Athens Now

Acropolis now
"If you pine to see glorious Athens, buy a few secondhand Classical columns and explode a pound or two of dynamite among them and there you are." George Bernard Shaw's cruel quip has a ring of truth to it. The Acropolis has endured indignities aplenty, from foreign occupiers to archaeological plunderers. Now the restorers seek to reassemble what they can from the jumble of broken marble. The Parthenon has been roped off and a crane hovers over the noble ruin. Don't expect the work to be finished this side of the millennium. The builders reckon it would be quicker and cheaper to knock it all down and start again. But that's nothing new, is it?

Rendezvous with the Gods
Statues of the colorful pantheon of deities, for whom the Acropolis was a kind of terrestrial playground, may be seen in all their glory in the truly fabulous National Archaeological Museum. Here you can get close to Poseidon, Athena and Zeus as well as host of minor characters from Greek legend. Don't miss the smaller Acropolis Museum housing some beautiful items which somehow managed to escape the clutches of foreign collectors.

Forever Plaka
While the temples on the summit have slowly crumbled away, the old quarter of Plaka, clinging limpet-like to the base of the Acropolis, has conspired constantly to renew itself with the vital stuff of everyday human life. This cozy urban village feels curiously insulated from the mad sprawl of modern Athens. Through winding alleys you come across tiny squares adorned with ancient ruins such as the Monument of Lysikrates. A few years ago, Plaka was plagued by tacky tourism and a rampant drug scene. Happily, it has now been reclaimed by it's inhabitants and is the perfect place to soak up the Athenian atmosphere.

Come dancing with Aristotle?
Was the original Lyceum a ballroom where the ancient Greeks practiced fox-trot and chachacha? Actually, it's the name of the educational academy founded by Aristotle. It appears that the famous fourth-century BC teacher-philosopher liked to engage his students in scholarly discourse while strolling about in the open air. On fine days he would even break bounds and head the seaside. A lesson which started in Athenian could end miles away down by the coast. Aristotle is once again hot news since archaeologists have just discovered the remains of his Lyceum on the site of the future Goulandris Museum of Contemporary Art.

Changing the guard
Imagine you had carte blanche to redesign a military uniform. Why not go for something completely outrageous? How about woolly white tights with tassels on suspenders below the knee, nifty mini-skirts and jaunty red clogs with black pompoms? Well, you'll have to come up with something better than that, since this is the ceremonial kit already worn by the Eyzones, who watch over the Greek National Parliament in downtown Athens. Get there before 11 on a Sunday morning to witness the amazing sight of the Changing of the Guard, more like slow motion ballet choreography than a parade ground exercise. In spite of all that, they do look quite fierce.

Guarding the Parliament
Priapic postcards
Tut-tut. Sexually explicit material adorns an intriguing range of postcards on which to convey your holiday greetings from Athens. Greek antiquity had the highest regard for Priapus, the original Mr. Phallus. Wonderful how time lends respectability in such sensitive areas.

Mega shopping
Pottery, leather, shoes, knitted woolens, carpets, worry beads and marble heads of Greek philosophers are the things to buy. For smart clothes take your pick among the boutiques in fashionable Kolonaki. Food specialties include honey from Attica, pistachios from Aegina and lives from Kalamata. An excellent place to stock up the best Greek edibles is the enormous Alpha-Beta supermarket (a.k.a. the Mega), just a stone's throw from the international airport.

One man's rubbish ...
... is another man's treasure. Nowhere is the old adage more palpably true than at the flea market of Monastiraki. This warren of narrow streets bursts with life on a Sunday morning when the cream of Athenian junk draws the critical attention of a discriminating audience. Fancy a German army helmet or a vintage cocktail dress? You will find enough battered wind instruments to equip the brass section of a full symphony orchestra. Go early if you are buying.

Byron was here
For your own sake, don't seek to defend the deeds of Lord Elgin, manhandle of marbles from the Parthenon and kidnapper of a lone caryatid from the Erechtheion. Claim spiritual kinship instead with Lord Byron who laid down his life for the cause of Greek independence. Pay your respects to the great romantic at the Byron statue or follow the Byron trail out to Cape Sounion, where in 1810 the poet committed a minor act of vandalism by carving his name on the Temple of Poseidon. This now counts as a badge of honor, since Byron remains forever enshrined as a national hero of Greece.

First Olympic Stadium Olympics coming home
The gleaming marble stadium built to host the first Olympic Games of the modern era in 1896 is now mainly used by joggers. But the structure served as a powerful symbol of the Athens bid for the 2004 games. If that succeeds, there really will be a cause for Athenians to sing down in the agora.

Europe, a Greek invention
Spare a thought for the folk who devised the word which now dominates all our lives, "Europe", meaning "mainland" or "sunset", seems to have suggested itself to the ancient Greeks as a term to denote the unexplored lands to the north and west whose backward inhabitants could only speak in unintelligible "bar-bar" sounds and thus came to be known as barbarians. By the way, the Greeks gave us "skepsis" as well as Europe.

Maastricht hurts
Greek ambitions to be in the first wave of the European single currency have resulted in a tough economic program. Popular protests against the government's austerity measures have been bringing the country periodically to a halt. Until the problem is solved, expect anything from public sector strikes to road blocks by angry farmers.

Set sail for the islands
A full day excursion from Piraeus on Olympic Short Cruises (approx. $67 including lunch and stops on three islands) is the ideal escape from the big city. The Temple of Aphaia on Aegina is the best preserved of any in the Greek islands and the air tastes like perfume. The sun-drenched waterfront of Poros is strictly for sipping ouzo. Footloose felines might be tempted to jump ship at Hydra where the living looks delightfully easy for a happy colony of harbor cats.

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Athens Now

"It will be wonderful when it's finished", is the best way of looking at Athens' classical sites at the moment, but look beyond the marble and stone and there is an exciting city to discover.