Many people associates Greece with a lot of beautiful islands, sailing trips, many beautiful beaches, or even the major economic downturn of the country. For me, growing up reading Greek mythology to the point that I can remember more or less all characters in the stories, I have always have pictured the country with Ancient Greek temples and cities. Athens, as a result, has always been on my list as a must-visit in my travel list for the longest time.
First glimpse – is this really Europe?
Traveling to Greece during the Covid Era is not very easy. As of this time, a lot of countries are tightening their borders in response to the second wave that started hitting neighboring countries. For example, a PCR test is required before entering Greece, if you come from certain countries. Luckily, I am flying from Hungary, which has very low number of cases currently – and hopefully this continues.
Getting to Athens is not very easy as other European Union countries. While majority of the countries are accessible by train, bus, and plane, Athens, being nearly landlocked, it is only accessible by air – which can be very pricey. As I land in Greece, I clearly see why there are so many islands and warships in in the Greek mythology. It is clear that there are many islands and vast sea in this country.
I was very glad to find that Uber is available in the city, and, more surprisingly, I found that the taxi driver is very fluent in English – much more than any other cities I have visited so far. However, upon reaching the Airbnb location, which my friend booked for both of us, I started to have a question – is this really Athens? Am I really in Europe?
The opposite side of my apartment is a very local-looking shisha café with coffee, beers, and all. There is also a small convenience store / supermarket right next to my place. The most alarming part is that the people are all immigrants (e.g., Middle Eastern, Africans, etc.). I feel like I’m more in the Middle East than Greece to be honest. However, all was fine. I was very well treated at the shop and managed to check-in and walk around safely.
National Garden of Athens
On the first day after my arrival in Athens, I decided to start with a very relaxing morning walk in the National Garden. Although I really enjoy walking in a garden generally, the weather in Athens at the time was so warm and humid (and I’m Thai!) that I need to walk briskly to see everything before finding some shades. There are two things that I really like about the garden nevertheless. The first thing is the bust of famous people scattering in the garden. To this day, I still don’t know who they are (and I’m also too lazy to research), but, in my opinion, it’s a very “Greek” thing to have the busts rather than full-form statutes – for whatever imaginative reason. Another part that I like is the Zappeio Hall, which sits right behind the garden. The great big yellow hall has a nice fountain and lawn in front, and they make the overall picture very photogenic. It’s also somehow amusing that there is a cinema right beside the hall – very random thing to have just right beside the national hall.
After an hour walk around the garden, I’m ready for my first breakfast in Athens – McDonald’s. I tried to walk around to find a good local place, but somehow I just craved fatty and junky food at the time. But it’s also a good time-saving meal I guess…
After a quick meal, it’s time to explore the Plaka – a neighborhood / shopping streets along the hillside of Acropolis. It really gave me a similar vibe to Chatuchak (if you know Bangkok / Thailand well) – only more photogenic and has a lot of artworks for sale. The Plaka has a lot more to offer than just shops and restaurants though. As I walked around, I found ruins, churches, and a big cathedral, which apparently has a massive funeral on that day. The most important thing, for me, though, is the oldest distillery in Athens (and second in Europe) – Brettos.
Majestic cathedral near Plaka
Can't help it - I just loveeeee cats
Situated in the busy Plaka, Brettos is a bar that sells its own alcohols ranging from a wide selection of wines to liquors / digestifs – and, of course, Ouzo and Tsipouro. Upon entering, or even walking by, you can see rows of colorful bottles of alcohol, each represent different types of liquors from limoncello to different grades of Ouzo – all grape-based.
As an alcoholic myself, I was automatically drawn to this place – like an invisible force was pushing and pulling me into this bar (on top of my friend’s recommendation). The first thing I tried was a glass of its best quality ouzo, with 5 distillation and 50% alcohol. Unlike typical high-alcohol content drinks that is unpleasantly sharp, this ouzo is very smooth and soothing. I also tried the lower-grade ones, and decided that, with only marginal difference, I would rather enjoy the top-quality 😊
National Archeological Museum of Athens
There are two major museum in Athens – National Archeological Museum of Athens and the Acropolis Museum. The first is a giant museum exhibiting numerous archeological artefacts, artworks, and vase from centuries of Greek history in chronological order. I really adore the fact that the museum has titbits of Greek mythological stories here and there around the museum – especially around the pieces that mythological figures are involved. I remembered being very excited by my own ability to actually recognized certain figures on 2,000+ year-old vase or paintings.
The Clumsies – 6th Best Bar in the World
Despite knowing that Athens is one of a very famous tourist destinations, I didn’t expect at all the Athens houses two of the top 10 bars in the world (while Bangkok has none). After finishing a nice (and cheap) dinner, we went on the explore the Clumsies following my friend’s recommendation. I was surprised upon seeing the menu that the place is actually one of the 6th best bar in the world! On top of that, one of its signature cocktails was named the best cocktail in the world!
