Have I over used the phrase ‘surprise delight’ lately? Too bad, because Athens was a surprise delight. A few years ago Jeff and I had a long layover in Athens, just long enough to gaze up at the Acropolis and eat a sad, overpriced tourist lunch. Our impression was that Athens is a crowded, ill managed, and chaotic city with lots of concrete and little charm. I suppose that the aforementioned disses hold true, but we were unexpectedly delighted by our time in Athens on this trip. Perhaps we just needed more than 5 hours to escape the city’s (admittedly hellish) tourist gauntlets and soak up some of Athen’s grittier urban charm. My sister Callie joined us for the Greek part of the adventure, and having another human around for our adventures was a real treat.
The Kipsali Neighborhood
We stayed in Athen’s Kipsali neighborhood, which certainly helped to revise our opinion of Athens. Kipsali was developed in the 1930s with apartment buildings to house middle class Athenians. The area was booming and heavily developed up until the 1960s, when some fairly ugly but not unforgivable buildings were constructed. During the 1980s most of the original middle-class occupants of the neighborhood moved to the Athenian suburbs, and the area fell into disrepair. Google ‘Kipsali’ and you’ll find TripAdvisor threads asking ‘Is it safe?’ and lots of negative comments about ugly commercial buildings, graffiti, and immigrants (mainly African and Arab). So basically, Kipsali is just our kind of neighborhood. We found some phenomenal restaurants, cafes, and bakeries in the neighborhood and we got a taste of a ‘real Athenian’ neighborhood. There are interesting sidewalk joints, old-school businesses from the 1930’s, and yeah, maybe a few crackheads, but just avoid Pedion Areos park at night and you’ll love Kipsali.
We did a free walking tour of Athens with a comically English chef-slash-tour guide named Martin, and he showed us all the best spots in central Athens to eat and explore. Although the downtown area is clogged with more tourists than you can possibly imagine, there are some surprisingly pleasant spots to have a quiet moment. Martin took us to the Pnyx, a rocky hill near the Acropolis where ancient Athenians gathered to debate issues on the ‘bema’ (speakers platform) and hold public votes. Athenian assemblies were held here as early as 500 BC, and this is basically the birthplace of the concept of democracy. The Pnyx had a very mystical and special presence, and the stunning views over the city and up to the Acropolis were pretty nice too.
Martin’s walk included more ancient sites than I care to bore you with, but a few were particularly interesting. My favorite site is a small and seemingly unimpressive building called the Tower of the Winds. Built between 200 and 50 BC, the octagonal tower has eight sundials and was the first public clock tower. The top of the tower is a weathervane, so ancient Athenians could tell which way the winds were blowing and predict weather patterns. The coolest part, however, was a mysterious water work that archeologists have now deduced was a water clock so that time could be kept at night. It amazes me that an ancient city had such a strong insistence on access to knowledge for its’ citizenry, and it highlights what a special place Athens held in the ancient world.
Oh, and the Acropolis! The site was C-R-O-W-D-E-D, but we did a ‘skip the line’ tour to visit the Parthenon and Acropolis hill and it was the right choice. Our tour guide Evita was a sweet archeology teacher who gave us a lovely overview of the site and we really enjoyed what could have been the hottest and ickiest part of our time in Athens. Much like Ankor Wat in Cambodia or the Pyramids in Egypt, the Acropolis was crawling with visitors, but somehow these monuments are so special that the crowds and chaos don’t detract from the experience. It seems like the opposite should be true, but I’ve found that when you’re seeing something truly amazing it doesn’t really matter if there are 10,000 Americans from the mid-west wearing baseball hats and Nike sneakers (re: images below).
So there is yet another surprise delight from our adventures. We expected to hate Athens and be murderous over the crowds, but it turned out to be a surprisingly pleasant high point of the trip. Athens is gritty and crowded, but it really does have urban charm when you spend time getting to know it. After 5 days in Athens we bid adieu to Athens took the train up the coast north to our next stop – Thessaloniki.
But first, let’s do an Athens Special Feature – Cats of Greece
Cats of Greece
Much like our beloved Lebanon, Greece is crawling with furry friends. I mentally add like 10 minutes to the time it will take us to walk anywhere in Greece because there will be so many cats that need to be greeted along the way.