By Mara Papatheodorou, your Tastes & Traditions Expert
Ancient ruins, Byzantine churches and groves of olive trees scatter the hillsides of Greece’s historic capital, Athens. Named after Athena, the goddess of wisdom, this is where democracy and philosophy began thanks to scholars Aristotle, Socrates and Pluto. Syntagma Square (Constitution Square) is the pulsating heart of the city where grand buildings, hotels, sidewalk cafes and the old Royal palace, now the Greek Parliament, stand. You can watch the changing of the guard, in their traditional dress, every hour on the hour.
The most renowned Athenian icon of all is the Parthenon sitting atop the dramatic Acropolis. To be in the know and enjoy it in its best light, see the exhibits first at the new Parthenon Museum and then head up to the temple to catch the sunset and a great photo opportunity. The more modern history and culture of Greece is impressively highlighted at the small yet quaint Benaki Museum, located in the center of the city. And for a fantastic panoramic view of the Greek metropolis and its surroundings, hike or take a funicular ride up to Mt Lycabettus. This limestone hill is covered with pine trees at its base and has the small chapel of St George at its peak along with Horizons Restaurant & Café where you can enjoy the vistas and a meal or coffee.
At the base of the Acropolis, the labyrinthine streets of the Plaka, the ancient Agora, are a fun place to stroll and to shop. Seek out ceramics, leather goods and gold jewelry as well as any item related to olives or mythology –like the good luck one-eyed bright blue “evil eye” charm or trinket that keeps away bad spirits. Casual tavernas in the area abound where you can indulge in a meal of mezes (appetizers), a Horiataki Salata (Greek Salad), fresh fish or suvlaki (shish kebabs). Enjoy them with a shot of ouzo or a glass of wine while listening (and maybe even dancing!) to Greece’s version of a guitar…bazouki music!..
SAIL: Athens. Before sailing away, bring the city’s flavors and flair home. Symbolizing peace and prosperity, the olive tree rules! Shop for olive oil, cured olives, olive motif ceramics, olive wood cutting boards and bowls. Leather and gold are good buys too.
SIP: Ouzo. Opa…this is the aperitif of Greece! Distilled from remnants of grapes with anise, it has a licorice taste. It’s clear appearance turns milky when adding ice or water. Drink with mezethes (appetizers) like feta and olives, tyropita, spanakopita (mini cheese or spinach turnovers wrapped in phyllo dough) and keftedes (meatballs).
SAVOR: Suvlaki(Shish kebabs) Prominent on any taverna menu, are pieces of roasted skewered lamb, chicken or fish marinated in olive oil, lemon and oregano served with rice and tzaziki (a yogurt cucumber garlic sauce). Have a Horiataki Salata/Greek Salad of cucumbers, tomatoes,, Greek olives and feta along side it and finish off your meal with a slice of baklava (honey walnut tart) or bougatsa (vanilla custard pastry with cinnamon) All yummy!