Last summer my husband and I embarked on a three-week trip around southern Greece, which was every bit as blissful as it sounds. I am in my element planning holidays… I love reading travel guides and maps, meticulously studying all the location and accommodation options prior to booking anything. This trip was something of a Greek odyssey. We flew in and out of Athens, and travelled from the capital by bus to a city called Nafplio located in the north east of the Peloponnese. From there we hired a car for 10 days to further explore the region, taking in three other smaller towns.
We have both been to Greece before, having journeyed through the country (including the mainland and some of the islands) at the end of a travelling stint in Europe in 2001. But for one reason or another, we had not returned in almost twenty years – so the prospect of revisiting Greece was particularly exciting. We stayed in five different places in total, so too many to write about in one post. You can read about the towns we visited in the Peloponnese in my separate post covering Part II of the trip – Visit: The Peloponnese. But for now it’s all about Athens…
I really like Athens. I remember liking the city a lot when we visited back in 2001 – if I hadn’t I don’t think we would have ever returned! But last year’s trip cemented just how much I really love it as a place to hang out in and explore. Firstly, the ancient sites are incredible to see. The walk up to the heights of the Acropolis to see the Parthenon, Propylaia, Temple of Athena Nike and many other remnants of ancient structures is very dramatic. With its breath-taking views over the city below, it is as wonderful an experience as you can imagine. The seemingly permanent scaffolding is a slight annoyance – it was there when we last visited in 2001 and is still there now (for ongoing essential repairs), but it’s easy enough to look beyond if you are keen on seeing the ancient ruins that you will never get the chance to see elsewhere.
But besides the ancient sites, it’s the energetic city below the Acropolis that I am really drawn to. There is an indisputable buzz about the place. It’s literally teeming with cafes and restaurants along with people spilling out onto the streets outside. Not just in the main tourist areas, but seemingly all over Athens in its residential neighbourhoods. I love finding little squares you weren’t expecting, jam-packed with bars and restaurants and people. And admiring the diverse types of architecture and residential apartment blocks – usually comprised of huge balconies with awnings, most with an array of plants tumbling over the sides. Although from what I’ve read, these are quite a contentious issue amongst the locals, and indeed many tourists.
It seems that Greeks have always had a love-hate relationship with the 20th century multi-story residential buildings which cover much of Athens (though mainly hate by the sounds of it). I believe the general consensus from both locals and tourists alike, is that Athens is simply a sprawling metropolis of ugly concrete apartment blocks. Known in Greece as ‘polykatoikia’ (originally an academic architectural term to describe the Athenian apartment buildings that literally means ‘multi-residence’), these 20th century apartment blocks are considered by many to be unsightly.
To offer some background on this issue, throughout the course of the last hundred years, the urban landscape of Athens was largely reconstructed from a city comprised of wide avenues, grand squares and neoclassical architecture to a landscape now mainly made up of modern apartment blocks. The details behind the transformation are very much socio-political, but for better or for worse, polykatoikia are now unquestionably part of the identity of Athens. The Greek capital is indeed jam-packed with these modern apartment blocks. I’m well aware that this Modernist style of architecture is disliked by many, and can very much understand how many Athenians would bear a grudge that their Neoclassical meandering streets were replaced by orthogonal grids. I am personally a huge fan of mid-century architecture, with its clean lines and ordered structure, so I absolutely love the aesthetic of the Athenian apartment buildings you encounter as you walk the streets of the city. If you dislike this style of architecture then maybe Athens isn’t the place for you, as it would be very hard to avoid…
At the start of our holiday, we stayed in a beautiful apartment in the Pangrati neighbourhood of the city. It’s not a particularly central area (it’s a short walk beyond the Panathenaic Stadium, and a 30-ish minute walk to the Acropolis) but I had found an affordable apartment online which I liked the look of, close-ish to a tube station and within walking distance of the centre, so we took a punt, which thankfully paid off. Pangrati was a fantastic, unexpected discovery. Filled with Athenians going about their daily lives, it felt like a very authentic yet modern Greek city neighbourhood that has roots in the past. It is quite far removed from the centre of Athens so many tourists don’t head there unless they are staying there. This means you really do feel like you are mixing with the locals. Packed with a diverse mix of independent shops, galleries, cafes and bars, both traditional and modern, it has a genuine charm that oozes from the mix of businesses that have been set up there, the people, the buildings… everything really.
