By Antonio Malara
In my post "Valle dei Templi" I underlined how it was very important for me to see the temples in Agrigento before even going to visit Athens. I considered it a matter of principle, it would not have been consistent for me to go to see a temple in Greece before even seeing those present in my land. The two trips thus took place four months apart, may for “La Valle dei Templi” and the end of September for Athens. The Greek capital has always intrigued me but most likely the trigger was the description given by a cousin of mine who had been on their honeymoon there. At the time I was still a kid and I remember that he described Athens as an ugly and dirty city, personally I was shocked but at the same I was aware that this cousin of mine was a person who didn't travel a lot.
With the trip to Athens also begins the long series of trips with my ex-partner, a foreign girl who for many trips has been my perfect partner. Finding the right person to travel with is not easy and when a girl has an incredible talent for being ready in ten minutes and doesn't complain about walking twenty kilometers a day, she is the right person. The trip to Athens was also one of the cheapest I can remember, the plane ticket cost me about € 170 and I found an accommodation in the center in a completely renovated b & b that used the latest technologies. There were all the elements for a positive journey; I would see a person again after more than a year, the costs had been contained and the destination with a profound historical significance was one that would take me back in time.
My plane ticket was cheap but unfortunately the flight from Rome to Athens was delayed by two hours. This detail made me waste precious time in the Greek capital but much more unpleasant, it made my partner wait at the airport for an infinite time. However, after the meeting, the mood of the trip took over and with the metro, after an endless series of stops, we arrived in Monastiraki. Our b & b was right nearby and right there I understood the meaning of what my cousin meant. When we arrived it was late afternoon and life in that area was very hectic, lots of shops, restaurants and people walking around. Although that was the center, there were completely renovated buildings next to other uninhabited ones, clearly this did not imply a uniformity of the neighborhood. However, after a very short time, I liked that environment, it reminded me of the Arabic style that I love very much, made up of people talking loudly, hustle and bustle and always "orderly" disorder. After leaving our luggage we went out for dinner and exploring the area in the direction of Syntagma Square we discovered an endless series of restaurants that all had outdoor seating. It was a very nice atmosphere, the summer weather and lots of people having a carefree dinner practically on the street. Another surprise was the meat-based dinner, not only was it good but I paid very little, so much so that at first I thought I was lucky to choose a cheap restaurant. That evening as we walked to the very central Syntagm Square, I ignored the fact that I hadn't actually chosen a cheap restaurant, but all the places in Athens cooked great and were incredibly cheap.
Syntagma Square was a very large space paved with large slabs and in the evening it was illuminated by side lights along with those that illuminated the large central fountain. The place was so large that you could even see the parliament building high up in the background, also illuminated by many lights. We walked right under the parliament building, a very large neoclassical structure. I immediately noticed that although it was very late, the city was very lively, not only with tourists but also with local people, this was a very important and positive thing not only for the atmosphere but also for safety in general. Already after a few hours, Athens had revealed itself to be a magical city, a city full of contrasts where chaos did nothing but make it even more alive.
Our first day in Athens started around 09:30 AM, just a block from our b & b there was a street full of restaurants and shops, it was nice to get there from that very narrow street. In fact, the whole area was very crowded with shops and that day we found an outdoor spot right next to the Greek Orthodox church of San Irene, a very beautiful church with an arched structure. That place was very relaxing it was our breakfast spot for most days of our stay there. That area became familiar immediately and when I noticed that from that street, right up on the horizon we could see the Parthenon, I had confirmation of how original Athens was. Soon after we headed to Monastiraki square, where the beautiful Tzisdarakis Mosque together with the metro station building, gave continuity to the arched design. Actually, the mosque had a complex design including columns, a balcony and terracotta domes. Moreover, based on the angle from which you looked at it, also in this case the Acropolis hill was the background.
The starting point for visiting the Acropolis was only one metro stop away and we preferred to get there by public transport. On site, right in front of the ticket offices of the archaeological site, there was the Acropolis museum, where practically all the material that was not present in the temples was kept. Unfortunately, the person who was with me did not like museums and we reached an agreement to visit only one, which in the specific case was not that of the Acropolis. To enter the site there were two ticket options: one to visit only the Acropolis and the full one where you could get to the temple of Hephaestus. I took the full one because I noticed that the other area was practical near Monastiraki, so we would walk back to the b & b from there.
