My First Impression of Athens

Athens, the home of the world’s greatest philosophers. Athens, the cradle of Western civilization. Athens, the jewel of the Ancient World. Just the name inspires a tingling thrill throughout my body, so when I caught a glimpse of the actual land through the airplane window, I almost fainted.

See the blurry, sunny section over yonder? That right there is Athens.

The feeling only grew worse as I saw all the signs at the airport. Signs with the authentic, Greek, alphabet. This was perfectly natural, obviously, but there was something fascinating about seeing the ancient-looking language on modern airport signs.

Soon enough, we hopped into an Uber and headed towards the city on highways that closely resembled American ones. Along the way, our kindly driver showed us various places of interest, like a giant ancient amphitheater, and warned us that the plump oranges speckling the luscious green trees on every street did not taste as sweet as they looked, from personal experience.

When we encountered rush hour traffic and inched along in the narrow streets, he taught us some basic Greek words and phrases, most of which my limited brain simply couldn’t retain. Russian seemed so much easier. But after drilling the pronunciation of ευχαριστώ (efcharistó), or thank-you, over and over, we were able to say it at an acceptable level of correctness when we finally arrived at The Acropolis Hotel and bid him Αντίο (Adio), or farewell.

After we dropped off our luggage, I was pumped and ready to see what Athens is famous for: the Acropolis! From the airport to the hotel I had strained my head in vain for signs of the ancient temples, and all I could see from the street in front of The Acropolis Hotel (which, according to Papa and the map, was walking distance to said temples) was this:

However, the sun wasn’t getting any younger and would hardly allow us enough time to thoroughly tour the site. We would have all of tomorrow for that and more before leaving for the airport in the evening.

So we decided to wander the streets and see what we could find. It didn’t take very long for us to spot and head under a random arch (later I found it was Hadrian’s Gate, built around 131 AD)…

I could see the distant Acropolis hill under the arch!

…and for me to see my first Ancient Greek ruins: the Temple of Olympian Zeus!

I do have lovely timing, don’t I? xD

It didn’t take much effort for me to know that it was dedicated to Zeus, King of the Olympian gods, but what I didn’t know was that, although construction began in the 6th century BC, it was not completed until the 2nd century AD (if you do the math, that’s 638 years after the project had begun.) But, with its 104 colossal columns and renown as the largest temple in Greece, the delay was worth it.

Look at the detail on those columns!

Unfortunately it wasn’t worth it for very long, because it only stood for about a century before it was pillaged during a barbarian invasion and eventually reduced to ruins. Only 16 columns remain, but those sixteen are so massively gigantic that my imagination could fill in the gaps and stand there in awe.

We continued walking when we stumbled upon some random ruins, right in the center of the city! It was discovered by accident when the Athens metro system was being created, which I, for some reason, found hilarious. Gotta watch where you’re digging, you might uncover an ancient ruin!

Nine times out of ten a random ancient ruin is a Roman bath, and that was the case this time. It doesn’t lessen the amazing impact, however, of seeing something that was a part of people’s daily routine thousands of years ago.

We continued along the street until we reached a large building that was probably once very majestic but now seemed worn down with age. I found out that it was the Old Royal Palace, the first of modern Greece, but it now housed the Parliament of Greece. Hence the Evzones (a historically elite fighting force) guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers in front and the inevitable changing of the guards.

This tomb commemorates every Greek soldier who has died fighting for his country, so it is a great honor to keep watch over it. The Evzone guards are fiercely dedicated to their task of standing absolutely motionless and at attention. So dedicated, in fact, that when a participant of a violent protest in 2001 threw a Molotov cocktail at the wooden guardhouse, causing it to go up in flames, the Evzone on guard beside it didn’t move until given the order to do so, at which point it could be seen by all that his uniform was partially on fire.

Doesn’t he look intimidating? Only an Evzone could look scary with Tinker Bell shoes on.

While we waited for these dedicated guards to make their hourly change, Mama and Micah spied a line of the aforementioned orange trees that looked so much juicier up close. Papa and I warned them of what the Uber driver had told us, but, as Micah postulated, “Maybe he was trying to keep the oranges away from us tourists.” Mama also pointed out that our fruit expedition in Moscow had proved successful, after which I pointed out that no one had warned us against the fruit there.

Still, they thought it was worth trying out for themselves, so they marched off to pick some.

