Last November, travel journalist Dana Facaros joined our guides in Athens for a press preview of our Exploring Athens tour. She appears to have enjoyed it: her text appeared in the monthly Sunday Times Travel Magazine a few days ago, and her byline states that our "new tour reveals a side of the ancient city unknown even to locals". With her and the magazine's kind permission, here's her text. (It's worth getting your hands on the print version, which is lavishly illustrated with superb photographs by Jonathan Perugia. All images used here are by Heinrich Hall of Peter Sommer Travels).
The Secret History - the hidden corners and concealed passages of Athens
by Dana Facaros
It was one of those powder-blue mornings in the Agora, the ancient marketplace where Socrates used to buttonhole Athenians and grill them about the meaning of life. Today he would have found hundreds to pester: the gorgeous weather had brought families out in droves wandering amid the pines and ruins. Then Heinrich and Nota stopped before a large marble slab carved with three shallow indentations, one rectangular, the others curved, one long, one short. 'Can you guess what this is?' Heinrich asked, blue eyes twinkling.
We shook our heads, me with some embarrassment. Unlike the others on this tour, I visit the city every year. I've written about it in guidebooks. I must have seen that slab a dozen times before. Only I had never noticed it. Heinrich explained: 'It's a standard measure for roof tiles. Apparently ancient tile-makers were notorious cheats.'
So along with all the geniuses busily kick-starting Western civilisation, there were weasels trying to make a fast drachma by saving a bit of clay. It's nuggets like these that take a destination out of the history books and bring it to life. In Athens, a city that rarely kindles love at first sight, they are particularly welcome, especially when you're on holiday and want all those tricky names and dates to slip down like wine. And thanks to my Athenian cousin who recommended them, I'd found the perfect solution in the form of two young archaeologists, Heinrich Hall and Nota Karamaouna, leading this 'Exploring Athens' tour with Peter Sommer Travels.
Both knew Athens inside out; both were charming and smart as whips, but wore their knowledge lightly- Nota doubled as an expert on Greek food and wine. Heinrich had a soft Irish-German accent and quirky sense of humour that made archaeology fun. Mostly I was curious to see if they could show this old (half-Greek) dog some new tricks.
After the Agora, we went up Mount Lykavitos, rising like a big stony breast from the city centre. From the top, greater Athens resembles a tsunami of white dominoes washed in from the Aegean, riding up the slopes of the mountains. Nota described how the city had grown and contracted over and over, always around the lodestone of the Acropolis: from here its crowning glory, the Parthenon, looked like a tiny white toy.
Historical events put the kibosh on Athens's 19th century dreams of recreating its classical glory as the capital of independent Greece, when a million or more new residents were added during the 1923 population exchange with Turkey. The picturesque Neo-Classical houses of old were demolished for apartment blocks.
But that evening, strolling around the ancient Plaka district, we passed charming survivors, their details picked out in saffron, oxblood and teal. Yet often identical houses next door had been left to rot, sprouting weeds and wildflowers – juxtapositions of elegance and squalor that make Athens so different from the perfectly coiffed cores of Rome or Florence.
We ended up on the roof terrace at Strofi, one of Athens's most famous restaurants. The tour, Nota explained, was as much about the city's cuisine and restaurants as its convoluted history. Just above us the Parthenon glowed in a theatrical golden light that emphasised its perfect proportions. A tilted half-moon hung directly over it like a marble cup pouring a midnight libation of dreams.
As we tucked into Strofi's gooey saganaki (baked, unusually with tomatoes, feta and aubergine) and slow cooked kid, we talked about Greece's culinary renaissance. I told how, a million years ago, when I was researching a guidebook on the Greek islands, I was so bored after eating out for months that when a waiter on Santorini asked for my order, I collapsed into a quivering jelly, sobbing: 'I don't care. It's all the same!'
“Do you know why it was so monotonous?' said Heinrich. In the '60s, the Greek National Tourist Organisation printed out thousands of menus in English, French, German and Greek to make it easy for restaurants to cater to tourists. The restaurants believed the items on the menus were the only dishes foreigners would eat and ended up limiting everyone to moussaka, stuffed tomatoes, and bifteki for decades.'
Next morning, we made the one-hour crossing to the Island of Aegina on a mirror-calm sea. An out-of-season, time-has-no-meaning serenity reigned, emphasising that feeling you often get on Greek islands. Cats and dogs dozed by rocking fishing boats, the seafront tavernas and shops stacked with bags of Aegina's heavenly pistachios. Aegina is known for its beautifully preserved 6th-century BC temple, dedicated to the mysterious goddess Aphaia. Majestically set high over pine-clad hills and sea, the columns gleamed in the dry, clear Attic light. Enough blocks were lying amid the wild cyclamens for Heinrich and Nota to show us the secrets of ancient temple-building, including how cranes lifted them into place with ropes fitted in U-shaped incisions.
