ATHENS – AWESOME, AWE-INSPIRING AND AMBIVALENT
As a much harried travel writer always on the move, I take liberty once a year to be splendidly alone and unaided in a destination of my choice. Being domiciled in Kolkata – a city that is bursting at its seams and with a burgeoning tourism industry, I am courted like other Travel Writers by tour operators to provide them with that elusive travel column highlighting their most fabulous destination. And why not?
Last year it was Geneva and this time around it was Athens – the city that can rightfully claim to be blessed with the most fascinating history in the world, a city that is ethereal and adored by not only humanity but also by divinity. This captivating capital city of Greece has witnessed the origin of civilization. Athens and Greece have been the places where some of the most wise and creative men were born, who shaped world society from ancient times.
Ancient and modern, with equal measures of grunge and grace, bustling Athens is a heady mix of history and edginess. Iconic monuments mingle with first-rate museums, lively cafes and al fresco dining – and it’s all downright fun.
The historic centre is an open-air museum, yet the city’s cultural and social life takes place undisturbed amid these ancient landmarks, merging past and present. The magnificent Acropolis rises above the sprawling metropolis and has stood witness to the city’s many transformations.
Post-olympics Athens, even in the face of current financial issues, is conspicuously more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than ever before. Stylish restaurants, shops and hip hotels, and artsy-industrial neighbourhoods and entertainment quarters such as Gazi, show Athens’ modern face.
The surrounding region of Attiki holds some spectacular antiquities as well – such as the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion – and lovely beaches, like those near historic Marathon.
Walking through Athens’ meandering streets and alleyways, you will often come across some of the most enduring historical landmarks – the Acropolis, the Plaka neighborhood, Syntagma Square, Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Olymbion, Roman Market, Panathinaiko Stadium or Kallimarmaro, to name just a few. Being a Kolkatan, I found many similarities between these two great cities that ooze with a sense of history and achievement. The only thing that wasn’t similar was the restoration and preservation of the edifices. While all of the historical Athenian edifices were impeccably preserved, the ones in Kolkata are in utter ruin, that tells a sad tale of a lost heritage.
Athens immediately brings to mind the “Acropolis”, considered to be the most renowned historical monument in Europe and amongst the 7 wonders of the world. The Acropolis is to Greece what the Taj Mahal is to India.
The city of Athens is ideally perched on the prefecture of Attica and extends all the way to the peninsular region of Central Greece. Athens is marvelously surrounded by undulating mountains with Ymmytos, Pendeli and Parnitha being the most prominent ones. The best part of being in Athens is that it is a year round destination and blessed with a salubrious climate and plenty of sunshine.
The sheer historical diversity of Athens is of such great magnitude that it becomes imperative for the discerning traveler to hire the services of a knowledgeable guide to make sense of the city’s rich and complicated past. I was advised by a museum curator in downtown Athens to drop in at the Tsoha neighborhood of the city where the Greek National Tourism Organization was located, and seek the services of a guide. Dimitri Kourlianos, ever smiling and knoeledgeable, was to be my friend, philosopher and guide for my entire week-long Athens sojourn.
In one of our leisurely strolls through the boulevard, Dimitri informed me that the city has been continuously inhabited since the Neolithic Age. The golden period of Athens commenced from the 5th century and in course of time, the city became the cradle of Western civilization. Over the centuries that went by, wave after wave of marauding conquerors tried to capture Athens but became absorbed into the city’s heritage instead.
It was only in the year 1834 that Athens was chosen to be the capital of Greece. It was largely built around the Acropolis. The Acropolis is the most important ancient site in the Western world. Crowned by the Parthenon, it stands sentinel over Athens, visible from almost everywhere within the city. Its monuments and sanctuaries of Pentelic marble gleam white in the midday sun and gradually take on a honey hue as the sun sinks, while at night they stand brilliantly illuminated above the city. A glimpse of this magnificent sight cannot fail to exalt your spirit.
