Our plans for the first full day in Athens had been an ambitious one. After the transcontinental trip, we were so tired out, the earliest we could even wake up was around 10:30am!! We had planned to be half way done with the city walk by then and here we were, still abed, struggling to even wake up!
With our trip cut short by one day already, we were starting to feel the pressure of time. After a hasty lunch prepared in-house, we left to make our way to Syntagma Square, a five-minute walk from the apartment and the launching point for the Rick Steves’ walking tour of Athens. Halfway there, we realised the children had not downloaded the correct audio files which meant they couldn’t fully appreciate the tour. And sharing headphones wasn’t a viable option.
So back we went, to the apartment, to download the correct files. While the children worked on that, I found a grocery store near the rental and shopped for fresh fruits, vegetables, milk and yogurt. Everything was fresh and though small, the store was busy and contained all the essentials one would need, and more. Prices were very reasonable, too.
Soon we found our way back to Syntagma Square, the Greek Parliament house and the nearby station of the same name. It was wonderful to stand in the warm sun, surrounded by a host of people and let the atmosphere of Athens just percolate into us. We were here in Athens, we had made it!!
We first crossed the road to stand in front of the Greek parliament and the Tomb of the unknown soldier, to watch the iconic Evzone soldiers stand guard. The grander Change of Guards is held every Sunday at 11 am, but each day, there is a smaller one that happens every hour on the hour. It was fantastic to watch the soldiers in their traditional attire, the white skirts, the red clogs with black pompons, the red cap with black tassels. We watched in fascination as the change of guards took place.
Following this, we made our way back across the street to the square and went down the steps. Our next destination was Ermou Street and Kapnikarea Church. Unfortunately, Sonny JJ stumbled on some uneven flagstones in the square and fell down. His knees were abraded but more importantly, he was in exquisite pain, having strained his ankle in the fall. I did not notice any swelling of the ankle, so after a few minutes, as the pain receded, we walked slowly to Ermou Street. We had just started our walk for the day and there were many hours and days of walking ahead. It wasn’t a good start!
On Ermou Street, we located a pharmacy sign and walked in. After picking up a bottle of anti-inflammatory medications, we bought a small ankle brace that fit snugly. He refused the use of a cane, since the brace brought him some relief. Outside, he took one of the pills and gamely walked on.
Slowly, we progressed first towards the Kapnikarea church, enjoying the vibe of the city as much as we could under the circumstances. I continued to watch Sonny’s foot but no swelling developed which I took to be a good sign.
As the walk continued, we stopped next at the Cathedral Square and took in the Metropolis Cathedral of Athens, the largest church in Athens and the seat of the Greek Orthodox church. Outside, the square with the statues of Archbishop Damaskinos and Emperor Constantine XI, provided some respite from walking and a chance to admire the architecture of the church. We then stopped to explore the Church of Agios Eleftherios which is a small building tucked away slightly behind and to the right of the main Cathedral building. This little “old cathedral” once housed the archbishops of the Orthodox Greek Church during Roman occupation. Its architecture is an interesting mosaic from varying periods.
We left the church and followed Agios Filotheis street and admired the various storefronts displaying religious objects. As we crossed the headquarters of the orthodox church, we came across a small cafe, Eat at Milton’s, at the corner and decided to take a coffee break. While the setting of the cafe was quaint and allowed Sonny JJ to rest his foot and take his mind off the discomfort, it took an inordinately long amount of time for them to serve up our snacks and coffee/hot chocolates. In fact, a couple of other ladies who occupied the table next to us left, frustrated, after about 25 mins, when their food did not arrive.
The Greek coffee was energizing, especially with sugar, and we made our way next up the busy Adrianou street towards the Plaka. We made certain our backpacks were held close and stayed alert at all times. Walking along the charming Adrianou was a fun experience. There is a lot to take in, in terms of the prevailing sounds, the sights and the scent of food. Vivid and vibrant and noisy and aromatic!! Adrianou was all that and more!
