“Check out the view.” Those four words became a catchphrase — and a running joke — during my visit to Athens. It seemed everywhere I ventured, people were eager to showcase the Acropolis, each convinced their establishment boasted the best vista in the city. The UNESCO World Heritage site became the defining characteristic of my trip to the ancient city, begging the question: Is it possible to focus on much else during a visit to Athens?
Determined to make the most of my short time in a city I’d always dreamt of visiting, I opted for a city tour — my first taste of the view. “If you look now out of the right window, you will see the Acropolis. Check out the view.”
Entering Dionysos, a restaurant perfectly positioned at the foot of the Acropolis, I was ushered to a second-floor table and instructed to sit next to the window, where I could “check out the view.”
Later, during a dinner at Première, in the InterContinental Athens Athenaeum, I was encouraged to choose a seat that would allow me to “check out the view.” (Admittedly, the view was slightly overshadowed by the rich flavors of the meal I was enjoying.)
And on and on, I was prodded to take in the view of the almighty Acropolis. Of course, it is stunning. At night, it is breathtaking. Not once did I let the opportunity to catch a glimpse pass without taking a moment to sit back and appreciate the panorama.
Without question, the Acropolis, its history and its mythology captivated my attention. Beyond the view, it’s impossible to lose sight of the monument as it adorns key chains, T-shirts and other mementos on display as you wander the streets, particularly in the tourist-ridden Plaka neighborhood.
I found myself swept up in the controversy surrounding the Acropolis and the British Museum, which has heated up following the July 2009 opening of the Acropolis Museum. Struck by indignation, I was angry with Lord Elgin for removing intact portions of friezes and other pediments from the buildings of the Acropolis in the 19th century. In an effort to pay off debts, Elgin later gave the artifacts to the British Museum, where they remain today. The battle rages on as Greeks fight for their return.
I did not truly understand — or feel — the Greeks’ great loss until I wandered through the Acropolis Museum. Empty spaces remain, waiting for the originals to be returned. Expanses of large friezes are disrupted because entire squares are in another country, the story left untold. A statue’s ankle and thigh are in Athens, its calf and knee in London. The museum is a persuasive argument for the Athenians. I left firmly convinced that history could only be restored — and righted — once all of the precious Acropolis treasures were together again.
The view is just as awe-inspiring from the Acropolis Museum. While perusing the upper floors, I would look over my shoulder, through the floor-to-ceiling windows, at the Acropolis. With it watching over me as I examined its riches, the experience became more poignant. There was much to be seen underneath my feet as well. Transparent flooring unveiled underground excavations of the Acropolis, an interesting concept on the first floor, but a bit more daunting from the third floor.
With all the talk about the view of the Acropolis, it’s easy to forget about the view from the Acropolis. As I stood in front of the Parthenon, I channeled the goddess Athena. All those school days spent learning about Greek mythology suddenly took on a genuine meaning.
High above the city, overlooking the Agora, the Temple of Zeus and the modern-day makings of a busy city, I was able to forget that the reality down below was far less beautiful than it looked from my bird’s-eye view.
My December trip coincided with the one-year anniversary of Alexandros Grigoropoulos’ death, a 15-year-old shot by police during an altercation. His death caused public outcry and rioting. The increased police presence was evident throughout the city; and as I made my way from site to site, I could practically taste the underlying civic unrest brewing. As the wheels of my plane lifted off, bound for the United States, rioting in memory of Grigoropoulos pillaged the city.
My visit also occurred simultaneously with a citywide garbage strike. Navigating Syntagma Square was much like doing a quickstep with fellow passersby, each of us trying to dart around the overflowing trash piles. The Utopian vision of Greece I’d had in my head vanished, and unfortunately, the situation somewhat marred my experience.
To round out my understanding of the city’s history, I ventured to the Benaki Museum. Fittingly, collector Emmanouil Benaki’s private residence is now home to an impressive collection of 26,000 pieces dating from ancient to modern-day Greece. The homey, intimate museum is the only place in Athens where all styles of Greek art are on display — and the only museum in Athens open until midnight, on Thursdays.
As I settled in for a cup of Turkish coffee and a sweet, gooey Greek pastry at a Kolonaki café, I mulled the dichotomy of Athens. Antiquity pulses through the city, alongside the hustle and bustle of the 21st century. Does modernity tarnish the ancient essence, or do the two personalities of Athens work together in perfect harmony? It is a question I am unable to answer after only one visit, as I suspect there is an untapped wealth of personality I’ve yet to unearth in Athens.
So, I turned my focus back to the view. No matter how many times I caught a glimpse of the Acropolis’ wonder, I was transfixed, enchanted and humbled each time.
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