The modern-day Athens took us by surprise. It was not the Athens we pictured in our mind. It was not a charming or romantic city we assumed it would be. It definitely lacked the polish and sexiness of other European capitals. Walking in its street felt like walking in a big city of a developing Asian country. It was grungy, it was smoggy, its traffic was crazy, and it was scorching hot in mid-September. In other words, we didn’t fall in love with modern Athens.
However, we did enjoy Athens! Instead of focusing on its disappointing side, we decided to focus on what it offers best, mainly the glorious antiquities from its splendid ancient past and the warmth and hospitality of its people. For us, those are what give Athens its soul, the one we fell in love with.
There it is, the glory of the ancient citadel of Acropolis, the “Sacred Rock,” the most important ancient monument in Europe. This is what you go to Athens for! Most of the buildings that stand here today were built in the 5th century BC. We’re talking about 2,500 years old! Just having one of its ancient columns standing upright today is beyond amazing.
- The Acropolis (“High City”) was a military fortress during the neolithic age. Its location was considered an ideal defense from invaders.
- People inhabited Acropolis starting in the Mycenean era (1900-1100 c BC) but was vacated in late 6th century BC when the powerful Oracle of Delphi proclaimed that Acropolis should only be a province for the Gods.
- In 5th century BC, Pericles, a great statement of Athens, embarked into massive program of rebuilding Acropolis into a City of Great Temples, which we came to know today as the symbol of classical Greek achievement.
We climbed Acropolis slowly but surely (heat and smog didn’t make it easy) from the south slope where were stumbled into Asclepion, a shrine dating back from 420 BC for the worship of Asclepius, who was the physician son of Apollo.
Further west from Asclepion is a structure from the Roman era, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a musical theater built in 161 AD by Herodes Atticus in memory of his wife Regallia. It has been restored and is being used today for various musical events.
Did you know that Parthenon was converted into a mosque in the 1460’s during the Ottoman Turks’ occupation? It eventually became a storage facility for the Ottoman’s ammunition and in 1687, the Venetian bombarded the building causing the stored ammunition to explode, which severely damaged Parthenon and its sculptures.
We were thrilled to be standing in front of the great monument that epitomizes Greek’s ancient glory.
We were imagining how magnificent it must have looked when the friezes were adorning the area above the Doric columns. Those friezes and other sculptures were removed in the 19th century by Lord Elgin, a British Ambassador to Greece during the Ottoman rule, and are now part of the controversial Elgin Marbles collection on display in the British Museum.
The Parthenon in its scaffolded glory. A lot of people expressed disappointment in seeing one of the world’s most celebrated ancient structure in this unsightly state. We must remember that this structure is more than 2,500 years old and it deserves all the loving care it can get.
The elegant Ionic columns that support the northern porch of Erechtheion.
The ground where Erechtheion stands is consider the most sacred part of Acropolis. It was where the god Poseidon and goddess Athena competed over who would be named patron of the city. Poseidon thrust his trident into a rock and it turned into salt water well. Athena touched the ground with her spear and an olive tree sprung. Athena was declared a victor and the city was named for her.
The Plaka is the oldest neighborhood in Athens located in the northeastern slope of the Acropolis and in close to proximity to most city’s ancient sites. It is lined with tavernas and cafes and provides pleasant break in between ruin hopping.
Plaka maybe touristy but we enjoyed its pleasant and lively atmosphere. We actually found it the most charming neighborhood in Athens. Besides, its narrow streets are for pedestrians only, thus, providing nice respite from traffic noises and fumes.
THE ANCIENT AGORA
The Agora was a marketplace as well as the center for the political, commercial and social activities of Ancient Athens. It was first developed in the 6th century BC and where the ancient Greek democracy was born.
This is the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, the original of which was built in 159 BC by King Attalos and was considered the most impressive stoa in Ancient Agora. A stoa is a Greek structure of covered colonnades where merchants trade their goods. The Stoa of Attalos housed high-end shops that catered to wealthy Athenians. The reconstructed stoa is used as Agora Museum. It is a good place to start exploration of the site.
One of the statues on display in Agora Museum. This was how a face from the 2nd century BC looked like.
The Temple of Hephaestus, also called Hephaisteion, was dedicated to Hephaestus who was the patron god of metalworkers and craftsmen. The temple was surrounded by metalwork shops and pottery workshops.
THE ROMAN ATHENS
The Romans ruled Athens from 86 BC to 267 AD during which a significant reconstruction was undertaken. Remains of some of their structures can still be seen today.
Located in the National Gardens are the remains of the Roman Baths dating back from 3rd century AD. The well-preserved complex of baths were discovered during an excavation work for the construction of ventilation shafts for Athens Metro. It was made accessible to the public in 2004.
Located north of Acropolis is the The Library of Hadrian, built by Emperor Hadrian in around 132 AD. Although called a library, it is actually a multi-purpose complex that also housed a cultural center, garden, public square, art works, etc.
East of Hadrian Library lies the Roman Agora, which became the main market place of Athens replacing the Greek Agora as the center of commerce. The entrance to the agora is through this well-preserved Gate of Athena built in 1st century AD and was funded by Julius Ceasar and Augustus.
THE NATIONAL ARCHEOLOGICAL MUSEUM
We believe that the National Archeological Museum is something not to be missed when visiting Athens. It contains the richest collection of Greek artifacts and is said to one of the greatest museum in the world. Below are some of the exhibits we found remarkable.
A statue of Aphrodite from 2nd century AD.
THE BIG FAT GREEK BBQ
On our last evening in Athens, we had a great pleasure of experiencing Greek hospitality at its best.
George was a Greek acquaintance from our neighborhood. He was in Athens visiting his family at the same time we were in the city. He invited us to his family’s Greek version of a BBQ party. Having only wonderful encounters with local people we met, we could not pass it up.
Opa! It was a great evening. There was a lot of eating, a lot of drinking, and a lot of Greek dancing. It was also a wonderful display of Greek’s zest for life. It was a great ending and one of the highlights of our travel in Greece.
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