Athens & Sounion 1/03

Home Up Athens & Sounion 1/03 Delphi & Osiou Louka 1/03 Corinth & Peloponnese 1/03

A city of seemingly unlimited contrasts and depth...

In front of the eastern face of Parthenon

Athens was a very impressive city - one of the best I have ever visited. It is not a pretty city, at least up close, but it has depth and character. The things to see and do are significant, rich in both history and culture. Distant views of Athens better show its beauty, with the Acropolis as a  constant backdrop (large picture below right). My four days in Greece were all based in Athens, so I got to know it a bit below the surface. It is a very walkable city, with most significant places within 20 minutes of each other. Newer areas are largely under construction for the 2004 Olympics, and around every corner it seems there is another archeological excavation.

The Acropolis

The Acropolis is a group of buildings on top of a hill, built there in the fifth century BC to provide a defensible position close enough to the port with its own supply of water from a spring. The site at night is spectacular from almost anywhere in the city (first picture below from my hotel a mile away) The most famous building is the Parthenon (large picture above and second and third pictures below), flanked by the Erechtheion (fourth picture below) and fronted by the Beule Gate and Propylaia. The climb to the top was easy and the views looking down at the city, mountains and the port were excellent.

Athens city view from Mount Lycabettus

The Ancient Agora and the Theatres of Dionysos and Herodes Atticus

The area just below and northwest of the Acropolis is the Ancient Agora or marketplace (first picture below taken from the Acropolis). Socrates strolled with Plato and his other students here, posing questions that led to a new kind of human understanding. Socrates was also imprisoned and drank his cup of hemlock at the southwest corner of the Agora in 399BC for "introducing strange gods and corrupting youth". The Agora's best preserved landmark is the Temple of Hephaistos and Athena, known as the Theseion (second picture below). On the southern slope of the Acropolis are two theatres; the larger theatre of Dionysos (third picture below) and the smaller Odeum of Herodes Atticus (fourth picture below) which was reconstructed in the nineteenth century and is still used today during the yearly Athens Festival.

The Roman Agora, Hadrians Arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus

The Roman Agora is just east of the Ancient Agora passing through the old Plaka district with its narrow winding streets, filled with shops and sidewalk restaurants. Its most notable monument is the first century BC Tower of the Winds (first picture below) with relief sculptures of the eight gods of the winds. It was originally built by an astronomer as a sundial and water powered clock. Continuing east past the Plaka district, Hadrian's Arch, built in the first century AD, marked the dividing line between Greek and Roman Athens (second picture below, partially covered by scaffolding). Hadrian also built the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, just behind the arch, one of the largest temples of the ancient world. Only one corner of it remains intact (third picture below), although the foundation and tumbled columns show its original size (fourth picture below).

Around the Town - Athens

The city of Athens is unique in ways beyond its ancient monuments. One of the first things I noticed were the large numbers of loose dogs and cats everywhere. They were all friendly, accustomed to crossing streets with the lights and comfortable curled up and sleeping alongside the paths to tourist locations. Marble is everywhere in Athens - literally lying alongside the roads. This abundance of marble partially accounts for the beauty and longevity of buildings. The 70,000 seat marble Panathinaikon Stadium (first picture below), east of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, will be the site of the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2004 Olympics as well as the finish line for the marathon. The length of a marathon race is rumored to have originated from the distance from the Plains of Marathon to the center of Athens, first run by a triumphant Greek soldier in 490BC bringing news of victory over the Persians. He then collapsed and died - fame has its cost.

Art galleries and museums are plentiful in Athens. Besides the museums tied in with each ancient monument, I visited the Museum of Cycladic Art (which also had a great Dali exhibition going), the Bernier-Eliades Gallery and attempted to visit the Benaki. The Benaki's photo policy was so regressive - the world's worst, that I had to get a refund and leave. They require not only that you don't take pictures, but that you leave your camera at the entrance in an unsecured coat check area. Please join me in boycotting this foolishness. North of the stadium, the Presidential Palace (second picture below) has a unique tribute ritual conducted hourly by the guards in traditional Greek uniform. This same ritual is performed at the tomb of the unknown soldier across from Syntagma Square at the Parliament. The new subway station at Syntagma Square is the most beautiful I have ever seen (third picture below), including a small museum of archeological finds encountered in building it. Athens also has many interesting modern buildings such as the Academy (fourth picture below) built in the mid-nineteenth century. The new Athens airport is much farther from town than the old one, but nicely built and efficient.

The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion

In Sounion, about 45 miles and 90 minutes southeast of Athens, is the fifth century BC Doric style Temple of Poseidon. The road south from Athens is a nice one, running along the coast through some of the best areas of town (first picture below). Sounion is most famous for its spectacular sunsets, however nature took an unfortunate foggy turn for me on the evening that I went. The temple itself was still worth seeing, well preserved and built there for its strategic location perched high, overlooking all the main sea routes in and out of Greece (second through fourth pictures below).

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