7/3/13 - 7/20/13
Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.
Athens, Greece is a city that needs no introduction.
However, in many ways, Athens was quite different than what I had imagined. Dirtier and more covered in graffiti. Although to truly explore a city like Athens takes far more than a single day, I maximized my precious few hours with another private tour. I was especially impressed that the tour company went out of their way to reschedule and be flexible when the cruise ship had a last-minute change in itinerary due to expected protests in Athens the day we were initially scheduled to dock there.
Like all good tours/days/hours should, this one began with coffee. I'm fairly certain that my tour driver was slightly hungover, so he did not complain when I requested to make a quick stop for coffee (and yes, I had already had coffee that morning, but obviously it was not sufficient). Fortunately, being (possibly) hungover did not seem to affect the quality of the tour. And there was coffee. So far, so good. I sipped my gloriously caffeinated beverage as we made our way from the port to the city, which was located a few miles away. As we drove, my tour driver pointed out various points of interest.
The view during the drive from the port of Piraeus to Athens included a beautiful coastline dotted with expensive yachts, made more beautiful by the anticipation of seeing Athens for the first time. One thing to note is that I hired a tour driver, which meant he could not actually come into the historical sights with me. The tour company offered the services of a tour guide for an additional fee. This seemed typical across all tour companies and has something to do with how Athens licenses for tours - one can be a tour driver or a tour guide (who can enter sites), but not both. I thought my tour driver provided plenty of information while driving between sights, which I supplemented at the major sites with previously downloaded walking tours from Rick Steves.
My first stop was the Acropolis. A collection of Classical Greek temples that built in the 5th century BC, the Acropolis was impressive.
Although there were many temples, such as the Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion, the highlight was certainly the Parthenon. I had of course seen the Parthenon in pictures, but I never appreciated the scale of the building until I was standing next to it.
There's even a reconstructed ancient theatre (the Odeon Theatre, I think?) where concerts are still held today. How cool would that be?
Then there was the view. Because the Acropolis was so important to the ancient Greeks, it commanded one of the highest hills in Athens. From there, you can practically see the entire city. And from that perspective, the grime and graffiti so evident from below are non-existent.
The next stop was the Temple of Zeus and the Arch of Hadrian.
I saw the Panathenaic Stadium (incidentally, there seem to be about 5 million ways to spell this, so I just picked one and went with it), which was built for the first modern Olympics (and by modern I mean 1896). However, a stadium had existed on the site for centuries and was where the ancient Olympics were held. The stadium's most recent remodel occurred in 2004, when Athens again hosted the Olympics.
Another stop on my see-as-much-as-I-possibly-can-in-one-day tour was Mount Lycabettus, atop which sits the Chapel of St. George. I didn't walk all the way to the chapel. After all, it is the highest point in an already hilly city, but I did enjoy the incredible view of Athens, including the Acropolis, from partway up the hill. Athens really is best viewed from a hilltop.
Before lunch, we made a quick stop at the Parliament building to see the changing of the Evzones (the ceremonial Presidential Guard unit) in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The uniforms, though unusual, have a long history. They are based on the traditional clothing of the klephts - a people who lived in the mountains and who fought the Ottoman occupation of Greece for generations. Apparently, the soldiers accepted as volunteers for this duty must have a certain, um, physical characteristics. I can personally attest to that.
After a busy morning, I was dropped off at the Plaka to explore on my own.
I found a taverna for a delicious lunch before strolling though the crowded, cobblestone streets.
With something to see around every corner, a couple hours had passed before I knew it. The amazing part is that I actually found my way back to the place where I was meeting the driver. On time. Without getting hopelessly lost. Wonders never cease.
On the way back to the ship, I enjoyed a few, final sites of Athens. And the air conditioning in the car. That was at least one way in which Athens fit my expectations - the ever present and oppressive heat. Despite not being exactly what I expected, I still had a great day in Athens. Getting to finally see a place I have repeatedly imagined visiting is always an incredible experience.
That evening, I had a low key dinner and then, surprise, viewed another incredible sunset. I do not think I could ever tire of sitting on my balcony each evening, watching the day slowly fade into a sky full of stars. Even though the trip brought some difficult moments, I knew my day would end with peace and beauty.
The next day would be the final stop in Greece - Mykonos.