Destination Travel — Athens, Greece

Circa 2004

The exotic Islands of Greece lure seasoned travelers from around the world with their siren song of extraordinary beauty and fascinating history. Of the 1,400 islands located in the Greek Aegean and Ionians Seas, 169 are inhabited, the most famous of which are Mykonos, Santorini Island and Naxos. Beyond the beaches of red, black or golden sand, each island boasts its own unique charm and inimitable beauty. Gorgeous landscapes and breathtaking views are part of the draw; the whitepainted villages replete with hundreds of churches and windmills complete the allure. The history buff will not be able to resist the centuries of ancient ruins storing the secrets of civilizations that on the one hand depended heavily upon gods and goddesses for their well-being, yet on the other excelled in mathematics, physics, architecture and the arts.

When deciding just which island to visit for the first time, consider Mykonos if you’re seeking the grandest nightlife in all of Greece and the Mediterranean. Choose Santorini Island if you desire an island of contrast, with sheer cliffs that melt away to beautiful beaches. Lovely Naxos is attracting more visitors every year with its variety of pleasures, from mountains and fishing harbors to lazy beaches with crystal waters, temple ruins and

No tourist’s resume is complete without spending time in Athens, the capital of Greece, often referred to as the cradle of civilization. Its history is rich and intriguing; even the city’s name recalls a dramatic story. As mythology would have it, two of the most powerful gods competed to become the patron deity of the city by giving the mortals a most useful gift. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, outwitted Poseidon, the god of the sea, with her gift of an olive tree, the symbol of peace and prosperity. Today Athens is a modern city, but the wellpreserved ruins of the Acropolis and the Parthenon remain a continuous reminder of its cultural legacy.

Greece suffered through a period known as the Dark Age in its history, but experienced renewal following that period both economically and artistically, with Athens emerging as the artistic center of Greece. It claimed its independence under the monarch King Otto in 1821, who ordered Athens redesigned and began the current phase of modernization.

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Geographically, Greece is a fascinating country with a tremendously varied landscape. It is primarily a peninsular country, but its mountain ranges flow into the Mediterranean Ocean and create an archipelago of islands. On opposite sides of Greece are the Aegean Sea and the Ionian Sea. Its most prominent peak is Mount Olympus at 2,917 meters. A rich store of natural resources includes petroleum, magnesite, lignite, bauxite, and marble.

The major thrust of Greek industry takes place in the thriving metropolis of Athens. Included are imports and exports of manufactured goods, fuels, food, beverages and chemicals. One-third of the population of Greece lives in Athens as well.

When visiting some of the sites of Athens, guests may want to start with Acropolis Hill, also called the Sacred Rock and considered the most important ancient monument of Europe. It began as a military fortress because of its view overlooking land and sea. Next it was claimed as a center for the worship of Athena, and currently it reflects the many cultural evolutions the city has undergone throughout the centuries.

Located at the highest point of the Acropolis is the Parthenon, considered the ultimate achievement of Athenian classical and architectural glory; its white Pentelic marble tower (quarried from the Penteli mountain range just north of Athens) is visible from almost all of Athens. Its beauty is unrivaled, with eight columns on the narrow sides and seventeen columns on the long sides, in Doric architectural style. Most stunning is a 40- foot-tall ivory and gold statue of Athena standing in front of a pool of water in the center of the temple. At the height of its glory, the Acropolis was surrounded by other masterpieces of art, including works depicting mythological scenes of battles between the gods and their creatures—the giants, the centaurs and the amazons. The temple pediments contained scenes representative of Athena’s birth and the battle between Athena and Poseidon. Sadly, as the Acropolis changed hands over the years, a toll was exacted on the Parthenon as well. The final insult was carried out by Lord Elgin, a British ambassador to Constantinople, who took the Parthenon’s great art to the British Museum, where it is still on display.

The most sacred of the temples on the Acropolis was known as the Erechtheion Temple, named after the mythical Athenian King Erechtonius, a third member in the competition to become the patron of Athens, along with Athena and Poseidon. Erechtheion was a sanctuary for worship of the three gods and is considered the supreme example of the Ionic style of architecture. This temple boasts two main rooms, or cellae, one dedicated to Athena and the other to Poseidon, with the intention of bringing them into reconciliation. A northern porch leads into the Temenos of Pandrossos, where Athena’s sacred olive tree supposedly grew. In the southern porch, the six columns supporting the heavy Pentelic marble roof have been replaced by sculptures of six beautiful women, called Caryatids, from Karyes in Lakonia.

