Athens is history come to life. Mythology describes the gods Athena and Poseidon competing publicly over which would become the patron deity of Athens. Poseidon struck his trident into the rock of the Acropolis, and salt water poured out. Athena planted an olive tree that blossomed and brought forth fruit. Guess who won?
We were longing for luscious Greek olives as we waited in an endless cab line after our arrival at Athens’ busy airport. Just across the street, the newly expanded subway line beckoned. We rolled our bags over and approached the ticket window. Not knowing Greek, Alan pointed at the map and smiled at the ticket-seller. Not knowing English, the ticketseller pointed, smiled and said, “Okay.”
Once you learn that “okay”ohi means “no” and nai is “yes,” you’ll have a better chance at navigating Athenian culture. We did not have that understanding yet. But we did learn that the Athens subway is clean, fast, convenient and far-flung; it became our transport of choice as we visited countless historic sites.
The pre-eminent monument on the European Cultural Heritage list is the Acropolis, a flat-topped rock rising 490 feet above sea level and dominating the city of Athens. The Acropolis and its Parthenon, built as a temple to Athena in the fifth century B.C., stand as symbols of ancient Greece and the birth of democracy. I could hear the words of my sixth-grade history teacher as we walked up the hill and sat in the stone seats once occupied by Attic citizens who had come to hear Demosthenes orate. Were these the very same pebbles he placed in his mouth as he practiced to overcome a speech impediment?
At the top, the majesty of the Parthenon is overwhelming, as is the view of ancient and modern Athens spread below. The marble sculptures that once graced the façade are missing — in 1806 Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin, purchased them from the then-occupying Ottoman Empire and sold them to the British Museum in London, where they are displayed as the Elgin Marbles. The Greek government (along with many world citizens) is committed to securing their return, and the spectacular New Acropolis Museum stands ready to house them. An architectural feat in its own right, the museum has finally opened amid praise for its architect, Bernard Tschumi. As might be expected in a city where every spade stuck into the earth yields a treasure, an ancient city was uncovered during construction and is now incorporated into the massive glass floor. The building culminates in the Parthenon Gallery, a glass-enclosed rectangular space that is rotated 23 degrees off the axis of the other floors to align with the Parthenon. The gallery’s glass walls allow uninterrupted, 360-degree views of the ancient temple and the surrounding city. In the center of the Parthenon Gallery, the concrete core of the museum exhibits what remains in Greece of the Parthenon frieze — alongside plaster casts of the pieces now in London — placed in the exact arrangement and orientation as when they adorned the monument.
For more excavations, literally go underground. The Syntagma metro stop displays discoveries made while building the metro line and that particular station. Roman baths, roads and two cemeteries, including an unfortunate mummified man bent into a fetal position, are now encased in a beautifully articulated display (with explanations in English as well as Greek) — all cut straight down and enshrined in glass to show the layering of Athens’ architectural history. Back above ground, it’s a mandatory stop to watch the changing of the guard in front of the large Neo-Classical Parliament building in spacious Syntagma Square. The tall Evzones stand solemn and indifferent to the streaming line of tourists who run up to pose beside them. (I admit I was one.) Each soldier wears tsarouhi shoes with pompoms and a fustanella, a short white skirt with 400 pleats — one for each year of Turkish occupation.
Behind the Parliament building, cut through the National Garden to reach the Benaki Museum, the largest independent museum in Greece, housed in the Benaki family mansion. The re-creations of gilded Ottoman-style sitting rooms and sumptuous Byzantine shrines are mesmerizing. I lingered in the rooms of life-sized mannequins outfitted with intricate historic costumes from the many Greek islands (there are more than 6,000, though only 227 are inhabited) and lost Alan somewhere near the swords. No problem. I went upstairs to sample a glass of chilled Greek wine while enjoying the Benaki’s scenic rooftop café.
Leaving the Benaki, a steep climb (with a few short shop visits) through the fashionable Kolonaki district and a funicular ride bring you up to the narrow, windy top of Lycabettus Hill. Shared by the tiny St. George’s church and a discreet glass-walled caféand restaurant, Athens’ highest point provides a 360-degree view of the horizon, including the Acropolis below. Our pick for one of the world’s most romantic spots to enjoy an icy ouzo at sunset.
No trip to Athens is complete without a visit to the Archaeological Museum. Teeming with treasures from prehistory to late antiquity, the imposing Neo-Classic structure is packed with famous artifacts, including the 16th-century-B.C. golden funerary mask known as the “Mask of Agamemnon” and — my personal favorite — the “Lady of Kalymnos.”Hauled from the sea of Kalymnos by a fisherman in 1994, the bronze statue is thought to date from the fourth century B.C. She stands tall and proud, one hand reaching up as if asking to be saved, the other tightly clenched inside the intricate folds of her gown. The statue is undergoing a painstaking cleaning, starting at the head, and it is fascinating towitness the stages of unveiling. The fisherman who made the catch received a stipend of 440,000 euros for turning it in to the government, leading to many more discoveries being brought to the authorities: The Greek government now offers 10 percent of an object’s determined value as a reward.
Time for one more museum? Make it the Museum of Cycladic Art. Picasso and Modigliani don’t seem nearly as modern as the simple geometric marble sculptures created 2,000 years before the Parthenon was built. Most are female forms — possibly cult objects of a goddess religion that flourished in the Cyclades from 3200–2000 B.C. Athena is surely smiling down from the Acropolis.
Info to go
Metro Line 3 runs from Athens’ Eleftherios Venizelos Airport (ATH) to Syntagma, but service has been temporarily halted throughOctober due to construction of new stations on the line. A taxi ride takes approximately 35 minutes and costs about $35. Make sure the meter is turned on and is set to Tariff 1; Tariff 2 is the rate after midnight and costs twice as much.
Acropolis Museum Boutique Hotel This is Athens’ best-kept secret — 22 elegant guestrooms in a renovated classical building offering fresh-squeezed orange juice and creamy Greek yogurt for breakfast. 48 Syngrou Ave., tel 30 210 924 9050. $
Hotel Grande Bretagne
Enjoy grand luxury with attentive service and a panorama of the city’s landmarks from the elegant rooftop restaurant. Constitution Square, tel 30 210 333 0000. $$$
St. Georg e Lycabettus Boutique Hotel
At the foot of Lycabettus Hill, the chic and modern St. George has a busy rooftop lounge and a small pool (summer only). 2 Kleomenous St., tel 30 210 729 0711. $$$
No menu to ponder. Seasonal ingredients are theatrically paraded while the maitre d’ describes how each will be prepared. Fabulous tastes. 80 Veikou, Koukaki, tel 30 210 921 3013. $$$
O Thanassis People-watching and souvlaki are both at their best in this delightfully crowded café in Athens’ bustling Monastiraki district. 69 Mitropoleos St., tel 30 210 324 4705 $
Orizontes means “horizons,” and that’s exactly what you see from this romantic restaurant. Take the funicular from Aristippou Street in Kolonaki. Lycabettus Hill, tel 30 210 722 7065. $$$$
As more destinations around the globe reopen to travelers, we are ready to get back to one of our favorite activities. Join us over the next several weeks as we take you to places around the world saying #WelcomeBacktoTravel. Take a visual journey through New York’s Finger Lakes region with us.
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