Should we stay or should we go?
The common outside perception of Athens is that it’s somewhere to see famous sites, then get out quickly and flee to the fairer ports of Greece. I can see some truth in that. The Acropolis, which includes the Parthenon, is worth all the hype. It’s breathtaking and humbling being surrounded by the origins of modern civilization. Each artifact is made of marble, and what now is dusty and weathered was once gleaming white stone. It radiates from the hill now; I could only imagine what it was like in its prime.
At the base of the Acropolis is the old town, or Plaka. While the area has some of the most beautiful architecture in the city, it’s as annoyingly touristy as anywhere we’ve been – tacky tourist shops, restaurants brashly pushing you to “take a seat”, endless throngs of people walking slowly with fanny packs. It might as well be the Magic Kingdom. I can’t believe I even made that connection. Shame on me! The ancients deserve better. I feel we owe them something. Don’t get me wrong, the Plaka is very pretty, albeit at 8am on a Monday morning while everyone is still sleeping on their cruise ships and we could wander quietly through its streets.
Outside of the Plaka, things get grittier. There’s graffiti everywhere, and each neighbourhood has an urban edge to it. People live and work here. The graffiti in Athens seems to symbolize urbanism instead of ghetto like it tends to in North America. Athens has been conquered and reclaimed many times over, and the country has been through many rebuilds, so they’ve found countless ways of expressing themselves. Despite the initial conceptions, the neighbourhoods are safe and lively, gradually relaxing as locals retreat to the cafés to drink iced espresso (insanely popular) as the daytime temperatures cool.
Almost 1 in 3 Greeks live here, most having moved here in the last 40 years, and the city sprawled quickly. Before the 70’s, Athens was 1 million people. Now, it’s population has stretched to more than 4 million, meaning 40% of Greeks live here. It’s quite overwhelming at times, the sprawl goes on forever, but the congestion lends a wonderful energy to the place once we got the hang of it. It was really fun exploring local markets, popping into a downtown resto to get souvlaki pitas to-go, grabbing a beer at the convenience stand in the middle of the city’s main square, and finding some shade to eat with Athens bustling around us. Oh ya, and Andrea has picked up how to make a killer Greek salad.
We decided to keep things simple and low key, largely due to itinerary, but also because of our travel style, to pick two lesser-visited, but highly recommended islands – Hydra and Corfu.
Hydra was exactly what we expected – quiet, small, and unique. Hikes, breach time, slow mornings, and since the island is car free, donkeys and mules carry supplies (or your luggage, if you want).
Corfu was much larger, and seemingly a destination for Greeks on holiday. We used it as a holiday after the craziness of Istanbul, but also as the logical entryway into Albania via ferry. The old town was amazing.
Beautiful viewpoints, a maze of interesting streets, and beautiful pastel colours everywhere. Also, incredible beaches, sunsets, coastal houses, fishing boats,…and planes landing.