Emerging from Akropoli tube station at twilight, thin hazy rain speckled the scene as I checked the route to my budget hotel in the nearby old Plaka district. Looking up I got goosebumps as the Parthenon, flooded in bright yellow light, blurred into focus from its high timeless pedestal. This ancient wonder and true travel icon is the Greek capital's most obvious draw, and as someone who spent seven years studying classical civilizations, this had been a long time coming for me.
Twenty-four hours is a very short amount of time to explore any city, but with careful planning you can pack in an enormous amount. I chose to stay overnight in Athens' old quarter within walking distance of the main sights. Adams Hotel is located on the corner of a tiny square at the junction of Afroditis, Chairefontos (Herefondos) and Thalou (Thalous) Street. Perhaps it's because they are translated from the Greek alphabet, but there are multiple spellings for the same street names in Athens, which can be abit off-putting when you are trying to find your way around.
The hotel room was abit austere and brown-looking but it had starched sheets, a clean en-suite shower room, free wi-fi and a flat screen TV. It was missing a common selling point of Athens hotels - an Acropolis view - but rather looked into a snug penthouse apartment on the other side of the narrow street. Despite Plaka being part-pedestrianised, the noise of traffic that is allowed into the quarter echoes down the lanes. That said, the double-glazed windows did well to block out the sound and this area is surely a little sanctuary in the middle of the cacophonous city.
That night the heavy clouds unleashed an almighty downpour. It was the last straw for my well-worn fabric pumps: dirty and soaked through, they had come to the end of their innings. The fresh autumn showers had at least vindicated the space used in my backpack for a waterproof (ish) pullover. After earlier being tempted by a waiter to try local restaurant Estia's authentic Greek cuisine, I now dived under the wide sheltering canopy and took a cosy cushioned seat out of the damp on the edge of Kidathineon Square. A simple plate of tender lemon and garlic chicken souvlaki later and the rain had eased off enough for me to tramp the streets some more. I noticed there was a rooftop cinema opposite the restaurant, which would've been great on a balmy evening.
There are remnants of classical Greece everywhere around the area. I stopped to admire the Corinthian-style Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in a pretty fairy-lit square, stumbled upon excavated pillars of the Temple of Artemis in a deep ditch, and beckoned by the sight of majestic Hadrian's Arch I stepped beyond the bounds of Plaka. Several lanes of thick traffic created such a din that I at once retreated into the rabbit's warren and made for the sloping cobbled passages and stairs for a stroll beneath the Acropolis.
Although my lack of local knowledge led to a dead end, I did discover a delightful little restaurant terrace tucked away from the bustle below where the waiter - seeing my puzzled expression - immediately offered his assistance. I decided it was an opportune time for a nightcap.
After a rough recce the evening before, in the morning I took full advantage of the free breakfast buffet, stowed my bag in the hotel storage room for collection later, and strolled out towards the Acropolis for a day of epic sightseeing.
For the reasonable price of 12 Euros you can get a combined ticket for Athens' ancient Greek attractions, which is valid for four days. It covers the Acropolis, including the north and south slopes and the Theatre of Dionysus, the Ancient Agora, the Roman Agora, Kerameikos, the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian's Library. I bought mine at the Acropolis' quieter back entrance by the Lion Gate and took my time ascending the mound, carefully exploring ruins to my left and right and identifying the legendary grottoes used for worship of smaller gods like satyrs, nymphs or dryads. I eked out the opening of these little gifts in the same way that a child might delay opening the biggest present at Christmas.
Finally after taking the old Medieval Way route I found the grand entrance to the plateau guarded by the Propylaea. While tour groups hurried along the building's walkway I dropped back to let them pass. The diminutive Temple of Wingless Victory is easily missed on your right as you enter the Acropolis with its staircase to nowhere hanging in midair like an "Escher drawing". I took a moment to stand inside the millennia's-old Propylaea and to notice architectural quirks like triglyphs and metopes that I had learned about long ago but had never seen in situ.
