jump to navigation

Travelling to Athens > entertainment and shopping July 28, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Athens.
comments closed


The annual Hellenic Festival offers the opportunity to watch world-class performances of dance, music and theatre at the ancient Theatre of Herodes Atticus, nestled spectacularly below the floodlit Acropolis.

The festival keeps getting bigger and bigger. The program extended from May to September, included appearances by the London Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Ballet, Brazil’s globetrotting musical ambassador Gilberto Gil, Sir Elton John just to name but a few. For this year’s festival program see www.hellenicfestival.gr .

The site also has information about performances at the famous Theatre of Epidaurus in the Peloponnese (3 hours west of Athens) as well as other venues.

Tickets go on sale three weeks before the performance. They  can be bought over the phone by credit card or at the festival box office (Mon-Fri 8:30-16:00, Sat 9:00-14:30, tel 210 9282900, in the arcade at 39 Panepistimiou street). Tickets also are sold at the theatre box office on the day of the performance.

Nightlife and Strolling

Strolling: The big news for strollers is the Dionysiou Areopagitou, a popular pedestrian boulevard arcing around the back side of the Acropolis. As the sun goes down it’s busy with locals (lovers, families, pensioners, children at play) and visitors alike. You can actually walk entirely around the Acropolis although much of the circuit is rougher than this fine paved stretch.

Outdoor Cinema: The Aigli Village Cinema is a cool, classic outdoor theater in the National Gardens at the Zappeion playing the latest blockbusters with a great sound system (€7, call 210 3369369 for schedule and to see if it’s played with original soundtrack). Other outdoor cinemas (within the city centre) are the Cine Paris in Plaka, the Thisseion in Thisseion area and the Dexameni Refresh in Kolonaki area.

Psyrri, The Trendy Night Life Zone: Psyrri, until recently famous only for being run-down, has emerged as the trendy nightclub, café, restaurant zone. As the rustic old crafts shops survive, the mix of trendy and crusty gives the area a unique charm. The best action is around three squares: Agion Asomaton, Iroon, and Agion Anargyron.

Folk Dancing: The Dora Stratou Theatre on Filopappou Hill is the place to go for real folk dancing. The company is the best is Greece, formed originally to record and preserve the country’s many traditional dances. Their repertoire includes such favourites as the graceful kalamatianos circle dance, the syrtaki (immortalized by Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek), and the dramatic solo zeimbekikos. (€ 13, Tues-Sat performances 21:30, Sun 20:15 May 23-Sept 28, tel. 210 9214650, www.grdance.org, Dora Stratou Theatre, Filopappou Hill, signposted from the western end of Dionysiou Areopagitou.)


Flea Market: The famous Athens Flea Market is south-west of Monastiraki Square on Ifestou. It’s a fun place to browse, but it’s not the place to go looking for gifts for the friends back home, unless they like flea-bitten junk. Fake designer cloths, great antiques, lots of stuff that might give you fleas.

Souvenirs: There are countless souvenir shops in the Plaka area, mainly along Adrianou and Pandrossou, selling the full range of tourist paraphernalia: T-shirts, calendars, playing cards, plaster copies of famous statues, and so on. Competition is hot between shops, so there’s room to bargain, especially if you’re buying several things.

Jewellery: Serious buyers tell me that Athens is much the best place in Greece to buy jewellery, particularly at the shops along Adrianou. The choice is much better than you’ll find elsewhere, and, if you know how to haggle, so are the prices. The best advice is to take you time, and don’t be afraid to walk away. Sales staff get paid huge commissions, and they hate to see a potential customer depart. The shop at the Benaki Museum is popular for jewellery.

Sandals: The place to buy real leather sandals is from Stavros Melissinos, the famous `poet sandal-maker’ of Athens (at 89 Pandrosou street, near Monastiraki Square). You’ll find an assortment of styles priced from €20-28 per pair, as well as free copies of his poems (Mon-Sat 10:00-14:00 & 16:00-19:00, Sun 10:00-14:00, tel 210 3219247).

Carpets: The shops around Plaka sell oriental carpets, but generally don’t stock Greek ones. For Greek carpets look at the National Welfare Organization’s Hellenic Folk Art Gallery, behind Plateia Mitropoleos. It has a good selection of shaggy flokati carpets, as well as knotted carpets, colourful kilims and cushion covers embroidered with traditional folk designs. What’s more, the profits go towards preservation of traditional handicrafts (Tues-Fri 9:00-20:00, Mon & Sat 9:00-15:00, 6 Ipatias street at the corner of Apollonos street, tel. 210 3250524).

Travelling to Athens > route V July 28, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Athens.
comments closed

National Archaeological Museum

The National Archaeological Museum, far and away the top ancient Greek art collection anywhere, takes you chronologically from 7,000 BC to 500 AD in beautifully displayed and described exhibits and air-conditioned comfort.

The core rooms (3-6) cover pre-history and Aegean civilizations (7000-1050 BC). Artifacts from Aegean Islands (the first city states), Troy, wall paintings from Thera, and the treasures of Royal Tombs from Mycenae. You’ll see early clay fertility symbols, big women, basically huge thighs and breasts slapped together and worshipped (from about 5,000 BC). Then, 2,000 years later, thin is in as Cycladic fertility symbols evolved from Vaginolins to marble twiggies (c. 3000 BC).

The central room shows off the funerary art looted from Mycenaean graves, the famous Mask of Agamemnon, finely decorated weapons, and jewellery all buried with bodies.

Rooms 7 though 33 let you trace the evolution of Greek sculpture from 8 th century BC to 4th century AD, Kouroi (male nudes), grave stone reliefs. This is the finest collection in existence allowing trace evolution from stiff, to balanced to Hellenistic. Walk once around fast for the time lapse effect: stiff Egyptian, balanced David-like Golden Age, wet tee-shirt buckin’ bronco Hellenistic. Then go around again for a closer look.

The collection also includes vases and painted pottery (upstairs 49-56), bronze statuary (rooms 36-39 ground floor), Egyptian (rooms 40 and 41).

Museum Highlights include:
Mask of Agamemnon: The celebrated Mask of Agamemnon, a gold death mask unearthed at Mycenae by Heinrich Schliemann, is a popular favorite.

The Warrior Vase: Despite all the fuss about the Mask of Agamemnon, it was this beautiful 12th century BC clay krater or large vase (#1426) that Schliemann rated as his greatest find. It shows women gathered to wave goodbye to a group of warriors heading off to war with their fancy armour and duffle bags hanging from their spears. While this provided the world with its first glimpse of a Mycenaean soldier, it’s a timeless scene, repeated countless times in our generation.

Vaphio Cups: The exquisite Vaphio gold cups, with scenes of men taming wild bulls, are regarded as the finest examples of Mycenaean art. They were found in tomb at Vaphio, near Sparta (two small cups in a glass case at the back end of the central room).

Minoan frescos: The museum’s second crowd puller is its collection of magnificent frescos, uncovered at the ancient Minoan settlement of Akrotiri on the island of Santorini (Thira). These are upstairs in room 48.

