One key to happiness I think is to have to the ability to find real joy in the simplest of pleasures, and having to put my sunglasses on for the first time in two months is a great joy that I experienced as I left the airplane and walked out into the bright winter sunshine that bathed Athens upon my arrival.
This simple necessity and following action produced a spring in my step and a swing in my gait as I approached and then studied the metro map with a creased brow and pondered the route to my hotel.
Not even the rude, fat girl behind the protective glass at the metro ticket counter could dampen my spirits as she regarded me through her thick rimmed spectacles with hostile contempt, clearly trying to make me feel stupid for asking questions and for not immediately understanding the intricacies of the Athenian public transport network.
As I eventually departed, ticket in hand, I gave her the most broad and warm smile I could muster.
She glared furiously back.
In her defence, finding my way to my hotel on the metro did turn out to be a piece of cake.
I liked my area. I LOVED my area. My area was Plaka.
Hotel Byron had been recommended to me by some friends and their recommendation had served me well.
The Byron hotel was very basic and very cheap. But it was clean, spacious, comfortable and most importantly, it was situated literally at the foot of the Acropolis and about two minutes walk from the magnificent Acropli Museum, not to mention all multitude of legendary archeological sites.
I met Penelope, receptionist of a local gallery and avid amateur historian who was full of advice and who proved to be an invaluable source of information and advice throughout my stay.
Waking up on my first morning in Athens I decided to go for a little stroll before getting down to any serious archeological tourism. I walked along the Areopagitou pedestrian way (recommended by Penelope) that ran along the foot of, and ultimately around the Acropolis. My simple stroll saw me stumbling into one ancient archeological site after another. The Theatre of Dionysos, the Pnyx, the Roman Agora and most remarkably, the Ancient Agora which was the beating heart of Ancient Greece. I found the sheer scale of ancient wonders that lay littered about like flotsam and jetsam a little overwhelming.
I walked in the footsteps of great statesmen, sculptors, mathematicians, philosophers and polymath’s like Pericles, Pheidias, Archimedes, Plato and Aristotle.
At the Pnyx, I stool on the very marble podium where centuries ago these colossi stood to deliver their insight to the Athenian crowds and ultimately to the world.
Call me a sentimental fool, but I almost felt their wisdom and energy radiating from the hallowed soil. I soaked it up and drank from it as a man dying from thirst would drink from a cool, sweet stream.
I finally stumbled back to my hotel a full four hours after leaving for a simple stroll, feeling rather intelligent, but wondering how I was going to pack all the newly discovered opportunities available to me in just five days. Once again, Penelope would prove to be of invaluable assistance.
Next was the brand spanking new Acropoli Museum. The Acropoli Museum does exactly what is says on the tin. It houses the priceless works of art (mainly sculpture) from the Acropolis. I learned a little about the history of the worlds most famous acropolis and although I admired the reliefs, sculpture in the round and friezes, I found most fascinating the recently made models of how the Acropolis would have looked at various stages during its long and decorated history, starting with the Mycenaeans.
Let me tell you, it might look like a building site now, but it was super impressive years ago.
I also learned (to my mild amusement) exactly what a nasty, greedy shit the Greeks thought Lord Elgin was. His dastardly theft of the ‘Elgin’ marbles from the Parthenon has got them proper pissed off!
I see where they’re coming from actually.
The poor Parthenon has had it’s marble ass kicked so many times throughout history. I won’t bore you with dates or events. Rest assured though that it is a remarkable structure and the fact that any of it stands at all is testament to its engineering brilliance well before its time. More about it when I actually visit her in the flesh.
I had one hell of a time trying to find the National Archeological Museum of Athens. It was really quite perplexing. The NAMA is the Greek equivalent of the British Museum. It is huge and stupendous and houses the nation’s, and some of the world’s most priceless artefacts. Yet it’s not well signposted (or even signposted at all) and bizarrely, many of the Athenians don’t seem to have any idea where it is or indeed that it even exists. It was crazy!
I walked around in circles after locals pointed me towards one vague direction after the next. Many just shrugged shoulders and shook heads. And I don’t think it was a language barrier thing.
When I eventually found it, its surrounding gardens were unkempt, litter was strewn about and it was nigh on deserted.
Now, anyone who has tried to get a close up view of the Mona Lisa in Museè du Louvre, or the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum, will know what it means to hustle, bustle and shove for a birds eye view of a national treasure.
But to gaze into the golden eyes of the famous Death Mask of Agamemnon, or to admire the fine physique that is the Antikythera Ephebe, one had absolutely NO competition whatsoever. Not a single camera wielding Japanese or German tourist in sight.
It was just me, Agamemnon and a healthy dose of peace and quiet.
It was wonderful, but at the same time….a bit sad. I remembered then Penelope’s lamentation of the Greek Governments failure to realise the value of, protect and then promote its unparalleled historical and archeological assets.
I agree with her. Poor show Greek Government.
I feel as though I must have something more to say about the immense scale of treasures held in the NAMA, but to be honest, nothing I say and no amount of adjective creativity could do it justice.
You must go.
That night I visited Gazi. This is where (according again to the lovely Penelope) I was most likely to find a vibrant Athenian nightlife. Find it I did. At last, public houses that actually had some members of the public in them. I sat with my back to a warm heater, listened to good music and was served Mythos beer all night by a lovely, smiling young waitress.
