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Athens- The Plàka Neighborhood Stroll

Enjoying the opportunity to sleep in!

We slept in this morning, knowing there would be plenty of time to explore Athens in the next few days.  After breakfast, Charlotte and I checked out of the Electra Hotel and walked five blocks to their sister hotel, The Electra Palace.  Normally, I do not change accommodations, but we are booking this trip as we go, not knowing from day-to-day what the next one holds.

The Electra Palace

Electra PalaceThe Electra Palace has one benefit over the Electra Hotel and that is its rooftop pool with grand views of the Acropolis.  We are paying premium prices for our room here, but the benefit of having an “oasis” in the heart of Athens, plus the rooftop pool makes it a worthwhile expense.

 Our tour “group” grows…

Our friend, Janey, arrived in Athens earlier this morning and was waiting for us in the hotel lobby.  As expected, our rooms were not ready, so we gave the hotel a “once over” and headed up to the rooftop pool and bar area.  We took a seat, with the Acropolis hovering over us in the distance, and sketched out a rough plan for our adventure in Greece.

I had been to Athens on three previous occasions, the first in 1977 (which I will continue to reference here in my writings), the second in the summer of 2006, and the last in December 2010.  But beyond Athens (and the island day trips to Aegina, Porous, and Hydra), it is all going to be a new adventure. Our rough planned itinerary looks likes this:  Athens, Delphi, Olympia, the Mani Peninsula, Napflio, and the island of Santorini.

A lazy afternoon at the pool…

Later, we checked into our rooms and while Janey napped off her jetlag, Charlotte and I changed into our bathing suits and headed to the pool.  We enjoyed a relaxed lunch, cool dips in the pool, and great views of the Acropolis.   We were so close I could see weary and over-heated tourist walking on the Acropolis, frantically trying to fit their sightseeing in during the hottest part of the day.

Me and my journal…

I became faithful with my journal entries in the summer of 1997.  Since then, I’ve kept a pretty good record of things happening in my life and especially my travels.  Over the years, my journal has become a companion and a place to escape, especially when traveling alone with no one to talk to. I enjoy putting my thoughts to paper and sketching.  This afternoon, I tried to capture the mood and feel of the Acropolis with this sketch.

Acropolis DM Draw

 

Sightseeing in the Plàka

Along about 5:30 p.m., we headed out for our sightseeing in the Plàka neighborhood.  It was still hot and we stuck to the shady sides of the streets as we wound through the shopping streets, narrow lanes, past Byzantine-era churches, and the tourist oriented shops.

Ermou Street

Ermou is the main street leading from Sytagma Square into the Plàka.  It once was filled with filth, loud traffic, and ugly signs.  Since 2000, it has become a pedestrian-only area and both tourists and locals enjoys a stroll in this shopping oriented street.

Ermou Street

Ermou Street

The Church of Kapnikarea

Athens was once a part of the vast Byzantine Empire which controlled much of Europe from A.D. 323-1453.  This church, the Church of Kapnikarea, is a classic example of an 11th century Byzantine house of worship.  Notice the classic Byzantine architectural designs including a red-tiled domed cupola topped with a cross and narrow and tall arched windows often with diamond-shaped trim.

The Church of Kapnikarea

The Church of Kapnikarea

 Athen’s Cathedral

This church was built in 1842 and looks much worst for wear than other churches in the area dating from 600 years before!  However, it is Athen’s most important Greek Orthodox church and the “head” church of the Greek Orthodox faith.  It is in dismal condition!  The interior and exterior are covered with scaffolding and shrouded in construction cloth.  The placard outside does list a schedule of worship services… but ughh… I can’t imaging it here.

Athens Cathedral

Athens Cathedral

Adrianou Street

This IS souvenir street!  Adrianou Street runs from near the new Acropolis Museum, heads north, and then turns west to follow the lays of the Acropolis hill.  For me, it is the “main drag” offering all the “Greek” trinkets and souvenirs.  You’ll find it all… olive oils, olive wood, worry beads, jewelry, leather sandals, sponges, Pandora beads, Greek replica statues, t-shirts, and tons of stray cats!

Hello kitty

Hello kitty

 The Roman Forum and Tower of the Winds

The Romans conquered Greek about 150 B.C.  and set up their own “Roman”-ized way of life.  The Greek Agora (I’ll address that later) became a marble “boneyard” from which the “Roman” Athens was built.  Now-a-days, this area is often called the Roman Agora, but the Roman’s called it the Forum.  Like in Rome, it was the commercial center of the city.  A place to shop, meet, see and be seen.

Much later, the Ottomans converted this area into a bazaar.  There is a mosque here in the area, although its minarets were decapitated by the Greeks when they won their independence from the Ottomans in the 1800’s.

 

Roman Forum & Tower of the Winds

Roman Forum & Tower of the Winds

Notice also the eight-sided domed tower known as the “Tower of the Winds.”  This tower was built in the 1st century B.C. and contains a clock, a guide to the planets, and a weathervane. The carved figures depict the “winds” as winged humans who fly in and bring the weather.  Don’t bother asking anyone about the meaning of the eight ancient Greek symbols for the “winds.”  I’ve found everyone makes up their own story… even the guides!

Tower of the Four Winds

Tower of the Four Winds

Library of Hadrian

Hadrian was the Roman emperor in the 2nd century A.D. who had quite an affection for all things Greek.  He had this library and civic center constructed for the Athenians.  The building housed gardens, lecture halls, art galleries, and a library.  Today, most of what you see is a reconstruction of one wall and a few Corinthian columns.

