Where do one start with one of the world’s oldest cities, with its recorded history spanning around 3,400 years? The shear age of it is mind-boggling at best of times and so is the structures that still remains for thousands of years. I cannot do justice to this amazing site on paper…I hope some of the pictures will fill in where I am lost for words and had to leave it up to the imagination.
When we were in Athens in 1988, the impact of Athens started at the airport (the old one)! It happens to be my first encounter with an international airport in Europe, and the disappointment was massive! It was a grey, dirty, unfurnished, paint peeling and just shabby building with an unwelcoming feel to it! I remember Athens to be overwhelmingly hot, dusty and polluted and except for the Acropolis that was phenomenal but very confusing with massive amounts of rubble and scaffolding (which made it hard to even take a good picture) I cannot remember enjoying much of the tacky city of Athens.
This time round, I have to say, Athens gave me everything I was expecting the first time round! With noticeable less pollution, spotless parks and streets, an ultra-modern subway with clean metro trains, new free-ways, an accessible airport and all signs in perfect English make the city easily negotiable and a pleasure to be around.
We docked at the Athens Marina (newly built for the 2004 Olympic Games, just below the Peace and Friendship stadium in Faliro Bay, the seafront of Athens and just 7 km from the city centre. The Marina is designed to cater for mega and super yachts but thankfully, it was not full and we were welcomed by their very competent and helpful staff. From the marina it was just a short walk (and an even shorter cycle) to the metro from where we could reach the main spots within minutes.
Strolling does not happen in Athens – it takes Walking! The distances between sites are large and it takes more time than you would think. It is still a wonderful walk if you follow the walking tours / trails. The parks are beautiful and lush and the sites well maintained and clean. A large part of the town’s historic centre has been converted into a 3-kilometre pedestrian zone (the largest in Europe), leading to the major archaeological sites (“archaeological park”) and makes it a pleasure to follow.
Visiting the NATIONAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM OF ATHENS was something we just could not fit in the previous time we were there, and although it took us close to 4 hours to go through this fantastic museum, it is brilliant!It is a relatively small museum but with an interesting collection of artefacts.
There are Roman, Nabatean, Neolithic, Byzantine, Islamic and Christian pieces including some Dead Sea Scrolls and even a 8000+ year old human on display! It is great that photography is allowed which was not the case in the new Acropolis Museum.
It was a long day, and there is hardly anywhere to sit down while going through the museum…be aware…not everything with a box-like shape the size of a bench is meant for sitting down!! I was really tired by the end of it and found this welcome site of a grey wooden bench … just to be chased off by the officials. Apparently that was a box to cover some plumbing! Make sure you have comfortable shoes, a bottle of water and at lease there is the little cafeteria in the museum – a welcome break to recharge before continuing!
And then there was the Plaka! The oldest district of Athens, Plaka, is a mosaic of monuments of all periods, and the heart of the city from Antiquity until modern times. Several small churches, a mosque, an Ottoman bath and the first university of Greece, as well as the Roman Agora, makes for a wonderful walk at day and night! After a walk through its narrow streets of the Plaka, we enjoyed a cold beer in one of the little taverns under the Acropolis. A vibe you will not forget! It is a great mix of character, colour, ancient buildings and marble pathways with people sitting on steep inclining steps and around small tables drinking wine, chatting and just enjoying the music and atmosphere of this wonderful neighbourhood!
We took a taxi to one of the most amazing views over the city and the original Olimpic Stadium. The traffic was noticeably less than what we can remember. The taxi driver mentioned to us that a million cars have been taken off the roads in the last 2 years because people just could not afford (in the economic crunch they have been experiencing the last 2 years) the registration fees. Less traffic means less pollution and it was a welcome sight! The view was amazing and certainly worth paying the 25 Euro for an hour drive around!
The next day was set aside for the Acropolis. Acropolis is nominated to be one of the 7 wonders of modern world. Hardly anyone will go to Athens without visiting the Acropolis. There again – the site has been cleaned up and we were amazed by how much reconstruction of the Parthenon has been done since we have last been there. It is done in such a way that you can clearly identify the old from the new (they are using a lighter shade of marble to replace the missing elements). It must be a massive forever ongoing project!
The Parthenon is the most important and characteristic monument of the ancient Greek civilization. It was dedicated to Athena Parthenos (the Virgin), the patron goddess of Athens. It was built between 447 and 438 B.C. What a pleasure it has been to walk around this magnificent sight and the Parthenon that has been altered and destroyed many a times over the years. It is so sad to think that this massive construction, that takes so much effort, architectural design, engineering cleverness and artistic skills and input to erect as a Temple for Athena has almost been bastardised by each and every ruler of the city and changed into a different church and design to suit them.