Eventually, we joined Lisikratous street and made our way to the famous Hadrian’s Arch. Our goal was to see the Temple of Olympian Zeus. After admiring the Arch built in honor of Emperor Hadrian, who had a great love of Greek culture and architecture, we walked the distance along the main street to reach the entrance to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest temple in ancient Greece.
Mr. JJ had read that the Acropolis combo ticket is an economical way to see attractions in Athens. It gives access to the Acropolis, the Theater of Dionysus, Hadrian’s Library, Keramikos Cemetery, Temple of Olympian Zeus, Roman Forum and the ancient Agora. He had also read that the entry lines are usually minimal at the Temple of Olympian Zeus as opposed to the Acropolis. Thus, there we stood, at the entrance to this once majestic temple, seeking out our combo tickets, for which we paid 30 Euros per adult. Children under 18 have free entrance.
Then we walked that pleasant July afternoon, to reach the actual ruins, taking in the view of the Acropolis in the distance. The weather was around 26-27 C all afternoon, a perfect day to be out and about in Athens. The ruins are impressive from a distance but standing close by, one cannot be but awed by the precision with which the columns have been mounted, one on top of another, and towering above all, as they make their way upwards to the blue, blue sky. It took nearly 700 years and several regime changes to construct this temple but build they did, with 104 columns standing 56 feet tall each. What an inspiring icon this must have been to the people nearly 1900 years ago, to stand in the shadow of this temple and gaze up to the roof, to feel a pride in the beauty and the science of this building! Today, only a handful of columns remain upright, yet they only add to the imagination and splendor of the ruins. Yes, there are plenty of wonderful ruins in this ancient city, but for our family, this temple rivaled all the others as the most amazing site.
By now, it was close to 4:30 pm and we had only three more hours before the Acropolis closed. Our intention was to complete visiting the Acropolis that evening. With that in mind, Mr. JJ kept us on a tight schedule as we left Hadrian’s arch and wound our way back to Lisikratous street. After a few minutes at the Lysicrates monument and refilling beverages, we made our way up Epimenidou street with the stairs and turned right onto Stratonos to reach the Anafiotika area.
Anafiotika is an island of charm and whimsy in the sea of Athens. Whitewashed homes border narrow streets, the colorful trees and flowers in the landscape add elegant contrast to the white colors of the house walls. The trail that leads up to the base of the Acropolis through this little oasis is marked at different places with placards stating “Acropolis” and a directional arrow. The views from this hill over the Athenian rooftop, in the shining sun, is breathtaking as is the view of the Lykavittos Hill in the distance.
Although we spent only about 15-20 minutes crossing this little neighborhood, I can say for sure that the tranquil picture of this place will remain in my heart and memory for ever. If I could, I would choose to live here, surrounded by this beauty and contentment.
But as with all good things, we were soon at the fork in the road, pun intended, and turned right again and went down the incline to join Theorias street which skirts the base of the Acropolis and leads to the Hill entrance.
There were several cats that we came across on this walk to the Acropolis. The view of the Agora and the Roman Forum kept us entertained as we reached our destination. As we already held tickets, we skipped the long lines at the counter and walked to the entrance. The staff there forbade us to enter with any drinks other than water so we had to finish up the sodas we bought. We also sought to make use of the toilets before heading up.
It was exciting to walk through the portals leading up to the Acropolis. This hill is one of the most famous places on Earth and what we were about to see was one of the most famous temples ever built, its architecture extensively studied and debated about and replicated but never forgotten. It gave me goosebumps walking up the trails leading to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus.
Built in 161 AD, this Odeon could seat about 5000 people for performances and is still in use today. The stage was being used by an orchestra for rehearsal and it was just mind boggling to hear the acoustics of the theater reflecting the joyous sounds of the orchestra. I think being a theater goer at this amphitheater would have been a different experience. After enjoying the music for a while, we made our way further up the hill, to the Propylea, the entrance to the Parthenon.
The marble steps leading to the Propylea gave us a resting spot to take in the scenery. We enjoyed the view from below up to the entrance. On either side of the steps stood the Temple of Athena Nike on the right and the Monument of Agrippa on the left. Both of these towered over us, recreating the grandeur of the Parthenon and its surroundings. We also caught sight of Mars Hill from where Paul preached to the Athenians.
