MEDITERRANEO: A JOURNEY INTO THE LAND OF MYTHS – FINDING ATHENS

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When we talk about Myth, we need to think about what it represents. Myth is fable, memory, religion, a fantastic creation, an ideal symbol for mankind. But it’s also represented by concrete objects. This time, our wanderings will get you to the right place where to find the answer to what myth really is. And so, at the dawn of a new day, a familiar shape is colored with all the tones of orange and pink. All around, life begins to twirl, the start of a new intense day in Athens, on the traces left by the Greek Gods.

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

Athens, one of the oldest cities in the world; once a flourishing Polis, considered to be the cradle of Western civilization. Everything seems to have started here: philosophy, art, history, politics.

Known throughout the world as the birthplace of democracy, Athens was home to Plato’s and Aristoteles’ academy, as well as to Socrates, Pericles, Sophocles and many other philosophers and important figures of the ancient times.

Visiting Athens almost seems like a “moral obligation” for anyone who cares about Europe’s fate today. Not surprisingly, in the face of the economic and financial difficulties that have severely affected Greece in recent years, authoritative opinion leaders have spoken of the risk of a possible decline of Western civilization as we know it. As if to say that: “where it all began, everything could end“.

These are only assumptions, mind you. The reality, however, is that it’s impossible to avoid the “weight of history” of Athens, even when you come here as a simple tourist. Modern, reactive, innovative, proud, unstoppable and culturally lively. A city to be discovered.

How To Move around Athens

You can be pampered by this hectic metropolis. The Greek capital, not bending to the crisis, leaves no wish unfulfilled thanks to its energy, the scent of the sea and the blue of the wonderful beaches, the excellent gastronomy and the endless opportunities to immerse yourself in history, culture, art, myths. That feeling of “ancient history” will never abandon you, for everything here blends harmoniously. Don’t be surprise if, opening a window among the glimpses of a fervent city in the early hours of the morning, you’ll enjoy the view of a magnificent Doric style temple.

Those who aren’t used to great metropolis could be slightly fearful of being immersed in the great boulevards, with the coming and going of cars and people all around. And yet, this vivacity makes the city unique in its kind. Nevertheless, it would be advisable not to take buses to get around, unless it’ll be a tourist bus: long queues, especially during rush hour, could leave you with a bad memory of your trip. Getting around by metro instead will allow you to reach tourist destinations in a short time and for a cheaper price.

Athens’ Acropolis

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

Per la vostra prima volta ad Atene non dovrà mancare, come prima tappa, l’Acropoli.

For your first time in Athens, you shouldn’t miss the Acropolis as a first stop.

If you’re looking for a somewhat alternative route, you can choose to take the Dionysiou Areopagitou street, which connects Keramikos – known for its necropolis, today a district of potters – to the archaeological site. Passing through the ancient ruins will give you an intoxicating sensation.

However, one usually prefers to walk along the long avenue lined with trees which goes from the Plaka to the Acropolis, seeing in the background the much-coveted destination, as if you were in a passage through time. You will be often entertained by the pleasant notes of the many street artists. And then, suddenly, here it is, right in front of your eyes, white and proud. It almost seems to be waiting for you.

The Acropolis is undoubtedly the symbol of Athens. Always a “postcard” in our imagination, with the temple that dominates the city from the hill. Its imposing and elegant structure shines under the sun by day and stands out, luminous, in the darkness of the Athenian nights.

Its fortress, flattened at the top, rises 156 meters above sea level; the plateau is 140 meters wide and almost 280 meters long. A curiosity: the Acropolis is also known as Cecropia, in honor of the legendary snake-man Cecrope, the first Athenian king. In 1987, the Acropolis was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

When to visit the Acropolis

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

Come non sentirsi impotenti di fronte a tanta imponenza. Arrivati al grande spiazzo, sovrastati dal

How not to feel powerless in the face of such grandeur? Arriving at the large clearing, dominated by the Parthenon, one really feels catapulted into a mythological world. And, maybe, the generation of the 80s will not miss the chance to imagine itself as the protagonist of a famous cartoon of those years. Can you guess which one?

You might be disappointed to see the countless scaffolding that seems to dirty all that whiteness with gray. In fact, on the Acropolis, the Parthenon’s restoration works never cease, to give the building, an icon of classicism, part of its ancient splendor, as it was for the Propylaia, the Erechtheion and the temple of Athena Nike. Yet, admiring it at the first light of the morning, or at sunset, you will always enjoy a breathtaking spectacle, especially if you are lucky enough to observe it from a privileged point of view.

The Parthenon

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

The history of the Athenians begins with a myth. The inhabitants of Athens, like the majority of people around the world and of all times, entrust their historical origins to situations very similar to fairy tales; but these were not entirely invented stories: they were deformed and remote truths, often irrecoverable, transmitted from generation to generation by means of songs and dances.

