A kind of magic in Athens

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Published: January 28th 2023

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Not what we have but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance… ~ Epicurus, Greek Philosopher

HE SAID…
Today we were continuing to explore the ancient city of Athens.

We woke early and headed down to the intimate breakfast room at Hotel Attalos. As always, I opted for a bowl of Greek yoghurt topped with muesli and cranberries, and we hydrated with many cups of tea and juice. We were about to embark on a day of street-based walking and exploring within close proximity of the Acropolis, and we needed sustenance to keep us going until lunch.

We headed out in the early morning to explore the Acropolis Museum on the south-eastern side of the Acropolis outcrop, and we were optimistically hoping to get there before the tourist hordes arrived by the busload. As we walked through the streets of Monastiraki and Plaka with the Acropolis towering above us, it became apparent that we’d surrendered ourselves to the charm and beauty of this city. Completely. We absolutely loved the place!

When we arrived at the museum around 9:30am (and eventually found the entrance), we were expecting crowds, queues and general mayhem. To our surprise, there was hardly anyone around. We breezed through the entrance and had the top two levels of the

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museum mostly to ourselves for the best part of an hour. It was amazing. There’s nothing quite like an early start in a big city.

The museum itself is beautifully curated, and the ceiling-to-floor windows that span the length of its north western walls offer breathtaking views of the Acropolis. It is a remarkable structure (from both a design and engineering perspective), and it houses some extraordinary exhibits.

As we walked around the Parthenon Gallery on the museum’s sunlit top floor, white plaster replicas of missing pieces from the Parthenon Frieze were conspicuous reminders of historic treachery and obstructive diplomacy. There is an elephant in the room in the Parthenon Gallery, and everyone can see it. Unfortunately, there are many who refuse to acknowledge it. It defies belief that directors of the British Museum continue to ignore requests from the Greek populace to return the Parthenon Marbles – also known as the Elgin Marbles in honour of the British Lord who stole them – to the Acropolis Museum. Surely the British Museum has an ethics committee that determines whether its historic acquisitions were made in good faith. No-one has the right to steal antiquities from another country and

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put them on display in their own, regardless of their social class or standing.

We live in a world where statues of dishonourable men are being dismantled (both figuratively and literally), and Elgin’s place in history must surely be next. Whatever loyalty the British Government and Monarchy has to this bloke and his lineage, it is unquestionably time to return the Parthenon Marbles to their rightful geopolitical resting place.

The white plaster replicas stand out like sore thumbs in the Parthenon Gallery, and I love the way in which their inauthentic nature has been amplified. Reproductions are often so realistic that it’s hard to differentiate the real from the fake, but not in this case. It is blindingly apparent they are replicas. The point is so well made.

Anyway, I’m off topic and need to get back to our visit. It didn’t take long for the museum to fill with tour groups. Crowds of people started to pile inside, and it became difficult to move around the first and second floors. It was time for a break.

The museum has an incredible cafe. Located on an outdoor terrace that juts from the second floor, the cafe

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boasts incredible views of the Acropolis. We settled at a table and enjoyed Greek coffee and pistachio ice cream with the ancient ruins dominating the skyline above us. We’ve visited many museums in our travels, and this was an absolute standout for me. The trick is to get there early and enjoy the top floor glass atrium before the swarming crowds infiltrate the marble walkways, commandeer the window ledge seats and block the panoramic vistas. Tourists are so annoying ?

Time had eluded us. We had been captivated by the museum’s exhibits for three and a half hours, and had it not been for the ever-increasing crowds, we would probably have continued wandering the marble floors. However, it was getting close to lunch, and we knew where we wanted to eat.

We dropped into the museum’s gift shop on our way out, and Ren fell in love with a pair of earrings that matched a winged pattern from one of the ancient pottery exhibits. This was a birthday trip after all, so we had to buy them! When we eventually left the museum in the early afternoon, there was a long queue outside the entrance. We were so

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glad we’d opted for an early start to the day.

