Athens, capital of Greece, is an ancient city, with a history going back more than 3000 years. Its influence on Europe is so great that it is called “the cradle of Western civilization”. You go there expecting a living monument to history and culture. The monument is there. But over the millennia, Athens has been attacked by many armies — the Spartans, the Persians, the Romans, the Turks. Bits and pieces of that monument have been destroyed in all those battles.
Yet, among the ruins, history lives.
As you enter the old town of central Athens, the first thing to catch your eye will probably be the Acropolis.
Perched on the highest point of the old town, the Acropolis was built as an impregnable fortress against enemies. The most famous structure in it is the Parthenon, and you will have mixed feelings when you see it for the first time. On the one hand, you are awed by the sense of history. On the other, it has been so damaged over the years that it’s hard to fill in the gaps with your imagination. The cranes engaged in (very long-term) restoration work do not add to the sense of wonder.
So, perhaps the best way to view it is from a distance. Check it out all lit up at night!
The Acropolis is a large complex, and has many other structures that make it worth your while clambering around, even on a hot summer afternoon. The Theater of Odeon was my personal favorite, because it is used as a theater for live performances to this date!
The other thing about the Acropolis is that you mostly get to see the bare bones of the temples. All the intricate carvings have been carefully removed, and are housed in the new Acropolis Museum, which is quite magnificent and beautifully curated, and overlooks the Acropolis itself. But I couldn’t help but wish they had been left on (or restored to) their original monuments. .
Some of the carvings, including the well-known Parthenon Marbles, are in the British Museum in London. To emphasize this point, there are large gaps in the exhibits at the Acropolis Museum. I do think the Greek government is justified in demanding their return. On the other hand, I have never seen a museum I loved quite as much as the British Museum, with its host of treasures acquired (stolen?) from all corners of the world.
Would you like a view of Acropolis from your balcony?
In Athens, we stayed in the bustling historic town center, in a little hotel close to Monastiriki square. You can walk to all the major attractions if you stay here, but you have to contend with the busy streets, where traffic signals are mere suggestions. Of course, you can always escape to the quiet little pedestrian-only slippery side streets of marble and cobblestones. For a little extra local color, the the free walking tour of Athens
is highly recommended.
Within walking distance also is the Ancient Agora, the remnants of the old Greek marketplace. This is the site of the only fully preserved temple in Athens, the Temple of Hephaestus. (No, I do not know how it withstood all those battles. If you know, please tell me in the comments).
A lovely day trip from Athens is to the Temple of Poseidon. You can get an hourly public bus to this, and the 90 minute ride is well worth your while. The magic is not just in the ruins of the temple, it is all about where it is situated — on a cliff at the southern-most point of the peninsula, with the vista of the country-side stretched out in front of you, and the waves beating far below.
A side note. I was expecting to see signs of the recent economic crisis here, but there was nothing to see. In fact, I particularly wondered about the subway stations, which have wide well-maintained squares in font and displays of archaeological treasures inside. Coming from the New York subway system, I was frankly jealous.
How does Greece manage this in the throes of bankruptcy?
Have you been to Athens? What were your impressions? Tell me in the comments below.