Athens proper isn’t a very big city, it has only 750 000 inhabitants, but one can’t notice where the city begins and ends, what appears to be one city is a conurbation of several independent cities and towns with a population of approximately four million people, more than one third of the Greek population lives there.
It was only after WW2 that Athens began to grow or rather to explode as people migrated from the villages and islands to find work, this means that most of the houses in the suburbs are relatively new and not very pretty.
We had chosen a hotel between Syntagma Square and the Plaka, the historical centre, from there we could reach all the sites on foot. We set out at about 7pm, it was already dark and we looked closely at the buildings and the (elegant) shops we passed so that we wouldn’t get lost and find our way back to the hotel. It’s easy, though, to find the Plaka, one has only to stay on the main street (most of which is a pedestrian precinct) and walk slightly down, the Plaka is at the end, the Monastiraki Square is its heart.
One doesn’t have to concentrate too much on where one puts one’s feet on the pavement, I didn’t notice any dog poop, in fact the whole city was very clean, we even saw a sweep at work in the evening, a positive consequence of the Olympic Games in 2004 for which Athens was completely overhauled. Athens wanted to have the centenary Olympic Games in 1996 but didn’t get them because the environmental and infrastructure problems were too great. Should you know Athens from before the Olympic Games in 2004 and found the city ugly and un-livable then, think again or better: come again, it’s really nice now.
While walking in the direction of the Plaka we saw a bright light from the left whenever there was an opening in the row of houses. It came from the Acropolis! The Acropolis (literally: upper town, there are many acropoles in Greece) is a flat topped rock of 150 m (512 ft) of blue limestone with some temples on top, the whole sites illuminated, very impressive, we had planned to climb up the following morning.
The Plaka is the oldest section of Athens, the houses are simple and a bit run-down, the streets are closed for traffic and people just mill around. There are shops selling tourist stuff, there’s a big flea market all the year round and loads of cafés and restaurants. I read in a guide book that if you sit in one of these cafés long enough you’ll see that everyone who comes to Greece will walk down the streets of the Plaka sooner or later, the description culminates in the sentence, "These streets below the Acropolis are a major crossroads of civilisation."
We were hungry and went to one of the restaurants, to us they all looked alike, they all had tables outside and offered the same food. The menus are short, they contain only a few dishes, the typical Greek food like moussaka, souvlaki, pastitsio. The service was very quick; although it was February and there were hardly any tourists, the waiters had a lot to do, the tables inside and outside in the street were all crammed full with Greeks.
As we wanted to see Athens by day we skipped the night life and went back to the hotel, the following morning we went back to the Plaka and from there through one of the entrance gates into the area of the Acropolis (April – October daily from 8am to 7pm, November – March from 8.30am to 3pm). We didn’t stay in the lower part and look at the temple and the other buildings there but climbed up for about ten minutes, got out of the enclosed area , crossed a street and came to another entrance gate. About 50m below it is a small house where visitors have to leave their bags and rucksacks (free).
The first attraction after the entrance is the Theatre of Dionysos, we only looked down at it from above, I don’t know if it’s possible to get in. This is where all the plays of the great Greek dramatists like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were first performed, small as it is, it impressed me most of all the buildings on the acropolis.
At the top of the hill there is a monumental gateway called the Propylaea, behind it to the left is the Erechteum with columns sculpted as figures of women and at the centre is the Parthenon or Temple of Athena Pathenos. Why was I not impressed? The Acropolis has been a building site since 1975, the word most often used on the placards explaining what’s what is ‘dismantled’, the stones are taken away, cleaned, impregnated with chemical stuff so that they can withstand pollution and are then placed again where they belong. One tiny temple at the near right of the Propylaea, the Temple of Athena Nike, has disappeared completely for restoration – there’s simply not enough to see for me at the moment. I doubt, however, that I’ll live long enough to see the Acropolis in its full glory again.
We stumbled around a bit, tried to imagine what the site looked like when the temples were new and complete but couldn’t, looked down at the city and found it much too large and then went back out. We followed the fence until we came to the first entrance gate where we had got in in the morning, got into the site again and had a close look at the best conserved temple of the whole of Greece, the Temple of Hephaistos, imagining the Athens of the 5th century BC when it was a centre of literature, philosophy and the arts. Maybe Sophocles, Aristotle and Plato - to name but a few - walked around philosophising just where we were walking?
Had we been to Athens for the first time we would have gone to the National Archaeological Museum in the afternoon, but we had already seen it during our last visit.
We went to a café at the foot of the Acropolis instead, the sun was shining brightly, and we watched the Atheneans parading by. It was Saturday afternoon, I expected everyone to be dressed up and made up, well, maybe they were but if so, I didn’t notice it. This was Athens, the capital, but the people looked plain if anything, nearly everyone, young or old, male or female was wearing jeans and inconspicuous jackets or anoraks, no interesting hairstyles to speak of. I didn’t see dyed hair, gel, piercings, tattoos, can’t say that I like all this but I think people wearing these things just belong to a capital, don’t you?
When it was getting a bit chilly, we walked back in the direction of our hotel but went a bit further to the Syntagma Square in front of the Parliament building. By chance we were there a bit before 5 o’clock when the changing of the (two) guards took place at the tomb of the unknown soldier (the big ceremony takes place every Sunday at 11am). I’m hopeless at such occasions, I have severe probs suppressing silly giggles, pomposity always gets to me. You can’t imagine the way the soldiers are dressed! Pompons on their shoes, white tights and a miniskirt! And the choreography they perform until they’ve changed places! Hilarious.
From there we walked a bit into the Venizelou street in the direction of Omonia Square, now this is a street fitting for a capital, wide pavements, stately buildings (the National Library, the University, a church on the right) if you’re into shopping, you’ll head for Attica on the other side of the street, the largest, most complete and most modern department store of the country. As shopping is a necessity for me, not a pleasure I only peeped in, imagine a big department store in Oxford Street, London, and you’ve got it. A brochure informed me that it contains 300 shops in the shop and has 800 different brand names on offer, if you bring enough money with you, you’ll certainly be happy there.
We spent the evening in another café also sitting outside but near an electric heating system, read, relaxed and discussed what we had seen and what we hadn’t. We came to the conclusion that two days were enough for Athens, on the second day a first time visitor could see a museum or two and visit Piraeus, the city with the harbour that has merged with Athens or go on an excursion.
For us it was a short but pleasant visit, we may not wait another thirty years before we go back!