It’s All Greek to Me

Posted by on Oct 16, 2013 in Featured, Greece | 5 comments

After weeks of hiking through the Swiss Alps and a few days guzzling steins at Oktoberfest, I was ready to lose the hiking boots and dirndl and enjoy some beach time in the Greek Islands.  But, before I could cash in on two weeks of sunning at my leisure, Mike and I headed to the historic Greek capital of Athens. While we had heard from fellow travelers that Athens was interesting but very dirty, ugly, and chaotic, we were still eager to explore this ancient city. What I discovered was a city steeped in rich history but haunted by modern demons.

The flag of the Acropolis surrounded by tourists

But first, the good stuff.  In my opinion, the antiquity and archaeology alone warrant a trip to Athens. The city’s history spans over 3,400 years and it is widely referred to as the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy.  Society would not be what it is today without the ancient Greeks and I think that is pretty amazing. Even if you only go to Athens for one jam packed day of touring, GO! Since Mike and I are not big on seeing every site or visiting every museum, we focused on a few highlights but admittedly forewent others.  If you are touring Athens like the typical American tourist (squeezed into 2-3 days), Athens sightseeing can be daunting.  You cannot see it all and if you try, you will most likely exhaust yourself and end up forgetting much of what you learned. My recommendation would be to do a bit of pre-reading about the sites, museums, and neighborhoods in order to aim your attention and energy on what interests you.

View of the Acropolis at sunset

Mike and I decided to walk the famous historical  areas (the Plaka, Monastiraki, Thission, and Syntagma square), tour the Acropolis (how could we not?) and enjoy history in the Benaki Museum.  Sitting at the base of the Acropolis, the ancient neighborhoods of Athens are by far the most scenic (and most touristy) of the city.  We enjoyed walking through the winding cobblestone streets of the Plaka, people watching in the pedestrian-only Thission area, and window shopping in the flea market and bazaar of Monastiraki. In a city where every building seems run down, dated, and covered in graffiti, it is nice to admire the architecture and quaintness of the oldest districts. 

Monastiraki Square with the Acropolis in the background

We also ascended the hill – at the same time, it seemed, with every other tourist in Greece – to the richly historic and unbelievably old Acropolis.  Even though we were visiting in the “off season”, our few hours spent at the Acropolis were swarming with other sightseers.  I was worried that Mike was going to refuse to continue when we were overtaken by cruise goers with signs, matching hats, and identification stickers pushing and shoving their way past us. Luckily, he held strong and allowed for our continued exploration.  I was impressed by the sheer age of the ruins and was glad (despite the crowd) that we went.  

The Acropolis

In addition to monuments, we decided to visit the Benaki Museum because it is the only museum in Greece that brings visitors through all ages of culture and history.  We appreciated the easy to follow exhibits, focus on history, and minimal crowds.  I should note that we skipped two of the most famous museums in Athens – the new Acropolis Museum and the National Archaeological Museum.  I have heard both are great but we just could not see everything as the number of sites, museums, and touristy things to do is overwhelming. 

View of Athen from the Acropolis

Our visit to Athens allowed me to truly enjoy the city’s remarkable past. However, our three days also shed light on one other thing that is strikingly apparent: Athens has fallen on hard times.  Even from an outsider’s perspective, I could see the unfortunate effect that the debt crisis has had on the Greeks. While I was aware of many of the issues from the news – the staggeringly high unemployment rate (now estimated to be 27% and over 60% for people under 24) and the drastic rise in homelessness, malnourishment, and suicides – I was surprised to witness it first hand.

Run down Athens building

On our first day in Athens, while lingering over a final morning cappuccino at our hotel, we were informed by a hotel worker that we could not use public transportation due to the fact that a protest was scheduled for later in the day.  I eventually learned that this particular protest was about a murder committed by an extreme right wing political group that has been gaining popularity since the economic crisis.  It was surreal to watch thousands of people marching through the streets of Athens. Even when Mike and I ventured out for dinner hours after the protest, we still saw police on every corner with riot shields. Torn signs and trash still littered the street.  It was eerie and slightly unsettling.

View of the protest from our hotel

The protest on that day was sadly one of many demonstrations and strikes that have become common in Athens.  If the Greeks are not protesting the government, they are marching for civil service cuts or unemployment.  And while, thankfully, the demonstration during our vacation was peaceful, there are many that turn violent.  I think Mike’s friend from work (and native Athenian), Dimitris, put it best when he simply stated, “Things in Athens cannot continue as they are.  Something bad will happen.”  We spent an evening with Dimitris while in town and were upset to hear about some of his friends and acquaintances that have become jobless and hopeless in recent years.  It seems nobody is immune to the Greek economic crisis.  I can only hope that something or someone enables positive change in the near future.  This city and country are too special and historically significant to deteriorate as they have been.

Local vendor outside a market in Athens

Overall, Athens was an intriguing city to visit.  The rumors are true that the city can be unsightly and tumultuous. And, the economic issues that the country is facing only seem to heighten these negative stereotypes.  However, I would still recommend a visit to this capital city.  Focus your sightseeing on the monuments, sites, and museums that interest you most and allow the city’s historical grandeur to sweep over you.  Then, when you are fully worn out, hop on a ferry to one of the islands to experience what is in my opinion the country’s best side.

5 Comments

  1. Glad I did not know about the violent atmosphere while you were there.

  2. Gorgeous pics guys!

  3. In the “Athens from the Acropolis” photo, what structure is on top of the hill in middle of the photo?

    • Good question! It is St. George’s chapel atop Mt. Lycabettus, the highest point in Athens.

  4. I am so glad you both safe and have moved on. where next? Love Gram

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