City postcard: Athens

Any mention of Greece, to most people, tends to provoke jealous looks from wannabe-honeymooners to the country’s party islands or conjures up memories of ancient myths involving gods like Zeus or Apollo,. Not knowing much else apart from the above, I was prepared for anything at my first visit to the Mediterranean as I arrived exhausted to the Athens International Airport on a Friday night. Incredibly thankful for Greek hospitality, I stumbled into my host’s Nadin’s car and immediately noted the raised volume of conversations around me. The classically loud Mediterranean temperament was a sure sign that I was, indeed, in Greece.

As I only came armed with an outdated 2004 Lonely Planet guidebook, having a Athenian native to show me around was an invaluable asset due to the city’s vibrant, historical but yet messy nature: as one of the oldest cities in the world, Athens may be described as a city that is, on one hand, is almost obsessed with preserving its rich ancient roots but on another, is trying to look forward. History and modernization jostle alongside each other here as ruins and grand five-star hotels stand close by in the central district of Syntagma, while its most famous tourist attraction the Athenian Acropolis now has its story chronicled in the surprisingly futuristic concrete and glass building of the New Acropolis Museum.

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It was thus not surprising to find evidence of ancient Athens everywhere we went. We drove up Mount Penteli, one of the Athens’ four mountains, on our first day to catch a glimpse of the devastation caused by the recent bush fires. Our dismay at the landscape of burnt shrubs, supposedly the work of arsonists, was however remedied by the discovery of an ancient spring, said to be the old home of a now-gone hermit, that still provided water for passing travelers. More driving around also revealed the abundance of aged white-wash stone-walled churches scattered around the central and suburban areas, symbols of Greece’s strong adherence to orthodox Christianity.

A night out that Saturday evening revealed the Greeks’ capacity for partying, and partying hard: dinner doesn’t start till 9pm, with taverns staying packed till as late as 1am, while clubs only start to bustle at two in the morning. Finding myself in a bar in the fashionable Kolonaki district that night, the atmosphere was bubbly, the room packed with schmoozing men and women with bleached-blonde hair, and cocktails passed freely around. When we finally left at three in the morning, it was clear that we were one of the first few to leave.

The next day begged for a trip to the city centre for a cup of coffee, a pastime well loved by the Greeks. The practically designed, sandy-colored buildings and shop fronts paled in contrast to the grandeur of the ruined structures scattered around, but nonetheless housed many quirkily designed cafes good for long afternoon chats. Observing the street over our lattes, it was curious to see how the country was gearing up for its elections. Greeks love talking about politics, I was told, something I realized when a taxi driver asked me what the political structure was like back in my home country Singapore. With Greece’s elections due to be held over the next weekend, huge posters of the Greek prime minister (who was tipped to lose) were plastered over most billboards, political parties held radio shows and gave out pamphlets around the central square. We had dinner that night at Savvas, an eatery along a busy street in Monastiraki famous for affordable souvalki, a type of grilled meat dish usually paired with Greek salad.

Keen to visit the touristy areas that Athens is known for, a trudge up the marbled stones to the Acropolis, smooth and slippery after years of use, did not disappoint. What remained of the Temple of Athena, its detailed architecture and the scenic views it provided, was a throwback what Athens’ glorious days might have looked like although the many construction cranes and materials littered around slightly marred the experience. Reconstruction had started as long ago as she could remember, according to Nadin, and by the looks of things was unlikely to be finished any time soon.

Our remaining time was spent mainly outside the capital, namely up in the mountains in Delphi and away at the island of Aegina. Delphi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the former home of the Delphi Oracles, housed the ruins of what used to be the Temple of Apollo, a gymnasium and theatre among other structures. Climbing among the ruins, we were rewarded with a breathtaking view of the Plestios Valley and were reminded of the importance of the pagan gods to the ancient Greeks, given the many journeys they made to this out-of-the-way site in order to seek spiritual direction.

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Time constraints meant that island hopping was not feasible and so we had to make do with a day-trip to Athens’ closest island, Aegina. An island famous for its pistachios, I was convinced there and then of Greece’s status as a prime honeymoon spot. Filled with lazy cafes, breezy streets and hole-in-the-wall shops, Aegina’s laid-back atmosphere made it difficult to pry ourselves away from there to return to the city,

Most travelers appear to spend only as much as a day in Athens, preferring instead to jettison around Greece’s many islands. A still-evolving city, it is easy to only see Athens in terms of what it used to be due to its less-than-pretty architecture and backward-looking tendencies. But with a local help, its history, people and culture came together for me to become more than a mere sightseeing experience.


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