Well… let’s start with getting here. The Australia to Europe leg of any journey is going to be a nightmare and ours was no different. We woke in the morning in Perth (having done a quick pop home for 4 days to tick a travel insurance box) and had the day to kill before our 11pm departure. Checking out of your hotel at 10 am and leaving a city at 11pm leaves a fair amount of time to kill.
We wandered around the CBD, ate yum cha, watched a (really terrible) movie and found that we still had a ton of time to kill before we were due at the airport. Eventually, 11pm came around and we had been up for 16 hours before we even thought about boarding our (almost) 12 hour flight to Doha in Qatar. After a two-hour wait in Qatar, we then boarded our next leg (nearly) 6 hrs to Athens.
Where upon arrival it then took another 2 hours to clear immigration and get a taxi to our hotel (another hour). While the Greeks may have been the fathers of the sciences and civilisation, they certainly are not anywhere on the scale of modern organisation or efficiency.
Needless to say by the time we got here we were exhausted and we crashed for an afternoon nap. Out for a magnificent dinner and down for an early night so that the adventure could start in earnest tomorrow.
And what a stunning day tomorrow turned out to be. We were blessed with a 23 degree day, a light breeze and crystal clear blue skies. You really could not have hoped for a better day. Our journey began with a (relatively) short Walk to the Metro Station. As luck would have it, our closest Metro stop was in front of the National Library of Greece, the University of Athens and the Academy of Athens. Three stunningly well designed and beautiful buildings in their own right.
After taking some happy snaps of the buildings we entered the Metro for our 2 stop trip to the Akropoli (Acropolis) Station. When the Metro was being built the team kept running across remnants of the old city. This was most evident at the site of the new Acropolis Museum where archaeologists uncovered layers of Athens from the Byzantine era to the Bronze Age. Most of the findings were left in situ (under plexiglass) so people could see them as they were found. Today you can see ancient sights and unearthed treasures, all while heading for your train.
Having gotten off the Metro we then had the shortest of walks (through the suburb of Plaka) to the entrance of the Acropolis. Now this took a bit of working out because terms are used interchangeably and inconsistently, but, the Acropolis is the hill that rises above Athens. On top of that hill are a bunch of pretty famous ancient buildings including the Parthenon etc.
The Acropolis was originally a fortress but has been attacked and destroyed more times than you can imagine. The most notable recorded one was in 480 BC, when the Persians attacked, burned, leveled and looted the Old Parthenon and almost every other structure at the Acropolis. A decade later, (after the Victory of Marathon in 490 BC), Pericles ordered the reconstruction of the Acropolis and the building of a temple for Athena (the Parthenon).
The big ticket items (Parthenon, Temple of Athena Nike Bastion, the Erechtheion, Peisistratus Portico, Odeon of Herodes Atticus) are pretty obvious and easy to spot, but the Greeks are terrible at signposting and naming what else is there. So I have had to research what the tourism people claim to be on and around the hill and have described them (as best I can) in my own terms, based on what we saw.
- Monument to Agrippa (a monument base)
- Temple of Athena Nike Bastion (2 and 3 are basically the main entrance once you have scaled the Acropolis)
- Peisistratus Portico (a few columns standing upright – you probably wont notice through the hoards of people and Instagrammers)
- Sacred Way (a path)
- Base of the statue of Athena Hygeia (a marble plinth)
- Precinct of Artemis Vravronia (a flat area to the right once up the hill, usually full of tour bus and cruise ship groups)
- Chalcotheke (some rocks where something used to be)
- Statue of Athena Promachos (the spot where a huge bronze statue once was)
- The Parthenon (the big ticket item – bit hard to miss, has permanently been covered in scaffolding since restoration work commenced in 1983)
- Earlier foundations of the Parthenon (pretty accurate description)
- Site of the ancient stereobate (underground structure of Greek temple)
- Roman Temple (some more rocks where something used to be)
- Heroon of Pandion (some more rocks where something used to be)
- The great altar of Athena (the location where an altar was before it was moved to Berlin in the 1800’s)
- Precinct of Zeus Polieus (some rocks)
- Flight of steps (any guesses here?)
