Want to see how life should be lived and enjoyed? When you land in Greece, the birthplace of Western civilization, motor into Athens and walk under the clear blue sky through the Plaka section, which is the old town at the base of the Acropolis.
Sitting and chatting leisurely with friends, listening to rousing Greek music, relaxing in the coolness of the evening in a taverna, eating a delicious moussaka … or a plate of gavros, cousin to the sardine … or djadjiki, a delicious yogurt — that's the way to spend an Athenian evening. (Some places even serve vegetable moussaka, meat being replaced with minced vegetables.)
Yes, this is the touristy Plaka with its outdoor cafes, its bars, its pedestrian streets, its shops — all lifting the cares of a humid and smoggy Athen's day off one's shoulders, especially at night and in the summer, and giving one the joy of being in Greece. This is the place to listen to stirring music from a bouzouki and sip ouzo.
One way to the Plaka is to walk from Constitution ("Syntagma") Square, which houses one of the best hotels in the world, the Hotel Grande Bretagne, rich in history. This hotel, incidentally, served as the headquarters of Greek, German and British forces in turn during World War II. On Christmas Eve, 1944, it is said, while British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill was visiting strife-torn Athens, an attempt to blow up the hotel from the sewers was foiled.
If you can handle the pricey room rate, by all means stay at this centrally located Grande Bretagne — stately, classic and possessing old-world charm. The hotel stands only steps from the changing of the guard; ah, those guards in their wonderful Greek dress uniforms standing erect at the tomb of the unknown soldier.
Only minutes from the hotel — in the other direction — are the shops and large department stores, leading to a better-than-average flea market.
Like beauty, one never tires staring at the Acropolis and its lit-up Parthenon — white, shiny, some say virginal. A super restaurant is Strofi, 25 Rovertou Galli St. Or have an ice-cream, cold drink or coffee at the patisserie, restaurant/ice-cream establishment, Dionyssos, at the end of Rovertou Galli St. at the foot of Philopapou Hill.
To explore the Acropolis thoroughly requires at least two days. The hurried tourist can, however, make a superficial tour in about two hours.
The Parthenon stands tall as the columned, rectangular temple built for the city's patron goddess, Athena. You see it from different points of view as you walk through the Plaka. You find yourself constantly looking for it. You want to see it. You want to catch a glimpse of it, to be inspired.
Keep in mind that Athens was one of the most important commercial cities of antiquity. The Jews first came to Athens around third century BCE, and settled alongside many wealthy Egyptians and Phoenicians for commercial reasons, organizing a community.
A highlight of a visit to Jewish Athens has to be the Jewish Museum of Greece — one of the most important in Europe in terms of exhibits. Since 1998, it has been housed in a neoclassical building in the Plaka section at Odos Nikis, 39. Years ago, large collections of documents, clothing and religious artifacts were gathered from the Romaniote and Sephardic communities.
A Sad Sector of History
Of the 7,000 documents and artifacts, pieces of religious art and other items of historical significance in the museum's collection, visitors can see the most important displayed in themed sections.
One section includes cases and models of Jews dressed in traditional Greek costumes. Another section presents the tragic history of the genocide and decimation of the Jewish population of Greece by the Nazis, which numbered around 80,000 before World War II. Clothes of concentration-camp prisoners, photographs, official documents and various other items are displayed as a reminder of the murder of Jews by the Germans.
The immensity of the tragedy of the Holocaust in Greece is unbelievable. At least 80 percent of the 80,000 Greek Jews were murdered by the Nazi invaders. In Thessaloniki (Salonika) — where there was a larger Jewish community than Athens — only 1,950 Jew out of a Jewish population of 60,000 remained by the end of the war. More Jews survived in Athens because Chief of Police Anghelos Evert and Archbishop Monsignor Damaskinos aided the Jewish community.
On the museum's first floor is a model of the Romaniote synagogue of Patras. The roots of the Romaniotes, early Greek-speaking Jews, can be traced to the arrival of the first Jewish settlers in Phoenician times. The Sephardim came after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.
Two synagogues — Etz Hayim Synagogue, Odos Melidoni 8; and Beth Shalom Synagogue, Odos Melidoni 5 — draw frequent visitors. About 3,000 Jews live in this capital, also called the Olympic City. The modern Olympics were revived in 1896; the most recent were held in Athens in 2004.
In 2005, some 14 million tourists visited Greece; the rise in tourism confirms the benefit of the Olympics held the year before. Tourism today accounts for 20 percent of Greece's GNP.
A new subway system, a modern airport and a ring road completed for those Olympics add to the comfort of visitors, especially in summer, in this golden land of sunshine.
Ben G. Frank is the author of A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 3rd edition and A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, as well as the just published A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America.