6 in the City
As with all good stories, it's best to start at the beginning. Our story here kicks off with our journey to the Greek capital which was the most painless travel experience I can remember. Despite getting a 2 am cab to catch a train, for a 5:45 Easyjet flight, there was a lot that could go wrong. But before you knew it we were at the airport, bags dropped and sitting with a coffee in the terminal patiently waiting for the flight, which was on time. So far so good.
I'm not the best flyer, so when they announced we were flying on a brand new Airbus Neo plane, I couldn't help but feel a little more nervous than usual after all the news of new planes recently decided they would much rather be cars than aeronautical machines. The thought of flying in a brand new aircraft caused me a great sense of unease. This was quickly forgotten as the flight was near perfect, heading out of Gatwick bang on time and managing to get into Athens Airport nearly half an hour early! Must have been downhill! 🤷♂️
Regardless of the early arrival, our host's driver, Nicky, was there with a beaming smile ready to meet us at the arrivals terminal and quickly whisked us into the beautiful sunshine that was bathing the outskirts of the city. Our new friend was happily explaining Athenian life, particularly in relation to the summer months where the weather quickly becomes unbearable here, with temperatures reaching 45°C late into the evening which pushes the day much later into the evening. The locals tend to put off dining until around 9 pm as it's too hot to eat an evening meal any earlier. For now, though, the forecast is showing a comparatively conservative 20-22°C which is much more manageable, so we were getting off lightly.
After an altercation with a local street market, we eventually arrived at our modest apartment located on the very edge of the main city, with key locations no more than a 20min walk away. The apartment spit between two levels was absolutely perfect, especially with its sun-washed terrace complete with views of the Acropolis. With bags dropped, and bearings calibrated it was time to head out for a spot of exploring.
This started with a walk to the base of the Acropolis to purchase tickets for the next day. Tickets for the Acropolis are priced at 20€, but for 10€ more you can gain access to 5 other locations and lasts 5 days. Disappointingly though, this ticket is only valid for one visit per site though. The reason for the disappointment will soon become apparent!
With tickets purchased, it was was a perfect opportunity to take in the views from the top of Areopagus Hill where crowds of tourists had taken the short climb to take in the towering Acropolis perched above it.
Looking to take it easy this first day, we meandered through the local vicinity around the base of the Acropolis, weaving in and out of hilly winding alleys which are bursting with character. Here we got an instant idea of the soul of Athens; the street art on the walls, the street vendors and even the street cats sat on the sidelines bathing in the beautiful sunshine.
The first day in any new place brings a mix of emotions to me as a photographer, underneath the excitement and anticipation are feelings of anxiety as I tussle with my desire to capture great shots which prevent me from relaxing initially. Athens was no exception and these first few hours did prove to be fairly stressful as I sought to capture images straight away.
This goes against the principles I try to live by, and have even described in my post No Tripod, No Problem, but the feeling to succeed in my shooting is so powerful and prevents me from enjoying myself. Until I know I have some good shots in the bag, I cannot shake my focus. I did manage to relax once we visited our first location, but not of my own conscious doing.
Keeping it casual, we headed in the direction of Brettos Bar famous for their unique shop adorned with old barrels maturing Ouzo and Brandy and walls adorned with colored bottles. Of course, it is only polite to sample the goods whilst we were there so a large glass of premium Ouzo was promptly ordered and consumed, which was delicious.
After a very early start, and not a lot in the way of sustenance, this proved to be a little bit of an error and the afternoon descended into a semi-free fall. The heat, partial intoxication and lack of sleep took their toll and any sense of structure with it. My sense of anxiety and desire to capture slowly slipped and I began to inadvertently relax into the trip.
With many wanderings around the local area, it was soon time to have some food and attempt and rectify my squiffy situation or, as it turned out, make it worse.
On the list was dinner at Liondi, a traditional Greek restaurant at the foot of the Acropolis which comes highly recommended. Foolishly ordering starters followed by the mixed Greek plate we were quickly inundated with deliciously fresh food and got stuck in! Naturally, all this fine cuisine needed washing down so was accompanied by beer and local wine, which is super cheap. This did take quite some time but was very much worth it; our first experience of local Greek dining was a very pleasant surprise.
