According to Mr. JJ’s original plans, Thursday was our catch-up day for Athens, to see the ancient Agora, the National Archeological Museum and a few other spots. But Makis’ advice to explore the Athenian Riviera with a few hours on the beach was too good to pass up. So we hired Makis and his taxi for another day.
Per his plan, we were at the ancient Agora shortly before 8 am and used the combo ticket to gain entrance. Just like at Delphi, there was hardly a crowd and the early morning weather was just right to explore the Ancient Agora. Once again, we used our Rick Steves’ audio guides to understand the layout and history of the Agora.
Walking the restored Stoa of Attalos with its multi columned corridors, one could easily imagine ancient Greeks going about their daily business on that hallowed ground. After marveling at the structure itself and its many busts and statues, we stopped by the Agora museum. While small, this museum is home to some interesting pieces of history like the earliest (?) voting machines, coins, pottery, toys and cooking tripods from the early periods. Unless one chooses to linger, this museum is easy to explore and definitely worth the time spent.
Working out way outside, we explored the rest of the marketplace, mentally recreating the Tholos, the circular structure where local lawmakers offices were located and where an official was “on call” every night for matters of import that might transpire overnight. What a concept and to think that this was being done so many centuries ago just blew our minds!!
The Temple of Hephaestus is the one temple that is in good repair after all these eons. So we climbed up the little hill to enjoy the Temple and its architecture. I looked at the distant Parthenon, proud in the early morning sun, standing tall against the ravages of time and human beings. The Parthenon had stood mostly intact for about 2000 years until 1687 when the Venetians launched a mortar attack against the Ottomans who occupied Athens and the Acropolis. The gunpowder that had been stored in the Parthenon exploded and destroyed that venerable structure. It took the ancient Greeks about 15 years to complete the Parthenon bit by bit. It took their future generations a fraction of that time to destroy that same building, leaving us with a skeleton to impinge our imagination on! Advancements in science and technology can be as much of a curse as a blessing.
Following the audio tour, we made our way to the Odeon of Agrippa, another amphitheater ruins with colossal statues at its entrance, three of them are still standing. By the time we finished exploring the entire site, the sun had risen in the sky, the temperature was gaining ground and we had a couple of hungry and irritable kids to contend with. As we made our way back to the waiting taxi, the restaurateurs along the street called out to us, seeking to tempt us with breakfast and beverages. But we studiously ignored them, much to Missy JJ’s consternation.
Once in the taxi, Makis took us to a residential neighborhood where he stopped in front of another family run bakery in the Faliro neighborhood. We enjoyed spinakopitas and koulouri sesame bread sticks with coffee and polished it all off with Milfay dessert. That tasted wonderful, with a light and airy texture and not too sweet.
Bidding goodbye to our hostess, we took off, on Poseidon avenue, along the coast, speeding towards the beach. It was about an hour’s journey. Along the way, Makis explained how Athenians loved the water and spending time on the beach. How during the summer and all year-long people made weekend escapes to the Riviera. How the hour-long drive would turn into a test of patience as cars crowded the street on Friday afternoons. The coastal road was dotted with several marinas, coffee shops and the ubiquitous upscale shopping centers. Apparently people here enjoy sailing and beach volleyball. Younger Greeks hang out at newer beach bars and night clubs. An ultra modern side to the city steeped in ancient history.
We passed the National Athletic Center where budding athletes train and drove past Glyfada, an Americanized Athens township, that boasts celebrities and billionaires. The US had an airbase nearby in the 1990s and hence the American influence.
Our destination was the Akti Vouliagmenis beach. A long stretch of golden sand fronted by the deep blue of the Aegean, the beach was just adequately full when we reached. Admission cost us 16 Euros for the family. Food costs were separate but we didn’t eat there since we had planned to feast at a nearby restaurant for lunch. The admission cost provides beach chairs with umbrellas, an onsite play area for kids, free WiFi, tennis and volleyball courts, showers, restrooms and changing rooms. All the areas we used were clean and well-kept.
