I remember reading a history book many years ago about the significance of the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. If the Persians (and boy did they outnumber the Athenians), lead by Darius, had won that day, the world as we know it today would look quite different.
Ten years later, the Persians, this time lead by Darius’ son Xerxes, would return and burn down the Acropolis. But the city had been evacuated in time to save countless lives. And the Athenians, backed by other Greek city states, including Sparta (see Zach Snyder’s 300 documentary lol! for context), again defeated the Persians. During the next 80 years, democracy, drama, philosophy, science, and art, flourished, not to mention the completion of one of the most ambitious architectural programs, envisioned by Pericles and executed by Phidias, in all of western history.
We didn’t get a chance to visit Marathon, where a mound still exists marking the spot where 192 Athenians lost their lives (and where 6,400 Persians perished.) But we climbed to the top of the Acropolis to see what remains of those buildings.
But our visit to Athens, where we spent both our first and last nights during our 10-day trip to Greece, began at the Hotel Grande Bretagne.
This was a bit of splurge but let me tell you, there are no regrets. After flying across the Atlantic on an Air Canada Rouge flight, which was direct (amazing) but very spartan (not baller), being greeted like we were Zeus and Hera at the hotel felt very good.
We hit the ground running, literally to the top of the Acropolis. I think we somehow entered it by the back door. We ascended through little pathways lined with homes where actual Athenians lived.
Then all of a sudden, there was the Propylaea, the grand entranceway to the Acropolis, looming above. I got choked up. I was finally there.
The lineup for tickets was long–but it was the only one we’d encounter during our entire trip.
Of note: The Parthenon is still under restoration. The Erechtheion and its caryatid porch, is looking pretty good. Legend has it that Athens got its name after Athena and Poseidon battled it out to have the city named after them. Poseidon promised control of the sea. Athena offered the land. Poseidon threw down his trident into a rock here, scorching it. And Athena struck that rock with her spear and an olive tree burst forth. I couldn’t find the rock but there is an olive tree. However, I don’t think it’s the same one. The Temple of Athena Nike is as charming as I hoped, even though it’s a reconstruction. This is the mythical spot from which Theseus’ father Aegeus hurled himself after Theseus forgot to put up his white sail when returning from Crete, like he promised, to let his pop know that he was alive. When Aegeus saw the black sail he thought the Minotaur got the better of his son.
After visiting the relatively new Acropolis museum, which is just as good as everyone says, I lead us on a hunt to find the Pnyx. This is the spot where like democracy actually happened: where there was a speaker’s platform and from 507 B.C., after Cleisthenes transferred power to the people, where people like Deomosthenes and Pericles actually spoke! Only we couldn’t find it. Instead we climbed to the top of a the Hill of the Nymphs (appropriate) and had a pretty nice view of the Acropolis.
True story: we were about a 1oo meters away from the Pnyx but because we turned right rather than left, we ended up in the Agora!
The only bit of research the Beast had done for the trip was to print out a map to the shop of a celebrity sandal maker called The Poet. Clients have included: Sofia Lauren, Barbra Streisand, Jackie Onassis, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Joe Biden’s wife and daughter? We were both outfitted in 30 minutes with beautiful leather sandals. I went with the Olympia model, he with the Cyclades.
We’d beaten jet lag because it was around 7:00 p.m. and we hadn’t stopped, even to eat. No joke. We drank lots of water but, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t thinking about food. But when we passed Tzitzikas & Mermigas, which a few people had recommended, including the hotel, we stopped for a delightful meal. This is where we had our first sip of Assyrtiko, the Santorini white wine varietal that we had almost every day thereafter. Also, the Beast fell in love with Cretan rusk salad here, which is very similar to the Italian panzanella, only it has feta.
Just as we paid our bill, it started to rain. Then it started to pour. Then we ran back to our hotel, less than 800 meters away, finding coverage under modern stoas and hugging and laughing like we were in a romantic comedy.
It was a perfect day.
Our Athenian adventure continued nine days letter when we checked back into the Grande Bretagne after our Peloponnesian road trip, and adventures in Crete and Santorini. And it started like a dream: when we went to the front desk, they said: “Mrs. Allen you’ve been upgraded to the sixth floor with butler service and from a classic room to a deluxe.”
