Day 4: the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Acropolis, and Anafiotika

For our last full day in Athens, we decided to ruins our day (tee-hee) and visit the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Acropolis. After going to the base of the Acropolis the first day, we were back and forth about whether or not we wanted to spend €20 each on the walk up to the Parthenon and other structures—especially because it was pretty hot, and the ticket line was not short. Spoiler alert: we decided to go.

But, first, the most expensive W.C. stop of the trip. Public bathrooms don’t abound, so we often found ourselves stopping into cafés and buying something simply so we could use the bathroom. (You can also often go into a hotel and walk downstairs and find a bathroom, if you’re desperate.) After getting off the Syntagma metro stop, we walked through the National Gardens (where I missed an opportunity to follow the signs to the W.C.), stopping at a café at the edge of the public park.

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One “greek coffee” (some coffee and ice cream combination), beer, and sparkling water later, much to our chagrin, we paid our €16 (!!!) tab. The rest of the day was marked by better decisions.

Sidenote on the Syntagma Metro Station: on display in the station are some interesting artifacts excavated during the station’s construction and even the cross-section of a tomb.

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After paying our €6 entrance fee at the Temple of Zeus, we walked the site and gawked at the height of the columns.

Here, more so than at other sites, you can really get a sense of how a column is made because the slabs have wiggled out of place over time, and one column has been left toppled over, each thick marble disc like a macaron leaning on a macaron leaning on a macaron in a oversized display case.

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The area below the main temple was closed, but Perry asked one of the site workers if we’d be able to see the Temple of Apollo. Growing up on Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” and watching and re-watching the Battlestar Galactica reboot, I thought it only fitting we make this stop if possible. Thankfully, we were able to have chaperoned access to it.

We decided to go to the Acropolis near closing in order to avoid the heat and the crowds.

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Thankfully, our plan worked out for us. We got in line at 6:15 p.m., had out tickets by 6:25, and were walking through the entrance by 6:28. (The last ticket sales are at 7:30 p.m., except on full moons, when the site is open until midnight.)

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The detail on the Parthenon and the caryatids (woman-shaped columns) wowed us. (The original caryatids are on display in the Acropolis Museum.)

We climbed into the overlook, gazed down on Anafiotika, the neighborhood under the Acropolis, saw several rooftop restaurants, and decided we wanted to have dinner on one of them.

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We made our way back down, waving goodbye to each of the several cats we passed—there are so many cats in Athens. It reminded me some of Kedi, the documentary about the cats of Istanbul.

By the time we left, sunset was upon us, and the buskers had taken up their spots along the cobblestone street in front of the Acropolis. So many good noises to walk through.

Fun fact: on the food tour the day before, Georgia told us that most Greeks have dinner around 9:30 or 10 p.m.

We ended up finding the restaurant we espied from on high around 8:30 and had some wine on one of the restaurant’s ground-level patios while we waited for one of the rooftop tables to open.

Dinner under the lit-up Acropolis was ridiculously romantic and worth the 45-minute wait. I ordered grilled mushrooms and eggplant with tomatoes; Perry had moussaka (basically, Greek lasagna, but with eggplant instead of noodles).

The Anafiotika area is not to be missed.

Next up: we get ready to fly to Santorini.

Day 3, Part 2: Too Sounion?

Poseidon has always been my favorite of the Greek gods—I’m a water sign (Cancer) and grew up a water baby, with deep ties to the ocean and St. Augustine, FL—so I knew I wanted to fit in a trip to the Temple of Poseidon if we could manage it. But I also knew I didn’t want to spend $100+ taking the private taxi or tour bus route, the latter of which I’d read many complaints about online, centered around how limited one’s time actually is at the temple.

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Around 1:30 p.m., after our food tour, we took the metro to Viktoria station, where we got off and made our way to the Pedion Areos Park bus terminal. (There are several other bus stops, including one near the Sygrou-Fix metro station near our hotel, but this was the first pick-up spot, and we wanted to be sure to get seats and to get situated.) Unlike the metro stops, the bus only had Greek signage, so we weren’t sure which bus to get on until the money-collector stepped off and let those gathered know that this was the bus to Sounion. The latest bus back to Athens is at 9 p.m.

