My Travel Map

My Travel Map

19 January 2012

Athens, Greece

Athens: the sprawling and ancient capital of Greece.

As with most visitors to Athens, I was drawn first to the Acropolis; it was as if being in such close proximity to a historical place of this magnitude drew me in like the inescapable gravitational force of some massive astronomical body. The Acropolis is a rocky hill towering over central Athens, and I approached it from the North, climbing through the twisted and historic lanes of Plaka. Just on the walk up, I passed by several ancient sites from the Greeks and Romans.
Ancient history is everywhere in Athens.

The Acropolis walls, built firmly onto the slick rocks and precipitous cliffs around the summit. The stonework and engineering around the Acropolis are incredible, and of course the Architecture of the temples and monuments guided architectural trends for millennia after they were originally conceived and constructed.

This is where the realization set in...I was at the Acropolis! Walking up to and through the Propylaea, or the main entrance to the fortified summit, I was overwhelmed with thoughts of how many famous people through history had walked through this very structure. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Roman Caesars and Senators, and countless other influential figures from European and Middle Eastern history.

The Temple of Athena Nike, which flanks one side of the Propylaea. In Greek, Nike means Victory...and Athena Nike is Victorious Athena, the symbolic goddess of Athens. Nike Athena represents the ancient Athenian victory in 449 BC over the mighty Persians, ancient enemies of Greece who had previously sacked and burned Athens and the previous temples and monuments on the Acropolis in 480 BC.

With the Persians taken care of and peace with that once mighty empire secured, Athens was able to flourish. It quickly established itself as the seat of power, stability, democracy, and learning in the ancient Mediterranean world. There were wars of course, particularly with the nearby Greek city-state of Sparta, but Athens endured and the iconic structures that we recognize collectively as the Acropolis today were constructed. The stonework is immaculate. They claim that no stones were cut to form; each one was cut to fit. This is remarkable and difficult to believe considering how tightly they are spaced. These monumental structures really are marvels of ancient engineering.

The Parthenon, the most famous of the Acropolis' structures. Commissioned by Pericles in the 5th century BC, this massive temple of Athena was miraculously completed in only 10 years! I heard a joke (told by a Greek by the way) stating that such a feat would be impossible for modern Greeks, since the project would be endlessly delayed due to bureaucracy and workers' strikes. Amazingly, and terribly sadly, the majority of the damage to the temple occurred in recent times, when a Venetian siege to oust the Turks set off a Turkish ammo dump IN THE PARTHENON resulting in a massive explosion and leaving the building in the crumbled state it is in today. Apparently, prior to this horribly destructive act, the temple was largely in tact, much the same as it was more than 1000 years before. A modern restoration process is underway (hence some of the heavy machinery in several of the pictures). The restoration is being done such that it is fully and easily reversible, just in case those in the future can do things better than we can now (good and wise plan in my opinion).

The next major act of devastation to the Acropolis came in the form of Lord Elgin of the British Empire in first decade of the 19th century. He oversaw the "acquisition" of literally tons of the original marble statues, friezes, and sculptures from the Acropolis' temples. In modern terms, this essentially constituted theft on a national level, as Elgin was "interpreting" (to the Empire's benefit) a deal he had made with the then occupying Turks, which granted him permission to erect scaffolding and excavate and remove "stones with inscriptions". These stolen artifacts are still housed in museums throughout England, and many Greeks are quick to point out that they would kindly like them back.

Apparently many of the carvings that are visible on site now are replicas, with the real versions (that is those not in England) housed below the Acropolis in the new Acropolis Museum...see more on this below.

The modern restoration project is detailing ALL stones around the site and piecing together as much as they can. Some replacement stones are being set, but only sparingly, when necessary to place one of the originals.

The Caryatids, otherwise known as the Porch of the Maidens, on the Erechtheion. These were enchanting pieces and once again feats of ancient engineering and art. Each is unique, and they are structural as well. Those graceful and feminine necks, being the thinnest point on the statues, can hold up the weight of the marble roof above them. Oh yea, and its all been standing for over 1500 years or so now. Quite impressive if I must say so myself.

