There is so much history in Athens, so many ancient monuments to put in your eyeholes that we decided to spread everything out over the four full days we were here so we didn’t get historied out. It’s a real fucking thing, guys. Like in Rajasthan, India when just the thought of visiting another fort had me slumped in a corner, staring at the (very old) walls like a broken woman. Or in Malta where I couldn’t bear the thought of another stone age temple. I adore all this shit but it needs to be broken up with, y’know, different shit.
We rocked up to Athens over two hours later than planned thanks to a poorly Wizz Air pilot, jumped onto a bus into the city and walked the last mile to our hostel through vibrant streets lined with cafés, bars and restaurants. We’d been here minutes and I already loved it! If we didn’t have our worldly belongings strapped to our torsos (and weren’t expelling every last drop of moisture from every pore in our bodies) we’d have probably stopped and indulged but we had five nights here. There’d be time.
The hostel is nice. We’re the oldest there of course but our desire to budget accordingly outweighs feeling like everyone’s grandma. I’m sure we can cope with dorm living for a bit though the last dorm we stayed in ended up with me lobbing a bloke’s shoe at his head because he slept through his alarm. Repeatedly. Seriously, it beeped itself to the end of its cycle, snoozed itself, then piped up again five minutes later. It was around the fourth run when I woke him up and bollocked him. I wouldn’t have minded so much but it was right by his fucking head and, it seemed, he didn’t even need to get up anyway, the utter prick. Yeeaahhh… maybe this wouldn’t end that well.
All we did on our first afternoon was get settled then find somewhere close for dinner and a beer and ended up at a kebab shop where we were served an absolute mountain of food. Afterwards we waddled around for a bit before heading back to the hostel for an early night. Lots of sightseeing tomorrow. We wanted to be vaguely functioning.
So. Our first full day in Athens. We started off at Kerameikos archaeological site. We got there before it even opened and still managed to get stuck behind a fucking tour group. I guess this would be our life in Athens to be fair, shuffling along behind huge groups of humans. Can’t really complain about tourists when you yourself are a relentless fucking tourist though, let’s face it.
There’s surprisingly little information available at the site. Sure, there are information boards dotted around the place but it was still quite difficult to envision how it would have looked or what it was actually for. I think it was just an area of Athens but at some point, after the Persian War, a fuck off great big wall was built around the city which cut right through Kerameikos so I guess that put it half in the city and half out?
The 6500 metre wall had at least thirteen gates and two of them were here; The Sacred Gate and the Dipylon Gate. From the former runs the Sacred Way, a road running all the way to a place 20 kilometres away. A part of this is lined with really fucking elaborate tombs. A lot of this area is basically a graveyard but these tombs are really quite spectacular. Like, there’s no way I’d splash out that amount of cash on something I don’t get to just until I’m dead.
The Dipylon Gate was, apparently, even more important on account of it being the starting point of the most fabulous event in Athens, the four yearly parade as part of the Panathenaic festival in honour of the goddess Athena. There was even a building, the Pompeion, which was used to prepare for this festival but the Romans annihilated that when they invaded.
Right then, we were going to need a bit of help for our next stop so we swung back by the hostel to pick up the Lonely Planet before heading to the Ancient Agora. It has a lovely little map and highlights the bits you really shouldn’t miss. We’d bought a combo ticket at Kerameikos which gets us into seven sites including this one so we didn’t have to queue, we just sailed on by and got scanned in.
The first thing we put right in our eyeholes was the Stoa of Attalos and oh my fucking gosh, what a majestic beast! The original was built around 159BC but it was utterly flattened a few centuries later by invaders. It was the 1950s when this absolute delight was built from studies of ancient text and drawings. It also houses an amazing museum which we spent an inordinate quantity of time in.
Other cool shit to note in this site is a really cool little church which, whilst still really fucking old, is way less old than the other broken shit you see before you. It’s 11th century so still incomprehensible to me. Sadly you can’t go inside at the moment which is a shame as there are meant to be some cool 17th century frescos.
