Greece 2024 Travelogue!

Hellenic Adventure 2024

Me by some historic building ;)

Hey, it’s the Parthenon!

It’s adventure time again, hello all 10 people that read these travelogues. I know some of you cringe a little bit with how seat of my pants I sometimes travel and to you I apologize because this trip has definitely had some of the lowest planning effort of any of them. There were a variety of reasons for this but it mostly came down to not being comfortable booking a trip until the last minute then randomly deciding to go to Greece after flights for my initially planned revisit of Thailand doubled in price. Greece has always been on the list to visit but I’ll be honest this trip basically came down to seeing what was a decent price over a period I could fit between on call weeks and here we are.

So hey, Greece! Souvlaki! Zorba! History! Windex! (scratch that last one, I bought travel health insurance.)

My flight out was actually at a sane hour and included a long enough layover at Pearson that I didn’t have to sprint down the latest convoluted path between domestic and international. I’d been happy to see that my randomly assigned seats had all been acceptable and I didn’t have to shell out extra money for seat selection… was less enthused when I got a text 30 mins before boarding Toronto to Munich that my seat had been changed. It turned out I’d worried for nothing though as I ended up getting moved into Economy preferred for free and had a row of 4 to myself. Always nice for the overseas hop. Turns out the flight was about half empty. I was surprised but I wasn’t going to argue. As usual I didn’t sleep more than a few disjointed 15 minute periods and was running on fumes by the time I made my way through EU customs and over to my next gate.

In the end I didn’t nod off at the gate either, partially through worry they’d change my gate and I’d miss it as the signage/announcements in the area weren’t very good (decidedly un-German of them…) and partially due to the strange man who sat down across from me after about 30 minutes with a large produce bag full of ripe bananas… slowly eating at least 6 of them over a relatively short period of time. Eventually we boarded and again had an empty seat next to me this time, not a bad round of airplane luck.

I’d done enough research to know the cheapest way into town from the airport in Athens was via the subway built for the Olympics. For the record, when available airport trains are the best. Even if you have to take a cab for the final hop you get a nice introduction to the mood of the city you’re visiting. The Athens one is particularly handy as it’s just a spur station on one of the main lines and as such took me straight downtown.

The busy old town neighbourhood not far from my hotel

I was less enthused about my hotel’s directions which basically just said exit at one of these four metro stations then “you can enter off such and such a street or alternatively ‘this other street'” which isn’t the most helpful when it’s a) dark b) greek alphabet signs most of the time c) you haven’t been able to buy a local phone card yet. In the end I bit the bullet and used a day of rogers roaming to get through things. Just as well. Both entrances were terribly signposted, I’ll try to snap a pic when I’m back in Athens later but essentially it was a small van sized archway into a corridor on the right and I just happened to look up far enough at the right moment a scooter went by and illuminated a dirty plastic sign way up on the interior wall. (The gps tried to send me through another business on another block.) Luckily when I found got into that courtyard there was a bright modern sign showing the way to a tiny but sparkling clean hotel with a great location.

Wasn’t expecting to get such a great view essentially just off the plane.

Given that it was about 7pm local at this point and I’d been up something like 32 hours I did the sensible thing and (almost) immediately went out for food knowing that I’d crash when I crashed so fueling up first was the best bet to make that sleep beat any jetlag. I was kind to others and showered off a full day of travel first with a solid 20 minutes under a surprisingly nice waterfall shower but then got dressed and hit the streets. Heading south towards the Acropolis (into what was clearly the happening area) I peered down alleys for likely spots for a bite. Pretty much every cafe I saw was packed and I really wasn’t looking for a big roast meat and potatoes type fill up so when I stumbled across a place called Zeyroun I was sold. I later found it listed in multiple food guides to the city.

It might have been sacrilege to not start out with a greek meal my first night in Athens but instead I had a Zeyroun wrap which reminded me of an Iraqi dish I had once but forget the name of. It was a mildly spicy ground meat and tomato and za’atar blend baked into a crispy flat bread. The cook then freshly resizzled it, threw yoghurt and baba ghanoush and some other goodies on it and brought it out to me at an outdoor counter seat. The flavours were both familiar and exotic and I absolutely devoured it, belately remembering I hadn’t eaten since the overseas flight and not much of that (because Air Canada.)

For the issues I’d had finding the hotel it was immediately clear that I’d have no problems finding my way back as just downhill the cross street turned into a pedestrian only lane that led directly to a view of the fully lit Acropolis and that was was full of people having a fun friday night. My one semester of Russian now coming back to me and helping me decipher the Greek alphabet a bit (cyrillic being essentially a superset of greek iirc) I memorized the name (as most of you know I’m a memorize the map/learn the lay of the land/screw gps person) and set off to explore as long as my fuel lasted.

