Athens Renewed

By Chris Deliso for Travel Intelligence (2005)

Athens – enduring testament to Greece and its classical legacy – is an enticing, exotic European city where past and present coexist in serene yet spirited harmony.

According to myth, the city was named after Athena, Olympian goddess of wisdom, when she endowed it with that ultimate symbol of Greece- the olive tree. Ever since, Athens has been central to the Greek experience. Once the ancient world’s foremost center of culture, learning and the arts, it has existed for over three millennia. Today, almost a quarter of all Greeks call Athens home.

While Athens is a large and densely packed city, its most interesting sites are all within close proximity. A major pre-Olympic refurbishment program has also made getting around much easier.

Today, Athens has a new buzz about it, owing to all the reconstruction work that it went into preparing for the 2004 Olympic Games. It now boasts a new airport, expanded metro, and the steady growth of sophisticated shops, hotels and restaurants to rival those of any other major European city.

Athens is overflowing with history. Its 25 museums, in fact, have proven insufficient to contain it all. Nine years ago, when the Athenians started the metro expansion project, work was halted almost daily because so many unknown archaeological finds kept being discovered. This fortunate annoyance has given the city a new- and underground – museum, right on a metro stop. Amidst the roar of subway trains, travelers can gaze on ancient treasures that until recently had been sleeping peacefully deep within Athens’ storied soil.

This contrast between a serene past and vibrant modern-day life is evident everywhere. In little parks redolent of cypress and pomegranate, one enjoys the shade of a towering, deep-rooted plane tree, and imagines the philosophers who once discoursed beneath it. On the Syntagma road, impatient, mustachioed cabbies honk and gesticulate, right across from where the ceremonial guard executes its measured routine, impervious to the bustle and din of the city.

Of course, a trip to the famed Acropolis should be the first thing on any visitor’s list. Presiding over the city from a craggy hilltop, the Acropolis itself is a complex of ancient buildings hearkening back to Athens’ glorious past. After a short climb to the entrance, one traverses the Panathenaic Way (where sacred rituals, festivals and Athens’ own version of the Olympics were once held), before passing through the Pentelic marble columns of the Parthenon- masterpiece of Doric architecture and sanctuary of the cult of Athena. The nearby Erechtheion, a temple supported famously by statues of cloaked women known as the Caryatids, is along with the Parthenon considered the ultimate expression of 5th Century B.C. greatness.

From high atop the Acropolis, summit of the ancient Athens, one can gaze down upon the fanning tiers of the Theater of Dionysius and the modern city beneath. At sunset, the fading light of day bathes a sea of rooftops in a reddish glow.

After dark, the Acropolis shimmers under the glow of floodlights. This unforgettable view, visible from almost everywhere in the city, brings the ancient Greek achievement vividly to life.

Shaking off this ancient reverie, one can explore the crowded, labyrinthine streets of Athens’ “old town.” Centrally-located Plaka is a remnant of Ottoman times, lined with eateries and innumerable little stores. Throngs of people shop in the outdoor markets of nearby Monastiraki, where the mixed aromas of spices, vegetables and fish fill the air, and the bustle of commerce spills noisily into the street.

For all that, Athens can be quite intimate, too. Down quiet, cobblestoned alleys, one might find a traditional kafeneio, where old men flip their worry beads and sip Greek coffee in the idle morning hours. Unassuming Byzantine churches dot the city, their rounded domes hidden by larger modern buildings. Elegant neo-classical mansions stand on tree-lined avenues, while a stroll up the pine-scented Hill of the Muses provides the best view of the Saronic Gulf, Athens’ gateway to the Aegean.

The feisty, energetic Athenians have long made a priority out of enjoying life. No doubt, their city doesn’t lack for entertainment. At night, when the air is sultry and cool, Athens really comes to life. Greeks typically enjoy late dinners in a crowded restaurant, before passing on to chic bars for a drink. Every night of the year one can find live music of all kinds, as well as dancing, theatre, sporting events and more.

No visit to Athens would be complete without a night in an authentic Greek taverna. The best ones are always busy; in some, the chefs invite diners to choose directly from steaming pots in the kitchen. Under a flowering trellis, guests are seated at a sturdy wooden table, often adorned with a blue checkered tablecloth. Whether the guests are hungry or not, Greek hosts are not about to take chances. The table swiftly becomes laden down with mezedes (assorted appetizers) such as stuffed red peppers, flaky feta cheese pies, grilled octopus, Greek meatballs and the ubiquitous tzadziki (a tangy sauce made of yoghurt, cucumber and garlic).

Invariably, house hospitality also includes downing a shot or two of ouzo, a cloudy Greek firewater flavored with anisette. Oftentimes, the atmosphere becomes more raucous still when the exotic strains of the bouzouki start up. When the music really gets going, a simple dinner can become an all-night affair.