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UPDATE: ‘Greece is rewriting history’, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Radical Left Syriza party, said soon after being elected as the country’s youngest Prime Minister yet. Along with his youthful good looks, he promised to fight punitive EU-imposed austerity measures, and not to wear a tie, So far, he has kept up both those promises, though perhaps not quite in the historical terms he had planned. After months of wrangling, Greece has given in and accepted more austerity in return for a third bailout deal. There are concerns about the negative impact on its tourism industry, but so far, visitors are still coming. And if you’ve never been to Greece, there’s no time like the present to plan your first trip, despite the debt crisis. (Just pack more hard cash.) If you’ve been to Greece before, no matter how many times, there are still many secret gems waiting to be revealed. Here’s a guide to finding some of those gems, starting from Athens, Greece’s ancient capital. – Marika Sboros
By Mei and Kerstin*
Are you traveling to Athens? With a history of more than 5000 years, Athens is all about archaeology. Each and every corner of the city harbors archaeological sites, museums, and monuments. If you browse through Visit Greece or Odysseus, you’ll see that the Acropolis, the Agora, as well as the National Museum of Athens are among the must-sees if you visit Athens for the first time.
But what if it’s not your first time in Athens? Or what if you’re staying there for more than a week? Would you like to immerse yourself in local life? To desert the touristic spots, and to explore some hidden gems in and around the Greek capital? In 2010, we both stayed in Athens for six months. Here are seven things we loved to do in Athens and its surrounding area:
- Climb up the Lycabettus Hill
Located at 277m above sea level, the Lycabettus Hill is higher than the Acropolis. Legend has it that Athena accidentally created Mount Lycabettus when she dropped a gigantic rock she was going to use for the construction of the Acropolis. Compared to the Acropolis, Lycabettus hill is certainly less touristic. And if tourists do go there, they usually take the funicular railway at Odos Aristippou (Aristippou Street) in the Kolonaki neighborhood. To avoid tourists, simply climb up the hill on foot.
The first time we headed to the Lycabettus hill, we didn’t even know there was a funicular. The sun was scorching hot, and when we finally made it to the top, we were all soaked in sweat, but glad to have hiked. Why? Well, the progressive views, the smell of thyme and oleander made the whole experience unique and worth the trouble. Not to mention the breathtaking panorama!
- Day trip to Aegina Island
Aegina is one of the islands closest to Athens: famous for being the first place in Greece to mint coins during the 7th century, this Saronic Island is not yet a major touristic destination. So if you’d like to avoid flocks of tourists, spend a day in Aegina.
We usually traveled to this island to relax on the beaches, swim in the crystal clear water, and enjoy our ouzo or frappé at one of the sea-front taverns. We also loved taking the local bus to wander around the Temple of Aphaia. Sometimes, we got off the bus in the middle of nowhere to hike through the olive groves in Aegina, to talk to elderly people on our way, and to enjoy the off-the-beaten-track landscape. Yachting, sailing, cycling, and horse riding are among other great activities on this island.
Aegina can be reached within an hour from Piraeus, the port of Athens. The length of the journey depends on the ferry you take: 40 min with a speed boat, 75 min with the regular ferry. Since you have to board the ferry in Piraeus, you might want to spend some time in this city as well. Located just 12km south of Athens, it can be reached by car, bus, or train. But the easiest way (our favourite way) is to take the metro from Athens.
Piraeus is not only the main port of Athens since the 5th century BC, but also the largest passenger port in Europe. Since this port city also possesses a lengthy history, it hosts many museums and monuments worth seeing. Whenever we intended to take a ferry in Piraeus, we would spend half a day close to the docks before embarking.
- Hiking Mount Hymettus
Also known as the crazy mountain, Mount Hymettus is 1026m high and 16km long. Located east of Athens, it is very close to the campus of the University of Athens in Zografou. When our heads were about to explode from too much studying, we would set off for a good hike on this mountain.
The first time we climbed up the steep rocky paths was in March. Flowers were already blooming, the weather was pleasant, and so we kept hiking and hiking for hours until we reached the Kaisariani Monaster
Located on the northern side of the mountain, this Eastern Orthodox Monastery dates back to 1100. During the Middle Ages, the monks lived from the production and the business of olive groves, beehives and grape vines. They also had a huge library with famous documents from Antiquity. Unfortunately, these manuscripts were either sold by Englishmen living in Greece during the 18th century, or used to make fire in the kitchen!
