A walking tour of Athens with Athens Insiders solved one of our recurring travel issues. We get to a city we haven’t explored before and know the main things we want to see. But we don’t have a good (or any) plan for how to do it all. Then we waste time trying to figure it out, ride public transportation going in the wrong direction and decide a glass of wine would be a good idea.
This time we contacted Athens Insiders (after reading about them in the New York Times) and asked if they would show us around. Clearly they don’t read our blog so they offered us a complimentary tour. Then they asked what we wanted to see.
Um, the Acropolis?
No, we could do that on our own. Disneyland? Whoops, another bad idea. So we had to actually think and finally declared that we would like to do “some non-touristy things”. They communicated back and forth with us until we finally made enough sense for them to plan an itinerary.
That’s one of the primary reasons we thought Athens Insiders was an excellent choice for a walking tour. They create a completely personalized experience. They also have walks that are already categorized and you can just select from one of those if you prefer.
We wanted a good view over Athens so our well-informed and charming guide, Anthia, took us, via funicular, to the top of Lycabettus Hill. It is the highest hill in Athens. The views of the city are beautiful and show you the tremendous size and population density of the city.
Anthia told us that when Athens became the capital of Greece in 1834 it had a population of approximately 4,000. Today, 180 years later, it has grown to nearly 4 million people. The phenomenal growth rate and movement from the rural areas to the city really reshaped the entire country. We could only assume that word had gotten out about the fabulous restaurants in Athens but perhaps there were other reasons.
The walking tour guides with Athens Insiders really know their history. (We met some of the others besides Anthia.) So when Anthia causally mentioned “The Catastrophe of Asia Minor” we tried to hide the fact that we had no idea what she was talking about.
Blonde thought maybe that was a small stripper and Brunette thought Asia is actually rather major.
It turns out to have been a war between Turkey and Greece shortly after World War 1. A rather amazing result of the war was a huge population exchange between Turkey and Greece, which was relevant (damned if we know how) to the growth of Athens.
Because we had chosen some places that were not close together and would have required a lot of speed walking, we jumped in a taxi. We rode through the famous, fashionable and pricey Kolonaki area of the city. It originally became such a desirable area because of its proximity to the Palace.
Speaking of the Palace, we got back to the walking tour near it and just missed the changing of the guard (which we weren’t trying to see anyway). Luckily we managed to get this highly original picture. (Remember we didn’t want to do “touristy things”.)
We speculated that the guard – they are Evzones to you – looked so serious to keep onlookers from giggling at his white tights, skirt and fluffy clogs with pom poms. We hope he isn’t subject to bullying because his mother dresses him that way.This is a good example of why Blonde always said she wouldn’t take a job that requires a uniform (or being serious).
The Evzones’ mothers must have taught them to iron as the Evzones have to iron their own uniforms. They are rumored to be fed more and better food than average soldiers. Their duties are largely ceremonial but have one impossible job requirement (at least for us). They cannot react to anything. Tourists, quite admirably, try to get them to giggle or speak and otherwise annoy the hell out of them.
Anthia, possibly to keep us from provoking the Evzone, took us through the beautiful but, due to the economic crisis, poorly maintained National Garden. It’s the largest garden in Athens and a nice haven from the city. The garden has more than 500 plant species from all over the world and was initially constructed to please Queen Amalia, wife of King Otto, the first king of Greece. She used it as her private garden.
We were told that two days a week she had the water supply to Athens cut off so she could have her gardens watered. Clearly she had not been taught to share when she went to kindergarten. But then King Otto married her when she was 17 so, to be fair, she was barely out of kindergarten.
And we’re going to cut her a break because, even though she was selfish with the gardens, she at least had them created and they’re now public, free and lovely. Also, she was unable to produce an heir and was blamed by some people (Fox news commentators of their day?) for the King’s eventual overthrow. Seriously?
From the garden we walked to the Plaka, which is the oldest neighborhood of Athens. This area is like a small village in the shadow of the Acropolis. It has a fascinating mixture of businesses that have been there for a long time and brand new businesses. Some sell lovely food or crafts and quite a few sell junk.
We spoke to the welcoming proprietor of this pastry shop, the Metropolitan, which has been her for 3 generations. They make, on the premises, every single gorgeous and tasty (Blonde can vouch for that) morsel they sell.
We also spoke to Pavlina Papailiopoulou, a purse designer who recently opened her shop of beautiful leather goods intended for “passionate, witty, joyous and sparkling girls”. She has an impressive education in design and worked at Bottega Veneta before starting her own business, Ippolito. Check out her website, her work is quite impressive.
The Plaka appears to be an area where the old and new may be able to coexist – at least we hope so.
When our walking tour of Athens ended we went to the café in the Acropolis Museum to debrief (remember those glasses of wine?) with Anthia. We knew from speaking to Natalie Kontou, one of the cofounders of Athens Insiders that it was a small group of 4 friends who started the company because they wanted to show visitors the city they love and to do it in a personal way. Anthia told us about some of the other options – such as a day trip to Delphi where they drive you themselves in a mini-van – that we hadn’t realized they offer.
This is a group of well-educated, entrepreneurial young people of the type that Athens needs to make an economic recovery and expand the very important tourism business. We give them a full-hearted recommendation.
We would also like to convince Anthia to marry Brunette’s third son but we will bring that up in a subsequent conversation.