Inspiring as these monuments are, they are but faded remnants of the city of Pericles, who spared no expense – only the best materials, architects, sculptors and artists were good enough for a city dedicated to the cult of Athena. It was a showcase of lavishly coloured colossal buildings and of gargantuan statues, some of bronze, others of marble plated with gold and encrusted with precious stones. The Acropolis was first inhabited in Neolithic times (4000–3000 BC). The first temples were built during the Mycenaean era, in homage to the goddess Athena. People lived on the Acropolis until the late 6th century BC, but in 510 BC the Delphic oracle declared that it should be the province of the gods. Later, when all the buildings on the Acropolis were reduced to ashes by the Persians on the eve of the Battle of Salamis (480 BC), Pericles set about his ambitious rebuilding program. He transformed the Acropolis into a city of temples, which has come to be regarded as the zenith of classical Greek achievement.
Ravages inflicted during the years of foreign occupation, pilfering by foreign archaeologists, inept renovations following Independence, visitors’ footfalls, earthquakes and, more recently, acid rain and pollution, have all taken their toll on the surviving monuments. The worst blow was in 1687, when the Venetians attacked the Turks, opening fire on the Acropolis and causing an explosion in
the Parthenon – where the Turks had been storing gunpowder – and damaging all the buildings. Major restoration programs are continuing and many of the original sculptures have been moved to the Acropolis Museum and replaced with casts. The Acropolis became a World Heritage–listed site in 1987. Free admissions are on first Sunday of the month from November to March.
More than any other monument, the Parthenon epitomises the glory of Ancient Greece. Meaning ‘virgin’s apartment’, it’s dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the goddess embodying the power and prestige of the city. The largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece, and the only one built completely of Pentelic marble (apart from the wood in its roof), it took 15 years to complete. It was designed by Iktinos and Kallicrates and completed in time for the Great Panathenaic Festival of 438 BC. Designed to be the pre-eminent monument of the Acropolis and built on its highest ground, the Parthenon had a dual purpose – to house the great statue of Athena commissioned by Pericles, and to serve as the new treasury. It was built on the site of at least four earlier temples dedicated to Athena. The controversial Parthenon Marbles, taken by Lord Elgin, are now in the British Museum in London. The British government continues to ignore campaigns for their return. The ceiling of the Parthenon, like that of the Propylaia, was painted blue and gilded with stars. At the eastern end was the holy cella (inner room of a temple), into which only a few privileged initiates could enter. Here stood the statue for which the temple was built – the Athena Polias (Athena of the City), considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. Designed by Pheidias and completed in 432 BC, it was gold-plated over an inner wooden frame and stood almost 12m high on its pedestal. The face, hands and feet were made of ivory, and the eyes were fashioned from jewels. Clad in a long gold dress with the head of Medusa carved in ivory on her breast, the goddess
held a statuette of Nike (the goddess of victory) in her right hand; in her left, a spear with a serpent at its base. On top of her helmet was a sphinx, with griffins in relief at either side. In AD 426 the statue was taken to Constantinople, where it disappeared. There’s a Roman copy (the Athena Varvakeion) in the National Archaeological Museum. The dazzling modernist Acropolis museum at the foot of the Acropolis’ southern slope showcases its surviving treasures still in Greek possession. While the collection covers the Archaic and Roman periods, the emphasis is on the Acropolis of the 5th century BC, considered the apotheosis of Greece’s artistic achievement. The museum cleverly reveals layers of history, floating over ruins with the Acropolis visible above, showing the masterpieces in context. The surprisingly good-value restaurant has superb views; there’s also a fine museum shop. As you enter the museum grounds, do look through the plexiglass floor to see the ruins of an ancient Athenian neighbourhood, which were artfully incorporated into the museum design after being uncovered during excavations. The museum’s crowning glory is the top-floor Parthenon Gallery, a glass atrium built in alignment with the temple, and a virtual replica of the cella of the Parthenon, which can be seen from the gallery. It showcases the temple’s sculptures, metopes and 160m-long frieze, which for the first time in over 200 years is shown in sequence as one narrative about the Panathenaic Procession. The Procession starts at the southwest corner of the temple, with two groups splitting off and meeting on the east side for the delivery of the peplos to Athena. Interspersed between the golden-hued originals are stark-white plaster replicas of the missing pieces – the controversial Parthenon Marbles hacked off by Lord Elgin in 1801 and later sold to the British Museum. Don’t miss the movie describing the history of the Acropolis. Although the Parthenon was the most impressive monument of the Acropolis, it was more a showpiece than a working sanctuary. That role fell to the Erechtheion, built on the part of the Acropolis held most sacred. It was here that Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and where Athena produced the olive tree. Named after Erechtheus, a mythical king of Athens, the temple housed the cults of Athena, Poseidon and Erechtheus. Except for a small temple of Rome and Augustus, which is no longer in existence, the Erechtheion was the last public building erected on the Acropolis in antiquity. Architecturally it is the most unusual monument of the Acropolis, a supreme example of Ionic architecture ingeniously built on several levels to counteract the uneven bedrock.