The tiny Orthodox church surrounded by the pedestrian shopping/eating district.

It wasn’t super long, another two hours I think but I walked up to the lower wall of the Acropolis mount, explored a few snaky lanes and large church plazas and made my way up to the Greek Parliament and watched a changing of the guard. In the main square I listened to two incredibly talented street musicians doing old rock standards then gave into the inevitability of sleep and started heading back only to find one of the best pianists I’ve seen in recent years hammering away on an organ on wheels. Since she was conveniently close to a gelato stand I grabbed a cup and found a step to perch on. Hanging out watching street musicians has actually become somewhat of a trip opening night tradition for me on my travel adventures and this one will be a hard outing to beat.

Still, it was a tired tired traveler who got back to the hotel and climbed into bed after just barely remembering to take off socks and set an alarm for the next morning.

Come morning I made the lovely/terrible discovery that even my little mid tier hotel’s feta was going to make going home to domestic brands very sad. Even for a euro breakfast bar it was a bit odd but delicious proper greek yogurt with drizzle of honey and some granola + some charcuterie was hard to say no to. At some point during the trip I’ll succumb to the lure of an sausage egg mcmuffin though.

While browsing one of the books before getting out of bed I realized I’d inadvertently done the first 3rd or so of Rick Steves’ Athens city walk so after trying and failing (due to shop hours) to get a traveler SIM card for my phone I set out to finish that listening to the guide. While I find Rick’s stuff does lean a bit ‘older crowd’ it was nice to get some cultural background to some of the things I was seeing and I do think his major city/capital guides are great.

This trip took me back down into the plaka ‘old town’ section and along past several churches including the home metropolitan of the Greek Orthodox faith, down to the ruins of Hadrian’s arch and a look through the fence at the remnants of the temple of Olympian Zeus. Several sources had pointed out the view of the latter from the fence line wasn’t much worse than paying the admission and you’d also get a better overhead view of the site from the acropolis.

Athens is kind of shockingly compact, at least in terms of things that appeal to tourists. The fact that most of the history is SO old and that the city dwindled away to relatively nothing for some of the intervening years means almost everything that most people are dying to see is clustered around the Acropolis. I plan to expand my horizons a bit upon my return at the end of the trip but to be honest I didn’t have to do anything but walk until I headed to the ferry terminal to head to the islands.

As I listened to the audio guide I got a better feel for some of the winding lanes I’d traversed the night before and some of the pre-trip neighbourhood discussions felt a bit more real. One of the most interesting was “little Analfi” a tiny neighbourhood built for craftsmen from that island right under the acropolis wall and bearing convincing resemblence to the kind of homes you expect to see in a greek islands setting. Many of these ‘island cottages’ are apparently now owned by well to do Athenians who want a downtown pied-à-terre. Very neat however as at points you’re squeezing in the narrow path between two bright white walls and expecting to walk out into the set of Mamma Mia only to look up and see the Acropolis looming overhead.

Eventually I snaked my way through the market streets and made my way into the Ancient Agora site. It’s a surprisingly small area and almost entirely fully ruined, especially compared to the Roman forum but it was impossible to forget that many of the roots of democracy started where I now standing. (cue Kent Brockman.) Some parts of the area have been reconstructed, others could probably use a little more TLC but with some imagination you could still visualize just how impressive this must have been 2500 years ago.

As I exited the Agora and made my way back to Monastoriki Square I had a decision to make. I was dying to see the Acropolis mount itself but I’d discovered the winter hours were far more limited and I wouldn’t be able to go up just before sunset as I’d hoped. At this point I’d walked a ton already and I’d have to hustle to get to the gates in time to have enough time… add in that fact that I’d have to climb to the top on my defective and tired feets and it felt like a coin flip, but in the end I couldn’t wait. I’ve been wanting to see the Parthenon in person forever and it felt wrong to wait another day.

No doubt the first of many

In relatively recent times most of the roads right around the mount have been converted to pedestrian only pathways and making my way up basically meant passing a giant flea market of vendors and restaurants before reaching the entrance to the ‘park’ itself. I mean you’ve all seen pictures, it’s definitely a bit of a climb (especially for a prairie boy who doesn’t see hills too often) but wow is it worth it. Reaching the Propylaia (entrance gate) was incredibly cool but as I emerged onto the top of the hill and saw the Parthenon and Erekthion I was blown away. This definitely wasn’t one of those ‘man I thought it would be bigger’ moments. I wrote a couple papers on these buildings in university (and the ‘Elgin’ Marbles) and seeing them in person was definitely one of those damned Plamandon life list things I can cross off.

