Text and photos AA Patawaran
That’s thank you in Greek, which literally translates to “I feel good for what you have done to me.” And nothing feels as good right now as having caught the inaugural flight, launched by Singapore carrier Scoot, its first long-haul flight, from Singapore to Athens, the city where everything started, including everything I have in my vocabulary. The very alphabet, after all, is from the Greek words alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, A and B.
It really is good news on the travel front. At the welcome ceremonies at Athens International Airport upon arrival of Scoot’s maiden flight on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Scoot CEO Lee Hik Hsin said the the airline “is currently the only airline and low-cost carrier offering direct flight between Southeast Asia and Greece via a direct flight between Singapore and Athens.”
Battle of the Deities
Athens is a dream city and now it’s so much more affordable and takes only 11.5 hours from Singapore to turn it to reality. What’s more special about this ancient city, however, is even if you are right here, and it’s all tangible and all physical—stone, water, air, wood—it still feels like a dream, stranger than a dream. After all, which other country has so seamlessly blended myth with fact, blurred the lines between what’s real and what’s fantastic? You can’t thoroughly appreciate the history of Greece without the acquaintance of the 12 gods of Olympus, and those are only the major deities in Greek mythology. There are so many others, I suppose, that it would take a college course, maybe even a PhD, to know them all!
First things first: The Greeks. I’m no stranger to kind people—The Japanese are nice, the Turks are nice, even the French are nice (to me), but the Greek police at the Athens International Airport, when I asked where the toualéta or toilet was, readily left his spot to escort me there or at least walk by my side far enough to point me directly to the door. And this was way before I got past immigration. No wonder all these gods—the god of winds and air (Aeolus), the avenger of evil deeds (Alastor), “the nothingness that all else sprang from” (Chaos), the god of time (Cronos), the god of sexual desire (Eros), the gods and goddesses of everything—dwelled right here, sometimes even fighting over the custody of these people.
To be in Athens is unreal, like being at the far end of a time portal, right in the middle of these seven hills, among which nestles a civilization that is at least 7,000 years old. The city is so old you can’t just dig around in your backyard without an archaeologist looking over your shoulders perchance—and chances are—you dig up something precious.
The Parthenon, Classical architecture built from 447 BBC
Propylaea, the monumental gateway to the Acropolis of Athen
The Odeon of Herodotus Atticus, which remains functional to this day, staging concerts, plays, and ballets
The remains of the Temple of Athena
Some of the 25-century-old metopes and pediments from the Parthenon that are now housed at the Museum of Acropolis
Wine-pairing dinner under the stars in rural Attica at the Ampalones Markou Wine Museum
The Spanish Steps-like nightlife haunt in the quaint, historical neighborhood Anafiotika on the foothills of the Acropolis
The port of Athens at sunset
The coastline of the Saronic island Hyrdra lined with beach clubs
The Temple of Poseidon at the Cape of Sunion on the southern tip of the Attica Peninsula
Tourists come in droves to the Acropolis through the Propylaea
Day cruise aboard the Cosmos on the Aegean Sea
Dinner at 4 Brothers right on the edge of the Bay of Zea, which housed the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens
Donkeys, bougainvillae, and island life on Hydra
The Greek Oddyssey
I certainly could not have compressed seven millennia of history into a week-long discovery, especially as in every age, from the Stone Age and the Bronze Age to the Dark Ages, from Archaic and Classical to Hellenistic times, the stories of Greece weave in and out of the stories of sea and sky and heaven and wind and the underworld, its inhabitants, more than humans, being deities, centaurs, lapiths, amazons, and giants.
But there were highlights, the Acropolis of Athens, for instance, and the Parthenon, the jewel on the crown that is the Acropolis, a flat-topped hill towering over the Greek capital. There is evidence that the hill has been inhabited since the fourth millennium BC and legend has it that it was first ruled by the serpent-man Cecrops, the culture hero also associated with reading and writing.
On the Acropolis alone, there are many things to see, including the olive tree by which Athena, goddess of wisdom, craft, war, and heroic endeavor, won a divine challenge over Poseidon, god of the sea, and claimed her place as patroness of Athens. It was King Cecrops who presided over the contest for Athens, then already a vibrant, prosperous city, the only rule being whoever it was, Athena or Poseidon, who could give the people of Athens the best gift would win. With full flourish, Poseidon struck the earth with his three-pointed spear and, where he struck it, there sprang a body of water that the Athenians loved, until they found it too salty to drink. Meanwhile, Athena, far less dramatic, sat on her knees and buried a seed in the ground, which later grew to be an olive tree, not only appreciated by the people for its fruit, but also for its oil to light their oil lamps and cook their food with and for the tree itself with which to build their boats and houses. Athena was declared patron deity of Athens.
Maria Callas at the Odeon
The Parthenon is the most important relic of Classical Greece. Originally a treasury before it was turned into sacred space dedicated to Athena, it later reflected the many changes Greece underwent in the hands of conquerors–it became a Christian church dedicated to the Mother of God in the sixth century AD, a Catholic church during the rise of the Latin Empire, and a mosque in the early 15th century, during the Ottoman occupation.
