Athens: all the classics

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

After some seriously rocky adventures on Kefallonia I was kind of looking forward to heading back to big-city civilisation. The Greek islands have great potential but they can be very hard work, especially so if you visit outside of high season. To be honest I felt the least welcome of any place on my travels whilst being in these islands becaus eof grumpy locals, over-priced food and accommodation, difficulty in getting places and the generally slapstick service.

Maybe it's a Greek thing, maybe it's just that they're sick of tourists because they've been coming here for thousands of years. Whatever. All that has resulted in a collective fatigue which means I'm in less than an optimum condition to write this entry about Athens, which needs to cover many weird, wonderful and important things. I hope I do it justice so please bear with me.

Before setting out this time I did manage a good night's sleep in Patras, Greece's third largest city, which is a nice place and unusual for its precise grid layout and a high proportion of attractive, beardless women. Rest meant I was alert enough to get a quick look at the Corinth Canal as the train to Athens zoomed past. The wafer thin canal has effectively made the Peloponnesus an island, severing it from the mainland at its narrowest point - the Isthmus of Corinth. I don't know how ships actually fit through as it's so narrow and constricted, but Ionian and Aegean shipping is a lot more cost-effective no doubt.

It was a pertinent first sight to see approaching the capital as Greeks have been tramping up and down the Isthmus since time immemorial and many of the turning points of Hellenic history revolved around this part of the country. And what an amazing history, over the 1,500 years to around the birth of Christ it must have been, that hopefully the following sights and images will attest.

First stop was the Acropolis, pretty much as soon as it opened next morning to avoid the bulk of the package tour crowds. A glorious sunny day greeted us early risers as we gazed down over the city from the imposing plateau and the smog hadn't quite built up to its usual levels to obscure long range views of the Saronic coast, which was a definite added bonus.

Most buildings here date from around the 5th century BC - ancient Athens' glory days after Kleisthenes introduced the concept of democracy in 507BC coupled with eventual defeat of the pesky Persians in the battles of Marathon and Salamis. Pericles got the construction ball rolling whilst Socrates taught the population to think and the city bloomed into the most advanced state the world had ever seen, despite the extremely volatile times it emerged from.

Everyone knows the Parthenon (above right) with its incredibly imposing and mathematically amazing edifice (the columns are precisely tapered to ensure it's perfectly proportioned and does not appear 'top heavy'), but a variety of other interesting structures can be found nearby and on the hillsides leading to the Acropolis.

The Propylaia was the entrance to the Acropolis in ancient times, a monumental gateway towering over all who entered. Unfortunately it and the adjacent Temple of Athena Nike are covered in scaffolding at the moment so picturing them wouldn't do justice. The Theatre of Herodus Atticus has been renovated which plainly shows what a grand amphitheatre it must have been in its day.

But it is the Erechtheion with its six maidens holding up a southern portico that steal the show. Golden rays of sunshine shone through and made it a sight to behold.

The Acropolis has withstood the elements of ages as well as Venetian shelling, a gun-powder explosion and a general ransacking by Lord Elgin in the name of the English sovereign, meaning that the facades are looking slightly worse for wear and some elements are faithful copies of originals housed elsewhere. There are extensive restoration efforts taking place across the site, including the Parthenon, which means for the foreseeable future visitors will not be able to see most buildings without a shroud of scaffolding to mar the scene. Also the Acropolis Museum didn't open until the well coordinated time of 11am, so if you come early you will probably miss it.

To get a good long-range view of the city and its crowning glory a quick jog up the Hill of the Muses was in order. Nary a soul was up there so I had bizarre carvings of nymphs, a 12 metre high grave marker and some spectacular views all to myself. This ten minute climb certainly pays dividends and does not take you too far off the track.

Hence I had little trouble finding the Ancient and Roman Agoras - the market and general gathering places of the day. The Ancient Agora in particular is a strange jumble of buildings, statues, altars, carvings, ruined foundations and egg-shaped oddities - many dating back to the 5th or 6th centuries BC whilst others are relatively new from the late Roman age (3rd century AD and beyond).