Today, the city hosts a population in excess of 4.5 million people. Make it a point to visit the all important Syntagma Square, which is where the Greek Parliament is located. In close proximity are the neighborhoods of Monastiraki, Kolonaki and Lycabettus Hill, that have become a rage with tourists from all over the world. If you go further upfront to the north of the city, the classy neighborhoods of Marousi, Melissia, Vrilissia and Kifisia will leave you speechless with their elegance. Apart from neoclassical edifices, Athens, like all great cities of the world, has its share of museums, each one of them a treasure-house of Greek art and culture. Besides the stupendous Archaeological Museum, one of the world’s most important museums, which
houses the world’s finest collection of Greek antiquities, the Military Museum and Byzantine Museum, are other popular haunts of the discerning world traveller.
Dimitri, my guide, in one of his more emotional moods, revealed that Athenians took a lot of pride on the return of the modern Olympic Games to its birthplace. The grand Panathenaic Stadium lies between two pine-covered hills between the neighbourhoods of Mets and Pangrati. It was originally built in the 4th century BC as a venue for the Panathenaic athletic contests. It’s said that at Hadrian’s inauguration in AD 120, 1000 wild animals were sacrificed in the arena. Later, the seats were rebuilt in Pentelic marble by Herodes Atticus. There are seats for 70,000 spectators, a running track and a central area for field events. After hundreds of years of disuse, the stadium was completely restored in 1895 by wealthy Greek benefactor Georgios Averof to host the first modern Olympic Games the following year. It’s a faithful replica of the original Panathenaic Stadium, and it made a stunning backdrop to the archery competition and the marathon finish during the 2004 Olympics. It’s occasionally used for concerts and public events, and the annual Athens marathon finishes here.
The numerous theaters that dot the Athens landscape offer entertainment that is high class, often bordering on the surreal, true to the city’s divine charms. The ancient theatre at Epidavros and Athens’ Theatre of Herodes Atticus are the
headline venues of Greece’s annual cultural Hellenic festival featuring a top line-up of local and international music, dance and theatre. Major shows in its Athens Festival take place at the superb Odeon of Herodes Atticus, one of the world’s prime historic venues, with the floodlit Acropolis as a backdrop. Events are also held in modern venues around town.
Its Epidavros Festival presents local and international productions of Ancient Greek drama at the famous ancient Theatre of Epidavros in the Peloponnese, two hours west of Athens, on Friday and Saturday nights in July and August.
