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Capital city of the Greeks and home to over 3,000,000 Athenians (almost a third of the total population of the country), Athens is the natural starting-point of any visit to Greece. So, what of this place, blessed with fine weather and an incomparable collection of historic and cultural monuments, and cursed by uncontrolled expansion and crazy traffic? What makes it so great? A little legend...
Dominating the Athenian plain is a great 500 foot-high limestone plateau known as the Acropolis. The first Athenians settled here on its steep-sided slopes long ago in the mists of mythological time. They were led by a king named Cecrops, half man, half serpent, and spawned by the earth.
Above all, the people worshipped two deities: Athena, goddess of wisdom and victory, and Poseidon, god of the sea. A bitter rivalry sprang up between them for the affection of the people, and they held a contest to see who was the greater. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, and where he struck emerged a galloping horse and a gushing spring of clear water, a great boon to the inhabitants of the hot, dry, dusty plain. (The spring is still there; it's called the Klepsydra.) Athena then struck the ground with her staff, and suddenly an olive tree began to grow. Look around you, wherever you are in Greece; sit down at a Greek restaurant. You cannot avoid olives in Greece. You know who the people chose. In honor of Athena they named their city Athens and built a magnificent temple to their new patroness in the center of the Acropolis. (To appease Poseidon, they built him a splendid temple too, on the southern tip of the Attic Peninsula, at Cape Sounion.) Athens was born.
Fast forward to the 5th century BC, 2,500 years ago when Ancient Greek mythology gives way to Ancient Greek history. The rule of law and the extraordinary achievement of democracy have already been established. The first temple to Athena on the Acropolis has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. Huge defensive walls have been constructed to safeguard the most important city-state in the Greek Confederation. But they soon prove inadequate against the might of the great Persian armies. In 479 BC the "Barbarian hordes" reach Athens and burn the city to a cinder. Athens must be reborn, a new city must be created from the rubble. The man to do it was the orator and politician Pericles. He set in motion one of the most splendid flowerings of human achievement in history. In architecture, in sculpture, in politics, math and literature, this was the Athenian Golden Age. It changed the western world.
You gotta wear shades Athens tends to have fairly cool winters with temperatures hovering around 55 to 60F. Summers are stiflingly hot, varying between 85 and 100F. The best times to visit are late April to mid-June and mid-September to November. Some typical temperatures:
March Temperature 46F to 60F
Humidity 54 to 71%
April Temperature 52F to 67F
Humidity 48 to 65%
May Temperature 60F to 77F
Humidity 47 to 60%
June Temperature 67F to 85F
Humidity 39 to 50%
July Temperature 72F to 90F
Humidity 34 to 47%
Synchronize your watches Local time is 7 hours ahead of E.S.T. If it's 3:00PM in New York City, it's 10:00PM in Athens. Greece changes to and from Daylight Savings Time a few weeks before the U.S., so time differences will vary in March and October.
Money, money, money The Greek unit of currency is the Drachma. As ever, there is no better way than to use your ATM card to withdraw money whenever you need it. Alternatively, if you're arriving in Athens by air and you need to change cash or traveler's checks, you can make a stop at the office of the National Bank of Greece which is open for all flight arrivals. All cruise ships and passenger ferries also have change facilities on board. While in Athens if you find it necessary to buy more Greek currency your best bet is a visit to the main office of the National Bank of Greece in the northeast corner of Sintagma, the city's main square. This bank operates around the clock and trims bureaucracy to a minimum so that, even though every tourist in the city will be there, you will be in and out in a relatively short amount of time. In addition, inside this bank is an agency of the National Tourist Board where you can obtain maps, pamphlets, theater information and the like. As always you can expect a slightly higher rate of exchange for traveler's checks and you should always keep your passport handy. Many shops and restaurants, especially touristic ones, will accept American currency or checks as payment but be advised that you will almost certainly be getting a much worse rate than you would from a bank. Bank opening hours are 8:00am to 2:00pm Monday through Thursday, closing at 1:30pm on Fridays.
