Athens (Greece, that is)

Since I took the ferry from Venice into Greece, this was my first time in Athens. Although I lived in Athens, Georgia for five months, I had a feeling that this Athens would be a little different. I took the bus from Nafplio after my short but sweet stay there and headed to my hostel. Athens has a metro system similar to D.C. so getting from the bus station outside of town to my hostel was fairly easy. I was a bit nervous since one of the other helpers at my first placement had his wallet stolen on the metro in Athens, but it wasn’t too crowded and I didn’t have any problems.

View of Athens from Areopagus hill
View of Athens from Areopagus hill

My hostel was in the Monasteraki section of town, most well-known for its large flea market. I arrived late in Friday so I didn’t have much time to see anything then. My hostel, Athenstyle was hosting a Halloween party in their rooftop bar. This was a good chance to chat with a few people from around the world and take in the view of the Acropolis, which is lit up each night and can be seen from around town. I called it an early night – or at least I meant to. Turns out, the street directly below my window at the hostel was hosting a large party for the Athens Public Art Festival. A large, VERY loud party that lasted until 2 am.

Needless to say, I was a little tired the next morning, but I set out to explore Athens – or at least hit the major highlights. I started with Kerameikos, which was on the border of the ancient city of Athens and contained two important gates into the city. Kerameikos was home to a major cemetery where elite Athenians were buried starting around 1200 BC. The cemetery was home to a huge number of elaborate grave markers, funerary urns and statues. This cemetery was also the home to a mass grave of plague victims that died during the Peloponnesian War. Some of the more important or interesting marker have been replicated and placed back along the “Street of Tombs” while the originals are housed in a museum at the site.

The next stop on my tour of Ancient Athens was the Ancient Agora of Athens (so called because it was replaced later by the Roman Agora). Each Greek city-state had its own agora, an area in the middle of town that was the athletic, artistic, commercial and governmental center of the city. The agora in Athens dates to the 6th or 7th century BC, and was built along the main street in Athens that leads to the Acropolis, the Panathenaic Way. This was the seat of Athens government and politics, including public forums and meetings to enact legislation. The neatest thing here was the Temple of Hephaestus, which is one of the best preserved and largest Doric temples in the world. It might look familiar to anyone who has visited Arlington National Cemetery – it was the inspiration for the Custis-Lee Mansion (aka Robert E. Lee’s house).

The back of the Parthenon has less visible construction equipment
The back of the Parthenon has less visible construction equipment

After a quick lunch, I headed out to climb the Acropolis and see the Parthenon. I had seen it from afar (it’s hard to miss) but I was excited to see it up close. However, most of the Parthenon and some of the other structures on the Acropolis are under serious renovation. The Parthenon was built in 438 BC and was built in honor of the patron goddess of Athens, Athena. Athena is the goddess “of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, strategic warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill” (per Wikipedia). In addition to being a temple, the Parthenon during its long history has also served as a treasury, a Christian church, a mosque, and most notably a munitions dump – which ignited during a Venetian bombardment in 1697 causing a major explosion that severely damaged the structure and its sculptures. The renovation aims to restore some of the structural integrity so that it doesn’t collapse any further.

Although a significant amount of the sculptures and carvings from the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis were destroyed or stolen (several major ones can be found in the British Museum and a few in the Louvre), the new Acropolis Museum has about half on display. I went to the museum on Sunday, and was very impressed. The museum has a ton of artifacts, from small vases found on the slopes of the Acropolis to recreations of the metropes and statues from the other buildings. The most interesting was the five cartytids (female sculptures that are used as columns) from the Erechtheion, which is a temple dedicated to Poseidon as well as Athena.  The Acropolis Museum is quite impressive and must-do in Athens.

On Sunday, I was delighted to find out it was a free museum day. From November-March (low season for tourism) the first Sunday of the month is free entry to archaeological sites and most museums*. I started with the big one – the National Archaeological Museum. This museum is the largest archaeological museum in Greece and as you might imagine, one of the most important museums in the world for Ancient Greek artifacts and art. According to their website, they have more than 11,000 exhibits. I spent a couple of hours wandering around checking out pottery, vases, statues and other art works from all over Greece and especially Athens. I also stopped at the National Historical Museum, because hey, free museum! This museum while small, had an interesting collection of traditional Greek costumes, assorted artifacts from the Greek War of Independence and even King Otto’s throne.

The Temple of the Olympian Zeus. The Acropolis is in the background.
The Temple of the Olympian Zeus. The Acropolis is in the background.

Other stops on Sunday included Hadrian’s Arch, completed in about 132 AD on the occasion of the dedication of my next stop: the Temple of the Olympian Zeus by Emperor Hadrian. This destroyed temple is one of my favorites – all that remains of the 104 columns that held up the place are 15 columns still standing and a 16th on ground (knocked over by a storm in 1852). This temple took more than six centuries to finish – after several interruptions for various wars and invasions. During the Roman Era, it was the largest temple in Greece. I also stopped by Hadrian’s Library (the same Emperor Hadrian) and the Roman Agora.

As you can tell, it was a busy two days in Athens. Next stop is my second HelpX placement on the Ionian island of Corfu.

*NOT the Acropolis Museum

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