The Poseidon of Artemision: This stunning bronze statue, cast in 450 BC, depicts the mighty god of the sea about to hurl his trident. It was discovered in the sea off Cape Artemision in 1928.

Horse and Jockey of Artemision: The Horse and Jockey of Artemision, cast in the 2nd century BC, was discovered at the same time as the statue of Poseidon. The detail is astonishing, right down to the concerned look on the jockey’s face.

Statue of Athina Varvakeion: In room 20 you’ll see the most famous copy of the statue of Athina Polias by Pheidias that once stood in the Parthenon (c. 450 BC). It portrays Athina, dressed in flowing golden robes, seated on a throne holding out a small figure of Nike (goddess of victory) in her right hand and a spear in her left.

Pottery: The pottery collection traces the development of pottery from the Bronze Age through the Protogeometric and Geometric periods, to the emergence of the famous Attic black-figured pottery of the 6th century and the red-figured pottery, which reached the peak of perfection during Pericles’ rule in the middle of the 5th century BC.

Cost, hours and location: €10, Apr-Oct Tues-Sun 8:00-19:00, Mon 12.30-19:00, Nov-Mar Tues-Sun 8:00-15:00, Mon 10:30-17:00, photos allowed but no flash and no posing goofy in front of statues, delightful cafeteria in basement spills out onto shady and restful courtyard, Oktovriou-Patission 44, Metro: 10 minutes walk from Plateia Viktorias station, many buses, tel. 210 821 7717, www.culture.gr ). While there are no audio-guides, live guides hang out in the entry lobby waiting to give you a €35 hour-long tour.

Other Sights and Museums:

National Gardens: The National Gardens, which extend south from the Vouli (Parliament), are a wonderful cool retreat from the traffic-clogged streets of central Athens. Covering an area of around 40 acres, they were planted in 1839 as the palace gardens, created for the pleasure of Queen Amalia. The gardens were opened to the public in 1923 (free, open daily from dawn to dusk).

Zappeion: Just south of the National Gardens, stands the grand mansion known as the Zappeion, surrounded by formal gardens of it own. It was built in the 1870 and financed by the Zappas brothers, Evangelos and Konstantinos, who were two of the prime movers in the campaign to revive the Olympic Games. It housed the International Olympic Committee during the first modern Olympics in 1896, hosted the fencing competition, and served as an Olympic Press Center during the 2004 Olympics. During the “diaspora”  (period during Ottoman rule) Greek elites, intelligentsia, and aristocracy fled the country. They returned after independence (1827) and built grand mansions like this. Today the Zappeion is a conference and exhibition center. But to most Athenians, it’s the site of a fine outdoor cinema and fine dining at the “Aegli” restaurant or for walk and a coffee.

Panathinean Stadium: This gleaming marble stadium is a place with many names. Officially it’s the Panathinean Stadium, built in the 4th century BC to host the Panathinaic Games. Rarely it’s referred to as the Roman Stadium, because it was rebuilt by the great Roman benefactor Herodes Atticus in the 2nd century AD, using the same prized Pentelic marble as used in the Parthenon. It is this magnificent white marble that is responsible for the name that everyone agrees on: the Kallimarmaro (beautiful marble) Stadium. It was restored to Roman condition in preparation for the first modern Olympics in 1896. It saw Olympic action again in 2004 when its unique horse-shoe-shaped design provided a grand finish for the marathon. In ancient times, 50,000 filled the stadium without seats. Today, 50,000 spectators get seats.

Temple of Olympian Zeus: This largest temple in ancient Greece took almost 700 years to finish. It was begun late in the 6 th century BC during the rule of the tyrant Peisistratos. But task proved beyond him. The temple lay abandoned, half-built, for centuries until the Roman Emperor Hadrian arrived to finish the job in AD 131. Although only 15 of the original 104 Corinthian columns remain standing, their sheer size (a towering 56ft high) is enough to create a powerful impression of the temple’s scale. The fallen column was toppled by a storm in 1852. The temple once housed a suitably oversized statue of Zeus, head of the Greek gods who lived on Mt Olympus, and an equally colossal statue of Hadrian (€2, Tues-Sun 8:30-15:00, tel 210 9226330).

Arch of Hadrian: This grand archway lies just west of the Temple of Olympian Zeus facing the Plaka and Acropolis. Its once brilliant white Pentelic marble is stained by the exhaust fumes from some of Athens’ worst traffic. It was built by Hadrian in AD 132 to celebrate the completion of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It marked the dividing line between the ancient city and Hadrian’s new ‘Roman’ city. An inscription on one side informs the reader that `This is Athens, ancient city of Theseus’, while the opposite frieze carries the message that ‘This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus’. This must have been a big deal for Hadrian as the emperor himself came here to celebrate the inauguration.

Central Market: For a colorful and fragrant stroll through work-a-day Athens, sort through the dripping fresh meat, sticky figs, exotic nuts, spices and a world of olives at its massive central food market. The market, with lots of immigrant color mixed in, is a barrage on all your senses (Mon-Sat 7:00-15:00, on Athinas between Sofokleous and Evripidou streets, metro: Omonia). Modern art lovers should pop into the Art Tower which rises above the market offering eight stimulating floors of contemporary galleries (free, Wed-Fri 15:00-20:00, Sat 12:00-16:00, 10 Armodiou street).

Keramikos, Athens’ ancient cemetery: Named for the ceramics workshops which used to surround it, this is a vast place to wander among marble tombstones from the 7th century BC on (€2, included with Acropolis combo ticket, 8:00-19:00 daily, 148 Ermou street, metro: Thisio).

Museum of Cycladic Art: The Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art shows off the largest collection of Cycladic art anywhere. This art of the Aegean city states, pre-dating the Golden Age by 2000 years gives an insight into the matriarchal cultures of the Greek Islands where this great civilization originated. If you like fertility symbols, this museum will float your boat. (€4, 10:00-16:00 Mon, Wed, Thur, Fri, 10:00-15:00 Sat, 4 Neofytou Douka street, metro: Evangelismos).

Museum of Greek Folk Art: Buried conveniently in the Plaka, this fine little museum offers a classy break from the folk kitsch on sale throughout that neighborhood. Four small floors display four centuries (17th through 20th ) of embroideries, traditional costumes, carvings, shadow theater puppets all well-described in English. The ethnographic photo essay on the first floor is poetic. “In the coffee shop there is room for everybody and everything: wise political words, incredible nautical tales and memories.” The well-described photos give you a fun trip around the country’s most remote and traditional corners. Wonderful folk costumes from each region fill the top floor (€2, daily 10:00-14:00, closed Mon, across from the church of Metamorphosis at 17 Kydathineon street, Plaka).