The Erechtheion...a temple to the mythological King Erichthonius of Athens. Because of the Caryatids, the Turks (during the Ottoman era) used this structure as the local harem, where the Sultan or leading official kept his army of wives and mistresses.

These are now very accurate modern replica Caryatids (since 2007). The remaining originals are down below in the new Acropolis Museum, being restored.

Old meets new... looking out from the Propylaea onto the massive metropolis of Modern Athens. I was awed again and again by how large the city is. With over 3 million people, more than 1 in every 4 Greeks lives in Athens, and the city sprawls. Like LA, most buildings don't rise above 3 or 4 stories, the city has a coast, and is surrounded by mountains, which make for record breaking smog.

Now, onto the new Acropolis museum, where the remaining statues and friezes have been restored and safely displayed in a climate controlled environment (keeping them out of that damaging smog).

There are also scale models of what the original pediment artwork looked like (based on historical documents and pictures). Here Athena is seen with Zeus (seated with spear), Poseiden (seated with trident), Hades (with the axe)?, and Apollo (with the lyre)?

Inside on the top floor, they have a modern mock up of the real's quite tastefully done in my opinion, especially considering that the massive windows let you look out on the original structures on the hill above you!

Ah yes, and little models showing the Acropolis from various periods. This was during the Roman era, as can be discerned from the Herodes Atticus Theater seen in the bottom left.

The Museum is built over an active dig site...revealing how the modern city is just built up on top of the ancient one. They reveal this to you with several cutaways in the terrace outside and with glass floors inside.

The Herodes Atticus Theater, a remnant from the Roman Empire. They still show plays and concerts here in the summertime! That would be an amazing venue for sure!

Hadrians Arch (lower central left), another remnant of the Romans, and the remaining ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus...only 15 columns remain of the original 104.

A view through the trees to the Hephaisteion, the Temple of Hephaistos, who was the god of fire, volcanoes, metals, blacksmiths, metallurgy, craftsmen, technology, artisans, and sculptors. The temple is one of the best preserved around the city.

View out over the city with the immaculately (and accurately) reconstructed Stoa in the right foreground. The Stoa and Hephaisteion are on the old Agora, or marketplace. Probably not by coincidence, Athens modern market district is just to the North (rough direction of the photo) of the ancient Agora. There you can find all sorts of things from souvenirs and trinkets to clothing, hardware, and fresh food! I wandered through the central market, fish market and meat (mostly lamb and chicken from what I could make out) market, my mouth was just watering at all the cheese and olives and fresh seafood.

Looking across to the Hill of the Nymphs and the National Observatory of Athens...more to come on this below.

Not everything in central Athens is ancient. If fact, I was amazed by how much street art and graffiti there is there. I guess it is testament to the not-so-underlying angst amongst Greek teens and youth...those that drive the world famous demonstrations and riots against the government and current economic situation in the country.

This eye reminded me of the Evil Eye, the symbol which is all over the tourist shops in both Istanbul and Athens. The legend apparently goes that if something that people want or desire (either because it is attractive, valuable, or unusual...can be a person or thing) suddenly becomes indisposed then it is said to be a result of the spell of the Evil Eye. Supposedly, blue-eyed people are adept at casting the spell (on purpose or even inadvertently) and it can be reversed if the admirer mock-spits to counteract the envy in the spell.

Old and new again...this time a modern building built right over a small church!

The Roman Tower of the Winds...another very well preserved ruin. At the top of each of the eight sides are friezes of the eight winds, one for each of the cardinal and ordinal directions on a compass. It was pretty neat, each of the winds had their own unique style, including one dire looking one that was probably the predominant direction from which storms roll in.

I just love how this picture turned out. The ruin in the foreground is the Roman Forum and in the back right is one of the many, many churches scattered around the city. That orange building just looks like it was chopped right in half.