Now very well fed, and past the point of reasonable intoxication, it was time to climb Philopappos Hill for the first time to capture the sunset and do a recky for the pending sunrise. The sun had a head start on us because of the unintended 'Man vs Food' battle, so filled with food and booze we had to virtually run up the hill to make it in time, which we did, thankfully without returning our dinners!
I had guessed at spot's for the sunset in my pre-trip research but now stood there with my camera I had the sense that I could do better. This was a key shot I was desperate to get in the bag being such an iconic view, and I knew a lot of pressure would be shed once captured. The position I had selected just didn't give me the sense of achievement I had hoped for, and on top of that, the sun was scuppered by low cloud and didn't give me the shot I was looking for.
So, the mad rush on a full stomach was all for nothing. Actually, that isn't quite fair, as the view is quite spectacular, but heading home empty-handed is never a great feeling. I did a quick reccy for the mornings sunrise, which was pretty pointless as my full attention was hindered by the cold wind that had rolled in and tiredness from the days traveling. Oh, and quite a bit of wine. Best to head home and start afresh the next day and hope it bears more fruit.
The next day kicked off as wonky as the last. Firstly, a crowd of tanked up visitors in the vicinity of our apartment were making a load of noise late into the night which really disrupted our sleep; not ideal when planning to head out around 5:30 in the morning, and off the back of the long previous day. Getting out of the apartment on time was a real struggle, but nonetheless, I hit the streets and made the walk back up Philopappos Hill for my prized shot.
Alas, I was struck with the same fate as before, with the sun peeking through for a mere minute or so before hiding itself behind some dramatic clouds. To make matters worse, my drunken attempts the night before to properly inspect the area failed to deliver and I was not all that happy with my choice of perspective.
Once all was said and done and there was no chance of getting the shot I wanted, I spied another photographer (the second person I had seen on the hill in the hour or so I was there) perched on a section of rock slightly lower, but with a far better view of the ancient structure. I took the opportunity to pop down there and check the spot out and exchanged a few words with the guy, who coincidently was another Sony shooter and a really nice chap too boot.
Not off to a good start then, and my hopes of capturing quality images of the city were beginning to wane. Next on the agenda was our visit to the Acropolis, so if the trip was going to turn around, this would surely be the moment.
Rocking up to the gate at a little before 8, we waited patiently towards the front of the short cue for the days opening knowing the coach loads of tourists with their selfi sticks and infuriating loitering would not be far behind. The gates opened and we made our way up the hill as quickly as possible to make the most of the peace and quiet; now my day, and my trip swiftly moved through 180° and I hit the zone.
The Acropolis is a genuine wonder of the world. I have visited a number of historic sites, and generally, I find them a little underwhelming after visiting the Bayon and Ta Prohm in Cambodia. This site, however, was a truly magnificent and full of greatness and splendor. The hands of time have been generous in leaving behind the gift of the Parthenon, whose sheer scale and size is something to behold.
As I was getting started with my lens I happened upon the chap I met that morning up the hill, and we had another chat where I asked if he wouldn't mind posing for a pic. Cheating a bit I know, but I felt it would make for a good shot to provide some scale, knowing full well another opportunity would not present itself once the hoard arrived.
The site is made up of various temples and amphitheater which make up the Acropolis and its slopes. We, of course, know the site very well for the towering Pathernon, the ancient home of democracy. Surrounding it are other grand temples and structures, most notably the temple dedicated to the goddess of Athena. The attention to detail in the carvings, combined with the incredible mass of heavy stonework boggles the mind.
Something I hadn't banked on when planning the day's itinerary was the ceremonial raising of the Greek flag half an hour after opening. As I was exploring the site, a small group of soldiers paraded through proudly following the neatly folded flag of their nation in the direction of the flag pole at the opposite end of the site. This proved a great photographic opportunity and their relatively slow pace gave me ample time to position myself to capture some great shots of the event. The bottom line here is, if you're going to do it (which you absolutely should), get there early. I absolutely promise you will not be disappointed.
Having made the most of the hilltop before the crowds arrived (see right) we took to the slopes where there are two amphitheaters located. The first, Odeon of Herodes Atticus appears more modern and complete than the latter Theatre of Dionysus which is more exposed and open to the public. I was hoping to get inside the first theatre and take some interesting detail shots, but unfortunately, this was not to be the case and I was forced to settle for shooting from above.
