**Disclaimer** Some academic lingo (jargon) pops up every now and then… I can’t escape my Greco-Roman history education and terminology… Please bear with me. Additionally, I have changed the names of the people I refer to throughout my blog.
For me, Athens is very special. I completed my Undergraduate degree in Greek and Roman Studies in 2013, and wrote an honors thesis about social egalitarianism displayed through Classical Athenian dress during the golden age of pure democracy. You see, Athens is not just another city. It’s the city, the location that I needed to see.
But my visit had an unexpected twist. I wasn’t coming as a regular western tourist, ready to gawp at the splendor of ancient Athens. I came as a guest to visit my Greek friend Andronikos and we had decided to meet at his place which was about a 7 minute walk from the Acropolis within down-town Athens. As it turns out, he was tired of seeing the tourist archaeological ruins and we agreed that I would engage in my extensive ogling of ancient relics without him. We would, in fact, spend plenty of time walking around modern Athens, savoring the food, and I even developed something of a sweet tooth while there.
My stay was about 8 days long, and the New Acropolis Museum was the first location where I spent some serious time. It housed the Kritios Boy, the Calf Bearer, Karyatid pillars and many sculptures of Kouri (female sculpture figures often dedicated to the goddess Athena) with peplos garments that retained some of their original paint.
Where ever I find heads of Alexander the Great, we always get a selfie together!
On the top floor, I encountered the Elgin Marble copies from the original Parthenon pediments and frieze. It felt so strange when I found the chiastic metope which I had seen only 3 years earlier at the British Museum. The New Acropolis Museum had a video which plays for guests on the top floor, explaining Lord Byron’s robbery of the Elgin Marbles acquired during the Ottoman occupation in Greece, and thereafter transported to the British Museum. I remember arguing in a History of Art class years ago, for the retention of the sculptures at the British Museum.
My British identity but love of Greek history, and the realization of the situation in front of me created some mixed feelings. I began looking closely at the copies, while recalling what I had seen in the British Museum, to try to justify that the British Museum should just keep the originals. But, I noticed actually quite a difference in quality. The ancient marble originals cannot be compared with what the Athenians now have in their possession. I finally decided that perhaps the two museums should exchange their sculptures.
Previously, Andronikos and I had visited a regular supermarket, and I was enthralled with the the huge knives that the cheese ladies were armed with! The following day, Andronikos took me to a local outdoor market behind his apartment. We dashed there before it closed for fear that we would lose out on their excellent prices. We purchased the hugest bag of oranges I have ever seen anyone carry! Among other things, we purchased a huge bag of spinach, which Andronikos referred to as ‘grass’. We had an interesting exchange with the spinach vendor who tried to short-change us. It was a funny situation, but seemed serious at the same time!
For lunch, we went to a ‘working class’ restaurant, where we selected what we wished to eat from a display class, and the owner/manager simply heated up our combination (pasta and tasty beef with cheese sprinkled on top). While we ate in this rather empty restaurant, Andronikos described alternations made to give the restaurant a face-lift.
Simple moments, like visiting the market and drinking Andronikos’ freshly squeezed orange juice were among my favorites. It’s funny how when you visit a city that holds so much prestige, that sometimes, it’s the unplanned and spontaneous moments that end up being the most special memories.
Later, we meandered north, toward the National Archaeology Museum, as I wanted to check out the Thira frescoes and the Mycenaean Mask of Agamemnon. En route, Andronikos took me to an area where lots of political discontent gets applied to building walls in the form of graffiti. He explained that this was the mecca for young Greek anarchist behavior.
We next visited Syntagma, grabbed a couple of delicious white chocolate drinks at a local cafe, and then after popping into a book store, headed to Syntagma Square to people watch.
As I usually require at least three hours on every museum visit, I skipped it and instead, we headed to a buzzing area in Monastiraki, full of ‘marcha’ (Spanish for people enjoying the night life environment). Andronikos surprised me when he did a very kind thing. He noticed a homeless man looking ill, propped up against a wall, so Andronikos bought kebabs not only for us, but also for him. The homeless fella was so happy when presented by this gift.
We then met Vasilis, Andronikos’ friend and went to a local shisha bar to smoke and watch a live band perform Greek songs that everyone seemed to sing along to. While the guys caught up, I observed how the bar was run and how closely everyone was packed into this incredibly sociable space. It made me think about Canadian culture and British culture, and how by comparison, we can be much less affectionate with each other. Greek friends seemed to touch each other a lot more in social environments. That evening, Andronikos and I took a super long walk home to extend our discussions.
The following day, I was determined to do some sight seeing. I headed straight for the Acropolis, and after purchasing my student entry ticket to multiple sites, I climbed the steps up to the Propylaia. The square Nike temple was immediately to my right and beyond, the Erechtheion and Parthenon temples.
