Athens and Side Trips

The thriving capital of Greece sprawls out from the foot of its magnificent Acropolis. We'll tour the must-sees of ancient Athens: the Parthenon, Agora, and amazing National Archaeological Museum. We'll take the fast-paced pulse of the modern city, but waste no time getting to Rick's favorite side-trip destinations: the ruins of the mystical oracle at Delphi and a fast boat to the romantic, traffic-free isle of Hydra.

Travel Details

The Acropolis
The four major monuments — the Parthenon, Erechtheion, Propylaea, and Temple of Athena Nike — were built as a coherent ensemble (c. 450-400 B.C.). Unlike most ancient sites, which have layer upon layer of ruins from different periods, the Acropolis we see today was started and finished within two generations — a snapshot of the Golden Age set in stone. There's no way to reach the Acropolis without a lot of climbing (though people with disabilities can use an elevator). Figure a 10- to 20-minute hike from the base of the Acropolis up to the hilltop archaeological site. There are multiple paths up to the Acropolis, but the only ticket office and entrance are at the western end of the hill. Get there early or late to avoid the crowds and midday heat (tel. 210-321-4172).

National Archaeological Museum
The National Archaeological Museum is far and away the top ancient Greek art collection anywhere. Since ancient Greece set the tone for all Western art that followed, this museum lets you trace the artistic stream to its source — taking you in air-conditioned comfort from 7000 B.C. to A.D. 500 through beautifully displayed and described exhibits. You'll see the rise and fall of Greece's various civilizations: the Minoans, Mycenaeans, those of Archaic Greece, the Classical Age, and Alexander the Great, and the Romans who came from the west. You can also watch Greek sculpture evolve: from prehistoric Barbie dolls to stiff Egyptian-style, to the David-like balance of the Golden Age, to wet T-shirt, buckin'-bronco Hellenistic, and finally, to the influence of the Romans. Walk once around fast for a time-lapse effect, then go around again for a closer look. The nearest Metro stop is Victoria (line 1/green). It's about a 20-minute walk from the Plaka, through dull urban neighborhoods (tel. 210-821-7717).

Ancient Delphi
The two main attractions — the archaeological site (officially called the "Sanctuary of Apollo") and the Archaeological Museum — are a half-mile east of the modern town of Delphi. You can do the archaeological site and the museum in either order. I prefer doing the site first (while you still have energy for the climb), so you can more easily imagine the original context of the items you'll see in the museum. Crowds or weather might help you decide. If it's hot or raining, do the museum first to hedge your bets for better conditions for the site. Allow 90 minutes for the site (hiking to the stadium alone is nearly a half-hour round-trip), and another 45-60 minutes for the museum (tel. 22650-82312).

Taverna Leonidas
It's at the top of town, along the main Miaouli street that climbs through the middle of Hydra. Tel. 22980-53097

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

[1] Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the Best of Europe. This time it's all Greek to me...and that's exactly why we're here. It's Athens. Thanks for joining us.

[3]  About five centuries before Christ, Athens was the center of the Western world. At a time when Rome was just a village, it was here that the foundations of our Western civilization were laid. And today, in the mist of such a rich heritage, the vibrant capital of Greece still thrives.

[4] We'll enjoy the magnificence of ancient Athens — marvel at the wonders of the Acropolis, savor some tasty Greek street food, and check out the premier collection of ancient Greek art. Then we'll poke around the Plaka before escaping the big city to consult an ancient oracle and relax on a classic Greek isle.

[5] In the extreme south of Europe is Greece. From its capital, Athens we side-trip to the oracle of Delphi and then cruise from Athens' port of Piraeus to the island of Hydra.

[6] We'll start up there, at the historic, cultural, and literal high point of any trip to Athens — the Acropolis.

[7] Like other hilltop sights in the ancient Greek world, Athens' Acro-polis or "high city" was both a place of worship and of refuge when under attack. Crowned by the mighty Parthenon temple, the Acropolis rises above modern Athens, a lasting testament to Greece's glorious Golden Age in the 5th century BC.

[8] Grand processions followed the Panathenaic Way, which was the ceremonial path from the town below to its acropolis. They passed through this imposing entry and up to the religious heart of the city and the Parthenon.

[9] The Parthenon was perhaps the finest temple in the ancient world. Valiantly battling the acidic air of our modern world, it still stands with the help of on-going restoration work.

It was constructed in the 5th century BC and dedicated to the virgin goddess Athena. Seeing it today is awe-inspiring but imagine how striking it must have looked when it was completed nearly 2500 year ago — in all its carved and brilliantly painted splendor.

