Although one of the most visited cities in the world, I have never been, nor even had much of a desire to go, to Athens. I don’t think I knew enough about the history to have an interest in the city. But living in Thessaloniki, just a 6 hour bus ride north of Athens, it was a given that I would be making a visit on this trip. I decided to take my trip the same weekend that Chika’s program was set to go to Athens, which happened to be this past weekend (November 7-9). I was able to join her and her group of 85 students on a few tours, meals, and even had the chance to ride back to Thessaloniki on their bus. Plus, I got to see Chika in action at work.
I left Thessaloniki Thursday morning on the 7:30am bus, which got me to Athens at 1:30pm. This gave me a full extra day in the city so that I could take my time while visiting the sites. The first night, I stayed in the Athens Backpackers Hostel, a pretty nice place in a great location for a great off-season price of 16 euros. The following two nights, I stayed with Chika at the Divani Palace Hotel, the 4-star hotel being a step up after being awoken several times the previous night by snoring and people coming back at all hours of the night.
I essentially had two and a half days in Athens, which was enough time to see the main sites, including the Acropolis, the Panathenaic Stadium, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and the Ancient and Roman Agoras. The history in all of these sites is really just incredible. Whereas in the US, something from the 1600s is very old, old in Athens means 500 BC or even 3000 BC; evidence has been found showing that the Acropolis was inhabited in the fourth millennium BC. Trying to wrap my mind around this took all weekend!
The Acropolis and the Parthenon
The Acropolis– one of the most impressive man-made structures in the world, especially given the time it was constructed. Built in the 5th century BC, it ranks up there with Machu Picchu in Peru, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the Pyramids in Egypt as one of man’s greatest creations.
Acropolis is the name given to the citadel that is built atop a rocky outcrop high above the city of Athens. The Parthenon is the largest, most important building atop the Acropolis. The Parthenon and all other structures in the Acropolis were originally built as the most important temples in the region, dedicated to the Goddess Athena and God Poseidon, among many others. Athens, if you hadn’t figured it out already, was named after the Goddess Athena.
The Parthenon is the masterpiece of the Acropolis. It’s one of the most recognizable sites in the world with its large columns holding up the rectangular shaped masterpiece. Construction started in 447 BC and continued until the interior was finished in 432 BC. Over time, both nature and man have destroyed parts and helped deteriorate the building. Because of this, many of the original sculptures once attached to the Parthenon are now in museums. There is currently an ongoing renovation project as they continue to take out original parts of the building and replace them with replica pieces. However, amazingly enough, the original structure of the Parthenon is still standing, roof and everything, almost 2,500 years after construction.
Knowing that it’s a wildly popular tourist attraction, I arrived at the Acropolis at 8:30am, 30 minutes after they opened. Only 100 or so people were visiting at the time, giving me time to take in the stunning site without the crowd. As the morning went on, more and more people arrived to the point where it felt more like a theme park. The Acropolis itself is not very big; one can visit the sight in an hour and still see it all. However, I really enjoy taking my time, reading about the site, and take plenty of pictures. To me, such an important historical site deserves sufficient time, so I was up there for a total of almost three hours.
On the way out, I stopped by to see the two theaters just below the Acropolis, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and the Theater of Dionysus. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus has been reconstructed and now hosts summer events. The Theater of Dionysus is the opposite; only a small part of the original is still intact.
The Temple of Olympian Zeus
The Temple of Olympian Zeus is a site that you’ve probably seen pictures of but have never known the name of it. What’s now remaining are several large pillars clustered together on a large grassy area with one pillar on the opposite side knocked over. The pillar, which fell over during a storm in the 1850s but looks like it could’ve been yesterday, like a tree knocked over from a storm. The 800 ton marble sections spread out on the grass the same position as the day they fell.
This temple, as you may have guessed, was built for the Zeus, the God of the sky. Construction was started in 520 BC and took over 600s years before it was finished. The massive size of the temple, as well as ongoing wars with the Persians and other neighbors, caused the construction to take so long. At the moment, only 15 of the original columns stand of what was once one of the largest and most important temples in Ancient Greece. It once consisted of 104 columns, but most columns fell over and were eventually used by others to build other sites.
