She scribbled something on a piece of paper, trying to recall every non-touristy (and some touristy) things I could do in Athens. She kept returning with more nuggets of information that she could feed me with as soon as the captain switched the belt sign off. The flight to Athens was a bumpy one, but I had too much on my mind to be bothered with it. Is it going to be too cold? Will I get by in the city without the warm cocoon of my family? The closest would be my sister, some 2,500 km away, in Germany. Will there be too much walking (I loathe walking, let alone taking a leisurely stroll). But, something about that Greek stewardess’s earnest attempt at making me acquainted with her city assured me that this solo trip would just be fine.
Having tried my luck with solo trips before and experiencing the feeling of being stranded at an airport in a foreign land, I was smart to get my hotel to pick me up from Athens Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport. As I stepped out in open, the crisp Mediterranean air enveloped me. Every city in the world, I feel, is distinct the way its air feels. Bali is thick with anticipation. Durban is musical. Beijing is cold, cutting right across the soul. Kathmandu is chaos. Athens felt feather light, almost like clear glass. Pleasant. Ancient yet modern. As I zoomed past the coast that became a fuzzy
ball of different tones of blue that Pantone has ever created, I read and re-read the tiny note clenched in my palm: Monastiraki Square, Plaka and Anafiotika neighbourhoods, Mitropoleos Street...
There are two sides of Athens. First is where tourists flock, to check their bucket list. Where there are museums and ruins of ancient architecture—Acropolis of Athens, Acropolis Museum, Parthenon, Temple of Olympian Zeus— structures, more museums and more ruins. And then there is where modern Athenians hang out. The cafes that line the neighbourhoods and the street leading to Monastiraki Square and the famous flea markets of Athens, not only make a perfect backdrop for great photos, but also a hot spot for great conversations. For my five-day trip, I dedicated most of it exploring the nooks and corners of the city, bustling with students and young people. Although, I did take a tour of the ancient parts. I climbed the Acropolis, visited the museums, took a stroll in the neighbourhoods and stopped by the stadium and Marina Flizvou. I was careful not to invite the wrath of goddess Athena that blesses this land.
Much to my amusement, the highlight of my trip turned out to be the place that I was going to call my home, the hotel I was staying at, Electra Metropolis. Standing next to a prominent church, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens on the Mitropoleos Street, it is right at the centre of everything. To the left of the hotel, there are cafes and eateries. A 15 minute walk further down the road is the main street leading to the flea market and Monastiraki Square. To the right of the hotel were all the nightclubs, offering pure European vibe. Athens turns into a happening party at night, to say the least. With happy people and warm conversations. A little note to myself: I will go easy on the Greek wines next time though. They are smooth, heady, dry and you might not know when it finally hits you.
Newspapers might be reporting how Greece is struggling with economical troubles—the Greeks, much like us Indians, love to take a dig at the government for its nonperformance and unwillingness—but the number of Pradas, Chanels, Louis Vuittons, and Christian Louboutins I noticed everywhere painted a different picture. Athenians, I figured, love to live life to the fullest. Food, music, wine, conversations. They talk about their ancient culture and Greek mythology, but are not clutching it to their chest, slowing themselves down. And I must say, unlike most Europeans, Greeks are warm, may be because of the perfect Mediterranean weather they enjoy. Or could it be because of the deliciousness of smooth feta cheese?
There was something else that I noticed. Unlike most European hotels, the staff at Electra Metropolis were helpful and not hesitant to help me with my luggage. They took great interest in scribbling little footnotes on the map and filling me up with tips and tricks to cruise through Athens streets. The hotel’s USP lies in its location. Not just because it is where real Athens is, but also because the hotel overlooks the cityscape and the Acropolis. Waking up to that sight in my suit will be etched in my memory forever. No wonder, Metropolis Roof Garden rooftop restaurant on the 10th floor (open to non-resident guests too) was almost always packed. At night, as the Acropolis lit up turning into a romantic backdrop, the restaurant would fill with soft murmurs of lovelorn couples, even as intuitive staff would keep refilling their wine glasses.
Every night as I hit the bed back home, applying the serum made of donkey’s milk—do fill your shopping bags with olive oil skincare products, lip balms, lava soap from Santorini and Cleopatra’s favourite, donkey’s milk products retailed at the flea markets—I feel enriched with the memories of blue skies, vast coastline, perfect weather, crisp breeze, the aroma of freshly tossed Greek salads and a way of life enough to destress. I visited the cradle of ancient civilisation once and will carry it in my heart forever.