The Big Fat Greek Holiday
As the cacophony of the unseen cicadas rises to a crescendo, a piercing blue, cloudless sky takes stage and the number of ice-cream cones per square foot peaks, you know summer has arrived in Athens.
One of the oldest cities of the world, the capital is an amalgamation of 5000 years of magnificent history. Burdened in recent times with economic duress, modern day Athens is a fragile shell of its former self, propped up on grand marble pillars, now in their dotard. The buildings wear layer of soot, like weary dark circles and yet are camouflaged in splashes of graffiti for the one million tourists that visit Greece per week.
Nevertheless, there is plenty to explore in Greece, from history, culture, music, and its stunning beach islands
You need at least three days to discover Athens, exploring the many layers of the city’s architecture. The easiest way to see the monuments is a multi-day, combined pass, that grants access to the Acropolis, the Agora, and an assortment of various other temples and monuments.
The Acropolis (translating to “highest city”) is perched high up on a hill, with the city sprawling around it. While the hill itself was inhabited much earlier, the monument complex is believed to have its origins in the 5th century BC.
Twenty-five centuries later, the site has proudly witnessed the birth of democracy, theatre, free speech, and many other hallmarks of modern civilization.
Visiting the Acropolis in summer is a daunting affair, make sure to start early in the day to beat the dry, scorching sun, and carry a bottle of water. There are two entrances - the side entrance is less crowded, and lets you explore more sites such as the Dionysus theater, before reaching the Parthenon on top of the hill. Most entry passes come with guided/audio tours, but an alternative is to download the Rick Steve app (I found this very useful while exploring Rome too).
I could write pages and pages about the Museum visit alone. Seeing the relics – statues, murals of mythological Greek Gods, folklore, bits of jewelry and other household articles – is an experience like no other (except of course visiting the British Museum which has helped itself to a rather large serving from a global buffet of artifacts)
Other notable sites are the Ancient Agora- the ancient assembly hall and a place of commerce and celebration (it houses among many other notable sculptures and temples, The temple of Hephaestus, The Stoa of Attalos), The Library of Hadrian.
In the city center around Monastiraki and Plaka districts, every stone tells a story. The new and old happily coexist - a brightly lit cheerful café shares its wall with an ancient temple, Zara sits above an excavation site.
Beware however, you will be accompanied on your trails not only by the decadent smells of Greek coffee and freshly baked pita bread, but also pickpockets, especially on the lookout for passports (as we discovered the hard way).
Despite that, one of my favourite things to do in Athens was to walk around, armed with Greek Yoghurt, topped with honey and nuts. Greek food lays heavy emphasis on meat, and some of the old, traditional hallmark restaurants in the city that you must visit are Kokkora – warm friendly ambience, with authentic food especially fried cheese, pies, croquettes and Karamanlidka - Wonderful for cured meat and aged cheese. Remember to ask for drink recommendations that pair with your dish - some staple must-tries are must try Ouzo, Raki, Metaxa and Mastika.
For food on the go, look no further than Gyros and Souvlaki– juicy shredded meat served with a pita pocket or as skewers. At sundown, settle into one of the scores of rooftop bars like A for Athens, or the Rooftop Athens, to watch the colors of the setting sun against the of the Acropolis
Day trips from Athens
The 400 BC Temple of Poseidon stands tall in Cape Sounion, the southern-most tip of the Greece Mainland. The Greeks revere the sea and have heavily relied on it for sustenance throughout their history. They even have three different names for it Palas – sea water, Pelavos – strong waves or rough sea, and Pondos, dark blue sea. (Yes, I know, it was all Greek and Latin to me too)
It is no surprise that Greek Mythology places Poseidon - the trident bearing Lord of the Oceans - as second only to Zeus. This temple was a way for mariners to pray for their safe return from voyages and its location was also significant to economic and military strategy.