As we wandered the perimeter of the Acropolis, the searing afternoon sun beat down upon us. Its intensity was relentless, and there were very few places to escape. We decided to climb (or at least clamber) up to Areopagus Hill, an exposed rocky outcrop just below the Acropolis. This barren dusty hill offers incredible views of the sprawling Athenian cityscape, and it also offers a birds-eye view of the Ancient Agora directly below. However, with no respite from the dazzling and intensely hot sun, we could only manage a few photos of the vast whitewashed metropolis of Athens stretching to distant hazy mountains on the horizon before quickly retreating to whatever shade we could find. It was so incredibly hot.

Areopagus Hill once housed a Shrine of the Unknown God. I’d heard this mentioned in passing a couple of times since arriving in Greece, and it fascinated me. The concept of a dedicated shrine to worship unknown gods is very progressive and inclusive, but my interpretation of its actual purpose may be a little too literal. As an optimistic nihilist, I live in hope that egalitarian countries the

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world over will set aside quiet reflective places where people can think about the gods they have never known and the gods they will never meet. However, I’d be inclined to build these shrines in quiet, cool, leafy places with lots of shade. I don’t think an exposed dusty hill with relentless sunlight and nowhere to sit is conducive to reflective thought!

Having found solace from the sun on Theorias (a picturesque path that channels tourists to the main Acropolis entrance), we wandered back to the busy weekend streets of Monastiraki and beelined to Kostas, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it souvlaki place in a diminutive square opposite the Agia Irini church. As we approached the hole-in-the-wall eatery, we couldn’t help but notice (with some trepidation) a long queue of hungry customers stretching out into the small square. Long queues are a tell-tale sign of good food, so we were excited. However, with little relief from the sun, we were hoping the wait time wouldn’t be too long. Luckily, it wasn’t.

With only four staff, Kostas runs a tight ship in a narrow space. As I waited in line, I watched in awe as beef, chicken and pork souvlaki ] (grilled meat

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wrapped in a pita with hot chips, tomatoes, onion and yoghurt sauce) were assembled simultaneously with precision and speed. There were no customer complaints. No snarky remarks. No grumpiness. The service was exceptional, as was the food. We ordered two spicy souvlakis – one pork; the other beef – and they were fantastic. Served in warm pitta bread, the meat was tender, the tomatoes were juicy and the jalapenos were hot. Yummo! The local beer (Vergina) was great too – straight from a plastic cup. We’d been walking in the Athenian heat for hours, so any cold liquid would have offered lifesaving qualities at this point in the day. However, Vergina was quickly becoming a favourite.

Feeling very satisfied and happy, we made our way back to the hotel, dropping into the supermarket along the way to pick up some cold beer and supplies. We arrived back in the mid-afternoon, settled in our room and worked on our travel notes. With cups of tea at hand.

Having recovered from a day of exploration in the sweltering Athenian sun, we headed out to dinner at Nikitas, a small eatery in the bustling inner-city suburb of Psyrri. After settling at

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a narrow table on the pavement opposite the restaurant, we shared the following three dishes:
> Roasted spicy feta cheese
> Greek salad
> Meat balls in tomato sauce

The meat balls were fantastic, and the spicy feta was very spicy (‘jalapeno spicy’ in fact) and very tasty. Unfortunately, the Greek salad was served with tasteless tomatoes. It was the first time we’d experienced an under-par salad since arriving in the country 12 days earlier. Hopefully it will be the last, as we’ve come to love the freshness of salads with almost every meal. The local beer was great (as always), and Ren enjoyed a white wine.

We wandered the grungy urban streets of Psyrri in the warm evening, checking out the street art and absorbing the vibrant atmosphere. However, it wasn’t long before we were subliminally lured back to the hotel. We had a walking tour of the Acropolis followed by a four-hour train journey north to Thessaloniki the next day, so we needed to be fresh. Another early start to what promised to be another fantastic day in Greece.

