April 7, 2009

Delightful athens

Having heard mixed reviews about Athens before visiting it last weekend, i wasn't sure what to expect but as before when people say there's not much to see/do in a place or the other, somehow we've always found something intriguing, interesting and disarmingly beautiful wherever we went. The most recent example is Dublin about which I'll (hopefully) write soon although it's been a month almost since we visited it.

Somehow predictable, Athens proved to be a great experience, staring even with the sky europe flight which was on time and with their original new boeings :) (seems they've re-gained them back). The route offered an incredible Olympian god's view of the ancient city now spread across a humongous valley between mountain peaks: whitewashed, dwarfy looking buildings spilling into the sea from the sloped relief.

Once on ground, it all seemed like a giant ant colony but clumsier and more cluttered than the miniature creatures'. And still it's probably much better that some decades ago with the massive infrastructure boom which came with the Olympic games held in 2004. I would dare say, Bucharest's traffic is a laughable wannabe compared to the one in Athens, but then again, i never really lived in Bucharest.

We stayed in one of the most picturesque neighborhoods of Athens (kind of like Zizkov in Prague) called Monastiraki, which at first sight looks a bit shady: crumbling buildings, nonexistent sidewalks so you have to crawl between the slow-motion cars stuck in traffic, overflowing garbage bins, a rainbow of immigrants pursuing their hopes for a better life, all under the sumptuous acropolis plateau, soaring unspoiled above the busy surroundings. The hostel, although very basic, offered a great view of the neighborhood, ancient Agora and the Acropolis from its roof top and it was always withing walkable distance from any spot of interest. Monastiraki is a good place to stay in even more as we discovered some very interesting back alleys with flea markets at day and typical tavernas at night which were not as touristy as the ones in Plaka, the posh-est neighborhood.

As we arrived on Friday afternoon, we've set to this steep hill next to the Acropolis called Lycabetus. Legend has it that Atena had dropped a rock it was trying to put on the acropolis plateau to make it even higher and so the hill was created.
It's got a dramatic view of the city, with the Acropolis half the way to the sea stretching on the horizon.
We caught the sunset on the peak of the hill where there's a tiny church which used to be part of a monastery complex which has turned with the times into a restaurant with a terrace.
The area surrounding the hill is the residential quarter of Athens' nobles: posh homes, restaurants and clubs, all hidden behind bloomed orange trees. Their perfume was enchanting, seemed a bit like jasmine. It is probably the greatest antidote to the city's smog problem and helps the people keep their chilling Mediterranean mood.

On Saturday, we ventured to some more off-beat paths. Kicked off the day by visiting an old Gas Plant now turned into a cultural center that takes advantage of the industrial buildings to turn them into 'modern' art, then made our way through the city center and took a bus to the city outskirts, at the footsteps of a mountain range to the east of Athens attempting to reach a nice monastery which was recommended in a guide. We were put off by the uphill walk of a couple of km, which a guy selling mortuary stuff at a cemetery had gaily suggested would be 'good gymnastics' after asking if i was from Suceava :). We pondered if it's worth the time and energy and decided to head back into city but then we spotted a taxi which eventually took us there. I just hated the feeling we had come all the way to there for nothing. Well, in fact the monastery was closed but still we didn't go there for nothing: the setting was very nice: a very green, flowery hill looking onto the city with some grazing donkeys and a typical Greek cottage was a welcome break from the intense city rhythm.

We've ended the day with a trip to Piraeus, Athens' huge port which is rather disappointingly industrial when first exiting from the metro almost on the quays.
But the whole area is more of a peninsula and on the side opposite of the port, we've discovered some picturesque harbors with small boats and restaurants. We had to indulge ourselves in some deliciously fresh sea food and it was well worth catching the sunset there.

The second day was mostly dedicated to visiting the historical Athens as it was the first Sunday of the month which means it is free everywhere. We've tried to get there as early as possible which wasn't really early but still reasonable (the second day of 'free' breakfast consisting of marmalade, butter and overly sweet orange juice helped our hastiness) to avoid the hoards of tourists. And guess what, we met there hoards of tourists, probably following the same advice of avoiding the hoards of tourists... Anyway, there weren't just tourists, there were some immigrants as well, enjoying the morning on Areopagus Hill, an ancient rock where they used to judge the worst crimes of antiquity.
And also, hard to ignore some utterly lazy and extremely fat stray dogs lying around like some forgotten relics. My theories about these dogs are that they're either sick, either overfed from all the great restaurants spread at the foothills, or rather both after having eaten rotten food.

The ruins are impressive even more if nobody tells you that most of the interesting parts are replacements with the originals being either destroyed, stored in the acropolis musem or at the british museum... The partheon was in reconstruction as well: fixing the crappy restauration from a century ago. There are many temples roughly 2500 years old around the acropolis hill, the best preserved being the temple of Hephaestos, you can easily spend half a day visiting them like we did.

Following a local tip, we found a nice little family restaurant called Sholarhio, right at the foothill of the Acropolis where we had a 'sampling' of mezes (small portions of various dishes, kind of like tapas). Trust me, it's very difficult to chose when the waiter drops a tray of about a dozen mezes on your table out of a sudden, facing you with the tough decision 'to eat or not to eat?'. That's why we got a bit carried away and got 7 of them instead of the 5 reccomended for two.

The Greeks seem to find time to enjoy life in this hectic city and you'd find them taking refuge in such typical tavernas spending whole afternoons with their large families. It's also interesting how the central neighborhoods have distinct things to offer: flea markets in Monastiraki, night life in and great pastry shops! in Psiri, picturesque streets climbing to the acropolis and tourist hot spots in Plaka, all in all making a mediterranean city with attitude.

Athens is a contrasting city, I can't help calling it a combination of Bucharest and Lisbon with a twist of Rome and a tendency to Istanbulishness. I know, it sounds freakish but that's how i kind of felt it.

Check out some more photos here.


Invidu said...

Hehe, sounds nice. By the photos I've seen before it looked like you've been to more cities, but it seems quite complex. The food looked, mmmm... And I'm not just saying it because I'm jsut before the lunch break. How did you enjoy their taxi system of sharing rides? For me this is the strangest thing ever, but apparently it also happens in Turkey, and who knows maybe some other places, too.