Benaki Museum of Greek History and Culture: This exquisite collection of 36 galleries on four floors takes you on a fascinating air-conditioned walk through the ages. The first exhibit kicks things off by saying “Around 7000 BC the greatest revolution in human experience took place: the change from hunting and gathering economies of the Paleolithic Age to the farming economy of the Neolithic Age.” You’ll see fine painted vases, gold wreaths of myrtle leaves worn on heads 2300 years ago, evocative Byzantine icons and jewellery. Romantic art depicts Greece’s stirring and successful 19 th century struggle for independence (€6, Mon, Wed Fri, Sat 9:00-17:00, Sun 9:00-15:00, Thur 9:00-24:00, closed Tues, no audio guide but well-described in English, classy rooftop café, 1 Koumbari Street, kolonaki, across from back corner of the National Garden, tel. 210 3671000, www.benaki.gr ). The Benaki gift shop is considered a fine place to buy jewellery.

Byzantine and Christian Museum: Traces the story of the Byzantine Empire from Emperor Constantine’s move from Rome to Byzantium (which he named Constantinople; present day Istanbul) in 324 until the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. It’s mostly the story of early Christianity within the story of Byzantium with exhibits shaped by the notion that “art is more than aesthetic, it’s also a testament to a culture.” It is, therefore, arranged thematically with exhibits such as “The Christianization of Pagan temples,” “Christians in the face of Death,” and so on (€4, 8:30-15:00, closed Mon, 25 Vasilissis Sofias Avenue, Metro: Evangalismos, tel. 210 7211027).

War Museum: This huge museum documents the struggle of the Greek Nation from antiquity to today hoping to bolster national meaning and the unity of Hellenism. Exhibits feature everything from ancient swords and armour to modern day fighter jets (free, 9:00-14:00, closed Mon, scant English descriptions but audio guide available, corner of Vasilissis Sophias Avenue and Rizari street, Metro: Evangelismos).

Travelling to Athens > route IV July 28, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Athens.
comments closed

Agora, Athens’ Ancient Market

While the Acropolis was the ceremonial showpiece, it was the agora that was the real heart of ancient Athens. For some 800 years, from its foundation in the 6th century BC to its destruction by the Herulians in AD 267, it was the hub of all commercial, political and social life, as well as being home to the city’s principal administrative and legislative buildings (don’t pay the €4 admission if your going to the Acropolis as it’s included in that €12 combo ticket, daily 8:00-19:00, Oct-March 8:30-15:00, main entrance from Adrianou, tel. 210 3210185).

The agora would have been a lively place, much like modern Athens, where the pace seldom slackened. Crowds would gather here to listen to philosophers like the great Socrates, who spent much of his life here preaching the virtues of ‘nothing to excess’, and urging listeners to ‘know thyself.’ The apostle Paul stopped here on his way to Corinth in AD 49.

The agora was never restored to its original role after the visit of the ransacking Herulians, and was slowly taken over private housing. By the 18th century, it had become a flourishing Turkish residential district. This was demolished after independence, and the area has been excavated to classical levels.

Apart from the Temple of Hephaestus, little survives from the classical agora, but it remains a wonderful place to get a feel for the ancient city, nestled in the shadow of the Acropolis. Unlike the crowded Acropolis, the agora is a quiet, generally deserted place to wander and ponder the wonders of ancient Athens.

The plan: Except for the temple and the museum in the rebuilt Stoa of Attalos, there’s nothing but evocative rubble to ponder. From the modern entrance, the Panathenaic Way runs straight through the agora (exiting on the far side) up towards the Acropolis. If you’re seeing the Acropolis after the agora, you’ll basically follow this with a sightseeing loop or two en route. From the top of the ramp find the modern Stoa of Attalos (on your left, with the agora museum) and the Temple of Hera on your right. Use the chart at the ramp to orient. For your visit stop by the Stoa of Attalos to visit the museum, proceed from their straight up the Middle Stoa road to the Temple, return to the Panathenaic Way via the three giants of the Gymnasium. And head past the wall and church up to the Acropolis exit. As you wander, read about the various ruins from posted info panels scattered helpfully throughout the site (thanks to 2004 Olympics).

Panathenaic Way: The paved path that leads uphill to the Acropolis from the modern entry of the agora is the Panathenaic Way, the ceremonial route followed by the grand parade at the Great Panathenaic Festival.

Stoa of Attalos

The Stoa of Attalos was faithfully reconstructed in 1953-56 by the American School of Archaeology to resemble the original stoa was built by King Attalos II of Pergamum (159-138 BC). Imagine ancient Greeks (their hard labor done by slaves) lounging around in the shade provided by fine buildings like this. Notice the pillars designed to encourage leaning, with fluting starting only after six feet for the comfort of your favorite philosopher. The portico is supported by 45 columns, Doric on the ground floor and Ionic on the upper gallery. Upstairs are the workshops and offices of the American School of Archaeological which continues its work.

Ten of the original 21 ground floor rooms have been replaced by a small hall housing the Agora Museum. Taking this well-described chronological stroll through art from 3,200 BC you’ll get a fun glimpse of life in ancient Athens (seeing a cute little baby’s commode, a voting machine, and a barbeque).

Leaving Stoa of Attalos walk strait along the “Middle Stoa” lane past a fine Corinthian capital and a well in the road, cross an aqueduct and climb past the scant remains of what were the state administrative buildings to the…

Temple of Hephaestus

This is the only temple anywhere in the ancient Greek world with a completely intact roof. As it was used as a church for centuries, it was never cannibalized. It stands on a low hill at the western edge of the agora, where it was built in 449 BC. When the great buildings of the Acropolis were begun it was “all hands on deck up there and work on the Temple of Hephaestus was interrupted. Notice how the frieze was only finished on side facing the Agora and blank elsewhere. Like the Parthenon, it’s a Doric temple, but with none of the refinements (elaborate carvings, fancy math to overcome the optical illusions) of the that greater work. It was dedicated to Hephaestus, god of the forge, and was originally surrounded by metal foundries and workshops. These were demolished by the Romans, who surrounded the temple with formal gardens, which are preserved with the same kinds of plants today.

Athenians like to call this temple the Thisseion because its frieze once featured carved reliefs depicting the feats of Theseus. In Mycenaean lore, Theseus was a superhero, slayer of the minotaur and saviour of Athens. The frieze also depicted the Labours of Heracles.

In AD 1300, the temple was converted into the Church of Agios Georgios. The last service held here was on 13 December 1834 to honour King Otho’s arrival in Athens.

There’s an exit behind the Temple of Hephaestus for those wanting the smooth paved walkway up to the Acropolis rather than the rough climb through the agora.

In front of the temple a lane passing three giants on pedestals leads back to the Panathenaic Way.

The Palace of the Giants was once fronted by a line of fierce merman statues (three of which survive today). It’s Roman not Greek, but as one of the few things standing in the Agora, it’s a popular stop. The so called Palace of the Giants was once a school or gymnasium (which comes from the Greek word for naked, young men exercised naked during PE here.) A plaque explains the complicated history of this building.

Panathenaic Way: Back at the Panathenaic Way, turn right and walk toward the Acropolis. To the left, just past the Stoa of Attalos, stands the Herulian Wall. This rough wall, made from scrap stone, was thrown up hastily in AD 267 in an effort to keep the Herulians at bay.

