At Home With Dionysis

In Athens, No One is a Stranger and Antiquity Lives On in the Life of Everyday

On The Town | Dora Sacer | April 2007

View of the Parthenon, one of the three temples of the Acropolis, seen from the Licebetus Hill (Photo by Doris Sacer)

Taste, smell, touch, hear and see.More than just an advertising slogan, Explore your Senses becomes reality when spending a weekend in the cradle of civilization: Athens.

For me, the charm begins the moment I land. Greeks are friendly; staff and strangers help you get around the airport, talkative taxi drivers guide you around town. The Greek mentality is one of enjoying the day: together the pleasant atmosphere and Mediterranean climate make Athens one of my favourite places for a holiday.

And don’t worry about the language. Most Athenians speaks English well, or well enough, and most signs are bilingual. Athens is a very comfortable place, and it simply feels good there as people welcome you with open arms.  At times even literally.

Our time was limited, but we found a few ways to make the most out of our weekend trip.

We went in search of the view. To see the city from above, we took a cable car to the Licabetus Hill – the highest point in Athens. The famous restaurant Orizontes is located there, though it is rather memorable for its high prices than the food. We decided it was meant as tourists attraction and contented ourselves with the magnificent outlook over the city. From there you can choose where you’ll go when back down again.

Historical sites were on the top of our list. Within walking distance from city centre, we wandered around Europe’s most important monument of antiquity, the Acropolis. The "Sacred Rock" of Athens was once a religious centre dedicated to the goddess Athena, with its three temples of the Parthenon, the Erechteion and Temple of Nike. These superb structures are nearly miraculous in person. All built around the year 432, they still stand, in the simpler perfection of proportion and design so many years later.

Athens is also the home of Aristotle’s Lyceum, Plato’s academy, and was the host city of first modern Olympic Games in 1986.

Back in modern times, Athens is also a good city for shopping. After checking out the  designers in the Kolonaki area and a few no-name shops around the main square Syntagma we came to the department store Attica. Tastefully decorated this department carries with hundreds of brands, in a wide variety of styles, with friendly shop assistants.

Athens is crowded, however. The city’s population of approximately 3,7 million can be felt at every corner. An ever-present, nervous honking of car horns accompanies every outing, and air pollution is one of the city’s major problems. The traffic and factories around the city centre also contribute to the smog – unfortunately worst during the summer months, when green clouds cover the city.

Despite this, August is a good month to come.

"In August, Athens is like a village," a taxi driver told us. Many Athenians have holiday resorts on Greek islands and disappear, leaving the city to the visitors.

One plus: Taxis are everywhere. The yellow cars can be found at any time, although depending on where you hail it, whether you call it, stop it on the street, or join other passengers, you pay a different price. How much? That’s the question. The only rule seems to be, that what you pay is never what you see displayed on the meter.

But what’s a few euros more or less? We took a taxi to Mikrolimano, the "Little Harbour," a section of the harbour packed with restaurants and cafés where the food is both good and surprisingly cheap, The Orizontes-tactics don’t seem to have yet come down the hill. We chose a restaurant at random, and watched the ships go out to sea while treating ourselves to a small feast, followed by a double Greek coffee to stay awake. This takes some getting used to. Boiled the way the Turks do, the coffee is so dark that you literally have to wait for the coffee grounds to set down. And no sugar – at least not for the Greeks. So, if you order it, you’ll need to gulp it somehow – and the caffeine-kick is guaranteed. Recharged, we continued our walk in the Botanic gardens.

A word of warning: Here, dogs were everywhere. Wherever you go – walking around, sleeping in front of hotels, shops, or on any stairs they can find. Even at the temples.

We ended the day in the Plaka district, an area packed with traditional Greek markets and taverns, where almost any restaurant could be the right choice.

Kalokarinos however, is one of the most authentic. A huge hall, minimally decorated and packed with white-clothed tables and a stage in the middle, this is a scene straight out of  My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Once filled with people, and plates of Greek salad with feta cheese and appetizers like meat-stuffed wine leaves or cheese pies covering the table, a band starts playing Greek music accompanied by dancers in traditional white-red-blue dresses.

It feels so good being part of such a community; even when you realize that these people don’t even know each other. It’s the Greek mentality which makes it possible. The highest value set on enjoying yourself with other people, dancing and singing together, where no one is a stranger.

Moussaka or Lamb souvlaki. As the rich main dishes are savoured, a more vivid show starts: enthusiastic Greeks, and you maybe, clap to the barely anticipated Sirtaki dance, at which much of the audience can’t stay unmoved.

Just in case. For the homesick Austrians, Winner Chnitzel can be found on the menu. Yet if the taste is as authentic as the spelling, it might be better to boost your endorphins level with a sugar-loaded baklava. However, this nuts- and pistachios filled pastry is a must for everyone. Taste, indeed, is the best sense to explore in Athens.

In the end, plates are smashed as they are believed to bring luck. And if people can have such a good time on an ordinary Saturday evening at an ordinary restaurant, then it’s worth considering Athenian nightlife. The club Mao in Psiri, an area with countless bars, is a favourite for Athenian young people.

But the ultimate spot is Baraonda. After dinner in the luxurious candle-lit restaurant, we chilled out, sipping cocktails in the lounge and dancing to the DJ-s.

And thinking about how soon we would be able to come back.

Other articles from this issue