Athens and Ancient Greece


“…like that star of the waning summer who beyond all stars rises bathed in the ocean stream to glitter in brilliance.” – Homer

I was reading a blog posting where the author suggested that while the Acropolis is a place worth seeing  there is not a lot else in Athens and recommended bypassing the Greek capital and going to Mykonos or Santorini instead.

Well I have to disagree with that because Athens is a wonderful city for visiting ancient monuments and buildings, in addition to the Acropolis there is the Ancient Greek and Roman Agora and the dramatic Temple of Zeus with its spectacular columns thrusting triumphantly into the sky.  They are all in very poor shape it has to be said, the Parthenon at the Acropolis was blown up by Venetian invaders when it was being used as an armoury store, most of the Agora is pretty much non existent and the Temple of Olympian Zeus has only a handful of its original columns still standing.  It was here that I saw what I found to be an amusing notice at the entry kiosk, in large letters it said:

Please respect the Antiquity”

Just a little late for that I thought.  What a pity someone didn’t think to put up these signs two thousand years ago, perhaps it would have stopped people in the middle ages dismantling them to build houses, the Turkish invaders from grinding down the marble to make mortar (really, yes!) and made Lord Elgin think twice before he plundered the Acropolis for the treasures he returned to Britain.  But this was long before UNESCO and the World Heritage Sites initiative and so perhaps not because for most of those two thousand years no one has been especially concerned about the preservation of the past.

Much of the tourist area of the Plaka is simply built over the top of Ancient Greece and around every corner there is an open excavation, which disappears under a modern building or a road.  The Greek Agora has to be the worst example of all because running through the middle of it is a railway line.  I wonder who thought that was a good idea?  As the construction workers kept coming across priceless artefacts surely it must have occurred to someone that they should stop and excavate the place properly before carrying on?  Part of the reason why it took so long to build the Acropolis Museum was that the builders came across an unexpectedly rich archaeological site and it had to be properly examined and explored.  The Museum has a glass floor so that visitors can see the excavations below.

Actually the Agora is a wonderful site, admittedly not as dramatic as the Acropolis but the ancient ruins are in good shape and there is no major renovation work here to spoil it and there are far fewer people to jostle with for the best viewing positions.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus must have looked magnificent, it took six hundred years to build due to a stop-start building programme and when completed had one hundred and four Corinthian columns seventeen metres high (that’s about four London double decker buses).  Only fifteen remain standing and one other lies in pieces across the site, blown down in a gale in 1852.  As early as the year 86 people were not respecting the antiquity and two columns were removed and taken to Rome to be relocated in the emerging Forum.  An earthquake probably did most of the damage and then everyone helped themselves to the stones for their new building projects.


Away from Athens, Delos is an interesting archaeological site that I visited in 2005 during a holiday to the island of Mykonos.  Allegedly the birth place of Apollo it is the epicentre of the Cycladic ring and an uninhabited island ten kilometres from Mykonos, and is a vast archaeological site that together with Athens on the mainland and Knossos on Crete makes up the three most important archaeological sites in Greece.  The reason we are not so aware of it is because whereas a lot of the work in Athens and Crete was undertaken by British and American archaeologists Delos is predominantly a French excavation site and we prefer to concentrate on British rather than Gallic achievements.

Delos is well worth a visit but here are two bits of advice, firstly don’t miss the last boat home or else you will be stuck on the rather remote island all night long and secondly take plenty of water and a snack because there is only one small shop on the island attached to the museum and it is meteorically expensive!

Crete – The Palace of Knossos and the Minotaur

The Acropolis Museum in Athens

26 responses to “Athens and Ancient Greece

  1. I really enjoyed our time in Athens too! Lovely photos against the blue sky by the way. 🙂

  2. I agree…there is absolutely so much more than the Acropolis… There is much more to every city than what they are most known for…you just need to hop off the big tourist flow and see other not so significant places…you get surprised, and you get lot more free space to take pictures 🙂 have you been to Thessaloniki by the way?

