Off Hours in Athens
During our week-long vacation in Greece, my husband John and I climbed the paths at the sacred religious site of Delphi, where the famed Oracle told fortunes for more than 1000 years; ran the dirt track at the ancient stadium in Olympia, where the Olympic Games were founded back in 776 B.C.; scaled rock towers to view Byzantine art, icons and manuscripts at the 15th and 16th century hill-top monasteries in Meteora; and negotiated the best price for hand-made wool, leather and lace products in the tiny village of Arï¿½chova. With every hill we hiked, every monument we photographed, and every path we meandered, we were surrounded by millennia of history.
But it was in the Greek capital of Athens, the political, social and commercial heart of the country, where we had our most memorable experience.
We had spent our first day in Athens ascending the hill of the Acropolis to view the Parthenon, then climbing back down to visit the other ruins that beckoned below. All along the way there were school trips, group tours (ours included) and cruise layovers in progress, all climbing the same slick steps to view the marbled beauty that lay between the scaffolding. It was breathtaking, no doubt, but we couldn’t help but be distracted by the jack-hammering of restoration and the elbowing of strangers. There had to be a better way to see this city. We planned right then and there to visit this site again, and many others, at off-peak hours.
To avoid the swarms we hit the streets early our second day. Successfully giving our tour group the slip, we strolled through the labyrinthine stone alleys of the Plaka, a popular shopping district with tavernas on every corner. The stores were just beginning to open for what would surely be another busy day. Sleepy dogs opened their eyes without raising their heads, and shop owners gave us a nod as we passed. The streets were nearly empty, and there was nary a tourist in site.
We perused a few shops until the call of the city took hold. With our tour guide’s whispered tip still buzzing in our ears from the day before, we set out to visit some of Athens’ less visited spots. And then, as she suggested, we would visit the Acropolis late in the afternoon while the city and the locals were sleeping off a busy day, and preparing for an even busier night.
We returned to our base camp, the Plaka, later in the afternoon for our penultimate activity of the day. After buying some simple tomato and cucumber sandwiches for dinner and chocolate muffins for dessert we walked a few dozen feet further to eat our meal. On a bench off the main thoroughfare, at an unmarked location on an unnamed pedestrian street, we fulfilled one of our most basic travel needs. The Parthenon called to us from three blocks away, but we pushed all thoughts of the temple from our heads temporarily, lest images of the previous day’s hilltop cattle drive obscure our plans for a better day, or spoil our view of each other.
Only after our meal was complete, and after squeezing a few more moments of solitude from our secluded hideaway, did we climb the hill once again. Alone and unencumbered, we watched the sun set magnificently behind the towering marble columns, bathing the entire city in a fiery glow. We smiled to ourselves, and then at each other, thinking that only the perfect combination of human ingenuity and Mother Nature could have created such a fantastically landscaped postcard memory. But mostly we were humbled, knowing full well that memories like these, like our sunset over the Acropolis in Athens, occur but once in a lifetime.