Since about 800 BC, Athenians have considered the Acropolis a sacred place from which to worship Athena and have been marching up the hill to pay her homage. Later, after the defeat of the Persians in 480 BC, Pericles began the building program that gave us the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Propylaea and the Temple of Athena Nike.
Not a bad legacy.
We were very fortunate to see the Parthenon just after a major restoration project has been completed and a great deal of scaffolding has been removed. But how do you photograph a building that is so iconic? We’ve all seen the pictures, and mine look like many others. But the thrill of being there is almost impossible to absorb, so we all take pictures to help it soak in.
For the ancient Athenians, the big thrill was actually the Propylaea, the gate by which one entered the Acropolis, and animals were brought up for sacrifice. Some (possibly ancient) graffiti can be seen on the columns, not all which are at their best.
It is a stunning entrance – even with the crowds – and has on its right the breathtaking Temple of Athena Nike, here celebrating victory over the Persians.
On the left is the monument of Agrippa, on which pedestal once stood a bronze statue of a four-horse chariot. Many rulers tried to immortalize themselves on this pedestal; Agrippa was the last and he seems to be missing the great views.
A most beautiful neighbor to the Parthenon is the Erechtheion. In 900 BC, it held a life-sized olive-wood statue of Athena which was believed to have been dropped from the sky as a gift from the goddess. This is the lovely building that features the porch of the Caryatids, plus the descendant of the olive tree that Athena planted, as another gift to the Athenians. (The Caryatids and all other remaining sculptures on the Acropolis are replicas; the originals which the Greeks retained are all in the Acropolis Museum.)
Many times on our visit to Athens we have looked up at the east end of the Acropolis and seen the large Greek flag flying. It has pride of place here and a bit of modern history or legend goes with it. The story is that when the Nazis invaded and ordered the Greek soldier guarding the flag to take it down and run up the Nazi flag, he complied by taking down the Greek flag, wrapping himself in it, and leaping to his death over the cliff.
This ignited the Greek resistance movement, and the rest is history. Today, the spot offers incredible views of Athens, including the Temple of Zeus we saw yesterday.
On our way up to the Acropolis, we were able to see the Odeon of Herodus Atticus, built in memory of the wife of Herodes, who financed many buildings in Greece. Odeons were used for musical performances and is now used only once a year for a major festival. (Don’t bring up the Yanni concert if you come here.)
On exiting, we saw the Theater of Dionysus, where the great productions of the golden age of Greece were produced. The seats reserved for the elite are still there, along with the platform where a statue of Dionysus rested so he could enjoy the plays too.
The path next to the theater led us down to the amazing Acropolis Museum, about which more to come. But first, a word about our ascent to the Acropolis.
Our trip to the cave of Zeus on Crete still gives us chills and we fully expected something equally rigorous here, seeing lots of warnings about slippery stones and steep angles. Hah!! This one was a piece of cake. We scampered up the hill to the Propylaea and really didn’t have a single problem walking around the Acropolis. Yes, there could be fewer rocks, but there was nothing too tough about the entire experience. Zeus, now that was another story…
On to the museum. Built in 2009, this structure says loudly that Athens is a modern city, fully capable of taking care of its artifacts. While it was built to house all the treasures found in the Acropolis and to protect those sculptures being destroyed by acid rain and other modern poisons, it clearly sends a message to Britain that the Parthenon marbles stolen by Lord Elgin now have a home worthy of them, next to the hill where they were born. When I say ‘stolen,’ I am merely reporting what is told to us here. But the Greeks do get my vote.
Underneath the entrance and the main floor of the museum are excavations in progress of an earlier Athens. It’s a stunning way to remind visitors of the past all around us. The design has an amazing fluidity and brilliant ways to let light in without letting the Athenian sun intrude.
But it does present a few problems for photographers. There are only a few specific corners that can be photographed, for reasons not clear. I had to resort to taking pictures of two favorite things by snapping their gift shop replicas.
What can be photographed is the amazing hall which is exactly the size of the Parthenon and replicates the processional frieze which wrapped around it.
Of the original 525 foot frieze, the museum holds only the 32 feet that Lord Elgin didn’t bother to take, as they were already too worn for his taste. The white plaster castes shown every piece that is known, and one can definitely hear the originals calling out for their friends to come home.
Don’s Food Corner
Our day was devoted to the Acropolis and the Acropolis museum, so we had lunch at the museum. It was a delight. We had a great table outside just at the foot of the Acropolis — looking up at the Parthenon. Like the rest of this museum, the restaurant was beautiful. The food was recognizably Greek, but with a more refined take than we have experienced so far.
Jo had what was billed as Cretan pilaf with lamb. It actually tasted like extremely well-made risotto with cubes of unusually tender lamb on top. I had a wonderful sea bream in a saffron sauce with a mixed vegetable side. The vegetables seemed to have been roasted and tossed in some light sauce; olive-oil-based, I presume.
We also had the restaurant’s version of Greek salad. Although every place you have the salad incorporates all the same ingredients — tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, red onion and feta cheese — it always tastes slightly different, depending, obviously, on the quality of the ingredients. Here the tomatoes seemed particularly ripe and juicy, but it’s the first time we were served this salad when the cucumber had not been peeled.
And about the bread in Greece. I haven’t been able to tell why it tastes different. First, it seems to be short on salt, but there’s something else going on in there. I questioned the waiter today about it and he acknowledged that there was very little salt used and that it was flavored with a small amount of tarragon. I’m not sure if this is only true of this restaurant or others.
We’ll keep trying it. As in Italy, bread shows up on the table whether you want it or not. But unlike France, where the bread is always included, the Greeks (and Italians) charge for the bread, whether you eat any of it or not.