I’m not exaggerating when I say this: we are literally in the cradle of Western civilization.
And it’s been interesting watching ancient and modern collide here in Athens.
There are payphones near the Acropolis and tourists snapping selfies with their iPhones — yes, that was us! — at the Temple of Zeus.
Human habitation in Greece can be traced back to the Paleolithic Age. We’re talking 12,000 to 10,000 BC. Buildings and cemeteries have been uncovered dating back to the Neolithic Age, about 7000 BC. And the first urban centers in the world popped up here during the Bronze Age — 3000 to 1100 BC — with settlements in Greece, on Crete and in the Cyclades.
And as you walk around Athens, you see remnants of this great civilization — still great, actually — in the strangest of places.
Like we were walking through the now-touristy Plaka, once an ancient neighborhood now a bustling visitor attraction with street vendors selling magnets and olive oil. You are surrounded by the ruins of Ancient Agora of Athens, around which this area is built.
And as you walk past gelato shops and sidewalk cafes selling gyros, you can catch glimpses of the Acropolis, an ancient citadel that was inhabited as far back as the fourth millennium BC. It was in the fifth century BC when Pericles oversaw the construction of such important buildings as the Parthenon and the Temple of Athena — both of which can be seen today, overlooking a sea of orange-roofed homes no doubt plugged into WiFi.
This is a city where ancient and modern intersects — and it’s really a trip to see.
Here’s what our first full day in Athens looked like — and yes, we took selfies:
Our morning started with a walk to the Panathenaic Stadium (or Kallimarmaro). This multipurpose stadium hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. It’s made entirely of white marble — the only one of its kind in the world — and is one of the oldest stadiums on the planet.
In ancient times, this was the site of a stadium that was used for the athletic events that are part of the Panatheniac Games. In 329 BC, it was rebuilt in marble and later enlarged to accommodate 50,000 spectators. It was rebuilt and refurnished for the 1896 Olympic Games.
It was amazing to walk around this ancient site and imagine what the 43-foot statue of Zeus — one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, destroyed in the 5th century AD — would have looked like, looming overhead in ivory and gold.
There’s an area just as you’re walking to the Acropolis that offers stunning panoramic views to the city. It’s no wonder crowds of people stop here first before heading up the stairs to the ancient ruins.
On our walk up to the Parthenon, we stopped to see the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a stone theater structure located on the southwest slope of the Acropolis. This theater was built in in 161 AD and used for music concerts. It was restored in the 1950s and has hosted such artists as Plácido Domingo, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli and a slew of important Greek performers.
I won’t lie: it’s crowded at the Acropolis, easily Athens’ most sought-out sight. Not even the slippery stairs and tiring climb up won’t stop the throngs of visitors to make the trek here every day, rain or shine, through this propylaea (monumental gateway) to see these antiquities.
The most impressive, of course, being the Parthenon, dedicated to the goddess Athena. Construction started in 447 BC when the Athenian Empire was at its height of power. It took nearly a decade ego build, and it’s considered one of the most important surviving buildings of Classical Greece.
On this hilltop is the Temple of Athena Nike, built between 427 and 424 BC and dedicated to the goddess Athena. “Nike” means victory in Greek, and Athena was worshipped in this form — as the goddess of victory in war — here.
After a pitstop at another cafe — just for water and a quick spanakopita — we walked to Melilotos, a hip new restaurant on Kalamiotou Street that started as a delivery service and got so popular that chef-owner Konstantinos Siopidis decided to open a brick-and-mortar spot. Good call.
This restaurant came recommended by the woman who works at the apartment where we were staying. (It’s always good to get advice, especially about food, from the locals.) We started with the fig salad, which came with figs, cashews and deep-fried feta cheese topped with a housemade balsamic dressing.
We shared one of the house specials: a slow-cooked salmon (cooked in paper) with a crust of celery, leeks and herbs and topped with onions and a sauce flavored with mastic from the island of Chios. This is an example of innovative Greek cooking that uses locally sourced ingredients and showcases what makes this place so special and unique.
For dessert — and with only three selections, it was actually a tough decision — we ordered the chocolate pie, another recommendation. This soft, rich pudding was just how I love my chocolate pies, with a biscuit crust that was more like a cookie than an actual crust. (It would have been even better had the crust been a bit saltier to cut the sweetness.) If I hadn’t eaten everything else today, I could have finished this myself. A nearly perfect dessert.
It was only 7 p.m. when we called it a day. One of my girlfriends got sick and the rest of us were pretty tired from all the walking and eating. We needed a nap. So we headed back to our swanky apartment, complete with a rainforest showerhead and free WiFi, in the middle of an ancient city.
The irony never ends.
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