Millennium Post

Athens: Awesome, Awe-Inspiring, Ambivalent

Athens and Greece have been the places where some of the wisest and creative men were born, who shaped world society from ancient times.

As a much harried travel writer always on the move, I take liberty once a year to be splendidly alone and unaided in a destination of my choice. Being domiciled in Kolkata – a city that is bursting at its seams and with a burgeoning tourism industry, I am courted like other Travel Writers by tour operators to provide them with that elusive travel column highlighting their most fabulous destination.

Last year it was Geneva and this time around it was Athens – the city that can rightfully claim to be blessed with the most fascinating history in the world, a city that is ethereal and adored by not only humanity but also by divinity. This captivating capital city of Greece has witnessed the origin of civilization. Athens and Greece have been the places where some of the most wise and creative men were born, who shaped world society from ancient times.
Ancient and modern, with equal measures of grunge and grace, bustling Athens is a heady mix of history and edginess. Iconic monuments mingle with first-rate museums, lively cafes and al fresco dining – and it's all downright fun.
The historic centre is an open-air museum, yet the city's cultural and social life takes place undisturbed amid these ancient landmarks, merging past and present. The magnificent Acropolis rises above the sprawling metropolis and has stood witness to the city's many transformations.
Post-Olympics Athens, even in the face of current financial issues, is conspicuously more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than ever before. Stylish restaurants, shops and hip hotels, and artsy-industrial neighbourhoods and entertainment quarters such as Gazi, show Athens' modern face.
Walking through Athens' meandering streets and alleyways, you will often come across some of the most enduring historical landmarks – the Acropolis, the Plaka neighborhood, Syntagma Square, Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Olymbion, Roman Market, Panathinaiko Stadium or Kallimarmaro, to name just a few. Being a Kolkatan, I found many similarities between these two great cities that ooze with a sense of history and achievement. The only thing that wasn't similar was the restoration and preservation of the edifices. While all of the historical Athenian edifices were impeccably preserved, the ones in Kolkata are in utter ruin, that tells a sad tale of a lost heritage.
Athens immediately brings to mind the 'Acropolis,' considered to be the most renowned historical monument in Europe and amongst the seven wonders of the world. The Acropolis is to Greece what the Taj Mahal is to India. The city of Athens is ideally perched on the prefecture of Attica and extends all the way to the peninsular region of Central Greece. Athens is marvelously surrounded by undulating mountains with Ymmytos, Pendeli and Parnitha being the most prominent ones. The best part of being in Athens is that it is a year round destination and blessed with a salubrious climate and plenty of sunshine.
The sheer historical diversity of Athens is of such great magnitude that it becomes imperative for the discerning traveler to hire the services of a knowledgeable guide to make sense of the city's rich and complicated past. I was advised by a museum curator in downtown Athens to drop in at the Tsoha neighborhood of the city where the Greek National Tourism Organisation was located, and seek the services of a guide. Dimitri Kourlianos, ever smiling and knoeledgeable, was to be my friend, philosopher and guide for my entire week-long Athens sojourn.
It was only in the year 1834 that Athens was chosen to be the capital of Greece. It was largely built around the Acropolis. The Acropolis is the most important ancient site in the Western world. Crowned by the Parthenon, it stands sentinel over Athens, visible from almost everywhere within the city.
Inspiring as these monuments are, they are but faded remnants of the city of Pericles, who spared no expense – only the best materials, architects, sculptors and artists were good enough for a city dedicated to the cult of Athena. It was a showcase of lavishly coloured colossal buildings and of gargantuan statues, some of bronze, others of marble plated with gold and encrusted with precious stones. The Acropolis was first inhabited in Neolithic times (4000–3000 BC). The first temples were built during the Mycenaean era, in homage to the goddess Athena. People lived on the Acropolis until the late 6th century BC, but in 510 BC the Delphic oracle declared that it should be the province of the gods. Later, when all the buildings on the Acropolis were reduced to ashes by the Persians on the eve of the Battle of Salamis (480 BC), Pericles set about his ambitious rebuilding program. He transformed the Acropolis into a city of temples, which has come to be regarded as the zenith of classical Greek achievement.
Today, the city hosts a population in excess of 4.5 million people. Make it a point to visit the all important Syntagma Square, where the Greek Parliament is located. In close proximity are the neighbourhoods of Monastiraki, Kolonaki and Lycabettus Hill, that have become a rage with tourists from all over the world. If you go further upfront to the north of the city, the classy neighborhoods of Marousi, Melissia, Vrilissia and Kifisia will leave you speechless with their elegance. Dimitri, my guide, in one of his more emotional moods, revealed that Athenians took a lot of pride on the return of the modern Olympic Games to its birthplace. The grand Panathenaic Stadium lies between two pine-covered hills between the neighbourhoods of Mets and Pangrati.
There are seats for 70,000 spectators, a running track and a central area for field events. After hundreds of years of disuse, the stadium was completely restored in 1895 by wealthy Greek benefactor Georgios Averof to host the first modern Olympic Games the following year. It's a faithful replica of the original Panathenaic Stadium, and it made a stunning backdrop to the archery competition and the marathon finish during the 2004 Olympics. It's occasionally used for concerts and public events, and the annual Athens marathon finishes here.
The numerous theaters that dot the Athens landscape offer entertainment that is high class, often bordering on the surreal, true to the city's divine charms. The ancient theatre at Epidavros and Athens' Theatre of Herodes Atticus are the headline venues of Greece's annual cultural Hellenic festival featuring a top line-up of local and international music, dance and theatre. Major shows in its Athens Festival take place at the superb Odeon of Herodes Atticus, one of the world's prime historic venues, with the floodlit Acropolis as a backdrop. Events are also held in modern venues around town.
In Roman times, the theatre was used for state events and performances. The 2nd-century-BC reliefs at the rear of the stage depict the exploits of Dionysos. The two hefty men (who still have their heads) are selini, worshippers of the mythical Selinos, the debauched father of the satyrs, whose favourite pastime was charging up mountains with his oversized phallus in lecherous pursuit of nymphs.
Also called the Hill of the Muses, Filopappou Hill – along with the Hills of the Pnyx and Nymphs – was, according to Plutarch, where Theseus and the Amazons did battle. Inhabited from prehistoric times to the post-Byzantine era, today the pine-clad slopes are a relaxing place for a stroll. They offer excellent views of Attica and the Saronic Gulf, well-signed ruins, and some of the very best vantage points for photographing the Acropolis.
The heart of ancient Athens was the Agora, the lively, crowded focal point of administrative, commercial, political and social activity. Socrates expounded his philosophy here, and in AD 49 St Paul came here to win converts to Christianity. The site today is a lush, refreshing respite, with beautiful monuments and temples and a fascinating museum .
A cemetery from the 3000 BC to the 6th century AD (Roman times), Keramikos was originally a settlement for potters who were attracted by the clay on the banks of the River Iridanos. Because of frequent flooding, the area was ultimately converted to a cemetery. Rediscovered in 1861 during the construction of Pireos St, Keramikos is now a lush, tranquil site with a small but excellent museum containing remarkable stelae (stone slabs) and sculptures.

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