First stop on our trip was Athens. Upon arriving at Eleftherios Venizelos airport, named after the Prime Minister hailed as the “maker of modern Greece”, one is immediately struck by the chaos which is this ancient and modern city. From the million and one abandoned and unfinished buildings interspersed by modern glass offices to the ancient monuments and medieval churches complete with their camouflage of contemporary graffiti to the chic underground with it's museum-stations exhibiting archeological finds still half buried in their walls, this is a city of more than just contrasts; it is a candid, living encyclopedia of our humanity.
We first made our way to our decent little hotel just off Omonia Square, an area, I will however, strongly recommend against staying in. While this area is incredibly popular with tourists and tour operators, the unsavoury folk roaming the streets – especially in late afternoons and at night – have the potential to ruin what would otherwise be a perfectly decent stay by relieving you of the burden of your camera, wallet and passport. My Grandmother, herself a seasoned traveller, has since indulged me with some belated advice: A good rule of thumb when it comes to hotels in Europe (and Greece is definitely no exception) is to always book the best hotel you can afford and not the cheapest hotel you can find. In retrospect, I would highly recommend finding something in the vibrant Plaka area.
The Plaka is the old town of Athens, that which used to fall within the ancient walls of the city and wraps it's way around the towering Acropolis like a Homeric labyrinth. Its narrow streets and stairways are lined with countless cafes and restaurants each with their own punter outside assuring you that theirs is the best restaurant in the city. We made sure to find somewhere atop a 5 story building, which after weaving through the rooms of someone's shop, then someone's flat and finally someone's kitchen, led us to a breath-taking view of the city below where we dined on slow-roasted lamb shank with potatoes and a pi.jpgnt or two of ice cold Mythos – the local green-bottle beer.
The next morning, after running the Omonia Square gauntlet, we purchased a block ticket for entrance into 12 of Athens' most famous archaeological sites and proceeded to tick them off the list one by one. The city is littered with a myriad of ancient ruins, with new ones being discovered daily under existing more modern buildings. The most obvious of these sites is the Acropolis with its complex of temple ruins along it's flat top and those of markets and theatres strewn along its slopes.
My parents along with countless history books had built an image in our minds of this wondrous open-air museum bursting with intellectually stimulating tit-bits of ancient monuments and relics. I think my disappointment, however mild, was palpable to my parents as we elbowed our way up the marble slopes, through throngs of tourists with twangy “West-Atlantic” accents, exclaiming “Oh my Gawd!” at everything from the baking heat to the dramatic scale of the pi.jpgllars which make up the facade of the Parthenon. I must say that, despi.jpgte the site being overrun by cliched folk in sun-hats and the absence of the embellishments detailed in the history books, it is a must-see and do, even if only to witness the spectacular architectural achievements of the ancients and to be able to exclaim in an educated tone, “Oh yes, the Parthenon,” when noticing pi.jpgctures in brochures or making meaningful small talk at dinner parties.
The mass-tourism aside, there are a number of gems to uncover in Athens and one I found particularly surprising, likely due to it's omission from my childhood tales, was Mount Licabetus. This odd little mountain (which in South Africa would definitely been named a “koppi.jpge”) in the middle of the posh part of the city is reached by that most ubiquitous Athenian phenomenon, the flight of stairs. In fact it is many flights which lead me from the administrative part of town through boutique-lined streets, past luxury apartment blocks up to the teleferik – a sort of underground funicular which took me to the top of the hill which quite probably, has the most dramatic 360° views of the city. Crowned by a little white Orthadox chapel, this was a great place to gain some perspective on the city while sippi.jpgng on a Heineken from the multi-tiered restaurant tucked into the nooks and crannies of the slope, the €8 price tag, seemed almost justified considering the breath-taking surroundings.
Despi.jpgte the fleecing my wallet was experiencing, from here, I could gaze down and plot the route for my trip to Piraeus, the port of Athens where I would board my ship the following day and commence my cruise around the islands I had heard so much about. I would be leaving the mania of this invigorating city behind and was being given the opportunity to bring those childhood visualisations of the engrossing stories I'd been told to life.