Sweaters and jackets are not typical suitcase contents for a trip to Greece. But there are advantages to a winter holiday. That’s why it was our chosen destination. Not keen on getting sun-crisped, the majestic monuments and historic neighbourhoods would be ours to wander in cool comfort.
Athens on a crispy Evening
We arrived in Athens in the late evening. It was a smooth, long drive from the airport to the city. First impressions in a new place tend to be sharp. Mine were of the silvery olive trees that carpeted the landscape. The fruit-laden orange trees dotted along the sidewalks also made an impression. Approaching the city centre I spotted the towering Acropolis majestically perched on a hilltop. It was aglow in the light of the setting sun.
Once the sun set, we could not step out without a warm layer. We walked through prettily lit up streets and passed toasty-looking cafes. Then we headed to the bustling tourist district of Monastiraki. Since it was the week before Christmas, there were tourists milling about. They were browsing and soaking in contemporary comforts in the splendour of millennia worth of history and culture.
Be an adventurous Gastronome
Greece is renowned for its fresh and wholesome culinary delights. We were directed to Scholarchio, a family-run traditional restaurant. Scholarchio has been in business since 1935. The restaurant oozed old-world charm, with family photographs and memorabilia on the walls. Food was served in small plates, tapas style. It’s surprising how easily regional culinary specialties get stereotyped. For adventurous gastronomes such as myself, discovering something other than Greek salad nudged me to look further. I sampled some stand-out goodies.
Greek Cuisine Specialties
There was Feta wrapped in filo pastry and fried golden with a sprinkle of sesame seeds and a drizzle of honey. I loved the ‘flaming sausage’. It was slim, grilled and scored down its length. Table-side, some alcohol was poured over and set alight. Although there’s no telling whether it added to the flavour, it maxed the test visually. Other must-have meals are souvlaki (souvla means skewer), grilled meats and fresh veg served on or in a thick. Don’t miss the soft bread and the quintessential Greek gyros and dolmathakia, stuffed grape leaves. The wide variety of meat and vegetable stews such as pork and cabbage lahania are well worth a try, too.
The Plaka Neighborhood
The Plaka neighbourhood is a tourist’s dream. Gentrification aside, it retains a tinge of history. One practically stumbles upon millennia-aged walls and crumbling columns by the side of the road. Casual road-side homage may work for some. But for me names, dates and events mean everything. To feed the history and archaeology nerd in me, the museums were a must. We chose to spend an afternoon at the Archaeological Museum and a morning at the Acropolis Museum.
The Acropolis Museum
Make the time to visit the Acropolis Museum before walking up the hill to the Acropolis itself. The museum is a strikingly modern structure, opened in 2009. It is conveniently located about two kilometres from the centre of Athen, adjacent to the ‘Acropolis’ Metro Station. It stands in striking contrast to the ancient eponymous monument. Stepping into the museum premises, I was surprised to see transparent glass embedded in some walkways. I peered down. There were glimpses of ruins that must have once been human settlements thousands of years ago. Further enquiry revealed that they were indeed archaeological excavations. They had to be accommodated within the design of the museum. It would take a day or two to appreciate all the treasures housed in the museum. But if you are contemplating the harried tourist option, begin with the short audio-visual presentation on the top floor.
An early morning trek to the Acropolis
Even on a winter holiday, tourists throng to the Acropolis. Navigating the queues and ticketing is probably a walk in the park compared to summer visits. On Sunday morning, we took a pre-dawn trek up. There we were treated to a rather surreal spectacle. The Presidential guard, or Evzones, processed to the top of the Acropolis in stately single file. They were esplendent in their traditional uniform. We lost sight of them. But I learnt that the Greek flag at the summit is lowered every Sunday. A short while later we were sipping coffee at an outdoor cafe. A bus drove past with the Evzones standing to attention in the aisle of the bus!
The Acropolis during the day
Later in the day the gates opened for tourists. We made our way back to wander through the ancient ruins. We stood spellbound by the views of the city. It is humbling to stand in the shadows of monuments more than two thousand years old, where intellectual and spiritual foundations of democracy, theatre and philosophy were laid.
Leaving Athens and my winter holiday, I took with me the treasure of timelessness.
I’m a nomad with strong nesting instincts. My sneakers have trod through over a dozen countries, pausing for history, food and nature. I always carry a travel journal with me and voraciously collect memories in words, sketches, ticket stubs and so much more.