A May 2002 trip
to Athens by billmoy
Quote: My trip to Athens was a fascinating visit to a modern city coping with the greatness of its past.
Athens has recaptured some of its past glory as the host of the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. The city was behind in its construction schedule, but overall it staged a successful version of the modern Olympics.
If you enjoyed this journal on Athens, please see my sections on DELPHI, MYCENAE and SANTORINI.
Some of the beautiful images of Athens are courtesy of my good friend and frequent travel companion, local Chicago architect Marius Ronnett.
The old line "it's Greek to me" came to mind while I was staring at the Greek signage. However, there is still enough English because of the busy tourism trade, and after staring at the Greek letters I was able to do a bit of self-translating from Greek to English. The food I ate in Greece, including such standards as gyros, souvlaki, moussaka and baklava, is much better than the equivalent Greek food I have tasted in the States.
The new international airport is rather slick and even has a couple of computer booths with free internet access if you have time to kill before your 6AM flight.
Athens seems to thrive with a multiplicity of bus depots, dispatching beat up long-distance buses to places like Cape Sounion and Delphi.
Hotel | "Ledra Marriott"
The standard room is nice and spacious, with a comfortable king bed topped by plenty of pillows. There is a large television, minibar, safe, ironing board, writing table, and coffee table, with a lounging chair and ottoman. The room has a balcony, a fine amenity, though my view was not as exciting as the views of the great Acropolis from the roof deck. The dated but still elegant marble bathroom has a bathtub, toilet and bidet, large mirror and some nice Nutragena toiletries. The elevator areas on each floor look stylistically dated, with mirrored walls, a blocky table and a couple of chairs.
The roof has a fine selection of diversions. There is an outdoor pool (open from May to October), a jacuzzi, a bar, and of course nice views of the Acropolis and the two hills bookending it. The only drawback about staying at the Marriott is its location south of central Athens, perhaps 2 miles from the Acropolis. Buses and trolley lines stop near the hotel. The nearest Metro station is Syngrou-Fix, about one mile north of the hotel. The staff at the front desk is very accommodating, though they may not have all the info down pat. One fellow said the Metro was only 200 meters from the hotel, another gent said 500 meters. They went above and beyond in helping me find the location of a hotel where I was to meet a friend that evening, going so far as to call someone at the other hotel to verify its exact location. If you cross the wide Syngrou Avenue (or if you duck into the pedestrian underpass), there is a pleasant residential neighborhood on the other side that is worth a quick ramble.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on June 10, 2002
Marriott Athens Ledra
115 SYNGROU AVENUE
The decent-sized rooms at the Attalos have features like air-conditioning, cable television, and a little bathtub. You can take the elevator up and walk down if you wish, as there are little prints on the walls and a sitting area on each floor near the stairs. The hotel has a small lobby, which will seem smaller if the fellow at the front desk is smoking. While this is not the poshest hotel, you get good value for the 49-euro rate. You can book tours at the front desk counter (trips to Delphi, for instance) and you can store your bags as well.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on June 11, 2002
29 Athinas Streett
The lobby is bright and spacious, with the front desk adjacent to the sliding glass front doors. There are two smallish elevators in the lobby area. The amenities of the Zafolia include the unheated outdoor pool and a poolside snack bar on the roof, as well as a fitness center. There are fine views of the Lycavittos and Acropolis hills from the rooftop. Guests enjoy a breakfast buffet (included with the room rate) that has the fairly filling standard variety of meats, eggs, breads, etc.
The hotel has 7 floors and 191 rooms. The comfortable standard room is of a decent size, with a small sitting area adjacent to the queen-size bed. The bathroom, with a bathtub, features a dark color scheme. However, the water supply is apparently heated by electricity, so when there was an hour-long power outage one morning, the hot water supply was nonexistent. Someone at the hotel did knock on every guest room door to advise guests of the exact situation. Hopefully this is not a regular occurrence at the hotel.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on June 17, 2002
87 89 ALEXANDRAS AVENUE
Athens, Greece 11474
302 10 6449002
Restaurant | "Neon Cafe"
The various dishes are clearly marked by name and price at the counters for your ordering convenience. Grab a tray and pick your poison: moussaka, pastitcio, grilled meats, and veggies. Once you have chosen your entree, the server shovels a portion on a plate and nukes it in the microwave for you. This is not earth-shaking cuisine, but the meals are hearty, filling, and easy to order. I selected souzoukakia (that's fun to say!), with spicy little sausages in a garlicky tomato sauce and a side of roasted potatoes. There is also a salad bar and a tempting selection of colorful desserts available. There is a wide range of fountain-style soft drinks and canned beverages. A wine bar is located at the back of the cafe. Once you have selected all your dishes, the cashier will ring up your total cost.
