Nowadays Greece calls to mind the captivating Mediterranean isles, Santorini and Mykonos to name a couple. But its legendary past—of gods and heroes; of philosophers and kings; of battles lost and won; and of ideas that have spread around the world—is what drew me to the celebrated birthplace of Western civilization. From Amsterdam where I had been based as a graduate student, I planned three full days in Athens and Delphi and although it was bound to be but a glimpse of Homeric lands, it more than fulfilled my expectations. Here are the highlights of that unforgettable journey:
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The Acropolis and the Anciet Agora
Literally meaning “upper city,” the Acropolis is a citadel on a hill, towering above Athens, a testament to the glory of Ancient Greece. Though it has been 2,500 years since the time of Pericles, who is credited for organizing the construction of the Acropolis, and through many wars and empires, what remains of the citadel continues to evoke awe and wonder.
I climbed up the hill early in the morning to beat the crowds. There are a number of stone paths and trails that lead to the entrance. My ascent, an easy, 15 minute walk from the old town, was made pleasant by an emerging panorama of Athens, revealing the temples, the old town, and the other hills that surround the city. At the summit, however, I was drawn inside, for there lay the treasured monuments of Ancient Greece.
Chief of them was the Parthenon, perhaps the most famous temple in the world, with many of its marble columns still standing. Dedicated to the goddess Athena, who used to have a giant statue inside it, this temple became a church, and then a mosque, reflecting the changing tides of history in Greece. Just beside the Parthenon stands the Erechtheion, on whose southwest flank stand the famous Caryatids, the female statues that look over the city. They are enduring symbols of Hellenic architecture. In that plateau stand other other illustrious monuments: Temple of Athena Nike, the latter word meaning "victory."
From the Acropolis, I went to the Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill, the ancient seat of the Athenian elders where 2,000 years ago St. Paul spoke to them of a Creator and Lord of the universe “who does not live in temples built by hands” (Acts 17). From the Areopagus, one could walk down the Ancient Agora, the marketplace which was the center of the Athenians’ political and social lives. Here, more temples and ruins lie, including the beautifully preserved Temple of Hephaestus.
After visiting the Ancient Agora, I had lunch and spent the rest of the day just walking around the town. The stately buildings and shops in and around Syntagma Square revealed the more contemporary face of Greece, while Hellenic dishes made me look forward to every meal. I particularly liked the horiatiki (Greek salad) and lamb giovesti (lamb in orzo) and paired them with retsina (Greek white wine flavored with pine resin) or Mythos beer.
The Oracle at Delphi
Delphi may be a three-hour bus ride from Athens, but it is well worth a day’s journey. It was home to the Ancient Oracle, a priestess who was believed to receive tidings from Apollo himself, and whose counsel was sought by kings and emperors alike. From the Trojan War to Alexander's conquests, Delphi loomed large as an indispensable part of the narrative.
The trip up the mountains was scenic, and when we arrived in Delphi we were greeted with the view of the verdant Pleistos Valley emptying into the Gulf of Corinth, on whose shores the pilgrims traditionally began their journey to the Oracle. Meanwhile, on the other side stood Mt. Parnassus, on whose slopes the temples of Delphi were built.
The highlight was the archeological site where ancient Delphi stood. A winding stone trail takes you up the various buildings that once stood on the slopes, from small shrines to the once-magnificent Temple of Apollo as well as the Theater. All of these ancient monuments have their own interesting tales involving gods, earthquakes, Roman invaders, among many others. A 2,500-year old Sphinx that used to adorn one of the monuments is kept at the Delphi Museum, where it is the main attraction.
A 15-minute walk from the main archeological site took me to the Athena Pronaia, the temple to Athena, which, while all in ruins, has three pillars standing on its adjacent tholos (or circular building) proud and forlorn, Delphi’s most iconic image. After walking around the streets of Delphi in the afternoon where I spotted interesting arts and crafts, and nice restaurants, I headed back to Athens by bus.
Cape Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon
On my third and last day, I decided to have a more relaxing trip to Cape Sounion at the tip of the Attica peninsula, 69 kilometers south of Athens. It was close enough for a cab ride that took around 40 minutes from Athens; fortunately I met other travellers to share the cost—always a good idea when traveling!
The pedigree of Sounion transcends myth and history: it was mentioned in Homer's Odyssey, and it was the place where King Aegeus waited for his son, the hero Theseus. With rolling hills and dramatic cliffs reminiscent of the Batanes islands, it was a great choice for erecting the Temple of Poseidon, which still stands after more than two millennia.
Poseidon is the god of the oceans and it is not surprising that his temple overlooks the sea, in full view of the waves and distant Crete, where Theseus’ boat would have come. It is an enchanting place, one that inspired Lord Byron to pen these lines:
Place me on Sunium's marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep...
From Cape Sounion I returned to Athens, and after a final walk in the streets of Plaka in search of souvenirs, I went back to Amsterdam where work awaited me. I may have already seen a lot of inspiring sights during my three-day visit, but I knew that Greece is place I would aspire to go back to. One way or another, the journey must continue.
The possibilities are endless. One can go to Marathon and reimagine the run that claimed the runner’s life, but not after having brought news of a victorious battle. One can go to the Pass of Thermopylae, where the brave three hundred Spartans faced the Persian army of Xerxes. Or—and this is what I hope to do someday—climb Mt. Olympus, home of the gods. Surely there will no Zeus or Apollo up there, but what traveling to Greece brings to life is the very backdrop to the gods and heroes: In Greece, the characters that have filled our collective imagination show up in the most fascinating of places, mythology and mythic beauty come alive.