Check in continued on the sixth floor, where we met head butler George and his colleague Eri. Another couple, who looked like movie stars and had been on our flight from Santorini to Athens, were checking in ahead of us. The man did all the talking, including asking about the gym (what an idiot) and whether the hotel owner was in (it was a Sunday…idiot) because he had a business proposition while the woman sat in silence with sunglasses on. We were all offered glasses of Veuve Clicquot. They declined (IDIOTS). We did not. Of note: yes, they were upgraded to the sixth floor too, but not to a deluxe room like us. We won the upgrade competition even though they were far better looking!
It was 4:00 p.m., which didn’t leave much time to explore the National Archaeological museum, so we just did the greatest hits, including the bronze Zeus (some say Poseiden) and the so-called mask of Agamemnon from Mycenae. I also took photos of Amazons defeating Greeks #DownWithThePatriarchy.
Then we strolled by the Temple of Zeus, the largest in Greece, apparently, which took 700 years to finish and then, like every other damn temple, came crumbling down. Just beyond the temple is the Arch of Hadrian from about 132 A.D., which makes it practically new in this damn ancient city. On one side an inscription reads: This is Athens, once the city of Theseus, and on the other, This is the city of Hadrian, not Theseus, a subtle reminder about who was in charge now.
From here, we walked through the Plaka, and were inundated with dinner invitations. But we had a plan: drinks at Brettos, the oldest distillery in Athens. I picked up four bottles of wine here: two Assyrtiko, a Moscofilerio (a white grown in the Peloponnese), and a Kormilitsa, which is grown on Mount Athos, where, oddly, women are not allowed. Another oddity: this wine is the official wine of the Kremlin. Also, we saw a Miranda July lookalike at Brettos, which was pretty funny to us at the time.
I’d been embarrassed to ask George and Eri about what we hoped to find for dinner: gyros. We’d been in Greece for 10 days and hadn’t had one yet. But still, is this what butler service at a luxury hotel entails? Turns out they were over the moon with our inquiry and told us that Bairaktaris was their favourite spot. Yes, there would be tourists, but it was damn fine food. And oh gods was it.
We ate in near silence, as we shoved French fries into our pita along with meat, tomatoes, onion and tzatziki. We also had kebobs and, duh, Greek salad, and wine. It was a perfect final meal, which cost 30 euros.
Okay our actual final Greek meal was breakfast the next morning in the hotel’s Winter Garden, situated beside their famous Alexander Bar, a place which consistently ranks high on best hotel bar lists around the world. (It’s called the Alexander Bar because of the splendid 18th century tapestry of the Macedonian world conqueror.) Our server Marilena, who just got back from a trip to Toronto, delighted us with conversation.
That we hadn’t thought to have a drink here baffled us that morning. We’d been too fixated with the rooftop bar, though, which is where we had our final night cap. We sat, with a view of the illuminated Acropolis, and a table of Greek men dressed finely talking business.
We sipped on a Greek rosé and recollected all the places we’d visited that had seen great civilizations rise and fall. And we spoke of the historical significance of the place we were right now: How Athens’ heyday was so short-lived; how it rose to lead the western world in all things, and then less than a hundred years later, lost its rank. We spoke of America, another great democracy that has produced some of the most astounding writers, artists, musicians, and thinkers the world has know, and whether it will ever be great again.
Greatness doesn’t last forever. But sitting up there looking at the Parthenon that last night, it felt like it might.
FATB GREEK APPENDICES:
Books we read:
-The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, by Roberto Calasso
-Blue Guide: Greece, The Mainland
-Blue Guide: Crete
-Outline, by Rachel Cusk
Restaurants we didn’t get to in Athens:
-O Ilias (Piraeus)
List of things the Beast will bring to Greece next time:
– brown suede Tods
– flowing robes (male)
– ribbon (for pony tails)
– bracelet (turquoise? Sailing rope?)
– more “on brand” car rental (Alfa Romeo? Old Jeep?)
– tight single coloured bathing suit (canary yellow? Maybe with white piping?)
– Brooks Bros navy blazer
– traditional patterned (Greek obviously) canvas bag – maybe monogrammed in Greek alphabet
– reading glasses (for looking more mature when reading menus)
– 3 additional styles of sandals from sandal poet – Caesar, Diogenes, and mystery style
– Raptors jersey with my name on the back
– lightweight cashmere v-neck (off white
– monogrammed velvet slippers (Greek initials)
– cheap underwear I can throw out as we go along