What an amazing difference a day makes. Just yesterday I awoke to an empty apartment, very quiet and empty. It wasn’t a bad feeling, as I said before I enjoy solitary travel. I remember bustling around the kitchen, making my morning coffee and eggs, ready to set out on my day.
This morning the apartment is filled with chatter and laughter as three young men jostle, poke and joke, as only brothers can. The four rooms here can hardly contain the joy and excitement of a first day in Greece.
We planned to descend on the very center of Athens today. The Acropolis. The Parthenon. The Agora. It was so unimaginable to even speak the words that we kept looking at each other: Do you believe we’re really in Greece?
Even taking the bus downtown was amazing, especially as it rounded a corner to reveal the rocky mount of the Acropolis towering over the city. Once we stepped off the bus it wasn’t long before we became completely lost in the maze that is Athens, a city containing 6 million people, over half the population of the entire country. When viewed from afar, its expanse of white buildings spreads mile upon mile, climbing the mountains and filling the valley.
On the street level it is easy to lose your bearings as the streets twist and turn with no discernable pattern. Street signs, written in large Greek letter, give no clue to your whereabouts. But, always, the towering dome of the Acropolis can guide you toward the center.
And once in the ancient center, it’s difficult to turn anywhere without coming across some ruin or monument. It’s said modern engineers can’t place buildings or streets anywhere without encountering more ancient artifacts and buildings.
We first came upon the monumental Temple of the Olympiad Zeus and the Gates of Hadrian, which for the emperor Hadrian marked the separation between the Athens of old and the Athens of his time – both absolutely ancient to modern-day visitors. Then we trekked up the hundreds of stairs to the Acropolis, back down the steps to the Agora beneath, and around the base of the rocky dome, encountering ruins at every step.
By afternoon, it was time for rest and a glass of Greek wine in a small third-floor café. Seated behind the banks of windows that lined the café’s exterior, the Acropolis loomed directly in front and got me thinking of how impressive this city must have been to the Greeks of old.
A visitor to ancient Athens must have been in awe at this place of majesty and magic, one fashioned to impress upon both visitors and residents its significance as the beating heart of the world.
Imagine a metropolis where government and gods were immortalized with splendorous buildings and temples, many of which were placed significantly on a rocky prominence high in the sky.
The most grand, as intended by their builders, were the shimmering white buildings topping the Acropolis, a massive hill of garnet and white marble outcroppings. Viewed from beneath, the structures on the pinnacle, composed of purest ivory marble, must have nearly gleamed.
Scattered across the flattened space at the peak were temples and monuments, all which were dwarfed next to the mighty Parthenon built some 2,500 years ago. Dedicated to goddess Athena, the patron god of Athens, the mammoth temple was built during the city’s Golden Age.
On the plain directly beneath the Acropolis, lay the Agora, the ancient marketplace of Athens. While the ethereal temples on the Acropolis symbolized the religious beliefs of Athenians, it was the Agora that told the story of their everyday lives.
This was where all the commerce of Athens was conducted and on any given day it buzzed with activity. For eight centuries it was the center of life. Here Socrates and Plato would confer with others and lecture on philosophy. Here was where the entire populace of Athens came to meet or do business. Here was also where all visitors to Athens came at some point in their stay.
On the steep sides of the Acropolis, above the bustle of the Agora but beneath the glorious Acropolis two gigantic amphitheaters stood testament to the Athenians’ dedication to the arts. The Theater of Dionysus, perhaps the birthplace of modern theater, was connected by a covered walkway to the Odeon, where musical events were held. Together, they could hold thousands.
Just try to imagine the sights and sounds of this fabled city as music sprang from the mountains and clamoring crowds thronged through the marketplace.
Over hundreds of years, the Greeks and occasional invaders continued to grow the city center. Other marble temples – to Olympiad Zeus and others – sprouted around the base of the Acropolis. Later leaders and despots built equally impressive structures, the Hadrian’s gates and his library, the Roman forum and baths, churches, houses of commerce and even the original Olympic stadium.
Today many of the pieces of these artifacts has disintegrated or been lost to time. But the site has never ceased to capture the imagination.
It was enough to make us pinch ourselves and repeat the phrase: Do you believe we’re really in Greece?
What a place!