The Temple of Hephaestus is arguably the most intact ruin which can be found in Athens (see above - centre left and centre photos) whilst an extremely long reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos (above right) again shows the scale and precision of construction at this early time. It houses a collection of marble carvings and statues that student artists were figuratively deconstructing at the time I was there.

Just west of the Ancient Agora is the newer Roman version, built as the city's needs expanded in later times. Probably the most unusual ancient structure in town can be found here - the Tower of the Winds - which was built by a Syrian astronomer and the faces of which depicts carvings of different winds. Not sure what it was actually used for but it definitely qualifies as an interesting sight, poking out of the eroded foundations which surround it.

Being the Greek Orthodox Christian stronghold, churches also feature prominently around town. In the Plaka area, which surrounds most of the ancient ruins, the oldest and most ornate examples can be found. I didn't really have time to study or explore them in detail en route to the classics but many have striking external decoration (no doubt internally as well), both in old carved masonry style and in the newer chapel fashion which seems to be intricately painted icons and lustrous wallpaper over whitewashing.

On a roll I kept moving to more of the great sights. You get six attractions on one ticket for 12 euro (6 if you're a student!) and they are so close together you might as well see them all, which meant a trip over the southern end of the Acropolis plateau to the Theatre of Dionysis (where little remains except wandering turtles), then onward to the massive Temple of Olympian Zeus. This monster was started in the 6th century BC and took until Emperor Hadrian's time, 700 years later, to complete! I wonder if the locals moaned about that project management blunder over generations? 'Oh Stephanopolos - it's such an eye-sore. They should just put up the last columns and be done with it...'

It now sits in a broad grassy field surrounded by razed ruins and scrub on most sides, making it a perfect place to stop for a rest or a picnic. Only 15 of its 104 Corinthian columns remain, but at 17 metres high and 1.7 metres in diameter at their base they still show how massive the original temple must have been. And just a little further on is the Roman stadium, an enormous athletic space faithfully reconstructed in 1895 for the first modern Olympics (held here in 1896). That would have been a bizarre spectacle in this elongated horseshoe-shaped field!

Being last but not least, these two sights were my favourites as they combined scale with a solitude that really helped the imagination picture an ancient Athens in my mind. Bold and brutal, arrogant but enlightened, the Hellenes are often overshadowed by later Roman achievements but deserve much credit for developing the world's first classical civilisation.

The National Archaeological Museum a couple of suburbs north in Onomia confirms this in spades, showing the most important artefacts retrieved from excavations of Hellenic cities throughout the ages - from Neolithic times to those of the Roman empire. The Mycenaean gold is more extensive and beautiful than you could have imagined from the museum on that site, with row upon row of funerary mask, cup and chalice, button and badge displayed with hundreds of other items of jewelry. The museum even contains numerous examples basic Neolithic goldsmithing, well before the Mycenaeans.

It is a huge building, containing dozens of rooms filled with amazing works from all the ages. Cycladean marble figurines (the one pictured is 1.5 metres high!), hundreds of statues, striking geometric and red figure pottery, frescos and bronzes, things that looked like waffle irons and the famous Antikythera Mechanism - a 'calendrical sun and moon computing machine' from 80 BC (a recreation is pictured above). My favourite was the bronze Augustus at left, apparently fished from the Aegean sea in good condition not so long ago.

To do this place justice you really should devote half a day to it, refreshed so you can walk, enjoy and take everything in.

So that was Athens - somewhere I never really had a great desire to visit but in which I had a good time all the same. With much good fortune I happened to bump into a traveller called Chris I'd met back in Yangon so long ago - such a small world... Garbage men had returned to work so there was no stink or piles of trash as feared, whilst the weather was fine and it was nowhere near as polluted as I expected. It's not hard to get around and central Athens is a very pleasant and cosmopolitan place to hang out in. I highly recommended at stopover (at the right time of year).

Next entry -> firework fiesta: a Battle of the Churches on Chios

Words from the Wise #58

"There is no deadlier combination than a bookworm and a megalomaniac. It is, for example, the condition of many novelists and travellers."
Paul Thoreux - Dark Star Safari
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