From above, Athens looked like a gigantic white lake spreading out around me. The February sun, it’s weak warmth blissful relief from the British winter, was electrically bright as it slid down in a crystal clear sky, washing the pale buildings in a creamy gold. Out of the rippling waves of the city, contained in a splash between tree-studded mountain walls, small humps of green hills emerged like islands, and off in the distance behind me lay the Aegean Sea, burning bright silver on my periphery as the sun slunk down towards it.
That was the moment I realised I’d fallen in love with yet another city. I was standing in the Acropolis at the foot of the Parthenon, alternating my gaze between the iconic yellowish columns against the ballooning blue sky overhead, and the milky sea of buildings flowing away from me below. I’d been standing in the same spot for almost an hour, having already spent longer than that wandering around and around the ancient, uneven grounds of the Acropolis, quickly losing sight of my plan to spend just twenty minutes up there. The place is arresting. It drew me in. This early in the year, and on the first of the city’s four carnival weekends, it was empty of the usual crowds and was, instead, blissfully quiet. Calm, beautiful, mysterious. I could barely tear myself away.
This on a whirlwind weekend trip to Athens, one I’d tightly scheduled to allow myself to see as much of the city as possible in just 48 hours. Thankfully, having started that first morning with an intensive, exhausting and absolutely fascinating walking tour with Alternative Athens (see my earlier post for the full story), I’d already seen a huge amount of the city, delving through the overlapping layers of history, architecture and influences that coexist within Athens and spotting everything from ancient ruins in the Metro to incredible street art in the maze-like Ottoman district of Psirri.
Relishing the feeling of warm sun and cool breeze on my bare arms in early February, I lingered as long as possible in the Acropolis, soaking up the gentle peace and wondering at the overwhelming ancientness of the place. Inhabited as far back as the fourth millennium BC, the Acropolis of Athens has seen centuries of life and is one of the most important historical sites of Europe. While the most significant buildings – including the Parthenon – date from the fifth century BC and are still standing over two and a half thousand years later. Wanting to learn more about it’s history, I eventually tore myself away from the Acropolis in search of answers, which I found just down the road at the beautifully designed New Acropolis Museum (theacropolismuseum.gr). Outside, it’s a sleek modern building, all sharp angles and glass, with the top-level askew to sit in line with the Parthenon above it, and glass floors giving glimpses of the archaeological site the museum stands on. Inside, the enormous open spaces of the museum are full of history. The Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis and the Archaic Gallery (a wonderland of cream coloured sculptures from the Archaic period) were full of incredible collections, piecing together something of the history of the Acropolis, but the highlight of the museum lay in the top-floor Parthenon Gallery, which I reached just as the orange-red light of a spectacular sunset was streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
General view of the Archaic Gallery © Acropolis Museum. Photo Nikos Daniilidis
At the centre of the floor stands a rectangular cement core with the exact same dimensions as the cella of the Parthenon, where the original frieze from the Parthenon’s exterior walls has been installe. A sculptural depiction of the Great Panathenaia (a festival to honour the city’s patron goddess Athena), the frieze runs in impressively unbroken sequence for 160 meters – although only 50 meters of the original are found in the New Acropolis Museum in Athens. In front of that runs the sequence of 92 metopes (large squares of stone carved with individual scenes) depicting four legendary battles, and symbolising the victories of the Athenians against the Persians. It was an incredible sight, all the more breathtaking for having survived so long, and wandering around the scenes of horses and chariots, gods fighting giants, sacrificial processions, and mythical creatures, was a truly incredible experience.
Back outside, the buzz of nearby Ermou Street, strewn with high street shops, trendy boutiques and cool restaurants, brought me from the ancient to the modern world with a bit of a bang. This city has a habit of doing that. Wanting to check out the Athens food scene, I followed a recommendation to Melilotos (melilotos.gr) for dinner – and discovered it packed full of locals enjoying a Saturday night out. Popularity with locals is always a good sign, and in fact Melilotos started life as a delivery service and opened a restaurant following demand from satisfied customers. Prices were good, the atmosphere lively, and the food was excellent: my chicken burger may not seem like the most traditional Greek choice, but with peppers from Florina, pastrami from Drama and Gruyere from Crete, it was about as Greek as a burger can get, and absolutely delicious.
