Athens – Greece’s capital and a city that was once the lifeblood of an ancient and powerful empire.
Athens was our last stop in Greece before our ship sailed back to Italy. It was also the stop I’d been particularly looking forward to. It has been a long held dream of mine to climb the Acropolis. When you embark on something you’ve waited so long to do the hope is that it will live up to your expectations.
I’m happy to report that on this occasion my wait was rewarded.
We were lucky to have a fantastic guide for our day in Athens. Her knowledge of the city and its dramatic history was impressive. As we navigated the streets of Athens early on in the tour our guide pointed out well-known sights such as the Temple of Zeus, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the former Royal Palace. Today the palace acts as the Greek House of Parliament. We also passed the University of Athens and the National Library.
Unfortunately the only photo opportunities for these sights were through the bus window as we drove past.
The first stop where we were able to get off the bus was at the Panathenaic Stadium. Our guide explained that it was at this stadium the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896. It felt quite something to visit the place where the Olympic dream began so many years ago. Although I suppose when looking at it in comparative terms one hundred and twenty years is a drop in the ocean compared to Greece’s thousands of years of history.
Our bus then took us to the Plaka, which is the centre of historic Athens and sits at the foot of the Acropolis. We were given two choices once arriving there – continue with our guide to climb the Acropolis or enjoy free time in the Plaka.
Climb the Acropolis or hang out at The Plaka? Oh, let me think about that for a minute. In actual fact there is a lot to see in the Plaka area and I’ll come back to that. But I was there to climb the Acropolis.
Once again, we had a perfect cloudless day. I was a little concerned that it might be too hot for such a climb but the surprising thing is that the uphill walk is not as steep as it appears from ground level. There are several sets of steps and paths and so much to stop and look at on the way up. Not a Sunday stroll, obviously, but well worth the effort once you get to the top.
I’ll quickly point out that the term “Acropolis” in Greek actually means “highest point”, which would refer to the fortified area of elevated ground on which the remains sit. But the ancient structures of Athens’ Acropolis are of such significance that the site has taken on the name “Acropolis” as its very own.
If you’ve never climbed the Acropolis before then, like me, you’ll probably have your sights set on reaching the top to the most famous structure on this rocky outcrop – the Parthenon. But actually there is a lot more to see.
My pick were the theatres. We had a fantastic view of The Theatre of Dionysus as we tracked upward. Although what you see today is mostly remains from the Roman era it’s believed that the first play was staged at the theatre around 530 BC. Can you believe that? The birthplace of European theatre. Seeing historic sites such as this always helps me keep perspective. Our lives are a pinprick in time compared with the millennia that has gone before us.
The other theatre we stopped to admire was the Herodes Atticus Theatre, also known as The Odeon of Herodes Atticus. This theatre is younger than the Dionysus and was built by the Roman philosopher Herodes Atticus around 161 AD. That’s a very long time ago. But get this – it is still used today for classical theatre performances and musical concerts. It was restored during the 1950’s and since then great names have performed there – Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra and Luciano Pavarotti to name a few. I imagined how incredible it would be to attend a performance there seated under the stars. We were told it’s quite an experience acoustically. Definitely something to add to my bucket list.
As we reached the entrance to the Parthenon my husband and I both noticed the neighbouring structure, which our guide explained to us was the Erechtheion. Construction of this ancient temple began in 420 BC and was completed in 406 BC. It was dedicated to both Poseidon and Athena. I thought this temple had a particular beauty and elegance about it, especially the six caryatids – carved female figures serving as supports in place of columns.
Next came the main event of the day – the Parthenon itself. Before you get to see this most famous of structures you first pass through the Propylaea, the towering entrance to the plateau of the Acropolis and the Parthenon.
I’ve always said that photographs and seeing something on television can only take you so far. You’ll never know how it feels to stand on the Acropolis and walk around the Parthenon until you actually do it. This impressive temple was built between 447 and 432 BC and was dedicated to the goddess Athena.
I felt much the same as when in Rome – filled with awe and marvelling that any remnant of this ancient civilisation still stands today. It’s a pity that, as with the Colosseum in Rome, there is often scaffolding and maintenance work afoot when you visit but that is simply a reality. Try to see past it and imagine how the structure must have looked during its golden age.
I mentioned earlier how excellent our guide was. Her knowledge of Greek mythology and how it all tied in with the Acropolis was astounding. I could write pages but it’s something quite special to learn about it when you’re actually there. So if you’re going to trek up the Acropolis it is one occasion when a guided tour is a must. You don’t want to miss a thing!
Speaking of our tour, it ended at the Parthenon and we were free to spend some time and then make our own way down. By the time my husband and I were back at ground level we were pleased to see that we had a little time to spend in the Plaka before meeting up with our bus.
After all that exercise we were both starving and ready for a late lunch. There’s no shortage of cafés and restaurants to choose from in the Plaka, especially when eating al fresco on a beautiful day. Considering it was my last day in Greece I took the opportunity to order my all-time favourite Greek dish – moussaka. Aubergines, spiced meat sauce and creamy béchamel. What’s not to like? You must order it at least once while you’re in Greece.
And there you have it – a day in Athens and the realisation of a long held dream. My only disappointment was that we didn’t have more time to look around the Plaka. There are many nearby museums and good shopping. It’s such a vibrant, lively area. I loved it. Perhaps I shall have to return to Athens and do the Plaka justice next time.
And as for that excellent Moussaka, click the link below for a delicious recipe that is my own take on this classic Greek dish.
Published by Tracey O'Brien