I walked the Panathanaic Way between both temples, feeling so privileged to be walking the same ground that people like Perikles walked millennia earlier.
I walked around the Erechtheion first, to admire the Kariatids. The building itself as it was the temple where the goddess Athena received her handmade peplos garment during the Great Panathanaic festivals.
Lastly, I approached the Parthenon. She was in far greater disrepair than I had anticipated. Remembering some of the architectural features which I had studies in archaeology class, I considered the detail that went into carving each individual stone and pillar to produce this seamless temple and thought about the elephantine ivory statue of Athena and its placement within the temple grounds. I walked around her and took some beautiful aerial shots of both the ancient theaters and modern Athens, below.
In winter season, many of the ancient archaeological grounds close around 3pm. That left me no time to seeing anything else, so I headed to Adrianou, a street in Plaka, full of quality tourist shops and restaurants. I discovered a store called Nereid (117 Adrianou) which had some felt bags on display with images which looked very familiar. The kind shop lady confirmed that these were ancient Minoan prints, from frescoes in Crete, preserved by the famous volcano when it erupted on Thira (modern day Santorini). The colors were so vibrant that it was love at first sight!
Andronikos and I later hit the streets of Plaka, in search of Nereid, which unfortunately had closed early. So we stumbled into a basement store and Andronikos discovered some wool mitts that he liked. The store had ruins below, visible through a transparent floor. I had already seen archaeological ruins showcased at some of the local train stations, but seeing this now in shops! It was all so overwhelming.
Andronikos was in the throws of making some important career decisions, so we meandered through the night markets in Monastiraki, while I gawped and he talked to a friend seeking career advice.
My last day in Athens was busy. I felt emotional in the morning because I was sad to be leaving both Andronikos and the city. I headed early to the Theater of Dionysus to see the place where the famous playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides put on their shows. The ancient theater looked like a mixture of grass, Athenian original marble, some Roman renovations and modern restoration.The front row had (Roman) marble seats reserved for prestigious visitors arranged in a semi circle around the orchestra (stage). I saw what looked like a throne in the center seating! Perhaps someone had anticipated my arrival and carved it just for me 2 millennia early. What foresight! I watched the security guard invigilate the visitors, making sure that we weren’t up to no good! I said yeea sas (goodbye) to the statue of Menander near the entrance and made my exodus.
I returned to Nereid on Adrianou and encountered the specimen that produced the fine young lady I had encountered the day prior, namely the mother of the shop lady. She was very kind, helped me to chose between two felt bags which both had precious designs. I hope to return there sometime.
I made a stop off at The Temple of Olympian Zeus to admire the colossal temple that took several centuries to build! Here, I saw some of the best preserved Roman mosaic floors in Athens as well as part of the original Athenian city wall commissioned by Themistokles to protect the Athenians from Xerxes’ Persian invasion of 479 BC.
Afterwards, I headed straight for the Athenian Agora. En route, I passed picturesque restaurants bustling with locals and tourists like me, with terraces sprawling out onto the sidewalks which forced me to weave in between tables like a skillful (but probably sweaty) dancer. The environment reminded me of painting scenes situated in Tuscany.
At the Agora, I strode confidently to my first stop, the Stoa of Attalus II. I wanted to maximize my time there since I had prearranged to meet Andronikos at the Acropoli train station within the hour.
The Stoa of Attalus II (the ancient sheltered marketplace), dedicated to the Athenians by the King of Pergamon, has now been converted into a museum, showcasing finds discovered at the Agora itself. I found two really special showcases. Ostrika, pottery fragments, identifying Themistokles as a threat to democracy and requiring the mandatory 10 year expulsion. Additionally, a slot machine used for randomly selecting Athenian men daily who wished to work on the jury at the courts.
I gawped at some headless marble statues on my way out, and headed for the Monument of Eponymous Heroes. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to see other than a base upon which statues had been placed in the Classical period. Just in front of it, I discovered both the Tholos and also the building where the Council met. These two locations were instrumental to maintaining democracy in the Classical period. I nearly had a seizure when I discovered these buildings because I completely neglected to realize that they would be right here. They came as a very pleasant surprise!
Before running off to meet Andronikos, I posed in front of the Temple of Hephaestus for a quick photograph and headed to Acropoli train station.
Shortly after meeting, Andronikos and I were seduced by a charming fella and a delicious and free sample of his restaurant offerings to enjoy some Greek musaka. Sitting on the terrace, we looked over to the restaurant beside us. We recognized the name, Liondi restaurant, for the reason that a curious small Greek fella, wearing round sunglasses and lots of gel in his hair, had on separate occasions tried to elicit both of our custom by bribing us with free drinks and dessert if we ate at Liondi. In my case, he also threw in a romantic date with him personally. I found this proposal quite amusing. I kindly refused, wearing a huge smile on my face.
