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Greece: Ten Good Reasons Not to Skip Athens

Alice Twain

Athens is not a gorgeous city. It's not exactly a beautiful city. Heck, I would not even call it a pretty city. But Athens is really everything else, and I mean every single thing in the world. Athens is a modern, developed, fully western metropolis; but it's also a village and an Arab souk town. It's frantic and chaotic, but it's also luxurious, artsy, and neat. It's sleek and stylish, as well as run down. It's poor and decayed in spots, yet it's lively, sleek and fashionable. And quiet and meditative. And intense. Poetic. Yet funky. Fun and occasionally silly.

Tell someone you like Athens aesthetically and most will think you are nuts. Say you love it and most who have been there for more than a quick hit-and-run will know what you mean. Locals will not necessarily agree though.

Exarchia, Athens, Greece

The problems that Athens has are obvious. The traffic is hideous and occasionally dangerous (and I do not feel that the traffic in Rome is particularly chaotic or dangerous). The nefos, the local smog, is a shroud covering the city all year long, only stirred by the Meltemi wind. The sidewalks are narrow and are a collection of potholes and traps, yet still highly valued as parking spots. There are stray dogs, stray cats and, what's worse, stray tourists everywhere.

Yet Athens manages not only to survive all of the above, but even to prosper and retain a peculiar charm that can captivate you if you just sink a bit deeper, under the top layer that may dismay you.

So, here are a few good reasons NOT to skip Athens in your travel plans for Greece, to convince you to allow more than one brief day, for a quick look at the Acropolis, before running away to some island.

1. The Nightlife

Athens never sleeps, and it's one of the places to be in Europe if you don't want to sleep. I am not talking about just music and clubs. I am also talking about theater and music festivals, restaurants, shows, cinemas (usually movies are subtitled).

  • Go to the Gazi or Psiri areas if you want to dance 'till you drop.
  • Go to Exarchia and Plaka for a more laid back entertainment and some bohemian attitude.
  • Go to Monastiraki for the Greek music (in particular rembetico, a close relative of blues and North African rai) or for some jazz
  • Go to the theaters for some plays or classical music, or stay late in some restaurant.

2. The Food

Greek cuisine is a mixture of east and west; Greece is a juncture between the two worlds. Athens is large and world-oriented enough to afford Chinese as well as French and African restaurants, but I suggest sticking to the Greek. Restaurants range from cheap and sound taverna-type to stylish and innovative food.

Just make sure you stay away from the tourist traps in the main streets of the Plaka, all selling the same frozen souvlaki and microwave moussaka.

3. The Shopping

People from Athens (Ateniese) are fashion victims. In bulk. Ok, not really; you can catch lots of idly dressed people, but a walk in the central areas or a trip on the subway at 7pm peak hour will show you how much the Greek, and in particular the Ateniese, are look-conscious, in a pretty personal way. This means that Athens has a lot of clothing and shoe boutiques. But Athens is also small business land: this means lots of tacky shops but also lots of real gems selling unique items. And, please don't forget the open-air markets!

4. The Unexpected Quiet

Papas, Athens, Greece

In this bustling city, suddenly right in front of you, there are little, quiet squares with a traditional cafenion with small wood and straw chairs. Impromptu parks appear suddenly. Climb the side of a hill, sit down and enjoy the shadow of the trees; sit down and sip your frozen coffee. Or enter one of the many Byzantine churches to enjoy the history and muted lights. And if you really want a break, take a bus for a half-a-day trip to nearby Kessariani or Dafni monasteries, or take a ferry for an overnight in Aegina, or the tram to one of the three or four blue flag beaches to be found on the nearby coast. (A blue flag rating signifies a good beach.)

5. The Street Food

Did I mention the food? Yes, probably I did. But did I mention the street food?! The savory pitas, puff pastry filled with cheese or vegetables or both, or sweet and filled with custard, are sold by bakeries for the midday snack of the Ateniese. The same bakeries have whole racks filled with sweet or savory biscuits. The kebab-like giros are sold at street corners and make a delicious and satisfying meal on the go. The carts selling nuts, semisweet breads, or fruits (cherry only, or apricots only, or plump and juicy peaches only) are on nearly every corner.

