I try not to negatively judge cities, and to embody the spirit of Pollyanna, a girl who made a game of finding the good in everything. In some ways, travel has taught me this life lesson more than anything else. However, when I first began traveling, and had a 4 month backpacking adventure in Europe in 1994, I had not yet learned how to maintain an “optimistic” eye. I made lists of not only the best things about my journey, but also the worst (something I try not to dwell on now). Back then, Athens was at the top of the list for my LEAST favorite city, a decision I came to after only one day of visiting. I am embarrassed by my quick judgement, and so thankful to have had the opportunity to revisit and reevaluate this city from a more mature perspective.
Once again, my stay was brief – barely two days, but the experience was vastly different. In truth, Athens is a better city then when I first visited. Thanks to the Olympics clean-up program, there is an efficient metro system, a lot less smog and traffic congestion, a new and brilliant Acropolis museum, and many beautified neighborhoods and parks. I particularly loved the views of the vast city as seen from the marble-topped Acropolis, a sight that had been obscured by smog in the past.
With limited time, we focused on the Ancient sites of Athens. This is part of educating our children, and they have been learning much about the Greek gods and the myths associated with them. We all learned about how Athena and Poseidon competed for the right to be the namesake of the city, with Athena as the evident winner. The new and extremely well designed Acropolis Museum also showcased how this Greek goddess of wisdom and war was honored in the many friezes and sculptures which once adorned the city. We visited the ruins of the Parthenon, the Greek agora, Hadrian’s library and gate, and many, many ancient temples. Our children learned the differences between doric, ionic and corinthian columns and made a game out of identifying them. Finally capping our visit by seeing all the pottery, art, bronze armor & weapons, figurines, gold jewelry, and statues that were the booty of multiple excavations, housed in the National Archaeological Museum. We had two wonderful meals at ouzeris (Greek tapas bars), one in the lovely neighborhood of Plaka, and the other in the company of John’s extended Greek family, where we were treated to a final feast. This was a delectable introduction to new-to-us dishes of grilled sardines and anchovies, and salads of capers and purslane. I was charmed by the night-time atmosphere of the older neighborhoods, encircling the Acropolis. These cobble-stoned streets were lined with open air cafes, filled with youthful revelers enjoying conversation over cold beers, the occasional street performer, and craft stands of jewelry and souvenirs. The evening weather was comfortably warm and invited us to wander or simply to sit and watch the promenade of people. Dan and I often wanted to pause for a icy cappuccino or an cold beer, our alcoholic tendencies a bad influence on our friends!
Despite my revised and glowing impressions of Athens, I would be remiss not to mention the economic crisis. As tourists, we were a bit oblivious to the financial concerns, and harsh realities of a bankrupt country. We were both surprised by how many well-dressed people were out and about at night and obviously spending money, as we were by Victoria Plaza (nearest to our apartment) which was a hotbed of protesters, homeless people, and refugees camping out, as a blatant example of the struggles of the poor and unemployed.
Our experiences inspired in me a deeper interest in Greek history and the politicians, authors and philosophers of our shared past. It seemed like most people we met had a great understanding of their country’s history, and wanted to proudly share the story of their land. I sensed a people and country where both intellect and dialogue are exulted, making me think of the birth of democracy and the gathering of people in public forums to debate the relevant issues of their time. Overall, Greece is a country that deserves your visit and your tourist dollar. The beaches are spectacular, the people are generous and welcoming, the delicious food is incredibly fresh, picked only when ripe, with tomatoes and peaches bursting with flavor, the ancient history is tangible, and the variety of places and cultural experiences is rich.
***We want to give John and Luisa a special thanks for putting up with us and our crazy, loud kids on their “romantic” honeymoon. We really appreciate all of the planning you did with picking places to stay, insuring an easy ferry meet-up, translating greek and answering our numerous questions, driving all over Paros and Antiparos, and allowing us to share the spoils of your wedding gifts (i.e. the car rental). It was great to meet your family, John, and eat your cooking, Luisa! We won’t forget morning pastry runs, hunting for bathing suits and fishing supplies, “N-F-I”, greek tacos, making you drink(!), and Gabriel sleep-walking into your bed.