An Exploration of Ancient Athens in the Modern Day

 

A stone church sits in the entryway to a modern building
A skyscraper was built around this small church

With sections untouched for centuries, Athens, Greece is a blend of ancient and new. Modern skyscrapers sit across the squares from centuries-old churches. This is not terribly uncommon in old cities, but in some cases here, the new is built literally around the old. While the city once boasted the latest innovations, today the infrastructure is really old. The sewers can’t handle paper of any sort (trashcans are next to every toilet), something that many Americans will find discomfiting, and streets are very narrow (we invented a game, “Street or Sidewalk” — to try to guess the purpose of the stone paths we saw). But none of the negatives took away from the appeal of the city, which provides many reasons for travelers to visit.

Built on a mountain, everything in Athens is uphill. I say this not to be facetious or to complain, but to warn those who have trouble walking on uneven surfaces that the hills in Athens are everywhere (and many paths are uneven stones), making it nearly impossible to not have an uphill climb somewhere on your journey. While I hear Athens has a good public transportation system, we only made use of the bus to and from the airport, choosing to walk everywhere else. The city is sprawling, but pleasant to explore on foot.

Don’t Believe Everything You Read

Leading up to our Greece trip I did some research to help determine what our “must sees” would be and how much time we could expect to spend at various places. I repeatedly saw the recommendation to spend no more than three days in Athens, that this would be sufficient to see everything. Many articles reassured me that we wouldn’t want any more time than that. While this may be true for some people, after five days in the city, there was still so much we hadn’t experienced.

The other falsehood I saw stated repeatedly was that the city is dirty. This led me to expect trash on the streets or smog in the air like many major American cities. Instead I stepped around residents sweeping and even scrubbing the sidewalk outside their homes. While it’s true that there were some odiferous areas and graffiti is common, the city was far from what I would refer to as dirty.

 

Language Is Not an Issue

While Americans are frequently told to not worry about language barriers while traveling to major cities, since “Everyone speaks English,” this is mostly true in Athens. It is possible to spend a week in the city and hear virtually no Greek spoken. However, that is not the attitude I generally take. I enjoy learning and strive to make attempts when traveling to communicate in the host tongue. (I also consider this a sign of respect.)

Most languages don’t intimidate me, but having no experience with the Greek alphabet, I felt woefully unprepared and completely unable to even try to sound out words on signs or menus. This was compounded by the fact that most people in the city spoke English. I’m embarrassed to admit that though I learned some of the basics (hello, thank you), I often forgot to use them. Though my constant use of English made me uncomfortable, the Greeks are kind – unlike other European centers, one does not get the sense of being judged for a lack of worldliness for not speaking the language.

The Acropolis can be seen from every point in the city

A Focus on Ancient Athens

We arrived in Athens on a Saturday evening. The next morning was one of our must sees: the changing of the guard ceremony. While crowded, this impressive display was worthwhile. We spent the remainder of the day casually exploring Syntagma and Monastiraki and sampling delicious Greek food.

The modern Panathenaic Stadium stands in stark contrast to the ruins nearby

Already several days into our trip (we arrived in Athens on day 4), we spent the following day relaxing and exploring the area close to “home, which was just behind the Panathenaic, or Olympic, stadium. (In fact we could see into the stadium from our balcony). We walked through the stadium and surrounding park, enjoying the shade afforded by the trees and the spray of sprinklers in the sweltering heat.

A marble base supports a red balloon presumably held down by a black steel chain
One of many sites I wish I knew more about

By this point, I regretted not signing up for an Athens tour. (This would have been a good first day activity.) I had found several free walking tours online, but we didn’t plan in advance and upon arrival, chose to simply head out and “wing it.” It would have been advantageous to know more about what we were seeing. While many sites had placards to identify what was in front of us, I was left curious about the neighborhoods and architecture as well as the history of some public art.