Service with a smile The custom of tipping is not as precisely regulated in Greece as in America although it is customary to offer some gratuity for a service well done. More often than not, however, you will be presented with a bill which includes a set service charge. If this is the case it will be in the neighborhood of l0-l5% and the words "SERVICE INCLUDED" will appear somewhere on the bill. If you would like to leave a little extra for the waiter, since he probably won't see very much of that service charge, you might round up to the nearest 100 drachmas and leave that on the plate upon which the bill has been presented. You should leave a little something for the busboy, maybe 50 or 100 drachmas. You are generally expected to tip a taxi driver about 100 drachmas. There is one little service charge in Greece which may cause you a bit of surprise. When you enter a restroom in a public place you will often be greeted by an attendant who is invariably an elderly black-clad woman. She maintains the facilities and bestows toilet paper and should accordingly be rewarded with a small tip of about 50 drachmas.
My feet are killing me The city of Athens claims to have more vehicles than inhabitants—so many, in fact, that recently laws were passed permitting car travel only on alternate days. The way this works is that cars with license plates ending in odd numbers are permitted in the city center on the 1st, 3rd, 5th of the month etc., and cars with license plates ending in even numbers are permitted only on the 2nd, 4th, 6th etc. (This move was intended to reduce Athens' terrible pollution, and it has definitely helped.) This situation combined with a labyrinthine maze of minuscule streets which pour haphazardly in and out of enormous thoroughfares make getting around in Athens no easy game. There is a solution though—and that is to walk whenever possible. The major sights of the city are concentrated in a relatively small area which makes distances manageable and there is, after all, no better way to get a feel for a place than on foot. If you are not convinced or find yourself in a pinch, here is a look at the alternatives:
1) On the Buses: Athenian buses don't tend to be brand spanking new. They are cheap. They are normally very, very crowded. The signs are written only in the Greek alphabet which, unless you were a whizz at geometry or belong to a fraternity, makes them quite indecipherable. Anyway, if you're determined to try one out, your best bet is the #13 which runs from Omonia Square down Patission to the Minion Department Store and the National Archaeological Museum, then heads toward Sintagma Square making stops near Parliament House and the National Garden which give you easy access to Hadrian's Arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus and put you within ten minutes walk of the Acropolis. The buses run until very late and tickets are purchased directly on board. Good luck.
2) Big Yellow Taxi: Taxis in Athens are amazingly inexpensive and, providing you can find one free, are the most convenient way of getting around. All taxis display an illuminated taxi sign on top when free. They are flagged down along the street. Don't be surprised if, once you have finally got one, your driver will stop and pick up other people along the way. Your best bet to find a taxi is outside of major squares and traffic hubs. For example, if you are in Sintagma, walk down Amalias or Stadiou - you won't be the only one with that idea, but at least you won't be fighting against the odds. Once inside, tell the driver your destination and then SHOW him on your map: this avoids unnecessary tours caused by your faulty pronunciation or a provincial driver's poor familiarity with the city. Make sure the meter is on and if you are sharing the taxi, ascertain that you won't end up paying the whole amount. Don't forget to leave a small tip.
3) Going Underground: The Athens electric train service connects the center of the city with the exclusive suburb of Kifissia and the harbor of Peiraeus making stops at Viktorias (near the National Archaeological Museum), Omonia and Monastiraki, in the heart of the flea market and close to the Agora, along the way. Tickets are purchased from vendors or automats in the station. Signs are written in both Greek and Latin alphabet and stations are identified with signs on which the letter M appears. Trains run about every ten minutes until midnight. At the moment, the Athens Metro is cheap, efficient and safe but of limited use because of having just the one line. There is currently a huge project underway to enlarge the Metro with the addition of two new lines, making for easy access throughout the city center. It is scheduled for completion at the end of 2000.
