The Parthenon. Photo by Richard Varr
View of Lykavittos Hill from the Acropolis. Photo by Richard Varr
My current and long lost Greek relatives will be happy to know that I finally made it to the homeland. I stayed in Athens for four days to research a story I was writing for a cruise magazine and, yes, found the same proud gusto, oregano-spiced foods, music and culture that I experienced growing up. As a native New Yorker reflecting on my youth, Athens seems like, culturally speaking, a giant Astoria – perhaps the city’s premier Greek neighborhood – where my grandparents lived.
View of the Acropolis at night. Photo by Richard Varr
Tower of the Winds at night. Photo by Richard Varr
And it didn’t take long to be mesmerized by ancient history. Floodlights bathe the 2,500 year old hilltop Acropolis, visible at almost every corner. Archeological sites with well-preserved Doric and Ionic columns from ancient Greek and Roman temples protrude along neighborhood streets.
Ancient vases in the National Archeological Museum. Photo by Richard Varr
The National Archeological Museum. Photo by Richard Varr
Thousands of artifacts including vases and statues fill display cases in Athens’ world class museums. And I am enlightened, but not surprised to learn that this ancient heritage and classic Greek culture remains today, most notably with the clutters of hand-painted vases, Spartan helmets and paintings of icons that crowd souvenir shops today.
Hand-painted replica vases of those found in museums. Photo by Richard Varr
The Parthenon and the Acropolis grounds. Photo by Richard Varr
Roman copy of the Athena statue in the National Archeological Museum. Photo by Richard Varr
With so much to see in Athens, here are my basic highlights and impressions that I’ll include in this blog post. Since it was my first time to Greece, of course topping my list was a visit to the Acropolis. Everything I read warned to visit either early in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds. I thought 9:30 am would be early enough, but of course the tour buses had already arrived with swarming and almost unbearable crowds. But that’s mostly when ascending the narrow path and stairwells up through the Roman-era Beulé Gate and Propylaia within the Acropolis’ grand entrance. I also passed the small square Temple of Athena Nike, but the real thrill was finally seeing the colossal Parthenon, one of the world’s greatest temples where the ancients once worshiped a 40-foot-high chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue – long lost – of the goddess Athena.
Porch of the Caryatids of the Erechtheion. Photo by Richard Varr
Original Erechtheion columns inside the Acropolis Museum. Photo by Richard Varr
Opposite the Acropolis sits the Erechtheion, much smaller but better preserved with the stunning Porch of the Caryatids with stone columns carved to represent maiden figurines (replicas – the Acropolis Museum houses the originals). “They’re beautiful statues of women representing young ladies of Athens’ families as symbolism to connect with mythology,” says tour guide Koula Vasiliki. “All of them were particularly selected to show that this area was the best artistic part of the world and to show this place is very unique.” The Erechtheion is where Athena and Poseidon, according to legend, fought for a shot at the city’s namesake – the winner, quite obvious.
Inside the Acropolis Museum. Photo by Richard Varr
Statues outside the Stoa of Attalos in the Ancient Agora. Photo by Richard Varr
Along with the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora emerged during Athens’ Classical Period during the 5th century B.C., when the great philosophers Plato and Socrates walked the same streets we see today. The Agora was a complex of civic buildings that lie in crumbles today, yet the grounds were they stood are clearly marked.
Columns of the rebuilt Stoa of Attalos in the Ancient Agora. Photo by Richard Varr
The rebuilt Stoa of Attalos with its pristine columns and Greek and Roman statues is a museum filled with artifacts from the site, and stands in stark contrast to the surrounding field of ruins. Yet overlooking all the stone fragments is the hilltop Hephaisteion temple that’s in such good condition that a newcomer might think it’s the Parthenon.
The Hephaisteion temple in the Ancient Agora. Photo by Richard Varr
Ancient temple replicas in a souvenir shop. Photo by Richard Varr
Old Town Athens or Plaka, and the adjacent Monastiráki neighborhood are the city’s historic center. It’s where shoppers clutter pedestrian streets, mostly dominated by souvenir shops where tiny Acropolis replicas and figurines of Greek gods stack four and five shelves high.
Old Town streets. Photo by Richard Varr
Figurines of gods and philosophers in a souvenir shop. Photo by Richard Varr
Byzantine Kapnikarea Church. Photo by Richard Varr
Painted icons hang on the wall, some of them replicas of the originals that color the stone walls of several 11th and 12th-century byzantine churches within small squares and along narrow streets. And below the steep slopes of the Acropolis, I maneuver through the curving alleyways of Anafiótika, a 19th century neighborhood founded by settlers from the Cycladic island of Anáfi, just east of Santorini.
Byzantine Panagia Gorgoepikoos church in Old Town. Photo by Richard Varr
Tower of the Winds inside the Roman Forum. Photo by Richard Varr
Two other key ancient sites in the historic center include the Roman Agora with the 1st century BC octagonal-shaped Tower of the Winds, and Hadrian’s Library with grand Corinthian columns from the 2nd century AD.
Athens Flea Market. Photo by Richard Varr
Also, I strolled along the storefronts and cluttered vendor stands of Athens Flea Market off Monastiráki square, where any mention or amazement of the number of Greek heritage souvenirs of gods, philosophers and medusas, packages stuffed with olives, ancient Greek-styled sandals and souvlaki stands (along Souvlaki Row) would be an understatement.
Packages of olives hang on shop walls. Photo by Richard Varr
Remaining columns of Temple of Olympian Zeus. Photo by Richard Varr
Other key ruins include the 15 remaining Corinthian columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch that separated the ancient Greek city from the new Roman city.
Syntagma Square with Parliament in the background. Photo by Richard Varr
A short walk leads to a look at a more modern Athens around Syntagma Square, a popular place for protest as it’s next to Greece’s Parliament building. On the Parliament grounds is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where slow-stepping Evzone guards in their traditional kilt uniforms have Changing of the Guard ceremonies every Sunday morning.
Evzone guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Photo by Richard Varr