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You don’t buy tickets in advance; instead, aforementioned money-collector comes around once you’re seated, gets your money, and gives you a ticket. We went ahead and got a round-trip ticket: €25 total, so €6.25 each, one-way. It takes about 2 hours to get there, but the coastal drive is very beautiful.

So beautiful, in fact, that I cried when we finally were driving alongside the sea. Those colors are unreal.

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Every cove and beach was full of swimmers.

Due to the financial crisis, there are a lot of unfinished oceanfront and hillside structures that resonate more with the ruins than with the houses—even if the ruins are more hollowed-out carcasses, while the would-be homes and vacation rentals are skeletons to which skin and muscle never did attach—an overstock of science-class props that might never make it into a classroom.

You catch sight of the Temple of Poseidon several miles before arriving there, sitting as it is at the tip of the cape.

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The bus’s final stop is Cape Sounion and the temple. You get out at the restaurant and gift shop, then walk a short way up to the temple entrance (admission is €8 in peak season, and €4 in the off-season).

As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is not the place to wear flowing dresses—wear something fitted so you won’t have to worry about holding it down.

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I love the starkness of this temple and that it sits so near the cliffside and so close to the water—and because it’s on the tip of the cape, you get a panoramic view of the sea.

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According to the women at the ticket desk, Lord Byron’s graffiti is too small and high to view without the help of binoculars, so we didn’t see it, but the restaurant menu and placemat include Byron’s lines about Sounion.

The walk around the temple site was stunning.

It took us to the Port of Sounion, an Athenian navel base, and an old fortress wall.

After exploring the site, we had dinner at the restaurant, positioning ourselves in the sun so we could eat and drink with an unobstructed view of the temple.

Had we planned ahead and brought an overnight bag and swimsuits, we would have found a room at one of the many coastal hotels and stayed the night. Alas, that wasn’t in our cards, so we took the bus back and got off at one of the coastal stops back in Athens, planning to take the tram back to our hotel after exploring some of the beach bars.

Here’s Perry touching the water for the first time.

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We ended up at Nalu Café at the Akanthus Beach Club, just in time for sunset. Great ambiance and a sizeable patio for outdoor dining—not to mention ample beach seating.

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This was the first time we encountered a cocktail menu during our trip. We ordered a Mermaid Rocks and a Suffering Bastard, then some Coronas with lime (a café favorite, it would seem). (It was also the first time—and last?—we’d encountered Coronas in Greece.)

Since the 5-day Metro Pass includes the tram, we had no problem getting back to the area around our hotel (there’s a Fix tram exit right across from the Sygrou-Fix metro stop).

We walked down to Olympiou Georgaki Street, which is lined with sweet cafes and bars and home to our favorite bar of the trip, To Kouki, a dive bar with candlelit tables and great beer snacks (olives and nuts). This is where Perry tried Metaxa, a Greek brandy, for the first time.

This is a great place to cozy up and reminisce over the day before calling it a night.

Next up: we decide to pay the €20 entrance fee to the Acropolis, then have our favorite dinner of the trip—thanks to Perry’s persistence—in Anafiotika, under the lit-up Parthenon.

Day 3, Part 1: Eating It Up

Before we left the States, we booked a food tour, so on day 3, we skipped breakfast (as recommended) and headed to the metro, stopping for an espresso (€0.80) at Coffee Island on the way. Turns out at 8:45 a.m. on a weekday, you’ll meet the morning rush—we were too timid and weren’t able to get on the first overstuffed train. Luckily, the next train came about 12 minutes later, and we were committed to getting on this time, no matter how full the compartments. We got off at the University of Athens stop (Panepistimio) and easily found the small food tour group (12 people plus the guide, Georgia). Before heading off, Georgia passed around a handout with the names and addresses of each stop, along with a note about the food we’d taste there—very handy for those of us who wanted to return to one of the stops or the areas near the stops.

We started off at a food cart near the meet-up spot and had what Georgia called “a Greek breakfast” (though she confessed a real Greek breakfast is five cups of coffee and as many cigarettes). Georgia bought and passed around half a dozen koulouri (sesame bread rings) for us to share. I didn’t expect it to have as much flavor as it did—the warm sesame seeds are quite fragrant and flavorful.

