The Best of Athens

‘I don’t know why you bother with all those islands,’ I tell my Greek friends, with a mischievous smile, ‘The best of Greece is in Athens. History, culture, beaches, restaurants, nightlife, shopping, superb coastal scenery and mountains. Why would you want to go anywhere else?’
It works for me. But in deference to all those who laugh at my dismissal of the, reportedly, exquisite delights of the Cyclades, Dodecanese and other island chains of the Aegean and Ionian Seas, I offer the following defence.
A biased defence, admittedly, as I love Athens. Despite once (and only once) being charged ten times the normal fare by an airport cab driver at the old airport, before I had fully grasped the drachma exchange rate. Despite once being sworn at in Monastiraki square by a anti-American local, although I might feel differently if I were American. And despite no longer being able to demonstrate to my own satisfaction the genius of Phidias and his architects who designed and built the Parthenon in the 5th century BCE, about which more in a moment.
Yes, laughable as it may be to those blinded by its ugly, post war, concrete, urban sprawl, I love Athens. Even if it is hot, dusty and crowded in the summer. And here are my ten best reasons why.

The Geometrical Perfection of the Parthenon. Forget the crowds. Forget the dusty, thirsty climb up all those steps on a hot day, and forget the perpetual restoration cranes that never seem to lift a stone. If you only ever see one ruined temple complex in your life, see this one. Okay, I admit I haven’t see Angkor Wat yet, so I could still be persuaded otherwise. But, seriously, I can’t think of much more beautiful and inspiring than those blindingly white marble Doric columns, raising their frieze decorated pediments toward the bright azure, Attican, sky. It all looks so perfectly symmetrical. And yet it isn’t, there are no absolute straight lines. Starting with the platform on which the columns rest, which is convex curved, being 12 cm higher in the centre, lengthwise, than at the ends. On my first visit I was able to prove this by placing my camera at one end, and my eyes level with the edge of the platform at the other. Sure enough, the camera was invisible (it wasn’t stolen!). The columns are all the same height, but don’t imagine that because they rest on a convex surface they lean slightly outwards. They don’t, they lean slightly in, and if extended far enough would all meet one mile above the centre of the Parthenon. As a consequence the pediment is also slightly curved. And those beautifully straight looking columns are not straight at all. They are wider in the centre than at the ends, and are not evenly spaced. As well as being 6 cm in diameter wider, the corner columns are set closer to their immediate neighbours. And the result, just as Phidias desired, is to create the most sublime illusion of symmetry, which has moved and inspired Greeks for centuries, and moves me every time I see it, even though the guide ropes and safety rails now prevent me from risking my camera to prove it.
The Non-Elgin Marbles,  those elements of the Parthenon’s friezes that Lord Elgin didn’t have room to steal, you will now find in the recently opened Acropolis Museum on Dionysiou Areopagitou on the south side of the Acropolis. Athens has many fine museums, including the National Archaeological Museum on Oktovriou, north of Omonia Square, and the Benaki Culture and History, Byzantine and War Museums along Leoforos Vasilissis Sofias, east of Syntagma. All are worth a visit. But if you only have time for one, make it the Acropolis Museum. The lower floors contain a marvellous display of statuary, as well as sacred and domestic objects from the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods, recovered from excavations of the Acropolis and its surrounding areas, including the original Caryatids from the Erechtheion. But the must-see highlight is the third floor reconstruction of the original pedimentary friezes from the Parthenon, with a fascinatingly detailed description and commentary explaining what each represents.

There are, of course, some gaps, where well-meaning 19th century Hellenophiles such as Lord Elgin removed elements of the friezes in order, so it was claimed, to preserve them. And you can see those at the British Museum. Their true home, the Acropolis Museum, completes those gaps with castings of the originals, and explains their absence in terms less generous to Lord Elgin, but perhaps more accurate. Enlightened with the knowledge of what it represents and depicts, your second and subsequent visits to the Parthenon will be even more inspiring. The last time I visited the museum there was a temporary display of erotic art and artefacts from the Hellenic period. Very kinky!