The dirt road made us understand the historical nature of what we were going to visit and the acropolis hill soared above it. Seeing it from below fascinated me and I couldn't wait to go up that hill. Along the path we passed the Theater of Dionysus, a very large classical theater which in this specific case was well preserved in the pavement. The stone ramparts were very worn and towards the top they merged in the form of ruins together with the hill. We then discovered that the whole area around there and along the path was a succession of ruins. In some places it looked a bit like an outdoor warehouse; there were many stone blocks and columns that were visibly placed there in a certain order.
The first major structure along the way was the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, another great Greek Theater. This structure, however, was better preserved and was used for shows, moreover I believe that it exploited a natural valley. From the top of the ramparts I began to perceive the vastness of Athens, although from there I could only see a part or a side of the city. But the really surprising part for me was when we got to Beulé Gate. From there I could see the extension of the other side of Athens, an endless expanse of white buildings. I had never seen such an extension, that at first struck me more than the temples. I say this because in reality that part of the archaeological site turned out to be the most fascinating. After the door, in fact, we found the temple of Athena Nike on the right and in the center the staircase surmounted by columns that led to “Propylaea”. Right there I got the feeling of the past, say those imposing structures recreated in movies or seen in books. Today it is rare to see such a steep building and let's say a little disproportionate to the surrounding space. The width as well as the inclination of the staircase gave a sense of excess, an unlikely thing. There was even a point at the base of the staircase where the columns also blocked the sunlight. That day was full of people and despite this the place gave me back something dreamlike and unreal, I imagine how it could be, visit that site without all those people with colorful outfits. The perception of the magic of that place helped me to enjoy it more thoroughly. There I stalled a bit, letting many people pass me by, I wanted to experience that place as if I were a citizen of the past.
Crossing “Propylaea” which was the gateway to Acropolis, was another interesting moment because from a relatively small space surrounded by many people, I found myself in the huge open space with the Parthenon in front. Unfortunately, on that side, the temple was covered by scaffolding and, moreover, a very large crane was placed in front of it. Despite this, I paused for a while at that point because the view towards “Propylaea” was also very interesting, it had a harmonious view with the monument and part of the immense Athens behind it. Fortunately, the part of the Parthenon facing east was free from scaffolding and the view of Athens from that side was magnificent. A low wall was the only protection between the archaeological site and the city that remained below. From that side I could clearly see the acropolis museum and beyond all the area of the Temple of Zeus with the arch of Hadrian and all the columns that were what remained of the temple. I noticed how beautiful Athens was from any angle when viewed from viewpoints! Taking photos of the Parthenon from multiple perspectives, we arrived on the side opposite the “Beulé Gate” and there was yet another panoramic point, only this had an added value. From that side I could see Mount Lycabettus which stood out sharply, with its green color in the midst of the endless white houses. The only annoying sight there was only that of the many people present there, but not for the presence itself but always for the colorful outfits that for some reason people decide to use in the summer months when they go on vacation. These outfits gave a comic tone to the photos while having people in the photos in that context helps to understand the size of the place. Turning around the temple, we arrived in front of another very famous point, only I did not know it at the time. There was the famous “Caryatids”, the colonnade formed by statues of women who support the beam on their heads. However, this monument came out as a background in several photos I took in that area.
Leaving that area we began to descend the hill to head towards the Temple of Hephaestus, another very large area but which was located downstream. However, the downhill route took us to a promontory from where we could see the Parthenon, the Temple of Hephaestus and even part of Athens at the same time. Arriving in the valley, we let ourselves be carried away by the road and we unknowingly arrived in what was the Agora. This rectangular place was almost deserted except for some columns on one side. However that place, which was adjacent to part of today's Athens, gave me a sense of surrealism. Perhaps because there were no people and this increased my imagination as it always happens in this type of context. Walking on the plain in the midst of ancient ruins, we suddenly found ourselves at the foot of the Temple of Hephaestus. That point was also strategic as far as the view was concerned. From there we could see the Acropolis hill, the valley where we were with the ruins and the temple we were going to visit. The path leading to the temple was exactly like what I imagined relative to those ancient times. Extremely scenographic and in the shape of a serpentine. The Temple of Hephaestus seen up close was marvelous, perfectly preserved, where even the internal walls were present. I believe it is one of the best preserved temples and the surrounding area full of green flower beds consecrated the beauty of the place. Unfortunately, apart from admiring and photographing it, nothing else could be done and shortly after we reluctantly continued our journey. In fact, our exploration was over and after some detours inside the site I found a way out that took us one block from Ifestou, the street of restaurants I loved so much. It had been a magical circle, which, through places whose history was lost in time, took us to my favorite place at the right time. We stopped there for lunch and then returned to the b & b to rest for a while.