[13] The adjacent Erechtheion is famous for its Porch of the Caryatids, six beautiful maidens functioning as columns. Dedicated to Athena and Poseidon, this was one of the most important religious buildings on the Acropolis. This, rather than the Parthenon, was the culmination of the Panatheniac Procession.

[16] At the foot of the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora or marketplace sprawls out from its surviving temple. This is where, for 3,000 years, Athenians gathered.

[17] While the Acropolis was the center of ritual and ceremony, the Agora was the beating heart of ancient Athens. For some 800 years, starting in the 6th century BC, this was the hub of commercial, political and social life.

[18] Visitors wander the remains of what was the city's principal shopping mall and administrative center. Exploring the agora, it's fascinating to ponder the world of Plato and Aristotle and the age which laid the foundations for Western thinking about economics, democracy, logic, and more.

[19] The Stoa of Attalos, from the 2nd century BC was rebuilt in modern times to house the agora's museum. With so little of the Agora still standing, this reconstruction makes it easier to imagine the sight in its original glory. Crowds would gather in shady porticos like this to shop, socialize or listen to the great philosophers of the age.

[20] In fact, Socrates himself spent much of his life right here preaching the virtues of "nothing in excess," and urging those around him to "know thyself."

[21] The Temple of Hephaestus, one of the best-preserved and most typical of all Greek temples, dates from 415 BC. Like the Parthenon it's constructed in the simple Doric style. It housed big bronze statues of Hephaestus, the blacksmith god, and Athena, patroness of the city.

[22] Greek architecture evolved in stages. The capitals, or tops of the columns, were both functional and decorative. While just the tip of the architectural iceberg, these are handy indicators helping us identify the three main architectural "orders" or styles.

[23] The earliest style, Doric, has flat, practical plates as capitals. In the next order, Ionic, the capitals are decorated with understated scrolls. The final order, Corinthian — popular later on with the Romans — features leafy capitals...boldly decorative with no apologies necessary.

[24] How to remember all these? As the orders evolve, they gain syllables: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian. . . .

[25] But for most travelers, the Agora is more than an architectural review. Strolling in the footsteps of Socrates is your  best opportunity to commune with the epic Greek past.

[26] Like so many great civilizations, ancient Greece peeked and faded. Two hundred years ago, Athens was just a small town surrounded by big ruins, sitting on lots of history. That 19th-century Athens is today's Plaka.

[27] The Plaka district provides tourists with a more intimate Athens: no chaotic traffic, lots of colorful restaurants, and the best souvenir shopping in all of Greece.

[28] And for a quick, inexpensive bite to eat, drop by a corner gyro and souvlaki stand. Gyro means turning — referring to the slowly spinning round of meat — roasted pork or chicken — shaved as needed. And souvlaki is meat on a skewer — shish-kebab style. My favorite: a gyro pita — slice up that meat, toss in a little salad, tsatstiki (a garlic yogurt sauce), and spices...all wrapped in a handy cone of toasted pita bread.

[29] Energized by a tasty gyro, hike to the top of the Plaka and explore the charming "village" of Anafiotika. Literally "little Anafi", it was built in the 19th century by people from the tiny Cycladic island of Anafi who came here to the big city looking for work. In this oasis of tranquility, nestled beneath the walls of the Acropolis, the intensity of Athens seems miles away.

[30] Weave through narrow paths lined with flowers, and dotted with cats dozing in the sunshine. Observe the peaceful rhythm of daily life.

[31] And, with a little luck, you can make a friend and be invited in — or, in this case — up on the roof — for a pleasant chat and a cup of strong Greek coffee.

[32] Athens is getting more and more people-friendly. This elegant walkway is a popular pedestrian boulevard arcing around the back of the Acropolis. As the sun goes down, it's busy with locals and visitors alike.  

[33] At the end of the walk, prime acropolis-view real estate is dedicated to the fine art of café sitting. Sipping a drink here puts you right in the middle of a lively Greek scene.

[34] In Athens, it seems all roads pass through Syntagma Square. Today, people pour out of the city's busiest subway station into the café-filled square. Shady trees make the square a breezy and restful spot.

[35] Two hundred years ago Athens was just a humble town of about 8,000 huddled at the base of the Acropolis. But after Greece gained its independence from the Ottoman Turks in the early 1800s, it chose little but historic Athens to be its capital. This stately square was part of a grand project designed to make the town a suitable capital for the new nation.

[36] The original Square was essentially a big front yard for the new royal palace. The country's leading families built mansions here to be close to the king. These mansions survive today as grand old hotels, embassies and museums.

