Since the Olympics games of 2004, Athens has a new look: often associated with high pollution and congestion, it is now one of the most beautiful European capital cities. Cleaner, greener, with an improved transportation system and a pedestrian street linking the greatest archaeological sites, you will appreciate even more famous monuments such as the Acropolis, a true relic of ancient times.
In a day in the Greek capital, one can see most sights in the center and a second day can thus be dedicated to visiting various museums, including the Acropolis Museum situated at the foot of the Acropolis, or for an excursion beyond the walls of the city.
There are several ways to visit Athens and its wonders. You can go around on one of these HOP ON HOP OFF bus, book an organized tour or get where you want by foot, local bus or even subway. HOP ON HOP OFF buses are accessible, cheap and cover a large area that goes through all the monuments which are worth to visit during a stay in Athens. So I bought a one-day ticket for one of those red bus. One of the first stops is the Panathenaic Stadium.
This is an ancient stadium in Athens, renovated for the first Olympic Games of the modern era in 1896. Its common name in Greek, Kallimármaro (“a beautiful marble”), refers to the marble of which it is coated. The elongated track is typical of ancient stadium (with a length of about 200 meters, where the curve was very tight). It lies between two hills covered with pine trees, in a shell, between the district of Mets and Pangrati. I go back on the bus and stop this time on Syntagma Square, close to my hotel.
At the end of this square stands the Parliament, guarded by members of the Presidential Guard, a ceremonial unit. However, whereas in the past these guards actually used to defend the Parliament and its members in case of attack, now they more have a “decorative”, touristical role. The guards are called evzones (which means “beautiful belt” in Greek). This name referred to the base regiments and battalions of elite light infantry of the Greek army.
The uniforms of the guards are inspired by traditional Greek costumes: red felt beret with black silk tassel, white shirt with flared sleeves, vest with handmane embroidery and traditional breeding grounds, which includes skirt called fustanelle which has 400 folds to symbolize the number of years of Ottoman occupation, tops shoes, red pants for officers and white wool tights for soldiers, bandolier belt with garters and black socks (blue for officers).
This type of uniform, although dating from the time of Homer, has found its present form under the Ottoman occupation. However, it was in 1821 during the Greek Revolution that it was adopted as an official national dress. These costumes are very expensive to create and requires a lot of expertise from manufacturers. In addition, there are two versions of the uniform (in addition to the difference between officer and soldier), one for summer and one for winter. Nowadays, the presidential guard has several functions: it keeps the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the presidential palace, it officially hoisted and brings the Greek colors of the sacred rock of the Acropolis, it ensures the guard of honor of the President of the Republic and foreign leadersm and it finally honors the foreign ambassadors at the presentation of their credentials to the President of the Republic.
In Greece, the changing of the guards is done every hour during a pretty amazing “ballet”, a very special kind of choreography in an automaton way. If you wish to attend this “show”, it is better to see it on Sunday at 11 a.m. because on that day, there are even more guards and they wear more decorated uniforms. After the change of guards, I go back on the famous red bus and continue my visit.
Visit which would not be complete without a discovery of the famous Acropolis! Beware that this place can literally be mobbed by hundreds of tourists and walking within the ruins is therefore relatively difficult. I went there in May, and I found that it was not too crowded. It depends on the time, so be sure to come to the opening! In addition to tourists, expect to see some scaffolding here and there. The bus stops near the entrance and I walk quickly up the path which leads to the archeological site.
The Acropolis is a rocky plateau about 148 meters high, with a 300 meters flat top is from east to west and 85 meters from north to south. World Heritage by UNESCO, it is accessible only by a steep slope on the west side. In ancient times, it acts as a vast sanctuary for the worship of the goddess Athena and many other gods of Greek mythology, with several temples including the Erechtheion and the temple of Athena Nike. Dominating the skyline of the Acropolis, the famous Parthenon is more than a temple, it is a real wonder! Other notable monuments which still exist nowadays are the Propylaea, the ancient theater of Dionysus, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Needless to say, the Acropolis is currently one of the world’s most visited tourist sites. Despite the presence of some scaffolding, I loved my time on the spot!
I go back down to the foot of the Acropolis, where is situated the new Acropolis Museum. It is an excellent place to see before or even after the Acropolis itself. The museum houses artifacts from monuments and excavations sites on the Acropolis: bas-reliefs, statues and ceramics ranging from prehistory to late antiquity. Collections are organized into five themes: the slopes of the Acropolis, the Acropolis archaic, the Parthenon, the monuments of the Acropolis and the classic “other collections”. Finally, the halls of the museum are greatly refreshing during high summer temperatures in the city.
I then wander the rest of the day around different streets and do some shopping in the many alleys where you’re almost grabbed by the arm by a store owner as soon as you look to his/her stuff… After this visit to Athens, the least we can say is that there is not much to see apart from the famous monuments, museums and shopping areas. Overall, I had a great time there. The city has a huge cultural environment and loads of beautiful things to see. Moreover, the few Greeks I met are very nice people and so welcoming! Due to a lack of time, I could not visit other museums and archaeological sites but I will do so next time I’ll be in Athens.