That afternoon we went out around 4:30 PM and, passing in front of the beautiful Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, we headed towards Syntagma Square via Ermou, the shopping street. This Orthodox church was very beautiful because it was very small and in a context that I cannot tell if it was beautiful or ugly. The fact that it was surrounded by more modern buildings was a bit of a mess but at the same time made us understand the small size of the sacred place. Arriving in Syntagma square we witnessed the ritual of the soldiers changing the guard. Although I don't particularly love these performances, I still found this original. The soldiers in fact performed a particular step which involved the crawling of the hoof with the pavement. It was certainly something different and many people watched the exhibition with interest.
With a short walk we headed to the large area of the Temple of Zeus and entered the archaeological park by crossing the Arch of Hadrian. This structure vaguely reminded me of the Ephesus library seen in Turkey, but more than anything else because was present only the facade. In fact it only stood on a single arch and a few columns on it. It had a two-dimensional appearance hence the resemblance to the structure of Ephesus. The temple area was very extensive but only remains of the structure were columns and some beams. However, these ruins hinted at the enormous size of what the temple must have looked like when it was whole. Moreover, from the park there was a beautiful view of the Acropolis, probably one of the best you can get from the city.
After about half an hour we headed towards the National Garden which we reached simply by crossing a very wide road. This park was very big but we limited ourselves to exploring a small part of it. Walking through a path we immediately found ourselves in front of the Zappeion Palace, a yellow neoclassical building with a white colonnade. The peculiarity of the double color was emphasized by lights that illuminated the lower part of the columns in a play of colors that I really liked. Another characteristic thing that struck me about the park was a part where we found very intense vegetation. In fact, at one point some very tall palm trees were surrounded by very dense plants and in the middle of a dirt road, it looked like a scene from the first Jurassic Park.
That day ended in a quiet way in that part of the city that was now my reference to Athens, the street of Ifestou.
At the beginning of the post, I boasted about my travel partner's abilities but positive things always come with compromises. Unfortunately, as I said before, I had to reach an agreement that provided for a visit to only one museum. This led me to give up visiting the Acropolis Museum in favor of the National Museum of Athens. It was right there where we headed on the morning of our second day in Athens. The building stood on a double staircase and was formed by a very large colonnade where the central part recalled the classical colonnade while on the sides it was more similar to porches. As in all archaeological museums, there were relics of all kinds inside; from necklaces to rings but also knives all in gold. There was also a large presence of vases but above all what struck me most were the statues. These too were many of various sizes and materials and I must say that as always happens in museums, I always find something that particularly fascinates me. Worthy of note were the statue of Aphrodite Pan and Eros, a work with a strong sexual meaning. The large bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon, very similar in style to the two Bronzes present in the museum of my city. Most of all, however, I was struck by the statues with animal faces and human bodies. Intimately I have the feeling that they are not works of fantasy but that some similar humanity probably existed and therefore it was faithfully reproduced by the artists of the time. Another thing that struck me was the Egyptian sarcophagi, I think they were the first I have ever seen and it was impressive to see that decorated wood that is thousands of years old! The visit lasted just over an hour, after which we returned to the center for lunch.
For the afternoon I had a somewhat ambitious visit in mind, so much so that I didn't know how to propose it to my partner. In the game of compromises, I must say that my bad faith was unfounded that day. I had in mind to climb to the top of Mount Lycabettus but I was afraid of receiving a negative reaction from my partner as if it were the one visiting a museum. Surprisingly, the hiking to climb the mountain did not scare her because the panoramic places are also the most beautiful for taking spectacular photos and that was what she wanted. I traced a route using Google Maps and the road to get to the lower part of the mountain passed through a residential area. In practice, a long staircase led from the lower part of the city to the foot of the mountain and right at the top of the stairs there was a partial but unique view of part of Athens. I really enjoyed that residential area and I think it should be very nice to live there, both because it was quiet and also because they had to have a great view from the apartments. We entered the area of the mountain from a spot that did not seem official to me and after a few meters of climbing the panorama was manifesting itself in all its beauty. As we climbed, I perceived how Mount Lycabettus was even more beautiful than the Acropolis. This because the mountain was even more distant from the sea and the city so you could have an even wider view of an urban landscape that extended to infinity. We took photos of all the viewpoints we encountered while climbing, once we got to the top the satisfaction was even greater. The top was nothing more than a medium-sized terrace with a white church in the center. The modest measures of the terrace emphasized even more the panorama of Athens. I must say that there were not many people up there so we were able to turn and observe all the slopes calmly and without haste. My impression from enjoying that place is that the view from Mount Lycabettus was similar to what can be seen from the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. However, looking at the photos and reliving the moments, I found that having to choose, I personally prefer the view of Athens from Mount Lycabettus. That mountain has left me with very intense memories and if I return I will do the same identical journey to climb it. That very satisfying day we returned to the hotel around 6 PM and then as usual we ended the evening in Ifestou, that place was magical for me.
