Travels in Greece
Looking through the towering Corinthian columns
of the Temple of Olympian Zeus

Travel and Arrival

After flying across the Atlantic at night for hour upon hour with nothing but blackness outside the windows, the morning scenery as you fly across southern Europe is an attractive mix of grey/green mountains, curving coastlines, and blue Mediterranean waters. You slice across the middle of the Italian peninsula, with good views of the Apennine Mountains and both the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic coasts. If clouds are light, you may also get a view of the steep coastal range in western Albania and Greece before crossing over the Greek mainland.

As you reach the Attic coast, descend, and turn back toward Athens, you'll see that the Ellinicon airport is not far from the coastline, and not far above sea level, so there is a long, low approach over the waters of the Saronic Gulf, giving a good view of shoreline and the mountains beyond. Greece is a surprisingly mountainous country.

After picking up your luggage (or finding out that it decided to vacation elsewhere) and going through immigration and customs, there are several routes into the city. For those of us with no friends waiting, and not in the 'limo' crowd, there are the ever-present taxis, or perhaps, the bus. The right express bus can take you straight to Syntagma (Constitution) square in downtown Athens. The wrong bus can take you, well, 'elsewhere'. In any case, though crowded with young Europeans carrying oversized duffel bags and backpacks, it's hard to beat the fare, which is the equivalent of about sixty US cents for a pretty long ride.

Most of the ride in from the airport is fairly non-descript. The busy four-lane street could have been anywhere with a mild climate and a busy city nearby. The predominant view is white-painted 2-4 storey buildings with shops at ground level and apartments above, and, of course, billboards. Most of the businesses seemed construction or automobile oriented.

As you come into Athens proper, you catch glimpses of the Acropolis between buildings. As you get closer, and round the Temple of Olympian Zeus, you realize how the Acropolis stands above and dominates the city -- gleaming white marble seemingly suspended in the air. I got off the bus on Leofóros Amalias, one of the main thoroughfares, and started hiking in what I decided was the general direction of my hotel. Using the Parliment building as a reference point, I found myself quickly passing Syntagma Square and heading into an area of narrow two-lane (well, one-and-a-half-lane) streets, lined with four storey buildings on all sides.

The area was busy, with people in shops and food markets, and tourists seeking out a Saturday lunch before heading off toward the city's attractions for the afternoon. As I walked on, the shops and tourists dwindled out, and after a few blocks and a few turns I found myself at the entrance to the Hotel Aphrodite.

After checking in, washing up, and figuring out what things I actually did have with me in my backpack, I decided to venture out for some lunch myself, and some sightseeing. From the hotel I headed back towards Syntagma square to Leofóros Amalias, turned south past the Parliment building, and walked along the broad sidewalk, following the tall, painted iron fence bordering the National Gardens. Near what seemed to be the main entrance I bought a tirópita and a 'Fanta Orange', and meandered past the gateway and into the gardens.

Within ten meters you can sense a profound change, leaving behind a half-dozen lanes of screeching traffic and entering cool, leafy shade. I walking along a broad avenue that was empty of cars and fully crowned-over by arching branches. Benches lined the sides of the street, and a group of older men were playing chess on the far side. I settled down to eat my lunch. About half way through I decided I would never manage to eat the whole thing, so I tossed a piece to a patient-looking pigeon, who had been eyeing me respectfully from a distance. WARNING. This was not a smart idea. Alfred Hitchcock would have been impressed by the hoard of hungry birds that descended from invisible perches onto my lunch. I escaped while I could, leaving the local birds to feast on fillo dough.

I walked further into the gardens, and past the Záppeion, a columned, yellow-painted exhibition hall, and turned south again, heading for the Temple of Olympian Zeus. I descended a series of broad staircases, crossed Vasilíssis Olgas, bought an entrance ticket, and slowly walked into the temple grounds.

Temple of Zeus

The Temple of Olympian Zeus

The temple of Zeus sits in a large, open area (probably the largest flat spot in the city), so it can be looked at from every angle, and appreciated for its sheer size. Its construction began in the 6th century BC under Peisistratus but never got very far. It was finally completed under the Roman emperor Hadrian around 132 AD. Only 15 of the original 104 Corinthian columns remain, and they are huge. This was the largest temple built in Greece, and befits its name.

All but three of the remaining columns are clustered near one corner of the temple, supporting a few remaining lintel stones. At the far corner two orphaned columns stand sentinel over a fallen brother, it's constituent segments and capitol fallen neatly in a line.

View towards the Acropolis As I was to find at other sites, there were many 'extra' temple fragments about, lying in neat numbered piles. Column segments, lintel pieces, portions of walls, and many so fractured it was hard to guess what they were from. All had small numerals painted neatly in a corner, suggesting that some archeologist had long ago cataloged them and perhaps guessed where some might go, but was unable to restore them to their proper places because so much was missing. At one side of the square was a large pile of marble slabs, some of them covered with engraved letters in Greek and Roman capitals.

Because the Temple of Zeus sits in such a wide open area, you can step back and get a good view of the Acropolis in the distance. With a good telephoto camera lens you can subtract the distance in between and make them look nearby. As I looked up at the tops of the columns, at the delicate acanthus leaves carved into the Corinthian capitals, and at the huge mass of the columns themselves and the renaining suspended lintels, I was amazed that anyone could build such a thing in an age when all construction power was provided by people and animals. How did they lift things so large, so high?

White marble pedestals When you enter the archeological site, you walk a short ways down a path with shrubs and monument or column pedistals at the side, then turn left to see the temple. If you bear right or go straight ahead, there are some other ruins from the period, including Roman houses, monuments, and a public bath, among other things - all part of 'Hadrianopolis' - the Roman emperor's 'new' Athens. The river Ilissos also used to run through this area, but is now channelled underground. These buildings have been well excavated, and have signs indicating features and contents. In some areas you can still see the colors and patterns of the tile floors. As I pause for a few moments, I could just imagine someone, eighteen centuries ago, deciding which shade of blue would look best around the pool....

Off to the right beyond the Roman bath there is a gate in the tall, painted iron fence that borders the site to the north and west. Looking through the bars, I could get a good view of Hadrian's Arch, and look through the arch at the Acropolis in the distance, and a narrow walkway winding up through the Plaka towards it.

After an hour and a half at the Temple of Zeus, I decided to head in the general direction of the Acropolis, taking a first pass through the Plaka, or old city (really, the tourist district) on the way.

First though, I stopped at the southwest corner of the National gardens to look at the Statue of Byron. George Gordon Byron, the well known English baron and Poet, came to Greece in 1822, and wrote some memorable works as a result of his experiences. He returned again in 1824 to aid in the fight for independence, but died of fever.

©1997 Stephen L. Spanoudis; All Rights Reserved

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