Weather is lovely, wish you were here Most places which sell postcards, such as the street kiosks, also sell stamps but will not always be happy about doling out more of the latter than the former so as a rule of thumb always try to obtain them in pairs. Vendors are up-to-date on postal rates so you can trust their advice. Hotels also often have stamps available or at least a postage machine. Should a trip to the post office be necessary, you will find one in each of the city's major squares, Sintagma and Omonia, as well as the main office in Kotzia Square which has extended opening hours and is just a few minutes from Omonia.
Reach out and touch someone As always in Europe, the golden rule is never call home from a hotel room. The charges can break your heart. Public telephones take cards which you can buy in kiosks, allowing you to know exactly how much money you are spending. The best rates of all are to be found at the big OTE telephone center on Stadiou or by the subway entrance at Omonia Square (open 7:00am to 10:00pm). You pay cash here at the end of the call.
The access code to put you through to an ATT operator from Greece is 00-800-1311. For MCI it is 00-800-1211.
Home, sweet home The address of the American Embassy in Athens is
91 Vassilissis Sofias
Tel. 721 29 51
If you can ever figure out the erratic shopping hours system you are likely to find Athens a shopper's paradise. Although schedules change according to the season, you can generally count on shops being open from 8:30am to 3:00pm Monday through Saturday, with extended opening hours in the evening (from 5:30pm to 8:30pm) on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Shops are closed on Sundays. The afternoon siesta is taken very seriously and even a phone call to a friend during that time is considered a serious breach of good manners. Nevertheless many souvenir and craft shops which cater to the tourist market, particularly those in the Plaka district, are open uninterruptedly from 8:00am to 8:00pm and sometimes even later. The most popular and best buys are native handicraft items like colorful blankets and rugs, the famous tagaria (those enormous woven cloth bags with classically-inspired designs that every visitor to Greece seems to be carrying), komboloi or worry beads, backgammon boards and leather sandals.
When you're in the market for an icon or a wrench The words 'all and sundry' take on new meaning after a visit to Athens' sprawling flea market centered around Monastiraki. You can find anything in the stalls which cram the square and, in the shade of a derelict mosque, extend down Ermou and Mitropoleos. The market is open from 8:00am to 8:00pm every day but Sunday when things wrap up around 3:00pm. Shopping here can be combined with a visit to the adjacent Agora. From Omonia, it's one stop on the Metro and it's walking distance to Sintagma. Keep a close watch on personal belongings and remember that nothing is a bargain unless you bargain.
That should be in a museum The original probably is, but that doesn't mean you can't have one too. In fact, among the country's most popular souvenir items are copies of vases, amphorae and statuary meticulously reproduced and available, needless to say, at a mere fraction of the price of the original. These pieces make wonderful gifts and are actually best-priced at shops within the museums but can be found in any tourist shop. There is a very large concentration of this sort of store in the Plaka and Monastiraki, and they have very convenient hours, rarely shutting for siesta and often open late into the evening. In this sort of store it's not unheard of to do a bit of haggling and, if you're a purist, when buying copies, check for a lead seal and identification on the bottom.
Not exactly Macy's, but close That's Minion, the largest department store in Athens where you can effortlessly stock up on European- and American-brand toiletries, replace a worn-out pair of walking shoes or even do your souvenir shopping. In this store's mammoth ground floor souvenir department, you're free to browse and many clerks speak English, so, particularly if you are rushed, this is the place for one-stop shopping. If you are in the market for relatively expensive things like the famous cobalt porcelain embellished with classical motifs, Minion's reputation for high quality can be quite reassuring. And if that evening in the taverna has made you a fan of bouzouki, you will even find a great selection of records on the top floor. Minion is open all day and is located across the street from the National Archaeological Museum in Patission Street just a few minutes walk from Omonia Square.
Going for gold Greece is famous for its low prices (at least by European standards) and when the commodity is measured in carats, it's almost sinful to pass up such an opportunity so don't waste time. Hop in a cab to Venizelou Street in central Athens where the city's gold merchants hold court. There you will find internationally known names and exquisitely designed gold jewelry often inspired by antique pieces. Even if you don't have an Onassis budget you can still find charms, filigree earrings and delicate rings at affordable prices.
