What would a visit to Athens be without going to the Acropolis to see the Parthenon? And still people ask me why the Parthenon is so important. Its because it was the most perfect building built by the world’s most advanced civilization and even though we have been studying it for centuries we are still not sure how they did it.
Athens: Acropolis The Acropolis is the one historical site you can’t miss. You can take a tour or wander up there yourself but during the summer, whatever you do, unless it is overcast, go early or late in the day. It can get very hot up there and gasping for breath can take way from your ability to marvel at the greatest of all archaeological sites. Getting to the Acropolis is easy and more pleasant than ever because the large avenues which border the south and west of the site (Apostolou Pavlou in Thission and Dionissiou Areopagitou in Makrianni) have been turned into giant pedestrian streets with cafes and restaurants and the walk is quite pleasant. From the Plaka and Monastiraki side it has always been a car-less, enjoyable walk and all you have to do is walk uphill from wherever you are and when you get to the top and there are woods instead of buildings, and steps, take a right.
Athens: Acropolis PropyleaAfter climbing the steps you are at the entrance, or the Propylaea, which was completed in 432 just before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian wars. The main architect was Mnesicles, a colleague of Phidias. To your left is the Pinacotheca and a Hellenistic pedestal and on the right the tiny temple to Nike Athena or the Athena of Victory which commemorates the Athenians victory over the Persians. This small temple stands on a platform that overlooks the islands of Saronic Gulf and used to house a statue of Athena. It was dismantled by the Turks in 1686 so they could use the platform for a large cannon. It was rebuilt between 1836 and 1842 and again taken apart and rebuilt in 1936 when it was discovered that the platform was crumbing. If you looking from the propylaea towards Pireaus on a clear day you can see ships waiting outside the port of Pireaus, the islands and the mountains of the Peloponessos beyond.
Athens: Acropolis from PhilippapouThe Parthenon and other main buildings on the Acropolis were built by Pericles in the fifth century BC as a monument to the cultural and political achievements of the inhabitants of Athens. The term acropolis means upper city and many of the city states of ancient Greece are built around an acropolis where the inhabitants can go as a place of refuge in times of invasion. It’s for this reason that the most sacred buildings are usually on the acropolis. It’s the safest most secure place in town. As little as 150 years ago there were still dwellings on the Acropolis of Athens. Those of you who have read Aristophanes will recall that in Lysistrata the women have Athens barricaded themselves in the fortress in protest, being tired of their men going to war against Sparta. Depriving them of sex, cooking and care it was a terrific strategy that might even work today. Regardless, the play opened the door to the subject of sexual frustration in comedy and without it we might not have Woody Allen. Nowdays there are still protests which occasionally take place by site employees closing the Acropolis to tourists, some of whom have waited a lifetime to come to Greece. Thankfully these are rare and of short duration.
Athens: Acropolis, the Parthenon The best time to go up there is the late winter or spring when even this stone mountain is not immune to the proliferation of grass and wildflowers which seem to burst from every crack. Even in December, January and February the Acropolis can be surprisingly green. Even having seen a thousand photographs one is still not prepared for the immensity of the Parthenon. The building was designed by the architects Kallikrates and Iktinos as the home of the giant statue of Athena. It took 9 years to build and was completed in 438 BC and is probably the most recognizable structure in the world next to the golden arches of McDonalds. From a temple it became a church, a mosque and finally as a storage facility for Turkish gunpowder. In 1687 the Venetians bombarded it from below. A cannon ball hit the gun powder and blew it up. What makes the Parthenon so facinating is that to look at it you would think that is is made up of interchangable pieces. For example the columns are stones placed on top of each other and you could replace one piece of a column with any of the others. Not true. Each piece of the Parthenon is unique and fits together like the world’s biggest and heaviest jigsaw puzzle. Lines that look straight are actually not. The ancient Greeks understood the mechanics of site and that to make a line look straight it had to be tapered or curved. The Parthenon is the most perfect and the most immitated building in the world. The restoration work you see has been going on for the last 30 years and may go on for another 30. The more they try to put it back together the more respect and awe they have for the ancient Greeks.