I soaked up the atmosphere and wrote this post furiously on my iPhone. Then, mildly pickled and serenely happy, I staggered back to my hotel, stopping off to devour a wholesome chicken gyros before turning in.
The following day was the Acropolis.
The Acropolis, with its Temples, gateways, theatres and agoras is a scene of devastation. Really! It’s mass carnage. At the height of its grandeur around 200AD, it was a scene of unparalleled architectural beauty and sophistication. Since then it has been systematically smashed to pieces. Through the ages, the list of culprits is endless, but at the very top is the most hated man in Greece – Lord Elgin.
Lord Elgin was the British Ambassador to Greece (or something like that) about 200 years ago and apparently he bribed local Turkish officials to allow him to plunder the Parthenon of numerous treasures that to this day are housed in the British Museum.
In addition to suffering the ravages of Lord Elgin’s greed, the Parthenon has been plundered for building material, defaced by pig ignorant Christians, blown to smithereens with gunpowder and restored badly.
In Archeological terms, the ancient structures of the Acropolis and the Parthenon in particular represent the worlds most complex jigsaw puzzle. Trying to figure out exactly which bits go where is a job for minds far greater than mine. Best of luck to them.
The current reconstruction and restoration program promises to be the first one to be done properly. Its been on going for twenty years and it’ll take another ten they say.
I love Greek food, but it can be hard to find. Especially when you’re in Greece, and Athens is no different.
Penelope helped me out with two recommendations. Dionysos (where the Prime Minister eats) and a cluster of Taverna near my hotel. The Taverna food was … mmm … neither here nor there.
Dionysos was excellent, but for the cost, you’d expect it to be.
Some of the best food I had was from fast food take away joints. I took a liking to gyros. A simple freshly baked pita bread stuffed with grilled meat, crispy salad, potato and tzatziki (garlicky yogurt). They cost a pittance and I loved them!
The best food I had though was at the restaurant of the Acropoli museum. I actually paid the museum cover charge (only €5) just to eat there again.
The restaurant of the Acropoli museum boasted simple and traditional Greek dishes from all over Greece. The stewed chickpeas with greens from Macedonia were excellent and the potato, lemon and sardine salad was just as good.
I loved the food there but when I told Penelope of the fact, she was stupefied.
She stared at me open mouthed for a few seconds. “You like THIS food?” she asked. then she stared at me some more before shrugging her shoulders and saying, “it’s a matter of personal taste”.
Clearly she felt I had none.
The biggest difficulty I had in Athens was finding good coffee. And it was bizarre because I would be served a cup of coffee with real pride, only to find that it was luke warm and tasted like shit.
Seriously, like muddy bath water. And this was from specialist coffee Houses. I couldn’t figure it out.
I eventually found a good cup from my local ice cream vendor.
In there I found a guy who was seriously into his coffee and loved his machine like it was his first born. He tutted, clucked and shook his head when I told him of the hardships I’d suffered up until finding him, obviously in despair of the shortcomings of his countrymen.
He was as passionate about his coffee as Penelope was about her history and heritage.
I liked and admired them both.
On Athenas Street near the city centre is Varkvakeios, the fresh food market.
In there I was in seventh heaven. It was everything that a city centre fresh food market should be. It clamoured and hustled and bartered and thrived. I pretended as though the year was 400 BC and it felt right. I could almost feel a toga draped over my shoulders.
Everything was beautiful and for sale. In the meat market every part of just about every animal was on offer. Tongues, trotters, tits and testicles, all beautifully presented and with a price.
In the fish market more of the same. If it swam, scuttled, sucked, slimed or squirmed, the Athenians would eat it and I loved them for that.
Never before have I regretted more not having access to my own kitchen. Sigh.
I offered one busy fish vendor €2 if he would hold up a fish for a photo opportunity. He proudly held his fish aloft and then pressed the coin back into my palm before wishing me well. I live for moments like these. I could have flung my arms around the smelly fella. I didn’t.
I walked away from Varkvakeios empty handed when really, I was desperate to be carrying a bag full of the freshest edible treasures and thinking about how best to prepare them for a table full of appreciative guests.
I thought about some of the mediocre food that I’d had so far and realised that clearly, the Athenians kept the best for themselves. I don’t blame them.
Next time I’m going self catering.
So here’s the thing that I kept thinking about Athens.
It’s not a beautiful city. The Greeks have failed to make the most of what they’ve got – by a long, long way, and they’re sitting on top of treasures of unimaginable splendour and importance. Penelope’s words rang in my ears.
I kept thinking that it would be great if we could demolish the entire modern city and perhaps even the urban sprawl, move all the inhabitants out (before the demolition of course) and excavate every square mile of it.
Then, Athens could serve the world admirably as its most awe inspiring, magnificent and grandiose archeological attraction ever.
Wouldn’t that be something.
So I finally did Athens. I probably won’t do it again until they finish the work on the Parthenon. But when that day comes, I’ll be the first in the cue.
I’m off to the airport tomorrow. I reckon I’m going to stop off and say hi to the rude fat girl behind the protective glass at the metro ticket counter.
See if she’s calmed down at all.