GREECE IS THE WORD! EXPLORING THE BEST BITS OF ATHENS DURING COVID-19

🇬🇷Choosing to escape to Greece in the middle of a global pandemic is not everyones immediate thought I’m sure, but when you are already nearby and there are cheap flights…well, why the hell not! I had been raving on about Greece to my darling MB (Monsieur Bleu) for about 11 years now, singing its blue and white island praises and urging us to go “when we have the chance.” Well, thanks to COVID-19, the chance fell upon us and we raced off into the Aegean sunset with it firmly gripped in our hands. Yasou my Greek friend, it’s time to visit you again!

I don’t think one can EVER conquer all of Athens, Greece’s ancient capital, as the city is enormous and sprawling, mountainous and congested all at once. Like most people, MB and I stuck to the city’s main drag, as viewing the essential sites of this ancient land was the primary attraction. I had visited Athens before (many moons ago when I was flying) but had never explored it in a semi-relaxed way or with another person, so this time it was fun for both of us for and for different reasons! With MB being an Athens Virgin, I decided to book an apartment in a funky area near Karitsi Square which is surrounded by lively bars and cafés, popular with a hip, young crowd (like us 😉) and short walking distance from our apartment! It was the perfect spot for a first timer and was not too far from the popular Plaka area, but not completely in ‘tacky tourist town’ either.

We had two days to explore this amazing cosmopolitan metropolis and managed to also squeeze in an extra day on our way back, after our Greek Island Hopping expedition. I’m an ‘all things Greek’ lover and felt immediately at home in this modern cum ancient world. One minute you are standing on a site built in 450 BC and the next you’re having a cocktail at an upmarket bar with a view of the Parthenon! The locals EVERYWHERE were friendly and smiling, cheeky and helpful; and it’s not just for show or for sales…we found genuine warmth at every turn, in every little town or island we visited.

We had a fantastic three weeks in Greece to thoroughly explore, engage and enjoy every little area we encountered, but only three days in the capital. Regardless of the pandemic crisis and the end of season drawing to a close, most places were still lively, even if it was only the locals (which is better anyway) and the service and hospitality were always on point.

The weather in Athens at this time of year too is GLORIOUS, and I strongly urge and suggest that you consider October as your travel month! It was hot but not stuffy and stifling, cooler in the evenings but never cold, and of course, without the pulsating, suffocating presence of sticky and sweaty crowds… Perfect!

If you have ever visited Greece’s famous centre, you will be aware that it is the birthplace of all things ancient and historical. It is the home of Plato and Aristotle for God’s sake, and ruin upon ruin accost you around every corner or bend in the cobblestone roads! To be honest, by the end of the final day, MB and I were so bloody exhausted (both mentally and physically) from trying to tick the seemingly endless monument box, that we would just trudge past, stop, point and yell “Another ruin”! Click a photo and trudge on!

We had prepared for this journey by watching a very ‘educational’ movie… “My Life in Ruins”. It was a bit of humorous homework, giving us just enough of a glimpse of Athens to ignite the excitement! FYI: We also watched “Shirley Valentine” before going to Mykonos, as is our quirky pre-travel behaviour!

In the film, there was no renovation or construction going on at the Acropolis, so when we arrived to take in the magnificence of the Parthenon, the number one Athenian landmark, we were saddened by all the scaffolding and no-go areas, but understood the reasons behind them.
We were very fortunate though to hardly have any other tourists cramping our style, the one’s there being mostly French,German or Dutch, so it was like one big happy Eurovision family!

Of course the entire Acropolis Hill is just one huge injection of culture, with the remains of temples and amphitheatres crumbling at your feet and enormous stone and marble columns soaring so high above your head that you get a nose bleed just looking at them! Being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Acropolis cannot be missed when visiting Athens…and no, it’s NOT too ‘touristy’; it is ancient wonder of the world, magnificent in its architectural beauty and presence and an important and integral part of the world we live in today. We were awed to silence when we stood next to the Parthenon and marvelled at the workmanship involved. And even after many wars and civilisations, she still stands proud, looking out over and protecting her city.

We bought a 48 hour pass on the first day, which gave us the freedom to visit many different monuments around the city at our leisure, and also leaving us precious time to simply roam the streets, go shopping or eat! We packed as many sites in as possible including Hadrian’s Library, which is not too far from Monastiraki Square, and the Ancient Agora of Athens, a sprawling ancient site featuring the remains of a township and various burial grounds. The Temple of Hephaestus (built in 449 BC) is situated near here and is where I sprinkled some of my mothers ashes. It was naughty of me and probably against the law, and MB (my perfect partner in crime) did a fabulous job keeping a lookout for the guards so I could commit this feeble felony! The temple is still standing (I think) and it didn’t spontaneously combust or suddenly collapse into a crumbling mass of dusty rubble, so I hope that means she approved and was amused! We also managed to squash in some time at the Stoa of Attalos which is now the Museum of the Ancient Agora, remarking on (in whispers of admiration) the impressive works of art, sculpture and artefacts that it holds.