Athens’ history is told in part through the statues of the eastern pediment of the Parthenon, which suddenly appears right before your eyes. This is indeed the most famous relic of ancient Greece, universally considered one of the greatest cultural monuments in the world; always praised as the best achievement of classical Greek architecture, with its decorations regarded as some of the greatest elements of Greek art. A lasting symbol of Athenian democracy. Despite what we see today, at the time of its construction, it was very colorful.

“I want to tell you why I love being here. Listen to the wind that blows through the columns of the temple: it’s the same sound that humanity has listened to for centuries and centuries, it’s the sound of nature that meets human imagination. And for me, this is history “.

A really good quote from the movie My Big Fat Greek Summer (2009). Yes, once you find yourself in front of so much power, you’ll be amazed, pleasantly enchanted among the large Doric style columns, still there, standing in their pride, after centuries of history.

The frieze of the Parthenon

Built by the will of Regent Pericles, from the second half of the 5th century BC, the Parthenon was built by architects Ictino, Callicrates and Mnesicle, under the supervision of Fidia. The richness of the decorations of the Parthenon’s pediment is unique for a classic Greek temple; with its columns, it still elegantly expresses the strength and power of the city.

The most characteristic feature in the decoration of the Parthenon is certainly the long marble frieze, a work of Phidias himself and carved in Ionic style, placed along the outer walls of the cell. This is an innovative feature, since the rest of the temple is built in Doric style.

Different are the interpretations that historians have given to the frieze.

The most famous version sees the sculpted miniatures as a solemn procession that was held every four years on the occasion of the Panathenaic feasts. Then there are those who hypothesize that the large space reserved for the representation of cavalry is an explicit reference to the heroism of the Persian Wars; others have decided to recognize in the various characters of the procession figures representing the aristocratic and archaic Polis as opposed to others who would instead embody the democracy of classical Athens, in an attempt to unite past and present.

Whatever its interpretation may be, this remains a representation of a community event, linked to the cult of Athena, and therefore of the homeland that the goddess protected. The individuals of every stratum of society could therefore identify themselves with the characters of the frieze and recognize the various moments of the ceremony.

Atena’s statue and the Erechtheum

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

Through writings, testimonies and ancient engravings, you can imagine, if not even perceive, the presence of an imposing statue of Athena in front of the entrance to the Temple in question. Adorned with helmet, shield and spear, it represented the “lighthouse” of the city; even those who approached the city from afar were dazzled by such brightness: it was in that moment that, perhaps after returning from a war, they finally felt at home.

Another place of fascinating beauty certainly deserves attention: the Erechtheum.

The sanctuary, dedicated to the goddess Athena Pallas, protector of the city, was linked to archaic cults and to the most ancient memories, constituting the true sacred nucleus of the Acropolis and the entire city. The mythology tells that this place hosted the dispute between Athena and Poseidon, regarding the investiture as protector of the city. Poseidon offered a fountain from which sea water gushed out, symbol of war and violence, while Athena raised an olive tree from the rock of the Acropolis, a symbol of eternal peace and hope. The inhabitants finally chose Athena as their protector, and dedicated to her to the highest point of the city, the Parthenon. Even today, it is still possible to see an olive tree here, considered as the testimony of the miracle of Athena.

The Caryatids and the theaters

Who of you has never tried to draw a Caryatid during school hours? These are the columns, in human form, of the temple. They probably represent the women of Karya, a city of the Peloponnese. After the defeat of their homeland, they were made slaves and forced to support the weight of a building so symbolic. However, there is another interesting hypothesis about the women of Karya, who are said to be very strong and robust. They could even sing and dance with a heavy basket on their head; for this reason, their figure was chosen as the column that holds up the temple. Legend or not, this last version represents a real redemption of the female figure, no longer weak, but strong, powerful and intelligent as a man.

Let yourself be carried away by your imagination, thinking you are ancient singers, while you admire the steps of the Odeon of Herod Atticus, a small stone theater located on the southern slope of the Acropolis of Athens, originally covered and designed for musical performances. Or perhaps, you’d prefer to step into the shoes of outstanding actors in a tragedy by Aeschylus or a play by Menander, at the Theater of Dionysus. This was the most important theater in the Greek world in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, and it was used by the most significant Greek authors to stage their works, remaining immortal in the centuries to come.

The New Acropolis Museum

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

However, a day on the Acropolis cannot be complete without a visit to the New Acropolis Museum, open on the southern slopes. Among the many findings, the museum houses some archaeological treasures such as the original Erechtheum Caryatids, part of the Parthenon frieze, the Korai and the Meteope.

Over the centuries, the countless depredations of the Acropolis failed to destroy its image of power and its symbol of justice. The monument is still placed there, as a protective mother towards her city. And so, leaving the site behind you at last, descending the hill that shelters it and kidnapped by the power that it still stirs up today, you cannot help but say to yourself: “I’m here: I’m part of history“.