Some famous temple…

As I walked around the site it somehow felt more real than other ancient places I’ve been. You’re walking where some of those big names you learned about in school days actually walked. All of those cobbles are smooth and slippery because people have been coming here for a shockingly long chunk of human history. Even in the dark times for Athens this has been a special place. If only the damned Venetians could have kept from blowing up the Parthenon. I’ll let photos do a bit of talking here as it’s been a few days and the history nerd in me could still go on ad nauseum here. Let me just say that the architecture is still gorgeous and impressive and even the scaffolding and crane of the ongoing restoration didn’t diminish that (though I’ll have to go back and see it again if they ever finish the project.)

As I saw the staff preparing to herd us out at five o’clock I had definitely drunk it all in, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I pay for another admission when I get back to Athens. If nothing else there are some lovely views.

My feet were absolutely done as I made my way down the steps. For those who don’t know my grandmother and mother handed off terrible arches to me to the point where I need orthotics and standing on uneven or hard ground can get pretty excrutiating relatively quickly. The combination of a ton of walking and the rest had left me in need of a rest so I climbed nearby Mars/Ares Hill and sat to watch the sunset. Unfortunately I ended up swarmed by a tour group of elderly folks some foolish guide led up there to repeatedly trip and fall. Regardless we were thwarted by some suspiciously rainy looking clouds rolling in before sunset (this has become a theme.)

Ares/Mars Hill – pre-octonegarian invasion

I’d managed to grab my first (amazing) souvlaki wrap from souvlaki row earlier for lunch so I wasn’t exactly aching for food so I walked a bit further and made my way back to the hotel, had a shower and flaked out for a bit… I just wasn’t expecting to nap quite so hard as I did… which led to me exploring the very cool Psyri neighbourhood for dinner at around 11. I ended up passing an american style barbecue joint and while I rationalized it (correctly it turned out) by imagining I’d have less choice on the islands and might not get a break from greek food for a bit… to be quite honest I mostly just thought the guy on the street eating a brisket sandwich looked like he was really enjoying it. Final verdict was a solid A brisket, the fries were very disappointing though. As a Winnipegger who enjoys his greek burgers and fries back home too much, the fact that most fries I’ve had here have been undercooked and sad is disappointing. Perhaps that was why they only won “11th best” bbq in europe.

The next morning armed with a store address I managed to snag a SIM card and moved back over to the parliament square to see the full changing of the guard ceremony. Honestly while neat it was a bit underwhelming from the distance I had to stand so I ended up leaving before they’d fully cleared the area and made my way to the Acropolis Museum. This is a fairly new museum that contains many of the finds from the mount and surrounding areas and is absolutely fascinating. It’s an interesting combo of finds from around the acropolis and a dedicated geometrically offset floor that does an exact layout of the parthenon, reproductions of the friezes and the pediments and a whole bunch of brit-shaming. I imagine most people are familiar with the Elgin marbles but whatever your feelings about Elgin taking them in the first place being in that lovely gallery with a sightline to their ancestral home it’s pretty clear where they should be now.

Kind of frustratingly because of the limited winter hours I didn’t really have time to fit in another museum that day once I was done. I don’t really get why they chop back from 8-8pm all the way to 9-3:30. Since the changing of the guard was at 11 I couldn’t have really been there any earlier either. At least stay open til 5, it’s not like the rest of Athens seems to do the siesta thing much. In the end I spent the rest of the day doing the entirety of the round the acropolis walk, browsed some shops (though any purchases will wait til I return to Athens) and people watched.

One thing I did love was getting to snag what was apparently one of the best galatabourikos in town. House made phyllo ballooned and filled with rich thick custard. I learned how to make one from dear departed friend Jim Pappas and his wife Barb’s greek cooking class eons ago but it’s kind of a pain to make so it’s been forever. This one was simultaneously flaky and rich and melt in your mouth and I devoured it all. Cheers Jim, thanks for introducing me to this tasty treat all those years ago.

One thing I notice on every visit to Europe and particularly in the mediterranean countries is how many more people smoke than in North America. Greece seems to take it to a new level though with many people seeming to love to stand in a cafe entrance and smoke as though the wind blowing across the square wasn’t just filling my face and ruining my snack. One friend I mentioned to says this will get worse out of the capital as well as enforcement of the indoor ban gets lax.

Dinner on the edge

With that my time in Athens had come to a close (for now.) I’d purposely scheduled a shorter stop up front on the trip knowing I could do some more when I come back for the flight home. For my final meal I climbed back up the hill to a little taverna I’d passed the first night, got a table by the stairs overlooking the old quarter and had a delicious little crock of baked feta smeared all over grilled pita and accompanied by another lemonade with honey and ginger.

I went to bed happy but sadly knowing I had to be up at 5ish to catch the ferry on to my next destination.