We followed a group of tourists to the Propylea and admired its high-roofed ceiling with marble tiles. Some of the structures have been restored as others lay nearby as ruins, to be studied and learnt from.
Leaving behind the Propylea, we walked forwards to see the Parthenon. The West End of the Parthenon was covered in scaffolding so we couldn’t get a good look at it. But the rest of the Parthenon begged to be admired and appreciated and that’s just what we did. As the sun shone in all its splendor in the western sky, the Parthenon danced with light and shadows, creating an alluring effect. The Rick Steves audio guide was a wonderful complement to our trip, detailing good information about what we were seeing and urging us to seek and appreciate what our minds did not already know.
After viewing the Parthenon end to end, we headed over to the Erechtheion, where have stood the ageless Caryatids. Graceful and poised, they function as the columns that uphold the porch of this temple. Four of the original statues are today housed at the Acropolis museum and are a must see at close quarters. There has been an olive tree on these grounds, according to legend, since the first one planted by Athena, the patron goddess for whom the city is named.
I saw many staff members on the grounds watching the tourists like a hawk. Visitors were forbidden from climbing onto certain portions of the monuments. Dancing and jumping were discouraged as a sign of respect for the sacred grounds of the temple on which we stood. It reminded me of the time when we visited Macchu Picchu and the staff there asked some teenagers to delete pictures they took jumping in the air, on the sacred grounds. What may be another ruin to us is sacred ground and religion and history and culture to the locals. I thought both instances were great learning points for our children, to understand differences and to accept local traditions and foster respect for other civilizations.
Next we moved onto the Viewpoint with the Greek flag and took in the breathtaking view of city of Athens below us and of the bigger prefecture of Attica in the distance. We took some time to identify all the areas we had covered that day starting with Syntagma Square and the ones yet to be explored like the Roman Forum, Agora etc.
We then walked along the south side of the Parthenon taking in the view of the Theater of Dionysus and the Acropolis museum in the distance. By now, the sun was lower in the sky, the great weather that day ensured we still had some energy left. So we slowly walked away from the mighty Parthenon, back towards the Propylea and exited the ruins. It felt bittersweet at that moment, knowing we would probably not visit this site again, but feeling fortunate to have been there and seen its glory in person.
Once back on the roads, we walked down the hill towards the Plaka area and took in the structures of the Roman Forum. We were too late to enter the Forum but admired the Tower of the four winds and the ancient Roman column ruins. Walking around the Forum gates, we eventually reached the Library of Hadrian, again too late to enter but with sufficient daylight to illuminate the columns that once formed the walls of the cultural center and the ancient library.
By now, we were famished having walked several thousand steps since we left the apartment. We were at the “touristy Plaka” area where a thousand culinary delights abound. We chose to eat at the Ydria restaurant as its hostess promised a whole variety of vegetarian options. There was a sense of gaiety and polish to the Plaka, amidst the muted lights, the clink of silverware, and the low hum of voices.
Our dinner choices consisted of falafel, dolmadakias, fried potatoes, as well as vegetable risotto, moussaka and gemista that featured stuffed tomatoes. Mr. JJ particularly liked the gemista while I relished my risotto. For a Greek restaurant, this place was a bit expensive but I figured that went with the territory, after all we were eating out at the touristy hangout. The menu card clearly stated that all fried potatoes were fresh and not frozen, that all items were cooked in olive oil unless deep-fried. The food, did indeed, taste fresh.
It was way past ten pm when we left Ydria to find our way back to the apartment. The roads were well-lit, many were lined with restaurants that were full of people and overall felt safe for us to walk in. A 20 minute walk brought us back to Skofou. Fortunately, Sonny JJ’s ankle was sore but showed no sign of swelling. We were tired and ready to hit the bed. The following day would be our first “out-of-town trip” to Delphi and would start very early at 7:30 am. So off we went to catch some restful sleep before another long day dawned.