“Maid of Athens, ere we part, Give, oh give me back my heart!” – Lord Byron
As the bright Mediterranean sun began its slow ascension over the Saronic Gulf, the Celebrity Solstice eased its way into the bustling port of Piraeus, some 12 kilometres south of Athens.
Established in the 5th century BC, Piraeus was once a small town surrounded by fortified walls that provided Athens with access to the Aegean Sea and beyond. Today, it’s home to the largest commercial harbour in Greece, and the entry-point for anyone visiting Athens by ship.
Since our ship would be in port until 6:00 pm, we decided to forgo the ship’s easy but expensive excursion to Athens (US$75) and take the electric tram (1 Euro each way) on our own from Piraeus into the city’s centre. We reached Monastiraki Station about one hour later, which empties onto a beautiful square that sits right in the shadow of the stunning Acropolis high above it.
One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Athens reached its zenith as the artistic centre of Greece during the 5th century BC. During this “Golden Age” of classical Greek culture, the Athenians laid the foundations of western civilization and produced some of the world’s most celebrated buildings, literature, science and philosophy.
While today’s overcrowded Athens is not quite as splendid as its “Golden” ancestor was, the city of Socrates and Plato still offers some of the most inspiring sights in the western world. These include the Acropolis with its beautiful monuments, the city’s central square called the Syntagma, the Temple of Hephaestus, and the old scenic quarter known as the Plaka. And while Athens can still be overcrowded at times, there have been many improvements made to public transportation, buildings, museums and air quality as a result of the massive spending for the 2004 Greek Olympic Games.
We eventually made our way up to the Acropolis, which consists of four main buildings that were constructed under the direction of Pericles from 460-430 BC. Those buildings are the Parthenon, the Erechtheum with its porch of the caryatids (maidens), the Temple of Athena Nike, and the Proplyaea, which is the marble-columned entrance that leads to the top of the Acropolis. The Acropolis also overlooks two magnificent theatres – the Dionysos and the Odeon Herodes Atticus.
As we walked up the Propylaea’s steps and through its monumental gate, we were struck by the amazing beauty of the Parthenon as it stood high above the city on a glorious canvas of solid blue sky. The first structure built on the Acropolis, the beautiful Doric-style temple dedicated to the goddess Athena is the most enduring symbol of classical Greece, and one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments (even though it seems to be continuously embraced by scaffolding). Consequently, there are always huge crowds on the Acropolis during the tourist season (May to September), so it pays to arrive early or late in the day to get the best views.
After admiring the beautiful buildings of the Acropolis and the amazing vista it provides of the theatres and city below, we made our way back down to Monastiraki Square where we had a delicious lunch of souvlaki and kebobs on the patio of an old taverna. We then strolled through the local flea market in search of tablecloths, linens, pottery and souvenirs before heading off to the nearby districts of the Plaka and Thission.
Athens’ oldest and most scenic neighborhood, the Plaka is filled with a labyrinth of narrow streets, small churches and lots of interesting shops and cafes. It’s also home to the Ancient Greek and Old Roman agoras, the open-air markets where residents once traded and sold their goods.
Just west of the Plaka, we discovered the ancient Temple of Hephaestus, which sits atop a small hill at the northwest side of the Ancient Agora. Completed in 415 BC, the Doric-style temple with its 21 marble columns is the best preserved in Athens. And since its construction was supervised by the same person who helped build the Parthenon (Ictinus), it’s nearly as beautiful.
It was now 3:30 p.m., and time to make our way back by tram to Piraeus to catch our ship.
While we had experienced just a fraction of what the city has to offer, we had seen enough for Athens to capture our hearts. As this great city faded away behind us, we felt grateful to the people of Athens. Grateful for the cultural, scientific and artistic treasures passed on to western civilization by the ancient Greeks. And grateful that inspiring monuments like the Parthenon, the Erechtheum and the Temple of Hephaestus from the Golden Age of Athens had been preserved for future generations like us.