Puttin' on the Ritz, Athens-style No decent world capital should be without a branch of Gucci and Athens isn't. In fact, all around sophisticated Kolonaki Square in the city's poshest neighborhood, there are plenty of names you will recognize from the pages of Vogue. The Italians are represented with the likes of Valentino, Trussardi and Fendi while Charles Jourdain, Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint-Laurent carry the tricolor for the French. And amid the expensive boutiques are elegant sidewalk cafes and trendy bistros where Athens' beau monde congregates. If you are in the market for such things, prices are substantially lower than in other European countries. Otherwise, a visit to Kolonaki is pleasant just for the atmosphere. Kolonaki is just a few minutes walk from Sintagma east along Vassilissis Sophias and a stop there can be combined with visits to the Byzantine Museum, the Benaki Museum or Mount Likavitos, all of which are nearby.
Treasures of the Acropolis The great enduring symbol of Athens and the number one attraction by far is the temple known as the Parthenon, dominating the city from the top of the granite outcrop known as the Acropolis. As you reach the top of the Acropolis through the ancient gates called the Propylaea, you look straight to the Parthenon, the centerpiece of Pericles' great vision. This was the new temple to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, whose earlier temple had recently been desecrated by the Persians. It is recognized as one of the world's greatest buildings. It has survived over 2,400 years; it has been pillaged, bombed and ravaged by pollution. It has served in its day as a temple, a church, a mosque and an arsenal. But it still stands, testament to the genius of 5th-century Greece, as perhaps the defining moment in the birth of western civilization. It is by no means the only thing of interest on the Acropolis: along with the Parthenon, the Propylaea itself, the charming little Temple of Athena Nike and the splendid shrine of the Erectheion are the undoubted highlights of this unparalleled ensemble passed down from antiquity.
A view from the top One of your top priorities during your time in Athens should be a trip to the summit of Mount Likavitos (or Lycabettus) from where you'll have a magnificent view of the city below clothed in an oniric haze which, apart from its romantic semblance, is actually a noxious cloud of smog and fumes which is destroying the marble surface of many of the city's architectural treasures. Athens is situated in a valley between the Acropolis Hill and this yellow limestone mound which, at more than 900 ft, is three times higher than its more famous counterpart and is majestically crowned with a tiny white chapel dedicated to Saint George, the patron saint of Greece. Mount Likavitos is adjacent to the elegant neighborhood of Kolonaki and quite near Vassilissis Sofias. In fact, take Ploutarchou Street from this major thoroughfare straight up to the base of the hill where you can then pick up the funicular which runs to the top. The cost is cheap and departures are very frequent. At the top, aside from the best orientation lesson you could have and a panorama stretching across the plains of Attica, there is a nice bar/restaurant and a couple of souvenir shops.
A precious jewel of Byzantium Although the Greek Orthodox church is presided over by the Patriach of Antioch who has his seat at Istanbul, since l864 Athens has been the seat of the Metropolitan Archbishop of Greece and the Cathedral is a fascinating hodgepodge of Byzantine religious architecture: materials taken from seventy-two different churches destroyed by the Muslims were used in its construction. Once the royal church of the Greek monarchs, the Cathedral houses the tomb of Patriarch Gregory, a martyr to the cause of Greek Independence who was garroted in Istanbul in l82l when news arrived there of uprisings in Greece. The Cathedral is located midway between Monastiraki and Sintagma along Mitropoleos. Nearby is another magnificent example of Byzantine style which has been incorporated into the facade of a modern office building. Because of the thievery of icons and the holiness of these places, entrance is not made easy for the casual sightseer. These churches are usually locked but can be visited until sunset. All you have to do is ring the bell.
