Every summer people who want to take some time off from Pakistan are stuck with the same conundrum; a falling rupee against the dollar ensures that we need to be frugal when it comes to vacations and trips abroad. The beautiful world continues to beckon with its ever increasing clout through social media, through ads, through experiences shared by friends, and so we sit and wonder how to go about a much-needed trip.
First, let me give you some context as to what I mean when I say we: it’s me, the wife and two grown kids, meaning it cannot be a one room kind of trip anywhere we go. This time we had decided to head to Greece, which went something like this.
The city famed for its bustling markets, amazing museums hosting 5000 year old artifacts, the odes to their goddesses Athena and Nike, the Acropolis, the Parthenon and so much more. Their neighborhoods are those where one can feel time stop as we are reminded of a golden age where alleyways were based with marble and every opportunity was taken to discuss issues of the day, of politics and state with democratic congress.
Where to stay
On a normal budget (60-80 euros per night) you would be lucky to get an area closer to Plaka, the ancient neighborhood of Athens underneath the Acropolis, which is the center of the city. Basically, the Acropolis is the citadel on the hill around which Athens is built and Plaka is the area where the city used to meet, eat, drink and live. No worries though, Athens has an amazing subway system so you can travel with ease to any of its central points. Hence two stops from Plaka or hereabouts should easily see you setup with a nice apartment with a balcony overlooking Athens and the Acropolis. If you wish to go lower than the aforementioned rate you can get by with the local hostels or YMCAs, like the Chameleon Youth Hostel or many others at hostelworld.com, for as low as 15-20 euros a night. But then you should expect no more than a clean bed and no air conditioning.
What to see
There are two ways to see Athens for a tourist. You can hop on over to Syntagma Square on the subway (it’s on the blue line) and buy tickets for the open top tour bus, which will take you around with running commentary on each location. Or you can zip around on the subway and walk from the clearly marked stations to each spot of interest. Most temples, like the Acropolis and the museums, do come with a ticket but (valid) student IDs will take you through most sites for free. Keep in mind that Greece is not the ‘show-stuff-on-your-phone’ kind of place, so keep hard copies of everything.
Acropolis and Parthenon
The best way to see both of these is together. Reach the Plaka area and then just follow through the streets to the base of the Acropolis hill, where the museum is located to the left and the hill to your right. Both are ticketed and there are several tour guides to assist, at an extra charge, should you want a personalized tour. Otherwise everything is very clearly marked and described with various signs in English. The pieces on display here, as well as at the Parthenon and Acropolis, are all open and not behind glass cases so be careful! Also remember these temples are active, sacred religious sites.
Temple of Zeus
The Temple of Zeus in Athens, better known as the Olympian, was built in 174 BC and although only a few of its columns remain, it is not very hard to see how gargantuan this colossal temple was. It’s quite close to the Acropolis and can be seen within fifteen minutes. The view from the outside is so panoramic, that I wouldn’t bother buying tickets to see the inside.
Located at the end of Ermou street, which starts from Syntagma Square and is full of high streets and international brands, rests the old square and its adjoining flea markets. If you are fond of local delicacies, knick-knacks and bargains on everything from fresh fruits to clothes, this is the place to be! Also highly recommended is the sunset here, with the view of the Acropolis at the back, and the best gyros in town, which are the delightful Greek version of our shawarma. Ask for it as a takeaway sandwich with fries, or they will serve it in a platter.
Known as the center of Athens, this square boasts an old palace where the Greek parliament resides, and is also known as the heart of the city. With historical streets, a bustling shopping district, fountains to rest your feet by, cobble stoned pedestrian-only streets with churches dotting them, this is the place to be. It’s where you can have a quick snack, shop, or just sit and watch the city come together. Even if there are protests taking place, they are normally very civilized and colourful, and do not disrupt the life around.
Athens is a very multi-cultural and multi-culinary place, you can find any cuisine your heart desires but I would definitely advice everyone to try the local fare. Their salads are lip-smacking and the breads are perfect. Of course the healthy smattering of local cheeses and olive oil doesn’t do you any harm either! Do remember that the Greek palate is mostly concentrated on the use of herbs and lemon, rather then spices like ours, so you may want to order some Tabasco sauce on the side if you want that extra zing.
If the urge for high street shopping strikes, Ermou Street is the street of all your shopping dreams. If it’s bazaars, trinkets and local fare, you cannot go wrong with Monastraski Square. If you must go to a mall there is the Mall of Athens as well as a place called the Golden Hall for even more high end designer labels. All of these locations have easy access via metro, taxi and buses.
Obviously there is also a pretty vibrant nightlife as well, but I’m not of the club-hopping stage of life anymore. Suffice to say that music, art and culture is everywhere in the city and there is no dearth of taste or safety anywhere. Besides the usual risks to keep in mind when you aren’t in your comfort zone, there is nothing untoward one has to worry about.