Fact vs. Fiction: The Acropolis in Athens, Greece

Athens is home to one of the world’s most-visited tourist destinations: The Athenian Acropolis. Drawing millions of visitors each year, the Acropolis is perhaps the most famous archaeological site in the world – and it draws the traffic in kind.

The Acropolis Restoration Project
also has a marked effect on the ongoing state of display at the Acropolis. Though it’s nearing completion, scaffolding is still a major component of any visit to site.

Next: The Great Pyramids in Cairo, Egypt >>

[flickr images via Panoramas and Titanas]

The First Floor Of The Stoa Of Attalos To Reopen In Athens

Stoa of Attalos, Athens
Despite hard economic times in Greece, its capital city, Athens, is about to expand visitation to a major archaeological treasure — the Stoa of Attalos. This ancient Greek colonnade and indoor market was built in 150 B.C. by Attalos II, King of Pergamum, as a gift to Athens in gratitude for the happy schooldays he spent there.

The Stoa was meticulously reconstructed in the 1950s by The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and houses the Museum of the Ancient Agora. While visitors have been able to visit the ground floor, the first floor has been off-limits for thirty years. It will reopen in mid-May, just in time for the start of the peak tourist season. The floor will house a display of Greek sculptures that have never been shown to the public. Windows will allow visitors to get a good view of the rest of the Agora, the ancient city’s social, spiritual and political hub.

Top photo courtesy Ken Russell Salvador. Bottom photo courtesy Tilemahos.

Stoa of Attalos, Athens

Book review: inyourpocket guide to Athens

Athens, guide to AthensThis was originally supposed to be a review of the Rough Guide to Greece. I really like the Rough Guides and two weeks before I set off to write my travel series about Greece I ordered a copy from Amazon. The morning of my flight it still hadn’t arrived.

Luckily I knew about the inyourpocket guides. I had never tried these free, downloadable guides to dozens of cities, and now looked like the perfect opportunity.

Their Athens guide is 68 pages. After discarding several ads, the kids section, the gay section, and an entire page on prostitution and strip bars, I was left with a compact little guide that fit easily in my laptop bag.

The guide is narrowly focused. The only sections covering attractions outside Athens are a few pages on Delphi and skiing. For Corinth and Sparta I had to wing it. In fact, I winged much of my Athens itinerary as well because I already knew what I wanted to see during the day and the local Couchsurfing community took care of my nightlife. I was reminded just how little we actually need guidebooks for short stays in countries where we have local contacts.

The inyourpocket guide to Athens has several things going for it–free, compact, and handy for grabbing at the last minute, or even after the last minute since you could always print it out at an Internet cafe. Despite its low page count it has lots of listings, giving a wide variety of options for dining, nightlife, and sightseeing.

There were a few problems, however. The maps were too small and coming out of a black and white printer were all but illegible. Luckily the Athens airport hands out good free maps. I also found a few errors of fact. The Athens War Museum is billed as a leading free attraction but actually costs two euros. The transportation section states that to get from the airport to downtown, you take a train and then change to the metro at Nerantziotissa station. Actually there are direct trains to Syntagma Square (downtown) to and from the airport. These are only announced in Greek, but you can spot them because they have an airplane logo and luggage racks. I was excited to hear that a famous souvlaki restaurant, Kostas, is at Pentelis 5, right next to my hotel, yet when I went there I found this address to be an apartment building and there was no restaurant in sight. Considering the guides are published five times a year and this was the Winter 2011-12 edition, these errors should not have happened.

Despite some flaws, I found the inyourpocket guide to Athens a useful last-minute stopgap and would probably try additional guides in the future. Hey, you can’t beat the price. If anyone has used their other guides I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments section.

Oh, and my Rough Guide to Greece arrived the day after I got back. Thanks Amazon!

Ten random observations about Greece

GreeceWhile researching my travel series on Greece I noticed some interesting things that didn’t fit into any of the articles. Some of these observations may be obvious to those more familiar with Greece, but odd first impressions are one of the fun things about travel!

1. Flying low over the Aegean as we made our descent into Athens airport, I swear I saw dolphins playing in the blue waters. We were still high enough that they were only visible as dots, but there was a whole group of these dots appearing and reappearing in the water, as if they were coming up and diving. Has anyone else seen this?

2. Like many countries, Greece has a smoking ban in public buildings. It’s often ignored, especially in bars and cafes. Some places even have ash trays on the tables.

3. I always like hearing the local music, in my hotel I tuned into MAD TV, a music video station. I discovered lots of Greek stars I’d never heard of (is DEMY hot or what!?) and noticed a strange thing–cans of Red Bull appear in almost all their music videos. Even the lovely DEMY knocks one back in her latest video. Did Red Bull buy up Greek music or just MAD TV?

4. Greece is very visitor-friendly by having bilingual signs in all the touristy areas. This is a bit of a trap, however, because as soon as you get used to them and go someplace a bit out of the way, you’ll be staring at Greek-only signs.

