16 May 2019
We made it to the Acropolis by 8am but again failed to beat the crowds, a number of bus-tours ahead of us. But the sun was out so we joined them and zigzagged up the slope to the ancient gate to the Acropolis, the massive Propylaia, constructed in 432BC to complement the recently finished Parthenon. With the elegant Temple of Athene Nike overlooking it, climbing up between the huge Doric and Ionic columns is a great experience and it must have been awe-inspiring when intact.
Once on the plateau of the Acropolis we had amazing views of the sprawl of Athens and could clearly see in the distance the Temple of Olympian Zeus
and further out the Parathinaiko stadium, the only one in the world made entirely of marble. Built 144BC and seating 50,000 it is still in use today for special events such as the Olympics – remarkable
When Danny visited the Acropolis all those years ago he could clamber over all the ruins but now many are roped off and a huge restoration project is underway with a crane in the middle of the Parthenon. Orginally due to complete by the 2004 Olympics it is now much more ambitious with no end date in sight, their Herculean task to piece together every stone littered across the Acropolis and restore the site. Even thinking about it made our heads hurt – like the world’s most difficult 3D jigsaw. Helpful information boards told us about stuff such as the huge 10m-high bronze statue of Athena that used to stand between the Propylaia and the Parthenon and could be seen from the sea 40 miles away! (only the base remains).
Looking down the south slope of the Acropolis gave us great views of the Herodes Atticus Theatre with it’s chequerboard marble floor, now restored for summer performances for over 5000 people.
And further along, the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysius which looked smaller at first glance but once hosted 17,000 spectators.
Then we were at the main event, looking at the eastern pediment of the iconic Parthenon. Eight columns in each facade, 17 along each flank, all of them huge. The remnants of the once great temple to Athena still has the capacity to generate wonder. It once contained a huge statue of the goddess overlaid in ivory and gold, and the columns and sculptures were brightly painted both inside and out. What an amazing sight it must have been before it was blown up in 1687 in the Great Turkish War, then later looted by the British (Lord Elgin). Today the white marble structure is slowly being reconstructed although Elgin’s looted goodies remain in the British Museum!
Before leaving the plateau we spent a little time at the Erechthion, an ancient temple built on the site where Athena and Poseidon are said to have competed to become patron of the city – Athena brought forth the first olive tree and Poseidon a spring of salt-water so not surprisingly Athena won. The original olive was long ago destroyed but a new has taken its place and the Porch of the Caryatids has 6 pillars in the form of maidens, all replicas now with 5 held in the Acropolis museum and 1 looted by Elgin!
Down on the south slope we had a good look at the Theatre of Dionysos and saw in the cliff high above a cave entrance flanked by marble.
Originally it contained an ancient statue of Dionysus which survived the ravages of the ages and of Christianity, but could not escape the rapaciousness of – you guessed it – Lord Elgin.
Over the road the Acropolis Museum is a fabulous glass-walled building only 10 years old and as you approach you find yourself walking over transparent paving so you can see excavated remains of ancient Athens below. The ground floor of the museum contains objects excavated from the slopes of the Acropolis.
The first floor holds the Archaic gallery full of sculptures from the first temples on the Acropolis, some still with original colour intact. On the top floor, with stunning views of the Parthenon, the museum has very cleverly pieced together the 3 types of sculpture from the top of the Parthenon.
A 15-minute film as you enter tells how it was constructed and explains the frieze (carved marble panels), the metopes (marble relief sculptures) and the pediment sculptures. Cleverly arranged as they would be on the Parthenon itself with the frieze along the inner 4 walls, the metopes exhibited between stainless steel columns that represent those of the Parthenon, with the pediment sculptures at either end.
Many bits are missing of course, with many remain on display in the British Museum courtesy of Elgin – it is easy to see why this is an open sore for Greece. But replicas have been made and are displayed here along with originals removed from the Parthenon itself to be preserved. It is sheer good luck that someone did comprehensive sketches of it all shortly before it was blown up!
Exhausted by all this history, we went out into the noise and bustle of modern Athens and found an excellent fast food Gyros to satisfy our hunger.
We had intended stopping after the Parthenon, but with full tummies we had the energy for a bit more and carried on to the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch, the crossing point between the Ancient Greek city and the one that the Roman Emperor built. The Temple of Zeus beyond was one of the largest in the ancient world, but today has only 15 of it’s 104 pillars standing.
We decided not to pay up and instead dandered up to Sydagma Square, the political and geographic heart of Athens where all the protests happen. The huge Neoclassical parliament building – originaly built as a palace – dominates the uphill side of the tree-shaded square, and on one corner Athens grandest and most opulent hotel, the Grande Bretagne, once visited by Churchill, stands loftily above the chaotic traffic and ranks of yellow cabs. The square has long since been taken over by protest movements with stands, large screens and and people with flyers seeking to talk to passers-by.
We by-passed them and got a cab back for a well deserved rest.
Our table for our culinary adventure wasn’t until 10pm so it was dark when we got the taxi to Hydra to explore something closer to our stomachs, our curiousity about ‘modern’ Greek cuisine. We got an interesting if somewhat revolutionary lecture on economics from our passionate Greek driver, and then a high speed lift whisked us up to an achingly modern, subtly lit restaurant with views across the city to the glowing Acropolis. The meal was superb as was the service and we were glad we went for 8 courses rather than 14 !
At midnight our taxi driver made the most of the finally quiet streets, taking joy in his ability to travel through Athens at 80kph.