Our European Adventure: First Stop, Athens
By Geri Bain & Jenny Keroack
Five years after their first blogged adventure (She Said She Said London), Jenny Keroack, now 23 years old, and her mom, travel writer Geri Bain, set off on a new journey. This trip centered on three great societies: the Ancient Greeks, the Ottomans, and the Venetians. Starting in Athens, they set sail on a Windstar Cruise to Venice, tracing the interwoven histories of these superpowers. After the cruise, they headed to the Dolomitesfor a few days of hiking. As with their last adventure, they recorded their impressions and favorite finds along the way. Jenny’s are in italics; Geri’s are in regular type. The following is their first installment, logged from Athens.
Athens: My last trip to Athens was decades ago and I remembered it as congested and chaotic. Thanks to pedestrian-only areas and other improvements, Athens now feels far more accessible and pleasant to explore.
Hotel Grande Bretagne: I first saw this hotel when I was backpacking thru Europe as a teenager and thought how amazing it would be to experience that kind of luxury. Well, unlike many things in life, it lived up to my expectations. Truly grand, from the high-ceiling, richly-detailed guest rooms to the sumptuous lobby tea room, the hotel also felt welcoming—with a tray of cool drinks and cookies to greet us as we dipped in and out during the day, and a concierge to help map our way to each new adventure. Its central location on Syntagma Square places it within walking distance of most attractions. Breakfast at the rooftop restaurant was a daily treat, as much for the awesome view of the Acropolis as for the sumptuous array of fresh fruits, breads, yogurts, meats, omelets-to-order and Greek specialties such as spanakopita. We also liked that Wi-Fi, 24/7 fitness center, lovely indoor and outdoor pools, and sauna were free, but were surprised that the TV only had limited stations without an upcharge. No worries though; with Athens beckoning at our doorstep day and night, we barely had time for any of them; we didn’t even sample the highly rated spa. Next time!
Athens Free Walking Tour: People tend to think that things are of worse quality when they’re free. While that may be true of free Wi-Fi or gum you found on a sidewalk, it’s definitely not true of free walking tours. In my experience, the people who volunteer to give free tours of their cities are passionate locals with a gift for explaining their culture to outsiders, and while most people tip generously, there’s no pressure. In Athens, our tour guide was Euphrosyne, a name she shares with one of Zeus’ daughters who was created to fill the world with happy moments. It’s an apt name for her; she was extremely entertaining. She explained history in a way that made it accessible, and showed us parts of Athens we never would have otherwise seen. For example, we walked up to Pnyx Hill where Pericles and other 5th Century B.C. orators addressed the democratic assemblies. She also gave us touring tips, like walking up the wooded trails of Filopappou Hill. I can’t recommend the tour enough both because it probably was the best 2½ hours I spent in Athens, and because she showed us an amazing souvlaki place downtown. Even if you don’t take the tour, I second Euphrosyne’s recommendation for Taverna Sigalas, a wonderful and reasonably-priced souvlaki joint located right next to a 10th century monastery. It may look like a Plaka tourist spot, but it’s a long-time family-run restaurant that’s a favorite with locals. And those photos on the walls? Greek movie stars.
The Acropolis and Museum: Soon after checking into our hotel, we headed to the Acropolis, but lines were long, so we decided to start at the Acropolis Museum. A great decision. Located at the base of the site, it displays many original treasures and finds from the Acropolis that were moved inside for safe-keeping. Open less than ten years, the museum is an architectural gem in its own right. With the Acropolis in view outside its floor-to-ceiling windows, its exhibits descend through time, starting with the 48 columns of the Parthenon Hall topped with marble panels (metopes) and a frieze telling ancient myths and history. The next morning, we took the advice of Euphrosyne, our walking tour guide, got to the side entrance of the Acropolis at opening and found virtually no line. More important, there were few tour groups in sight. We were able to stop to watch a winsome cat walk through up the marble steps and into the Parthenon and to admire the Caryatids—lovely copies of the original women-shaped columns that support the portico of the Erechtheion. By the time the tour groups began filling the Acropolis, we were on our way down the tranquil North Slope, stopping at a bench for a picnic and to leave our offering at one of the shrines nestled into the caves and niches that dot the steep stone cliffs.
The Plaka: Athens’ old town, is small and walkable, so you’ll probably pass each street multiple times either during the day, perhaps while walking to the Acropolis, or at night, when buskers perform in the area’s squares. Not to be missed is the Anafiotika area, a small cluster of steep paths which resemble the architecture of the Cyclades islands with white-washed cubic houses and brightly painted shutters. The homes were constructed by masons from the island of Anafi, who came to renovate King Otto’s palace in 1841. Allegedly, they built the houses of Anafiotika in one night each, taking advantage of an Ottoman rule that one can claim ownership of a home if it was built in one night. I would recommend walking around Anafiotika at night in order to see this gorgeous neighborhood freckled with light from small restaurants, shops open late, and twinkling lights hung between buildings.
The National Archeological Museum: Jenny and I both love good stories and no one told them better than the ancient Greeks, so we were excited to see their mythological gods and goddesses “in the flesh.” Fortunately for us, the National Archaeological Museum prints its labels in English as well as Greek, and actually provides enough of the legends so we could make sense of what we were seeing. It was fun to pick up on the symbolism tied to each god: Pan, with his goat feet and flute; Heracles holding his lion’s pelt and club. The displays go in chronological order, starting with Neolithic and Cycladic figurines, jewelry and weapons dating back to 3500 BC and we were surprised to see many earrings, necklaces and bracelets that we would have liked to buy and wear today! And we both were touched by the statue of a refugee boy holding a dog from 1 BCE. The museum has a lovely garden with a small cafe; once we’d recharged we noticed a stand with free bookmarks explaining the mythology and uses of many of the plants. For example, we learned that Dionysus’s crown was made of common ivy and ancient Greeks considered it a symbol of immortality and eternal faith and love, hence its use in wedding ceremonies.
A Favorite Walk. My mom and I are firm believers that you discover more about a city when you walk it. One of our favorite walks in Athens begins at the Archaeological Museum, and loops back along 28th Oktovriou (October) Street toward Loumidis Coffee Shop (106 Aiolou St.), a lovely coffee-maker which has been operating since 1920. Loumidis is a popular coffee brand in Greece and has a number of stores in Athens. However, we didn’t know any of that when we were pulled into the store by the rich smell of coffee. After getting chocolate-covered expresso beans at Loumidis, we turned onto Panepistimiou and walked toward our hotel at Syntagma Square. Along the way, we passed impressive buildings constructed with classic Greek pillars and adornments, including a huge courthouse (the Professional Chamber of Athens), and a famous trilogy of neo-classical landmarks: the National Library of Greece, the rectory of the University of Athens, and the Academy of Athens, all within a few blocks. My favorite discovery is that the Academy of Athens is decorated with owls, the symbol of Athena, goddess of wisdom.
Geri Bain, a widely published travel writer and editor, has written about more than 65 countries. While travel editor at Modern Bride magazine, she wrote an acclaimed guide to Honeymoons and Weddings Away. She is a past president of the New York Travel Writers Association and former editorial director of Endless Vacation magazine.
23-year-old Jenny Keroack, a recent graduate from University of Chicago, has written for The Gate, Observer Tribune and other publications and is now a Senior Analyst at National Journal’s Network Science Initiative.