September 2, 2013

Athens' Unexpected Surprises

You could say my obsession with Athens started with Yanni. 

I was raised on his music from a young age, and there were nights in my childhood that I watched him perform “Live from the Acropolis” on PBS and fantasized about where in the world this could possibly be.

I had read about the Parthenon in grade school, and I knew about the stone ladies who had to be moved inside museums because their faces were being eaten away by acid rain. And so the Yanni concerts always intrigued me. How could it be that some ancient treasures needed to be protected behind glass walls while others could be strung with audio/visual equipment and filled with modern-day concertgoers? I wondered...where was this happening?

And so it was a dream come true to finally arrive in this city that had sparked my curiosity for so many years. After 17 hours on a plane, when we rounded a corner and the Acropolis came into view for the very first time, there could not have been two happier travelers.

It’s pretty incredible to think that the small land surrounding the Acropolis is where staples of our society like democracy, theater, philosophy, literature, mathematics, and mythology were all conjured up around 450 BC. 

We visited the Acropolis  which is topped not only by the famous Parthenon, but a series of other temples, too. They were all built to honor Athena, the city’s protectress.

When we visited, two sides of the Parthenon were completely covered in scaffolding, but it was exciting to be there nonetheless. 

We also learned the somewhat funny reason why the middle of the Parthenon is so badly destroyed. It’s not because it’s old and crumbling or because of pollution. It’s because when the Venetians were battling the Ottomans for control of Athens in 1687, they launched a cannonball from a nearby hill that hit the Ottomans’ reserve of gunpowder hidden inside the Parthenon. It literally exploded. Can you imagine something that is so treasured today being so nonchalantly targeted only 300 years ago?!?

Because the Acropolis is higher than the rest of Athens, you can catch glimpses of it hovering between buildings all day long. And at night, they do a wonderful job of lighting it up.

Just like with the Sydney Opera House, there are vantage points all over the city where you can see the Acropolis and Parthenon. One of our favorites was Lykavittos Hill, where we hiked to the top for this amazing view.

At the base of the Acropolis, we stood in the Theater of Dionysus, where the world’s very first plays were performed.

There are old temples whose columns have fallen over like stacks of dominos…and stayed there undisturbed for centuries.

And alas, a pilgrimage to the cradle of western civilization would not have been complete without seeing the venue where Yanni captured my imagination.

Athens is a hilly and sprawling city of white, low-rise concrete buildings which house 1 out of every 3 Greeks. If you’ve ever imagined the white-wash villages of Greece, Athens sort of looks like the urban version of that.

Given that there are ancient relics all around, we were having serious déjà vu of being in Rome. But there are two main differences between Athens and Rome:

First, the core of Athens where all of the sites of interest are located is much smaller and more compact than we expected. We walked everywhere and never once had to a take a bus or metro.

Second, Athens is pleasantly sprinkled with trees and undeveloped space, which is hugely different from Rome where the modern buildings butt right up to the ruins.

The 2004 Olympic Games brought a revitalization to the city, and there are now large pedestrian boulevards where everyone goes on walks in the early evening. It very much reminded us of the Spanish paseo. 

Their Parliament building looked like a complete ramshackle, but on Sunday mornings, they do a nice changing-of-the-guard ceremony out front wearing their elaborate military costumes.

All over town young Athenians pack the outdoor cafes to play their Greek form of backgammon (Tavli) while sipping iced coffees.

Shop owners don't want to miss any of the action, so they set up tables and chairs out on the streets and then just run into their store if a customer comes perusing.

The city’s enormous cat population is sleepy during the day but then lurks beneath the outdoor dining tables at night.

There are not as many street musicians as in other major European cities, but young Greek boys play little accordions for tips. They intentionally set their plastic tip cups in front of people walking so that it gets kicked over and the person feels bad enough to give them some money. It never seemed to work.

It’s almost impossible to write about Athens without addressing the stereotype that it’s a “get-in and get-out” city. I have heard this my whole life, and I honestly have to disagree. There was a significant amount of graffiti, but there was no traffic, noise, or pollution. The city has done a great job in recent years of diminishing many of the issues that used to deter travelers from staying longer. Does this look like a city shrouded in smog? 

Athens is full of blue skies, interesting museums, and lovely restaurants. Maybe I wouldn’t feel the need to stay longer than 4 days, but there is absolutely no reason to leave after less than 2. We spent 3 solid days sight-seeing, and easily could have used more time in order to slow down. I love it when a city surprises me in an unexpectedly positive way. 

Efharisto (thank you), Athens! And Efharisto to you, too, Yanni.

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