Take a closer look at Athens
There’s more to Athens than just classical antiquities, as a local guide can show you
In the 17th and 18th Centuries, wealthy young British men (and some women) undertook an educational rite of passage called the Grand Tour. Hiring a local expert – dubbed a ‘bear-leader’ – to unlock the secrets of each destination became standard, and the guided tour was launched. Today, following a guide is still the quickest and surest way to get a taste of local culture, to go ‘behind the scenes’ and to experience the city in a meaningful way.
While antiquities tours are the most popular excursions in Athens, local walking tours of neighbourhoods, often combined with an introduction to Greek food, are an attractive option. They offer a couple of hours of relaxation along with an introduction to new foods, a look at unfamiliar areas, and perhaps a chance to meet new friends.
Tours by Locals offers a typical ‘small group’ Athens Food and Wine tour that starts in Monastiraki square, takes in the flea market, stops for locally made pastries and a coffee and continues to the central food market. Food and wine tasting in a renowned delicatessen follows and sets you up for lunch. There’s also time for souvenir shopping, of course. This five-hour walking tour runs every day but Sunday (when the market is closed). Details at www.toursbylocals.com. For a one-on-one private food tour, check out Athens Walks Tour Company. Their customisable tour is suitable for vegetarians and their website is at www.athens-walks.com
If an evening outing would fit your schedule better, consider the alluringly titled ‘Athens Twilight Small Group Tour with Drinks and Meze Dishes’. This guided walking tour takes a small group to visit three bars and to hear live guitar folk music at a bouzoukia venue. You’re introduced to local spirits like ouzo and raki paired with meze (Greek finger food). ‘Rooftop views and secret gardens’ are promised on this three-and-a-half-hour tour. Dress is ‘smart casual’ and you’ll need a government-issued ID. Visit www.athensurbanadventures.com
And finally, make a note of George’s taxi tour. For a truly bespoke outing, this established Greek-American family business is in a class by itself. I used George’s taxi for a trip to Epidaurus, 160km from Athens in the Peloponnesian hills, where the physician-god Asklepios established his sanctuary in the 4th century BC. A fascinating small museum on the site includes steles detailing some 70 cures attributed to Asklepios and a testimonial from the Athenian woman, Ambrosia, whose sight was restored here. The guidebook available at the desk fills you in. Visit the adjacent theatre, which is still in use, and consider rounding out your excursion with a visit to Poseidon’s temple. For a tour quote contact www.taxigreece.com
BOOKS ABOUT ATHENS
The Rise of Athens: The Story of the World’s Greatest Civilization by Anthony Everitt.
The author says he asked himself: “How was it that this tiny community of 200,000 souls or so (in other words, no more populous than, say, York in England or Little Rock in Arkansas) managed to give birth to towering geniuses across the range of human endeavour and to create one of the greatest civilisations in history?”
His answer forms the basis of this highly readable book. Anthony Everitt is a British academic whose previous works are on Roman history. The Rise of Athens is available as a Kindle book, in hardback and paperback. Published by Random House, 2016.
Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens by Sofka Zinovieff.
The author, a journalist and anthropologist, accompanied her expatriate Greek husband on a posting back to Athens in 2001. As a student, she had fallen in love with Greece and on moving to Athens with her husband and young family she was enthusiastic about turning herself into an authentic Athenian. It wasn’t that easy. Her memoir is a lively and companionable blend of personal recollection and a depiction of Athens tavernas, theatre companies, demonstrations and preserved customs and traditions. In this fresh and funny record of that time, she writes of her discoveries of the effect of Athens’ past and how it haunts its present. Published by Granta Books; paperback New Ed edition. 2004
The Messenger from Athens by Anne Zouroudi.
This is the first in a series of eight detective novels featuring Hermes Diaktoros “the messenger from Athens”. He arrives to investigate the death of a young woman whose body has been found at the foot of a mountain. As the investigation proceeds (murder? suicide?) the characters who live in this island village reveal their true natures. A second mystery is Hermes Diaktoros himself. Who sent him and how could he know so much of the local domestic history? First published in 2007, this 2017 edition is a new “Author’s Cut”, revised and in parts rewritten for its tenth anniversary. Published by Kounelaki, 2018, available in paperback and Kindle editions.