09.09.2014

A JOURNEY TO ATHENS

A JOURNEY TO ATHENS, Bahar Sinem Özkesici Ünal | 09.09.2014

Named after the mythological figure Athena, Athens is a European city that has made its way through the ancient times. With its monuments dating back to Ancient Greece, mythological tales, and Byzantine military heritage, Athens is a highly intriguing cultural arena. Having been a part of Ottoman territory until 1821, the modern Greek capital boasts traces of Ottoman culture, and resembles us in so many ways with its people, cuisine, climate, and nature. It is also quite close to us; you can get there by Turkish Airline's scheduled flights in just 1.5 hours from Istanbul.

Athens is a heaven for those passionate about history. It is said that the Western civilization was born of these lands. If you visit Athens in the fall, you'll be amazed by the orange trees' appearance and smell as you walk through the city.

Archaeological sites to visit should definitely start with the Acropolis. One of the world's most important historical locations and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Acropolis is situated on the hill right in the middle of Athens from which you can see almost all of the city.

On your way up to the Acropolis, I would recommend stopping by the Acropolis Museum to gain an insight into Greek Mythology and the artifacts dating back to Ancient Greece.  The museum is open until 3 PM and the entrance fee is around 12 EUR.

The most important artifact in the Acropolis is the Parthenon Temple. The roof of the temple, which was built for Athena, the goddess of war in 5 BC was unfortunately demolished in 1687 as a result of Venetian bombardments. It is said that the statue of Athena, which can be seen in the Acropolis Museum, was previously in the Parthenon.

Erekhtheion is another temple in the Acropolis that was built for Athena.  There are female statues called Caryatids around the temple. While taking a stroll on the ancient paths, you may find yourself dazzled by the thought that Socrates once walked on these same ancient stones.

Completed in 2nd century AD, the Temple of Zeus, Olympia is situated on the opposite hill of the Acropolis. This the biggest temple in Greece. It is believed that there used to be a huge Zeus statue in the temple, and that during the Byzantine period the statue was brought to Istanbul, which then was known as Constantinople, but was destroyed in a fire.

Another important historical site near the Acropolis is the Theater of Dionysus. Dedicated to Dionysus, often considered one of the twelve Olympian gods, it was built for a festival in 534 BC and hosted Greek tragedies and comedies. The ancient theater is still intact.

Ancient Agora is the first commercial center of Athens. It also used to be the principal social district. Situated around this district, the Roman Agora, which has 2 separate entrances and was built in the 1st century AD, is probably the starting point of what we today know as shopping malls. Around this district you can see Horologion that stands 12 meters tall, and was built by an astronomer in 48 AD. It is treated as of great importance according to the period it was built in. The direction of the wind is indicated by the vane on top of the tower.

The Panathenaic Stadium which was built in the ancient times and renovated in 329 BC, was used for Panathenaic Games to honor Athena and hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. In use since the time it was built, the historical stadium can be found on Vasilis Olgas Street. The last time it was used was the 2004 Olympic Games, when the archery tournament and the finish of the marathon took place in this stadium.

The historical monuments in Athens are innumerable. If you intend to stay in this city long enough, you might get the chance to see all of the important ones; however, if you are only making a short visit, I recommend you visit the places I already described and also save some time to explore modern Athens. You can get around easily on sightseeing bus tours or by subway.

The most convenient way to explore Athens is to start with Syntagma Square, which is the heart of the city and the liveliest spot. On your way to the square, you get to see the Parliament Building, which was built as a royal palace in the early 1800s. Right in front of the building, you can see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where the Greek soldiers called "Evzones" are on duty in their dress uniforms. You should definitely take the time to watch the soldiers perform the changing of the guard.

Walking right down the Syntagma Square, taking Ermou Street where you can see colorful shops on both sides, you reach Monastiraki.

Monastiraki Square is one of the most popular touristic attractions and one of the most crowded places in the city. You get the feeling that you are in Istiklal Street in Istanbul or in Kemeraltı in Izmir. Right in the heart of the square, you see Pantanassa's Monastery which was built in the 17th century, and there are many taverns, restaurants, and shops around. The Tzistarakis Mosque built in 1759 by the Ottomans, is also one of the most important monuments in this area. It is believed that columns from the Temple of Zeus were used when building the mosque, and it now serves as a Ceramic Museum. The minaret of the mosque was destroyed during the Greek War of Independence. A flea market is held on weekends in Monastiraki Square. Antiques lovers should visit the market to browse the many secondhand articles and maybe pick up a bargain.

