Over the course of a week I developed a real love for the city of Athens. I thought I’d write a little about some of what happened to record it whilst everything is still fresh in my mind. Inevitably, there are things that happened during my time there that I have missed out, but hopefully this gives a sense of how exciting and busy my time was!
I stayed at a hotel described as being in an ‘up and coming’ area of Athens. This turned out to be accurate… I had fun opening the curtain on the first day to find I was looking at a fine specimen of a grey wall. Having said this, my room had air conditioning and there was a roof garden which was amazing, so all was good 🙂 I spent two of my evenings sat watching the sun go down. Each day I left the hotel where I was staying at around 8am and came back in the heat of the day around 2.30pm and then set out again around 5pm until 9pm. I was there for 5 nights but it felt like I did about 10 days worth of everything.
DAY 1 – ARRIVING
Short. Consisted of travelling the distance from the airport to the hotel. First impression of Athens. I’m really excited at this point. I love aeroplanes and travelling and I know I’ve got a great week ahead. I have souvlaki for dinner (essentially meat skewers) and then head to the roof garden. I cannot believe my eyes.
DAY 2 – ACROPOLIS + PLATO
An early get-up to get to the Acropolis before the crowds and the heat really sets in. Make it there for 8.30am (6.30am UK time) and the sky is so blue and the shadows across the roads on the way are so beautiful. Offered a tour by a guide who asks what subject I study. My reply is met with a look of awe. This is my favourite reaction to the word philosophy being said, I feel at home!
Standing, looking up at the Parthenon is incredible and I’m sure it will prove to be unforgettable. It’s a bit of a mess in terms of scaffolding, cranes, construction vehicles etc. (pretty sure I saw a port-a-loo right in the centre of it) but the splendour of the Parthenon after 25 centuries is very much still there! The Parthenon doesn’t actually have any straight lines to it, all of it’s 46 columns are curved and lean inwards and the base is also slightly curved. This was done because of an awareness of optical illusions – far away all of the lines of the Parthenon look straight. This means that the pieces of marble in the columns aren’t interchangeable – something that wasn’t known in early ‘restorations’. This is also why reconstruction work is taking so long.
The Acropolis is the name for the, essentially, ‘big piece of rock’ that the Parthenon is built on. All of the important buildings were built around this area, because the height and centrality made them easy to defend against invasion. Also, it’s just impressive. This means that there is a lot to see within a small area. The photo below is of the Theater of Dionysus, taken from the top of the Acropolis. Just to the right of that theatre is the Theater of Herod Atticus, which is still in use, it sadly lacks the pee holes in the front seats that the Theater of Dionysus has. Oh well.
After this I went and visited the Acropolis Museum which is very close to the Acropolis itself. The Museum gives a set route to follow round (you go up the floors looking at all the exhibits on the right hand side of the building and come down looking at all the exhibits on the left hand side). It is very modern, and incredibly well thought out as a museum. I watched a really fascinating video which had superimposed a digitally restored version of the Parthenon and surrounding parts of the Acropolis onto real-life footage of it. I did not know how colourful the sculpture and decoration was until this point. I got a real sense of the culture and the city that the ancient philosophers lived in – I also decided that I wouldn’t mind living in a city with a 13m high silver and ivory statue of Athena in a building that will continue to stand long long after my death. It was strange to think that I was visiting monuments and sites that the philosophers I study would have seen every day in their full glory.
The third floor of this museum was my favourite; the sculpture that remains from the Parthenon has been pieced together and placed in the order of sequence it would have been in when part of the Parthenon. You can therefore see what is pointed out in the video – the different things depicted in the sculpture on each side of the Parthenon, and the parts that are missing. This level also has floor to ceiling glass windows which look over to the Acropolis. It’s very fitting. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed inside the museum, so not sure that I can convey effectively how great this was! Here is a photo of the outside for you instead.
