Why you should visit the city of Gods this season

Contrary to popular belief, the ancient city of Athens is not overrun by refugees begging on the streets

brunch Updated: Sep 02, 2017 22:20 IST
Vinod Advani
Vinod Advani
Hindustan Times
Athens,King Cecrops,General Pericles
The Parthenon was built in 438-432 BC to replace an older temple to Athena, destroyed by the Persians (Getty Images)

Western civilisation’s cradle, Athens, is over 6,000 years old! Home to more than half of Greece’s eleven-million population, the city’s friendly citizens wear the cloak of history lightly. Hotels are professionally run and the ancient sites that draw over 30 million tourists are constantly spruced up. And no, there are no refugees begging on the streets.

Story time

Evidence of human inhabitation on the Acropolis dates back to 5,000 BC. The then ruler, King Cecrops, named the city after himself, but the citizens wanted an immortal name. Two gods competed for the honour. Poseidon, the ocean god, struck the sacred rock and produced a spring of water, symbolising naval power. Athena, goddess of virtues like wisdom, war, and the arts, produced an olive tree out of the arid ground, signifying that citizens would always prosper and live in peace. This is how the city came to be called Athens.

Athens entered her golden age under General Pericles (495-429 BC). Great thinkers, writers, and artists flourished in the city. Herodotus, the ‘father of history’, lived in Athens, as did Socrates, ‘father of philosophy’, and Hippocrates, ‘father of medicine’. Plato founded his academy outside the walls of Athens in 385 BCE and, later, Aristotle’s Lyceum was founded in the city centre. Over the millennia, the city started to grow, spiralling downwards into the valleys and spreading as far as its present day port, Piraeus. In 1834, Athens became the capital of Greece. Today the greater urban complex of the Greek metropolis is called Attica.

“The Greeks are the inventors of theatre. A priest called Thespis is believed to have been the first ever actor…. Ergo, today’s actors are called thespians.”

The Acropolis (akro meaning high, and polis meaning city) is the name of the Sacred Hill on which several monuments were built at different periods of time: Propylaia, Parthenon, Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike. The grand design of ancient Greeks becomes clear as I step through the Beule Gate. First comes the Propylaia (built by Pericles in 437-432 BC), the ornate entrance of the temple complex. To the right is the wingless victory temple, built to commemorate the triumph of the Greeks over Persians who tried to invade. As we climb upwards to the left, we can see the almost intact monuments of Erechtheion (built 420 BC to signify Athens’ power and influence), and the Old Temple of Athena. Lo and behold! Straight ahead is the magnificent masterpiece known as the Parthenon, the central attraction built as homage to Athena, the supreme goddess.

The theater of Herodes Atticus is perched on the southwest slope of the Acropolis (Getty Images)

The Parthenon was built in 438-432 BC to replace an older temple to Athena, destroyed by the Persians. This rectangular structure encircled Athena’s 12-metre high statue, made of wood and ivory. The statue was lost in the early Byzantine era (330BC-1453 AD), but the Parthenon survived. At various times it became a treasury, then a church, even a mosque. Today it is the most important surviving symbol of Classical Greece.

Observing its Doric architecture closely, the slight bulge of the columns gives the impression that they are bending under the weight of the roof. Don’t be fooled. It’s an optical illusion deliberately built to deceive.

Reluctant to leave the wondrous Parthenon complex even after three hours, we made our way downhill via the southern slope of the Acropolis. Halfway down stands another marvel: the most ancient theatre in the world – the theatre of Dionysus. Here, famous ancient Greek poets like Aristophanes, Euripides and Sophocles oversaw premiere performances of their plays. Estimates are that the theatre had a capacity of 17,000!

The Greeks are the inventors of theatre as a literary form, and their drama masterpieces date back to the 6th century BC. A priest called Thespis is believed to have been the first ever actor to interact in dialogue with the chorus. Ergo, today’s actors are called thespians.

The Acropolis Museum Caryatids has giant statues of priestesses that originally supported the roof in the Erechtheion (Vinod Advani)

If there’s one museum you must visit, it’s the Acropolis Museum located at the base of the Acropolis Hill. Inside this striking glass post-modern building are priceless finds: structures and sculptures from the temple of Nike Athena and Erechtheion as well as works from the early Christian era are on exhibit. We gasped on seeing the Caryatids – giant statues of priestesses that originally supported the roof in the Erechtheion. Five of the original six maidens are on display here, while the sixth is in the British Museum!

