I’ve often heard people say that ‘Athens is an ugly city, don’t bother with it, go straight to the Greek islands’. I’m glad I didn’t listen – I found Athens beautiful, exciting, culturally rich and full of layers.
Of course there’s no account for taste – different people seek out different things while traveling. But how could one not be awestruck by the Acropolis – the citadel towering like a sentinel over Athens – considered the birthplace of our Western civilization? How could one be indifferent to the Parthenon temple, or ignore the diversity of cultures, the fresh food and the joyful music of the Greeks? Above all, how could one not be impressed by this party-loving people, who, despite all the difficulties they now face, still find good reason to go out and celebrate?
I had never been to Greece, and when the opportunity presented itself, I invited my friend Margo to join me. We met in Athens – she came from Paris, where she lives, I from Florida. We checked in at the Hotel Hermes, in the center of the city; I was exhausted from my long trip. It was the end of a sunny day in mid-May, and the only thing we both wanted was to relax at one of the rooftop bars the city is known for. When we arrived at the one recommended by our concierge, the Acropolis was right in front of us, with the Parthenon shining like gold under the last rays of sunlight. We were speechless.
Considered the most splendid group of buildings in all antiquity, and one of the wonders of the world, the Acropolis is the most spectacular attraction in Athens since its first settlements were built, around the year 5000 BC. A religious center even before Athens became a city-state in the 6th-century BC, it has been associated with the goddess Athena ever since the city’s mythical founding. Most of its structures were built from 461 to 429 BC, at the peak of Athens’ intellectual and artistic golden age, in the so-called Century of Pericles – named after the Athenian statesman who rebuilt the city as a crowning symbol of its power and democracy. To this day we delight in his vision.
We couldn’t wait to see the Acropolis close by, and the next morning we booked a guided tour of it. Following advice to be there early, as it gets “too hot and too crowded,” by 8AM we were waiting for our guide – a young man named Chris – at the foot of the Acropolis. We turned out to be the only two people in the group, and while climbing the stairs of the 512 -foot high flat-top limestone outcrop – surrounded by crowds that got thicker by the minute – Chris would stop to comment on the ruins in front of us and show us drawings of what they once looked like. A PhD in Greek History – lucky us! – he explained in detail why the restoration work is so complex and time consuming. Each fragment excavated has to fit perfectly. From the Acropolis, the city below looks like a vast stretch of white houses and buildings sprawling all the way to Piraeus, Athens’ busy port.
After a few hours on the top of the hill we descended the stairs slowly – along with what looked like an ocean of people – to go to the spectacular modern building that houses the Acropolis Museum, where most of the original artifacts found in the excavations are on display. It contains room after room full of treasures; some looked familiar from history and art classes in school. Referring to the famous Parthenon Marbles – the richly carved classical sculptures made by the Greek sculptor Phidias as a frieze for the Parthenon – Chris couldn’t hide his frustration with the fact that they are not in the Parthenon, or in the museum; they’re not even in Greece. “The marbles have been stolen from us,” he said, alluding to the famous controversy between Greece and Britain.
The Elgin Marbles
As I have lived in London, where I saw the Elgin Marbles a few times in the British Museum, I was familiar with the story: also called Parthenon Marbles, they were removed from the Acropolis in 1812 by agents of the 7th Earl of Elgin, a noble Englishman interested in Greek history. The treasure was transported by sea to Britain, where Lord Elgin declared that he did so to protect it from the neglect of the Ottoman Turks who occupied Greece at the time. Although it’s a known fact that the Turks didn’t much care for Greek antiquities – they used the Parthenon as a weapons deposit – the fact remains that the official permission to remove the marbles, which Lord Elgin said he was granted by the Ottomans’ higher authority, was never produced. As a matter of fact, its very existence is still disputed.
In Britain, the acquisition of the collection was supported by some, while others called the Earl’s actions simple looting. Following a public debate in the British Parliament, and the exoneration of Lord Elgin, he sold the Marbles to the British Government, in 1816. They were subsequently given to the British Museum, where they are on permanent display in a gallery specially built for them – perhaps the most precious items in England’s major museum. Interestingly, the Greeks also built a room for the marbles in the Acropolis Museum, a space that now sits empty, waiting for their return to Greece. Talks are still going on.
A vibrant city
But Athens is not only art, history and archeology, far from it. A vibrant city of 4.5 million people, the seat of the Greek government and the commercial and financial hub of Greece, it has many facets, and something for everybody.
Our hotel was a few blocks away from Syntagma Square, the bustling core of Athens, where the Greek Parliament is located and where we watched – with a great number of other tourists – the change of the Evzones Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Athens’ best-known luxury hotel, the Grande Bretagne, is right there too, but in recent years Syntagma Square has become the place for mass protests against the harsh economic measures imposed by the Greek government, among them deep cuts in pensions for the retired.
We were also not far from the pedestrian-only Ermou Street, a popular area lined with shops and crowded with Athenians and tourists alike. Jewelers are everywhere there, with prices for gold and silver being much lower than in other European capitals. Greek jewelry design is exquisite – it has touches of Turkish motives, a style quite different from what we see in the rest of Europe or in America.
The Greeks are also known for well-made shoes, leather items, furs and the only-found-in-Greece komboloi, the worry beads we saw men playing with everywhere. Another popular item that tourists love to bring back home as a souvenir is the mati, the good-luck charm depicting an eye – usually in turquoise or cobalt blue – that supposedly wards off the evil eye. I got a few as gifts, but for that we went to the chaotic and colorful Monastiraki flea market, a feast for the senses at the end of Ermou Street, where prices are already low but always subject to bargaining.
With merchants and buyers squabbling over prices, the Monastiraki market looks like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. There’s a reason for it: Greece – and the rest of the region – was occupied by the Ottoman Turks from 1453 to 1821, when the War of Independence reestablished Greek sovereignty. Those 400 years left a mark in the local architecture, and parts of Athens still look Turkish, mosques and all. Stories of the occupation period abound, as do the resentments, sometimes quite deep.
Not far from the Monastiraki market is the Agora, the heart of ancient Athens, where Socrates discussed ideas with Plato and – centuries later – St. Paul preached Christianity to the pagan Greeks. Until recently, the Agora and the Monastiraki were unsafe areas after dark, but they have made a comeback and are now among the most festive in the city. At night, the place gets crowded with people looking for the inexpensive taverns, bars with live music, or the colorful cafes that line the streets.
Bougainvillea and pots of geraniums adorn the Byzantine-style houses and shops of the touristy but tranquil Plaka district, on the slopes of the Acropolis. Ancient Greek monuments next to trendy boutiques, old churches near Turkish baths, Plaka is a sharp contrast from the busy, modern Athens around it, and it became our favorite spot for shopping and dining. The neighborhood dates back to the late 19th-century – is relatively modern for a city thousands of years old – and it remains a picturesque area of pedestrian zones. A favorite with tourists and Greeks alike, after dark Plaka gets animated, especially at the steps leading to the illuminated Acropolis. It’s a fantastic sight hard to convey in words – one has to be there.
But after a week in Athens, I’ve concluded that – more than anything else it offers – what really attracts people from all over the world to this white, beautiful and historic city, is the Athenians’ joy de vivre, something not so easy to find elsewhere. And that is exactly what will take me back to Athens, as soon as I can.