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Athens is Europe's southern-most capital city and the gateway to Greece and the ancient world. Its renowned hallmark is the gleaming marble of the monuments of the Acropolis, which rise triumphantly above the city, proud survivors of the ravages of man and time.
People have dwelt on this rock for some 5,000 years — a lineage so ancient as to make all other European cities seem young by comparison.
Below, in the ancient Agora, or marketplace, Socrates held his dialogues, and the system of democracy e know today had its beginning, making Athens the cradle of Western civilization. It is this rich history that continues, to act as a magnet for travellers throughout the world. Modern Athens is far removed from the elegant splendour of its classical ruins.
The sprawl of steel and concrete retches up into the surrounding hills as far as the eye can see. (Remarkably for a city of this size, there are no skyscrapers and under a dozen tall buildings.) Aesthetics have fallen by the wayside during the 20th century, for a massive influx of rural Greeks and repatriated countrymen from Turkey has made a necessity of rapid (and frenzied) growth.
Today, metropolitan Athens, along with the adjoining city and port of Piraeus, is home to more than 4 million people, a figure that equals nearly half the population of the entire country.
It is fitting, too, that the venerable monuments of Athens, built by the ancient citizens, should still stand in the viable heart of their descendants. Historian Thomas William Rolleston wrote: "The elements which in the most remote times have entered into nation’s composition endure through all its history, and help to mould that history, and to stamp the character and genius of the people."
Athens has always been a world crossroads. Having dealt with invaders throughout its history, the city has coped well with the tourist bombardment of recent years (Greece receives around 10 million visitors a year!). Even those heading for the islands often spend at least a night or two in Athens, and for many, this is a destination in its own right. If the urban din gets too much, mountain villages, get- away islands and beaches are easily accessible.
Athens, a city very much on the move, absorbs effortlessly its waves of visitors, while straining its Hellenic ingenuity for greater commercial and in industrial prominence. Yet in the end, regardless of how modern it becomes or the extent of the progress it achieves, it will always uphold the splendid heritage evoked by its very name.
One of the oldest remaining cities on the face of the planet, Athens has stood at the center of the world for thousands of years as a leader in philosophy, history, culture, and mythology. From places such as the Acropolis—often credited as the birthplace of modern civilization—with the Parthenon, the Erectheon, and temples to Zeus, Agora, Athena, and Dionysus, to places such as the National Archeological Museum or the harbor of Piraeus, Athens is a symbol of what Europe has been over the millennia: the birthplace of the humanities.
Classical Athens is how most people prefer to remember the city, and it is the basis for the tourism that forms the major industry of this Greek city. It was the centre for arts, philosophy, science, math, and more. Plato’s Academy was based here, as was Aristotle’s Lyceum, and it was here that democracy was first born. In fact, many people call this the cradle of Western civilization, and the proof of that has been well-preserved over the years. In addition, the city was host to the first modern Olympic Games back in 1896, hearkening back to the times when the ancient games had been hosted in Olympia from 776 B.C. to 393 A.D.
You will most likely arrive during the chaos of daytime Athens, with your first glimpse of the Acropolis through a haze of heat and smog. Frightful traffic, clogged streets, air and noise pollution, and sweltering summer temperatures can be as trying here as in any large city at this latitude.
My suggestion is that you head straight for Plaka, the oldest quarter of town, plant yourself at a shady café table and relax! This is Athens’ oldest quarter and lies between Ermous Street and the Acropolis, and has lively shops and tavernas and colourful back streets prefect for wandering. Visit the Museum of Greek folk Art and the lovely Tower of the Winds.
Of Athens’ many churches, three ‘must-see’ are Aglos Eleftherios, next to the cathedral; Kapnikarea, on Ermou Street, and Agii Theodori at Klafthmonos square.
During your stay in Athens you may have many experiences: a breezy respite on a roof garden, a lunchtime accordion serenade, a fresh rose from a flower seller on a rare rainy day, and the play of the late afternoon light of the Parthenon.
Athens’ after-dark entertainment is vibrant and varied, and carries on long into the night. It usually begins with a meal. For a pleasant and inexpensive evening, head for one of the many tavernas that are located in Plaka. Choose a romantic garden spot or an outdoor table where you can watch the passing scene, and enjoy a leisurely meal to the accompanying strains of Greek music.
Many tavernas – several in Plaka and various others outside the centre – organize live music and/or floor shows with traditional folk dancing. Some, however, cater for large tour groups. These are best avoided – the food is mass-produced and you’re unlikely to get a good seat. Ask at your hotel desk for a recommendation.
