Legendary Athens

Trip Start May 05, 2008
Trip End May 09, 2009

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

With tears in our eyes, we had to say goodbye to family who were such great hosts to us in Bucharest.  However, we were invigorated to visit Greece, a country we always wanted to see.  Upon arriving in Athens, we came across a modern bustling city which was loud and dusty but was imbibed by a good vibe.  Our hostel had a sort of crummy university residence feel to it, especially after coming from a lovely home, and we were no longer in "backpacker mode."  But beneath the city's surface, ancient archaeological sites and surprisingly charming little corners would redeem the city in our eyes.

Since we were children, the legends of Ancient Greek mythology and civilization inspired us as we imagined how the Greeks lived and what their cities must have looked like.  So much of their culture and achievements still affect our daily lives: from democracy and humanism, reading Homer's Odyssey and Iliad, studying the philosophy of Socrates and Plato, to admiring the sculpture and architecture.  Their architecture became the basis of the classical cannon, which was referred to until the late 19th century in the Neoclassical style and even by Post-Modernists like Michael Graves in the 1980s in New York. 

You can imagine that for us, reaching Athens' Acropolis was an exciting moment.  On our way to the Acropolis, we visited Hadrian's library (beginning 2nd century AD), the Roman Agora (marketplace), the well preserved Tower of the Winds (1st century BC built by a Syrian astronomer), the well-preserved Stoa of Eumenes which houses an excellent little museum, and the Theatre of Dionysios.  

Finally we reached one of the most important monuments of the Western world: the Acropolis.  Through the Propylaia, we reached the iconic Parthenon.  The Parthenon, at first looks like a rather simple structure, however archaeologists have revealed that the Doric order columns are actually slightly curved on the sides which gives the structure a feeling of lightness and gracefulness even though it is composed of the most massive and masculine of the classical orders. 

We were lucky to have seen the Parthenon's paediement sculptures at the British museum which were taken from the site by Lord Elgin in 1801.  We also had the opportunity at that museum to see digital colour reconstructions of what the structure might have looked like, so we could imagine how impressive the monument must have been.  Right next to the Parthenon we saw the small but graceful Temple of Athena Nike, and to the North the Erechtheion with its famous Caryatids (now cement reproductions, most originals also at British museum). 

From the Acropolis, we had a 360 degree view of the modern city of Athens.  Athens, named after the goddess of wisdom Athena, is now a sprawling city of over 4 million inhabitants stretching as far as the eye can see into the harsh dry land.  Modern Athens had a population boom around the 1960s, so simple apartment buildings were quickly built to support this growth.  So modern Athens is unfortunately an ugly city.  But it is a cosmopolitan and multicultural city with a lot to offer.  It has affordable restaurants, an exciting nightlife and it is a shopper's haven.  From our experience, Greeks are good hosts and provide an abundance of information on their archaeological sites and gladly help you find your way. 

Athenians go out late at night when the temperature is a little more bearable.  We were lured to the sights and sounds of what we thought was an outdoor concert, but when we arrived in that downtown square, we realized that it was the end of a Green Party rally.  It was nice to see so many Athenians of all ages concerned about the environment because Athens has the reputation of being a very polluted city.  We can see that changes are being made as many downtown streets are now only for pedestrians, but the densely populated city is a pot-pourri of bad smells. 

There are some charming parts of this city.  Cute and tiny Greek Orthodox churches are featured at the centre of a few plazas.  We also were surprised to find a tiny village, part of old Athens, on our way down from the Acropolis with white-washed houses, blue doors and shutters, and an abundance of plants and cats.

We also visited the colossal Temple of Zeus, behind Hadrian's Arch, which took over 400 years to build from the 6th century BC.  The 104 Corinthian order columns were 17m in height and 1.7m in diameter. 

We will pursue our Hellenic adventure in Crete where we will visit the remains of an even older civilization: the Minoans, not to mention excellent beaches!

Andio! (Goodbye!)        
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