Sunday, July 29, 2012

Athens, Greece

And still, I dream of Greece. With 95° + days here in South Carolina and added humidity that brings heat indexes comparable to our days spent in Athens, I dream of the blue waters and dry landscapes. After returning from a trip to the grocery store covered in a film of sweat I dream of returning from the beach with a film of salt covering my swim after a dip in the clear, cool sea. Surrounded by fast food and chain restaurants I dream of the fresh seafood and crisp local wines enjoyed with the sound of the waves as backdrop. And as our weeks fill with the tasks required of us to find a place to live and a car, I can’t help but dream of the hours spent lounging in the shade, doing nothing more than hiding from the heat.

Our first day in Greece brought none of lounging and dining, as it was mostly spent traveling. Finding acceptable airline rates to Athens only from Lyon, we packed up the car and headed the two hours east to LYS airport. Car, the first of many forms of transportation we would take in the next days, followed shortly by bus, the shuttle that took us from long-term parking to the terminal. Then a plane, to Zurich, where despite our delayed arrival we still arrived in time to board our connecting flight. And finally, a taxi taking us from ATH to downtown Athens. We should have joined the locals enjoying the coolness sunset brings grabbing a bite to eat at one of the outdoor cafes; instead we opted to try getting some rest in exchange for an early start the following morning.

Roberts and Lauris in front of the Temple of Hephaestus

With temperatures in excess of 100° at 10am, we discarded plans to visit the Acropolis and instead headed to the Athenian Agora, where we hoped there still might be some shade from the midday sun. The best-known example of an ancient Greek agora, it is northwest of the Acropolis and accessible by foot from our hotel on the east side of the central downtown Plaka neighborhood.
Temple of Hephaestus

The central Athenian government in the 6th century BC, there were temples to Hephaestus, Zeus and Apollo as well as law courts, the stoas housing the markets, and many other public buildings. Framed by hills to the south and west, the Temple of Hephaistos is at the top of the hill of Kolonos Agoraios at the very west edge of the Agora, and  was our first stop. While Roberts hid with the boys in the shade of a tree to cool down from our walk, I ran around taking some quick photos before rejoining them to empty another water bottle and make the call that we would have to return to the hotel as it was just too hot.
Temple of Hephaestus

We did walk through the rest of the Agora, passing the Middle Stoa to reach the Stoa of Attalos from 159-138 BC, constructed from Pentelic marble with an impressive Doric columnade. It houses the Museum of the Ancient Agora that just wasn’t in our cards with the two mini-travelers, and so we continued through the Plaka until we found a quiet restaurant perfectly suited for lunch and a cool-down before naptime at the hotel. The Melina Café – friendly people, delicious food, refreshing cold drinks and a great atmosphere make this a great choice. Skip the tourist traps for this quiet corner of the Plaka and enjoy the décor honoring the late Melina Mercouri, according to the café owners “the last Greek Goddess,” famous Greek actress, singer and politician.  
Melina Cafe in the Plaka

As it was still quite hot in late afternoon when we ventured out again, we opted to try the Athens Happy Train, a little tourist train that took us on a loop around downtown. Lauris is absolutely mad about trains; he was content to cruise around waving at anyone who looked our way. Roberts and I were happy to have an informative commentary describing the sights we saw, but the best part was being able to see the city without walking in the heat. We passed Parliament and the National Gardens, where next to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier a traditional honor guard stands dressed in traditional costume. Then past the Presidential Palace and the Panathenaic Stadium, everywhere a police presence obvious. After passing the Temple of Zeus and the Hadrian Arch we looped through the Plaka to reach the Ancient Roman Market in Monastiraki and the Agora we had already visited in the morning. Finally we cruised past the entry to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum.
The train made a stop in the Plaka for a chance to shop

By this point we were a bit hungry, so we found the restaurant our cabbie from the previous evening had declared as having the best moussaka in town. Funny thing – they didn’t have moussaka. But our meal was delicious, my grilled feta was heavenly. With sesame seeds and honey, the result was a refreshing combination on a hot Athens night. Tzitzikaskai Mermigkas, I believe it was on Mitropoleos street…
We could have walked to the next destination now that things had cooled down, but with the two kids we decided to save our feet the climb up Lycabettus Hill and take a taxi instead. He dropped us off at the base of a long set of stairs that weren’t compatible with the stroller we had with. Once at the top however our persistence paid off, the nighttime view over all of Athens was unbeatable!

We enjoyed a glass of wine with dessert at the hilltop restaurant while gazing out over the Acropolis and enjoyed a peaceful, comfortable moment . But soon it was time to return to the hotel, as we hoped to get an earlier start the following morning. There is a funicular running up and down the side of the hill, and we paid for one-way tickets assuming we could walk from there. I would suggest either taking a taxi or walking the whole way, as the tickets were expensive, the hours erratic and the distance short. Maybe worth it on the trip up the hill, certainly not on the way down. At the bottom we also had our learning experience with the taxis. Once we discovered we were not any closer to the hotel and realized we would have to take a taxi, they knew they had us. Charging us the night rate even it was an hour before the deadline, the resulting fare was more than double what it should have been. Lesson learned – stick to your guns, agree on a fare beforehand and if something seems wrong, it probably is. The driver dropped us off around the corner from the hotel, probably to avoid being seen by our concierge, as well as to force us to pay up quicker as we were being dumped on a busy intersection with a stroller and two kids. It was hard not to let the experience ruin our evening, but soon showered and snug in a comfy bed it was easier to remember the fresh breeze on my skin overlooking the lights of Athens.
And then, it was time. Early morning, and already hot, we got the earliest start to the Acropolis that we could but by the time we reached the entry the crowds had as well. It was extremely hard to enjoy the Parthenon and other magnificent ruins when we were fretting about the kids overheating, whether their sunscreen had melted off and why we were the only people with children under 12 in the 105°+ temperatures. So after fighting our way through the crowds past the Theatre of Dionysos and Odion Herodes Atticus to the top of the Acropolis, we found a rare spot of shade to regroup and change gameplans. While Roberts stayed with Lauris and Mikus I raced around to see all that I could see before replacing Roberts while he took a quick loop. Perhaps not the best way to enjoy an UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the 6th century BC?
The Parthenon

I had studied the Parthenon and the Erechtheum back in my freshman year when I thought I would be an architect – the study of these magnificent cultural monuments left a lasting impression on me, and seeing them in person was a tremendous privilege. To see and photograph the southern "Porch of the Maidens", was a highlight for me of our entire time in Europe. Although not the original sculptures (5 of which are on display in the Acropolis Museum while they are being restored), the engineering that enables the caryatids to support the heavy weight of the porch roof while retaining feminine proportions is just unbelievable. I wish I could see them in first light of morning,  sunset and night, to see the light play across the porch in every season…
The Porch of Maidens

As the Acropolis Museum is closed on Mondays we headed back to the hotel, to cool down and take our naps before taking a taxi to the port of Pireas on the Saronic Gulf. The port is located on the west coast, southwest of Athens, while the airport is located between Athens and the east coast. We would not be passing through Athens again as we would be completing our return trip through the port of Rafina on the east coast. It was with sadness that I watched the Acropolis disappear from view out the back window as the taxi sped through heavy afternoon traffic  to take us to our next mode of transportation, the ferry we would take to Paros.


  1. You're in South Carolina???? What have I missed???

  2. How wonderful to have these gorgeous memories to fall back on, good food, good wine and sunshine :-) Thanks for the tour!

  3. Such great pictures! I hope you are surviving the heat back in the US!

  4. Great pictures! My favorite blog! #4


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