Over the centuries the Parthenon was converted into a Byzantine church, a Latin church and a Muslim mosque. The Turks used the Parthenon as a powder magazine when the Venetians sieged the Acropolis in 1687. One of the Venetian bombs fell on the Parthenon and caused a massive explosion that destroyed a great part of the monument.
That was not the end of the destruction. Disaster struck again in the beginning of the 19th century, when the British ambassador in Constantinople, Lord Elgin, stole the greatest part of the sculptural decoration of the monument (statues that formed an integral part of the structural support of the roof) that caused it to collapse completely. They should have prosecuted and sentenced him to hard labour on the Acropolis to repair the destruction he brought about!! Instead, he hugely benefited financially from his loot. He transferred the sculptures to England and sold them to the British Museum. (Where they are still exhibited, being one of the most significant collections of the museum.) All very sad, but at least it is still around.
This amazingly impressive structure will never cease to capture the gazes and admiration of mankind! We were standing there for hours looking at this phenomenal monument, thinking of the difficulties they must have had to erect it, and the time and craftsmanship that went into the artwork that is incorporated into the pediments at the front and back of the Parthenon as well as the friezes, (which are blocks of marble art of 1 meter high and 160 meters long) that runs on a continuous line all around the exterior wall of the Parthenon.
It is just indescribable! Magical. Beyond belief. To be at a structure that was built so long ago and with so much precision was just beyond wonderful! The sculptures of the Parthenon pediments are some of the finest examples of classical Greek art. The figures are sculpted in natural movement with bodies full of vital energy. The friezes depict the people of Athens, their daily lives and their festivals and rituals.
The new Acropolis Museum just below the Acropolis, a wonderful modern steel and glass building has wonderful artefacts of the Acropolis and great replicas of what the Acropolis used to look like originally (and a brilliant collection of the frieze art) and what the original artistic façades/ pediments looked like! A video that is shown on the second floor is a must see. A greatly animated but realistic enough to imagine how it was built and what has happened to the Acropolis over the thousands for years was an eye-opener!
We treated ourselves to a Sedgway Tour on our last day in Athens! What a way to get around the sights around Athens! This 2 hour tour, led by a local guide in a group of 9! On your self-balancing electric Segways, we glide through the streets and up hills and around sites that would have been impossible to reach by car or bus and would have taken us a full day to walk … and a set of very tired legs at the end of the day!!
Covering a large area visiting places like the bustling Monastiraki, the quarter that’s famous for its colourful flea market and gliding past the ruins of Hadrian’s Library, the district of Thiseio home to the Ancient Agora of Athens, the incredible Rock of Ares (Aereopagus) and the marvellous panoramic views over the city and much, much more. Stopping for pictures and some info from the guide was just what we needed to do being short on time. It was quick and easy (the training took 10 min and we got the hang of it pretty quick!) and heaps of fun! The outlook points in the late afternoon gave us the opportunity to take the most wonderful panoramic pictures of Athens and the Acropolis.
Watch out! I am hooked on one Sedgway! Wherever I can find one to do a tour, this would be my preferred way! It might even be my next city hopper vehicle in future! It certainly was worth every bit of the €35 we have spent!
There is a few things that I found pretty sad about Athens that they could and should improve on. The first will have to be the amount of graffiti around the entire town; indiscreetly scribbled on lovely old and new buildings and subways! The trains were not spared but at least those showed some planned form of graffiti art that I can live with if it is done with a bit of design. The street graffiti was bluntly revolting, messy and looks like a violation of a beautiful city!
The other thorn in my flesh is the amount of stray cats and dogs. Nowhere in the world have we seen that many large abandoned dogs than here in Athens. The cats and dogs all look sickly and underfed and should be either taken off the streets and fed and cared for or been put out of their misery. For some reason nothing much is done about this issue as if it will just disappear in time.
Athens was where I finally said goodbye to Annemie (my sister) after 2 weeks and it was the pick-up point of our next group of guests on Scolamanzi. We happened to celebrate our 29th anniversary the night we met up with Ben and Dianne at the wonderful rooftop restaurant in Thiseio, overlooking the Acropolis, lit in all its glory after sunset.
The next day will be the start of our voyage through the Cyclades with Ben, Hendri and the two Dianne’s! 10 days of fun, sun, blue water, beautiful sights and lots of Greek food, Greek wine and Mythos beer!