Dispatch, Greece: Marvelous architecture

By Kate Rice
Athens-Parthenon-Acropolis-KR

 Travel Weekly’s Kate Rice is on vacation in Greece with her family. Her second dispatch follows. Click to read Kate’s first dispatch.

To step foot on the Acropolis is to wonder: Who were these guys? What confluence of individual genius, collective knowledge, geography and environment made ancient Greek culture the foundation of Western civilization?

Even when the Romans took over the show, they still spoke Greek, we learned.

It's a question to which you could devote your life, and perhaps in my next one, I will.

But on this visit, we have to limit ourselves to walking the Acropolis, and then get at least some of our questions answered at the Acropolis Museum, which stands parallel to and just below the Acropolis itself.

You get a sense of how ancient the Acropolis is when you see how the mesa has been reinforced over the millennia by stone walls and buttresses.

On our way up, we passed the Theater of Dionysus, which could hold 15,000 spectators, and then the Odeon Of Herodes Atticus theater.

Then, we walked up the creamy marble steps through the Propylaea, the grand entrance to the Acropolis. It is jammed with visitors, who, like us, stop and turn to look at the slopes of the Acropolis, other temples and the ancient Agora spread out below.

Then, it's on into the Acropolis itself, to see the Parthenon and the Erechtheion. At this temple, my daughter Gavriela pointed out the Caryatids, female figures that are also columns forming the Porch of the Caryatids.

The guide we hired (her name, Athena) pointed out the olive tree at its base — it's the very tree Gavriela had already told us about. We spent an hour or so with our guide, who then left us to enjoy the beauty of the Parthenon on our own.

Athens-Parthenon-Columns-KRWe walked around all sides, craning our heads back to see the columns rising into the blue Athenian sky. Gavriela explained the optical illusion the ancients used when they built the temple, curving lines slightly and leaning the columns in; were they to continue into space, they would converge into a triangle. Its classic proportions still mesmerize, epitomizing some universal human aesthetic that resonates with visitors from around the globe who, like us, were walking around and taking nonstop photos.

When we finally pulled ourselves away from the Acropolis (lunch called), we took a detour to the Hephaestion Temple, the best-preserved ancient Greek temple. All of its pediments and columns still stand.

After lunch, we hit the Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009. Designing a museum that sits in the shadow of an architectural marvel must have been a daunting task.

But this museum succeeds architecturally and as a museum. The entryway overlooks an archaeological site (you can't dig anywhere here without turning up an ancient ruin). Throughout the museum, parts of the floor are glass, giving views of excavations beneath the museum.

What the museum does best of all is tell the story of the Acropolis and the people who built it. It gives up-close views of sculptures and other architectural pieces from the Acropolis.

Kate and Gavriela at the Acropolis Musuem.At the entry, a floor-to-ceiling video shows how the Acropolis might have been built. When you stand beneath those soaring columns, you can't imagine how anyone could lift those heavy column sections without a crane. The hypothesis: a combination of scaffolding, ramps and a sophisticated lever system.

Museum displays tell the Acropolis story, but there are also archaeologists on the second floor of the museum. They're there to answer questions.

Another film shows you the history of the Parthenon (built in the fifth century B.C.) It stood, unbelievably, mostly intact until 1687. The Venetians, trying to oust the long-ruling Turks, shelled it. The Turks, astonishingly, were using part of the Parthenon to store munitions, which blew up when the shells hit.

In the early 1800s, when Greece was under Ottoman rule, Britain's Lord Elgin chiseled friezes from the Parthenon's pediments as well as sculptures and other architectural pieces from other temples on the Acropolis, and hauled them off to England. His rationale: They weren't safe in Athens.

Those that Lord Elgin left behind are a creamy aged marble. Next to them are recreations of the sculptures that Lord Elgin took, in a much brighter white marble. Greece, the museum clearly says, has a safe place for those marbles now. There is a campaign to bring them back.

Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.
 

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