On day 3, we purchased the Acropolis combo ticket that includes admission to seven archaeological sites within 5 days (we managed to visit all but one).  One thing you should know before visiting these sites: Greeks are serious about their antiquities.  The staff watches carefully to make sure visitors do not touch or climb on the pillars or foundations that remain. If you want to sit, seek out a bench. What appears to be a boulder next to the path may be an antiquity.

A collection of stone columns to the right with a dap where more should be with a single column at the far left
Temple of Zeus in Athens
A narrow path with a white wall on one side and hedges on the other. A house with a blue door is off to the right
Anafiotika’s narrow paths have pops of color

We started with the Temple of Zeus, closest to our rented apartment) then went on to explore the Roman Agora and Hadrian’s Library, passing through Anafiotika’s narrow paths on the way.

Tower of the Winds at the Roman Agora

 

 

Very old, marble, iconic temple on the top of the Acropolis
The Parthenon

The Acropolis

Since the Ancient Agora closed early that day, (it’s important to note that hours of operation are sometimes arbitrary in Greece) after a brief lunch, we made the hike up to the Acropolis. The complex can be seen from every point in modern-day Athens and from the top you can see the city sprawl in every direction. While the natural fortress dates back to 6800 BC, it is impossible to not be in awe of the Athenians who built the oversized ornate temples to their gods sometime around 400 to 450 BC. Tired and thirsty, we concluded our day in true touristy fashion – watching the sun set and drinking fancy, NYC-priced cocktails from the rooftop bar A Is for Athens.

Greek Church flying the Greek flag on top of a stony hill
Lycabettus Hill is the highest point in Athens

We got a late start on exploring the next day, arriving at the Ancient Agora shortly before closing time. Since we had so little time there, an employee kindly marked our tickets to allow us admission the following day. With time to spare, we decided to check out the view from Lycabettus Hill and set off in search of the funicular. Having missed the nondescript building that houses the railcar (we walked right past it), we found ourselves at the top and spent some time taking in the sights and resting a bit before taking the funicular back down. (This was still a considerable distance up the “hill,” but the walk down took less than half the time we took to walk up.)

 

Our final day in Athens, we spent the morning at the Ancient Agora, then walked through the Kerameikos, an ancient cemetery with paved and dirt paths guiding visitors past tombs dating to the Early Bronze Age (2700 to 2000 BC). The cemetery seems to have been in use through the early Christian period (up to the 6th century AD). A small museum on site houses statuary, pottery and vases excavated from the site.

We left Athens for Santorini, which though opposite of many recommendations, was exactly the relaxing weekend we needed after so much walking. (One day I recorded nearly 32,000 steps!) With so much more of Greece to explore, I’m not sure we’d spend much time in Athens, but there is certainly more to see.

 

A Refreshing Visit With The God of the Sea

I recently had the good fortune to travel to Greece for a long-overdue vacation with my husband. After a long flight, we didn’t want to drive too far, so we decided to start our trip to Greece at Cape Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon. After a too-long detour on the highway (and paying more in tolls that we should have) we arrived at the Aegean Beach Hotel. The room was small by American standards (but typical for a European hotel) and simply furnished. The bathroom was modern and the terrific water pressure on the rainfall showerhead was a welcome surprise.

A four story hotel on the beach with a mountain behind
The Aegean Beach Hotel from the Temple of Poseidon

All rooms at the Aegean have a sea view and the balcony was a terrific place to view the sunset. As we were arriving, a couple kayakers were pulling in their boats, making me wish we had more time to stay.

