Visiting Greece had always been in my travel bucket list — the culture! the history! the chance to actually touch the white marble of the Parthenon! It was a bonus to have my two sisters with me when I went to Athens in September 2012.
Whenever possible we try to visit a McDonald’s when we travel. It usually has a menu item unique to the city — I remember the McD in Paris had a burger with blue cheese instead of the usual processed slices, Singapore used to have a gula melaka-flavored McFlurry. Our hotel was near one which had a ‘Greek Mac’: two beef patties, lettuce and tomatoes sandwiched in pita bread.
Parts of our walk from the train station to the hotel were sketchy — graffiti on the walls, lonely men loitering in the corners. But the view of the Acropolis from the hotel roof deck was unforgettable.
The Acropolis was our first stop the next day. It’s the highest part of the city. The walk up the hill was sign-posted and smooth. We passed several places that evoked our high school “History of the World” textbook — theatres with names like Dionysus and Herodes Atticus, a temple named after Athena Nike.
At the top of Acropolis Rock was the Parthenon. When we were there, restoration was in full swing so parts of it were covered in tarpaulin and there was scaffolding too. But still… we were in front of the Parthenon. A building built circa 5th century B.C. during the golden age of Athens, one of the oldest cities in the world. We were right there! And the view was stunning.
From the Acropolis we made our way to the Agora (where Socrates was born and where St. Paul preached). I recall there was hardly any shade on the way. We walked in the sweltering heat so water bottles and face towels are recommended.
The Agora is for wandering — there are several buildings on the site you can explore. One closes one’s eyes and imagines it as the ancient marketplace it once was centuries ago, complete with the hustle and bustle typical of a public palengke, the famous philosophers who spoke, the huge crowds that must have gathered here to listen.
We continued on foot to the Roman Forum, where Romans moved Athens’ marketplace from the old Agora. It’s smaller and houses the beautifully named Tower of the Winds, an octagonal tower built in 50 B.C. There used to be a bronze weather vane on the tower roof which indicated the direction of the winds, personified in carved relief at the top of each side. Rays of sundials are carved on each side beneath the scenes of the winds, and inside there was a water clock powered by a stream from the Acropolis.
Our next stop, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, was in the middle of a busy roundabout and further away from the earlier sites. It took 700 years to complete it (wow, talk about project delays!), which finally happened in A.D. 131. Only 16 columns survive from the original 104.
We had lunch at Diogenes taverna. It had a shaded terrace (we craved shade after the heat). I ordered a creamy moussaka, a traditional Greek dish made of minced beef and eggplant baked in a tomato sauce, and one of my sisters (likely the youngest) had rabbit stifado, a local meat stew.
We rose early the next day to climb up Filopappos Hill, another ancient landmark known as “the hill of muses.” The hill directly overlooked the Acropolis and southern Athens stretching to the sea, so (yet again) the walk uphill is worth it for the view. We did get a bit of a scare though — we thought some random guy was following us — the place was more secluded than we thought it would be. Recommend to avoid after dark.
Now, for me the best part of this trip and what I remember most clearly five years on were the conversations with my two sisters. As sweltering as the walks may have been, the company was hard to beat. That made it okay. We talked about ourselves, mostly.
We sat in a cafe, To Kouti, for rose petal ice cream and strong shots of Greek coffee and we talked and talked. The conversation was at times light, at times serious. By 2012 I had lived abroad for a few years. It was the longest I’d been away from my family and I felt out of touch. I used to know the daily minutiae of Ate’s lovelife. When I left, our bunso was still in university. Now one had a boyfriend and the other was about to become a high school teacher.
While I did keep in touch since leaving, I felt I was only getting a highlight reel. It just didn’t feel the same.
I think the distance from home helped us talk a little more freely. Without going into detail about our (fairly sheltered) childhood, it was thrilling for me to be there in a foreign country with two grown women whose lives I felt I knew intimately (and yet I didn’t), whose voices sounded like mine (but spoke differently), whose thoughts I thought I could finish (but still managed to surprise me, in fascinating ways). It was like looking at myself at a funhouse mirror. I felt proud of the women I was with.
The three of us walked around the neighborhood of Anafiotika. In its twisting alleys we found a study centre for puppet theatre, an ancient church, quirky graffiti, and souvenir shops selling kitsch.
So, how about it C and Ate P? Let’s get another round of ice cream — it doesn’t have to be rose — we can have chocolate this time. Let’s pick the place together, it doesn’t need to be far. Let’s have more
Sweet, crazy conversations full of half sentences, daydreams and misunderstandings more thrilling than understanding could ever be (Toni Morrison, Beloved)
Let’s do this again, just us.