The sanctuary of Zeus Ombrios (Zeus the rain god) dating from the 8th-7th century BC is also located on Mount Hymettus. But unfortunately this site is now inside a military base, and not accessible to the public. You can always try to get access to the sanctuary by explaining that you’re a very loyal believer of Zeus Ombrios, or that you’re Zeus’ prophet! They might end up letting you in… OR drive you to a mental institution! (For the record, we never did that)
- Tracking Lord Byron’s inscription in Cape Sounion
Located on the southernmost tip of the Attica peninsula, and only 65km south of Athens, Cape Sounion holds an archaeological site famous for the ruins of the Temple of Poseidon. The view from the cliffs is sensational, especially at sunset! So the best time to arrive in Sounion would be an hour or 2 before sunset. That’s also when most tourists are long gone.
Cape Sounion is famous for another reason: in 1810, during his Grand Tour of Europe, the famous Romantic poet Lord Byron spent a few months in Athens. During that time, he also paid a visit to Cape Sounion. Among many graffiti carved on the base of the columns on site, there’s an inscription with the name “Byron”. Although there is no proof that this inscription was indeed left by the English poet, most travelers do believe it. If you’re a Lord Byron fan, have fun tracking the inscription.
- Glyfada: the Beverly Hills of Greece
We had never heard of Glyfada until our landlord in Athens told us that she owned a house there. As we googled Glyfada, we immediately understood why it is also coined the Beverly Hills of Greece: located in the southern parts of the Athens Metropolitan Area, this suburb is home to many Greek millionaires, ministers and celebrities.
Glyfada can easily be reached by tram. The streets are much cleaner than in Athens, and the buildings are either new or recently renovated. There are hundreds of high-class designer boutiques, upscale restaurants, as well as super-hype cafes, nightclubs, and golf clubs.
We were students back then, and definitely not looking for luxurious spots. All we did was to walk along the palm-fringed coastal promenade. But if you’re into Beverly Hills, then you should definitely check it out. Who knows: you might even spot a couple of famous people in their villa!
- Sit down and have a frappé me gala
Never mind if you’re a coffee lover or not. When you’re in Athens, make sure you try a frappé. It’s a drink with coffee, water, ice cubes, and they usually add sugar and milk.
But keep in mind: if you want a sweetened frappé, you need to specify how sweet you want your beverage. The sugar is always mixed with the drink before it is served!
- Sketo: plain, without sugar
- Metrio: medium, with a bit of sugar (1-2 spoon)
- Glyko: sweet, with about 2-4 spoons of sugar
Frappés are best with milk. So make sure to add “me gala” (with milk) when you order your drink.
Don’t like cold drinks? Then you might want to order a hot Greek coffee. Just like the Turkish coffee, the Greek coffee has a thick layer of smudgy grounds at the bottom of the cup. And you don’t drink the ground. So you’ll have to sip your coffee slowly.
- Eat Feta cheese – lots of it
When we lived in Athens, we ate so much feta cheese that we swore we would never eat it again once we left Greece. You know what? We had barely left Greece that we were already longing for feta!
Think you can get feta anywhere in the world? No way! Since October 2002, feta cheese is protected by EU legislations. Only the feta produced in Macedonia, Thrace, Thessaly, Lesbos, and Mainland Greece AND exclusively with sheep or goat milk in Greece can be called feta. All similar cheese manufactured elsewhere is now coined ‘white cheese’.
Of course, feta is exported to many countries and normally you can buy it (almost) anywhere– at least in Europe. But why not enjoy the fresh feta while you’re in Greece? After all, the Greeks are really experts in producing cheese from goat or sheep milk.The method is even described in Homer’s Odyssey and apparently the technology used today has not changed since Antiquity.
Feta is usually served in small cubes as appetizers. It’s also used in salty pies, or melted on pizza. But the way we like it best is to cut off a huge and fat block. Slam it on a traditional Greek salad with black olives, big slices of onions, some herbs, and a trickle of delicate virgin Greek olive oil. Mmmmhhh… Love it!
* This blog first appeared on the Open Up Now website (to visit, click here). It is republished with permission from Mei and Kerstin, both Luxembourgers – from the tiny landlocked country, squeezed in between France, Belgium and Germany. Mei is an archaeologist and a historical researcher. Kerstin works in a Data Archive and Research Centre. In their spare time, they travel, discover new cultures and blog about their amazing experiences.
*Follow me on Twitter @MarikaSboros
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