We are in the big city, now. And it’s time to pick up the pace.
We started the day at Syntagma Square, admiring the Parliament Building and all the action around this center of Athens’ modern history, where we saw the changing of the Evzone Guards – along with lots of other people. (We had to move across a major road to be allowed to see the event.) Very stylish, they are, as they protect and parade in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
We did see a protest banner right next to the McDonald’s sign, but were blissfully ignorant of the major riot that seems to have taken place Friday night over football rivalries, which have replaced other incentives to battle these days. (“Athens in Flames!”) Good thing we’re not trolling the streets at night.
We strolled down Ermou Street, famous for shopping. It seems providential that we have arrived here after Athens took major steps to lose its claim as the most polluted city in Europe, during the last 20 years. Traffic is now limited – with even- and odd-numbered licenses permitted on alternating days, and there are several pedestrianized streets. Now the air is sweet and there is a real boulevarding spirit. But almost everywhere, graffiti is rampant, and many older buildings are being allowed to decay, rather than being remodeled.
We saw some lovely small Greek Orthodox churches from the Byzantine era of the 11th century. A baptism was taking place in one, which seemed like a very happy occasion for the family. We also toured the Athens cathedral, which was built in the mid-19th century.
When the Romans conquered the Greeks, Emperor Hadrian started a major public works program in Athens, to win hearts and minds, and also to connect himself with a culture he admired. He attempted to build a “new” Athens, to be entered through his triumphal arch, now smack on the edge of a busy highway. He also completed a temple to Zeus, which was the largest ancient temple in mainland Greece, in the building stage for over 700 years till Hadrian took it on in 131 AD. This was such a big deal that he came to the grand opening. The columns are an amazing 56 feet high, and there were 104 of them. Now, 15 remains, and they are quite impressive. And just look at the views Zeus must have had!
Tucked beneath the walls of the Acropolis is what seems like a tiny village of homes from another world. When stoneworkers and builders came to Athens to construct the modern city, people from the tiny island of Anafi came to work and build this charming and tiny homes after-hours. While many descendants still live here, this community of Anafiotika (“little Anafi”) is now attracting the money crowd. You’d have to be rich to get groceries delivered here. It is charming and filled with wonderful flowering plants, oleander and fig trees. Not a lot of privacy, but a lot of beauty.
Our last site of the day was the Roman Forum and the Tower of the Winds, built in the second century BC as a major commercial center. The Tower was a combination clock, weather vane, and guide to the planets in its day.
And over it all looms the Acropolis, just waiting for our visit….
Don’s Food Corner
After fortifying ourselves with periodic Diet Coke and ice cream breaks, we finally settled in for lunch at about 2 PM. So many charming small restaurants, seemingly tucked into any available space, that it was hard to select just one. We happened on an unusually attractive restaurant, looking like a movie set of small tables clustered in the corner of a small piazza, sheltered from the sun by a huge grapevine-covered pergola.
Not wanting to risk ruining the memories of the great fish dishes we had on Crete, we looked to the meat side of the menu. Lots of veal and lamb dishes, plus a few chicken choices. Since we know that it’s veal and lamb season, that narrowed down our decisions. But the menu — and the waiter — was vague about how the veal and lamb were prepared. Grilled? Sauteed? In a sauce? The closest answer we could get was “in the oven.” OK. Bring it on. The veal came with potatoes; the lamb with spinach.
Well, both the veal and lamb were roasted to a fine and tender texture, which is particularly difficult to achieve with a veal roast. Both seemed to have been rubbed with the same spice mixture. This was fine, as was the Greek salad that we shared. And you know what they call “Greek salad” in Greek? Greek salad. We were surprised, too.