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A taste of Ancient Greece

While in Bulgaria, we've planned a short getaway to Greece. It's quite hard to believe (as a Bulgarian), but I've never been to my country's southern neighbour. We've planned one day for Athens and three more days to explore the romantic island of Santorini. And as both places are very touristy, we went in a kind of a middle-season in order to not find them too crowded.

We arrived in Athens in around 7:30 a.m. and got the airport shuttle to the city. Bus X95 goes directly to Syntagma Square (very close to Metropolis church, also known as The Cathedral). The price is 6 euros per person and the ticket should be bought at the ticket booth next to the bus station. The hotel I've booked was just behind the Cathedral, so the shuttle was more than convenient for us. Unfortunately, we were not able to check in that early in the morning, but at least we got to change clothes, as it was already quite hot for jeans and sneakers, and leave the bags there. Right in front the Cathedral, on the other side of Metropoleos str., there were several bars with cute, little tables, serving breakfast. Although it was nothing special, my first experience with greek cuisine was excellent.

After the strong and delicious breakfast and some coffee, I was ready to hit the streets and dive into their history. We headed East on Metropoleos str. until we got back to Syntagma Square, crossed it, climbed the stairs and we found ourselves in front of the Greek Parliament. From there we walked South on the boulevard - I believe it's called Amalias. Passing by the National Gardens we decided to chase the shadow and this is how we found the Zappeion Exhibition & Congress Hall. Built between 1874 and 1888 it was the first building specially erected for the Olympic games revival in 1896.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus is around 5 minutes walking distance. To visit it however, a ticket is needed. The ticket booth is just next to the entrance and offers single-site tickets or combined tickets - also including the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora and other main sites of interest. We opted for the combined ticket and payed 30 euros per person, even though we knew we would not be able to visit them all.

Dedicated to the Olympian Zeus, the head of the Olympian gods, the construction of the Temple of Zeus started in 6th century BC but was fulfilled almost 700 years later - in the 2nd century AD during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. By that time it included 104 columns and was celebrated as the largest temple in Greece. Unfortunately, it had a quite short life. In the next, 3rd century, after a barbarian invasion the temple was severely destroyed and most probably never renewed. After the fall of the Roman Empire its ruins were used as a building material for all the new constructions happening in the city. From all the 104 columns (each 17m high, with a base diameter of 1,7m) there were only 16 still remaining on site, 15 nowadays, as in 1852 a column fell during a wind storm.

From inside the Temple of Olympian Zeus we were able to see the Arch of Hadrian. Built in around 131-132 AD it kind of represents a Roman triumphal arch. It is 18m high, 13,5m wide and 2,3m in depth, built entirely from solid marble. Later, when we left the temple complex we passed really next to it on our way to the Acropolis.

The Acropolis was first inhabited in Neolithic times - 4000-3000 BC. People lived in the Acropolis until the late 6th century BC, when in 510 BC the Delphic oracle declared it should be a province exclusively of the gods. After the Persians almost completely destroyed all the buildings (in 480 BC), Pericles spared no expense in his ambitious project to rebuild the Acropolis into a city of temples - only the very best materials, architects and sculptors were good enough for a city dedicated to the cult of Athena.

We entered by its East entrance and after climbing a short hill we found ourselves at the Theatre of Dionysos - world's very first theatre.

Going up the slopes of the Acropolis our next stop was the ancient amphitheatre of Herodeion, also known as the Odeon of Herodus Atticus. Built in Roman times, in about 161 AD by the Roman philosopher, teacher and politician Herodes Atticus, in memory of his wife Aspasia Regilla, who died in 160 AD, today it's one of the best places to experience a live classical theatre performance.

Continuing climbing, we got to the top of the hill. There it is. More than any other monument, the Parthenon is the epitome of Ancient Greece's glory. Entirely accomplished in Pentelic marble (except for the wood on its roof) it's dedicated to Athena Parthenos. It's name means the "virgin's apartment" and was completed in 438 BC, while its construction took 15 years.

Another impressive view was the one to the modern city bellow the hill. There were no skyscrapers. Just relatively low, white-ish buildings, all with flat roofs. And even though I’ve never been to a desert (except for Dubai and Abu Dhabi) the scenery around reminded me of a city somewhere in the Middle East, I’ve never been to.

Before heading back down the slopes we passed next to the Erechtheion - the temple that housed the cult to Athena, Poseidon and Erechtheus. Named after the last one (the mythical king of Athens) it was built in 406 BC on the most sacred part of the Acropolis. Six larger-than-life maiden columns, the Caryatids, support its southern portico.

The sun was already high up in the sky when we left the Acropolis. The heat and sleep were really getting on us, so we headed to the hotel to finally check-in and take a quick nap, because there was more of Ancient Greece we wanted to see. But before that, we still climbed the rocky Areopagus Hill, right next to Acropolis’ west exit/entrance to take a look at the views.

For a couple of hours we replaced the hot, sunny streets with the cool hotel room. I’ve never been a nap person but it felt so good. I was ready to hit the streets again and experience more of the Ancient Greek heritage we were surrounded by. After getting lost (literally) in the tiny streets around the Acropolis, we finally found the Temple of Hephaestus - the god of the forge. It has been one of the first building of Pericle’s rebuilding program (449 BC) and it’s the best preserved Doric temple in Greece. What’s more interesting about it is that in 1300 AD it was converted into a church and held service up to December 13th 1834.

The Stoa of Attalos (stoa is a covered walkway) is in the Ancient Agora and it’s impossible to miss. A gorgeous building with 45 Doric columns on the ground floor and Ionic ones on the upper, it was built between 159-138 BC. It has been the first ever shopping arcade. Originally painted in red and blue, nowadays it houses the Agora Museum, where a large collection of artefacts from the site can be seen.

Walking around the Ancient Agora was kind of a timeless experience. It was definitely less crowded than the Acropolis, so we were able to appreciate it with no rush or pressure.

As we were done with the historic sites, it was time for an early dinner. Our flight to Santorini on the next morning was extremely early, which meant it would be another short night in sleep. Earlier we’ve passed on a tiny, little street on a hill, with lots of restaurants and tables, directly on the stairs. We were determined to find it and have dinner there. Yes, Athens has a lot of rooftops with views over the Acropolis, but I really, really wanted to emerge into its unique, loud atmosphere. And this made Mnisikleous street just the perfect spot for the purpose. We tried some greek appetisers, moussaka, wine and ended with some local honey brandy - it was strong but delicious!

On our way back to the hotel we got lost (again!) but it just confirmed what I’ve already felt - Athens is a cosmopolitan city, with a lot happening all the time, but its tiny streets can make you completely forget the city rush and feel on vacation. Definitely a place to go back.


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