We sail into the heart of the sun. More accurately, we arrive in Piraeus at about 3pm, but it’s hard to tell the difference. We’re going to need a plan if we’re to see Athens’ wonders without perishing of heatstroke, and this is it: get up dead early, see something, return to air conditioning for the afternoon, dinner, bed, repeat.
Day one: the ancient Agora
At 8am, only a few tourists have set foot here yet, so we’re free to wander through great piles of really old marble to our hearts’ content. The centre of Athenian society, it was meeting site, news stand, market, place of worship and sat between the two ‘houses’ of Athenian government, the Parthenon rising above it all.
The first path we set foot on turned out to be the Panathenaic Way. Chloe was as excited as when she saw Paul McGann in a lift at Gally or that dung beetle in Tanzania. Allan was treated to a run down of what the road was used for and the difference between Doric, Ionian and Corinthian columns. Who says Classical Civilisation A-level isn’t useful?
The Temple of Hephaestus was impressively intact, looking just as a Greek temple should. We can see it from our apartment balcony. Fun fact, for years people thought it was a temple to Theseus and the entire local neighbourhood was named Thisseo after it. Oops.
There was an excellent little museum and this time it was Allan who got over-excited when a 2,500 year-old, Spartan bronze battle shield was spotted. “No, I’m Spartacus!” and “Do you like Gladiator movies?” was heard way too many times.
The only blot on an otherwise perfect morning was being forced to ‘have a word’ with a couple of tourists who thought it was perfectly OK to rub their sweaty hands all over the feet of a two thousand year old statue. ‘Don’t worry, we won’t hurt it’, they say. We huff in a very British display of disapproval, which they barely notice.
Day two: Library of Hadrian & Museum of Islamic Art
Another early start and only two other tourists join us at the ruins of a marvellous library built by the Emperor Hadrian.
On first sight, we think the great columns at the entrance are the long side of the building. We soon realise it’s merely the back. The place is huge, with papyrus storage, reading rooms, auditoriums and meeting places. Of course, someone then plonked no fewer than four churches on the site. But it had served its purpose, making Hadrian look darn good and distracting people from who was going to pay for ‘that’ wall.
On our way out we pass two young women sitting on some marble columns and a family posing for photos on top of another. We’re hot and tired already, though, so simply indulge in more subtle huffing as we leave.
The Museum of Islamic Art offers a cool (and, again, empty) haven from the heat. Its four floors trace the development of artistic styles and techniques in the Islamic world from the seventh century onwards.
The bright colours in ceramics and glazes are particularly striking, showing how European and Islamic techniques developed at different rates. We can’t tell whether this is as a result of greater scientific progress or the availability of different materials. The results, though, are spectacular.
Particularly notable was a thousand year old woven rug, still in good enough condition to see the red and gold colours and make out the script.
Sadly, it was just too warm to enjoy the rooftop café for any length of time but the views across the city, including the Acropolis, were breathtaking.