A few months back, me and an equally travel-crazed friend of mine, impulsively decided to go to Greece. Although we applied for a summer program on Ancient Technology And Crafts, in the city of Thessaloniki, it was really more about the prospect of visiting this historic country, then a summer spent with assingments and lectures.
From the most historic and tourist-hounded city of Athens, to living in Thessaloniki for two weeks and soaking in the local flavour, to a very-well utilised nine-hour layover at Istanbul, it was definitely one of the best times I had spent travelling.
Being the capital city, Athens was very tourist friendly and welcoming right from the moment I landed. To taking the metro from the airport and locating the bed and breakfast I was staying in, it was a cakewalk. Unlike Istanbul, language was not an issue as English was used almost everywhere (after Greek) in direction boards or name plates. Interestingly enough, I noticed a large concentration of illegal migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh, setting up shops by the beach or restaurants trying to sell off Indian cuisine, who were more than happy to help tourists from India in any way possible.
It is comforting to see how political and psychological patterns change with a change of culture and locale. In a country completely foreign and distant, these communities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and even India, have chosen to forget their meaningless differences and live in harmony.
After being guided by one such kind fellow the next morning of my arrival, it was time for the Acropolis. This rocky citadel overlooking all of Athens, stands as testimony of the great feats achieved by the Greek Civilisation and the changes that the site itself has had to go through. From the last twenty or so years, intensive restoration projects have been undertaken to restore the monuments where possible. Much has been restored and work on the Parthenon is continuing, with the Archaeological Museum of Athens housing most of the important finds.
The first monument that one encounters while walking up to the top is the Odeon of Herodes built in the 1st century CE by Herodes Atticus. From here the view of the city is mesmerising – one could spot the Classical Temple of Zeus which housed the largest statue of Zeus in the Roman times, the Byzantine churches hidden behind the greenery, among the developments of the modern city stretching on and on till the painter-perfect blue of the sea, where it meets an equally azure sky.
On reaching the top finally, one walks through the excellently restored Propylaia(the monumental West entrance to the sanctuary of Acropolis built during the 4th century BCE) and enters the main area of the citadel. To the right lie the ruins of the temple of Artemis Brauronia from the same time period (the goddess of nature and hunting, girls and expecting mothers), and a Chalkotheke, used to house utensils and ritual objects required during religious ceremonies. Nothing much survives of these monuments today.
As one proceeds further, the monument that symbolisesGreece to the modern world comes into view – the Parthenon.
Built in the 4th century BCE, the Parthenon was a temple dedicated to Athena Parthenos, and is known for the intensive sculptural program of the temple decoration and the gold and ivory statue of Athena. The building has undergone many changes over various periods in history – from the addition of Alexander’s shields, to being converted to a Catholic church and later a mosque, to being irreparably destroyed by a fire and a bombing. It would be impossible to discuss the monument in detail here. Suffice it to say that the structure was a very important religious and political icon of the Ancient world, and continues to be a reminder of its former glory even today.
To the north of the Acropolis lies another temple from Classical Age dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon, called the Erechtheion, named after the legendary Greek hero Erechtheus. It was built entirely of marble with friezes of black limestone, and was originally painted and gilded. Much of it has vanished and very little evidence survives of its former decoration pattern. However, what it is mostly renowned for today is the “Porch of the Maidens” of “Caryatids”. This southern porch has six draped female figures as supporting columns, one of which was removed by the British Lord Elgin in 1800s and is now at the British Museum.
This monument too, has undergone severe damage over different periods in history, and now the original five Caryatids are preserved at the Archaeological Museum of Athens, while the site has exact replicas.
Other than these, there were later additions to this monumental hilltop such as the Roman Period monument of Agrippa, which was primarily a four-sided column with an equestrian sculpture of the king on top.Nothing more of this survives today than a lower part of the column.
After being done with the Acropolis, and resting with an orange slush at the pavement below the citadel, we decided to proceed to the Archaeological Museum of Athens.
This, and many more museums that I visited after this, proved to be excellently planned and executed repositories of historical knowledge. The one of Athens in particular was built over the ruins of the ancient city, and one could literally see the city ruins right under one’s feet, through glass panels on the floor. Impressive and commendable as the idea was, the sights below the ground did take a toll on people with vertigo such as this author!
We were tied up due to shortage of time, and hence could not see the entire collection. But we made it a point to see the most important works, such as the original Caryatids from the Erechtheion, and the low-relief sculpture panels taken down from the Parthenon.
Still hungover with the grandeur of the museum, we proceeded on to some souvenir shopping in the Plaka, an ancient street running below the Acropolis lined with shops and restaurants today.
Next in line was to visit the Ancient Agora (market place) which still serves the same purpose as it was built for, the Academy of Athens and the Library of Hadrian, all of which were very conviniently joined by the Metro. It made things easier for us, as the tickets were reasonable priced and the transport very efficient.
Although, there was a lot more to see and experience, we had to stop here due to time constraints. There were classes to attend from the next morning in a different city, and thus, we had to make a run to catch the last train.
Two weeks at the International Hellenic University, interacting and learning with people from all over the world, and soaking in the flavour of the locale, was another life experience altogether.
But that story is for another day and another time.
Right now, suffice it to say that last summer, the Greek way, was worth all the energy and time.
It might be one place down from my Bucket List, but that would not stop me from visiting this country another time soon.
Art historian and Writer at ARTINFO India