If you check out the Greek publication Athinorama, however, you’ll be astounded at the breadth of entertainment on offer. You will need a Greek friend to translate – not only the words themselves, but the particular varities of music which are unique to Greek popular culture.
Most visitors never get beyond the ubiquitous strains of Zorba the Greek which are heard throughout the tourist areas, but if they sense a genuine interest, most Athenians are pleased to enlighten you on the exciting and beautiful musical traditions of their country, which range from rembetika to folk songs to the revolutionary music made popular by Mikis Theodorakis.
The fashionable nightclubs, which feature bouzouki music and popular Greek singers, are only open in winter in the centre of Athens. After Easter, they transfer to the summer clubs along the coast, near the airport and at Glyfada.
These are fairly expensive, with high cover charges and drink minimums, and reservations are required for some clubs. Doors open at 10pm, but the show really gets going around midnight and carries on well into the early morning. Exuberant Greek, carried away with admiration for favourite singers, are wont to throw plates on the dance floor. Luckily for the nightclubs owners, gardenias have now come to be regarded as the ultimate compliment! Far less opulent are the Faliro bouzouki spots at Tzitzifies (8km/5 miles from Syntagma along the bay towards Piraeus), which can be recommended for their earthiness.
Most first-time visitors take in the sound and light show staged outdoors on the hill of the Pnyx. The English version starts at 9pm, the French and German versions at 10pm.
After the 45-minutes presentation, you can stroll to the Dora Stratou Theatre across the way on the Filopappou Hill the Greek dances, musical instruments and costumes are splendidly authentic and the company is internationally known. Nightly performances are held at 10.15pm from the end of May through the summer, with ‘matinees’ Sunday and Wednesday at 8.15pm.
The Athens theatre season is in full Easter (most productions are in Greek). The city also has a number of dance troupes presenting ballet, folk, jazz, modern and experimental performances. During summer the Athens Festival presents opera, music, ballet and ancient drama at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Theatre and music concerts by Greek and foreign artists are held at the Lycabettus Theatre on Mount Lycabettus. English productions are presented only occasionally for such festivals.
Cinemas can be found all around great Athens, and the majority of films are shown in the original English or French versions with Greek subtitles. The open-air summer cinemas, which are set up on roofs, in empty lots and gardens or in actual theatres, are very popular with visitors.
There is one in the centre of Plaka. The flourishing Greek cinema industry also produces some good films.
There is a large casino the summit of Mount Parnitha (Parnes), which is 35km (22miles) from the city centre. You can drive up the winding road or take the cable car from the base, which leaves every half hour.
The casino is open 7pm-3am daily, but closed Wednesday. You must be well dressed and have your passport with you get in.
Athenian culture has various strands influenced by East and West, embracing progress but revering tradition.
The Byzantine chanting which drifts out of churches, the black-robed and bearded Orthodox priests, and the strange, almost pictographic letters of the Greek alphabet give the city a slightly exotic air.
Saints’ days are celebrated with wreaths of white flowers, as Athenians in business suits line up solemnly to kiss the icon, and holidays are marked with lively folk dancing and processions. That the Athenians uphold their heritage in the midst of a modern metropolis is befitting of a people whose forefathers advanced the concept of a city from the very beginning.
Greek come to their capital from the island and all around the mainland for a variety of reasons, but primarily to study, work, and make a better life for themselves and their families. As a result, over the years the city has become a microcosm of Greek culture, not to mention the beneficiary of the country’s natural and human resources.
Take, for instance, the spectacular quantity and use of marble. An outstanding proportion of this mountainous country is pure marble- 130 different kinds, of all colours and quality. It is this variety which gives the monuments and statues of Athens such splendor.
Athens has been inhabited by various people over the past 7,000 years, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. As a result, it comes as no surprise when the layers of history begin to peel back away from the city. From the city-state of Ancient Greece to the Byzantine Period to the Ottoman Empire and the new modern redevelopment, there is no doubt that this city is still a leader of cultural magnificence and splendor. From the Greek food to the Greek hospitality to the Greek history, Athens is the epitome of what Greece has been over the years, and is a legacy unto itself.
Greek hospitality is both warm and genuine. It is a tradition, too, which goes back to ancient times, when the belief was that passing strangers may have been gods in disguise.
At the same time you’ll come to respect the local business acumen, whether you’re buying a flea-market trinket or trying to charter a yacht. Athenians, in the tradition of cunning classical Greek hero Odysseus, have sharp minds.
They place a high value on education, and many speak several languages. In addition, most have acquired at least a rudimentary knowledge of English.