After settling in, we went in search of dinner. Though the hotel has a restaurant, we had plans to eat breakfast there the next day and decided instead to try the restaurant on the road in, a fish tavern. Though it was a bit chilly, we opted to eat outdoors (when would we have another chance to eat seated next to the Aegean Sea?). With our limited knowledge of the Greek language (read almost none), we decided to count on the recommendation of our waiter and were not disappointed. Our introduction to Greek cuisine and portions left us full and happy. We started with a Greek salad, followed by possibly the most delicious mussels I have ever tasted (we couldn’t determine whether it was because they were a roadside restaurant with tables and closed umbrellas across the road and by the seafresh or if there was a secret ingredient in the sauce our waiter neglected to mention – I asked what was in it). After asking our preferences, our waiter recommended a grilled fish (which we were relieved to learn was priced by weight, not portion) which he brought to us whole, then removed (almost all of) the bones so we wouldn’t have to.  We joked about the cats lurking about, hoping for us to drop a piece of fish. (Our waiter told us they get the bones, later.) Over his protests that it might be too much food, we decided to add calamari. When we had (mostly) finished our meal, baklava appeared for dessert, “on the house,” which is a pleasant surprise in much of Greece. Of course we found room, it would have been rude not to.

A stone temple lit up on the top of a mountain
Poseidon is lit up at night

We walked back to the hotel, admiring the view of the temple lit up at night. The bed was comfortable and the sound of water lapping the beach from the open door was soothing, making sleep come easily. The morning greeted us with gulls calling and dogs barking in the distance. Breakfast was an extensive buffet, including hot choices as well as yogurt and spoon sweets, breads and cakes, meats and cheeses. A Nescafe machine produced coffee that was surprisingly good (unlike experiences with Nescafe here).

the Aeagean Sea with sailboats, and varying shades of blue water, with small islands in the distance
A nice view to wake up to

We set off to visit Poseidon, via a trail from the hotel parking lot (which allowed us to leave our car there, rather than struggling to find a spot around the buses). The walk was an interesting one – the terrain changed from grass to rocks to lava rock and we encountered a bit of looped barbed wire adjacent to the Temple property along the fork of the trail we chose to take.

a white stone embedded in the earth next to a cliff on the edge of the sea
The wind kept me from getting a closer look

When we arrived, we saw a notice that there was a film crew making a movie and that entrance gave permission to be filed. (So if you happen to see a Chinese movie filmed at the Temple of Poseidon, look for me in the background.) The temple itself is awe-inspiring and there are other things to see. In addition to the temple, there are ruins from the settlement steps leading upward with ruins of foundations on either sideof Sounion which was an important port as early as 510 BC. The day we visited, there was a strong wind, making me wonder how many people Poseidon caused to be tossed into the sea from where I stood. While there were some interesting ruins near the edge, the wind kept me from getting too close to investigate closer.

a small island in the sea, a larger one sits behind it

Nearby is the Temple or Sanctuary of Athena. Unfortunately, this has not been as well preserved as Poseidon’s. All that remains is the foundation of a temple, which was built in the middle of the 5th century BC.

 

a foot at the water's edge

 

Saying goodbye to the cape, we decided to stop for lunch in Lavrio, a small town we drove through on our way there. After a short walk through town, we randomly chose a place with outdoor seating and decided to share a plate rather than ordering too much. We decided on a grilled meat platter for two. The meal started with a dish of tzatziki (the best I’ve had before or since) and toast. Our meal shortly followed which was a mounded plate with a variety of meats, and pita. As we quickly discovered, lurking cats (and sometimes dogs) are frequent sights at outdoor restaurants. Here we wondered how often one particular cat caught a new patron unawares while sleeping on one of the chairs. We failed to finish this time and took the

Sign over a door in Greek naming the restaurant
Home of the best tzatziki found this trip

leftovers with us to snack on later. Again we were brought dessert, (gratis) which was just as tasty as the rest of the meal. I asked the waiter what it was, commenting that it was delicious and from his reaction, I wondered if it was his own concoction. It was deceptively easy: biscuits with layers of yogurt and apricot. I’m not sure I’ll be able to duplicate that either. After lunch we were back on the road, headed north, to continue our adventure.

Note: No compensation was provided by any business or organization mentioned here. The opinions are solely those of the author.