It lives up to the standard in nearly almost every possible way. The bar has a very classy and nice atmosphere with trees and outdoor seating. The staff were very friendly with knowledge of their drinks. Last, but most important – the cocktails were spectacular! They are beautiful, smooth, silky, yet complex, and with no trace of alcohol.
Acropolis Museum is by far better than National Archeological Museum in my opinion. I think this is mostly because of my love for Greek mythology, and the museum itself is full of the mythological figures and stories. The Acropolis Museum hosts a large collection of statues, artworks, and artefacts from the Acropolis themselves. I was blown away by the size and intricate details of all the ancient artworks that precede any popular religion exists these days. In my mind before visiting the museum, I expected the Parthenon to be just a normal Thai-temple size, but the Parthenon shown to me in this museum is twice or thrice as large!
One of the biggest surprises I have experienced in Greece is the fact that one of the best restaurants in town, and my best meal in Athens, is a Peruvian-Japanese (aka Nikkei) restaurant. It is definitely a very fancy place with reservation required despite the Covid situation. Upon entering, we were greeted to seated with a dedicated waiter for the night. The food menu initially looks like a typical Japanese food with an addition of seviche. However, once the food arrived, I understood completely why the it is one of the best. Despite the size of dishes being very small comparing to the price point, the dishes were perfect – especially the ceviche and the scallop fusion sushi. I guess it is the blend of spices used in Peruvian gourmet and the freshness of Japanese cuisine that made the dishes so delicious.
After a few cocktails at the restaurant, I went back home to enjoy some Ouzo and Limoncello bought from Brettos. We finished nearly 400 ml of 40% alcohol in one night and ended with some impromptu karaoke using an app from my phone…
Temple of Zeus
Temple of Olympus Zeus is the biggest ancient Greek temple out there – no surprise as Zeus is the king of all Greek gods. However, it is not situated on the Acropolis and apparently not as popular place for visitors. There were less than 20 people when we were there. I guess this is also because there isn’t much to see apart from what is left from various invasions – columns of the temple…
Walking Tour: Acropolis – Diff between normal guide and archeologist
A visit to Athens could not be completed without a walk around Acropolis. My friend managed to book a private guided tour for the entire Acropolis as well as the Ancient Agora of Athens. As the guide introduced herself, I already had a hunch that the tour would be great as she is an archeologists with experience digging around Acropolis professionally. The only other occasion I have had an archeologist guide for a historic place is when I visited Angkor years ago.
The walk started with a visit to a large ancient amphitheater dedicated to Dionysus. I was surprised also to learn of how Dionysus becomes the god of acting and play, whereas, for the longest time, I have always thought of Apollo as the god of all forms of arts and entertainment. According to my guide, it is said that Dionysus had to hide himself from the wrath of Hera by disguising himself as a nymph – dressing up as a girl – hence he is a god of acting. Interesting heh?
As we reached the top, it was quite interesting to see that while the biggest temple is dedicated to Athena, there are two more small temples at the peak as well. The first is dedicated to Nike, the goddess of victory, and so-called “Athena’s best friend”. Another one is more interesting and is a temple dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon. According to mythology, the naming of the city was pretty much a challenge between Poseidon and Athena. The temple was built to signify or to forge a friendship between Athena and Poseidon. No wonder the Athenians didn’t get completely killed by flood…
Parthenon was impressive even without all parts reinstalled. Having visited the Acropolis Museum before, I was able to clearly see how the temple would have looked like years ago. I am also pleasantly surprised to hear that the temple is being reinstalled to its original condition. I’m so looking forward to coming back and visit the place again once it is fully “back to life”.
Ancient Agora is something I would never thought of visiting unless I was taken there by a guide. There are two ancient agoras in Athens – Roman and Greek (Athenian). The one that we visited and has more stories was the Greek one. The agora is a combination of a town center, a square, and a market place. Nowadays, we can only see columns or the just the base of the columns and floor. Back then, it has multi-stories buildings that house shops, an “entertainment” building, and of course, multiple temples of numerous gods – Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus to name a few.
Hephaestus Temple was the only temple that remains more or less intact. In fact, it is the best-kept ancient temple there is. You can still see all the sculptures and the intricate details even though the temple is 2,000+ years old. By far, this is my most favorite temple in the entire trip.
There is a very interesting story of how the invaders came to Athens and “cleaned up” the entire agora, but once the troop approaches Hephaestus Temple, it retreated before having a chance to destroy it. No one knows to this day the reason why they retreated. Maybe it is because the mutual respect for the god? Maybe it was because of some superstitious signal? No one knows…
That’s a wrap of my Athens trip. It was short and sweet. I at times felt like a nymph in a fairy land (as Cicely Tyson once said). I surely hope to be able to sink deeper into the history and tales of the ancient Greek, but I guess that’s for my next time visiting this lovely city.