Part 3: Sightseeing in the city
10 May 2014
If you say the word “Greece” to most people, they picture the Acropolis of Athens. For some reason, many people also assume that this is the highest point in the city. It is not. That title belongs to Mt Lykavittos. At just over 900 feet tall, it is not much of a “mountain”, but compared to the rest of the city it is gigantic. (For comparison, the Acropolis is only 490 feet high.) Today, I will be hiking up to the top, accompanied by Dad.
While my first visit to Lykavittos wasn’t until our third or fourth trip to Athens, Mom and Dad made a parents-only visit on our second trip. (My sister and I returned to the hotel with our Aunt Lil, who was traveling with us.) After looking over the map, Mom found a street that went about two-thirds of the way up the hill to the station for the funicular train, which would take them the rest of the way. However, when they reached the street, the parents discovered that it was actually stairs, so rather than walking along a sidewalk they climbed flight after flight of stairs. Based on this experience, the first time that they took my sister and I to the hill they hired a cab to drive us to the funicular station.
I had been back to Lykavittos several times in the intervening years, but on this, my first trip alone, I decided that I wanted to try hiking the whole way up. My initial plan was to take the Metro to Syntagma and proceed from there. The universe apparently had other plans: I learned from hotel staff that there was a transportation workers’ strike that day, so no Metro and no buses. Being the stubborn individual that I am, I decided that I would walk the whole way instead, and so I did.
I was definitely breathing a little heavily by the time I reached the top of the hill, but it was worth it. I had forgotten just how green the hiking trail was; it was a good antidote to the dust, grey, and brown of the rest of the city. As I looked out over the city, snapping pictures, I made a promise to myself: Any future visits would involve hiking Lykavittos.
Dad didn’t bat an eye when I told him that I planned on walking the whole way. We keep a nice, steady pace, and it feels like only a few minutes have passed when we climb the last stair and make for the hiking trail. “That’s a lot easier than I remember,” I comment, and Dad laughs. We’ve had similar discussions before: It’s amazing how much of a difference the testosterone has made in my body in the last five years. Between that and my exercise regimen, I am barely breathing hard.
We take our time going up the trail, stopping frequently to admire the view. Of course, the view from the trail is nothing compared to the view from the top. As we walk out to the observation point, the whole city is at our feet. Directly across from us to the south is the Acropolis and the New Acropolis Museum.
For this first year, Mom arranged for us to visit the Acropolis through a bus tour. My sister and I were easily the youngest on the bus, but the guide and other tourists were very nice and made sure that we always had a spot near the front of the group so that we could see everything. While that year we only say the physical ruins, in later years my family made a point of visiting the little museum that stood at the top of the hill, housing artifacts for cleaning and protection from the elements.
Ten years after our first visit to the Acropolis, not too much has changed at the site itself. The construction equipment used by the restoration project moves around every year; some section of the Parthenon is always hidden by scaffolding. I think I was in high school when I came up with the game of counting how many languages I hear being spoken at the site. Aunt S jokes that she is going to write a book called, “Inappropriate Footwear of the Acropolis”, chronicling the poor judgement shown by half of the tourists, namely the ladies that opt to wear stiletto heels when visiting a place where the ground is uneven, slick marble.
This was my first trip alone. After years of seeing the site with family, it felt very strange to go to the top of the hill by myself. I had to ask a fellow tourist to take my picture in the “traditional” spot on the east side of the temple. The big excitement this year was the opening of the New Acropolis Museum at the base of the hill. Among other advantages, such as vastly increased storage and display space, the new museum boasts Plexiglas floors that allow visitors to watch the ongoing excavation of the ruins beneath the building. The plan is that once excavations are complete, tourists will be allowed to walk through the area.