Next, we headed to Krinos to taste loukoumades (Greek doughnuts), but, first, we stopped and admired an old Greek Orthodox church. The wood craftsmanship on the windows is particularly beautiful.

The doughnuts were covered in syrup and cinnamon sugar. Perry and I both just ate one each, but there were plenty to go around, so people who wanted two were able to have them.

I picked this particular tour because it’s vegetarian-friendly (Perry’s the meat-eater in this relationship)—that said, the route did include a walk through Varvakios Agora, the central meat and fish market. Georgia checked in with me before we went through just to see if I wanted to skip this part of the tour.

It was definitely unlike anything I’d ever seen (and a bit too reminiscent of the slaughterhouse in Butchertown, a Louisville neighborhood near our own). See our Instagram @adventuresinwander to see an outtake from this part of the tour.

Afterward, we crossed the street and arrived at the fruit and vegetable market, where we tried halvah (a fudge-like chunk of sesame paste), candied nuts, and grapes.

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The next stop was my favorite: we sat in the charming back room of Stou Meidani and tried several small dishes, also known as meze, family-style. The super garlicky tzatziki was the best we had the whole trip. We also tried zucchini balls (yum) and baked feta with tomatoes and peppers.

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The sole meat stop came next in the Pastourma neighborhood. Pastourma is a cured meat. Perry liked his thin slice and said it was unlike anything he’d tried before (he’s had his fair share of charcuterie plates).

The herb store came next. We crushed thyme in our palms and smelled. I came away with some small-batch saffron and a complimentary recipe book.

At a small grocery store, Lesvos, we sampled two olive oils, olives, olive spread, and sun-dried tomato spread, Greek yogurt with cherry “spoon sweet” (preserves), feta with honey, and Mastic Tears, an herbal digestif.

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I mistook an ouzo dispenser at the front of the store for a water dispenser, filled one of the paper cups, and took a big gulp, thinking I was rehydrating, before realizing my mistake. Oops.

We passed some great street art on the way to the sweet and savory pie shop, Bougatsadiko.

At the pie shop, we tried spanakopita (spinach pie) and sweet custard pie (bougatsa)—the latter was especially delicious, firm and not overly sweet. We ended up coming back to this area for our last meal in Athens.

The final stop was a souvlaki restaurant. Souvlaki is grilled meat, served either on a stick or in a pita with lettuce, tomato, tzatziki, and FRENCH FRIES! At €2.80, they make for a cheap lunch, too. I got the vegetarian version, basically a French fry pita, a meal I’d fallen for when I studied abroad my junior year—our stumble home included a stop to the gyro shop near our university flats. Sadly, at this point in the trip, I was too full to eat more than a few bites.

We thanked Georgia, handed her a tip, and made our way back to the Metro, heading to the bus terminal, where we hoped to catch the bus to Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon. Stay tuned for that adventure.

Artifacts, a Limestone Hill, and a Square: A Day in Athens

Waking refreshed, we were interested to see the complimentary breakfast spread, which ended up including dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) and other more standard fare (breads, spreads, eggs, etc.).

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The driver for our airport transfer, an Athens native, suggested we check out the National Archeological Museum (instead of the Acropolis Museum) so we asked the woman at the hotel’s front desk the best way to get there: the red line from our nearest station, Sygrou-Fix, to Omonia, then a transfer to the green line, to Viktoria station (all the stations are listed in Greek and English on the maps and on station signage). The museum is a 5-minute walk from the station, and the entry fee is €10. There were so many rooms and corridors to walk through, and it wasn’t crowded. Among our favorites were the chariot remnants, the mirrors, a harness, and the Antikythera mechanism, along with some humorously positioned statues.

The cafeteria and museum are on the lower level, and you need to keep your ticket with you to get back into the museum proper after you go down. Great cafeteria with excellent prices. Sandwiches under €3, and fresh-squeezed orange juice, too. (Some of the metro stops have fresh-squeezed orange juice machines that charge €1 for a cup.) We got some beverages, including water to rehydrate.

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Perry posed with a Zeus/Poseidon statue (there’s some debate over which one it is–what do you think?).