The strong bonds of family, religion and nationalism have largely insulated Greece from the sort of social problems that plague other European countries. Drugs, alcoholism and homelessness were practically unheard of until recent years and even now are seldom seen.
This is one aspect of modern life in which Athens is content to lag behind. Urban crime rates are still low, making it one of the safest capitals in Europe you can visit.
Athens’ legendary history begins with a contest between Athena, goddess of wisdom, and Poseidon, god of the sea. Both had their eye on the city, so it was agreed that whoever could come up with the more useful gift for mortals would win. The half-human, half-serpent king of Athens, Cecrops, acted as arbiter.
The contest started with Poseidon, who struck the rock of the Acropolis with his mighty trident and brought salt water gushing forth. Athena offered an olive tree, however, which proved more valuable, and so she acquired the position of the city’s special protector.
The history of city is just as fascinating. From around 2000 BC, wandering bands filtered into Athens and other parts of Greece from Western Russia or Asia Minor. Known as Achaeans, they were the first Greek-speaking people in the area, and over the centuries they built many opposing fortresses and developed the rich Mycenaean civilization based in the Peloponnesus. In the minoe Acropolis of Athens a wall and a palace were built.
The Achaeans’ chief rivals and mentors were the dazzling Minoans of Crete-that is until about 1450 BC when their empire was devastated, possibly by tidal waves caused by the eruption of the volcanic island of Thera (Santorini). For several centuries, the Mycenaeans dominated the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean.
Greece was invaded by Nazi Germany in April 1941 and by June the Germans controlled the entire county with Italian forces placed in Athens.
The people suffered greatly but the city’s monuments escaped serious damage.
Unfortunately the Greek resistance movement which was formed during the war was so politically divided that the guerrillas expended almost as much energy fighting each other as the Germans.
In October 1944 the Allied force moved into Athens and much of Greece, encountering little opposition from the retreating Germans.
The war left Greece utterly devastated, but fictions still squabbled ceaselessly in an attempt to gain political advantage. Communist and royalist partisans moved inexorably toward military showdown as the United States, under the Truman Doctrine, sent the first installment to economic aid. Two years of savage civil war ended in late 1949 with communist defeat, but political in stability was not resolved in Athens until a military dictatorship seized power in 1967.
During the seven-year reign of the colonels, political parties were dissolved, the press was censored and left-wing sympathies were exiled, tortured and imprisoned. In November 1973, a student protest at the Athens polytechnic was brutally crushed.
This action spelled the end of the Greek tolerance of the regime, which collapsed eight months later when the junta attempted to overthrow the Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios, and instead provoked the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Constantine Karamanlis, the former conservative premier, was recalled from exile in Paris to restore democracy.
The reforms which followed brought the abolition of the monarchy, with a new constitution for a republican government then being drawn up in 1975.
With its entry into the Common market in 1981, Greece’s economic prospects strengthened. That same year, the first socialist government swept to victory under the leadership of Andreas Papandreou and the PASOK party. Papandreou espoused the desires of a postwar and stability, and secure a better future for their children.
By 1990, beleaguered by personal and financial scandals in the administration, PASOK was defeated at the polls, after the conservative New Democracy party, and Constantine Mitsotakis became the new prime minister.
The victory turned out to be short-lived, however, for the tenacious Papandreou was re-elected in 1994.
Most recently Greece has been centre-stage and in world headlines for the problems associated with the euro where banknotes and coins were introduced in Greece in the first wave of countries adopting the current.
Athens is the gateway to the rest of Greece. With little more than a moment’s notice, you can hop on a bus, a boat or a guided tour to visit some truly marvelous places, all easily reached on a half-day, full day or overnight excursion.
Also en-route to Delphi is Livadia 119km (74miles) from Athens’ is a regional centre. It boasts a clock tower presented by Lord Elgin and a pretty Turkish bridge spanning the river and roughly 23km (14miles) west of town, you might make a detour to the monastery of Osios Loukas, a splendid example of 11th-century Byzantine architecture which has beautiful golden mosaics.
Beyond Livadia the road climbs into the Helikon range. At 2500m (8.202ft) Mount Parnassos is its highest peak. You’ll see beehives, herds of goats and low, stone shepherds’ huts scattered over the stony pastureland – the region is known for its honey and feta cheese. In springtime the fields are carpeted with bright red poppies and Spanish broom.
Bargaining (otherwise known as haggling) is common practice in Athens, except at department store, food shops or the fashionable clothes shops.
Most stores will offer you a ‘better price’ than that which is marked, and with a little bargaining you may get it for even less, especially if you use cash and not a credit card (which has hidden surcharges from the bank).
