You may think I spent my long-weekend staring at dusty old ruins, battling heat and crowds of tourists to look at what amounts to piles of stones in a dusty field. You wouldn’t be wrong, but I would add that I was immersed in the foundations of western society and democracy as we know it. With a work holiday on Monday, I took advantage of the long weekend to make my way to Greece.
I had a relatively easy travel experience to get there – a flight after work from Stuttgart to Frankfurt, then a flight from Frankfurt to Athens. Unfortunately, Greece is far away and in a different timezone than Germany, so I didn’t land there until around 1AM. It was an experience to get to my hostel near the city center; while there is a metro line to take you into town from the airport, it doesn’t run late at night. The airport is not close to the city, so a taxi fare was around 50$. I wasn’t super-excited about that price so I opted for the bus instead. It took only 6$ but moved pretty slowly with frequent stops. It took around 90 minutes to reach my lodging.
I say “reach my lodging” as if I arrived there. Oh no, instead I misread the bus map and ended up about 30 minutes (by foot) from my hostel. Consequently I found myself walking alone at 3AM through residential areas in Athens. Fortunately I arrived safely at the hostel without incident and was able to sleep around 3:30 or 4:00. This sounds pretty bad, but I knew it would take me a while to get there from the airport and I had slept on the long flight to account for this. When I woke up at 9AM I felt pretty refreshed and ready to start a full day of sightseeing.
With a long list of sights I skipped breakfast and set out for my first stop, the National Archaeological Museum. Here there were golden burial artifacts, weapons, pottery, and much more available on display. They had pieces of the famous “ancient computer,” as well as lots of statues both large and small. I followed an audio-tour which took me through the artistic and cultural progression of ancient Greece. The tour showcased how the artistic skills of the Greeks progressed over time. For example, sculpture transitioned from simple and stiff-looking figures to masterful depictions of realistic elegant human forms through the centuries. I chose to go to the museum first because it was near my hostel, but it proved to be the perfect warm-up for sights to come. Primed with a little historical knowledge I believe I got a lot more out of seeing other places.
After the museum I headed for Syntagma Square. The name roughly translates to “Constitution Square” as it was here that protesters demanded a democracy from a monarch following a long occupation by the Ottomans. Here, guards tricked out with ornate uniforms guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier right in front of the Parliament building, which had formerly been the King’s palace. They have a strange method of marching which I’m sure has some historical significance I’m not aware of.
The square itself wasn’t terribly interesting but afforded some good people-watching opportunities. A fountain dominated the center of the space with shady trees and benches offering respite from the hot sun. I took a minute to slather on some sunscreen and continued on my way.
From the square I walked downhill on Ermou street, a well-known and busy shopping street which was buzzing with activity. My appetite had woken up by now so I grabbed some cheap bread from a street vendor which was pretty tasty.
About halfway down Ermou leading away from Syntagma, a small Byzantine church sits squarely in the middle of the street. It looks bizarrely out of place there, a lonely relic of a former time amid modern shops, restaurants, and busy Athenians. The small house of worship was the first of several Greek Orthodox churches I would see in Greece. The exterior is notably different in that the center of the church is capped with a round dome, and rather than having a western-style cross as a floor layout, the church floor made up a equal-sided cross. The gloomy interior was decorated with rich golden and silver icons depicting various saints. A simple divider separates the Eucharist from worshipers, and small candle votives in the back allowed the faithful to offer prayers. It was a welcome break from the hot and busy street though I didn’t linger too long.
After getting my first taste of a Greek Orthodox church, I went on to find a much larger one. The main cathedral in Athens was in many ways similar to the small one I had found previously; it formed an equal-sided cross, topped with a dome, and had even richer iconography and decorations. An elaborate candelabra hung over the center, and luxurious tapestries lined the walls. However, considering this was the most important church in Greek Orthodoxy, it was comparatively unimpressive (when considered against churches of similar importance in western Europe). However I kind of liked the touch of modesty, it proved to be a nice contrast to grand Gothic cathedrals.
My path away from the cathedral took me along shops aimed at Orthodox priests. Golden icons, black vestments, and all sorts of art lined the windows, making for impressive displays. I didn’t dip into any of these because I had a specific destination in mind: Hadrianopolis.
