Sunday, April 20, 2014

What to See, Eat and Wear for a Week in Athens in Spring

One more post before we get to a recap of the over-the-top Easter weekend celebrations in Greece!  Rob and I hit the halfway point on our Mediterranean trip in Athens. We started to feel a little worn out, but the vibrancy of the city refreshed us. 
Basics
We couldn't have asked for a better apartment and host than our place found on airbnb. If you go to Athens for a week, I highly recommend staying with Timmi. It's a beautifully designed home in a residentially neighborhood a few miles outside the Acropolis. The subway system is just a few minutes walk away, but we ended up walking everywhere during our stay. You're never more than a block from a cafe, bakery or grocery store in this city. We didn't have any issues with safety or crime at all, despite a couple locals warning us about "immigrants" and plenty of graffiti. As a side note, the Athens airport (domestic at least) is one of the best I've been through.
See
  1. Of course, you have to see the Acropolis! Get the 6-site pass to save some money. You could easily spend a full day at the neighboring Ancient Agora. The Temple of Olympus is another fun one to visit. Lovely neighborhoods for wandering on every side of the hill. 
  2. Ideally, go to the Acropolis Museum before you head up to the Parthenon to have your perception on Greek design completely changed. 
  3. Lycabettus Hill gives you an dazzling 360 view of Athens and the cafe serves some of the best Greek food we've had so far on the trip. 
  4. The National Archeology Museum is another must-see. Spend two hours walking through the beautiful collection of Greek and Egyptian relics. 
  5. Take an improvisational walking tour through the modern center of Athens. See the guards in traditional costumes, stop for lunch at Constitution Square and wander the Central Market. 
  6. Attica Woods is nice, but definitely go to Lycabettus Hill first. 
  7. I really wanted to go to see the Temple of Poseidon on the coast, but we ran out of time. 
Food
I was excited to see the return of the inexpensive sesame pretzels we loved in Istanbul sold on the streets of Athens. Our hosts introduced us to the local Athens brand of dark chocolate that is SO delicious. Try the bar with candied orange peel. The cafe food is all good in Greece - we ate lots of souvlaki (grilled kebabs), sausage skewers, meze platters, tzaziki, cheese pie, spinach pie and greek salads. For groceries, we bought pita bread, fish, rice, tomatoes, cucumbers, feta, olives, plain greek yogurt, bell peppers, muesli and Greek coffee.  

Wear
Athens has stylish people...but still can't really be considered a stylish city. You'll still see lots of younger residents in sweat suits. I do love how the older locals dress in trim tweed suits and hats. I mostly wore dresses and the black pieces from my carry-on bag. The dress below is from Theory, topped with a rayon H&M blouse and a Zara trench coat. My black flat boots were once again the winning shoes since we walked probably about 5 miles a day at least. A couple times I swapped them for black flats if we weren't walking too far. Sneakers and a workout clothes were great for running in the hills. In late April, it was warm enough for a t-shirt in the middle of the day but you needed a couple layers for the evenings. 
Buy
I would have brought a suitcase of that local dark chocolate home if we were flying straight back! You can also find affordable silver jewelry and leather sandals near the Acropolis. For locally-made fashion, check out Depolo. The gift shop at the Acropolis Museum had really nice reproductions of ancient artifacts. 


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Running and Lunching on Lycabettus Hill in Athens, Greece

Before we launch into Easter weekend festivities (and there is plenty to report), let's cover one of the least-planned, best days we had in Athens!

On Good Friday, the weather was clear after a morning thunderstorm and the city was quiet, with most residents headed out to their villages for the holiday weekend. Rob and I worked extra in the morning to prepare for the evening's candle-lit processions. At lunch, we decided to take a run. Since our adventure to the top of Attica Hill was fun, this time we headed toward Lycabettus.
The neighborhood trees are starting to get green. Once we hit the side of the hill, it was all carved limestone steps, wild poppies and twig bridges. You hardly knew you were in the city!

The view from the top was so worth all those stairs!
The tiny church at the top was busy preparing for their Good Friday procession that evening.
We stopped to eat at the more casual of the two restaurants on top of the hill.
The best Greek salad we've had so far and a really tasty kebab too!
We ran back down on the other side of the hill, with a cactus garden.
Stopped for one last view of the Acropoli next to a natural fountain on our way back.
In total, the run was about 3 miles round-trip from our apartment near here, but mostly uphill. A perfect way to spend a relaxed, sunny day in Athens.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Acropolis Museum Changes Everything

We went to the Acropolis Museum yesterday and learned that we've been deceived about ancient Greek design our whole lives...but first things first.  On the walk there, Rob and I stopped into the National Library. A beautiful building, even prettier on the inside. The librarian greeted us and showed us a book from the 16th century, and warned us about immigrants.
Onward! We used another one of our Acropolis passes to stop in at the Temple of Olympian Zeus. So huge and quite dramatic with the stormy skies.

