Having visitors is a great way to check off things to see in your city. Erin, Demetri and I attacked Athens sites this week, logging some 70 miles on foot with good coffee and snacks and fun visits with cousins along the way.
The Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum are the obvious first site choices. While Demetri has visited the museum many times, my first visit was this week. I missed it in 2006 (not built yet) and then in ’11, ’14 and ’16 we opted not to do museums with tiny kids in tow. But it was worth the wait: its collection and multi-media exhibits are excellent. And the Acropolis museum has a 5 for 1 ticket that gets you into several other sites and is good for 5 days. As for the Parthenon and other sites on the Acropolis itself, everyone should go to the top and see it in person. While it’s visible from many points in the city and the night views (say, from a rooftop bar in Monasteraki) are definitely the best, there’s nothing like seeing the tree that Athena planted herself when the city was named for her. Yeah, so not really but you still have to go see the tree and imagine Athena and Poseidon fighting over who should be the city protector.
The Museum of Cycladic Art is one of the newest museums in Athens and is located downtown in Kolonaki. Its benefactors are a couple who were sick and tired of all of the looting of antiquities on the islands. Naturally, its signature collection is ceramics, statues and other pieces from the Cycladic island group, but it has other prehistoric and ancient art, a great exhibit on Cyprus, and a temporary exhibit about coins and money. Fun fact: the drachma, Greece’s currency before it adopted the euro in 2001, comes from an ancient word for ‘fistful.’ This may explain the exchange rate in the 1980s when two other little Fefes boys had hundreds of drachmas to buy $3 worth of ice cream. Fistful indeed.
The National Archaeological Museum, along with the Benaki and the Acropolis museum, rounds out the city’s top three. Erin and I really enjoyed seeing the wall paintings and frescoes that were excavated from Akrotiri – some of which are in situ in a special exhibit in this museum. The collection in this museum is so well laid out … from Neolithic to the Bronze Age to the Classical period and Byzantium, its collection is vast but somehow doesn’t feel overwhelming. I think this museum is one that kids would like, especially with a guide who can tell the stories and myths behind all these nifty pieces. Aside from the Akrotiri frescoes, the museum’s best known pieces are two bronze statues – one of a horse with a jockey, the other of Poseidon, and the Antikythera Device, an ancient computer used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for the calendar, and it also tracked the ancient athletic games.
When Athens became part of the (relatively unified) eastern part of the Roman Empire/Byzantium, Roman influence invaded the city — but in a peaceful way, except for maybe the religion part. The Flavian Dynasty (famous for the Roman Colosseum) in particular left a nice mark on Athens with Hadrian’s Library and Hadrian’s Arch, two giant monuments right in the city center. There’s also the Roman Agora, a mini-Forum. The Ancient Athenian Agora, which was established, built and added to way before the Romans set foot in Greece, is really impressive. There must be 30ish structures that are/were in place. One building has been rebuilt to give a sense of what the market was like and has a great little museum, and on the opposite side, the Temple of Hephaestus is incredibly well preserved. The Agora is perfect for a walk — with or without kids.
The sleeper of the week, the National Historical Museum, is an absolutely lovely museum in the old Parliament Building on Stadiou Street. It is more of a modern political and cultural historical museum and after visiting here, you get a much better sense of the Greek struggle under Turkish occupation. This museum had a terrific World War I exhibit with political cartoons from the early 1900s. I wish I’d taken pictures of those illustrations; they were one of the best visuals I’ve seen of the power struggles in Europe for domination across the globe.
One of the most astonishing themes in visiting all these museums is how many antiquities have been made off with by other countries. Lord Elgin ‘took’ two marble statues from the Parthenon for the British Museum. A Delacroix sits in the Louvre that should be in the National Historical Museum. Greek authorities confiscated paintings and statues from Germany and they have recovered countless things from the sea, in transit outside the Mediterranean. And then of course, there are the Turks.
And now for something completely different, it’s Spring Break as of 2:30 yesterday afternoon. Disney Paris, here we come.