Greece #01 – Athens (Part 1)

September 07, 2019  •  4 Comments

APRIL 2019

Greece #01 – Athens (Part 1)

This is part 1 of a trip we took in April of 2019 to Greece.  Except for a few days on our own in Athens and surrounding area, the bulk of the trip was an organized Road Scholar cruise through several Greek Islands in the Aegean Sea. 

This installment includes the locations in Athens: Temple of Olympian Zeus, Hadrian’s Gate, Athens Central Market, the Plaka area and the Anafiotika area.  More of Athens, a few areas near Athens and the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea will follow.

Full Trip Map
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Map of our wanderings in Athens
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Our trip to Greece started in Athens as most Grecian trips do when using international airplane flights to get to Greece.  We arrived in Athens several days prior to our formal Road Scholar tour which itself included a day in Athens but then the tour boarded a small ship to do island hopping in the Aegean Sea. 

As we were not renting a car on this trip, we decided to find a hotel in the main tourist area of Athens and, as it happened, the hotel our Road Scholar trip booked us into for their portion of the trip was within a few blocks of the Acropolis.  So we made arrangements with that hotel (Divani Palace Acropolis) for several nights ahead of when the formal tour started.  This was a very nice, upscale and pricey hotel but one could not ask for a better location. 

Even though we had neglected to request a room with an “Acropolis view” ahead of time when we checked in they had one free and we got it.  We were on the 4th floor (which would be the 5th floor in the US where we designate the ground floor as 1 rather than 0).  The hotel is on a street that runs North-South where the Parthenon ruin on the Acropolis is about at the north end of the street about 3 or 4 blocks away.  So to see the view you had to go out on the balcony and look off to the left.  But, by setting one leg of my tripod on the balcony wall I could get the whole Parthenon in the shot without me or my camera falling 5 stories into the street.

Parthenon from our hotel room balcony
Parthenon at night from Divani Acropolis HotelParthenon at night from Divani Acropolis Hotel

More on the Acropolis later.

Temple of Olympian Zeus

About a 15 minute walk from our hotel is the National Gardens and the Temple of Olympian Zeus.  On our first morning in Athens, still a bit jet lagged, we decided to just take it easy with a stroll in the vicinity of the hotel.  We first headed over to the National gardens which is a serene 38 acre wooded park with a myriad of pathways.  Inside this park, of course are the requisite statues and monuments (but thankfully not too many), a very small free zoo, playground, several small ponds, fountains and several botanical garden type of features.  As far as central city parks go, this one is very pleasant, well kept, and clean, albeit in many regards it is quite unremarkable.  However, as it was a warm day, strolling through a wooded park in the shade was a good idea.  Of course this didn’t prevent us from buying ice cream while we were there.

Vine covered arbor
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Nearby this park is the Temple of Olympian Zeus.  This World Heritage site is a bit less than 20 acres of open space in the middle of the bustling city.  Although they list 11 “attractions” at the site including remnants of an old Roman Bath, a couple of houses, and some walls, the main thing to see here is the temple itself.  Hadrian’s Gate is also listed as part of this site but it is actually outside the fenced in area and you can get to it without having to pay the entrance fee for the Temple site.  Even though you can see and photograph the temple from outside the fence with a long lens, you’re always going to have tourists between you and the temple which sits on higher ground than outside the fence.  So, in order to shoot from closer without tourists in the way we paid our fee and went on into the site. 

Once inside, we found that there was a rope line twenty or so feet away from the temple preventing you from getting right up to it.  This turned out to be a mixed blessing.  On one hand it prevents people from being in the temple itself, and in your photos of the temple, which was wonderful.  But, on the other hand if you move back far enough to get the whole temple in the shot (even with a super wide lens) that rope barrier is in the shot.  But it turned out not to be all that intrusive to have it present and much better than having to clone out tourists.

