Exploring Athens and Its Environs:
When discussing educational travel, I can’t imagine a better destination than Athens and its surroundings. Why? Because it’s the cultural center of the Western world. While much of the world stagnated in barbarian practices, living in mud huts and clawing for survival, the Greeks strolled in the warm rays of the Mediterranean sun and dwelled on such luxuries as philosophy, art, and theater. Simply put, those pursuits were unheard of in the 5th century, B.C., pretty much everywhere except Greece. And, no one can argue that Athens, in particular, flourished, due to its fortunate leadership in the Greek naval victories over the Persians. And that’s why we started here.
For Jamil and me, this is our second trip to Athens. We came here the first time because we had families asking us about study abroad to Greece. Furthermore, parents, knowing my penchant for European travel, wanted me to plan senior trips for their children to Europe. How could I recommend Greece, a place that appears in American news primarily under riotous headlines, without seeing it for myself? Well, after one trip to Athens, during which we visited only Athenian cultural sites and Minoan historical sites in Crete, I was convinced: Greece was not only safe; it was also underrated. This was raw culture. People felt strongly, completely, unabashedly Greek. They may have been part of the European Union, but they were firmly Greek, first and foremost. I loved their schedule, their adherence to a lifestyle that once dominated the entire Mediterranean area but that has faded in Italy and Spain under the duress of modern economic expectations. Greece shows no signs of releasing its traditions, however. It’s enjoy life or bust. Furthermore, the cycle of each day in Athens is carried out under the watchful, ever present eye of the Acropolis, the crowning jewel of ancient Greece.
On our first trip to Athens, Jamil and I hired no guides. We used my previously held knowledge and the wisdom of TripAdvisor (plus some Rick Steves’ genius) to find our way through the ruins and the museums. This time, we vowed to do it differently because we realized that our readers, clients, and friends needed to know where to look and whom to call to gain genuine insight into the heritage of the Western world. To my dismay, finding a guide in Athens from the United States proved a major challenge. Even for an experienced, adventurous traveler like me, the options seemed confusing, undesirable, and, to make matters worse, inconsistently priced.
Most guides to the cultural heritage sites around Athens appeared to be taxi drivers. They have nice vehicles, definitely up to American luxury standards, but they lack something critical, a tour guide license. Therefore, it seemed like a poor option for history buffs like us. I have since had to eat my words because I actually met an awesome guy who owns one such company – to be discussed later. In any case, I was looking for something entirely reputable… Fortunately, I found it.
Tip #1: Hire a guide at the Athens Archaeological Museum
Our first full day in Athens, we went immediately to the archaeological museum. I thought I could probably lead the tour myself. After all, in preparation, I listened to The Great Courses: Classical Archaeology, by Dr. John Hale, an archaeologist trained at both Yale and Cambridge, who now runs the Liberal Studies program at the University of Louisville. Furthermore, I treated myself once again to the lectures of Dr. J. Rufus Fears in his Famous Greeks series, also offered through The Great Courses. So, on all fronts, I considered myself prepared to view, absorb, AND educate my parents. However, my plans changed happily for the better at the entrance to the museum, where a woman with a sunny disposition, named Andromache, sat next to a sign advertising tours of the exhibits.
For 50 euros, we hired Andromache’s services for an hour, and she wove her way through the halls she knew so well, taking us all the way from the Stone Age to the Hellenistic Era. I completely recommend this service, especially for families and/or groups, many of which include people with varying levels of background information and interest. Andromache can offer as little or as much insight as you want, turning an overwhelming trove of antiquities into a manageable, enjoyable, educational experience. One of the most fascinating sections with Andromache was a part of the museum that basically eluded us last time, the Mycenaean section. This time, we appreciated the detailed metalwork, and while I found the silver bull with gold horns the most beautiful, the hammered-gold death masks of two twin infants were probably more significant. Furthermore, with Andromache I learned that the famed Mask of Agamemnon (long known to be a misnomer) predates the Mycenaean times, roughly 1200 BC, by 400 years. That makes it an even more significant find than it was claimed to be. I know this may not fascinate everyone, but when you see it with Andromache’s explanations and when you realize that the faces represented before you passed out of existence 3600 years ago, the weight of history and its inescapable evidence of mortality is undeniable.