Around 2 p.m., we hopped back on the metro and headed toward Mount Lycabettus to ride the funicular (€5, one-way, €8, up and down), which runs every 30 minutes, with the last trip at 2:30 a.m. The nearest metro station is Evangelismos. On our uphill walk, we stopped at Everest, a take-away shop, and got Greek mini tortilla wraps with feta, olives, tomato, cucumber, pepper, and mayonnaise (€1.35 each). So good and easy to cart up the hill.

A note on the funicular: it’s enclosed the entire way up. I liked the novelty of it, but some people seemed disappointed that it didn’t open up to a view of the city. Also, the walk down is lovely—mostly dirt trails and trees—so I’d skip the round-trip ticket.

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What a view! From the top of the Mount Lycabettus, you get a magical 360-degree view of Athens that includes the ocean, the amphitheater, the Acropolis, and the Temple of Zeus, and you can walk inside the chapel of St. George. There are also a tavern (taberna) and a fancier restaurant at the top. We had beers and beer snacks (typically complimentary with drink orders) and played a few hands of Rummy with our new souvenir playing cards that my husband bought in the shop where we caught the funicular. The tall drafts of Alfa were €6—a bit of an upcharge compared to elsewhere, ~€4.

Then we walked around Psyri, a neighborhood near Monastiraki Square, where I got a new swimsuit from H&M for Santorini. We popped into Tzatziki, a gyro shop, to try phyllo-wrapped feta with honey and sesame seeds, then waded through the sea of shops.

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Around 7:30 p.m, an hour before sunset, we hunkered down at an outside table on Monasteraki Square and ordered a bottle of red wine and some sparkling water.

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Perry walked over to a nearby souvenir shop and bought some postcards to write as the sun went down. The Square is an amazing place to people-watch, and it’s a great place to get place to see the juxtaposition of old and new.

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Stay tuned for day 3 as we ponder venturing to the Temple of Poseidon.

Greece-ing the Wheels

The theme for second anniversaries of marriage is linen, so it seemed only fitting that my husband Perry and I head to Greece—where linen shops abound—a week after our marriage turned two. We decided on a Tripmasters package to Athens and Santorini and spent four nights in each. While we were concerned about the possibility of burdensome crowds in August, we were pleased that peak season travel was significantly less crowded than we’d anticipated (and cooler, temperature-wise, too). When you gotta go, you gotta go—and we couldn’t let the fact of August scare us away. We’re starting this blog because we couldn’t find answers to many of our questions before leaving and thought others might like a comprehensive overview that includes things like where to pay for the bus from Athens to Sounion (spoiler alert: a person comes around after you’re seated on the bus to collect money). Also, I love making itineraries, so wanted to share ours with those less inclined to make their own. We hope our observations and suggestions help you with your own trip-planning.

The Luggage

Summer birthdays may be a little sad when you’re in K-5 and don’t get a classroom party, but they’re pretty great when you’re planning on a summer vacation and loved ones decide to give you vacation-themed gifts. I’d been traveling for years with an oversized backpack I got—having done too little research, asking too few questions, and prioritizing a cheaper price tag over quality and practicality—my first year in college for my first trip to Europe. This backpack’s last trip was to China and Korea, where its heft and unwieldiness left me face-planting into a hotel wall and messing up my back pretty badly. While a herniated disc makes it easy to justify a new roller bag purchase, it took my husband’s initiative and research to make it actually happen. And so, for my 37th birthday, bag of bags, the Osprey Meridian 60L Convertible Backpack entered my life.

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My favorite feature (aside from the rollers) is the storage pocket at the top of the pack, perfect for toiletries and easy to access for removing said toiletries for airport security screenings. There are four interior pockets, too, so it’s easy to separate clean socks from dirty socks, etc. The detachable daypack has a frame designed for breathability, helping me avoid a sweat-soaked back on our 4-hour hike from Thira (Fira) to Oia in Santorini.

Along with the Osprey Meridian, we also took a small North Face duffel and a Dakine fanny pack. Both carry-ons fit in the overhead storage of our planes—even on the small one from Louisville to Newark.

img_1279A Note on Packing

We stayed in Meltemi Village in Perissa during our time in Santorini. I probably should have looked up the hotel’s namesake before leaving. As it turns out, the legendary Meltemi winds blow from mid-May to mid-September. My first experience with them involved scrunching up the sides of an A-line cotton dress for the entirety of our walk up the hill to the Temple of Poseidon and back down. It seems my dress was attempting to become an offering to the gods, so adamant was it to take leave of my body. Thankfully, I packed some shorts, jeans, and more structured dresses and thus was able to keep my hands free for better things—like a can of Mythos or Alfa beer—for the rest of the trip.