A short walk from the museum, west along Dionysiou Areopagitou, will take you past Dionysus Zonars restaurant (reasonable Greek food, but prices commensurate with its incomparable floodlight view of the Acroplis at night), to the foot of Philopappos Hill and the cave that is said to be Socrates Prison.

It probably wasn’t, the cell was more likely located somewhere in the Agora, but the truth never stood in the way of a good story. It’s an impressive looking cave, which contains several chambers and a cistern, although the gates are usually locked so you will have to peer through the bars. But it’s a good starting point to make a leisurely climb up the gentle, pine-shaded slopes of the hill, contemplating Socrates as you go. He was an ugly man with a snub nose and a big belly, who dressed in shabby old clothes and went about barefoot. He survived his military service, and despite being generally abstemious was said to have been able to out drink anybody, although he was probably not, as Monty Python claimed, ‘a bugger when he’s pissed.’ As a philosopher he spent his time asking questions, examining contemporary attitudes to justice, fame, power, riches, pleasure and other ethical matters. He claimed to know nothing, while continually searching for the truth. Unsurprisingly, the authorities were suspicious of a man who questioned everything, and eventually condemned him to death. Whether or not he was imprisoned in the cave we have just passed, we are following his bare footsteps wherever we go in the Agora and the Acropolis, and following his example of asking questions to arrive at the truth remains as essential as ever. Following the path upwards eventually leads to the rock summit of the hill which is topped by the monument to the Roman era magistrate Philopappos. Whether his achievements in life would have survived Socrates questioning, his resting place provides one of the best panoramas in Athens, and it is a delight to sit on the warm, smooth limestone outcrops, the air scented with pine resin, and listen to the buzz of an exciting city of 3 million people. The view is spectacular, from the sparkling distant waters of the Saronic Gulf, to the ancient Acropolis, the eyrie crag of Mount Lycabettus, the Roman temple of Zeus, the National Gardens, the Panathenaic Stadium where the first modern era Olympic Games were held, and the forested flanks and creamy limestone backbone of the Hymettus mountain range, to the east of the city.

Perched atop the sharp pinnacle of Mount Lycabettus (Mountain of Wolves) is the Church of St George, a whitewashed 19th century chapel that replaced an older Byzantine church dedicated to the prophet Elijah. 

Legend has it that Lycabettus was so difficult to climb the church fell into disrepair and was abandoned. Then, after independence had been wrested from the Turks, a monk named Emmanuel Louloudakis announced his intention to scale the peak, clear the ruins and rebuild it. He didn’t return, and was presumed to have died on the mountain, perhaps eaten by the wolves after whom it is named. Three years later the Athenians saw lights on the hill top and set out to investigate. To their surprise they discovered Father Emmanuel tending the new chapel and a small garden he had planted. There is a funicular that will save you the climb today, and the view from the top is magnificent, the closest you will get to feeling like a wandering eagle, soaring over the ancient city. There is a restaurant beside the chapel and I once ate dinner there, tender roast lamb basted with garlic and rosemary, on a freezing winter’s night, the lights of the city and the ships in the Saronic Gulf glittering like ice-bright diamonds in the crystal cold air. After a coffee or a meal you can eschew the funicular and walk down the steep winding path towards Syntagma.

Athens has a metro system, not perhaps as extensive or as spotless as some other cities, but none has a station to match Syntagma Metro Station. Excavated in the heart of the city, a (Greek Hero’s) stone’s through from the Plaka, the work uncovered layers and layers of Classical, Hellenistic and Roman age remains. Some of which have been preserved and are displayed in the entrance lobby museum. Others, such as a grave, portions of walls, cisterns and a road are visible behind safety glass panels.

The main entrance hall is a beautiful blend of the neo-classical and modern, with a classically patterned marbled floor. After you have taken in all the treasures on offer you can even take the Metro. It’s cheap and easy to use, the station signs are written in Roman as well as Cyrillic script, and the announcements are easy to understand so you can’t get lost. Or you can explore all the attractions that are a short step away. The Parliament building with the Evzones in their traditional pleated white kilts and pom-pommed clogs guarding the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The National Gardens and the lovely, neo-classical Zappeion. The Plaka and the narrow, Ottoman era streets leading up to the Acropolis. Or you can walk past the grand façade of the Hotel Grande Bretagne, down Panepistimiou towards the smart shops and theatres.

