Athens is much more than its Acropolis and traffic jams. The Greek capital is not a ‘museum city’ stuck in time; its soul is revealed in the mosaic of its quarters.
Bright and early - 8 a.m. - the very first thing to do is climb the steps of the Propylea up to the Acropolis. Following in the footsteps of the priests of Athena, walk along the Sacred Rock and admire the Parthenon, contemplate the Erechtheion and its caryatid replicas, then visit the Acropolis Museum.
Among the incomparable chefs-d’œuvre found on the rocky promontory of the Acropolis, below are three that absolutely should not be missed:
- The Parthénon. An elegant little Ionic temple dedicated to Athena Pallas, tutelary deity of the city of Athens. Transformed into a mosque by the Turks, bombarded by the Venetians and ransacked by Lord Elgin, the Parthenon has endured a great deal. Restoration began in 1975 with an aim to curbing air pollution-based deterioration of the stone surfaces. It soon became clear that the monument had also been damaged due to mistakes made at the turn of the century: rusty iron beams, cracked stone blocks, rotten cement... Despite it all, the site inspires a unique emotion yet today.
- Le Theatre de Dionysus. Located on the southern slope of the Acropolis, it was once part of the sanctuary of Dionysus Eleuthereus. Dating from the Greek period, the theatre was connected to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (2nd century CE) via the Stoa of Eumenes.
- Areopagus. A low hill north-west of the Acropolis where the political and judicial councils of Athens held court. St Paul gave his Christian sermon to the Athenians from its tribune.
Athens at work, Athens at play
To prepare for the 2004 Olympic Games, Athens didn’t stop at stadiums and sports complexes; it also built a tramway connecting city to sea, a new airport (Eleutherios Venizelos) and a motorway that circles the city. The most spectacular success among the many major improvements has to be the metro. Marrying technology with local archeological heritage, the wonderfully elegant stations of Monastiráki, Acropolis and Síndagma, built of marble and granite, are well worth discovering.
But the real metamorphosis is to be found in centre city. On Omónia Square, Vassilissis Sofias (where neoclassical embassies and museums are aligned), and along the Acropolis, building façades have been painstakingly restored. Over 10,000 trees and 600,000 flowers were planted and pedestrianised streets lined with terraces link the archaeological sites strewn over more than 700 hectares. In the shade of olive and cypress trees, have a retsina (wine flavoured with the resin of Aleppo pines) or an ouzo (anise flavoured grape alcohol served with water and ice). Far from the agitation of the city, wander amongst the ruins from the Temple of Olympian Zeus to the Psíri quarter and from the ancient Academy of Plato to the Keramikós Cemetery, arguably Europe’s finest promenade!
The modern city is where you’ll find the boulevards that connect Omónia and Síndagma (Athens’s two main squares) and can admire the chic boutiques of Hermès Street and Kolonáki, the capital’s best-heeled neighbourhood. Finally, before setting sail for the islands of the Aegean Sea, you should visit Piraeus Port, a cacophony of horns, shouts of vendors hawking ice cream and iced coffee, and a litany of tourist destinations posted at every street corner: Paros, Naxos, Chios, Santorin, as well as Venice, Haifa, Alexandria, Istanbul, Marseille, Barcelona, Izmir...
Athens by night
Those who maintain that Athens is simply a myth probably have never visited this truly unique and charming city. For proof, head for Monastiráki Square (located in the old Turkish quarter) and its second-hand clothing; the Central Market and its awe-inspiring meat counters; the little ochre and pink houses along the alleyways of the Pláka quarter; Pnyx Hill that gives such a lovely view of the Acropolis; Mount Hymettus and its beehives; the little white St Georges chapel atop Lycabettus Hill, and so forth.
You can spend a perfect evening in Piraeus’s most enjoyable quarter, Mikrolímano, watched over by the 87 metre Mounychia Hill. Dinner - excellent fish and seafood – may be followed by club-hopping among the many establishments that line the beach from Glyfada to Varkiza via Voula and Vouliagmeni. On Poseidonos Avenue at Glyfada, the trendiest bars boast a sophisticated design that is a far cry from postcard Greece. Around 4 a.m., look for ambiance in the bouzoukias, those cabarets cum nightclubs favoured by the Greeks where young singers with slick hair are accompanied by musicians playing violins and bouzouki, those famous instruments of Turkish origin.
Greek Tourism Organisation’s official website: www.visitgreece.gr