The tyrant Peisistratos introduced the annual Festival of the Great Dionysia during the 6th century BC, and held it in the world’s first theatre, of Dionysos, on the south slope of the Acropolis. The original theatre on this site was a timber structure, and masses of people attended the contests, where men clad in goatskins sang and danced, followed by feasting and revelry. Drama as we know it dates back to these contests. At one of the contests, Thespis left the ensemble and took centre stage for a solo performance, an act considered to be the first true dramatic performance – hence the term ‘thespian’. During the golden age in the 5th century BC, the annual festival was one of the state’s major events. Politicians sponsored dramas by writers such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, with some light relief provided by the bawdy comedies of Aristophanes. People came from all over Attica, with their expenses met by the state. The theatre was reconstructed in stone and marble by Lycurgus between 342 BC and 326 BC, with a seating capacity of 17,000 spread over 64 tiers, of which about 20 survive. Apart from the front row, the seats were built of Piraeus limestone and occupied by ordinary citizens, with women confined to the back rows. The front row’s 67 Pentelic marble thrones were reserved for festival officials and important priests. The grandest one – in the centre, with lion-paw armrests – was reserved for the Priest of Dionysos, who
sat shaded from the sun under a canopy.
In Roman times, the theatre was used for state events and performances. The 2nd-century-bc reliefs at the rear of the stage depict the exploits of Dionysos. The two hefty men (who still have their heads) are selini, worshippers of the mythical Selinos, the debauched father of the satyrs, whose favourite pastime was charging up mountains with his oversized phallus in lecherous pursuit of nymphs.
Also called the Hill of the Muses, Filopappou Hill – along with the Hills of the Pnyx and Nymphs – was, according to Plutarch, where Theseus and the Amazons did battle. Inhabited from prehistoric times to the post-byzantine era, today the pine-clad slopes are a relaxing place for a stroll. They offer excellent views of Attica and the Saronic Gulf, well-signed ruins, and some of the very best vantage points for photographing the Acropolis.
The heart of ancient Athens was the Agora, the lively, crowded focal point of administrative, commercial, political and social activity. Socrates expounded his philosophy here, and in AD 49 St Paul came here to win converts to Christianity. The site today is a lush, refreshing respite, with beautiful monuments and temples and a fascinating museum .
First developed as a public site in the 6th century BC, the Agora was devastated by the Persians in 480 BC, but a new one was built in its place almost immediately. It was flourishing by Pericles’ time and continued to do so until AD 267, when it was destroyed by the Herulians, a Gothic tribe from Scandinavia. The Turks built a residential quarter on the site, but this was demolished by archaeologists after Independence and later excavated to classical and, in parts, Neolithic levels.
The entrance to the Roman Agora is through the well-preserved Gate of Athena Archegetis, flanked by four Doric columns. It was financed by Julius Caesar and erected sometime during the 1st century AD. The well-preserved, extraordinary Tower of the Winds was built in the 1st century BC by a Syrian astronomer named Andronicus. The octagonal monument of Pentelic marble is an ingenious construction that functioned as a sundial, weather vane, water clock and compass. Each side of the tower represents a point of the compass, with a relief of a floating figure representing the wind associated with that particular point. Beneath each of the reliefs are faint sundial markings. The weather vane, which disappeared long ago, was a bronze Triton that revolved on top of the tower. The Turks allowed dervishes to use the tower.
A cemetery from the 3000 BC to the 6th century AD (Roman times), Keramikos was originally a settlement for potters who were attracted by the clay on the banks of the River Iridanos. Because of frequent flooding, the area was ultimately converted to a cemetery. Rediscovered in 1861 during the construction of Pireos St, Keramikos is now a lush, tranquil site with a small but excellent museum containing remarkable stelae (stone slabs) and sculptures.
The Ancient Greeks certainly knew how to choose a site for a temple. Nowhere is this more evident than at Cape Sounion, 70 km south of Athens, where the Temple of Poseidon stands on a craggy spur that plunges 65m down to the sea. Built in 444 BC – at the same time as the Parthenon – its Doric columns look gleaming white when viewed from the sea, which gave great comfort to sailors in ancient times: they knew they were nearly home when they saw the first glimpse of marble pillars, far off in the distance. The views from the temple are equally impressive: on a clear day you can see Kea, Kythnos and Serifos to the southeast, and Aegina and the Peloponnese to the west. The site also contains scant remains of a propylaeum , a fortified tower and, to the northeast, a 6thcentury temple to Athena. Visit early in the morning before the tourist buses arrive, or head there for a stunning sunset view. Byron, and sadly, countless others, have carved their names on the columns. There are a couple of tavernas just below the site – perfect for lunch and a swim.
