Monday, June 23, 2014

Cruising to Greece; First Stop Athens

The Greek islands are full of important cultural sites, breathtaking landscapes, idyllic beaches, and quaint villages of whitewashed buildings and cobblestone paths.  Its clear to see why its one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world!  Since Greece is made up of clusters of inhabited islands, there’s no better way to explore the region than by cruising to Greece!
 Lets take a closer look at Athens, the capital of Greece and one of the world’s oldest cities.  When you cruise to Athens you actually dock in Piraeus, about a half hour from the main part of Athens, a bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis with a population of over 3 million! Many cruise lines offer a shuttle to the heart of downtown, but subways and busses also connect the port to the city center.  Once you get to the heart of the city, there are certain sites that should be a “must-see” on everyone’s itinerary.

The Acropolis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, is known as the cradle of civilization around the globe. In ancient times, it was the greatest sanctuary of Athens, dedicated to the patron goddess Athena. The Parthenon (the main temple), the monumental entrance called the Propylaea, the temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion (easily identified by the six draped female figures that support the entablature) are four masterpieces of classical Greek architecture that shouldn’t be missed.

If time permits, I highly recommend a visit to the Acropolis Museum. The juxtaposition of antiques and ancient artifacts displayed in a beautifully spacious modern glass building is striking! There is good signage and information in English, and an in-house archeologist is on hand to answer any questions you may have.

Just below the Acropolis is the Plaka district, a historic area filled with shops and restaurants. The shops are a mix of the tacky tourist items as well as jewelry, leather, furs and art. If you’re ready to break for lunch there are some really good, traditional, restaurants serving authentic food such as spanakopita, gyros, moussaka, and souvlaki.

 The Ancient Agora was the commercial, social and political heart of Athens during ancient times.  Excavation of the area revealed a large number of temples, stoas, altars and even a concert hall. Today two large buildings are intact: the Hephaisteion - the best-preserved temple in Greece, and the Stoa of Attalos, which is now, home to another wonderful museum. The rest of the Agora looks like a large park with ruins of ancient buildings visible all around.

The Temple of Olympus Zeus is known as the largest temple in Greece. The massive ancient complex took nearly seven centuries to complete. The temple stands today simply as a remnant of Greek history, and even though only 15 out of 105 huge columns remain, it is still worth seeing.

Plateia Syntagmatos (Constitution Square) is the central square of the city, near the Parliament and many upscale hotels. The most famous aspect of Syntagma is the 11 am changing of the guards by the Evzones in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The uniforms worn by the guards are quite unique, with the pleated kilt or fustanella and pom-pom decorated footwear!

A full day in Athens is enough to see all of the above sites with ample time for shopping and lunch. Watch for our next installment of “Cruising to Greece” where we’ll talk about  Rhodes.

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