We arrived in Athens via our first flights in over 8 weeks. (That is the the biggest gap in me flying in at least 15 months, maybe more. Thank you Europe for having such incredible trains, often free or 1/2 price for kids!) Our Airbnb host arranged a cab at the official rate to pick us up, and the driver had Google Translate on his car’s infotainment system, so we had a long conversation between us, using the car as a translator. This was a first for us! For the most part this worked admirably. It turns out I’m not even sure what language he was speaking as at the end he told us he was originally from Albania (though had been in Athens 25 years). Ha!
We usually take public transport when feasible, which it is in Athens. However for 4 people it’s the same price to take a taxi, which IS unusual! They’ve added a large charge for the airport train of 10 euro a person. It also takes longer, and only runs every 30 minutes. I don’t mind places doing a little tourist-gouging, but that was a bit much. The cab definitely was the right choice on arrival. On the way out we actually had time to kill before our mid-afternoon departure so took the train for novelty. It was fine.
Athens in February falls under the same category as Rome: places that are ungodly hot, expensive and mobbed in summer, but very easy and cheap in winter! We didn’t need to buy “skip the line” tickets to avoid hours in line nor did we even have to buy any tickets in advance. We managed a very reasonable apartment within walking distance to everything with a view of the Acropolis. And, for the most part, the weather was just fine. We were able to eat outside, albeit with heaters at times, and enjoy the city!
We scheduled our stop to be a bit of whirlwind to basically see the Acropolis. Partially this was so we could squeeze it in (we have a safari scheduled in late February that we had to get to) and partially because Athens has often been described to me as a bit dingy, a bit dangerous and just not that exciting. However I was very pleasantly surprised at how nice it was! Admittedly we stayed in a touristy area. But don’t most tourists? Even in our cab rides and above ground train the parts of the city we saw were quite nice. I’m not sure if the city is finally ascending after years of economic turmoil, or we just have seen such actual poor and decrepit places by now that I’m biased. I’d love to return and see more of the country! It will need to be in another season though, as the Greek islands are apparently totally closed up in winter.
Our 2 days were fairly full with time at the Acropolis, a walk around Plaka (touristy old part of town), the Acropolis museum and the Ancient Agora. The kids discovered they loved gyros, of course without any “sauce” as is usual. They are repulsed by mayonnaise and I think we can say “no sauces” in 10 languages by now! Still it’s a good thing.
The Acropolis is one of those places like the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben or the Colosseum that make you go “wow, it’s real!”. Nate was in awe and said “I feel like when I saw the Eiffel tower!” Definitely not anti-climatic. There were no lines to buy tickets and none to enter. While it was far from empty, it felt like you could make your own space to admire and reflect. The weather was very changeable – sunny and clear when we first got up, then very windy and a bit of drizzle. (Not enough to soak you though!)
We once again used our trusty Rick Steves audio guides and enjoyed the views for quite some time. It is remarkable that most was built in the 400s BCE and its buildings are still beautiful to our eye and influencing architecture today. There are actually a few structures up top, not just the most famous Parthenon. I also never knew (but should have guessed) that the Parthenon was converted to a church, then a mosque, before the minaret and various additions were removed to bring back to original.
The Acropolis museum is rather new and sits at the base of the Acropolis. It houses the decor from the Acropolis that Greece has in its possession. The top floor is a remarkable piece of museum architecture. The floor plan is basically a simplified scale model (1:1) of the exterior of the Parthenon with the pieces in place. This (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acropolis_Museum) explains it better. There are glass exterior walls so you can also look up and see the actual building. It’s amazing to see it all in order, at heights and locations they were meant to be. Of course much of the original pediment, friezes and metope (oh look I was paying attention in high school ancient history!) are not in Greece. In fact Greece has been fighting with the British Museum for decades to get huge pieces of the exterior which are housed there. To a lesser extent there are pieces in the Louvre and other museums too. The full story is way too long for this post (read about the “Elgin Marbles” if interested) but I felt this whole museum was a passive-aggressive (maybe just aggressive?) move to show where and how well Greece could house them. I have very few pictures as I thought they weren’t allowed. Turns out it was only a small part of the museum area that didn’t allow photos. Oops.
The statuary in the museum is stunning. A few pieces you can still see remnants of the colors they were painted in, and there are a few models made up full of painting as it would have originally been seen. So different than the white marble of text books.
The ancient Agora (aka a marketplace or city center) is mainly a large open area with a few columns and broken stones. Using an audio guide is hugely helpful, but still requires a lot of imagination to get the idea of what it was really like. There is a small museum within a recreated building that had some interesting pieces, like a baby chair and and a household grill.
And now we were off for an even faster visit to even older famous buildings. Possibly the most famous of them all….and it’s on another continent —- any guesses?