Monday, February 27, 2017

A Month in Greece: Athens

A windy day at the Parthenon in Athens

The last place I visited during my month-long trip around mainland Greece was Athens, after stays in Meteora, Thessaloniki, Kalamata and the Peloponnese. I stopped there overnight a couple of times early on in the trip, but didn't do any real sight-seeing or exploring until the last few days before I left. 

Like everywhere else I visited, Athens has a long history and it's visible as you walk through the streets of the main downtown areas. The Acropolis stands in the center on top of a large hill overlooking the rest of the city, so that in many areas you can turn a street corner and catch a great view of it. 

You can visit the Acropolis and many of the other historical sites surrounding it with a 30 euro pass that I think lasts 3 or 4 days. It's definitely worth buying since you'll probably want to see all of those sites and will save you some money on paying for each separately. It's also great that they let you spread them out over a few days, since you will probably need at least 2 to see everything.

The biggest attraction included in the pass is the Parthenon, which was not only interesting to see on its own, but also has a great view of the city from the hill it sits upon. I knew that it had been looted over the centuries, but I was still surprised by just how little exists there besides the buildings themselves. It does feel as though it's been stripped bare. 

Side of the Parthenon

At the Acropolis in Athens

Near the Parthenon you can also visit two ancient amphitheaters. One is right by the entrance to the Acropolis, and is the more impressive of the two. This is the Theater of Herodes Atticus, which was built in the 2nd century AD by a Roman senator. The other is the Theater of Dionysus, dedicated to the god of wine and plays, where supposedly the tradition of the Greek tragedy was born. Although this theater looks less impressive than the first, it actually held an audience of up to 17,000 and was the first stone theater built in Greece. The one that you can see today is a restored Roman version, but the first theater built on that spot was created as far back as the 6th century BCE.

Theater of Herodes Atticus

Theater of Dionysus

Right below the Acropolis is Hadrian's Library, a place that got the bibliophile in me excited. It's incredible to think of what the library must have been like back in the 2nd century AD when it was created, and what works of writing it held.

Entrance to Hadrian's Library

A little farther away you can visit the Temple of Zeus, very little of which is still standing, but the stone columns that are left are impressive. Given their size, you can imagine a pretty palatial temple once stood there. From the grounds you can see a great view of the Parthenon on the hill beyond as well as the Arch of Hadrian, which originally connected the temple to a road that led back to the main parts of the city. Like Hadrian's Library, it was built during the 2nd century AD. 

View of the Acropolis and the Arch of Hadrian from the Temple of Zeus

The Temple of Zeus in Athens

In a separate park near the Acropolis called the Agora, you can visit the Temple of Hephaestus. It's amazingly well-preserved, considering it was built in the 5th century BCE. The rest of the Agora is full of ruins of an old marketplace and a gymnasium, and on a nice day the park is a fun place to wander around.

The Agora, looking toward the Acropolis

The Temple of Hephaestus in the Agora

I didn't go to very many museums in Athens since we'd already done a lot of that in Thessaloniki and Kalamata, but we did go to a couple. One was inside the Agora, which is included in the 30 euro pass to the historical sites in Athens. It had a really nice collection of the usual stuff, basically restored pottery, sculptures, etc. 

The other museum we made time for was the Museum of Islamic Art. I really enjoyed this one, it was one of the best museums that we visited in Greece. For one thing, it felt very different to everything else that we saw, since the Islamic period of Greek history is carefully erased in many other museums you visit there. Given the turbulent relationship between the Greeks and the Turks this is understandable, but it was still interesting to round out our experience with a glimpse of this other part of Greek history. Besides that, the artifacts on display here are absolutely amazing and well worth your time.

Artifacts in the Museum of Islamic Art in Athens

Recreation of a reception room from Egypt

Other fun things to do in Athens: eat and drink! We did a fair amount of that, especially in the main downtown area close to the Acropolis and Monastiraki Square. We had some amazing lamb with roasted, stuffed bell peppers at a small restaurant called Eugenia that I highly recommend. And, of course, lots more gyros, souvlaki and baked goods. 

I had fun in Athens, although if you go, be prepared for absolutely insane drivers and the ever-present smell of cigarettes, but for a big city it felt nice to walk around in and you really can't help being constantly amazed by the history of the place. It was a good way to finish our time in Greece, and I got to celebrate my 31st birthday there. I'd love to go back to Greece again someday in the future and see the things I didn't have time for: mainly Crete and some of the smaller islands. Hopefully my journeys will take me back again one day.

More posts about Greece: 

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