Greece (Ελλάδα)! (Part 1: Athens)

Greek Flag

Greek Flag

(April 14-22)

My heritage is Greek. Half-Greek, actually, on my mother’s side. And I don’t speak more that a few basic words in Greek. So I’m not a “real” Greek, I know. But my maternal grandparents were the only ones I knew, they lived nearby and I was quite close to them both. Their first language was Greek (they also spoke some Turkish) and they were never perfectly fluent in English. In fact, in a roundabout way, the fact that I never learned Greek as a kid is a reason we’re in France this year. That was a reason I thought it important to send the kids to a bilingual school. And since that school is French/English, France was an obvious choice for Shannon’s sabbatical.

I’d been to Greece twice before, the last time was in 1989, a year before Shannon and I got married and the same year my yia yia died. So after such a long time it seemed almost required to make a trip to Greece given that Paris is only a short flight away. Shannon went with me in 1989 and she, too, was eager to reacquaint herself with Greece and, as you’ll see if you continue reading, my family there. And, so, off we went for Le Vacances de Pâque in April.

My family lives in the northern region called Macedonia. This is now also the name of a country that was formed after the dissolution of Yugoslavia (and also the name of a town adjacent to where I grew up) . The Greeks put up a bit of a fuss at the time about the use of the name, but I don’t think it rankles them much at this point. Not that the Greeks have short memories–remember, it’s still Constantinople, 550+ years after the invading Ottoman Empire renamed it Istanbul.

Before heading north we stopped for a few days in Athens where Shannon had never been and I hadn’t been since I was a kid, just a few years older than Jack. And, even better, my Mom was able to come with us! My Mom has rare occasion in the US to speak Greek so she’s a bit rusty. And she tried a few times with Greek restaurant proprietors in Paris (yes, they’re everywhere) and stumbled a bit. There must of been something about hitting the homeland, though, because her Greek was incredible while we were there. Not just tourist Greek, which we need in Athens, but talks with the relatives and even cracking some jokes around the dinner table. But first….

Athens

We rented an apartment in central Athens. We only had a couple of days there but that was fine, especially with the kids. Athens is a big, modern, vibrant city, but it’s also loud and dirty and crowded and not a relaxing place for a holiday with the kids. We did the obvious things: the Acropolis, the (absolutely fantastic) Archeological Museum and the National Gardens. And, of course, we ate. You can say what you want about the quality of French food, but nobody loves to eat more than the Greeks. After all, they invented the edible complex.

The first night we went to an excellent, small taverna called ‘O Kostas’ just off of Ymittou street (Thanks Mom!). I think we all still remember the fish which was ethereal. We felt like we needed to eat it quickly before it floated away. Yummm.

So day one was the Acropolis, which is home to the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena, the Erechtheum and the Theater of Dionysus. It was crowded and the Parthenon was covered with scaffolding and there was an ugly corner of a worksite [img] (the Parthenon is undergoing a serious preservation project), but the whole thing is inspiring, especially if you know any ancient Greek history and can envision the famous philosophers and poets wandering about. The view are good, if hazy, and you can see the Temple of Zeus down below [img].

Soaking Wet

Soaking Wet in Athens

After wandering about for a bit we started to head down for lunch. And the skies opened. It simply poured down rain, nearly as hard as any rainstorm you can imagine.  And this being Athens in April. Sheesh. Nobody, absolutely nobody, had an umbrella or a raincoat. Well, that’s not totally true. A few entrepreneurial Sri Lankan’s were selling cheap umbrellas for 5 euros apiece. They could have charged 15, easily, it was raining that hard.  After pausing under some trees for a minute to see if the rain would stop (it didn’t, and the trees were becoming less effective by the minute), we took out 15 soggy euros and picked up 3 umbrellas. We still got pretty wet, as this photo attests.

We then wandered to the new Acropolis Museum only to discover its opening had been delayed and we wouldn’t get to see it. Too bad. It’s opening as I’m writing this (in mid-June) and it looks pretty magnificent. I do hope the British will send back the Elgin Marble now that the Greeks have a proper place to keep and share them. (Great story in today’s New York Times about the same subject.)

After a decent lunch in the neighborhood (nothing noteworthy, but welcome after the rain) we licked our (wet) wounds and hobbled home to shower/bathe and change clothes. And then we called it a day. I ran out to get some souvlaki and fries, we opened a bottle of (ever improving) Greek wine and turned in early, vowing to get an earlier start the next day.

Archeological Museum

Infant Death "Mask"

Infant Death "Mask"

First of all, a note on the Athens subway.  Doesn’t stop in enough places, yet, but very nice. Clean, efficient, safe and definitely worth using.  Unfortunately the house we rented wasn’t that close to a subway stop so we took a cab to the museum. I definitely recommend trying to find accommodations near a subway stop. As usual, finding something near a station that serves two lines is even better.

In any case, the museum itself: What an amazing place. They’ve pulled together some of the most amazing artifacts from excavations all over Greece and the variety and quality is simply awesome.  I’ve been to the antiquities collection at the Louvre, which is certainly impressive.  The Archeological Museum in Athens is even better. You should go, even if you don’t think you like “that sort of thing.”

The artifacts that made the biggest impression on me were the gold “death masks” that covered the faces of those (presumable) important people who were buried in tombs. Especially the full-body masks for infants that were buried. It is extraordinary that these  survived at all, much less  in such great condition. These are thin, soft metal sculptures from 16th century BC! I also liked the wall paintings throughout and the pre-classical Greek sculpture.

National Garden

Athens National Gardens

Athens National Gardens

The usual pattern with the kids is to do one “adult museum” and one “kid thing” each day. So after the museum (which the kids loved…they love them all even if they complain about having to go) we headed for the National Gardens in the center of Athens. It is quite lovely and there are some great ponds, complete with turtles giving rides to birds and a really nice playground. After some time relaxing there we decided to head home. On the way the taxi driver stopped at the Ancient Olympic Stadium. You can’t walk around inside (at least we couldn’t :-)), but it is very cool.

And then, finally, Shannon and I had a date night. With Grammy-O taking the kids, we headed out for a long walk and then a really fun dinner at Kuzina.  Shannon and I wanted a cocktail and they didn’t really have a cocktail list. The server gamely said “tell me what you would like, I’m sure we know how to make it” and Shannon said “a sidecar.” That baffled them. Well, luckily, not all of them. In the back, near the kitchen, was a robust man in chef’s attire who was eavesdropping and said, simply, “That’s with cognac, lemon juice and orange liqueur, right?” Right. He ambled up to the bar, pushing the bartender aside and whipped up an excellent sidecar for Shannon and a Negroni for me. It turns out he was the owner/chef and had formerly worked at Roy’s Hawaian Fusion in Maui.

The food is “Greek Modern” and everything looked so good we had a tough time deciding–too bad we weren’t staying another day. The setting is lovely. The meal was excellent.Almost as good as the cocktails 😉

After that Shannon and I wandered around a bit and finally took in the view of the Parthenon from the roof of our apartment building. The next morning was our train ride to northern Greece to see my family.  But that’s another post…

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One response to “Greece (Ελλάδα)! (Part 1: Athens)

  1. Pingback: Greece (Ελλάδα)! (Part 2: Katerini & Thessaloniki) « Rue Cuvier

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