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The Fernweh-farer: Relics, Recovery and Rover in Athens

So, it chased me down a steep ridge at 5am in the pitch black dark.  I am virtually positive it was a dog.  It rose above my waist on all fours. But we will come back to that momentarily.

Varvakeios Market is at the city center and has been operating continuously since 1886. Vendors size up their offerings for the day early in the morning.

First, Athens has not fully recovered. Not even close, in fact.  That is the initial thing residents I encountered wanted to ensure I drew from my stay. Like many other elements in life, they contend that they have merely conformed to their new lowered standard and higher cost of living. I even had a few liken it to a variation of Stockholm Syndrome where the acceptance of this new norm helps maintain sanity and, effectively, survive.

Beginning in late 2007 and early 2008, Greece went through a grim financial crisis that fully began in 2009. At its pinnacle, it marked the deepest recession on record for any advanced industrialized country. To put this in context for Western readers, the duration and breadth of contraction dwarfed the Great Depression in the US. The unemployment still remains at 22% overall and a saddening 43% for 15 to 24-year-olds.  This also led to a "brain drain" as talented young students and youth left for other opportunities across Europe.

Street art and graffiti dominates the city. Some better than others.

But we live in the world of fifteen minute spans of attention and the financial crisis in Greece had its allocation of recognition and front-page headlines. Just ten years separated from the start of the crisis, the world has drifted even more strikingly in its capacity to get absorbed in a twenty-four-hour news cycle of each day’s nothingness and mindless tweets. 

Meanwhile, Greece keeps lacing up its shoes each morning. Given its proximity to northern Africa and accessibility as a port city, Athens is also a poster child for the delicate dance that comes with immigration and refugees. The city is a melting pot that endeavors to identify the fit for these new sections of its rich tapestry.  

The immigrant population resides in a few neighborhoods around the city and the well-meaning local Athens authorities are quick to stop wandering tourists and spur them to detour by a few blocks to their ultimate destination.    

However, I maneuvered through many of these city blocks and felt no discomfort. The primary thing is to be conscious of petty crime like pick-pockets and “snatch & grab” by a few desperate to figure out where their next meal will materialize.  

I broke up my trip to the city into two separate stops, and this granted me to experience two sides of the city. On my first trip, I settled in the Psyrri neighborhood. On my return trip, I rooted up in the Makrygianni area.

I found Athens to be a perfectly intoxicating experience. One can only observe, and absorb, a little of the bootstrapped survivalist mentality that pervades the city of Athens, and this stirred me repeatedly during my visit.  

The hills of the Plaka neighborhood are a worthwhile endeavor.

Cafes and shops dot these little alleyways that circle the base of the Acropolis.

Athens cuisine takes a backseat to no other destination I have called on. Although already partial to Mediterranean dishes before arriving, nothing I had experienced to this point could match the flavors and preparations that embraced me in the land of origin.  

Start your morning with a formidable Greek coffee and a koulouri from one of the local bakers, or stands, that roll out before the sun peaks over the Acropolis.  Koulouri is a light baked bread ring studded with toasted sesame seeds and provides the perfect crunch paired with a pliable dough inside. Similar to a western bagel, it presents a less dense carbohydrate fix to your morning.

Dial "K" for koulouri

Of course, Greek yogurt is another choice for the morning…or anytime of day, really. When you enjoy the local strains of the cultured cream, one immediately understands (and indeed questions why it took so long) how this delicacy gained such quick acceptance and popularity globally. Get the honey and walnuts added to your cup or bowl - just do it.

Greek yogurt with pine honey and walnuts. Stani produces some of the best over the last 80 years.

Tomes on the olives could support an entire article. Skip the grocery stores and shop like a local at one of the many stands around the central market square. A too-big haul of fresh olives set me back a mere $1.30 USD.  

Similar advice applies to the cheese, dried fruits, meats and wine recommendations. Make a beeline for the local shops around this four-block radius and gather the bravery to chat up the local shop owners for their guidance.  

It was in this fashion I grasped only newcomers to Athens purchase Greek wine in actual glass bottles at actual grocers or liquor stores. Rather, head to the small butcher shops in the city and seize a 1.5L plastic bottle of homemade wine. At approximately $3 USD, it is the finest wine to dollar value I have run into on my travels across the globe - and exceedingly delightful tasting notes.

Finish any Greek meal off with the proverbial offering of sweets.  Loukoumades (Greek doughnut holes drenched in honey and nuts), baklava, halva (a tahini and sugar pressed loaf) just to mention a few.  

Loukoumades in all their fried, honeyed and pistachio crumbled glory.

Athens is heavy with ancient sites but it often surprised me at just how minimal the remnants are at some spots. Several more well-known sites like the Roman Agora, Hadrian’s Library and Aristotle’s Lyceum require visitors to dust off their childhood backyard fort, or stuffed animal tea time, imagination skills to design anything like a meaningful picture. It still inspires awe to realize one is standing on the same ground that so much of philosophical and cultural history was formed, but fair warning if grand visual imagery is the hope.

