Enjoyable Walks in the Heart of Athens

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Getting around as a pedestrian in certain cities can be as adrenaline-filled as cliff-diving. Dodging cars should simply not have to be a worry on holiday when relaxation and fun tend to take priority. In the lovely bustling  city  of  Athens , a welcome refuge from such unpleasant stress can be found on the Grand Promenade in  Athens . Closed to automobiles only a few short years ago, this pedestrian haven is filled to the brim with some of the best historical sites  Athens  has to offer. On this elegant pedestrian route, you will encounter marble temples, neoclassical museums, and ancient theatres. Of course, all the while you will be casually circling the Acropolis.

A great starting point is the Temple of Olympian Zeus located next to the National Gardens. This colossal temple took centuries to build. Completed in no less than 700 years by Hadrian in 131 A.D., it maintained its complete structure until a rogue storm in the 19th-century took out some of the columns.

On the southern side of the Acropolis, you will find the Theatre of Dionysus. This is the theatre that welcomed the dramatic arts as they are known today in existence in 543 B.C. It also served as the first forum for the plays of Sophocles, Aristophanes and Euripides in their day. The nearby Roman Herodes Atticus amphitheatre is closed to visitors except during the summer  Athens  festival when attendees can view its form and structure up close. If you decide to follow the marble walkway up to Filopappou and Hill of the Muses, you will be rewarded with spectacular views of the Parthenon and the Athenian skyline. From this promontory, you will be able to see as far as the Saronic Sea. With views like this, your camera may run out of memory space before you manage to pull yourself away and on to your next destination.

After such a hike, you may need a breather and possibly some refreshments. For that, your best bet is Apostolou Pavlou where you can sip espresso or perhaps some ouzo at a lively bouzouki club or quaint outdoor cafe and even take in a film at the Thission cinema. For a slow return into modernity, you can also check out the multimedia exhibits at the Centre of Traditional Pottery and the recently minted New Acropolis Museum. With this much culture and history to experience, the question isn’t what to do but, how to fit everything into one trip!

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Acropolis – The Religious Centre of Athens

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There are two characteristic hills in the Attica Basin: Lycabettus, the higher and steeper of the two, and the Acropolis, at an altitude of about 150 m. above sea level, on the slopes of which spring waters still flow. It is on account of these springs that the rock has been inhabited from the neolithic age on.

The first walls were built in about the 13th century BC, when the townships of Attica federated into a city-state under Theseus. Then the inhabitants, having already acquired some power and wealth, needed to have safe havens to which they could withdraw in the event of danger. Later generations called this wall “Cyclopean” because only the giant Cyclops, they believed, could have moved the huge boulders which can still be seen in trenches in front of the Propylaea and the temple of Athena Nike. The distinguished archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos used to say that this myth of the Cyclops may possibly have originated from the foreign masons brought in to build the wall, who may have had large round eyes.

When the Pelasgians arrived in Attica from Thessaly, they built a second, curved wall, outside the first, on the entrance side, indicating how turbulent those years were. In this way the entrance, always on the western side of the Rock, led through a narrow passageway between successive walls, under the massive bastion where the temple of Athena Nike now stands. The military architecture of the period created an impregnable citadel on the highest edge (akro) of the city (polis), which became known as an acropolis. On it, and close to the present site of the Erechtheion, the first kings chose to reside, having first arranged for a a secret passage to be hewn into the rock for emergencies.

After the kingdom was abolished in 682 BC, only shrines and altars remained on the rock, with one small exception: in the 6th century, Peisistratus, with the arrogance of a genuine dictator, lived high up on the acropolis with his sons, probably for security reasons. This was regarded by the public as a kind of sacrilege, and did not happen again. Besides, all the buildings were destroyed when the Persians conquered Attica, leaving only ashes behind them, just before the naval battle of Salamis in 480 BC and their final defeat at Plataia a year later.

The rebuilding of  Athens  began, the age of its greatest glory, as its leaders vied for the distinction of who would construct the most public buildings for posterity. It was Kimon who levelled the devastated temples and used the rubble to build ramparts on the rock, in which we can still see the enormous drums of earlier columns incorporated. At about the same point, parts of statues and votive sculptures were found, some of which are exhibited in the Acropolis Museum. All these were damaged during the Persian attack and buried in order to enlarge the plateau; this was necessary for the brilliant new temples which were to be built. From then on, the Acropolis was exclusively a place of worship, dedicated always to a female deity whom the Greeks called Athena, the Romans Minerva, the Byzantines Panaghia (all Holy Virgin) and the Franks Saint Mary of the Citadel. This expresses the same human emotions and hopes for the future; only the names changed as circumstances evolved.

