Where ancient Greece casts its lengthy shadows
Visiting Athens, where the ancient world is on display at every turn, gives a perspective on history and the transience of life.
The Parthenon, perched majestically atop the Acropolis hill, provides a link to the past and an orientating landmark. Over the millennia, its ancient stones have witnessed cycle upon cycle of destruction and regeneration of the city below.
The Acropolis has been the site of building and ruin since it became the seat of the Mycenaean ruler in the 16th century BC. Invasions, earthquakes, explosion, pillaging, pollution and tourism have taken a toll.
Despite the Parthenon now being partly covered with scaffolding and its interior occupied by huge cranes and building blocks — part of a long-term restoration process — it is impossible not to feel humbled standing beneath the pillars of an icon of western civilisation.
On the southern slope of the Acropolis we felt the transmission of culture down through the ages as we sat on the stone steps of the Theatre of Dionysus where the western theatrical tradition began.
It was constructed in the 4th century BC, enabling 17,000 spectators to attend the premiers of plays by Euripides, Aristophanes, Sophocles and Aeschylus. Our entertainment was more prosaic: two young women in twirling skirts posed for selfies on the very spot where actors of the ancient world once performed Medea.
The magnificent Acropolis Museum is a fitting tribute to the ancient world. It nestles below the hill in view of the monuments whose treasures it houses. The museum is elegant — all glass and marble with large concrete pillars — a modern-day temple. The first floor is dedicated to the "minor" buildings on the Acropolis and includes the original Caryatids, which have been removed from the Erechtheion for preservation.
In an architecturally inspired move, the top floor — a vast glass structure — is pivoted 23 degrees so as to directly face the Parthenon. Following the exact proportions of the temple, plaster casts of the frieze, metopes and pediment reveal what the decorations around the temple once looked like. A different shade of plaster is used to identify the substantial sections removed by Lord Elgin, which now reside, controversially, in the British Museum.
Though the Acropolis Museum is the jewel in the crown of Athenian museums, one that lingers in my memory is at the other end of the spectrum of splendour. Housed in a portakabin in a rundown park, the Plato Academy is a digital museum.
Accompanied by an aspiring young philosopher, we made a pilgrimage to the park where in 387 BC Plato established The Academy, his school of philosophy where he debated with his students beneath the trees. Nowadays teenage boys with skateboards hang out under the olive branches.
Newly opened, the museum is accessible to all ages, using interactive computers, online quizzes, philosophical questions and video monitors screening interviews with Platonic scholars. It succeeds in turning complex concepts into a fun learning experience. It is striking that there is only such a tiny tribute to the man who laid down some foundations of western thought.
A visit to the ancient Agora — once the centre of Athenian politics, commerce, religion and culture — brought us up close to the workings of Athenian democracy. We located the pottery discs used in 472 BC to vote to ostracise Themistocles, an Athenian general and statesman; we strolled along the colonnade of the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos where, in the 2nd century BC, politicians met to run the city.
At the end of long days immersed in ruined temples dedicated to Athena and Zeus, our evenings were spent at the altars of the modern gods known as chefs.
We sat on rooftop terraces of upmarket restaurants eating octopus ravioli and feta mousse dumplings while enjoying commanding views of the illuminated Parthenon hovering above the darkened slopes of the Acropolis. Young Athenians quaffed cocktails to blaring pop music that felt somewhat incongruous with the surroundings.
One lunchtime, exhausted from a morning at the National Archaeological Museum, we found an enormous, outdoor souvlaki restaurant in the Plaka. Before we had time to calculate how many thousand souvlakis are sold each day, ours had arrived. Wrapped in white paper, pillowy pitas were packed with skewers of lamb, chunks of luscious tomatoes, red onion, sauce and a few chips. Along with a refreshing Greek salad, the meal was the simplest we ate all week and the most memorable.
After lunch we encountered the Central Market, a vast indoor produce market where our meal was probably sourced.
The meat section revealed a butchery that was sanitised and violent. Row upon row of illuminated glass cabinets contained every cut of beast imaginable, the meat displayed like exhibits in a museum.
The massive carcasses hanging alongside were a visceral challenge even for carnivores. Like a percussion orchestra in Hades, the clanging of knives and cleavers reverberated while bones cracked and split on large chopping boards. Baskets of skinned sheep heads grimaced, their glassy eyes seeming to follow us up the aisles.
The surrounding area revealed the grittier side of Athens, where the economic crisis was all too apparent. Walking to a local taverna in the Omonoia neighbourhood we encountered drug users, beggars in the most pitiful condition and people sleeping rough in the porticoes of churches.
There were whole streets covered in graffiti. The slogans spoke of the troubles we read about in the newspapers and underscored the tension that prevails. Athenian street art is not all political, however, and talented graffiti artists have transformed the metal grilles that cover shop windows, creating an outdoor gallery come closing time.
In Athens, one zigzags constantly between the present and the past. There are so many museums of antiquities and monuments from ancient Greece, we found ourselves racing about town, trying to tick off just one more temple.
We will have to return to explore the many Byzantine churches whose bell ringing sweeps across the city.
Athens has a modern face too, of course, but what is undeniable is its engagement with its history. For those who have an interest in ancient civilisations, and the birthplace of western philosophy and democracy, the stones of Athens are alive and humming with stories.