For those of you who don’t know, I am currently a final year Classics student and so high up on my to-do list was to visit Athens and fortunately for me that opportunity presented itself as our Class of 2016 departed for Greece!
Perhaps I shouldn’t admit it but I’ve always been more of ‘Team Rome’ kind of girl but there was always something about Ancient Greece that intrigued me and having been to Rome on several occasions it was time to give Greece a turn.
Flying into Athens British Airway (free drinks!) left me feeling somewhat wanting, perhaps it was the cold December night or the falling down buildings but Athens wasn’t quite the classical dream that I had in my head. We stayed at the Airotel Parthenon just a stone’s throw from the Parthenon itself and in the heart of the city a perfect location to explore from and quite clearly a tourist hotspot. I got myself a good night sleep and woke up in a much more positive frame of mind.
The next day involved a packed itinerary, only 3 full days in Athens meant a busy schedule! Firstly the Agora, the place to be in Ancient Greece, the sun beat down on us from blue skies though made little dent in the December cold, as we walked around the beautiful monuments some sort of event was playing the latest dance music at nightclub levels leaving us all with a sense of bewilderment as we took in the beauty of the white marble to the soundtrack of Calvin Harris and Avicii.
The Agora Museum is worth a visit if not for the spectacular reconstruction of a Hellenistic Stoa but for the wide variety of artifacts dating back from the stone age. It’s a small museum and could easily get crowded, for hardcore tourists I would always recommend going in the quiet winter months to make sure you get all the prime viewing spots!
From the Agora we went onto Keremeikos and the Keremeikos Museum, this was the potters quarter of the ancient city and also contained many burials with spectacular monumental sculptures, the originals are in the museum and plaster replicas remain in situ so it’s definitely worth visiting the museum in order to see how beautiful they really are.
From here we got the Metro to Piraeus the harbor city of Athens. Beware of the Metro, it was very busy and 2 people were pickpocketed whilst on it, coming from London we know to be careful with our belongings yet still fell foul to thieves. The tickets are ridiculously cheap a one-way metro ticket cost only 0.80€, just remember to scan them in and out as there aren’t barriers as we are used too.
In Piraeus we visited the Piraeus Archeological Museum, this little-known gem is well worth it and you should set aside at least a few hours to take in all it has to offer, as a student of Classics there were some beautiful bronzes in this museum that I had only ever seen in textbooks such as the Piraeus Athena. By now you may be fooled into thinking that surely we are done for the day, but you would be wrong! Back to the Acropolis Museum.
Now the Acropolis Museum is a must if you are to visit Athens, this modern museum opened in 2009 and was built to house every single artifact found on the Acropolis and it’s surrounding slopes. As you enter you walk over a glass floor, looking down you see the remains of the ancient buildings beneath, this allowed the museum to be built on top of the archaeological site of Makrygianni. You can honestly spend hours in here, the layout is beautiful, each statue is given space and the high ceilings make it feel so bright and airy, again as with the Piraeus Museum there were things in here that I never thought I would see in the flesh such as the Moschophoros and the Caryatids of the Erechtheion. On the uppermost floor are the remaining Parthenon Marbles, it’s important to note here that we actually have the best collection of them in the British Museum in London, in a striking display of displeasure at us holding them the Acropolis museum had left spaces for them blank as a visual sign of their absence. No photography is allowed in here, and the staff are very strict on noise and any attempts at filming however, the beauty of the museum still wins it a place as one of my favourites.
Finally, the first day was complete and we had a free evening in Athens to find some local food. It’s difficult in such a touristy area to feel like you’ve really sampled the local cuisine, but it didn’t matter the food was all lovely none the less. On this particular evening we visited a beautiful restaurant at the top of some very picturesque stairs called ‘Cave of Acropolis’, to our surprise the restaurant was almost entirely outside with just a covering and patio heaters but we were out of the wind and the staff were so helpful, their English of course impeccable, they catered for our group of 12 at a whims notice (again perks of it being off peak season) It wouldn’t be a trip to Greece without a Greek salad, and I also had a warm and comforting bowl of Giant Beans.
