Greece is one of those places that I have “always” wanted to visit. At one point, it was rivaled only by the “Holy Land” (Palestine/Jordan) and Egypt. I’ve been to those. I’ve been to others. This summer granted me the opportunity to do some extended travel, I decided that this would be a good way to see a place that I have taught about for several years (and some surrounding areas).
Athens seemed to be the logical place to start. Athens was named for the goddess of wisdom (actually of strategy and tactics), Athena. Athens combined nearly everything that I wanted in my Greek experience and if had to make a quick trip, this would have been the one place I would have chosen to go. The city contains an abundance of ancient monuments (most notably the Parthenon in the Acropolis), both Greek and Roman, beaches (although I didn’t make it to any…..yet), Biblical cites (That’s right, the Bible. Paul passed through Athens on his missionary journeys.), and your typical modern city life- cafes, bars, restaurants, stores, etc.
Finding a Base
I arrived a day and a half ahead of my traveling companion. We had booked a hostel to stay in for the first leg of our trip. Ours was Zeus Hostel. Lodgings in most of Greece (except some islands) are reasonably cheap. You can find a decent cheap hotel or apartment for just a few Euro more than you can stay in a hostel so if you value your privacy and your budget is not too tight you don’t have to share a room in a hostel. Hostels are good though if you are traveling alone. It forces you to interact with others so that you don’t forget how to function around other humans. My two roommates were a guy and girl traveling together (at least part of their time) from the UK. Kind of an odd couple, I’m pretty sure one or both of them were gay, but it always seems rude to ask and its none of my business anyway. They were very friendly, polite, wonderful people, although quite messy (the downside of a hostel).
Also a symptom of hostel life is that when people gather into groups, they tend to talk mostly about all the cool places that they have traveled. There was only one other American in the hostel on my first night. He was from the mid-West and was quite the fascination for the other guests. He was a Trump supporter. I never quite interacted with him directly and here’s why: I went to the roof the first night to do something on my laptop (I forget what). The Trump-guy was discussing his political opinions with a guy from Ireland (who kept going on about a trip to Ethiopia, another place I hope to get to soon), and a guy from…… somewhere else. As I eased into my chair, one of the guys asked the Trump-guy about racism. He responded that it was only in the “Redneck states down South, like Alabama and Mississippi”. I decided it was best to keep my mouth shut so I just ease-dropped. When the Trump-guy wrapped up his rantings and left. The other two joked about how ignorant he seemed, but it was good that he was “discovering” the rest of the world. And they talked more about Ethiopia and other places that they intended to visit. Lesson is, it’s possible to come off as an arrogant a-hole no matter which side of the political fence you sit on or which part of the world you are from.
The best thing about Zeus Hostel is its location. It’s a pretty short walk from the central market area/metro station/Agora. There are several small, street-side places to eat cheese pies, gyros, etc. along the way to the main area. There is also a fruit and flea market type area close by. In the main market area (near the metro station), there are tons of little shops, cafes, and places to eat. This was my central location. I always knew how to get back here. (Funny that I never learned its name…..) Also, the Acropolis is visible from most parts of the city that I visited. So I always had at least a vague idea of which direction to go, no matter where I was. There are several streets that branch off from here with various shops and places to eat. One in particular, follows the Ancient Agora. I ate and drank along this street several times. You can view some section of the Agora from most of the places and most have music after dark. This area is geared towards tourists and a little pricier than others, but not ridiculously high and well worth it for food and atmosphere.