The next morning brought still more perfect weather, with blue skies and fluffy white clouds spread above the city. I started out bright and early with a trip to Hadrian’s Gate, an ancient Roman site dating from 131 or 132 AD, and to the Temple of the Olympian Zeus next door – one of the iconic ancient sites of Athens included in my Acropolis ticket – which was completed during Hadrian’s reign (after construction began in the 6th century BC) and was dedicated to the emperor. Although only a fraction of the original temple remains, what is still standing is very impressive; towering columns at 17m high, topped with beautifully intricate carvings. The grounds were again relatively empty, and around the temple were other fascinating sites, including the foundations of ancient baths, and again I found myself very tempted to linger.
But my time in Athens was running out, and there was still so much to see. A short walk took me through the colourful Plaka district, a beautiful neighbourhood of brightly painted neo-classical mansions, where I stumbled upon a pretty yellow church just as the Sunday morning congregation was spilling out into the sunshine, bringing with them a jubilant mood which seemed to have infiltrated the entire city. Along Andrianou, a pedestrian street facing the leafy grounds of the ancient Agora, the terraces of cafés and restaurants were already full up with locals enjoying long, leisurely lunches or drinks with family. Not ready for lunch yet, I dived into the Monastiraki flea market just behind, finding myself enveloped in tight alleyways and covered streets that echoed the Turkish souks, a testament to the centuries of Ottoman occupation. The alleys are lined with tiny shops – a blend of antique dealers, fashion boutiques, vintage stores and souvenir shops – but these open out into a square where the market itself can be found. It may run all week, but Sunday is still considered the best day for the flea market, which was heaving with antique furniture, ornaments and other treasures. Trestle tables and blankets held all kinds of goods, from vintage cameras and record players to comic books and thirty year old board games – it was the perfect place to explore and people watch, and definitely a great place to pick out a unique souvenir.
Tearing myself away from vintage shopping, I headed back to the Agora for my last taste of the Ancient Athens. The leafy grounds, so close to busy Adrianou street and skirted by a railway track, were surprisingly peaceful and quiet, filled with picturesque gardens dotted with pillars and traces of ancient foundations. Something of an ancient Greek shopping mall, the Agora was a centre for commerce, political, religious and military activity, and the reconstruction of the columned Stoa of Attalos now houses a museum, with the exhibits laid out to represent the small shops and offices which were once found there. While nothing can compete with the New Acropolis Museum, this was a fantastic collection of small artefacts I’d seen – and there was plenty of information available about not only the history of the site, but more interestingly about what daily life in the Agora was like and how it was used.
At the far end of the site, the Temple of Hephaestus was what truly caught my attention. Seated on a small hill overlooking the grounds of the Agora, and surrounded by neat gardens and whispering trees, this is considered one of the best preserved ancient Greek temples, thanks largely to it’s use as a Greek Orthodox church from the 7th century until 1834. Built between 449 and 415 BC, the impressively intact temple still looks largely as it did then, with roof, columns, friezes and decorative sculptures all still standing as one whole, solid structure. This spot, with it’s pretty view of Athens and it’s serene gardens, was absolutely beautiful and easily a highlight of my time in the city.