Athens: Acropolis: Erecthion The Erecthion sits on the most sacred site of the Acropolis where Poseidon and Athena had their contest over who would be the Patron of the city. Poseidon thrust his trident into the rock and a spring burst forth, while Athena touched the ground with a spear and an olive tree grew. Athena was declared the victor and the great city of Athens was named for her while Poseidon was given a small village in Syros after it was discovered he had merely ruptured a water main. (not really).The building itself contains the porch of the maidens or Caryatids which are now copies, four of which have been placed in the Acropolis museum, hopefully to be reunited with a fifth taken from the Acropolis by Lord Elgin and put in the British Museum more than a century ago.
Athens Acropolis: Parthenon from PhillipapouA question in my mind is why not rebuild the Parthenon to it’s former glory? It is not as if the destruction of it is sacred history that must be preserved, in fact the 300 years since the explosion is a relatively short time-span in the history of the building. Much of the Parthenon has been taken apart and put back together with pieces being replaced or clamped to remedy the wear and tear of centuries, in particular the last 20 or so years of air pollution. As it stands now, though it is a tribute to the glorious past and the achievement of the Ancient Athenians it is also at the same time a reminder that whatever is good in man is eventually overcome by ignorance, war and a hunger for domination. I say rebuild the entire Acropolis as an inspiration that whatever is wrong with the world can be righted. (Until some idiot blows it up again).
My favorite spot is at the flag where Athens stretches out endlessly below. You can see the Plaka beneath you, the ruins of the giant Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Olympic stadium nestled in a pine covered hill, an island of green in a sea of concrete. To the left of the stadium is the Zappion building and the National Gardens. To the right of the stadium you can see another large patch of green which is the First Cemetery. The Acropolis is a great place to get your bearings and get an understanding of the layout of the city. In fact the more you know Athens the more interesting it is to come up here and see familiar landmarks.
View from the AcropolisIf you stand by the flag and look to your left you will see Mount Lycabettos rising from the neighborhood of Kolonaki , with the Hilton and the Athens Tower at Ambelokipi in the distance. The large green area is the National gardens. The Acropolis is a great place to get your bearings in Athens. You can see as far as Kifissia on a clear day.
When the Germans occupied Athens in WWII, the Evzone who guarded the Greek flag which flew from the Acropolis, was ordered by the Nazis to remove it. He calmly took it down, wrapped himself in it and jumped to his death.
Plaque to Glezos and Santas on the AcropolisThe plaque by the flag commemorates Manolis Glezos and Apostolis Santas, the two eighteen year-old heroes who tore down the Nazi flag flying from the Acropolis on the night of May 30th, 1941. It is of particular interest because these names are known not only by Greeks, but by many Europeans, because this act of courage and resistance to Nazi oppression was an inspiration to all subjected people. Later through reading the book Athens:The City by John Tomkinson I found out that Glezos, who became a member of the Greek resistance, was condemned to death for treason in 1948 and imprisoned for being a communist. He was later elected a member of the Panhellenic Socialist Party (PASOK).
Herod AtticusBelow the Acropolis is the theater of Herod Atticus built by the Romans in 161 AD and still used today for classical concerts, ballet, performances of high cultural value and Yanni. Further on is the Theater of Dionysious the first stone theater and home to Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes. It was rebuilt around 342 BC by Lykourgos and then enlarged by the Romans to be used for gladiator fights. In July of 2003 I saw Jethro Tull here. It was the first rock concert held in the ancient theater and though perhaps some people hope it was the last I would be happy to see more. How about Deep Purple with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performing Jon Lord’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra? Maybe Procul Harum? Emerson, Lake and Palmer? The Stooges? Where’s Leonard Cohen when you really need him?