On our first evening we headed out fairly late to find a local restaurant we had looked up online. It was located just off a square called Platia Varnava, which we discovered to be an energetic, lively spot with numerous restaurants, shops and bars – any of which I would have been happy to spend time in. Having had zero expectations about the area whatsoever, we were enchanted with what we hit upon. In fact some of my favourite memories from the entire trip are hanging out in and walking through the streets of Pangrati. It’s a peaceful part of Athens, far less hectic than the main centre, but with an underlying energy and liveliness, especially at night. And as you mooch around during the day, you catch a glimpse of traditional Greek life as you pass the old Kafenions, the traditional Greek café hangouts where typically older men drink, chat, gamble and enjoy life.
Athens struck me as surprisingly green, far more so than I had remembered (or at least it was when we visited in June). Many private homes have well-kept gardens; apartment balconies spill over with plants, while lush green trees and shrubs line the central and residential streets. There are also some lovely green parks. One in particular we visited was the National Garden, located between Pangrati and the centre of Athens, which was worth spending an hour or so in. It is the former royal garden and a peaceful green space that offers a sanctuary amongst the busy city. It’s fairly large, full of trees and shady corners, making it a perfect spot to find some respite from the sun. Carved out with a labyrinth of scenic paths plus ponds, benches, flower pergolas, ancient columns and little brooks, it’s incredibly easy to get lost in (we encountered a few dead ends), but lovely to meander through if you have the time.
Plaka is another charming area to wander through, albeit quite touristy and a little bit twee. Plaka is the largely pedestrianised hillside district located under the North East side of the Acropolis. Home to the Roman Agora and a few other museums, Plaka is mainly comprised of attractive, colourful neoclassical buildings perched along narrow lanes and steep alleys – again very green with lots of trees, plants and flowers tumbling over the sides of walls and balconies, and across houses. Due to its central location, the section of Plaka nearest to Syntagma is very crowded – packed with tourist shops selling general tourist tat, and not particularly worth spending any time in. But with its array of different coloured painted buildings, the section furthest away from the modern centre is well worth wandering around. There are plenty of hidden corners and it has a relaxed atmosphere and laid-back elegance about the place, with some nice looking cafes and restaurants. In particular, the older jumble of streets and alleys that cling to the lower slopes of the Acropolis itself is refreshingly quiet and undeniably picturesque. This part is technically a different tiny neighbourhood called Anafiotika, comprised of whitewashed homes and Byzantine churches reminiscent of what you would see on a typical Greek-island. This unique area in Athens was mostly constructed in the 19th-century by a group of workers from this island of Anafi, as Anafiots were thought to be the best builders at the time. Replicating the Cycladic style architecture from their homeland, with its stark white cubic houses, flat roofs and colourful shutters and doors, the name Anafiotika roughly translates as the ‘Little Anafi’.
We visited Athens in June, so although it was hot the temperature wasn’t unbearable. In fact, it rained on our first full day there. I imagine the heat can build to oppressive levels in August, which would make exploring less unenjoyable. But soaking up the culture and exploring the sites was ideal in June. Yes it can feel very busy and hectic in the centre, but it didn’t strike me as being any more hectic than other major capital cities. Whilst it is fantastic to see the ancient sites and certainly nice to see a slice of what ‘old Athens’ looked like in Plaka, I would highly recommend looking beyond the ruins and the old town. The real Athens is most certainly found in amongst the more ‘authentic’ neighbourhoods where you can get a true sense of everyday life in the Greek capital.
All images © 2020 Tamsin Brooke-Smith