National Archaeological Museum of Athens
It may seem a waste of precious time to trudge across people-packed museums in a country that may well be regarded an outdoor museum itself, but in this case not a single minute is lost. Though it is the National Archaeological Museum (also in Athens) that remains in the spotlight, Benaki seems to give a holistic portrayal of the country as well as its cultural and artistic transformation from what it was in the Antiquity to what it is contemporarily. Several floors will take you on a journey through various periods of Greek history, introduce you to the heroes of the Greek Revolution and let you witness the birth of the modern state of Hellas. Not only for history buffs.
A city of a little over four million, Athenssits unsettled in the sundrenched shadow of its history beneath the Acropolis, the most poignant reminder of its former greatness. Although is bright destiny has been thwarted by war and then expansion, Athensperseveres. Visitors harboring mental images of togas and philosophers may be disappointed because Athensis a 20th – century city in every sense of the word – it is crowded, modern, and polluted. The Neoclassical mansions that graced the city’s streets only thirty years ago have been replaced by white monolith towers that can accommodateAthens’ growing population. Aside from the odd restored Neoclassical building nestled among concrete high-rises, the Plaka neighborhood, in the city center, remains the only reminder ofAthens’ recent grandeur.Column-bound temples stand as proud reminders of the faith of the ancient Athenians, but modernity cannot rest on teetering ruins – the city needs a comprehensive subway system, a manageable telephone system, and efficient living. In recent yearsGreecehas begun to drag itself towards the Age of Efficiency, butAthenscannot help but be reminded of its history.
In the city center, Byzantine churches, situated beside ancient ruins, stand amid Neoclassical cafes and modern vendors. The incessant roar and exhaust of engines from buses, cars and motorcycles stifles the air. Recently, the government has taken steps to revitalize the city and reduce the amount of traffic in the city’s center in hopes of kindling memories ofAthens’ more ethereal past. The Acropolis and the area around it, including Plaka and Monastiraki, are majestic, and the city offers countless other pleasant neighborhoods.
A competition between Poseidon and Athena determined howAthens (Athena in Greek) would be named. The gods ofOlympus decreed that whoever gave the city the most useful gift would become its patron deity. Poseidon struck the rock of the Acropolis with his trident and salt water came gushing forth. The populace was awestruck, but Athena’s wiser gift, an olive tree, won her the right to rule.Historically, Athensbecame a town of note in the 16th century BCE. Around the 8th century BCE, the city became the artistic center of Greece, conspicuous for its Geometric style pottery. It unified with Attica at about the same time, but the best was yet to come. After dramatic victories over the Persians at Marathon and Salamis in the 5th century BCE,Athens enjoyed a 70-years Golden Age, reaching its apogee under the patronage of Pericles. Iktinos and Kallikrates designed the Parthenon; Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote tragic masterpieces; and Aristophanes penned ribald comedies. Early historians, Herodotus in particular, challenged the assumption that gods, not human beings, govern history. Hippocrates, with a similar confidence in human autonomy (and anatomy), developed the study of medicine. The bloody and drawn-out campaigns of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) between Athensand Spartaheralded the demise of Periclean Athens. Political power in Greecethen shifted north to the court of Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great. Through the late 5th and 4th centuries BCE, however, Athens remained important as a cultural center, producing three of the most influential western philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as the great orator Demosthenes. But by the 2nd century BCE, the ravenous Roman Empire had feasted onAthens and drained the city of its zest. By the time the Byzantine Empire split off from the foundering remains of the Roman Empire (285 CE),Athens was no more than an overtaxed backwater specializing in Neoplatonism. The city remained the center of Greek education with elaborate institutes of learning, but the city’s status (as well as its buildings) lapsed into ruin when Justinian banned the teaching of philosophy in 529 CE.Around 1000, Basil II, the Holy Roman Emperor of Byzantium, visited Athens. After praying to the Virgin Mary in the Parthenon, Basil ordered craftsmen to restore Athensto its former glory. Under successive conquerors – the Franks in 1205, the Catalans in 1311, and the Accajioli merchant family in 1387 – Athensunderwent a resurgence. Although many hailed Muslim Ottoman rule in 1456 as a great deliverance, Athensremained in cultural hibernation until 1834, when it was proclaimed the capital of the new, independent Greece. Modern Athens, with its plateias (squares), wide boulevards, and tranquil National Garden, embodies plans drawn up by German architects under the direction of the Bavarian King Otho, who was awarded the newly created kingdom of Greece in the late 19th century. In the 20th century, Athens has grown exponentially in the population and industry, for two reasons. First, in 1923, the establishment of the Republic of Turkey led to a Turkish-Greek exchange of populations, which produced a mighty burden for the burgeoning city. Second, as with all industrial cities, Athens attracted workers from destitute regions of Greece. The past century has seen the population explode from 169 families to almost half the population of Greece – four million people. In an attempt to counteract noise and pollution, the transit authority now bans cars from a number of streets in the historic Plaka district and limits driver access downtown on alternate days. The subway, still under construction, should also eliminate much of the traffic, noise, and smog, but for now, it only adds to the confusion. Zeus’ thunderbolt now shakes down acid rain, and longtime residents rue the infamous nephos (smog cloud) that settles in a most sinister fashion overAthens in summer.
