I know, cheesy title. But there is quite a lot of cheese in Athens – feta, halloumi, saganaki – to name but a few. Actually the food has been generally excellent, with pita breads, eggplant salad, greek salad, giant beans, fresh orange juice etc featuring regularly for us. We’ve come to the conclusion that any food, no matter how simple, looks and tastes better greek-style, with the addition of a little drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice and a scattering of dried herbs, so henceforth shall add these to everything.
We love Athens! Everyone seems to be very friendly and laid back, fabulous sights to see, and some really lovely urban spaces. We walked and took the funicular up to Lykavittos hill yesterday and the view from above is quite different from somewhere immediately picturesque like Prague or Venice with their distinct individual sloped terracotta roofs. Here, a lot of development seems to have occurred in the last 100 years, and it looks like a very cluttered collection of squares, with lots of blocky apartment buildings, flat concrete roofs, rectangular sunshades and solar panels (good to see!) such that the aerial roofscape looks like a pixellated white/grey expanse that stretches for miles. However at street level it’s a completely different story. There are not a lot of parks, but loads of street planting and trees everywhere, including the delightful fragrant orange blossom. There are heavily vegetated balconies and roof terraces and patios everywhere, vines climbing up walls and over the streets… I know Athens has a pollution problem but it actually smells fresher than London… except in our so-called non-smoking hotel room…
Thus far we have visited the Acropolis complex including the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheion, plus the Ancient Agora, the Roman Agora, the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Library. Quite an impressive architectural roll call! Although ruined, there is something quite amazing about seeing this original Classical architecture in the flesh. Although it is amazing to think of the impact this architectural style has had on the cultural landscape of the western world, the millions of Neo-classical and post-modern buildings saturate our built environment to the extent that the forms can seem familiar and almost hackneyed. To try and strip away the cultural layering and view the raw power of these originals is just stunning. The forms are so clean, minimal, and fundamental; while the layering of finely crafted detail is a plea for the importance of beauty in our surroundings.
Today we went to the Acropolis museum – as luck would have it today is International Monuments Day, so we got in for free! – where all the best finds and sculptures from the Acropolis site are displayed. What an impressive museum! Clearly no expense spared on the building itself, very high quality materials throughout, lots of contextual information, and practically the entire lower floor is glass to showcase the archaeological excavations found on site during construction of the museum. The collection itself is incredibly impressive, and taken entirely from the Acropolis hill, showing just how dense the finds have been. The original Caryatids from the Erechtheion porch are here on display (copies are outside at the Acropolis) and are just stunning – I was millimetres away from them! I also really liked the sculptures from the pediments of the Old Temple of Athena (nothing of the building remains other than a few of these sculptures) which was destroyed in 480BC. The sculptures are perhaps less refined than the smooth, serene style of the later ones, but they have an incredible dramatic power to them – there were lions ferociously attacking a stumbling bull, and two giant serpents, their fat coils practically writhing. These sculptures and also some of the brilliant collection of kore dedication statues had been mainly buried after the first destruction of the acropolis, which preserved hints of the original bright paint colours and black outline detailing – quite a different effect from the austere white marble we mainly see today. Oh and of course there were the Parthenon marbles, with half the spots filled with plaster copies waiting for the return of the originals… hmmm controversial. Very impressive, and extremely well displayed, although I’ll admit to being slightly disappointed and saddened by the somewhat limited number of the originals (compared to how many there should be), and how deteriorated their condition was. Apparently much of the damage was done in 1687 when the Venetians decided to attack Athens which was under the control of the Ottoman empire, hitting the Turkish supplies of gunpowder – which were being stored in the Parthenon, of course… where else would you store your explosives other than in an irreplaceable monument of world significance…? Anyway, a great museum. Yet again we got kicked out at closing time, but at least we managed to see this one in chronological order rather than our usual backwards version.
So Athens comes highly recommended by us, and we’d love to see more of Greece. Tomorrow morning we see the Kerameikos then off to Rome!