There are two levels of seating, and there are lots of quiet spots to relax and read a newspaper after your meal or snack. There is a water fountain within the seating area, a good opportunity to refill your water bottle for the road. The restrooms, located on the upper level, are fairly clean.
Neon Cafe is part of a small chain of establishments in Greece. It serves Greek home cooking as fast food in a positive sense, and at reasonable prices. Many locals on their lunch break dine here, so that is a good sign.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on July 9, 2002
3 Mitropoleos Street
Athens, Greece 105 57
+30 210 324 6873
There is a bilingual menu signboard in front of the establishment, and there is usually a server genially asking you to come in and take a look. The decor of the two-level establishment is spartan and has a clean fast-food look to it, with glass walls and casually spaced tables. The service is prompt and efficient for dine in or take away.
The menu at Quick Pitta is not extensive, but there are enough choices for an informal meal or snack. The special is a massive combination plate of various grilled meats served on a large round wooden plate with one pita bread, fries, and a smattering of vegetables and cucumber sauce. This hearty meal has a lot of meat and constitutes a lot of eating (though another pita or two would have been appreciated), but it is not a bad deal for about twelve euro. Smaller gyros plates are about five euro, but the serving is not nearly as large as the special plate. For a light snack to go, you can get a tasty gyros sandwich in a pita, freshly made and not too greasy. It is much tastier than the typical gyros served in an American joint. There is even a Greek salad on the menu for vegetarians.
Most of the daytime clientele is tourists (probably lured by one of their ads), but in the evening there are a few more locals who find the quiet no-frills atmosphere inviting. Small groups can chat away at leisure, while singles read books without feeling out of place.
Mitropoleos 55 at Aiolou
This stretch of Alexandras Street seems to have quite a few drinking establishments, but Mainalon appealed to us because it has a good selection of food as well. The menu is all in Greek, but you can clearly see many trays of food items displayed in the glass counter. One of the younger proprietors spoke English and was more than happy to name the dishes and describe the various ingredients.
The moussaka and the pastitcio are solid and typical Greek entrees, both served in good-sized portions and all under 5 euros. There is a vegetable stew with peas, carrots, tomatoes and potatoes that is hearty considering it had no meat. The Greek salad has a nice slab of very strong feta cheese, which is good if you really like feta cheese (my friend did not). The large triangular serving of baklava (my favorite Greek dessert) is tasty because it is a bit flaky and not overly sweet. The dark, moist walnut cake is a bit subtle in flavor. Order a dessert to go if you are too full from your meal. Since the food is generally ready-made, the service is quick enough.
I had saganaki, which is literally set afire and served as "flaming cheese" in your typical Greektown USA restaurant. Here it is presented in a quieter manner, a slab of singed cheese with a lemon wedge. It tastes like mozzarella cheese on a typical pizza. It is a good appetizer but try to share with someone or else it becomes a big hunk of cheese filler for the last few bites. My tasty gyros plate came with one small gyros sandwich with all the trimmings, and a side of fries. You can get several gyros within a plate at a correspondingly higher cost. We did not order dessert, as the ice cream shop across the way lured us over.
There is a lavatory in the basement, down a dim staircase. The staff is friendly and attentive, and they do not seem to be in a hurry to shoo you away once you asked for the check. I noticed a young lady, sporting a white t-shirt depicting Chairman Mao and reading a book, who seemed to be at the same table for hours!
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on June 10, 2002
Petros Grill House
Once you are seated, you are presented with some bottled mineral water, but it is not free. We were so thirsty that we accepted it eagerly, and then we ordered tall glasses of Alfa beer (I liked this a little better than the more popular Mythos brand). The bookish menu is very extensive and lists items in several languages. The Greek standards (like dolmades and moussaka) and the lamb with seasoned potatoes are delicious all the way around. The staff seemed pleasant and efficient enough, though my friend was pointedly comparing them to various family acquaintances.