So, let’s talk about the Zeus temple itself.  The temple has only 15 of the original 104 Corinthian columns but even so, they are impressive.  Along with the entire complex, the columns were constructed on a scale more grandiose than was normal for the times with columns over 55 feet (17m) tall each having a base 5.5ft (1.7m) wide.   This temple, dedicated to Zeus, was built around 550 BC on the site of an earlier temple.  That original temple was demolished after the death of the greatly disliked emperor (Peisistratos) who had it built.  The new temple was started by his two sons (Hippias and Hipparchos) in 520 BC.  What a way to honor dear old dad than to tear down his masterpiece and replace it with a more grandiose one?  These brothers intended their new temple to be bigger and better than any other built to date. 

But things didn’t go quite as planned.  The brothers took after their tyrannical dad and were overthrown 10 years later when Hippias was thrown out of the country.  By that time only the massive platform and a bit of a few columns had been constructed. And thus it remained for the next 336 years during the era of Athenian Democracy. Apparently the Greeks thought it was in bad form to construct these massive edifices while the population was not doing so well.  What a concept!

It wasn’t until 174 BC that King Antiochus IV, who presented himself as the earthly embodiment of Zeus, revived the project. The design was changed to be a bit more modest and the building material was changed to the more expensive but higher quality Pentelic marble.   However, this project too ground to a halt in 164 BC with the death of King Antiochus.  At that time it was only about half done.

Serious damage was inflicted on the partly built temple by Lucius Cornelius Sulla's sack of Athens in 86 BC. While looting the city, Sulla seized some of the incomplete columns and transported them back to Rome, where they were re-used in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. A half-hearted attempt was made to complete the temple during Augustus' reign as the first Roman emperor, but it was not until the accession of Hadrian in the 2nd century AD that the project was finally completed around 638 years after it had begun.  And we think it takes a long time to build a freeway.

After that, it seems that every time Athens was sacked by some new invader, they damaged or stole major parts of the temple.  Fifteen columns remain standing today and a sixteenth column lies on the ground where it fell due to a storm in 1852. Nothing remains of the cella or the great statue that it once housed.

The temple was excavated in 1889–1896 by the British School in Athens, in 1922 by a German archaeologist and in the 1960s by another Greek archaeologist.

What’s left of the Temple of Olympian Zeus
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Ornate carved marble adorns the tops of the columns
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The Parthenon on the Acropolis between 2 isolated columns of the Zeus temple
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Hadrian’s Gate (Arch)

In one corner of the Temple of Olympian Zeus complex is Hadrian’s Gate but this one little section is outside the fence that enclosed the area you have to pay to go into.  But it is still considered part of the same complex.

Officially it is “The Arch of Hadrian” but everyone calls it “Hadrian’s Gate” or “Hadrian’s Arch”.  It is a monumental gateway resembling a Roman triumphal arch.  Hadrian (76 ad – 138 ad) it turns out was Roman emperor from 117 to 138 ad.  So why does he have a gate in Athens Greece?  It seems that when he visited Athens in 124 he really liked the place.  It didn’t hurt that prior to that visit he had been granted citizenship and given other honors by the Greeks.  And, in return he treated the Greeks quite well and adopted a more or less hands off policy and let the Greeks run their own affairs for the most part.  However, he did help them re-write a part of their constitution, and used the power of Rome, as well as subsidies, to aid Greek international trade.  He also funneled a fair amount of Roman wealth to Athens in support of public games, festivals and competitions.  He also sponsored the construction of public facilities like a large library, aqueducts, roads and various monuments around town.  In other words sucking up to the emperor has its benefits and in return he was quite well liked by the Greek government and the population of Athens. 

The impetus for the arch is not entirely clear but it is probable that the citizens of Athens or another Greek group were responsible for its construction and design.  When built it spanned a major highway that led to the center of town and thus was dubbed “Hadrian’s Gate”.  The entire thing is made of Pentelic marble, same as used in the construction of the Parthenon and many other notable structures in Athens.  The arch was constructed without cement or mortar from solid marble, using clamps to connect the cut stones.

