Sunday, June 5, 2016

Part 1: 3 days in Athens

Athens is named after the goddess Athena, the Greek mythological goddess of wisdom, inspiration and civilization. If you enjoy ancient history, Athens is a great place to visit. Littered with an archaeological site or at every corner, these ancient ruins are part of Athenian vibe. 

Day 1: We landed early afternoon in Athens. The airport was approximately 30 minutes from the  Plaka area where we had booked our hotel. After checking in and leaving our bags at the Hotel Acropolis Select, we headed out to visit the Plaka area to grab lunch. Plaka was a beautiful neighborhood situated directly under the shadow of the Acropolis. It is supposedly the oldest section of Athens. Almost all the streets in this area are open only to pedestrian traffic. Plaka metro is also the closest metro stop to the Acropolis. This neighborhood is interested by two streets, one of them being Adrianou street, a street lined on both sides by boutique hotels, restaurants and outdoor cafe, jewelry stores, tourist shops, and art galleries. We ate lunch at one of the many cafes in the area catering to tourists, our selection was based purely on a cafe that had operating water misting fans. Our lunch included gyros, souvlaki, greek salad and moussaka and other greek dishes. Any of these cafe’s especially those located under the shade of trees with fans seemed to attract a lot of people regardless of what they were ordering whether it was a glass of lemonade or iced caffe or simply people watching. After lunch, we strolled leisurely along the Adrianou street. All the shops were crammed with typical touristy stuff, pretty much the same things for pretty much the same prices; these included masks, Ouzo, Olive oils, spice mixes, soaps, paintings, jewelry, t-shirts, hand crafted bags and street vendors of all kinds. After scrolling and people watching for a couple of hours, we walked back to our hotel to rest and freshen up before dinner. While our hotel was on the edge of the Plaka area, the distance between shopping district and our hotel was just a few blocks. The location of our hotel was very convenient. 
Highly recommend staying in Plaka area.  It is within walking distance of every major archaeological site including the Acropolis, Temple of Olympian Zeus, and the Ancient and Roman Agoras. The area seems to have a wide variety of restaurants as well as is Athen’s main shopping district. We were a few blocks from Syntagma Square and Monastiraki Square and the metro. Plaka also seemed to be a safe area.

We had tried booking our hotel stay at Hotel Plaka or Hotel Adrian (both 3 star properties based on some of the reviews) but neither of these two hotels were available for our group for the nights we needed. Therefore, at the recommendation of our travel agent, we ended up staying at Hotel Acropolis Select which too was a 3 start hotel. Hotel Acropolis Select did not have any direct views of the Acropolis but it was within walking distance to all the historical sites and to Plaka, it was very conveniently located. The rooms were comfortable, most had a balcony overlooking the street below but the bathrooms needed renovations. For dinner, we found a small restaurant a block down. We sat in the restaurant’s patio and ordered a large feast that included fish, chicken, lamb, greek salad and humous. Since we were the only occupants of the restaurant we had full attention from the proprietor and his wife who was the cook. The food was very well prepared. While rest of Greece might have been feeling the effects of austerity measures, it seems Plaka area, the hotels and restaurants were impervious to those effects. 

Day 2: We got ready early in the morning for our visit to Acropolis. Our hotel included breakfast buffet which worked out very convenient as the cafe didn't  open that early in the morning. We had been warned to visit Acropolis either early in the morning or late in the evening. We chose early morning and were one of the first few people in line when the ticket office opened at 8 am. The ticket included entrance to Acropolis, the Museum and the Ancient Agora. We chose not to take a guided tour but had earlier downloaded Steve Rick’s audio tour to Acropolis.   

Getting to the Acropolis was an easy uphill walk but a little longer than I had anticipated. Comfortable shoes are a must. Even though we entered the grounds as soon as the Acropolis opened, we had to stop a couple of times to catch breath in the rising heat. By the time we reached Parthenon, it seemed as if the sun in full force was beating down on us. The previously chilled water bottles had become warm and there was no shade to be found at the top. Keeping this in mind, it might be worth considering travel to Greece in the winter or spring months. 

The history of Parthenon is amazing. The various transformations it has gone through. The archaeological excavations and preservation work still under going.  In case you have heard of Elgin marbles, this is where they came from. I wont describe the Acropolis or Parthenon here, as that information is readily available on the internet in far greater details that I remember. If you prefer audio, Rick Steve adds color beautifully to his description of these ancient sites. 
Parthenon at night

After Parthenon, we visited the other sites in Acropolis such as the theater of Herod Atticus and the rock of Areopagos and walked down the hill to the Hotel Acropolis Select. The timing was perfect. Just as the sun was getting overhead, we were walking into the museum. The museum is quite an amazing design. As you walk into the museum and look down the glass ramp, you can see what remains of the ancient settlement, how the ancient city was planned and laid out, how well the dwellings were planned, the beginnings of urban planning. Inside are displayed the many excavated artifacts or the replicas of various friezes.  The museum’s design mimics that of the Parthenon in that the artifacts are displayed as they would have looked on Parthenon in their original positions. Unlike most museums (including the British Museum that houses the original Elgin marbles), the glass walls of the Acropolis Museum allows all artifacts to be seen in natural light. If you look out the glass walls, on one one side you can see the ancient Acropolis and the Parthenon and on the other side the current city of Athens, a large stretch of orange ceramic tiled roofs and the people of Athens going about their daily lives. 

After we were done with the museum, we grabbed lunch in one of the cafe outside and walked to hotel to rest for the afternoon. In the evening, we headed to Monastiraki area. The area similar to Plaka is a lovely tourist shopping area but a little cheaper. Our walk took us through the ancient agora

Day 3: Day Trip to Temple of Poseidon at Sounion

Temple of Poseidon
We rented a bus on our own to go to Sounion to visit the Temple of Poseidon. From Athens it takes approximately 1 and a half hours by road.  Some of the guide books recommend a trip in the morning to avoid the crowds but Sounion has an incredible sunset view, that it is worth the afternoon trip and dealing with the crowds. We went in the afternoon, but did not feel that the place was crowded at all.

The temple sits above the beach on a mountain that juts out into the sea and was dedicated to Poseidon, the god of the sea. 

Just below the temple there is a little path that goes downhill towards the water, along that path there is an archaeological excavation of a historical settlement. The houses, the street, the shops that formed part of this little settlement are all marked by excavated stones.