Because of its touristy location, your typical tab at Sissifos will be in the moderate range, but that is not bad considering the quality of the food and the overall appeal of the dining experience. There is supposed to live music, but on the evening of our dinner there was none. As it was, the marvelous views of the city are entertaining enough.
The Temple of Poseidon is one of the best-preserved classic temples in all of Greece. It is located at an elevated and historically strategic level overlooking the beautiful blue Aegean Sea. Even if you are not a fanatic of architecture, you will still marvel at the magnificent 360-degree views from the top of the hill. You can see the beachfront below along with little boats racing by. Dare to peer over the edges of the rocks, but do not lean too far or you will plunge into the sea hundreds of feet below! The Temple has Doric columns but no roof. Built in 440BC, it was restored in the 19th Century. Surrounding it are a few scattered ruins. There is a full-service restaurant with a semi-outside seating area. Parking is also available at the site.
Now for the fun part: how to get to Cape Sounion? Well you need to reach one of the orange-colored buses with a sign that will say "Sounion" in Greek letters. These long-distance buses congregate in a busy area a few blocks north of the National Archaeological Museum. They run every hour to and from the site, but the ride is a fairly lengthy two hours on what is more than likely a klunky bus. There are two routes; one follows the spectacular Apollo Coast of Attica while another goes inland and takes a few minutes longer. Try to get a window seat on the coastal bus, as you will pass magnificent scenery such as local beaches, mountains, twisting roads, and fishing inlets.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on June 7, 2002
Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion
Attraction | "Acropolis"
The climb to the top of the Acropolis is not as bad as it may seem, although it still demands a certain level of exertion and carefulness. The steps are steep and the marble surfaces can be quite slick. Although its delicate condition has been affected over the years by natural deterioration, disasters, outright pillaging, and unfortunate restoration techniques, the Parthenon still stands proudly as the centerpiece of the Acropolis and is practically the ancient symbol of Greece. The Doric Parthenon (447-438 BC) was designed by Iktinos and Kallikrates. The Ionic Erechtheion (421-395 BC), featuring a colonnade of alluring caryatids (columns sculpted to look like Greek maidens), stands north of the Parthenon. There is an ongoing state of reconstruction/renovation at the Acropolis, as the tiny Temple of Athena Nike is completely shrouded by protective scaffolding. Built on the southern slope of the hill are the Odeon of Herod Atticus (161 BC) used for summertime performances, and the ruins of the Theater of Dionysos (4th Century BC).
There is a small Acropolis Museum at the east end, although there are plans to design a revamped building to replace this one. Greek officials hope to someday reclaim the Elgin Marbles (famous marble reliefs formerly attached to the Parthenon) from the British Museum in London.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on June 7, 2002
The Acropolis of Athens
Dionysiou Areopagitou St.
+30 210 32 14172
Attraction | "Mount Lycavittos"
My friend and I wanted to get to the top of Mount Lycavittos in the dusk hours to see the sunset. We had intended to take the funicular to the top, but unfortunately it was being repaired that evening (we did not know if this was an ongoing situation). We were met by an opportunistic taxi driver who offered a pricey fare of 30 euro for a ride to the top. That made us even more determined to climb our way to the top!
We were able to walk up a maddening zigzag sequence of stairs and ramps to the top in what seemed to be an hour's time. This uphill struggle was much longer than the way up to the Acropolis, which is a comparative stroll. Sometimes the locals who live here may poke their heads out and wave at you, almost like people cheering marathon runners along a road.
But what a reward is the finish line at the top! You will see magnificent panoramas of Athens: the surrounding hills, the conclaves of houses, and, especially, landmarks such as the Acropolis. The sunset was quite spectacular from this elevated vantage point. We had a close-up view of the whitewashed Chapel of St George, which is located at the summit. If you walk down after sunset, the challenge is to find the exact path from which you came from. There may be one main way up but numerous secondary paths, so carry a good map or compass just in case.
Mount Lycavittos has an open-air amphitheater for concerts during the annual Athens Festival. There are also basketball courts, along with various parking lots and secluded areas that are popular areas for flirtatious necking couples.