- Foundation of the Themistoclean wall (more rocks)
- The Erechtheion (the second most preserved major building on the hill)
- The old temple of Athena Polias (some more rocks where something used to be)
- Portico, probably the Arrhephorion (rocks they hope used to be something)
- Foundations of a square building (rocks they think used to be something)
- Stairway to the caves of Apollo and Pan (stairs towards some holes in the cliff that are inaccessible to visitors)
- Foundations of a building of the 5th century BC (fair description)
- Roman cistern (a drain at the bottom of the hill)
- Caves of Apollo and Pan (some holes in the cliff that are inaccessible to visitors)
- The old circular way (Peripatos) round the Acropolis (the path)
- Cave and Chapel of Panagia Spiliotissa (church in a cave)
- The Asclepeion (three pillars)
- Platform with a sacrificial pit (no idea)
- The stoa of the Asclepeion (no idea)
- Temple of Aphrodite (really not sure)
- Prehistoric habitations (nope)
- Foundation of the choregic monument of Nikias (statue base maybe?)
- The Odeon of Herodes Atticus (huge and awesome amphitheatre)
- The Stoa of Eumenes (very cool wall of arches)
- Remains of a choregic monument (statue base)
- The theatre of Dionysus (bit like 34 – but way older and more rubbly)
- Proscenium of the theatre of Dionysus (bit like 34 & 37 – tough to separate)
- Old Temple of Dionysus (got nuthen – could only find versions elsewhere – thinking rocks)
- New Temple of Dionysus (got nuthen – as above -thinking rocks)
- The Odeon of Pericles (absolutely rocks)
The first main attraction that you come across on your climb up the hill is the Theatre of Dionysos (god of wine, revels, and theater) and Odeion of Herodes Atticus. This is a 4th century BC and 17000 seat amphitheater that you pass on the way up to the Parthenon and is super impressive in anyone’s terms. However, while looking at this we heard the tour guides explaining the history of the relic while an American tourist tried to convince the Greek guide that (in your best American twang) the one they had in Denver Colorado was bigger and better.
Needless to say I had to look it up to write this and the American one was built in 1941 and is about 40% smaller – so obviously better.
The next main thing that you will come across is the Propylaea: A monumental entryway to the Acropolis that included a central building and two wings, one of which was (once) covered with elaborately painted panels. Today, this is a massive choke point as people try to get in and out of the plateau that is the Acropolis while tour guides stop for lengthy spiels and Instagrammers hunt for the perfect shot.
When you pop out the other side you re met with the main attraction, the Parthenon. In its day it is meant to have featured ornate sculptures and housed a spectacular statue of the goddess Athena. The statue (The Statue of Athena Promachos) was a colossal (almost 30 feet tall) bronze statue of Athena – who is the patron goddess of the city.
The building of the Parthenon represented the Golden Age of Athens (460 B.C. to 430 B.C.) when it was at its cultural peak. Pericles (politician and general) initiated a massive building project that lasted 50 years but he didn’t live long enough to see his Acropolis vision come true, but temple builders and architects continued working until they completed the project. The southern and northern walls were rebuilt and some of the most iconic structures were constructed.
The Erechtheion or Temple of Athena Polias is the second most prominent building on the Acropolis. It is an Ionic temple made of marble which honoured Athena and several other gods and heroes. It’s best known for its porch supported by six Caryatid (a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural support) statues.
Having come down from the Acropolis, we headed (northwest) along the road past a row of really funky shops and hotels (on the left) with the Acropolis hill to our right. Much to our surprise, the park around Acropolis Hill was full of tortoises (more than 20 that we saw). This is something that we definitely did not expect.
We headed down in this direction because from the top you could see this incredibly impressive looking rectangular building. This turned out to be the Stoa of Attalos, a 2nd century BC shopping centre that has been renovated and re-purposed to now hold the museum of the Ancient Agora.
