Before this last week, I had visited thirty-nine different countries, ranging from the UK to Uzbekistan, and from Burma to Bahrain. It seems fitting then that I would reach my milestone fortieth country with a destination that I had dreamt about for years when I was younger, and which I always imagined would happen much later in life.
Greece has a history dating back thousands of years as we all well know, but in recent times it seems to have lost its footing, as it clambers to stay afloat. The idea to visit Greece was borne out of a planned trip to neighbouring Turkey for some friends’ wedding. With one week up my sleeve, we managed to squeeze in three days in the historic capital, Athens, and another three days on the jaw-droppingly beautiful island of Santorini.
Athens is still benefitting from its hosting of the Olympic Games ten years ago. We took the metro line from the airport to the city – no muss, no fuss. We emerged at Syntagma Square, along with the obligatory wise-cracks about “stigmata square”, and found our hotel directly in front of us. The Grande Bretagne is a beautiful old building in the heart of Athens, and across the road from the Hellenic (Greek) Parliament. Every hour there is a changing of the guard ceremony there, and I watched the slow swinging gait of the soldiers one night from the hotel rooftop.
We passed the parliament again as we walked in search of dinner, and eventually decided upon a nice restaurant in a rather unatmospheric lane way, but the food was delicious. We continued to Plaka, the tourist district of Athens directly below the Acropolis, poked our heads into some shops, and came across a less-then-lovely tourist T-shirt which claimed that “Oedipus was the original motherf*cker”. Classy.
The next day we wandered further, and I discovered a kind of black powder on the palms of my hands as I walked around Syntagma / Stigmata Square. We of course eventually zeroed in on the Acropolis (“high city”) which towers over Athens, capped with the iconic Parthenon. The walk up to the Acropolis was not nearly as strenuous as we had expected, but the top of the hill was not as densely packed with sights as we had imagined – the Parthenon, an ancient library, is of course the jewel in the crown, but it is accompanied by the remnants of only two or three other buildings. Many of the ruins on the Acropolis actually sit further down the hill, on the slopes.
That night we had a special birthday dinner for our friend at the rooftop of the Grande Bretagne Hotel, where we discovered, of all things, a “selfie spot”. The next day our friends left early for Santorini, where we were to join them the next day. Meanwhile we walked through the lush National Garden, next to the Hellenic Parliament, then down to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, its columns soaring for the blue blue sky, and making for some really impressive perspective-based pictures with the Acropolis in the background. An American lady turned up and began twerking at the temple, at which point we decided it was time to move on.
A short walk up the road brought us to the Panathenaic Stadium, an arena which dates back to ancient times, and which was used as the principal stadium for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, for which it was restored. The Olympics have long since outgrown the humble Panathenaic Stadium, and for the 2004 Athens games a new stadium was constructed along with a complete athletes village, but for symbolic value the 1896 stadium hosted the archery, as well as the finish line for the marathon.
Athens is a city which has seen many greater changes and challenges than the financial woes with which it is currently faced. It seems that it will, as always, prevail, but at what cost is yet to be seen. Being in Greece feels like standing at the extremities of Europe, and its almost sad to see a once great civilisation pushed to the periphery of its cultural neighbourhood, like an ageing member of a sports team who knows the best of his career is behind him. However the difference is this; instead of quitting on a high, or going down fighting, Greece is the player who fades into his older years weating a serene smile, with his contemporaries remembering the beauty and extravagance that once was, and the graceful legacy that will always be.
Culture shock: 4/10
Language difficulty: 3/10
Quality of food: 7/10
Physical demand: 3/10
Advice and warnings
Athens is fairly safe, although the usual tourist scams and touts exist. Keep an eye on your belongings – pickpockets operate wherever tourists congregate. In recent years Athens has seen street demonstrations and political unrest due to the economic situation. If a protest or demonstration occurs while you are visiting, you would be advised to stay clear of it – visit a museum or something instead. If there is a general strike, then a day in a park or a quiet one at your hotel might be a good alternative. None of this should deter you from visiting however – for a traveller they represent more of an annoyance than a threat.
Most Australians may enter Greece without the need for a visa, but Pakistanis and Indians must apply for a Schengen visa, which grants entry to several European countries which are part of the Schengen agreement. Pakistanis must pay €180 – the process takes around one month. Applications in India cost €60, and take less than 15 business days to process. Apply through your nearest Greek diplomatic mission (Islamabad, India VFS Service).
Getting there and around
Emirates flies to Athens via Dubai daily.
Melbourne (from $1,660 return)
Lahore (from PKR 99,491 return)
Sydney (from $1,775 return)
Chennai (from INR 56,533 return)
We stayed at the luxurious and historic Grande Bretagne Hotel. If you’re looking for something a bit easier on the wallet, there are plenty of great budget and economy options available through HostelWorld.com.