Greek Orthodox Easter is a wonderful time to visit Athens. Spring will have sprung and the Good Friday processional and Easter eve (midnight Saturday) service will always leave me with a tingle down my spine for their beauty. Regardless of your faith, Orthodox Easter is a beautiful time to visit Greece and the rewards of these two experiences outweigh the fact that you’ll lose a few days of official sightseeing due to museums and archeological sites being closed.
Yes, the rumors are true, the gates to the archeological sites will be closed, and since it is an official holiday, so will lots of other places like museums, supermarkets, and stores. Most everything will close at noon on Good Friday, this year April 22, 2011, museums and archeological sites will be closed both on Easter Sunday, April 24 and Monday April 25, 2008, as well.
So here you are, you’ve planned your trip only to discover this news: How can I visit Athens when the Acropolis is closed? What is there to do in Athens on Greek Easter?
But don’t worry, there will be plenty happening in Athens to keep you busy as Easter really is the most special of the year in Greece.
Although the celebrations begin much earlier than April, starting this year in February with Apokries, the Carnival period, celebrated with festivals and costumes, which is followed by Clean Monday (March 31 this year), when the market stays open all night selling fish and halvah as the locals prepare for the beginning of Lent, Sarokosti (40 days before Easter). During the day on Clean Monday, Greeks take a holiday to head to the parks and beaches with kites and picnics. From this point on many Greeks fast, abstaining from meat and oil and eating a primarily dairy diet.
Megali Evdomada (Holy Week or Great Week) begins the week before Easter with Palm Sunday, although you’ll also see people carrying around bay leaves – they are valued as it is believed that they bring good luck. The churches columns will be covered in satiny purple cloth and even those Greeks who didn’t fast from the beginning of Lent will fast this week. The exodus from the city begins as Athenians head for their villages, in the mountains, on the islands and elsewhere throughout Greece. If you are planning on traveling around Greece during this period, it is wise to plan and book early: We spent Easter in Pelion one year and had a difficult time finding rooms. When we were settled in finally we asked a Greek family who were staying in the same guesthouse why it was so many Greeks came to Pelion for Easter and not to their family’s village, she responded with a smile, “Not all of us have a village to go to.”
Good Friday (Megali Paraskevi) everything closes at noon. It is a solemn day, and the city is filled with the sounds of church bells ringing. In the evening the Epitaph is carried out from the church in a procession that fills the streets with Athenians, young and old, carrying candles as they follow the funeral through the neighborhood. In my Pagrati neighborhood the procession is triply impressive, as congregants from three churches converge in the heart of the community, each with it’s own Epitaph.
Saturday is a busy day, as final Easter preparations continue, and magaritsa, the traditional break the fast meal, is prepared in homes and restaurants throughout the city. If you are an adventuresome eater, this rich, thick soup of lamb intestines and various and other items, is supposed to be wonderful. If you try it, you can let me know, I suppose I am not that adventuresome!
Easter services will have been going on all day by the time most people arrive outside the church with unlit candles. The chanting can almost always be heard for blocks around, and the crowds will continue to gather in anticipation of the midnight moment when the priest comes outside, the lights turn out and the psalm of Christos Anesti is heard as he begins to light the first candles closest to him. Soon the light travels down the church steps and into the square, hundreds of tiny flames ablaze. It is a sight that brings a shiver and a tingle every time I see it. It is quite beautiful.
The crowds disperse as Athenians head home for the traditional break the fast meal or to neighborhood restaurants where they have prebooked tables (hint for travelers!). Of course, around the city psistarias (grills) are also being prepped for roasting the lamb to be eaten on Sunday.
So, now you’ve had your Easter experience, and you’ve no place to set up a grill to roast your own lamb – what will you do on Sunday? Of course you’ll find places to eat lamb, so don’t let that be of concern. But you can’t spend your day in bed, you’ve traveled far to reach this place, and want better time to explore it than a peaceful Easter Sunday morning, when half of the cars from Athens are away and the rest of the city is still sleeping off the bowls of margaritas they consumed the night before.