Over time though, streets got moved and traffic re-routed leaving Hadrian’s Gate in a somewhat  awkward place – at least photographically speaking.  It isn’t really in the open space of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Nor is it arching over anything like a road or river.  Instead it sits sandwiched between a major traffic thoroughfare through town on one side, and the fenced in Temple of Olympian Zeus on the other side.  If you look at it from one side you’re looking at it across a 6 lane boulevard with cars, trucks and busses zooming by along with overhead wires for the electric busses.  If you look at it from inside the Temple of Zeus complex on the other side you have that boulevard behind the arch along with a drab collection of 4 and 5 story buildings obscuring the view of the Acropolis in the background.  And if you try to photograph it from atop the acropolis it is just lost in the jumble of buildings at the end of a street.

Telephoto view of Hadrian’s Arch from atop the Acropolis
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This state of affairs is very annoying from a photographic point of view.  But, where there is a will there is a way – or so they say.  With the help of our guide, after a long day seeing other sites in and out of town, we went over to Hadrian’s Gate near midnight when there was less traffic; no throngs of tourists loitering under the gate and the cloak of darkness obscured those pesky wires and background clutter.  I set up my tripod on a very narrow median divider in the middle of the road and, by timing the traffic flow from a nearby traffic light and using a slow shutter speed I finally got a decent shot of this monument by utilizing the lights from the vehicles as part of the composition.

Hadrian’s Gate at night
Hadrian's Gate at nightHadrian's Gate at night

Central Market

On another day, among other things, we took a cab over to the Central (or Public) Market they call the “Varvakios”.  It was only about 1.6 miles from the hotel but we figured we’d ride there (especially as we weren’t quite sure exactly where it was) and then walk back. 

The market is open every day, except Sunday, from early morning till late in the evening.  It was built in 1886 to accommodate the many vendors that would sell their products in improvised stalls at the foot of the Sacred Rock and has been running ever since.  In it you will find mostly historic shops some of which have been there and run by the same family for 50 years or more. 

The market is divided into sections on both sides of Athinas Street.  On one side of the street is the partially open-air produce stalls and on the other side are the indoor fish and meat markets.  Next to the produce market are 2nd hand stores.

The second hand stores are indoor shops with store fronts facing the produce market and with their merchandise spilling out onto the walkway.  I say they are indoor stores but they are so jammed with items from floor to ceiling that I doubt a shopper could actually get inside.  These second hand shops sell every conceivable type of knick-knack you can imagine from musical instruments, to 1950’s tin toys.  You name it and they’ve got it.  And, it’s all jumbled together in a mash up of color, vintage, and use with no discernable pattern, rhyme or reason.

Second hand shop
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Second hand shop
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The main meat, fish and produce markets are quite lively – especially in the mornings when locals from all around Athens and its suburbs descend on the market to stock up on the freshest goods.  People selling, people buying, people haggling, venders calling out to shoppers passing by extolling how much better their goods are than the next fellow’s.  Even though I didn’t understand a word they were saying (come on, I can barely muddle along with a few Spanish words, let alone Greek) it was actually quite obvious what they were saying.

The produce section was what one would expect with many recognizable fruits and vegetables but also some I’d never seen before.  All were nicely displayed with little price signs stuck in.  Keep your credit card in your pocket though – this is a cash environment.

Produce Market
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More Produce Market
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The meat market part is indoors with several long wide aisles with the shops along each side.  Due to more recent health regulations, parts of the shops are behind glass windows where the rough cutting is done.  However, in front of each ship is a 2 to 3 foot butcher block stocked with cleavers and knifes that looked amazingly sharp.  “That steak looks pretty good, but too big”.   WHACK  “Is that a good size for you?”  Or,  “I only need half a chicken”.  WHACK.  “There you go.  Want a bag or just wrap it in paper?”

Now to be honest, if you really want a lesson in anatomy, this is a good place to start.  I’m used to seeing steaks, chops, ribs and roasts but there were animal parts hanging on hooks that I could only guess at – which wasn’t quite as bad as some parts where I knew exactly what it was but could not imagine eating it for dinner.   “How many meters of intestines can I cut off this sheep for you?”   I’m telling you, it was really fascinating – in a morbid sort of way – and afterwards we were not really much interested in finding lunch.