A quick hop over to the Acropolis Museum as it started to drizzle. Our Greek hosts were very proud of this new museum, opened in 2009, and justifiably so. It's very elegantly done.
Rob and I stopped first for lunch in the posh cafe. He had a good stew of fava beans, sausage and fennel. I will never get tired of cheese pie.
Alright, we were fueled up and ready to see some beautiful marble carvings. So far, so good...
Yep, these adorable horses are what we expect...
Wait, what is happening with this statue?
And this one!?
It turns out that most of the Acropolis and its statues were painted with colored wax at the time. Instead of the pristine white marble landscape I imagined, the temple was "colored in" with yellow, blue, red and green. A look that seems much more similar to Chinese religious art to me. I had no idea! Mind officially blown.

The museum also has a good video on the transitions the Parthenon went through in history. It was converted to both a Christian church and a mosque at different points before unwisely being used to store ammunitions and exploded.  At the gift shop, I bought this replica of an ancient clay rattle with a red bow for Easter.








Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Walking Through Athens, Old and New

The main tourist sites in Athens are ancient, but there's a lot to see in this city that blends the modern and the more recently old. Rob and I set out yesterday on a wandering adventure that seemed to give us a look at the "real" Greek capital.
Our destination was the Museum of Contemporary Art. Unfortunately, they're in the process of moving to a new building and the collection was a bit sparse. Still, it felt very much like a place the Wallpaper* Guide to Athens would send you.
All the cement and mirrors made for a good photo backdrop.
From there, we walked through the posh embassy neighborhoods and past the old palace with Evzone guards in traditional uniforms.
We crossed through the National Gardens park across the street and found ourselves at Constitution (Syntagma) Square. We walked up through a store called Public that sells electronics, books and music to find a spot on the Public Cafe balcony. From there, we had a good view of the changing of the guard in front of the Parliament building, the busy traffic and half-empty office buildings.
After lunch, we walked down Ermou Street, one of the main shopping streets with lots of international brands and local cafes. This was a particularly well supplied sesame "pretzel" and donut vendor:
Took a right turn at the Church of Panaghia, one of the oldest churches in Athens to walk through closed pedestrian streets with a mix of trendy new cafes and long-established fabric vendors.
By accident, we wandered into the central market. The meat section is NOT for vegetarians or the squeamish! All kinds of goat and lamb strung up and plenty of active cleavering.
There's a fish market here too. Like many things in Greece, the central market involves a lot of good natured yelling.
On the way home from the market, we walked behind a Greek Orthodox minister for a few blocks. He stopped to look at a vendor's table full of black socks and kept walking. Which then caused a loud, emotional fight as the vendor insisted that the minister take socks for free, and tried to shove them in his bag, and the minister insisted he couldn't. The good natured yelling went on for quite a while...oh, Greece!
Finally, we stopped a cute boutique near the apartment and I bought a striped beach tote to take to Corfu and bought a few syrupy sweet pastries from the bakery down the street.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Running to Attica Woods in the Hills of Athens, Greece

I had an extra amount of work to take care of this morning. We decided to do something low key with our late start in Athens. Rob and I went for a run from our neighborhood, up through steep hills and urban staircases that look straight out of San Francisco. Everyday city life here seems remarkably similar to Greek island village life. Instead of a small white cottage with a garden and a cow, in Athens you have a small white apartment with a balcony garden and a dog. The fragrant orange trees and sidewalk "tavernas" seem the same.
Do I look like a fast runner? I'm definitely not! This is roughly our route to Attica Woods, or Atticus Woods in some translations.

