Even in the grip of financial despair, the ancient city of Athens is as magnetic as ever, writes Daniel Scott.
Showing impeccable timing, I make my first visit to the cradle of Western civilisation at the height of the Greek economic and political crisis. Displaying even greater ineptitude, I've booked into the NJV Plaza Hotel on Syntagma, the square fronting the Greek parliament, where several massed protests have recently erupted. I'm half expecting to be snaffling an olive and downing an ouzo with a ringside seat at the burning down of the birthplace of modern democracy.
Instead, I am standing in the deserted Agora, the ancient administrative centre of Athens, wondering what the philosopher Socrates, whose ruminations on life first gained currency here 2500 years ago, would have made of it all.
"Remember that there is nothing stable in human affairs," Socrates might have told his young disciple Plato as they strolled past the magnificent Temple of Hephaestus, built in 449BC, "therefore avoid undue elation in prosperity, or undue depression in adversity."
The pair would have been talking during the Peloponnesian War, which, between 431BC and 404BC, pitted the mighty democracy of Athens against the ferocious, oligarchic Spartans. Defeat, devastation for Athens and an end to Greece's golden age were just around the corner.
"Our youth now love luxury," Socrates may have complained, "they have bad manners, contempt for authority ... they contradict their parents ... gobble up their food and tyrannise their teachers."
By now, Plato and his mentor might have bypassed the Tholos, the circular meeting place for the deputies representing the tribes of Athens, and arrived in the foothills beneath the glorious Acropolis. "The secret to happiness, you see, is not in gaining more," Socrates may have advised Plato, "but in developing the capacity to enjoy less."
Being lost in the past is almost inevitable when visiting Athens. If the Acropolis dominates the cityscape now, how must it have lorded it, in richly Ionic style, over the much smaller ancient city? How dazzling the Parthenon, built entirely in white marble from the nearby Penteli hills, must have appeared when adorned with gold, ivory and semi-precious stones?
The ambition and vision shown by the city's general, Pericles, in building this temple to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, resounds to this day. A sense of ageless drama extends across the entire Acropolis, from the steps ascending to the theatrical Propylaia entrance to the Parthenon's soaring double-decked columns to the nearby Erechtheion, with its six flamboyant maiden sculptures, the Caryatids, supporting its southern portico.
To understand the wealth and detail contained within the monolithic site, though, you need to visit the new Acropolis Museum, which opened, in the southern foothills below it, in 2009. Built above the ruins of another ancient Athenian district, the museum cradles the classical past within an ultra-modernist shell.
Galleries filled with natural light are crowded with sculptures, vases and artworks from the temples on the hill, and uninterrupted views of the Acropolis ensure that their context is always felt. On the third floor, the glass-encased Parthenon Gallery, mimicking the dimensions of the original building and identically laid out, creates a strong impression of being inside the temple shortly after it was built. Spanning almost its entire length is a 160-metre narrative frieze of astonishing intricacy.
Before I lose myself entirely in ancient Greece I return to Syntagma using the swift, modern subway system. Outside the neo-classical Parliament, constructed in the 1830s following the Greek wars of independence against the Ottomans, I pause to watch the hourly changing of the guard.
Dressed in skirts with four hundred pleats (representing 400 years of Ottoman rule), red pill-box hats with horse tails trailing off them (symbolising blood and tears) and donning pom-poms on their boots, the presidential guards seem oddly vulnerable.
But, then, modern Athens, chosen as the capital of the new Greek state in 1834, knows as much about vulnerability as did the ancient city. During World War II it was occupied by the Nazis, and lost 15 per cent of its population. Then, in late 1944, a police massacre of communist demonstrators in Syntagma Square sparked a five-year civil war.
In 1967, after a period of democracy, a military dictatorship seized power in Greece, abolishing civil rights and surviving until the mid-1970s. Another bloody confrontation, the storming of an anti-junta occupation at Athens Polytechnic, in 1973, which killed at least 20 students, marked the beginning of the end for the military. Greece's reborn democracy was cemented when, in 1982, it joined the European Communities.
