Our explorations have shown that Athens is a modern, urban sprawl of concrete and traffic, a city where the east and west meet in markets, cafes and tavernas and all either built upon ancient ruins or rubbing shoulders with marble-pillared Classical buildings and Byzantine churches.
Today our mission was first of all to ascend the Acropolis where its temples are thought by many to be the most influential buildings in western architecture because of the influence that these buildings have had on the architecture since the 5th century BC. Most of the temples were built to honour Athena, the city’s patron goddess. According to the guide books these are still breath taking for their proportion and scale but a human scale was most dramatically experienced in the last moments of the ascent of the Acropolis Rock.
The Acropolis Rock is the highest part of the city and was an ideal place for refuge, religion and royalty having been used continuously since neolithic times (Bronze Age). It is composed of marble, as is the surrounding area, made by earth movements (metamorphosis) of the Thethys limestone. At the summit one enters a grand entrance known as the Propylaia. Everyone had to pass through this entrance to reach the temples and it is still the case today. It is still possible to walk along the Panathenaic Way to the Parthenon. This is thought to be the epitome of ancient Greek Classical art with Athena represented inside by a giant gold and ivory sculptor. In the 5th century AD the building was used as a church. During the later Ottoman occupation it was used as a mosque and also a gunpowder store. This nearly led to its destruction when the Venetians shelled it during the siege of 1687 from the nearby Filopappos Hill. The Parthenon is claimed, by the Greeks, to have suffered more damage in 1799 when the British Lord Elgin removed sculptors and inscriptions taking them back to England for the British Museum.
Alongside is the Erechtheion which according to myth was where Athena and Poseidon battled for the patronage of Athens. It is thought that the design unites separate temples to the two gods. Below the summit is the theatre known as the Odeon of Herodes Atticus built in 161 AD. It is still in use by the summer Athens festival.
We descended from the Acropolis through the narrow streets of the medieval suburb of Plaka. On the journey we passed the Roman Forum and Tower of the Winds. This market place was founded by Caesar and Augustus and replaced the original Greek Agora which is nearby. One of its most striking features (currently undergoing restoration) is the Tower of the Winds. It was built in 50 BC, one hundred years before the market and there is no other building yet discovered of the ancient world. It is eight sided and each side is sculpted with a personification of the winds and their names, such as Notos, the wind blowing from Africa. Inside was a water clock operated by a stream from the Acropolis.
After lunch we took the ‘Red Happy Train’ around the city. This vehicle is much smaller and manoeuvrable than the open top bus so it took us through an amazing warren of streets lined with restaurants and bazaars before returning to Syntagma Square.
As the evening rush hour set in we walked to our favourite restaurant for our evening meal. These photographs give a flavour of Athens at night.
Today we explored the port of Athens in the suburb of Piraeus. During medieval times the port was known as Porto Leone in tribute to a 3 metre high ancient marble lion. In 1688 the Venetians stole it and relocated it to Venice. Apparently the city council is now negotiating its return.Â Today the port is used by ferries that connect Athens to the islands of Greece but it is also the third largest Mediterranean port which handles cargo ships, oil tankers are more recently cruise ships. It is interesting at the current time to reflect upon part of the ports history because in 1922 the first factories were established here and manned by an influx of refugees from Asia Minor (the Middle East of today). In 2004 for the Olympics the port and its hinterland underwent a huge makeover. These complexes are there today but not all be used.
Our open top bus took us past the port and people from the cruise ships boarded the bus for an afternoon in Athens.
We left the bus at Pasalimani, a large semi-circular bay with a narrow opening to the sea. The bay is now has a tree-lined promenade overlooked by open-air cafes and the home of up to 400 of the most impressive motor yachts in Greece. This is a far cry from the same harbour in the 5th century BC which could accommodate 196 triremes. Each one was 40 metres in length and 5 metres wide and were noted for their great speed of up to 12 knots. The boats were powered by 170 oarsmen seated on three tiers. Apart from being battleships these vessels enabled Greece to trade with the east and west Mediterranean.
We ate lunch in another suburb, with its small bay, called Mikrolimano. The ancient Greeks who kept their ships here believed it was protected by the goddess Munichia Artemis and initially named it after her. Today the harbour is filled with the small wooden boats of local fishermen who supply the surrounding restaurants with their daily catch. The squid was delicious!!
Close by is the Peace and Friendship Stadium which hosted basketball championships in the 1990s and volleyball in the Olympics. Across the motorway is a big football stadium which is the home ground of Olympiacos FC.
We flew from Manchester as the sun was rising and landed at lunchtime from a clear blue Athens sky and a temperature of 27 degrees C. Our hotel is close to Syntagma Square. So following a rapid unpack we explored the Square, which is the centre of modern Athens. It is surrounded by office blocks and hotels, the roofs of some of these buildings are used by TV reporters because they have a clear view of the National Parliament Buildings. This was constructed in 1842 as a palace for Otto, Greece’s first king after independence.
Standing sentry outside are the evzones. These are soldiers who march solemnly back and forth wearing traditional short skirts and pompommed shoes which is the traditional attire of the rebels who won the War of Independence in 1821 – 1829. The changing of the guard is like a slow high kick dance.