So there we sat, under the umbrellas, lounging seaside, our family amongst a multitude of multigenerational Greek families, out for a day of family bonding and fun. Unlike other places we have traveled, no one was on their phones, checking out whatever it is people check constantly. People sat across from each other and chatted and laughed while keeping a close eye on kids and grandkids venturing out into the water. There was a sense of letting the world go by, no hurry to be anywhere, just time to sip a drink, to talk and then to be in the water soaking up the sun, then back to the umbrellas. This ritual continued the whole time we were there. And that’s what we did, alternating between the water and the beach chair, sipping our drinks and enjoying the beautiful vistas around us. I mostly enjoyed the tranquil scene around us but couldn’t come to terms with the extent of public smoking that appears prevalent in Greece. I think this has been so much a part of the culture of late that no one bats an eyelid at a grandmother openly smoking around her kids and grandkids. It wasn’t to a level where the smoke was bothering us in any way, but I worried about the health effects on the smoker and the secondhand exposure.
About two hours later, we showered, changed and headed back to the taxi. Refreshed from our time at the beach and hungry for lunch, Makis steered us to a local restaurant called Louizidis Taverna, close to the beach. We went in to have a look at the cooked dishes on display and there were several vegetarian options. Ultimately we chose the Greek salad, dolmades, briam, cooked peas and cooked okra. Everything from the feta cheese to the salad vegetables to the cooked dishes tasted fresh and delicious. The wonderful food was fully complemented by the white decor and the open, airy feeling of the restaurant.
Our next stop was the Temple of Poseidon, at Cape Sunion. Now most people usually visit this at sunset to get excellent photos but we had to get back to Athens to visit the Archaeological museum, a must see on our list. Along the way, we stopped to enjoy the Lake Vouliagmeni where many locals go. We didn’t go down to the water as the surrounding landscape needs a bit of work to reach. We stopped and enjoyed the coastline at a couple of different places always keeping a close eye on the clock.
Situated at the tip of the Attica peninsula, the Temple is situated over a promontory surrounded by water on three sides. It’s a beautiful location for a temple and a fitting one for Poseidon, the God of the seas. The warm sun shone down on a deep blue sea of glittering diamonds as we sat along the hill slopes enjoying the view. Had I been an ancient Greek visiting the temple, I would have enjoyed the immense beauty of the building, the blessings of Poseidon and communed with nature at this craggy hillside.
After enjoying time at the ruins and its picturesque site, we made our way back to the parking area. The temple site also boasts toilet facilities and a small food store. We did not stop to explore the offerings.
Piling in to the vehicle, we swiftly made our way back to Athens, all the while admiring the beauty of the Riviera coastline. Our final stop for the day was the National Archeological Museum, one that we did not wish to miss. Makis dropped us off at the entrance to the Museum and departed for the day after giving instructions as to where to hail a taxicab and how much to pay for the ride.
The museum was open until 7:30 pm from Tuesday to Sunday, so we had a couple of hours to spend. But we also needed to pack for the next two days and for the onward journey to Portugal, so we had to use our time at the museum efficiently.
The museum is home to over 10,000 artifacts ranging from the pre-historic to the modern-day. We found the Rick Steves’ audio guide dedicated to this museum very helpful to manage the large museum collection. I must admit, even though the museum building looks simple and unassuming, the contents within are nothing short of stunning. It gave us goosebumps to look at the Cycladic collections that are over 3000-4000 years old. From there, past the gold works of the Mycenaeans and the famous Mask of Agamemnon, through the Kouros and Kouri statues to the famous bronze statue of Poseidon, the Artemision Jockey, the list goes on. The museum is a treasure trove of human works through the ages, in a variety of medium, from stone to gold to bronze to marble and iron and a delight to visit. The time we visited was perfect, not too crowded for a busy summer afternoon. The highlight of the museum tour was the Antikythera mechanism, recovered from a shipwreck and thought to be a highly evolved computer of sorts. Possibly built in 100 BC or so, this mechanism was quite complex and used to predict celestial positioning, eclipses, etc. In addition, I quite enjoyed seeing the medical instruments of yore that are housed nearby. The Odysseys exhibit was open at the time of our visit and was an interesting blend of ancient artifacts with modern technology and CGI.
After visiting nearly every corner of the museum, we made our way to the cafeteria that was nearly closing. The staff took pity on us and gave us coffee and some leftover pie that tasted delicious. With our energy restored, we walked back to the main road and crossed the street to get to the central island and hailed a taxi cab. In less than fifteen minutes, we were at Syntagma Square and walking back to the rental unit. We were glad to have spent the day following Makis’ plan, and got to enjoy a part of Athens that we would have completely missed otherwise.
The rest of the evening was spent packing our clothes for the two-day trip out-of-town and the following two days in Portugal. We made good use of the washer and the excellent solar power in the balcony to dry the clothes. A bit of the home away from home!