more, more, more! So sit back, relax, and let my imagination take you for a ride as I guide you through an afternoon and evening in this A-lister of a global destination!
Picture this if you will… Having been whisked away from Athens International Airport on the new metro service, a leisurely fifty minute ride past the rustic vistas of outer suburban olive groves and into the groaning foundations of the ancient metropolis, I find myself ascending up an escalator from Acropolis Station and instantly overwhelmed by the enticing aromas of roasting gyro meat and frying pita bread wafting on the swirling northerly breeze. Checking the souvlaki cafeteria to my left, I make a mental note to return post haste and indulge in the local culinary delight par excellence just as soon as I have checked into my nearby hotel and freshened up.
Thirty minutes later I am back, umming and ahhing about whether to choose chicken or pork for my souvlaki. Both of them are looking juicy and succulent, dripping tasty juices into a pan below as they twist slowly in front of a glowing red grill. In the end pork wins out, and before you know it, you’ve been handed a heady concoction of slow roasted pork shavings, juicy tomato, crisp lettuce and salty French fries, all wrapped in a lightly grilled pita bread and drizzled with a generous helping of tzatziki sauce. Taking a seat at the outside tables, I watch the fashionably clad mixture of tourists and locals swarming by, and wash it all down with an ice cold can of Amstel – yes ma’am, that really hits the spot!
The stunning new Acropolis Museum beckons me from across the street, but so does the Acropolis itself, and up and on my feet and turning the corner I am instantly hit with the killer view that will mesmerize you again and again in this photogenic capital – the sight of the Parthenon sitting majestically upon its soaring rocky perch, a sight that has stirred the imaginations of so many for so many centuries. My head in the clouds, I walk south, along the cobblestoned and closed to traffic Dionysiou Areopagitou, named after the first Bishop of Athens, converted in AD51 by Saint Paul’s ‘Sermon to the Unknown God’ on the Areopagus Hill, a lower rocky outcrop on the far side of the Acropolis, andmythical site of Ares’ trial by the Council of the Gods for the murder of Poseidon’s son.
Peering through the pine trees to my right, I make out the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysis, constructed in stone and marble between 342-326BC, location of the ancient Festival of the Dionysia, where men clad in goatskins sang and performed dances, honouring their ecstatic god of the vine, before the Golden Age of Greek theatre arrived, ushering in the performances of the great dramatic works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides beforeenraptured audiences 17,000 strong.
Onward I wander, a fresh southerly breeze blowing in off the Aegean, the first budding leaves of spring working their way out of the gnarled limbs of the curious looking deciduous trees that line either side of the street, a busker playing a lively number on an accordion to my left, a lone stray dog snoozing in the afternoon sun to my right, red poppy flowers and yellow daisies waving in the breeze as the wind shoots up the easterly flank of the Acropolis and stirs the pines into rustling whispers of folkloric mystery. The soaring stone arches of the Odeum of Herodes pass by on my right, the path leading up the southern slope of the Acropolis to the Propylaea and the entrance to the holy hilltop precinct passes by as well, butthere is no turning back – the Hill of the Nymphs is calling you!
I leave Dionysiou Areopagitou as it bends to the right, and continue in a southerly direction, up the tree clad slope ahead, along the cobbled trail that passes through the leafy dell between Filopappos Hill, otherwise known as the Hill of the Muses, to my left, and the Hill of the Pnyx, meeting place of the Democratic Assembly in the 5th century BC, to my right. After passing the picturesque Church of Agios Dimitrios with its renowned frescoes, I descend down the other side of a gentle saddle and find the excavated remains of the Deme of Koile, the ancient carved stone road to Piraeus Port, running parallel to the left hand side of my walking trail. Once the main carriage thoroughfare between the Acropolis and the port, protected on either side by the majestic Long Walls, it today looks little more than a stony creek, but closer inspection reveals the chiseled grooves that once held the carriages in place and prevented their overborn loads from tipping. Scampering now up the verdantslope to the west, I obey the call of the nymphs and ascend to the glorious view that awaits – a 360 degree panorama taking in, to the east, the 2nd century AD Filopappos Monument crowning the Hill of the Muses,to the north, the Parthenon perched regally behind the tree clad Hill of the Pnyx, glowing brilliantly white in the late afternoon sun, and to the west and south, the sprawling white packed-in high-density apartment blocks that surreally stretch toward the sea like a uniform carpet of crunchy coral sand. Honouring the nymphs of yore with a song, an evocation channeled from an archaic corner of my elated soul, I linger a moment, then push on – the sun is sinking, a chill is descending, but the night is young, and the Technopolis awaits!
An urban renewal project situated on the site of the city’s former gasworks and opened in 1999, the Technopolis is an industrial museum and cultural venue surrounded by a lively inner city neighbourhood of bars, cafes and restaurants.
To get here, I have wandered down from my hilltop perch, past the Observatory, the Ancient Agora and the Keramikos – the city’s cemetery from the 12th century BC to Roman times – and now find myself staring at an indecipherable banner in Greek characters above the main entrance. Fear not though, the Gods are on my side, for, as a local explains, I have stumbled across an exhibition of Cretan foodstuffs – for a meagre 3 euro you can sample the delicacies of King Minos’ descendants to your heart’s content!
My ticket purchased, I wander in to the first pavilion on my left and are immediately offered a small shot of something clear but incredibly potent – welcome to the world of Raki, a turbo-charged local aperitif made by distilling ‘pomace’, which is the leftover pieces of grapes, including seeds and stems, from the winemaking process. Every October and November, according to Cretan tradition, one or two licensed distillers in each Cretan village take the pomace, which has been sealed in a barrel for six weeks and turned into a fermented mush, and submit it to the distillation process. Often flavoured with lemon rind, rosemary or honey, the end result is a 35 to 60 percent proof alcohol by volume heart-starter which will literally have my mouth watering! My stomach on fire, my eyes rolling in my head a little, I am thankfully offered an organic Kalamata olive on a toothpick and a piece of crunchy bread drizzled in virgin olive oil, followed by a piece of sun dried tomato and another shot of lemon flavoured Raki. Wham! Watch out – this stuff packs a punch!
Half an hour later I find myself taking a seat at an outside booth, offering, yes, that’s right, more Raki! The past 30 minutes have hedonistically passed by in a haze of organic olives, tomatoes, sultanas, nuts, bread pieces and yes, copious amounts of Raki. Rising to my feet, I head for the main exit, a smiling Cretan vendor thrusting one last spoonful of organic honey in my mouth as I pass him by. The light has faded, night has descended, a chill has come down on the buzzing city. Wandering back up Ermou Street toward the Plaka neighbourhood, I marvel at the grime covered nineteenth century edifices mixed in with bland late twentieth century designs before stumbling upon Monistiraki Square and a loud and lively group of African and Caribbean drummers and dancers. A young woman, intoxicated by the hypnotic beat, puts on an energetic display of shivering and shaking to the rhythm, and before you know it, you are shivering and shaking , dancing in the Athenian night, celebrating life in this city of the senses. I dance, I whirl and spin like there is no tomorrow, until, knowing that there is a tomorrow, another gorgeous day filled with fascinating sights and culinary surprises, I pull myself away from the beat and wander home through the charming streets, past the Roman Agora, the Tower of the Winds, the Lysicrates Monument, drinking it all in, savouring every minute, intoxicated, overwhelmed, enchanted.