athens, greece

After spending two months teaching English at a summer camp in Istanbul, Turkey, we were very ready for a bit of a vacation before returning to Madrid for the school year.  I looked at a lot of options throughout the summer, and finally returned to a version of the original plan I'd hatched up: a couple of weeks in Greece, in particular, the Greek islands.  We knew, however, that we needed to make this a very budget-conscious trip: no infinity pools in Santorini or sunset cruises this time around for us.  

D - Even though the budget was going to be tight, I was super excited about going to Greece.  Ever since watching/reading The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Mamma Mia I've been dying to go.  Would I find love and adventure like Alexis Bledel and Meryl Streep?  Probably, since I would be with Shannon the whole time.  Would I get any magic denim in the mail and/or randomly break into song?  Only time would tell.   

Jokes aside (though c'mon, everybody loves those movies), I was sincerely very pumped.  Anyone who has an Instagram (and I'm sure many more than that) have heard or seen glimpses of Greece's beauty and relaxing atmosphere.  I was ready to kick back and enjoy the sun and fun.  To get myself even more amped up,  I spent the time leading up to the trip listening to classical Greek music on YouTube (basically the sound track to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which I'm pretty sure is my last movie reference about Greece).  

We stayed in Airbnbs about half of the time, and hotels the rest of the trip, pretty much always opting for the cheapest choice.  We did a lot of free things like swimming, exploring towns by foot, hiking, and more swimming, plus we chose a fairly sketchy rental car company on Santorini (I'm fairly sure the car was from the early 90's).  However, we had THE BEST time.  Dare I say, maybe an even better time than the people who spare no expense to stay overlooking the caldera and only eat at the priciest places?  I don't know, but...this trip was one for the books.  

We began in Athens, the capital and largest city of the country and one of the world's oldest as well.  We flew in on a Sunday evening and took the metro from the airport to our Airbnb.  The Acropolis Museum opens at 8am, so we got an early start and arrived there before they  opened - before we had even had breakfast, that's probably the more noteworthy fact. ;)  We didn't see another soul inside, aside from the occasional guard, until we got to the museum restaurant.  I'd read good things online, which was part of the reason we hadn't eaten beforehand.  The views of the Acropolis are pretty top-notch and we were impressed with the food, as well.  It was our first taste of Greek cuisine (in Greece, that is) and we set a high bar for the rest of the trip with the full-cream Greek yogurt topped with fresh fruit and a plate of loukoumades (bite-sized, deep-fried honey puff donuts), that we tried out that morning.  Oh yeah, the museum isn't too shabby either - less than ten years old and full of everything that's been found on the Acropolis site from the Bronze Age to the time of the Byzantines.

D - The artifacts were great of course, but, I mean, those donuts.  Giddy up!

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Very nearby is the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which we opted to view from the outside only.  It was hot, and we were able to see through the metal fencing surrounding the site just fine, so we walked around some of the perimeter before continuing on.  Like most of the ancient ruins we saw in Greece, the temple is truly just that - a ruin.  Hard for me to imagine it as it once was since only 16 of the original 104 columns remain, and none of the roof, but I'm sure it was a sight to behold, especially 2,000 years ago.

D - It was amazing to think about the fact that thousands of years ago, Hercules traveled across many miles and wild terrain to find out who he really was and to find a sense of belonging, singing a Michael Bolton song the whole way (I guess I still had one movie reference inside me after all).  At any rate, it was pretty cool.  

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From the Temple of Olympian Zeus, we walked to and around the historic Plaka neighborhood.  There's colorful houses, cobblestone streets, sidewalk cafes and family taverns, plus the (sorta) famous Plaka steps, where you can grab a table with the steps as your seat to enjoy a drink and a pastry!

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On the edge of Plaka we came to a good viewpoint for the Roman Agora, another place we opted not to go into because we felt we could see it just as well from the outside.  Two thousand years ago, the Roman Agora was the commercial center of the city - now there's mostly just a lot of columns standing tall, the only reminders of what used to be.

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We made our way out of Plaka and into a more modern part of the city, first stop, Metropolitan Cathedral of the Annunciation.  Built from the marble of 72 demolished churches, the cathedral is colorfully decorated inside - our camera really doesn't do it justice! - and hosts important national events such as weddings and funerals.  Next door is the little Church of St. Eleftherios, much older than its neighbor and not open to visitors, but plenty photogenic nonetheless.

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We shared a scrumptious lunch at Avocado, a vegetarian and vegan cafe in the center of Athens.  It was one of those places that by the end of the meal we considered coming back before leaving town, even if it meant going out of our way a little bit.  

D - Someday we'll return to Athens, and when that day comes, I sincerely hope Avocado is on our must-visit list.  Even though I experienced a bit of orderer's remorse after ordering and seeing other plates pass by our table (why did I order spaghetti?!  I don't even really like spaghetti!), I would still highly recommend this amazing restaurant!

