After two weeks in Istanbul, completing a month in the country of Turkey, Jesse and I had a short five day stopover in Athens, Greece, before we headed for our next long-term country stay, a month in Albania. We had always wanted to see Athens, and it did not disappoint. Although quite hot (we were asked by many a shopkeeper, taxi driver and waiter if we were visiting the islands, we assumed because who would want to spend multiple days in hot and humid Athens when one could visit the popular islands of Mykonos or Santorini, but we wanted to explore the city.
It was also welcome to have an apartment with a kitchen and living room; because we stayed in one room hotels during our stay in Turkey, and that is not a lot of space to operate in. We arrived via plane from Istanbul (and I have to give a shout-out to Turkish Airways; both flights we flew on them were excellent; we received a full breakfast on this flight, could bring on two carry-ons and check a bag; the planes were clean and had an entertainment screen, all for our one hour flight).
We arrived early, and down the street from our apartment rental was a traditional Greek restaurant, where we ate Greek salad with a whole block of feta cheese on top, which was so fresh and good; along with Moussaka (the Greek casserole) and piglet cooked on the spit; it was wonderful to eat good pork again. We called it an early night, excited to wake up the next day, when we had scheduled a Greek Food tour with a local guide.
We have done a couple tours while traveling around Europe this year, and this one may have been my favorite. Led by Julie, a native Athenian and her husband, we were joined by a recently retired couple from Pennsylvania and two twenty-somethings (one New Yorker, one Bahamanian) who met in Germany during study abroad while in college. We met at a pastry shop, ate a few bites of a local pastry, met everyone/introduced ourselves, and we were off, down the narrow streets.
Julia first told us about the different Greek spices while we passed by multiple spice shops; then it was a walk past the meat markets. We stopped at a olive market and sampled at least a dozen different, tasty, olives from all over Greece.
We had single bites (well, really, it was two bites) of ground lamb meatball, a mustard sauce, tomato, and onion in a small pita; as is tradition, Julia fed me and the other man on our tour, because, as men, we couldn’t do it for ourselves, as her grandmother would say. Julia’s grandfather owned a meat store in the indoor meat market; she pointed out all the different meats available; from full rabbits and chickens, to sheep’s heads, hearts, livers, even cows testicles; all are available to purchase (and cook), nothing is wasted.
After that we occupied the back room of a local restaurant, where Julia made Tzatziki sauce right in front of us, and we paired it with crusty bread, sliced Greek meats, including basterma, which was brought by Armenian immigrants to Greece and is a cured meat but looks very interesting until it is sliced. It is dark red and hard, like it could be used as a weapon.
She also told us the history of Feta cheese, and we ate some of that along with our meats, breads and tzatziki sauce; while also trying the local red and white wines. After that we were off again, with Julia telling us stories of her childhood, as we walked through the neighborhood she grew up on.
Our next stop was a tasting at Polykala’s distillery, run by Rena, who is the fourth generation and the distillery is 125 years old. They make liqueurs from all kinds of fruits, flowers, and herbs; there are ones that taste like peppermint, cinnamon, sage, rose, and so many other tasty flavors we sampled. Jesse and I even picked up a bottle of lemon to be enjoyed later.
Our last stop, now that we were all talking (the wine and liqueurs helped with that for sure) and having a nice time as a group, was at a local eatery. We were treated to a wide variety of mezes, or appetizer plates. The proprietor was from a small Greek island, and he brought many of his personal favorites with him. Julia said he went to the market that morning, bought what was in season and fresh, and that is what he served that day. My favorite, surprisingly, was the tomatoes and seaweed. Julia had to run to her next tour but we all stayed and talked, and even toasted with shots of Tsipouro, a Greek spirit made from pomace. It was my favorite tour yet!
The next day we woke up early, our first stop was a walk through the National Gardens (dating back to 1839), which were peaceful and shaded, a good thing on another sunny and hot day in Athens.
Our destination was the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation Art Museum. It is situated in a nondescript building next to a very yellow and ornate Orthodox Church.
The Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation Art Museum is situated on four floors, and celebrates the collection of its namesakes. They collected a variety of art, and there are some very famous artists here. Greek artists as well as contemporary art were found on the third and fourth floors, and the museum provided an audio guide, which was quite helpful, included in the ticket price. Here are my favorites:
On the lower floors, there are sculptures from Rodin, paintings from Picasso, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Kandinsky, Gauguin, Pollack, Monet, Klee, Miro and other masters. It is a truly impressive collection.
For lovers of fine arts, this museum is not to be missed. My favorite part though, was the furniture room. The owners had collected many fine pieces designed in the Louis XV style. The faces found in so much of the designs show such emotion, yet we did not always notice them at first.
We drank coffees in the museum cafe, which was quite nice, before heading back out into the Athens summer heat. We had another museum trip in mind, this time going back a little farther in the past, like 5,000 years. But before that, we saw the Harry S. Truman statue close-by on the map, and had to go visit it, since Jesse is a native Missourian and I am one by proxy.
Now Back on our way to the Museum of Cycladic Art; the Cyclades are an island group in the Aegean Sea, southeast of mainland Greece, and the some of the artifacts the have date back to 3,000 BC! The museum is interesting in that it is located in two buildings, one which has a unique history of its own, and is the entrance we entered through.
The building is known as the The Stathatos Mansion, and was built in 1895 on designs by Ernst Ziller as the residence and offices of shipowner and coal merchant Othon Stathatos. In more recent times it has been used as an embassy for two different countries and was used as the offices for the 1996 Greek Olympic Games bid (which they did not get). It is now used for temporary exhibitions, and while that exhibit was fine, what was more impressive was the room designs and the fireplaces.
Through an atrium and a couple hallways was the entrance to the main museum building; it is organized on four floors and is very well done. There are so many pieces and they have translations in English; one should visit every floor. Here are some of the more memorable pieces I saw:
We were hungry after our two museum visits, so now it was Gyros time. We found an eatery that specialized in Gyros, ordered two and a big plate of fries to share, topped with Oregano and Tzatziki sauce for dipping. It is true, a Gyros in Greece tastes better than a Gyros anywhere; though Gyros in the US are remarkably similar, they are not the same.
Now energized, we found one more small gallery, which is also an event space, that has a really nice cafe (all the museums and galleries we visited had really nice cafes, and cafe/coffee culture is a big part of Athens, as there are coffee shops absolutely everywhere), called the B. & M. Theocharakis Foundation for the Fine Arts & Music. They had temporary exhibitions, a friendly staff, and we were lucky enough to get to learn of the Greek surrealist painter Nikos Eggonopoulos. They had a two floor exhibition, and we have another favorite artist. The brightness of the colors, and the amount of his paintings on display, was awesome.
Here are just a few of my favorites from the gallery:
After all our museums in the day, we were exhausted, so we returned to the apartment and relaxed the rest of the evening. Stay tuned for the rest of our trip to Athens, including, of course, a trip to the Acropolis!