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Another example of Ionic architecture, the Temple of Athena Nike, was designed by the ancient Greek engineer Kallikrates, who also designed the Parthenon. It is a nearly square edifice built on a platform on the southwest edge of the Acropolis. This beautiful building is not currently open to visitors, as it is once again being rebuilt. It first fell victim to the Turks in 1686, and the platform on which it was built again collapsed in 1936. It is known for having housed a statue of Athena holding a pomegranate, symbol of fertility, in her right hand, and a helmet, symbol of war, in her left hand.

The Acropolis was built with an enormous gateway called the Propylaia, joining with the Parthenon and comprised of three sections with three separate gates that must be transversed to enter or leave. As with the rest of the architecture of that period, the Propylaia was grand and glorious, serving as an art gallery and reflecting the magnificence and opulence of the era. It, too, has been damaged and refurbished and remains under construction.

Dividing the Acropolis in two is a road called the Panathenaic Way, commencing at the ancient cemetery Keramikos and ending at the Erechtheion Temple. Participants in the Panathenaic Festival use it as their route as they proceed on the festival’s final day with sacrificial animals and drinking vessels, and a group of musicians and girls bring a sacred shawl called the Peplo to place on the statue of Athena Polias in the Erechtheion. In centuries past, this path was bordered on one side by statues, the most famous being the 9-meter-high statue of Athena Promachos, which was crafted by the renowned sculptor Pheidias. Legend has it that Emperor Theodosius took the statue to Constantinople in 426 AD to represent Athenian might against the Persians. The citizens, believing that the statue was responsible for the subsequent invasion, destroyed it in 1204.

Along the southwest slope of the Acropolis are the ruins of a number of public buildings that were used in ages past for artistic, spiritual and religious activities. One of the most famous of these buildings is the Theatre of Dionysos, which was built by the political leader Lycourgos and rediscovered during excavations by the Greek Archaeological Society in 1838. The auditorium originally housed 17,000 seats, of which time has spared only 20. At the rear of the stage is a relief that dates back from the second century BC. Unfortunately, all but two of the characters are headless. History indicates that politicians used the theatre extensively to sponsor dramas and comedies by such writers as Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. The annual festival of the Great Dionysia was held there, and Rome used it to hold events of state, ceremonies and performances.

Two beautiful Ionic columns are all that remain of the Temple of Thrasyllos, which was built in 320 to 319 BC and situated just above the lovely little Chapel of Panagia Hrysospiliotissa (Our Lady of the Cavern), which is recessed in a small grotto behind the massive Theatre of Dionysos.

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A wealthy Roman by the name of Herodes Atticus built an expansive theater in memory of his wife, but named it after himself. Spectacular even for that time, it held 5,000 patrons on marble seats. It was restored to the point of usability in the 1950s and currently houses performances by artists from around the world during the summer Athens festival. A magnificent long promenade, the Stoa of Eumenes, built by Eumenes II, King of Pergamos, provides dramatic access to the Theater of Herodes Atticus and shelter for its audiences.

Excavations made by the Greek Archaeological Service have also unearthed the foundations of the Temple of Asklepios, which includes a Doric stoa (a porch or covered walkway with columns on one side and a wall on the other) used as the katagogion (hostel for the many visitors), an Ionic stoa and an altar.

One of the loveliest places to visit (and one of the greenest) is the old cemetery called the Keramikos. It was the city’s primary cemetery from the 12th century BC to Roman times, and houses a museum containing artifacts found on the site.

The ancient Agora, or old market in Greek, was the center of commerce and society in the classical age of Athens. Such famous statesmen and philosophers as Socrates, Sophocles and Aristotle shared their intellect in this place. The Agora’s most prominent landmark, the Tower of the Wind, so-called because it contains a relief of figures floating in the air, is in excellent condition and remains functional as a sundial, a weather vane, a water clock and a compass. All of the conquerors through the ages maintained it for its usefulness.

The largest of the ancient temples was constructed to honor the Olympian god Zeus. Seven hundred years of work was completed in 131 AD by the Emperor Hadrian. Unfortunately, only 17 of the original 104 Corinthian columns stand today, along with the Arch of Hadrian, constructed to designate the entrance to the new city.

