What really blew my mind about Athens was that there are things there made by people we consider to be part of ancient civilisations, which used pieces of rock they scavenged from Greek ruins. Even in those ancient times Athens had stuff old enough to be considered already ancient.
That's ancient squared.
It's incomprehensibly old.
It's so old old stuff was being built from it because it was already old by then.
As you can tell - I'm still struggling to wrap my head around the sheer volume of time since the ruins here were occupied.
Another thing that impressed me was how many amazing things there were scattered about the place. You'll be walking along through a park or down a road and then out of nowhere there is a casual patch of history just hanging out.
These baths are a great example, peeking out from under a road.
Our first morning in Greece we decided to get the lay of the land (and some lovely tips and stories) by taking the Athens free walking tour. I love walking tours, I can't recommend them enough! There are a couple of companies now that offer 'free' walking tours of many cities and after having done several I still love them. Of course, you are always expected to tip your guide (they aren't volunteers, this is their real job) but its great to be able to decide how much the tour was worth to you afterwards. I have tipped guides anything from US $5 for less awesome, shorter tours or when I was just on a really really tight budget, to €25 for a much longer and more engaging tour that included a take away sheet of recommended bars, restaurants, and other things to do after the tour. Some guides will drop hints as to the amounts they think the tour is worth, which can be interesting.
Our Athens walking tour guide was energetic, enthusiastic and full of fun facts. He took us around many of the places we had on our to-see list and gave us all kinds of interesting tidbits. Like that there is a casual skull inside the wall of this Olympic games hotel thing.
The Panathenaic Stadium -
More casual really old stuff in a park!
A tiny old church in the middle of city chaos!
Those tiles on the church are real gold. Because why not..?
This square was a trading hub hundreds of years ago, and is still a big shopping area. I bought myself a handbag down one of the side streets. If you ever shop here make sure you have cash for a better price, as shop keepers will take cash to avoid tax and can then give you a better price.
Our guide also took us up to a fabulous view point over the city which we would never have seen otherwise - it certainly wasn't in any guide books I had seen! After soaking in the stunning skyline we were lead down through an old part of town built ages ago by people from the islands who has tried to make their patch of the city look more like home.
After the tour we marched back over to the Temple of Olympian Zeus and picked up one of the combo tickets they sell for 6 ancient sights, including the acropolis. If you have a valid student ID it's only €15!
It was totally worth it and allowed us to skip a few lines. It also meant we went to several places we may not have bothered with otherwise, and we really enjoyed them!
The sheer scale of the columns is hard to portray in photos, but they are easily some of the most grand human constructions I've seen. It's incredible that they are still standing after so many earthquakes.
On our tour guides recommendation we grabbed some traditional gyro for lunch and oh my were they good. My falafel were so tasty and not at all dry, and for €2.80 it was a brilliantly cheap lunch out!
Fuelled up, we continued our march around Athens, and were constantly wowed by the amazing detail on the carved rock pieces. Not only because of the skill in creating them, but also in how well they survived the years.
The Ancient Agora was one of the places that was near the bottom of our lists, but it was on our tickets and near where we were walking so we popped in. We thought it may take half an hour... we stayed until after sunset a full two hours later. I think it may have been my favourite of all the sites.
All the big grand stuff was there - tall columns, chunky stone rooves, big statues - and so were all the smaller things that were my personal 'wow moments'. On top of that it had shady trees (important in 35-40° heat...), and it also had wonderful views over the acropolis and Athens. It's a gorgeous place to watch the sun set before wandering into town to seek out dinner.
After a very full on day we took the metro home (home here meaning to a scout hall we were graciously allowed to stay in!).
Even some of the train stations in Athens have gorgeous things hidden in them! This was the station we caught our train home from!
The next morning we woke up bright and a bit too early for my liking, to make it to the acropolis before the morning rush. I highly recommend doing this, because we missed most of the crowds on top, as well as the midday heat. 😁
We arrived at the gates at about 8.30am and had breakfast outside before heading in, and that timing was really great. The lighting on the ruins is also really nice at this time, it gets quite bright and washed out in the middle of the day.
The famed Parthenon was really not the coolest part of the site for me, but it was still incredibly grand and awe-inspiringly large.
Like post parts of Greece - cats roam everywhere!
Take a walk around the lower pathways surrounding the hill for interesting less well known areas, like the caves where offerings were left, and smaller temples.
