Greece, actually: This time, he wanted to see a different side of the country

Rising early, staying at out-of-the-way inns and getting to know the locals can help you avoid tourists and see a different side of Athens and Santorini.
By Tyler Guthrie
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 11, 2010

We're squeezed onto local bus No. 96 to the Greek port city of Piraeus, surrounded by European holiday-goers. They're all rushing to catch the ferries and hydrofoils that will scatter them across the Aegean Sea to Minoan ruins, fancy whitewashed hotels and iconic beaches.

My wife and I are after something different: After two days visiting all the high spots of Athens, we want a night away from the tourist zone and a look at a different side of the metropolis that more than 15 million foreigners visit every year.

We pass rubbish and graffiti all along this main road, and I'm reminded of how much I hate the bustle of Athens -- the side that never makes it into my photos. As a Hellenophile and a general fan of antiquity, I have strong but fickle feelings for Greece.

I love this country and relish the opportunity to touch the stones and buildings that have seen so much history, but whenever I visit, I have a hard time getting past the reality of the city I see before me. Each time I want it to be the way I've imagined it: grand yet quaint, bustling but without the tourists, and entirely old.

Yet it never is. Greece often feels as though it's inhabited by more foreign tourists and souvenir shops than it is by native Greeks and any real local life. That's why this time, I want to walk parallel to the crowds, to see a different side of the country and meet some of the Greeks that I -- and the other tourists who flood the streets and clog the pipes every year -- normally wouldn't get to know.

Because it's my wife's first visit to the country, though, we've made a point of hitting the must-sees -- the museums, the tree-lined avenues and the monuments that you can't simply pass by. Even though it's the shoulder season, we've still taken extra precautions, rising with the sun on our first day to make the most of the empty streets. This is when Athens is at its best, when there's a chill in the air and no one else milling around the posh neoclassical districts of Plaka and Kolonaki to ruin the magic and remind you that you're not the only ones in town.

We climbed the steps to the Acropolis slowly, taking in the beauty of both the city and the ancient sites from all the overlooked angles afforded to those who aren't in a rush. Once the doors opened at 8 a.m., we headed past the other early risers and tried to imagine what the Acropolis was like before the Venetians blew part of it up in 1687 during their spat with the ruling Ottomans, and before the British removed the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon for "protective" reasons. But those images were hard to conjure amid the guided tour groups that were already arriving and cutting across our path, the fashionistas striking glamour poses and the shiny new marble slabs filling in the gaps of what used to be the temple of Athena.

In a way I don't to other European cities, to Athens I bring a double standard. Instead of caring to blend in, I come here as a sightseer to touch history and wear khaki pants; I just want to be the only one doing it. I am constantly reminded, however, that I'm 100 years too late for a Lord Byron moment. In this sprawling capital, with such a strong touristic focus on the past, it seems nearly impossible to find a peaceful place or a restful moment to contemplate the city-that-was without being jarred by throngs of other tourists in the city-that-is.

After hours of wandering around these ancient ruins, we set the afternoon mood with ouzo at Bretto's Distillery before visiting the last of our must-see sights: the new Acropolis Museum, which opened in June 2009. It's a sleek modern building housing more than 4,000 Acropolis artifacts in over 150,000 square feet of austere exhibition space. A glass floor reveals an open excavation site, providing a welcome distraction while you wait in line at the entrance to pay the admission fee.

Coming alive

Once in Piraeus, the starting point for Greek island-hopping, we check into a rundown hotel near the center. Created to house the navy by the infamous Athenian general and statesman Themistocles in 493 B.C., the port turns out not to be the historic seaside town I was hoping for. Only 20 minutes from Athens on the subway (the bus took about 40 minutes), Piraeus seems to have little to offer tourists but an overflow of seedy local life and intriguing characters. The hotel clerk, an ancient man watching Greek drama on TV in a small smoke-filled office, is entirely indifferent to us but willing to negotiate the price of a room. He scrawls "40 Euros" on a scrap of paper, then "30" as we start to leave. We finally settle on 25 (about $33) and when we see our room, we know we've paid too much.

No matter, we've stayed in worse. As we wait for the night to thicken, we meet our neighbor on the small fire escape balcony between the two rooms. She is Greek, weathered and sad. Also very confused to hear voices coming from our room. Though she speaks only a little English, she talks for far longer than you'd think possible. She tells us that this is mostly transitional housing. With arms flailing, she tells a gripping story of her kids coming to get her and of a tenant conflict that we can't really understand. She draws a map on a scrap of paper and points out where the hidden charms of Piraeus are -- the ancient churches, the small parks and the stretches of orange trees. Excitedly, she insists that we go to her favorite restaurant later for dinner and says that maybe she will meet us there.

Following her directions, we wind through the old parts of Piraeus, killing time until after 9 p.m., when the city comes alive and locals come out to enjoy the day. We eat at an unnamed seafood shop next to an outdoor market, but we don't see our new friend.

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