If pounding the pave stones all day, observing and absorbing every grain of information on Greek Mythology hasn’t completely burnt you out, then you can always walk Athens’ longest walkway, Dionysiou Areopagitou Street for that little extra bit of cardio and culture! It starts at the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, near Hadrian’s Arch which is just at the edge of the Acropolis and you may as well conquer this too, if you’re already there! It’s a long and wide pedestrian avenue, scattered with street stalls selling paintings, jewellery and golden head wreaths. A variety of entertainment options are also on offer here, from musician’s plucking out haunting tunes on their bouzouki’s to random groups of men performing the famous Greek folk dance, the Sirtaki (Zorba).

A trip to Athens is not complete without a tour of her oldest and most popular neighbourhood, the Plaka, which has both a village feel and an island vibe. Once referred to as the ‘Turkish Quarter’ whilst under Ottoman rule, it’s lovely and colourful and bustling with activity both day and night! Local tavernas nestle under fuchsia bougainvilleas, completing for business whilst the edges of their blue and white checkered tablecloths gently flutter in the breeze. There are a multitude of tourist shops here as well, selling much the same thing one after the other, and you would be forgiven for thinking that it would all be a bit cheap and nasty… a cliché. But it was far from this! We both adored its simplistic ambience: the upbeat chatter of sing song Greek voices amongst the shop owners, the clumps of robust, dark green olive trees that provided dappled shade for various gangs of sleepy street cats and the small, Ottoman style churches dotted around the square. It’s lovely.

The older area of Plaka, Anafiotika, features the whitewashed buildings and geometric street design of the nearby Aegean Islands. It is a wonderful area to roam around, stopping now and again to just to sit and admire the view or sip a cool drink under the shade of a gnarled, twisted grape vine. We had a memorable evening here, perilously perched on chairs close to the edge of a hill of steep steps, and were serenaded by a local folk band whilst sampling a robust local red wine and nibbling the taverna’s owners home grown almonds! With a pretty, tabby cat brushing around my feet and the warmth of the setting sun on my face, it was everything a relaxing night in Athens (after a jam packed day) should be.

Food, as usual, is a VERY important part of our travel itinerary and we dined on delectable traditional Hellenic fare every day…succumbing to the pressure of trying new dishes only to resort to our all time favourites in the end! Here are some examples to make your mouth water: Soft warm pita bread and the palest of pink taramasalata; plump dark purple native olives dripping in oil and flaked with oregano; deep-fried tiny (anchovy) whitebait and fresh lemon; lamb souvlakia with creamy yogurt dressing; prawn (or anything) saganaki; calamari done in a variety of styles; sticky, grilled chunks of sun-dried octopus legs with ripe tomatoes and hummus … and the list goes on! I joked that the humble Greek Salad would never become a staple on our table, but the variety we tasted were so damn good, that we could never resist ordering one just for the sake of it! By the way, this was a standard dish on EVERY table (even the Greeks eat Greek salad), so if it’s good enough for one of the world’s most ancient civilisations then it must be special!

I’m a sucker for a good pair of hand-made sandals and anyone who knows me will not be surprised at my rather unhealthy obsession with this style of strappy leather footwear. What could be more Greek than donning a good length of tan, cow-hide thonging to your delicate hoof, and the Plaka area specialises in this gladiator-style shoe! These versatile, sexy and uber-stylish leather slippers are all a girl needs as part of her summer fashion closet and if you are as much of a fan as me, then this is the place to be! I nearly buckled at the knees when I saw just how many different styles were available, and I must have tried on about a million different pairs! I restrained myself though and only bought some as gifts for my gal pals (as I have many already) and the girls in the shops were lovely and patient, full of suggestions and had unbiased opinions. We spent so long in one boutique that I’m sure MB is now an expert on the art of sandal making and I’m still pining after a pair that I left on the shelf…sigh

Rows upon rows of ceramic Cycladic chapels; t-shirts depicting the Marathon, Aphrodite and Adonis; blue-glass evil- eye symbols in all shapes and sizes; embroidered table coverings, clothes and bags; gold upon gold upon gold jewellery for all tastes and budgets and all the other usual tourist paraphernalia (including a rather strange over representation of phallic objects in all sizes) are on display throughout the main shopping area of Athens. Thrown in amongst this however, are some really fantastic upmarket boutiques for both men and women, so all your retail needs should be satisfied!

