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Glories, history live in the heart of Athens

The Parthenon is one of the ancient sites on the Acropolis. Greek coffee can be brewed in heated sand.
The Parthenon is one of the ancient sites on the Acropolis. Greek coffee can be brewed in heated sand.(Photos by Matt Viser/Globe Staff)

ATHENS — People kept telling us we needed only a day or two in the Greek capital. It was dirty. There’s graffiti everywhere. Only a few sites are worth seeing.

With about three days there, we were determined to prove everyone wrong. And we did. Kind of.

I admit my knowledge of ancient Greece had crumbled since high school. Is it the Parthenon or the Pantheon? (It’s the former; the latter is in Rome.) Plato made his mark here, right? (Yes.)

There’s no Trevi Fountain here like there is in Rome, no (tourist-trap) inspired reason to promise to return. It’s not trendy like Paris or exotic like Asia.

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But it is old. Very, very old. And after a while, that history comes to life.

There is something startling about standing in front of a pair of dice that were rolled some 1,600 years ago and thinking about how long people have been gambling and gaming. Or viewing a toddler toilet that dates to the sixth century BC as proof that our ancient ancestors also had to struggle through potty training.

The Acropolis is the absolute must see, and you can really see it from most spots in the city. It’s perched up high, with the old temple easily visible. There are several ancient spots atop the Acropolis, but the best known is the Parthenon, an architectural masterpiece completed in 438 BC.

A Greek flag here is where, legend has it, a soldier was told by the Nazis in 1941 to remove the flag. He did, then draped himself in it, and jumped to his death, one of the early acts of defiance of the Nazis.

The Acropolis Museum, finished in 2009, is extraordinarily well done. It makes a perfect home for the pieces of the Acropolis that Lord Elgin took in the 1800s and are now housed in the British Museum in London. (And it’s hard to walk out of here not feeling like the British have little reason to still be holding onto what should rightfully be the Greeks’.)

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We had one of our best meals at the museum cafe, staring up at the Acropolis.

Just beneath the Acropolis is the Ancient Agora, the ruins from the old city. You walk from the hustle and bustle of modern-day Athens into what the heart of the city used to look like in the days when Plato was attempting to teach philosophy or Paul was trying to spread his religion.

Most of it is artifacts, but there is a museum where the daily life of Grecians — and the early forms of democracy — comes to life.

Inside are pieces of clay where votes were cast to ostracize a traitor or criminal from Athens for 10 years. There’s an old machine that was used to determine who had to serve on jury duty. And there’s a type of hydraulic clock that was used to limit the time that politicians could speak in the 5th century BC. (The water bucket took about six minutes to empty.)

We visited the Panathenaic Stadium, which hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896. But it was first built in the fourth century BC, and has been rebuilt several times. The place offers a great audio tour and, at the end, you can run on the track and stand on a podium and strike a pose.

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Athens felt far removed from our oasis on Santorini, where we had spent the previous four days. Once in the city, our guidebooks came out and the antenna for pickpockets went up.

We took a break from Athens one day to go to Hydra. It’s an easy day trip, with a ferry that takes about 90 minutes each way.

The island has no cars (save for a dump truck we saw), so we spent the day walking. Part of it we spent in the port, which offers quaint shops and restaurants along windy alleys, and part we spent walking several miles along a nature trail to small beaches and overlooks.

Before taking the last ferry back to Athens, we watched the sun go down with a feast at a a restaurant perfectly named Sunset.

Greek coffee being brewed.
Greek coffee being brewed.(Matt Viser/Globe Staff)

I’m a coffee hound, so that was an integral part of our Athenian adventure.

The country is known for its frappes. But these are basically Nescafe instant coffee combined with milk and poured over ice. I tried several and was not satisfied.

The cappuccino freddo was another story. It’s a refreshing drink that is most comparable to an iced cappuccino. But better. And we stopped probably every few hours to enjoy one.

But by far my favorite coffee experience was a taste of the old: Greek coffee, done right and with some flair. We stumbled on a place called Mokka Specialty Coffee, near a central market that also features fish, cheese, and every kind of meat you could want (some still on the animal).

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Inside the cafe, a barista stands at a long table covered in sand with a heat source underneath. When you order the coffee, he takes a brass cup with a handle and puts ground coffee in it. He adds a little sugar (or a lot, if you ask for it) and then some hot water. He stands the cup in the sand for several minutes for the coffee to brew.

When it’s brewed, everything gets poured into a cup for drinking. There’s a lot of sediment since the coffee grounds are in there . Wait a minute or two and they settle to the bottom.

On the side is a gummy treat called loukoumi (the Greek version of Turkish delight), a nice sweet confection to accompany your coffee.

Is the economy here in shambles? Yes, but we didn’t notice much of that impact in the touristy areas we frequented. Is there a lot of graffiti? Sure. Stray cats? Yeah.

But for thousands of years, Athens has not been a place to ignore. Nor should it be now.


Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.