I’d like to take a moment to just say that at this point in the day I’ve only spent 9 euros on a 5-day metro ticket. Athens is great to visit as a student because there are no entrance fees to anything, all I did was show my NUS card at the various ticket booths. So I’ve just seen what a European Heritage Label describes as “the place where the most essential aspects of the European identity emerged: Democracy, Philosophy, Theatre, Sciences, Arts.” for free. I’m not complaining. I continue with the free sight-seeing, visiting the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch. I am so happy.
After lunch I go on a mission. I want to see Socrates’ Prison. In hindsight, going up the second hill of the day (including a much steeper way up) at 2.30pm when there is little shade to be found anywhere, least of all on a hill, was ambitious. Also, the strongpoint of the Greeks doesn’t seem to be signposting – I had no real information about how to get to it other than it was somewhere on this hill. On the plus side, the way to the hill itself was really pretty.
Once at the top, I realised it may be a lost cause. However, I get to see the Mount of Filippou and a view back over the Acropolis. Behind the Acropolis you can see Mount Lycabettus, but that’s for another day…
When I get back to the bottom I wisely decide ice cream is the way forward, followed by going back home to get some rest. My decision-making is improving 🙂
Later in the evening, because I haven’t done enough already, I go on a mission to find the remains of Plato’s Academy. This was the first key philosophical sight that I visited and I was taken aback, firstly just by being there and secondly because, given the surroundings, it seemed so ‘unlikely’. The remains of Plato’s academy are not listed in any tourist guide, and it is very strange to walk through what appears to be a very ordinary park and find ancient ruins located within it. On the way, I reached this point:
I think this photo gives a sense of what became a continuing theme of the trip – an odd juxtaposition of a modern city and an ancient one, with the modern not always paying attention to the ancient. As I took the photo above, there was a group of boys playing football loudly just behind me on the ground between a church and this sign, pointing to a derelict piece of land or what is the Ancient Road to Plato’s Academy. Another 10 minutes walk and I find what I am looking for – some ancient ruins in a park. I pose thoughtfully like the philosopher I am.
On the way back I start my collection of photos of streets named after philosophers, and cross some train lines
because that is my only option just for the danger.
When I get back I am so very happy, but oh so very tired. But then… the roof calls.
DAY 3 – AGORA + PLATO’S APOLOGY
This day was the day of a National Rail Strike. There are only three metro lines in Athens and you get very well versed in which directions they are going, and the stops you can change at etc. Because there are only three though, it does mean that the metro system is not hugely expansive, so you walk a lot anyway. I coped, in other words!
First stop was the Keramikos Cemetry, this was where the road to Plato’s Academy left the city walls.
On from this was the Ancient Agora. Agora means ‘meeting place’ so all the places of public interest or importance were here. The most ‘intact’ was the Temple of Hephaestus, which you’ll be able to see from the photos. I had a lot of fun just wandering around and reading all the information signs!
Included in this area were the philosophical schools of Athens and the Omega House (a private school for the teaching of philosophy in late Roman Athens, all philosophical schools ceased to function in 529 A.D. after an edict issued by the emperor Justinian on behalf of the new religion, Christianity). Not actually much to see apart from some trees, but I obviously felt a very real bond with the ancient philosophy students from beyond the grave. Obviously.
After this, I was super hungry/hangry so decided to locate some food. These prawns are the best prawns I have ever eaten in my life ever. I felt like all fruit and seafood in Greece was about 50 times tastier. Also sweet chilli sauce is always a win. Big love.
In a quick visit to Athen’s University History Museum (shout-out to eduroam) I found a photo of Ioanna Stefanopoli, the first female philosophy student to study at Athen’s philosophy school in 1890. You know we would have been friends.
I decided to walk back home after this, since I knew it would take a good hour. I took a scenic route through Monastiraki and the markets. Taking more photos of the beautiful streets.
In the evening, I had some really good food (you pick 5 dishes from the tray they bring to the table, was also really excited by the grapes growing from the roof). Yes to the zucchini fries! I’ve also included a photo of a very cute and scrawny little kitten. I saw a lot of stray cats during my week, this one was the cutest and tiniest.
