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Athens is Europe's southern-most capital city and the gateway to Greece and the ancient world. Its renowned hallmark is the gleaming marble of the monuments of the Acropolis, which rise triumphantly above the city, proud survivors of the ravages of man and time.
People have dwelt on this rock for some 5,000 years — a lineage so ancient as to make all other European cities seem young by comparison.
Below, in the ancient Agora, or marketplace, Socrates held his dialogues, and the system of democracy e know today had its beginning, making Athens the cradle of Western civilization. It is this rich history that continues, to act as a magnet for travellers throughout the world. Modern Athens is far removed from the elegant splendour of its classical ruins.
The sprawl of steel and concrete retches up into the surrounding hills as far as the eye can see. (Remarkably for a city of this size, there are no skyscrapers and under a dozen tall buildings.) Aesthetics have fallen by the wayside during the 20th century, for a massive influx of rural Greeks and repatriated countrymen from Turkey has made a necessity of rapid (and frenzied) growth.
Today, metropolitan Athens, along with the adjoining city and port of Piraeus, is home to more than 4 million people, a figure that equals nearly half the population of the entire country.
It is fitting, too, that the venerable monuments of Athens, built by the ancient citizens, should still stand in the viable heart of their descendants. Historian TW Rolleston wrote: ‘The elements which in the most remote times have entered into nation’s composition endure through all its history, and help to mould that history, and to stamp the character and genius of the people.’
Athens has always been a world crossroads. Having dealt with invaders throughout its history, the city has coped well with the tourist bombardment of recent years (Greece receives around 10 million visitors a year!). Even those heading for the islands often spend at least a night or two in Athens, and for many, this is a destination in its own right. If the urban din gets too much, mountain villages, get- away islands and beaches are easily accessible.
Athens, a city very much on the move, absorbs effortlessly its waves of visitors, while straining its Hellenic ingenuity for greater commercial and in industrial prominence. Yet in the end, regardless of how modern it becomes or the extent of the progress it achieves, it will always uphold the splendid heritage evoked by its very name.
You will most likely arrive during the chaos of daytime Athens, with your first glimpse of the Acropolis through a haze of heat and smog. Frightful traffic, clogged streets, air and noise pollution, and sweltering summer temperatures can be as trying here as in any large city at this latitude.
My suggestion is that you head straight for Plaka, the oldest quarter of town, plant yourself at a shady café table and relax! This is Athens’ oldest quarter and lies between Ermous Street and the Acropolis, and has lively shops and tavernas and colourful back streets prefect for wandering. Visit the Museum of Greek folk Art and the lovely Tower of the Winds.
Of Athens’ many churches, three ‘must-see’ are Aglos Eleftherios, next to the cathedral; Kapnikarea, on Ermou Street, and Agii Theodori at Klafthmonos square.
During your stay in Athens you may have many experiences: a breezy respite on a roof garden, a lunchtime accordion serenade, a fresh rose from a flower seller on a rare rainy day, and the play of the late afternoon light of the Parthenon.
Athenian culture has various strands influenced by East and West, embracing progress but revering tradition.
The Byzantine chanting which drifts out of churches, the black-robed and bearded Orthodox priests, and the strange, almost pictographic letters of the Greek alphabet give the city a slightly exotic air.
Saints’ days are celebrated with wreaths of white flowers, as Athenians in business suits line up solemnly to kiss the icon, and holidays are marked with lively folk dancing and processions. That the Athenians uphold their heritage in the midst of a modern metropolis is befitting of a people whose forefathers advanced the concept of a city from the very beginning.
Greek come to their capital from the island and all around the mainland for a variety of reasons, but primarily to study, work, and make a better life for themselves and their families. As a result, over the years the city has become a microcosm of Greek culture, not to mention the beneficiary of the country’s natural and human resources.
Take, for instance, the spectacular quantity and use of marble. An outstanding proportion of this mountainous country is pure marble- 130 different kinds, of all colours and quality. It is this variety which gives the monuments and statues of Athens such splendor.
Greek hospitality is both warm and genuine. It is a tradition, too, which goes back to ancient times, when the belief was that passing strangers may have been gods in disguise.
At the same time you’ll come to respect the local business acumen, whether you’re buying a flea-market trinket or trying to charter a yacht. Athenians, in the tradition of cunning classical Greek hero Odysseus, have sharp minds.
They place a high value on education, and many speak several languages. In addition, most have acquired at least a rudimentary knowledge of English.
The strong bonds of family, religion and nationalism have largely insulated Greece from the sort of social problems that plague other European countries. Drugs, alcoholism and homelessness were practically unheard of until recent years and even now are seldom seen.
This is one aspect of modern life in which Athens is content to lag behind. Urban crime rates are still low, making it one of the safest capitals in Europe you can visit.
Athens’ legendary history begins with a contest between Athena, goddess of wisdom, and Poseidon, god of the sea. Both had their eye on the city, so it was agreed that whoever could come up with the more useful gift for mortals would win. The half-human, half-serpent king of Athens, Cecrops, acted as arbiter.
The contest started with Poseidon, who struck the rock of the Acropolis with his mighty trident and brought salt water gushing forth. Athena offered an olive tree, however, which proved more valuable, and so she acquired the position of the city’s special protector.