Keep walking from Monastiraki and you will get to the historical residential area, Plaka, which used to be known as the "Neighborhood of the Gods." Today, this district is a popular tourist attraction with souvenir shops, cafes, and taverns. You can shop for gifts for loved ones, and enjoy local cuisine in a nice restaurant that overlooks the Acropolis.

Situated a little farther away from Plaka but still considered a part of it, Anafiotika is another tourist attraction where you can see typical Greek buildings decorated with flowers.

Another district worth seeing with its stylish apartments, cafes, and restaurants is Kolonaki, which resembles Nisantasi, Istanbul. You should get a cup of coffee and then have dinner in Mikrolimano.

Mikrolimano used to go by the name "Turkish Harbor," and it is one of my favorite places in Athens. It is full of lovely seafood restaurants situated right on the seafront. It would not be wrong to say that Greeks know how to cook the fruits of the sea. All of the seafood we had there was amazing and also affordable.

Before you leave Athens, I recommend you see Mount Lycabettus, the highest point of the city where you can see the Acropolis and all of Athens right down to the sea, along with Philopappou Hill which in the past was used for defense purposes. Both hills offer an amazing view. You can get there by road or by cable car. There are many scenic restaurants where you can have a nice romantic dinner on Mount Lycabettus.

While you're here, you should definitely visit Piraeus, the Harbor City. It still is the most important commercial harbor of Athens; all the merchant vessels and passenger ships depart from here. Around the Piraeus, the Church of Agios Nikolaos and Piraeus Basilica are also worth seeing.

If you'd like to taste typical Greek cuisine at an affordable local restaurant, I suggest you find Avli in Exarcheia. Highly popular among local people, the restaurant has incredible dishes to offer. You can get to Exarcheia by subway, with Omnia the closest stop. One of the favorite districts among young people, Exarcheia brings color to the atmosphere with the street writings and graffiti.

One of the most popular addresses for nightlife is Gazi , situated in the Keramikos district. It is always busy with its cafes and bars; though a little too noisy for me.

Athenians live life on the streets. Just like in many Mediterranean countries, Greeks take siestas; however, in the daytime the cafes are filled with lively people. At night, you can have dinner at a tavern, which you can find almost everywhere; drink ouzo, a kind of raki made with mastic; sing songs accompanied by the local instrument buzuki; and do a little syrtaki dancing along with plate smashing. Greeks love enjoying themselves; I have never seen any other people having so much fun.

The Greek cuisine is pretty much the same as ours. On the menus you can find similar dishes such as Souvlaki, a kind of sish kebab; Gyros, the Greek version of Turkish doner kebab; Feta cheese, again very similar to ours; Radish salad, fava, wrapped liver, stew, green Kalamata olives, smoked and dried salted fish, dolma, meatball with cheese, caiki, enginari, kabaki, and calamari (squid), which are widely known by the Aegean people. Even the names are almost the same as ours, so you will definitely feel at home. A popular after-dinner tradition is to have yoghurt with some powdered sugar on top. The most popular drink served in cafes is frappe, a kind of iced coffee.

On the subject of shopping, Greece's textile industry is not all that developed; the textile goods are usually imported and the price range is a bit higher compared to ours. For this reason, I would not recommend clothes shopping. That being said, there is a broad range of souvenirs. Mastika, a sweetened mastic gum exclusive to Greece, is definitely a flavor to take home with you. You can have it plain just like a marmalade, or use it as an ingredient in puddings or cakes to give them a distinctive aroma and taste. In the Aegean part of Turkey (especially in Cesme), a more sweetened and liquid version is prepared called mastic jam. In Athens, you can also buy a coffee set with mythological figures carved on the plates and cups, and some Greek coffee as well. Greek coffee is very similar to Turkish coffee, both prepared in a special coffee pot and served in small cups. The biggest difference is that Greek coffee does not have a settling of the sediment at the bottom of the cup, unlike Turkish coffee. If you'd like to make some frappe at home, you can purchase a mini hand mixer sold for 10–15 EUR. With this mixer, you can easily prepare a frappe by mixing instant coffee and milk in a tall mug and enjoy a foamy, iced coffee.

Many signs and street names in Athens are in the Greek alphabet; only the tourist attractions are labeled in the Latin alphabet and in English. It is sometimes crucial to be able to read the signs, so it would be wise to get some idea of capitalized letters of Greek alphabet and learn how to read them.

With its amazing flavors that linger in your mouth, with its historical richness and warmhearted people who help you enjoy yourself, the Greek capital Athens is certainly a city worth exploring.

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