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Greece, the birthplace of democracy, is a beautiful, rugged country, steeped in history. It has nearly 1600 islands, but only 170 of them are inhabited. Half of the ten million population live in Athens.
This bustling city is a good central point from which to see Greece. The white marble Parthenon on Acropolis Hill is a breathtaking sight. The Acropolis is sometimes called the sacred rock. It sits on top of a 512-foot high limestone rock and was originally built to defend the city in 1500 BC, destroyed 1000 years later, and rebuilt in 450 BC.
There are three other buildings on the site besides the Parthenon. The Erechtheum is a temple honoring Athena and Poseidon. The Propylea is a monumental gateway. To its right stands the Temple of Athena Nyke or Wingless Victory. The newest building, The Acropolis Museum, houses many works of art discovered since excavation began in 1835.
At night the Acropolis is the site of the Son-et-Lumiere, or Sound and Light show. The entrance is actually across the street from the Acropolis. The first time we tried to find it we walked around the base of the Acropolis. This seems to be a lover’s lane and it was very tempting to stay and enjoy the view in the balmy air.
The show, in English, is every night unless there is a full moon. The audience sits in chairs facing the Acropolis, which is lit up from different sides at different times in various colors to illustrate a taped narrative of the history of the Acropolis. It lasts about 30 minutes.
After this it is a short walk to the Plaka. This area is about two blocks crammed full of restaurants and cafes moving straight up the hill toward the Acropolis. It is impossible to walk through the streets without waiters appealing to you to try their restaurant: “Just look at our menu. Good prices, good food, good music, come in and look around.” They say in perfect English.
Most of the restaurants are outside, but under cover. Their bouzouki music mingles in the street. We went to a Taverna with a floorshow and although they had no cover charge there was a minimum order of at least a plate of fruit. We ordered that and it was beautifully prepared. The floorshow, with several singers, a belly dancer and volunteer dancers from the audience was very good. We also tried the famous ouzo there, an anise flavored liquor.
On the whole we found Greek food inexpensive and very tasty. Meals are always served with water and bread, although at an outdoor restaurant you will be charged for the bread. Most menus have an English translation and many places show you the food in the kitchen from which you can choose.
The custom in Greece is a light breakfast, a late lunch, dinner about 9 or 9:30 and lingering over all meals.
For breakfast we usually went to a café for coffee and a pastry. I fell in love with baklava, a rich, sticky, honey pastry that is absolutely delicious. Greek coffee, or Turkish coffee, is very strong, but you can order Nescafe or American coffee at most places. For lunches we would either go to a souvlaki shop for gyro sandwiches, have a wonderful Greek salad topped with feta cheese at a sidewalk café on Constitution Square or buy from a pastry vendor on the street. These vendors are all over and sell: tiropites (cheese pies), spanakopita (spinach pie) koulari (similar to a large bagel with sesame seeds) and piroski (bread with a sausage baked inside). We also saw many vendors selling corn on the cob and chestnuts.
A nice afternoon break is a drink at one of the many cafes on Syntagma Square. Try retsina or a cordial like Metax (a sweetish brandy) or Demestica (a fine domestic wine). Even the serving of a simple glass of lemonade was an experience. We were given a silver tray with one full glass of water, another glass with a shot of fresh lemon juice in it and sugar on the side. We were expected to make our own!
One day we went to the Athinas Street food market, which was quite an experience. We didn’t see many tourists in this section, mostly just old Greek women in widow’s garb; black scarves, black stocking and black dresses, buying their fresh dinner ingredients. Butchers chopping huge pieces of meat, burlap sacks bulging with nuts, baskets of bread, barrels of olives, strings of clove garlic, wire baskets of eggs and live hens were crowded in a lively two-block area. Greece also has the world’s finest yogurt.
Shopping in Greece is almost as much fun as eating! There is a wonderful flea market near the base of the Acropolis, which is open most of the time, even on Sundays and is so colorful! There are many good buys including: brass, copper (get a big bowl to beat your egg whites in), flakti rugs, fur coats, tiles, gold jewelry, pottery copied from museum pieces, onyx, marble, alabaster, handmade sandals and handicrafts.
There are lots of interesting museums and historical sights in the city. The admission is free on Sundays although it’s impossible to hit all of them between their open hours: 10 – 4 pm. The Acropolis is also open on weekdays from 9:00 until sunset and when there’s a full moon it opens again from 8:45 until midnight.
The Parliament Building and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is at Syntagma Square, which is the center of the life of Athens. There is a changing of the guard there at twenty minutes before every hour and at 11:00 a.m. on Sundays. Around the corner is a beautiful park, The National Gardens, where something is always going on. At the entrance, across the street from the Temple of Olympian Zeus is where all the public buses seem to meet. Each route runs every twenty minutes, twenty-four hours a day.
One of the best views of the city is from Mt. Lycabettus. You can ride a tram to the top where there’s a large area to walk around, a tiny chapel and a restaurant.
There are many beautiful beaches in Greece and Glyfada is a very nice place to enjoy Greece’s mild winters and subtropical summers.
Greece is a totally unique, enjoyable place, which shouldn’t be missed. And remember, this was only Athens! There are still 170 inhabited islands to explore!
Author of "A Bride's Cookbook or Surviving Your First Year" Nancy Geiger is a freelance writer, columnist and gourmet cook for more than 30 years.