At 9pm I watched a live performance of Plato’s Apology. The Apology is Socrates’ Defense at the trial seeking to put him to death (on charges of religious non-conformity and corrupting the youth) and is a historical-ish account of actual events that happened in Athens. I sat on the front row as actor Yannis Simonides performed a monologue as Socrates, just underneath the Acropolis. He was truly captivating, so not a huge surprise to find out that he has an Emmy… After the performance there was a discussion involving the members of the audience about whether the thought of Socrates had relevance or parallels in today’s society. It was amazing to be able to watch this performance in the same location as the events themselves, with an actor who was turning 70, the same age as Socrates was at his death. It was meant to be a 90 minute show, but went on an extra hour because everyone was enjoying the discussion so much. It was a very worthwhile extra hour though!
DAY 4 – ARISTOTLE, PORT, MOUNT LYCABETTUS
A slightly later start (only got back at midnight the night before) and, with the metros back working, I went to go and find Aristotle’s Lyceum. This was the most ‘touristy’ of all the places of philosophical interest, in the sense that there was an entrance fee and there were boards with information around the site. Having said that, it was still very empty and wasn’t listed in any tourist guides! The area was unearthed in 1996 and the parts on show mark out three of the four sides (the Lyceum would have stretched towards the river bank, beyond the buildings on the left side of the left hand photo). Looking at the ruins alongside a floor plan was hugely interesting. Felt like a legitimate philosophy student because my heart was genuinely beating faster during the time that I was there!
It meant a lot to be in the philosophical school of the man who was the authority on so many academic disciplines for the best part of eighteen centuries after his death. It makes the archaeological site arguably one of the most important places in the history of the human mind: it is where Aristotle systematized logic, morality, metaphysics and physics.
After this, I took the metro down to the port where I had my first experience of gyros. This is a type of street food which consists of meat, salad, sauce and some french fries wrapped in a pitta bread. They were typically about 2 euros, and they made a great lunch!
That evening after dinner, I climbed Mount Lycabettus, the highest point in Athens, and watched the sunset. It was absolutely amazing. There is a little white church at the top and there was a couple there who had just got married and were taking wedding photos. ❤
DAY 5 – BEACH + SOCRATES PRISON
This was my last full day in Athens. It was time to go to the beach 🙂 I took the metro down to the coast, and then the tram along the coastline. Bear in mind that I hadn’t been on a non-UK beach before. It was absolute perfection.
I headed back on the tram, stopping for more gyros for lunch, and taking a different line up to Syntagma Square. Later in the day, was the continuation of Mission Socrates’ Prison. And this time, success! It is worth saying here that it is the cave-like structure and its proximity to the Athenian Agora that has led to the idea that the building is the “Prison of Socrates”. It is by no means historical certainty! Would also like to put a note here that before I came my Mum had found a travel guide which had described it as something like “a magical place where the doves coo”, which she thought was hilarious. But there were indeed cooing doves, so there we go.
Decided to do some more exploring, and saw a 12th century church, the Pynx, and the National Observatory of Athens all before dinner.
I then had a lovely dish of moussaka overlooking the Acropolis, before travelling across Athens to go and visit the stadium of the first modern Olympic games (in 1896). I was travelling with a plastic map that I had stuck mini transparent post-its all over to mark where I wanted to visit. After doing so I would remove the post-it. Going to the Olympic stadium meant removing the last post-it! I would now like to applaud the Greeks on making a stadium using 85,100 metric tons of marble. It was a job well done and a nice way to end the day. Heading back through Syntagma Square started to feel a little bitter-sweet, I knew that time was running out but wasn’t really ready to be leaving the next day.
DAY 6 – JOURNEYING HOME
Goodbye to Athens 😦 Went up on the roof garden one last time to say goodbye and then headed to the airport. I already miss this place. I even feel nostalgic about not flushing my toilet paper and instead putting it in a bin (allegedly this is done because the Athenian sewage system has narrow piping, but it may in part also be custom)! I am so grateful that I got to have this experience (shout-out to Newnham College’s travel grants). Here’s to more adventures happening sometime soon!