Our first few hours in Athens were a mistake. They occurred a whole 24 hours later than they should have. Deciding that sticking to our original travel plan was now almost useless, we made our way out of the airport towards the train into the city.
The metro in Athens is fantastic: clean, efficient and easy to navigate, even if you don’t speak or read Greek. After scanning the guide to the metro, I pieced together a route that seemed simple enough and would pop us out in Syntagma square.
Mistake #1: We got off at the wrong stop.
Instead of getting off at Syntagma square, we cruised straight on the through, drunk with jet-lag. Realising our mistake, we jumped off at the next stop, Monastiraki square. I figured from there we would simply hail a taxi back to the hotel since we couldn’t be too far away.
We both grabbed our suitcases (yes, suitcases! I might proclaim to love travel but have yet to upgrade to a decent back pack) and started dragging them up the gazillion stairs that led us out of the station. I was the first to step out of the station and the sight literally took my breath away.
“You are not even going to believe this!” I yelled back to Johnny.
And so, despite getting off at the wrong spot, my first memory of Athens itself is of the Church of the Pantanassa, golden in the late afternoon sunlight, a busy square full of excited tourists like myself and there, right there above me, was the Parthenon looking down on us.
Syntagma Square would probably have been way more a convenient stop to get off at and it’s also impressive with its Parliament buildings. But nothing could have surprised me more than the unexpected beauty of Monastiraki square. It was one of my first I really am in Greece! moments.
Mistake #2: We forgot our map to the hotel.
Well, we forgot our Google printout to the hotel, which in retrospect wouldn’t have been much help.
Anyway, somehow I didn’t quite expect Greece to be so, well, Greek. (Who am I?) Caught up in the excitement of being in the Plaka, we decided to skip the cab and walk. We spent a good hour zigzagging the awkward narrow streets, dodging the hooting cars and vans that squeezed by, looking for our hotel and following the rough directions we had been given by one of English shopkeepers back in Monastiraki Square (I did at least have the foresight to write the hotel address in my phone.)
We continued having to stop multiple times and request directions as the previous ones each failed. “Just five more minutes that way,” another shop owner would exclaim enthusiastically when I showed him our address. “You can’t miss it,” he’d add, winking.
It didn’t take us long to realize that Greeks, being the incredibly friendly and helpful people that they are, will always attempt to offer assistance, even if they have no idea where/what you need help with.
The following day, when we made our way back to the station to catch the train to Piraeus, we realized we had literally been circling our hotel. The upside? We had seen a good chunk of the Plaka before we even unpacked our bags.
Mistake #3: The Acropolis museum was closed.
Because we had forgotten to check the times. Various family members of mine had visited the museum after it opened and every one had rave reviews. It was one of the few museums I was really interested in visiting.
So, showered and ready to explore, we headed back into the twisted cobblestone streets of the Plaka and made our way to the museum. Hence our disappointment when we discovered it was closed. The museum is open until 8pm almost every day and 10pm on Fridays. On Monday (the day we were there) the last admission is 330pm.
Since we were already at the base of the Acropolis, now with a few extra hours to spare, the next logical thing to do was head straight up it.
Mistake #4: We forgot to pack an umbrella.
Because it’s Greece and since when does it rain in Greece? In May, obviously.
Half way up the beautifully paved stone road that leads to the Acropolis, the sky turned from blue to black and then promptly emptied down on us. Johnny and I took cover in the large archway of an apartment building, next to two stray cats and an artist selling little oil paintings with scenes from around the city.
We watched as the water ran down the silvery boughs of the olive trees and pooled around our flip flops. Earlier, we had spotted men selling umbrellas but they had now disappeared into the downpour.
As it the rain continued, I stopped to fully appreciate my surrounds. I had visited Athens in my early teens. My memories were of a maze of concrete and a heavy orange haze that stunned me. I had felt like I had taken a wrong turn on the streets of Johannesburg and landed in one of the seedier areas.
The Athens I experienced this time around was completely different. The streets were filled with the usual smells of gasoline and fermenting garbage and cigarette smoke. But, because we were visiting in spring, the air was also heavy with the smell of the orange blossoms that seemed to be blooming on almost every tree we passed. Coming up from the cracks in the pavement and bursting from pots on balconies, wild flowers bloomed everywhere. Since then, I have yet to visit a city that is scented by orange blossoms.
We spent the evening roaming around the Parthenon which was now blissfully deserted after the earlier shower. I wish I had more photos to post but one of the other mistakes I made was not checking the batteries of our camera, which promptly died halfway up the hill. This is totally okay, since there’s a lot to be said about exploring a place without the worry of constantly getting the right shot.
Mistake #5: We lost a day.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we were already a whole day behind our original schedule for Athens. Well, maybe this wasn’t quite a mistake that we made or could control.
Our plane was oversold on the Montreal-Zurich leg and feeling generous (and really looking for any excuse to spend more time in Montreal and eat more Schwartz’s) we gave up our seats and flew a day later. There may or may not have been compensation involved. Either way, we lost a day in Athens.
While I regret not having the extra hours in this gorgeous, emotional city, I don’t regret that it meant we basically stopped following our itinerary from the get-go and just made the most of our short time there.
We walked the Plaka streets until our feet blistered, shared a punnet of apricots bursting beneath their thin skins, browsed the markets, chatted to plenty of locals about their top picks for frappes or saganaki cheese, and just soaked up the atmosphere of the Plaka.
We finished our imperfectly perfect day with heaping plates of traditional food, a few bottles of cheap Greek wine, followed with Ouzo and then melting gelati as we wove our way back to our hotel.
There was no rushing to get to the next sight or tick places of our list of “must-sees.” We’ll visit Athens again and see more when we do. But those 24 hours in the Plaka were the perfect introduction.