My first full day there, I used mostly to get my bearings and find my way around. This happened kind of unintentionally. Because I would be joined in a day, by my traveling buddy, Katrina, I did not want to hit any of the major sites. I saw on a map that there was a place called the Prison of Socrates. It had not dawned on me that I could actually go to the place where Socrates had been imprisoned. So this seemed like a logical place to start. I used the app, HERE, to find it. I have had mediocre success with HERE, it’s redeeming value is that it works offline (sometimes….) I set out, based on HERE’s directions towards the spot that it called Prison of Socrates. It took me to a street in the middle of a neighborhood. When I found wifi, I put the name into google maps and it brought up a bookstore across town. I’m not sue why these places are listed on these apps as Prison of Socrates, but it turns out that the place traditionally associated with Socrates’ imprisonment is just some random cave. The actual prison is in the Ancient Agora (I would visit it later). I did stumble upon some cool things this day though. I found a couple of good places to eat (don’t remember the names so if you are reading this in the hopes of a tour guide…..sorry!) I also passed the Sanctuary of Pan. Pan is interesting to me, because my last name- Payne means: Pagan/rustic countryman/descendent of Payen. Payen is the Anglo-ization of the name “Pan”. So at some point, my ancestors (or their ancestors….. to my knowledge, no part of my family is Greek, but if you go back far enough, probably all European ancestors came through Greece, if not from there….. so at what point do I stop saying “my ancestors”? Even the ancestors of those original Europeans came from the Middle East whose ancestors came from Africa. Although, I occasionally get mistaken for Middle Eastern, I wouldn’t call myself that or African. So what makes my ethnicity English and not Greek? These are big questions that will not be answered here.) I climbed the Areopagos (without realizing it) which is named for the god of war, Ares, and has connections to the Apostle Paul (I will get to that later). There is an observatory at the top, but it is only open one night a week (Wednesday, I believe). And it is on this hill, that I found the cave that became known as the Prison of Socrates. I had spent so much time searching for it, that I figured I should actually go to it, just in case. Sitting in front of it, I pondered the meaninglessness of life and such. I think Socrates would have approved, even if he was never there. He is most famous for saying, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
The Acropolis
Katrina, my traveling companion showed up the night before so we set out early the next morning for Athens’ and arguably Greece’s most famous site, the Acropolis. By the time we actually got there, I already had several pictures of it from a distance. It is at the top of a large hill and visible from many parts of the city. We got there early, but not early enough to avoid a pretty long line. The line grew longer later so I am glad that we got there when we did. Every single part of the Acropolis is amazing. The buildings, statues, and monuments are impressive on their own, but I had a feeling of finally getting to see a place with my own eyes that I have always dreamed of seeing. Like the pyramids, I found it difficult to believe that I was actually present. Plenty of others felt the same way, which is why the area is so crowded. A danger of being in such a crowd is that everyone becomes an expert. As we approached the Parthenon, the father of a family coming from the building proudly announced to his kids that the building they had just seen was over 8000 years old. “8000 years old!” he repeated loudly for everyone to hear. Perhaps he misspoke or perhaps he did not read a single sign in the entire area or maybe he was an idiot, but the Acropolis is not even half that age. 8000 years old would make it older than the pyramids. There are people who believe this, maybe this guy was one of those conspiracy/revisionist history types, but he insisted on announcing his mis-aged number to the entire world and, I don’t know, it just rubbed me the wrong way. (Side note, the ancient Greeks actually lived closer to our time than to the ancient Egyptians who built the pyramids. How’s that sit with your brain?)
The Parthenon, of course, is the most famous building of the Acropolis, but it is only one part. Restoration work is being done to it. There is a lot of equipment around the structure, but it does little to detract from its impressiveness. It’s the freaking Parthenon! For the rest of our time in Athens, Katrina or I would randomly point up and say, “It’s the Parthenon!” That night, I lay in bed thinking about how I had spent my life wishing I could see the Parthenon. That was the first night that I could actually say in the past tense that I saw the Parthenon. I felt the same after seeing the pyramids, and the Taj Mahal, and the Eiffel Tower, but the feeling has not gotten old yet. We walked a lot that day. By the time we made it to a place for lunch, Katrina told me that her fitness app informed her that we had taken over 20,000 steps. After lunch, we made the trek to see Hadrian’s Arch and then limped back to the hostel. Exhausting day, but well worth it.