Things it turns out we didn’t need to pack: heeled shoes and bug-spray wipes. The latter because, surprisingly, we didn’t get bitten by any bugs. The former because the marble throughout Athens is slippery and the cobblestone uneven, so flats became my go-to—plus, in Santorini, many of the beaches and even the swimming hole at Amoudi Bay require you to climb up and over some rocks, so water shoes, hiking boots, or tennis shoes work best. We saw more than one person turn around when the trail seemed unmanageable because of the wrong shoes.

Things I was glad we packed: earplugs, a hydrating sheet mask for after the lights went out on the 9 ½ hour flight, and an e-book of Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey (“Tell me about a complicated man”). Let’s talk about that long flight and my husband’s packing strategy. If you put clothes and all the new linen blankets you end up purchasing into the duffel, it can double as a pretty comfy lap-mound upon which to sleep on that long flight.

Arriving to Athens

We purchased private airport transfers through Tripmasters before we left the States ($35 each). If you prefer, you can catch the blue line on the metro from the airport for a special €10 metro pass. Our hotel off the Sygrou-Fix subway stop was about 30 minutes from the airport (via private transfer). We landed around 11 a.m. on Wednesday morning and made our way quickly through the airport—we were in the car by 11:35 a.m. (We didn’t have any checked bags.) Our driver, holding a sign with our names, met us in the Arrivals Hall, so it was easy to locate him. He gave us a beer for the drive (our first Alfa!) and helped us with some basic Greek phrases on our way to the hotel. Kalimera: good morning/good day. Kalispera: good evening. Kalinichta: goodnight. Efharisto: thank you. Efharisto poli: thank you very much.

Day 1

We were determined not to nap, knowing it would be easier to get our bodies acclimated to the new time zone if we stuck it out until bedtime (albeit an early one). After checking in at Ilissos Hotel, we headed up to the 7th floor rooftop to get a lay of the land and immediately located the Acropolis, which we later gawked over with nightcaps after it had been lit up for the night.

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And here, dear readers, is where we under-slept travelers made our first under-informed misstep: deciding, after learning from Google Maps that Brettos (pronounced Vrettos) ouzerie was only a little over a mile from our hotel, to walk by the Acropolis to Plaka, where Brettos, the oldest distillery in Athens, is located, which really meant walking up hill for a mile and half—no big deal if you’re working off a good night’s sleep, near epic tragedy if you aren’t. Okay, I’m being hyperbolic, but we did realize the next day that a metro ride would have eased our travel. The intersecting red, green, and blue lines can land you pretty much anywhere, and a five-day pass costs €9—well worth it. The pass even includes rides on the coastal tram.

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The ouzo was like a new pack of batteries inserted into the struggling machines of us. Served over ice and tasting of licorice, we tasted the Ouzo Green (triple-distilled) and the Ouzo Black (quintuple-distilled).

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With a nice buzz, we wound through the streets lined with souvenir shops and chose a family restaurant—Scholarchio Ouzeri Kouklis—for a late lunch consisting of the obligatory Greek salad, spanakopita (spinach pie), and tzatziki spread. Slightly too much food, but it turned in to our dinner as well, so oh well.

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Walking “home,” we purchased the first of many vacuum-sealed packs of olives, stopped into a café for wine, a W.C., and free internet to map our way back to the hotel (at which point, sweet husband got an international plan from his carrier for the rest of the trip), spotted at least a dozen H&M bags, then stopped off at a convenient store we’d spotted near the hotel for some beers to enjoy on the hotel rooftop, where we met several fellow travelers, one Greek woman who’d been living in the States for decades and a family from Oklahoma. Beers from convenient stores and kiosks are under €1 (versus €3-7 in taverns, restaurants, and bars). Dear readers, we were in bed, exhausted, by 10 p.m. and slept gloriously, waking up well rested for day 2. Stay tuned for day 2’s itinerary, which includes a funicular ride and a chariot.