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The best of Athens > classical and modern March 5, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Athens.
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Sites to visit in Athens, from the Acropolis to the Olympic Village

1. The Acropolis
Start any tour of Athens on this historic hill. Its main building, the Parthenon, originally a temple dedicated to the city’s namesake goddess Athena, retains its awesome visual impact, and the views of Athens from the Acropolis will set the stage for the rest of your visit. The 12-euro ticket includes admission to several other key ancient sites; you’ll pay more if you buy individual tickets.

A note > Officials began moving sculptures and artifacts from the old Acropolis Museum into the New Acropolis Museum down the hill in January. The New state-of-the-art Museum is scheduled to open in September. The best preserved and most valuable of the friezes from the Parthenon, known in England as the Elgin Marbles, remain in London’s British Museum. Greece continues Herculean efforts to get them back.

2. Ancient Market
The ancient Greek Agora, or market area, occupies a parklike setting on the low ground to the north of the Acropolis. There, you can stroll down avenues once trod by the likes of Pericles and Plato. Highlights > the well-preserved Doric Temple of Hephaestus, the blacksmithing god, and the Agora Museum, housed in a reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos, a spectacularly columnar structure with foundations dating to 150 B.C. These sites are on the multipart Acropolis ticket.

3. Modern Varvakios Market
An early-morning visit to the Kentriki Agora, Central Market, illustrates the kind of frenetic energy one would have encountered 2,500 years ago at the old one. Meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, cheeses, olive oils and olives abound, along with chopping cleavers and vigorous bartering. You can have some of your best meals here, nibbling on figs, cheese, bread and olives.

4. The Pnyx or Pnyka
The Pnyx, Greek for the place of assembly, on the shoulder of Philopappos Hill,
is the site of the Ecclesia, an early democratic body. A jail cell carved into the limestone hill once held Socrates and provides a vivid reminder of the hazards of truth-telling, even in a Democracy. The park area is forested, with winding trails, sculptures and many excellent views of the nearby Acropolis.

5. National Gardens and the Zappeion Megaron
Near Syntagma Square,
this leafy, elegant park provides a less-touristed oasis, with magnificent cypress and bitter-orange trees, inspiring statuary and shaded benches.

6. National Archaeological Museum
Here, you’ll find the best and biggest collection of Classic Greek art in the world. My favorite is the “Little Jockey”, a life-size bronze of a boy on a galloping horse that was discovered in an ancient shipwreck. The work is so lifelike that I almost wanted to get out of the way to avoid being trampled.

7. Regional Greek Delicacies
Modern Athenians come from all over Greece, and every Greek favors the cheese, olive oil and honey of home. They find them at small shops specializing in the produce of the regions and islands. My favorite is the Lesvos Store near the Kentriki Agora, at 33 Athinas Street. All things Lesvian, in the Greek island sense of the word, could be found here, from cheese, honey, olives and sausage to soap and shampoo. Mesogaia, at 52 Nikis Street, not far from the National Gardens, specializes in Cretan goods. Cretan thyme honey may well have inspired the term ambrosial.

8. Museum of Cycladic Art
A short walk from Syntagma Square,
this small Museum in a beautifully appointed villa highlights the sacred, prehistoric art of the Cycladic Islands. The icons of the collection are highly stylized, faceless human sculptures that inspired the work of modernists such as Modigliani. These, however, were created 5,000 years ago. The Museum usually has at least one interesting temporary and often contemporary exhibition. Visit > www.cycladic-m.gr

9. The Olympic Village and the Olympic Sports Centre 
The Olympic Village, created when Athens hosted the Olympic Games in 2004,
has been turned into a large and interesting housing project. Just beyond it, at the terminal station of subway Line 1, lies Kifissia, a prosperous suburb. The subway lets out at Kifissia’s shopping core, with a mix of high-end boutiques, cafes and Starbucks. It’s a fascinating look at the world upper-class Greeks are making for themselves now.

10. Walking tours
It’s tempting to submit to the bus-tour operators promoted by nearly every hotel. Instead, spend a few hours or a day with Athens Walking Tours (www.athenswalkingtours.gr). Groups are limited to eight people and trip themes range from the must-sees, the Acropolis, to an intimate look at Greece’s markets, past and present. The tours are typically three to four hours and cost 29 euros which at recent exchange rates is still a bargain. Most tours meet at Syntagma Square. Reservations are advisable.


Athens’ glorious ages and bright future > the subway March 5, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Athens.
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The Greek capital embraces a modern renaissance while cherishing every layer of its past

In Athens, you can’t escape time’s arrow. Not even in a shiny new subway station in the heart of the city.