The great Roman Stadium was originally constructed sometime in fourth century BC, from a natural hollow part of the ground between the hills of Agra and Ardettos, over the Ilissos River. This architectural wonder was apparently still in use at the time of Herodes Atticus more than five centuries later. It was he who is believed to have rebuilt the 50,000 seats with Pentelic marble and restyled the theatre into its current horseshoe shape. He is also credited with restoring the Ilissos River bridge at the stadium’s entrance, enlarging it and adding three additional archways to its base. More recently, the stadium stood in ruin for centuries until fully restored for celebration of the first modern Olympic Games in 1895.

In 2004, The Olympic Games have finally returned to their origin in Greece, providing visitors to the Games the opportunity to visit the birthplace of the ancient Olympic ideals, but also the birthplace of many of the world’s cultures and civilizations.

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by Susan Snyder

Q & A with deTraci Regula, author of the Greece for Visitors Guide

ABILITY: How accessible is the airport?

deTraci Regula: At the new Athens International Airport at Spata, accessibility is excellent. Smaller airports pose more problems.

ABILITY: How accessible is transportation within Greece?

dTR: With Greece now part of the European Union, accessibility is improving. In practical terms, access to a site is often determined by the willingness of the crew or staff on hand to carry the person over a barrier or up a flight of steps. Greeks both like to help and to show off their strength, so this type of assistance is not uncommon. Larger ferries and hydrofoils generally offer decent access if they are equipped with elevators. Bus access is generally poor, and although more and more buses are equipped with lifts, crowding often prevents their use. Trains also have poor access, though the modern Athens Metro has much better access than the long-distance trains.

ABILITY: What is the general tone of accessibility of hotel accommodations?

dTR: Hotel access is improving, but specially equipped rooms are found mainly at pricey, upscale hotels. At a mid-range hotel, I recommend asking if they have hosted someone who uses a wheelchair or other assistive device before. Completely independent travel can have some very daunting moments. In general, narrow stairways are common, and often the rooms themselves are much smaller than would be expected. Elevators may be absent or not working or very short and narrow. On the plus side, many bathrooms are entirely tiled with the shower in one corner, separated only by a curtain and utilizing a hand-held nozzle. If you are searching by internet for accessible hotels in Greece, the key word phrase which will generate the most hits is “handicap access greece.”

ABILITY: Any specific areas that are accessible or that should be avoided at all costs for those with mobilityrelated disabilities?

dTR: Unless confirmed otherwise, assume that the archaeological sites are not very accessible. The National Archaeological Museum in Athens has just reopened and it reportedly has very good access now. Ancient Olympia has good access, which has been further improved for the 2004 Olympic Games.

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ABILITY: How is accessibility around town?

dTR: It’s important to remember that Greece is a hilly country. Athens has made some major improvements, but you still cannot count on curb cuts, and sidewalks are in various states of repair. Souvenir shops often have very narrow aisles; however, merchants routinely display goods outside of shops, especially in tourist areas. Many tavernas in the Plaka, a pretty and popular dining and shopping area of Athens, have sidewalk tables that allow relatively easy access. Inside, tables are usually placed very close together. Bathrooms are often accessed through the kitchen and tend to be large enough to allow for reasonable maneuvering.

In the islands, paving is often choklakia, smooth small stones arranged in patterns of dark grey and white. Sometimes this can provide a wheelchair-acceptable surface, but it was designed to allow the inhabitants to knock pirates off their feet easily, and it still works on tourists, with mobility-related disabilities or not. Good shoes are essential for everyone, especially in the colder season when rain on polished marble makes for a glasslike surface.

ABILITY: What concerns would a traveler with a disability face when visiting famous ruins such as the Acropolis?

dTR: With recent renovations at the Acropolis, access has improved. A temporary elevator (which will be replaced in 2006 with a more aesthetically pleasing lift) offers better access closer to the monuments. However, at any archaeological site in Greece, uneven ground will always be a concern.

ABILITY: Do you have any other recommendations for the Olympic traveler?

dTR: Useful guidebooks are the Eyewitness Travel Guide for Greece: Athens and the Eyewitness Travel Guide for The Greek Islands. These guides feature cutaway drawings of all the major sites and indicate which sites meet certain criteria for accessibility.

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