The history of the civilized world begins here in Athens, Greece. From the most widely photographed site - the Acropolis, to the Arch of Hadrian and all sites in-between, Athens has its own unique flavor that as a visitor you will either love or hate. Keep in mind when visiting this Mediterranian culture that things are different here than in most large Western European cities. The streets are more crowded with traffic, the subway system is still being completed, and the pet population is overflowing in the streets(rather sad to a dog lover as myself). But the people are friendly, the food was good and the cultural experience was exciting!
The new airport in Spata (Athens International Airport)opened very recently. When the new roads are finished it will be about 40 minutes from downtown Athens but right now it is a little over an hour. This airport has been under construction for 30 years but the roads still are not completed. It should all be done for the Olympics in 2004 but for now there will be a lot of traffic and road construction. I would still suggest taking a taxi from the airport to the city center. It will give you the opportunity to see the city as you make your way along the route. Taxi should cost less than $20 US 9although everything now is paid in Euros. We found this was very easy, taxi drivers spoke English and did not overcharge.
When I was in Greece two years ago one wouldn't have considered taking the Metro since there were only a few stops that operated. Today progress and the slow archeological underground digs are a thing of the past as Athens now has its own rail transportation system. It is true that not all the stops are open yet but the tunnels, stations, trains and decor are state of the art. No where else in the world can you see magificent works of art while waiting for the train! The Syntagma Square station is the crowning achievement in the marriage between high-tech transport and archaeology. You walk down some marble steps and find yourself in a modern universe. The tickets are sold to your right or by self service machines. Escalators transport you down to the lower lobby and the trains. To the right, on the balcony that surrounds the lower lobby encased in glass is the stratified excavation where you can see artifacts from different periods of Athenian civilization from Byzantine through Roman to classical Greek, and pre-historic. There is a grave, cisterns, portion of a wall, an ancient road, clay drainage pipes, etc. All this and transportation too! There are three lines, blue, green, and red. Be sure and check before boarding to see how far your line goes through the city.
The action takes place in the center of Athens but we found ourself wanting to be a bit removed from all the noise. There are many types of hotels from first class to tourist class that operate in Athens. We opted for the businessmen's choice in the Athens Chandris Hotel.
Formally the Chandris and now called the Metropolitan hotel, this recently remodeled property is located midway between downtown Athens and the Port of Piraeus. The hotel has all the amenities you would expect at a five star hotel, fitness facilities, pool area, several excellent restaurants and complimentary shuttle service to Constitution Square, the starting point for most tours in Athens. The rooms were well appointed and the food was excellent. Our rate included a buffet breakfast each morning in the Atrium Cafe with a view of a beautiful outdoor fountain in a peaceful garden. The staff was courteous and friendly and the concierge desk was more than informative. It is an excellent hotel in every sense.
There are several things to know about the Metropolitan. It is a Forte hotel, although one of their older hotels. There are 361 rooms all with private bath, color tv, radio, telephone, and hair dryer. The lobby is quite impressive - lots of place to sit and soak up the atmosphere and marble floors and decor.
The bar and restaurants were very good as well. The breakfast buffet that was included with the price of the room was delicious although it got to be a bit much after five days. We had dinner one evening at the hotel and that was quite scrumptous as well, serving Greek and European cuisine. It was delicious although a little pricyAs far as price goes, a double standard room - rack rate - was $240 Euro although I am sure the price will increase with the arrival of the 2004 Olympic Games.
Right on the corner of Kydatheneon and Geronta street on the small square is the Plaka Restaurant which has been serving locals and travelers for years, specializing in Greek oven dishes, grilled meats and fish. You can order from the menu or go inside and choose what you like. They also have a large selection of fish which is on display in the glass-case. You can even choose which cut of meat you want from their choice of pork-chops, lamb-chops and steaks. Their home-made red wine is good although go slow unless you want a hangover the next morning. Waitors speak English and are helpful if you can't decide and like most restauarants in the Plaka the menu is in English as well as a few other languages. I have to say I found most Greek meals to be on the plain side. If you really want to be a tourist then book a dinner tour - we did so and found it to be fun. The bus picked us up right at our hotel and took us on a tour and then to the Plaka where we walked through the streets to our restuarant. There we had a set meal but with lots of greek flair, dancing and free flowing alcohol. Not too bad for a fun evening with little in the way of expectations! Our best meal was at our hotel, but Athens has lots of choices so don't be afraid to experiment.
