It was now almost 9:00 o’clock, but our Cunard liaison had told us on the way in to town that Athenians usually ate later in the evening, after dark, because of the heat during the day. (Not a problem on this evening, but anyway …) After selling us our day trip to Mycenae, the concierge provided us with a city map and directions to a couple of recommended restaurants in the Plaka area and we headed out.
The Grande Bretagne is located on Syntagmatos or Constitution Square. The street we were looking for was called Nikis and was reached by a connecting street on the far side of the square. The fastest way to get there would be to jaywalk over to the square, then walk through the to the opposite side. However, all of the streets bordering the square are main thoroughfares, so traffic is heavy – think congestion, drivers nipping in to any (tiny) open space available and a constant honking of horns along with bellows and shaking fists. Athenians are energetic and rather enthusiastic drivers. Since squashed tourists are probably not good for the hotel’s reputation, the concierge had us walk to the lights at the end of the street and turn left, toward the Plaka, skirting the park. We never did get into the square.
The area we were in is, as you might expect being near the parliament buildings, a high-end part of town. Constitution Square is an elegant, groomed park with large plantings of trees traversed by stone pathways. The nearby parliament buildings are bordered by the green of the expansive National Gardens. The Grande Bretagne itself has a beautiful, clean façade of white stone decorated with wrought iron grillwork and stone carvings. Further up the street are other, equally handsome hotels. At the end of the street, where we turned to our left, the real Athens starts to come to life.
Utilitarian highrise buildings are set back from the road, leaving a sidewalk wide enough to house news kiosks and even a rudimentary MacDonalds on the corner we were heading toward. The buildings looked to have been constructed somewhere in the second half of the twentieth century and there was nothing special about them, except the graffiti. No clean white surface here. Graffiti of all kinds ruled.
With horns honking and cars wizzing past we continued toward the MacDonalds and our next turning spot. We found the connecting street that would take us into the Plaka and set our sights for Nikis Street.
So far we figured we were doing pretty well, navigating on our own in a city that speaks a very different language and provides written information using a different alphabet. As soon as we got into the Plaka, however, we were in trouble.
At this point I have to put in a word of defense for myself. I am pretty good at reading maps. I like reading maps, because I like knowing where I am and how I got there. It is not my fault that we got totally lost in the Plaka, even though I was the map reader. The map the hotel provided was printed in English, using the English alphabet. The street names in the Plaka are in Greek. I could have handled that, but not surprisingly the street signs use the Greek alphabet. Some streets had the name written in both alphabets. Some were just in the Greek script. Some didn’t have names at all.
We never did find Nikis Street or the two restaurants the concierge suggested. Instead we found something better.