On the first corner you will find Zonars bar and restaurant. An Athenian institution, many Greek and international celebrities such as Melina Merkouri, Sophia Loren, Anthony Quinn, Marina Abramovic and Nana Mouskouri, have been regular visitors since it first opened in 1939. The founder was Karolos Zonaras, a romantic Greek chocolatier based in the USA who fell in love with a beautiful Athenian woman. She refused to leave her native city, so he joined her, and established Zonars with the intention of making it the “best restaurant in the best location in Athens.” With its walnut wood panelling, art deco inspired interior and marble floors, it’s a picture of cultivated grace and elegance. Its large windows provide views of Panepistimiou’s neo-classical buildings, or you can sit at one of the outside tables. Serving drinks, snacks and meals, it is an ideal place for a leisurely coffee or tea with a slice of delicious cake or a pastry from the gorgeous display cabinet.

Recently renovated and restored to its original glory, it has received mixed reviews, with some complaints about prices and slow service. Well if you want cheap, fast food go elsewhere. Zonars is where you go to sip coffee, chill out, read the English edition of Kathimerini, and watch the beautiful Athenians. Once refreshed you can walk down Stadiou, window shopping (or more if the budget allows) all the way to vibrant, bustling Omonia Square, with its eclectic contrast of neo-classical beauty and modern monstrosity. Turning south along Athinas takes you towards Monastiraki and the Acropolis, passing City Hall and the Central Market, which, with its exhilarating assault on the senses, is always worth a visit. Arriving at Monastiraki Square you can browse the Flea Market, rest your feet and enjoy an iced coffee in one of the countless cafes, and then stroll on through the Roman Agora back towards the Plaka. It’s a walk I never tire of, with some new architectural or historical treasure to be discovered each time.

Evening is the perfect time to arrive at Brettos Bar in the heart of the Plaka. You can’t miss it with its colourful displays of liqueur bottles glowing invitingly in the settling dusk. It is also the oldest distillery in Athens, dating back to 1909, and produces ouzo, brandy and a bewildering array of brightly coloured, exotically flavoured liqueurs. Take a stool at the well-worn wooden bar, or around one of the old barrels, and sample the varieties of ouzo while nibbling on olives and local cheese. Locally produced retsina and wines are also available, making it the perfect place for a reviving aperitif before dinner. Which brings its own challenges in this, the most tourist oriented corner of the city. Steer clear of the touts in the little square to the right as you exit Brettos, and head up the hill towards the Acropolis. There are many restaurants to choose from, and if it’s a warm dry evening I can think of little better than to sit outside under a tree, with a view, or even just glimpses, of the floodlit Acropolis. Fried calamari, grilled octopus, a grilled fish, tzatziki and a Greek salad washed down with retsina, or crisp, dry Attican wine if you prefer. Magic!

In September of 480 BCE, following the defeat of the Greeks and Spartans at Thermopylae, the Persians, under their King Xerxes, captured and sacked Athens, forcing the Athenians to flee south to the island of Salamis and the Peloponnese peninsula. But the war wasn’t over. The Greeks still had a fleet of warships commanded by the Athenian General Themistocles, and on 21 September he successfully lured the larger Persian fleet into battle off Salamis at the western end of the Saronic Gulf. One can imagine those Persians not engaged in the ships clustering on the rocks and headlands southeast of Piraeus, confidently watching their fleet row out of the port, expecting them to annihilate the smaller Greek one. Sitting on those same rocks today, which still contain traces of the ancient wall that surrounded both Athens and Piraeus, one can also imagine their shock and horror as the Greek’s lured the Persian fleet into a trap in the bay of Perama, and destroyed it! The road that now runs around those headlands is named Akti Themistokleous in honour of the victorious general, and is my favourite walk in Athens. Whether on Sunday afternoon, in company with promenading Athenians and residents of Piraeus, or in the evening in order to work up an appetite for dinner. Half way round, the sea has carved a deep inlet into the rocks at the head of which is a small shingle beach from which local fisherman launch their boats, and afterwards enjoy a smoke and a coffee in their fisherman’s cooperative club house. 

