And chances are, you haven’t.
Surprise #1: Twanging bouzouki pop music.
We first heard this blasting on the radio in our cab from the airport. At home, a strange and half-discordant tune would probably have been a bummer after a 16-hour flight…but with our driver thrumming the padded wheel, humming along and narrating the song’s story of two star-crossed lovers, all as squat, ugly car dealerships, massive government offices, wide avenues, and ancient temples slid past, we soon accepted it as the soundtrack to our new Greek adventure.
Surprise #2: This spot-on view of the Acropolis from our fourth floor room in the Electra Palace Hotel Athens.
With only two nights and one day in the city, we chose the Electra Palace for its location in Athens’ tourist center, the 19th-century Plaka. In late August, being greeted after a full day’s sightseeing by the hotel’s air conditioning and breezy roof terrace was like getting a big hug and a kiss on both cheeks. Watching guests from all over the world try to navigate the staggering breakfast buffet was pure comedy. At about $210 EUR night, you can stay more cheaply in Athens, but for the level of luxury and amazing view, you can spend a heck of a lot more.
Surprise #3: There’s a huge park in the center of the city, the National Gardens.
On a weekday afternoon, Adam and I had this maze of palms and ponds and arbors almost to ourselves. We waddled after ducks, kissed beneath tangles of white roses, and tip-toed across antique paving stones. Most importantly, we got a break from dodging speeding traffic (the pedestrian is not king in Athens) and a seat on a bench in absolute shade. Only the occasional college student with a guitar or a peacock’s screech would pierce the quiet. (Behind the Greek Parliament in Syntagma Square, off Amalias Street.)
Surprise #4: The sheer number of tourists at the Acropolis.
We went up the mount nice and early on a late August morning, and it even rained a little, but still…the crush of humanity was just this side of overwhelming. In the rain, the worn, ancient stone becomes very slippery and Adam had to catch me a few times, but chances are, any actual fall would surely be cushioned by a German guy in capri pants and dress shoes or a ruddy-faced Aussie with a camera lens as long as my arm.
Of course, big crowds gather here because the structures are, quite simply, astonishing.
At the start of the long, gently-graded climb, we were amazed by the size and careful preservation of the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, where plays were once performed for audiences of 17,000. Further up, we were gobsmacked by the Porch of the Caryatids, featuring six huge (replica) columns in the shape of women; the five real ones are indoors at the adjacent Acropolis Museum, but a sixth one was spirited away to the British Museum by Lord “Up for Grabs” Elgin.
Before the massive Parthenon, we simply gaped, open-mouthed. Standing by it (tourists aren’t allowed on it), we were stunned by the realization that ancient history actually happened.
Surprise #5: The vast urban sprawl.
If you can manage to work your way through the throngs to the edges of the Acropolis mount, you’ll enjoy both fresh air and a view that stretches for much of Athens’ 81,275 square miles. It’s immediately obvious that while this is a city associated with antiquity, most of its architecture isn’t actually very old.
Prone to earthquakes, Athens has been rocked and razed countless times. In the mid-1900s, an earthquake destroyed all but a small slice of the pedestrian-friendly, 19th century Plaka; from up on the Acropolis, you can see where the Plaka now ends and the concrete jungle begins. In favor of staying power, charm and atmosphere were long left out of Athens’ urban planning; however, a design renaissance began during preparations for the 2004 Olympics. Since then, neighborhoods like the hip and artsy Gazi, neoclassical Thission, and boutique-y Kolonaki, started to enjoy a leafier, more tactile rebirth…but with Greece’s economic near-collapse, development may stall for a healthy while.
Surprise #6: The quiet beauty of the Agora.
Wandering down the hill from the Acropolis, dazed from visual stimulation and moving through crowds as if ready for battle, we were suddenly alone. And I mean, alone. It was so quiet we could hear doves cooing. We had found ourselves some elbow room in Athens’ ancient Agora.
From the 6th century B.C. until around 600 A.D., the Agora was the commercial, political, administrative, social, religious, and cultural center of ancient Athens. Even though Socrates and Plato hung out here, you can still see several intact monuments and stone foundations. Gradually, after attacks by every Greek enemy on Earth, the Agora returned to its original use as a residential area and cemetery. In 1000 A.D., the Byzantine church of Aghioi Apostoloi was built here; restored in the 1970s, the church now looks almost new.
Surprise #7: Mastichato, mastika or just plain mastic.
This is an unusual liqueur made from mastic trees only found on the Aegean island of Chios. We were first offered a mastichato toast at Daphne’s, a famous restaurant in the Plaka near the entrance to the Acropolis. Our waiter was touched that we’d taken the time to learn a few words of Greek, and wanted to share a taste of his country. Adam was polite rather than honest (he thought it tasted a little like licking an old ashtray) but I was inexplicably taken with the stuff. But then, I also like retsina, dry Greek white wine made with mastic resin.
Out on the candlelit courtyard, as I sipped a small glass, I remember remarking that it was a truly Greek experience. Adam just smiled at me and reached across the table for my hand, all the while shaking his head, slowly. But it was he who would, for the next two weeks, seek it out for me wherever we went.
Surprise #8: There are cats all over Athens.
We’d heard that there are islands full of cats in Greece, but for some reason didn’t expect its capital city to be so gloriously overrun. We’re big into cats, and love to watch them prowl and play. And while we’re in strong favor of spay and neuter programs, one thing is for sure — Athens doesn’t have a big problem with vermin. So, there’s the bright side.
I hope we’ll return to Athens again someday and spend more time not only exploring its ancient history, but wandering its labyrinthine streets, edgy art galleries, neighborhood cafes…and endless sea of shoe stores. The city, in our opinion, is an altogether civilized place.