You are standing outside the Athens airport with a brisk, January wind welcoming itself. With your newly purchased three-day unlimited ticket stuffed in your front pocket, you place your bag overhead and stare out the window at the bleak winter landscape on the long journey into town.
You quickly drop off your bag, refresh, zip up your blue, fleece jacket and push open the heavy steel door exposing the uncharacteristically cold night air. Café lights paint the quaint narrow streets of Athens, which flicker intermittently due to the occasional passerby in the distance. And then, as if to explain the purpose of this odd cold, snow starts to fall into an ever more picturesque scene.
Full of locals grabbing accumulating snow from the coloured hoods and opaque windshields of small automobiles, you stand off in the shadows absorbing the joy of a populace enjoying this special oddity. And, as a bonus, the tourists all arrived seven months ago and left three months later. This is quite a special start to your Athens experience.
Warmer air has curled into the geography, but despite this, you are greeted nonetheless to a thin, white coating of snow from the magical night before. While what you should be doing is running off the Greek temples to photograph them under snow, what you do instead is head off to explore the streets around Exarchia and find yourself casting a shadow over a large gyro from a small shop.
On the topic of gyros in Athens, perhaps, you think, it is like going to New York and only eating hamburgers, but regardless, this notion seems to be comprised of more intelligence than not. “Would you not go to the beach in the Caribbean because that is the typical stereotype?” you ask yourself.
Your typical failure while travelling, if you can call it such (which you perhaps cannot if you are surrounded by people who understand), would be not devoting much time to the tourist quarters and thereby missing that wonderful (or otherwise) enjoyment of being in streets teeming with indecisive gaggles, hawkers, commercial tentacles, corporate chain stores and franchised fast food. But, with such a dearth of tourists about you in this month when you are told not to come, it seems the perfect place to be, and explore and, as such, you are now heading off in that direction.
You find the Plaka neighborhood pretty much empty: no giant signboards announcing sales; no ice cream placards with corporate branding; no hoards of people eating overpriced cut-rate cuisine outdoors blocking the way; no vendors yelling or luring you into transaction. It is, instead, a nice quiet, quaint neighborhood and a sheer delight to wander. You head off down one street and amble aimlessly.
After a slight incline, you spot some street art, some vivid colours on old buildings and a cat pondering how to best climb onto the thin branches—clearly realizing they won’t hold his weight—of a tree to capture a handful of birds which sit closely watching him, perhaps knowingly taunting him. You watch him attempt different tactics but none produce a nice meal.
Several turns and random decisions later, you find yourself overlooking a large swath of Athens while several stray cats saunter nearby. Given the grand view, you wonder if this is part of the typical route that visitors are encourage or supposed to take. But given the lack of people at this time of year, you can’t be quite sure.
Just up the path is a handful of houses that could have come straight out of the Greek island of Santorini. Other buildings nearby perfectly balance their white painted walls with a burst of coloured trim pieces. The outdoor houseplants seem to be placed lackadaisically but seem nevertheless to be in the perfect places, and of course, in their shadows, the token neighborhood cats slink around watching your every move.
Having made your way up to the Parthenon and its mere handful of visitors, you walk down towards the busy shopping streets and run into a tall bearded man who can’t help to yell at every person streaming by. Within the first minute or two of respectfully giving him a chance to speak, he is shouting that he is ex-Al Qaeda and that he can tell you all about the CIA underground and more. You don’t doubt that he might be more intelligent or truthful than most people are giving him credit for, but regardless of the veracity of any of it, it surely adds colour.
And thus you can tell in less than 24 hours, Athens, with its hot gyros, warm souls and despite a cold snap, bodes well for tomorrow.