AthensNovember 20, 2022
We arrive in Athens after dark. The ride from the airport is long and I am pleased to see there is almost no traffic—kind of surprising at 6 pm on a weeknight. But then we hit the city and the snarl of cars practicing competitive driving brings us to a halt. Athen’s reputation for bad traffic remains intact. Gratefully, we are in the capable hands of Alexis, the manager of our friends, Elena and Tom’s, apartment, where we have the good fortune to be staying.
Our charming little flat is in Kolonaki, one of the best neighborhoods in the city proper. Thanks to our neighbor, the prime minister, Kiriakos Mitsotakis, every intersection around us is guarded 24 hours a day by groups of 3-4 armed police. Mostly, they stand around looking at their phones and are clearly bored out of their minds—but we are feeling very safe.
Kolonaki is on the slopes of Lycabettus Hill, the highest point in central Athens. Having just left the hills and stair climbs of Marseilles, we are prepared and in shape for the daily hikes from our apartment to literally anywhere else. While the hills in Marseille are etched with narrow streets at all angles and curvatures, the stairways provide a pedestrian alternative to the otherwise circuitous routes. In Kolonaki, the stairs are essential to going anywhere. From the top of the hill, they radiate out in straight lines going in all directions through cubist thickets of 3 and 4-story apartment buildings.
But I digress. This is our first evening and we must head out to explore our surroundings and hunt for food. In no time, we stumble on a delightful place just below us that is little more than a covered patio with outdoor seating lining both sides of a wide pedestrian lane. The air is soft and warm, the food is wonderfully flavorful, the ouzo stiffens our spines and we are serenaded by the staccato ups and downs of Greeks conversing. We congratulate each other on our charmed life.
The next day, we head out on a grand tour of the city center. From the top of Lycabettus Hill to Syntagma Square, to the Acropolis, around the Acropolis, to the top of Areopagus Hill through the Plaka, through the National Gardens and back up the hill—with a stop for dinner along the way. A good 8-mile day. The next two days are more of the same—hoofing around town exploring all the little corners that Elena listed for us. The area around the central market is fascinating and I make my way there several more times during our stay. Layers of history and social change are revealed in the design of the architecturally diverse buildings and squares. I find it addictive.
By the end of the week, I accept the fact that I am sick with a bad cold. Our first bit of unpleasantness since we left Seattle. We slow down…a bit. My cold is mostly a head cold and I still have lots of energy, so our explorations on foot continue. We climb to the small chapel at the top of Lycabettus Hill and circumnavigate the park. The 30-minute huff-and-puff climb to the top is absolutely worth it for the views over the vast and sprawling plain that is modern-day Athens. We have a night out to attend a comedy performance called, “Medea and Other Friends I Made in Athens”. The best of which is sitting below the illuminated Acropolis at night and afterward heading to a little taverna at the top of the Mnisikleous stairs to listen to a trio playing Rebetiko—greek folk music. Delightfully, Bob gets into the act with his Zorba moves.
Athens, like Marseille, started out as a small village. So small in fact that after Greece gained independence from the Ottomans and Athens was chosen as its capital, the population was only 4000-5000 in a scattering of houses mainly in the Plaka at the base of the Acropolis. When Otto, the Prince of Bavaria, was proclaimed King of Greece in 1832 he began laying plans for the city and its monuments. The grand neoclassical buildings in Athens today date from that period. By the time Greece and Turkey exchanged their minority populations after WWI, Athens had already grown to 400,000 and that number doubled post the population exchange. Today, Athens is the second most densely populated city in Europe.
Our interest in this early history of Athens leads us to sign up for a couple of guided walks with Isaac, a Spanish political scientist living and working in Athens. The walks focus on understanding the political and social history of Athens as well as the current refugee crisis. Both excursions are extremely eye-opening and introduce us to areas of the city that Athenians avoid but are actually quite close to the main tourist areas. While the distance from Exarchia, a self-governing anarchist neighborhood to Victoria Square, where refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria mill about, to the chic streets of Kolonaki can be measured in minutes, these areas are worlds apart.
To close out our two weeks in Athens, we hop on the newly opened metro line to the port of Piraeus for seafood at one of the hundreds of restaurants that line the harbors. It is a beautiful day and we stroll the waterfront taking in the long line of eateries packed with people enjoying their Sunday outing. After making a complete tour of both harbors and the beach, we take our seats at a table as the dappled light of the afternoon sun shimmers on the water.
Next up, we head to Izmir/Smyrna and the south coast of Turkey.