There’s nowhere quite like Athens. Voted Europe’s best cultural destination in the 2022 World Travel Awards, the Greek capital makes for an unforgettable vacation. One of the oldest cities in the world, it is an essential place to visit for anyone who loves history, mythology and spectacular architecture.
We spoke with Local Expert Ourania, to find out about Athens’ great sights, the secrets behind its architecture and why you learn so much more when you explore with a guide.
MEET OURANIA TO LEARN THE SECRETS OF A LOCAL EXPERT
Born in Peloponnese, a small province two hours away from Athens, as a child Ourania’s dream was to visit the Acropolis and see the Parthenon. “The first time I saw the Parthenon I burst into tears,” she tells us. “Like many tourists from all over the world.”
An Archaeologist, Ourania studied for her Masters in London, and worked for the British Museum and Sotherbys. “Here I experienced the effect that Greek art has in the European culture,” she says fondly. “I felt such national pride. It’s so enriching to see how they ancient Greek culture affected the European culture of the 18th and 19th century.”
“It’s not just about the academic information that you may get from a local expert, but the fact we put everything in perspective in context and connect the dots,” Ourania explains. “Monuments come to life, not only because of the connection with antiquity, but by their connection to the present day.
“We tailor make the tour to you, with a narrative that is relevant to yourself and your personality. Then we connect you with the monuments, that’s something that you cannot do through a Wikipedia post, a pamphlet or by online or audio guides. That’s the difference that we are offering.”
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THE RESURGENCE OF ATHENS
A top ticket in ancient times, Athens is once again top of the list as Europe’s best cultural destination. Significant investment in the city’s infrastructure has contributed to the increased popularity, and the culinary scene is booming.
“As a city, Athens is becoming more and more enjoyable to its citizens and the people that are visiting.” Ourania tells us. She notes that the new national opera houses and the new National Library, which were added as a complex in 2015, has led to a lot of people coming to the city to spend time with their families, have fun and attend activities.
“This is one reason why the city is gaining momentum because there are new cultural venues and open spaces, to sit alongside the great museums and monuments, this makes Athens more attractive to visitors of all sorts.”
“There are now also so many restaurants that are doing great work in the culinary sector,” Ourania says. “Until recently the city was not known as a culinary haven, but now we have many Michelin-starred restaurants. Now dining is one of the things to do in Athens.
“Chefs are returning from abroad and combining elements of Greek cuisine with French, creole, Hawaiian for example. There is a boom in terms of the number of restaurants and the chefs competing with each other to create great dishes. And through food you can really discover the secrets of the city.”
“For me there is an element of surprise every time when I see the reaction of people’s first visit the Acropolis,” Ourania says with a big smile. “When they reach the top it’s a special sort of excitement, because they’ve reached a place they’ve always wanted to see in their lives. Yet sometimes we want to visit a place without knowing why. This is part of the job of the local expert, to explain to you why.”
“The impact of the architecture of the ancient temples on top of the Acropolis is such because they generate so much beauty and harmony.,” she says of Europe’s best cultural destination. “The architecture and the art are easy to perceive, bringing sheer joy. There is no one that cannot be affected by it.”
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“When we see the Parthenon sculptures you see all this craftsmanship and the great detail that went into their execution,” Ourania tells us. “Now all of them were at the height of 10 metres. So, no matter how good your vision is, you would never see the drapery at the very back of the statues.
THE TEMPLE OF ATHENA NIKE
“When you reach the Acropolis, The Temple of Athena Nike is the first temple that you see on the way up to the top. And instead of being a temple that will overwhelm you, it’s a temple that lifts the spirit. Tiny as it is, it has this concentrated and condensed charm and grace about it,” Ourania enthuses. “It looks like it is suspended in the air by it’s the way that they have constructed the temple. A kind of a rectangular tower on its own. It is as if the architects are preparing you for the delight that you’re going to have a few minutes later with the Parthenon.”
“The Athena Nike for me is like when a painter makes its final brush of the painting and you understand that without this final brush, the painting wouldn’t have been complete. The Athena Nike is like perfection on its own in a small scale.”
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THE ARCHITECTURAL VISION
“We are lacking the documents and the text behind the reasoning for the building of the temples on top of the Acropolis,” she tells us. “We just know that Pericles recommended the building of new temples because it was left, bare and burned for 30 years after the attack of the Persians. The Athenians wanted to remain vigilant should the Persians attack again. At some point, Pericles 450 BCE said, enough is enough, let’s celebrate life and build new temples on the top.”
“But by the outcome that we have, by the various temples themselves, this is not any random execution. Whatever we feel today when we see the temples, definitely it is an effect that the ancient Greeks have thought and wanted us to feel.”
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THE ACROPOLIS MUSEUM
“The new Acropolis Museum is also partly a reason why Athens has become an attraction for the last few years. It’s an architectural gem and the architects have applied new ways of showing the artefacts,” Ourania explains. Directly connected to the Acropolis Hill, the walls are made out of glass, so while you’re in the museum you have a full view, not only of the Acropolis and the Parthenon, but the whole the city.
“So, you’re in the heart of the city, and at the same time you have the temple of the Parthenon in full view as a reference,” she says. “The museum says to you, this is a beaming, lively city, with all the philosophical or political ideas like democracy and liberty, all the values of the ancient Greeks worshipped and applied in reality, and they’re still being applied in the contemporary city of Athens, by the contemporary people, by society and by Europe.”
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