I may have seen all the ancient sites I had time for, but in that city Ancient Athens is ever-present, and it wasn’t long before I had my next taste of the past, at the trendily retro LUKUMAΔΕΣ, or Lukumades (lukumades.com), all white brick tiles and decorative coffee sacks. Stopping in for a quick caffeine hit, I decided to order the cafés speciality, loukoumades, not realising at the time that these deep-fried dough balls were once served to the winners of the ancient Greek Olympics. Back then, they were soaked in honey and known as “honey-tokens”, these days they traditionally come dusted with cinnamon as well as honey – although in LUKUMAΔΕΣ you can have them with chocolate, ice cream, praline, nuts, or even filled – but the concept is more or less the same and the end result is absolutely incredible. Not quite done with desserts, I also stopped by Le Greche (facebook.com/legreche), a tiny bakery and ice cream parlour just behind Syntagma Square, for something far more modern: a new Greek take on Italian gelato from pastry chef Evi Papadopoulou, who studied at a pastry school in Italy. The incredible ice cream menu, featuring flavours like mascarpone with caramelized figs, makes for a difficult choice – but you can’t go wrong with the chef’s secret chocolate recipe, which tasted amazing.
Back at Syntagma Square, the starting point of my explorations the day before, I was just in time to see the iconic changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the parliament, a drawn-out and pompous affair that was fascinating to watch. The guards, all soldiers completing their training, wore traditional livery with Tsarouhi: large, clog-like shoes with studded soles and fluffy pompoms on the toes. From Syntagma, I finally headed back to my hotel’s neighbourhood at the foot of the Acropolis, strolling along the pedestrian street of Dionissiou Aeropagitou which winds along the hill, passing many street performers and musicians which gave the street a wonderfully festive atmosphere on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The best was a large wind band playing an instrumental version of Europe’s Final Countdown – as though to remind me that I had just hours left in Athens.
Finishing the day, and my tour of the city, back in the modern world, I headed to the Lalaounis Jewellery Museum (lalaounis-jewelrymuseum.gr). Housed in a beautiful neo-classical mansion, the museum was home to an enormous collection of jewellery and metalwork by Greek maker Ilias Lalaounis. The collections were fascinating, often influenced by science, space and nature – with pieces intricately twisted and sculpted to resemble plant forms, cells or planets – while other collections drew inspiration from ancient Greek jewellery and ornaments. More interesting still was the temporary exhibition on the second floor, which the curator had undersold to me as “a collection of rocks” and which turned out to be an amazing collection of different rocks and minerals from around the world, including brilliantly preserved fossils, a meteor, crystals, lava, and all kinds of stones I’d never seen of heard of – most of them ages more ancient than anything I’d seen that weekend. Most fascinating was a piece of pyrite studded with perfect metallic cubes that were completely natural. This collection of rocks was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen, and definitely worth the trip to the museum.
From ancient temples to modern jewellery, by the end of my weekend trip I felt like I’d seen it all – but also that there was still so much more to see. In two days, I’d spanned two and a half thousand years of history, seen dozens of architectural styles, moved from the ancient world of Greek gods and temples, through the Roman and Ottoman occupations and right through to the relatively recent Greek independence. I’d hunted down incredible street art in Psirri, dug out vintage bargains in Monastirakki, strolled through the clash of classical and neo-classical architectures in Plakka, and found just enough time to tour the fabulously modern shopping district around Ermou Street to boot. Those two days left me exhausted, a little speechless, and absolutely in love, ending on the fantastic sight of another gorgeous sunset behind me as I boarded my flight with Aegean and headed back to the British winter.
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Head to DiscoverGreece.com for more information on planning your trip to Greece.
Ancient Sites: A ticket for the Acropolis costs €12 and includes entry to the Ancient Agora (including the museum), Temple of the Olympian Zeus, Hadrian’s Library, Kerameikos (including the Archaeological Museum), Olympieio, Roman Agora of Athens, North slope of Acropolis, and the South Slope of Acropolis.
Getting there: Fly direct to Athens in less than four hours from London. Aegean Airlines, a Star Alliance member and winner of Europe’s Best Regional Airline for the last 5 years, offers flights from three UK cities (and four UK airports) to two Greek destinations, and onwards to over thirty domestic destinations.
NB – the two images by Nikos Daniilidis have been reproduced with kind permission from the press room of the New Acropolis Museum.