ATHENS BY NIGHT:
The entire kaleidoscope of Athens undergoes a transformation as the red molten ball dips down into the far horizon and with dusk below the sea, it is “Time to
Disco” and no-holds barred, party time.
The uniqueness of Athens by Night is the fact that there is an element of authentic Greek culture and the famous “Bouzoukia” revs the city’s entertainment pulse. The district of Gazi is the most happening place in all of Athens when it comes to night time entertainment. Most of the mainstream bars, chic restaurants and clubs featuring live Greek pop are to be found in this cool neighborhood.
Apart from Gazi, I found the Syggrou Avenue and Iera Odos to be great places for an evening’s entertainment. Fuel your appetite with a night-time tour of Athens, before relaxing with a Greek dinner and show. Taking place at a typical taverna in the renowned Plaka district, it’s the perfect way to finish your night out in Athens! Your evening tour commences with a relaxing panoramic drive through central Athens over to the Acropolis, which you will see lit up against the night sky. Browse over 60 artifacts and reconstructed musical instruments from Ancient Greece. Continue through the narrow pedestrian streets of Plaka in the old city of Athens. Here you will dine in a typical Greek restaurant and enjoy a folklore show with live music, ballet and dancers in traditional Greek dress.
If you are a beach bum, all you have to do is hop into a tram or car to reach the coastal town of Paleo Faliro, which is a mere 30 minutes away from the Syntagma neighborhood. The balmy Mediterranean Sea and the Saronic Gulf is visible from Poseidon Avenue. The 2004 Olympic Games have had a huge impact in popularising the charming towns like Paleo Faliro, Alimos, Agios Kosmas, Kalamaki, Elliniko, Glyfada...extending up to Varkiza. The marinas Mikrolimano and Zeas, located ideally in the port town Pireaus, also offer excellent seaside hospitality and entertainment.
When it comes to high end yachting facilities, the Flisvos Marina, which is popularly referred to as the “Athenian Riviera”, much like the “French Riviera”, has evolved as a much sought after yachting zone replete with uninterrupted sea views, luxurious yachts and quintessential expansive walkways. The entire neighborhood is replete with award winning restaurants, cozy bars and endless shopping options.
In close proximity to the Flisvos Marina is another yachting venue, although much smaller in size – the Marina Alimou, that caters to the exacting needs of the midbudget yacht aficionados. The emphasis is on gastronomy. Try out the American Cheeseburgers at Kitchen Bar and Skippers for heady cocktails, right beside the dockside.
The city of Athens is a gastronomic delight with a eclectic mix of restaurants that range from traditional Greek and Mediterranean fare to Asian and Arabic cuisine. The entire culinary landscape of Greece has evolved and undergone a transformation, with the presence of the world’s finest chefs in the country. When it comes to Nouveau International Cuisine, which sprang up from Omonia Square, it is an integral part of the Athens’ gastronomic landscape. I was also quite taken aback by the ready availability of Indian Tandoori and Hyderabadi Biriyani at a restaurant in downtown Athens. Fresh Seafood delicacies are best savored at the Attica. The fishermen of the locality daily bring back the freshest catches and some of the most popular fish tavernas are Glyfada, Sounio, Piraeus, Vouliagmeni and Microlimano. The Street Food scene too has an authentic stamp of traditional Athenian cuisine. The city’s landsacape is dotted with hundreds of street vendors who offer local delicacies. In the fall and
winter seasons, Athens’ crowded streets are packed with pushcarts frying chestnuts, corn and dried nuts. Try out the sesame and raisin bread that happen to be the staple food of Athens. Shawarmas, cheesy snacks and fried seafood bites are also quite popular.
