When it comes to travel, sometimes its best to ignore the guidebooks and just go with your gut instincts. That’s what I did when I recently visited Athens, the capital of Greece and the cradle of Europe.
Since the bleak euro meltdown emerged in Athens three years ago, the public eye has not been kind to Greece. But despite the grim economic reality, this historic city remains a fascinating place to visit.
Thanks to the last Olympic Games, the Eleftherios Venizelos airport is efficient and spotless. Buses whisk visitors to Syntagma Square, the country’s kilometer zero and the seat of its parliament.
The House of Parliament, known as the Vouli, is quiet most of the time — that is, when protesters aren’t around to storm it. Here, the changing of the guard takes place every hour. At dusk, a shadow falls on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, adding an eerie feel to the painstakingly synchronized march of the ex-guerrilla legion.
But the real head-turner here is the sight of the evzones. These elite presidential guards don a special uniform — a red beret, a kilt with 400 pleats (each represents a year of the Ottoman occupation), a pair of white stockings and pompomed shoes — making them a perfect tourist attraction. Their traditional uniforms reminded me of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard, while their unwillingness to budge is reminiscent of the guards of Buckingham Palace.
I stayed at Omonoia, a working neighborhood in the city center.
“Omonoia area looks a bit unfriendly but really it’s safe,” said Liberis, my Athenian Bed and Breakfast host, who quickly shared tips on his city.
“I’ll join a demonstration today to support my friends. I work in a chicken farm out of town so I’m very lucky. But many of my friends aren’t,” he added, while his mother cooked in the kitchen and asked me to join them for a meal.
Liberis’s family decided to turn their home into a bed and breakfast to make some extra money.
Protests and strikes occur regularly in Athens these days, but they rarely interfere with travel plans. Visitors roam the old town hassle-free — that is, if you don’t count the insistent flower vendors.
I headed toward the Acropolis, literally the “upper town.” As its name suggests, the gigantic slab of rock is located uphill, and is visible from anywhere in the capital. Athens’ climate is warm all year round, so its advisable to avoid the scorching summer months when attempting the steep climb.
The legend of the Acropolis is that it was the place where reason met worship. When Socrates developed the classical philosophy on life and morals, the goddess of Athena was said to wait two centuries for her own temple complex. And when Plato ascribed the laws of the Republic, he likely stood nearby this sacred sanctuary.
In the evening, the Parthenon is beautifully lit against Athens’ darkened sky. The 25-century-old Hellenic temple is known for being under perennial renovation, a necessary process for it to survive the pollution and abrasive particles of our day. Simple yet elegant, the Parthenon has been used over time as a classical temple, city treasury, church and Ottoman mosque.
Dodging gigantic slabs, archeological scaffolding and makeshift bridges, I hit another sweet spot, the Herod Atticus Theater. There, I sat and imagined a time when Roman citizens hurled over beasts and gladiators in this very arena. The gory shows now long gone, this open-air theater stages modern concerts with top musicians from Maria Callas to Jethro Tull.
The huge site takes a lot of energy to soak up its charm. I walked down and stopped to admire the new museum dominated by clean-cut glass panes.
In downtown Athens, Athinas Street is your major thoroughfare. It runs vertically across town and has a lot to offer. Locals come here to browse and complete their daily shopping. You’ll find anything from contraband cigarettes to lottery tickets. For a snack, look no further than the popular gyro. It’s essentially a kebab wrapped in a pita bread with a variety of condiments, the yoghurt-based tzatziki being the most popular.
Athinas Street ends at Monastiraki Square, often dubbed Athens’ most picturesque open space, where Ottoman architecture has survived urban development.
Byzantine churches, monasteries and the terracotta tile-roofed Mosque of Mehmet the Conqueror (now a museum) lurk next to flea markets and the awe-inspiring Hadrian’s Library.
In the evening, strolling the narrow lanes, you may hear bouzouki notes echoing off wooden window shutters, or the spine-chilling chanting of a late mass.
In my experience, the cradle of democracy and free thinking can still easily inspire visitors with its Mediterranean charm.