Before leaving, Andronikos declared that the musaka was too oily and he could have made it better himself, if he had a day to cook it because it apparently takes hours to prepare. We grabbed a train to some destination on the outskirts of Athens. I don’t recall the name, and this is a side effect of traveling with someone who is familiar with Athens. I simply follow and gawp and all the new sights without always being aware of where I am and the route we took! That’s also a very nice thing. You can savor the moment without the distraction of being responsible for knowing how to get back home. Imagine Pippi Longstocking, skipping through the fields, whistling and carefree… That was how I felt wondering the streets of I-don’t-know-where in close proximity to my guardian-keeper Andronikos who was in charge of everything.
Having arrived early, we sniffed some fresh hand creams and admired some Cretan liquor sold by local marker vendors before first meeting Thea, Vasilis’ girlfriend, and later Ampelios (Andronikos’ phone career-adviser friend) and finally Vaselis himself. We met in a local packed restaurant. Thea spoke English (she was actually born a US citizen and later moved to Greece) and so I was happy to have a friend to talk to. We ordered beers, sweet red wine and Thea ordered various plates of delicious food, including huge baked mushrooms, a huge spinach filled pastry, mixed rice, fries and others which we all shared.
Thea and I talked for a while, Andronikos talked to Ampelios who was doing a lot of listening, and Vasilis who was at the end of the table looked very bored and just watched Andronikos chatting Ampelios’ ear off. I watched my surroundings. Classic Greek music replaced the regular tunes playing loudly overhead, Older ladies got up and started dancing, clapping their hands raised in the air above their heads. I watched the serving staff try to get orders to tables which were really squished together because the restaurant was ram-packed with customers. It was such a social situation, and it made me think of how lonely and isolating my life can be back in Victoria, Canada. Andronikos had earlier said to me, that one of the reasons why Greeks don’t leave Greece, despite the present financial crisis, is that the social aspects of life, meeting friends and going out in the evening, are rare to find to such a degree, elsewhere. I can see why this aspect can be so attractive, and even a considerable deterrent in seeking financial opportunities outside of Greece.
Ampelios kindly took care of the bill because it was his ‘name day’. I still don’t understand this Greek tradition very well, although explanations were attempted. Please feel free to add comments below to explain the Greek significance of a name day.
Thea (and earlier Andronikos) explained a little about minimum wage in Greece (approximately 400 euros per month) and how some Greeks were managing several jobs to make ends meet. It all seemed surreal to me, because other than witnessing some cases of homelessness, particularly around tourist destinations, I saw little visual evidence of the financial crisis. Andronikos and I had visited districts where graffiti evidenced political discontent and we had witnessed people gathered around fire drums in a park but I didn’t know for certain whether these people were homeless. Thea explained that rental prices had dropped to as low as 200 euros per month, and when I retorted with my current rental payments, she was horrified, explaining that my rent was far too costly.
Andronikos and I said our goodbyes to his friendly group of friends and we headed back to Syntagma in search of profiteroles.
Hanging out with Andronikos increased my sweet tooth at least by 40% by the end of my trip. If you’re gonna experiment with sweets, you might as well do it in Greece. I wondered how long I would have maintained my slim figure if I actually lived in Athens with all that fresh temptation!
The profiteroles shop lady was so excited to see us. She recognized us immediately and while I snapped photos of Andronikos figuring out which flavors to chose, the kind lady blew kisses at my tablet/camera. We ate in the public square, admiring the generous helping of drizzled chocolate.
We stopped by a shisha cafe, smoked some low quality shisha, drank lots of fruit flavored tea and, as foreigners to Canada, discussed what things we liked about living there. We came up with quite a few items while observing the ebb and flow of passersby on the sidewalks outside.
Andronikos and I took a walk to the special Acropolis rock where the local young people go at night to look either at the Acropolis view or the city view. Navigating the wooden staircase down, I mentioned that on a previous occasion, I ascended using the precarious ancient stone staircase (wearing slippery soled shoes), and explained that I hadn’t seen the sturdy staircase right next to it. Andronikos laughed at me, saying that he found it funny that I’m sometimes not observant at all. Our extensive walking seemed to aggravate some back injury for Andronikos, so we tried to figure that out and walked home.
The Acropolis by night, taken from Monastiraki
I packed, and Andronikos walked me to the airport bus stop in Syntagma. We walked over to see the funny guards do their dance in front of the parliament building, and talked a while, sitting in Syntagma square, looking at the huge Christmas tree and funny ladies who came to pose by it.
At my bus, we said our goodbyes, with tears in my eyes. What a lovely adventure we had. Goodbye, Athena, for now.