The history of city is just as fascinating. From around 2000 BC, wandering bands filtered into Athens and other parts of Greece from Western Russia or Asia Minor. Known as Achaeans, they were the first Greek-speaking people in the area, and over the centuries they built many opposing fortresses and developed the rich Mycenaean civilization based in the Peloponnesus. In the minoe Acropolis of Athens a wall and a palace were built.
The Achaeans’ chief rivals and mentors were the dazzling Minoans of Crete-that is until about 1450 BC when their empire was devastated, possibly by tidal waves caused by the eruption of the volcanic island of Thera (Santorini). For several centuries, the Mycenaeans dominated the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean.
Greece was invaded by Nazi Germany in April 1941 and by June the Germans controlled the entire county with Italian forces placed in Athens.
The people suffered greatly but the city’s monuments escaped serious damage.
Unfortunately the Greek resistance movement which was formed during the war was so politically divided that the guerrillas expended almost as much energy fighting each other as the Germans.
In October 1944 the Allied force moved into Athens and much of Greece, encountering little opposition from the retreating Germans.
The war left Greece utterly devastated, but fictions still squabbled ceaselessly in an attempt to gain political advantage. Communist and royalist partisans moved inexorably toward military showdown as the United States, under the Truman Doctrine, sent the first installment to economic aid. Two years of savage civil war ended in late 1949 with communist defeat, but political in stability was not resolved in Athens until a military dictatorship seized power in 1967.
During the seven-year reign of the colonels, political parties were dissolved, the press was censored and left-wing sympathies were exiled, tortured and imprisoned. In November 1973, a student protest at the Athens polytechnic was brutally crushed.
This action spelled the end of the Greek tolerance of the regime, which collapsed eight months later when the junta attempted to overthrow the Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios, and instead provoked the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Constantine Karamanlis, the former conservative premier, was recalled from exile in Paris to restore democracy.
The reforms which followed brought the abolition of the monarchy, with a new constitution for a republican government then being drawn up in 1975.
With its entry into the Common market in 1981, Greece’s economic prospects strengthened. That same year, the first socialist government swept to victory under the leadership of Andreas Papandreou and the PASOK party. Papandreou espoused the desires of a postwar and stability, and secure a better future for their children.
By 1990, beleaguered by personal and financial scandals in the administration, PASOK was defeated at the polls, after the conservative New Democracy party, and Constantine Mitsotakis became the new prime minister.
The victory turned out to be short-lived, however, for the tenacious Papandreou was re-elected in 1994.
Most recently Greece has been centre-stage and in world headlines for the problems associated with the euro where banknotes and coins were introduced in Greece in the first wave of countries adopting the current.
Athens is the gateway to the rest of Greece. With little more than a moment’s notice, you can hop on a bus, a boat or a guided tour to visit some truly marvelous places, all easily reached on a half-day, full day or overnight excursion.
Also en-route to Delphi is Livadia 119km (74miles) from Athens’ is a regional centre. It boasts a clock tower presented by Lord Elgin and a pretty Turkish bridge spanning the river and roughly 23km (14miles) west of town, you might make a detour to the monastery of Osios Loukas, a splendid example of 11th-century Byzantine architecture which has beautiful golden mosaics.
Beyond Livadia the road climbs into the Helikon range. At 2500m (8.202ft) Mount Parnassos is its highest peak. You’ll see beehives, herds of goats and low, stone shepherds’ huts scattered over the stony pastureland – the region is known for its honey and feta cheese. In springtime the fields are carpeted with bright red poppies and Spanish broom.
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Panepistimiou (also called Venixelou), with several 19th-century neoclassical buildings, runs parallel with Stadiou. Either are a great way to walk from Syntagma Square to Omonia Square and catch some sights.
The first building you’ll pass is the former home of German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822-90), who found the ancient palace of Troy and underneath the tombs at Mycenae. Up under roof you’ll see engraved ‘IIiou Melathron’ (palace on troy).
Further along you’ll find the Academy of Arts, the University and the National Library. Their sculpted, gilded facades mimis the classical style. Athena and Apollo stand atop the Ionic columns at the Academy, while Socrates and Plato sit at the entrance. The Library has nearly a million books and manuscripts, including amazing hand-illuminated Gospels of the 19th and 11th centuries.
THE Archeologikon Mousion holds more masterpieces of ancient art than anywhere else. Spanning perhaps 7,000 years, exhibits represent every period of ancient Greek history and every site underneath from the world of the ancient Greeks.
Located at Patission 44. Open Mon 12.30am7pm, Tues-Fri 8am-7pm, Sat-Sun 8.30am-3pm. Marble and bronze statues, vases and archaeological treasures from prehistoric times to the Byzantine era, including the acclaimed Minoan frescoes from Santorini. The best museum of Greek artifacts.
You will want to dedicate at least half a day to browsing through the fabulous treasury of sculpture, frescos, vases, jewelry, figurines, coins and everyday implements, and no matter how
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Graphic showing average weather in Athens in Celcius and Centimeters (Change to Farenheit and Inches)
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