Love Among the Ruins

Wandering the twisting streets and lanes of Athens, it isn’t difficult for the modern visitor — even while dodging buses — to get a sense of what so enthralled nobleman and Romantic poet Lord Byron about this singular destination, nor why it’s an ideal romantic destination with your favorite co-traveler. Views of the Acropolis floating in sunshine and moonlight above the city and long days spent among the crumbling columns and temples inspired Byron to pen a wealth of love poems and works exploring the concept of beauty.

In some cities, you have to look below the surface clutter to get a true sense of the essence. In Athens, it’s necessary to keep your gaze focused — like Byron’s — upward, pointed at the Acropolis, positioned like a crown on the head of a seething, wild metropolis. The collection of spaces that make up the Acropolis complex includes the Theatre of Dionysus, multiple sanctuaries and dreamy temples such as the Altar of Athena in the Temple of Athena Nike.

Architecturally interrupted by raids, wars, invasions and periodic indifference, the Temple of Zeus at the center of Athens was built in episodic stages, taking more than 600 years to complete. Today, 16 columns remain, though one lies supine upon the ground, having long ago given up its struggle with either gravity or fate.

The Acropolis Museum makes an ideal place to get your bearings through an overview of the site and its various structures while viewing an impressive multitude of artifacts uncovered during excavations and restorations. Constructed above an excavation point, sections of the floor are transparent, providing both a view and context. The permanent exhibition includes the Archaic Acropolis Gallery, where stunning marble sculptures of figures and horses rise from stone plinths and pedestals.

In the third-floor Parthenon Gallery, the local politics of ancient Greece are explained, as are the financial details concerning the building of the statue of Athena Parthenos and the construction of the Parthenon itself. Another gallery is devoted to the massive Propylaia, which served as the entrance to the Acropolis, along with the temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion, which acted as a multipurpose temple to Athena and assorted other heroes, goddesses and gods. Easily identifiable by the female figures that serve as columns holding up the roof, the Erechtheion is surrounded by legends. It’s said to be erected upon the site where a battle took place between the god Poseidon and the goddess Athena, fighting over which of them had the right to name the city.

Benaki Museum in Athens © Zina Seletskaya | Dreamstime.com

Benaki Museum in Athens © Zina Seletskaya | Dreamstime.com

There’s more than just the once-lofty citadel to see, of course. Too often overlooked, the Benaki Museum has a staggering collection of art divided into exhibitions focused on Byzantine, Chinese, Islamic, Coptic and pre-Columbian art. There’s also an extensive library and fascinating displays that include toys and games. The collection of prehistoric, ancient Greek and Roman art offers displays of statuary, jewelry and lovely friezes.

Settling in to its new address within the refurbished FIX Brewery on Syngrou Avenue, The National Museum of Contemporary Art proves well worth a half-day visit. The museum’s collection includes seminal works by Greek and world artists including Emily Jacir, Stephen Antonakos and Nikos Kessanlis. Temporary exhibits share the space with a robust schedule of performances, lectures and events.

Close by lies the Museum of Cycladic Art, founded in 1986 from a private collection of Aegean and Cypriot artifacts. You can easily enjoy a visit to the small museum in a few hours, right before you head off to lunch in Syntagma Square. Cafés and numerous historic sites surround this fountained plaza, a destination unto itself. The city’s central square deserves a visit in order to just sit in the sunshine with a glass of fragrant ouzo or powerful tsipouro and watch today’s Athenians go about their business among throngs of visitors.

From here, one can easily walk to the Plaka, the Arch of Hadrian, the Theatre of Dionysus and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. What remains of Hadrian’s Library is also just a stroll away. In a long-ago letter to his sister, Byron wrote, “If I am a poet the air of Greece has made me one.” Perhaps he sat upon one of the library’s crumbling walls, ruminating on love and beauty before retiring to his accommodations at the Capuchin monastery at the foot of the Acropolis.

In his 1810 poem “Maid of Athens,” the poet wrote, “Athens holds my heart and soul.” Though he eventually left Athens, Byron remained in Greece, dying in the spring of 1824. Somehow, it isn’t all that difficult to imagine him still wandering through the spaces that served as the inspiration for so many of his best-loved works, his flamboyance casting color and vibrancy among the shadows of the caving stones.