Getting to Athens is easy with quick connections on Qatar Airways (55 minutes in Doha, and the Perth leg on an A380).
Now there are three choices. 1: Spend a couple of days to see these big sights, then join a Greek islands cruise. 2: Use it as a close city to start European explorations. 3: Treat it as a destination and submerge yourself in Classic Greece.
The rock rises out of the landscape and it is natural for humans to think of it as sacred.
It is natural for us to add to it. It was fortified early on and a temple for Athena was built on the rock about the middle of the 6th century BC, with relics from this surviving.
But much of what we see today, including the Parthenon, was built during the Golden Age of Athens, from 460-430BC under the ruler Pericles.
There’s a nice little side gate to the Acropolis, almost opposite the New Acropolis Museum, and for €20 ($31), I’m in at 8.30am on a cool, hazy day. Being here early is good. The main gate gets much busier and by 10am there’s a snaking line.
The walk up the hill takes visitors first to the Theatre of Dionysus, which is restored and still used. Up steps, we arrive on the top of the rock through the Propylaia — the main entrance to the Acropolis.
To the left is the Pandroseion, dedicated to Pandrosus, one of the daughters of the first king of Athens, but it is the Parthenon that dominates.
Dedicated to Athena, the city’s protector goddess, the Parthenon was built between 447BC and 438BC and is an enduring symbol of classical Greece.
Its columns are specifically and precisely carved with a delicate curve, to strengthen the construction against earthquakes, and shed rain. They also slightly lean inward.
These design features also counter the tricks of the eye through distortion, giving it the appearance of being perfectly symmetrical and perpendicular.
NEW ACROPOLIS MUSEUM
Persian invaders destroyed the Acropolis in Athens in 480BC, leaving temples, statues and offerings in piles. When the Athenians who had fled returned, they gathered up what was left and buried it in pits, to remain forever in this sacred place. Then they built a new Acropolis.
In 1885, when archaeologists discovered the pits, they could hardly believe not only the treasures they were uncovering, but the way they had been preserved underground.
The stone surfaces had stayed surprisingly fresh and colours remained vivid. In fact, they were in better condition than they might have been had they remained above ground, facing the elements.
Some good had come of the destruction, and what was saved forms the foundation of the New Acropolis Museum. Get there promptly on a day when it opens at 8am, when it is quieter.
Take time and let the story reveal itself slowly.
When the Giants — the children of the Earth and Sky — rebelled against Olympian gods, Athena was the first to step into battle. And there she is, in one statue, defeating one of the Giants. The statue by Endoios, one of the greatest sculptors of the Archaic period, survived the Persian destruction.
There are many sculptures of kore — each a maiden from a rich family. While they are portrayed in stationary positions, notice how a leg slightly shifted forward or the fabric of a dress slightly lifted by one hand gives a sense of life.
The stone sculptures from before 480BC are mostly korai (maidens) and horsemen, representations of a wealthy family, but after that comes a complete shift, to the works of democratic Athens, as dedications to its politically enlightened citizens dominate.
There are bronze sculptures, too, like the wrestlers and discus throwers from 470-460BC.
When Romans took the city, they were so respectful of the thought and intelligence of Athens that they passed a decree of autonomy.
I am walking the New Acropolis Museum with a sculptor. She turns and says simply: “I think this is the best museum in the world.”
And out through the huge, shaded windows, the Acropolis sits above us — the sacred rock in morning sunshine.
TEMPLE OF ZEUS
There is a tall grove of Doric columns, and two standing alone. Another one has collapsed, breaking along the ground, like an opened spine, vertebrae separated by greater and greater spaces. (The column is seen standing in a painting from the 1880s.)
The Temple of Zeus was built between 472BC and 456BC, and eventually buried under landslides. French archaeologists began to excavate in 1829. It is an epic place to stroll, and sit on a bench under an olive tree, as visitors do their lap and leave.
A short walk up the hill, set in the National Gardens, the marble columns and front steps of the Zappio congress and exhibition hall are becoming gilded by late light.
It is an heroic sight, just as it was meant to be.
The front door is open, and the reception hall has a beautifully ornate ceiling, the building revealed to be a classic doughnut, with an open courtyard at its centre, evening sky above.
ALL AROUND THE CITY
The history of Classic Greece doesn’t begin and end with major archaeological or cultural sites. Quite the opposite.
There are the obvious places, such as the Parliament buildings, where today a good violin player busks against a backdrop of political graffiti.
There is Plaka’s Tower of the Winds and great library site. A dozen young people sit along one low wall in the evening, playing bouzouki and guitar, and singing traditional songs.
But all over the city there are relics and remnants, gardens with statues. They are just around corners, tucked into nooks. It is a city alive, and alive with history.
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