The streets around the colourful and bustling Varvakios Agora are a sensory delight. It is the highlight of the vibrant Athinas market district. It’s a sensory and gastronomic delight, with an amazing range of olives, spices, cheeses and deli treats. The meat and fish market fills the historic building on the eastern side, and the fruit and vegetable market is across the road. The meat market, with hanging carcasses illuminated by swinging light bulbs might sound like a strange place to go for a meal, but its tavernas are an Athenian institution. Clients range from hungry market workers to elegant couples emerging from nightclubs in search of a bowl of hangoverbusting patsas (tripe soup).
Every Saturday morning locals also make the trek up to the Kalidromiou, in the foothills of Strefi Hill, to Exarhia’s weekly farmers market or laïki agora , an enduring Athens institution. This is one of the city’s most atmospheric markets, with rowdy traders taking over one of Exarhia’s finest streets, lined with lovely neoclassical buildings and set against the dramatic backdrop of Lykavittos Hill in the distance. It’s mostly fresh produce and household goods, but it’s a real Athenian neighbourhood experience. Get a prime seat at one of the busy cafés.
As the city of Athens gained in popularity as a much preferred tourist destination, so has been the burgeoning growth of the hospitality industry, which is right now booming with new hotels. The 2004 Olympic Games acted as a kind of harbinger towards the rapid development of the city’s hospitality landscape and a vast majority of the hotel owners modernized, expanded and remodeled their properties to meet the exacting hospitality needs of the global traveler. The Athens economy may be slowing down but there is no sign of reduced hotel prices.
From stunning hotel suites with soothing spas by the seaside or just bed & breakfast stuff, Athens caters to all. A vast majority of the upscale hotels are to be found in the neighborhood of the city centre like the Acropolis, Plaka, Omonia Square, Kolonaki, Parliament Square, Sygrou Avenue, with budget options too.
Public transportation in Athens is well organized and offers a variety of routes and combine varied means like the metro, railway, buses and trams. With a 1,00€ ticket you can crisscross the entire city by using one or more modes of transport within 1.5 hour. Tickets can be purchased from metro and train stations as well as from the street kiosks. The most economical option is to purchase day or weekly passes which are heavily discounted.
When using public transport, be sure to validate tickets after purchasing. One has to bear in mind that for unvalidated tickets, one has to pay 40 times its actual value. The validation machines are easily sighted in the buses and trolleybuses in the form of orange colored boxes. In the case of the metro, the boxes are positioned on the station lobby, while on the tram, there are beige boxes that are to be found on the platform.
CAR HIRE & RENTALS:
Car rental agencies abound in Athens. They are operated by licensed drivers and can be relied upon. Before renting a car make sure you check the vehicle insurance cover against accident, theft, fire, etc... Hiring a taxi in Athens is inexpensive by European standards. All licensed taxis are fitted with meters and the fare is charged on the basis of kilometers and hours. Don’t try to hire a bike, you must have nerves of steel to negotiate the city’s chaotic traffic.
A variety of cruises are on offer from Piraeus port or hop on a ferry to visit the nearby islands. Many ferry services are shut in winter.
For further information and reservations, get in touch with Greek National Tourism Organization, 7, Tsoha, 11521, Athens, Tel: +30 210 8707000; E-mail: [email protected]
Athens fish market
Restaurant by the sea in Athens
Odeon of Herodes Atticus
Houses in posh part of Athens
Breathtaking View of Acropolis from the Hotel
Vari beach, southeast of Athens
Athens Tram Station
The Elegant Limestone County Courthouse
Restaurant in the Plaka neighborhood, Athens
Boats in the harbor
A trendy bar in Athens
Contestants of the Miss Tourism Planet beauty contest promote their upcoming television show in front of the Parliament in Athens
Acropolis by night
The heritage of Athens
Monastiraki Square and Acropolis in Athens
Athens’ historical ruins
Athens is the birthplace of the Olympics