ORIENTATION AND PRACTICAL INFORMATION
Coming from either airport, the bus stops at Syntagma (Constitution) Square. The center of modernAthens, this bustling plaza is packed with overpriced outdoor cafes (including a Hellenic McDonald’s), luxury hotels, and flashy banks. A pale yellow Neoclassical building, formerly the royal palace and now home to the Greek Parliament, gazes over the toe-nipping traffic of Syntagma. The square is a good spot to begin your tour of the city. The Greek National Tourist Office (EOT), the post office, the American Express office, transportation terminals, and a number of travel agencies and banks surround the square.Filellinon StreetandNikis Street, parallel thoroughfares which head out from Syntagma towards Plaka, contain many of the city’s budget travel offices, cheap hotels, and dance clubs. Unfortunately, Syntagma is currently being torn up for subway construction; cranes and dirt will detract from the square’s charm for at least several years.In front of the Parliament, facing Syntagma Sq., is the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. The Zappeion, an exhibition hall, rests in the tranquilNationalGarden, bordering the south side of the Parliament. Continue east to the heavily guarded President’s House and Athens Stadium constructed in 1896 for the first modern Olympiad. Hadrian’s Arch and the Olympeion stand just south of the Garden in full view of the city’s crowning glory, the Acropolis. On the north side of Syntagma, the city’s embassies, consulates, and premier hospital (Evangelismos) congregate on board Vasilissis Sofias. The Benaki, Byzantine, andWarMuseums, and the National Gallery cluster on this avenue. The affluent and chic Kolonaki district is bordered by Vasilissis Sofias, in the shadow of Lycabettos Hill.Northwest of Syntagma, Omonia Square, actually a circle, is the site of the city’s operational central subway station from which trains run to Kifissia (40min.), Monastiraki (3min.), and Peiraias (20min.), among other destinations. Inexpensive shops for food, clothing, and jewelry abound, but with the influx of refugees in recent years, this Times Square-esque area has become increasingly unsafe; there are, however, many cheap lodgings here. Mind your own business and try to be inconspicuous. Don’t travel alone at night. Two parallel avenues connect Syntagma Sq. to Omonia Sq. (Panepistimiou and Stadiou). The university and library are onPanepistimiou St., halfway between Syntagma and Omonia. North onPatission St., which intersects the two avenues just before Omonia, is theNationalArchaeologicalMuseum. Both train stations, Larissis andPeloponneseare onKonstantinoupoleos St.northeastofKaraishaki Squareand can be reached alongDeligiani St.Just went of Syntagma (follow Ermou St.or Metropoleos St.), Aiolou Streetand Athinas Street, running between Omonia and the Acropolis, are lined with shops and department stores where wares spill out onto the sidewalk. Along Athinas St., midway between Omonia and Monastiraki (Athens’ garment district), between Evripidou and Sofokleous St., is the food market. Here, the Athens Flea Market, the city’s “new agora” (marketplace) surrounds the old one. South of here towards the Acropolis lies Plaka, the oldest section of the city, now brimming with shops, restaurants, and hotels. South of the Acropolis and neighboring Philopappou Hill (towardsAthens’ port, Peiraias) is the Koukaki section, a relatively calm residential area, and Koukak, Square, which contains an open produce market as well as the Olympic Airways headquarters. Singrou divides this area from Kiossargous. To get to Koukaki from Syntagma, walk down Amalias (which becomes Singrou beyond Hadrian’s Arch) and turn right; for Kinossargous, turn left at Singrou. Singrou continues beaches and good clubs, and provides access to the airports. Vouliagmenis also heads south from below Plaka, leading to Glyfada and more nightlife.Make use of the free quality maps available at the tourist office. The city one is clear and includes bus and trolley routes, while a more detailed street plan graces the pages of Greece-Athens-Attica magazine. Athenian geography mystifies new-comers and natives alike; if you lose your bearings, ask for directions back to the well lit Syntagma or look for a cab. The Acropolis provides a useful reference point. In contests between pedestrians and motorist, Athenian drivers always take the night of way; be alert when crossing the street, as drivers rarely pause for pedestrians. Be aware that Athenian streets often have multiple spellings or names. Lysikrateus is also known as Lisicratous or Lissi Kratous; Aiolou as Eolou and Eolu; Victoriou Ougo as Victor Hugo.Panepistimiou St. is commonly called Eleftheriou Vanizelou; Peiraias is Tsaldari. Many streets also change names along the way – Amerikis, for example, becomes Lykavittou.