A few minutes later and they came back laughing, exclaiming at how sour and bitter and tongue-twisting the oranges were. At least they couldn’t say that I didn’t warn them. 😛

Sorry for the blur…I was too busy laughing at Micah’s scrunched up face. 😛

Soon, I saw a glimpse from the side as the new guards marched to take the place of the old ones. Their march was rather odd, marked with hops, leg lifts, and occasional stamps. But it was a great pleasure and honor to watch, and I couldn’t help but feel the guards’ relief at being relieved from their posts.

After this, Papa relinquished the GPS/phone to Micah which, I should have realized, was not the most advisable thing to do, if you valued your feet. Yes, my little brother is a passionate coin collector. Yes, he had done lots of research to find coin shops in all the countries we visited. Yes, he had been begging to go to this particular Greek coin shop for weeks. But his coin-searching endeavors knew no limits. He often led us on exhausting expeditions through parts of a city that most locals (let alone tourists) have probably never been to.

And he certainly didn’t disappoint this time.

The sky was almost entirely dark by the time we wandered into a suspiciously smelly alley that, according to Google maps, was our destination. No coin shops were in sight, and the shops that were in sight, which sold very random things like plastic chairs and hair dryers, were closed. Similarly random assortments of old posters and advertisements hung on the sides of buildings.

In fact, on closer inspection, I discovered a Lord of the Rings poster, which rocketed up my respect for that run-down part of Athens. While I admired it, Micah scampered around, darting down small streets and inspecting the store-fronts on a hunt for the coin shop.

Finally, down a street that was not on Google maps and next to a warehouse that sold vacuum cleaners, was a quaint little coin shop with a quaint little owner who was closing for the night. He spoke about as much English as we spoke Greek, but he made it very clear that he was not selling anything because his shop was closed, pointing to the sign on the door.

Dear little Micah, being the passionate coin collector that he is, was not deterred. He whipped out Google Translate and very politely asked the man if he would make an exception for a young coin collector like him. After many tries and refusals, the coin-shop owner finally smiled, rummaged around behind his counter, and plunked a bag of coins in Micah’s hand, saying that he would give it to him for free. As Micah thanked him (in Greek) with the biggest smile in the world, the man beamed and ruffled my little brother’s mop of curly brown hair, admiring it like so many strangers did.

Maybe there was something to messy curls after all.

The man’s kind, glowing smile lit up the dark night as we exited his shop, making me feel like it was worth our long meandering through the streets. It made me remember that there are many kind people out there who want to help, want to give so graciously, even in the smelly backstreets of a sprawling city like Athens.

And phew, was it smelly! As we followed the GPS to our next destination – dinner – the stenchified air only grew heavier with foulness.

Finally, only two streets away from a little restaurant, I saw sticky red blood trickling down the pavement. My wild imagination imagined the worst, but when we entered the street I immediately gagged in disgust.

It was a meat market closing for the day, but there was still plenty of dead, bloody flesh hanging in stalls by their legs. By flesh, I mean pigs, goats, cows…the whole nine yards. They weren’t even chopped up at all.

The stench was horrific, the blood everywhere was nauseating, some of the pigs still had hair on them…I choked and darted down the street, turning a corner with Micah on my heels, and finally collapsed on a chair in the restaurant.

The meat market shop owners calmly hosed things down without sparing us a glance.

You might be thinking that this traumatizing experience turned me into a vegetarian. Not a chance. Possible the only Texan thing about me is that I love barbeque, and I wouldn’t give that up any time soon.

Dinner was okay. I’m not the biggest fan of sour acidity, which is what a lot of Greek food is, like their yogurt, cheese, and other things I didn’t know the name of. The olives, however, were the most delicious things ever. Everything had some form of olives in it, from the actual fruit to olive oil on…everything.

Greek salad

After dinner, we wandered back through the streets to our hotel, stopping by a dessert shop on the way (because why not?) We got a Greek dessert called Baklava, which is a pastry made with layers of thin pastry-dough and baked nuts, held together with honey. Honey. Yummy.

It was so delicious that it was completely gone in seconds, not allowing me time to get a picture of it. Here’s one from the internet:

Finally, exhausted from touring the backstreets of Athens, we arrived back at our hotel. I fell asleep almost instantly so as to wake up earlier to see what Greece is really known for: the Acropolis.

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