Athens, Greece 999-20
This museum includes the so-called "Mask of Agamemnon" of gold excavated by Heinrich Schliemann at ancient Mycenae, the bronze "boy jockey" of Artemision that somehow stayed in great condition despite being fished out of the sea, and a range of excellent sculptures, pottery, furniture and jewelry. I found the collection of minimalistic Cycladic marble sculptures to be fascinating, with some of them of a surprisingly large size. There is even an Egyptian Collection to gaze at if you are bored with the Greek antiquities. Unfortunately, the upper level was closed during my visit, so I was unable to see the great 16th-Century BC wall frescoes from Santorini.
Visitors are asked to check in large parcels at the coatroom at no charge. Photography of the art is allowed in the museum, but no flash, no tripod and "filming of persons within the Museum is prohibited" according to the helpful map handed out at the admission desk. The lower basement level features a cafeteria, museum shop, lavatories, and a couple of works displayed in the inner garden. Note that the Museum has different summer and winter opening hours, and confirm if you are on a tight schedule.
Ironically, during my entire stay in Greece, it only rained during my two-hour visit at the Museum.
National Archaeological Museum
44 Patission St
Athens, Greece 106 82
+30 210 821 7717
Syntagma Square is also an important transportation hub in Athens. The E95 Airport Bus stops just south of the Parliament at the edge of the National Gardens. There is a major Metro stop within the plaza, which is a good spot for a rest or for people watching. A steady stream of public buses passes the square constantly. There are several airline and ferry offices in the area along with travel agencies, post office, city tourism office, hotels, restaurants and shops.
Syntagma Square is a prime spot for protests and political rallies, but all was relatively calm here during my stay in town. The square seems to be well guarded so it is generally a safe place to hang out.
Center of Athens
Attraction | "Various ruins in Athens"
Just north of the Acropolis is the Agora, which features an impressive jumble of ruins large and small. The Theseion (also called the Hephaisteion), which dates from 415 BC, is one of the best-preserved temples in all of Greece. This stone Doric temple is older and smaller than the Parthenon, which of course is constructed from marble. The long Stoa of Attalos, built in the 2nd Century BC but completely reconstructed in the 1950's, serves as a museum for relics found in the Agora. The covered walkway has a few benches to escape from the sun, along with public bathrooms and a drinking fountain. The south end of the Stoa leads to the Panathenaic Way towards the Acropolis.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus, completed in 132 AD after construction started in the 5th Century BC, has a colossal scale even in its current ruined state. The original structure, with a footprint of 350 feet by 135 feet, had 84 columns with Corinthian capitals. There are still 15 columns remaining, with one toppled over like a stack of ancient waffles to dramatically illustrate its fluted sections. Amazingly, this area was used as a stone quarry during the Middle Ages. Nearby is the Arch of Hadrian (completed 132 AD), presently half-covered by scaffolding. Through the arch you can get a view of the Acropolis in the distance.
Other interesting ruins in Athens include the Choregic Monument of Lysicrates (334 BC), a cylindrical trophy-like ruin with six Corinthian capitals, and the Tower of the Winds (1st Century BC), with an unusual octagonal shape. Much larger in scale is the Roman Stadium from the 4th Century BC, which was reconstructed for the first modern Olympics in 1896.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on June 11, 2002
Ruins in Athens
Attraction | "Byzantine Churches in Athens"
The cute little Church of Kapnikarea sits in the middle of the pedestrian Ermou Street, acting as a Byzantine centerpiece to this "plaza". The structure consists of two adjoining chapels (11th and 13th Centuries), but the paintings are from modern times.
The Megali Mitropoli stands in tandem with the older and smaller Mikri Mitropoli. As the names may indicate, the larger "Megali" serves as the main Greek Orthodox Athens Cathedral dating from the 19th Century, while the smaller "Mikri" (Church of Agios Eleftherios) goes back to the 12th Century. Both churches include elements from older constructions (the Athens Cathedral incorporates pieces from over 50 buildings!). A plaza paved with marble fronts the two churches.
In the Agora, the Agli Apostoli (Church of the Holy Apostles) seems to jump out amongst the ancient Greek ruins. Located near the Stoa of Attalos, this Byzantine church from the 10th Century AD has been drastically altered and extended over the years, with a restoration completed in 1956. Some of the frescoes displayed within the interior are actually from St. Spyridon.