26-29 May and 18-20 June 2022. It’s not an auspicious beginning.

The taxi driver from the airport starts taking us to the wrong Ibis Styles hotel. Eventually we clarify the situation but a half hour journey becomes one hour, and costs 50 Euros instead of 38. No surprise taxi drivers in Athens are as ruthless as anywhere.

We splurge on a 4-star hotel that we discover is anything but.

Our first evening I’m nauseous from the food I have for dinner.

At the hotel I discover I’ve left my laptop on the plane.

From Don’s notes about getting back from the airport after collecting my computer: This was another comedy of errors as the cab driver insisted on turning on the meter despite Alison telling him not to; and then he didn’t know where the hotel was despite us showing him the address in Greek and showing him a map with the hotel marked on it; finally he asked me to phone the hotel so he could speak to them, which I did, but I had my hearing aids in my ears, so he couldn’t hear what the person I spoke to was saying; so I had to take out my hearing aids and turn them off, then redial the hotel and ask them to speak with him. This seemed to do the trick, and we got within a block of the hotel which was behind us on a one-way street. At this point we told the taxi driver to pull over. I’d seen that the meter was reading almost 80 Euros by this time. I was angry about yet another taxi driver trying to rip us off, so I asked Alison to go and negotiate a better price. She ended up giving him 50 Euros, and we walked away.

Taxi drivers the world over! They will get you coming and going. It’s as if we have a signboard saying I’m a tourist you can rip me off! Even after all these years we still get caught from time to time.

So. Not an auspicious beginning. It can only get better right?

The real problem is that we’ve just spent three weeks travelling all over Croatia and are exhausted. We should have booked a week in Athens, or back in Dubrovnik, or anywhere really, to just decompress, do nothing, switch off, NOT be tourists. It’s a lesson we learned long ago, but forgot in our mad planning for seven weeks in Croatia and Greece. I doubt we’ll forget again.

But! We are in Athens! We are finally in Greece! It’s the first time for both of us and we must discover!

We discover, apart from that first meal (choosing quinoa salad was obviously a mistake), that the food is fabulous. We are drooling over Greek salad made the way the Greeks make it, we are stuffing our faces with souvlaki and tzatziki and dolmades and spanakopita. After Croatia, where we found the food to be generally mediocre, we are in heaven (sorry Croatia). From Don’s notes: dinner at Alysandratos P Kai restaurant where we have a huge Greek salad and melt-in-the-mouth boneless grilled chicken thighs: filling and delicious.

We discover the best breakfast for the best deal on the planet. We walk past Coffee Joint and see a sign board – four-egg omelette for five euros! We make sure to ask how early they open. We try to go another day but can’t find it and hadn’t make a note of the name. Then we find it again only to discover it’s closed on Sunday. Finally, third time lucky! The people are charming, I get excellent coffee made just the way I like it, and it is seriously the best omelette we’ve ever eaten, and easily enough for both of us.

We discover that it’s a long walk from the hotel to “Old Athens”, the area around the Acropolis known as the Plaka. Of course that’s where we want to be so there’s a twice- (or four-times) daily walk through real Athens, as opposed to tourist Athens. Don’t get me wrong, touristy places are full of tourists like us for a reason; it’s because there’s something there worth seeing. Naturally we explore the Plaka, and go to the Acropolis and other ancient sites, but it is a great delight for me to walk through a local neighbourhood; a place where Athenians live, a place that ordinary people call home; a part of the city that most visitors would not see. A bit of sleuthing tells me that it’s a neighbourhood called Gouva, and it is not listed on any of the recommended places to visit in Athens. It’s just a regular local neighbourhood in a very big city.

Here’s what we see: walking the dog, hanging with friends in the local bar, walking home, the local restaurant, kids in the schoolyard, laundry hanging, awnings against the hot sun, plants spilling over balconies, overhead wires, parked cars, daily life. Every day we see that, no matter how different it is, in so many ways it’s just like home.