Cutting steaks
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Meat on display
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The Fish portion of the market shares many of the same qualities that are found in the meat market with a few bonuses added in.  However, here they don’t seem to have the requirement to have glass between you and the meat.  Most of the seafood is laid on large sloping display tables filled with ice.  This is not a good place for flip-flops.  Every 15 to 20 minutes they hose off the fish and that water, along with the melting beds of ice the fish are displayed on, drains out of holes in the bottoms of the display cases and onto the concrete below.  This concrete slopes down to the middle of the aisle where it runs down the length of the building to a drain somewhere.  In other words all this water is right under your feet.  I wonder what genius thought up that one?   The upshot is that the concrete is always wet and full of fish slime.

Just like the meat market there are more fish types than I thought could coexist in one area but there seemed to be a preference for the squid and octopus types.

Typical Fish Market stall
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Old woman, Athens Central MarketOld woman, Athens Central Market

Plaka Area

Up against the northeast side of the Acropolis is an area of town called “The Plaka”.  As it turns out The Plaka is the oldest section in Athens and being right next to the Acropolis has become one of the most visited areas of the city after the historic ruins.  It is mostly a pedestrian only area but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a motor bike fly by or be accosted with a delivery truck of one variety or another.  According to the Internet, at one time it was the nightclub district of town, but most of those clubs closed down when in the 1970’s the government outlawed amplified music in the Plaka in an effort to get rid of undesirables.  It seems that this worked out and now the area is mostly restaurants, jewelry stores, tourist shops, cafes, and a few taverns.

Once you get off of the two main commercial avenues and start wandering around the less touristy areas you’ll find that this is a very nice residential area.  It is said that it is one of the most pleasant areas of central Athens to live in.  It helps greatly that all utilities have been placed into underground tunnels so you don’t have any overhead wires obstructing the scene (greatly appreciated by photographers) and they can do maintenance in the tunnels without having to dig up the streets. 

Main tourist street in The Plaka
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Residential side street in The Plaka
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Just off the main drag of The Plaka
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Local Tavern

Anafiotika Area

One sub-section of the Plaka Area is a tiny neighborhood called Anafiotika.  As you probably know, the Acropolis is built on top of a flat topped butte with sheer vertical cliffs on all sides.  At the base of these cliffs are steeply sloped sections created from stone that has eroded off those cliffs along with debris thrown over the side when they leveled the top of the Acropolis and built their various temples and monuments.  One such area is the Anafiotika on the northeast side of the Acropolis.

I haven’t been able to verify this on the Internet and Wikipedia has a different story, but one of our guides told us that the Anafiotika area is actually “unofficial”.  According to this story, the city forbade people from living on this sloping rock debris pile as it was too unstable and so close to the Acropolis that it would offend the gods – not to mention the danger from more rock eroding off the cliffs above and landing in the area.  But, from time to time someone would erect a shack on the rubble and move in.  To combat this, every few days the police would send a cop up there to chase these squatters off and dismantle the shack.  This continued for quite some time. 

As the story goes, on one such occasion, one of the cops discovered that a family had moved in with a couple of kids and that the kids were quite sick.  So, he decided to let them stay till the kids got better.  But soon others heard about this so they went up and joined them.  When the cops returned a few days later several dozen shacks had been set up and there were almost a hundred folks now calling it home.  Well, that was a bit more than the cops cared to deal with so they just let it be. 

And, so it went.  The city still considered it off limits but more and more people were building ever more permanent structures.  People just kept moving in and it didn’t matter that there were no city services such as water, sewers, electricity, mail delivery, police protection, fire protection and probably no property taxes as it was an area that was not open to land ownership or construction.