On the clifftop, on the western side, is a tiny chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors and fishermen. Its whitewashed walls and vivid blue dome, keeping a watchful eye over the boats in the cove below. Evoking memories of the perpetual connection between Greece and the sea. Further on, towards Piraeus, is Diasamos restaurant. You can’t miss it, there is a large illuminated sign, and octopus hanging from the awning, drying in the salt laden breeze. You can choose one and watch it being grilled over charcoal before eating it under the awning, and watching the lights of the ferries as they steam in and out of the Saronic Gulf. Yamas!

Athens is reasonably well served with public transport. The metro is reasonably clean, cheap and efficient. Taxis are plentiful. Most of the drivers speak some English, but you might be required to share a ride during busy times. But one of the best ways to get around is by the Athens Coastal Tram

There are two lines. One runs from Piraeus south along the coast as far as Glyfada. The other starts at Syntagma Square and runs to both Piraeus and to Glyfada. It’s cheap, but slow, which gives you plenty of time to chill out and enjoy the ride. There are many reasonably priced hotels around Glyfada so the coastal tram is an excellent way to get right into the centre of Athens, or to beach crawl along the coast, sampling the cafes, restaurants and, in the evening, the night clubs. Although you can swim at Alimou, north of Glyfada, the better swimming is to be had at Glyfada itself and the beaches to the south. But you can expect to pay at some of them. Glyfada also has an excellent choice of restaurants, so the tram provides an excellent day out if you are staying in Athens and want a day of sunshine, swimming, a nice meal and a slow ride home.
Okay, if, having seen the best Athens has to offer, you are not convinced and still want to visit an island, then there are two. The Island Club at Vougliameni (a short taxi ride from Glyfada), creates the atmosphere of an island resort, restaurant and nightclub. I was reluctantly dragged there for an excruciatingly late dinner the night before I was due to catch an oh-shit hundred morning flight. But the ministrations of my host – a ruthless terror in the boardroom, but generous and charming across the dinner table – good Greek food and wine, and the mellowing, golden light of the full moon rising over Cape Sounion, created a sense of euphoria (from the Greek euphoros, meaning healthy) that withstood the alarm several short hours later, and saw me happily onto my flight. Better than that though is Aegina, a beautiful little island only 40 minutes from Piraeus by fast ferry. There are several lines running both fast and slow ferries and you can check the timetables and prices at the ticket kiosks along the quayside. Don’t be afraid to ask as all the ticket sellers speak English. Armed with your ticket you can board your chosen ferry and enjoy the views of the ancient port of Piraeus as you depart. Always a sight to be enjoyed in itself.

Aegina port, where you disembark, is a picture postcard little town of mostly neo-classical buildings clustered around a semi-circular harbour protected against the winter storms by substantial breakwaters. The harbour is full of yachts and brightly painted fishing boats, which unload their catch straight into the local fish market (which is worth a stroll around) or sell it direct to the waterfront restaurants. Explore the town, enjoy a coffee in one of the many cafes, buy some pistachios, for which the island is famous, and work up an appetite for lunch. If it’s a nice day select a kerbside table and enjoy the view of the harbour.

If not try one of the more traditional looking restaurants clustered around the fish market. Freshly caught and grilled calamari, octopus and fish, with salad and crisp white wine. Or ouzo, if you want to look like a local. After lunch you can take a stroll along the breakwaters to the tiny fisherman’s chapel of St Nicholas, and admire its cool, peaceful Byzantine interior. There is a swimming beach to the west of the town, or you can take a taxi to one of the other, quieter beaches. If you feel like staying overnight there are several nice looking boutique hotels in the neo-classical buildings behind the waterfront.

If you came by fast ferry it might be nice to return on the slow one, and enjoy the 65 minute voyage across the Saronic Gulf. If you arrive in Piraeus just before dusk you may be fortunate enough to see the sinking sun set the waters of the ancient harbour ablaze. Which is a marvellous way to end the day, and a good start to what might become a love affair with the beautiful city of Athens.


Popular Posts