“Do you know how many Athens we are standing on right now?” asked Despina Savvidou as we walked down the stairs into the Syntagma Square subway station. “At least 6 cities. When they dug up the subway system, they brought into light every old Athens.”

Savvidou is a native Athenian who proudly waves the banner for all things Greek. She was leading me and three other visiting friends from abroad on a walking tour of the city. Our starting point was the subway station. The endpoint would be the Acropolis, which, to use the Greek alphabet, is the alpha and omega of Athens.

The new subway seemed an odd place to start an examination of one of the world’s oldest cities. The station’s sleek surfaces, marble floors, metal railings, a giant metallic clock sculpture, sparkle under large overhead lights. On one side of the station, however, a glass wall reveals layers of the past, directly where they lie. Signs point out a thousands-year-old road bed, a grave from 400 B.C., wine vessels and clay drain pipes for the city’s ancient sewage system, among other things. The layers speak of pre-history, the glorious Greece and the Golden Age of Pericles, the days of Rome, the Christian Byzantine Empire and the 400 years of Ottoman occupation.

The subway, completed in 2000, became Athens’ most ambitious archaeology project, Savvidou said. As crews built three major metro lines and dozens of stations, archaeologists excavated more than 2 million artifacts. Some of them are on display in Syntagma Station: olive-oil lamps, vases, combs and pieces of jewelry that once adorned the beautiful women of the Greek capital. The subway itself is an important artifact of modern Athens.

“All Athenians are very proud of this subway system,” Savvidou said. “It takes more than 800,000 people in and out of the city daily. You can’t compare the traffic today to what it was even five years ago. And that’s the least of it. Athens has undergone tremendous change in a very short time.”

That, I could see for myself. In 1988, Athens was a poor, European backwater. Few people spoke English. Traffic jammed the narrow streets. Yellow-gray haze obscured the city’s famous hills. It was a city, with its opinionated citizens, its smoky tavernas, and the way Athens’ herky-jerky present awkwardly flowed around the ruins of its illustrious history. Public buses belched diesel fumes not 100 feet from the teetering columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus.

Back at those times, for a drachma pinching backpacker, Athens was ideal. A hotel near the Acropolis was around 5 or 7 euro a night. For a very few euro a day, you could eat moussaka and stuffed grape leaves and sipped ouzo and murky Greek coffee.

This time, Athens was an excellent reminder that when you travel, you travel in time as well as in space. In other words, the parochial Athens of 1988 was not the cosmopolitan Athens of 2007.

A bargain hotel near the Acropolis is about 100 euros a night. The sit-down meals cost at least 20 euro. The soot-stained shops on pedestrian-only Ermou Street had become posh fashion houses and trendy cafes. The smog hasn’t disappeared completely, but for many days, the sky is crystalline blue. And the subway, with signage in English and Greek, made getting around simple.

We all boarded the train for the Acropolis. Minutes later, we stood at the base of the vertiginous, rocky hill. We walked up Dionysiou Areopagitou pedestrian street and past the ancient theater of Herod of Atticus. We paused to admire the Acropolis, still looming above us. “This is a symbol of the Greek Nation” Savvidou said. “This is our Holy Rock”.

Talk of the past evaporated when we came around the corner and confronted the facade of the Parthenon, the temple to Athena that crowns the Acropolis. It may be 2,500 years old, and partly in ruins, but it retains the power to strike awe into its viewers.

It’s a very simple structure on first glance: eight white marble columns support a triangular pediment and 17 columns flank the sides. It’s the model for thousands of banks, museums and government buildings the world over. But it’s not simple at all.

“The architect took many steps to play with our attention,” Savvidou said. “The columns are not parallel. If you lengthen them long enough, they form a pyramid. The columns are also wider at the top and bottom, but you can’t see it. It’s an optical illusion that creates a fluidity of movement. You can’t take your eyes off it.”

The Parthenon is built on a foundation of gravel, sand and straw, the first anti-seismic building in the world. The Parthenon survived many earthquakes as a result. It’s been man, not nature, who posed the biggest threats to the building.

“Until 1687, the Parthenon was intact, the whole structure. It was so beautiful that no one touched it,” she said. “Then, during a siege of Athens, a Venetian bomb destroyed the roof and knocked other parts of the temple down.” Leaving it much as it is today.

Modern Athens spread in all directions beneath our feet, and rising above us, the Parthenon proudly stood vigil, a fragment of Athens’ past that regally presides over its present and bright future.