Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.
I remember only bits of pieces of my final year in high school studying Classics. Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns. The Parthenon, the Erechtheion. Oedipus, Antigone, The Iliad, The Odyssey. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pericles and democracy. Gods, goddesses, legends and myths. Bits and pieces of reading old texts, learning about long-dead thought leaders and ancient architecture.
When we visited Athens, the remnants of Ancient Greece appeared to me as though they were the bits and pieces of my Classics training. Nothing about the Acropolis is complete. Time has weathered and wearied structures, foreigners have stolen other parts of it. Famous individuals are remembered now only in statues around the city and occasional mentions in old texts. The gods have been replaced by a surprising number of Orthodox priests roaming around the city.
Modern Athens is young, new and exciting, but somehow muted as though yearning for the glories of the ancient past. The economic crisis continues – one guide told us that most people have two jobs to survive and obviously there aren’t enough jobs to go around either. There’s a large homeless population, and people count their dollars more carefully than ever. Refugees from the Middle East are present, either on the streets or in tents set up on the side of highways. We even witnessed a refugee rally on our first day in Athens.
Still there are those who have come through the economic crisis unscathed – you only need to count the number of luxury yachts in Piraeus harbour to figure out how much wealth is still in Greece.
If you’re not a fan of large tourist crowds, Athens can be hard to handle. The Acropolis and other historical sites are usually overcrowded during most of the day – we ended up visiting as soon as they opened their doors at 8am in order to experience the ruins without crowds. You’ll soon realise that you’ll have to do that at most places in Athens – always arrive as soon as they open their gates so that you get half an hour in peace to explore at your leisure before the tour groups arrive.
Somehow, I’m more comfortable in local crowds than I am in tourist crowds. I had no issues managing the crowds at Athens Central Market – but then again, it’s a lot easier to handle Greek housewives with their shopping trolleys over loud American and Chinese tourists! If you like markets, Athens Central Market is a must. The produce is amazingly fresh and cheap, and anything you want can be found there. I still can’t get over how cheap it is – we paid 1 Euro for a full kilo of strawberries, and 5 Euro for five massive pork chops weighing a combined 1.5 kilos. A true bargain – it’s worth visiting and picking up some produce to cook at home!
You might not want to cook at home with the number of great places to eat though! Food is relatively affordable and fast food places are particularly cheap (I recommend Kostas for souvlakis and Falafellas for falafels). Burgers at FOOD Str are great value and seafood at Epirus Tavern in the markets is unbeatable. You also want to sit at a cafe to enjoy a Greek coffee (for example, Flocafe in Piraeus), maybe try some traditional Greek food at Melilotos on the right day, and you definitely want to try all the desserts that Athens has to offer!
Athens was a particularly relaxing stop on our trip. We ate some great and cheap food, we visited some iconic sights and most importantly, we didn’t rush around trying to do too much all at once. We treated ourselves as true Athenians – we kept ourselves busy in the mornings, we had great food for lunch, and then we wiled away the afternoons with cold drinks and a bit of people-watching. What could be more Greek than that?