Modern Athens: The Plaka

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

After this plunge into history, immersing yourself in the most modern Athens will certainly give you a boost of energy.

The Plaka winds along Odos Adrianou, the main street, and an intricate network of alleyways climbs up high, among small restaurants, traditional cafes and souvenir shops where you can buy some typical objects. Known as the Neighborhood of the Gods because of its proximity to the Acropolis, the Plaka is one of the oldest areas of Athens, as well as being one of the most attractive and visited parts of the city. Despite being a neighborhood frequented by tourists, it still retains its fascinating ancient appearance, thanks to its narrow and labyrinthine cobbled streets where beautiful neoclassical houses of the nineteenth century rise.

Perhaps seeing older houses next to more modern and colorful blocks of flats could give you, at first, an unpleasant feeling of abandonment; yet, you’ll realize how “the old seems to blend with new” once again, making the place truly picturesque. So, have no doubts and lose yourself in Athens’ streets without fear; those colorful alleys will always surprise you with something: now a characteristic little shop, now a traveling musician. Finally, refresh yourself in one of the many homely taverns: a really pleasant moment in a charming neighborhood, in front of a good gyros.

From the Plaka, you can organize visits to other important historical places, such as the Monument to Lysicrates, the Roman Agora, or other areas of interest, such as the Anafiotika– the most characteristic – Monastiraki and Kolonaki neighborhoods. While in the latter, you could drink coffee in the square, observing the high Athenian society. A moment to let yourself go with some gossip, maybe.

Syntagma Square

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

The last stop must certainly be Syntagma Square.

Also known as Constitution Square, this was the place where, on September 3 1843, people manifested to King Otto, the first king of Greece, the will to have a new Constitution. The square also houses the seat of the Parliament, an imposing building built between 1836 and 1842, used as a royal palace. Opposite the Parliament building, there’s the Unknown Soldier memorial, guarded day and night by the Euzons, two guards dressed in traditional uniforms. The changing of guard is surely a moment worth a snap. It’s realized every hour, even if the most characteristic and probably best known change takes place on Sunday mornings.

Do you feel like going shopping? Well, here you are in the right place. Near the Parliament there’s Ermou Street, one of the main commercial arteries of Athens, frequented at any time of the day.

Syntagma Square is one of the most famous venues for events – don’t be surprised if you find yourself suddenly in the middle of a parade, they happen almost daily – festivities or concerts. It’s always full of people, at the cafes or near the stalls surrounding them, walking or taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi. A truly evocative space, for the past and the present, and which occupies a special place in the heart of the Athenians.

Where To Eat In Athens

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

The quick lunch you had will allow you, for dinner time, to discover restaurants where you can taste the typical Greek cuisine. Walking around the city, you may taste bread with sesame, Koulouri, or a souvlaki wrapped in pita. This is the famous pork skewer, tomato, red pepper, onion and parsley. The best of all, you’ll take from Kostas, from Lefteris or Politis. A stop at Ariston is then a must to taste excellent typical desserts.

After such a busy day, you’ll already feel a bit native, you’ll want to belong even more to this place. And to do it better, it’s worth visiting the Central Market, the beating heart of the city: Oinomageireio Ipiros serves casseroles, baked dishes, soups, and Patsa – tripe seasoned with garlic and vinegar. In the easternmost part, among sausages and spice shops, the Ta Karamanlidika tou Fani restaurant offers meats and cheeses from different regions of Greece. Not far from the latter, the gastro-tavern in “post-modern” style Aiolou 68 serves dishes based on fish, to combine with liqueurs and local wines. One of the many places where old and new coexist in perfect harmony.

Athens’ Nightlife

If you aren’t yet tired and in the mood to enjoy the metropolis by night, Athens’ nightlife seems to have no rival, with its wide choice of cocktail bars. Starting with Baba au Rum, ranked among the 50 World’s Best Bars, and The Clumsies. Also, keep in mind A for Athens, a modern rooftop with a minimal design, right in front of the Acropolis, where you can enjoy the priceless view of the illuminated site.

The night is a traitor, it welcomes you in its whirlwind of events but announces the end of our visit.

Then enjoy the sad moment of leaving, and give Athens a last look. A city proud of its culture that preserves its Mediterranean being, lively, spontaneous, and at the same time humble and a bit messy, with its streets full of tourists who admire the “ruins” of an ancient world that they are actually timeless wonders of.

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

Mediterraneo: A Journey Into the Land of Myths – Finding Athens (Ph. Valentina Contavalle)

When you see new places, you know people, you look back a little, you look inside of yourself. And you often don’t like what you discover; everything that made sense before, suddenly doesn’t have it anymore. Buy everything gains a new value, you wake up from a kind of numbness.

If we succeed in attracting curiosity about what surrounds us, then our path is not over; but right now, we can stop here, still imagining the beauty of the world that awaits us, meeting us again in the best possible way. With a memory, there with our luggage ready, always alive, until the moment of our next trip.

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