At the top of the mountain, we found a newly installed open air odeon in the carved out rock valley. Open air concerts are held there in the summer and I think this website has more history of the place going back to ancient mythology.
We hiked up a rocky "goat trail" we saw some locals on behind the theater and discovered a gazebo overlooking Athens.
Here's a closer look at that view. Ocean is at the horizon and the Acropolis is the green smudge on the right.
Hiked back down and stopped at a mountain-top cafe. Look at those red roses on the trellis!
Grabbed a seat on the patio overlooking the hillside and ordered a freddo (iced coffee) with milk and medium sugar.
We also ordered what looked likely to be a meze salad plate off the all-Greek menu. The only words in English were "finger foods."  Surprised to receive a plate of grilled shrimp, octopus salad, mussels in tomato sauce, smoked salmon and fried calamari!
All of it was delicious, of course, but I did worry about it being a good meal for a sporty day. It was all downhill on the way back, so no puking up octopus and sweet coffee on the run.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Lunch at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece

It's great to be back in a city for a week. The bustle, shopping and museums are a fun change of pace from the sleepy Turkish/Dodecanese coast. On Monday, Rob and I walked to the National Archeology Museum a few blocks down from our apartment.  On the way, we grabbed a koulouria from a street vendor. The round sesame seed pretzel is almost exactly like the Turkish simit. I wonder which came first?
I considered signing up for a life of museum heists once we walked in to the National Archeology Museum. All the pieces of pottery, gold, stone carvings and metalwork dating as far back as the 6th century BC were beautiful. Here's a plan for reviving the Greek economy: create an artisan network making the lovely designs the country used to produce.
There was a great exhibit on a shipwreck excavated by Jacques Cousteau in the 1970s, including several marble statues that were half-corroded from being burried in silt for thousands of years.
Hello, adorable startled hedgehog.
It took about two and a half hours to walk through the museum at a fairly brisk pace. Since it was a nice day, we opted to eat in the sun at the cafe in the plaza instead of the less expensive basement museum cafeteria.
A stop at the grocery store for supplies on the walk back. I was joking on a conference call last night that this trip really should be called the "Plain Yogurt and Old Rocks Tour" since those two things represent the majority of our experiences!
It's nice to sit in this window office working and watching people walk through the pedestrian plaza all afternoon. That's a video store across the street and it does good business.

Welcome to Athens, Greece! (And My Battle With Ancient Plants at the Acropolis)

Rob and I flew from Kos to Athens on Sunday night. It's only a 30 minute flight and Aegean still manages to serve you free cups of coffee and soft cookies during it...that's service! Our airbnb hosts picked us up at the airport and took us on a tour of their favorite sights by car on the way. All our apartments on this trip so far have been conveniently located, clean and a bit quirky - but this is our first beautiful apartment. Our host is a civic booster who turned her architecture and interior design studio into a rental after the Greek economic crash. It's inspiring to be in an artistic home with a real kitchen and even a tiny garden.
On Sunday morning, we set out to see the Acropolis. A quick 45 minute walk from our apartment to the heart of Athens, with pretty pedestrian plazas.
This photos sums up Athens for me so far: stylish with an edge, four-story tan apartment buildings with balconies, sidewalk cafes, interesting murals/graffiti, shopping and ancient ruins.
We bought the 12 Euro museum pass for six Acropolis ancient sites and hiked up the north slope of the hill, which had the same wildflowers we loved in Kos.
As I quickly found out, some of those lush plants are actually stinging nettle which has no problem making contact through thick black tights. Ow!
As a result, we will forever refer in navigation to the Cave of Apollo as the spot where I took my pants off. Technically, I removed my tights to get to the stings on my knee, but I don't think those tourists on the next mountain could tell the difference. Tights back on, I continued hiking and the burning stopped fairly quickly. Apollo is the god of healing, after all! Finding a wild tortoise also helped:
Lots of tourists at the top of the Parthenon, especially British and American families with small kids and teenagers on school trips. Yes, Rob and I accidentally coordinated our outfits for the day:
The Erechtheion was also a nice sight.
From the top, we had a view of the elegant roof gardens in the Plaka neighborhood, complete with olive trees and swimming pool.
Back down the hill from the Acropolis, we briefly stopped in at the Roman Agora, site of an ancient public restroom. Wandered from there through the antique markets. The combination of Sunday flea market with it being Palm Sunday seemed to make the narrow shopping streets extra busy.
Found a few things we liked, but didn't buy. Rob wanted a vintage motorcycle and I liked a lot of the art.
Snack of warm Greek donuts with honey and cinnamon from a food cart.
Our final sight for the day was the Ancient Agora, a city dating back to the 6th century BC. It's a quiet and green refuge from the bustling heart of Athens.
In addition to the extensive ruins, there's a museum in a restored 2nd BC building with models of the area, statues, vases and interesting pieces of history including the ancient jury selection lottery system and ballots from the ostracism process where citizens voted to ban the least-liked politician from the city for 10 years.
Amazingly, Rob still had a spring in his step after all this exploring!
We walked back home at 6:00 and stocked up from the produce market down the street. I made an authentic Greek dinner of stuffed peppers and a tomato cucumber salad.