An Ode to Athens, the City Where Anything Is Possible
Every city has its own personality and Athens, Greece is no exception.
Athens is nothing less than vivid, both day and night.
During the day, it’s bursting with color between the Athens-blue sky, the brightly-hued buildings, and kaleidoscopic greenery and flowers everywhere. The streets are busy – be careful crossing because the drivers there are not waiting for pedestrians. There are roundabouts scattered around the city and I honestly felt like yelling, “Jesus take the wheel” every time I bolted across to my destination on the other side.
On the sidewalks, you can bear witness to animated conversations, beautifully served food, and dark-haired people drinking dark coffee out of cheerful cups just outside the cafes. Everything about the entire place is vibrant and it belies the fact that people are definitely still suffering from the economic crisis that hit hard a few years back.
It’s like walking through a living, breathing museum. It’s a city where anything is possible. You never know when you’re going to suddenly walk past a dig site that was recently uncovered, completely stopping construction on a new subway line or building. Brand new buildings are built around old structures, that look totally incongruous yet still charming in the modern surroundings. There are fountains erupted in unexpected places, hidden statues, secret gardens, parks carved out in the middle of the most urban areas, and gloriously eclectic people everywhere you turn.
The flowers are so abundant that they seem to spring out of the stones of the buildings themselves, reminiscent of the hardiness, hospitality, and beauty of the Greek people. The men are outrageously flirtatious, but not in a way that generally makes a woman feel uncomfortable. If a person drops a package in Athens, half a dozen people swoop to help pick up the contents. The city is warm in so many more ways than the climate.
A person with even the slightest hint of imagination could never be bored in Athens. It’s always changing but somehow, still constant and eternal.
The people of Athens
It’s a quirky place, too. It isn’t at all unusual to see random Spartan warriors casually wandering around the city with shields and spears. This fine fellow noticed me snapping his photo just a couple of blocks from my apartment one morning after picking up breakfast, so he stopped and posed for me.
And nobody except me even blinked an eye.
I asked several locals about the random Spartans – were they part of a tourist attraction? Was there a show? Everyone I asked just shrugged and said, “It is Athens.”
English is pretty widely spoken in Athens, at least enough for you to be able to order food and find the bathroom. Directions are less easily explained but don’t be surprised if a friendly Greek takes you by the arm to walk you right to the door of the establishment for which you are searching.
Most everyone I met was warm and friendly to the point of inviting you to sit and talk with them. They had a million questions about where I was from and how long I’d be visiting Athens. Take the time to ask questions of your own, too. Learning about the favorite restaurants, bars, and parks where you can hear the birds sing from people who live there can lead you to some treasures that are often overlooked by other travelers.
It’s funny – I’m a complete introvert but when I travel, I thoroughly enjoy a conversation with a person local to the place where I’m visiting. I want to learn everything I can from them, and I always ask them to teach me a word or phrase in their language. Sometimes tourists say that locals are unfriendly toward them, and this may be the case. But I’ve found a friendly smile and a genuine effort to communicate and learn is almost always welcomed. I met people in Athens who I’ll never forget – some of whom I never even knew their names. But their stories and smiles are permanently woven into the tapestry of my memories.
For example, one day I sat down at a restaurant where the menu was only in Greek. The friendly waiter told me about not just what the food was, but how it originated.
“This sofrito is like the one from the island of Corfu, where it is cooked all day in a clay pot outdoors. Everyone uses their own special vinegar for cooking liquid and it’s always a secret which kind you use, because you want yours to be the best.”
I asked, “So…does that mean you won’t tell me what kind you use here?”
And the waiter replied earnestly,
“I do not even know myself. Our cook brings it into the restaurant in a plain bottle after he makes the vinegar himself at his home. The secret could die with the maker of the vinegar if he does not share it with someone he trusts. Then the sofrido here would never be the same.
It is all about the vinegar, you see. Nothing else matters with sofrito. But it is so good and I am so sure you will love it that if you do not, I will pay for your lunch.”
It was every bit as good as he said. And the story made it even better.
The glorious details
Because Athens is a city full of hills, there’s a view nearly anywhere you turn. Rooftops filled with gardens, baroque balconies crowded with fruit trees and tomato plants, and the blue, blue skies will take your breath away if you let them.
