Getting Academic in Athens

Athens is interesting. With its grungy streets and graffiti-covered walls, it’s unfiltered and perhaps even unappealing at first glance. Greece is after all, a country still recovering from the Great Recession of 2008 and their own government debt crisis in which unemployment in Greece rose to 25% and the country received significant bailout loans. Subsequent austerity measures had significant impact on the population resulting in amplified homelessness and the closure of up to 20 percent of the shops in the city center of Athens.

This context is important for travelers to understand because Athens will look and feel different than other European cities. Look beyond your first impressions though (see story below), as this sprawling metropolis does have a lot to offer visitors. The first known democracy in the world was in Athens and the founders of Western philosophy called this city home. Putting in a little effort on the front end to understand the history and significance of this city will be a rewarding decision for travelers.

We were visiting the birthplace of democracy for Dan’s 30th birthday and for a history-loving traveler, it seemed like a fitting trip for a milestone celebration. Unfortunately, our early morning flight ended up being delayed so our arrival in Athens coincided with the hottest part of a scorching summer day. I am pretty comfortable using crowded public transportation and there are only a few very unpleasant transits that come to mind, but my worst experience by far was that from the airport to Athens city center. The unventilated tram just kept getting hotter and smellier while filling up with commuters on the 50-minute ride to the city center. Owing to our flight having been delayed, we hadn’t eaten anything since early morning, and my normally full water bottle was disastrously empty. Dan and I were separated on opposite sides of the tram, so I ended up internally reassuring myself that I was not going to pass out into the armpit of the sweaty man squeezed in next to me. We did survive the commute but realized that the warnings about Athens’ extreme summer heat were real.

Our Airbnb host gave us very specific instructions for our arrival at the apartment that also mandated that upon reaching the eighth floor landing, “you will go out at the terrace and lock the door behind you. There you will take a breath and see the incredible view of the Acropolis.” We laughed at these instructions before reaching the apartment, but after the long sweaty train ride and walk to the apartment, she was right – a deep breath and view of the Acropolis was exactly what we needed! While the apartment itself was small (hello showering over the toilet), the outdoor terrace overlooking the ruins was stunning. No need to visit the neighboring restaurant with the same view when you have your own private patio to enjoy the cityscape.

Braving the mid-day heat, we headed out along the sticky, sweltering streets of Monastiraki for a late lunch. My suggestion of a restaurant called Mavros Gatos didn’t work out as intended because upon arrival, we realized it was closed, maybe even indefinitely. We then made a rash and rather poor decision out of hunger to choose the next closest place that had air conditioning… not using our best judgement. Already seated inside, Dan read the less than stellar reviews of the restaurant online (bugs in food, poor service, etc.) while I took stock of the very few patrons in the restaurant. We opted for lighter appetizers with the intent to filling up elsewhere afterwards. Our (unintentionally) large servings of hot Rakomelo (raki + honey) and honey wine along with the tzatziki and Dolmathakia – grape leaves stuffed with rice and herbs turned out to be pretty good, but we moved on after our light meal in search of better options. We didn’t get too far before pistachio ice cream and chocolate cake were calling our names.

Still in need of a filling meal, we sought out an early dinner destination, walking from the artistic streets of Monastiraki through run down and yet chaotic streets occupied by people loitering at outdoor markets. Arriving at the highly rated, but already crowded Atitamos, we realized we were unlikely to be eating in the near future – strike two for Kaitlan’s recommendations. Our stomachs running low on patience, we opted for Mama Tierra instead. The staff were friendly and the vegetarian fare and kombucha were delicious, so while it wasn’t typical Greek fare, it was a delightful dinner. Back at the apartment that evening, we enjoyed the cooler temperatures and breeze out on the balcony while staring in awe at the Acropolis that we would be visiting early the next morning.

I cannot stress enough how important an early start is when touring the Acropolis. The site opens at 8 AM but you can queue for tickets before that (no ticket purchases online), so planning accordingly is crucial for the best experience. We were diligent about starting early and very pleased with that decision because the summer sun and heat on top of a hill without any shade will cripple you. If the heat doesn’t kill you, the waiting in line to climb up the temple stairs will crush your spirit. We ate a small but quick breakfast on the balcony before venturing into the Plaka neighborhood and ascending the maze of stairs towards up the towering hill-top monument and ticket office. Aside from Athens’ notoriously numerous stray (and sleepy) cats, we had the Plaka neighborhood to ourselves; the early morning peacefulness feeling like a real treat.

The Acropolis was home to one of the earliest settlements in Greece and is the site of the ruins of the fifth century BC former citadel, which houses the Parthenon, Propylaea, Erechtheion, and Temple of Athena Nike. Entry includes access to all of these famed monuments and while you cannot buy your tickets online ahead of time when visiting without a tour, if you arrive early, the line to purchase tickets and enter moves fast. The Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena at the time of its construction in 447 BC, has been undergoing construction for a number of years (see scaffolding in picture below), but nonetheless is just as impressive to behold in person. Regarded as the best example of Greek architecture, it remains a symbol of the origins of Western civilization in a city with strong ties to the ideals of democracy and philosophy that we aim to uphold in society today.