Hadrian was a Roman emperor with a bit of an obsession with Greek culture. When the Romans controlled Athens under his rule, he devoted resources from the empire to the construction of new settlements and grand monuments. Hadrianopolis was his planned settlement; while it was never completed, some of the monuments from that era are still there. Hadrian’s arch marked the entryway to the community with a tall narrow gate. The most impressive landmark nearby was definitely the Temple of Olympian Zeus. This monolithic temple is now just a ruin, but the remaining columns give testament to the impressive scale of the monument. I believe it may be the biggest ancient temple ever constructed in Greece. The pillars dwarfed the tourists among the remnants. Seeing the temple excited me for what was to come- temples with more structure intact.
By this point I was following another audio tour. The guided walk took me up to the foothills surrounding the acropolis, though my visit to the hilltop would come later. A small charming little collection of houses dotted the hillside. Apparently this community was a tightly-knit group which had moved from one of the nearby islands. They recreated their island home right on the hill, forming a dense maze of white-washed buildings with cute blue accents. I wandered through narrow alleys and was quite certain I was considered trespassing, but I think the alleyways are normal pedestrian routes.
I finished up with the audio tour and found myself at Athens’ second main square, Monastiraki. I took a chance to try Greek street food for the first time and got a delicious chicken souvlaki (a pita wrap with chicken, salad, and french fries) for only 2EUR. What a lunch! For some dessert I stopped by the fruit stands in the square and had some fresh strawberries.
I had plans to meet up with another trainee around mid-afternoon. I coordinated with them and found out they were staying pretty close to where I was at the time, so I decided to go to their hotel and wait for them there. Unfortunately they were heavily delayed due to bad traffic and so I ended up leaving before I met them, as I wanted to get up to the acropolis with enough time to see everything before it closed at 8PM.
Backtracking a bit, I found the acropolis entrance and scored a student discount. I think I had to be a EU student to qualify, but fortunately the woman working at the entrance confused the state of Georgia in “Georgia Tech” for the country of Georgia, so I was good to go. Excited, I began my climb up the hill. My first stop was an old theater which still gets used for concerts and plays. Circular marble seating defines the stereotypical ancient theater, but it was still cool to see in person. I liked the fact that the site was still actively in use too.
The ancient entryway to the acropolis is comprised of a large colonnade forming a big gate sitting above imposing stairs. Flanking either side of the gate are more monuments and temples. To the left you see a big pillar which held various statues and monuments over the centuries depending on who was in power. On the right, the Temple of Athena Nike commemorates Athena’s triumph in battle as a warrior goddess. It is a grand entrance for a fittingly important locale. In ancient times, the acropolis hill was the culmination of a large parade held annually to celebrate Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. Thousands would march up the hill to present a massive statue in the Parthenon with a new garment.
Passing through the gate, I found myself face-to-face with arguably the most significant architectural work ever, the Parthenon. The building itself demonstrates mastery of proportions and illusion. For example, the Athenians knew that straight lines appear to curve at the corners and built-in a slight curve to account for this. To ensure the columns all appear aligned, they bow slightly at the middle and point ever-so-slightly outward to counteract the perspective of the viewer. The roof is a classic example of the “golden ratio”, and while most of the decorative pieces have been stripped off to be put up in museums, seeing the building in person was definitely a cool experience.
I had told my friend to meet me here, anticipating I would stay around until closing. I had no problem occupying my time as the acropolis has even more than just the Parthenon to see. The hilltop offers a commanding view of the city below, and the Parthenon isn’t even the only significant building at the top. A nearby temple is known for its large porch supported by columns decorated as women. I met him and his travel buddies and we spent some time lounging, discussing the history, and taking it all in. The acropolis was crowded but I can imagine it being much worse later on in the summer.
We stayed until the employees asked us to leave. Afterwards, we followed the crowds and summitted nearby Mars Hill to catch the sunset. The rocky hilltop overlooks the Athenian Agora, a preserved expanse of ruins and green space which served as a market square and town center in ancient times. The sun was setting over the mountain range to the west, bathing everything in swathes of colorful twilight. We sat and enjoyed the scenery and got to experience a little people-watching as well.
After we had our fill, I joined the guys for a drink and dinner back near their hotel. Their place had a rooftop bar with a nice view of the acropolis, which gets lit up at night:
We talked with some locals and had a good time. I had some stewed lamb for dinner which was pretty good. The guys had me try local liquor with them; I forget the exact name but I was informed it roughly translated to “milk of the gods”. It tasted like black licorice, which I don’t care for, but had the interesting and unusual property of getting cloudy when exposed to low temperatures. I was poured a glass of clear liquid and watched as it grew foggy when ice was dropped in. Strange stuff, but I still didn’t like the taste. It was worth trying, however.