SHE SAID…
It was so lovely to wake in Athens. We had a whole

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warm September day spread out in front of us, to do with what we wished. And we wished to spend most of it at the Acropolis Museum.

We wandered down to the breakfast room of Hotel Attalos in anticipation of their buffet spread that we’d enjoyed on our previous stay. The generous buffet offerings didn’t disappoint, even though the pastry bain-marie was a bit bare. I thoroughly enjoyed my fresh and healthy breakfast of toast with a boiled egg, tomatoes, cucumber, olives and feta. It was rather comforting (but possibly odd to some) that we gravitated to the same table we’d always sat at, and also had just about exactly what we’d had before. We are creatures of routine. ?

After breakfast we made our way south towards the Makrygianni neighbourhood. We walked along the wide base of the Acropolis hill, and despite knowing that the museum sat almost directly in front of the main entrance to the Acropolis, we still got a bit disoriented and had to consult our map. But just the once. ?

Walking up to the museum’s entrance relatively early at 9:30am, we were relieved there wasn’t a queue. We were in such

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a hurry to get into the building that I only barely registered that on approaching the entrance, we’d walked over a glass floor through which we could see an archaeological excavation beneath us. With plans to have a better look on our way out, we entered the building, passed through the security screening and left our bags in the cloakroom. We got a map and set off to explore the much talked about purpose-built Acropolis Museum.

Designed by Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, the museum opened in 2009 after many delays (such as the discovery of the ancient city we’d seen near the entrance). The glass and concrete museum building is stunning and definitely lives up to its hype – both design and content wise. It houses all the original archaeological objects found at the Acropolis across the road.

The museum covers the expanses and periods of the ancient city in a logical way. The building mimics the Acropolis site, with the ground level housing the Gallery of the Slopes, which as its name suggests, contains all the items unearthed on the slopes of the Acropolis. Tall glass cases contain all manner of pottery and delicate figurines, and I

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loved that the rectangular hall had an inclined floor to imitate the slopes of the hill.

The first level contains an extensive assortment of bronze and marble statues that span many centuries. This level contains the only area – the Archaic Acropolis Gallery – in which photography is forbidden. I guess probably because some of the artefacts still held fragments of ancient paint on them… and tourists can’t be trusted to not use their flashes! ?

It displays beautiful artifacts and sculptures from many Acropolis buildings such as the Erechtheion and the Temple of Athena Nike. Unsurprisingly, there were many statues of Athena – the patron of Athens, and to whom much of the Acropolis was dedicated to. This floor also houses the spectacular restored Caryatid statues. They were displayed in what I initially thought was an odd closed-in mezzanine-type space. While it was lovely to be able to get very close to them, it was very cramped and near-impossible to get enough space to photograph the five statues together. However, it later occurred to me that they were meant to be viewed from a far. When you walk up the wide staircase to the first level and

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look back, there they are standing across the void in all their glory. And there were also two galleries on the floor above that presented unique top-down views of them.

It was mind blowing to think this set of originally six, now five, female figures had crowned the Acropolis for 2,500 years. Instead of columns, these Caryatid statues held up the roof of the south porch of the Erechtheion building. It was such a treat to see such beautiful workmanship up close.

The route through the Acropolis Museum finally led to the top level – the Parthenon Gallery. This third level was my favourite. The light and airy space was a very fitting house for the gleaming marble elements of the Parthenon. It was immediately obvious that this rectangular gallery had been specifically designed to look and feel like the ancient temple itself.

The spacing of the columns in the gallery apparently mark the outline of the Parthenon, and they form a beautiful colonnade to showcase the famous Parthenon marbles. At the two smaller ends of the rectangular gallery, the triangular pediments sat at eye level, with the metopes displayed on the columns behind this. But what

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was most striking in the room was the amazingly ornate bas-relief frieze that ran in a continuous band around an inner rectangular space (that represented the inner sanctum of the temple).