On the right is the .

Church of the Holy Apostles: This charming little church was built in the 11th century to commemorate St Paul’s teaching in the Agora. It contains some fine Byzantine frescoes. Standing inside look up at Pancrator God, chant (trying to find the rooms’ resonant frequency), notice the remains of the marble altar screen with holes once filled by icons.

Exit the agora uphill from the church (on the way to the Acropolis) or back where you entered.

Travelling to Athens > route III July 28, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Athens.
comments closed

The Acropolis

In this age of superlatives, it’s hard to overstate the historic and artistic importance of the Acropolis. It’s surely the most important ancient site in the Western world. Crowned by the mighty Parthenon, the Acropolis (literally, high city ) rises gleaming like a beacon above the grey concrete drudgery of modern Athens, a lasting testament to ancient Greece’s glorious Golden Age in the 5 th century BC.

The Acropolis has been the heart of Athens since the beginning of recorded time. The first settlers arrived here in Neolithic times, drawn by the permanent springs. It developed into a powerful Mycenaean city, associated with the mythical superhero Theseus. The Mycenaeans ruled from a palace that stood between where the Parthenon and the Erechtheion stand today (all that’s left is an embankment of huge “Cyclopean” stones).

People lived on the Acropolis until 510 BC. Then the Delphic Oracle booted them, ruling that the Acropolis should be dedicated to the gods.

Everything on the Acropolis was destroyed by the Persians before the Battle of Salamis (480 BC). Athens’ improbable victory at Salamis, which followed an equally stunning land victory at Marathon 10 years earlier, saw Athens at the very peak of its power. Cash was pouring in from other city-states and islands keen to be allied to the winning side. The greatest of ancient architects, Pericles, could afford to spare no expense as he set about transforming the Acropolis into a complex of lavishly decorated temples worthy of the city’s protector Athena.

The four major monuments, the Parthenon, Erechtheion, Propylaia and Temple of Athina Nike, survive in remarkably good condition given the battering they’ve taken over the centuries. The greatest challenge now is to save them from the modern menaces of acid rain and pollution (€12; Apr-Oct site daily 8:00-19:00; Nov-Mar daily 8:00-16:30. The only entrance is at the western side of the Acropolis. From Roman Agora in the Plaka, signs point uphill. No backpacks or bags (cloakroom just below gate). At the entrance ask for the substantial and helpful sight guide (free).

Get there early or late to avoid the crowds and mid-day heat. The place is packed with tour groups from 10:30 to about 13:00. Wear sensible shoes. In summer, it gets very hot on top of the Acropolis, so take a bottle of water as well as a hat and sunscreen. The refreshments kiosk outside the entrance is your last opportunity to get a drink. There are rest rooms at the museum.

A Tour of the Acropolis

The following tour takes you from the entrance to the Acropolis archaeological site through all the major monuments. Supplement this information with the free brochure included and info plaques posted throughout.

1. Theatre of Herodes Atticus
The path up to the Acropolis from the entrance gate offers a birds eye view of the Theatre of Herodes Atticus, the most famous of many grand buildings around the country financed by the billionaire Greek benefactor and friend of emperor Hadrian, Herodes Atticus. It was built in AD 161 in memory of his wife, Regilla, but destroyed by the Herulii a little over a hundred years later. It was reconstructed in 1950 and is now used as a spectacular venue for the annual Hellenic Festival, which features an international line-up of dance, music and theatre performed beneath the stars. The theatre is open to the public only during performances. It has a Roman-style stage with the wall stage wall intact.

As locals climb further up past the many olive trees, they sigh remembering them as “the gift of Athena to Athens.” Greece has four billion of these trees. Stop at the base of the grand entry to the Acropolis at the foot of the many columns of the Propylaia under the tall grey stone pedestal with nothing on it. Facing uphill, the Propylaia is before you, the empty pedestal of the Monument of Agrippa is on your left, the Temple of Athina Nike isn’t on your right, and the Beule Gate stands behind you.

2. Grand Entry
The Beule Gate (you’ll walk through it as you exit) is named after French archaeologist Ernest Beule, who discovered it in 1852 during demolition of a defensive wall built by the Turks. It was built by the Romans in 267 after the departure of the Herulii, using the rubble of buildings destroyed by the invaders.

While the Monument of Agrippa long gone, its 25 foot high stone pedestal remains. The grand pedestal gives a good indication of the scale of the bronze statue of the Roman general Agrippa, riding a chariot, that once stood here. It was erected in 27 BC after Agrippa’s victory in a chariot race at the Panathenaic games.

Temple of Athina Nike: Unfortunately, the exquisite Temple of Athina Nike has been disassembled. This perfectly-proportioned little temple, which normally stands on a small spur to the right of the Propylaia (as you face uphill), was dismantled in 2003 for renovation work. God-willing, they’ll put it back in 2007.

This is the third time in its 2400-year history that the temple has been taken apart like a bunch of Legos. The Turks pulled it down at the end of the 17 th century and used the stone elsewhere, but it was reassembled after independence. It was taken apart for renovations in 1935, and reassembled in 1939. Unfortunately, that work did more harm than good as the steel connecting rods used to hold things together expanded damaging the stone. This time the restorers are determined to do the job properly, using titanium instead of steel.

The temple’s designer Callicrates, one of the architects of the Parthenon, would doubtless be wondering what all the fuss is about. He had to make do with lead when he pieced together the original (427-424 BC). It was built to house a statue thanking Athina for victory (Nike) over the Persians.

Propylaia: The entrance to the Acropolis couldn’t be through just any old gate: it had to be the grandest gate ever built. That’s the Propylaia, constructed in about 435 BC and laid out in alignment with the Parthenon.

Its large central hallway is flanked by two wings on either side, each with its own gate. The largest gate, in the center, opened onto the Panathenaic Way, which was the ceremonial path from the Ancient Agora to the Erechtheion used for annual Great Panathinaic Festival, the main event on the city’s religious calendar.

The Propylaia remained intact until the Franks arrived in the 13th century and converted it into a palace. It later became the home of the Turkish ruler of Athens and then a place to store gunpowder. The Propylaia was seriously damaged in 1645 when the gunpowder magazine was struck by lightening.

Stepping through the Propylaia, you’re greeted by the Parthenon.

3. Parthenon
The Parthenon is the showstopper, the finest temple in the ancient world, standing like a beacon on the highest point of the Acropolis (about 500 feet above sea level).

What makes the Parthenon so exceptional is the extraordinary sophistication of the design. Architects Ictinus and Callicrates, working under the supervision of the master sculptor Pheidias, used a whole bag of optical tricks to bring the building to life.