Exhausted from a long day, I said goodbye to the guys (who were bound for an island early the next day) and made my way back to the hostel on foot, where I promptly fell asleep.
The next morning I was up and ready for more sightseeing. With a long list of places to visit I wasted no time and headed straight for the Agora I had seen yesterday evening. (When I bought my ticket to the acropolis I went ahead and purchased a combination ticket for many of the ancient sights. This not only saved me money but also helped me plan out my time in Athens.) Arriving at the Agora, I walked through the old ruins and learned about the area. Long colonnades formed covered shopping areas, similar to modern malls. Bare spots of stone lay where important government buildings once stood. Sadly, the area was pillaged by invaders around the time the Roman empire fell. Without adequate protection from Rome, the Greeks hobbled an improvised wall together using whatever stone and marble they could find.
The Agora also hosts a small museum in a reconstructed building. The highlight of the visit for me was the ancient voting artifacts on display. Clay tablets and ancient ballot systems showed the literal birth of democracy as we know it today. Many of the important votes concerning Athenian foreign and domestic policy took place right at the Agora. It was impressive to see in person.
Atop a small hill in the Agora sits a largely-intact temple of worship, the Temple of Hephaestus. Having come from the Parthenon yesterday it was interesting to note the similarities and differences, and seeing the roof as a unified structure naturally sent my imagination running to fill in the destroyed gaps at the more famous temple. I snapped some pictures and then left the area.
I was near Monastiraki square around lunchtime, so naturally I had more street food. After a quick snack break I entered nearby Hadrian’s Library, a Roman ruin comprised of columns and wall remnants from an old academic complex. As you can probably surmise from the name, the building was contemporary with Hadrianopolis and other Roman sites around the city. I didn’t stick around for long as this was a smaller ruin, but unlike some of the other sites, getting up close to inspect the remnants was permissible.
After the library, I wanted to check out the Acropolis museum. My route took me right by the Roman Agora so I made a pit-stop of it and checked out another bunch of ruins up-close. The Acropolis museum contains the remaining sculptures from the Parthenon (the ones not stolen by the 19th century British), artifacts from the hill, and several other famous pieces, including the originals of the woman-columns I described before. (The ones in place at the temple are cast replicas so as to prevent wear to the originals.) The top floor matches the size and orientation of the Parthenon itself and contains lots of the carved plates which framed the roof of the original building. These carvings tell stories of heroes, gods and goddesses and also glorify the common people of Greece. Seeing the originals was awesome.
Exiting the museum I found I had escaped the worst of the heat of the day. I made my way over to the Panathenaic Stadium, site of the first modern Olympic games in 1896. The construction is really impressive as the massive seating venue is made entirely of marble. There was an audio-guide but after the first few stations I decided it was a bit cheesy and didn’t use it much. However entering the stadium itself was well worth it, as there were some awesome views to be had. The site itself was the location where the Ancient games which formed the modern Olympics were held; the building links the ancient and modern world in a way you can’t find anywhere else.
In the late afternoon I left the stadium and walked a long way up to the little church I had seen on the hilltop yesterday. Given the height I didn’t have much trouble with the climb as there were a series of paved paths sloping upwards which made the whole thing pretty manageable. My plan had been to catch sunset up there, but I mis-timed things slightly and found myself up there around 5 or 6 o’clock. With the sun not beginning to set until after 8, I didn’t feel like waiting. In retrospect the spot would be better for sunrise anyway, because the primary viewpoint (overlooking the acropolis and old city) faces westward, meaning the setting sun was actually quite harsh. Still I enjoyed the views and I’d say the hike was well worth it.
After hanging around for some time I came back down and started heading for my hostel. On the way I grabbed dinner- I had grilled fish which had not been de-boned. I was careful but I think I ended up eating a few of the tiny rib bones, whoops. I went back to the hostel and had a quiet night as I knew I had an early wake-up ahead of me the next day.
I’ll leave you here for now. I had four full days in Greece and the end of day two marked the midpoint of my visit. Next time, you’ll hear about what I was up to for the second half of my Greek adventure. Until then,
Best wishes and safe travels everyone,