Having spent some time exploring the site and the surrounding area it was time to grab a coffee and think about the next move which was to be the hidden gem of Anafiotika Plaka. This residential area is built in a similar manner to the Greek Islands where cave-like buildings are stacked and squeezed in tightly together accessed by narrow alleyways. This was a wonderful experience, as parts of the area are very pretty and well maintained, but a short walk through finds an area that has been left to ruin and vandalized with some amazing street art.
With a leisurely early lunch on board from a cracking little restaurant sited off the beaten track, it was time to hit the streets for some street photography. Taking in areas such as Monastēraki and Ermou, it was nice to walk about and do a little people watching. Athens is the Greek capital, but it's hard to think of it as such when walking around the streets. It has much more of a homely feel; the people are nice, the food is great and the buildings are varied but fairly modest in stature. The relaxed feel to the city was most welcoming.
Most tourist destinations will see visitors constantly hounded and left feeling uncomfortable, but I just didn't get that feeling here. Yes, at times we were invited by restauranters to dine, but not with the pressures usually experienced where a 'no thanks' is brazenly ignored. The people are genuinely nice and friendly. As for safety, even walking around in the small hours, at no point did I have any sense of unease or discomfort, which for a city that has been through such difficult times, came as a very welcomed surprise.
Our wanderings led us to the Ancient Agora, which to be honest is a bit of an anti-climax after the Acropolis. The five-day ticket is accepted here, so, we thought we might as well make the most of it. A small temple, an old church, a handful of statues and a whole load of ancient broken stonework is scattered across a large open complex. For those with a deep interest in the ancient culture, there may well be some interest here, but photographically speaking it wasn't very exciting.
With what looked like an impending storm looming in the distance, we whizzed around and got clear before a potential soaking, which turned out to be a false alarm.
A quick beer then back to the apartment to rest weary legs and generally recharge, as it would not be long before Philopappos hill would be tackled again. An hour and a half gave us enough time to forget the 12 or so miles clocked during the day and ready to head out for another calf tearing climb. Something I should mention is that pretty much everywhere you go, there is a fairly steep incline involved. The main streets are fairly flat, but heading away from these you are faced with pretty serious climbs, that is before even thinking about climbing the hills which have very loose surfaces. Good footwear is recommended for these walks if you have intentions of more determined strolls.
We arrived at the rocky outreach with plenty of time before sunset, joining a young local couple and a single spectator perched solemnly awaiting the main event. I got set up and took some test shots as the area slowly filled up with more photographers all looking for the same view. As the shadows grew longer and the sunlight hue deepened, it was almost time for the winning shot; then, right on cue, the sun hit a cloud and cast a flat shadow over the scene. I had been shooting this entire time so probably had enough, but I couldn't help but feel unfulfilled.
As the setting sun was obscured by trees behind me, I was unable to tell if it was all over or not, so abandoned my tripod for a second to venture further across the rocks to get an update. As I did so a burst of light shone through for a few final moments, just as I was separated from my camera. Typical! I scrambled back across the rocks as quickly as possible without throwing myself, or my kit over the edge of the steep cliff and squeezed in a couple of shots before the day was done.
But it wasn't quite finished there. This was the last time I intended to climb the summit for sunset, so needed to capture the scene with the lights switched on to the Acropolis and add variety to my set. At around 8:45 the lights slowly began to warm up and I captured my final shot of the day, the Parthenon fully illuminated. Packing up to head down for a spot of dinner I turned back to see that the whole site had not been fully illuminated when I took my shot, and I had in fact only caught 3/4 of it in my haste. Balls.
Dinner was another recommendation of Trip Advisor, Dio Dekares i Oka which was a delightful little Greek restaurant with a homely feel to the food. The conversation turned to the next day, and with the weather looking cloudy in the morning, the decision was easily taken to bin off sunrise in favor of a lay in; there was, after all, one more morning to capture it with the forecast for the Thursday looking much better.
Wednesday, the second full day was far more casual than the last. With only a handful of items on the agenda, and having postponed the next sunrise it was a welcomed late rise, followed by a gentle stroll to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, well, what's left of it.
