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Look out below, it’s Christmas in Athens. As if this Mediterranean megalopolis wasn’t chaotic and jampacked enough, add to it thousands of people out doing their last minute Christmas shopping, myself included, and the streets take on an entirely different fervor. It all added to the charm of the place, however, as everywhere was done up with lights and a sentiment of merriment filled the ancient air. While we spent an evening doing Christmas shopping in the busy Plaka district around always-happening Syntagama Square, we spent a fair amount of time taking in the usual tourist sights around the city as well.
Easily the most recognizable of all of the monuments in Athens, the Acropolis rises from the urban center like a long forgotten pillar. In surprisingly good shape considering how incredibly old the structures are, the Acropolis actually consists of 21 buildings, including the temple of Athena Nike and the Parthenon. Standing atop this mighty platform, as the sprawl of modern day Athens literally reaches to the horizon in all directions, it is a trip to think about what this whole area must have looked like a couple of thousand years ago. How far did the homes stretch? What part of the city was populated and what part was now long forgotten forest? Think about how many historical events took place upon this exact ground upon which I am standing. If given proper thought, the entire experience can be overwhelming to say the least.
Sport is also historically abundant and significant in this ancient capital (Nike, Marathon, Olympics…). Visitors downtown can casually stroll on over to Panathinaiko Stadium, the site of the original 1896 Olympics and an area steeped in legendary athletic history. Later that afternoon I was able to head down and play some tennis under the shadow of Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Zeus. Talk about feeling dwarfed and insignificant.
That Sunday after a Christmas spent relaxing inside the hostel (of which we were the only occupants), we headed out to the Monastiraki Flea Market for some post-Christmas souvenir shopping and people watching. There is no place to experience an after Christmas shopping rush than a Greek flea market the year after the Olympics, let me tell you. People were everywhere! It was like the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul without the ceiling. Merchants screamed in curt Greek and waived arms like it was the Stock Exchange trading floor. The smell of searing lamb interwove itself with the fibers of knockoff memorabilia and mismatched shoes. While I simply milled about and gouged myself on cheap gyros and souvlaki, I did enter one store whose sign out front would one day come to be the inspiration for my first book. Completely tucked away in a conspicuous little section of stalls hawking leftover Summer Olympics tshirts, a tiny staircase led down to an unmarked establishment. All that signaled the existence of this shop was a tiny sign at the foot of the stairway across which was etched, “No tourists allowed, travelers welcome”. It would become an adage that would stay with me for the rest of all my travels.