Greece had been on our list of must visit places for a pretty long time but for one reason or the other we had kept pushing it down the order. The government debt crisis and the hope of getting to do more for ‘less’ was just the incentive we needed to make it the destination of our business trip cum holiday. Though to most people Greece means little more than a Mediterranean honeymoon destination, we were looking forward to stepping back a few thousand years to this geographically beautiful and architecturally historic country. The temptation of tickling our taste buds with the delectable Grecian – Mediterranean cuisine, added the last bit of incentive needed to proceed with the bookings.
Text & pics courtesy: Kunal&Tamanna Patel – www.worldwidewandererz.com
The City: Contrary to our expectations, when we landed at the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport, the primary international airport that services Athens and the region of Attica, we did not step back in time. Like most international airports, the terminal is extremely modern, very busy with passenger traffic increasing as airlines have started to connect back to Greece after almost seven years of lay off due to the recession and easy to navigate around. Getting onto the airport shuttle, for our 30 kms trip to Athens we reached our hotel without having to encounter too much of Athen’s infamous traffic chaos. We had chosen our hotel on account of its location close to Omonia Square in the northern corner of the downtown area. The square – one of the oldest in the city – is a shopping center and a multi-cultural gathering place especially for celebrations and demonstrations, in addition to being a key transportation hub. Having checked in, we pulled out our list of must see places. As it was a long list and most of the sites were within walking distance, we marked a pedestrian route that would take us to most of them, donning our backpacks we commenced on what was going to be a long but an exciting walk. In spite of being November we had clear blue skies, a crisp 17’C and we reached the National Archeological Museum in just under 20 minutes.
Considered to be one of the greatest museums in the world, it houses important artifacts dating from pre-history to late antiquity. Its various sections include the Prehistoric Collection, Sculptures Collection, Vase and Minor Objects Collection, Santorini Findings, Metallurgy – Stathatos – Vlastos Collections, Egyptian Art and Near Eastern Collections. The museum took us back in time, as each collection gave an insight into the history and culture of that era. The museum was a treat especially for our 8 year old, who absorbed as much as possible with wide-eyed wonder.
We also saw a number of school groups, as their history teachers patiently answered a multitude of questions raised by curious and inquisitive children as they thronged around the exhibits. The museum can easily take a full day if one wants to cover all sections, however we managed to do a brisk round in a couple of hours. After the Museum, walking by the adjacent Polytechnic University campus, we reached Athen’s most central and famous squares – Syntagma Square – just across from the Greek Parliament and the National Gardens. With a large 19th century fountain at the centre, Syntagma has 2 large green areas to the North and South and a few outdoor cafes make it a popular city-centre gathering place. A walk through the National Gardens located behind the Parliament building is a must for 2 reasons – it is a delight to walk amidst the lush green landscape with large trees lining the meandering trail and one also gets to pass by the Zappeion – the large stately hall built in the 1880’s for the first modern Olympic games, the building now used for conferences and public events.
The walk through the gardens is also the perfect short cut to reach the Panathenaic Stadium – also known as the Kallimarmaro – meaning beautifully covered in marble. This multi-purpose stadium which hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, is reconstructed on the site which was used to host the athletic portion of the Panathenaic Games in honor of Athena – the Greek Goddess. Originally built with wooden seating until 329 BC, it was rebuilt in marble when Herodes Atticus enlarged the stadium in 140 AD to a seating capacity of 50,000 spectators. It is the only stadium in the world, built entirely of marble. Climbing to its topmost tier affords fantastic views of the city including a long vista right to the Acropolis. After a quick 100 mts sprint race with my son, to test its perfect running track – which incidentally resulted in a tie – we walked across the crisscrossing tram tracks, continuing in the Westerly direction towards the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
Completed in 129 BC the structure was built out of marble from Mount Pentelus and measured approximately 4000 sq. mts. at the plinth. Only 15 of its original 104 Corinthian columns remain standing, with the 16th column lying where it fell during a storm in 1852. The perfectly crafted 17 meters tall columns frame magnificent views of the Acropolis located about half a mile to its north-west with the deep orange rays of the setting sun appearing to set the hand chiseled stones of these magnificent ruins, on fire. Having covered a distance of between 5 to 7 kilometers over the day, we decided to spend the rest of the evening around Omonia.