Opposite the Stoa was a bunch of rocks that had fallen down (pretty similar to the Roman Forum in Italy). At the end of these piles of rocks was the ancient Agora of Athens, which in simple terms is a pretty impressive bunch of pillars.
A google search of all of the stuff in the park between the Stoa and the Agora gives you another very long list of what people believe was there. Having walked it thoroughly, my description of piles of rocks still stands. Although, to be fair, there was a little church and a few statues floating around in there too.
At the bottom of the Acropolis hill is a heap of other stuff also well worth a look. On our first day we were focussed upon getting up the hill and found out later that we had missed a heap of stuff at the bottom, so we came back a couple of days later. The first bit that we hit was the Stoa of Eumenes as we had unwittingly walked above it in climbing to the Acropolis and missed it entirely. This little foray also showed us the Roman cistern (drain) that was on the big list too.
From here we headed out to see the Arch of Hadrian and around the corner a bit to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, both very cool. Also around here was the ancient (refurbished for the 2004 Olympics) Panathenian Stadium, which is the only stadium in the world built entirely from marble.
From here across to the National Gardens and the Zappeion (tried to work out what this very flash building was built/used for but got even more confused). It is pretty though.
After this, we headed up to the top of Lycabettus Hill which is the highest point in the centre of Athens. There is a funicular that will take you to the top (for 10 euros each), but to get to the funicular you have to hike the majority of the (incredibly steep) hill. If you are going to build an aid to get you up a super steep hill…why put it at the bottom…nah…lets start 2/3 of the way up.
The National Archaeological Museum in Athens was next on the list and houses some of the most important artifacts from a variety of archaeological locations around Greece from prehistory to late antiquity. That is the official spiel. The Richard version is that this is the largest IKEA store on the planet, you just keep following the yellow arrows on the floor… but despite your best efforts, you can never get out of the damn pottery section.
To be fair, there are some amazing displays here, and every pot, statue, painting and carving do tell a story. But for a heathen like me, a pot/urn/vase from Athens differs very little from one from Crete or Santorini.
Having hit the main big ticket items we only had some of the lesser ones to see and a wander of the streets. The first of these was Hadrian’s Library, closely followed by the Roman Agora.
From here the rest of our time was spent merely wandering the streets and getting a feel for the place. Eating the local foods, drinking the local beers and coffees and just generally getting into the Greek lifestyle.
The Athens of today
Chain smoking is the norm. A very different concept for Australians where smoking has basically been outlawed for about the last 20+ years. It is still alive and well in Greece. Jill and I sat in a range of restaurants, bars, and coffee shops discussing how long it had been since you could publicly smoke in Australia. All the while choking on dense cigarette fumes. We even watched our chefs smoking over the top of the open grill that they were working on.
The world is my urinal. The number of acts of public urination that we have witnessed in central Athens has been staggering. It seems like the rule is that if you need to go, just whip your cock out and let er rip. Parks and gutters are a favourite, but we have even seen a cab driver stop on the main road, in the heart of the city, and piss on his own passenger door and get back in and drive off.
Riot Police. We were not really sure what this is about. We had seen no issues or violence or even protests of any kind. But at several places throughout our neighbourhood, there were heavily armoured busses with riot police in full protective garb and weapons. They come in the morning and are there all day and well into the evenings. After a few days of this, we asked at our local giros shop, who told us that people were upset at a new metro line going through, so the police were there to protect the Metro until it was completed.
Graffiti. This is an absolute travesty, of all the places that we have ever visited (up to 58 countries and who knows how many cities) Athens is the most defaced place we have ever been. Graffiti is everywhere, spray paint has been tagged all over virtually every surface and very little (if anything) has been done to clean it off. Stunning ancient buildings made of marble have been defaced at every turn.
And of course, everywhere you go, there are the Instagrammers. Taking a prime position and refusing to move. Although I am starting to notice a lot of people pushing back against them. The rudeness of it all, people are now just wandering on in and standing in the Instagrammers’ shots ruining them, in order to get their own pictures.