Library of Hadrian

Library of Hadrian

Monastiraki Square

This is Athen’s second main city square loaded with old world class and style.  The big building on the left is the metro station where tw0 train lines connect.  From this square one could walk to the Archaeological Museum (1 mile to Omonia Square), feast on souvlaki (the typical Greek meat-on-a-stick fast food), wander into the old town, or or hop on the metro to zip off to far flung areas of town.

Monastiraki Square

Monastiraki Square

By 7 p.m. we had experienced and seen the most important ancient and tourist sights in the Pàlka.  Arriving at Monastriki Square and the Metro station, we decided to give the Ancient Agora a go. Following the Metro tracks, we soon came to the main Agora entrance and ticket booth.

 Here’s a hint

Avoid long lines at archeological site ticket booths by arriving late in the afternoon.  Alternatively, visit a lesser-known site entrance before the Acropolis.  Purchase a €12 “strip ticket” for all the archeological sites in Athens including the Acropolis, Agora, Roman Forum, Keremikos Cemetery, Library of Hadrian, Theatre of Dionysus, and the Temple of Olympian Zeus.  The ticket is valid for four days, and technically the attendant will tear off one “strip” for each site you visit.  However, I did not have any collected except at the Acropolis.  IF you purchase your ticket first at the Acropolis, then you’ll receive one ticket with a bar code that will be scanned at each site visited.

The Ancient Agora

The Ancient Agora

Visiting the Ancient Agora during its final hour of the day was a good idea.  Although the sun was still high and warm, there were only a few tourists milling around. We were able to see almost all the Agora sites in less than an hour, although it was a push to get up to the Temple of Hephaistos before the attendants began blowing their whistles to alert of the impending closing time of 8:00 p.m.

Temple of Hephaistos

This is one of the most well preserved of all Greek temples.  Construction began here in 450 B.C. shortly after the entire Agora was destroyed by the invading Persians (480 B.C.).  However, construction work stopped here while the Athenians concentrated on building the temples on the Acropolis, including the Parthenon.  The temple is dedicated to Hephaistos, the “blacksmith” god and originally contained bronze statues of he and Athena.

Temple of Hephaistos

Temple of Hephaistos

The temple was converted to a Christian church in 1300 A.D. and named the Church of St. George (the patron saint of Athens).   Because of its continued use, the structure was maintained and kept up resulting in the wonderful condition in which we find it today.

The Agora in 1977

My notes, dated May 5, 1977, mention visiting the Temple of Hephaistos…

I got up at 6:15 am yesterday morning and walked down to the Temple of Zeus and took photos, then went to the Olympic Stadium and Royal Gardens.  Doug and I then went and ate breakfast at the hotel.  Then took an excursion to the ancient agora and the Theseion/Temple of Hephaistos and agora museum.

Here is the photo my friend Doug snapped of me standing in the temple.  I recall back then we were allowed inside the temple and could actually see the ancient frieze in the alcoves depicting mythological battles between the Lapith tribe and a group of centaurs during a wedding feast.

Temple of Hephaistos 1977

Temple of Hephaistos 1977

Here is a photo Charlotte snapped of me in December 2010 during our visit to Athens.  The temple has remained the same, I’ve not!  Notice too that I was not allowed on the steps as  the entire temple is fenced off.

Temple of Hephaistos 2010

Temple of Hephaistos 2010

Take the back gate for a speedy exit

We exited the Agora at the “back gate” up the hill in the direction of the Acropolis (Polygnotou “street” on your map).  This put us up near the top (Prytaniou street) with great views of the Plàka and Athens to the north and the Acropolis looming just overhead to the south.  We experienced a fantastic sunset and later, an almost full moon rising in the west.

Sunset over the Roman Forum

Sunset over the Roman Forum

The Plàka is not flat.

It stretches consistently uphill until the slops of the Acropolis makes it impossible to build houses.  Consequently, the “streets” are often no more than small cobbled pedestrian paths winding past shops, restaurants, and businesses.  The farther uphill one wanders, the more steps and stairs are encountered.

Steps and more steps

Steps and more steps

One such place, called Mnisikleous, is known for a series of cobbled stairs stretching of 100 yards and lined with trendy restaurants offering good food, decent drinks, ok music, and plenty of ambience.

Mnisikleous Street dining

Mnisikleous Street dining

 

Capping off our day, we chose an outdoor restaurant known for authentic Greek food offered at very reasonable prices.  Xenious Zeus is not a secret among tourist in Athens.  This restaurant appears in all the guidebooks and is advertised as a place with good food and good prices. Since we were all the way up the hill, I thought we should give it a try.

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For €12 we got a three-course meal featuring a selection of five Greek appetizers, called mezedes, a main course, and desert.  We added a Greek Salad to share between the three of us.  For a quick and unpretentious introduction to Greek cuisine, this place can’t be beat.

mezedes sampler

mezedes sampler

After dinner, we walked back to our hotel with a full moon rising in the west, our bellies full, and our bodies worn out.  For me, this was the perfect mix of recovery, sightseeing, and dining to begin our adventures in Greece.

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About the Author

David McGuffin established David McGuffin’s Exploring Europe, Inc. in 2001 to formally offer European tours. Since then, he has taken several thousand satisfied customers on memorable and educational tours to Europe.

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