Many places are delighted to accept your bank notes or coins. In Monastikari, be prepared to haggle – it’s part of the game.
A winning smile and a relaxed, unhurried attitude will usually do wonders – just make sure that you are not talked into buying something you don’t want.
Swimming. A number of hotels around town have pools, which non-residents may use for a free. In Piraeus you won’t want to go in the sea, but at the Zea Yacht marina there is an attractive, Olympic-size, salt-water pool, a restaurant and excellent facilities. A fee is charged for admission, and children under eight are not allowed in.
Clean, sandy beaches are easily reached by bus, taxi or car from the centre of Athens. Obviously, the further you go from the city, the clearer the air and the cleaner the water. For the nearest good sea bathing, head along the Attica coast towards Sounion.
Buses 116 and 117 leave from Vas. Olgas Avenue, opposite the main entrance to the temple of Olympian Zeus, and go as far as Varkiza (32km/20 miles from Athens). For Sounion and other points beyond Varkiza take a bus from Mavromateon Street, just past the Archaeological Museum.
In Athens, you’ll find an appetite just walking along the street. The delicious smells wafting from snack bars tempt you in, while the sweets, nuts and fruits of the vendors are difficult to resist – pistachio nuts are local favourite.
At a psistaria (specializing in grilled foods), you’ll find usual favourite souvlakia – pieces of veal, lamb or pork and vegetables cooked on a skewer (souvla). Even better, and more portable, is souvlaki me pita – grilled meat, onions, tomatoes and peppers topped with dzadziki and wrapped in round, flat bread (puta). Doner kebab or gyor (slices of a large cone of meat roasted on a spit), are much tastier than the versions you find at home. You can also get spicy sausages and patties of minced meat in various shapes. You can buy a take-away souvlaki pita at any time of the day and munch it while strolling through Plaka. If you want to sit at a table, you’ll have to order a pricier combination plate.
For less piquant treats, go to a galaktopolio, a dairy counter selling milk, butter, delicious natural yoghurt and pastries, including cheese-filled tiropita. at these shops you can get the makings of a do-it-yourself Greek breakfast: honey to go with your yoghurt, a plastic spoon, and crusty bread. Then repair to a nearby café table and enjoy the morning sun.
If you visit Athens at Christmas or Easter or ar invited to a local wedding, don’t flinch at tasting innards soup (magiritsa) – in fact, you’ll be considered rude if you fail to mop up your plate.
Excellent seafood can be sampled over Athens, but you’ll enjoy it most at Piraeus’ little yacht harbor of Mikrolimano. A string of dockside restaurants offer seamen’s mezedakia – octopus chunks, clams, oysters, sea urchins and whitebait – and psarosoupa or Kaskavia – and psarosoupa or kakavia – a fisherman’s soup that rivals well-known cousins around the Mediterranean. For a local specialty, try garides giouvetsi – shrimps in tomato sauce with feta, all cooked in white and served in an earthenware pot.
A less known but more reasonably priced seafood row is Piraeu at Freatis, around from the Zea marina yacht basin, which also has a good Cliffside view of the sea.
Fine French cuisine, along with seafood, pizza and hamburgers, provide culinary variety with so many restaurants and tavernas, you won’t want to be confined to a full-board plan at a hotel (where the menu is likely to be routinely ‘continental’). Several of the very best eating places are located in residential quarters away from the standard tourist haunts – ask an Athenian for the best local addresses.
Don’t worry about any possible language difficulties: in most Greek restaurants it is common practice for the customer to be invited into the kitchen to inspect the array of pots and pans simmering on the stove. When you have decided what you’d like, just point it out. A half-portion is oligo (a little). Alternatively, you can always ask for a menu (which is usually printed in at least one major European language, and these days Russian too).
Both restaurants and taverns open as early as noon, but don’t get very crowded before 2pm. Dinner is served from 8pm, but most Greeks eat considerably later. Restaurants in town or in the cooler surrounding countryside are still going long past midnight. Hotels try to maintain earlier mealtimes.
Services charge is included in the bill, but it’s customary to leave a tip for the waiter.
If a youngster brings iced water or an ashtray, or even just cleans off the table, it’s usual practice to give him a few coins as you leave.
Should you be lucky enough to be invited to Greek home for a meal, don’t forget to wish your fellow diners ‘kali orexi!’ (‘bon appétit’) before you start to eat.
When in Athens, take time to relax and people-watch. Join the Athenians, who love to sit at café, drink a coffee or an aperitif, stare and gossip.