The next day entailed another packed itinerary starting with a tour of the Acropolis and a permit to enter the Parthenon! Now to those who know, that is pretty cool. The perks of Kings College London. The walk up the Acropolis on this beautiful crisp morning was made all the more beautiful by the sight of the white marble above us. The structures on the Acropolis are almost all entirely reconstructed, including the Parthenon itself. The original marble is used where possible but some gaps have been filled for continuity. On reaching the Propylaea (the monumental entranceway) I was awe struck, it was absolutely gorgeous and we were up there so early that we had it all to ourselves. You could see why they felt amongst the gods up here, you could see for miles.
Then there, to top it all off, was the Parthenon. A monumental structure of colossal scale and craftsmanship. They’re doing work on it at the moment so there is, in fact, a crane in the middle of it and scaffolding on the other side as they attempt to replace the iron pins used in the original reconstruction with titanium. Despite the works it was still one of the most beautiful sites on top of this rocky landscape and set against the bright blue sky. There are many other buildings on the Acropolis too, so don’t just think it’s all about the Parthenon, but it kind of is… shhh. To be lucky enough to go inside and stand inside those monumental columns was an amazing experience and one that will stay with me forever.
From here we walked back down the slopes and got the Metro again to go to the National Archeological Museum, another must visit for any tourist. This is another museum that you could spend hours in and again it hosted some of the things that I couldn’t wait to see such as the Phrasikleia Kore which still has her pigment, the bronze Zeus/Poseidon who stands above you with his arms outstretched and the gold mask of Agamemnon nestled amongst other Mycenean gold treasures such as this fabulous gold and silver bulls head that I wish I could buy from Anthropology.
From here we were hosted at The British School in Athens, where I had an amazing chance to handle artifacts such as a Cycladic Folded Arm Figurine dating back to a staggering 3000BC and the most beautiful and tactile Psi, Phi and Tau figurines from 1200BC that I need in my life as stress relief. Their surfaces were so smooth, their weight comforting and their shape molded into your hands exactly as though they were designed to be held.
Having handled these very old and very expensive objects we then had several glasses of wine and a hilarious lecture on the drunken behavior depicted in Greek pottery before returning back to the hotel.
Our final full day in Athens was actually spent at Delphi, a few hours away by coach we got up extra early (6am) and left the hotel at 7am to arrive around half 10. Driving out of Athens and into the countryside showed us the beautiful rural parts of Greece with sheep and goats grazing by the roadside. As we climbed higher and higher in a coach that sounded like it wanted to die, I started to feel like THIS was what I wanted from Athens, of course Athens is a city and not rural mountainous terrain but I felt so at home up here in the hills, away from the hustle and amongst some of the most breathtaking natural beauty.
When we arrived the air had grown colder, our breath could be seen on the air and we wrapped up an extra layer in hats and scarfs, the sun still shone and the wind was calm but we were definitely at a higher altitude and away from the warmth of the city.
Here nestled into the rocky hills was the Sanctuary of Delphi. I am a fairly nonreligious person but I felt a presence in this landscape, and similarly to the chills on my neck at the top of the Acropolis, I felt them here too. We walked around the ruins accompanied by a stray dog, sadly one of many in Greece, he enjoyed our attention and our sandwiches. The Sanctuary is built up and into the hillside meaning it was pretty tough going at times even using the modern stairs, but the higher you went the more spectacular it got and that left a hunger to go higher and higher.
As with everywhere else we visited on this trip, the location was even more special because we had the sanctuary almost entirely to ourselves, the views were virtually unspoiled, there was no congestion of queues and I can’t imagine climbing these stairs in the summer heat.
Having filled our notepads and souls with everything Delphi had to offer we made our way back down to our coach. Our stay in Athens was almost over with the flight the next morning we went out for our last group dinner at Ep’Avli a fabulous restaurant that served us a banquet style meal, we had 3 long tables and the whole group together which totaled nearly 30 of us. We filled ourselves with beautiful food and plenty of wine and had a loud and laughter filled evening before returning to the hotel one last time.