Greece – 1. Arrival in Athens

Post 1 of a series you can read my other Greece posts here.

I’d always wanted to visit Athens. In my mind, there’s nowhere in Europe with a more fascinating history – especially not on grand display for all to see. I was also excited to gorge myself on glorious Greek food: rich feta, juicy tomatoes, creamy yoghurt, sweet honey, smoky grilled meat and freshly baked pitta bread. All of this under the hot September sun – what could be better?

And yet, Athens’ and Greece’s news coverage in recent years – replete with protest, instability and debt – has thrown a different light on the holiday hot spot. A couple of months prior to our trip, the country’s financial woes came to a head and there were stories that its ATMs were empty and its businesses refusing to take credit cards. We elected to change all our money before we left, pay for everything in cash and be on our guard. But we needn’t have worried. While signs of discontent were not absent, Athens was as welcoming to tourists as I expect it always has been.

Checking in

We got the metro from the airport into town, which was really easy; although it would have been more comfortable without the buskers getting on and off throughout the journey. Arriving at Syntagma Square, it was easy to find our Airbnb apartment even without the ability to read Greek street signs. Admittedly, we were a little daunted when we found that it lay down a scruffy side street, in a dingy block of flats and shops, and behind two padlocked metal fences.

But those reservations melted away when we laid eyes on the beautiful apartment: bright, stylish and beautifully decorated, with two French windows leading out onto a giant private balcony overlooking the Acropolis. A luxury suite for the price of a hostel – this is why I love Airbnb!

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Our first Greek lunch

It was about 3pm by this time, and we’d had no lunch. Fortunately, we’d spotted a restaurant directly opposite the entrance to our apartment. In English it was called Filema Mezedopoleio, and we were pleasantly surprised by how good it was considering it was just the first place we’d seen.

Because it was our first Greek meal, I wanted to try something local: and I recognised ‘hot peppers’ on the menu after seeing it mentioned as a traditional dish elsewhere. I thought it would be spicy bell peppers; Steve thought the ‘hot’ simply meant the peppers were cooked. Turns out it was a plate full of what I can only compare to giant jalapenos, grilled until soft but just as burningly spicy as if they were chilli peppers! I ate as much as I could manage, but still ended up apologetically leaving most of the plate, telling the waiter they were too spicy for me.

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The rest of the food was lovely. The feta with honey and sesame seeds, which was unexpectedly cased within filo pastry and deep fried, was one of the most flavoursome things I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating, and my ‘pancetta’ (strips of grilled pork) and Steve’s kebabs were really tasty. The chips were obviously homemade, and had a delicious flavour. We were delighted when the waiter brought us a complementary chocolate mousse-like dessert and a couple of alcoholic shots with our bill! We learnt over the following days that if you’re not brought free alcohol at the end of your meal, you went to the wrong place.

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Plaka and Philopappou Hill

We next walked to the Plaka area of town and spent some time admiring the charming architecture, browsing gift shops and acquainting ourselves with the layout. Eventually we came to Dionysiou Areopagitou, the wide pedestrianised street with the Acropolis Museum on one side, the Acropolis itself on the other. It’s unfortunate that there were quite a few out-of-tune buskers and people selling tourist tat along its length – some of them children.

Our destination was Philopappou Hill, with the aim of finishing our night at the Dora Stratou Dance Theatre to watch the last show of the year. It was an easy climb from the end of Dionysiou Areopagitou to the top of the hill, where stood the Philopappos Monument. We had a brilliant view of the Acropolis from here, and could hear, coming from that direction, what sounded like a protest underway. It was the first of several instances where we witnessed the city’s undercurrent of political unrest, yet not closely enough for us to really grasp what was going on or to be affected.

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The sun was beginning to set, and on the hill we had a choice of points from which to view it. We found a good one and sat to watch the sun as it dipped below the horizon, casting a warm glow over the distant mountains. Afterwards we still had some time left before the 8pm show at the Dora Stratou Dance Theatre – but not enough to leave the hill and find some dinner. So we just bought our tickets to the show and took our seats in the outdoor auditorium. To the relief of our grumbling stomachs, Steve managed to find a small kiosk just off to the side of the stage and brought back water, nuts and cookies to share as we watched the show.

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The Dora Stratou Dance Theatre

The show had been advertised as a showcase of traditional dance and dress, so we were a bit confused when it began with all the cast dropping bits of paper into a box, as if casting votes in an election. Okay, we thought – this must be a reference to the recent referendum, to decide whether Greece should accept the EU’s latest financial conditions or not. Only it went on for a lot longer than it needed to, and what came next made no sense at all.

The performers seemed to be parodying some sort of television talent show, with two very chatty hosts in modern dress presenting the others in traditional dress. The first problem with this was that the whole script was in Greek, with no attempt at translation, and the whole audience was English-speaking tourists. The first ‘traditional’ performance was a group of men appearing to lark around, singing the same repetitive song badly and without music for what felt like half an hour. We began wondering whether coming here was a mistake.

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It then got a little better. Eventually the seats at the side of the stage were filled by musicians, who proceeded to play Greek music as women and men in historical costume performed traditional dances. We quickly realised that most Greek dance can be boiled down to joining hands and dancing in a circle. Nevertheless, the music, dancing and costumes were interesting and enjoyable for a while. Unfortunately, between every dance was another long interlude with the presenters, which not a single person in the audience understood – they seemed to be encouraging us to vote for something, but on what exactly nobody knew! Now I know that it’s a Greek show in Greece – but I had naively thought that a show marketed at tourists would be performed with them in mind.

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The slew of repetitive dances, interspersed with incomprehensible satirical skits, went on for an unbelievably long time and the 90-minute show had now stretched beyond three hours. As the audience became increasingly restless, the performers began bringing out bottles of Ouzo and pouring shots – unfortunately, just for each other. They began drinking the shots on stage and getting increasingly drunk. By now it was abundantly clear that this wasn’t the show we’d been told to expect, but the cast’s end-of-year party. We the audience were being held hostage as they continued to take the mickey with greater and greater impudence.

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We decided to make a very awkward escape, squeezing past the people sitting in our row, which couldn’t have been more obvious if we tried. But it didn’t matter, we were that relived to get out of there. Back out on the street it was dark, and we were lost. To our immense relief, we managed to flag down a taxi and when we asked how much it would cost to get back to our apartment, the driver said 5 euros! He drove us back along a scenic route, past the illuminated parliament building, before impatiently turfing us out at our street (he didn’t want to be blocking the narrow street). Our first day in Athens had certainly been interesting – but, gazing at the lit-up Acropolis from our balcony, we were confident that visiting it tomorrow would result in a much better day!

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All photos and text (c) Juliet Langton, 2015. All rights reserved.

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