Olympic city

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Olympic city

Two words best describe Athens — must see. On all the four days we spent there, our legs were sore from all the walking and our hands numb from the cold, but our spirits soared. The lovely city is enchanting.

Athens has always conjured up images of majestic architecture, gods and goddesses, philosophers and poets and ancient Olympics. The city lives up to all this. However, Athens is also a modern city. It has the best brand stores, state-of-the-art public transport systems and non-stop FM Radio. Here, the ancient and modern blend seamlessly.

For instance, waiting for the train in the gleaming metro station, you are stumped to see a vase made 3,000 years ago sitting pretty in the glass showcase. Sipping cappuccino in one of the many sidewalk cafés, you are awed by the fact that Plato and Socrates held forth just metres away in the Agora, the ancient market place. You see modern giant cranes being used to clean the ancient temples in the Acropolis, and you imagine processions and prayers of the bygone era.

Named after Athena, who, legend has it, won the title of the patron goddess by offering to the city an olive tree while her challenger Poseidon brought forth salt water from the rocks, the city has seen continuous human habitation for 70,000 years. It is the birth place of western civilisation and bears the influence of three continents. There is much to soak in here.

We started off with the Acropolis, the crown jewel of Greece. Since it towers over the landscape, it is easily recognisable from afar. The pictures and information ‘Googled’ for, and books read prior to the visit don’t really prepare you for the actual impact. Acropolis is a huge rock with a plateau at the top and steep slopes on its sides.

Its magnificent entrance, its huge marble pillars, its temples, although partly missing, ruined or in the process of restoration, still aid you in getting a vivid picture of how grand it must have looked during its heyday. The Dionysus Theater at the foothills was the very first theatre in the world. With a seating capacity of 15,000 and special engraved marble seats in the front row marked for the high priests still preserved in good condition, it transports you back in time to Greek tragedies.

The Acropolis Museum, built in 2009 to house the finds from the Acropolis, deserves an entire day. It is one of the world’s best and is spread over 25,000 square metres. Here you get to walk on a Plexiglas that covers an archeological site with a bath house, and gape at life-like marble, bronze and clay figures and wonder at the artistic and legendary similarities between Indian and Greek cultures. The museum’s short video, while telling you about the remarkable job of restoration, also reminds you that the temples have been vandalised and artefacts taken away.

The next day had to be something more relaxing and the ‘Hop On Hop Off’ bus was just what we needed. This double-decker bus goes round Athens and lets you explore the city at your convenience. A very pleasant recorded voice tells you about the important landmarks of the city as the bus moves. This as well as the tram cars are an economic way to get a bird’s-eye view of the city. We decided to explore the Filopappos Hills next. This hill is also deservingly called “the hill of muses.”

The gated entrance itself is suggestive of the beauty that lies beyond. Long and wide cobbled pathways and then, a gently sloping wooded trail lead to a breathtaking view. The hills have been landscaped and the flowers attract a wide variety of birds and butterflies. This is where Socrates is believed to have been imprisoned. The silence, the scented air and the greenery all around make it one of the most pleasant places in Athens.

The national gardens, the parliament building, the university and the port and many such places are worth visiting. Central Athens has narrow and clean streets. Houses have beautiful balconies and plenty of potted plants. Musical performances on the streets are common. Athenians by nature appear to be relaxed. Cafes are always full of locals and the economic downturn is not obvious to the visitor.

It is only the graffiti spray painted at many places that hint at unrest. What is written is not all Greek and Latin! Reading the Greek script is partially possible because of our familiarity with the Greek alphabets. Bidding adieu to the city was not easy, but it had to be done.

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