I am not sure what I was expecting of Athens when we arrived in port a couple of months ago. I think I was expecting to see tons of history. Greece is, after all, the cradle of modern Western civilisation.
I was probably expecting to see something much closer to the ancient splendour of Rome. Ruins and columns, crumbling facades, a confusing maze of cobblestone streets, a mix of old building styles. Considering that Athens is so much older than Rome, I think I was naively expecting to see all of that and then some.
But when the shuttle bus took us from the cruise port of Piraeus to the city centre of Athens, I soon realised that Athens was indeed a more modern city. And by “modern” I don’t mean clean and funky skyscrapers with shiny glass fronts and lots of steel and concrete. By “modern” I mean that kind of city that consists of cheaply built 60’s style office containers with dirty advertising in fading colours tainting the facades.
More modern than you think, but not all is lost
It is of course no surprise to anyone who is aware that Athens is located in an area that is prone to earthquakes. The vivid history of this place, the conquests and change of rule over the course of millennia is another factor. War and nature have destroyed most of the ancient buildings over time. A weak economy has replaced these lost treasures with the curse of unimaginative housing and functional commercial construction.
Be it as it may, this bleak outlook on Athens didn’t stop our excitement about discovering its city centre by foot. Surely, there must be traces of the grand civilisation that you could still find here. And in the end we did find some evidence that Athens indeed used to be a grand city and birthplace of an ancient civilisation that has left its mark until this very day.
Our walking tour through the city centre of Athens took us to ancient ruins and new interpretations. We also explored the charming old town precinct of Plaka. Follow us on our journey through the core of this city which reveals much more about the history of Greece than first catches the eye.
Syntagma Square: A free museum of Antiquities
The good thing about Athens is that you can get around cheaply and that you don’t have to pay a fortune to see some wonders of antiquity. The train ticket from Piraeus to the city centre costs only EUR 1,40 – these are prices that we in Australia can only dream of. And while you are there, Syntagma Square happens to be one of the most exciting museums out there.
The modern metro station doubles as a history museum, and you don’t even have to buy a ticket to the metro to see it. Just take the escalator down to have a look at what the workers found when they started digging into the century old layers of this ancient city.
There are burial sites and foundations behind glass in the walls of the shiny new station, as well as amphoras, trinkets, floor mosaics and other items in cabinets in the middle of the station. Well preserved and with some explanation, this small exhibition is as good as any when it comes to history museums, and it doesn’t cost you a cent to see it.
The Change of the Guards
Well, well, well. The change of the guards. When you have seen the one in London you are somewhat spoilt. The grandeur and the pomp, the regal colours and the discipline, the class and the British understatement. And then have a look at the Greek guards that keep watch in front of the Parliament.
The uniform alone is a bit of a joke. I am sorry, but have a look at the pompoms on those shoes. The black knee bands with the long tassels over white stockings. The jacket that ends in a skirt. This black thing hanging off the red cap like a side ponytail of some sort.
But that’s not all. Check out the carefully choreographed change of the guards ceremony in front of the Monument of the Unknown Soldier. With no sense or reason the Evzones follow a strict ritual of goose steps and back steps, noisy tap steps and pointless rifle hoisting.
The most ridiculous guard choreography in the world
I don’t mean no disrespect. I understand that these things are important to people and their national pride. But I do wonder if this ridiculous choreography was indeed meant to do exactly that: to ridicule? Think about it: The Greeks have been ruled by foreign powers for centuries. Maybe it was their foreign kings’ idea to show their superiority over the people by allowing the guards to look and move around like clowns? Just an idea!
Apparently, joining the guards is a great honour for young Greek men. They need to hold their position for one hour, and when I mean “they need to hold their position” I mean they are not to blink or move, no matter what. If there is a fly tickling their noses or sweat running into their eyes on a hot day, they need to suck it up. The two guards are always looked after by a supervisor. He, in contrast, may move. Imagine that: in 2010 message got out that there was a bomb nearby, yet the guards refused to move a single inch. They stayed in their spot even when the bomb detonated.
If a guard does encounter issues like sweat in their eyes they are allowed to bang their rifle on the ground. The supervisor will then step up to the guard and try to identify what the issue might be. No movement means no talk, so the guard cannot actually say what is wrong, and the supervisor needs to figure it out by just studying the guard carefully.