Using my knowledge of the city, I can pick out many more cultural landmarks from up here than the average tourist.To the left of the New Acropolis Museum I can see Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. I walk to the right, and can find the National Archaeological Museum, home of quite possibly my favorite statue in Athens: The Jockey of Artemision. Mom, Dad and I visited there just yesterday. I can also make out our hotel, and I think I can see the building where Yiayia lives, although I can’t be certain. Eventually, I stop identifying things and just enjoy the view. Not much longer after that, Dad and I begin making our way back down the hill so that we don’t miss meeting up with Mom at the Benaki Museum.
This summer was in some ways the hardest trip I made. I spent three weeks in the British Isles as part of a People to People Student Ambassador group. I was home for barely a week before the whole family packed up and returned to Athens. I’d suffered from homesickness during the People to People trip, and it only intensified in Athens, even though I had my family with me.
I mention this because this was the first year we went to the Benaki Museum, and at the time I didn’t like it. Well, that’s not entirely true: I enjoyed the traditional costumes on display, and one case had examples of the different types of helmets worn by Greek warriors. Other than that, I thought it was a big waste of time.
It’s amazing how much our moods are affected by things like travel and lack of sleep. A couple of years after that first visit, Mom insisted that we return to the Benaki, and to my great surprise I found out that it was a lot better than I remembered. Housed in the Benakis family mansion, the museum started out as merely a display of the family’s collection of Islamic and Byzantine artifacts. Of course, nowadays the museum has many more things on display, from pottery to the costumes to two entire rooms whose walls are made of carved wood.
Once Mom joins Dad and I, we spend a happy couple of hours revisiting our favorite pieces and discovering new treasures. This year, the museum is apparently celebrating 35 years of educational workshops. To commemorate the occasion, they have hung examples of children’s artwork on the wires that fill the center of the back staircase, creating a five-floor high exhibit of the types of programs the museum does. As a former museum educator, this has to be my favorite piece this year.
After we finish browsing the museum, we head for the “shopping district” of Monastiraki and Plaka. Mom wants to finish souvenir shopping today (she and Dad leave on the 12th), but I convince them to stop for lunch at one of the open-air tavernas before we get too far into the shop-lined streets. Tavernas like this one are all over the place, often back-to-back: An interior kitchen across the way or next to a large outdoor seating area, typically covered by awnings or umbrellas. The maitre’d’s of these establishments stand by the edge of their respective restaurant’s territory, cajoling passerby to stop in for a meal, a snack, or a drink. The menus at these places are also rather similar, although there can be different translations of the same dish (each menu is printed in Greek and English). The translations sometimes make us laugh: For a long time, there was a taverna that advertised vegetarian pizza with bacon.
Lunch is very laid back. Dad and I read the books we have brought along, while Mom people-watches. We also discuss what souvenirs she is still looking for, and what if anything else she and Dad want to do before they leave. I make a case for the Jewish Museum, which they agree could be fun to do tomorrow. Once we are done with the meal, it is time to plunge into the mass of humanity among the shops.
I truthfully don’t know how to best describe Monastiraki and Plaka. Some banners that hang above the streets refer to it as a flea-market, but that is not the whole picture. Dozens of shops are pressed side by side, ranging from high-end jewelry and clothing shops to places that sell what can best be described as “schlok”. T-shirt shops abound, yet there are also several stores that sell hand-made olive wood products. Individuals who do not have a physical store set their wares on little tables or against an empty wall. Though several of the streets are supposed to be pedestrian-only zones, you still have to watch out for the occasional motor bike or scooter zipping through. There are several grocers that sell items marketed to the tourists, but also a couple of actual mini-supermarkets. Many shops sell some mixture of shirts, pottery, and bronze or brass sculpture. In short, it is a wonderful, crazy place to visit.
Within a couple of hours, all three of us are satisfied that we have found everything we need. (While I am here until the 15th, I figured that it could not hurt to finish my shopping, too.) Mom and Dad want to take the Metro back, but I decide to walk back to the hotel. Mom wants to take a nap before we go to Yiayia’s for dinner, so I agree that I will call their room around a quarter of six. And so ends another fine day in the city of Athens.