Our journey set sail from Turkey across the Aegean Sea, into the Saronic Gulf and to the port of Piraeus, in Athens, Greece. It was the final stop of our unforgettable twelve-night cruise, marking the end of an incredible adventure. I bid farewell to my new friend Ashley, put on my backpack, and start moving again, ready to explore the vibrant city.
Athens, the capital of Greece, exudes a timeless charm rooted in its rich history, spanning over 3,000 years. This city stands as the birthplace of civilization and democracy, and its significance in shaping the world as we know it, cannot be overstated. It is here that the first Olympics took place, leaving a permanent mark on human history.
After disembarking from the harbor, I found myself immersed in the Plaka neighborhood, nestled beneath the watchful gaze of the majestic Acropolis. The winding cobblestone streets of Plaka were adorned with charming cafes and family-run shops, creating a picturesque atmosphere. The whitewashed houses and neoclassical villas added to the neighborhood’s unique character, transporting me to a bygone era.
Exploring the ancient wonders of Athens was an awe-inspiring experience. I made sure to visit notable sites such as The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, and marveled at the beauty of the Erectheion, an architectural masterpiece featuring six striking caryatids supporting its southern portico, built between 421 and 407 BC and tucked away on the north side of the Acropolis. The Temple of Olympian Zeus, once adorned with 104 grand columns, stood as a testament to ancient Greek craftsmanship. And the Temple of Hephaestus built in the 5th century BC, nestled near the Agora of Athens, showcased the remarkable preservation of Greek temples.
The highlight of my visit was ascending to the summit of the Acropolis, where I beheld the grandeur of the Parthenon. This iconic structure, erected in 447 BC and dedicated to the goddess Athena, stood as a symbol of Athenian power and artistic achievement. Near the Parthenon, I also admired the “little temple” of Athena Nike, a smaller but captivating masterpiece.
By chance, my visit coincided with the Athens Marathon, a historic event that drew participants from around the world. It was an exhilarating atmosphere, and even more exciting was the fact that the then-President of the United States, Barack Obama, was in town. As fate would have it, I found myself on the street just as his motorcade passed by, an unexpected encounter that added an extra touch of excitement to my Athens adventure. This was his second to last official international visit to a foreign country:
Amidst the grandeur of ancient Athens, I also witnessed a contrasting reality—the city’s gritty underbelly, marked by debris and graffiti. I was taken aback by the prevalence of spray paint, unsure whether it was deemed as “modern street art” or considered destructive graffiti. These images captured the juxtaposition of Athens, where the past and present coexisted in vibrant yet complex harmony. Here is a sampling of what I saw on my walk through the city…
It was impossible to ignore the impact of the Greek economic crises, which had begun in 2009 and left deep scars on the nation. The Greek economy faced significant challenges, burdened by staggering debt and financial stagnation. These hardships manifested in nationwide strikes, protests, and even riots. On my final night in Athens, I found myself drawn to the sound of chanting crowds. As I rounded a corner, a scene unfolded before me—hundreds of police officers in full riot gear, overseeing a gathering of protestors. Sensing the tension in the air, I moved away, but not before feeling the tinge of tear gas—a sensation reminiscent of my past days in the Infantry…
Athens, with all its complexities and contradictions, left quite an impression on me. It was a city that embraced both the glory of its past and the challenges of its present, creating an atmosphere of resilience and hope. As I departed Athens, I carried with me a deeper understanding of its history, its people, and the spirit that defined this ancient metropolis.
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