There are so many things to do and see in Athens and the outlying countryside that it would take weeks to see them all! However, if you only have a limited time as we did, then there are certain sights you absolutely must see.
The crown jewel of Athens has to be the Acropolis which includes several archeological sites of great importance. The tour actually begins by passing through the entrance to the archaeological site at the southern slope of the Acropolis in Dionysiou Areopaghitou street and start climbing. On your left you will see the oldest of all known theaters in the world, the theater of Dionysos. Here the four greatest ancient Greek poets Aeschylus. Aristophanes. Euripides and Sophocles saw their plays being performed for the first time in the 5th century BC. From there you can continue on and see the museum, the Temple of Athena Nike, The Parthenon, The Golden Ivory Statue of Athena, etc. I would suggest taking one of the many tours offered to this incredible site. Our tour was lead by a professor of archeology from a local university. It was the highlight of our Athens trip!
This impressive museum has enough to see for weeks, let alone one day of sightseeing. The hours vary from winter to summer but the museum is generally open from noon until 7pm. It is located on a main trolley line (number 8) from the central Athens square. When we rode the trolley no one spoke English but they understood us well enough to point at which stop we should take. Once inside the musuem national treasures abounded including statues of the Kouros (we saw one of these at the Getty in Los Angeles) and a magnificent statue of Poseidon. The Thera frescoes located on the first floor were equally impressive. The museum was clean, including restrooms and a small cafeteria to grab a bite to eat as well as a nice musuem shop.
As soon as you start walking around Plaka's stone-paved, narrow streets, you will have the feeling that you are travelling back in time. This is Athens' oldest and, thanks to the restoration efforts which went into its buildings in recent years, most picturesque neighbourhood. You will be delighted by the beauty of the neo-classical Colors of its houses, their architecture, their lovingly tended little gardens, the elegance, and the total atmosphere of the area. When you decide to take a walk around it be sure to bring a map along, because Plaka is a labyrinth and you may get the feeling that you are lost in its maze of narrow streets and alleyways. No need for alarm though. It is easy to orientate yourself: uphill is the Acropolis and downhill are Syntagma and Monastiraki. There are lots and lots of quaint shops and outdoor cafes for your shopping and eating pleasure. We even found a small off track betting site where my husband wagered a few dollars - he didn't speak Greek and nothing was spoken or written in English but the money can still be lost the great old American way!
No visit to Athens would be complete without a stop at Syntagma Square. As a matter of fact, this square is the central meeting point in downtown Athens for most tours in the city. The Square has a long history. It seems every major event in Greece's modern history has either been mourned or celebrated here. It has held some of the world's largest political rallys. In the 1940's it was the sight of a battle between the communists and the right-wing government. and when the Military Junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974 fell and Constantine Karamanlis came back from exile in Paris to lead Greece back to democracy, it was in Syntagma that he first spoke to his newly free constituents. In the square you can find the Parliament building, as well as the tomb of the unknown soldier which is guarded by Evzones, the elite soldiers who also guard the Palace. We were told that it is quite an honor to be chosen as an Evzones, and not only do you have to be quite strong but you must be good looking as well!
The temple of Posseidon, standing some 60m (200feet) above the sea at the edge of a cliff on Cape Sounion, is one of the most breathtaking and deeply moving sights in all of Greece. The temple is just one hour's drive from central Athens and both the site itself and the route leading to it are worth every minute of the ride. The road runs along the Saronic coast and from the window of your car or bus tour (highly suggested) you can enjoy the view of the brilliant blue sea. If you are travelling by car make sure you stop for a breath of sea scented air and a walk on the beach. You will also find many coffee shops, fresh fish tavernas and ouzeri along the way. Perhaps your tour bus will make a brief stop as well so you may experience the local culture and greek pastries... yumm!
Whatever you choose to do in Athens, you will be entralled by the history of this early civilization and how modernization and ancient history can thrive together. We actually flew from Athens to Santorini and spent some time there, but that's another story for another time. Don't forget to email me when you get back from Greek adventure and let me know what you thought!
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