Any architect understands that a long flat base line on a building will give the illusion of sagging and that parallel columns will look like they are falling away from each other. To overcome these optical challenges and create a building that looked harmonious, the architects actually calculated bends in the construction taking into consideration the optical illusions and giving the viewer the sense that all was straight and well. The Parthenon actually curves upwards in the middle and its columns tilt ever so slightly inwards (which is also one of the reasons why the Parthenon has withstood earthquakes so well). If you extended the column up several kilometres, they’d eventually touch. Another trick was to use thicker columns at the corners, which made them appear all the same size. It’s amazing to think that all this was planned and implemented in stone so long ago.

It looks impressive enough today: just try to imagine how awesome it must have looked when it was completed 2500 year ago. The largest Doric temple in Greece, measuring 101 ft by 228 ft, with 8 fluted Doric columns at each end and 17 along each side, was completed in just nine years (447-438 BC).

It was built from the very finest materials and decorated with carved scenes of epic tales from Greek mythology created by master sculptors Agoracritos and Alcamenes. The carvings were painted in vivid colors. The best known of these sculptures are the controversial Elgin Marbles, which were stolen from the temple’s frieze by Englishman Lord Elgin in 1801 and now reside in the British Museum in London despite repeated requests for their return.

The Parthenon housed an enormous gold and ivory statue of Athina Polias (Athina of the City) that was the work of Pheidias himself, completed in 432 BC. Standing 40 feet high, it was considered a wonder of the ancient world. The original (which stood at the end closest to the Propylaia) was taken to Constantinople by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius in AD 426, and subsequently vanished. We know what it looked like from a Roman copy (the Athina Varvakeion, on display in Athens’ National Archaeological Museum.

The Parthenon survived intact until AD 267, when the Heruli tribe hit town. Before moving on, they did some pretty serious looting and plundering. Fortunately they satisfied themselves with demolishing no more than an interior colonnade.

In the 5 th century the temple became a Byzantine Orthodox church, and its interior decorated with colourful Christian frescoes. It remained a church for almost a thousand years, including a period as a Roman Catholic cathedral under Frankish rule.

In 1458, the Turks arrived and converted the Parthenon into a mosque, adding a minaret. The Turks just had no respect for the almost sacred history of the place. They tore down stones just for the lead clamps that held them in place to make bullets. (The exasperated Greeks offered them bullets if they’d stop destroying the temple.) The Turks also used it to store gunpowder, leading to the greatest catastrophe in the temple’s long history. In 1687 a Venetian army laid siege to the Acropolis. The Venetians weren’t worried about the architecture. As far as they were concerned it was a lucky hit that triggered the massive explosion which ripped the centre out of the Parthenon and wiped out the Turkish defenders.

Much work has been done in recent times to stabilise and restore the building. The present work began in 1984, meaning that they’ve been at it twice as long as it took to build it in the first place.

Across the street stands the Erechtheion with its famous porch of stone ladies.

4. Erechtheion
The Erechtheion, with its much-loved and much-photographed Porch of the Caryatids, was the most important religious building on the Acropolis. It was built on the spot where Athina and Poseidon fought for the naming rights to the city. Athina won by producing a olive tree, symbol of prosperity. The temple gets its strange name from a mythical Athenian king called Erechthonius, supposedly buried under the Caryatid porch.

The stones in front of the Caryatid porch, marking the oldest ruins on the Acropolis, are the remains of 6 th century BC Archaic buildings. They sit upon a “Cyclopean” foundation built during the Mycenaean period (1400 BC). As you approach the Erechtheion (left of Caryatids), you’ll see the huge stones of the Mycenaean construction.

The Erechtheion is a complex structure, with three rooms built across a steep slope. The biggest (and least interesting) of these is the main temple, which is divided into two cellae: one for Athina and one for Poseidon, side-by-side to show that they were still friends. The northern porch, with its six slim, elegant, Ionic columns, is the face that the Erechtheion shows to Plaka. Legend has it that the large crack at the centre of floor was caused by Poseidon’s trident during his contest with Athina, but lightening is a more likely culprit.

Finally, we come to the Porch of the Caryatids, facing the Parthenon. It’s a wonderfully inspired piece of architecture, with six beautiful maidens functioning as columns. These are faithful copies of the originals, five of which are on display here in the Acropolis museum. The sixth was stolen by Lord Elgin in 1805, shipped (on the same boat as Lord Byron) to London, and lives in the British Museum. The Caryatids are so called because they were modelled on women from the town of Karyai (modern Karyes), near Sparta in the Peloponnese, who were famous for their upright posture and noble character.

The Erechtheion was part of Pericles’ grand plan for the Acropolis. But construction was delayed by the outbreak of the Peloponnesian Wars with Sparta. Work began in 421 BC, and it was finally completed in 395 BC.

The elevator behind the Erechtheion was constructed for the Olympics and Paralympics in 2004. It’s kept to hoist those in wheelchairs from the Plaka up to the Acropolis.

5. Museum
The small museum, housing a wonderful collection of Acropolis statuary, is an essential stop on any visit. Most of the finds actually pre-date the Golden Age and Parthenon. Before the Battle of Salamis, the Persians destroyed the temples standing on the Acropolis. The rubble from these buildings provided a foundation for later building. This so-called Persian rubble provided later archaeologists a bonanza of Archaic (7th century BC) discoveries which you’ll see here.

The first rooms show off these oldest statues. Later, in Room IV, don’t miss the beautiful korai (maidens) statues. Room VIII contains the 30 feet of the nearly 500 foot-long Parthenon’s frieze, the only section that remained following the 1687 explosion and the visit/theft of stony-souvenir-loving Lord Elgin. It shows part of the Panathenaic procession including the Gods receiving all those offerings (panel 856). Perhaps the climax of your visit is provided in the last room by the five remaining original Caryatids. A plaster model stands in place of the sixth, stolen by Lord Elgin. Modern pollution ground their features down to the rough faces you see today. Photographs from 1950 show these Caryatids with crisp facial features. In half a century of industrial age pollution they experienced more destruction than in the two thousand years before that. By 1998 when they were taken in out of the acidic air and thankfully they’ll get no worse.

The latest on the continuing struggle by the Greeks to get their Parthenon reliefs back home: The British Museum has agreed in principle to build a branch of their museum in Athens and to offer the Parthenon reliefs on an extended loan to that museum (which is actually being built near the Akropoli metro station). But later on, the Brits put the project on hold.

6. Acropolis Flag Spin Tour
Walking beyond the museum, to the far end of the Acropolis, climb to the base of the dramatic Greek flag. This has flown here since the Nazis were sent packing after WWII. Locals still recall the heroic lad who scaled the wall one night, took down the Nazi German flag that flew here and raised the Greek flag. To this day, Greeks from just about anywhere in Athens see this flag and think of their hard-won independence. From this view point look inland at Lycabettus Hill crowned by the church of St. George. The white bits on the Penteli Mountains behind are quarries. The monuments of the acropolis were built of marble quarried from these mountains. The stone used to restore the monuments comes from these same still-active quarries. While the new white patches you see as the buildings on this rock are restored seem to be a different stone, they are exactly the same and will age to fit the stately temples of the Acropolis.