The most important compromise made with my partner before leaving was related to the days at beach. Even though it was the end of September, my partner had accepted the destination in Athens as long as she also spent some days on the beach. While we were together she determined that out of four days, two had to be seafaring. I had researched and discovered that the best beaches in Athens were far outside the city so I had to opt for the less popular ones. So on the morning of the third day, after having breakfast we went to Monastiraki where we took the metro to Piraeus, practically at the end of the line. The name Piraeus has always been connected to my childhood, this is because as a kid I followed basketball and the Olympianakos Piraeus team was one of the strongest in Europe at that time. When I arrived at the station and saw the extension of the Piraeus area, I thought about that period of my life. To reach the beaches of the marine area of Athens we had to take a tram which was also a way to see a part of the city that I was completely unaware of. The waterfront was endless and the architecture ranged from predominantly white modern residential buildings with large windows to a few but beautiful classic structures with tiled roofs and surrounded by gardens. Unfortunately I didn't bring my camera with me and from the tram I didn't have the opportunity to photograph that part of the city. However as I walked that road I tried to think about what the view might have been like in earlier times when the structures were all classical. I regret not having taken pictures of the old buildings and I really hope that some will preserve them because they were of a very fascinating architecture.
We stopped at an unspecified point in the marina and walked up to a beach with a series of large bathing facilities. We decided to go to one which was called Bolivar Beach. The road was higher than the sea and we entered the beach walking a downhill path paying a ridiculously low price of 5 €. Besides being large, the facility was equipped with everything, bars, restaurants and also had tennis courts. We took an umbrella and enjoyed the sea. The place was very exotic, with structures all built in wood and the roofs of the umbrellas made with straw. We had lunch there eating a salad that was delicious and then went back to the beach. That day was so relaxing that we stayed there on the beach until sunset and then we walked the long and articulated journey to the b & b. I liked the seaside version of Athens, I had discovered a very interesting part of the city and I had relaxed in a good way, also making happy the person who was with me.
The experience of the sea in Athens had so much agreed with us that on the 4th day we practically repeated the same day as the day before. We woke up late and after having breakfast we headed back to Bolivar Beach. Probably distracted by other things I did not remember to dedicate time to the old buildings taking pictures even with the phone alone, however I did it with my imagination and after returning home from the trip, I looked for this photo in the camera roll of the phone, remaining disappointed. Of those two beautiful days I have only this regret and if I return to Athens, I will certainly start taking pictures from that part of the city. That day, at the end of our beach time, I had an idea that seemed original. Rather than returning to Piraeus and using two different types of transport, I saw that there was a tram line that would take us directly to the center. I thought it was faster and at the same time we would see a different part of the city. My intuition was correct only on the second point, because in reality the journey took almost double and in the end that part of the city was not as beautiful as the old buildings on the marina. The last night in Athens ended with the same magic as the previous nights, with a dinner in the Ifestou area and strolls through the streets full of souvenir shops. Relaxing and carefree nights in a vibrant, colorful and musical city that gave special emotions.
On the morning of departure, after having breakfast we went to see something that was very close to our b & b but that we had forgotten to visit, the Cathedral! The building was quite simple with a nice square in front, we limited ourselves to taking a few pictures outside with the other tourists. I remember that soon after, we went to Monastiraki to take the metro and make the long journey to the airport.
I have probably already written the conclusions on Athens at the beginning and also throughout the post. I don't know if that month of September was absolutely perfect from a meteorological point of view but everything in that city went perfectly. Exploring the small streets gave me an intimate feeling and in general the somewhat neglected environment that I found there, fascinated me. A place that is too perfect in the end can lead to boredom while Athens was a continuous and varied discovery also from the point of view of architecture. The panoramic views were among the most beautiful I have ever seen, as I described during the visit to Mount Lycabettus. The beauty of Athens ranged from the great works of the ancient world to the simplicity and humility of the small streets. Athens was a city of which I had a staggered vision and visiting it made me discover aspects that I never would have imagined. The simplicity of the little things enjoyed among the small and humble streets where I could see glimpses that took me back in time.
Pictures: Antonio Malara
Camera: Nikon D800 - iPhone 7 Plus (Bolivar Beach)