For centuries, Greece has been regarded as the cradle of democracy. A visit to Athens will provide ample evidence of that democratic heritage in monuments, relics and shrines. The city is endowed with history and civilization of thousands of years.
Athens is not only the capital of Greece but it’s also at the heart of ancient Greece, reflecting a powerful civilization and empire. The city is still dominated by the fifth-century BC landmarks such as the Acropolis, a hilltop citadel, containing the remains of several ancient buildings of great architectural and historic significance. What would a visit to Athens be without going to the Acropolis and see the most famous Parthenon?
It is believed that in the fifth century BC, the Athenians, empowered from their victory over the Persians, carried out an ambitious building program under the leadership of the great statesman Perikles, comprising a large number of monuments including the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Propylaia and the temple of Athena Nike. These monuments were developed by an exceptional group of architects and sculptors, who transformed the rocky hill into a unique complex, heralding the emergence of classical Greek thought and art.
This hill is the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, theatre, freedom of expression and speech, which provide the intellectual and spiritual foundation for the contemporary world and its values. The Acropolis’ monuments, having survived for almost twenty-five centuries through wars, explosions, bombardments, fires, earthquakes, sackings, interventions and alterations, have adapted to different uses and the civilizations, myths and religions that flourished in Greece through time.
Acropolis is the best place to either take a tour with an English-speaking guide or wander around yourself. Reaching the Acropolis is made more pleasant because the pedestrian streets have been turned into avenues full of cafes and restaurants. However, visitors to the Acropolis are cautioned to time their visit to either early or late in the day because it can be very hot up there and one may gasp for breath, spoiling one’s enjoyment.
Acropolis means upper city and hence many of Athens’ monuments are around the Acropolis where inhabitants can go to seek refuge in times of invasion. It’s considered to be the safest and secure place in town. At the entrance of the Acropolis, there are stationed licensed guides who will give a tour of the place and explain its significance for 50 euros so that you may leave the area more informed than before. If you are coming from a cruise ship, then the best way to visit the Acropolis is by taxi as your time is limited and most ships require the passengers to return by 5 p.m.
In 2009, the new Acropolis Museum was inaugurated where most of the original sculptural and/or architectural pieces of the monuments are conserved.
My favourite area in Athens, located close to the Acropolis, is the Plaka, which is a village within the city, providing a microcosm for those who don’t have time to visit the Greek islands.
The Plaka, the oldest section of Athens, is closed to traffic but one has to keep a watchful eye for a speeding motor bike or a delivery truck. The Plaka is full of restaurants, cafes, tourist shops and jewelry stores. The area is highly commercialized but tourists can enjoy what Athens has to offer in terms of food and souvenirs.
Most of the tourist shops are stocked with lot of stuff and most of it is junk but you’ll always find something interesting to take home as souvenir. As a habit, I usually like to buy something from every country that I visit to remind of the great time I had. I bought a Greek vase beautifully decorated, now proudly displayed in our living room.
The Greeks consider themselves as foodies. It’s very common for Greek families to gather around the table to enjoy a meal prepared by the housewife. “This is a strong social Greek custom well honoured,” explained our taxi driver Stavros Exarchos. “Therefore, we cherish the same atmosphere in an ordinary Greek restaurant or tavern: relaxing, simple and informal.” Stavros said he takes his family for a meal to his favourite restaurant, O Thanasis.
On the high recommendation of our friendly and knowledgeable taxi driver, we went to O Thanasis, located in the heart of Plaka. Patrons can either sit outside or go in. When we arrived there, we had to wait for a table of four for outside for about 10 minutes but the wait was worthwhile as we were not disappointed with the food served. Thanasis specializes in lamb dishes such as Greek lamb kababs and Greek lamb souvlaki. The restaurant owner obliged us with a tour of the facility and described the beginnings of the restaurant.
I generally avoid going into a restaurant in touristy areas whose staff are standing outside trying to coax customers to come in. Thanasis makes no attempt to lure patrons as they seem to be known for their dishes. A restaurant owner from a different area who was dining at the time told me Thanasis was the only restaurant besides his own where he has been dining for years. What a recommendation!
One of the other recommendations, courtesy of our friendly taxi driver, was Vouliagment Lake in Athens. I highly recommend that you should check out Lake Vouliagmeni, a part saltwater, part spring water lake where people can swim year-round due to its steady temperature and warm water, known for its therapeutic mineral qualities and healing properties, which has been used for years to bring relief to arthritis sufferers.
Located dramatically against a huge jutting cliff just off the coast and flanked by a high rock face on one side and trees on the other, the establishment has changing rooms, a café and a restaurant offering Mediterranean dishes. It is a popular location for weddings, baptism receptions, children parties, business meetings, theme nights and fashion shows.
One evening we went to a restaurant which offers traditional Greek dances and meals. Local entertainers delighted the packed audience with typical dances, songs, music and periods of audience participation. It was a fun evening of laughter, music and good food at a reasonable price of equivalent to $35, all included.
Despite its abundant tourist potential, Greece remains in debt to Germany due to years of unsound dealings with them. Greece had to be bailed by the European Union and is expected to be in debt to foreign countries for years. Greeks have an excellent chance to save their country by concentrating their efforts to boost tourism with its natural beauty, historical and ancient monuments, unique culinary experiences, friendly people and scenic beauty.
Mansoor Ladha is a Calgary-based journalist, travel writer and author of “A Portrait in Pluralism: Aga Khan’s Shia Ismaili Muslims.” His new book, “Memoirs of a Muhindi,” is scheduled to be published in 2017.