Where it all began The tradition of the modern Olympic Games began in l896 when the very first competitions were held in the Olympic Stadium on the flank of the Ardittos Hill. This massive structure in Pentelic marble can hold 70,000 spectators and dates originally from 330 BC when it was the home of the great athletics festival called the Panathenaic Games. It was rebuilt once by the Roman benefactor Herod Atticus in 140 AD and again, according to the original plans, in l894. It's an impressive structure in any case, but if you are a dedicated Olympics fan, you'll definitely want to have a look around, especially since the Olympics are returning to Athens at last in 2006. The Stadium is easily accessible from central Athens: from Sintagma, take a pleasant walk through the National Gardens to the south-east corner.
Far from the madding crowd You will still hear the incessant honking of horns and the constant traffic from the major thoroughfares all around you but inside the National Gardens you might at least pretend for a few minutes that you are on some lush tropical island. Oleanders, azaleas and hibiscus sweeten the air and shady paths crisscross dainty flower-beds in this oasis of tranquility at the heart of Athens. The main entrance is along Leoforos Amalias quite near Sintagma and while inside have a look at the brightly-colored Zappeion, built in resolutely classical style. This exhibition hall might seem a bit garish to modern tastes but is true to ancient models which were similarly painted.
Hanging out, ancient-style As the Forum was to Ancient Rome, the Agora was to Ancient Greece. Enormous slabs of black stone pave the wending road upon which the Pan-Athenaic procession once passed as it moved toward the Acropolis from this ancient hub of commercial and cultural life. In fact, if the Acropolis held the spirit of the antique city, here in the Agora was its heart. This is where the Athenians came to shop, to do business and to pass the time. Where now there is little but rubble at one time stood libraries, temples and arcades of shops. The impressive Stoa of Attalus which stands at the eastern edge of the market-place has been completely restored, thanks to the efforts of the American School of Classical Studies and the generosity of the Rockefellers. The original structure had been built in the second century BC by Attalus, the king of Pergamon, and the cream of status-conscious Athens once strolled beneath the two superimposed colonnades of l34 Doric and Ionic columns, perhaps stopping occasionally to admire the expensive goods from every corner of the Mediterranean which crammed the luxury shops or to have a sandal fixed by the cobbler who could boast Socrates as a satisfied customer. The passage of time, however, brought death and decay to the Stoa until a few decades ago when 360 houses were razed, 5000 people relocated and a full-scale reconstruction begun. Now (l.5 million dollars later) the marble of the Stoa might spank just a little too bright and shiny for purists but scholars have a magnificent slice of Athenian life recreated and visitors to Athens can see all the artworks and artifacts found in the Agora in the museum housed within. The Agora is a short walk from the Acropolis and a day of antiquity might be rounded out with a visit here. And be sure not to miss the Doric temple which so majestically stands on the knoll at the other side of the Agora. This is the Theseion, a masterpiece from the 5th century BC used in later centuries as a church and thus saved from the decay and neglect which was often the lot of similar structures. The last service to take place here was a celebratory Mass marking the arrival of the country's first king, Otto, in l834. From then until the opening of the National Archaeological Museum in l889, it was a museum; now, it is considered the best-preserved ancient building in the country.
Not exactly Buckingham Palace Fronting onto the newly-redesigned Sintagma Square is an impressive neo-classical structure which once served as the residence of the sovereigns of Greece. Since l933 it has housed the Parliament and in the center of the main facade is a memorial Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at which two guards keep a constant vigil. These young men, called Evzones, are members of the Honor Corps and wear a traditional uniform, dating from the days of war with the Turks, which includes a pleated white kilt, heavy clogs with red pom-poms and a floppy, tassled hat. If you happen to be in Athens on a Sunday, you can witness the ceremonial Changing of the Guard which takes place at 11:00am. Otherwise, stop by anytime for a classic snapshot.
One more for the road Even the greatest lover of Classical Civilization can be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the sights of Athens but, having seen the Acropolis and the Agora, there is one more archaeological site you should not miss. About five minutes walk from Sintagma, along Leoforos Amalias you will encounter one row of fifteen Corinthian columns and one graceful archway amid a heap of toppled masonry. These are, respectively, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest temple of Ancient Greece begun in the sixth century BC and completed under Hadrian during the Roman domination, and Hadrian's Arch, erected by the Athenians to demonstrate their homage to this benevolent emperor.
