ATHENS — Friends who had been to Greece several times advised us: "Forget Athens, just get in and out as quickly as possible and go see the real Greece" (usually meaning the islands).
A few days in this sprawling city convinced us that they had given Athens a bum rap.
Even if your sense of history starts after Columbus, you can't fail to be awe-struck by the remnants of "the glory that was Greece."
We found numerous good hotels in the vicinity of Syntagma Square, the heart of old Athens. Prices varied greatly, but in general were substantially lower than in the United States.
The square made a good home base. A short taxi ride or a long walk north is the National Archeological Museum, and it is a prize. With an extensive collection of magnificent treasures dating back 2,500 years, it needs a number of visits. At least plan a lengthy tour, taking a break in the coffee shop. The statuary and abundant artifacts (unfortunately, many are not bilingually labeled) give one the feel of antiquity. The statues tower magnificently in the halls.
Upstairs is a recently added attraction, a room re-created from excavated portions of a dig on the island of Santorini.
Back at Syntagma, you are drawn into a long solid block of outdoor cafes. You wonder if anyone in Athens eats at home. "Not in the heat of the summer," said a friend who lives here.
The menus are similar in content and price around the city, both lunch and dinner. Typical: "Greek salad" (cucumber, tomato, feta cheese), grilled meat or fish kebabs, fried potatoes or rice, crusty bread and, instead of butter, their delicious national dips, tsatsiki (cucumber in yogurt) and taramosalata (a tangy roe-based spread). We paid around $3 for a meal, about half the U.S. rate for beer.
In the other direction from the square, and a shorter walk, we visited the Plaka, the original Athens. "Too touristy," one friend had said, forgetting that we were tourists, and that touristy places are popular for a reason. The area, a few square miles, offered an interesting stroll.
Many of the neoclassical buildings are being restored and maintained in their original style. When demolition is necessary, the front walls are retained for at least a facade of antiquity. Residents' pride was evident when we asked for directions and chatted with them. "How do you like it?" one asked. He gestured at the weathered brown building fronts. "This is the way it was meant to be."
The streets are barely wide enough for compact cars, so traffic is mercifully sparse.
Besides the usual souvenir shops with sandals, hats, shirts and dresses, there are "regular" stores for locals and, of course, sidewalk cafes, or tavernas, offering music by night.
These tourist touches in the area are balanced by some picture-perfect Byzantine churches from the 10th to 12th centuries. The churches of Athens are an excellent tour in themselves. Our favorite was Kapnikarea Church on Ermou Street.
We dined at that most prized of travelers' eateries: where the locals go. Actually, the food at Psara taverna on Epechtheos Street was much like every other Greek meal we had, but there was a touch of magic to the little place, with the Acropolis above (the taverna is a stone's throw down the hill from it) and tables lining the winding, uneven sidewalk on the hillside, smoke curling out of the ancient grill, waiters shouting, tables filled throughout the evening.
"They have great retsina here," our friend said. (I felt that was a contradiction in terms.)
Two other tavernas on the same small corner had only a few patrons at their tables. We ate lunch there again on our next pass through Athens and found the same crowded, bustling conditions, although lunch was somewhat marred by a German busker forcing her children to sing outdated, sentimental songs for a few drachmas.
The street for sitting and seeing and being seen, we found, was Kidathineon, a regular haunt of Plaka's small band of artists, craftsmen and writers. It was delicious to relax in the shade, with no one rushing us to finish. In Greece you linger as long as you like over coffee or a meal.
From the north-south streets in Plaka we looked up to see the crown jewel of Athens, the Acropolis, with the serene and seemingly eternal Parthenon looking down from on high. A steep hike took us around the mountain to the entry (for a couple of dollars) and a free view of the reconstructed Odeon of Herod Atticus, a functioning amphitheater dating from AD 170.
The way up also offered a view of the Agora, market square of ancient Athens, on the lower northwest slope.
Inside the Acropolis area, damage to the ruins has been slowed by a rope barrier that keeps visitors outside the Parthenon and Temple of Athena, but viewing is still good, and we got close enough to marvel at the artisans' skill. Photo vantage points were excellent from all sides, although on our visit scaffolding marred photos of some of the buildings.
View Worth the Climb
The panorama from the northeast corner of the Acropolis was worth the climb in itself. Across the city's Plain of Attica to the northeast, the high hill of Lykavitos jutted up dramatically, and nearer and to the right, Hadrian's Arch lifted its square shoulders out of the modern street scene.
Zeus lent a nice touch to the scene, hurling some thunder and lightning down on the distant mountains to the north.
From this vantage point it was easy to see why the city was once a place fit for the gods, and is still more than fit for tourists.
McCafferty is a Times Metro copy editor.