Clinging as high up as possible on the slopes of the Acropolis, the Plaka neighbourhood flows down to the valley that cradles this city surrounded by seven hills: Acropolis, Ardittos, Philopappou, Lycabettus, Pnyx, Areopagus, and Nimfon.

The Plaka is the Old Town of Athens, clustered around the northern and eastern slopes of Acropolis Hill, with its narrow flagstoned lanes,

neoclassical buildings, Byzantine churches, cafes, and restaurants,

and tantalizing antique shops. I love shops like this, and could spend hours looking at all the curios, enchanted by hand-crafted beauty, but usually don’t because I know I won’t be buying anything.

The Plaka is no doubt the most touristed part of the city, but there is plenty of charm to be found there nevertheless: the life, the energy, the music,

the art. This is one of several of a curly haired woman painted by the same broken-hearted artist. She broke up with him so to remind her of his love he painted images of her along her route. Better than stalking I guess. Just joking.

There is charm also to be found away from the main streets overflowing with souvenir shops. And it’s impossible to walk the area without getting constant glimpses of the Parthenon on the Acropolis. It’s like magic. We’re flaneuring as usual, wandering here and there, looking for the back lanes, the streets away from Tourist Row

and suddenly looking up there it is – this iconic sight that I’ve known about since childhood. Even after multiple glimpses it never loses its appeal, even after we’ve dragged ourselves out of bed at dawn and climbed the hill to see it up close, it still never loses its appeal, this ancient site that has informed our understanding, however superficial, of both the ancient and modern world. It seems to me it’s one of the most basic things a child of the western world learns about in school. Is there a single one of us that does not know about the Acropolis, even if it’s just that it’s Ancient Greece, and that it’s in Athens? And so we wander the Plaka, frequently looking up, and being astounded every time.

The Plaka, an area that has been inhabited since antiquity, is known as the “Neighbourhood of the Gods” not only because it butts up against Acropolis Hill, but also because of the many other archaeological sites in the area such as Hadrian’s Gate, seen in an enigmatic glimpse down one of the lanes.

Hadrian apparently was everywhere. Apart from his famous wall in England, we’ve seen monumental arches or gates named after him in Jordan and Turkey, there’s also one in Italy, and the remains of another in Jerusalem, and no doubt there are others. It’s like ancient monumental graffiti: Hadrian was here!

If you go as high as you can up the eastern slope of Acropolis Hill there’s an area of the Plaka that feels as if it doesn’t belong in Athens. How did this little gem of a neighbourhood get here, on the slopes of the Acropolis? Although it is listed on most tourist sites it still feels mysterious, out of character, and somehow impenetrable with its whitewashed walls and tiny narrow lanes and stairways.

You enter here, down this somewhat uninviting graffiti-and-street-art-covered passageway sprouting weeds and a few hardy mediterranean plants.

As you go higher the lanes get narrower and narrower. Everywhere there are potted plants overflowing with vibrant flowers, whitewashed walls and brightly painted doors, colourful shutters, and lazy cats.

The streets, all pedestrian-only, widen out into leafy green areas in some places,

but always there’s that feeling that you’ve been teleported out of Athens and landed somewhere else. The whole place feels like a secret.

It is known as Anafiotika, and was founded by workmen from the island of Anafi in the mid 19th century. Land was cheap in this area above the city; it had been inhabited by refugees and slaves since antiquity. So the workers built their houses here in the same style that they knew at home on the Cyclades island that they had come from, as they built King Otto’s palace down in the city.

Eventually, arriving at the top

we follow the stone path along for a look down from above on the jigsaw puzzle that is Anafiotika,

and further along for one of the best views of the city looking across to Lycabettus Hill.

We don’t have that much time in Athens but it’s enough to give us a feel for the place. We don’t fall in love with it, but then we rarely fall in love with big cities; our love of Greece comes later when we start island hopping. But we do discover much more than I’ve shared here. Apart from traipsing through Gouva, and exploring the Plaka and Anafiotika, we also go to the Acropolis, and the Acropolis Museum, the Agora of Athens, the meat and fish market, and the wonderful spectacle of the Changing of the Guard in Syntagma Square. All that to come in future posts.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2022.