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Syntagma Square is Athens' central and most famous square, home to the Old Royal Palace, which has been the country's Parliament Building for much of the last century.  Even though we missed the regularly scheduled changing of the guard ceremony, we did see a  soldier guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier - and he was perhaps one of the more uniquely dressed guards we've seen, with his pleated skirt, white tights, and shoes adorned with pom poms.

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We walked up and down Ermou Street, which begins at the bottom of Syntagma Square, and is a pedestrianized shopping street with international and Greek stores.  We eventually took a seat on the edge of a large fountain not far from the church pictured below, people-watched, and listened to a podcast together (it was this episode of The Daily, the one where the host interviews the son of a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and why he walked away from the white nationalist movement - I'll never forget where I was when I listened to it, as I was so moved by it).  It was hot the whole time we were in Athens, and little breaks here and there, especially those in the shade, were very welcome.  

I'd taken some tips for the trip from this blog post, and our next stop, Pittaki Street, and the very nearby Little Kook Teahouse, were some of those suggestions.  Flags and old lights over the street, gaudy store fronts - these two streets in the Monastiraki neighborhood are anything but ordinary (we didn't stay for long though, and just passed through).  Our final stop in the neighborhood was DaVinci Artisan Gelato, where we shared a very tasty ice cream cone...

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We'd had a sneak peek of the Roman Agora earlier, now it was time to check out the Ancient Agora, our second-to-last stop of the day.  The Ancient Agora of Athens, just like the Roman Agora, was originally intended to be used as a commercial gathering place.  People like Socrates and Plato and their neighbors came here to buy snacks and talk, and now people like us can come and do the same (I didn't see any food for sale though), while walking past the ruins of temples, gymnasiums, libraries, houses, shops, and of course, statues.  

D - Some of the old ruins here are still in reasonably good condition, and they really are incredible.  You can't help but feel very deep and philosophical while standing in their midst.  

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I had read that, in the summer, it is best to visit the Acropolis either first thing in the morning or later on in the day to avoid the harshest and hottest hours of the day.  Since we'd opted to do the Acropolis Museum first thing, and had plans for the next morning, it would have to be a late in the day visit for us.  In Greek, the word acropolis literally means the highest point of a city, which is exactly what the Athens Acropolis is - a high rocky hill above the rest of the city that is home to several ruined buildings including, most notably, the Parthenon, the Theatre of Dionysus, and a few temples.  From what I understand, a good bit of restoration and reconstruction has been done on the remaining buildings, but they don't look totally new and modern to me, which is a win in my book - I like my Greek ruins to look authentic. ;)

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We made another early start on our second day, and were glad we did - we were the first and only visitors to the Panathenaic Stadium for a while.  The original stadium on the site from 330BC was host to the Panathenaic Games, and later rebuilt entirely out of marble and hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896, as well as the more recent 2004 Athens Olympics.  The classically beautiful stadium seats 45,000, and it's not hard to imagine crowds cheering on their team even though we got to experience the place just the two of us, and for while, with a couple of local runners too.

D - It's pretty awesome when, as a tourist, you can have a big touristy site all to yourself.  Naturally, we took advantage and took some fun photos.  After all, it's rare that I can get Shannon to take these types of pictures of me without really embarrasing her.   

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After leaving the stadium, we made a quick stop by Zappeion Hall and the National Garden before we started our walk up Mount Lycabettus.  Rising 300 meters/908 feet above sea level, our motivation to keep on keeping on increased as the quality of the views did.  You can walk to the top, where a restaurant and a 19th-century chapel sit, or take the funicular, but I think walking is worth it as the views and foliage change with every switchback.  We could see the nearby Athenians with pools on their roofs, the slightly more distant Panathenaic Stadium, where we had just been, and out past Athens, the sea - a hint of what was to come for us very soon. :) 

D - Another advantage to walking: we were nearly all by ourselves again, some of the only ones out on the path in the hot morning sun.  

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We ate a cheap and tasty lunch at Falafellas, a restaurant with a tiny storefront that commonly has impressively long lines and always serves cheap, overflowing pitas stuffed with falafel (or meatballs, you choose) and a load of fillings.  We also grabbed a koulouri, the Greek version of simit - simply a ring of bread sprinkled with sesame seeds - at Karaiskaki, a traditional bakery that is the supplier of most of the koulouri stands in town.  Believe it or not, I think we finished our koulouri and said we preferred Turkish simit!  

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Our final stop, aside from the ice cream we ate at Ice Queen Gelato, a place with lots of options for almost everything, from vegan flavors to Belgian waffles and even free tap water (not a common thing in Europe and definitely worth mentioning!), was a church across the street from our Airbnb.  We never caught the name, but stopped in on our way back before calling it a day, and getting ready to fly to our first Greek island early the next morning.    

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Athens was a good way for us to begin our Greek adventure.  The sights are historic and some are especially beautiful, but I think that ancient ruins just aren't my very favorite thing to see when traveling, especially when they're quite ruined.  I discovered that when we went to Rome (many of the sites were more destroyed than I was ready for), so I think I was better prepared for Athens, but still.  We preferred our time on the islands over Athens, and since we'd both rather end things on a high note, it worked out well that we chose to spend time in Athens first rather than last.  On to Crete!