Greece in all its glory

A trip to a near neighbor is a short journey and a world away.

By
October 25, 2007 12:01
greek tourism 88 224

greek tourism 88 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)

You have to feel sorry for the Greeks. Maligned 2,000 years ago by Virgil in his Aeneid - "timeo Danaos et dona ferentes" (Oh Miss Coomber, long-gone Latin mistress, are you not proud of me?) - they've been trying to prove ever since that they really are nice guys. A short holiday in Greece is enough to convince anyone that the stereotype is unfair. "I fear the Greeks even when bearing gifts" no longer applies. Greece is warm, in every sense, hospitable and so full of rich history and sites to see that the five days I spent there recently were barely enough to skim the surface. Even with small Latin and less Greek you can get around, as most Greeks know English. Athens is a capital city ever conscious of its heritage. How could it not be when you can walk around the town and see the Acropolis with the Parthenon in all its glory from the downtown boutiques and wide avenues that give the place its special flavor? A bus tour is a good way to start to get to know Athens. The guides can't wait to get you up there on the high place (Acropolis), one of the great tourist attractions of the world, with hundreds of groups climbing up to get a closer look at the ancient ruin. Hordes of Greek schoolchildren mingle with tourists of every shape and color, taking it all in and listening to stories about the terrible British who stole their marbles back in the 19th century and put them in the British Museum. It's a very sore point with the patriotic Greeks - Lord Elgin finding the broken statues and shipping them off to England in 1806 - and although the rest of the world calls them the Elgin Marbles, they call them the Parthenon Marbles and live in eternal hope they will one day be returned to their rightful owners. While up there on the Acropolis and having circled the Parthenon a few times to take in its Doric pillars and remaining pediments, one can then visit the adjacent museum to see all the artifacts rescued from the temple itself. It's also important to take a look at the temple of Athena Nike and the two ancient theaters, the Dionysos and the Odeon of Herod Atticus, the latter reconstructed and used during the summer for the Athens Festival. It can seat 5,000 spectators and has 32 rows of seats. Just below the entrance to the Acropolis is the ancient supreme court, the Areopagus, where St. Paul addressed the Athenians in 54 CE. At the foot of the mountain is the agora, the commercial and public center of ancient Athens. The entire site is very tourist friendly with clean toilets, easy walks up and down and kiosks with light refreshments. The ones on the Acropolis have the distinction of being the most expensive. ONCE YOU have drunk in the sight of these monuments it's time to get back on the bus to see the other notable parts of Athens. The guides will take you proudly to the presidential palace to gawp at the amazing young evzone guards in their traditional skirted uniforms and pom-pom shoes. They must stand for an hour without so much as blinking, and it is considered a great honor to be chosen for this duty. Apparently, so the guide explained, only the taller, better-looking conscripts are chosen. All Greek youths do a year's compulsory military service. You might also be lucky enough to catch a changing-of-the-guard ceremony, either here, or at the Parliament building downtown, which is also home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Opposite this landmark is Syntagma Square, the city center plaza filled with outdoor cafes, trees and a fountain. It's a pleasant place to sit and recharge the batteries if you're doing the town on foot. At one corner of the square you can see the Hotel Grande Bretagne, built in 1862, a magnificent Victorian edifice where the rich and the famous stay when in Athens. The place was a favorite for Jackie Onassis when she wasn't on the yacht. From Syntagma the bus takes you down winding avenues lined with shops to Omonia Square, considered the most crowded place in Athens, with all the usual tourist attractions. On the way you will spot on the right three impressive neo-classical buildings, the university, National Library and Academy. Another not-to-be-missed site is the Olympic Stadium built to hold the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. And if you haven't had your fill of ruins, there is the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest ancient temple in Greece with 14 of its original 104 Corinthian pillars still standing. GETTING AROUND is very easy and an alternative to the bus is the underground which is simple and user-friendly. There are only three lines and it was built in 1993 and still spanking fresh. An added bonus is the display of artifacts unearthed during excavations for the metro. Commuters rushing to and from work don't give them a second glance, but for the tourist the glass displays of ancient water pipes and clay pots are fascinating. To get up Mount Lycabettus, the highest hill in Athens, you take the funicular railway from a station in the Kolonaki district, the up-market shopping center with designer clothes for astronomical prices. At the top of the hill is a panoramic view of the city, and it's recommended to get there as the sun is setting - quite magical. As the flaming red sun sinks, the Greek flag is lowered in the small, 19th-century chapel of St. George which tops the mountain and, after the ceremony, one can dine in the two restaurants up there, one outrageously expensive and one more accessible. While the food and service obviously vary, the view over the whole of Athens is identical. Finally back down in the city two tourist must-sees are the Plaka area on the north slope of the Acropolis, a pedestrian cobblestone walkway with modern shops rubbing shoulders with ancient monuments, while nearby the Monastiraki with its flea market is the place to find a bargain. The city is home to many museums, including a Jewish museum, but if you only have time or inclination for one then the recommended place is the National Archeological Museum with its documentation of neolithic and Minoan periods. WITH ONE day of our holiday left, we decided to check out a Greek island and picked Hydra, a two-hour hydrofoil journey from the mainland. To embark, one has to reach the port area, Piraeus, redolent with memories of Melina Mercouri as a good-hearted prostitute in the 1960 hit movie Never on Sunday. I defy anyone to be able to walk around the busy dockland area of Athens without that catchy song, sung by the husky-voiced late actress who later became minister of culture, ringing in his ears. The hydrofoil has assigned places, a bar and grubby windows from which you can watch the activities of the Aegean Sea as you whiz by. It goes at great speed and skims the water. It's not the most comfortable of rides, especially if the air-conditioner isn't working. But Hydra is a dream once you get there. The marina is full of colorful yachts, the walk around the island is tranquil and stress-free and the pebbled beaches are great places to throw off shoes and paddle in the cool clear water. There is only one vehicle on the island, the garbage truck. Transport is by either bicycle or donkey. The Hydrans maintain there is no pollution on their island, and artists choose to settle there in large numbers. The place is full of tourist shops, great fish restaurants, good coffee bars and not too much else. The atmosphere is enviably laid-back to the point of being somnolent. We even heard of an Israeli couple who settled there about 10 years ago but decided not to pursue that line of enquiry. The journey back to Israel is quick and easy and it's wonderful to think that you can reach the glory that was - and is - Greece, in less than two hours.


Related Content

Supreme Court President Asher Grunis
August 28, 2014
Grapevine: September significance

By GREER FAY CASHMAN