Pre-Cruise: Scaling the Acropolis in Athens

We flew into Athens the day before our Celestyal cruise embarkation to eliminate last minute flight worries. The added time gave us the chance to explore Greece’s capital. No sooner than we checked into the ideally located Airotel (Hotel) Parthenon, John and I left to explore the Acropolis, looming over the city center. The view reminded me of Edinburgh, Scotland where Castle Rock dominates the skyline.

We began the gradual climb up the craggy limestone hill, a trek dotted with the remnants of the city’s remarkable age. We passed the ruins of the ancient Theater of Dionysus. Soon followed the grand Odeon of Herodes Atticus, another outdoor amphitheater. Originally meant to host musicals, but the renovated Odeon showcases a range of modern performances.

Continuing the ascent, the views of the city become ever more dramatic and dreamy.  Looking over Athens, thousands of white stucco homes huddle together in the rolling hills, forming a sprawling city panorama. Modern Athens, however, remains without skyscrapers in homage to the Parthenon.

One of the remaining original freize panels

Finally, we arrived at the main gate (Propylaea) flanked by six massive Doric columns and side wings. Excitement grows with each step up the marble stairs, eventually bringing you face to face with the ruins of Parthenon, Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion. All these monuments were built as a coherent ensemble from 450-400 BC.

Sadly, the majestic Parthenon contains much scaffolding and a massive crane for ongoing restoration, but the preservation work holds promise for future visitors. Even so, the structure still evidences the tremendous architectural achievement and superb construction by the builders of ancient times. During the golden era of Classical Greece, the Acropolis must have been the most beautiful hilltop in the world.

A well-deserved sit and rest on the hilltop let me ponder the significance of the place as I took in the full view. A look around the Acropolis brings a stunning 360-degree panorama of the past and present. Whispers from the great philosophers who studied here, the creative minds who developed theater, and the clash of war and struggles for power that changed history hung on the breeze rippling the massive Grecian flag atop the hill.

My favorite monument, the Erechtheion, features the Caryatids, originally six beautiful maidens in flowing robes, beautiful but with the strength to serve as structural columns. Today, you see five replicas on the temple; Lord Elgin removed the sixth along with many of the Parthenon friezes and pediment statues, currently housed in the British Museum.

The walk downhill passes the other outer side of the Erechtheion, the most complete building of the ruins. Details in the columns combine might with delicacy – – their effect breathtaking.

As we gradually descended, we encountered the expected street hackers selling souvenirs and snacks – – not all of them the usual. The nearby Plaka neighborhood offers an assemblage of tourist shops, boutiques, and restaurants. Dining at a sidewalk café took me back to memories of meals along the Champs Elysee in Paris. I savored the lively atmosphere and the fresh and tasty Greek salad and olives.

Late in the afternoon brought an engaging tour of the Acropolis Museum, a museum that truly rocks! This 2009 edifice brings Athens yet another architectural wonder. The structure incorporates glass floors that expose the foundations of yet more of ancient Athens.

Replicas of the Caryatids holding up the temple

The main hall showcases large and finely painted pottery and other small figures, mostly from the Archaic Period, around 800 BC. In the column-lined gallery stand kore (female) and kouros (male) statues. They are stiff, with braided hair and Mona Lisa like smiles. These statues from 700-800 BC were buried when the Athenians returned to their ruined city after the Persian conquest.  For archaeologists, they provided a gold mine of treasures. All were once painted, and some faint stains remain.

Around the corner, in a lone central space, the original Caryatids proudly display their beauty and structural power. They were modeled after the upright women of Karyai, near Sparta. I found them captivating, but unfortunately,  photos are not permitted.

The top floor of the museum, its main draw, replicates the dimensions and art of the Parthenon friezes and pediments. First came a video spanning the 2,500-year history of the structure.  Afterward, a slow walk around the 525-foot frieze (shown at eye level) gave us a view of all 32 original panels, the only ones remaining, and copies of the many panels from the British Museum, Louvre and in Copenhagen. Some spaces are blanks because they have disappeared, leaving no record of what they depicted, a poignant loss from history.

The east and west pediments display recreations with the scant remaining fragments. A miniature display shows a depiction of the Greek Gods to provide a vision of the complete pediment statuary.

The well-planned location and glass walls of the museum allow visitors to glance at the Acropolis and experience the true power of the artistic, cultural landmark.  I can’t decide if a visit to the Acropolis Museum should happen before or after a tour of the site, but either way, a visit to Athens is not complete without doing both.

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