|Old drachmas for sale at Monastiraki flea market. This currency may or may not return to Greece.|
Greece's current economic woes may be all over the news but its main airport in Athens doesn't show it. I arrived after a two-hour flight from Frankfurt into a gleaming and still efficient 11-year old airport. Even connecting into the city was not a headache despite the 30 km distance. There's a choice of buses, taxes and the Metro. While the express buses cost 5 Euros, I opted to go with the much faster subway for 8 Euros, zipping me right into the closest station to my hotel in just 37 minutes.
|Train from the airport|
|Ancient ruins inside a Metro station|
Finding my hotel wasn't also a problem. Google map is proving its worth as always. Having reviewed it prior to arrival gave me an edge in orienting myself virtually. Once outside the Megaro Moussikis station, I knew where I was after identifying a major road and took it from there. After walking for about 10 minutes and asking a local (to confirm that I was in fact in the right block), I made it right in front of Athens Crown Plaza Hotel.
Choosing this hotel was all about savings. Not only did I save because it was free, I took advantage of Priority Club's PointsBreaks where hotels under the Intercontinental Hotels Group can be had for a mere 5,000 points per night. I had enough hotel points so I booked 2 nights for 10K points. Upon check-in, I was given an upgrade to an Executive Room - a perk given, whenever available, to Platinum members.
|My hotel bedroom|
The room was spacious but unfortunately showing its age. There were skid marks on the wall. Even the bed was a big disappointment - it was one of those very firm beds. If there was a bit of consolation, a This Works aromatherapy kit was on the bed which I swear really worked! (Or perhaps it was really meant to be there knowing how bad the bed was). The huge bathroom however was spotlessly clean with house-brand toiletries. The usual room amenities were there like flat-screen TV, robes, slippers, etc.
It was already 3 PM by the time I finished showering. Another walk to the subway station and I was soon on my way to Monastiraki Square, just 2 station stops or about 5 minutes away. It was a busy Sunday, lots of locals and tourists milling about the square (which is typical of any city square anyway). I stood there, catching the mood of the afternoon while at the same time looking out for the guide of a 3-hour free walking tour I was joining.
|George the guide tells it all (at the Gate of Athena Archegetis)|
Thing is, I don't even know who I was meeting. When I signed up, a certain George e-mailed me to meet the group at 4 PM under the "Athens Flea Market" sign, something which was leading to a really busy pedestrian street. There were 3 people standing on the side so I approached the guy - voila, it turns out to be George himself. A couple soon joined us saying they were also looking for the group. In all there were 5 of us George was guiding - I was the only Asian, the rest were Aussies.
After brief introductions, George got us moving, explaining how Monastiraki ("old monastery") with its obvious commercial buzz has been historically important in old Athens. It stands beneath the shadow of the imposing Acropolis. From a certain angle looking towards the Greek Parthenon, anyone with an eye for history will appreciate two foreign influences that left a mark in Athens - an Ottoman mosque (without a minaret) and a Roman library AKA Hadrian's Library (or what's left of it).
|The Temple of Hephaestus as seen from Theorias street|
|A sweeping view of Athens just below the Parthenon|
We walked further up till we reached the Gate of Athena Archegetis, standing guard like an old soldier over the ruins of the Roman Agora - an ancient precursor of today's airconditioned shops. Marbles and slabs of stone were everywhere leaving most of it to the visitor's imagination.
From the Roman Agora, it's a little more steep going up till we reached a narrow street called Theorias which hugs the periphery of the Acropolis. The walking tour doesn't include an actual visit to the Parthenon (which I visited the next day) but we did stop to catch our breaths at a rocky promontory overlooking the famous ruins. We also got rewarded with sweeping views of Athens.
|The Acropolis Museum (note how the Parthenon is reflected on the glass facade)|
It was a downhill walk from there, skipping past the Parthenon ticket office and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (the ancient stone amphitheatre) till we reached the front of the Acropolis Museum. This modern building was oriented perfectly so that its glass facade catches a reflection of the Parthenon just in front of it. Unfortunately, we had no time to go inside.
Further on, we crossed a busy street to look at Hadrian's Arch, an ancient gateway built by the Romans in honor of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Given how old this structure is, it's incredible seeing it so close to a major city road (with all that car exhausts) and proudly still standing as it has always been for hundreds of years.
|Ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus|
Close to the arch is yet another set of ruins - the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It must have been a massive temple in those days. When the barbaric Herulians sacked Athens in 267 A.D., this temple along with Hadrian's Library was among those that were destroyed. Of the original 104 columns that once stood there, only 15 columns remain standing today, a silent witness to Athens' tumultuous history.
If there are ruins, there are reconstructions. We walked to the Panathinaiko or Panathenaic Stadium, site of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. This all-marble venue was reconstructed from an ancient Greek stadium, making this one of the world's oldest. There are 50 rows of marble steps that can seat 45,000 people (though I'm not sure if seating in marble all day makes my butt happy).
|At the National Garden of Athens|
|The Zappeion Hall|
Nearby, across the street, a big outdoor gathering was ongoing while a familiar tune was playing. Then I saw one Pinoy, then another, then some more. Some wearing Barong Tagalog. I approached two of them, asking: "kabayan anong meron dyan?" ("What's going on there?"). "Meron pong programa para sa Flores de Mayo" ("There's a program for the Flores de Mayo"). Piqued as I was of the loud native music, I wanted to cross the busy street and see it for myself. But I could not.
Our guide had the group move to a different direction, away from this gathering, as we entered the National Garden of Athens, a 38-acre green lung right in the center of the city. Formerly called the "Royal Garden", this was designed by a German agronomist on the orders of Greek Queen Amalia. In the center of this public park is the neoclassical Zappeion Hall - built specifically in 1888 for the revival of the first modern Olympic Games. This is also where the country's entry into the European Union in 1981 was formally declared.
|Changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Just behind is the Parliament Building|
We arrived in front of the Hellenic Parliament building just in time for the hourly changing of the guards. Almost every country has some kind of a soldier's cemetery and in Athens, there's also a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which is guarded round-the-clock by elite members drawn from the Greek army. Whilst female tourists took turns having their pictures taken alongside stiffly-posed guards, I was happy enough to see them do their routine at the designated time.
|The tiny Aghia Dynamis beneath a building|
While recent clashes between protesters and police have made Syntagma Square a no-go for visitors, we passed by this popular meeting-point uneventfully after crossing the busy avenue that separates it from the parliament building. Police presence is understandably evident, mindful of anything that could strike even on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Speaking of a lazy Sunday, George the guide led us into the spiritual side of Greece. Or Greek Orthodox faith specifically. We were walking along the sidewalk underneath the Ministry of Education building when we found ourselves skirting an obstacle - this turned out to be the tiny 16th-century church of Aghia Dynamis. In order to preserve the church, the building was constructed practically on top of it.
|Main entrance to Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens|
|Inside the cathedral|
|Commercial buzz in Monastiraki|
Nearby is the much bigger Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens, known popularly among locals as the "Mētrópolis". Despite ongoing renovations, we were allowed to go inside. It was a bit dark but I managed to see a part of this Christian faith I haven't really understood. This church was completed in 1862 and to this day continues to play an important role in Athens, including weddings and funerals of affluent Greeks.
From the cathedral, we walked through another old part of town which was decidedly tourist-kitsch with all those souvenir shops and tourist-oriented tavernas. We eventually ended up where we started at Monastiraki Square. George was a great guide and I can't recommend him enough to anyone visiting Athens. While 3 hours is not sufficient to see all of Athens, it was nonetheless a perfect introduction to a city that is as old as time.