My previous visit to Greece had been in 2003. The country was busy preparing for the Olympics and I was often disappointed to find sites closed, with a sign that they were renovating and would be reopening the following year. And on that occasion I only managed a short visit to Athens, following the standard tourist itinerary of the Acropolis and Syntagma Square, with lunch in the Plaka area. So when I got the opportunity to revisit Athens, I jumped at the chance.
Athens Old And New
Of course, the Acropolis is one of the main attractions of the city, and I spent some time exploring the ruins. And I was lucky enough to have a great view of it from the top of my hotel (the lovely St George Lycabettus).
But there is much more to the history of Athens than the ancient Greeks. I went on a tour of Byzantine Athens, where we looked at hidden churches and saw the place where St Paul preached to the Athenians. And a tour of Literary Athens, which spotlighted the Greek contribution to the artistic and cultural history of the 20th century.
It isn’t all about history. This is a vibrant city with much that is modern and new. I spent some time at a conference in the Megaron Concert Hall, a state of the art cultural centre, and one evening we all headed off to Technopolis, a modern entertainment centre on the site of a disused gasworks.
Then there is the shiny new subway, making it so much easier to get around the city. I like to see the subway as a metaphor for the different periods of Athens’ history. Digging the tunnels for the trains provided an opportunity for large-scale excavation, and some metro stations have glass cases exhibiting locally found artefacts. But they showcase modern art at well, creating a synthesis of old and new.
A Friendly Welcome
But it is the people who make the place. Athens is not a tourist showcase but a place where people live and work, and there is a small town feel to much of the city. Walking up to the Acropolis I passed along narrow streets with whitewashed houses and a rich smell of pine that would not be out of place in a Mediterranean village. On tours, in the hotel, and in cafés and restaurants, people were keen to explain their city to us and to make us feel at home.
On one of the tours we were stopped by a woman with a basket of fruit cake. “Take a piece,” she urged. Our guide translated what she was saying: she had appealed to a saint to help her find something she had lost, and when her prayer was answered she made the cake to share with others as a thanksgiving. That wouldn’t happen in very many countries!
Fabulous Greek Food
And did I mention the food? You can’t make a visit to Athens without enjoying the food: cheese and olives, juicy tomatoes, and pastries oozing with honey. And, of course, the wine. Read more about Eating Well In Athens.
In between the tours and the eating I managed to explore some hidden parts of Athens and to climb up Lycabettus Hill, the highest point in the city. However there was far more to see and do than I could possibly squeeze into the time available. I’ll have to make another visit to Athens…