Kesariani and Daphni: If you are worn down by Athens’s insane congestion, visit the Monastery of Kesariani for serenity and salvation. Located near top of Mt.Hymettus, the site was originally a temple to Dimitra, goddess of agriculture and nature. In the Roman period (200-300 CE), another temple was erected in its place, employing the architectural techniques of the day. The structure’s stones were used in the 14th century to build the existing monastery. The 17th-century frescoes (painted by Ioannis Ypatios) and the sacred atmosphere are splendid. Come alone or with a spiritual friend; tour buses are likely to whirl you through too quickly.Built on the site of ancient Templeof Daphnios Apolloand surrounded by a high fortified wall is the Monastery of Daphni a peaceful retreat 10km west of Athens, along the Ancient Sacred Way. Cool breezes sweep the area, and the 11th-century structure is pock-marked with birds’ nests. The monastery has served as both an army camp and a lunatic asylum, which may explain the pronounced scowl on Christ’s face as he stares down from the masterful mosaic dome. Even though the mosaics were seriously damaged when the Turks burnt the church during the fall ofByzantine Empire, they still do have an enchanting aura. Camping Daphni, right next to the monastery.
Peiraias: The natural harborof Peiraiashas been Athens’s port since the early 5th century BCE, when Themistokles began fortifying Peiraias, then an island, as a base for the growing Athenian fleet. In approximately 450 BCE, Pericles added the Long Walls from Athens to Peiraias, bridging the land masses. Though the opening scenes of both Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek and Plato’s Republic depict Peiraias as a charming port town, these days Peiraias has lost that loving feeling – it’s dirty and smoggy, with endless stores vending cheap tourist trinkets and “aged” pastries glistening with grease.
Cape Sounion: Local legend has it that off the coast ofCapeSounion lie the remains of fabled Atlantis, which sank into the sea millennia ago. A strinkingly similar local legend exists at Akrotiri, Santorini. Take your pick. TheTempleofPoseidonstill stands on a promontory high above the coast. Stand at the foot of the temple, overlooking the endless azure of theAegean, in the path of the strong winds, and you will sense the mystical powers that lend the Greeks to dedicate a temple to Poseidon here. The original temple was constructed around 600 BCE, destroyed by the Persians in a 480 BCE temper-tantrum, and rebuilt by Pericles in 440 BCE. The 16 remaining Doric columns still suggest the grateful symmetry of the original temple. Scattered remains of theTempleofAthena Sounias, the patron goddess of Athena, litter the before early afternoon or around sunset.To reach the ocean, follow one of the many paths from the inland side of the temple. The agile and adventurous can negotiate the cliff on the ocean side. Swarmed with vacationing families, beaches along 70kmApolloCoastbetween Peiraias andCapeSounionhave a crowded carnival atmosphere, especially on summer weekends.
Rafina : For the purposes of most travelers inGreece, Rafina might as well be named “Little Peiraias.” Situated across from its larger twin on theAtticPeninsula, Rafina is more pleasant on the eyes, ears, and lungs than its counterpart. Uphill from the port, life is pretty much centered around the white-paved town square.
Marathon: In 490 BCE, when the Athenians defeated the Persians at the bloody battle of Marathon, the messenger Pheidippides ran 42km toAthensto announce the victory and then collapsed dead from exhaustion. Today, international marathons commemorate this act. Runners trace Pheidippides’ route twice annually.BeautifulLakeMarathon, with its huge marble dam, rests 8km past the otherwise uninspiring town. Until WWII, the lake wasAthens’s sole source of water. At Ramnous, 15km to the northeast, lie the ruins of the Temples of Nemesis, goddess of retribution, and Themtis, goddess of customs, law, and justice. On the coast nearMarathon, Schinias to the north and Timvos Marathonas to the south are popular beaches. Many people camp at Schinias since the trees offer protection, but the mosquitoes are thirsty and mean, and freelance camping is illegal.