The traveller Pausanias gave us a detailed description of the Acropolis as he saw it in the 2nd Century AD. Like any good tourist, he travelled throughout Greece, writing about whatever he saw and heard, leaving behind valuable texts for archaeological research. He made observant notes on buildings, building materials, votive offerings, altars and cult statues, adding myths and tales told by the various “interpreters” on the sacred sites, i.e. the guides of his period.

During the Middle Ages, many people visited the Parthenon, which by then had become a Christian church. But in the general indifference, nobody mentioned the buildings lying in ruins around it. Only Kyriakos from Ancona – a fanatic traveller, possibly a spy, but certainly a lover of antiquity-arriving in  Athens  in 1436, was dazzled by the beauty of the temple with its wonderful columns and unique carved marble. These were natural feelings, for he was an educated man who studied the ancient authors and bought codices wherever he found them: a forerunner of future dealers in smuggled antiquities. He, too, failed to mention any Frankish alterations to the Propylaea.

Kyriakos was the last Christian visitor to the Acropolis. Just a few years later, in 1456,  Athens  was conquered by the Ottoman Turks who did not permit any non- Muslim to climb up to the citadel, where the local aga and the Islamic notables lived. Houses were built of the ancient pieces of marble and the temple of Athena and the Panaghia became a mosque. There is just one description written in 1641 by the Turkish traveller Evliya Celebi, who journeyed throughout what was then the Ottoman Empire and with a journalist’s observation mentioned anything that came into view, though often inaccurately.

A few years after Celebi’s visit, the beautiful temple which was then being used as a powder magazine, exploded after being shelled by the Venetian Morosini, who intended to blow up the entire Acropolis, but stopped because of the expense and time which the operation would have entailed. Damaged, but at least saved, the Acropolis was once again inhabited by the Turks, who knocked down the Temple of Wingless Nike and incorporated the seats from the Roman Odeion into the ramparts. It survived the war of Independence, saw battles, changed hands at least twice more, and at long last was taken by the Greeks.

But then new dangers began to threaten the long- suffering rock and its vestiges of past glory. The rebuilding of the village of  Athens , which became the capital of the newly constituted state solely because of its glorious past, was undertaken by various architects from Europe who came in the wake of the uninformed young King Otto, and cherished some strange ideas. One of their innovations was the blueprint for a grandiose palace on the Acropolis, in the style of the times; fortunately, it was never built. Equally fortunately, the proposal that the Kapnikarea Church be torn down, because it impeded the view of the sea from the newly built palace – the present day Parliament building- received no support.

But there were also many positive things happening on the Acropolis at that time: the excavation of the outer Propylaea (monumental entrance) with its ramp and steps, the recovery of the beautiful little temple of Athena Nike from the Turkish bastion, and the removal of the houses which the Ottomans had built on the Acropolis, some traces of which are still visible today. The Parthenon and the Erechtheion were restored using as many of their pieces as could be found. Many wonderful statues with elaborate coiffures and lively smiles, frozen in the passage of time, saw the light after being hidden for 23 centuries under the foundations of the temples. The sacred rock of Pallas Athena diffidently revealed its years, experiences and sufferings, like a magic, unbroken thread.

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Athens – What To See And How To See It

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There are so many aspects of current civilization that were birthed in ancient Athens. Among these are theatre, philosophy, democracy, classical art and even the Olympic games. Athens is located on the southern coast of Greece and has existed for over 7,000 years providing a rich culture expressed in a diverse setting. The term diverse fits as you will find ancient relics and sites in some of the same areas where there are trendy boutiques and sidewalk cafes all mixed in together. This mixture of the very old and the new create a very unique experience provided nowhere in the world like it is provided in the ancient city of Athens. You will need to be sure your passport is up to day so if you need to add passport pages, be sure to go online and access a passport site to help you with this so you can be on you way.

World travel requires a passport but computers have simplified all passport needs. Even if you have to get an emergency passport, an online passport is available to help you. No one plans to have their travel documents lost or stolen but if this happens, help is as close as the nearest computer.

