Astounding Athens

Greek odyssey

Astounding Athens

How does one begin to describe a city that has captivated the imagination of travellers for several centuries? Home to ancient temples like Parthenon and Acropolis, philosophy and democracy as well as hedonistic delights, Athens captured imagination for centuries.

Names like Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Sappho, Pythagoras and Archimedes as well as mythological characters like Zeus, Athena and Apollo come to the mind as soon as the word Athens is mentioned. With its cobblestoned, labyrinthine lanes, imposing structures that echo with fables, it remains one of the most exciting destinations to this day. Needless to say that the city figures at the top of every traveller’s bucket list.

Armed with scores of suggestions from well-wishers, a copy of a travel guide and stars in my eyes, I alighted at the Athens International Airport intending to cover a lot of ground in the next one week.

In the heart of history

The same morning saw me take a train to the iconic Acropolis in the company of hundreds of tourists, each one eager to capture a slice of history in their camera. The Acropolis Hill, aka Sacred Rock, saw hectic activity in the 5th Century BC when architectural wonders began taking shape on it. Gasping for breath after a steep climb, I stood transfixed at the Propylaea, an imposing gateway that leads into the ancient citadel of Acropolis. Immediately on my right stood the tiny temple dedicated to Nike Athena that commemorates the Athenians’ victory over the Persians. It’s another matter that the temple was broken down by the Turk victors so they could place their cannon.

It is the Parthenon, the large Doric temple dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of the city, that occupies centre stage on the rocky outcrop towering over the city. A beautiful frieze running on all four sides once adorned the temple. The story of the Elgin Marbles, a collection of several statues from the frieze, bought by Lord Elgin from the Turk invaders, and placed in the British Museum is narrated with resentment by the Greek guides.

The Erechtheion, a temple dedicated to Athena and Poseidon, sits where the two of them competed for the post of patron God of the city. Joining the gawking crowd, I stood before what was once the Porch of the Caryatids. A replica of them now stand in the original site while the originals have been placed at the Acropolis Museum.

On the lower level of the Acropolis sprawls the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a 161 AD theatre, that can seat 5,000. The huge crescent shaped theatre is now a venue for concerts and ballets and has seen performances of famous artistes like Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra, Pavarotti, Elton John and Yanni.

A little distance away lies the ancient Theatre of Dionysious, which could accommodate more than 15,000 spectators, once upon a time. During its heydays the theatre has seen the works of Greek playwrights like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides being performed. It then became a venue for gladiator combats during the Roman times. Today, Jethro Tull fans in Greece rave over the fact that he performed the first ever rock concert in the same hallowed theatre.

From the northeast corner of the Acropolis a stunning view awaits visitors. Right from the ceramic tiled roofs of the Plaka neighbourhood to the Hadrian’s Arch and the Olympic stadium, the city fans out under their feet.

Cultural escape

It was close to dusk when I walked down the hill towards the Plaka area with its white-washed houses and narrow lanes dotted with traditional pubs. Built on the steep slopes of the Acropolis, the village is a favourite tourist haunt looking for atmospheric cafés and restaurants, or for buying souvenirs. Seated in a tree-shaded open air restaurant, I feasted on delicious moussaka while watching the people pass by.

The next morning, I walked toward the Syntagma Square in front of the Parliament. Known as the heart of Athens, it leads to the museum mile, where most of the important museums like the Benaki Museum, Museum of Cycladic Art and the Byzantine Museum are located. The other end of the square leads to the Ermou Street, which is the famous shopping district of the city. The changing of the guards at the Parliament brings hordes of excited tourists who wanted to pose for photographs with the evzones in their traditional uniform of kilt, red clogs adorned with pompoms.

Someone told me that if I had the time to visit just one museum, it should be the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Remembering the advise, my feet turned towards it and not for a moment did I regret spending close to half a day there.
 
It would have been blasphemous to miss the famous Acropolis Museum, I had been told by another well-wisher. The state-of-the-art Bernard Tschumi building with an exhibition area of 90,000 square feet on three levels, the museum is a repository of Greek culture and history. An archaeological excavation of the site revealed ruins from the 4th through 7th centuries AD. These can be seen through the glass covering that protect them. One of the most popular exhibits is the collection of four maidens from Erechtheion. The huge windows that overlook the Acropolis lend the most beautiful visual to the entire experience.

Another museum that should be on the list of every visitor to the city is the Benaki Museum, which holds a vast collection of Byzantine and Islamic objects.

It was unimaginable leaving Athens without visiting the Ancient Agora. The agoras of ancient Greece were public places where people could gather to discuss politics and hear public declarations. This was where Athenians gathered, in the 5th century BC, to hear Socrates’ speeches. Agoras also served as open air markets where artisans and traders set up shops to sell their wares. Slave trading also took place in these markets.

It was my last evening at Athens and I decided to spend it on Mount Lycabettus, which is the highest peak in Athens and offers a spectacular view of the city as well as Piraeus, the largest port in Greece. A 10-minute ride on the funicular from Kolonaki took me to a memorable experience of the day. Later, dining in the café on the hill, I mused about the city that offers so much and demands repeated visits.

Fact file

Getting there:  Many airlines like Lufthansa, Qatar, Etihad, Jet Airways and Emirates fly between India and Athens.

Best time to visit:  Between June and September

Where to stay:  There are many high, medium and low end hotels in the Plaka as well as the Syntagma area.

What to drink: Ancient Greeks worshipped wine and the wine god Dionysus, so savour the ‘retsina’ and don’t come back without sampling the ‘ouzo’, the aniseed flavoured liqueur, which is considered as the national drink.

Getting around:  Getting around the city is best done with a day’s pass which can be used in metro, bus as well as tram.

What to eat:  Greek salad with its delicious feta cheese is a must-sample, so are souvlaki, moussaka and lamb kleftiko.

Shopping: The Ermou and Kolonaki areas offer high street fashion while Plaka is the place for souvenirs. Don’t forget to visit the Monastiraki Flea Market if you are looking for great bargains.

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