Beyond the Propylaea I finally came face-to-face with the ultimate symbol of Greek antiquity built a mind-boggling 2,500 years ago when Athens was a prosperous city-state at the epicentre of western civilization. The ancient Greek pantheon is more familiar to me than any other religion so to see the extraordinary monolithic temple erected to the goddess Athena gave me a real sense of sacred awe. You can't enter the Parthenon but simply circumnavigate its sides, gazing up at the ivory fluted columns to the mantles of its open roof.
Across from the Parthenon, the porch of the just-as-old Erechtheion, held up by pillars in the shape of six maidens known as the Caryatids, instantly stands out as you walk across the Acropolis. But these ladies are simply an imitation of the real thing, with (most of) the originals protected in the Acropolis Museum below. In fact my only issue with this site - as with Delphi - is the removal of the marble statues and reliefs.
Though I understand the preservation and restoration argument, it feels as if they have been stripped back to the bare bones. Piles of ancient masonry, including the bases and crowns of pillars are scattered around the site and scaffolding criss-crosses the buildings giving it the feeling of a classical construction site.
You can sort of walk through the back of the Erechtheion and examine the vaulted ceilings, giant decorative doorways and Doric columns. This was one of my favourite bits of the Acropolis, aside from the 360-degree views of Athens without which I guess the site would never have existed in the first place. The panorama is mesmerizing, revealing the urban sprawl of neat tenements broken up by lofty green outcroppings like giant moss-covered boulders, and hemmed in by high mountains and the distant sea.
Small patches of the Acropolis plateau appear to be smooth age-worn marble that created an unexpected hazard when it began to drizzle. Tourists (including me) began slipping and sliding amusingly on the wet stone surfaces and it seemed for a moment as if the old gods were having a little joke on us. As I stood reading an information board, an older lady suddenly grasped onto me to steady herself as she almost toppled over.
The Parthenon should have been the highlight of the day but something unexpected took the biscuit. Set into the south slope, the stone top tiers of the crescent-shaped Theatre of Dionysus seemed like a good spot to sit and eat some snacks. Out of view, the amplified sound of a street performer playing Bob Marley songs was a pleasant but peculiar soundtrack for the setting. But my attention was grasped by a gentle rustling in the tufted grass and jumbled masonry beside me.
I looked down to discover a fairly large tortoise camouflaged among the foliage and stones; an unexpected resident to say the least. He became my lunch partner, nibbling unwanted cucumber, a bit of apple, some biscuit and slurping water from the bottle cap.
I lingered in the midday sun with my new friend a little longer than I might have, until he returned to his siesta in the undergrowth. Descending a nearby lane I heard the quickening strains of traditional "Zorba the Greek" type music and turned a corner to find a tour group outside a taverna linking arms in a circle, learning the steps, smiling and laughing. Although the area is touristy, I was finding it a rather endearing place.
My decision to head for the Temple of Olympian Zeus was purely based on the fact that it jumped out of the landscape when I gazed down from atop the Acropolis so I knew exactly where it was. I'm guessing this was the desired effect when the ancients erected its gigantic pillars to pay homage to the mightiest God of them all. In fact, the sheer colossal scale of the ruined temple would once have dwarfed the Parthenon.
Toppled columns reveal the clever ingenuity used to construct them with smaller wheel-like sections threaded together into a pole. Peppered around the site are unexpected nuggets of archaeology that aren't behind a barrier. I found a Roman-period bathhouse, still with part of its decorated floor, marble bases for columns, a plunge pool area and part of its hypocaust underfloor heating exposed. It was quite easy to picture a beautiful ancient spa.
My Greek friend's teenage daughter had found Athens noisy and smelly on a school trip, saying she couldn't wait to get back to their peaceful village in Corfu. But she did highly recommend the Acropolis Museum, being particularly impressed with the glass floors. I wasn't sure what this meant exactly but I do know that teenagers on school trips are not easily impressed, so I made sure to allot lots of time to my Acropolis Museum visit.