Under part of the Square is the Syntagma Metro Station which is a combination of museum and station. When excavation work to extend the metro was being conducted thousands of priceless items were found because the site had been continuously occupied since around 5 BC. Having recovered these items archaeologists have displayed many of them and along one complete wall of the station is a glass wall which shows the layers of occupation, graves, the remains of buildings, a road and an aqueduct transporting water to the site.
Our morning started with an exploration of the Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi) which was founded in 1461 by Sultan Mehmet II. The bazaar was designed as the trading heart of an empire and today is still piled with carpets, jewellery and spices. When first built it had travellers accommodation, a bath house, mosques and school as well as shops, storerooms, cafes and money exchanges. Many streets are given over to specialist sales such as Jewellers’ Street. At one time each part of the bazaar had its own specialism as indicated by the street names. So there were slipper, mirror, fez, quilt, thread and fur makers. Today, however, we saw these items arrive in boxes and bags. There are 22 gates leading into the covered bazaar and one is marked with an inscription that when translated means ‘God loves tradesmen’.
Later we strolled past the fishermen on the Galeta Bridge before witnessing the arrival of 2 cruise ships on the Karakoy waterfront which is opposite the Eminonu Terminal. One of the cruise ships was the Queen Victoria.
On our return to the hotel we engaged in a touch of tram spotting as many of them are mobile advertisements.
To complete the exploration we went underground at our hotel to see the remains of another cistern cut into the limestone rock. After posting this we fly home to Manchester to prepare for our next trip!
For most of the day we have been on board a ferry that enabled us to journey from the Golden Horn, through the Bosphorus to just short of the Black Sea. Many people think that this is the best way to see Istanbul because you get a different perspective on the city, the skylines and the sea. Having left Eminonu Pier, the cities busiest ferry terminal, the ship clips the entrance to the Sea of Marmara before turning into the Bosphorus proper. The journey took us past palaces built during the Ottoman Empire, past small villages on the Asian side, modern Istanbul suburbs on the European side and along a water filled rift valley with steep wooded sides.
We continued beneath the Bosphorus Bridge. Completed in 1973, at 1510 metres in length, it was the first to link Europe and Asia.
Further on was the second Bosphorus Bridge completed in the late 1980s and of a similar length. It was interesting that as we neared the entrance to the Black Sea a much bigger single stay suspension bridge was under construction.
Towards the end of the journey we past the village of Sanyer, the main fishing port on the Bosphorus and saw its fleet of purse-seine net fishing boats at work.
We took lunch at the village of Anadolu Kavagi on the Asian side. Our return journey gave us a clear view of the castle known as ‘The Fortress of Europe’ (Rumeli Hisan). This castle was built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452 prior to his attack on Constantinople. Following this, this castle and a similar one on the Asian side taxed vessels using the Bosphorus. This was a lucrative business as it is the only sea route from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea and the countries at the heart of Asia which provided many of the silks and spices traded in Istanbul and further west.
Finally we returned to the main city area.
Today we explored the Sultanahmet quarter. Our hotel is a stones throw from the Blue Mosque which dominates this part of the quarter. It was commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I and he want to surpass the size and beauty of the nearby Haghia Sophia. The work was completed in 1616 and has become one of the most beautiful mosques in the world popularly known as the Blue Mosque because of its blue tiled interior. It has six minarets which made it equal to the great mosque in Mecca. The tiles of the interior are of a Chinese pattern and used lots of turquoise, purples, greens and coral reds from minerals transported along the Silk Route.
Passing through the Sultanahmet Meydani park we came across the Haghia Sophia, or the Church of Holy Wisdom. It is thought by many to be one of the world’s foremost architectural wonders which was inaugurated by Emperor Justinian in 537AD. It was converted into a mosque in 1453.
Across the road is the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici). This is known by many as the ‘Sunken Palace’ but it had a mundane purpose as a vast underground water storage tank hewn into the porous limestone. This allowed the cistern to store the groundwater. It was begun by Constantine and expanded by Justinian in 532AD to ensure that Constantinople was always supplied with water. It once held 80 million litres of water and its roof is supported 336 pillars of 8 metres in height. Today Istanbul’s water comes from other sources and there is only a small amount of water in the cistern.
Our walk continued to the Eminonu Pier which is the hub of ferries that traverse the Golden Horn, Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. Here are terrific views of the Istanbul skyline. The Golden Horn is crossed by the Galata Koprusi Bridge. It is a double decker bridge with traffic on the top deck and restaurants beneath. The original was an iron pontoon structure built in 1912. It was small but it pontoons blocked the flow of water and trapped pollution in the Golden Horn. We had lunch on the lower level and shared the experience of fishing from the top deck as lines passed us going up and down.
The Eminonu waterfront is backed by Byzantine warehouses and markets which traded the silks and spices from the Far East brought here for centuries in a combination of land and sea journeys.
This evening we ate on a roof top terrace overlooking the Blue Mosque and the Sea of Marmara.