Monday, 7 November 2016

Athens: Lay Claim to the Barren Streets of Dawn

30 July 2016
Athens, Greece (Αθήνα, Ελλάδα) 
Disembarking at dawn, we were relieved to find ourselves on solid ground again and excited for the day ahead. François and Fabienne dropped us off in Syntagma Square (Athens' largest square that sits right in front of the Greek Parliament) and we said our goodbyes. It had been a wonderful two weeks, and in 24 hours we would be back in the UK while they would take a few days to catch another ferry to Italy and drive cross-continent to Lille. Their first stop was Delphi, whereas ours was trying to find a bakery open for breakfast.
Setting off, we noticed a few places that we had visited on our last trip to Athens in 2013 and reminisced accordingly. However, it was too early in the morning for anything at all to be open. Thinking that we might have more luck searching in the more touristy Plaka neighbourhood underneath the acropolis, we headed in that direction but still found each street completely deserted and shop doors shut. Though our main priority was food due to hunger and grogginess, we did appreciate the feeling that we had a whole city to ourselves! Looking both ways before crossing a street (you can never be too careful), we saw the first car of the morning and stopped to let it past. As it drew closer, we noticed that it had a red number plate and with a jolt realised that it was the car we had been travelling in across Crete, Karpathos and Rhodes! François rolled down his window and explained that they decided it would be a shame not to see the acropolis before leaving for Delphi, so they were navigating the narrow roads of the Plaka. We hopped in the back again and made for the top of the hill.
The carpark right next to the acropolis is reserved for tourist busses only, but it was completely empty so we parked illegally and trotted up to the entranceway. Of course, it wasn't open at that time, but we were able to see the glow of sunrise behind the acropolis. There were actually a few other people around: a disgruntled groundskeeper who was hosing down the marble path, and several backpackers who were curled up on park benches catching a few Zs before the site opened.
Bidding farewell for a second time, we started off down the hill to continue our bakery quest while the others drove off, this time really going to Delphi. A couple of old dogs followed us, possibly in the hopes that we had food (how wrong they were). After a few minutes, we saw a car with a red number plate driving back up the hill towards us and François explained that apparently that route was blocked off. Laughing, we waved goodbye for the final time and wandered through the Plaka. The city was beginning to wake, and we saw that a couple of cafés had opened and a man was unloading baked goods from a truck for his stall.

We bought sesame bread from him (which was not quite as nice as that from the bakery in Masari) and settled at the 11th-century Church of Panaghia Kapnikarea, which sits smack bang in the middle of a small square between Plaka and Syntagma. To while away the time until archaeological sites would open, we sipped on juice and coffee at a café on the square and contemplated our options. We knew that we wanted to do some sightseeing, but we had our backpacks and didn't fancy lugging them around all day. Also needing to print the boarding passes for our flight, Yannick had the idea to visit a hostel and ask where we could fulfil those services as they would have to handle similar questions frequently.
The area around the flea market is a hub for hostels, so we picked one at random and went in. The receptionist was very nice, and printed our boarding passes for free! He also told us of a luggage storage place just around the corner that was fairly affordable. Hostel questioning success! We were able to store our bags for the entire day for €8, and freed from our backburdens we set off for the Ancient Agora of Athens.

In ancient Greece, the agora was the focal point of socialisation and is similar to a Roman forum. As we entered, our attention was immediately drawn to the Church of the Holy Apostles. Built in the 10th-century, it's one of the oldest churches in Athens and was constructed partially over a 2nd-century nymphaeum.

We wandered around the site for next couple of hours, reading plaques and resting under shady trees when the heat became unbearable. Though much of the site was heavily ruined, remnants of the buildings that once formed the agora could still be seen and we marvelled over the size of some of the pillars and stone slabs that lay discarded. An interesting feature we found was the water clock, which would tell the time of day using running water as a measure (though without the water it looked more like an emptied swimming pool).

At one point we walked up the hill to the Temple of Hephaestos which was (in a word) badass.

Forget the 11th-century. Forget the 10th-century! We're talking about Before Christ now, people. This temple was built in 415BC, and remains largely intact to this day. Let that sink in for a moment. It's amazing! (In order to capture the above photo, we were forced to wait for a German couple to move. They stood right in the perfect location to snag the aforementioned photo, chatting away, and a queue had formed behind them for that exact photo op reason. They were completely oblivious! Yannick and I shared some eye-rolling with an American group who were also in the informal queue, an unlikely time for bonding. But we finally got the photo!)

The view from the front of the temple was also stunning, as you could see out over the whole agora and beyond to the acropolis.

Our last stop at the agora was the Stoa of Attalos, which had been reconstructed and turned into a museum. Quite impressive in its own right, the stoa displayed some beautiful sculptures and artefacts that had been unearthed at the agora and we enjoyed walking around sheltered from the sun.
Before lunch, we wandered around the flea market and found the same spot where we had seen a gramophone fall on a vendor's head on our last trip. Then we strolled around the Roman Agora, which had been built in Roman times when Athenians felt that the Ancient Agora was becoming too cluttered with buildings. I mean literally strolled around, as we didn't actually go inside the site, but circumnavigated the perimeter looking through the fence.
We found a vegetarian café for lunch called Avocado. Yannick had pasta dish with pesto while I opted for a "macrobiotic" meal. I didn't know what a macrobiotic meal was (I'm still not too sure on the details), but the description sounded a lot like the food I eat at home. Mainly comprised of rice, sweet potato, greens and tofu with a soy dipping sauce, it was delicious and a change from all the traditional Greek food we had been eating.
From there we tried to take a tram and failing that a bus to the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. When discussing the city with Fabienne, we had recalled only visiting the Acropolis Museum, while she mentioned that the archaeological museum was well worth a visit. Not wanting to miss out, we paid the entrance fee and began our perusal. Within five minutes, we realised that we had in fact visited that very museum before, spotting the gilded death mask of Agamemnon (alleged). Silly us!

Luckily, it didn't really matter that we had visited before, as it was three years ago and we had forgotten seeing most of it. A few artefacts jumped out at us, one being a kleroteria: a stone slab with allotment slots used for determining who would be up for jury duty. Kleroteria stood at the entrance to every court in ancient Athens.

Loafs of bread from thousands of years ago never fail to impress me! We also took great interest in the Egyptian section, which featured wooden sculptures, sarcophagi, and papyrus documents. 

The evening was wearing on, so we went to retrieve our bags from the storage facility (after being beset by pesky mosquitos in a park by Syntagma), and settled in for one last Greek dinner at Paradosiako. We battled the urge to order a wide range of tasty sounding dishes with the reality that we had eaten a sizeable lunch and should be sensible. We managed to reach a middle ground, and ordered stuffed peppers, baked feta, skordalia and lemon potatoes. Unlike the skordalia made with potatoes that we had tried previously, this specimen was made from soaked bread and tasted like the most amazing garlic bread dip you can imagine. It was garlicky and bready and olive oily and I need more of it. We made the most of our evening by taking our time eating and drinking copious amounts of rosé and sparkling water, knowing we would have to spend several hours at the airport waiting for our flight.
Boring airport stuff aside, when we returned to London we went straight back to Bethnal Green where we could stay in a nice little flat with a nice little cat. I was ecstatic to be able to eat less oily food for a while, but eventually came around to the idea of "Greek nights" where we would prepare an array of mezes as if we ran our own taverna!
So, our goal of enjoying great food, visiting archaeological sites and sunbathing on stunning beaches was certainly fulfilled. Bring on our next Greek trip!

This post was almost called: 'Pastry Quest - Sesame Says Me!'