The ultra-modern museum sits right below the Acropolis and it has a clear view of the Parthenon from glass floor-to-ceiling windows that frame the panoply of ancient objects in perfect context. The museum itself is like a state-of-the-art archaeological laboratory that simultaneously brings you closer to these far-off ancestors while enhancing the enormous gulf between then and now. The glass floors, revealing excavations of ancient homes underneath the museum, are a nice touch, including collections of painted pottery and the remains of a water-well that people still toss coins into.
On the upper floors I found the Parthenon's lost marbles - well most of them anyway - arranged as they would be on the temple. The famous friezes from the top of the temple with folded togas, sinews and statures are all depicted with great detail and realism. The myths and legends of monsters, gods and heroes that my classics teacher had delighted in telling us at school, brought to life by the hands of the ancients.
The most beautiful marble statues to see up close are the Caryatids removed from the porch of the Erechtheion - you can see their carefully-depicted features, the pleats of their robes and the plaiting of their hair. But there is one missing, removed by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century and now on display at London's British Museum. This put me in mind of the "Elgin Marbles" and how they should be returned to their rightful place - if not on the Parthenon itself then at least as part of the Acropolis collection. True, the British were once archaeological guardians who helped salvage great antiquities, but they can no longer justify holding onto the marbles when there is a fantastic spot waiting in their spiritual home.
Lost marbles aside, the museum definitely completes the picture if you are visiting the Acropolis. I'd advise you ask staff before taking any snaps in the museum though, as photography is only allowed in some parts, and you may find yourself being reprimanded.
I had only a brief encounter with Athens but local openness and curiosity allowed me to learn a few things. The first Athenian I met after asking for directions on the metro was a fifty-something jewellery-maker who spoke resignedly of the hard times the country is experiencing, the sense that the system is broken and a feeling that the country's pride has been severely dented. The knock-on effect of austerity measures on public services is plainly obvious to the casual observer. I could smell the rubbish in the neglected backstreets where desperately thin alley cats hunted for scraps.
At lunchtime I saw parents and grandparents lining up at the school gates to collect their children because the government has decided it can only pay teachers for half the day. At first I thought it was cute that so many granddads and grandmas had turned up to fetch the kids - before it dawned on me that they are probably having to provide childcare in the afternoons when the schools are closed and the parents are out to work.
A few days previous I had sat out the back of the bus station in the baking sun waiting for a coach out of town. A friendly oldish woman and I shared our food with a half-starved local cat, loitering taxi drivers chatted animatedly and broke into song, and a gypsy lady joined the throng. I don't speak Greek so I have little idea what she was saying but the friendly woman offered her a seat and sympathy and spoke sternly to a police officer who tried to shoo her away. This care for others seems to be something of a national characteristic and I was pleased to see it surviving in the city.
The tourist information desk at Athens airport is pretty helpful, providing maps and travel information, directions and a coach timetable from Athens bus station to other key places in the country like Delphi (Delfoi). If you are organising your own transport there are a few useful things to know. To get from the airport to the long-distance bus station (Terminal B), jump on an X93 and get off at Liosion Street. The station is down a side street. In case you are getting a long-distance coach into Athens, ask to be let off at an 'electric' metro station. I did, which led to a comradely exchange with other travellers who decided to do the same. There isn't a metro station close the coach station and the buses from here can be abit confusing.
Otherwise you can get the metro from the airport to the centre of town, and vice versa. I saved a map of the Athens Metro in my phone but the underground system is nice and simple to navigate, with only three lines plus a suburban railway. Tickets are much cheaper than London, though rush hour is almost as hectic.
On my late-evening EasyJet flight back to Gatwick I opened my copy of Graham Greene's Collected Short Stories to pass the time with a random tale. It happened to be a comical story called Mortmain featuring a honeymooning couple that are, very coincidentally, returning to London from Athens. I chuckled to myself as I read the line:
"And no view of the Parthenon anywhere."
But really Graham Greene's quip is spot on, because in Athens it really is all about the Parthenon (or Acropolis) view, that ever-present reminder of a once-great civilization.