Walking in the Footsteps of Athenian Democracy

Angela Dansby

Following on the heels of the U.S. presidential election, it seems appropriate to write in this post about the birthplace of democracy: Athens, Greece. It was my place of refuge in recent weeks as Belgium went into full lockdown again (until Greece did as well). As I stared as the magnificent Acropolis of Athens while ballots were being counted in America, I prayed that Athenian democracy would prevail there. As it turns out, a modern Pericles “trumped” Julius Caesar.

Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world and the oldest capitol in Europe with 3,400 years of history. It is considered the birthplace of western civilization. It is surrounded by three mountains, one of which is the Acropolis on top of which an olive tree sits as the city’s symbol. That’s because Athens is resilient, having survived several earthquakes and takeovers by differing civilizations. (Plus, little else grows there besides Bougainvillea because it’s too hot and dry!)

The warmth of Greece’s sun and people far outweighed the comfort of home for a while. After all, the country has 200 days of sunshine a year and the Greek attitude reflects it. What’s not to love?

According to Greek mythology, gods Athena and Poseidon both vied to be the patron of Athens. Zeus orchestrated a contest between them on the Acropolis, where they were asked to present gifts to the city. Poseidon smashed his trident on a rock to produce salt water. Athena peacefully offered an olive tree, which the citizens of Athens greatly appreciated so she became their patron. Do their strikingly different approaches sound familiar, Americans?

The Parthenon on the Acropolis, named in honor of Athena Parthenos (patron), is a testament to historical takeovers and endurance. It was built under Pericles in the 5th Century BC as a temple, but later turned into a Christian church by Byzantines (6th Century AD) and a mosque by Ottomans (1458 AD). These various iterations withstood bombardment and massive earthquakes.

Speaking of earthquakes, one occurred near the Greek island of Samos when I was Athens. Some buildings and people in the capitol felt it and possibly me … At the time of the quake, I fell down near the Acropolis while taking a photo. (Let’s assume I didn’t trip in an embarrassing moment of “rock and roll!”)

Besides the majestic Acropolis, which stands like a sentinel by day and beams at night like a guardian angel, ancient artifacts are everywhere in Athens: in metro stations, the national garden, across from the national bank, just walking down the street … even a nearby beach is made of crushed marble! Major archeological sites include Odeon of Herodes Atticus amphitheater; Panathinaiko Stadium, uniquely made entirely of marble where the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896; the hill of the Pnyx, where the Athenian democratic assembly met; Temple of Hephaestus, which is well intact; Ancient Agora, the seat of justice; Hadrian’s Library, built by its namesake emperor; Olympieion (Temple of Olympian Zeus); Roman Agora, built by Caesar and Augustus; Acropolis Museum, including artifacts from the Parthenon and an archeological excavation outdoors; and National Archeological Museum with the best preserved ancient artifacts of all. Many of these sights are in the popular neighborhoods of Plaka and Monastiraki. They are like walking through time.

Modern buildings are also worth seeing in Athens, including the Hellenic Parliament at Syntagma Square with its weekly changing of the guards (Sunday 11 am); National Library of Greece (old and new locations), Academy of Athens, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens; Museum of Cycladic Art; and newish Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, designed by architect Renzo Piano, to showcase the arts. For amazing views of the Acropolis, head to the top of the Areopagus, 360 Degrees, A for Athens Hotel or to Mount Lycabettus by foot or cable car.

Then there is the Athens “Riviera” southwest of the city with beaches that make you feel like you’re on a Greek island. No wonder it’s the hottest place to invest in the country now. Astir Beach is the best with another stunning beach just across the road. Glyfada is the closest town of any size with lots of shops and yummy restaurants.

Speaking of food, you will eat and drink well in Greece and – like everything there – pay about 30 percent less for it than elsewhere in western Europe. Think tzatziki, Greek salad and yogurt, moussaka, fresh-out-of-the-sea fish, baklava, capers, olives, honey and feta, lots and lots of feta. Greek wines have come a long way in the past 30 years and feature several unique varietals like Assyrtiko, Malagousia, Moscofilero, Agiorgitiko and Kotsifali. I also highly recommend cooking classes in Athens, such as at the foodie hotel Ergon House or The Onion, which takes you to Central Athens Market to buy ingredients.

With 4.5 million people, Athens is a bustling city with many narrow streets in keeping with its Old World charm. And just like the New World (phew!), it has stayed true to its deep roots of democracy as symbolized by the Acropolis olive tree.

The olive tree is a symbol of peace, resilience and hope. Yesterday, Americans planted one in the White House. ?

Denmark is about 50 times smaller than Greenland with only 2 percent of its land space (43,000 vs. 2 million km2). However, Greenland has 1 percent of Denmark’s population (58,000 vs. 5.9 million).