It was absolutely extraordinary. I couldn’t stop walking around it in an incessant loop, trying to absorb the Panathenaic procession of animals, humans and gods it depicted. The marble of the original frieze had aged to a lovely golden honey colour, while the restored additions were of stark white plaster.

The large fragments of this frieze that were infamously hacked off and ‘taken’ by Lord Elgin are known as the Elgin Marbles. They now live in the British Museum, and the British government’s refusal to return them to Greece has been a source of ongoing angst for the Greek people. The ex-British Prime Minister David Cameron once said something along the lines of – ‘If you say yes to one, you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty”. I will never understand how ex-empires can still blatantly gloat about things they plundered and pillaged. Incidentally, the British Museum also owns the sixth Caryatid statue, which was hacked off from the Erechtheion as a possible ornament to

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decorate Lord Elgin’s mansion! As you can probably tell, I have strong opinions about bullies who beat up people and steal their things… and even stronger feelings about them trying to justify stealing those things AND refusing to give them back!

For now, a replica of the stolen frieze sits in its place. The replica is of stark white plaster and there’s an accompanying video that explains the history of what happened. However, in contrast, the spot of the sixth Caryatid statue remains hauntingly empty.

I’m a bit of an architecture nerd, but I have to admit I’d never heard some of these classical temple terms like pediments or metopes before. This trip to Greece has been a good education in classical architecture. ?

We spent many happy hours wandering through this museum. We chose not to follow the museum’s suggested itinerary of seeing one side of the building first and coming down on the other. Instead, we made our way upwards one level at a time, but found we had to do some back tracking to get a better appreciation of some of the exhibits. This was also necessary to try and avoid the tour groups

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that started coming in thick and fast after 11am. We felt extremely lucky to have had the Caryatid statues and all of the Parthenon Gallery virtually to ourselves for a few circuits!

I loved that we had the time and energy to visit each level multiple times. And all the while, the Acropolis was fittingly visible through floor to ceiling glass walls. Speaking of visibility, I should add a side note that the floors of the museum are also glass… and dresses and short skirts should probably be avoided. On the couple of occasions that I looked up, I saw things I really didn’t wish to see.

When we felt we’d adequately experienced all the museum had to offer, we settled at a table on the terrace of the second level cafe. The terrace has a fabulous view of the Acropolis, and it was so lovely sitting out there and debriefing about what we’d just experienced… over a coffee and a pistachio ice cream. ?

The museum had been every bit as fabulous as I’d heard it was. It gave me a good understanding of the Acropolis site, and it also unexpectedly offered general background on

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ancient Greek history. I would highly recommend a visit to the Acropolis Museum, if only to see the original architectural treasures from the Parthenon on the third level. The Parthenon is undoubtedly the gem of the sacred hill, and I couldn’t wait to visit the Acropolis and see the ruins of the real thing.

On the way out we checked out the gift shop on the ground floor. I’m a big fan of gift shops in museums and galleries, especially when their products are genuinely reflective of the exhibits of the museum/gallery (as opposed to selling run of the mill tourist crap you could find anywhere). This was a 50th birthday trip for me, and my Mum had asked me to buy some jewellery from Greece as her gift to me… so I chose a pair of ‘wing’ earrings. Their design had been inspired by a small Erotes (winged deity of love and desire) as depicted on a lid of a ceramic jewellery box displayed in the museum’s Gallery of the Slopes of the Acropolis. I love buying a piece of jewellery from each country I visit, and this was a very special birthday gift from Mum. ?

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We eventually left the museum and walked along the Dionysiou Areopagitou pedestrian strip to Areopagus Hill. It’s more a rocky outcrop than a hill, and it’s where the Athenian judicial council met in classical times. It’s supposedly also where St Paul gave a sermon during his visit to Athens, which crucially lead to the conversion of one of the judges to Christianity. St Paul apparently capitalised on the fact that the Athenians had a ‘shrine of the unknown god’ (which was a sort of catch-all way of avoiding the wrath of any gods they didn’t know about). St Paul cunningly suggested that the Christian God was this unknown god who they had been praying to already. A genius loophole that eventually introduced a new religion to the whole region!

