After lunch, we set out on foot to explore the city of Athens to visit other important historical landmarks. Our first stop was at the Panathenaic Stadium.
Panathenaic Stadium or Panathinaiko, is also known as the Kallimarmaro, which means ‘beautifully marbled’ and is the world’s only stadium made entirely of marble. It was built in 1896 for the first modern Olympics on the ruins of the ancient marble stadium that was built in 329 AD for the Panathenaic Games, replacing an even older stadium made of wood. In 140 AD it was enlarged and renovated and it seated 50,000. During the 1896 Olympics it accommodated 80,000 spectators.
The stadium was excavated in 1869 and hosted the Zappas Olympics in 1870 and 1875. After being refurbished, it hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the first modern Olympics in 1896 and was the venue for four of the nine contested sports. In the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, archery contests were held here and was the finishing venue for the Marathon race.
We then walked to the Zappeion Exhibition Hall, or the Zappeion as the Athenians call it. It has witnessed the history of Athens for the past 130 years. A major scene for some of the most significant moments in the country’s history, it has always been integrally linked to the Olympic Games. It was built by Evangelis Zappas, a rich businessman living in Romania, who participated in the Greek War of Independence (1821–1832).
From the Zappeion we moved to the Greek Parliament Building. This building was erected between 1836 and 1842 as the royal palace for King Otto I, the first king of modern Greece. After a fire damaged the palace in 1909, the king moved to a nearby building (now the presidential palace) and the original palace became known as the ‘Old Palace’. In 1929, after the monarchy was abolished, the Greek government decided to move the parliament from its existing building (now the National Historical Museum) to the old Palace. The parliament has resided here ever since 1935.
In front of the Parliament Building is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The monument, with a large relief depicting a nude, dying hoplite (citizen soldier of Ancient Greece, quite different from a professional soldiers), was inaugurated on March 25, 1932, on the Greek day of independence. On either side of the tomb are excerpts from Pericles’s famous funeral oration inscribed on the wall.
The Tomb is guarded by the Evzones, a special unit of the Hellenic Army, also known as Tsoliades. A pair of soldiers guard for one hour and throughout these 60 minutes, they stand perfectly still until it is time to switch with another guard
We were impressed by the ceremonial uniform the guards were turned in. The uniform consists of the Phareon -a hat – made from red baize with a black tuft, white shirt with loose sleeves, Phermeli, a handmade waistcoat with many shapes wrought on it, Greek kilt made of 30 meters of white cloth, Tsarouchia, traditional leather shoes of Evzones with a small tuft in front, (each shoe weighs three kilos) and a leather belt.
As we stood there at 3 pm, we witnessed the elaborate drill associated with the changing of guards, very similar to such ceremonies worldwide. The only difference here is that most drill movements are carried out in slow-motion. The change of guard takes place every hour and it attracts many tourists.
Since 1914, Greece (Hellenic Republic) has mandatory military service (conscription) of nine months for men between the ages of 16 and 45, quite in tune with the practice in ancient Greece. Citizens discharged from active service are normally placed in the reserve and are subject to periodic recall of one to ten days at irregular intervals. That could well be the reason that we hardly ever came across a Police Officer or a Police Cruiser.
Our next stop was the Athenian Triology, three buildings, the Academy, the University Building and the National Library, located next to each other.
The Academy is the most magnificent of all the neoclassical buildings, constructed in Athens during the nineteenth century. The Academy is the most acclaimed of the three buildings. It was constructed in marble between 1859 and 1885.
The design of the central temple, with a large Ionic portico, was based on the East side of the classical Erechtheion at the Acropolis. Relief sculptures atop the entrance symbolise the birth of Goddess Athena.
Flanking the main temple are two tall Ionic (the Ionians were one of four major tribes of ancient Greece) columns with statues of Athena and Apollo. Athena, the Greek Goddess of wisdom, arts, civilization, warfare and justice is shown dressed in armor, holding a shield and a spear. Apollo, God of music and poetry, is depicted holding a lyre in his left hand. On either side of the main entrance leading to the Academy are the statues of the famous Greek philosophers Plato and Socrates, shown seated.
The next building was the University. It has functioned as a university ever since its establishment in 1837 and is the oldest institution of higher education in modern Greece. Today it is one of the largest universities by enrollment in Europe, with over 100,000 registered students.
To the left of the steps leading to the building stands a statue of John Capodistrias, who founded the University after declaration of Greek independance in 1821. On to the right is the statue of Alexander Korais, a Greek scholar credited with laying the foundations of Modern Greek literature and a major figure in Greek Enlightenment.
The frieze (wall decorations) inside the portico shows King Ortho with great Greek arts and science personalities of the time.
We then moved on to the National Library of Greece. This library building was built at the end of the nineteenth century, as the last of the neoclassical trilogy of Athens. In front of the building is the statue of Paul Vallianos, one of the Vallianos brothers who helped fund the construction of the building. The library’s collections include more than half a million books, with many dating back before 1500 AD. It boasts of the largest and best-kept collections of ancient Greek manuscripts.
From the National Library we took a taxi to the base of Lykavittos hill. Lykavittos is the highest hill in Athens, rising 277 meters, and is visible from all over the city. We then boarded the funicular (cable based) railway, operating every 30 minutes, to reach the top of the hill.
Perched on top of Lykavittos sits the whitewashed chapel of St George. This Greek Orthodox chapel was built here in the nineteenth century and replaced an older Byzantine church dedicated to the Prophet Elias.
The hill top offered many a scintillating view over the Acropolis and the city of Athens, especially the Acropolis, the Temple of Zeus, the Panathenaic Stadium and the Parliament Building. We returned to the base of the hill by the funicular railway, though there were many tourists walking downhill.
By now we were all well and truly exhausted and we decided to return to the hotel as we had to catch the early morning ferry to Mykonos island.