An off­sea­son visit to Athens of­fers a pleas­ant al­ter­na­tive

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - TRAVEL - By ARON HELLER in Athens, Greece As­so­ci­ated Press

As a sea­side me­trop­o­lis with a lively out­door vibe and dozens of pic­turesque is­lands beck­on­ing nearby, Athens is more of­ten con­sid­ered a sum­mer tourist des­ti­na­tion than a win­ter es­cape. But if you’ve got more than beaches on your mind, there’s plenty of up­side to a brief cool visit that avoids the crowds and heat of sum­mer.

Athens is one of the world’s old­est cities, of­ten called the cra­dle of Western civ­i­liza­tion. Vis­i­tors will find mon­u­ments to an­cient his­tory on nearly ev­ery path they take. But with in­ter­est­ing neigh­bor­hoods, trendy shops and a va­ri­ety of cafes and tav­er­nas serv­ing that fa­mous Greek cui­sine, Athens’ at­trac­tions are not all rooted in the past.

The city is easy to get around by bus or metro and most ma­jor at­trac­tions are within walk­ing dis­tance. Tem­per­a­tures in Jan­uary av­er­age 10 C. Here’s a sug­gested itin­er­ary for a three-day visit.

The Acrop­o­lis

The cen­ter­piece of an­cient Greece and mod­ern-day Athens, the Acrop­o­lis lit­er­ally stands above ev­ery­thing else and looms ma­jes­ti­cally over the city. It is par­tic­u­larly strik­ing to view at night, when bril­liantly il­lu­mi­nated. A 10-euro ($10.6) en­trance fee to the com­pound takes you along a course of the cen­tral struc­tures of Greek mythology as you climb past the Theatre of Diony­sus, the Propy­laea, the Erechtheion and the Herodeon — which still hosts the oc­ca­sional live per­for­mance. A 20-minute walk to the top un­veils the most fa­mous struc­ture of all, the Parthenon — a for­mer tem­ple ded­i­cated to the god­dess Athena, the city’s pa­tron. How­ever, the scaf­fold­ing of its pro­longed restora­tion project takes a bit away from its grandeur.

Most of the Acrop­o­lis’ trea­sures are housed in the nearby Acrop­o­lis Mu­seum (en­trance 5 euros), such as colos­sal stone stat­ues depict­ing mytho­log­i­cal scenes from an­cient Greece. One of the mu­seum’s most im­pres­sive fea­tures is ac­tu­ally the ar­chi­tec­ture that in­cludes glass floors through which you can see the ru­ins that lay be­low. A full view of the Acrop­o­lis spreads out from the sec­ond and third floor gal­leries.

There are plenty of other an­cient sites to visit across the city, but the most com­pre­hen­sive is likely the nearby An­cient Agora on the Acrop­o­lis’ north­west slope with its im­pres­sive Tem­ple of Hephais­tos nes­tled among ru­ins over­grown with green fo­liage from the win­ter rains. It houses a large as­sort­ment of an­cient vases, fig­urines, coins and head­less stat­ues.

Ly­ca­bet­tus Hill

There are views of the Acrop­o­lis from ev­ery­where, but the best one in town is from Ly­ca­bet­tus Hill. Aft- er a pleas­ant but steep hike up a wind­ing trail, a panoramic view of the sprawl­ing city is re­vealed. There’s a lit­tle church at the top, Agii Isi­dori, and am­ple an­gles to pho­to­graph Athens. An early morn­ing visit will put the sun be­hind you as you gaze across the city to­ward the Acrop­o­lis with the shores of the Aegean Sea lap­ping in the dis­tance. Part of the fun is get­ting there via a stroll from the cen­ter of town through the up­scale Kolon­aki neigh­bor­hood, with its bustling cafes and de­signer mer­chan­dise.

Syn­tagma Square

This is the heart of the city and site of mass protests in re­cent years over the Greek eco­nomic cri­sis. The square is right in front of par­lia­ment and the tomb of the unknown sol­dier, where sol­diers in kilt-like gar­ments and red leather clogs with black pom­poms per­form elab­o­rate chang­ing of the guard cer­e­monies sev­eral times a day.

To the west, busy Er­mou street of­fers the city’s pri­mary shop­ping dis­trict and leads to­ward the neigh­bor­hoods of Mona­s­ti­raki, which has a large, busy Sun­day morn­ing flea mar­ket, and Psyrri, with a wide selec­tion of bars and live mu­sic tav­er­nas. Eater­ies in­clude O Kostas (5 Pen­telis St.), a hole in the wall known for ex­cel­lent sou­vlaki. At Luku­mades (Eolou Street and Agias Iri­nis Square), get the deep-fried dough­nut ball doused in honey.

Just south of Syn­tagma is Plaka, a his­tor­i­cal neigh­bor­hood built upon the an­cient town of Athens. Known as the “Neigh­bor­hood of the Gods” be­cause of its prox­im­ity to the Acrop­o­lis, its maze­like nar­row streets are a joy to ex­plore. Amid rem­nants of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites, there’s street art, small shops and restau­rants. A real gem is Psaras, an old-style tav­erna off the main drag, pop­u­lar with lo­cals and tourists. The baked feta pas­try ap­pe­tizer dipped in honey and sprin­kled with sesame seeds is a treat to warm up a win­ter day.

Be­sides the Acrop­o­lis Mu­seum, the neigh­bor­hood is also home the Jewish Mu­seum of Greece (6 euros) and the Mu­seum of Greek Folk Art (2 euros).

Sounion

A same-day ex­cur­sion to one of the three nearby is­lands of Aegina, Poros or Hy­dra is pos­si­ble, but with a lim­ited win­ter ferry sched­ule the jour­ney will likely take longer than the ac­tual stay. A more re­ward­ing out­ing is the 90-minute bus ride along the “Greek Riviera” down to the south­ern penin­sula of Sounion, where the Tem­ple of Po­sei­don re­veals a breath­tak­ing view of the sea. The deep blue wa­ters rip­ple around the an­cient hill­top struc­ture ded­i­cated to the god of the sea. The salty breeze of­fers an es­cape from the bustle of Athens, as moun­tains jut out of the sea and the rocky an­cient land­scape pro­vides a tran­quil part­ing from Greece.

Tourists are re­flected in a large pud­dle as they walk past the an­cient Tem­ple of Zeus, af­ter rain­fall, in cen­tral Athens; a man looks on waves in the south­ern Athens sea­side sub­urb of Flisvos.

PHO­TOS BY PETROS GIANNAKOURIS / AP

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