It was seriously hot and crowded on the rock because it had a stunning panoramic view of the whole city and its surrounds. Closer to the rock, there were great views of the Acropolis on one side and the Ancient Agora to the other. We took a few photos and hastily escaped the fierce heat via the unsteady metal stairs on the side of the rock. We had been told

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that this was a great place to come and watch the sunset. However, neither of us was keen to watch the sunset with hordes of others.

Back down on solid ground, we continued walking along the pedestrian strip through the neighbourhood of Thisio. This part of Athens had a very different feel to the other neighbourhoods we’d explored so far. Even though the streets were more open and there was more greenery, I definitely preferred the north side of central Athens (where we were).

The ‘very old things’ theme we’d set for our two days in Athens continued with a decision to have old world souvlakis for lunch. Andrew and I are both fans of souvlakis (grilled meat wrapped in a pita with hot chips, tomatoes, onion and yoghurt sauce), and prior to our trip I’d researched numerous ‘top ten’ listicles for the best souvlakis in Athens. Kosta’s Souvlaki was one that consistently made the lists, so our choice was made.

We walked to Agia Irini Square and joined the long queue outside Kostas. There was a handful of tables outside the tiny shop, and everyone was vying for the ones in the shade or near the

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fan. When we eventually found space at a small wobbly table, we couldn’t believe how AMAZING the souvlakis were. We’d ordered one each of pork and beef, and they were both equally delicious. Despite being extremely run off their feet, the standard of the food and service was great. Kostas seemed to be equally popular with locals and tourists, but I later found out that the locals don’t consider it to be ‘traditional’ because Kosta’s offers options such as chilli.

While we were in the vicinity of Agia Irini Square, I popped into the church that gives the square its name – Agia Irini (Church of St Irene). One of our guides on our earlier stay in Athens had mentioned that the locals love this church very much and preferred it to the relatively newer Athens Cathedral down the road.

Extremely happy with our morning and afternoon explorations, we walked back to our hotel and crashed in the cooling aircon of our room for a few hours. It had felt like the hottest day since we’d arrived in Greece!

I had a light nap but couldn’t linger in bed for as long as I wanted because we

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had to prepare for the group meeting of our next Intrepid Travel trip – the Best of Greece. It was a combination of two trips that first took in the mainland in a loop, before returning to Athens for the second trip that would take us to a few Cyclades islands.

When we got to the group meeting on the rooftop of the hotel, we were the first there and hung out with Georgia for a while. She’d been the group leader on our last trip which had explored the Saronic Gulf islands and the Peloponnese peninsula. Eventually we met the other group members – Nina and Gareth (Aus, Canberra); Cilla (Aus, Brisbane); Sophie (UK); and Romy (Switzerland). Three other people – Caitlyn (NZ), and Alex and Tom (USA) had been delayed due to flight issues and we met them the next morning.

We all walked into Psyrri for dinner at Nikita’s Tavern. The evening was still very warm and we sat outside. The first dinner with a new group can be a predictor of things to come, and even though we hadn’t met everyone yet, it was obvious that the group held a very wide range of

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personality types. I got the feeling that it was going to be a slightly fractured group.

Andrew and I weren’t very hungry after our late lunch, so we merely shared a Greek salad, tirokafteri (spicy feta dip) and soutzoukakia (meatballs baked in tomato sauce). This was the first meatball dish we’d had in Greece and judging by how very very delicious this was, it certainly wasn’t going to be our last! ?

After dinner, Georgia escorted us on a short walk through the Psyrri neighbourhood. The invitation to go for a drink with some of the group was very tempting, but we were tired and also had to pack for our departure from Athens the next afternoon.

However, before our departure we have half a day exploring the Acropolis – I had been looking forward to this since we arrived in the city, and I was very excited.

See you around Athens!


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