Tip #2: Do not miss the Antikythera mechanism
Believe it or not, this is an ancient computer. It calculated the positions of the sun and moon at any given date. It even had its own manual, inscribed on its metal door. You should read up on the Antikythera mechanism in advance, so that you understand what you’re seeing, unless you’re lucky enough to snag a guide at the entrance, like we were.
Tip #3: Pay special attention to the marble statue of Athena that is encased in glass
This is an ancient recreation of the chryselephantine (ivory) statue of Athena that once stood in the Parthenon. Imagine it 30 feet tall and clothed in gold. That’s how the piece really was when it held court in the interior of the Parthenon as the special icon of the temple. A vivid mental image of the statue will give you an even greater sense of the magnitude of the Parthenon’s value and importance to the city-state of Athens, which took its name from Athena herself. The statue represents the pride of the polis and the commitment of the Athenian people to the reverence of their patron goddess. It was probably the most significant statue in classical Athens, and the Roman conquerors found the cult statue of Athena so mesmerizing that Constantine had it shipped to Constantinople to show his power and add to the magnificence of his namesake city.
Tip #4: If you like your museum guide, ask for further tours
The guides at the museum are all thoroughly vetted for knowledge and communication skills, so they’re top-notch. BUT, they are not bound to the museum! They can go with you to the Parthenon, to Delphi, to the Peloponnese – you name it! We know because we hired Andromache after our amazing museum tour with her. She and her lovely husband drove us over to the Ionian coast of Greece to see the shrine of Greece on the 2nd of January. And that will be our next post!
Food recommendations so far in the trip:
- Café Abyssinia – This is a tiny gem tucked into the square of a flea market. The food is outstanding. Please allow us to recommend the house baked cheese dish, the moussaka, and the yogurt/honey/walnut dessert. While everything is outstanding, these were our highlights, in addition to the excellent service.
- To Steki To Ilia – Are you into grilled meats? Hopefully, you don’t mind the random, unannounced bit of (delicious) grilled kidney tossed in with your array of charred chops…If so, you’ll be fine here. For two years, Jamil and I talked about the lamb chops here at To Steki. We recalled the long walk along the metro, the sketchy exterior of the restaurant, the pile of fatty, tender meat that greeted us. The entire experience screamed anti-timid-tourist, and we loved every second of it. So, we had to go back. We needed the rawness of the ambience and the honesty of the food. There are no formalities; there is no English; there are no apologies for any lack thereof. Order the fava (pureed yellow split peas topped with red onions), the sausage, and the lamb chops. The Greek salad is probably great during warm weather. It was a bit flavorless and forgettable during the winter. Nostra culpa for ordering them at all.
- The Rooftop Bar/Restaurant at the Hotel Grande Bretagne – Even if you don’t wind up staying here – which you absolutely should, if it’s available – you must come to the bar. It’s gorgeous, the service is phenomenal, and the fare is wonderful. You can have an excellent martini alongside a trio of delicious ceviches, plus a flavorful pizza. If that’s not enough, come for the view. You will get a photo of the entire acropolis and an unbeatable panorama of Athens and Piraeus.
- Strofi – We spent New Year’s Eve here, and honestly, I was concerned that the food would not live up to the TripAdvisor reviews (I’ve been burned before). Strofi could not have been more perfect. The view was unparalleled, and the food was perfect from start to finish. We drank fruity Greek wine and ate such delicacies as haloumi cheese straight off the grill and lemony dolmas, plus garlicky gigantes beans. Our evening was punctuated with a major event – a performance at the microphone by one of our co-diners, Zozo Sapountzaki – which made the whole evening more glamorous and the memories more indelible. I have a sneaking suspicion this will not be our last New Year’s at Strofi. It was one for the books.