Blame it on ageless aesthetic or fastidious fortitude, the Athens appeal has curiously outlasted every gruelling test of time. Guts to glory and grime to glamour, the city has been changing countless complexions over the centuries, under the shadow its Old Faithful, the phenomenal Parthenon.
Athens: Renaissance of resilience
Cradle of Western civilisation, ground zero of democracy, land of mythical gods and home of luminary philosopher-thinkers, Athens has a stellar past that few cities in the world can rival. For millennia, the temple city has basked in the glory of its celebrated architecture and cultural inheritance - give and take a recession or two. Thanks to the never-say-die Athenian spirit and the backing of patron goddess Athena - an upcycled, upbeat Greek capital is emerging from a pile of economic ashes, reclaiming its rightful place as a contemporary cultural centre.
Burgeoning art sensibility, inventive hotel design and hedonistic nightlife are sculpting an antiquarian city into an exciting, forward-thinking metropolis. Glitzy branded storefronts and gritty graffiti-caked walls, however, are no match for the slow seduction of Athens’ crumbling edifices, still aglow with the radiance of an illustrious past.
Hogging the limelight for kilometres around is the Acropolis citadel - high city, an enticing ensemble of super-sized, sunbaked ruins that dot a rocky outcrop rising 150 metres (500 feet) from the Ilissos Valley. Commanding centre-stage in this monumental UNESCO World Heritage site is the Parthenon, a colossus of a Doric temple, Athena’s sacred home and eternal symbol of the city.
Parthenon: Roofless resplendence
Scorch-proofed and straw-hatted, stride up the 3-kilometre-long archaeological pathway to the Acropolis, envisioning festive fanfare of the ancient Panathenaic parade that used to be held every year to venerate the goddess Athena. Surrender to romanticism as you cross the double gatehouse and continue along the old ceremonial route until you are dwarfed into microcosm by a white-marble clad behemoth. Up-close with the finest temple of the ancient world, admit that the Parthenon is utterly resplendent even in its rooflessness. Ogle, perambulate, applaud, repeat. Glory details of glory days, then.
In 5th-century BC, a first-of-its-kind democratic Athens is in the throes of the Golden Age. Arts and culture are at an all-time high under its influential first citizen and statesman, Pericles. High on power and hankering for fame, the man in charge conceives of the Parthenon, a gigantic sacred sanctuary for the adored Greek goddess of wisdom and war, Athena Parthenos - Athena the Virgin.
The brainchild of Pericles is destined to be an enduring icon of the city’s elevated status. Blueprints of mathematician-architect duo Ictinus and Callicrates, exquisite craftsmanship by master sculptor Pheidias, 100,000 tons of flawlessly carved pure white marble and the finest construction material that the war treasury can fund - pitch in to erect a never-before masterpiece in a record span of 15 years.
Designed to overawe and scaled to impress, the structure is 69.5 metres (228 feet) long, 31 metres (101 feet) wide and 18 metres (60 feet) tall. A mix of Doric and Ionic styles of classical Greek architecture produce 46 fluted outer columns, 10.4 metres (34 feet) high, bordering a gigantic 23,000-square foot base. Vibrantly painted and exquisitely sculpted, the temple’s most arresting feature is a seemingly never-ending frieze wrapped around the top of the exterior wall and the inner chamber and pediments. As a eulogy to the patroness, it depicts the Panathenaic procession, the birth of Athena and images of Greeks battling giants, Trojans, Amazons, and centaurs. A lucid carving shows Athena and Poseidon vying to be the patron of the city. Athena’s sweet spot is the inner sanctum, where her 12 metre (40 feet) high wooden sculpture towers above the floor, overlaid with ivory skin, bedecked with gold plating, and sporting full armour. The temple is an unapologetic exhibition of brain and brawn. Then there is the fine print.
Like a Greek statue, the Parthenon flaunts ideal proportions in various dimensions, for instance, the length of the base platform to its width. The façade conforms to the golden ratio of 1.618, considered to be the most visually pleasing shape. But Parthenon’s perfection is concealed in its imperfections, invisible to the untrained eye. Tiny distortions and deviations create an illusion of pure symmetry. Steps, roof and floor curve in subtle ways. Seemingly straight columns tilt inwards, swell in the middle, and are thicker at the corners. And a stippling pattern on the marble surfaces masks glaring flaws. A century-and-a-half of temple-building know-how bears fruits. The revered refuge rules as a spiritual nexus.
Centuries melt away but the Parthenon survives ravages of time, including reincarnations as a Greek Orthodox church, a Roman Catholic church, even a mosque. 17th-century brings a shocking reversal of fortune when a Turkish ammunition dump stored inside gets ignited by a Venetian bombardment during a siege. Shed a silent tear for one of the world’s greatest Greek tragedies, before moving on to check out other treasures around. The Erechtheion is distinctive for its porch of tunic-costumed maidens and the Theatre of Dionysus is striking for its marble multicoloured mosaic stage-floor. Linger.
Agora: Playground of the people
Drift into the rubble-ridden sprawl at the base of the Acropolis hill to piece together the jigsaw that used to be the bustling 37-acre ‘assembly point’ for ancient Athenians. Here they voted, exercised democratic rights, discussed state affairs, conducted business, gossiped with friends, watched performances, attended competitions, and participated in festivities. Tread the grounds that legends like the great philosopher Socrates, the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, and the mathematician Pythagoras frequented to share their path-breaking learnings. Sense the weight of history.