5. Have no fear, you can always learn the Greek alphabet. Many of the letters are the same as our alphabet and you’re already familiar with some of the others. Learning the Greek alphabet takes less than an hour and you’ll discover so many words that are the same or close enough to English that the hour will be well spent.

6. Greek can still throw you some curve balls. For a while I thought “ne” meant “no” since it’s similar to so many other “no” words (nein, nyet, non). In fact it means yes.

7. Athens has a large and active Couchsurfing community. Get in touch before you go and they’ll show you some awesome nightlife!

8. Small Orthodox Christian shrines can be found everywhere. Some are the size of a mailbox with only room enough for a little icon and a candle. These are often found beside roads. Others are little buildings that can fit a dozen or so people. They’re tucked away wherever there’s room. Dealerships for these these ready-made churches look like mobile home lots.

9. I saw a lot of graffiti, especially in the smaller towns, that was actually advertising for local businesses. I’m not sure if the businesses themselves are tagging concrete bridges and blank walls or if it’s their loyal customers, but I suppose it’s a cheap way to advertise during times of financial cutbacks.

10. Speaking of graffiti, my neighborhood in Madrid is covered with the tag “farlopa”, which is slang for cocaine in Spanish. Walking through the Exarchia neighborhood in Athens one night I saw the “farlopa” tag. Same word, same style. I guess the tagger went on a road trip!

For something a bit more adventurous, check out my ten random observations about Ethiopia!

The Athens War Museum

Athens War Museum
This is a Heckler & Koch MP5 9mm submachine gun with gold plated parts. It was given by the Defense Minister of Kuwait to former Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, probably as a thank you for his nation’s help in liberating Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. It’s one of a case of Papandreou’s personal weapons on display at the Athens War Museum.

Greece has a long and proud military history stretching all the way back to when hoplites met Persian invaders and chariots were the latest thing in military technology. This museum starts right at the beginning and goes up to the modern day. While the section on Classical Greece is large and well detailed, I’d seen this sort of thing in other museums. The other periods of history were much more interesting to me.

One hall is devoted to the armies of the Byzantine Empire. Unfortunately all the weapons here are reproductions, but there are some detailed dioramas of fortresses and troop formations that show just how advanced the Byzantines were. They even had “Greek Fire”, an early form of napalm that played havoc with the sailing ships of the time.

The largest amount of space is devoted to Greece’s two wars of liberation-first against the Ottoman Empire starting in 1821 and again against Nazi Germany during World War Two. This is when the Greeks really showed their fighting spirit-outnumbered, outgunned, and under occupation, they nevertheless fought against the superpowers of their day and eventually won.

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The images from World War Two are especially sobering. The Nazis systematically plundered Greece and many people starved to death. The partisans kept fighting, though, using captured weapons or those smuggled in by the Allies. They even devised homemade ones, including a gun hidden in a cane. Elderly Greeks say the current economic meltdown will never make Greece suffer as much as the Nazis did, but they do worry about the younger generation that has never had to face serious hardship.

There’s also a section on the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, complete with uniforms, equipment, and walls full of detailed paintings and photographs. Greece managed to double its size in these conflicts and reduce the threat of the Ottoman Empire ever retaking the region. It was during this time that the Greek Air Force got started. Hanging outside the museum is a reproduction of the Daedalus, one of those early planes that looks more like an oversized kite. As flimsy as it is, it flew into history when it went on a reconnaissance mission on December 5, 1912, the first day of the Balkan Wars. The Ottomans sent up a plane the same day. These two missions are tied for second place in the history of military aviation. The year before, an Italian pilot dropped bombs over the Ottoman province of Tripolitania, modern Libya.

The basement is full of curiosities such as African weapons, and outside are several tanks and artillery pieces. The ground floor has a variety of weapons from all over Europe.

My only two criticisms are that the lighting on the glass cases made it difficult to take photos without them being obscured by reflections, and that sometimes the labels were too vague, with some cases being marked with signs such as “swords, 19th century.” Still, it’s a must-see for any fan of military history or anyone who wants to know just what the Greeks had to endure to earn their independence.

As I got my jacket from the coat check, I browsed through the books they had for sale at the counter. I pointed to a title on the Balkan Wars.

“How much is this?”

“Sorry,” the man behind the counter said, shaking his head. “They’re only for sale to veterans.”

“Why’s that?”

“We’re almost out and we don’t have any money to print more.”

I must have looked disappointed because he rummaged around in his desk and brought out a pamphlet about the museum.

“Here,” he said, handing it to me. “You can have this for free.”

“Oh, thanks.”

The soldier manning the ticket counter hurried over and handed me a DVD.

“This is a documentary about Greece’s struggle against the Nazis. You can have this too, and take this map,” he said, handing me a reproduction of a 17th century map of Greece that I’m going to hang on my son’s wall.

“Glad you liked the museum,” the soldier said.

The Greek economy may be in a shambles, but Greek hospitality and patriotism are doing just fine.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Sparta!