So, lace up your best walking shoes and head out to enjoy the city by foot. After all, there are only a handful of days during the year, plus the entire month of August, when the city empties out, the traffic dwindles to a point where you no longer have to fight with motorcycles and cars for your space on the sidewalk, and exploring the downtown residential areas, business and historical centers in peace is a real pleasure and although the official doors may be locked, there are still plenty of sites to see around Athens:Depending on where you are staying, Syntagma Square is a good point of departure for this “everythings closed, what do I do in Athens” self guided tour. Grab yourself a coffee from somewhere adjacent to the square and stroll through the Square up towards the Parliament Building. Across Vas. Amalias Avenue you’ll find the site of the changing of the guard.The Evzones don’t get the day off, so you’ll still be able to view the changing of the guard here in from of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Since you probably have nowhere special to be on time for, you can always follow them around lovely Vasilias Sophias street, to Herodou Attikou Street, which is around to the back side of the National Gardens, as they return to their barracks in the edge of the Gardens. Continue onward and on your right you’ll have a chance to see both the President’s and the Prime Minister’s residences. While they are the two grandest buildings on the “side” street, they are also the only ones with guards out front, so it should be easy to spot them. I am always amazing when I walk home down this lovely street, with the gardens on one side and the Palace on the other – until the late 1800s this area was actually outside of the city limits of Athens. In fact, everything behind it, toward the Athens Hilton, was farmland and undeveloped except for a private Manor (on the site of today’s Byzantine Museum, and a monastery). It was, back then, considered to be “the country”. The Palace itself was built as the “new” Royal Palace (the “old” Royal Palace is today’s Parliament building) by King George I in honor of the marriage of his son, Crown Prince Konstantine, to Princess Sophia in the late 1890s. It was designed by German architect Ernst Ziller and is typical of his neo-classical designs in combining elements of Greek, Roman, and Renaissance architecture and while I doubt that President Karolos Papoulias will invite you in for a New Year’s day Open House, you can have a bit of a virtual tour here: http://www.presidency.gr/en/ksenaghsh.htm. Across the street is the The Maximos Mansion, the official residence of the Prime Minister, Konstantinos Karamanlis. This mansion was built in 1924 as the home of Dimitrios Maximos, a prominent Greek economist and former Prime Minister (1947). It was designed by Anastasios Chelmis and is a typical one story Neo-classical urban palace with large, airy reception rooms and sitting areas, making it perfect for its first use by the Greek government for hosting official visitors. It did not become the official residence of the Prime Minister until 1982. As you continue onward down Herodou Attikou Street, you’ll end up at Vasilios Konstantinos Street, facing Kallimarmaro Stadio, the old Olympic Stadium. The stadium has many names, but “Kallimarmaro”, which means “beautifully marbled” is my favorite as it is the only major stadium in the world built entirely of white marble (from nearby Mount Penteli). Cross the street to get a closer view of the stadium, and don’t feel like you are missing something because you can’t get inside for a lap or two. Even during normal business hours, the Stadium is gated and locked – visitors can only admire it from outside, but if you turn around and look back towards the National Gardens and Zappeio, you will find a wonderful photo of it full of life during the first modern Olympics in 1896. Incidentally these games were opened on April 6, 1896 and an estimated 80,000 spectators filled the Marble Stadium for opening ceremonies. Once you’ve taken your obligatory photo, walk back towards the large black and white billboard with that 1896 photo and make your way through the National Gardens, or towards the Zappeio building. There is a path from the corner of Vas. Konstantinos and Herodou Attikou Street, the left most path takes you to the Zappeio building, the right path takes you to the National Gardens.
If you have made your way to Zappeio, there’s a chance for a little break at the café / restaurant next to this beautiful building, which also dates back to the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. It was used to host the fencing events, and has since been used by the government when Greece held the presidency of the European Union. It is often used for exhibitions and if it is open it is worth a visit to see the magnificent rotunda. (It also houses the best bathrooms between the Olympic Stadium and Syntagma Square!)
It may or may not be open, but if you have children in your midst there is a really great new playground off of the path to the right. It’s a large playground and has equipment to entertain a wide range of age groups … even adults seem to enjoy the oddly shaped bouncy metal trampoline like thing in the center! After your visit to the Zappeio, take the paved walk toward the fountain in front of the Zappeio toward the Temple of Olympian Zeus. While it may seem most dramatic to stand close to this temple which was finally completed in 124-125 AD, you can get a nice view of it from the road that passes between it and the Zappeio garden area, as well as from the Hadrian’s Arch side if you continue walking toward Vas. Amalias. Once you’ve reached Vas. Amalias, you can cross the street and take the pedestrian path, toward your left, which leads to the Makrigianni neighborhood, past the lovely Art Deco building which may not stand much longer if the New Acropolis Museum builders have their way. From here the path will wind you around the back side of the Acropolis, follow the signs that say Herodious Atticus Theater or Dora Stratou Dance. This path will also pass one of the paths up to Philopappou Hill. If you plan you walk to land you here just before sunset, you can take the path to the Philopappou monument and capture some lovely photos of the Acropolis and the theater. It is a walk many visitors miss, and provides are really breathtaking view. Be sure to bring a flashlight along since it will be dark when the sunsets and you’ll want something to help navigate the steps, which though they are not steep, are inconsistent in size and diameter, making walking them in the dark a bit tricky. Coming back down to the street level, continue to your left into Thissio. Here you can check out which places will be open for dinner, or cross Ermou into Psirri where cafes and restaurants abound. Those Athenians who have finally crawled out of bed will begin to fill the streets of Psirri, and you’ll find plenty of options for both food and drink in this continually gentrifying area.