Our last stop was a Byzantine chapel, isolated in a field. It was usually locked, but Nota had the key. Pictures of medieval sips were scratched around the door; inside, it earned its nickname Omorphi, 'beautiful', for its colourful frescoes from 1289. Just from their iconography, Nota, like an art Sherlock Holmes, could deduce the politics of the donor - even here, in a backwater of the Byzantine Empire.
That evening, back in Athens, we met up at Oinoscent, a shiny minimalist wine bar. The improvement of Greek wines has been one of the bright spots in the current financial crisis, and Nota, conspiring with the barman, came up with some indigenous gems: Assyrtiko, the citrussy, bone-dry white from Santorini; Agiorgitiko, the soft, easy-to-quaff red from the Peloponnese; and Xinomavro, the dark, tannic wine from northern Greece. It made Heinrich wax poetic: 'Agiorgitiko is like meeting an old friend, but Xinomavro is like meeting an old love.'
Mellow after meeting both, we taxied to Pangrati, a convivial old neighbourhood by the marble Panathenaic stadium where, in the old days, olive-oil-basted athletes raced, boxed and wrestled naked in honour of the goddess Athena. Streetlights, filtered through the bitter-orange trees, cast a shimmer over the crowded tables outside To Mavro Provato, 'The Black Sheep'. It was just as bustling inside.
The Black Sheep is a mezedopoleio, specialising in small dishes to accompany shots of ouzo, or grappa-like tsipouro. Each dish was delicious: the halloumi with mint, pasta and mushrooms baked in a clay pot; manouri (a cheese made from feta whey) in a flaky pastry with honey and sesame; a platter of grilled meats; and a quartet of desserts, including millefeuille with caramelised apples and creme Anglaise. We ended with shots of tsipouro, to give us sweet dreams.
The tour took in much more of Athens and included, besides Aegina, a day in Attica - in Marathon, Eleusis and Rhamnous. But the highlight was the Acropolis, to my surprise. I'd done the Acropolis a hundred times - it was never ho-hum and the idea of going again didn't thrill me.
But I had never gone with archaeologists before. Rather than the usual frontal assault, we started in the Theatre of Dionysos, believed to be the world's oldest playhouse, where Oedipus Rex, Medea and The Frogs debuted during the festival of Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy - or 'sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll', as Heinrich put it. He described how drama was born when it occurred to someone to add actors and dialogue to religious rituals, transforming them into something creative and magical - the same drama we still love today.
From the top of the theatre, we reached the peripatos, the ancient path around the Acropolis. I'd read about it, but never knew you could walk it, past cave sanctuaries with surreal roots in mythology, linked to the city's earliest half-human, half-snake king, Cecrops. Looking up, we had views of the massive collage wall of marbles and column drums the size of tractor tyres, cobbled together after the Persians sacked the Acropolis in 480BC.
Then Nota and Heinrich stopped before something that all Greeks know about, but few have seen: the Mycenaean cave spring, a fissure in the rock, 35m deep, with a secret entrance near the Parthenon. It was, according to the archaeologists, last used as a well in the 13th century BC. But in 1941, during the darkest days of the Nazi occupation, two teenagers somehow managed to scramble up the near-vertical shaft at night and took down the swastika from the Acropolis flagpole.
Finally we made it to the Parthenon, Le Corbusier's 'clamorous outcry against a landscape of grace and terror'. When it was built, in the mid-5th century BC, every single marble component was cut within a fraction of a millimetre of perfection. Today its columns are partly caught in a cat's cradle of scaffolding as it undergoes one of the world's most painstaking restorations. Heinrich described how each stone is measured, analysed, cleaned and protected from pollution. Concrete and iron clamps, added during a previous botched restoration, are removed and replaced with titanium. Pieces too damaged are copied, in Pentelic marble from the same quarry. They take so long to reproduce that workers are convinced the ancient Greeks had far superior metal tools.
It took the ancient Athenians nine years to build the Parthenon. Compare that with the restoration, begun in 1975 and slated to be finished in 2021. Even with Greece's current financial crises, work has patiently, steadily continued. 'After all, we want it to last another 2,500 years,' Heinrich said quietly.
Was it the way he said it, or the very idea of thinking so far ahead in this crazy, improbable world? It brought a lump to my throat as we watched the giant crane ever so slowly manoeuvre another block into place.
Tempted? Check our website for details on Exploring Athens: Archaeology, Culture and Food!