I wasn’t sure what to expect from my first visit to Athens.
My previous trip to Greece had been Mykonos nearly 15 years earlier, with OH and each of our best friends.
We did what young, childless people do – ate out at the exorbitantly priced restaurants, drank far too many shots and danced the night away. Then, at a Full Moon party, OH’s mate accidentally knocked me over and I split my kneecap almost in half on a concrete slab. Cue arriving home with a great tan, and a hip-to-ankle plaster cast.
My very own Greek tragedy (sorry).
I’d always knew I’d make it to Athens one day, but it was only while pondering the next destination for my annual solo travels I realised I hadn’t made it happen yet. A few clicks on the British Airways site later and my travelling oversight was rectified.
I’ll be honest – I was a little bit trepidatious before my arrival; I’d read about Greece’s debt problems, and how the banks had shut down to prevent panicking locals withdrawing all their money. But when I arrive in late November (deliberately avoiding the extreme heat and crowds of summertime), I find a city that – while clearly affected in parts by tightened purse strings – is warm, and friendly and generous.
While there is clearly a lot of resentment towards the officials who caused the financial crisis, there is also an unfailing sense of community and positivity.
The pride Athenians have in their slightly battered city is palpable. When I ask for directions or advice on what to see and do, the helpfulness and enthusiasm is genuine – not the ‘too-good-to-be-true’ saccharine replies you get in other countries (yes, I’m looking at you, America).
But what gets me the most is the sense of togetherness. Unemployment is still very high here, especially amongst the 18-25’s (and much higher than official figures will have us believe, I’m informed by several different sources during my stay). But rather that feel bitter what they don’t have, Athenians choose to be grateful for everything they do have.
Even the people sweeping the streets take great pride in their work, knowing they’re looking after their beloved city and collectively playing a part in restoring it to its rightful grandeur.
Tourism is still the biggest industry, and rightfully so in a city where many of the world’s greatest historical events took place, and where millenia-old ruins proudly hold their ground amongst the non-stop bustle of the modern city.
Inarguably, the most famous local attraction is the Acropolis of Athens. It’s a common misconception that this describes the ancient building at its peak, but acropolis simply means ‘upper city’ and describes any settlement built on elevated ground.
So the Acropolis of Athens is the actually the rocky hill that can be seen from all over the city, while the majestic ruins at its summit is the Parthenon.
Completed in Ancient Greece in 438BC, this stunning monument was built out of the finest pentelic marble in honour of the city’s protector and namesake, the daughter of Zeus and the Goddess of War, Athena. Inside, once stood a 40-foot-tall figure of Athena, carved from ivory and overlaid with over a tonne of gold.
Greek legend tells us that Athena gifted her city with the olive tree, providing it evermore with wood, shade, olives and oil. The sacred olive tree that can be seen today at the Parthenon is believed to be a direct descendant of Athena’s original gift, repeated cultivated and replanted from salvaged sprigs after historical damage (most recently after the German bombings of World War II).
To ensure I made the very most of my 48-hours in Athens, I booked a day trip with TIMELESS ATHENS TOURS. After much deliberation, I decided on the ‘Athens and the Athenian Riviera’ private tour, as I wanted to fit in all the ‘must-sees’, like climing the Acropolis and visiting the Parthenon, but was also curious to learn more about the little-advertised coastline of this Greek city.
When I step out of the hotel elevator promptly at 7.45am my guide, Markos, is already waiting for me, a welcoming smile on his face. ‘It’s important to leave nice and early,’ he explains, ‘so we beat the traffic and the crowds.’
Our first stop is the iconic Acropolis and Parthenon, and our early start ensures we get there before the maddening crowds. On our way, Markos begins to tell me about the city, and is visibly thrilled when I start bombarding him with questions – attempting to cram thousands of years worth of Greek history into the few hours we have.
‘I love that you’re so interested,’ he grins, his intense pride in his beloved city spilling over. ‘Over the day I will tell you everything you want to know,’ he promises.
I see that pride again when we pause outside the Acropolis Museum, a stunning contemporary glass and concrete building built to show off some of Ancient Greece’s greatest treasures. But there is one display inside that is clearly incomplete, Markos tells me, a frieze made of ornately detailed marble sculptures that once adorned a chamber of the Parthenon. The gaps have been filled in with white plaster moulds, in glaring contrast to the finest golden Pentellic marble used to build the original frieze, and the Parthenon itself.
During Ottoman rule, fighting and looting was rife and the Parthenon became badly damaged. Under the guise of protecting the priceless marble artwork from further risk, Thomas Bruce – better known as Lord Elgin – removed portions of the frieze and eventually sold them to the British Museum, where they became known as the Elgin Marbles.
After regaining their independence in 1832, Athens began the task of repatriating its looted treasures. For many decades now the moral debate has raged between the Greek capital requesting the return of its antiquities, and the British Museum arguing they are now the legal and rightful owners.
It’s a subject the Athenians feel incredibly passionate about, and Markos becomes visibly upset as he talks about how the Greek people will not rest until the missing marbles are back in their rightful place.
We arrive at the base of the Acropolis of Athens just after it opens at 8am. Before I head off, Markos shows me a digital rendering of the ruins, recreating the Parthenon in its original glory – a huge help when you’re standing by the crumbling remains, trying to visualise how it once stood.
The crowds are still thin, and I quickly make my way up the rocky path way. It’s a stunning blue-sky day, and the low winter sun illuminates the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (the Herodeon) – an open-air theatre built in 160AD. Restored in the 1950s, this is now the stunning backdrop of the annual Athens Festival.
A few minutes walk up the hill I reach the imposing doric columns that mark the entrance to the Parthenon. To my right is a temple built for Athena, an ionic-style ode to the protector of the city. Beside it you’ll see a beautiful silvery-grey olive tree, which – according to Greek legend – is a direct descendant of the tree gifted to the city by Athena.
The panoramic views from the top of the acropolis stretch right across the crowded city, to the distant mountains that surround it. But even these gorgeous vistas don’t compete with the main attraction.
There’s something very surreal about finally seeing something in real life that you’ve read about for so many years. The Parthenon is so familiar, yet simultaneously it’s hard to believe I’m actually standing here, at one of the most historic sites on earth.
Though clearly ravaged by war, looting and the passage of time, there’s no escaping the majesty of the building. To imagine it as once stood, adorned with the complete marble frieze, lavishly decorated with gold-leaf and marble statues, and proudly housing the priceless figure of Athena – is humbling.
For over 2500 years the Parthenon has stood atop the Athens skyline, strong, dignified and able to withstand adversity; just like the Greek people themselves.
• this was a self-funded press trip, I received a small media discount off my Timeless Athens Tours day trip