After the Acropolis, where next? The answer is simple. Go to the National Archaeological Museum, undoubtedly one of the finest in the world, housing thousands of exhibits spanning more than a millennium of artistic activity throughout the Aegean and the Balkan Peninsula.
Whatever you do, don't miss the magnificent Deathmask of Agamemnon (room 4) unearthed by the maverick German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in digs which brought to light the ancient Homeric city of Mycenae. From the time he was a small child, Schliemann lived with the desire to find the forgotten world of Homer's Iliad. His dream finally came true and the enormous booty he discovered is now a living testament of his achievement. He excavated six unlooted graves and found the bodies of 19 people, a collection of bronze swords and about 30 pounds of gold objects. Most of these objects are here in the Archaeological Museum in Athens. The greatest of all the treasures is the famous so-called 'Death Mask of Agamemnon.' It was found covering the face of a skeleton in one of the shaft graves. Schliemann was convinced that he'd found the man he was looking for. It is clear nowadays that this was not in fact Agamemnon. It dates back to the 16th century BC, at least 600 or 700 years before the Trojan War. If the truth of the discovery is not so romantic as Schliemann hoped, the story behind it still is, and the mask itself is astonishingly powerful, even awe-inspiring, and all the more remarkable for its venerable age, over 3,500 years old.
Perhaps the single most impressive piece is a larger-than-life bronze statue, the Poseidon of Artemision (room 15). His eyes, now missing from their sockets, would have been made of ivory. In his right hand he held a trident. The figure is over life-size, proud, powerful, dominating and consummately noble. When this extraordinary statue was first discovered, salvaged from the sea off Cape Artemision in Northern Euboea in the 1930's, it was immediately identified as Zeus. Only the king of the gods could possibly merit a statue as majestic as this. Nowadays it's generally considered to represent Poseidon, god of the sea. Some say that it dates from around 450 BC; others that it was made even earlier as an offering to the local sanctuary of Poseidon in 479 BC.
Next on the list of the museum's masterpieces are the Santorini/Thera Frescoes (room 48, 1st floor). (Thera and Santorini are alternative names for the same island.) Discovered in the 1970's on Santorini, these frescoes depict life on the island in the 16th century BC (that's over 3,500 years ago!). The fresh brightness of the colors is amazing, not in the least faded or changed by time. Times haven't changed much either. The scenes represented are as real today as they were then. There are pictures of two boys fighting, of a fisherman showing off the day's catch, of young women chatting, some of the local wildlife and so on. Some parts of the frescoes have been reconstructed.
The museum is housed in an impressive neo-classical building dating from the reign of the first king of united Greece, Bavarian-born Otto I, who ascended the throne in l833. Summer hours are 8:00am to 6:00pm, Tuesday through Saturday and l0:00am to 6:00pm on Sundays and holidays. The museum is closed on Mondays. Fronting on Patission Avenue, the museum is easily reached on foot from Omonia Square and is convenient to Athens' largest department store.
The best of the rest:
The Acropolis Museum: Until a few years ago, the undisputed stars of the show were a beautiful set of 2,500 year old maidens with enigmatic expressions and dubious smiles known as the korai - nowadays they must take second billing to an even more famous team—the Caryatids who, due to the damage being caused to the Acropolis marbles by noxious fumes from Athens' more than three million cars, have had to surrender their positions outside. For centuries, they stood guard around the Erechtheion. Now they hold court here amid other portable fragments and artifacts taken from the area of the Acropolis including what Lord Elgin left behind of the Parthenon Frieze. Also very interesting are the scale models of the various structures on and around the Acropolis as they once were.