When we watched this taking place on our tour, the supervisor eventually decided not be of much help at all. After staring into the guards blinking eyes, obviously irritated by sweat, he just gave him a good dressing-down by yelling right into his face and then he returned to his little guard house. Our poor guard just had to suck it up.
The National Gardens and the Government Quarter
From the Parliament House we headed to the National Gardens. A perfect short-cut to the government buildings on the other side. A little stall in front of the gates sold twisted sweet bread with sesame seeds called Koulouria. We just loved it! A delicious mid-morning snack that was cheap, light and strangely addictive.
The National Garden was once established by the queen consort of King Otto, Queen Amalia. Although I believe well intended, the garden seemed to struggle under the harsh southern sun, even today. Due to the woes of the recent national financial crisis, you are looking at a garden that has lost its former glory and grandeur.
Maintenance seemed to have been tuned to a minimum. The lake had turned an ugly brown, the pathways quite visibly required some urgent repair work, and the public toilets… well, let’s not go into details.
From neglected to well protected
At least it is home to a stunning building right at its centre, the Zappaieon. This public hall shines in neo-classic style. You can walk inside and have a look at the wonderful colonnades around the circular courtyard. The bright colours on the ceiling and the pleasing harmony of the architecture make this a great place for a visit.
We also had a quick look at the Presidential Office and the Presidential Residence (former King’s Palace) to the east of the National Garden. The half-heartedly concealed presence of security in the surrounding streets surprised us. Not just guards but also police, secret agents, and military police were present. Not sure about you, but this makes me much more anxious then having just the regular security personell around.
The Panatheniac Stadium: A Modern Reinterpretation of Olympia
Just a stone’s throw away we found the Panathaneiac Stadium. Quite clearly not the real thing anymore, as it looked way too clean and modern and finished. But still built on the ruins of what must have been here before up until the 19th century. A lengthy semicircular shape of a stadium (because back in the day athletic runners would run a straight line and not in circles). More astonishingly, it was built entirely in marble.
The stadium was built for the first modern Olympic Games in the 19th century. It is still in use today. Every two years it is the perfect backdrop for the ceremony when the Olympic delegates of the host nation get the torch from Ancient Olympia.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus: A vast field and some columns
From here we found our way to an enormous ruined site that used to be the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Another symbol for the lost grandeur of ancient times, this temple used to be the biggest of its kind in the classic world. Today, only a handful of Corinthian columns are remaining. You do need a great deal of fantasy to puzzle together the pieces that once made up a pretty impressive religious site.
When I say that Athens has been robbed of its ancient splendour by war and nature, here is the proof. The Zeus temple was destroyed in the 3rd century by barbarians and abused as a quarry by Athenians. Earthquakes and strong winds have done their destructive work over the centuries. Sadly, nobody ever cared enough to repair it or get it back to its former glory. It is a big shame.
Also nearby was the Arch of Hadrian. In contrast to many other triumph arches around the ancient world, this one is nothing more than a thin wall with a round archway and an upper level with the attic. Although it looks meagre and incomplete it is in fact in pretty good shape considering its age. Unfortunately, as it is surrounded by modern Athens with its rusty metal fences and cars it comes across as slightly underwhelming. At least you get a good view of the Acropolis from here.
Plaka: Ruins, restaurants and a cathedral
We followed the direction of the arch and down into the Plaka, the old part of Athens. It is really easy to find your bearings: you just need to look out for the Acropolis.
From the grand government buildings and the airy spaces of the gardens we entered a maze of narrow lanes. A shopaholic’s heaven: Shop after shop were lining the streets, selling everything from leather goods, to t-shirts and tacky souvenirs.
The shops changed ever so slightly as we got closer to the impressive Athens cathedral. Now they were selling goods that were of interest to worshippers and the clergy. We saw robes, hats, silverware, candelabras, and icons. A fascinating glimpse into a different culture.
The cathedral is an important centre point in the city, and it seems everybody has an opinion on its appearance. Even though recently restored, the Athenians are not too happy about the design choices. And I partly agree. The clean and modern appearance of this 19th century church lacks charm and character.
This became in particular painfully obvious when we visited the tiny church right next to it. The tiny Agios Eleftherios Church is much older than the grand cathedral next door, built in the 12th century. And while the big sister may have been more light and pleasing to the senses, the small one seemed more intimate and humble.
We finished our day in Athens with a visit to the flea market. A perfect place to find all sorts of things, from old furniture to musical instruments, toys, coins and clothes. A wonderful display of the old and the unwanted, the restored and the quirky.
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