The exclusion to this is, of course, Acropolis Hill. I love cities with landmarks that serve as a visual point of reference, and the majesty of the Acropolis is constantly there as a comfortable visible touchstone in the hectic city of Athens.  

Ouzo is an anise-flavored apertif well worth trying...multiple times.

Arrive early to the Acropolis to beat the afternoon crowds and the probability that an afternoon thunderstorm will accompany the steady temperature rise as the day progresses. Like the American south of my upbringing, locals assured me the afternoon pop-up thundershower is an established way of life.  You are pretty exposed on the top, so put some attention on weather forecasting before you start the climb.

My Airbnb was steps from one of the more popular entry points behind the gleaming new Acropolis Museum, making it particularly handy for an already early riser to hit the steps before everyone else - and this is where we meet our four-legged “not so friendly” friend.  

The city of Athens appears endless from viewpoints across the city.

As it often does on photo-related missions, ambition got the best of me.  Having observed it across the narrow span of connecting land during my Acropolis visit,  I yearned to scale the modest Filopappou Hill just to the west on the promise of remarkable and unobstructed sunrise views of the Parthenon, Temple of Athena Nike and south slope of the hill. Once the sun sets, the ruins are dipped in a soft amber light that illuminates all the must see and meaningful angles.

What I discovered at the base of the view point hillside in the wee hours well before sunrise, was no actual trail at all. Confronted with a challenge of scaling a hill I did not know of in the pitch black dark, with high-value gear strapped to my torso, I did what any sensible person would do…I pulled out my phone and turned on the flashlight feature to light my path!

Backstreets showcase how Acropolis is always in view as a point of reference.

Resolved to ascend only until a satisfactory viewpoint presented itself, about twelve minutes into my climb I heard the initial sounds of the unexpected caller. A rustling above me slowly grew stronger until an incredibly large and black dog bound from the final line of thicket to start aggressively barking and ceremoniously circling me.  

Most of what I instantly recall, other than panic, was saying again and again: “It’s all right, calm down, calm down.” It is still not obvious to me whether I was speaking to the dog or myself, but the “bear dog hybrid” was having none. Realizing the circling was drawing closer and my best animal whispering was taking no effect, instinct kicked in and I raced down the still pitch black mountain with the hound on my heels.

He, or she, trailed me in a boisterous fashion for a solid five minutes of furious sprinting and praying I would avert any of the many tree stumps I so gingerly navigated on the way up. Finally, my aggressor trailed off and I was able to stop, catch my breath and take an inventory of my nerves and gear. All there…just barely.

Totally worth it!

Message from the Gods received, I resolved to set up my tripod at the side of the road near the base of the hill. What turned out were shots that still excited some recovered dignity, although not at the altitude I had been hoping for. As I lingered for the long exposure to finish on one of the last shots, one of Athens’ stray dogs came slowly walking by me - visibly aged and docile. He sauntered across the street to the opposite sidewalk and settled down, gently shifting to face me and established eye contact. It was as if he was saying: “I heard you met Bruiser up on the hill…yeah, that was not a healthy idea.” Noted wise sage, noted.  

Speaking of the Acropolis Museum, I recommend it with a minor variation on what any guide or publication will instruct you. Most recommend getting in the Acropolis Museum after you descend the hill. I feel the opposite is more valuable - do the Museum the day before you go up as it provides you much better background on all you will encounter in the magnificent remains at the pinnacle.

The climb is moderate and takes only fifteen minutes - depending on how regularly you break for photographs of the insanely vast views over all of Athens. Just a few brief minutes into my perusing the monuments, they treated us to the daily ceremony of the raising of the Greece flag. Heavily armed and stoic rangers slowly march from one side of the hill to the other, each holding an edge of the standard and accepting the marching orders of the guard at the head. Catch it on the ideal morning with a clear sunrise like I was afforded and it is a hair-raising event to bear witness to, even for the most jaded among us.

The Parthenon catches sunrise light atop the Acropolis.

The morning flag raising ceremony atop the Acropolis.

That brings a final reflection about Athens, and Greek people in general. Despite all their struggles and difficulties during the last decade, they are a fiercely proud people. I heard many viewpoints on the challenges they face, which is predicted. Most opinions involved buzzwords and themes around hot issues like immigration, corruption and the appeal to not give into closed-minded nationalism urges. 

Some regard the inflow of immigrants as a strain on shared resources while nevertheless pursuing a path to embrace this new class of seekers hoping to share their competences in a new home. Some think the government has botched the processes in place. However, they all agree on one point: Athens is a survivor and will be again.  

A city that once rose as a leader of world and housed some of the greatest contributions to art and thinking, now simply strives to hold on stable ground and nurture prosperity. I would not wager against them, and I am rooting for them to obtain the happiness they so richly deserve whether the rest of the world is paying regard to them or not.



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