AraeopagosBelow the Acropolis is the rock of Areopagos or what we called in high school ‘Blow Hill’. (Don’t ask). The steps are very slippery so be careful as you climb them, but once you do you won’t want to come down (unless it is 100 degrees). You have a great view of the Agora, the Plaka, Monastiraki, Omonia and much of Athens. Great place to watch the sunset. Or come up at night with a bottle of wine and your true love, and watch the lights of the city. This is where Saint Paul spoke to the people of Athens in AD 51 and the tablet imbedded in the stone contains his words. There is a cleft in the rock at the bottom of the hill that is a shrine to the Furies. Afterwards, continue back around the Acropolis and down the hill into the Ancient Agora below. Part of it is free and you can go through it to get back to Adrianou Street, or you can pay the entrance fee and walk the streets of ancient Athens. If you decide to hang out awhile in the ancient Agora take a look at the rebuilt Stoa of Attalos, now a museum which features many of the every day items found in the area.
Fun Fact! The ancient agora which to the untrained eye looks looks like a jumble of rocks and broken pavement (to the trained eye as well) was once a vibrant neighborhood and part of the Plaka and Monastiraki. The American School of Classical studies came in the fifties and kicked everyone out of their houses and businesses and demolished the buildings that had stood there for centuries to dig here. So next time you are walking through the Plaka and thinking that you wish there was more of Athens like this, remember that there used to be and be thankful that they did not destroy it all. But to be fair it is archaeological excavations like the agora which give Athens much of its precious green space.
ThissionThe small temple known as the Thission was built in 449 BC and is virtually intact. Supposedly named for Theseus because his exploits were shown on the frieze, it is now believed that it was actually a temple to Hephaestos and Athena. Unfortunately they realized their mistake too late and the entire neighborhood is called Thission. The temple was used as a Church, dedicated to Saint George, known as Saint George the Lazy because it was only open one day of the year. The neighborhood of Thission is full of cafes, bars and restaurants and like other areas around the Acropolis has been made pedestrian friendly, it’s streets turned into walkways and landscaped with trees and flowers.
Theresa Mitsopoulou famed archaeologistYou may notice at the entrance to the Acropolis and the paths leading up to it the licensed guides who for around 50 Euros or so, will give you a tour so that you may leave the area more informed then when you got here. One of the most well-known was Teresa Mitsopoulou, an Archaeologist and writer of some renown. Several of her books are considered controversial by her fellow archaeologists because they seem to prove a link between Chinese and Ancient Greek culture that if correct could change much of what we believe about the past. Theresa has gotten older now and cannot climb the ancient hill as quickly and as easily as she once used to and is no longer guiding tours. But she has been described by one travel agent as “… to the Parthenon, what an old monk is to a monastery. If one has the time and patience to sit with her much can be gained. She has been a licensed Acropolis Guide since 1954, in my view a contemporary priestess”.
See Theresa’s website at www.greecetravel.com/archaeology/mitsopoulou
Athens Walking Tours also offers an Acropolis Tour that begins at Syntagma Square and visits the major sites around the Acropolis. You can also contact them for individual tour guides.
Giorgos Gavalas, bass player, street musician, athens, GreeceIf it’s a warm sunny day and you are walking along the pedestrial avenue that goes around the Acropolis, directly in line with the Propylea and close to the Cave of the Nymphs you will find Giorgos Gavalas, playing his guitar, tamborines and kazoo as he has for many years. Girogos was the bass-player for Dionysious Savopoulos during his Kitato-Vromiko Psomi period and considered one of, if not the best bass player in Greek rock. (Those who have listened to the album Vromiko Psomi will certainly remember his playing). Having played the concerts and the clubs Giorgos prefers to play his jazz-folk influenced songs for the people who pass by. He has a dozen or so self-produced CDs which he sells for 5 euros each. As you will realize, Gavalas is no ordinary street musician. This is a man who has paid his dues and now performs on his own terms, beneath the Acropolis where Plato, Socrates, Pericles and the other ancient Greeks once walked. He also represents a period of Greek rock music which slipped under the radar screen of those of us in the west, when bands played in underground clubs and sang anti-government songs, masked in poetry, during Greece’s military dictatorship. Giorgos Gavalas is a living part of modern Greek history and a visit with him following your trip to the ancient Acropolis, to hear a few songs and pay your respects or just to say hello is something I recommend.