Athens had long been on the list of cities we wanted to revisit but despite three subsequent trips to Europe we never made it back. We arrived late at night in time to take the last bus to Syntagma Square in central Athens. Our hotel was in Omonia, near the fruit and vegetable market. It was quite a way from Syntagma so we were debating taking a taxi but the drivers who pounced on us the second we stepped from the bus were very aggressive so we decided to walk. Fortunately we were walking down Athen's main shopping mall, Ermou, so it was well lit. At the end of the street is the tiny 10th century Byzantine church of Kapnikarea, now sunk almost a metre below ground level. The size of the church is indicative of the size of Athens in the middle ages. In fact, by that stage Athens had shrunk to no more than a scattering of tiny villages amongst the ruins.
We turned right onto Athinas boulevard, which was not quite so well lit. When we reached the fruit and vegetable market I turned us up the wrong street - one street too early in the dark. It wasn't a good choice. Up ahead there were hotel signs but the streets were filled with African prostitutes in the midst of a furious turf war, shrieking at each other and hurling abuse. Things got very heated and the police arrived so we walked hurriedly passed cursing ourselves for once again choosing a cheap, sh*t hotel. Fortunately when we reached the corner we realised we were on the wrong street. Phew! Our hotel, one block over, was quite delightful and the staff were extremely helpful. Welcome back to Athens!
The next day we walked down Athinas boulevard to Monastraki. This area was once the heart of Ottoman Athens and is now filled with markets, restaurants and shops. In the centre of Monastraki square is another tiny Byzantine church, after which the district is named (the monastery). Standing across the way is the Tsisaraki mosque, bereft of its minaret. For many decades this beautiful building was derelict, but it is now a folk museum. Like the other Balkan countries, Greece has energetically attempted to erase all trace of its Ottoman past, tearing down almost every mosque, bath-house and Turkish public building, not to mention actual ethnic cleansing. But occasional Turkish influences have survived - most notably in Greek cuisine - the kebab for instance, which originated in Lebanon and spread right across the Ottoman Empire.
Athens is one of the oldest continuously occupied city in Europe and beneath every inch of its soil lie the impressive relics of past. In the 1930's the authorities cleared away the ramshackle village between the Plaka and the Acropolis in order to sink a trainline. They immediately encountered the extensive ruins of the ancient Greek agora. The site was evenually cleared of houses and the ruins properly excavated, including the beautiful Hephaisteian temple at the top of the Agora.
Following the path through the Agora leads you around Areopagios Hill to the base of Acropolis. The Acropolis has always been the centre of Athens. It's famous today for the Parthenon temple, but has variously been used as a fortress and palace. The famous Athenian general and politican Pericles erected the magnificent Parthenon at the height of Athens' power in the 5th century. Ironically, he also led Athens into the 30 year Peloponnesian War that ultimately destroyed Athens as a power. I must admit, although the Parthenon is an amazing building, it is hard to appreciate. As a ruin it has been sorely mistreated. Despite 2000 years and three changes of faith, the Parthenon had survived largely intact, but in 1687 a Venetian army besieged Athens. The Ottoman garrison fled to the safety of the Acropolis, moving their women, children and supplies inside the protective walls of the Parthenon. Amongst those supplies was a stock of gunpowder. The Venetians knew this and deliberately targeted the Parthenon so it was only a matter of time before a shell crashed through the tiled roof of the temple and blew the building to pieces. What time could not erase, man destroyed.
Later, the Ottomans built a tiny mosque in the centre of the ruin to serve the squalid little township that had grown up on the Acropolis. In the 18th century an English diplomat, Lord Elgin, arrived in Athens to undertake an 'archaeological survey,' but he was no archaeologist. He was determine to seize as much Greek artwork as he could for his own profit. The Turkish governor of Athens initially allowed him to conduct a survey of the Acropolis but threw him out of the city when he realised Elgin was pillaging Athens' ruins. But Elgin outmanouvered him by bribing the officials in Constantinople, then set about tearing down all the remaining statuary from the Parthenon and other buildings. English 'Grand Tourists' of the time were horrified by his careless vandalism and the letters they wrote home condemning him led to his being shunned when he finally returned to England. He was eventually forced to sell the Elgin Marbles, as they were known, to the British Museum at a loss. To this date the British Museum has shown little inclination to even discuss the return of their ill gotten booty with the Greeks, who are now pursuing the matter through the International Court. Given recent precedent, the Museum is bound to lose in the long run. In preparation for that day, Greece has built an magnificent museum at the foot of the Acropolis to house the sculptures.
When Athens became the capital of Greece in 1834, the 'real' archaeologists arrived and proceeded to tear the Acropolis apart. Everything that wasn't 'classical' was deemed worthless and destroyed - the Ottoman mosque, houses, fortifications, Byzantine buildings, the remains of the Christian basilica, Roman temples and shrines, even Hellenistic Greek era buildings were torn down. In their madness they stripped all the topsoil from the Acropolis, exposing the bare bedrock which makes walking around the site, especially in the wet, so slippery and dangerous. It was crazy, unscientific and unnatural. The Acropolis would never have looked like that. I guess we can count our blessings that their early plans to clear the Acropolis in order to build a gigantic neo-classical palace complex for King Otto never came to fruition.
Back at ground level, continuing along the south side of the Acropolis you eventually reach Hadrians Gate and the remains of the enormous Temple of Zeus. Construction of the Temple began in the 6th century BC but was never completed. The Roman emperor Hadrian finished the building in the 2nd century AD and threw a new city wall around it. Now only the gateway and a few columns remain standing but even in their dilapidated state they look impressive due to their size. Just to the north are the remains of Roman Athens, centred around the Roman Agora, Hadrian's Library and the Tower of the Winds.
This ingenious sundial and calendar was built by a Syrian mathematician in the 2nd century BC and was set in the centre of the marketplace. When Athens sunk into obscurity in the dark ages this area was abandoned outside of the city walls, its utility meant that it survived. Later, when the Ottomans conquered Athens they settled in the old Roman quarter, leaving the Greeks to their own districts. Today there are only a few fragments of the Ottomans scattered through the ruins.
Almost as absent from Athens as the Ottomans are the Byzantines. In Byzantine times Athens had shrunk to the point where it was little more than Arcopolis town and three tiny villages amongst the ruins. The tiny Byzantine churches scattered around the city speak volumes about Athens' decline. All have been restored but most were closed. The Church of the Holy Apostles in the Ancient Agora was open. It's largely a 19th century reconstruction on a 10th century foundation and includes frescoes salvaged from other churches that have been demolished.
The next day we visited the National Archaeological Museum. Athens has many fabulous museums but the Archaological museum is truly amazing. We spent several hours admiring Greece's rich archaeological treasures before heading back to the Plaka to enjoy the restaurants and nightlife.
After three days in Athens it was time to push on. We had thought about hiring a car and driving around Greece but opted in the end to go to the islands. It was time to relax.