Exploring Athens

One of the great things about Athens is that all of the famous historical sites are located in close proximity to one another, making it really easy for travelers like me to create an itinerary. The fact that the metro is cheaper than in Germany (single ticket €1,40 , day ticket €4) and runs very frequently is also quite helpful.

The Acropolis was the nucleus of historical Athens, and can be viewed from every angle of the city thanks to it’s location on a hill that rises 150 m (490 ft) above sea level. All of the other sites are conveniently situated around the Acropolis – there is even a pedestrian street that connects many of them and is apparenly one of the longest in the world. The reason I have capitalized acropolis in this case is because the one in Athens is so famous that it has become synonymous with the word. The world acropolis itself can be translated as “edge” (akron) “city” (polis), and refers to any settlement (generally a citadel) built on elevated ground. There are many other examples of acropoleis around the world and especially in Greece, but the one in Athens is definitely the most well-known. In the past it had also been known as Cecropia, after king Cecrops.

I started my journey at the south slope of the Acropolis, with the theater of Dionysos. Dionysos is the god of many things, among them: grape harvest, wine, and ecstasy and also patron of theater. He is one of the lesser known Olympians, and is only mentioned in a handful of myths. His birth is definitely an interesting story though:
Dionysos is a demi-god, son of Zeus and Semele (a princess of Theben). When Hera found out about this, she tricked Semele into persuading Zeus to show himself to her in his full divine glory. He consented heavy-heartedly, because he knew that no mortal could survive the sight of an undisguised god. When she died, Zeus rescued Dionysos by sewing him into his thigh, where he was born a couple months later.
Each spring, sheltered by the Acropolis rocks, the festival of Dionysia was celebrated here. This particular theater is most associated with the tragedies of the Classical era, made famous by playwrights such as Sophocles (e.g. Antigone), Euripides (Medea) and Aeschylus (The Oresteia). The festival was designed as a competition, where the winner would receive a tripod to be displayed around the theater and on the Street of Tripods.
You can sit on the marble seats, imagining what kind of drama must have been played out on that stage. Apparently, the acoustics were pretty perfect 🙂

Walking west, eventually I stumbled upon a second amphitheater: the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. It was built by him (an Athenian magnate during Roman rule) in AD 162, in honor of his wife Rhegilla. It is much steeper compared to the theater of Dionysos, and has a capacity of about 5,000 people. Reconstructed in 1954, it is now used as a venue for many concerts (Elton John) and events (Miss Universe pageant 1973), especially as part of the Athens festival, which runs from May to October each year.

As I continued uphill, I encountered a series of marble steps. As I climbed them, I knew what was awaiting me at the top: the legendary Parthenon and all it’s surrounding buildings. However, nothing could have prepared me for the view from the top of that hill. I completely ignored the Parthenon for a minute and just sat down on the stones to admire Athens. When I post pictures, you’ll see what I mean. It was a particularly sunny day, and I could see all the way to the ocean! I had never seen such a blue sky before in my life 🙂
To my surprise, I spotted another hill to the left of me that seemed even higher than the Acropolis. Little did I know that I would be on the top of that hill later during the the day.

The entrance to the Parthenon is called the Propylaea, consisting of a central building and two wings (which cannot be accessed). The north wing is called the Pinakotheke (art gallery, as in the famous one in Munich) because it contained frescoes and paintings. It is a very impressive entrance – I have to give credit to the architect Mnesikles.

As for the Parthenon, it is a temple built in the Doric style (more on architecture in another post) and dedicated to Athena, the patron of Athens. The Acropolis had housed different buildings even during Myceneaen times, but it was under the rule of Perikles that it really became the religious center of Athens. All of the buildings still standing today were built between 447 and 406 BC, during the Classical era of Greek civilization. Unfortunately, you can no longer go inside the Parthenon, as they are very busy with reconstruction. You probably wouldn’t want to trespass anyway, or else the wrath of the gods might be upon you! A taxi driver who claimed to have been inside the Parthenon 30 years ago, described the floor as appearing concave. He also told me about how the the columns of the Parthenon are not actually standing straight, but leaning slightly inwards. If one were to draw a line ascending from all the columns, the lines would intersect at the zenith of the atmosphere. That I think is a little far-fetched, but the part about the inward leaning columns is actually correct. Due to all the flutings of the columns (parallel vertical lines), they appear curved from a distance. To combat this, the architects made the columns lean inward and voila! we have seemingly straight lines 🙂

The olive tree, Cecrops’s grave and the  place where Poseidon struck his trident (that I mentioned in my blog post about the founding of Athens) are in a building called the Erechtheion. It used to house a wooden statue of Athena, but  unfortunately you cannot access it anymore either. The olive tree is still standing next to the building though, in all its glory 🙂

The Acropolis is a truly magical place – there is no other way to describe it. It is so amazing to think that thousands of years ago, Greek people transported marble up the hill and constructed these monumental structures. It feels as though even animals are aware of this divine presence: a man told me that birds never go near the Parthenon. That may or may not be because of all the cats that wander around the Acropolis like it’s their sanctuary. I prefer to think that the birds know how special and holy this place is, and therefore make an effort to avoid tainting it 🙂


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