With your drink you’ll be served a tiny plate of mezedes (hors d’oeuvre) – cheese, salami, olives, tomatoes, taramosalata or slices of fried octopus. The meze will vary according to the quality of the café, but it will always appear when ouzo,the national drink, is served.
Some cafes and tea-shops serve sweets. For the best sample, look for a zacharoplastio (pastry shop). The best known treat is baklava, which is flaky, paper-thin fillo pastry, filled with chopped walnuts and almonds and drenched in honey or syrup. Kataifi may look like shredded-wheat cereal, but the similarity stops there: it, too, is made of fillo and honey.
Ice-cream is popular and excellent in Greece, and is served in various ways in cafes and tea-shops. A granita – scoops of home-made water ice – will be less filling.
Clear, aniseed-flavoured ouzo – reminiscent of the French pastis – has a kick to it. Drink it in moderation and nibble something at the same time, as the Athenians do.
It’s normally mixed with cold water (turning a milky colour), but can be drunk neat (sketo) or, most refreshing, with ice (me pago). Whisky, gin and vodka are expensive. The Greeks produce good sweet and dry vermouth.
A good retsina, the Greek’s classic, tangy white wine, can be as smooth and exotic as any other. The Greeks have been drinking it for centuries.
Greek wines were originally carried and stored in pine-wood casks, sealed with resin. Later, when vats and bottles replaced the casks, the Greeks continued to resinate their wines to obtain this special flavor.
The Athens regions retsina, particularly that from the village of Koropi and Pikermi, is renowned as the genuine article, but there’s not much of it left. Much of today’s retsina is chemically aged, and instant resin flavor added from the old-fashioned pine barrels.
Rose wine, known locally as kokkinelli, is considered a delicacy. The one to ask for is Cellar, which also produces a non-resinated white wine.
If you decide you’d rather stick with the more traditional wine flavor, there are many very adequate Greek choices. Santa Helena is a good dry white; Pallini (a village in Attica) produces tender grapes that rival some French whites. Boutari and Naoussa – reds and whites – often grace Greek tables. Both Demestica reds and whites are popular and are sold in wine shops abroad.
Greek beer (bira) has German origins and is excellent. Well-known European breweries bottle beer in Greece.
The most common foreign after-dinner drinks are available (but expensive) in Athens.
Greek brandies, which tend to be rather sweet, are cheaper.
If you would prefer something non-alcoholic, there are cola drinks and good bottled orange and lemon (portokalada, lemonade). Greek coffee is boiled to order and comes in a long-handled copper or aluminium pot known as a briki and poured, grounds and all, into your little cup. The thing to ask for is elliniko, served enavari gliko if you want it sweet; ena metrio, medium; or ena sketo, black. Don’t forget to wait a few minutes before sipping to allow the grounds to settle. Traditionally, glass of cold water is served along with the coffee.
Instant coffee, which is referred to everywhere as nes, is also available, while some better cafes also serve espresso. Iced coffee, called frappe, is a popular hot-weather refresher. You can also get a cup of tea almost everywhere.
The common toast when drinking is stin igia (‘ya’) sas! Meaning ‘cheers!’. A reply to any toast, in the sense of ‘the same to you’, is episis.
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Panepistimiou (also called Venixelou), with several 19th-century neoclassical buildings, runs parallel with Stadiou. Either are a great way to walk from Syntagma Square to Omonia Square and catch some sights.
The first building you’ll pass is the former home of German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822-90), who found the ancient palace of Troy and underneath the tombs at Mycenae. Up under roof you’ll see engraved ‘IIiou Melathron’ (palace on troy).
Further along you’ll find the Academy of Arts, the University and the National Library. Their sculpted, gilded facades mimis the classical style. Athena and Apollo stand atop the Ionic columns at the Academy, while Socrates and Plato sit at the entrance. The Library has nearly a million books and manuscripts, including amazing hand-illuminated Gospels of the 19th and 11th centuries.
THE Archeologikon Mousion holds more masterpieces of ancient art than anywhere else. Spanning perhaps 7,000 years, exhibits represent every period of ancient Greek history and every site underneath from the world of the ancient Greeks.
Located at Patission 44. Open Mon 12.30am7pm, Tues-Fri 8am-7pm, Sat-Sun 8.30am-3pm. Marble and bronze statues, vases and archaeological treasures from prehistoric times to the Byzantine era, including the acclaimed Minoan frescoes from Santorini. The best museum of Greek artifacts.
You will want to dedicate at least half a day to browsing through the fabulous treasury of sculpture, frescos, vases, jewelry, figurines, coins and everyday implements, and no matter how
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