Now this is where it starts to correspond more to what I found on the Internet.  Most of these people moving in were immigrants who came from the island of Anafi as construction workers on the refurbishment of King Othon's Palace.  This first wave was followed by workers from other Cycladic islands in support of subsequent restoration projects around town.  When these waves of Greek Island construction works came in, they of course built their homes in the style they were used to on the Islands making the area look and feel like what you find on the islands.  This is generally called Cycladic architecture, and gives the feel of the Greek islands in the heart of Athens.  Mostly the houses are small cubic structures with snow white stucco walls, leaving only narrow pathways between them and festooned with plants and flowers. 

Cycladic style houses with narrow pathways between
Red, Gray, Blue doors.  Anafiotika Area of Athens GreeceRed, Gray, Blue doors. Anafiotika Area of Athens Greece

Some have a more modern look and have more living space
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But, being an “un-official” area, there were no planned streets, no surveyed “lots” and no building permits.  People just built where ever they found a patch of unused ground.  So, what passes for streets are usually quite narrow and in many places are just narrow gaps between houses barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side.  More like a maze with random twists and turns than a laid out city plan.  Many of these so called streets end up at a ladder to the next level, become steps, or dead end at a terrace, where one can sit and enjoy a view of the city.

Narrow walkways meander haphazardly between structures
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Street in the Anafiotika area
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Over time, inflows of people from different areas introduced different architectural styles and colors to the environment.  But, being a quasi “unofficial” area, the city does not do much maintenance.  It seems that most of the maintenance of the “public” areas are done by the people who live nearby – or not.

In need of repair
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Graffiti abounds in Athens, but no place more so than Anafiotika
Anafiotika area grafitti AlleyAnafiotika area grafitti Alley

In 1950, part of this neighborhood was torn down for archeological research and in 1970 the state started to buy houses, but they didn’t tear them down, they just boarded them up (more or less).  Today there are only 45 houses remaining in addition to crumbling ruins of houses purchased and abandoned by the state.  Even today, it’s not clear if this area is still designated as official or not.  For example, there is no mail delivery and many city services don’t extend to parts of this area.  Many of the streets have no names and the houses have no address (they are just referred to as "Anafiotika 1", "Anafiotika 2, Etc."

Graffiti extends into the boundary area between Anafiotika and the rest of The Plaka
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Café’s and small shops blur the boundary of Anafiotika
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I hope you enjoyed reading the first part for Athens and will come back for more as I get around to publishing them.


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These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website. 
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Check out my travel blogs for other trips under the “Blogs” menu item at .

Thanks for reading – Dan


(All images by Dan Hartford.  Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way.


Thanks to our tour guide, Vasilis Germanis who drove us on a full day tour of the Peloponnese peninsula (in the rain), led us on a walking tour of the Anafiotika area of the Plaka, drove us out for a sunset shoot at Poseidon’s  temple on Cape Sounio and a night shoot at various locations in Athens




Jim Colton(non-registered)
Great photos Dan! I especially like the photos of the Temple of Poseidon at sunset. We'll be in Athens for a few days in October 2020. Your blog is a good resource for planning our time. We've booked a room with the Acropolis view!
Bruce McGurk(non-registered)
Hi Dan - great job with the photos and history - I am always so grateful to read your summary and how it makes me understand your great photos! The Zeus Temple looks amazing but so little is left. The market and neighborhoods were fun! Great shots of the art/graffiti on the walls, etc.
Nice to see a note from Steve and Mary Banks - Jan and I were also on that Road Scholar New Zealand tour - it was a great group and a great tour.
I look forward to seeing the tour photos and narrative. Looks like one I would like to take!
Best to you and Ellen, b
Patrick O'Brien(non-registered)
Superb pictures and terrific background information. I look forward to seeing the next installment.
Mary/Steve Banks(non-registered)
Many many thanks Dan. We were with you on the New Zealand Roads Scholar Tour. Your outstanding Athens photo travelogue renewed our own trip to Athens and the Pelopanise (sp?) 10 yrs ago. Night photos just awesome. Best memory: sitting in an outdoor cafe having a coffee late one night, after a day walking the Plaka and the markets, taking in the wonderment of the Acropolis...pinching ourselves in disbelief of our surroundings!!! Magnifique!!!
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