Athens, Greece: the real city that never sleeps

Our bags haven’t even been put away yet, but I’m already thinking about the day we get to return.

We boarded a plane on a dark, rainy, cold Friday in Munich. Just a few hours later, we arrived in what looked (and smelled) like an entirely different world. Greece is sunny, colorful, and animated. Just walking out into a warm afternoon and taking one look at the blue sky lifted me out of the seasonally-depressed mood I’ve been falling into.

Our Airbnb host arranged for his own personal taxi driver to pick us up and drive us to the apartment. Taxi drivers are known to take advantage of tourists, especially at the airport, often taking the long route or “getting lost” to run up the meter. I’m glad we avoided the stress of that. It’s a long drive from the airport to the center of Athens, and even longer during Friday evening rush hour. I think the only word to describe this type of rush hour traffic is insane. For 40 minutes, we watched cars weave in and out of lanes without signals and only mere millimeters of clearance.

The first time I got a good view of what the Psirri neighborhood looked like, I’ll admit I was nervous. Every inch of Athens is covered in graffiti, the streets are congested with pedestrians, mopeds, and cars, and it looks like you can’t walk anywhere without bumping in to all kinds of people you probably shouldn’t bump into.

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It’s a lot to take in for anybody who hasn’t been here, and coming from small-town Bavaria, it exacerbated the culture shock for us even more. But I was still excited, and thankfully that excitement overshadowed everything else.

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The entryway to our apartment

Our host met us at the apartment, and gave us a 10-minute rundown on everything we needed to know. He had a big map in the apartment on which he labeled all points of interest, good restaurants, and metro stations. Furthermore, he gave us a bound book in which he summarized all the well-known restaurants, bakeries, and attractions within walking distance.

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He told us the tap water is very drinkable, the neighborhood is safe, and we could contact him with any questions. He provided us with a cell phone, an iPad, and free WiFi for communication. The view from the private rooftop terrace didn’t suck either.

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Our host’s mother lives on the top floor of the building. She must’ve heard us talking, because she came up to the terrace and started speaking to us in Greek. I don’t speak a word of Greek, and she doesn’t speak a word of English except “bye”, so I’m not confident about what the whole exchange was about. She is unmistakably kind, though. We saw her multiple times during our stay, and she would come right up to us, look up at our faces (she’s only about four feet tall), squeeze our arms with her soft little hands, babble a few things in Greek, and then smiled so big that every deep-set wrinkle on her face smiled, too.

I really cannot recommend this place enough. Check out the listing here

In an attempt to keep Saturday open for touring Athens, we made plans to get to the Marathon race expo at the the Faliro Indoor Exhibition Center on Friday night. As soon as our host was finished with our “orientation,” we set out for the metro station. It was already dark, but we stuck to the directions we were given and made the 5-minute walk to Monastiraki Square without difficulty.

Monastiraki Square is located right in the shadow of the Acropolis. It’s bustling with produce stands, local artists, and street performers. The metro station is the yellowish building on the right.

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The Athens metro is all underground, and runs three different lines. Something that was extremely interesting about the metro was the amount of ancient artifacts that were dug up during the construction–and that’s why it took so long for the system to be built. The Syntagma metro station doubles as a museum, and the Monastiraki station incorporated the ruins into the layout of the station.

There is also a tram line that runs North-South from the city center to the coast, and also East-West along the coastline. We needed to take a combination of these two methods to get to the race expo, and only had an hour to get there before it closed for the day. It took us longer than expected to get our bearings with the system and get on the correct train, and then once we switched to the tram, we were convinced we had gotten on the wrong one… so we got off. It turns out we were on the correct tram, but wouldn’t have made it in time even if we stayed on.

We tried the trip to the expo again on Saturday morning after a good night’s rest and made it with no issues.

The crowded metro stations and the trains themselves were overwhelming at first. We were wading through waves of people who already know where they were going, so stopping even for a moment to think about which train we needed felt impossible. After a couple practice runs, we knew which trains we needed. It’s amazing how helpful the train system is once you know how to use it!

It was always extremely hot and stuffy underground, also. The Greeks walk around with their winter coats and scarves in these temperatures, but I was sweating in a tank top. There’s barely enough standing room on the trains, and people really pack in like sardines. Everyone keeps to themselves, though, and thankfully I didn’t have any awkward eye-contact moments.