The Byzantine Museum: When you have reached saturation point with classical questions, turn over a fascinating page of Greek history with a visit to this delightful museum housed in the Italianate townhouse of one of King Otto's eccentric cronies, the American-born Duchesse de Plaisance. Ground floor rooms are cleverly arranged like Byzantine-style churches and beside the expected plethora of icons there are interesting bas-reliefs and sculptures such as the Orpheus taken from a 6th century tomb. The highlight of this collection, however, is a l4C burial shroud elaborately embroidered with an image of the mourning over the dead Christ. Located at 22 Vassilissis Sophias Avenue, the museum is open for visitors from 7:30am to 7:30pm daily except Mondays.
The Benaki Museum: This fascinating little museum takes its name from Andonis Benaki to whom the initial collection once belonged and in whose former home it is now housed. The eclectic tastes of this old gentleman are reflected in the range of the exhibits which span centuries and cultural borders to include such treasures as Chinese porcelains, medieval Turkish household utensils and Byzantine icons. The highlight of your visit, however, might very well be the display of Greek national costumes which includes toilettes once worn by Queen Amalia and a bonnet of the innkeeper's daughter who inspired Byron to write The Maid of Athens. The museum is located very near to the elegant Kolonaki shopping district at the corner of Vassilissis Sophias and Koumbari Street and can easily be reached on foot from Athens' principal square, Sintagma. A visit here can also be combined with a trip to the top of panoramic Mount Likavitos or the Byzantine Museum, both of which are nearby. Closed on Tuesdays, the museum is otherwise open daily from 8:30am to 2:30pm.
The state religion of the country is Greek Orthodox and all major religious holidays are also national holidays which implies all government offices and banks, as well as most shops and businesses, are closed. If the holiday should fall on a Sunday, it is celebrated on the following Monday. The most important holiday of the religious calender is Easter which usually falls one week (but sometimes as much as a month) after Roman Catholic Easter. The season begins with a carnival celebration called apokreas with costume balls and parades. The first day of Lent is known as Clean Monday (Cathera Dephthera) because on that day all pots and pans in which dairy products and the meat of animals with blood have been cooked are thoroughly cleansed in preparation for lenten abstinence. Many Greeks also fly a kite on that day as a gesture of the cleansing of the soul. The Lenten season culminates in Holy Week when nearly all business activity is at a standstill and the entire city of Athens is decked in black bunting. On Good Friday, each parish organizes a procession called the Epitaphio in which a float representing the seplucher of Christ is carried three times around the church. On Saturday night, the faithful gather for the celebration of Midnight Mass and at the stroke of twelve the priest, proclaiming the resurrection of Christ, takes the pascal candle and with it illuminates the candles of his congregation. As they stream out into the city's streets and squares, Athens is ablaze with tiny pinpoints of light. A rite of similar significance is performed on Sunday when Easter eggs, which are always red, are broken open.
Other important religious festivities include the Feast of St. Basil (1 January) when a traditional cake called vassilopita is served. One slice contains a coin and the person who finds it will be lucky throughout the year. One week later, on the feast of the Epiphany (6 January), the waters are ceremoniously blessed with the immersion of a cross at the ports. The feasts of the country's patron, St. George (23 April), and the Assumption (l5 August) are also cause for great celebration.
Among the country's political holidays, Independence Day (25 March) is the most important and is celebrated with military parades and similar pomp. The date marks the first move towards independence from the Turks when, in 1821, an Arcadian archbishop raised a new blue and white flag over a monastery at Patras and thus ignited a revolutionary spirit which, after eight bitter years of fighting, fostered the establishment of an independent Greek state. A favorite political holiday among the Greeks is Ohi Day (28 October) when a courageous political gesture of Metaxas, the leader of Greece during WWII, is officially remembered. Greece had sided with the Allies, so Fascist Italy, having occupied Albania, prepared to launch an invasion across the border. On the morning of 28 October l940, a minister of Mussolini's government presented himself to Metaxas and demanded that this border be opened to Italian troops. Metaxas abruptly responded with one word— ohi (no) —and Greece was plunged into the war. Astonishingly, the ill-prepared and vastly outnumbered Greek troops managed not only to rout the Italians but drove them far back into Albania.
