A City Break to Athens

Athens was a sun-drenched maze of antiquities, graffiti, crumbling buildings, and friendly shopkeepers who all insisted that anything you were to buy from them would be the ‘best deal in all of Athens’.

My friend Jane and I arrived on a sunny Thursday afternoon and acquainted ourselves with our area, grabbing some essentials from the supermarket and looking at our maps. Our Air BnB was a gorgeous top floor apartment with a huge outdoor roof terrace and views of the whole city—including the Acropolis!

Seeing it lit up at night was surreal. We would gaze at it as it sat atop its a hill, a glowing beacon from another century, half-listening to the backing soundtrack of the thumping bass from the nightclub on the ground floor of our building. That’s what all of Athens felt like, really—one big anachronism, existing simultaneously in 500 BC as well as the 20th and 21st centuries, different parts of the city frozen in different eras. All of which are lousy with cats. There were so many cats everywhere it was like they were the unofficial sentinels of the city, always observing you from under the shadow of a tree or the nook of a ruin.

We explored all kinds of food, but the traditional Greek food was delicious. The tzatziki was spicy and tart and flavorful and refreshing, and everything was light and fresh, with healthy doses of olive oil and Mediterranean seasoning. We offset our long lazy meals by walking about 7 miles a day, just ambling down whichever streets looked appealing.

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In randomly weaving our way around the city, we ended up stumbling across everything that was on our list to visit even though we rarely used a map to get around—it was relatively easy to navigate by the high elevation, easy-to-spot landmarks. We visited the ruins of the Agora (and its accompanying museum), which was the center of commerce and politics in classical Athens.

Of course we hiked up to the top of the hill to see the Acropolis and the Parthenon in the daytime, and enjoy the great views of the city—the theatre of Dionysus was up there too! We felt very lucky because normally we would have to pay to get into all the ruins and up to the Acropolis, but we got in for free as students!

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On other days we stumbled across the National Garden, which is a huge, gorgeous green space of about 38 acres, right smack int he middle of downtown Athens. It was a restful and beautiful escape from the motorists and the people—and there were ruins in there too (it seemed like you couldn’t walk two blocks in Athens without coming across something ancient, which was amazing). This time it was ruins of ancient Roman buildings and mosaics.

On our way out of the park we came across the Temple of Zeus and then we made our way up to Mount Lycabettus, the tallest hill in Athens at about 908 feet elevation. The whole walk up was gorgeous, through lush vegetation and with breeze in our faces. This is where Athens felt a little more local—people were out doing their shopping and heading home from work. The views from up here were breathtaking, and we got there at sunset, right when the mountains looked like they were being dipped in gold light. We could see what felt like the whole of Greece, and all the way out to the sea!

Throughout the whole of our trip we just meandered among tiny streets crammed full of tiny shops and street vendor stalls, walkways and staircases full of café-goers out for a coffee and a cigarette. We had a great time relaxing in the Mediterranean way of life, which sometimes seemed to be: “wake up to sit, drink coffee, and relax in the sunshine until 1 pm or so. Take a walk to the square and sit and chat with a friend until 4, then have a lunch of fava and roasted vegetables and pita bread. Walk home, take a nap, and do the laundry before you head out for dinner around 9 pm and dancing until 2 am.” Safe to say, the Greek lifestyle can be very laid back, and time seemed to slow a little bit for us, stretching out to make it feel like we had been there for weeks—in a good way.

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A very aesthetically pleasing European-style hot chocolate: bitter and satisfying

The Greek language is completely fascinating, and it’s the first country I’ve ever been to where I couldn’t even read the alphabet! By the end of our trip, Jane and I knew how to successfully say ‘thank you’ and ‘airport’…and that was about it. All the locals were so friendly and welcoming, and everybody we talked to had some family member who lived somewhere in America. We bought traditional Greek sandals from a man who wouldn’t let us leave until we had ooh’ed and ahh’ed over the photographs of his sisters, nieces and nephews, and cousins visiting Niagara falls in New York.

We both had a little bit of school work to do while we were there, but it was such a treat to be able to write a paper in the sun on a terrace in Greece instead of in London (even though I’m still in love with London). We stayed long enough to be able to experience Athens’ local and touristy areas, as well as Athens on weekdays and on the weekends!

It was the perfect city break to somewhere sunny and warm with a great friend, and I’m so happy to say I’ve finally been to Greece. We’d definitely like to come back sometime to visit the islands, as I think that would be quite a different experience. The trip home was beautiful, as we passed over the alps, and it was such a great reminder that pretty much any of the gorgeous, historic European destinations are just a short plane ride away!

img_2036This exploration really whetted my travel appetite, and even through I was excited to be back in my familiar London flat and my own bed, I can’t wait for the next trip. The big journey on deck at the end of April is southern Italy with friends, but I’m hoping to hit some more destinations in the UK before that…get ready for more adventure logs!

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