Naturally, I was psyched when some friends of ours invited us to go along on their trip to visit relatives in Athens, Greece. This was an especially rare opportunity since one of them actually spoke Greek. In hindsight, had we gone to Rome with someone who spoke Italian, we might still be welcome there today.
So without hesitation, we took them up on their invitation and, before we knew it, we were on our way. Thirteen uncomfortable hours later, we stumbled out of the airplane, and into the past.
Athens, Greece is a very big city.
It’s also a lot like Rome in that the city’s infrastructure is — and I say this without the slightest hyperbole — freaking ancient.
Still, there’s a real discontinuity between the ancient and the modern here. For example, while Genetically Modified Organisms (or GMOs) are strictly forbidden, almost everyone smokes. Not only that, but cars and mopeds pump out more deadly toxins than Keith Richards during a blood transfusion. In fact, fruit from the city’s citrus trees is so polluted you’d be better off eating a chunk of sidewalk.
But the key point to remember is that Athens, Greece has been a major city slightly longer than LA has—about 3000 years longer.
So you have to cut Athens some slack in certain areas — like indoor plumbing. Thanks to pipes that predate the wheel, you can’t flush toilet paper without backing up the sewer system for two city blocks. Instead, you simply put your used TP in a little covered garbage can.
And Athens’ advanced age also makes trying to find your way around by car an act of futility, and very possibly, insanity.
Roads constantly change direction or name or both, without any advance warning. Street signs are infrequent at best, and misleading at worst. They either preempt intersections by such a large margin that you turn too soon. Or there’s no sign at all and you miss the turn entirely.
Luckily, you can get around Athens, Greece without a car; most of the sights the average tourist wants to see are conveniently located within a few city blocks.
But walking around Greece isn’t as healthy as it sounds. Tiny cars, mopeds and bicycles are everywhere, tearing through streets, alleyways, even driving on sidewalks. I almost got hit by a Smart Car coming off an elevator.
Despite their small size, European cars are just as dangerous as big cars, maybe more so, because big cars, you can see coming from a mile away. Whereas tiny cars look like they’re farther away than they really are. Stay on your toes, or you’ll get ‘em run over.
Frankly, when you combine Athens’ civil engineering schizophrenia with a citywide disregard for traffic law, you’ve got a powerful argument for public transportation.
Comparatively speaking, the Athens Metro rail system was the epitome of order and tranquility. It took us to all the major sights, restaurants and everywhere else we wanted to go, with a minimum of hassle, waiting or urine smell.
Outside many of the archaeological sights we visited, we browsed thousands of restaurants. To choose among them, our friends got restaurant recommendations from the locals wherever they could. And from those meals, we were able to make a few observations about Greek cuisine.
As the world’s largest producer of olives, it’s no surprise that the olive oil figures heavily in Greek dishes. And I do mean heavily — we sucked up more oil in those two weeks than the EPA did cleaning up after the Exxon Valdez spill.
But olive oil wasn’t the only thing flowing freely at meals. The Greeks don’t skimp on the Ouzo, either. An anise-flavored liquor that supposedly dates back to ancient times, Ouzo is Greece’s National drink, and they have it with every meal except breakfast when they have beer.
Much to our surprise, Greek restaurants served, almost exclusively, foods grown and produced within their own borders. And while that assures that you get fresh ingredients, it also assures that you won’t get a decent burrito.
Like In ‘N Out Burger, the Greeks stick to what they do best. Menus consisted of pretty much the same 20 traditional items. Dishes like Moussaka, Souvlaki, Pastitsio, giant beans, feta salad, fried potatoes, and fried cheese, for example. All delicious, certainly, but if you want Szechuan or sushi, you’re SOL.
The changing of the guard, Greek-style.
We first visited Parliament building to see the changing of the guards. This periodic ritual is reminiscent of London’s changing of the palace guards, only with fewer guards and much smaller hats.
In the Greek version, two guards do a slow-motion, goose-step towards their replacements, extending their fluffy, pom-pom-toed shoes high for all to see. On the surface, we weren’t sure how all this pomp and circumstance provided any real security for government officials, nor how the 13-million surrounding pigeons figured into the ceremony.
But then, Greece is full of unexplainable attractions. Another such mystery we experienced was the “Lake of the Cave Valley,” a weird natural spring surrounded on three sides by a sheer rock cliff 50 meters high.
The water is believed to have the power to rejuvenate the old, the infirmed and, judging from the elderly patrons, the obese, too. There is a roped-off swimming area, but no one really swims as much as they just soak and get all wrinkly. Okay, even more wrinkly, if that’s possible.
Truly, the Greeks do things their own unique way.
The Acropolis is still incredible.
After a good night’s rest, we made a beeline to the Acropolis the next morning. “Acropolis” in Greek means “high city,” and it’s where we got the term, Acrophobia, which means the fear of heights. Considering that the Acropolis rises 500-feet above sea-level and is visible from nearly anywhere in Athens, the term was well-chosen.
The Acropolis is, more importantly, where you’ll find the world famous Parthenon — considered “the most perfect Doric temple ever built.” Completed in 432 BC and dedicated to the Goddess Athena, this epic temple was converted over the centuries into, among other things, a Christian church, a Latin church, a Muslim mosque, a Turkish ammo dump and, ultimately, a tourist attraction.
Sadly, this once-impressive marble marvel is no longer the testament to an advanced civilization that it once was. Mostly intact until a dynamite mishap by occupying Turkish forces, the Parthenon is now a mere shadow of its former glory. Its few remaining upright columns hint at an architectural genius and aesthetic style rivaled only by Las Vegas casinos.
Hate crowds? You’re not going to like the Agora.
From the Acropolis, we could see the nearby public square known as the Roman Agora. This public plaza provided citizens with a wide open space where crowds could gather to discuss issues of the day, such as what to call people who had a phobia about the Agora.
Of course, there’s more to Athens than the many structures surrounding the Acropolis. To take in more of this timeless city, we hopped onto a Hop-on/Hop-off city bus and hopped off at a few other sights such as the National Archaeological Museum.
This comprehensive museum was overrun with significant sculptured figures, busts, vases, adornments, and tools from antiquity. Carved of everything from marble to gold. The art was more amazing when you consider that none of it was done with 3-D modeling software.
We could have spent a lot more time exploring this amazing city, but we didn’t want to blow our whole vacation learning.
In the final analysis, Athens, Greece is great.
We had a great time in Greece. The country was beautiful. The food was delicious. The weather was close to ideal. And the people couldn’t have been nicer (we asked).
Sure, there were similarities between Greece and other European countries we’ve visited — their ancient culture; their tiny cars; and their obsession with the World Cup — but language isn’t one of them. While Italian can be deciphered through a cursory knowledge of Spanish or French (and vice versa), Greek requires a working knowledge of the Enigma decoding machine.
Regardless, Greece is its own country, rich with its own unique heritage, architecture, art and language. So it’s easy to see why they’d be reluctant to forfeit all that in the name of tourism. Sure, there are easier European countries to visit, but certainly none more worthy of visiting than Greece.