Athens, it entered my ‘ken’ of course when I was a child learning about Ancient Greece, and even before that when I read avidly about the mythical Greek Gods and Goddesses and kings and warriors…. It is a wonderful pantheon of deities and stories that engrossed a young child. Then in my teens I was able to visit and I will describe that first impression.
The great aircraft banked and turned and started her descent to this Greek capital on a clear morning… it was April 1st, 1963 and I was still grieving for the farewell that we had taken from India the night before. Yet, here in a pink light was this intriguing city, with the sun’s rays touching all the marble and making it pink. Off shore, the American US Mediterranean fleet sat at anchor, a sombre reminder of modern naval power and defense against aggression.
On a hillside, I spied another sad relic of our times, a huge cemetery of war graves of the Fallen from World War II. It seemed to my young eyes that the 20th century had provided tragic modern marble reminders whereas those of antiquity stood proud in the sunlight on the Acropolis.
We had been booked into a hotel that it transpired did not yet exist, so a benevolent taxi driver suggested a small hotel which no doubt a relative owned; it was very welcoming and perfect for my parents and me who were despite excited yet depressed at our final departure from the land we loved – India.
The Blue House was comforting and the food was excellent and we set about exploring. Imagine, we just took a taxi and drove up to the Acropolis and decanted ourselves and there were about 50 other people.
That is all, looking at one of the world’s greatest archaeological heritage sites. There stood the Parthenon in all its glory with blue sky, bright marble and sunshine. There may have been a guide but I cannot recall that but anyway I had done my homework. In those days the Caryatids were the genuine ones! The visit was a great success and was the start of my love affair with Greece.
Now here I was again, this time arriving at 5.30 in the light before the sunrise on Aegean Airlines from Edinburgh; It was hot even at that hour on a September morning and an efficient car whisked us away to The Crowne Plaza hotel.
It was pure heaven to be welcomed efficiently and given a Club Suite. An hour’s doze was in order before breakfast and a busy schedule ahead. Breakfast is on the roof terrace where there is a small plunge pool. A Greek breakfast is always welcome and since they also had the sanity to provide tea pots for my tea, I was truly a happy bunny.
We decided as our first port of call to visit The Byzantine Museum. Its formal name is The Byzantine & Christian Museum and it is housed permanently in a fine building called Villa Ilissia. I was in my element as I had studied Medieval Iconography over 25 years ago and this museum has a most wonderful collection; there are more than 30,000 objects beautifully displayed. I recommend it and the nearby gardens.
Then we jumped into the metro and took ourselves to the fairly new Acropolis Museum. I had heard much about this but here was my first experience and it is outstanding and so well done.
The building itself is in the shadow of the Acropolis and exposes archaeological underground workings that the visitor can see on entry to the building.
Photography is not allowed in this museum except for the Caryatids and a few other items. We so enjoyed it and would have remained longer but the heat was 38 degrees c and we were wilting having arrived from Edinburgh which was about 14c.
Reflecting on my first ever visit and looking at the crowds all around me I realised how fortunate I had been to have had that initial visit. We retreated to our hotel suite via the metro. It is very good and clean and spacious and it seemed cooler down there than on pavement level.
In the late afternoon we had a taxi bring us back to the lovely walkway that enters the area at the foot of the Acropolis. The Acropolis metro station is at the start of this street called Dionysiou Areopagitou.
By this time the sun was beginning to set so the warm evening light threw a golden glow over the Acropolis and the street was cooler and full of hawkers and artists and jewelery makers. We walked right along till we came to Monastiraki Square where there is a metro station. It was thronged and full of market traders and normal tourist paraphernalia.
We had a taxi whisk us up to the foot of the Lycabettus Hill. We went up by funicular railway to the top of the Hill to see the night view of Athens. It is very pleasant but I would suggest going a little earlier and thus seeing the setting sun which we had missed. There are restaurants and cafes up at the summit. One should however beware, that the taxi drivers can be exploitative when one descends later.
The next morning headed to a newish hotel of a group that I knew from a previous visit; the Electra Group have now the Electra Metropolis Hotel where we had a cup of coffee. Our main aim however was The Museum of Cycladic Art.
This was a delight. This Museum is very well configured and a must see in my opinion. I have a huge love for The Cyclades Islands and the Island of Crete where so much of Western Civilisation was formed.
This museum houses one of the most complete private collections of Cycladic art worldwide, with representative examples of figurines and vases, tools, weapons, and pottery from all phases of the distinctive Cycladic island culture that flourished in the central Aegean during the Early Bronze Age (third millennium BC).
This Museum has a very nice café and shop but the way it is configured and displayed makes it an excellent choice for children as it is not at all ‘stuffy’ and the front of the display cases show the various items in a sort of ‘comic strip’ that makes it easy for a child to assimilate. There are four floors and each floor deals with a certain age of antiquity.
Lunch called loud and clear after this visit and we made our way to the newish restaurant Vassilenas which is situated at 13 Vrasida Street, very close to the Hilton Hotel just off a small quiet garden square and close to the Byzantine Museum too.
Certainly, we could also have walked to it from The Crowne Plaza had we wanted. Well, what can I say, it was superb. The restaurant has been in existence since 1920 but in the port area whereas now it has located a branch to this fashionable smart area. We loved the food, the service and the general ambiance and I would have returned had we stayed longer in Athens.
However, pressure of our itinerary meant we heroically made our way in the heat to the metro and took the train to Monastiraki from where we walked to the Greek Agora. That is the easy way to access the Agora and it is so worth doing.
Over the years, I have looked down on it from the Acropolis but here I was in the afternoon sunlight walking amongst it as Athenians would have done millennia ago was just right.
Let me explain: the Agora’s main buildings include the Royal Stoa, the Bouleuterion (the Council House), the Tholos, the Metroon, the Altar of the 12 Gods, the Monument of the Eponymous Heroes, the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, the Strategeion, the Painted Stoa and so on. Have I overwhelmed you? Well fear not. Just go and walk around, sit and read and ponder those ancient times and the stones will somehow speak to you.
The Temple of Hephaistos is the 5th century BC and probably the finest remaining building of that period. I was so glad that we had made the effort and then we returned to Monastiraki and took a taxi. The great writers of antiquity came to life at select archaeological sites and monuments of Athens and on this occasion within the shadow of Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus.
Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Sophocles and Aristophanes were presented in seven different very short performances and in three languages. I was happy for the English version! On the way, the young taxi driver had spoken to us very openly. It was a pleasure to converse with him, these young people have had a challenging time in Greece and I salute their perseverance through the financial struggles.
After that a Guide called Yannis came to meet us for a walk in the sunset around the lesser known areas of old Athens surrounding the Acropolis. This was pleasant and we also then saw the Roman Agora, and the little houses tucked on the side of Acropolis mound where islanders from the Cyclades came to help build modern Athens.
For City Break I would advise that someone give four nights to the experience because there is much to see. We returned to our hotel and were grateful for the Club lounge and its buffet. A truly wonderful two days!