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Pickpocketing is notoriously bad in Athens, and we were told by our host that this is especially an issue on crowded trains and busy tourist spots. Carrying anything important in your back pockets is a big no-no, along with carrying an easily-accessible backpack on your back or an open purse. I carried my camera bag in lieu of a purse. We put our cash, credit card and IDs at the bottom of the bag, camera on top of it, zipper closed, buckle fastened, and I always carried the bag in front of me. When we rode the train back after the marathon, our personal items were in a CamelBak that I wore in front of my body. It looked dumb, but everyone does it.

I’m trying to find a way to express just how many restaurants there are in Athens. If you walk down any given street, you’re guaranteed to pass a restaurant every 10 seconds. Especially in the Psirri neighborhood we were staying in. Restaurants, cafés, bars, bakeries, you name it.

I love everything about Athens food culture. The majority of restaurant seating is outside on the sidewalk, or in big open courtyard areas shared by multiple restaurants.

Because of this setup, you get whiffs of the most amazing Greek food when you stroll down the street. I can still smell the fresh olives, fragrant olive oil, freshly-baked bread, and meat roasted to perfection.

When the restaurant’s not busy, waiters or hosts will stand outside and coax people off the street to come eat at their restaurant. I really enjoyed this, because Greeks genuinely care about hospitality. They will take you back to the chef’s case and show you the “daily specials,” which are usually traditional Greek dishes like meats roasted in tomato sauce or fresh catches of fish.

They repeatedly check on you to ensure you’re enjoying your meal. It warmed my heart being able to tell them their food was absolutely delicious and watching their face light up. They take great pride in their family recipes and pleasing their guests, and I’ve never felt more welcome anywhere than at a Greek restaurant.

Something that came as a big relief being able to quench my thirst while dining out in Greece. I’m used to dining at German restaurants where the options are the following: pay €4.50 for a bottle of mineral water; guzzle beer for a little less; or go thirsty. I always opt for beer, but since we were running the Marathon the next day, I was hoping there would be another option. All of the Greek restaurants we dined at gave us free (or very low cost) unlimited purified drinking water. I drank like a fish.

We dined at a variety of places, including a couple family-owned-check-out-my-daily-specials places…

…a great New York-style Italian place called Cosa Nostra for some pre-race pasta…

…a more modern Mediterranean lunch café…

…an Indian restaurant (that I didn’t take photos of)…

…a divey hipster bar…

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…a quaint brunch café with mismatched chairs…

…a couple of pretty fantastic bakeries…

…and of course, we made several tops for coffee and gelato.

Yes, we ate a lot. And no, it didn’t mess up our stomachs for the race. Greek food is heavy on the carbs and heavy on the vegetables–my two favorite food groups. The options were endless, but one thing remained the same no matter where we went: we were always treated like valued guests and received the best service of any city I’ve ever been to. You’ll always have a good dinner in Greece.

And since the city doesn’t sleep, it’s always meal time.

Greeks don’t go out for dinner until at least 8-9 p.m., and even then they might go for drinks and appetizers for a couple hours before going to an actual restaurant. Restaurants stay open until at least midnight, and in most cases, much later. Bars seem to never close, and even some bakeries stay open until after 3 a.m. When we left the apartment at 5:30 the morning of the Marathon, people were still out from the night before.

Street vendors never seem to go home, either. Because of the bad economy, artists and jewelers are constantly hustling to sell their handmade items to tourists and anyone else who shows the slightest bit of interest.

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A lady selling balloons outside a restaurant (yes, there is a lady behind those balloons)

They will approach your table when you’re eating outside and try to sell you flowers, bracelets, keychains, etc. We walked through a market on our way up to the Acropolis, and bought a handmade owl figurine from the nicest lady.

I picked up the little alabaster owl with blue eyes and said, “This is cute!”

She picked up one of her other figurines of a Greek god with a ridiculously out-of-proportion penis and said, “Maybe this too? Or…maybe not so much.”

She laughed. I laughed. Then she said I looked cold in my tank top and rubbed my arms (even though it was 75°). It was a great time.

And the Greeks do love to have a good time. They are the most social and outgoing people I’ve ever met, and I found myself getting swept up in the undeniably positive attitude that hangs thick around this city. Architecturally, Athens is dilapidated. A lot of buildings are only half-finished because of insufficient funding. The rest of the buildings aren’t kept up like the should be.

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But the attitude of the people is a stark contrast to the condition of the city. Their demeanor does not seemed depressed or downtrodden. They instead find happiness in family, friendships, and love for their culture.

That’s what I loved most about Athens. It felt real. And honest. It houses the most beautiful ancient architecture, but it’s also colored with rebellious beauty by artists who wanted to stamp a little piece of their personality onto the city they call home.

 

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