Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Ancient Athens

We arrived in Athens to a very quiet and almost deserted city. It was Easter weekend for the Greek Orthodox Christians. We were told that this was the most important event in the Greek Orthodox calendar and a large population of Athenians had gone out of the city to celebrate. The streets were empty and most shops were closed.

Athens is a really old city where ancient gods like Apollo, Artemis, Athena, Demeter, Hera, Hermes, Poseidon and Zeus are still very alive. Their presence is everywhere. Greeks take great pride in their history and legends, and their stories were told to us with lots of passion.

The city retains its ancient rustic charms. The buildings are old, clustered and almost all with flat roofs. We did not see a single high rise or sky-scraper. They should keep it this way.

We had our first meal (dinner) at a small cafe near our hotel. It was the only one still opened. The menu and signboards were all Greek. We did not know what to order.

Fortunately the guy at the counter spoke a little English...

And this is what we ended up eating... A kilo of grilled pork to share.


Pitta bread which was really very good.

And fries. All in all, not a great meal, but it was a good start.

Next morning, we took the underground metro to explore the city. The stations were clean and the trains ran efficiently.

The first place we stumbled to was their parliament building where we viewed the changing of guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier. It was a simple and colourful ceremony. The guards were dressed in traditional Greek uniforms with funny shoes, and marched in a peculiar kicking manner.

Then it was a nice walk through a green city centre in a cool Greek spring day.

We spent 5 days in Athens and visited many places and sites. The must-visit has to be the Acropolis. I was surprised that this ancient landmark is right in the heart of the city. The main structure in the Acropolis is the Parthenon - the temple dedicated to the goddess Athena from whom the city got its name. It is nearly 2500 years. At the time of our visit, the Parthenon was undergoing extensive restoration work.

There was a big crowd climbing up the Acropolis. We had to squeeze our way up and watch our every step up the ancient entrance. What we saw was well worth the effort.

The other ancient ruins we visited was the temple of Zeus. It is not far from the Acropolis, in a very big compound in the centre of the city. There is not much left of the temple, but the massive columns bespoke of the grandeur it used to be. Each column is 17 meter (55.5 feet) high. There were originally 104 of such columns in the temple. Only a few are left standing. It was interesting to see how the ancient Greeks had built these massive columns. They were actually individual carved structures stacked on top of each other to form a column. The build-up were so very seamless and unapparent.

Outside the Zeus temple is the Arch of Hadrian. It was built in 132A.D. to honour the Roman emperor Hadrian. It now stands majestically beside a busy street.

The ancient Panathenaic Stadium is one of a kind. It is an U-shape stadium built in 566 B.C. It has terraced marble seats that accommodates up to 50,000 spectators. In 1896, it was the venue for the first modern Olympic Games. In the 2004 Games, it hosted the archery competitions and the finishing of the marathon.

The terraces were for the common people. King and queens were accorded special seats.

From the terraces, a tunnel leads to a small underground Olympic museum. This was supposedly the changing and preparation place for the athletes.

We took day trips to a couple of ancient ruins outside Athens. Delphi is about 150km from Athens. It is the ruins of an ancient city built on the slope of hills overlooking the sea. It was a beautiful site and the view breathtaking. In it was the temple dedicated to Apollo.

Cape Sounion is the site of the the ancient temple for Poseidon, the god of the sea. It is about 70km from Athens. The ruins was rather small compared to those in Athens and Delphi. Still it was a sight to behold.

Plaka is a vibrant tourist spot in the centre of Athens. There are lots of souvenir shops and restaurants. The pace of the place was slow and relaxed and it was very pleasant walking and browsing around the shops. We came several times and had a number of meals here.

Our first meal in Plaka was in this restaurant, the name of which I would not even attempt to pronounce. It had a most pleasant alfresco ambiance with shady trees. But the staff and waiters were not that friendly.

Among the food we ate here was this chicken souvlaki. Souvlaki is a popular Greek grilled meat on skewers. It was served with baked potato and vegetables.

The kebab dish was mutton served with pitta bread and salad.

I remember this deep fried squids in batter was absolutely delicious. It was very fresh and the squids were done just right with a nice springy texture.

We passed by this restaurant a couple of days earlier. Benson and I were standing outside waiting for the ladies who browsing in a souvenir shop. The head waiter started to chat with Benson, trying to entice us in. But we had already eaten. The guy asked us to come back another day, promising us free desserts. And return we did. When we went back, the guy recognised us immediately. He led us to a nice table and made us feel very welcome.

We had several starters, beginning with this Greek salad with a large serving of feta cheese. The salad was very fresh. I particularly liked the tomato which was sweet.

An egg plant dish with tomato.

I cannot remember what this was. As we shared this between the 6 of us, I think I only had a nibble of it and it did not etch any impression into my mind.

This was the popular Greek moussaka. It is a kind of lasagna with egg plant, in stead of meat, as fillings. This moussaka was rather dry.

Our entrees began with this penne, cooked with pieces of chicken.

A pork stew with bacon, served with rice and potato.

Fried fish with mix vegetables.

Finally a lamb dish with peas, potato and rice.

The free dessert that the guy promised us turned out to be this miserable I-don't-know-what that did not taste good at all.

The food in this 3rd restaurant tasted better. It was known as God's Restaurant - a very bold name indeed. We had a hurried lunch here before we proceeded to Cape Sounion. The head honcho made sure we got our food in time to catch our bus.

We had the obligatory Greek salad, again served with generous serving of feta cheese.

We shared 2 pasta dishes - spaghetti bolognese and carbonara.

This fish was highly recommended by the head honcho. No regrets. It turned out very fresh and very well grilled.

This grilled squid was equally good. It was done just right - not the least over-done. It was a single large squid. Very fresh and delicious.

Perhaps the best food we tasted in Athens was in this restaurant. I cannot remember the name. My camera did capture any sign of a name. We were there for dinner after we returned from Cape Sounion.

Our starting salad was not Greek this time. Just ordinary vegetables.

As we picked on the salad, this gigantic dish of meat arrived. In it was lamb, chicken, pork and minced kebab - all grilled to perfection. Below the meats were fries, onion rings, tomato slices and salad. The taste was marvellous.

The meats were followed by another equally gigantic plate of similarly cooked seafoods. There were fish, big prawns, squids, clams and whole sardines. We alternated between the meats and seafoods. It couldn't be any better.

These freshly baked pitta breads complemented the meal splendidly.

A cup of Greek coffee completed a fantastic Greek feast.

Greek foods. There are so many words that can describe our experience. The verdict is totally mixed.

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