[37] In 1843, a riotous crowd jammed this square demanding a Syntagma...or constitution. The king, giving a speech from this balcony, gave his people — whose ancestors invented the concept — democracy. And this place has been Syntagma Square or Constitution Square ever since.

[38] Today, the Royal Palace houses the Greek Parliament. The palace and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior are guarded by the much-photographed Evzones. These flamboyant soldiers, with their distinctive strut, change at the top of each hour. They're clad in the traditional pleated kilt and pom-pom shoes made famous by the Evzones, mountain fighters who battled ferociously in Greece's early 19th-century War of Independence. They claim the soldiers' outfits have 400 pleats — one for each miserable year of Turkish occupation (and don't you forget it).

[39] Buoyant after winning freedom from its Turkish overlords, the new capital city flourished. Some of those first government buildings — built in the prevailing neo-Classical style — still survive today.

[40] They stand amid today's bustling metropolis. In the 20th century, with an influx of refugees and industrialization luring workers from the countryside, the population of Athens exploded. The flow of people into the sprawling city continues, and four million people — roughly one out of every three Greeks — call Athens home.

[42] And recently, the city has curbed pollution, cleaned up and pedestrianized the streets, spiffed up the museums, and invested in one of Europe's better public transit systems.

[45] Descend into Athens' sleek and cool underground and you'll enjoy a transit system as efficient as anything in Europe. With all its traffic congestion above and nearly a million Athenians zipping smoothly underground every day, the system is a godsend.

[43] Ermou Street, leading away from Syntagma, is a thriving pedestrian mall. Just a few years ago, this street was a car-clogged mess. Once again, when it was first pedestrianized merchants were upset. Now, it's a hit with everyone.

[46] The one must-see sight outside the central tourist zone is the National Archaeological Museum. The extraordinary collection lets you follow the sweep of Greek art history from 7,000 BC to 300 AD.

[47] A trove of funerary art taken from the Royal Tombs of Mycenae [my-SEE-nee] shows treasures from a society that thrived around 1000 years before the days of Socrates and Plato. You'll see finely decorated weapons and sheathes.....Exquisite golden jewelry.... and the delicate  Vaphio gold cups — reminders of the sophistication of that 15th century BC civilization.

[48] This Warrior Vase, from the 12th century BC, showed women gathered to wave goodbye to a group of warriors heading off to war — sporting fancy armor with duffle bags hanging from their spears. These Mycenaean soldiers — with their yellow-ribbon moms — are a timeless off-to-war scene, repeated every generation in the 3000 years since.

[50] Ancient Greeks celebrated the human body. To them it was the embodiment of the order found in nature. All the parts were there in geometrical, if not biological perfection. No individual features — everything idealized. In fact, these archaic statues were named simply Kouros meaning boy, or Kore meaning girl.

[52] Statues — from this age — around 600 BC — all had the same standard features: weight spread evenly on two feet, arms stiff at the side, stiff braided hair, almond-shaped eyes, high eyebrows, and the same quirky little grins. Archaic statues all looked like cousins.

[53] During the Archaic period, all the parts were there, but if it decided to walk, it would walk like a monster, stiffly with no understanding of the subtle interplay between the hips and the shoulders.

[54] But Greek art evolved with its society. The 80-year period from about 480 to 400 B.C. is known as the Golden Age of Greece — the age of Socrates and Pericles — and Athens was the center. During this time, the golden mean was — nothing in excess. In both life and art, everything was to be in balance.

[55] Golden Age sculptors shifted weight more believably, placing their statues in a contrapposto pose — that is, relaxed, with hips shifted realistically and weight resting on one foot. Statues looked more lifelike.

[57] Ancient Greek treasures include the Poseidon of Artemision. This stunning bronze statue, cast in 460 BC, depicts the mighty god of the sea about to hurl his trident. And once again, we see that classic Greek balance between stillness and motion.

[58] But, around 330 BC, Athens' was conquered by the Macedonians from the north. Subjugation by the Macedonians under Phillip II and his son Alexander the Great ushered in what's known as the Hellenistic period. The word Hellenistic refers to Greek culture after its political conquest.

[60] Greek Hellenistic art, like Greek Hellenistic society in general, evolved beyond the aesthetics of the Golden Age. While less balanced and composed, it was a more individualistic age — with more exuberant and emotional art.

[61] The Horse and Jockey of Artemision, cast in the 2nd century BC, is filled with this Hellenistic energy. The high spirited detail is astonishing, right down to the horse's dramatic head and the concerned look on the jockey's face.

