The historic and spiritual heart of Athens is, and has always been, the Acropolis. The sacred rock and its temples tower over the old city, and nobody could ever tire of those glimpses of the Parthenon high above the rooftops. That’s what drew me to Athens.
My parents still joke about the scale model of the Parthenon I made in school, how I spent hours poring over archaeology books, wishing myself up on that hilltop wandering through the ruins. Somehow my wishes never quite got me there until very recently, when along with hundreds of other early morning visitors I climbed the same path trod by the ancient Greeks. All those hours of study were wasted – I was completely unprepared for the sensation of walking on the rose marble polished smooth by millions of feet, surrounded by buildings as familiar to me as old friends. So I did what anyone who knows me could have predicted: I burst into tears.
Athens is a bit like that. It’s a city of emotion. History, drama and passion are probably its most memorable characteristics, and over the next few weeks all of these will be in full force as the Olympic Games come home. If you thought the recent week-long party over Greece’s win in the European Cup was outrageous, you haven’t seen anything yet. The Greeks believe the Games belong in their capital and they are making ready to welcome the world with open arms (and a big whiskery kiss).
The original Games were celebrated in nearby Olympia, where every four years athletes, warriors and even poets and playwrights competed in their specialist fields. Wrestlers and runners competed naked – the IOC should consider reintroducing that rule. Perhaps more people would watch the synchronised swimming.
Spare a thought for poor old Pheidippides who, in 490BC, ran the 42 kilometres from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory in battle against the Persians, and promptly died of exhaustion. Hopefully there’ll be no medical emergencies during the 2004 marathon, run along the same route as the first Olympic marathon in 1896, to finish at the marble stadium which is the spiritual home of the Olympic movement.
Greece is said to be the birthplace of many other things we hold dear: democracy, philosophy, theatre, poetry, wine, and of course plumbing. But Athens has suffered the indignity of waves of foreign invasion, centuries of political turmoil, and the destruction of many historic areas. The ancient city-state has become a vibrant, unpredictable, and sometimes maddening European city, but its contradictions are part of its charisma. The traffic is chaos, for example, but the new Metro runs like clockwork, and some of its stations double as archaeological sites. Every time the authorities try to re-pave a public square or dig building foundations, they come across new ruins and hoards of priceless artefacts.
Although many of Athens’ treasures are in museums all over the world, its own collections hold millions of precious and beautiful things. The Benaki Museum, housed in a gorgeous Neo-classical mansion, is one of the city’s gems. Its collection of exquisite treasures spans the millennia of Greek artistic achievement, from mind-blowing intricate gold jewellery from 3000BC to a complete ornately-carved wooden room from an 18th century Ottoman palace. In between, you’ll learn about the development of textiles, painting, costume, jewellery, pottery, weapons, furniture and religion in one breath-taking cultural adventure.
There are many other museums, from specialist collections of folk art and textiles to the huge, world-famous collections of the National Archaeological Museum and the Byzantine and Christian Museum (both were closed for renovation on our visit but have promised they will re-open in time for the Games). But here, every day is a walk through time. The centre of the city is a jumbled mix of ruins, dilapidated mansions, and badly-built 70s apartments. A choked road will peter out into a narrow cobbled lane. Follow the lane and you’ll find yourself in a courtyard filled with sleeping cats, or a street of icon-painters and sandal-makers. Ten steps further and there’s a tiny stone church in the middle of the footpath; around a corner, a tumble of fallen columns that were once a temple. Walking is the best, the only, way to explore the city.
On foot you can trace the ancient roadways along which the Athenians walked to the theatre, the temples and the markets. It’s made easier by broad new promenades which track the Panathenaic Way from the old Olympic Stadium, past the massive Temple of Olympian Zeus and the theatres where Oedipus Rex first put out his eyes and Electra plotted her revenge. From here, you can climb up the Acropolis for hours of wandering and wondering at its marvels, or onto Filopappos Hill to gaze across at the Parthenon.
The walkway continues around to the Agora, the commercial centre of the ancient city, with its marvellous ruins and well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus. A leisurely wander through the Agora takes you out into Monastiraki, home of the famous flea market. Any day of the week, you can explore dusty antique shops and market stalls selling everything from alleged Chanel sunglasses to hand-made leather bags and those sandals that looked so damn good on Brad Pitt in Troy.
But be warned: the city can be stifling in summer. No wonder Pheidippides collapsed. Long hot days of 40º are normal, and many shops and offices close for a siesta during the afternoon. So when in Athens, do as the Greeks do, and retire for an afternoon nap or a very long lunch in the shade of a grapevine.
Another warning: unless you’re an athlete in training, you won’t be able to resist the fragrant souvlaki, hot spanikopita (spinach and feta pastry) or sugary doughnut from a street vendor, rich moussaka, mezze platters large enough to feed the entire team, and fresh seafood grilled to perfection. You might want to cut down on your caffeine consumption, though – at nearly $10 a cup, it’s an expensive habit. Seek out the funky Metro café next to Syngrou-Fix station, where the coffee is excellent and prices are normal.
You may find yourself taking many rest breaks for an iced coffee (espresso freddo) followed by freshly-baked bread and delicious black olives … and then calamari and Greek salad with creamy feta, followed by cherries and strawberries, and then more coffee and maybe an ice-cream. Ask for the bill after a couple of hours, and the waiter might ask, “Why must you rush off?” and insist on bringing more coffee and cakes – on the house.
Athens is a bit like that, too: nonchalant, hospitable, and ready to party. Sure, some of the new sports venues might not be finished. A few roads and footpaths will still be dug up. But the Olympic Games are coming home, and the party may never end.
Several major airlines fly to Athens, including Emirates and Thai. Fares are around $2200 return (and can be cheaper off-peak). Hotels are expensive so shop around on the web for a good package. Try http://www.best-athens-hotels.com or http://www.greece.com.
The €12 ticket into the Acropolis is valid for four days and also gets you into several other sites in the ancient city. Many museums and sites close in the afternoon and at the weekend, so plan ahead.
For a special treat, dine on the rooftop terrace at Taverna Strofi, overlooking the Acropolis, and watch it light up as the sun sets (phone 921 4130). Or book seats for a concert at the Theatre of Herodes Atticus, built in 161AD and still a magical outdoor venue.
Header photo: Fallen columns, Greece, 2004