Spinning clockwise (to the right) find: The parliament building (facing Syntagma Square), the National Garden behind it, the Olympic stadium, the yellow Zappeion, the Temple of the Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch. The Aegean Sea glimmers in the distance, becoming you to head for the islands (but the only island visible is Aegina). The Parthenon blocks your view of the port of Piraeus (from where boats to the islands embark). The Ancient Agora spreads below the Acropolis and the sprawl of modern Athens paints the surrounding hills in a rash of white.

In 1830 Athens’ population was about 5,000. By 1900 it was 600,000. In the 1920s, with the influx of Greeks from Turkey, the population surged to 1.5 million and the city boomed. With the boom times in the 1950s and 1980s, the city grew to about 4 million. From this perch you’re looking at the homes of four out of every ten Greeks. (If that makes you thirsty, there’s a water fountain between you and the museum.)

Mars/Pnyka Hill: The nobby, wind-swept hill in front of the Acropolis crawling with tourists is Mars Hill made famous by the Apostle Paul. This first great Christian missionary and author of about half the New Testament preached to the Athenians here. While Athenians were famously open-minded, Paul encountered a skeptical audience and only netted a couple of converts. But this is a big stop for visiting Christians. A new metal staircase is now in place giving visitors an alternative to the famously slippery stone one.

NOTE > The €12 Acropolis ticket also gives you entry to five other major ancient sites: the Ancient Agora, the Roman Agora, the Keramikos ancient cemetery, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and the Theatre of Dionysos. The ticket is valid for 4 days, otherwise individual site fees apply. If you see only the Acropolis you’ll still pay €12.

Travelling to Athens > route II July 28, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Athens.
comments closed

Monument of Lysicrates

This elegant marble monument is the sole survivor of many such monuments that once lined this ancient “Street of the Tripods.” It was so called because the monuments came with bronze tripods that displayed grand ornamental pottery vases and cauldrons (like those you’ll see in the museums) as trophies. These ancient Oscars were awarded to winners of choral and theatrical competitions staged at the Theatre of Dionysos on the southern side of the Acropolis.

This lonely monument was erected in 334 BC by ‘Lysicrates of Kykyna, son of Lysitheides’, proud sponsor of the winning choral team that year. Excavations around the monument uncovered the foundations of other monuments which are now reburied under a layer of red sand awaiting further study.

Passing the monument to the left, follow Epimenidou up the steps to the top. At the T intersection, head right up Stratonos, which leads around the base of the Acropolis. Pass the small St. George of the Rock church going straight and continuing gradually uphill. As you immerse yourself in a maze of tiny whitewashed houses, follow signs that point to the Acropolis. This is the community of..


This charming “village” is Anafiotika. Literally “little Anafi”, it was built by people from the tiny Cycladic island of Anafi who came to Athens looking for work after independence. In this delightful spot, nestled beneath the walls of the Acropolis, the city seems miles away. Weave through narrow paths lined with flowers, and dotted with cats dozing peacefully in the sunshine. While ancestors of those original islanders still live here, Anafiotika is slowly becoming a place for the local wealthy to have “an island cottage” in the city. As you wander through the oleanders, notice the male fig trees, no fruits,  considered helpful in keeping flies and mosquitos away. Smell the chicken droppings fertilizer, peek into delicate little yards, blue doors and maroon shutters.it’s a transplanted Cycladic world.

Follow signs to the Acropolis (no matter improbable some might seem) until you emerge on a concrete ramp at the end of the houses. This is part of the walk that circles the Acropolis. Turn right and head downhill back into the Plaka. At the traffic, head left on the path leading to the Acropolis. After about 30 yards, just before the souvenir shack, turn right following a series of stairs (a lane called Klepsidras) which lead perfectly straight until they dead end at a black iron fence overlooking.

The Roman Agora and The Tower of the Winds

The Romans conquered Greece in about 150 BC and stayed for centuries. This square was the commercial center of Roman Athens with a colonnade providing shade for shoppers browsing along the many shops and stores that fronted this square. Centuries later, the Ottoman’s made this their grand bazaar. The mosque survives (although its minaret, like all minarets in town, was ripped down with the winning of Greek independence in the 19 th century). The only building of any importance for sightseers here is on the far right, the Tower of the Winds. Circle right for a closer look.

The octagonal Tower of the Winds, built in the 1st century BC, was an ingenious combo clock, weather vane, guide to the planets. It’s named after the beautiful relief carvings that depict with symbolism the eight winds the ancient Greeks had names for. While even local guides don’t know which is which, the reliefs are still beautiful. As you walk down hill you’ll see a boy with a harp, a boy with a basket of flowers (summer wind), a relief with a circle, and a guy blowing a conch shell, he’s imitating Boreas, the howling winter winds from the north. The tower was capped with a weather vane, in the form of a bronze Triton (half-man, half-fish) that spun indicating which wind was blessing or cursing the city at the moment.

Bronze rods protruded from the walls, acting as sundials to indicate the time. And when the sun was not shining, time was told by the tower’s sophisticated water clock, powered by water piped in from springs on the Acropolis. Under Ottoman rule, dervishes used the tower as a place of whirling and prayer.

As you can see the tower from outside and there’s little else inside to see, the Roman Agora isn’t important to actually enter (daily 8:00-20:00, €2 or part of €12 combo). But the €12 Acropolis ticket includes this and several other ancient sights. If you buy your combo ticket here, you avoid lines to buy it at the Acropolis and you can pop into this site essentially for free for a look at all sides of the Tower of the Winds (a plaque explains this cool monument).

From the tower, head downhill on Aiolou. After passing the excavation site of Hadrian’s Library (on the left) you return to the intersection we stopped at earlier. Remembering that this crowded lane is expertly worked by pick-pockets, head left down Pandrosou to the Monastiraki square. Stand in the center of the square for this (clockwise) spin tour orientation:

Monastiraki Square: To the right of the market street from where you entered stands a mosque (Arabic script over door, place of worship from 15 th to 19 th century, today housing the closed-for-now Museum of Ceramics). Behind the mosque stand the Corinthian columns of Hadrian’s Library (2nd century AD, the Acropolis towers behind, walking to the library and then turning right leads to Greek Agora). The yellow train station (Athens’ original British-built 19 th century train station, neoclassical with a dash of Byzantium, functions today as a subway station). Just past the station, a road leads downhill into the flea market (antiques, jewellery, cheap clothing, Nazi artefacts, and so on). If locals need a screw for an old lamp, they know they’ll find it here. Opposite the Acropolis, Athinas Street leads straight to Omonia Square past the bustling Central Market (5 minute walk up the street). The small church in the square is the Church of the Virgin (12th century, Byzantine, mostly restored with much more modern belltower). Behind the church, a street is clogged with locals chowing down on the best souvlaki in town.

Your tour’s over. You could conveniently explore the flea market, central market, nearby Keramikos ancient cemetery, dive into the Ancient Agora, or dive into a spicy souvlaki.