[62] The evolution of Greek art from stiff to realistic to emotional would be echoed by Europe 2,000 years later: from stiff Gothic to realistic Renaissance, to emotional Baroque.

[63 del-fee] A two-hour drive northwest of Athens takes us to Delphi, one of the most important sights in the ancient world.

[64] Wherever you travel, seeing the precious artifacts in the big museums in the city first helps make visiting the historic sights in the countryside more meaningful.

[65] Ancient Delphi, perched high on the slopes of Mt. Parnassos, was not a city. It was the site of the oracle of Apollo, god of the sun. People would journey here from all over the known world to seek wisdom from the gods on vital affairs of state.

[66] Tourists today zig-zag up the ancient Sacred Way to the Temple of Apollo. The path is flanked by the remains of Delphi's famous treasuries — monuments erected by city-states in gratitude for the oracle's advice. 

[67] Local guides like Penny Kolomvotsou brings these ancient and mythic events to life.

[69] The resulting Sanctuary of Apollo reached the height of its power between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. The oracle became so influential that no great leader would make an major  decision without first sending emissaries to consult the oracle.

[71] Because the priests debriefed those seeking advice on the state of their homelands, Delphi became the data base of the ancient world. Consequently the priests here were actually able to astound those who came with their wise, believably divine, advice. And there was more to Delphi than just the oracle.

[73] During those pan-Hellenic or all-Greek festivals, Delphi filled its theater — which seated 5,000. And it packed as many as 7,000 into its athletic stadium. I like being here at the end of the day — with the tourists gone, cheers of the long gone crowds still ringing in the cool mountain air, and the starting block all mine.

[74] As it was in ancient times, Piraeus is the port of Athens. From Piraeus boats depart for points throughout the Aegean Sea. Cruise ships await their passengers. Hydrofoils via with lumbering car ferries. It's an exciting spring board for the Greek Isles.  

[75] We're riding a Flying Dolphin — one of the fleet of speedy hydrofoils that zip from Athens to the islands, and from island to island. It's fast but less scenic, as passengers are stuck inside. I like to hang out in the windy doorway.

[76] After a 90-minute ride, Athens is a world away, and we pull into the Isle of Hydra. Its main town, also called Hydra, is home to about 90 percent of the island's 3000 residents.

[77] After the noise of Athens, Hydra's traffic-free tranquility is a delight. I'm glad I'm packing light as I hike up to my hotel.

[78] Hydra is one of the prettiest towns in Greece. Its superb harbor is surrounded by an amphitheater of rocky hills. There's an easy blend of work-a-day commerce, fancy yachts, and lazy tourists on island time. Donkeys rather than cars, the shady awnings of well worn cafes, and memorable seaside views all combine to make it clear you found your Greek Isle.

[80] Hydra was a Greek naval power famous for its shipbuilders. The harbor, with twin forts and plenty of cannon, housed and protected the fleet of 130 ships as Greeks battled the Turks in their early 19th century war of independence.

The town stretches away from the harbor — a maze of narrow, cobbled streets, flanked by whitewashed homes. In the 1960s, the island became a favorite retreat for artists and writers, who still draw inspiration from the idyllic surroundings.

[81] One of the island's greatest attractions is its total absence of cars and motorbikes. Instead, donkeys do the heavy hauling today just as they have through the centuries. And I suppose for just as long they've treated children to rides as well.

[82] At the top of town, the humble Taverna Leonidas has been around so long it doesn't need a sign. The island's oldest and most traditional taverna was the hang-out of the sponge divers a century ago. These days Leonidas and Panagiota feed guests as if they're family. And tonight the place is all ours as our enthusiastic cook welcomes us into his kitchen.

And before we know it, Leonidas has us all sitting at the table and he starts bringing in wave after wave of his fabulous dishes.....

[84] A fleet of taxis shuttle people to outlying hamlets and beaches. We're catching one for a windy survey of the island and to be dropped off for a scenic hike back into town. Hydra is popular with walkers, who come to explore the network of ancient paths that link the island's outlying settlements, churches, and monasteries. And in springtime, hikes come with fields of wild flowers.

[85] A delightful way to cap the day, is to follow the coastal path to the village of Kamini. Its pocket-sized harbor shelters the community's fishing boats. Here, with a glass of ouzo and today's catch, as the sun slowly sinks into the sea and boats become silhouettes, you drink to the beauties of a Greek lsland escape.

[86] Perhaps nowhere else in Europe does the historic and cultural time line go so far back while being so vibrant today. I hope you enjoyed our visit to Athens, the oracle of Delphi, and the romantic Isle of Hydra. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Adio.

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