Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Journey through Time in Athens (Part 2)

Calli has pointed out that I need to be "making my deadlines", aka she has a Nafplio post written and refuses to post it until I finish up writing about our time in Athens. Since there is (as of today) 103 days left, and she will be with me for most likely all 103 of those days, I figured I had better get a move on. So here goes part 2 of our time in Athens.

After our Acropolis and Acropolis Museum day, we decided that we would go on a modified Rick Steves-inspired, self-guided walking tour of many of the historical sites we didn't have time to see on our first day. We pulled out our handy tourist map (which we found out used seemingly arbitrary distances and directions - but it was free so I guess we got what we paid for) and plotted a course for the day. 

We decided to start our day at the Arch of Hadrian and Temple of Olympian Zeus. These two famous landmarks are located in the same area and are pretty impressive sights.

The Arch of Hadrian

The ruins of the massive Temple of Olympian Zeus
The Arch of Hadrian was built as a monumental gateway into Athens in 131 AD to celebrate the visit of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (who seemingly just traveled around building stuff and having stuff built in his name) and the many donations he contributed to Athens. It was built completely of pentelic marble and used no mortar in its construction. It stands impressively at just under 60 feet tall and has different inscriptions on each side. One saying Athens is the city of Theseus, and the other that Athens is the city of Hadrian (presumably referring to the "old" and "new" parts of Athens respectively).

Some of the amazing detail on the Arch itself
Just a few hundred feet away from the still standing Arch of Hadrian lay the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Building this behemoth of a temple, fitting for the king of the Olympian gods, took 638 years of constantly interrupted and constantly changed plans. Unsurprisingly, after many attempts to complete it, it was finally completed under the guidance of that building mogul - Hadrian. Upon its completion it was dedicated to Hadrian and was renowned as the largest temple in Roman Greece. It was destroyed and pillaged during the Barbarian invasion in the 3rd century AD and was never rebuilt. In fact, much of the ruined temple was re-used in other building projects throughout the last 1800 years. Only a small portion still stands, but the immense size of the remaining columns is very impressive still.

We next wandered down the street up the street to the Panathenaic Stadium, best known as the site of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. 

Opening ceremonies of the 1896 Olympic Games at the Panathenaic Stadium (via)
Originally built in 566 BC with wooden seating, it was rebuilt entirely in white Pentelic marble in 329 BC. During these times it was used for the Panathenaic games, sporting events carried out in honor of the goddess Athena. The stadium was renovated in 1895 to host the first modern version of the Olympic Games in 1896 and could host 80 000 people. It was used once again at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, and is now a popular and impressive site to visit as was obvious from the countless tour buses lining the street beside it.

The Panathenaic Stadium today (via)
After reveling in sporting history for a few minutes (there seemed to be a cruise ship tour group there and the sun was blazing down on us) we crossed the street for some well-earned time out of the sun in the National Gardens.

One of the pathways in the National Gardens
The National Gardens is a 38 acre oasis in the centre of Athens, and was a welcome relief for our walk. As we entered in front of the Zappeion, the first building built specifically for the revival of the Olympics, the palm-lined entrance and large fountain ushered our way into this different world. People lounged on benches, played on the grass, and generally just enjoyed the cool, fresh air provided by the abundance of vegetation. Nowadays, it seems more like a park than an organized garden as many of the areas have been allowed to grow and fill space freely, but it is still full of plaques denoting important or interesting species and a number of elegant statues and monuments.

The Zappeion, nowadays an important meeting and conference center.
We wandered by their "lake" (in Canada we would call this a pond...maybe), by the statue marking where King Alexander was bitten by a pet monkey and subsequently died from sepsis in 1920, past uncovered ancient antiquies, and finally exited into Syntagma Square.

Syntagma Square is one of the most famous squares in all of Greece. Bordered by chic hotels, expensive cafes, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and Greek Parliament; and holding the entrance to one of the major metro stops right in the middle, it is frenetic blur of mixing Greek society. 

Part of Greek Parliament in Syntagma Square

We wandered through the central part of the square, looking up and trying to figure what the difference between our 40 euro room and the 250 euro rooms above us were. We snapped pictures of the tomb of the unknown soldier complete with soldiers standing guard, and of the parliament building which used to be the royal palace. 

We left the square and began to work our way through Syntagma towards Athens' most famous neighborhood, the Plaka. The neighborhood sits in the shadow of the Acropolis and is filled with regal buildings, counteless museums, and fantastic churches. We stopped for a pastry and a cool drink and sat near one of the old churches watching the people as they went about their days. After looking in some souvenir shops and enjoying a stroll through the narrow vehicle-less streets, we made our way to our last stop of the day.

An example of the neighborhoods near Syntagma and the Plaka

One of the countless ancient churches in Athens
The Lysicrates Choragic monument may not be one that stops you in your tracks, in fact it's pretty easy to miss if you are not looking out for it, but is does have an interesting history. It was erected by the choregos (aka wealthy Athenian) Lysicrates in 335 BC to celebrate the first-prize victory of one of the performances he sponsored. The friezes on the exterior describe the myth of Dionysus, and it stands on the street that once led to the Theater of Dionysus. The street used to be lined with similar choragic monuments. but it seems as though this is the only one that survived  intact. This was probably due to the fact that a French Capuchin monastery was founded on the site in 1669, and the order agreed to purchase the it. They have maintained the structure ever since, and were largely responsible for the spreading of this type of monument throughout the rest of Europe. British architects on tour published drawings of it, Lord Byron described it during his stay in Athens, and Lord Elgin (the marbles guy) tried to purchase it, unsuccessfully, to bring back to England. All of these contributed to replicas popping up all over Europe...London, Paris, Sydney, Nashville, New York, and many others all have their own version of this style of monument. 
The Lysicrates Choragic Monument

Some of the detail on the outside of the monument
After about 7 hours of exploring we wandered back for a quick siesta before dinner, packing, and saying goodbye to Athens.

By Travis Huyghebaert with No comments

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Calli and Travis returned from a four month trip through Europe more excited than ever to hit the open road. Who knows where they'll end up next...

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