Post 3 of a series – you can read my other Greece posts here.
Having walked around Athens’ ancient monuments yesterday, today we would see them from far above and learn the amazing history behind them.
After yesterday‘s breakfast fail, today we wanted to do it right. We found a place online famous for its waffles, which also happened to be on the same side of the city as Mt. Lycabettus. Banca Cafe’s main menu had more lunch than breakfast items (Steve ordered a ham, cheese and salad sandwich) but there was a separate menu for the waffles. These were not the usual large flat waffles, but individual waffle cubes! I ordered the ones with praline (Nutella to you and me) and banana, and they were amazing: warm, light, crisp and clearly freshly made. It was another overwhelmingly sweet and stodgy breakfast, but good fuel for the walk we had ahead.
Leaving Banca Cafe, we pulled out the Athens map we’d picked up free at the airport and began following it to Mt. Lycabettus. Our intention was to find the funicular railway and take it up the mountain, but this wasn’t marked on the map. We found ourselves climbing up very steep streets and eventually reached the scrubland we assumed marked the mountain’s beginning. With little idea of where we were, we decided to just follow the mountain path upwards to see where it took us. It was a tiring climb under the hot midday sun, and we stopped briefly at a lookout point that was already very high above the city.
When we reached the top we couldn’t believe how high we’d climbed! A small monastery up there offered some welcome respite from the heat. but the incredible 360-degree view was the real attraction. At this height the Panthenaic Stadium, Acropolis, Temple of the Olympian Zeus and Philopappou Hill were all visible at once – the long distances between them dissolved. In the misty distance lay the sea and the Cyclades, and in the other direction the rest of Greece. The photos really cannot do the view justice.
On the other side of the mountain top was a very expensive café, where we bought one drink between us in order to sit and enjoy the view a bit longer! We then took the funicular railway back down, which, strangely, was encased in a dark tunnel so you couldn’t see the view. Instead, our eyes were drawn to random words projected in light around the tunnel walls – such as ‘fun’ – that I assumed were meant to be associated with tourism in Athens. How odd!
We were still at a high elevation when we stepped off the funicular, only on the opposite side of the mountain to which we’d come up. We worked our way down more steep streets towards the large road Leoforos Vasilissis Sofias, then headed to the Acropolis Museum.
The Acropolis Museum
I probably like museums more than many people, but still think they can be a bit boring to visit on holiday. We decided to visit the Acropolis Museum because we thought it would be a vital part of the full Ancient Greece experience. I ended up getting so much more out of it than I expected – my only regret was not coming here before visiting the Acropolis itself.
The photo above shows the remains of ancient houses that lie beneath the museum’s front porch, but beyond its doors photos were prohibited (though that didn’t stop some people). You’ll just have to take my word for it when I say that the museum is totally unique. Far more than a repository for bits and pieces found at the Acropolis site, the building is cleverly designed to mirror the Acropolis itself, reimagining it in modern stone, glass and metal. This is nowhere clearer than on the top floor, where wall-to-wall windows encircle inner walls laid out to emulate the Parthenon. These walls are decorated with retrieved friezes held in the same spaces they occupied on the Parthenon originally. It’s an ingenious way of showing you what the Parthenon looked like complete, while ensuring the precious and delicate stone artwork is preserved. This presentation also enables you to read about every element in detail and understand the meaning behind it. There are, of course, many pieces missing, but artist’s impressions of what everything would have looked like originally help you to visualise the complete monument.
The lower floors hold individual relics found on the Acropolis site and elsewhere, and use them to retell Athens’ ancient history. Most sculptures are beautifully preserved, and amazing in their intricacy. The information provided with them is so comprehensive and interesting that it completely transports you back in time. A few sculptures are accompanied by coloured replicates to show what they would have looked like when first made. There’s a display dedicated to the paints used by the Ancient Greeks, and how each pigment was made. This was a revelation, as it had never occurred to me that ancient sculptures were ever coloured any differently to how they appear today. There was also a video to watch explaining the story behind the Parthenon’s construction under the rule of Pericles.
The Goddess Athena
My favourite part of the museum was learning about the Ancient Athenians as people, and particularly their reverence of the goddess Athena. Forget Zeus and Aphrodite – Athena is the best Greek deity of them all, in fact the best deity ever invented.
Athena is the goddess of – brace yourself – wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilisation, law and justice, strategic warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, craft and skill. In other words, she’s a formidable warrior who’s also incredibly intelligent and artistically talented. As Athena’s name suggests, she is also the protector of Athens. Stories tell of her defeating countless men and beasts, both physically and mentally. She’s basically a feminist icon. In Athena and in many other things, it appears that the Ancient Greeks grasped gender equality better than many do today (it seems to me that it all went wrong with the creation of the Abrahamic religions, but that’s a topic for another time).
To top it all off, rather than being born in the usual way, Athena exploded from her father Zeus’s head fully grown and wearing armour. I’ve never heard of a more awesome way of coming into existence.
Dinner with a view
We left the Acropolis Museum at 6pm, our brains bursting with newfound knowledge and our stomachs growling with hunger. I’d decided that nothing would do tonight except dinner with a view of the Acropolis, and earlier we’d enquired at a few expensive hotels in Plaka only to find them “fully booked”. Thankfully, I’d managed to find another potential off the beaten track on TripAdvisor; but finding the Peacock Roof Garden Restaurant in real life proved more difficult. It was located incorrectly on the TripAdvisor app, but after some confusion we managed to locate it on our paper map.
We walked into the posh foyer of Hera Hotel fearing another rejection, so were relieved to be told we could go straight up to the restaurant. Stepping off the lift, we were amazed at how empty the restaurant was – there was only one other table occupied – and worried that we may have made a mistake. These worries were quickly dispelled when the waiter sat us by a table overlooking the Acropolis and promptly brought us menus full of tempting and moderately priced dishes. After ordering we were brought a basket of warm, freshly baked bread rolls of all different types, and a plate of olives with tomato dipping sauce. This was all it took to prove we’d made the right decision.
We shared a delicious starter of grilled calamari salad, which contained the most tender, naturally delicious squid I’ve ever eaten. The salad was lovely too, with an amazingly tasty dressing. For main course, Steve had lemon sole (which was unexpectedly bread-crumbed and fried) and I had the “grilled chicken millefeuille”: a stack of grilled chicken breasts layered with tomato slices and feta, smothered with the tastiest mixture of sauces I’ve ever tasted. These were balsamic vinegar, a tangy tomato sauce, a green oregano sauce and an undefinable yellow sauce that tasted like heaven. The whole dish tasted intensely fresh and flavoursome.
For dessert we had to try the Greek doughnuts, which we later found out are called loukoumades. These are much crispier than normal donuts, and came in a huge pile soaked in honey and sprinkled with cinnamon and nuts. They were divine!
As we enjoyed this long and leisurely feast – the service was the right kind of slow – we watched the sun set behind the rooftops and the Acropolis light up. The restaurant only got a little busier and dimmed along with the sky, giving it a relaxed, candle-lit ambience. It was my favourite evening in Athens and worth every step out of the city centre.
Tomorrow would be our final day in Athens and we planned to spend it doing the opposite of what we’d done for the rest – very little, at the natural spa of Lake Vouliagmeni.
All photos and text (c) Juliet Langton, 2015. All rights reserved.