Things to see and do - Athens
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Athens - a city (re)discovered :
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Athens - a city (re)discovered
Athens - a city (re)discoveredPedestrian, 16 km, 3 days
Athens has often suffered from a reputation as a dirty and polluted capital, noisy, tiring...In reality, the enormous work undertaken for the 2004 Olympic games gave the city a new shine. Around the Acropolis is a lovely walk that enables you to enjoy the unique light and flavours of this legendary city. Even the brand new underground system that has freed the city from some of its road traffic is like a beautiful museum! The Monastiraki market, the tavernas, the lanes of Plaka, so full of life, and the chic boutiques situated at the foot of Lycabette are all worth a detour...Customise this route and add it to My travel book
Especially in the upper part, Pláka forms a picturesque web of peaceful small roads and alleys, small squares and terraces linking flights of steps. A few small Byzantine churches alternate with old houses with round-tiled roofs and wooden balconies, sometimes surrounded by hidden gardens from which peek the tops of pine, cypress or fig trees. Views of the town or the Acropolis are revealed here and there. The lower part of Pláka is the area for trade and cheap boarding houses. At night Pláka comes to life... The taverns with terraces covered with a trellis light up with multi-coloured girandoles. Like the Athenians, you can come here to taste Greek cuisine washed down with retsina to the sound of boozookis (or electric guitars), listen to fashionable singers and dance the modern sirtáki. In addition to these taverns there are also «nightclubs» where you can drink while attending a show, of high quality when based around traditional music.
This «upper town», a focal point of civilization, occupies the summit of an abrupt rock. It is 270 m in length and 156 m wide, covering an area of 4 ha, and it dominates the lower town from a height of nearly 100 m. Although it contains remains of various epochs going back as far as the second millennium B.C., its main monuments (Propylaea, Temple of Athena Nike, Erechteion and the Parthenon) are masterpieces of the century of Pericles (5th century B.C.). For some years work to protect the stone and replace the sculptures with copies has been necessary. If these restorations interest you, a visit to the Acropolis Research Centre is a must! You will enter the Acropolis by Beulé gate. This gate (late Roman epoch) was discovered in 1853 by the French archaeologist Ernest Beulé. Framed by two towers, it precedes the (Roman) staircase overlooked to the right by the temple of Athena Nike and to the left by the grey marble pedestal of the Hymetus which around 15 B.C. bore the quadriga of Agrippa, the son-in-law of Augustus. Before the Romans one entered the Acropolis at the bottom of the temple of Athena Nike, through a passage along the Sacred Way followed by the processions of the Panathenes. Behind Agrippa's monument, a platform will give you an attractive view over the hills of Philopappos, Pnyx and Areopagos. In the Middle Ages a staircase led down from this platform, to the Clepsydre spring, cleared in 1873.
This elegant little temple, completed in 407 B.C., a combination of Doric and Ionic order, has a complicated ground plan due to the declivity of the ground and the fact that it contains several places of worship. The most important ones are dedicated respectively to Athena, Poseidon, Erechthaeus and Cecrops. Over the centuries, it was successively a church, a palace, a harem and a military magazine. It was restored after independence under the auspices of Piscatory, Louis-Philippe's ambassador to Athens. The famous portico of kores faces the Parthenon. It is called the «Caryatids' tribune» because 6 tall statues of young women, with noble and calm attitudes, wearing tunics with parallel folds like the fluting of the columns they replace, support its architrave. The statues you can see are copies. One of the originals is in the British Museum, the others in the Acropolis Museum. To the right the eastern portico, with 6 Ionic columns, leads to the sanctuary which used to house the oldest statue of Athena, made from olive tree wood. The western façade was modified during the Roman epoch. In the adjacent courtyard an olive tree reminds you that it was here that you could venerate Athena's sacred olive tree. If you then go to the end of the rock there is an amazing view! Before your eyes are the Roman town with Hadrian's arc and the temple of Zeus, the old Pláka district and the north-eastern districts of Athens surrounded by the Parnis, the Pentelikos and the Hymetus... Not to be missed on any account!
This Doric temple was built in the time of Pericles by the architect Iktinos. Phidias directed the work of the sculpted decoration of the pediments, friezes and metopes. It was dedicated to Athena, and her chryselephantine statue, a work by Phidias, decorated the sanctuary. The whole building was painted in lively colours. During the Byzantine epoch the statue of Athena, transported to Constantinople, was destroyed by the inhabitants in 1203 during the siege of the city by the Crusaders. The temple was then converted into a church consecrated to Saint Sophia, richly illuminated with frescos and mosaics. This church, which became a cathedral, took on the title of St-Mary-of-Athens under the Franks, and then became a mosque under the Turks. The building nonetheless retained most of its sculptures, which were listed by the Marquis of Nointel before the explosion of the gunpowder store in 1687 destroyed many of them, at the same time as it brought down 28 columns, the walls of the cella and the roof slabs of Paros marble. Between 1801 and 1803 Lord Elgin, the English ambassador at Constantinople, was able to remove almost all that remained of the sculptures, statues of the pediments, cella frieze and metopes, which he subsequently gave to the British Museum in London. From 1834 restoration work was accomplished, marked by the righting of the colonnades, undertaken by the Greek archaeologists after the First World War. Almost all the sculptures in the Parthenon are reproduced as mouldings in the Acropolis Research Centre.