The walk back from the Temple of Olympian Zeus was a relaxed one, the 3 of us taking turns to quiz each other based on the vast amount of history that we had seen first hand. Much of the next hour was spent in selecting a restaurant that offered an authentic Greek salad, chicken or fish cooked in olive oil, moussaka served with pita bread, delicious Greek yoghurt and of course lots n lots of Kalamata olives.
We were lucky to find one that served these traditional Greek dishes and more, on `eat as much as you can’ and a bargain price. The bonus was that a small café right next to the restaurant offered delicious hot Nutella crepes, which we miraculously found place for in our amply stuffed bellies. After the sumptuous dinner and desert, we dragged our tired legs back to the hotel for the nightThe next day we were up early and after a hearty breakfast at the hotel, we took to Athen’s crowded streets once again, this time in the direction of one of the most famous historical monuments in the world – the Acropolis and the Parthenon. This ancient citadel located on top of a rocky hill right in the center of the city is actually a complex consisting of several ancient buildings – the more famous of them include the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Erectheion and the Temple of Athena Nike.
Seriously damaged in 1687 in the Morean War, during which the Parthenon was used to store gunpowder, the entire complex is undergoing an extended restoration since 1975. With most buildings dating back to the 5th and 4th century BC, the master plan as well as the design of the buildings is of great architectural and historical significance. Cited as “a supreme example of the adaptation of architecture to a natural site, this grand composition of perfectly balanced massive structures creates a monumental landscape of unique beauty consisting of a complete series of master pieces of the 5th century BC”. The two huge theatres along the winding road leading to the top – Odeon of Herod Atticus and the Theatre of Dionysus are also noteworthy for their grand scale.
As an architect, it was humbling to stand there inside the historical complex, marveling at the order and detailing which made these monuments exemplary models that had exerted great influence not only in the Graeco-Roman period but in contemporary times as well. Not only for all students of architecture and art but for any one who loves history and culture, the Acropolis is an absolute must on your to do list.
The visit to the Acropolis took up almost half of the day but it was certainly worth it. Despite clear skies, it was terribly windy on the top and luckily we always pack windcheaters, which came more than handy during the climb and the time spent on top. Back at the foot of the hill, we decided to step into the new Acropolis Museum building that houses all artifacts found from the Acropolis complex, the hill and the surrounding area. Designed by New York based architect Bernard Tschumi, the design of this simple yet modern building revolves around three factors: light, movement and a tectonic programmatic element aligning with the conceptual clarity of most of ancient Greek architecture.
The museum café is the perfect place for hot coffee, and a short break here allowed a bit of respite to our tired legs and an opportunity to marvel at the view to the magnificent complex from the ground. The area around the Acropolis has a multitude of historic buildings, so one can easily spend a couple of days in this precinct alone and still be left wanting for more time. Of these, the Temple of Hephaestus is one of the best preserved Greek Temples, standing almost as built in the 5th century BC. The Agoras of Athens and Roma, the Roman Forum, Hadrian’s library….the list is endless. In the end we literally gave up on our attempt to count how many of these ancient marvels dotted the hillside, as we walked down the Northern side towards Monsteraki – the famous flea market neighbourhood in the old part of the city and one of its principal shopping districts.
The square itself is like cauldron full of sights, sounds and aromas. Encircled with souvenir shops and tiny cafes, the square continuously bustles with hordes of people pouring in from the numerous narrow streets leading upto it. Large cutouts in the pavement reveal ancient ruins below, reminding you that much is yet to be unearthed. Street performers distract your attention as peddlers make their way through the assembled crowd trying to convince you to profit from buying cheap fakes at throwaway prices.
With the sudden hustle and bustle and the almost deafening mixture of music and noise, we were transported back to the modern day Athens – A city which has been continuously inhabited for almost 7000 years, a city which boasts of modern infrastructure including an integrated public transportation network consisting of metro, trams, trolley buses, regular buses and suburban trains, a city which takes great pride in showcasing much of the countries history and culture, a city which has struggled with battles, civilian unrest and economic crisis in the recent past, a city which has played host to two Olympics – first one in 1896 and more recently in 2004, a city with its 3.7 million inhabitants work hard and party hard too. Though we spend 2 more days in this beautiful city, discovering and experiencing its cultural heart…..that is a story for another day.
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