Unrest, then, is nothing new in Athens. Which is why it is surprising, when I go out for dinner in Plaka, the city's 19th-century Turkish area, to find it gripped by a state close to torpor. "Tourist numbers are well down this year," explains a restaurateur in a square that is usually packed. Visitors from Germany, with which Greece has been vigorously disputing economic bailout terms, are conspicuous by their absence.
What the absentees are missing is Athens at its best. It is tranquil, uncrowded, as culturally and historically magnetic as ever and represents excellent value, particularly for Australians. With our dollar riding high, public transport and eating out cost a fraction of prices back home. In Plaka, a three-course dinner for two, with wine, costs less than €50 ($62). For lunch, at a haunt such as Kostas in the nearby Monastiraki market district, you can gorge on succulent souvlaki for €2. "The traditional Greek breakfast," my guide Aliki Pistevou jokes the next morning, "is also cheap - it's coffee, a cigarette and koulouri bread." Koulouri is a ring of crisp, sweet white bread, covered in sesame seeds, which certainly fills a gap.
"Then at 10am," Pistevou continues, "we have a tiropita, a savoury cheese pie."
Fortified by several tiropite, we take on the frankly overwhelming National Archaeological Museum. Full of cavernous galleries, it is one of the world's most significant museums. Its prehistoric collection (7000BC-1050BC) is alone worthy of a day's reflection, including as it does antiquities from Mycenae (1600BC-1100BC), violin-shaped marble figurines from the Cyclades islands and Minoan wall paintings from ancient Thira (Santorini). The original statues in the sculpture and bronze collections are equally impressive.
Across the city at the Benaki Museum, a vast private collection housed in a neo-classical mansion, are four floors of exhibits ranging from the neolithic period (6500BC-3200BC) to traditional regional costumes and 20th-century Greek art. A visit provides powerful insights into the country's modern psyche.
Like many young Athenians I meet, Pistevou feels a simmering anger with politicians and bankers for "getting Greece into this mess", and the resulting austerity measures. Yet it's leavened with humour - "The interim government of academics we had in June was the best ever," she says - and a Greek philosopher's acceptance of life's uncertainty.
On my final night in the Greek capital I take the funicular up Lycabettus hill to visit the brilliant-white chapel of Agios Georgios. At the summit, the lemony evening light and views over Athens are so beguiling that I stay for dinner.
I install myself on the terrace of Orizontes restaurant, pop an olive, sip a bone-dry Santorinian white wine and wait for the sunset. As the sun descends big and red into the sea behind the port of Piraeus, in the foreground the Acropolis is illuminated by an intense, fiery glow.
"Oh dear," quips an English wag nearby, "that could be the sun setting on the Greek economy."
"Be kind," I'm sure I hear Socrates retort, "for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."
Daniel Scott was a guest of NJV Plaza Athens and Greek Tourism.
Getting there Emirates has a fare to Athens for about $2040 return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr) and then to Athens (5hr 25min). Emirates has other flights out of Sydney and Melbourne with a stop at Dubai, which might produce lower fares; see emirates.com.
Staying there NJV Athens Plaza Hotel, on Syntagma Square, has 159 luxurious guest rooms, many with Acropolis views, from €168 ($208)a night. See njvathensplaza.gr.
Eating there Orizontes restaurant, Lycabettus Hill, is one of Athens' finest eateries, with standout city views. Average dinner is €50 a person. Opens noon-2am. Phone +30 210 722 7065, see orizonteslycabettus.gr/en.
Kostas, Plateia Agia Irini 2, Monastiraki, opens 5am-4pm for excellent souvlaki. Phone +30 210 323 2971.
Touring there Admission to the Acropolis, Ancient Agora and four other ancient sites costs €12. Sites open 8am-8pm (April-October), 8am-3pm (November-March). See odysseus.culture.gr/index_en.html.
Acropolis Museum opens 8am-8pm Tuesday-Sunday, 8am-10pm Friday, admission €5. See theacropolismuseum.gr.
National Archaeological Museum opens 1-8pm Monday, 8am-3pm Tuesday-Sunday, entry €7. See www.namuseum.gr.
Benaki Museum, Koumbari 1, opening times vary. Entry €7. See www.benaki.gr.
More information See visitgreece.gr.