Athens and Rome are the two cities I’ve been most excited to visit. I did ancient history at school and had this fantastic teacher who made studying history really fun. She let us pick our own essay topics out of interest; I remember doing assignments on Ancient Roman feasts and board games. Once, a friend and I even tried to bake a cake from a really old recipe and presented it to the class during our presentation.
We did a whole 6-month semester on Ancient Greece – and again, our teacher let us pick our own topics. She even let me do an assignment on Greek hetairai, who were the courtesans of Ancient Greece. So I remember trawling through all this bawdy Greek pottery on the internet in search of pictures of hetairai to add into my essay.
I think that’s probably where my love of history came from. School that is, not raunchy pottery…
Anyway, I was beside myself when the chance arose to go to Athens. We arrived during the day, and it was early evening before we dumped our bags at our hostel and went for a walk around the streets in search of souvlaki. I’ll never forget rounding the corner from our hostel (a bit distracted thinking about lamb souvlaki) and stopping dead in my tracks.
Right in front of me, on a hill, was the Parthenon. Oh gord! Just standing there on the Acropolis, all lit up and majestic looking. I’m totally unafraid to admit, I nearly cried of joy. It was just so amazing and the culmination of all those years of study and here it was – right in front of me. Totally unexpected.
So, to give a little background – the Parthenon sits on the Acropolis. The Acropolis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which contains the remains of several ancient buildings of architectural and historic significance (the most famous being the Parthenon). Another really significant building is the Old Temple of Athena, the shrine of the patron deity of Athens.
I later discovered that the Parthenon and Acropolis were just the beginning of my epic history tour of Athens. The very next day, we went on a free walking tour of Athens. We started at Kalimarmaro Stadium, which hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.
We went to Syntagma Square; saw the Greek Parliament and the changing of the guard ceremony. It’s performed by the Evzones (members of the Presidential Guard) in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
We went to the Zappeion, Temple of Zeus, Ancient Agora of Classical Athens, Hadrian’s Arch and a Medieval Byzantine Church in Plaka. Then, we went up the Acropolis again to see the Areopagus – all I remember about that was that it was awesome, but REALLY HOT! It was like 11am, 40 degrees and we’d been walking for a while. I was glad when we went back into town (in the shade) and went to the Monastiraki markets.
The next day, we went to the Acropolis Museum. It had opened to the public about a month before we arrived in Athens, so we got to check it out. The museum was built to hold all of the archaeological artefacts from the Acropolis (some of which are currently in museums elsewhere the world). There is an ongoing dispute between the Acropolis Museum and the British Museum regarding the return of the Parthenon Marbles, or Engin Marbles to Greece. To read more about the history of this dispute click here or here. I won’t say too much, because it’s something I want to talk about later. But yes, the museum had a controversial beginning (did I mention that it was also built on a significant archaeological site, which caused even more controversy in the building stages?).
Athens was a dream come true for me. As a travel destination, I think it has heaps to offer – even if you’re not a history buff. It’s got spectacular weather, great shopping and yummy food. There’s heaps to do and it can be used as a gateway to other parts of Greece. But even if you think you’re not into history, it’s hard not to be won over by the sheer beauty of the Ancient buildings and monuments that stand tall while modern life passes them by. Just the way they have done for thousands and thousands of years.