Cheap Aegean Airlines flights between two cities outside of Greece without an overnight layover in Athens are harder to find than a same-day two segment flight. When planning my trip to Europe, I was not feeling into Athens and did not want to stay overnight.
From Nice, France to Sofia, Bulgaria was one of the cheapest Aegean Airlines two flight segments ticket I could book at $77 one way. Thessaloniki, Greece was similarly priced and I thought about spending four days there at the Hyatt Regency, but that did not interest me as much as flying to Sofia and getting myself to Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
In February 2017, I went on a free walking tour during a three night trip to Sofia, Bulgaria. The guide enthusiastically recommended visiting Plovdiv while in Bulgaria. He said it was a very cool place for tourists. Sofia to Plovdiv is a 2.5 hour train ride.
My main objective for the week in Europe after Nice and Monaco was fly four Aegean flight segments as a major step in reaching Aegean Miles+Bonus Gold elite with Star Alliance Gold elite benefits. Sofia to Prague was only $55 on Aegean Airlines, so Bulgaria won out over Greece as my destination and solution to flying four Aegean flight segments Nice – Athens, Athens – Sofia, Sofia – Athens, Athens – Prague, while also getting myself back to Prague for my British Airways flight home to San Jose, California.
Nice to Sofia flights placed me in Athens Airport with a 4:35 hours layover from 14:25 to 19:00. Sofia to Prague flights four days later had only 80 minutes in Athens Airport between flights. My initial plan upon arrival from Nice was to stay in Athens Airport for the afternoon and write a Loyalty Traveler article while waiting for the evening flight to Sofia.
Sudden Urge for Athens
As I walked through Athens Airport terminal heading to the transfer area for non-Schengen flights, which is the part of the airport for flights to Bulgaria, I passed by an Athens Tourist Information booth. I stopped and asked the representative speaking my California English,
Me – “How long does it take to get to Athens by public transportation? If I go to only one place for two hours, where should I go in Athens?”
Greek guy – “The Metro takes 45 minutes to travel to Syntagma Square or Monastiraki Square. Those are in the center of Athens around many historical sites.”
Me – “How much does the metro cost?”
Greek guy – “10 EUR from the airport to the city.”
At 14:40 with the flight to Sofia departing 19:00, I figured I could be in Athens by 16:00, walk around for one hour, and be back at the airport by 18:00. Sufficient time to get through security and make my flight to Sofia, Bulgaria on Olympic Air, Aegean’s regional subsidiary airline.
Metro to Athens – 10 EUR and 45 minutes one way
Athens map in hand, I wheeled my luggage out of the airport terminal following signs for the Metro. I figured even one hour in downtown Athens would be worth 20 EUR for the experience of actually walking around central Athens. At the very least, I can authentically say I have been to Greece. Airport transits don’t really count as having been to a country in my personal travel schema.
Even better than 10 euro one way, the Metro ticket only cost 18 EUR for a round trip within 48 hours.
The clock on the Metro platform read 2:52pm with a 15:00 train departure to Athens.
Seated on the metro, I counted 16 stops from Athens Airport to Monastiraki Metro Station.
Airport Metro train luggage racks in the cars.
I viewed the countryside around the airport as we passed through primarily agricultural land dotted with olive groves. I spy a herd of sheep in a field. Hurtling through land space of real Greece seemed so ‘Greek’ to me. Riding public transportation in another country with locals counts as a significant cultural experience for me in my personal travel schema.
From the plane window seat approaching Athens Airport ATH, I had seen hills between the valley between Athens Airport, east of the city and urban Athens on the western side of the hills.
The Metro train went underground after five stops. The train arrived at Monastiraki Square at 15:45 exactly. A 45-minute ride from the airport, just like Greek Guy said.
After taking escalators from Monastiraki Square up to the lobby area, I saw a schedule on the wall showing Metro trains to the airport run every 30 minutes. I needed to be at Monastiraki at 17:04 or Syntagma at 17:06 without fail for the Metro train back to the airport by 18:00.
Outside in the daylight again about 15:50, I suddenly found myself in the thick of Athens in a densely urban square filled with fruit vendors and crowds of people in front of me. The sign for Athens Flea Market hung over an alley to my left.
I was a little nervous after having been pickpocketed for the first time ever in Prague last July without feeling anything out of the ordinary; just a bit of people bumping in a crowded spot. Wearing a backpack, pulling my roller bag and a Nikon camera around my neck made me a walking tourist magnet for potential thieves. I moved cautiously through Monastiraki Square taking care to avoid groups of people where I would be touched as they tried to walk around me and my roller bag. I gravitated to open space in the square.
Standing in Monastiraki Square I looked at my map and thought I would try and walk to Syntagma Square and see architectural and significant tourist sights between the two Metro stations. Check out the street scenes too.