Funny story: At one point during our leisurely stroll around the Plaka Emporium, I was chased by a wizened old Greek woman demanding that I ‘touch her table runner’ (sounds rude) and to feel the fabric! I kept saying no thank you, (in Greek and English) but she ran after me and tried to rub it on my arm! “Feel, feel!” she cried, causing a few heads to turn in curiosity, “I make, I make!” I deftly dodged her caresses with the agility of a boxer in a Matrix movie, knowing that if I laid even a single fingerprint on the thing I would have to own it! No! I don’t want your skanky bloody table runner …just let me go! I ran to catch up with MB who had moved faster than lightening ahead of me to escape the scene. “Never make eye contact my Oonagh” he says, whilst briskly swerving around other pedestrians, ”that’s the secret, or you’ll never escape them!” Well yes, thanks for that nugget of in-depth cultural shopping wisdom, and for having my back…NOT! Wizened woman wasn’t happy though and we eventually lost her, but I’m sure she tried to put a curse on me! It was both funny and a bit freaky but luckily I had bought one of those blue-glass evil- eyes as protection!🧿

After that unusual encounter, MB and I walked around for a while and came across the very quaint Adrianou Street, in the boho Monastiraki district. We decided to take a break and sit in one of the many cafés opposite the tram line and partake in a glass of the most popular drink in Greece next to Ouzo…iced coffee! The frappé, as it is affectionally referred, is a simple beverage made from coffee (instant or machine) water, sugar andmilk.We noticed them everywhere and in various forms and just HAD to try it out. We weren’t disappointed, and the creamy/frothy top sprinkled with chocolate and nutmeg was a winning recipe. We were even given a minuscule croissant with it on the side! MB and I ended up tasting many of these caffeinated concoctions throughout our three week Greek Escape and found the BEST one was from a little café in Oia, Santorini.

Not too far from here and still in the Monastiraki, is the Central Market or Varvakeios Agora. Here you will find a huge, rambling outdoor flea/antique market selling everything from jewellery to wardrobes. You could honestly furnish a house in one day if you had too, from all the choices on offer! Around the corner, there is one long street that is lined with shops selling loads of army surplus gear, sports wear, t-shirts, luggage and linen clothing. See…there truly IS something for everyone in Athens! FYI: If you’re after name brands and a regular mall style shopping experience, then Ermou Street is your answer.

On our final full day stopover in Athens (on our way back to Nice), we decided to leave the hustle and bustle of the city behind and go check out the beach! Still warm and fuzzy from our days in the sun on the islands, this was an exciting prospect as it was nearing the last days of summer here in the capital and France was already boasting chilly temperatures to cool us down upon our return. So, to procrastinate and to hopefully prolong our rapidly fading tans, we took off to the nearest stretch of sand and sea that we could find!

Edem Beach was the closest and an easy 20 minute taxi ride from the centre. The taxi was an expensive option, of which I wouldn’t recommend, as there is a direct tram line that will take you straight to the source from Monastiraki Square! Never mind, we had a nice chat to the driver, travelled in air-conditioned leather luxury AND were able to check out the scenery in a private setting! So much nicer than being hot and bothered whilst standing squashed into a metal tube alongside grumpy Greek office workers!

It was a lovely relaxing day, escaping the crowded tourist hub, and another exceptional lunch (with Greek salad of course) was consumed under the Athenian sun. The beach wasn’t overly fantastic, with a major pigeon infestation problem, and even the sea was quite nippy, but none of this mattered as it was something different to do and an area that we had not explored. Storm clouds started rolling in and a cool breeze started to goose pimple our skin, signalling that our lazy day had come to an end.

We decided to burn off some deep-fried calamari induced calories by walking the entire way home by following the tram line! (Words of Warning: Don’t try this in ultra flat greek sandals – my feet were dead by the time we reached our hotel!) It was very easy to navigate and the leisurely 2.5 hour stroll enabled us to see yet another side of this diverse city. Regular suburban neighbourhoods were packed with seventies style apartment blocks with washing hung limply from ornate, wrought- iron balconies and burnt orange awnings swaying in the wind. There was also an abnormal abundance of cafés, both American style and local and every second store was a bakery! Go Greece… these are a few of our favourite things!

For our last night, we stayed at The Adrian Hotel conveniently located on Adrainou Street, which was both central and excellent value for money, featuring a dining terrace with a view of the Parthenon, an in-room Nespresso machine and a spacious balcony! It was near Hadrian’s Library and a two minute walk to anywhere in the Plaka. We found a romantic bistro down the road from us, Eat at Milton’s, which is owned by a lovely Swiss French man and opposite one of the enormous sandal boutiques! It was the perfect setting for the curtains to drop on the finale of our Glamorous Greek Odyssey, as we enjoyed a scrumptious five star meal (go out in style and all that) completed by a dramatic dessert ending of a delicate sphered, self-destructing pavlova!

I would return to Athens in a heartbeat and encourage anyone who has not had the good fortune to visit, to book tickets ASAP! It is up there as one of my all time favourite big cities (next to Istanbul) and together with the lovely locals, tasty food and ancient history all jostling for space amongst olive trees and hundreds of fearless furry felines, it is my idea of Heaven in a Megalopolis (and that IS a real Greek word)!

…”Life must be lived as play”… Plato, the world’s greatest Athenian philosopher.

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