The two-hour drive to the temple is beautiful - through the arid, coastal road that runs through Nouveau Riche Athenian neighborhoods, culminating in a bend that reveals the first glimpse of it's sparkling white columns , against a magnificent blue canvas.
There are many legends associated with the temple, but here’s an interesting fact! The respectable poets Byron and Shelly were so taken by the temple, that they scribbled their names into the marble pillars, therefore setting the pace of generations of vandals to come
Another good idea for a day trip is Epidaurus, known for its majestic 14000- seater theater, built in the 4th century. Its acoustics are so remarkable, that even today, it proudly hosts events and performances.
Greek Islands - Santorini and Paros
The distinct white and blue topography that unites the Cycladic islands, is unmistakable. While the colours are synonymous with the national flag and the all-important sea, the origin is far more pragmatic. White was an effective way to keep the stone houses cool in the merciless Greek summer, and it was combined with limestone to combat cholera. Blue was a cheap, easily available colour for local fishermen. In later years, the colours were mandated in an effort to inspire nationalism and eventually came to stay because they had turned into a brand by themselves.
Santorini comprises three towns (Oia, Imerovigli,and Fira) swept up onto the rim of a collapsed Volcano (caldera). Oia has the most charming sunsets, in the midst of impeccable white buildings, strewn on a stony dessert plate like scoops of vanilla ice-cream.
Take a walk to the main boulevard – a path that runs along the edge of the caldera papered with layers of cafes, shops and wine bars, intriguing little alleys, blue domed churches, and finally leading up to Oia castle and the Windmills.
You can spend hours doing this, stopping every now and then for gelato or wine. Each time you look up from your glass, you will be astounded by how beautiful the view is - gentle slopes of the caldera, covered in snowy white houses, some sporting blue domes like a jaunty hat, and bushy unruly streams of pink bougainvillea, draped over the houses
If you are determined to get moving and see more of Santorini, you can rent a two-wheeler (Indian licenses accepted), and ride to the Red Beach and Black Beach. The term beach is really a misnomer, they are just tiny little coves. There are also boat rides out to the volcano. But Santorini is truly best experienced on foot, our favorite thing to do was to wander around aimlessly in Oia, taking tons of pictures.
While Santorini and Mykonos are the most popular, some of the lesser-known islands are worth putting on your itinerary.
Entirely over-run by cats, not so much by tourists, Paros is a good for a two-day stop. All the action is in Parikia and Naoussa, and that’s where you should stay – pick Airbnbs over hotels, and take recommendations from your hosts on markets, restaurants, and local events.
Start with Ragkousis bakery at the center of the Naoussa pier and make your way to any of the taverns or cobblestoned bars that sit right at the edge of the water, so you can take in the sunset, with the waves lapping at your feet.
Some other highlights in Paros are the gorgeous rocky beaches of Kolympethris and Aliki.
A 20-minute drive/ride towards the center of the island, is the quintessentially historic town of Lefkes. Its narrow stone alleys, shaded by hues of bougainvillea, make for a very pleasant walking tour, through chapels, rustic taverns, and houses. A serene calmness hangs over the air, together with an uninterrupted, sweet smell of lavender.
If you have the time, spend a half trekking the gentle Byzantine walking trail. Originally laid entirely with marble, this 1000 AD trail connects Lefkes to the delightfully picturesque village of Prodromos.
Lefkes is also good for picking up souvenirs, or exploring art exhibits, but most of all it is ideal for a quiet reflective day, spent at the town square.
Greece makes for a charming holiday, but it can be quite expensive, so here are a few pointers
1. Aim for the shoulder season, just after summer.
2. Eat at local restaurants
3. When in Santorini, avoid the expensive hotels with Caldera views. Instead stay on the opposite side and walk up the main town area for the views.
4. Ask your AirBnB to arrange pick up in the islands – the ports are full of louts! For Athens, download Beat to book cabs or use the metro
5. Watch out for pickpockets and scammers!!