Walking the streets of Athens turned out to be a far more difficult task than I anticipated.
Wearing an Argentina ‘Messi’ football jersey as the lightest color, lightweight shirt I had for the clear sky 75F afternoon temperature seemed to motivate many street vendors to yell at me as I passed by the stalls, “Hey Messi” or “Hey Argentina”, generally pointing to some item in their street space for sale to a tourist like me.
Streets were filled with cars, and either slowed to a crawl due to all the tourists crossing roads or cars and large vehicles accelerated along the street forcing tourists to stay on the sidewalk, if one was an option on that stretch.
Packed cafes and bars with drink menu boards on the sidewalks were prevalent on a couple of streets I walked. They looked like there might be a good time to be had if I were in that frame of mind, but I wanted to find some photo opportunities and not a bar for a drink. Sidewalk cafe seating on some streets forced pedestrians to either walk between tables or step out into the street and dodge cars, trucks and motorbikes. Building fronts were mostly cafes, bars, retail shops and tourist vendors.
Hundreds of tourists and other people moved in every direction. Walking on the narrow sidewalks was a constant stop and go for me with my roller bag to let groups of people pass. So many roads I turned to walk on were crammed full of people or cars.
I ended up making street turns just to move into less dense pedestrian traffic, while also trying to remain cognizant of my general direction and location to stay within the proximity of where I thought Monastiraki Square Metro Station was located. I did not want to find myself out of range to be back at the Metro by 17:04 for the airport train. I tossed my plan to try and walk to Syntagma Square.
I can’t even approximate on a map of where I walked. I don’t think I wandered more than three or four blocks away from Monastiraki Square as I turned and turned and turned seeking open space.
There were modern retail shops
and old churches.
Eventually I found less crowded streets with ancient ruins of the Roman Agora, only a couple of street blocks from Monastiraki Square.
An older long haired man played guitar under a shade tree singing a song in Greek. His music chilled me out a bit.
A street cat walked past, also helping soothe my somewhat frazzled brain after 30 minutes walking hectic streets of Athens.
Nobody around me was trying to sell me anything as I walked the streets along the perimeter of the Roman Agora.
A small park square. A dozen or so young people on a wall drank beers in the shade of trees. A few played acoustic guitars, more sang songs.
Looked like a laid back place to hang out with a beer. My hour of time was closing out. I needed to head back to Monastiraki Square.
A Middle Eastern woman sat on the curb in the sun with a charity bowl in her hands saying something in a language I did not understand. Her purpose I did understand. Around the corner a boy in the alley, maybe 8 or 9 years old, sat in a shaded doorway playing an accordion. He played well. Few tourists were on this section of street. I noticed the beggar woman had line of sight to the boy musician. Was she his mother?
I passed more street vendors when a man approached me holding a blue plastic bag and spoke:
I responded affirmatively.
He opened the plastic bag and lifted out a box for me to see.
“Brand new iPhone. I sell to you 200 EUR.”
Me: “No. I have an iPhone already.”
“This is brand new phone. What you pay for it?”
Me: “I don’t want an iPhone.”
“Why not? It brand new iPhone still in box. For you Messi, I sell for 100 EUR. Only 100 EUR. You buy it.”
I don’t want an iPhone.”
He continued the hard sell at 100 EUR as I walked back into Monastiraki Square to the Metro station entrance.
In the open space of the square, he finally conceded I was not a buyer and left me. He headed down the alley of Athens Flea Market.
Time to stamp my ticket out of Athens
Inside Monastiraki Metro station there were large board signs describing archaeological finds as old as 8th century B.C. during the construction of the Metro. I had ten minutes before my train to the airport departed. Sufficient time to look at some old brickwork and read large signs on top of a platform lining one side of the under street level room in Monastiraki Metro station.
I walked along the elevated clear platform reading information boards. Luckily I spotted the large pile of fresh vomit near the end of the clear plexiglass walkway before stepping on it.
I was ready to get out of Athens.
Back on the Metro, I was back in Athens Airport before 18:00. Sufficient time to get through security and make my 19:00 flight to Sofia.
Ironically, on the flight to Sofia, I read an Aegean Airlines inflight magazine article about the National Garden in Athens. The article described a green oasis right in the center of Athens, where people escape the hectic city streets for peaceful strolls through green space. Many cats roam among ruins and numerous species of plants in the National Garden of Athens.
The National Garden of Athens is free admission.
The National Garden of Athens is located by Syntagma Square Metro Station, the other Metro station in central Athens the tourism representative at Athens Airport had suggested to me as a good place to visit.
At least now I can say truthfully, I have been to Athens, Greece.
Next time in Athens, I’ll know a trip to Syntagma Square is likely to be more in line with my travel walking desires.