(Photos for this post are at my Flickr page here.)
I love how by some alchemy of big and small things a place takes on a unique character. Even with all the places I've had the luck to visit in the past few years, I find Athens to be like, but not like, any of them. Starting with the drive into the city from the airport--a good 45 minutes over a new and beautiful highway that includes a number of tunnels--the topography is different from any place I've been. Hilly and rocky and with water everywhere, it feels, appropriately enough, like Europe on a rocky coastline. Architecturally, it has something of Almaty's masonry building style coupled with Europe's cleanness and modernity--at least on the drive into town. Unlike Almaty, things look to have been adequately financed: buildings are interesting and in generally good repair, and the infrastructure looks up to date. But our cabbie reminds us this is the route tailored for visitors to the Olympics of 2004, and it's Athens putting its best foot forward. And sure enough, things get dirtier and more run down as we enter the heart of the city, and streets get narrow and crowded and there is nary a building without extensive graffiti tags.
We arrived at the Hotel Attalos about 7:PM. The lift would barely accommodate the two of us and our big travel bags, and our room was hardly bigger than that. But it all seems reasonably clean and we have our own bathroom and air conditioning, features that are not guaranteed, especially at our middling price point. Despite our body clocks being in crisis mode, we stowed our bags and headed out for some dinner.
The hotel is on the edge of the historic district of Plaka, an ancient neighborhood that sits beneath the towering Acropolis in the center of the city. The streets, as I say, are narrow and many side streets are paved with stones. In a half hour walk we must have passed 200 restaurants, all with extensive outdoor seating. It's hot here, and many outdoor eating areas are sprayed with big floor-standing fans with little water misters in front of them. Huge umbrellas provide shade, but are retracted at night. The Greeks eat late, and most cafes were largely empty at 8:PM when we picked a place and sat down. By the time we were finished at 8:45 or so things were beginning to fill up.
Our dinner was unexpectedly fabulous--I say unexpectedly because, well, I don't really know my Greek food. Susan and I have a favorite restaurant in Appleton called the Apollon which features a Greek menu, but that and the occasional gyro have really been my only exposures. However, looking at the menu of Greek favorites I realized that I had at least a passing familiarity with most of the lamb and veal recipes on offer. And I'm embarrassed to say it but the cheese-stuffed hamburger tickled my fancy. So we got several things to split: a greek salad, some saganaki (how do you make cheese better? Fry it, of course!), Susan got some obscenely good cheese croquettes, and my burger (with fries I didn't need or particularly want). The burger was actually a huge, flat, stuffed beef patty on a wheel of pita bread, to be eaten with a fork. And everything was amazingly good. It was too much food--we didn't finish it all--but there wasn't a dud in the mix (though we both declared that an entire meal of the cheese croquettes would be completely merited). We could have lingered there after our meal, and mealtimes here seem to be prolonged, very social affairs, but we felt we had so much to see that we rushed off to shop and sightsee.
The streets in the Plaka go on and on (or maybe round and round; there are few straight lines), and as the sun set things got busier and busier until every restaurant was packed and people were milling around on the streets by the hundreds. Live musicians strolled the crowds and vendors set up booths selling jewelry and antiques and various tourist junk; the atmosphere was calm but festive. Out in the many public squares people loitered and peddlers tried to sell their knockoff watches and DVDs and purses. Knots of 20-something kids sat in the middle of the square sharing beers. One especially interesting trinket that I've never seen anywhere else is this rubber-band-launched thingie with multi-colored flashing LED lights and little plastic tails that cause the device to spin down after launch like a helicopter. They're like a miniature firework, and for two Euros we had to have one. But it's more interesting to sit there in a crowd of several thousand people and watch the peddlers launch these over and over as they try to get sales. It adds a magic little atmosphere to the gathering.
We finished the night with a little ice cream from a street vendor and were fast asleep by 10:PM.
More to come.