But there are many other enduring treasures on the Acropolis—the Old Temple of Athena right in the center of the plateau; the remains of the Erechtheion, another temple dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon; the Theater of Dionysus, god of plays, the first stone theater ever built (capacity: 17,000), cut into the cliffside, and said to be the birthplace of Greek tragedy; and the steep-sloped Odeon of Herodes Atticus that, dating back to 161 AD, remains functional, having hosted modern-day concerts and performances, from Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras, and Placido Domingo to Andrea Bocelli, from Frank Sinatra to Elton John and Sting, from the Bolshoi Ballet to the Tokyo Ballet, and, most iconic of all, a stirring number by the beloved Greek-American soprano Maria Callas, La Divina, at the 1957 Athens Festival.
At the foothills of the Acropolis is a warren of shopping streets that radiate from the Monastiraki Square. There is also Plaka on the northeast slope of the hill, dubbed the “neighborhood of the gods,” an old, historical neighborhood that is home to the Acropolis Museum, a must-visit, as it has on display the many precious details of the buildings on the hill, such as the 25-century-old treasures of the Parthenon—sculptures, pediments, metopes, or friezes that depict, for the most part, the epic battles of Greek mythology, such as the Trojan War, the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, between the Olympian gods and the giants, between humans and Amazons. The museum has been erected on top of a just-discovered, just-excavated old village, so its flooring on the ground floor is clear glass, through which visitors can see the neighborhood once buried in the rubble of time.
Look up from Anafiotika
Nearby, on a night on the town, I and my newfound friends chanced upon Anafiotika, a tiny, scenic neighborhood that cascades in stone steps down the northeast slope of the Acropolis. Think Spanish Steps in Rome, but make the steps narrower by half and line the edges of the stairway with bars and restaurants and you’re here at a party with the gods. We sat on the rooftop of a typical small Anafiotika house looking up at the Parthenon, which gleamed like gold that night, stealing the show from the moon and the stars.
We did not have time to see enough of Athens, but we ventured out of the city, taking a bus to the southern tip of the Attica Peninsula to see the remnants of the Temple of Poseidon on the Cape of Sunion, 69 kilometers away, but along a route lined by an uninterrupted view of mountains, lakes, beach clubs, marinas, and people soaking up the sun on the sandy beaches or immersing themselves in the still-cold but irresistibly blue waters of June in Greece. That, to me, was an hour-long show unfolding on the clear screen of my bus window. The Greeks call this the Athenian Riviera, though that phrase has yet to appear officially on Google Maps.
From the port of Athens, we also took a day cruise on the Aegean to visit three Saronic islands in one go—Hydra, Póros, and Aegina—though, if it were up to me, we would have spent the whole day (or eternity) in Hydra. Italian icon Sophia Loren, who did her debut Hollywood film, The Boy on a Dolphin, on the island in 1957, has been so smitten by Hydra’s charm. What she calls “one of the most beautiful places in the world” is an island off time, where no car or any motorized vehicle is allowed, and donkeys carry your luggage should they prove too heavy for you to carry to your hotel. It truly is a consummate Greek island experience, replete with quaint white houses with blue windows, bougainvillae, and beauty everywhere, if only I had time to sit back at a beach club, down bottles of Alpha beer, and jump off the cliffside into the Saronic Gulf.
It wasn’t all sightseeing and a tour through the centuries for us. We did a lot of feasting, too, the best of the feasts being at Bairaktaris, a local restaurant near Monastiraki Square that’s frequented by a lot of Greek dignitaries and other European VVIPs, such as Queen Sofia of Spain, particularly for its gyros. The restaurant dates back to 1879 and, other than the gyros, I think it has the best tzatziki in town that stimulates the palate, then cleanses it, refreshes it, and stimulates it again. Not recommended, if you are on a diet, especially if you must eat at Bairaktaris, where the mix grill—lamb chops, chicken gyros, beef kebabs—will prove even more sinful with tzatziki.
Time and Tzatziki
On another day, we drove 45 minutes into the countryside to visit the Ampalones Markou Wine Museum, Mousio Oinou, and met a member of the Markou family, whose wine tradition in rural Attica spans 150 years. He took us through the whole process, including the old ways of crushing, fermenting grapes and bottling and corking the resulting wine, and let us drink to our heart’s content three of his special wines—the Retsina, a combination of Merlot and Cabernet, and a rosé, which also accompanied our dinner by the poolside under the Attica sky.
Not that I wasn’t content with just eating them, but at Zafiros, a hilltop complex that boasts of a breathtaking view of Athens, we also learned how to make tzatziki with whole milk Greek yogurt, English cucumber, cloves of garlic, lemon zest and lemon juice, fresh dill, Kosher salt, and black pepper. What we came up with wasn’t as good as the tzatziki at Bairaktaris, but it wasn’t bad at all. We also learned to do moussaka by the way, which was served to us for dinner fresh from the oven.
Never enough time in Athens, what with 7,000 years worth of things to discover and uncover. But the Greek gods, for all their divine might, are crazy, saddled with such human flaws as vanity and jealousy and greed, and now that it is easier, cheaper, more fun to go to Athens, I see no reason why I should refuse to humor them by going again and again, as often as I can, to admire the beauty of their domain, cradle of democracy, birthplace of art, poetry, philosophy, education, even the recording of history for the benefit of future generations.
When I came home from my too-short Greek odyssey and my friends urged me, “Let’s go again!” I told them by way of answering, “You know, the expression OK is Greek in origin. The O is from the Greek word ola, which means ‘all’ or ‘everything,’ and the K is from kalós, which means ‘good.’”
And that was my short and simple, unmistakable Greek answer—OK.
On its new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Scoot takes off from Singapore to Athens and from Athens to Singapore four times a week, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. www.flyscoot.com.