I had visited to Athens twice before: once in 1971, when I was 16, and once with my wife Anne, in 2000. Only for a couple of days in each case; all I can really remember is traipsing up to the Acropolis and visiting two or three museums. This year we decided to spend four nights there, although I feared it would be choked with traffic and too hot and stuffy. I wasn’t hugely looking forward to it, although I did want to use Athens as a base for visiting Delphi.
Athens surpassed my expectations
I wrote in my previous blog that Greece is no longer a cheap country – our credit card statements are evidence of that – but we weren’t trying to save money! It has changed in other ways, too. It is obvious is that Greece is becoming a bilingual country. Almost everyone seems to speaks good English, and is keen to practise it. That has long been the case in heavily-touristed areas, such as the most popular islands, but not necessarily in the capital. It is one indication of the remarkable modernisation of the country. For example, when taking the metro from Piraeus to Monastiraki I was surprised to hear every station stop announced in English as well as in Greek.
The upgrade of the toilets in the bars and restaurants is welcome! Whilst there are people sleeping on the pavement, it is no worse than in London. And those pavements are cleaner. The streets in Plaka near the major attractions are often pedestrianised. As for the heat, in June you can expect 35c. But Athens is hilly, and there are often cooling breezes. A stroll along the slopes under the Acropolis is a delightful way to begin or end the evening. Or you could enjoy a sundowner on a rooftop bar with a view of the flood-lit Parthenon, then another as you watch the moon rise. That takes some beating.
We have become fans of this ancient city
How could I resist a third traipse up the Acropolis? There was less scaffolding around the Parthenon than in 2000, and you can no longer clamber over the monuments. As, I regret to say, we did as 16-year olds!
I was pleased to see this rule being rigorously enforced!
As for the new Acropolis museum, it is magnificent. It is a shame that there are certain, er, relief sculptures amissing, along with a caryatid missing. Speaking as someone who spent several years working for the British Library within the British Museum building, it would be nice to see that festering sore cured in my lifetime. A personal view, of course. Our miserable country needs all the friends it can get at the moment.
There is more to ancient Athens than the Acropolis
The digging goes on, as one can see. Work continues to uncover more of the Roman and Ancient Greek agoras.
One of the most complete temples in the Greek world is the Hephaisteion, in the beautifully conserved and landscaped agora. This building was actually begun before the Parthenon and yet it is comparatively unvisited. The two agoras were never crowded when we were there. As usual, everyone heads for the most famous site in the city. Of course I understand why!
There are also, all across the modern city, tiny Byzantine-era churches to explore. Some are a thousand years old, and may contain sculptural elements that are twice as old.
It is nearly three hours to Delphi, but I felt a strong urge to go back and I am glad I did. It is a lot easier when someone else is driving, so we found an inexpensive tour company to pick us up and take us there and back.
I treasure these guides, which I have had since 1971
Not a lot had changed – and why would it have? Yet again, thankfully, visitors are kept off the monuments themselves. At one time Delphi must have been the richest place in the Greek world because of the famous Pythian oracle. Herodotus (and I honestly was reading my Penguin Herodotus, which is surprisingly entertaining – in parts) wrote of the priceless treasures that were displayed there. So much was destroyed during a succession of ancient wars that it is surprising there is anything left to see.
But although the ruins themselves are still impressive, as you make your weary way up the Sacred Way it is the setting of Mt Parnassus that most strongly affects you. You understand why Delphi is where it is. A long day out, but well worth it.
By the end of our stay – admittedly it was only for four nights – we felt we were getting to grips with Athens. We will go back.
I have only one friend in Athens. The word friend may be an exaggeration as I had not seen him or even been in contact with him for 40 years. Back in 1981, when I was “in charge” of the Florey Building in Oxford – now mothballed by Queen’s (read to the end of this Wikipedia article) – one of my fellow students was Yannis Stournaras, a Greek Economics post-grad. Yannis was clever and sociable, and we got on well. I hesitated to write to him after so long, but he replied in warm terms, inviting us to lunch at his place of work with his wife Lina, whom I also remember from Oxford days. Yannis is now Governor of the Bank of Greece, and so we had a unique and memorable venue for our rendez-vous. What a way to end a holiday.
Spot the tourist
If you know someone who’s done rather well for themselves, do invite yourself to lunch. It worked for me.
One thought on “Returning to Athens”
Sounds a perfect visit Colin- my recollection of last visit to the Acropolis was more prosaic….having to hunt down two naughty children who thought it would be fun to hide in the blindingly white rocks in the midday heat, as they really wanted to be at the beach !.