Athens was named after Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, which is certainly appropriate for the birthplace. Evidence of its former heyday is everywhere, in the remains of monuments, statues and holy places that are still revered as survivors of one of the most important eras in history.
A Poseidon adventure in art
In Greek mythology, Poseidon is the god of the sea, so it is only fitting that his amazingly carved bronze statue rose from the bottom of the Aegean Sea, where it remained for centuries after a shipwreck off Cape Artemision. The two meter tall figure is standing with arms outstretched and leaning forward on his left leg. The right hand once held a trident, and the unknown sculptor was clearly a master at accurately duplicating the complicated balancing act involved in the seemingly simple motion of throwing a spear.
This work of art is one of many impressive bronzes in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The museum’s collection, which includes pieces dating back to the prehistoric period, offers the best collection of Greek art in the world. Renovations closed the museum for a year and a half, but it was reopened just in time for the 2004 Olympics.
At 260 feet above the city, the Acropolis (“upper city”) is not only the highest point in Athens, but for many people it is the highest point of any visit to Greece. It is the oldest known settlement in Greece and was a sacred place for the ancient Athenians.
During the period from 448 to 420 a. C., the distinguished Athenian statesman Pericles commissioned the construction of four new monuments on the Acropolis on the site of the ancient ruins. The Athenian sculptor Phidias presided over the construction and interior design. The Ionian Erechtheum includes the Porch of the Caryatids, with its column in the form of monumental female figures that identify remains a mystery. The Ionian Temples of Athena Nike, dedicated to the cult of Athena as goddess of victory, were built during the Peloponnesian War, its frieze depicts the Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Plataea. The Propylaea, the gateway to the Acropolis with rows of Doric and Ionic columns, replaced an earlier version destroyed by the Persians. And, of course, the Acropolis still houses what remains of the Parthenon.
The Parthenon, designed by the architects Iktinos and Kallikrates, took 15 years to complete. It was the closest to Pericles’ heart: among various friezes depicting life among the gods, the great statue of Athena represented his homage to the goddess and the greatness of Athens.
Even in the year 131 d. C., smart developers like the Roman Emperor Hadrian recognized the importance of signage. “This is the city of Hadrian and not of Theseus,” reads the inscription on Hadrian’s Arch, situated at the foot of the Acropolis and once the marker between Adrianople and the city limits of Athens. The side facing the Acropolis and ancient Athens reads: “This is Athens, the city of Theseus.”
Like all the surrounding monuments and the infrastructure of Athens itself, Hadrian’s Arch has undergone a major renovation. The 60-foot-high arch, built of Pentelic marble, supported by columns with Cortinian capitals and topped by a series of Corinthian columns, lost some structural stability in the mid-18th century when 8 of its columns were removed.
Restorers shored up the arch, cleaning centuries of contamination and repairing its cracks, just in time for the 2004 Olympics.
The Evzones were once the elite soldiers of the Greek army. Today they are the presidential guards, a ceremonial unit that watches over the Parliament, the Presidential Mansion and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The soldiers wear a traditional and highly photogenic uniform consisting of a scarlet cap with a long black tassel, a cotton tunic, black knee tassels over white stockings, red clogs with black pom-poms, and a woolen kilt called fustanella. Tea fustanella It has 400 folds, one for each year the Greeks were in occupation of the Ottoman Empire. Carrying leather holsters and bayoneted rifles, the soldiers maintain strict physical discipline as they stand to attention and resist tourists’ attempts to distract them.
Every day there is a changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but on Sundays the full ceremony takes place, with an army band and dozens of soldiers taking part.
Alice in Wonderland
Imagine the fall of Alice in Wonderland into a magical world and you will have an idea of what this unusual attraction in the town of Paiania is like. Much larger than a rabbit hole, Koutouki Cave is a natural wonder that will amaze you with its colors and formations. In 1926, a goat disappeared from its herd where it grazed on the slopes of Mount Ymittos. A search resulted in a small crack and a brave soul lowered on a rope into the abyss below. The goat had not survived the fall, but its rescuer returned with a story of a beautiful underground chamber.
The vertical cave consists of a 38.5-meter shaft that opens into a large cavern with a diameter of about 60 meters. Guided tours take visitors through a man-made entrance and guide them down a path through stalactites and stalagmites formed by mineral deposits from water seen through the mountain’s limestone. The tour ends with a light show accompanied by classical music. It’s just a short taxi ride from Athens to nearby Paiania.