The Big Boot is a giant one, positioned in front of a shoe store in the Plaka neighbourhood (Vinod Advani)

Michelinic meals

One night, we decided to dine at the Radisson Blu hotel’s rooftop restaurant Stastra. Good decision. Succulent scallops on a bed of sushi rice with dill and rice chips. Tsalafouti salad of cheese, watermelon, strawberry tartare, cherry tomatoes and spearmint sorbet! Pita Apola – pork belly, potato cream and yoghurt wasabi! Dessert looked like Gulab Jamuns made from rose essence-infused fried dough dumplings called Loukumades. Heaven!

Spend an evening at Port Piraeus to dine at any of the sea-front restaurants (Vinod Advani)

Another outstanding dinner was at the St. George hotel, situated on top of the Lycabettus hill with a commanding view of the Acropolis. A local brew, the agrou-rakhi cocktail, sparked off a degustation of fried octopus, fried calamari, saffron risotto with squid, shrimps and mussels in a symphony of flavours, followed by razor thin slivered salmon carpaccio. The dessert was a large and fluffy Mille-feuille with lime sorbet between the sheets. Finally, a coffee martini to toast the Greek Gods.

Greece is the country where symposiums originated, and the homeland of the Epikurean philosophers. Its 4,000-year-old gastronomic tradition is based on simple principles. Fresh ingredients. Herbs. Aromatic spices. And large measures of indigenous olive oil. We ate with the locals, knowing that one can’t go wrong at any traditional Greek taverna. Our palates sang to the medley of mezedes: tzatzeki dip, garlic dip, fava bean dip, all on a mixed platter. Fried eggplants and zucchini. Big grilled peppers. Oregano and mint-intoxicated creamy yoghurts. Mint and rosemary-infused falling-off-the-bone slow cooked lamb. Feta cheese salads. And of course, there was always the glass of ouzo for that tangy tingle.

Tsalafouti salad of courgette, cucumber, radish, mint and cheese (Vinod Advani)

Last but not the least, Greece’s fame as a seafood destination is not exaggerated. One long evening must be spent at Port Piraeus to dine at any of the hundreds of seafront restaurants. From very expensive fine dining to value for money cafés, gorge on grilled calamari, chopped fresh octopus, fried small fish (three inches) to very small fish (two inches) to very, very small fish (one inch), till you are as stuffed as their roasted aubergines.

Here be gods

Called the Neighbourhood of the Gods, Plaka occupies the area right below the Acropolis. It is Athens’ oldest and most picturesque area. On the north eastern slopes of the hill, neoclassical buildings flaunt their beauty, like colourful pebbles tossed from the palm of Goddess Athena. Juxtaposed are other homes built in the style of the Cyclades, mid-18th century. From the Byzantine times, there are churches, chapels, convents. We let our steps follow our eyes without a fixed plan, through the narrow, labyrinth-like streets. Sit down, drink something. Or wander some more?

Small framed paintings for sale on a street, at the bottom of the Parthenon complex (Vinod Advani)

All roads lead to Syntagma Square, boasting the city’s most beautiful neoclassical architecture – the Grand Bretagne hotel and the Monument to the Unknown Soldier. Dominating the square is the Greek Parliament, where every day, the Presidential Guard charge around with locomotive breaths. At 11am on weekends, it all turns into a spectacular display with an army band and 120 Evzones (military soldiers dressed in 19th century traditional costumes) marching up and down to martial music. Impressive. Kudos!

The Brunch insider’s view
  • For good food and warm service, the Telis restaurant occupies the top spot. (Source: Lonely Planet)
  • For enjoying nightlife, head to Gazi, which has a lot of chic bars. (Source: CondéNast Traveller)
  • Hotel Metropolis, located in the historical Plaka neighbourhood, is rated as the best by travellers. (Source: TripAdvisor)

It’s all Greek to us

Greek origin words are part of everyday parlance. Anthrop (humankind) to anthropology. Andr (man) to android. Micro (small) to microscopic. Mega (large) to megalomania. Mania (madness) to mania . The idea and the word democracy also originated in the Greek ethic. Without democracy, Trump and Brexit would never have happened. Isn’t that an original thought? Eureka!

A renowned travel, wine and food writer by passion, Vinod Advani is also the Trade Ambassador for South Australia

From HT Brunch, September 3, 2017

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First Published: Sep 02, 2017 22:20 IST