6. The Architecture

Athens is a work in progress. This makes it a real architectural laboratory; a melting pot where all the styles stand side-by-side. Not only the good styles: ugly 1950s buildings shadowing lovely churches, neoclassical, perfectly maintained palaces sharing the sidewalk with ruins badly needing to be taken down; surprising white cubic-shaped island houses; and everything overlooked by the majesty of the Acropolis.

Probably my favorite building in Athens is the Kapinakrea church, a Byzantine jewel in the middle of an intersection. Now Ermou and Kapinakreas are both closed to cars, but I have a picture of it surrounded by cars in an old guidebook.

Kapinakrea church, Athens, Greece

Kapinakrea church, Athens, Greece

7. The History

The city has been in the middle of historical events for millennia, just like Rome or Paris. Actually for longer than both! It's not just the ancient Greek monuments: Athens is a veritable catalogue of historical monuments, from the Parthenon all the way to 2004 Olympic games, all scattered around its streets. Every one who has been anyone in history has been here: Greeks, Romans, Byzantine, Franks, Turks, Venetians, English (ok, the English chose not to leave much: they preferred to take home the Parthenon Friezes!), and finally Greeks again.

8. The Coffee

"Ena elliniko metrios, parakalo" (one medium-sweet Greek coffee, please) is my best Greek phrase. Chose a cafenion and order this dark, velvety delight. As short as an espresso, more flavorful, less caffeinated (forget about decaf!) and slow to drink. Sit, smell the aroma, while you wait for the powder to settle, sip slowly being careful not to stir the powdery dregs (the "mud"), meditate some more, another sip, some water to rinse your mouth in case you sipped the powder that was deposited in the bottom. Be Greek, drink Greek.

9. The Wine

Now that I have been talking about the food, how about a consideration of the wine? When I first traveled to Greece, the ordinary wine was thick enough to require watering down in order to be drinkable, and was often tangy and unpleasant. Or it was the omnipresent retsina, flavored with resin. To escape this fate you had to buy the pricey quality wine bottles. These days are long time past. Now most decent restaurants will offer decent, and sometimes pretty good, house wines. Wine making in Greece is on the rise.

10. The Tourist Sights

Finally, don't be afraid of being touristy! After all, being a Slow Traveler includes being a tourist. The Evzoni are hot despite the funny clothes, the Plaka holds lots of surprises despite the flocks of foreigners (like us, yes!) tramping up and down Adrianou. The Acropolis is gorgeous and the ticket is valid for four days and gives you access to lots of other monuments as well!

So you see, there is no reason to stay in Athens for less than four days.

Weather and Temperature

Athens is hot. Winters are short and mild (not hot, but mild), but also rainy and with short days. Spring gets hot pretty fast. By mid-June the city will have turned into an oven, and will stay like that until the end of September. Surprisingly, sometimes July and August are more comfortable than June and September due to the cool Meltemi wind, but the sun is still solid: a hard and heavy hammer beating on your head.

Be wise, do like the Ateniese do. The heat will not bend to your desires, rather you are the one that can be flexible enough to trick it. Wake up early, have a light breakfast and get out of your hotel as fast as you can to make good use of the cool early hours. By 11:30 in the morning, get yourself a snack with a fruit juice and head to one of the many museums, which mostly stay open during the lunch break but close in the afternoon. Enjoy your air conditioned museum visit until 2pm, then have a light lunch with a refreshing Greek salad, and head back to your hotel for a couple of hours of rest. Return to the street by 6pm, when the sun is lower and milder. Enjoy this time of the day and a late dinner (no earlier than 8pm), some nightlife of your favorite kind (that may also be a simple walk) and go to sleep when the night cools off.

Resources

www.greecetravel.com : Matt Barrett's Greece Travel Guide

www.athensguide.com: Matt Barrett's Athens Travel Guide

Get more information from the Wikitravel Greece Travel Guide.

Get more information from the Wikitravel Athens Travel Guide.


Written by Alice Twain. Alice is Italian and lives in Milan. Read her blog in Italian: A Typesetter's Day 3.0. See her Slow Travel Member page.

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