For years Athens and the rest of Greece had been on our “bucket list.” Arriving at the Athens airport after our journey from the States it was a pleasant surprise to find Yionnis of Athens Welcome Pickups waiting for us. His English was perfect and on the way into the city he pointed out many of the sites to see, got us up to date on Greek history and on current events, plus giving us a map of the city he had marked up with all the things we should see and do. The NEW Hotel, our destination, was right in the center of the Plaka District, the “happening” part of the city, close to everything we wanted to see.
The hotel is small, 79 rooms, and very modern and hip – an art piece in itself. Two Brazilian brothers were put in charge of the design of this exciting project and their vision was to combine the old and the new. Juxtaposed against the clean lines of glass and mirrored walls of the rooms, was the creative collages using the wood pieces from the previous building. Hotel promo said that work by one of my favorite avant-garde artists, Laurie Anderson, was on display, but when we got there it had already been taken down although, there were other like artists shown in the main public spaces.
We had arrived rather late in the afternoon with time to bathe and rest after our travels, before dinner. Dinner was on the rooftop Art Lounge, under the stars, with a spectacular view of the Parthenon lit up like an ancient light show. The food was not only deliciously gourmet, but beautifully presented. Then, back to our cozy room for a well deserved night’s rest. With sound-proofed rooms, all possible noise was blocked and we could enjoy the luxury of a wonderful sleep on blissful bedding. The very modern, stylishly decorated room had one wall that was all window where we could look out upon an ancient Byzantine chapel below, surrounded by a very modern city.
Waking to the glow of the early morning sun filtering through the curtained window-wall was a joy as was standing on the balcony surveying this new-to-me city — ancient and, at the same time, very modern.
Breakfast buffet was an abundance of savory treats as well as the wonderful, fresh Greek coffee. There were eggs – whatever style you like — olives, cheeses, fresh fruits, thick and creamy yogurt and an enticing array of breads, rolls and croissants. Always, there is local honey. The Greeks know how to eat! The restaurant itself is a work of art with pillars sculpted of wooden found objects, very tastefully done. And, the wait people are so friendly. What an introduction to Greece and its people.
On to exploring the city of Athens. For us, the ancients and their art is a big pull, making the Museum of Cyclades Art our first stop. Housed in an old mansion, the building itself provided the perfect atmosphere for the extensive displays and walking from floor to floor revealed an extensive collection from these Aegean islands. Much of the figures displayed felt almost modern in their rendering, graceful in their simplicity and extremely sophisticated.
Sidewalk cafes abound, so a stop for a cold cappuccino is mandatory. I’m beginning to feel Greek already. Life is slower here, even with the hustle and bustle of the city. Coffee is a one-hour affair with talk and companionship as important as the drink. Slow down and be Greek could be a fitting slogan.
Later in the day, we visited the National Archaeological Museum which was so rich and interesting that we stayed until the very last minute before closing. Seeing the display of the amazing and lifelike figures that were carved out of the famous marble, much of which was quarried on the island of Paros, as beautiful today as when they were created, was exceptional. Although many were missing parts of limbs or facial features, the fact that they were so intact was a source of amazement and appreciation.
Dinner that night was an unexpected discovery. Although we actually had a restaurant chosen as our destination, we couldn’t find it. That’s one of the fun things about travel. When something doesn’t turn out as planned, it can become an opportunity to have a new experience. In finding our way to another of the many neighborhood squares, we approached a street where tables had been set up, with restaurants on both sides serving food outside. Choosing one at random, we were delightfully surprised with the quality of the food. We heard not only Greek, but other languages spoken around us and felt that we were part of a local scene which made us quite happy.
The next day’s feature was the Monastiraki Market with its large flea market. It stands on the same spot as the ancient Greek Agora (market), giving it the feeling of connection to the past. Everywhere you look you see signs of their glorious old civilization — ruins, walls, pillars. We stopped to admire Hadrian’s Library since the building was so well preserved and the restoration still taking place made it appear very much as it must have been during that Emperor’s time in history.
By the early evening, we were ready to go out once again and began by walking through the Plaka district. We had heard about it and somehow felt it might be a place specifically for tourists but…….it actually is the old part of Athens, located at the bottom of the Acropolis and very accessible to much of the hotel area. Yes, it’s been restored and has an array of quaint and interesting shops and places to eat, cafes and tavernas, but it’s still authentic and well worth a visit. This is where people lived thousands of years ago and still live today. There are also evidences of the Byzantine era as well as ancient Greece and, later, Roman influence.
By walking through Plaka and up it’s winding walking streets, we found ourselves at the approach to the new Acropolis Museum located next to the ancient Parthenon. We looked with awe at foundations that had been recently excavated, showing clearly the layout of some of the buildings that had been part of the ancient Greek Acropolis. This area is still in the state of reconstruction and we found ourselves looking down below the level we were standing on to the remains of buildings from thousands of years ago.
Once inside, we saw immediately that we were in a world-class museum. Here, life-sized carvings were stunningly displayed. Some of them were two to three times life sized and one could only look in awe and wonder what amazing talent and dedication and time it must have taken to have created them in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries B.C., at the height of Greek culture. Everywhere there is evidence of how this culture admired the human body and their reverence for creating enduring art.
Although each display was inspiring and stirring, the reproduction of the walls of the Parthenon, was the most powerful. On all four sides, were scenes depicting their lives and their mythology. Only in certain parts of these dimensional murals, were there areas that were bare. They weren’t originally but were taken during the early part of the 19th century by the Earl of Elgin who actually had them removed and shipped back to London to reside in his personal collection before donating it to the archaeology museum in London. If they are ever returned to Greece, they will find their place waiting at the Acropolis Museum.
A stay at the New Hotel promises luxurious comfort, an artistic environment, and wonderful food. In addition to all of that, its location makes many places of interest both easy to find and within reach.