Though a mere echo of its classical past, Agora is an archaeology bore’s delight. Peer-worthy pitstops include the Tower of the Winds, an eight-sided marble tower with a built-in water clock, sundial, and weathervane, the Temple of Hephaestus, the best-preserved temple in Greece and the Stoa of Attalos. The Stoa is a 116 metre (380 feet) long, two-level monumental structure from 150 BC, credited as the world’s first shopping mall. Rebuilt in the 1950s, it now houses the Agora Museum and the conservation facilities of the ongoing archaeological excavation. Root for the Acropolis Museum to gawk at life-size marble statues, temple fragments and relief-decorated slabs. The Parthenon Gallery on the top floor features a glass atrium spanning the length of the building and reconstructs the Panathenaic Procession, missing sections of which are controversially displayed in the British Museum – The Elgin Marbles - and the Louvre. From the exposed archaeological dig to the angular Acropolis-facing terrace, the museum is a virtual passage through epochs.
Plaka stroll to pleat folds
A short amble from the Agora hooks you up with the historic district of Plaka, the oldest and most charming district in Athens. Elegant neoclassical mansions alternate with a hospitable tavernas, souvenir shops and roasted nut carts. Sip a frappe in an outdoor cafe, gorge stuffed vine leaves, get addicted to spicy feta and dunk the home-grown anise-flavoured aperitif, Ouzo to bring on an infectious kefi - good mood. Fight afternoon inertia by poking around steep, winding streets of Anafiotika, an oil-painting of a Cycladic village, complete with whitewashed cottages and potted geraniums. Stumble across Byzantine chapels, quirky museums, and the Ottoman-styled Benizelos Mansion in the quieter backstreets. Browse for bric-a-brac in Monastiraki Flea Market and splurge on high street fashion in Ermou Street to counter antiquity overkill. Embrace tradition by bookmarking the Changing of the Guard at Syntagma Square’s pink Parliament Building on a Sunday. Witness the elaborately choreographed ceremony performed by 6-feet tall, statuesque Greek hoplites in knee-length skirts with 400 pleats and Tarouchia shoes weighing over 3 kilograms. The Evzones of Athens are epic.
An Athens for every kind
Mega sights tackled; a plethora of offbeat experiences await in the Greek capital. Sports fans cannot resist a pilgrimage to the all-marble Panathenaic Stadium where the Olympic mania all began. Those with a love of the active outdoors can hike up to Lycabettus, the tallest of Athens’s seven hills for exhilarating views.
For the creative-minded, there are workshops on Greek pottery, mosaic or sandal making. An appetite for culture can be satiated with ballet at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center or a concert at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the 2nd-century amphitheatre on the Acropolis.
Flashback fantasies get fulfilled by partaking in an ancient philosophical symposium in the park of Plato’s Academy. Relic-hunters can discover 50,000 artefacts exhibited in major metro stations across the city. And a special treat awaits jewellery addicts at the Benaki Museum - a visit to the underground vaults and the chance to hold rare 19th-century artefacts.
And to escape the city chaos there is much on offer for those seeking rest & relaxation. Laze it out at on sandy stretches of the newly spruced-up Athens Riviera, kick back on a lounger in a swanky beach club and dip into the thermal springs of the turquoise Vouliagmeni Lake. For fancier plans, yacht it out to the pistachio paradise of Aegina. Or step up the romance with a chauffeured drive to Cape Sounion, where Poseidon’s temple honours the Greek god of the sea. Skinny silhouette, smouldering sky, sheer spectacle.
The oppressive heat, unrelenting traffic and jostling crowds fade away at dusk and gusts of cool Grecian breeze fan the heated cobbles. Head to the Athens Observatory and learn to decode Greek myths written in the stars with an astronomer. Like a moth to the flame, be drawn to the vision of the Parthenon presiding over the rocky outcrop bathed in molten gold. The circle of charisma is complete.
Where to Eat, Drink and Ouzo
The first restaurant in Athens to win a Michelin star in 2002, Spondi offers sophisticated French cuisine with heterogeneous ingredients in a Hellenic ambience. Spondi offers the finest foie gras in town. Also on the menu: perfectly prepared cod, Challans duck, milk-fed lamb and veal medallions. Spondi now boasts two Michelin stars – and is the most highly rated restaurant in Greece.
Travel 20 minutes away from the city centre to the elegant Michelin-starred Varoulko Seaside restaurant. Fabulous outdoor seating perfectly complements fresh seafood menu. Expect eye-candy dishes and time-honoured Greek cookery. The signature dishes calamari al pesto and the famous cuttlefish risotto should not be missed.
Botrini’s flagship restaurant has received a Michelin star seven times since it opened in 2014. Greco-Italian chef Ettore Botrini balances trendy with nostalgic preparations. Think marine carbonara with calamari tagliatelle and sea urchin roe instead of egg yolk emulsion. Experiment with the audacious and divine.
Choose Hytra Restaurant & Bar for interesting haute cuisine speckled with Greek flavours. Go all out with the wine degustation menu. Vegetarian blockbuster ingredients pine needle emulsion, pickled porcini, and creamed seaweed. The dollop of pea ice cream with white chocolate mousse is sensational. Michelin star well deserved.
Staying within Athens
Stick to the central areas of Plaka and Syntagma, in and around the perimeter of the Acropolis and Agora. Shopping, restaurants, metro stations, ferry points and nightlife are within easy reach.
Navigating the city
The city centre is a 45-minute taxi ride from Athens International Airport Eleftherios Venizelos. The compact areas of the historic district are best explored on foot and taxis are convenient to cover longer distances. The sleek metro can be an adventure at rush hour. Daring to drive in Athens’ gridlock is not a great idea.
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