  3. Andrew,
    Re this comment:
    I was reading a blog posting where the author suggested that while the Acropolis is a place worth seeing there is not a lot else in Athens

    Golly! That is such an interesting remark.

    Why? Well, because it is indicative of a total lack of curiosity.

    I will level with you. Most of the Greek ruins stuff makes me yawn. (And hey, before you reprimand me, let me reprimand myself for lacking a real sense of history.)

    But even if, Acropolis apart, I was not turned on by the Ancient Greece aspects of the city, there was soo much else to whet my appetite.

    From the sublime (climbing to the top of Lykobettos Hill – the highest point of the city – to the 19C Chapel of Agios Georgios for its amazing view of the city), to the mundane – but very welcome – Greek version of McDonalds called Woody’s. (Just as good, but cheaper.)

    My best memory of the city.

    Walking through The Panathinaiko Stadium – the stadium where the 1896 Olympics took place. The first modern Olympics.

    It is a stadium where you close your eyes for a moment and you are back there in your ancient spikes and knee length shorts.


    • I didn’y try a Woody’s meal but interestingly the company had the franchise on the Blue Star Ferries and it was quite expensive on board. I wondered why I didn’t see a McDonalds in Greece, last month by contrast in France every place I visited had a well sign posted restaurant (is restaurant the right word?)

  4. Good post Andrew..thank you

    Have you been to Santorini..I had a holiday there many years ago it was so beautiful…

    • Hi Patrecia!
      Yes I have been to Santorini and I agree with you it is very beautiful. Unfortunately I think it is spoilt now by all of the cruise ships which visit and unleash thousands of cruisers into the tiny streets which makes it very uncomfortable and overcrowded. I am glad that I have been but I am in no rush to go back, I prefer the quieter islands, those without airports or on the cruises itineraries!

  5. Bit of a love-hate relationship with Athens since leaving my handbag, with passport inside, on the wall (historic!) by the Parthenon on the day we were flying home. More my fault than Athens’ but it’s not a day to easily forget.

    Still I would go back as I saw little else on that memorable occasion and recently read Sofka Zinovieff’s “Eurydice St”, full of interesting insights on the city.

    • I can only imagine how awful that must have been – how long did it take to sort it out and get home?

      • We had about 4 hours of hell- Consulate, police, photographers for passport photos, back to Consulate, but we did, miraculously, make the flight, with very sweaty palms. I don’t think the husband spoke to me on the flight home!

        I don’t have a good track record- in Corfu one year I was adamant that we were going in the right direction and we almost walked onto the airstrip. If ever I’m holidaying in the same place as you, go to ground!

  6. Athens is a great city with so much to see. Being from Canada where our history & architecture is fairly new, I was speechless when I first walked the streets of Athens. Now, after many years of exploring I am still excited when I get the chance to spend some time there & enchanted every time I look up and see the Acropolis gazing down at me. No one should come to Greece & miss this destination.

  7. I love Athens.. Beautiful city with many hidden treasures….

  8. Great post, Athens was wonderful when I was there, it could be rough around the edges but it only seemed to add to its character. I remember The Temple of Olympian Zeus having a huge impact on me, i had expected something similar to the parthenon but just walking around that corner and the scale of the columns just hits you. I was gobsmacked.

  9. I loved Athens too. One of my favourite cities. Thought the museum was great as well.

    • Shame about the current volatile situation. We normally use Athens to start and finish our Greek Island holiday but have decided to bypass it this year because of the risk of demonstrations and strikes!

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  12. I have visited Athens over fifty times and I always love it. It does need some imagination to appreciate what it was like but there is nowhere else like it. I have been to the Acropolis and ancient agora four times and each time see something different. Crete this year for first time, can’t wait.

  13. I had my wallet pinched on the Athens bus. After my initial rage I had to admire the skilful way they must have done the dastly deed in a split second!

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