Despite the casual approach to the morning, it was not without challenge. Whilst trying to work the angles with the access available at the archeological site I was blessed from the sky. By blessed I mean defecated on by a passing bird which slammed all the way down my bare arm and onto my camera. We're stood in the middle of a field surrounded by nothing but a line of trees, some ancient columns and a lot of grass; not a tissue or wet wipe in sight! Thankfully, the operators of the site kindly provided some paper-based wiping material, and after some careful procession mopping of my camera, shooting resumed.
A short saunter through the National Park led us to Syntagma Square where it was time to stop for a bite to eat, having not had any real sustenance that morning. Time for a coffee and something tasty then, which happened to be a frightfully healthy mini pizza flatbread thing, with ham and cheese, tasting very much like a stuffed crust pizza. No complaints here, it was amazing!
A travel guide advised that the city was no stranger to civil unrest and should it happen to kick off this was it would go down due to the proximity of the main parliament building. Walking past a police outpost on the street with mirrored glass, I was reminded of this fact as it was riddled with bullet holes. Seeing the city go about its day in the reflection provided a stark contrast between harmony and the memory of unease and dissent.
After spending a few moments wandering the pretty bland and busy square, it was decided to shake up the schedule and visit the Panathenaic Stadium in case the weather did not work in our favor later that day as planned. This sudden change in course led me to my second surprise of the day, however, this was more pleasant than the former and didn't require an urgent mop-up.
I had seen images of the Evzones, or Greek Guards, but did not think much of hunting them out as it may have been too time-consuming. And here we were, passing by the stationed guards as they were about to change over in a highly choreographed performance. With over emphasized marching steps, and deliberate movements of their rifles they performed a ritual to a small gathering of lucky onlookers outside the Presidential Palace.
With the show over, it was time to hit the stadium, which is pretty spectacular. This site is not covered by the ticket purchased for the Acropolis and others, but only commands a meager fee of 5€ pp. Once inside I head straight for the top of the bowl and whipped out my 14mm to get as wide a view of the incredible site as possible. Over the course of around 30min, I snapped off several shots so as to eliminate as much of the unwanted visitors as possible. I was also seeking the right light so as to provide some contrast and depth to what would otherwise be a fairly flat scene.
And this was pretty much the day's highlights, after shooting the stadium there was a trot to the Hilton to capture the art installation that stands before it, which would have looked much better at night, but not enough to warrant the trip back there. There was also the trot further up to the concert hall which I had confused with another building in my research and really wasn't worth the journey.
So a quick hop onto the metro and back into the heart of the action at Monastiraki for a spot of lunch. By now it was late afternoon, and with some 30 miles clocked up over the last couple of days, we decided to take a meander in the direction of our apartment and chill out into the evening. Another dawn raid was in the offering according to the forecast, and this would be my last chance for the elusive sunrise.
Rising early filled with determination to capture a shot across the city illuminated by the early morning sun from Philopappos Hill, I hit the streets filled with hope. My legs, on the other hand, had their own agenda. Starting the climb I could feel the burn that had accumulated over the past few days and for a second thought of surrendering to the pain. Pardon my melodrama, I appreciate it's hard to imagine what this climb really means so allow me to provide some context. The hill summit is 120m high, and in 4 days I had climbed that hill 4 times which is the equivalent of scaling the Shard in London one and a half times!
The battle between my head and legs was over, and with gritted determination, I found myself alone at the rocky outcrop on the side of the hill, with a slightly cloudy, but otherwise clear sky. I was joined after a short while by a couple of young Canadian travelers who had scaled the hill to enjoy the moment also and shared a pleasant conversation about our collective travels and experiences. This served well to pass the time as I had once again got myself up there far too early for the breach.
The climb and wait were certainly worth it, and we were treated to an astonishing sunrise across the city. This was the best send off I could have asked for, as in a matter of hours we would be heading off to our next destination, Santorini.
Athens, a city I knew very little about and expected very little of completely blew me away. It's moderately cheaper than some places, but not exactly bargain prices, however, I have no qualms whatsoever paying an extra euro or two for a beer when surrounded by so much character and splendor.
At no point was security deemed to be a concern, the people are great and helpful and the food is great to excellent. I would definitely say there is something here for everyone, so if you want to surprise yourself, get on over here pronto.
Thank you Athens, I will treasure the memories you gave me. Maybe one day I will return.
Next up, Santorini. Hit the like button on my Facebook page for an instant update for the next leg of our Greek adventure!