After a big morning of being tourists it's important to boost your energy levels (never underestimate what a bummer hanger can be...) and snack on some luscious Greek pastries and pies! We absolutely fell in love with the cheese pie, and who wouldn't? It's basically a slab of cheese covered in flaky golden pastry!
We took a lovely nap in the park to refresh ourselves and digest our rich and satisfying lunch, then decided that the only good idea in weather like this was to hit the beaches, watch the sunset, and catch a train home after dark. It's worth noting that most of the good beaches are a solid hour from Athens central by public transport, and that many beaches are private, so you have to pay for them (boooo). The Public, free beach we ended up on was pretty crowded, and rather dirty. There was a lot of litter, and a few weird cat callers.
We didn't let that spoil our fun though!
We rarely returned to our temporary home before dark, as there was just so much to see... That is also what I will blame the mess we made on. Our humble abode whilst we stayed in Athens was this beautiful space in a scout hall. Never underestimate the power of networks when looking for free or cheap places to stay!
We made a rather late notice decision to hop over to an island for a day to experience some slightly different aspects of Greek culture. It was a brilliant, if slightly pricey decision and in future I would book a bit further out.
We took a ferry over to Serifos at about midday. It was overly air conditioned and a bit long, but the cheapest option by far.
We put up our tents in the dark (we didn't realise it at the time, but this was to become a bit of a theme for us...) and went for a walk around the beach front. It was absolutely idyllic.
Awash with and slightly crazed by the romance of the island, we set our alarms for half an hour before dawn to see the sun rise. In our excitement, we set the alarms for a whole half hour before sunrise, and forgot we were not morning people. Tom and I went back to bed before the sun rose properly, but it was still pretty gorgeous pre-sunrise...
This photo was taken from the beach, about 15 meters from our camp site!
One of the advantages of having a 'home base' in Athens was being able to leave some of our stuff there when we hopped off to the island, so all we brought fit in one bag and two day bags.
We dropped our bags at the campsite office and charged off to see the island. Our first stop - the bakery, for packed lunch things and a breakfast ice cream.
We took the local bus up to the top of the old town, and I am so glad we did. It cost €1.60 per person, and saved us at least an hour of walking up a steep hill in the baking sun. Walking down hill is so much more pleasant!
Being on a budget and the pragmatic Scouts we are, all three of us had brought lunch boxes of some kind, which meant we could buy cheap snacks and meals and eat them 'picnic style' anywhere that took our fancy. It saved us money, and reduced the packaging that we contributed to landfill throughout the trip!
We also got to eat in places like this!
Another fun way to save money, reduce waste, and appreciate the country you're in is foraging! Greece was absolutely abundant with food, it grew in every corner of the island and Athens. On our way down the hill from the old town we foraged handfuls of juicy, sun warmed prickly pears (sometimes called cactus pears), and plump, sweet figs!
After a long day of walking and being amazed at the beauty of the old town we shuffled back down to our campsite beach for a cool down swim and last shower before heading back to the mainland.
We arrived in Athens at 3am due to some delays and had a hilarious time negotiating a taxi from the port to our accommodation. Our driver refused to listen to the maps we had on our phones, so it made for an interesting ride!
The next morning we slept in, and then made our way around the Roman Agora and Hadrian's Library. Some of the mosaic floor tiles are still in such good condition that you can see the colours in the patterns, and in other areas walls have been built casually encompassing pieces of pillars and other ruins. It's a fascinating juxtaposition.
Kerameikos, an old grave yard, was our final site on the combo ticket and I didn't spend as much time there as I should have. I decided to wander off and take some time away from my fellow travellers (incredibly important when it comes to travelling with people!) after only a quick whiz around the air conditioned museum part of the site.
And, all too soon, our time in Greece came to and end.
Since I got back from my 3 month trip everyone has asked me which country was my favourite. I can't possibly pick one, but Greece did stand out in terms of food, generosity, and sheer ancient-ness.
I love this country, and will absolutely attempt to get back there in the future as there is still so much to see!
Stay tuned for my next blog - NYC, Baltimore and DC!
See you somewhere!
Labels: acropolis, airport, ancient, ancient greece, Athens, beach, budget travel, carry on, carry on luggage, Greece, Greek, greek food, gyros, Parthenon, public transport, serifos, travel, travel money, travel photography