John and I came to Athens, the birthplace of Western democracy, to marvel at ancient ruins and sites of mythology. Sure enough, they were incredible (though I actually found more Greek temples, in better condition, on Sicily than in Greece). But just as amazing was the vibrant modern life that swirled around the old stone columns and pathways. OJ (Orange juice) stands and great yogurt were only small pieces of it.
The orange juice in Greece, fresh-squeezed and sold in almost every cafe and street stall, was sweet and tangy, the best I’ve ever tasted. The thick, creamy yogurt, served at breakfast, was sublime. The chocolate was dark and rich. We were off to a good start.
In Athens, cool teens in black and young women wearing spike heels and tight jeans, everyone jabbering on cell phones, strolled past the Agora where Socrates held forth 2500 years ago. Non-stop traffic ignored pedestrians. At the foot of the Acropolis, the hill that rises from the heart of the city, swarms of children under backpacks hustled to school. High above it all, the mighty Parthenon reigned in not-quite-ruined splendor.
Athens is notorious for its summer heat and pollution; half of Greece’s industries and cars are in the greater Athens area. But the air was sweet the day we rolled our baggage through the historic Plaka district to Hotel Plaka (reasonable rates, breakfast included). We had a small room with a tiny shower, and a stunning view of the Parthenon. On our first morning we walked up to the Parthenon and were glad to be early, avoiding the throngs of tourists who arrived later. We could gaze at the temples, pay homage to history, and tour the museum in peace and quiet.
Other Athens sights not to be missed:
– Archeology Museum, crammed with wonders. I liked the little bird-goddess figures and the life-size bronze boy on horseback.
– Dionysius Theatre, on the Acropolis hillside. Performances are still held in the 17,000-seat amphitheatre.
– Anafiotika, a neighborhood of quaint charm with simple stone houses, courtyards, and geraniums on every balcony.
– Temple to Hephaistion, on a hill above the Agora. It’s the best-preserved in Greece, with many of its 100 columns still standing.
– Central Market. This long, covered street is lined with produce stands, thousands of olives, fruits, and nuts — and many butcher shops where skinned goats, lambs and pigs hang from hooks (not a happy place for vegans).
The busy sidewalks in the Plaka district were full of men at tables selling worry beads (kombouli), wind-up Barbie dolls, lottery tickets, laundry detergent, you name it. Someone played accordion, and an organ-grinder cranked out a tune. I’d heard about aggressive sales people here, but we weren’t bothered by anyone.
On a restaurant terrace, under old olive trees, we ate rooster in wine sauce, moussaka and honey-soaked pastries. The waitress, sure we weren’t eating enough, insisted on bringing more, at no charge. In fact, with a few exceptions, the Greek people were warm and friendly.
In a rental car we left lively, noisy Athens for the quiet of Delphi, a place I have long wanted to see. The village and famous oracle site lie on the side of Mt. Parnassos, 109 miles northwest of Athens. The village is mostly hotels, restaurants and shops that cater to tourists, most of them on bus tour day-trips from Athens. When they’re gone, silence falls.
Nights are chilly at 2,000 feet, so our friendly host at Hotel Varonos provided us with cozy quilts. The 9-room hotel was pleasant and inexpensive, with sweeping views of rugged mountains, a valley full of olive trees, and Itea Harbor in the distance.
We walked ten minutes to reach the ruins. By going at 7:30 a.m., when the gate opened, or late in the afternoon, we had this remarkable place almost to ourselves.
Delphi is a World Heritage Site, a jumble of stones with a few temples still standing among almond and cypress trees, fields of mustard and red poppies. Long ago, pilgrims walked the Sacred Way to the temples, the hilltop stadium, and the cavern where the Sibyl gave her prophecies. Few places on Earth are more fascinating or have a greater sense of mystery and spirit.