Walk in Athens and inhale the past!

“We are grateful to the Israelis coming here. They are our best clients and they bring in lots of currency. They love our popular music.”

athens view 298.88 (photo credit: Greece National Tourism Organization)
athens view 298.88
(photo credit: Greece National Tourism Organization)
The colors are blue and white.
The flag is blue and white.
Even the Greek color scheme of sea, sky and cloud is blue and white, colors obviously familiar to Israelis and Jews from the Diaspora.
Wonderful things can happen to one in Athens, though it does not win awards for its attractiveness. Like Greece, Athens is beautiful, though in some places ugly.
Have someone show you the beautiful: a friend, relative, a good guide.
Even during a very humid summer day in Athens, when the sun burns as a dry forest suddenly ignited, or at night, when the stars shine brilliantly, Athens stands as a symbol of fame and democracy, which however faltering its first steps began here.
Education and the arts flourished in its environment. Ancient travelers came to marvel at its grand temples and civic buildings, just as do tourists today.
No wonder I feel awesome as I stare at the architectural marvels of this capital.
The Acropolis remains the heart of the capital, visible from many locations and always reminding you of the glory that was Greece. Rising more than 500 feet at its highest point, with steep slopes on all sides, except the west. The word “acropolis” means upper city.
The Parthenon remains the crown jewel of the Acropolis. “The fluted columns are 34 feet high and 6 feet 3 inches in diameter at the bottom, tapering to a diameter of 4 feet 10 inches at the top. Furthermore, the columns have a slight bulge approximately two-fifths of the way up from the platform, and they lean slightly inward,” notes A Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey.
City bus tours will take you to the Acropolis, the Temple of the Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch. The new (2009) Acropolis Museum focuses on the findings of the archeological site of the Acropolis.
Travelers should make sure they browse through the National Archaeological Museum located in the center of the city.
Like beauty, one never tires starring at the Acropolis and the Parthenon.
I WALK IN Athens. I walk and inhale the past. Although Athens – the cradle of Western civilization – is a modern city, the sudden twist of a street lands me in an area filled with ancient Greek or Byzantine ruins. Ancient Athens was the leading cultural center of the Greek world.
The ancient Athenian statesman Pericles called Athens, the “school of Greece.”
Finding a candlelit romantic restaurant is not difficult. Pick one situated on a terrace where one can view the Acropolis.
Certainly Attikos on 7 Girabaldi St., or Strofi on Roberto Gali 25, fit the bill, especially if one likes lamb chops.
I stop at the one of the top hotels in the world, Hotel Grande Bretagne, rich in history.
This hotel served as the headquarters of Greek, German and British forces in turn during World War II. On Christmas Eve, 1944, it is said, while British prime minister Winston S. Churchill was visiting strife-torn Athens, an attempt to blow up the hotel from the sewers was foiled.
The hotel is stately, classic and contains Old World charm. Located right on Constitution Square. (Syntagma Square), it is only steps from the famous changing of the presidential guard scene at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Gaze at the soldiers’ colorful uniforms.
I walk to the popular tourist sight Plaka with its outdoor cafes, its bars, its pedestrian streets, its shops. I stroll around its narrow paved streets. I believe the Greeks show visitors how life should be lived and enjoyed despite the economic downturn of recent years. One way to spend an Athenian evening: Dine or have a drink in the Plaka, this old town at the base of the Acropolis – preferably late at night in a good taverna.
The past permeates the air as tourists descend by the millions to this capital, one of the oldest cities in the world, which dates back 3,400 years.
“We hope this year to reach 30 million tourists,” notes Vasily Christaras, an engineer, who is familiar with the tourist scene in Athens.
Among the thousands of travelers to Greece are Israelis, adds Vasily. “We are grateful to the Israelis coming here. They are our best clients and they bring in lots of currency. They love our popular music.”
THE CITY’S greatest fame dates from the 5th century BCE when it stood as the world’s most powerful and most highly civilized city. The name of Athens is connected to the name of its patron goddess, Athena.
This city contains an old Jewish community that originated probably in the fourth century, BCE.
The Turkish conquest in the 15th century (Athens was conquered in 1456) ushered in a “Golden Age” for Greek Jewry when the Sephardic migration from Spain and Turkey overwhelmed and absorbed the older Byzantine Jewish communities.
The newcomers revived the Sephardic way of life, including the Ladino language.
When Jews were expelled from Iberia, many settled in Salonika, so much so that by 1553, 20,000 Jews lived there.
Sultan Bayazid II welcomed tens of thousands of Iberian Jews to Istanbul and to Salonika. Ottoman Turks were to remain in Greece until 1822. Between 1453 and 1821, Greece as a nation-state vanished from history.
In 1833, after the Greek War of Independence, Athens became the capital of the new kingdom. By 1920, Greek Jews were organized into 24 religious communities with stable institutions and numerous activities.
In 1940, there were 77,000 Jews in Greece. Only about 10,000 to 15,000 Jews survived the Holocaust. Between 1945 and 1955, 3,500 Greek Jews, mostly Sephardim, settled in Israel, and about 1,200 journeyed to the US.
Greece was one of the few European countries to vote against the 1947 UN Partition Plan creating a Jewish state. Over the years, however, Greece and Israel have grown closer.
About four million people live in the Athens area out of a total population of nearly 11 million. Estimated Jewish population is about 5,000 Jews.
The Jewish Museum is located smack in the heart of Athens and convenient to the city’s major hotel. I found it a good place to begin a visit to Jewish Athens.
Much to see and study; it is not unusual to spend a good half-day there: 39 Nikis St, 105 57. Tel: 30-210-322-5882, [email protected] jewishmuseum.org. www.jewishmuseum.gr. Open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and Sunday, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Closed Saturday.
Chabad maintains the only kosher restaurant in Athens which, Chabad Rabbi Mendel Hendel told me, is located at Chabad House in the center of town at 10 Aisopou St. Tel: 30-210-323-3825. [email protected], www.chabad.gr. Gostijo, www.gostijo.gr. is the name of the Sephardi restaurant in Chabad House. Rabbi Hendel said that the group hosts Shabbat meals by reservation: www. Chabad.gr/ shabbatform.
The rabbi noted Chabad has a grocery with kosher products and a catering service that ships kosher meals throughout Greece. Website: www.koshergreece.com.
Chabad Rabbi Hendel, who was born in Safed, informed me that services take place at Beth Shalom Synagogue, 5 Odos Melidoni. Tel: 30-210-325-2875. Rabbi Gabriel Negrin is the rabbi of the Athens Jewish Community. Nearby is the Ets Hayim Synagogue. 8 Odos Melidoni, Tel: 30-210-3252875, the older Romaniote synagogue of Athens.
Jewish Community Center, Vissarionos St. Tel:30-210-36-37-092.
So thinking of traveling to Greece? Not just in the summer! As Rabbi Hendel points out, “Athens is a nice winter destination, too.”
Ben G. Frank, travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel, (Marion Street Press); The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, (Globe Pequot Press); and A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 3rd edition; A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, and A Travel Guide to Jewish Caribbean and South America, (all Pelican Publishing Company) Follow him on twitter @bengfrank