Thursday, August 23, 2007

A budget traveler’s guide to surviving ATHENS, GREECE

This is my 100th blog entry and I’m really happy to be writing about a city that never fails to enthrall.

Few cities can claim what Athens can: it is the birthplace of an entire civilization. History, politics, philosophy, sports, science and art owe a lot to this capital of Greece and many famous people that generations of students would eventually come to know in school once trod upon Athenian soil. Centuries later, with all the classical grandeur replaced with modernity, the city remains an attractive and amazing tourist destination for people who want to relive history or simply have a good time.

Wanna visit Athens? Apply some sunblock lotion, get those shades ready and greet this astonishing city with a big “Yasu!”

1. Ogle. All the clichés of Athens are clichés because they’re worth seeing. Devote at least half a day to the Acropolis (one whole day if climbing up a hill is not your cup of tea) since there are a lot of monuments to see. On the way up you should be able to see two theatres, the Theatre of Dionysius Eleuthereus and Odeon of Herodes Atticus. *Never* miss out on the Parthenon, the temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, the patroness of Athens, and the Porch of the Caryatids of the Erechtheion. At the foot of the hill you’ll find the ancient agora. Do see the Temple of Hephaestus and the Stoa of Attalos.

2. Know. It’s easy to lose your way in Athens. For one, street signs are mostly written in the Greek alphabet. Athenians can manage a little English but it seems that they have a habit of dismissing questions and answering with a rapid “I don’t know.” If you have everything plotted out in Roman letters or you are unsure what to do and where to do it, you may want to go first to the tourism office or ask the place where you’re staying for directions. It may be a bit frustrating (they tend to be a bit disorganized), but it’s better than being lost. And, oh, male tourists, beware. If you happen to be walking alone along Ermou street or the Plaka area, a friendly local might approach you and invite you for a drink. Don’t go and don’t be fooled. You might end up paying triple the price for the both of you. The same warning goes to anyone with purses and wallets, since Athens has quite a bit of, uhmm, reputation.

3. Walk. Have you heard the saying that the best way to know a city is by walking? That is so true in Athens. The sights and sounds are captivating. If you’re already in the Acropolis, get down the hill and walk a longish street toward the Psiri district. If you’re up for some adventure, enter the Kerameikon, an archaeological site. If not, take a seat in any of the bars within the area and reward yourself with a hearty Greek meal and ice-cold frappe, the national obsession.

4. Watch. If you continue walking a little bit more toward the Syntagma Square, right in front of the Parliament building, you can catch the changing of the honor guards called evzones at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It happens every hour on the hour on weekdays. If you’re there on a Sunday, you could see the grand evzone parade that paralyzes the main streets of the city. For those with money to burn, exploring the Thissio or Plaka area for the nightlife or watching a rebetiko performance is a good way to experience Athenian hospitality and taste for a good life.

5. Visit. If you’re still not tired of archaeology and history, the Roman agora (look for the Tower of the Winds), the nearby Hadrian’s Library or the faraway hill of Lykavittos with its stunning view of the city could be your next stop. Sports is another Athenian stereotype, since Greece is the cradle of the Olympic games. The Panathaenian Stadium is a good place to see if you’re pressed for time but want to experience the games. Otherwise, you could take the subway to where the 2004 Olympic Games were held and smother yourself with all the Olympic nostalgia you want. Of course, the same caveats as regards pickpockets and map navigation apply. For those in search of things to buy or those who simply want to see the market, the Monastiraki area should be a very interesting place to cap your day off.

Marlon’s Athens route (1-2): Begin with the must-sees. Theatre of Dionysius. Odeon of Herodes. Prophylae (entrance to the Acropolis). Parthenon. Erechtheion. Go toward the Athenian agora, then to the Roman agora. Hadrian’s Library. Syntagma Square. Depending on your interests you could take a shopping route (Monastiraki, Plaka, Ermou), an sports route (Panathaenian Stadium, Olympic Stadium), an archaeological route (Hadrian’s arch, Kerameikon, Greek museums), or a nightlife route (Plaka, Thissio, the Port of Piraeus).

Marlon’s budget tip: Students with a valid ID from European Union universities are automatically exempt from paying entrance fees to all archaeological sites. If you’re looking for masks, pottery, metal craft, Byzantine icons and other souvenir items, stores in the Monastiraki area seem to sell products at very tempting prices. I assure you that they are not at all cheap, as vendors raise the prices sky-high and lower them to the normal price when you ask for a discount. Out of serendipity, I found a shop in the Plaka district called Marina (Adrianou street, No. 85-87, Telephone: (210) 324-1109) that sells souvenir items at good rates. They make their own clay products so you can get very good deals from them.

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