Although hard to imagine what the temple once looked like, the remains are one of the top sites to see in Athens. One must wonder how they were able to cut and stack these extremely heavy marble blocks at these heights. It’s a picturesque place to visit for an hour and a must-see in Athens.
The Panathenaic Stadium is best known for being the site of the original Olympic game is 1896. The horse shoe shaped stadium seated over 60,000 people. Being inside the stadium, I could just imagine the electricity in the stadium as Spyridon Louis, a Greek, crossed in the finish line in the stadium to win the first Olympic marathon race, thought to be the most important event at the time. The first ever open international competition, and a Greek took home first place in the most important event. Greeks must have been ecstatic to feel at the top of the athletic world, as if they had went back to ancient times where they were one of the most important empires in the world.
As I slowly walked around the stadium, taking it all in, I learned about the history of the stadium through an audio guide provided with my entry ticket of 3 euros ($4). After walking up the incredibly steep marble stairs to the top row of the stadium, I looked down to the track and the infield as crew members set up for what they call the Authentic Marathon, the original “marathon”. The story goes like this, in 490 BC, the Greeks had just won an important battle against the Persians in a town called Marathon. Afterwards, a man by the name of Pheidippides, ran 42.195 km, or 26.2 miles, from Marathon to Athens in order to announce that Athens had won but the Persians now may attack from the sea. After speaking his words, Pheidippides collapsed and died, as the story goes. The Authentic Marathon takes this same route from Marathon to Athens, a mere 2,504 years after the original event. This event happened to take place the Sunday that we left Athens, and the finish line is in the Panathenaic Stadium.
Games had been placed in this area of the city for a few thousand years. The original stadium was built in 329 BC but was refurbished for the 1896 Olympics. To this day, concerts and events take place as well as tours of the stadium. I’m a big fan of stadiums of any type, so I really enjoyed wandering around the stadium. A tunnel leads back under the stands of the stadium and hosts a small museum, telling about the history by showing original advertisements and giving in-depth details about the origination of the games. An entire room was dedicated to one advertisement poster of each Olympic games since 1896. Even better, the Olympic torch from each Olympics since the 1950s was on display, including the latest Sochi Olympics. This was a great touch to the museum. Some of the torches are very-well decorated and some seem to be heavy!
We also visited the Acropolis Museum, which houses many of the original statues, artifacts, and other ancient crafts. The museum was opened up in 2008 and is a beautiful building. Over time, more and more pieces of the original Acropolis and Parthenan have been replaced by replicas in order to preserve the originals. In the museum, most of these are shown off. However, the British Museum in London has many of the originals, which has been a running controversy. 5 of the 6 original Caryatid statues, the maiden statues, are housed in the Acropolis Museum.
I decided to do a tour of Athens through the Athens Backpackers hostel. I tried to do the Athen’s free tour, similar to what I’ve done is several other cities, but they didn’t have any tours over the weekend. For the Athens Backpackers hostel, I paid 6 euros and had a 50 year old Australian guy as the guide. Not quite what I expected, as guides are typically locals. He wasn’t the best guide I’ve ever had, being a bit pessimistic about Greeks and the city. However, he did have good information and became a bit more passionate when talking about some of the historical aspects. In the tour, we saw most of the main sites without entering. We saw the Roman and Ancient Agora, the main meeting points in the old times. We walked through the National Park and saw the guards at the National Parliament building. We walked through the main shopping pedestrian area and through Plaka, the old town.
The tour was pretty good, however not as good as the many free tours I’ve done in the past. It was worth the 6 euros, but I wouldn’t have paid much more for that.
Although just enough time to see most of the main sites, I really enjoyed Athens. The history in the city is fascinating, dating back over 5,000 years. The Golden Age of the city was in the 1st century BC, but many ruins from this time still remain spread throughout the city. I can now understand why Athens is such a popular tourist destination.