ATHENS: Monumental attractions
Sujata Varadarajan

Athens, called the birthplace of democracy, is also the birthplace of many philosophers and writers, such as Socrates, Plato, Pericles and Sophocles. It was a major centre of arts, learning and philosophy during ancient times, most famous being the Plato’s Academy. Aristotle, too, received his education at the academy.

The Acropolis, a key landmark of early Western civilisation, is a major tourist attraction The Caryatid Porch, a section of Acropolis, is also known as the Porch of Maidens
Tourist Magnet: The Acropolis, a key landmark of early Western civilisation, is a major tourist attraction The Caryatid Porch, a section of Acropolis, is also known as the Porch of Maidens — Photos by Uma Malhan

The landscape and the architecture of the classical era still dominate modern Athens, represented by a number of ancient monuments and works of art, the most famous of all being the Acropolis, widely considered a key landmark of early Western civilisation.

Hence it is the most obvious place to start the sightseeing tour of the city. This is indeed an impressive structure, despite the fact that many parts are currently enveloped in scaffolding. One enters through the Propylaia (built in the 5th century BC) – an incomplete yet towering structure that serves as a gateway to the Acropolis. It was designed to be in perfect alignment with the Parthenon (which was constructed just before the Propylaia).

The Acropolis was a living city until 510 BC, when the Delphic oracle proclaimed that it should be an abode of the gods. Subsequently, the Acropolis was evacuated, and was since destroyed and rebuilt many times over. It is currently undergoing restoration.

The temple of Athena Nike has been dismantled since 2003, for reconstruction. The Parthenon – Greece’s largest completed Doric temple, attracts the highest number of tourists. Many of the sculptures, it once contained, are absent. One can only imagine how it might have looked in all its glory. The scale and proportions of the building and its massive columns are an impressive feat of engineering and architecture.

The Erechthion - not as inspiring as the Parthenon for visitors - is the part of the Acropolis that was considered the most sacred by Athenians. According to Greek mythology, a contest was held here prior to the formation of Athens. The gods of Olympus declared that the city would be named after the god or goddess who provided the most valuable gift to the mankind. Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom produced an olive tree (symbolising peace) and Poseidon (God of the Sea) brought forth a horse (depicting strength). The gods preferred Athena’s gift.

The southern slope of the Acropolis houses the theatre of Dionysos, built in the 6th century BC and reconstructed in the 4th century BC, it is currently used for performances. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes had their works performed here. However, during the Roman period it was used as a gladiatorial arena. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus (2nd century AD) is another theatre built here by Roman consul Herodes Atticus. It is open to the public only during the Hellenic festival performances.

Besides the Acropolis, there are several ancient structures strewn around the city. A 15 Euro ticket (valid for four days) issued at the Acropolis allows entry to all major sites. Ancient Agora, Athens’ old market place and meeting area, is extraordinarily well laid-out. There is now a museum here, housing an interesting collection. From ancient Agora, one can walk up to the Temple of Hephaestus.

A visit to the Temple of Olympian Zeus is also a must, which is the largest temple in Greece. Initial construction of the temple began in the 6th century BC but it was finally completed in the 2nd century AD. Adjacent to the temple are ruins of Roman baths, and further on one comes across the National Gardens - a pleasant shady place in the heart of Athens.

It is easy to tour the ancient sites, as apart from the excellent public transport, there is now a walkway that runs along the foothills of the Acropolis, passing through many of these sites and continuing to the Plaka. The Plaka is the old Turkish part of Athens. It is a busy and cheerful part of town, full of shops and restaurants and tourists.

Next is the National Archaeological Museum, which contains some of the most important Greek collections. Getting to the museum requires a walk through Omonia, a slightly grungy part of town, which houses a large section of the immigrant population. But then this is also a place where one can do good value shopping, as prices are reasonable.

Visitors are recommended to take a walk around the Plaka and shopping at the Monastiraki flea market. A visit to the bustling central market with its gleaming counters of meat and fish and stalls piled high with food of all kinds- fresh and dried fruit, olives, cheeses, smoked and dried fish and meat, too, is recommended. One can even find cheerful Punjabi shopkeepers selling juicy, ripe tomatoes here.

Spring and autumn are the best time to visit Athens though we were unfortunate to land in the midst of a heat wave.

The Athens International Airport, also called Eleftherios Venzelos International Airport, is quite well connected to the city. And if one is travelling light, the Athens metro and bus services are recommended, as connections between the city and the outskirts are fast and frequent.

Athens has a number of 5 and 4-star hotels. One can also find budget hotels in Makrigianni, a quiet, residential area not far from the Acropolis and quite close to two main metro stations.

Hotels having ‘rooms with views’, especially of the Acropolis, are highly sought after by visitors.

It is also advised to buy items needed for travelling around the city and its islands like a card for mobile (helpful if one plans to drive), ferry tickets for the islands) and food.

The capital of Greece, Athens is a leading business centre in the European Union. Ranked as world’s 32nd richest city in 2008, Athens has retained its rich heritage too, which still attracts tourists by hordes.