It took us five hours to drive from Meteora to Athens, passing bushfires along the way. We didn't arrive until after midnight, but the upside was that traffic was fantastic at that time. The gates to the caravan park were closed, and although there were security guards out front we chose to park on the street around the corner, with the plan to check in the next morning.
At 10 a.m. we drove into the caravan park and headed for reception. As soon as we stepped into the office, the lady in charge started scolding us for parking on the street overnight. She said the police had called her at 5 a.m. and demanded to know why there was a campervan on the street, as apparently this is not an accepted practice in Athens. Danny later said he didn't believe her, thinking she was just annoyed at missing out on revenue. He reasoned that the cops would have knocked on our window rather than call the caravan park. Either way, we didn't get off to a good start.
We escaped the evil glare of the manager by making our way into the city and heading for the central market. I was hoping to sample cooked Greek food but all I could see was raw meat, with whole carcasses at every turn. I can't stand these types of markets, so we sped past the stalls to get back out to the better-smelling street outside. Nearby was a flea market, which we presumed would only sell junk items, but it looked more like an outdoor shopping mall with expensive clothes, shoes and accessories. Definitely not like most markets we visit.
Then it was time to hit the ruins. We started at the Ancient Agora, which was spread over a huge site. Most of it was rubble but there was a well-preserved temple still standing, plus a long building (stoa) that contained a museum on the inside. As most ruins are quite fragile and off-limits to visitors, I questioned how authentic this stoa was. The museum was full of pottery and coins, some dating back to the 6th century BC. It's astonishing to think how long coins have been around. Next door was the Roman Agora, which was tiny and there was nothing of significance to see.
We were ravenous by this stage, so I settled my Greek food craving by grabbing gyros, complete with tzatiki and fries. I think I'm going to love the food in Greece.
Finally it was time to climb up the giant rock that houses the big one, the Acropolis. It took us a while to figure out how to enter as signs were not common, which was odd for such a touristy destination. We walked through two ancient, imposing gates at the entrance, and then gazed up at one of the most iconic buildings in Greece, the Parthenon, only to discover it was covered in scaffolding. Supposedly it has been this way since 1992. Everywhere we go one of the major sights is hidden behind construction work, and unfortunately in Greece it was the Parthenon that was obscured. It was virtually impossible to get a clear view without a crane or a metal frame in the way. Once I could see beyond this I began to grasp how impressive the structure was, especially considering it was built over 2,400 years ago. I wonder what it is about a few crumbling, marble columns that draws out thousands of visitors each year to stare in awe.
There were fantastic views of the city from the Acropolis, with a sea of white buildings spread out before us. We could see a few of the other prominent ruins way down below. While we were here we also explored the grand Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an ancient theatre that still functions today.
Back down in town we wandered around the souvenir shops and cafes looking for baklava for Danny. He honestly can't get enough of the sweet, sticky pastry. After much searching he could only find one fancy-looking store that had what he wanted, and it came with a hefty price tag. He purchased it without hesitation. It satisfied his addiction for the time being. He also bought a bag of pistachios from a street vendor and they were the best pistachios we have ever eaten. I don't know how they differed or what made them better, but they were.
Our first stop in Athens the next day was Lycabettus Hill, the highest point in Athens. We caught a funicular straight through the middle of the mountain to the summit, where we found a tiny chapel, an expensive restaurant and panoramic views. I came here mainly to see the Acropolis from a different perspective, but it was too far away to see it clearly. From the lookout we saw Athens unobstructed in all directions, all the way to the water. Once again the houses and buildings formed a sea of white, a large contrast to most cities we have travelled through.
Back at the bottom we walked through the National Gardens, the shade providing cooler temperatures than anywhere else in Athens (every day is around 35ºC and sunny). Through the trees we could see the Presidential Palace surrounded by guards, offering no opportunities for photos. We came out at the Panathenaic Stadium, which hosted the first modern Olympics in Athens. The long, narrow arena differs to the athletics tracks we see nowadays, but it makes a great finishing point for the Athens Marathon each year.
It was time for more ruins action. First was the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which only had a few columns still standing. The arch at the front was the best preserved part of the temple. Then we headed to the Acropolis museum, which opened in 2009 and is housed in a modern building. Most of the ground floor consisted of clear glass, allowing us to see the excavations below. The first floor contained bits and pieces that had been discovered from archaeological sites in the area (lots of pottery and small statues). The third floor was built in the same shape and orientation as the Parthenon, with an identical number of columns, and the surviving reliefs were positioned as they would have been on the Parthenon back in the day. I didn't think I would be overly enthralled in a museum about ancient Greece, but it really was excellent. There was also an interesting movie on the Acropolis and its changing face over the centuries. As well as a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, it has also been a church and a mosque, depending on who ruled the land at the time. Once outside we visited our final ruin, the Theatre of Dionysos, reputedly the first theatre in the world. There's not much left of it now.
We were ready to properly hit the Greek food, so we found a restaurant in the touristy area near the base of the Acropolis for dinner. Grilled haloumi with eggplant, olive tapanade, feta spring rolls, souvlaki, moussaka - totally worth the unpleasant bellyache at the end. After dinner we wandered around the city, watching the numerous buskers at work. We passed so many that I'm sure every type of instrument was represented. Once the sun started to set we walked back towards the Acropolis, hoping for a decent night shot. The lights on the Parthenon caused it to stand out against the black sky, but we didn't have the best angle from where we were perched. A little disappointing, but it didn't detract from our whirlwind historical / cultural / foodie experience in Athens.