Hadrian’s Library
This one was sort of a side trip. It is right smack dab in the middle of the main market/shop area, near the Ancient Agora and on the way to the Acropolis. It’s cool if you are in to old architecture. If you travel Europe or the Near East a lot, you could tire of seeing ancient Greek and Roman remains…… OK so it hasn’t happened to me yet, but yes they do all begin to look alike after a while. Again, I’m not writing this to be a tour guide, but if you want my advice, see it if you have time, skip it if you don’t. There are bits and pieces of old statues. The remains of a Library built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and the remains of a Byzantine church, but nothing that sets it apart like the Acropolis or the Ancient Agora. Of course, I want to see it all so we made this our first stop of the day.
Ancient Agora
This is the main part of Ancient Athens. When we think of Socrates and Plato and where they hung out, we are actually visualizing the Agora. The main attraction is the Temple of Hephaestus. Hephaestus was the blacksmith (so to speak) of the gods. According to the myth, it was his fire that Prometheus stole to give to humans. He eventually married Athena, which is why he has such an impressive temple in her city. It is pretty well intact and makes for some cool pictures. As you walk through the Agora, you are literally walking the streets frequented by Socrates and Plato. There is a place here called the State Prison (it is not as prominent as other landmarks and can easily be missed). This is where Socrates was actually imprisoned. Or at least, archaeologists are pretty certain that this is the prison. They found many vials of hemlock, which is what Socrates and others sentenced to death were given to drink. There are many cool places in the Agora and it is easy to get a sense of Ancient Athens here, even more so than the Acropolis, in my opinion. Another cool element is that it is an active archaeological site. We spotted an archaeologist near the prison sorting pottery pieces. She even took the time to speak with us and some other visitors about what she was doing and how they got an idea of what was what in the site. There is a museum at the opposite end from the Temple of Hephaestus. Just outside of it there was a group of archaeologists also sorting pottery. Back on the street with the cafes that runs along the Agora, there was another active dig going on. Hard to believe with all the years that people have been digging around Greece that there is still more of this kind of work to be done. It was enough to make me wish I had majored in Archaeology instead of History, but that’s a feeling I get from time to time.
Areopagos means “Ares Hill”. Trials were held here for various reasons, according to myth, Ares himself stood trial here for war crimes. Other gods and heroes of ancient Greece also stood trial here for various reasons. For me it is most famous as the place where Paul preached his sermon about the “Unknown God” when he visited Athens. Some translations of the Bible may refer to it as “Mars Hill”. Mars was the Roman god of war, the equivalent of Ares. After our visit to the Agora and lunch, we went up here, this time fully aware of what it was. Like Socrates and Plato before him, Paul would have walked through the Agora to get here. There are a couple of churches and I am still not sure which one is actually dedicated to Paul. Everything was shut down due to heat by the time we got here, but knowing that I walked where Paul walked is enough of a pay-off for me.
Got Shisha?
One of the less healthy habits I have developed since moving to the UAE is smoking shisha (or hookah, nargilia, hubbly-bubbly, water-pipe, depending on how you know it). It has become a habit to sample the local shisha in everyplace that I visit. I joke that I will one day write a shisha blog. I’ll consider this practice. There were two places that I tried while here. The first was New Dubai Café. I followed HERE to find it. Not bad. The flavor is decent. And it stayed strong enough for a fair amount of time. With a name like “New Dubai”, I felt I had to try it. There was another café between the main shop/market area and the Acropolis, near the Roman Agora (I took a few pictures of the Roman Agora from the outside, but did not go inside.) They advertised shisha on the sidewalk along with a Happy Hour for drinks. Flavor-wise and strength-wise, I would say this place is better than New Dubai. And the atmosphere is much more pleasant. We could have sat there for hours….. OK we did.
As people are fond to say about the places that they visit, Athens owes me nothing. It is a very enjoyable city for a number of reasons. If you do nothing more than walk around, you will bump into some ancient structure. The people are friendly, for the most part, and despite some missteps in looking for Socrates’ prison, it is pretty easy to navigate (and I have a terrible sense of direction.) I hope to return here towards the end of my journey. Maybe I will get to go into the Roman Agora or hit the observatory, but mostly I just want to spend some time sitting at one of the many street cafes reading and writing and yeah, probably grab some shisha.


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