Feelin' kinda hungry Then it's off to the taverna. Having settled at your table, you will first be served what are called MEZEDAKIA. This is a collective word meaning something like hors d'oeuvres and your plate will probably include thick slabs of crumbly goat cheese called FETA; those famous plump Greek olives; a bit of TZATZIKI (a refreshing salad of garlic, cucumbers and yogurt); stuffed vine leaves called dolmades; a dab of TARAMA (the Greek answer to Beluga caviar), and a SOUVLAKI or two (that's the Greek answer to shish kebab and is usually made with lamb). A little bit of salad will appear as well, soaked in the ever-abundant olive oil. Now for the main course. It might be MOUSSAKA (a casserole mixture of eggplant, ground meat and potatoes), or PASTITSIO (a lasagna-like concoction with a tomato base), or even flaky PHILO pies called TIROPITA and SPANOKOPITA made, respectively, with FETA cheese and spinach. Delicious.
That old oriental sweet tooth When Greeks speak of the other countries of Europe they often make reference to 'the Continent' as if Greece itself was far-removed and, in fact, even though you might offend them by insinuating as much, the Greeks are actually much more akin to Middle-Easterners than Europeans in many respects. For example, they share the typically oriental love of very sweet things which they stock up on with daily visits to the neighborhood ZACHAROPLASTEION. Even though you'll probably never learn to pronounce its name, if you fancy a little chunk of baklava and a big slice of local color, then a visit to one of these candy shops/cafes is obligatory. Sit at one of the tiny tables crammed onto the sidewalk and while you are waiting for service you can decide how you will take your coffee: there are thirty-seven degrees of sweetness from sketos (black) to metrios (medium) to glykos (syrup-like). No matter what your request though, it will always arrive in a diminutive demi-tasse cup, there will always be a thick layer of sediment at the bottom and a water chaser will always follow. The choice of pastries presents no less a dilemma than the coffee - if you like nuts and honey, go with KATAIFI. If your weakness is buttery paper-thin philo pastry, then select BAKLAVA. Between forkfuls you can keep your hands busy with your-newly acquired KOMBOLOI (worry beads) which are required equipment for any visit to a cafe. In fact, all the Greeks around you will be flicking furiously away at their own beads (another habit shared with Arab neighbors) not for any religious purpose but simply to satisfy a nervous fetish. On the way out of the cafe, pick up a box of LOUKOUMI, a gelatinous, almond candy often referred to as Turkish Delight, which will go a long way in delighting the folks back home—that is, if it ever makes it back home!
Shades of Zorba Thanks to the Hollywood image of Greece, most foreign visitors think they know what to expect when they enter a taverna. Indeed those who want line dancing and much breaking of plates will have huge doses of both, but the customs of the taverna go far beyond that. The taverna is a social institution akin to the British pub or the Italian osteria. Greeks take matters of cuisine very seriously (even Plato wrote a treatise on the merits of boiling certain fish and baking others!) and the lady who will be presiding over the steaming pots in this kitchen will certainly have her own ideas on what good eating is all about. Chances are she will even be wearing a high white toque, which is fitting since Greek monks initiated the tradition a few centuries ago when, upon entering the kitchen, they exchanged their traditional black hats for white ones. After a hearty meal, around 10:00pm or so, the bouzouki player (this is a small stringed instrument like a mandolin) will begin to strum and the dancers will begin to dance. Don't be surprised if a belly dancer or two should appear. The centuries of Turkish occupation of Greece certainly left their mark. The dances themselves are steeped in tradition, often tracing their origins to ancient times, like the syrtaki or dance of the fishermen. A couple of unrelented hours of this and the most fervent dancers will have worked themselves into a frenzied state known as kefi and that's when the breaking of the plates occurs. That could go on for a couple of hours more but don't stay out too late. The taverna is also open at lunchtime and you will certainly want to be back tomorrow!
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