Travelling to Athens > route I July 28, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Athens.
comments closed

Acropolis and Acropolis Museum: One of the most famous monuments of the ancient world Hours: Apr-Oct site daily 8:00-19:00; Nov-Mar daily 8:00-16:30.

Ancient Agora: The commercial, political and social heart of the city in ancient times. Hours 8:00-19:00 daily, Oct-Mar 8:30-15:00 daily .

National Archaeological Museum: One of the great museums of the world, home to the most important finds from archaeological sites around the country. Hours Apr-Oct Tues-Sun 8:00-19:00 & Mon 12:30-19:00, Nov-Mar Tues-Sun 8:00-15:00 & Mon 10:30-17:00.

Introductory Athens Walking Tour: Syntagma and Plaka
This walking tour is a great way to link up the major attractions of the fascinating old Plaka district and surrounding areas. It starts at Syntagma Square, finishes at Monastiraki (near Agora, markets, and good restaurants) and involves about 45 minutes actual walking time. You should allow closer to three hours if you intend to explore along the way.

Syntagma Square
In 1830 the Plaka was the nucleus of Athens. Syntagma Square (now the heart of the city) was on the outskirts of town. It was created in 1834 as part of a grand plan drawn up by the bevy of Bavarian architects called in by King Otto’s father, Ludwig, to create a worthy capital for newly independent Greece.

Imagine the original Syntagma Square: a big front yard for the new royal palace with the country’s leading families building mansions around the square. The Hotel Grand Bretagne, the adjacent Hotel King George II, the palatial Zappeion in the national garden, and the stately architecture lining Queen Sophia street behind the palace (now embassies and museums) are all surviving examples of these early mansions.

Originally known as Plateia Vasileos Othon, it became known as Syntagma (that means constitution) Square after a riotous crowd jammed the square on 3 September, 1843, demanding a constitution. King Otto, giving a speech from the balcony of the Royal Palace (now the Greek Parliament), overlooking the square, gave his people, whose ancestors invented the concept, democracy.

Today the city’s busiest subway station dumps people into the café filled square. Plane trees (chosen for their resilience against pollution and the generous shade they provide) make Syntagma Square a breezy and restful spot.

By the way, until 1990 Athens was the most polluted city in Europe. A concerted effort has cleaned up the air. Traffic, while still pretty crazy, is limited as even and odd numbered licence plates are prohibited in the center on alternate days. Wealthy locals get around this by owning two cars, one with even and the other with odd plates. While car traffic is down, motorcycles are exempt and their usage is up. Central heating fuel is more expensive and much cleaner these days (as required by EU regulations), more of the city center is pedestrianized, and the city’s public transport is top notch. Along this square you’ll find the city’s most venerable hotel (Grande Bretagne), the AmExCo, buses to the airport (parked in front of the City Bank) and TI (a block away).

Hike across the busy street at the top of Syntagma Square for a close look at.

Greece’s imposing parliament building, where 300 representatives (elected every 4 years) tend to the business of state, overlooks Syntagma Square.

The origins of this palace of democracy, couldn’t have been less democratic. It was built as the Royal Palace by a Bavarian architect, who was under instructions to design a suitably grand home for the new royal family, Otto and Amalia, recently arrived from Nafplio.

It was completed in 1842 at a time of rapidly escalating tensions between the new Bavarian elite and frustrated leaders of the War of Independence. If the palace was designed to impress, then the effect was quite the opposite. The conspicuous consumption angered impoverished locals.

The palace may have given the appearance of luxury, but life here sucked. The place was terribly impractical.impossible to heat in winter and with only one bathroom among its 365 rooms. Imagine the lines.

The palace, badly damaged by fire in 1909 and refurbished in the 1930s, has been the home of the Greek Parliament since 1935.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
In front of the Parliament buildings is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, guarded by the much-photographed Evzones. These colourful characters are clad in the traditional pleated kilt (fustanella), white britches and pom-pom shoes made famous by the klephts, the mountain fighters who battled so ferociously in the War of Independence. The pleats in the soldiers’ skirts have 400 pleats, one for each miserable year of Ottoman occupation (and don’t you forget it). The Evzones change guard every hour on the hour, with a full changing-of-the-guard ceremony, complete with marching band, at 11:00 on Sunday.

From the bottom of Syntagma, stroll down.

Ermou Street: This pedestrian street leads from Syntagma (next to McDonalds and AmExCo) down into the Plaka. Just a few years ago it was all that was terrible about Athens, lousy building codes, tacky neon signs, trucks double parked, terrible and noisy traffic. When first pedestrianized in 2000, merchants were upset. Now, they love the ambiance created as countless locals stroll through what has become a people-friendly shopping zone. This has traditionally been the street of women’s’ shops (Akadimias is the “men’s shopping street”).

Ermou leads downhill to.

Church of Kapnikarea is a classic Byzantine church (11 th century). Based on a Greek cross (plus sign, contained in a circle, symbolizing the perfection of God) rather than the Latin cross plan most common in Western Europe. Tell tale signs of a Byzantine church are: round arches over the windows; bricks with the mortar surrounding the stones; and a domed cupola symbolizing heaven (always painted inside with the omnipotent “Pantocrator” God blessing us on Earth from its very top). The glass and gold leaf mosaic around the door, while 20 th century, is in the traditional style. Notice the focus on the eyes, which were considered to mirror of the soul and symbolize the purity of the soul. The church is named for the tax on the cloth merchants that once lined this square,

At the church, turn left proceeding downhill on Kapnikareas Street two blocks to the busy intersection at Pandrossou Street. Ahead is the Roman Agora. On the right, Pandrossou Street market leads to Monastiraki Square.

But now, we’ll circle clockwise on our Plaka tour. Turn left and walk (passing recommended Hermion Restaurant on the right) up the pedestrian street to the cathedral.

Cathedral (Mitropoli) was built with the arrival of King Otto in 1842. A statue of Damaskinos, Archibishop of Greece from 1891 through 1949, faces the cathedral (generally open 8:00-13:00, 16:30-20:00). As you enter any Greek Orthodox church you can join the locals in the standard ritual: drop a coin in the wooden box, pick up a candle, say a prayer, light it, and place in the candelabra. Make the sign of the cross and kiss the icon (in this case, of Jesus). Notice the lipstick smudges on the icon’s protective glass. Also notice the candle recycle box behind the candelabra. Orthodox churches come with an altar screen dividing the lay community and the priests. The spiritual heavy lifting takes place behind the screen where the priests turn the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. Then they open the doors and serve it to their faithful flock, spooning the wine from a challis while holding a cloth under each chin to not drop any on the floor. Traditionally, women worshipped apart from men in the balconies upstairs. In 1954 women got the vote in Greece and since about that time, they have been able to worship in the prime ground floor real estate with their men. The scaffolding has decorated this unremarkable church since the earthquake of 1989.

Leaving the cathedral, hook left to a smaller but much more historic.

