Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Baklava Babymoon: Athens

Our first Baklava Babymoon (a.k.a. Feta Filled Fetus tour) stop was Athens. Frankly speaking, the Greek capital has an infamous reputation for being dirty, which is perhaps the main reason that most people just visit long enough to see the Acropolis and then leave. Athens was officially the most polluted city in Western Europe in the 1980s. But in more recent years, they have made big strides in cleaning up the air and making their city more pedestrian friendly. This convinced me and Laure to take a few days to check out the sights, meet the locals, and (of course) eat some good food.

Day 1: wandering around the historic old town

After checking into our hotel, we wandered around the old town.
Ariston is a century old casual bakery that sells local pies and pastries.
We came across some people bboying.
Part of me wanted to join the fun.
The other part of me realized I would get my ass kicked.

Walking around Athen's old town is quite nice. Some years ago, the city prohibited car traffic on the historical streets. At first locals and business were outraged, but over time they realized that decision actually attracted more people.

We caught the changing of the Evzones, who are the elite presidential guards.
They wear shoes with pom-poms. 

This trip gave us a quick introduction to the Orthodox Christian religion. Most, but not all, of the old churches we visited in Greece were small in comparison to the churches we are used to seeing in the rest Europe. In my opinion this makes the churches seem more approachable and intimate.

Church of Kapnikarea's orange bricks look especially dramatic during sunset.

At night, we had our first proper restaurant meal. My impression of Greek food is that it is normally made out of simple but decent quality ingredients. And although Greek olive oil is not as famous as Italian, I actually found Greek oil to be generally more flavorful.
The Greek salad quickly became the appetizer of every meal.
Simple ingredients with a big presence of olive oil.

After dinner, we walked around a bit and witnessed the local crowds going out and socializing. I really like how the Greek like to socialize not only in restaurants, bars, and dance clubs, but they also hang out outside in public squares. Actually, this is true for much of Europe. I wish this was also true in the US, but I suppose the general prohibition of drinking in public is a literal buzz kill.

Musicians set the mood for the crowd to dance at Monastiraki Square.

Day 2: culture overload and a fancy dinner

On our second day, Laure and I headed over to the National Archeological Museum, which contains some of the most important ancient Greek art starting all the way back to 7000 B.C.

It is mind boggling to believe that I was looking at things made by humans about 9,000 years ago. That's twice as old as the Great Pyramid in Egypt. The same way we look at the pyramids and think "wow, that is ridiculously old" is the same way the Egyptians at the time would look back at these and think the same thing -- assuming they knew about their existence and assuming they could think in English.

Today we don't know if these ancient 9000-year old Cycladic figurines are depictions of goddesses or maybe just porn.
The famous but misnamed golden Mask of Agamemnon.
This beautifully decorated knife shows the importance of war to the Mycenaeans.

After the museum, Laure and I decided to grab a Greek snack known worldwide: gyro sandwiches. After a little bit of online research we settled on a place that turned out to have okay sandwiches accompanied by quasi-rude service.
 That tzatziki sauce looks suspiciously like mayonnaise.

After a few more attempts later on the trip, I came to realize that gyro sandwiches in Greece are generally not any better or worse than what you would find anywhere else. Actually, it seemed like the more popular snack among Greeks are actually souvlakis, which are skewered meats -- think Greek kebabs.

After our disappointing lunch, we checked out the Agora, which was the commercial, political, and social heart of ancient Athens. That was where the residents would go to hang out, shop, and vote.
What am I looking at?

I believe that visiting the Agora in Athens is very similar to visiting the Forum in Rome. Most of what remains are in rubbles, so you need to use a lot of your imagination to reconstruct what was there before. Both places are only interesting if you take the time to understand some of the history and importance of what was there before. Otherwise it's pretty meaningless to look at rocks on the ground.

For that reason, Laure and I downloaded audio tours to play on our phones while we walked around, which is easier, faster, and more entertaining than reading a book. You could probably find some different options, but we are huge fans of the free Rick Steves audio tours as well as his books.

Next, we climbed up to Athens' most famous sight by far: the Acropolis.
The Acropolis was getting a makeover.

As impressive as the remains of the Parthenon looks today, we need to imagine what it must have been in its full glory: full of ornate sculptures surrounding an impressive 12-meter statue of Athena. Perhaps most interestingly, the Parthenon used to be colorfully painted, which is hard to imagine looking at its monochromatic remains. I find it funny that many modern banks are built to resemble Greek architecture but are painted completely white.
How did this look full of color?

After walking around the Acropolis, we walked on a nice pedestrian walkway named the Dionysiou street.
The Dionysiou walking path has talented street performers.

For dinner, we decided to splurge and eat at a fancy restaurant, which is one of the things we figured would be difficult later with a newborn child. After a bit of research ahead of time, we settled on a restaurant named The Funky Gourmet.

How did they fill this hollow cracker with warm soup?

The Funky Gourmet is part of a food trend named "molecular gastronomy", which is a buzz term for the way that chefs try coming up with new combinations of ingredients to present dishes with new flavors in an inventive way. Frankly, I'm generally pretty skeptic because this stuff seems a bit gimmicky to me.

But this dinner dispelled my skepticism. The food not only looked good, but it was also very delicious. The service was excellent without being excessively formal. Although the cost was high compared to other local restaurants, it was a bargain compared to anything near the same quality back in Switzerland. All in all, this has been my favorite high end restaurant experience to date.

I thought it was insane that they would serve white chocolate on caviar.
Until the flavor and texture knocked my socks off.
Sure, they served food with excessive amounts of liquid nitrogen to put on a show, but the food still tasted great.
And it's cool that our table looked like a haunted house.

Day 3: The Acropolis Museum and our departure from Athens

On our last day in Athens, we checked out the Acropolis Museum, which houses some of the original sculptures from the Acropolis that were moved from their original location due to the terrible corrosion from pollution. A few decades from pollution outside in the last century did significantly more damage to these sculptures than the preceding two thousand years.
The caryatids don't look a day over 1000.

Although the Acropolis Museum was built to house the most precious sculptures from the Acropolis, many of them are actually in the British Museum in London. Greece is trying to recover them; they do it sometimes aggressively (like by suing in international courts) and sometimes passive-aggressively (like with reminders throughout the museum and at the airport explaining that the original pieces are in the British Museum).

After the museum, Laure and I picked up a rental car to head out of Athens. We had read that driving in Athens is crazy (a claim that turned out to be somewhat exaggerated), so we decided to leave outside of traffic rush hours.

Driving in Athens was pretty easy although some Greeks angrily honked their horns and shouted at me when I illegally parked the car to load baggage. It's no use crying over spilled milk.