When I planned my trip, I was ignorant to the deeper importance of my stop in Greece. As I engaged more and more with the environment and the locals, my short time in Athens began to feel like something of a pilgrimage for the global citizen. The Athenians are acutely aware of their status as the creators of democracy, the common person’s preferred political system. The political and intellectual gifts of Ancient Athens colored my experience from beginning to end, rendering it one of the most educational and inspiring stops on my journey.
After dropping off my bag, I walked aimlessly in the direction of the Acropolis. I eventually came upon a tall iron gate, the ends of which I couldn’t see. It separated the historic site of the Acropolis (a large, central hill that holds a number of temples and ruins) from the public streets. The devotion to historical preservation symbolized by these gates would become a recurring theme on my walks around Athens; modern Athenians’ deep respect for their history manifests itself in large swaths of gated off historic land that would be priceless to developers, restauranteurs, etc.
Strolling around the gates, I eventually spotted a skinny, winding set of white stairs leading closer to the historic site. I climbed the stairs and soon found myself elevated enough to see a panoramic view of the city of Athens. The surrounding mountains, nestled hills, and the shimmering Aegean Sea (behind the below photo) shed light on the ancient Athenians’ choice of settlement.
My second day was more or less a twelve-hour immersive history lesson. I began by walking around the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, and the Theatre of Dionysus at the site of the Acropolis. One interesting fact I overheard a guide mention is that ancient Greek theatre was originally conceptualized not as a means of entertainment, but rather as a means of education - a key ingredient to their radical new system of democracy. Only with the large semicircular seating arrangements and excellent acoustics of an amiptheatre could one pedagogue reach hundreds or thousands of students.
As I walked to the next sight, I saw a sign that said “museum - free entry” which begged only one response from a budget traveler like myself. The curator explained that the museum explored the life of Melina Mercouri, a late Greek actor, singer, activist, and politician who brought about a cultural resurgence in Athens. Mercouri was exiled during her acting career by the dictatorial Greek Military Junta for having spoken out against their coup d’état and regime. In response, she embarked on an international activism tour which helped restore democracy to its motherland. Upon her return to Greece in 1974, she entered the political arena and was elected Minister of Culture within a decade. Her eight-year tenure cemented her status as a national hero who is thought to be responsible for the flourishing state of Athenian cultural awareness. Understanding Ms. Mercouri’s contributions to Greek & Athenian society provided some context to my experience; had it not been for her, I’m sure that at least half of the artifacts I saw or the cultural insight I gleaned would have disappeared.
After the Mercouri museum, I walked to the center of Ancient Athens, known as the Agora. The streets were still generally intact while most of the buildings, save the extremely well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus, had been reduced to their foundations. Also in the Agora was a rebuilt Stoa: a long, intimidating building which apparently was the Ancient Greek equivalent of a shopping mall, and the etymology of the “Stoic” philosophers (the stoas were their preferred venues for discussing philosophy). In this Stoa, a large collection of artifacts were on display, including ingenious ancient tools like a device made of stone that randomly chose members of a jury via a ball dropping through slots with assigned jurors.
As the sun set, I joined the Athens Free Walking Tour. The knowledgeable tour guide, Yiorgos, did not simply point out interesting ruins and artifacts; he explained their significance to the history of the city and the modern-day implications of Athenian philosophical and political ideas. For example, while explaining how democratic principles developed in the Agora, Yiorgos suavely outlined how the ancient Greeks could have predicted the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The two most important tenets of Greek democracy, education and participation, had eroded, while the two forces the Greeks deemed most destructive, corruption and demagoguery, had thrived. I joined a few friends that I’d met on the tour for falafel afterwards, where we decompressed from the densely informational walk.
On my last day, I booked a dinner through VizEat, a service similar to AirBnB for meals. I paid a small fee to meet with a local Greek, go to his house, and eat a home-cooked meal with him. My host, Ioannis, prepared me a four-course meal of Greek salad, a bruschetta with local vegetables, fried fish, a stuffed peach dessert, and some local rosé wine. He told me about the recipes his grandmother taught him, his life in Athens, and his girlfriend, a musician whose songs played in the background as we ate.
Ioannis mentioned that every time the moon is full, he goes to a nearby hill called Mt. Philopappos to watch it rise. I had luckily booked my dinner on the full moon, and he offered to give me a short tour which would culminate in the moonrise. As we walked up the hill, he added that it was the best place to view the Acropolis. It was true - the lit facade of the Parthenon shone dominantly over the the glistening city below.
When we reached the summit, he pointed to the mountains in the east and said, “Look, there’s the moon”. Staring at some sort of small marker light at the crest of the mountain, I ignorantly replied, “What? That’s a light”. My confusion grew when he insisted it was the moon, but after a few seconds I noticed a subtle halo looming over the hill. A sliver of bright light materialized, which grew into a moon that looked as if it were pulled twice as close to Earth than usual. Ioannis’ astronomic clairvoyance was a cosmically appropriate end to my time in Athens - a modern manifestation of the Greek intellectual tradition.