We walked around the steamy hilltop admiring the ruins for a while and then ascended the now crowded stairs back past the ticket office to the smaller Areopagus Hill. Overlooking the Ancient Agora of Athens, the hilltop is known for being the site on which the Apostle Paul preached and also for having slippery marble. Walk with caution.

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Kaitlan atop the Areopagus Hill

Pleased with ourselves for having beat the crowds and the mid-day sun, we enjoyed brunch on the shaded patio at Little Tree Books and Coffee. In addition to fresh smoothies, we ordered coffee, which came with a helpful confirmation from our waitress that in fact there really is no difference between the notoriously strong Greek and Turkish coffee. In drinking either, you just need to mind the grounds at the bottom of your cup, unless you’re a fan of a mouthful of gritty ground coffee.

A short walk away was the Acropolis Museum, which is revered for its collection and display of statues that were found amongst the ruins of the Parthenon and other Acropolis structures. Damages to the sculptures and looting of the artifacts over the years have led to increased preservation efforts such that the last of the surviving artwork from the Acropolis has been or will be removed from the monument to be housed for safekeeping in the museum. One such example of the cause of these damages was the explosion of Ottoman ammunition housed inside the Parthenon that was triggered by the Venetian’s bombardment during a siege of southern Greece in 1687.

We stepped out from the air-conditioned museum back into the streets of Plaka lined with tourist trinket shops. Deciding that our most effective touring method would be to intersperse site seeing in the sun with refreshment stops in the shade, we headed to Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus but didn’t pay the admission for the up close view of the 15 columns still standing of the original 104 columns of the temple. A stop for local beers was our aperitif before enjoying another lunch at Ellevoro where Dan had delicious chicken and I had fantastic charred octopus.

More exploration of the Plaka neighborhood followed until we had our fill of the steamy streets and sought out air conditioning. After knocking on the wrong door, we found the correct entrance to the Central Hotel where we stopped for a drink with a view of the rooftop pool at the next-door hotel.

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More handiwork in the Plaka neighborhood

We made one last stop for gelato, salted caramel for Kaitlan, ahead of our break at the apartment before dinner. After toasting to Dan’s birthday on the balcony, we then enjoyed a late dinner at Barbadimos Syntagma so Dan could get his fill of lamb kebab while Kaitlan tried the moussaka.

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Dan very pleased with his birthday dinner of lamb kebab

On our last day in Athens, we again woke early to share a small breakfast on the balcony before commencing our hike up Mount Lycabettus in order to experience the 360-degree city and sea views before the sun could scorch us. Bypassing the funicular (cable car), we opted for the winding and somewhat overgrown trails. Reaching the top, we overheard Greek hymns and prayers coming from a service at the small Church of Saint George before hiking back down through streets of Kolonaki where it is evident that the feline tenants run the neighborhood but are not so great at cleaning up after themselves. A stop for breakfast resulted in friendly conversation with the cafe manager who wished Dan a happy birthday and us good luck in our marriage. His food was also very good and Kaitlan was pleased with the cappuccino freddo and Kagianas (also called strapatsada) which was a feta, tomato, and egg scramble.

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Kaitlan resting or posing on the way up?

A quick freshening up in order, we headed to the apartment and packed-up in preparation of our departure that afternoon. Before leaving Athens, we had a very important stop remaining on our must-do list – the Giannis Antetokounmpo court in the Sepolia neighborhood. With our icon having grown up playing basketball in Athens, we were very interested in visiting the court where he spent much of his youth and where upon his reaching stardom, it had been turned into a tribute mural of him dunking in his Milwaukee Bucks jersey. We jumped in a cab for the 15-minute drive to the neighborhood and arrived delighted to see that we had the court to ourselves. It wasn’t long before another group dropped by and it was clear from their Bucks jerseys and mid-west accents that we shared the common bond of being Milwaukee natives.

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We love you Giannis!

Back in the Monastiraki neighborhood after paying tribute to our icon, we decided that with the little remaining time we had left we would visit the Ancient Agora of Athens, which was the central place of assembly for Athens’ citizens. In present day, it is home to the Temple of Hephaestus, the best-preserved ancient temple in Greece. The sweltering mid-day heat made anything but shade unbearable so we partook in our own expedited tour whilst imagining citizens gathering in the agora to hear the conjectures and debates of the most famous of the ancient Greek philosophers – Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

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Dan philosophizing amongst the ruins of the Ancient Agora of Athens

Opting for a cab to the airport this time, we were fortunate to have a friendly driver, Nic, who shared a mutual appreciation for the Greek Freak and even pointed out the facility where the Bucks’ superstar was currently training with the Greek national team for the FIBA World Cup. Nic also shared advice for our next (yet to be planned) visit to Greece, specifying which of the islands were the best for visitors. It wasn’t the first time we had friendly and personable interactions with the locals of Athens. While it’s evident that Athens’ citizens and business are still experiencing the effects of the economic crisis, we felt welcomed by locals. We were glad to see signs of recovery in the busy restaurants of Monastiraki and large groups of tourists queued up at the Acropolis who were also spending money in the Plaka neighborhood… even in 100-degree heat! A visit to Greece should be on your bucket list and when you do make it here, don’t bypass Athens and head straight for the Islands – take a few days to appreciate the historical significance of this metropolis.

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