When you plan your trip to Athens you should make a plan what exactly you want to do and visit there. Of course, when it comes to the Hellenic capital, all of us think first about the Acropolis and its slopes, the New Town (i.e. Adrianoupolis) beyond the Gate of Adrianus and other Hellenistic sites of great significance to the mankind. There is no doubt that Athens “is drown” in ancient history and historic places around which the modern city grew and developed.
So, if you go to Athens, have in mind that ancient history will follow you everywhere but at the same don’t expect to land next to or even on the Acropolis. Nope … 🙂 Take the modern subway-train line from the Athens International Airport “Eleftherios Venizelos” to the city centre and get off at one of the ends of the historic triangle of Athens
It is part of the conceptual city plan made by Royal Bavarian Architects in the 30s of the 19th century. And it has still existed. This triangle covers a large and the most vivid area of modern Athens and it has three ends which are the three major squares of the city – Sýntagma, Monastiraki and Omonia.
The Sýntagma square: The Sýntagma square (Πλατεία Συντάγματος or Plateia Syntagmatos in Greek) could be your starting point for looking for a hotel in the capital in case you were too absent-minded not to check the confirmation of your hotel booking prior to your travel. Yeap 🙂 …. Believe me it is a “nice surprise” to realize that your reservation is in an unknown status and the girl from the hotel reception tells you that she cannot find it in the system. On top of it, the hotel is full and there are no available rooms at that time. On such occasions, you should neither get stressed nor loose temper. If you are an experienced traveller and adventurer, you’ll simply choose one of the nearby cafés (there are plenty of them on the Syntagma Square because it’s a gathering point for locals and tourists alike, especially at night), order one Frappé and start searching for another hotel.
After having booked your new lodging, you might want first to make a short sightseeing tour on the Syntagma Square. Why not? Now you are feeling relieved because you know you’ll not be senza casa (homeless) during your stay in Athens. 😀 So, drink up you Frappé, then take your rucksack and start exploring the square.
The Syntagma Square is the biggest and most central square of Athens. Its name means “Constitution” and it was named after the Greek Constitution of 1844 when the Athenians rebelled and demanded from King Otto its concession. Nowadays the square is an extremely pleasant place for having a nice stroll at daytime or at night.
Many of the tiny streets that start from here lead to the Highest Town and its slopes. Of course, this place is dotted by numerous luxurious hotels, buildings housing banks, companies and public institutions. For example, the Grande Bretagne Hotel is the grandest one in Athens. It is a huge Neoclassical building from King Otto’s makeover. The marbled lobby has remained untouched since the 1950s when Winston Churchill survived an assassination attempt when he stayed there in 1944.
Surely, the greatest attraction here, on the Syntagma Square, is King Otto’s former Royal Palace. The king and his wife Queen Amalia lived in the Neoclassical building until the riots and rebellion of 1843 which resulted in a democratic constitution, as I said above. The palace was abandoned and neglected for many of years. It was used as a shelter for the homeless in 1923 when there was a shortage of houses in Athens. The parliamentary government was restored in 1926 and the building was renovated and re-opened as a single chamber of the parliament council. Nowadays the marvellous edifice houses the Hellenic Parliament.
Not to be missed is the Changing of the Guard (the Evzones) in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The tomb is a marble-slab one with one cross only and an image of the Unknown Soldier carved and embedded above it. It’s one of the symbols of Athens (and even Hellas) and it’s always guarded by Evzones. And who are they?
In present times Tsolias is the colloquial term used for a modern military in Hellas. Some of them could become Evzones taking on ceremonial duties. Thus an ordinary Tsolias turn into an Evzone who wears the traditional Evzone uniform. But there are some criteria for choosing an ordinary tsolias as an Evzone, i.e. the tallest, the best-looking and most representative soldiers are selected.
And what do these Greek soldiers do? They are members of the Presidential Guards. They have only ceremonial duties but very symbolic at the same time. The major one is being guards of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the Parliament on the Syntagma Square in Athens, which is believed to be a very prestigious discipline for Greek soldiers. Evzones stand straight at their posts and take part in the Changing of the Guards every hour. If you’re there at 11am on Sunday mornings, you will be luckier because namely this ceremony is the “most official one”. Apart from this duty of theirs, Evzones also march in official parades on official holidays, for example.
No matter what, Evzones wear a typical and unique uniform which is worn on such occasions but not in combats. Evzones’s uniform is quite authentic. It consists of a traditional pleated kilt called foustanella with white britches, and pom-pom shoes. As a matter of fact, there are three main types of the uniform (the traditional Cretan Evzone dress, the Ponti Evzone uniform and of course, the traditional “pleated foustanella” style uniform), each of them having their own symbolic meaning. The first one belongs to Cretan soldiers and it represents Greek Islands. It doesn’t consist of a kilt but of dark blue trousers (probably, this is heritage from King Otto’s times). Then the Ponti Evzone uniform comes. Its design is made in order to honour all the Greeks who once lived in the Pontic Region which is in Turkey nowadays. And finally Evzones have their traditional “pleated foustanella” style uniform which we know so well.
If you need some peace and quietness, you might choose to spend some time in the National Gardens of Athens. They are about 16-hectare central park in the capital which is situated just behind the Hellenic Parliament building. Here you can practise turtle watching or you can just sit on a bench with a book in hands. There are plenty of attractions and playgrounds for children. You might visit the Botanical garden situated among the trees and alleys. Or you might just cross it from end to end reaching the 1878 neo-classical building of the Zappeion Congress and Conference Hall built by Theophil Freiherr von Hansen.
If you have already decided to go to your hotel which is situated at the second end of the historic triangle, take the subway again. The Syntagma underground station is, actually, the busiest transit hub in Athens. By the way, it’s not only a simple station where metro trains come and go. Nope. It serves as a museum as well. And do you know why? You are aware of the fact that the Hellenic capital was a host to the 2004 Olympics. In this connection, most of the city was excavated in the 90s of last century so that the subway could be extended. During those excavations, archeologists found hundreds of thousands of precious and priceless antique objects which are on display namely at the subway station. So, have a look at them while you are trying to catch next metro train which will bring you to ….
It’s always overcrowded with people. It’s a tradition for locals to go out into the square on Saturday evening.
They buy their Sunday’s newspapers from one of the numerous kiosks. Some of them review them in the nearby cafés while others just return home.
Monastiraki: Now let’s head to the last end of the historic triangle – Monastiraki. Here you can find crowds of people, numerous artisan and antique shops where you can buy souvenirs, clothes and postcards from Athens. Or just choose one of the restaurants to have dinner or cafés to drink a cup of coffee or tea here. Just a quick note here. The market of Monastiraki is really vivid and interesting on Sunday morning. So, if you are in the Hellenic capital on Sunday, I advise you not to miss it at any cost.
In the end, we are going to close the historic triangle of the city by taking one of the most expensive streets in Hellas and Europe alike. The Ermou Street is car-free and links Monastiraki to Syntagma. It’s full of international trade marks shops which are somehow like the ones in Paris and Milan. If you’re not a fan of doing the shopping, no worries… Just go along the pedestrian street and when you’re attracted by one of the numerous street performers, have a stop and enjoy their live performances.