Athens is a city that contains many sites that make history come alive so this is certainly the ideal place for lovers of history to visit. High on top of the Acropolis you will find the Parthenon. This famous sight has earned the honor of being named as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Investigating these ruins takes you back to sights names in Greek Mythology related to gods and goddesses, the titans and many other mythological characters. Admission to this site also opens the Theatre of Dionysus, the Roman Agora and the Temple of Olympian Zeus to the traveler.

Being the birthplace of the performing arts, it is no wonder that the arts and culture are very important to the Athenians. While the National Gallery is certainly large and well known, many smaller art galleries populate the city. Athens is also host to approximately 148 theatres so if you are in the mood for a show, the difficult part will be which performance to see. Among the theatres is the famous Herodes Atticus Theatre.

Using a bike or even walking around this city is a wonderful way to see the sights. Green space is always welcome when you travel to big cities and the National Garden of Athens provides an exceptional treat. Within it can be found a small zoo, ponds with ducks, colorful flowers and beautiful landscape with no shortage of a shady tree to relax under and consider the sights of the day.

For those who would like to shop till your drop, your experience will be a little different in Athens. Rather than large malls and strip centers, you will find street vendors selling custom crafts rather than name brand items. Some of the most visited markets are found on Plaka, Kolonaki and Ermou Street. You will find endless selections of shoes, purses and jewelry if you visit here and the quality will certainly not disappoint you.

Authentic cuisine is always interesting in a foreign city and Athens is no exception to this rule. Known for their souvlaki, which is comprised of grilled meat, veggies and a special yogurt sauce, this Athenian staple is considered a treat by all who try it.

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A Tale of Two Mountains, Vegetation and a Festival in Athens

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People living in or visiting  Athens  tend to feel overwhelmed by the concrete nature of the  city . The Athenian apartment buildings make up much of the city, cramming in the over 4 million residents of this metropolis. Natural vegetation may be hard to find, yet a little north of the centre is a green oasis waiting to surprise you.

Two mountains make up the highest part of the Attica basin. Standing at a height of 338 meters, are the Tourkovounia or Turkish Mountains. The mountains were given the name as a reminder of the siege of  Athens  by the Ottomans in 1456. Prior to that, the mountains were known as Wolf Mountains due to the many wolves that once roamed the area. In ancient mythology, it was believed to be the dwelling of the God Zeus from where he controlled the weather and sent his thunder and lightning into the world.

Amongst the many caves, steep rocky cliffs and boulders is the Attica Woods. Until the occupation of Greece in 1941, the mountains had a rich vegetation and wildlife. Much of it was destroyed due to human intervention, pollution and negligence. Restoration of the 230 acres of green space began in the 60s and well into the 70s. Over the years, the ecosystem was restored and became once again a natural habitat for Athenian wildlife, especially that of birds. There are about 95 species of birds, 26 of which reproduce locally. The vegetation includes plants that are typical of the local flora; such as low bushy plants, pine, cypress and olive trees. Since 2003, it became a protected green space and a natural escape for all Athenians to enjoy.

The mountains and the Attica Woods are now a centre of education, amusement, athletics and quiet afternoon walks. Students can have a learning experience walking through the rich vegetation, athletes can jog along the many paths and visitors can go on picnics. There are volleyball and basketball courts as well as small soccer fields and tennis courts. In addition, the  city  of  Athens  has initiated an annual festival during the months of July and August which attracts thousands of people. The  Athens  Festival includes theatre productions, live music shows, dance, children’s theatre as well as world-renowned artists. In an effort to make the events available to all citizens and visitors, most events have little or no entrance fees.

If you are renting an  Athens  apartment or an  Athens  studio in neighboring areas, such as Chalandri, Tourkovounia are definitely within view. During the Festival, there are buses from the  centre  of  Athens  that can take you directly there. You can easily check the website for the schedule of activities and events and plan your trip accordingly.

The highlight of every visit to these mountains is found higher up the winding roads. As you make your way up, you will come upon a clearing that hosts a cafe waiting for you to lay back and rest. Further up, and you will come upon the most magnificent view of the city; 360 degrees. The contrast of the rich vegetation, human activity and the sprawling city below is breathtaking and must not be missed.

So for those who claim that  Athens  has no beauty, all they need to do is spend the day at the two mountains that separate eastern part of the  city  from the western part. They are sure to change their minds.

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