A modern version of classic Greek architecture. This is the neo-classical Academy of Athens. The painting might look tacky to some, but it is accurate. The ancient Greeks painted their sculptures and architecture.

I actually really liked this building. I'd like to see more reconstructions and full restorations like this and the Stoa. They are so much more beautiful than the ruined and shattered skeletons of the originals, even if most of the stone isn't that. In my opinion, it does more honor to the original and architect to restore and reconstruct these things than to let their crumbling remains slowly but surely decay and submit to the environment.

The charming streets and lanes of Plaka. The old, and unfortunately very touristy, part of town.

I was in Athens in January, and it was quite obviously not peak tourist season. Most of the cafes and restaurants had outdoor seating, and the vast majority of those seats and tables were empty while I was there. It was charming though, still, and the food I had there was delicious. My favorite meal was most definitely lamb braised in tomato sauce with zucchini and simple but delicious and fresh.

Plaka sits just below the Acropolis, and of course, is scattered with more ruins.

Up close at the National Observatory of Athens. I was there for work, and the meeting was hosted by colleagues at the Observatory. I was very lucky to get an exclusive tour of the historic building and a trip up to the dome and roof, which provided for some excellent pictures.

You might be able to make out the the Greek word for Nymph (note the Greek letter phi for "ph"). This is the inscription for which the Hill of the Nymphs, upon which the Observatory is built, was named. The inscription is on a rock, below a tree, just outside of the front of the building, and it is apparently several thousand years old. Pretty neat to think of how many ancient Greeks sat up on that hill and looked up at the same stars as we see today.

Inside the Observatory building, which just received EU funding for a very nice and well-needed restoration. I love rooms like this...some of the books were several hundred years old too...and written in Greek, Latin, English, Russian, French, German, and several other languages. Pretty neat

And, the view from the top after dark...not too bad. The first picture on this post was taken from the same place before sunset.

Monastiraki Square. I found myself wandering through here several times...each time I took in a bit of the great atmosphere around the square. From here there is easy access to the massive flea market, market district, and other cool shops and restaurants. If you venture into the flea market, you need to find a little cafe on the central flea market square...the cafe is super characteristic, but the top floor has an incredible view...especially after dark. The food is tasty too!

Hadrians Library with the Acropolis behind... the Roman Emperor Hadrian definitely liked to build things, and this library was absolutely enormous! Unfortunately, not much of it is still standing, but the foundation is still visible. Viewed from above (like up by the pink building in the background here) you can appreciate just how massive this ancient structure was.

This is an awesome little promenade along the ancient Agora. The whole thing is lined with restaurants, offering plenty of dining options. Wander off the main path by one of the churches, and you'll find a rooftop beer garden here...they have cheap beer and unbeatable views.

Only in Athens...and maybe Rome. The Metro (which is really quite nice and has good coverage around the city, including the airport!) by the rebuilt Stoa.

There were a lot of stray dogs on the streets in Athens. They all looked pretty well fed though and many apparent strays were actually not (they had collars and tags).

An Evzoni in front of the Greek Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This sits across from Syntagma Square and at the foot of Parliament. Despite the goofy (and according to Hemingway, emasculating) uniforms, these guys are actually elite infantry that are painstakingly selected to meet strict criteria.

Evzoni changing of the guard ceremony...

These were their winter uniforms; their summer ones are white.

I think this guy escorting them was in the middle of cracking some joke about me taking a picture...right after they guy up front was obviously fighting laughter.

Greek Parliament. I purposefully restricted my trip to Athens only. I did this because my fiance wants to visit Greece more than any other place on the planet right I'll have to be sure to get her over there with me the next time I go, which should be sometime in the next few years. Hopefully, it will be in the spring or fall. It was great to be so alone on the Acropolis, but wandering the city felt a little empty at the potential for so much more was there, but not being fulfilled at the moment. Summer is supposedly just way too busy and uncomfortably hot. All I know is I can't wait to get back and see the coast, islands, and countryside...during the flights, the jagged coasts, mountains, and islands were just calling to me like so many sirens.