And you should definitely let them. Don’t focus so hard on the big stuff – the museums, the temples, the ancient theaters – that you miss the smaller details that make Athens so unique. As fabulous as all of those things are, it’s the little things. Think of it like that dimple that peeks out when the person you love smiles a certain way or that perfect handholding position where your fingers interlock perfectly. It’s easy to overlook but life is so much better when you treasure things that others don’t notice.
If you go up on any rooftop in the city, you can see the Acropolis, holding court over Athens as it has done for 2,460 years. There’s something about that continuity that left me awestruck every time I turned a random corner and boom – there’s the Parthenon up on that hill, guys.
The sunsets are brilliantly colored and they paint the city in different colors still. Even as the light fades, the apricot skies contrast against the buildings that fade to plum. As day turned into night, it was totally worth climbing six *gasp*huff*puff* flights of stairs to get up to my building’s rooftop with a drink and watch the Acropolis lights go on.
It reminded me of how we all take things for granted – I was always the only person on the roof unless I had persuaded a friend to come with me. Nobody who lived in my beautiful vintage building with the stunning view ever seemed to take the time to sit there and watch the evening approach.
But I can tell you that it was positively magical – it was like you could feel the power of ancient gods approving of those who still lit up their temples.
At night, Athens is no less vibrant.
People here love to socialize and most cafes and bars have outdoor seating. Everywhere you walk, there are lights – from the expected streetlights to the neon lights naming establishments to the string lights hung over the tables where beautiful people in beautiful clothing are drinking intensely colored cocktails. The air is filled with music, a buzz of conversation, and laughter.
As it grows later, the laughter shifts and groups break into couples, who sit a little bit closer to one another in the cooling evening air. Athens is a romantic city at night with lots of out-of-the-way cafes and bars with soft music and cozy seating. Sometimes you see a couple dancing on the street to music only they can hear. People hold hands and kiss unabashedly walking along the sidewalk on a balmy Athens evening. Why? Because it just plain feels right in this city to kiss someone when you’re walking under the moon in the shadow of the Acropolis.
And you don’t have to go out to feel the magic of the city after dark.
Some nights, I sat on my patio alone under the olive tree and string lights of my Airbnb, listening to live music coming from a little bar called Metz Coffee and Cocktails. This was about a block away and the sound carried on the cool night air as I sat there at my apartment, listening to the traditional music and tambourines that reminded me I was actually-for-real living my dream of visiting exotic places. I didn’t read a book or play on my phone these nights. I just sat there with a smile on my face, absorbing it all.
There’s no better place to change your life than Athens.
If you want to change your life, there’s no better place to do it than Athens. It’s a city where 2400-year-old temples and new homes live in harmony, surrounded by ever-blooming flowers and fruits. It’s the place where democracy began, the place where art remains thousands of years after it was created. It’s a city that has been continuously inhabited for more than 3000 years.
If Athens can hang in there and be beautiful and resilient and full of life, so can you.
This city where I was lucky enough to spend a month is where I stepped out of my old life into my new one. It’s where I learned to detach from my expectations, my rigidity, the structure of things going exactly as I planned them. It’s the place where I began to be a new person, a free person, not confined by alarm clocks and societal expectations. It’s where people did not look at me and see somebody’s mom or just another shopper at the grocery store. It is where I was accepted exactly as I presented myself.
There’s a statue dedicated to Lord Byron in Athens, at the point where the Plaka and the Temple of Zeus and the National Garden meet. He loved this part of the world so much he apparently even scratched his name into one of the ornate columns at the Temple of Poseidon He said, “If I am a poet…the air of Greece has made me one.”
If I have become a new person, then I agree with Bryon – the air of Athens itself breathed life into the free spirit that was always there, peeking out, waiting for her chance.
Athens will soak into your pores if you let it and a little piece of that city will always remain in your heart, like a lost love of whom you think fondly once in a while when a certain song comes on the radio. Sometimes on a warm night, I can close my eyes and still faintly hear the music and smell the flowers.
If you love Athens, Athens will love you back, wholeheartedly. It is a glorious cascade of ancient and new, of crumbling ruins and bright flowers, and music and quiet. There’s no place like it in all the world.
I adore you, Athens, and I’ll be back.