You might be forgiven to think Athens doesn’t measure up to your expectations, but only if you haven’t made an effort to get to know it – just to because from where you stand all buildings seem like ugly, greyish concrete boxes, the traffic noise is deafening, the air as polluted as it gets and the heat is debilitating, it doesn’t mean this is all there is to it. So, if you decide to leave for the islands as fast as you can, it’s your loss.
True, Athens is largely devoid of medieval, renaissance and baroque buildings, because it was at best a village in the midst of scattered antique remains when it was made the capital of modern Greece in the 19th century. This means you have a whole lot of splendid monuments from the 4th century BC to about the 1st century AD to visit, and then you have to fast-forward in time. The sumptuous houses of the merchants, liberation heroes and early politicians of the new Greek state are also largely decrepit or torn down today, as they got overrun by a city developing megalomania and attracting everybody that could make the move from rural hard work to urban life. This means ancient monuments and modernity is what you’ll have to settle for – if you’re not a history sleuth, which might make your stay a whole lot more fun, of course.
You could go on a tour of small byzantine churches, for instance. They sit like comfortable old aunts in the middle of modern squares, or tucked away behind large buildings, refusing to go away. Some of them started out as country churches and are now surrounded by swirling traffic, shops and endless streams of Athenians and tourists. Take a few steps down to the medieval street level and pass into a cool gloom smelling of incense. Try to make out the red and golden icons, the carved screen in front of the holiest part of the church and the votive offering plaquettes brought by people hoping for a cure, a baby or even a car. All you need is a map and you can visit churches with hard-to-pronounce names like Kapnikarea, Ayi Apostoli, Ayios Ioannis Theologos or Panayia Chryssocastriotissa. The last two are placed on the slopes up to the Acropolis, in the city areas called Plaka and Anafiotika. This is a tourist magnet these days, but the shops, cafés and restaurants are actually inside buildings that are among the oldest in post-antique Athens. Some are stylish neoclassical houses while others are not as grand – instead they are charming and built in the island style by new arrivals (the ones from island of Anafi built Anafiotika), and you are guaranteed to get a feel for traditional architecture.
All this might whet your appetite for things byzantine, and luckily there is a byzantine museum to help you out. Study as many icons as you wish (there are about 3.500), look at collections of religious sculpture, church vestments and lovely glazed byzantine pottery – and don’t forget to look at the building from 1848 itself. Here, finally, you find a building that would not be out of place in Italy, but then it was of course the winter residence of an Italian duchess…
There is much to be said for cool, airy museum halls on a stifling hot summer’s day, especially in a museum most of the city’s visitors never find. You could visit a few other museums that offer the same kind of environment, for instance the Benaki Museum with lots and lots of traditional embroideries from all over Greece or the National Historical Museum, housed in the palace of the first Greek King, Othon I. As palaces go, this is a very minor one, more like a nice mansion, but it is stuffed with historical memorabilia and lots of water colors depicting the great heroes of the Greek War of Independence, involved in battles and other heroic pursuits. One of them is a female sea captain falling wounded and dying into the arms of her men – there were actually several female captains fighting on the Greek side.
Before taking on the Acropolis and the other “really antique” remains, you might end your history sleuthing up on the pinnacle of Mount Lycabettos, where you get by a funicular railway from the fashionable Kolonaki district. To be sure, there is a 19th century chapel on top - but what you come for is the astounding view, giving you lots of new ideas about where to go and what to explore. You might even spot a missed byzantine church or a splendid seafarer’s mansion through the binoculars, but then again you might be content with a Greek coffee and fantasizing about the wolves that are said to have haunted this place in extremely ancient times.