When we went to Greece last year, we approached it a bit like one might a buffet. On the first pass, sample what you know and think you will like, and on the second pass, return to the things you love.
Our first trip was a whirlwind of checking off sites–the Athenian acropolis, the Oracle of Delphi, Olympia, the Minoan ruins of Knossos–that I’d dreamt of visiting, with a few wild cards–the Mani, Santorini–thrown in. This time around, we spent the majority of our time on the island of Crete, where the food, wine, beaches, and people enchanted us in 2016, where we said “this place is extraordinary. We will come back.” And we did.
But before travelling to Crete, one must fly into Athens. We spent our first two days exploring the so-called Athenian Riviera and our last two days in Athens proper.
As soon as we landed, we picked up our rental car. Last year we made the mistake of getting a manual economy car with an engine not much more powerful than me on my bike, causing local drivers to curse us on highways. This time, we rented an Alpha Romeo. It had six gears. We used them all quite effectively.
The first stop was Marathon, a small town outside of Athens that not only gave the world the running race called the marathon, but it is also where in 490 B.C. the Athenians managed to defeat the Persians, who far outnumbered them, in a decisive battle that would change the course of history. “The day of Marathon is the critical epoch in the history of the two nations,” historian E.S. Creasy wrote in his The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. ” It secured for mankind the intellectual treasures of Athens, the growth of free institutions, the liberal enlightenment of the Western world, and the gradual ascendency for many ages of the great principles of European civilization.”
The site is basically a mound where the 192 Athenians who died during the battle are buried. (The Persians lost 6,400 men. They still managed to sack Athens, and destroy the temples atop the Acropolis. Xerxes son, Darius, came back 10 years later, where they were finally defeated, and created the momentum that lead to the rebuilding of the Acropolis and the artistic, cultural, and political achievements of the Athenians.) There is also a wonderful museum a few kilometres are.
But who am I kidding right now. You don’t want history lessons, nor an hour-by-hour breakdown of our 14 days in Greece. You want the goods–where we ate, what we saw, the best swims, and the worst fights. So, here is Part 1, which will be told in two subsections: a) on the Athenian Riviera and b) our time in Athens proper.
PART 1, SUBSECTION A: THE ATHENIAN RIVIERA
Where we stayed
Last year in Olympia we stayed at a funny chain called “Greco hotel”. It’s funny because it gives the air of luxury (on the surface), the prices are very reasonable, and many of the tourists (mostly Germans) staying there rarely smile. The same was true at the Greco hotel Cape Sounio. We had a great bungalow with a view of the Temple of Poseidon, and it was a perfect home base for exploring the Athenian Riviera, which I first read about in this 2014 article from the Guardian. Also, breakfast was included, the toiletries smelled amazing, and we could hear the ocean at night.
Where we ate
Our first meal was between Marathon and the hotel at a taverna right on the water called Argyra Akti. We got a fix of our boiled greens, French fries, Greek salad, and grilled sardines. We had a wonderful meal of fried red mullet in the town of Anavyssos at a place called To Limani. But the best was a dinner at Taverna Syrtaki, where the Beast devoured a plate of squid ink orzo and I would not share my seafood pasta.
What we did
After checking in, and having a swim in the Aegean, we headed straight to the Temple of Poseidon to watch the sunset–along with the rest of Athens. Still, it was hard to be grumpy as we stood on the edge of a cliff in the shadow of 2,500-year-0ld Doric columns erected, quite fittingly, to the the god of the sea, and thinking about ancient mariners returning home to Attica and this being their first sight.
We also hunted for “secret and magical coves”. These are places that you see while you drive and think “can you imagine swimming in that water?” and then you get up enough nerve to pull over and find a way down to the water and you are successful. There are usually just one or two other people there. And they are Greek. You know this because they are reading Greek newspapers and speaking in Greek. And you feel very special.
Vouliagmeni Lake may not be a secret but holy Athena, it was still very special. For 12 euros, you can take a dip in “replenishing waters” to “balance your energies” and to help “skin rejuvenation and pain relief, disorders of the muscoskeletal system, post-traumatic rehabilitation, and for gynaecological disorders.” Let me tell you, my pussy was practically singing after our swim.
The “Riviera” is where plenty of Athenians head on the weekends to have some good taverna seafood and to swim. I think it’s similar to our cottage country. I guess that’s not really a tip. But this is: speak up. Our Alpha Romeo started inexplicably and randomly beeping on our second day. We tried everything to stop it. I said something when we returned the car and they knocked off a day of the rental. The Beast said it was very “alpha” of me.
PART 1, SUBSECTION B: ATHENS
Where we stayed
We returned to the Hotel Grande Bretagne for the last two nights after our 10 days in Crete, which believe me, you will read about soon. Last year, the exemplary service made us feel like Athena and Poseidon. This year was no different. We actually got the same room (616). This place is what I would call a splurge but I saved up all year for this trip because we didn’t want to stay anywhere else. Also, two of the staff remembered us from last year.
What we ate
We returned to Bairaktaris, a family-run souvlaki joint in a very touristy part of the city. No matter, because the food is cheap, delicious, and the people-watching spectacular. The same man served us. He even had on the same burgundy sweater vest. We had a feast, complete with beer and wine, for 22 euros.
Because I’d heard plenty about a legendary Michelin-starred fish restaurant called Varoulka and because I’d wanted to explore Athens’ port, Piraeus, we went for dinner at Varoulka in Piraeus on our last night. The service was top notch but still warm, and it was the best fish we’d ever had. We also had a beautiful bottle of malagousia white wine from the Kikones winery in Thrace for a reasonable 25 euros. But here’s the thing: It wasn’t the best meal of the trip because I don’t think the Beast and I are cut out for fancy fine dining, where plates are thoughtfully decorated with bits and bops of purées and mousses. I like my fish grilled with sea salt, olive oil and maybe some lemon. Still, it was a meal with a view to remember.
What we did
First thing first, we secured new footwear from the celebrity sandal maker called The Poet. (Clients have included: Sofia Lauren, Barbra Streisand, Lily Tomlin, Jackie Onassis, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Joe Biden’s wife and daughter!) They’re 50 euros–cash only. We got matching pairs in the style of “Plato” and I picked up a spare of my “Olympias”. We walked around by twilight through the Agora, the Plaka, and finally found the Pnyx, the spot where many say democracy was born, where we sat and gazed up at the Acropolis all lit up.
We decided to choose our museums wisely, as in no repeats, despite really wanting to return to the Acropolis museum and the National gallery. We ended up at the Byzantine and Christian Museum and the Benaki Museum, where I found my fall look book, were both very happy with our choices, as we were with a stroll through the National Park afterwards.
We gave ourselves three hours to explore Piraeus before our dinner at Varoulka. This was approximately two-and-a-half hours too long. It was fun to look at the yachts and imagine who owns them. But Piraeus is a butt hole. Also, our attitudes were sullied because we got ripped off by a shitty taxi driver. The taxi ride from Athens to Piraeus was just over 9 euros. That’s a 10 km ride. We took a 2 km ride in Piraeus and it was the same price. We knew that we were supposed to make sure the meter was set to zero, and that the driver started it–and I even saw that he had a little towel over the meter when we got in!–yet we didn’t say a word when he told us the price! All I had to say was “may I see the meter?” and if he hadn’t started it, the ride is supposed to be free. We felt terrible after. I got mad at the Beast for not saying anything, which was hardly fair. We were both so sour. So pro tip: don’t make the same mistake. But on the bright side, we were ready to go home the next morning (after one last selfie on our balcony.)