The foundations of an old temple to Zeus are here too but a large chunk of that whole area was destroyed when they built the first Metro line in the late 1800s. It’s so weird to see all this as a tourist, all this really ancient history intersected by a train line just cutting right through it. Also, on an unrelated note, you remember that four yearly procession I told you about? That also ran diagonally through the Agora. We’d actually managed to start our tour right at the beginning. I love it when we accidentally get shit right.
There’s plenty of other stuff to bore you with but I won’t, however you’re not leaving until I’ve told you about the Temple of Hephaistos, the god of the forge, which you can see from the tourist strip and I’ve been completely obsessed with since I laid eyes on it. It’s no less impressive up close, it’s the best preserved temple of its kind in the whole of Greece which isn’t bad considering it was built in 449 BC.
We still had a shit tonne of day left so we just bimbled around Athens, stumbling into the insanely awesome Byzantine churches they have randomly dotted around the city. We popped into the massive cathedral too (take your hat off! I honestly didn’t know this was a thing until we were berated by a devotee who has clearly had enough of tourists and their disrespectful shit) but I’m definitely more of a fan of these dark little churches, literally covered in paintings inside. I Googled one of them and it’s 11th century, probably built around 1050. That’s nearly 1000 years old and it’s just casually there, being a church.
We ended up at Syntagma Square in time for the Changing of the Guard in front of the Monument to the Unknown Soldier. These poor fuckers had stood there in full uniform, complete with pompoms on their feet, in this heat, for the best part of an hour. One guy was directly in the sunshine, stock still. They can’t move. When one tourist got too close to take a photo the guard continued staring straight ahead and banged his rifle on the ground until the soldier, who I assume is there for human control, asked the tourist to move back.
On the hour the soldier moved us all aside so the new guards could get through then followed a whole ritual of foot dragging, high kicking ritual, all in slow motion. It was fantastic. Tarrant loved it for what she described as epic foot drill. I just really enjoyed the show. The whole thing took about ten minutes in the sweaty, humid heat then the new guards took their posts and began the tedious process of staring straight ahead until the next change. I couldn’t do it, not without knowing how long I had left. 50 minutes might as well be three fucking days if you don’t know how much time had elapsed.
That evening we decided to check out night time Athens, starting by paying an eye-watering €7 for 500 ml of admittedly absolutely delicious beer at Diego. Our budget couldn’t sustain that so afterwards we headed to Monastiraki Square which was alive with hundreds of people soaking up the atmosphere. Kiosks selling snacks and drinks including beer are dotted around the city so we grabbed a can each and watched guys trying to sell objects that light up as a group of drummers provided the soundtrack.
We finished at a bar around the corner from the hostel for a more sanely priced motor impairment beverage then headed back for an early night by most people’s standards, but I consider anything after 9am staying up past my bedtime. Buy I like it here. It’s going to be fun getting to know Athens.
Athens, Attica, Greece / Αθήνα, Αττική, Ελλάδα
Stayed at: Chameleon Youth Hostel, Athens
Useful shit to know…
- To get from the airport into Athens city you’ll need the X95. Just follow the signs for buses until you find the ticket office. It was, at the time of writing, €5.50 one way. It will terminate at Syntagma Square.
- Other buses from the airport which will take you other places too. I got my information from this website.
- When you get on the bus you have to validate your ticket by tapping it on a card reader by the door.
- The Ancient Agora is €10 to get in and the Kerameikos archaeological site is €6. The museum at the latter is, unfortunately, temporarily closed. I guess it would have helped us work out what the fuck everything was if it were open.
- Monastiraki is the closest Metro station for the Ancient Agora and Thiseo is probably your best bet for Kerameikos.
- We bought the €30 package ticket which gets you entry to six sites plus the Acropolis. You can buy it at any of the sites it’s valid at and it lasts five days. Once November rolls around entry prices reduce so the €30 ticket might not be worth it but in the summer, if you’re visiting the Acropolis and two other sites it’s definitely a good investment.
- The included sites are: The Acropolis (not the museum, that’s a separate ticket and currently costs €10), Kerameikos Archaeological Site & Museum, Ancient Agora, Hadrian’s Library, the Roman Agora, Aristotles Lyceum, and The Temple of Olympian Zeus.