The best kept secret in Athens: the Agora
After our rather disappointing visit of the Acropolis which was overcrowded, overheated and not very accessible, we were on the outlook for another historic experience in Athens. And we found it easily: Just to the foot of the hill that is home to the Acropolis we literally stumbled across the Agora. It was the former city centre and cultural heart of the ancient Greek civilisation.
Granted, we hadn’t done our homework and didn’t really come with a plan. But to accidentally come across such a huge site with relicts of an ancient culture was quite a pleasant surprise for us. Think about it: The Agora is not unlike the Roman Forum in Rome. Yet, while the latter is world-renown and quite the hype, the former is rather unknown and really under-appreciated.
After our constant battle for space to breathe at the expensive Acropolis which seemed to be on the to-do list of every single tourist coming to the Greek capital, the Agora was surprisingly free of visitors. One could say, people seemed to neglect it. It was like visiting the cousin of a rockstar relative who was hiding in the closet and only came out on special occasions.
The Agora: 5,000 years of human civilisation in one spot
Just a couple of metres from the exit of the Acropolis site, yet a different atmosphere altogether. No queues, no people running through the frame, no-one stepping on our toes. Despite the low entry fees of just 8 EUR per person we were almost alone on the site. While we took a seat under one of the trees that provided ample shade on the agora, we smiled at the stark juxtaposition between the highly frequented Acropolis and this underrated gem. We couldn’t wait to explore more.
The Agora used to be a very important centre in any Greek polis, the heart and soul of civic and spiritual life. This is where you would find businesses and civic buildings, the main temples, theatres, the court of justice, and lots more. Not an unimportant site at all. Rather the core of everything that made Athens into what it is today.
It is really hard to wrap your head around it but this particular Agora has produced evidence of human occupation that dated back some 5,000 years! We still find this absolutely mind-blowing. By comparison, the two best preserved buildings on the site, the Temple of Hephaestus and the Church of the Holy Apostles, are almost modern. Still, in the great scheme of things their well preserved existence was still astonishing.
The Church of the Holy Apostles, an archeological baby in a sea of ruins
After having rested our feet a bit in the cool shade of a pomegranate tree, we decided to visit the little church in front of us first. A pretty little thing, cross-shaped yet compact. Apses to four sides with a perfect round dome gracing its top. Inside, the Church of the Holy Apostles proved even smaller. Almost completely white-washed, yet the walls did show some remarkable wall paintings which dated back to the 17th century.
The church was built in the late 10th century, yet it is baby in the overall Agora complex. A medieval building in a sea of classic ruins. However, we also know that it partly shares the site with a nymphaion. Just another example of how Christian doctrine elegantly incorporated existing local religions for its own purposes.
But we couldn’t linger here. As it turned out, the Agora site was much bigger than anticipated. You could easily spend hours here.
Among many other building ruins and foundations you could check out a number of temples, fountains, altars, a library, the mint, the courthouse, lots of stoas (covered walkways) and much more. Plus, there was also a museum on site. Here, without doubt, you could see ancient pottery shards and the like.
Alas, after our time at the Acropolis we were spent. We desperately yearned for a cool drink and a hearty meal.
The Temple of Hephaestus is the best preserved Greek temple, ever
But there was one one more building that caught our attention. The Temple of Hephaestus was beckoning us to come closer.
Surrounded by lush Mediterranean gardens, it stood there, slightly raised from the rest of the site. Even from afar we could see that it was almost entirely complete.
It is a remarkable place, this temple.
In fact, the Temple of Hephaestus is the best preserved temple in the Greek world. Tall columns, shady walkways surrounding the sacred inner core, the peacefulness of a harmonic design and careful consideration of the architects. Well preserves since it has always been in use – after having been a temple dedicated to the patron of the metal-workers, it was also used as a church, a burial site and later as a museum.
Moreover, for us the views of the Acropolis from here were absolute tops!
Ancient buildings and ruins like this aplenty, all with a great deal of historic significance, yet hardly any visitors? The world must be mad!
Time for a cheap lunch deal
Weary from our explorations and the hot midsummer sun, we exited the Agora on the side where you would find the train lines, crossing the tracks and straight into the Flea Market and the Plaka, the old town of Athens.
For a cheap lunch and a well deserved glass of wine (just EUR 1,00 per glass, imagine that!) we ended up at O Thanasis. Unpretentious barbecued meat with fries, fresh salads and yoghurt dips, the perfect reward after all these hands-on history lessons in the heat of a Greek summer.