Previously known under the name of temple of the Aptere Victory, it juts out in front of the Propylaea, overlooking the Sacred Way. According to the legend, the aged Aegeus, the father of Theseus, threw himself in the sea (!) from the top of the rock on which the temple is built, when he thought his son was dead on seeing the black sail wrongly hoisted on the mast of the ship bringing the vanquisher of the Minotaur back from Crete! This Ionic temple of the late 5C B.C. is small (8.27 m long by 5.44 m wide) but graceful. It was rebuilt by the Bavarian archaeologists of King Othon. The temple consists of a cella between 2 porticos with monolithic columns which concealed a statue of Athena victorious. The outer frieze, which has been mutilated, contains a few original pieces (eastern and southern sides), the others being copies.
In the 6C B.C., a first stage was built in the sacred enclosure dedicated to Dionysos, where the Dionysian festivals were held, consisting of choirs, mimes and dances of satyrs and menads. These installations gave way at the start of the next century to a genuine theatre where you missed the great plays of classical theatre! The current theatre, made of stone, dating back to Lycurgus (4C B.C.), had 17,000 places and was used as the Assembly of the people who had left the Pnyx. Modified by the Romans and abandoned after the barbarian invasions, its restoration dates from the end of the 19C. After going past the foundations of a temple to Dionysos and a portico, you reach the stage of the theatre (rebuilt under Nero in the 1C A.D.): on the side of the orchestra, the front of the stage is decorated with sculptures evoking the legend of Dionysos (note the crouching Silene!). The orchestra seats form a lozenge marked in its centre by the location of an altar to Dionysos around which the ancient choir sat. The tiers (4C B.C.) are partly conserved; they go up to Thrasyllos' monument. In the front row the reserved seats can be recognised, bearing the names of the personalities who sat in them in the 2C A.D.: in the centre is that of the priest of Dionysos, decorated with lions, griffins, satyrs and grapes. Not far away are the remains of the odeon of Pericles, a covered theatre used for rehearsals and music competitions.
The central market of Athens still constitutes a spectacle with a quite extraordinary oriental ambiance. Note especially the meat house, the egg-sellers and, close to Sofokleous Street, the goldsmiths and moneychangers equipped with small scales. From the market you can walk down Evripidou Street to No. 72 where, at the bottom of a small square, hides the Chapel of St John of the Column (Ágios Giánis stin Kólon), built around a Corinthian column. The chapel has many visitors seeking a cure for fevers. Kodzia Square, to the north of the market, was the centre of Athens in the second half of the 19C: it was planted with palm trees and surrounded with individual residences, some of which remain. The National Bank of Greece, to the east of the square, was founded in 1842. In the centre of the square around 500 ancient tombs were discovered just outside the city walls. After the necropolis was abandoned, during the Roman epoch a district of potters was established, whose workshops and kilns have been found.
In the heart of a popular district, Omónia is an animated and lively square which has partly preserved its oriental character. Minor professions flourish here, and in the neighbouring streets are groups of specialist traders and small companies. What a contrast there is between this «Concorde» Square and Síndagma Square! The feeling of disorientation is greatest in the evening...
The Lycabetus, or Wolves' Hill, 277 m high, is crowned by Saint George's Chapel. From the neighbouring terraces, a wonderful panorama embraces the city of Athens, the Acropolis, and the Piraeus coast, together with the main surrounding peaks: to the south-east, the Hymetus, to the east the Pentelikos, dotted with marble quarries, and to the north the massive silhouette of Parnis. A path leads down towards the St George Lycabettus hotel.
Kolonáki Square is surrounded by luxury shops, restaurants and cafés. A small column in the garden has given its name to the square. The latter is the centre of the Kolonáki district, modern and elegant, clinging to the sides of the Lycabetus. Along the streets you can find the most refined shops in Athens: fashion, jewellers, bookshops and art galleries, etc.
The National Archaeological Museum, one of the richest in the world, is devoted to ancient art, from the Neolithic epoch to the Roman epoch. It assembles the main works of art from the major Greek archaeological sites, except for Delphos, Olympia and Crete. Founded in 1834 in the Theseion, it was transferred in 1874 to the current neoclassical buildings, which were subsequently enlarged. The sculptures are exhibited on the ground floor, and on the 1st floor, the ceramics and also the frescos and ceramics from Santorini. Don't miss the most famous room in the museum devoted to the excavations made in Mycenae since 1876; here you will admire the famous « golden mask of Agamemnon»! In the area of geometrical and archaic art, don't miss two remarkable works: Aristion's funerary stela, « the soldier of Marathon», showing a warrior, sculpted on a plane by Aristocles, and the superb funerary kouros from Anávissos in Attica. Lovers of classical art will be spoilt! They can admire, in particular, the extraordinary Poseidon from the Artemision, where the sea god holds the symbolic trident in his right hand; the Eleusis relief, admirable for the gravity and contemplation of its characters, together with the amazing Jockey of Artemision. Hellenistic art is also represented, notably with Poseidon's huge statue of Milo! Pleasure, pleasure and more pleasure can be had by immersing oneself in the Roman epoch, the Egyptian antiquities or the extraordinary frescos and potteries of Santorini...