Seeing the Acropolis for the first time, even from a distance, was an awesome sight. Hugh Leonard, the playwright, once likened it to catching the first glimpse of Chartres Cathedral from five miles away, “sailing on the wheat fields like a leviathan.” If you have had that pleasure, as I have, you know the awe the Acropolis inspires. It seems eternal, as perhaps we all yearn to be.
Every city has its familiar-seeming boutique and flagship hotels, chic shopping areas, contemporary restaurants, etc. Athens is no exception. But Athens is also exotic, as is the rest of Greece, starting with the unfamiliar alphabet, and also due to the fact that Greece is really not part of Europe, not in temperament and sensibility and character.
We stayed at the Grand Bretagne, definitely a flagship, but a little over the hill, I thought. One of its best things was its bookshop. (I found John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium there, which I never knew existed.)We did have a quiet room, with lots of fresh air, on the courtyard.
The hotel also had a beautiful location, right on Syntagma Square, with views of the classical Vouli Parliament building, guarded by the evzones, those guards dressed in white tutus and pointed red slippers.
In my opinion the food and the dining room left a lot to be desired. However, after a breakfast of sliced oranges, fresh melon, and FABULOUS creamy yoghurt with honey, I almost changed my mind.
Better bet for YOUR trip would be the St. George on Lycabettus Hill, a fascinating part of town. Up on the other hill of Athens, it offers large rooms, with good views, (you can stare at the Acropolis all day long from the lobby lounge) and a rooftop restaurant. It’s my kind of place, with decent prices for a “luxury boutique Hotel.”
In Athens, we were tourists and enjoyed touristy things, like walking up to the Acropolis as early in the morning as possible, not nevertheless avoiding the thousands of tourists who decided to visit this Mecca at precisely the same time. It was a difficult walk up, and very hot. stayed just long enough to admire the magnificent work of the ancient architects, and came back to sit under a tree.
Later in our journey we were to get a striking view of the Parthenon and the entire Acropolis from our dinner venue, again full of tourists, but also full of life (in a rather refined way) and VERY good food. It was a restaurant called Dionysus, and I would go there again, even though I confess to being a travel snob, just to have the floodlit Parthenon as a dinner companion. .
My favorite place in Athens was the Benaki Museum, just three blocks from our hotel, up past the Parliament, in the Kolonaki district, where chic shops abound. Housed in an elegant Neo-Classical mansion, which was once the home of the Benaki family, the collection contains a diverse array of Greek arts and crafts, paintings and jewellery, local costumes,(which are extraordinary) and political memorabilia which provide an intimate history lesson.
This intriguing place has an added feature, a most pleasant café on the top floor, which has a terrace with gardens and a view, as well as a good lunch menu. We enjoyed our lunch and contemplated what we would purchase from the unusual gift shop.
A friend who lives in Athens told me that the Cycladic Art Museum also has an excellent collection, plus a good restaurant.
We had a very special treat while we were in Athens, which was to attend a service at St. Paul’s Anglican church. It is a sweet, early Victorian Gothic church, which was dedicated in 1843. It is very near to the Grand Bretagne, right across the street from the National Gardens.
The Rev. Canon Malcolm Bradshaw, Senior Chaplain, conducted a special service for us pilgrims. The church strives to meet the needs of local Anglicans, which means that here one meets other English speaking Athenians, and also ministers to travelers, students, and other wanderers. would definitely attend services here again, on my next trip. The weather in Athens is so good that they regularly have coffee hour in the garden!
While in Athens we had the thrill of a day’s journey out on the first peninsula that makes up the Peloponnese, taking us to Corinth, Mycenae, and Epidaurus. These are three major historic sites.
On the way out of town, we stopped at the remarkable Corinth Canal, on a perfectly glorious day. Corinth itself is a typical little white town with lots of tavernas. It is the location of the beautifully situated remains of a Temple to Apollo.
The countryside between Corinth and Mycenae was the most attractive I had seen, with olive and pistachio groves, tall cypress trees, and simple country houses. The country road we followed was route E65, and it goes through the Gorge of Dervanakia, where a monument to a hero the Greeks love, Kolokotronis, stands.
Mycenae, a late Bronze Age citadel, with a huge royal beehive shaped tomb, features a large acropolis with the famous lion gate. The best lunch we had was nearby at a touristy looking restaurant called Kolizeras. We had a huge delicious meal for about $10.00.
Our last stop this day was at the breathtaking Epidauraus,the best-preserved ancient theatre. In very wild country, this massive marvel is quiet and peaceful, with fabulous views from the top, where you must go in any event, to appreciate the incredible acoustics.
Athens has been a city for 3500 years. So I guess it will still be there when I make another trip. I wanted to go back before I left.
Betsy Shequine wonders if a few more trips to Greece would give her a ZORBA attitude.