Byzantine Church of Agios Eleftherios: The marble bits are ancient, scavenged from the agora in 12 th century. The carved reliefs above the door are part of a calendar of ancient Athenian festivals, thought to have been carved in the 2 nd century AD. The church is sometimes referred to as the old cathedral, because it was used by the archbishops of Athens after they were evicted from the Parthenon by the Turks. Step inside for pure 12 th century Orthodox architectural beauty.

Behind this little church, turn right, following Agia Filotheis, then (after a little jog right) the pedestrian Adrianou, a touristy market street, uphill until you reach a small square with palm trees, the Byzantine Church of St. Catherine, and the small ancient Greek excavation (look down at street level 2000 years ago). Ahead at the traffic street look left (Hadrian’s Arch) and go right to.

Travelling to Athens > helpful hints July 28, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Athens.
comments closed

Theft Alert: Be wary of pickpockets at all times, particularly in crowds, at the Sunday Flea Market, on the Metro between the city and Piraeus, and at the port.

Bar Alert: Single male travellers are strongly advised to stay away from bars recommended by strangers encountered on the street. It sounds like an easy trap to avoid, but the steady flow of victims suggests otherwise. A dozen or so conmen cruise the streets around Plaka and Syntagma looking for likely dupes. They are pros who speak multiple languages and specialise in putting travellers at ease. They pretend that they, too, are strangers in town who just happen to have stumbled upon a ‘great little bar’. Your new-found friend will then take you to one of the area’s sleazy bars, and magnanimously keep buying bottles of overpriced champagne for the friendly girls that inevitably appear, and insist that you share the bill.

Telephoning: Dail the local area code (210) for local Athens numbers. All OTE phone booths work with cards (€3, €6, €9, 3 min for 30 cents) not coins. International PIN cards work fine for local calls in booths and cheap international calls. OTE and PIN cards are sold at news kiosks.

Emergency: The Tourist Police are a special branch of the Greek police force whose job it is to handle problems such as disputes with hotels, restaurants and other tourist services (daily 24 hours, in the suburb of Koukaki south of the Acropolis at 43-45 Veikou street, tel. 210 9200724). They also act as a contact point between tourists and other branches of the police force. The tourist police also staff a 24-hour information service (tel 171) for emergency help. US citizens can ring tel. 210 7212951 for emergency medical aid.

Embassies: The US Embassy is at 91 Vasilissis Sofias Avenue (tel. 210 7212951), near the Megaro Mousikis metro station. The Canadian Embassy is nearby at 4 Genadiou street (tel. 210 7273400).

Bookshops: Eleftheroudakis is Greece’s largest bookshop with a floor for travel and maps and an entire floor for English books (Mon-Fri 9:00-20:00, Sat 9:00-17:00, 17 Panepistimiou street, Syntagma, tel. 210 3314180). They run a smaller branch in the Plaka (20 Nikis street, tel.210 3229388). The Compendium Bookstore stocks only English-language books (and offers a second-hand section, Mon-Fri 9:00-20:00, Sat 9:00-17:00, 28 Nikis street, Plaka, tel. 210 3221248).

Car Rental: Syngrou Avenue is Athens’ rental car lane with all the big companies and piles of little ones competing fiercely for your business. Syngrou is an easy walk from the Plaka and recommended hotels. Budget travellers can often negotiate great deals by visiting a few rental places and haggling.

Laundry: Plaka Laundrette charges €8 to wash, dry and fold 10 lbs. (Mon-Sat 8:00-18:00, Sun 10:00-14:00, Jun-Sept Mon-Sat 8:00-20:00, Sun 8:00-15:00, 10 Angelou Geronta street, Plaka, tel. 210 3213102).

Internet Access: There are lots of places to access the Internet around the city centre. EasyInternetAccess at Syntagma Square is handy and open all the time but has the ambiance of a sticky fun forest (bottom of square, right of McDonalds, enter through Everest, lots of terminals, automated). Bits and Bytes is also always open (19 Kapnikareas street, Plaka). Across the street from the National Archaeological Museum Internet Café has 24 very fast DSL terminals with inviting atmosphere of a sprawling Starbucks (daily 9:00-24:00, on the left as you face the museum at 46 Patision Street). Hanging out here while sipping, surfing, and doing email is a joy after your museum visit. Other internet cafes can be found at Academias street or at Eptanisou street just off Fokionos Negri (a fine pedestrian road, lots of cafes and restaurants).

American Express: The American Express main office is at 2 Ermou street (Mon-Fri 8:30-16:00, Sat 8:30-13:30, tel 210 3244979), just off Syntagma Square. Its foreign exchange office is 100 yards downhill at 7 Ermou street (tel. 210 3223380).

Post Offices: The Syntagma Post Office is most convenient for travellers (Mon-Fri 7:30-20:00, Sat 7:30-14:00, at the bottom end of Syntagma Square at the corner of Mitropoleos street). You may save time by using smaller neighborhood office such as the ones in Monastiraki (Mon-Fri 7:30-14:00, 58 Mitropoleos street) and Makrigianni (Mon-Fri 7:30-14:00, 7 Dionysiou Areopagitou street). Two other major post offices are at Aeolou and Stadiou street and Tritis Septemvriou street, both within walking distance from Omonia Square. 

Overseas parcels that weigh more than 4.4 lbs. (2 kg) must be posted at the special Parcel Post Office (Mon-Fri 7:30-14:00, in the arcade between Amerikis and Voukourestiou near Syntagma Square). They must be taken along unwrapped for inspection.

Four main companies operate bus tours around Athens: Hop In Sightseeing (29 Zanni street, Piraeus, tel. 210 4285500), CHAT (9 Xenofontos street, tel. 210 3223137), GO Tours (20 Athanassiou Diakou street, tel. 210 9219555) and Key Tours (4 Kallirois Avenue, tel. 210 9233166/3266).

Hop In is popular for its fleet of deluxe, modern buses and because it runs its tours only in English, so you don’t have to put up guides repeating themselves in a string of different languages. It offers a basic four-hour city tour, including a guided tour of the Acropolis, for €46. This can be extended to include a visit to the National Archaeological Museum (€64). Evening activities include a drive down the coast to Cape Sounion for sunset at the Temple of Poseidon (€32, not worth the drive if you’ll be seeing ancient sites elsewhere in Greece), and a night city tour that finishes with folk dancing at a taverna (€52).

Hop In also offers one-day tours to Delphi (€79 with lunch), and to Mycenae, Nafplio and Epidaurus, and two-day tours to the monasteries of Meteora (€142).

It’s convenient to book tours through your hotel. Most hotels act as a booking agent for at least one tour company. While they are in business to snare a commission, some offer substantial discounts on the listed prices as a service to their clients.

For those who prefer to explore on foot, City Walking Tours (Mon-Fri 10:00-17:00 tel. 210 8847269, mob. 694 5859662) offers a choice of five different walks daily. All of them start at 9:15 outside Syntagma Metro Station in Syntagma Square, cost €29 and last between three and four hours.

For a private guide, contact the Union of Official Guides (tel. 210 3229705, about €140 per half day).