Marathon to Athens

“The Athens Marathon is like no other on Earth. According to legend, it covers the same ground that the Athenian messenger Phiedippides ran when he brought news of victory from the battlefield of Marathon 2,500 years ago. When you run the Athens Marathon, you run in the very footsteps of the ancient gods and heroes that gave birth to western civilisation. Those who run the Athens Marathon say it is an experience they’ll never forget.”

When Andrew set his sights on running his first full Marathon, he thought what better location than the birthplace of the authentic Marathon in Athens. Andrew’s sister, Rachel, followed suit and also signed up. As for me, who unfortunately didn’t inherit any running genes from Mum and Dad (who both ran Marathon’s) I tagged along as support crew and to check out the sights of this ancient city.

We arrived on Saturday in the late afternoon and had to head straight to collect Andrew’s running pack. By the time we reached our Airbnb and caught up with Rachel it was time for dinner. We stayed in the area of Thesseion (also known as Thissio) which is a historic neighbourhood in the heart of Athens. Just a few minutes down the road we were on Apostolou Pavlou which is the pedestrian street which links up and around to the Acropolis. The walk offers some fantastic views of this historical site and is especially grandiose at night when the structures sitting on the hill glow bright. We choose the rooftop restaurant Sin Athina which boasts spectacular views and some pretty yummy food. I joined in on the carb loading and we indulged in pita bread, pasta, moussaka and chicken dishes.

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After some strategizing and organisational chat for the next day we turned in as Andrew and Rachel had to rise pretty early in order to get to the start line in Marathon for the 9am start. I wished them well and went back to bed for a bit before heading off for some solo exploring. I wandered through the Monastriki area and was followed and then lead by a lovely big dog who took me to Hadrian’s Library, built by the philhellene Roman Emperor Hadrian in 132 A.D.

That’s one thing I noticed about Athens, is the number of dogs and cats on the streets. A lot of the dogs, that looked to be strays, often had collars. I now know that these dogs are not strays but have been adopted by the City of Athens. A few years ago they had a street dog problem and it came down to two options: catch them (and after 90 days shoot them) or adopt them. Nowadays many dogs are sterilised, get regular check-ups and are given a collar which contains some information about the dog. It’s the job of the people of Athens to ensure all dogs are well-fed – how great!

Athens central city is easily walkable, I quickly find myself in Plaka, and sat down for a breakfast spinach pie and smoothie. Skipping the touristy souvenir shops I next wound up at the Arch of Hadrian, built as a triumphal arch, and in order to embellish the -then- new district, constructed mostly during his rule and bearing his name, Hadrianopolis (City of Hadrian). Here you can pay a small entrance fee or peer through the fences as I did to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. No more than 16 of its original columns are still standing so you have to use your imagination to picture how it looked in its glory.

After a lovely stroll through the National Gardens I saw people gathering at the Parliament Buildings in Syntagma Square where the guards (called Evzones) who wear these billowy white dresses and clogs with pompoms were doing their coordinated ‘dance’. Unfortunately I was about an hour too early for the changing of the guards – but I couldn’t hang around as I had some support crew duties!

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The Athens course is perhaps the most difficult major marathon race: the course is uphill from the 10 km mark to the 31 km mark (more than 300m ascent) – the toughest uphill climb of any major marathon – no easy feat! I took the Metro out to the farthest spot I could along the course which was at the 28km mark at Pallini. Using Garmin I was able to live track where Andrew was along the course and was pretty impressed to see him looking and feeling pretty good at 28km. I ran alongside him for all of about 100 metres and wished him well. Due to the staggered starting times I couldn’t see Rachel and then make it back in time to see both of them finish. This plan totally backfired anyway as I didn’t realise that the trains from Pallini back to the city only came every 30mins and just missed the previous one. That meant I was only just hopping off the train when Andrew was crossing the finish line! I was pretty gutted that I missed it and then struggled to find him through all the crowds of runners and spectators!

 

We made our way back into the stadium to see Rachel cross the finish line. The atmosphere here and along the city street was really electric. I’m sure most runners get a pretty giddy feeling running into the Panathenaic Stadium (also known as Kalimarmaro) – the location of the first modern Olympic games held in 1896.

Monday was our only full day available for sightseeing – but Athens is such an accessible city this is probably all you need. I know many people only stopover on their way to the beautiful Greek Islands but I would definitely recommend at least half a day if you can fit it in. After a quick breakfast with some furry friends we started our day at the Acropolis. This ancient citadel dominates Athens high on a rocky outcrop above the city. Here you will find numerous buildings of importance, the most famous of course being the Parthenon.

The most celebrated myths of ancient Athens, its greatest religious festivals, earliest cults and several decisive events in the city’s history are all connected to this precinct. It is truly spectacular place and the craftsmanship and shear size of these structures is amazing.

The view from the Acropolis is also pretty damn good. You can get a 360 degrees view of the famous ruins the sprawling city and out to the coast. Oh and here’s a tortoise we saw on our way up!

We also checked out the Acropolis Museum – this relatively new attraction is built on top on ancient ruins which you can get glimpses of from the entrance balconies and through glass flooring. It houses over 4,000 artifacts found on the Acropolis and its slopes. It is well worth the visit and offers a great history lesson.

On our last night we headed into Psiri – famed as an anti-establishment back in the day people come here for good food and nightlife – though it was a bit quiet being a Monday evening. I hunted out craft beer bar Beertime, one of the few places in Athens to try Greek microbrew beers – I highly recommend their house speciality sausage wrapped cheese bites and the beers were OK. Then we had a nice dinner just around the corner at one of the oldest restaurants in the area which served simple, home-cooked Greek food – a lovely way to end our trip.

The next morning Andrew and I had to make our way to the airport early and didn’t realise that the whole city pretty much shut down in preparation for President Obama to visit – his final foreign trip as president of the United States. Gutted we missed him at the Acropolis!

Stay tuned for our upcoming trips to Copenhagen and Luxembourg in the next coming weeks!

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