Waking up on our first full day in Greece, I stepped out onto our quiet, fourth-floor balcony and gazed around. Down below, sat a small, pretty Byzantine church, while just a bit in front of it, was a pit containing a few columns of some ancient ruin. Between them, three giant, nearly leafless trees swayed in the breeze, singing with the twittering of endless little birds who apparently nested in the trunks. It was probably the nicest, most peaceful view of Athens I would see.
Re-energized after our day of travel, Steph and I set out early. We wanted to get to the Acropolis before the rest of the tourist hordes. The weather was pleasantly cool, the streets, here in the tourist part of town, mostly empty and quiet. The Greeks aren’t known for their breakfasts, but we found a little place selling coffee and sandwiches. I bought what I thought was just a small loaf of dark, seeded bread, but which turned out to be some kind of feta cheese pie. Not bad, but not what I was really after first thing in the morning.
Despite our guidebooks, we actually failed to find the entrance to the Acropolis on the first attempt, walking completely past it. I guess we expected some kind of big sign with an arrow pointing the way, but there was no such thing. Well, we found it eventually. Paying our way inside, we climbed the steep hillside, until the heavy columns of the Propylaia loomed above us. The Propylaia is the great gateway to the Acropolis and has stood the passing centuries with surprising resilience. The roof is gone, but much of the rest remains. Being a gateway, it is probably often overlooked, and most people probably rush on to the Parthenon, but it definitely deserves a bit of attention. Also, it is the only one of the ancient buildings on the Acropolis that you can currently walk through.
All of that said, it is hard not to have your eyes drawn immediately to the Parthenon. It is just such a massive, hulking presence. If I’m being completely honest, I found the Parthenon just a little bit disappointing. At the current time, its massive beauty is somewhat spoiled by the scaffolding and the noise of construction.
Frankly, the whole Acropolis has a bit of a construction site flavour to it at the moment, which does much to dent the imagination. (Amusingly, the current round of construction is to repair the construction work done one hundred years ago, and not the building done over two thousand years ago.) Considering Greece’s current economic climate, and the number of people actually at work on the building, don’t expect to see it finished any time soon – if ever.
More appealing to my eyes, is the smaller and prettier Erechtheion, famous for the six column/statues of women on one wing. Off on a quieter corner, this was an ancient temple to appreciate. Nearly fully intact, it was easy to imagine it in is ancient glory. (For mythology buffs, it was also near this building that Theseus’ father flung himself from the cliff upon seeing the wrong colour sails on his son’s ship).
All in all, we spent a good hour or more wandering among the many fallen stones that still litter the Acropolis. Going early definitely paid off, as the gateway of the Propylaia and the path down were packed as we were making our way out. I really can’t imagine how this works in high tourist season...
The next stop was just down the hill at the Acropolis Museum. Okay, I’m going to come right out and say this. The museum was a disappointment. While it is a very well designed structure (really the architect deserves an award), I didn’t think the ‘treasures’ it housed lived up to the billing. Now, there is a debateable point here...perhaps the greatest treasures of the Acropolis (known as the Elgin Marbles) currently reside in the British Museum. The Greeks seem to have built the museum in the hopes that the British Museum would take that opportunity to return them. They didn’t. So one is left wondering about the wisdom of building a museum to house a treasure you don’t have. The debate about the Elgin Marbles makes for quite interesting reading, and I can only say that I’m glad that I’m not part of it.
On the plus side, the museum does have a nice cafe, with a porch that projects like the prow of a ship, giving a great view up at the Parthenon. To my mind, the Parthenon is actually better viewed at a distance at the moment.
From the museum, we made a slow ramble through the streets of Athens. We passed through the Bazaar, which was slightly reminiscent of London’s Camden Market, until we reached the ancient Agora (the centre of ancient Athens government). This is a large area of scattered ruins, presented in a nice, park-like fashion. The most impressive of these ruins is the temple of Hephaistos, a squat, heavy columned building that seems a perfect example of an ancient temple (even if the roof was added by the Byzantines when converting it to a church dedicated to St. George).
After lunch, we set out for the Archaeology Museum, which is away to the north of the Acropolis. We caught the subway to the nearest stop and then proceeded on foot. We promptly got lost. Looking back, I’m really not sure how we did this. Probably if we’d studied the map a bit longer beforehand it would have been simple. We ended up wandering the streets and parks of Athens for well over an hour before we found it. We arrived half-an-hour before closing, hot, tired, and really in no mood for a museum. Still, it was our only chance to see it, so we took a very quick tour through it. The only thing I really remember is the golden Mask of Agamemnon, an impressive treasure even if it likely has nothing to do with Agamemnon.
We spent most of the rest of the day recovering from our exertions. After a rest break back at our hotel, we wandered out again and saw the Roman Temple of Olympian Zeus. Actually this isn’t so much a temple anymore, but a collection of twenty-four (extremely large and impressive) columns that made up one corner of the original. At its height, it would have certainly been a rival for the Parthenon. We could only see it from behind a fence, but that was fine.
In some ways, it is a shame that we’d scheduled only one day in Athens. I would have liked another crack at the Archaeology museum, and there were a couple of other minor sights of interest...but, I was also glad to be leaving. Athens is a big, crowded, and not particularly attractive city. Like most of Greece that we saw, it has a serious graffiti problem. Most of this isn’t even the colourful street-art style, but just random, junky vandalism, and it is everywhere. Also, unsurprisingly for a city which sits in a bowl between mountains, the air is foul with car fumes, and the numerous stray cats and dogs do little to help the overall atmosphere.